The Displaced Nation

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Mark Hillary delivers reality check to gringos who moan about Brazil, in self-published book (1/2)

Mark_HillaryA little while ago I interviewed Megan Farrell, a fellow gringo in São Paulo, about the book she had written about “exbrat” life in the city. As far as I’m aware, Megan’s was the first book to be written about life in SP by a foreigner, although she seems to have started a new trend because within the last fortnight another has emerged: Reality Check: Life in BRAZIL through the eyes of a foreigner.

Reality Check is by Mark Hillary, a fellow Brit in São Paulo (he recently moved outside the city), who is an author, blogger, and advisor on technology and globalization. He has already published a number of books and is a contributor to Huffington Post, Reuters, The Guardian, and Computer Weekly.

Mark is also a friend of mine. We connected through Twitter just over a year ago. We eventually met at a local bar when—unsurprisingly, given his background in technology and social media—he organized a meet-up of gringos who had connected online but had yet to meet up in the flesh.

Since then he and I have continued to meet up, although less so since his move to the countryside. We had a particularly memorable trip in June to Rio to watch England play Brazil in football at the brand new Maracanã Stadium. (As anyone who follows my posts should recall, I’m a bit of a football geek.)

Over the past year Mark has written, in his column for the Huffington Post, a number of insightful articles about life as a foreigner in Brazil—most notably, “No HP Sauce, Endless Red Tape: Would You Want to Live in Brazil?, which responded to a gringo Facebook forum that had listed all the reasons why foreigners hated living in this country.

It was to my pleasant surprise, then, when Mark announced he had extended his account of life in Brazil and intended to publish it as an e-book.

Leaving aside my acquaintance with Mark (and the fact he gives a nod to my personal blog in the book!), I must say that I found Reality Check a very enjoyable read. It is a thoughtful and critical, yet balanced, account of his experiences in Brazil and of the country in general—and frankly, I’m rather annoyed that I haven’t written it myself.

Mark’s book also seems to be a good accompaniment to Megan’s. Whilst hers is a straightforward, step-by-step guide to life in São Paulo, his is a narrative providing a broad overview of gringo life. Either way, both books will be of use to those who are either moving to Brazil or perhaps are simply interested in finding out a bit more about South America’s largest and most populous country (it’s also the world’s fifth largest economy).

Anyway, enough of my wittering on. Let’s hear more from Mark himself.

* * *

RealityCheck_bookcoverHi, Mark. Congratulations on your new book and thanks for agreeing to this interview. First off, can you say a little more about what inspired you to write it?
As you already mentioned, I wrote the book in large part as a reaction to the negative posts about Brazil in online gringo communities. Everyone has their own reasons for moving and living away from their home country, but the majority of the groups I’ve encountered online are full of complaints about Brazilian food, prices, bureaucracy… Anyone who reads the posts made in the Facebook group for Gringoes.com would think that the UK and US offer a utopian paradise that would be madness to ever leave.

As you said in your intro, I wrote an article for the Huffington Post where I tried to give a more balanced view on life in Brazil.

Then I thought that, as someone who has rented and bought a home, started a company, hired people, and married a Brazilian, I could probably give a more detailed opinion on the experience—hence the book.

So being married to a Brazilian was what brought you to Brazil?
Yes, we were living in London, but after the financial crash in 2008 my business was much slower than before. By 2010 it became clear that there were many more opportunities for me to build a research and publishing business in Brazil than in the UK and so we moved just before the end of that year, nearly four years ago.

We recently featured another book about expat life in Brazil: American Exbrat in São Paulo, by Megan Farrell. Megan’s focus was on the “exbrat” community in São Paulo—i.e., those who are transferred here for work by a large company. My impression is that your focus is less specific and more of a broad overview of life in Brazil as a foreigner.
I’m not really interested in the exbrats. If a big company transfers someone to Brazil and they have their home taken care of and a driver to ferry them around, and they only ever go for a drink in expat pubs, then I don’t think they are experiencing the real Brazil. I’m not suggesting that the only authentic Brazil experience is living in a favela, but there are other kinds of foreigners here—journalists, teachers, people from all walks of life—who are constantly looking for ways to explore their new home.

