Kitchen Tales in Brasil

In Brazil it is said that nothing starts before Carnival. It actually means that when millions of people go down to the coastline of Brazil to celebrate New Year’s eve dressed in white and jumping waves (it is summer in Brazil)  in a celebration of Brazilian syncretism that mixes African and European traditions we do not really celebrate the new year. We celebrate this interim period we know will last until the year really starts after Carnival. Everything between the 1st of January and Ash Wednesday is not really that serious. Well, one could argue nothing is ever that serious in Brazil. In some corners the preparation for carnival starts as soon as carnival is over.

It has been 11 years I have not been in Brazil for carnival. And had I not broken a foot I would not be here this year either. But I am and in a broken foot I decided to behave in a Carnival way. I decided to live my fantasies for a brief period when all is possible. I decided to go back to Rio, which is known by the Carioca ( people born in Rio), as the cidade maravilhosa ( the wonderful city).
Rio is without a question beautiful to the point of taking your breath away. Every single time I go to Rio I am flabergasted. I do understand every single time why it is that Cariocas have a tougher time living abroad then we Paulistas ( people who come from Sao Paulo) do. In all inequality that Brasil is, Rio’s beaches are democratic spaces, the bars where the traditional Samba is played is a democratic place where young and old, rich and poor gather to sing and play music. Yes I love Rio. It is usually there, in this little bars, with owners who tell the clients to shut up to hear the music that I feel more Brazilian. Usually I feel adrift wherever it is that I am.
Oh, the contradictions of me and Brasil. I live in a huge house. There are people here who work on making my life, and my family’s lives easier. Much easier. We don’t cook, nor wash, nor clean. Yet it is not that these work is made invisbly. No, as I wrote in my last e-mail, Claudia, one of the ladies who works here, even without knowing me as I arrived to say Hello flung her arms wide open around me and hugged me. Ever since that day whatever it is I am doing she shows up to tell me about her day, and nights, and life.
She, like million other northeastern Brazilians, came to the south east region to  search for a better life. People in the south usually make fun of them. They laugh of their accents. An accent that is even more melodic than the portuguese foreigners already feel is music. She told me her story. In pieces. Every piece amounts to one more tragedy which in her mouth comes out in laughter
Claudia is 34. She got pregnant as a teenager. Her mother had 8 children. She lost one to drugs. Claudia with a baby in her arms left her house after a fight and found a job as a maid. In the northeast, in some house where she had to work doing it all, she considered the boss a mother. The boss indeed helped her a lot while exploiting her at the same time. How can it be that these relationships are so mixed in Brasil? She speaks of her with love. Eventually she went back to her mother’s house. And her life ever since has been like that. Looking for jobs, leaving her children behind, and bringing them close whenever she was more stable.
Yes. she got pregnant again. She entered a relationship with a man she did not love to have her daughter close. He was nice at first, then he beat her. And then she beat him back. And he used her. And she left. To find temporary solace in the arms of other men. No she never lost her smile. Everyday when I hear a little more she has both tears in her eyes and a smile in her face. Every day she works incredibly hard, every night she goes out. Oh the contradictions of Brasil…
Nininha, a gorgeous northeastern girl, also works here. She is really beautiful. She also has a child who now cannot go to school because there is no place in the public school of the neighbourhood. Private school is unthinkable for those who do all the jobs that people in my social class do not. As I am here writing she shows up to ask me whether  I have seen a cd with the pictures of her daughter. Apparently my aunt had borrowed it. I had not. But I had seen the whole album of pictures of Claudia’s family and so had my cousin, my aunt, my grandmother.
They love my grandmother who is according to them the best boss they had ever had. They would never leave her even if she wanted them to go. They even bought her a gift the other day. My grandmother who is 87 and still goes to the gym, and drives, travels, and goes to museums told them “she needed nothing and that  they should not waste the money they had worked so hard for with her”. But they wanted to. Hearing them tell me that story I remembered my own wedding when Terezinha, who is my age, and works for my parents for almost two decades gave me a huge amount of money compared to her salary as a gift for my wedding. I told her I could not possibly take it. She insisted it was her way of helping me to start a new life. With my eyes full of tears, I took it, and then told my mom to give it back as complimentary bonus after. Oh, the contradictions of Brazil.
I am going to Rio this weekend. Searching in these brief illusions of carnival solace for my contradicted body and soul. Claudia is happy beyond belief. It is not so much because of Carnival. It is because now she is stable enough to bring her children from the north to live with her here.
“I have never abandoned my children. They know. When I organise myself I go get them.”
That is a bit of Brasil. A world of inequality where in one place people are shot because of it, and in others people share laughter, stories, and warmth in spite of it.
Let’s see what happens when the year finally begins. Happy Carnival.

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