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From soccer hater to World Cup fanatic: A most peculiar expat tale

FIFA World Cup Collage

The Brazilian player Edmilson Santos, by AK Bijuraj; CocaCola FIFA World Cup Soccer, by Mike Mozart; FIFA World Cup trophy, by Warrenski (all CC).

To mark the start of the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, I have updated a post I wrote four years ago, in time for 2010 World Cup, in South Africa. I wrote it for the now-defunct Pond Parleys, the brainchild of esteemed writers Toni Hargis (a British expat in the US, with an American husband) and Mike Harling (an American expat in the UK, with an English wife).

In America, of course, we call it soccer. But I am content to say “football.” If there’s one thing I learned from living in England for nearly ten years, it’s to use the English language with precision (in which case, shouldn’t it be “foot-and-head ball”?).

So, herewith, an attempt to tell the rather twisted tale of my conversion to football fandom, though part of me will always wonder: is my story more typical than one imagines? Surely, a taste for football isn’t easily acquired by those who don’t have it in their national DNA?

PART I: Why I Never Liked Football Whilst Living in England

This little tale of mine begins on a dark and stormy night in the latter years of the 20th century. I am living in football-mad England but am rapidly developing an aversion to the sport, squandering my first real opportunity to see it played at a professional level.

Chalk it up to my contrarian nature. I’m not one to throw myself into chanting, banner waving, and other tribal behaviors before I’ve had a chance to study what’s going on and make a full appraisal. And it did not take me long to find things I was less than enamored of, including:

1) The game itself—the endless running up and down the pitch with hardly any scoring. The few times I watched a football match, I inevitably got up to make a cup of tea, or dozed off, just as the one goal of the match was being made.

2) The fans—mostly male, many of them yobbos (some of whom are now chavs?). But even if we leave social class out of the equation, a good number of the UK’s football fans appeared to be hooligans, not exactly the most appealing lot—especially to a grad student like me, whose images of England had been formed from a steady diet of Jane Austen novels and Merchant-Ivory period movies. Occasionally violent male bonding rituals weren’t on the agenda. (I’m sure it didn’t help that my arrival in England coincided with football hooliganism reaching new levels of hysteria.)

3) The jingoistic tabloid coverage—which reaches its height whenever England plays Germany. I happened to be living in London in 2006, when the semifinals of the European finals, between England and Germany, took place at Wembley Stadium. What a palaver! The British mass-circulation paper The Daily Mirror ran a front-page headline “Achtung! Surrender!” over a photo of two England stars wearing World War II helmets. Years later, when England met Germany in the 2010 World Cup, held in South Africa, John F. Burns contributed an article to the New York Times contending that such “rib-poking” has provided catharsis for England and Germany over the years. Who am I to contradict Burns, the Times‘s London bureau chief and an expert on interpreting his native culture? Still, I couldn’t help but think of the late American historian Howard Zinn‘s warning that harmless pride can become an “arrogant nationalism dangerous to others and to ourselves.” Red card!

It’s perhaps worth noting that of all the reasons I came up with not to like football, none of them included the argument that occasionally surfaces in right-wing circles in the United States, which is that football is collectivist and carries the threat of “socializing” Americans’ taste in sports.

As an expat, I had a choice: keep skating along the surface and pretend football doesn’t exist, or else try and go closer to the beating heart of my adopted culture and see what makes it tick.

So I gave football a miss and moved back to pursuing a life of cream teas, theatre performances, cricket…wait did I just say “cricket”? I must be getting batty… (hahaha)

PART II: How I Came to Change My Mind About Football, or At Least the World Cup

Am I looking forward to this year’s World Cup championship games in Brazil? Why soitenly! Numbskull that I am, I’ve finally gotten with the program!!

Herewith, the second part of my most peculiar tale. As explained in Part I, I never paid much attention to the sport despite nearly a decade of exposure; on the contrary, I developed an abhorrence for it.

But four years ago all of that changed. Having settled back in the United States, I found myself powerfully drawn to the championship that took place in South Africa, and I expect it will be no different this time around, with the World Cup being hosted by Brazil. (While I’m sad that Paul the Octopus is no longer with us, I take comfort in the thought of Nelly the Elephant taking his place—her punditry is apparently on a similar level.)

I can’t pinpoint the precise moment when my conversion happened, especially as football still has all the same drawbacks I’d once noted: goals are few and far between, the fans are predominantly male, and jingoism reigns, particularly between the English and the Germans.