Did you have a specific audience in mind when you wrote the book?
I really set out to explore some of my own experiences, with the expectation that people investing in Brazil or looking for a job here might have an interest in the book.

The book has only just been published (2nd September) so I guess it is a little early to tell, but how has it been received so far?
It is very recent, but there is already a very positive review from a Brazilian reader on Amazon. I started my author Facebook page when I published the book, and that community is growing by around a hundred people every day—so people are noticing it. One of the biggest newspapers in Brazil (Folha de SP) has been in touch to interview me about the book—despite my not having done any press promotion for the book due to my traveling almost every day since the publication!

Did you connect with São Paulo and/or Brazil in any new ways whilst writing the book?
It made me more determined to plug areas outside of Rio, which has a lot of friends already. I’ve really enjoyed living in both São Paulo the city and interior—SP needs a few gringo fans to speak out and remind people that the city is not just about concrete and cops murdering civilians.

You recently moved to the countryside outside São Paulo—how and why did that come about?
We spent two years living in the centre of São Paulo and just wanted to find something a bit quieter. I love it where we are now. There is a great sense of community; the neighbours all know each other. There is none of the security paranoia you find in the city centre, and there is some fantastic scenery on our doorstep.

Do you miss SP at all?
I miss being able to go out to see my friends in the city, or go to concerts by international bands that will only ever play in major cities. But we are planning to get a very small apartment in SP soon, so we don’t completely lose touch with it.

You mentioned the “security paranoia” in SP. In my observation, most of us gringos carry a fear that is at odds with how our Brazilian partners and/or friends feel. I enjoyed reading the section of your book covering this perception gap. Do you think that more positive accounts of Brazil by writers/bloggers like you and myself can help to shift these perceptions?
If people like you and me can get visitors to realize that they can walk down Avenida Paulista or along Copacabana Beach without fearing for their life, that would help. On more than one occasion I have met business contacts who flew into town and then were shocked when I suggested meeting away from their hotel. Standard advice from American and European companies is often to stay inside when in Brazil because of all the street crime.

The Brazilians, too, should play a part in correcting this situation. I don’t think we have much influence because we are seen as outsiders, but as more Brazilians get exposed to alternative cultures through travel, I hope it can change a little.

Last year I brought my wife’s teenage cousin on a trip to the USA, just to show her what life is like outside of Brazil. She found it incredible that you could walk up to the front of so many celebrity homes in Los Angeles—that anyone could walk into Sylvester Stallone’s garden. That’s unimaginable in Brazil.

What are you thoughts on foreign media portrayals of Brazil? Do you feel, for example, that persistent foreign criticisms of Brazil’s preparations for the World Cup and Olympics have been fair?
Every World Cup and Olympic games gets this negative press, so I don’t know if it is any worse than the last time. Anyone from the UK should be able to recall how the London Games were going to be a disaster right up to the week of the Games—the attitude seemed to change only when everyone saw that spectacular opening ceremony.

All I know from personal experience is that when you and I went to the Brazil v England football game at the Maracanã in June, the organization was superb. The stadium looked good, the public transport all worked, and the volunteers helping the crowd were great. I couldn’t fault it—so I’m really looking forward to the World Cup.

From the way you write so passionately about Brazil it is clear that you love living here, but there must have been the odd difficult moment when you wondered whether you’d made the right decision in fleeing the economically stagnant UK for your wife’s native land. When have you felt most displaced?
Sometimes the bureaucracy in daily life does get perverse and goes beyond just the criticism of a foreigner claiming that it all works better in Europe. Examples include having to pay someone to get my car registered to a new address or being fined for not paying my stamp duty on the day I agreed a mortgage with the bank—even though I paid on the day I got the documents myself. Sometimes I wonder if there is ever going to be any government that sweeps away this nonsense. I also fear that the job cuts created by improved efficiency means we are stuck with much of this.

