Thanks to Kate Allison, regular readers of the Displaced Nation are treated every other week to a new episode in the life of fictional expat Libby Patrick, a 30-something British woman who has relocated with her spouse to a town outside Boston. Her diary, Libby’s Life, is replete with rich observations about life in New England vs. England. In the weeks when Libby isn’t published, we are featuring posts by writers who are sensitive to the often subtle, yet powerful, differences between new and “olde” worlds. Today we hear from one of our regular contributors, Andy Martin. Those who caught Andy’s Random Nomad interview at the start of the year will remember that he’s a British social worker and football geek who followed his Brazilian spouse back to her native São Paulo.
A few weeks ago I made my first trip home to the UK since moving to São Paulo, Brazil’s largest city, in February 2012.
Prior to leaving I started to ponder how I’d feel once I touched down in London.
After such an extended period of time, I guess it’s only natural to feel this somewhat apprehensive. Yet another reason for my intrigue was the number of times over the past year a Brazilian had asked:
Você tem saudades de Londres?
There is no direct translation for “saudades“—which probably says a lot about how us English speakers struggle to express our feelings. Broadly it translates as something like:
having a deep sense of nostalgia or longing for something or someone*
To such beautifully expressed enquiries of my sentiments about home, my typical response has been some muttered utterance like “Na verdade, não,” which basically means: “No, not really.”
What did I say above about us English speakers being expressive?
Or perhaps that’s just me.
Delighted to be in the new world…
Yet, on the whole those two words do sum up my thoughts about home. Sure, I miss friends and family—but the place? As I said, “Na verdade, não.”
I’ve lived in London, walked its streets and drank in its pubs for most of my life, so why would I be so desperate to go back?
Perhaps it is because I know that we’re likely go back to settle there eventually.
Alternatively, perhaps it’s not that I don’t miss London, more that I am happy with my lot here in São Paulo.
Which I am.
…while my wife is attached to the old one!
Ironically, it is actually my wife who is the one who most wants to return “home” to London after she finishes her degree at the end of this year**. This surprises most people, who assume that my Brazilian wife is the one who wants us to stay in Brazil, when it’s actually the opposite.
Part of it, I guess, can be put down to the opportunity each of us has to explore the unknown.
When I traveled around South America in 2007, I had never before left Europe. Likewise, until she went to Buenos Aires in 2008 (where we met), she had never left Brazil.
Both of us had only really ever known one way of life.
Now, with my wife having spent three years in London and us now having spent almost 18 months in São Paulo, we both seem to have come to appreciate and adore the things about each other’s countries that the other takes for granted or even dislikes.
The predictability, and quaintness, of London
For my wife São Paulo is a stressful city, with its inadequate infrastructure having a tendency to make life more complicated than it needs to be.
On top of this it’s a place that for her, because of the fear of crime, constantly leaves her feeling on edge.
Conversely, London is a place where she says she feels safe and where life is made easier by things working as they should—even if it that isn’t always the case.
For example, it still amazes her that a train can be scheduled to arrive at, say, 10:27 a.m. and then on the whole it actually arrives and departs at 10:27 a.m.
Additionally, coming from a land that was “discovered” as recently as 1500 by the Portuguese, she finds Europe’s long history fascinating—the fact that there are buildings in London older than the country of Brazil itself being a prime example.
I’ll be honest, in some ways I probably felt the same when I first arrived in Brazil. My initial posts on my own blog, The Book is on the table, whilst written with my tongue firmly in cheek, could possibly also be seen as me just being another gringo moaning about stuff—the subtext being that “everything back home is much better.”
As time went on, I realized that I didn’t want to be or become one of those moaning expats. Of course, it is natural to compare things when you move or go abroad. Likewise, there’s nothing wrong being critical if it’s fair and balanced.
But to make a habit of it isn’t good for one’s mental health. It ends up making you bitter and unhappy with your new environment. It’s also the quickest way to feeling homesick.
Even worse, such comparisons can easily drift into self-righteous rants asserting one’s cultural superiority—a throwback to the attitudes of our colonialist ancestors that did no one any good back then and will do no one any good now.
