#17 A week of lasts
Updated: Aug 29, 2022
I’ll be honest. I was dreading this post, the last one from Brazil. I'm not ready to leave.
In the previous post, I alluded to posting this one from the U.S., but I’m too much of a purist. This one had to be posted from Brazil. I wanted everything that happened in Brazil to be documented from Brazil. I thought about this post from the time I sat down at my laptop to write post #1 in April. I wondered what kinds of experiences we would have, how they might change us, and how we would feel about leaving five months down the road. Now I know. This will be the longest post to date, as I reflect not only on the past week but on our experience as a whole. It’s also an opportunity to convey feelings that are close to my heart as I close this chapter of my life. If you’re one of those people who likes a long read, this one’s for you.
So what happened in our last week in Brazil? So much.
OUR LAST WEEK
Played my last gig. The gig took place at Ópera Bar in Uberlândia and was arranged by Jack Will, a drummer and super sweet guy who graduated from UFU several years ago and lives and performs a lot in the region. This was our third time playing together. It was my second time playing with the bassist, Eduardo Coelho, and my first time playing with the pianist, Elias Júnior. They’re all excellent musicians. The show was marketed by Ópera Bar as my “farewell” show in Brazil. Many of my students and some faculty members from UFU came. A number of students sat in on the second set. As always, it was a lively atmosphere, and for a Wednesday night, there sure were a lot of people, both inside and out on the patio, which is typical of Brazilian culture, especially in areas far from the beach. I announced the show. It’s something I’ve gotten used to doing, though it still makes me a little uncomfortable, because I don’t want to say the wrong thing.
The awesome poster Ópera Bar made for my farewell (despedida) show in Brazil
We played many of the American and Brazilian jazz songs I’ve become accustomed to here in Brazil, like Wave, Cantaloupe Island, Equinox, and Fotografia. I’ve come to expect now that these songs will likely be played with a Brazilian “accent," that is, a little different than how we play them in the U.S. It was disorienting to me for a time, but I noticed that in many cities I performed in, this was the pattern, so I slowly adapted. Right in the middle of my farewell show, the thought came to mind that I had gotten used to the Brazilian style of jazz. I found myself falling into “their” patterns and even enjoying what previously felt disorienting. Instead of fighting it, I simply went with it. The musicians were so warm personally, that it made it easy to follow them rather than be concerned that they weren’t playing jazz “my way.”
After the show, we stayed behind for some tasty Mineiro food and good conversation. As always, it was noisy, noisier than any venue in the U.S. Brazilians have a much higher acceptable threshold for noise than Americans. It doesn’t seem to bother them. It’s their normal. But it bothered me when we first arrived. I felt like I couldn’t hear myself think over the loads of people carrying on and the music blaring over the PA. But at this show, I found myself enjoying the noise. It wasn’t noise anymore. It was the joyous sound of a happy people, a people that value spending time together. As I’ve lived in Brazil and gotten to know the people, the reasons behind the “noise” make sense now.
At my farewell show
For much of the pandemic, Brazil has been second only to the U.S. in cases and fatalities. Some of it has to do with the government’s policies and handling of the pandemic, but in many cases, I think it has to do with Brazilian culture. I see now how hard it must have been for people to be separated from each other. It must have been unbearable, in fact. This is a close culture, a culture in which you hug and kiss (on the cheek) someone you’ve just met. There is debate about how genuine all of this warmth is, but regardless of your perspective, this is the reality, and this is what Brazilians are accustomed to.
I think they’ve developed this desire to be together because of the their hardships. Brazil has had a tumultuous history, including centuries of slavery, occupation by foreign governments, multiple wars, high levels of economic inequality, and a painful military dictatorship that lasted 25 years and only ended in 1986. The scars of these many hardships are still evident in some respects, and I think one of the ways people have dealt with them has been to gather. Countries that have suffered similar privation (Russia comes to mind) have had the opposite response— it has hardened the people, made them draw inward and fear contact with others, all of which is understandable given their unique circumstances. Here in Brazil, the hard times have brought people together, softened their hearts. It may have been the only way to cope. The good weather might also have something to do with it. It draws people outside, where they naturally see others. The people find joy in each other as a way to overcome their challenges, and they almost instinctively spread this joy to others.
I have grown to adore the openness of the Brazilian people. I found this openness even in my classroom, where teachers and students enjoy a warm relationship. In a way, it’s going to be hard to go back to the U.S., where we are more reserved. But of the many life-changing things I've learned here in Brazil, I think one of them is this warmth, and I will bring some of it back to the U.S. with me. I think it will change how I interact with people. I will miss the beautiful warm days of Brazil, but I think I will miss more the beautiful warmth of Brazilians.