Conversely, when have been your least displaced moments, when it all seemed to make sense?
I live in a really beautiful place now surrounded by a lot of wonderful people. Every morning when I take my dog for a walk then start work for the day I know I’m lucky to be here.

* * *

Readers, I will be talking to Mark again on Tuesday of next week, when we focus on his decision to self-publish his book. Any further questions for him, meantime? And don’t forget, if you’re interested in Reality Check, you can purchase it on Amazon. I would also recommend becoming a fan of its Facebook page and following Mark on Twitter: @MarkHillary

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s post, a new episode in our “Location, Locution” series, by JJ Marsh.

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images: Mark Hillary’s author image and book cover

9 responses to “Mark Hillary delivers reality check to gringos who moan about Brazil, in self-published book (1/2)

  1. ML Awanohara September 20, 2013 at 7:45 am

    @ Mark @ Andy @ Megan (if she’s tuning in)
    I’ve now read several of Andy’s posts on what it’s like to live in Brazil as a gringo; I’ve also read Megan’s book. And now I’ve heard what Mark has to say about why he needed to write a book on this topic. But the more I read, the less I understand, I guess because I’ve never been to, let alone lived in, Brazil. So my question is: What is it about Brazil that makes visitors have such strong feelings about the place? It almost sounds as though Brazil is a person with a strong personality: it’s always in your face, and some days you love it, other days you hate it. Thinking it over, I guess that’s how most expats relate to their adopted countries, but Brazil somehow seems different (more extreme). Am I right about that, and if so, what is it about the place itself that arouses such intense passions?

    • Mark Hillary September 20, 2013 at 8:17 am

      Brazil has different personalities, perhaps this is why people end up feeling so positively or negatively about the place. One the one hand it’s very laid-back and friendly, with people loving a morning beer, a game of football and a day spent on the beach. On the other it is maddeningly frustrating as it’s almost impossible for a foreigner to rent a flat without jumping through a hundred hoops, starting a business takes months, and even changing the address on your car registration requires the services of a ‘fixer’… People who work and live in Brazil have to adopt to this schizophrenic nature of Brazilian society – on the one hand friendly and relaxed and on the other obsessed with bureaucracy. I think it’s this twin personality that means some end up loving the place and some just can’t get along – which is why the Facebook forums are full of people moaning about how easy it would be to do this or that back in Europe or the USA.

  2. bornagainbrazilian September 20, 2013 at 8:25 am

    This is a really good question. Most exbrats I know have a lot of strong, mixed emotions about São Paulo and Brazil in general. (@Mark – FYI – when I refer to exbrats, they are not just the foreigners sent here by corporations and have everything paid for… I, for one, did not get such a sweet deal, nor did about 75% of my friends here😉. Brazil is beautiful and complicated. If you walk in without knowing what you are in for, and many expatriates do, the frustrations can outweigh all the wonderful aspects – especially in São Paulo. Managing expectations and getting various views (as one will reading Mark’s and my book) helps prepare for the rough moments so you can enjoy all the marvelous ones.

  3. bornagainbrazilian September 20, 2013 at 8:27 am

    Reblogged this on born again brazilian and commented:
    Another book about São Paulo hits the virtual stands!

  4. andyhpmartin September 21, 2013 at 12:38 pm

    I don’t have another country to compare Brazil with – in terms of being living as a foreigner – but I would say one major reason is that Brazil is a country of extremes, in almost every respect. There rarely seems to be any middle ground. Maybe for this reason it tends to bring out the Jekyll and Hyde in people.

  5. cindamackinnon September 23, 2013 at 1:49 pm

    I enjoyed this post – and the blog in general. Glad I found you!
    (A fellow expat and writer)

  6. Pingback: How not to be an ‘expat’ | the book is on the table

  7. Pingback: Como não ser um expatriado no Brasil – Now not to be an expat in Brazil | the book is on the table

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