The unpredictability, and beauty, of Brazil
Around the time I realized that moaning and comparing are pointless enterprises, I started to feel a genuine affection for Brazil, something that has been reflected in my blog posts over the past 6-9 months.
Firstly, it would be hard not adore a country and continent that shares my passion for futebol.
Additionally, I found it easy to get used to a relaxed, slower pace of life in this part of world, which is not hard to complain about when it’s touching 30°C (86°F) for most of the year.
We have a swimming pool in our apartment block, something that is unthinkable in the UK, and there’s 4,500 miles of stunning coastline to pick from to go to on holiday.
Then, there’s the fact that if I want to go out for a beer or meal I know the bar or restaurant won’t be shut by midnight, as they so often are in London. If I want to stay out sipping a beer until 4:00 a.m., I can.
I’m also enjoying, although also a little frustrated by, the challenge of learning Portuguese, and as someone who studied Sociology and Social Anthropology and then later worked with migrants as a social worker, living in Brazil provides the perfect opportunity to explore South America, its indigenous history and the legacy of immigration after its colonization.
Additionally, the continent’s history of revolution and resistance against oppression also matches my own rebellious tendencies and political values—something I didn’t always have an outlet for in the UK.
Finally, it might sound a little condescending but I’ve now come to embrace some of the things I once moaned about. Living in London is great, and I appreciate my wife’s perception of the quality of life, but all the things I mentioned above provide an alternative quality of life. In other words, there’s more to life than just functioning public services.
Brazil may be frustrating sometimes, but it certainly makes life just a little bit more interesting—though my wife is yet to be convinced by that argument.
Maybe at some point I’ll change my mind and the novelty of life in Brazil will wear off—there is certainly enough evidence to suggest that might be the case. However, for the time being, whenever a Brazilian affectionately ask about my longing for home, I’ll continue to mutter: “Na verdade, não.”
*It’s extremely convenient in these situations having a translator as your wife.
**As a compromise I’ve so far managed to negotiate us staying until at least the end of the World Cup next year, using these two strong arguments: 1) I love football; and 2) Living in São Paulo meant we missed the Olympics in London.
* * *
Speaking of the Olympics, the handing over of the torch to Brazil at the end of the London Olympics certainly showed you the contrast between old and new worlds! Readers, can you relate to this couple’s frequent twists and turns in their cultural allegiances?
STAY TUNED for next week’s series of posts!
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Img: Photo of Andy Martin taken during his recent trip to the UK, at a wedding.
Portrait of woman from MorgueFile; Lighthouse (R) from MorgueFile; Lighthouse (L) from MorgueFile
Andy, you’ve put your finger on something I hadn’t thought of before — thanks to your social anthropologist’s perspective! The concepts of “new” and “old” worlds are of course very European — Brazil was a new world to the Portuguese who arrived in 1500, but an old world to the indigenous people they displaced. It’s an interesting twist that you, a member of one of the great colonizing nations (albeit not Portugal), are caught up in learning about Brazil’s pre-colonial world. But how much of that history is discoverable at this point, have you any idea? Genuinely curious…
Brazil, like many things in South America, is completely different from the rest of the continent in terms of its indigenous history. It’s both not very well known or documented. If you compare that to the speaking Spanish countries the difference is immense. One of the places I most enjoyed visiting on my travels was the Anthropology Museum in Mexico City – it’s immense and probably only comes second in my list of museums behind the British Museum. You could easily spend a week there discovering about all the Pre-Colombian communities. Unfortunately, nothing like this exists in Brazil, but I guess that’s also partly because there were no ‘great’ civilisations like the Aztecs, Mayans or Incas here – as far as we know!
Love your approach about seeing the good in the local way of life challenges in Brazil. Yes they can still be annoying, but, you can either whinge about them, or ease into them and accept them as the norm. Life isn’t perfect, but why ruin a great expat experience by letting the little things get you down! There’s so many things that annoy me about life in LA — but I choose to live there (for now at least) – and so need to accept the good with the bad.
Thanks, as I said it took me a while to see it this way but now I do it’s something that’s actually quite enjoyable, although that’s easier to say in hindsight once you forget about the frustration you often feel at the time – Brazilian bureaucracy being one prime example of this!