Many of us “international creatives” are attracted to the world’s major cities. Take me, for instance. I live in, and write about, São Paulo, the largest city in Brazil, and in the Southern Hemisphere. Today I’m happy to introduce a fellow expat who has ventured out as far as Curitiba, the largest city in Brazil’s South Region. B. Michael Rubin has a creative job, and he also finds Curitiba, a forerunner of the eco-city, a source of daily enchantment.
My first night in Curitiba, I awoke at 3:00 a.m., jet lagged after too many hours of solo travel with a ridiculous amount of luggage. I got up and drank some water, and it was then I noticed birds singing outside my window. I wondered if all expats were greeted by nocturnal serenades.
In the morning, surprisingly, it seemed the same birds were still singing. I could hear their melodious songs even though my apartment was on the tenth floor, making them a flock of super-birds.
The conclusion of an American on his first expat experience: the birds here are so happy they can’t stop singing; they must think they’re in paradise.
Adam and Eve discovered that paradise can be transitory, but after six years I have no desire to leave the lovely city of Curitiba, in the Brazilian state of Paraná.
Through the Curitiban looking glass
As every expat ascertains, adjusting to a new world is not easy; it’s a challenge simply to be polite in a foreign culture. I’ve learned to say “Excuse me” when I enter someone’s home, and that it’s acceptable to kiss a woman I’m meeting for the first time.
I’ve discerned it’s impolite to ask anyone to close her window at home or in the car, even on a cold winter day in the south of Brazil. Unfortunately, this lesson was revealed while asking my frail Brazilian mother-in-law why she had her apartment windows open, as she sat buried under a mountain of blankets.
For expats, daily life is an adventure in wonderment. I wonder how no one expects a tip here—not the taxi driver, the barber, or the pizza delivery guy.
I wonder how the price of everything is negotiable, and when I negotiate with an offer of cash, I can still pay with a credit card if I don’t want parcelas [paying in installments]. When I pay a doctor, I get a discount if I don’t request a receipt.
I marvel at the everyday site of twenty people in a Curitiba restaurant having a pleasant family lunch. In the US, this only happens at a wedding or a funeral because twenty family members don’t live in the same city. If they did, there would be trouble.
There is always more mystery…
Living in a new world becomes easier when we focus on the similarities—aren’t we all humans sharing the same planet? There’s a crazy comfort in knowing Brazilians are as preposterous as everyone else.
In other words, every country is a mystery.
For instance, I can’t explain how Brazilians have so effortlessly embraced the 21st century: Forty years ago, no one in Curitiba had a telephone, a car, or had been on an airplane.
I don’t understand politics in Brazil. How can a country govern itself with more than thirty political parties? In the US, two parties are sufficient to create chaos.
Meanwhile, the electronic banking system here is outstanding. Americans don’t believe me when I tell them it’s possible to pay the mortgage at an ATM.
Another wonderful mystery: In the days of the military government, Curitiba “elected” a visionary urban planner to be mayor for 12 years. It is a rare opportunity when an urban planner/architect runs a city. During that time, Jaime Lerner built one of the best urban bus systems anywhere; established mandatory recycling for all homes and businesses; created the first outdoor pedestrian mall in Brazil; and expanded a park system that made Curitiba one of the greenest cities in the world. Senhor Lerner was so good at city planning that the population has doubled in 40 years. Who knew.
After I’d survived my first melodic night in Curitiba, my future wife suggested a leisurely walk around the neighborhood. Having moved from New York, I was accustomed to seeing the homeless camped out on sidewalks. I remarked that I hadn’t seen any in Curitiba. “Don’t worry,” she said, “you will.”
Sure enough, a few minutes later we entered the local mall, and I observed three young men in the mall’s restroom brushing their teeth. My girlfriend, however, refused to accept my homeless sighting, a trio no less, and insisted we wait nearby.
When the three men emerged from the restroom, I noticed they were very well-dressed for homeless. “See, they work in the mall,” she said, with a look of “I thought Americans were smart?”
It was my first, but not my last, moment of supreme cultural stupidity. Men in their twenties brushing their teeth at work. Who knew.
The myths are true!
Today, I know that my wife keeps a toothbrush in her office so clients won’t see food in her teeth. For the same reason, women in the supermarket on Saturday morning are in full make-up and high heels with silk scarves that match their nail polish.
Like the proud, beautiful city of Curitiba, Brazilians are a proud, beautiful people.
The myths I’d heard are true. Who knew.
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Readers, your turn! Do you feel similarly enamoured of your adopted land, or has the enchantment worn off? Please leave your thoughts for Michael and me in the comments!
B. Michael Rubin is an American living in Curitiba, Paraná, Brazil. He is the editor of the online magazine Curitiba in English.
STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s interview with this month’s featured author, Cinda MacKinnon!
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Images (from left): B. Michael Rubin in João Pessoa (no, he doesn’t have a photo of himself in Curitiba!) and the Curitiba tubo, courtesy marcusrg via Flickr (Creative Commons license CC BY 2.0). We think it doesn’t take much imagination to see the cylindrical, clear-walled tube bus stations as the Curitiban equivalent of Alice’s rabbit hole or looking glass. After all, the city’s Rapid Bus Transit System (Rede Integrada de Transporte, or RIT) is rather wondrous: the first of its kind in the world.
Very heart-warming post Michael. I’ve been in Thailand for 5 years and whilst it’s been a roller-coaster ride and a massive culture shock I am now very settled and almost feel like I am back at school again with eyes wide open in amazement at all the new discoveries.
Thank you for your response. I love the description of yourself as “back at school”. I completely agree that living with your “eyes wide open in amazement” is wonderful.
I enjoyed reading this. I shake my head when I hear people complaining about their adopted homes – it is not supposed to live up to a foreigner’s expectations – it is supposed to be exciting and interesting and different. Vive la diference!
Thank you for writing. I totally agree with you. Having unrealistic expectations can ruin everything, from watching a movie someone else recommended, to living in a foreign country. If it’s exciting and interesting and different, can we ask for more?