All I know is that it wasn’t until I was back in my own culture that I felt comfortable giving the sport a chance. Yes, I know this is ironic considering that the UK is considered to be the cradle of the game (the English have been kicking balls competitively since at least 1314), whereas we Yanks still aren’t quite there.

My top three reasons for fanning football are:

1) It’s the World Cup, stupid. Living in England, I couldn’t see the World Cup forest from the local English football club trees. But when watching the very best players in the world compete, even a hardened skeptic like me can start to appreciate why they call it The Beautiful Game. Those feet of theirs—they are using them like hands! That Messi fellow: it looks as though the ball is glued to his feet; how extraordinary! Xavi Hernández and Andrés Iniesta: it’s incredible how they can pass the ball through the midfields! And let’s not forget Yaya Touré and the way he switches gears. Robin van Persie has a left foot to die for! And so on…

2) It’s a much-needed distraction from other kinds of world events. There’s nothing quite like a soaring soccer ball to lift the spirits, not to mention the vicarious pleasure of seeing a team, and a nation, carry off the trophy. I can still recall the thrill of watching the first European team win outside Europe, at the tournament in South Africa. ‪Viva España!‬

3) It’s on a par with, or perhaps even better than, the Olympics. Ironically, even though there is nothing quite like football to arouse nationalistic urges, the World Cup is, as the name suggests, a world competition, with 32 nations competing. (Compare that to America’s World Series—now that’s a misnomer!) Repeat expats like me, who are a hybrid of nationalities, are the ideal supporters of such sporting events. I think it also helps that I don’t really have a dog in the race. Though America competes, we aren’t yet a serious contender for the cup. This leaves me free to throw my support behind almost any athlete or team that I think are the world’s best. The Olympics of course provide many such opportunities; but that’s the problem: there’s too much choice. What I love about the FIFA World Cup is that it’s a singular occasion. There can be no bigger stage, literally as well as figuratively, than the vast pitch on which this ultimate sporting drama takes

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It’s time to hear from you, dear reader. Is my conversion complete, or should I be bending the case for football still more, by stressing its potential for opening up intergalactic communication and fostering truly universal harmony? And even if you don’t share this new-found enthusiasm of mine, can you at least relate to the experience of getting to know and love a sport outside the ones you grew up playing and watching? Do tell!

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts!

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As an expat, is it my place to join another country’s political protest?

BrazilianProtest_ahpmJust after the street protests broke out in Brazil last month, Megan Farrell, an American who lives in São Paulo with her Brazilian spouse, contributed a guest post to the Displaced Nation.

Megan was very honest in admitting that she had previously taken little notice of politics or social issues in Brazil:

Being displaced … makes it easy to be in a bit of denial.

I, too, am an expat in São Paulo with a Brazilian spouse, albeit from the UK. Like Megan, I didn’t initially involve myself in Brazil’s latest political movement—but my reasoning was a little different from hers.

I’m someone who self-identifies as politically engaged and active. Back in the UK I was a union rep at my workplace and I’ve been involved in protest movements since my student days, the most prominent being those against the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Additionally, as a social worker and student of social sciences, it’s second nature to be socially and politically aware of what is going on around me, whether that be at home or elsewhere.

Why, then, would I be reticent to involve myself in the politics of the protests that were going on around me here in São Paulo?

Not my fight to fight

Despite broadly agreeing with the objectives of the early protests (about a rise in bus fares which as a daily user of public transport, by which I was directly affected), I felt that as a gringo and a guest of Brazil, it wasn’t my place to get involved.

To be honest, I even felt a little reluctant to use social media to post articles or comment upon what was happening, and when I was asked to cover the protests for a site in the UK, my first inclination was to turn it down.

As a foreigner I was sensitive to being seen by Brazilians as poking my nose into their affairs. Additionally, I was also quite aware that there is a lot of history and background behind these protests that I am only, at best, partly aware of.

On top of this, Portuguese is my second language, so whilst I can read it without too much problem, I was apprehensive of inadvertently misconstruing a tweet, newspaper article or blog post, and using ill-informed or partly understood information to inform my opinions.

Eventually, however, I went out on the streets.

What led me to change my mind?

What was my impetus for joining the protests? I think it was seeing the extent of the violence (rubber bullets, tear gas, etc) the police used against what was widely reported as peaceful protest in São Paulo on 13 June.

And it wasn’t just me. The harsh police response was a turning point for many Brazilians as well, because while it may have successfully extinguished the 13 June protest, it also had the converse effect of igniting far broader outrage across the city and the whole of the country. At the same time, it provided an opportunity for a far wider array of grievances to be voiced (most of which Megan notes in her article so I won’t go into them again here).

Once I’d been out on the streets I felt a little bit more confident about joining in the discussion myself. When a couple of photographs I’d posted got a bit of attention on Twitter, and Planet Ivy in the UK—an online news magazine started up by a team of young, adventurous journalists—asked me to cover the protests, I agreed.

A duty to inform the folks back home

My decision was largely influenced by my realization that people at home in the UK—as first my mum and then Planet Ivy made me aware—were largely unaware of what was going on.

In Megan’s post, she mentioned her disbelief at how her friends and family members in the U.S. were still sharing updates on Facebook about their morning meals, their cats, and sports teams:

How could this be? How could they just not care?

Like her, I had the sense of being in the middle of something big and important, and for a while just assumed that everyone else around the world must be aware of it as well.

If I stopped to think about it, of course, no one is ever as interested in an event who are on the scene. But once I realized that there were people out there who wanted or needed to know more, I thought I could do my bit to inform them.

Another motivating factor was the need to correct the widespread misperceptions of the Brazil’s situation—in particular, the negative press the country has been receiving in the UK with regards to its preparations for the 2014 World Cup.

Whilst a fair amount of that criticism has been justified, it occasionally feels as though the UK press has some sort of vendetta against Brazil, with every news story seemingly inferring that “this once again casts doubts about the safety of Brazil and its ability to host a major international event.”

Alas, I thought, even if I am a naïve foreigner living in and writing about Brazil, I could at least provide some insight about what is actually going on at street level.

A closer connection with my adopted land

As an aside to this, one interesting thing about the protests is that they’ve helped alter my perception of the connection I have with São Paulo and Brazil.

Obviously, through my Brazilian wife and my residency in São Paulo, that connection is now much deeper than before. However, and as mentioned in my last post, in the 18 months since moving here I’ve evolved from whining expat (or “exbrat,” as Megan likes to say) to being an avid proponent of my new home.

My decision to join in the nation’s protests—whether participating on the streets or discussing and sharing the issues with people online—was a kind of watershed moment, effectively making the transition complete.

Of course, I’ll always primarily consider myself a Londoner, a Brit and a European (a fact I’m constantly reminded of by my Brazilian friends and family, who refer to me as “the gringo”), but increasingly I feel just as proud to be quasi-Paulistano*.

*People from São Paulo refer to themselves as Paulistanos.

* * *

COMING SOON: Andy’s interview Megan Farrell about her new book on expat life in São Paulo.

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s post, from our travelogue writing coach Jack the Hack.

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to register for The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of weekly posts from The Displaced Nation, with seasonal recipes, book giveaways and other extras. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

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images: Photo of protesters in São Paulo, June 2103, by Andy Martin. Go to his photo blog to see more.

An American writer in Brazil is transformed from “exbrat” to politically awakened expat

Sao Paulo June Protests CollageWell, the best-laid plans of mice and menand international creatives—often go astray. Today, instead of Andy Martin interviewing Megan Farrell about her excellent book, American Exbrat in São Paulo: Advice, Stories, Tips and Tricks for Surviving South America’s Largest City, Megan herself will post about the transformational effect that the protests in her adopted country are having on her world outlook. (Not to worry, barring further major events, Andy’s interview with Megan should appear next month.)

—ML Awanohara

For nearly a week solid, I was locked to social media sites, doling out information about the protests in Brazil, via blogs, Facebook and Twitter. Along with other expat friends here in Brazil, I was been trying to make up for the fact that global news outlets were doing little to spread the word about the public demonstrations going on in São Paulo and other large cities.

Like a large percentage of my foreign friends, I have a closer connection to the country than your average expat. I have a Brazilian husband, and though she was born in New York City, a daughter who is a Brazilian national.

Ignorance was bliss

I’ll admit, before June 13, the night when police “lost control,” using rubber bullets against protesters and even journalists covering the events, I had little real knowledge about the injustices occurring in my new home country. I chose not to let such things enter my world.

Being displaced often makes it easy to be removed from your own surroundings.

Being displaced also makes it easy to be in a bit of denial.

But that Thursday night in mid-June, as my husband and I sat in a bar near our apartment and watched as the streets filled with protesters, my perspective on my adopted country changed.

The bar’s manager wasn’t allowing patrons to leave out of fear we would be exposed to the enthusiastic, but angry, crowd—some of whom were attempting to start fires to distract the police from blocking their access to Avenida Paulista, the central thoroughfare of São Paulo.

The protest eventually moved on, and we were able to leave, but my interest in what had initiated this movement lingered.

Not just about 20 centavos

By now, many of you hopefully understand that millions hit the streets of Brazil over more than a bus fare increase. Yes, that act was the catalyst. A 20 centavos increase meant an additional monthly expense of eight reais (R$8 is about US $4). It may not sound like a lot to you and I, but as minimum monthly wage in Brazil is R$675 per month (about US $300), every centavo is accounted for in the household of the working poor (i.e. the emerging middle class).

But the fare increase also speaks to deeper issues concerning the government’s priorities. Many Brazilians are finding it hard to stand by and watch as the government attempts to squeeze them for more, all the while spending millions of dollars on preparing stadiums for the 2014 World Cup—millions more than other countries who have hosted the event. Meanwhile, public services within Brazil remain abominable.

A few examples:

  • Across the country, emergency rooms of public hospitals are filled to the brim with patients hoping to get care, yet doctors have no means to help the majority.
  • Public school teachers often don’t show up to conduct class.
  • Police are untrained and uneducated, often looking to supplement their meager incomes with bribes.
  • Public transportation is decrepit in many cities.

“Its hour come round at last…” W.B. Yeats

As I wrote in my recent book, American Exbrat in São Paulo, one of the more frustrating aspects of living in Brazil can be the Brazilians’ passive attitude on the inefficiencies and transgressions that occurred in their country. Be it that the post office ran out of stamps (again) or the police never showed up when called, a local’s response to this would be some version of, “That’s Brazil.”

So when hundreds of thousands took to the street in protest, with a list of complaints in hand, no one was more surprised than the Brazilians.

The media took it lightly at first, burying the story about a bus far increase in the back of the papers. Then, the focus was on the violence of the demonstrations. But the reality is that when you gather such a large group (everyone was invited by social media), there are bound to be a few who are there to express extreme anger or simply to commit acts of violence.

But as one who sits within the scene, I’ve found the protests mostly peaceful and the intentions positive. The people of Brazil want change and want the world to understand that their country isn’t satisfied with the samba and beach party persona. There are real issues within the nation’s borders that need addressing.

Whither the rest of the world?

As mentioned at the outset of this post, sharing information about the realities of Brazil’s protest movement has become an important objective for me. Friends, both foreign and Brazilian, and I have been passing along videos, news articles and photos that depict the main events as well as the sentiments of the people.

Many of us who have blogs about being in Brazilmine is Born Again Brazilianhave written posts on these topics. For instance, I have just posted on Dilma Vana Rousseff, president of Brazil, who has stood in support of the Brazilian protesters.

Yet many friends and family members in the U.S. were still sharing updates on Facebook about their morning meals, their cats, sports teams, and other notices. These felt like irrelevant nonsense. How could this be? How could they just not care?

But then I recalled that I have friends in Turkey, who are going through the current protests. I have friends with family members who are in Greece and must have lived through the two years of protest in that country. I know little about what is happening in Ethiopia, where the first large-scale protest since 2005 has just broken out. And before June 13th, I was blissfully sharing little more than food photos and trip pics.

It is easy to be self-absorbed, content to contemplate the details of one’s own little world. It is even easier as an expat, when so much of your surroundings are of an unfamiliar nature. You take comfort in that which is close to home.

But now I have a different attitude and think about my power to disseminate information. It’s satisfying to share the details of what goes on in the politics of this country and have people you know respond positively.

But it is as important, especially for those of us who have an audience through blogs and other outlets, to keep tabs on what is happening elsewhere in the world and use our skills to move toward justice and peace.

This episode in Brazilian history has changed me forever.

Or so I hope…

* * *

Readers, any questions or comments for Megan about what she is experiencing? Have you had any similar moments of political (re)awakening—or do you not “do” politics as an expat?

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s post, a new episode in our Capital Ideas series, by Anthony Windram.

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to register for The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of weekly posts from The Displaced Nation, with seasonal recipes, book giveaways and other extras. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

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images: Surrounding Megan Farrell (aka Maggie Foxhole) and her book cover photo are several photos taken by TDN writer Andy Martin. Go to his photo blog to see more.

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