Saw Toninho Horta. Remember Clube da Esquina from my last post? That’s the collective of musicians from Belo Horizonte, Minas Gerais’s capital, that made some of the most famous recordings in the history of Brazilian music. Clube da Esquina forms the research portion of my Fulbright grant, and this year marks the 50th anniversary of the release of their first album. Well, I got to see one of the musicians from that collective, a veritable living legend, guitarist Toninho Horta. What was particularly surreal is that Toninho was playing in Uberlândia at the same time as my farewell show, so I didn’t get to see him then, but the next night he was in Uberaba, and I made the 90-minute drive to see him there. It was totally worth it. I got to meet him before the show and talk with him for a few minutes. He was surprised I spoke Portuguese and complimented me on it! He was such a nice guy, and of course, he played beautifully. For a 73-year old, he was full of energy onstage and really funny. The place was packed, and the crowd loved it. Even just a few days before we leave for the U.S., I’m still having experiences that stand out as highlights, and in terms of research, I couldn’t ask for more: meeting one of the participants of my research component and hearing him perform. Wake me up, please.
With the master himself Toninho Horta at his concert in Uberaba
Toninho definitely having fun on stage
Burned out my amp... again. Talk about coming full circle. I burned out my amp the first week we got here because I wasn't aware of the different voltages on outlets, and now in our last week, I've burned it out again. Ay yay yay. You think I would have learned by now. Since that first week, I've been vigilant in checking the voltage each time I plug my amp in at a new place. At the farewell gig at Ópera Bar, I checked and adjusted the setting on the back of the amp to match the outlet, but when I went to plug it in at UFU to do some practicing a few days later, I must have been distracted, because I plugged it in without remembering to switch the voltage on the amp back. Poof! Circuit board fried, burning smell in the air. So, when we get back to the U.S. --where I won't have to worry about voltage-- it's back to the shop for my little DV Mark amp, which has served me well here in Brazil.
Picked up our Brazilian resident IDs from the Federal Police. They’re good for another year. Obviously there’s no use for them one week before we leave, so having them is more symbolic, kind of a keepsake of our stay. I’m going to keep mine in my wallet even when I get back to the U.S. It will be a way to take a little piece of Brazil with me wherever I go. I didn’t blot out the day and month of birth on the card, so feel free to send me Brazilian-related birthday cheer when the time comes. :-)
A cool remembrance of our time in Brazil
Received a souvenir. My colleague Elder was one of the faculty members who came to see my last performance. Elder and his wife Gigli are classy people. When I first got here, Elder helped me with many things to acclimate to Brazil. He and Gigli took our family to a nature reserve a few months back, and they had us over for dinner a few weeks ago. At their home, we told them we were in search of a uniquely Brazilian souvenir to take back with us to the U.S. Without our asking them, they came through and brought us something from their home state of Espírito Santo (which means Holy Ghost), one of the four states that make up the southeast region where we live. It’s a handmade percussion instrument called a “casaca,” used in the congo capixaba musical style from Espírito Santo. There are various “congos” throughout the world, including in New Orleans. Each has its own distinct character, but all have the same roots in Africa. Elder brought the casaca to my last show, and I opened it there. (If I had been smarter, I would have taken a photo of me with Elder and the casaca). The pink, blue, and white on the casaca are the colors of the flag of Espírito Santo. I could not love a gift more.
I love the expression on this guy. Each casaca has its own distinctive face.
Bought a souvenir. It’s a framed definition of the invented word “Mineirice,” which is like the condition of being from Minas Gerais. The frame also has some funny regional expressions on it. The whole thing made me laugh as I can identify firsthand with it now. It was hand-crafted by the woman who owns the little kiosk where we purchased it, and she was born in Uberlândia, so of course, for all these reasons, I had to have it. It will find a nice home in my office in the U.S. where I can look at it each day and remember with fondness our time in Minas Gerais.
Trem uai bão. Minas Gerais is a special place.
Visited the Karaiba neighborhood. My colleague Mauricio told me about Karaiba soon after we arrived, because a section of it looks very American. Most homes in Brazil are walled in with a garage that leads right out onto the street, but in the “American” section of the Karaiba neighborhood in Uberlândia, there are no walls around the houses, there are large front lawns and hedgerows, and there are driveways that are set back from the street. Both sides of the street are lined with trees that form an arch. The sidewalks are straight, with smooth blacktop on the road. These are all typical features of American neighborhoods but atypical of Brazilian neighborhoods. Most homes in Brazil have walls for security reasons, so the lack of walls here in Karaiba raises an eyebrow, though apparently there is more private security and camera monitoring in Karaiba.
Mauricio and his family spent several months in Gainesville, FL, so Mauricio knows what an American neighborhood looks like. We strolled through the various streets that make up the American section of Karaiba, commenting on the similarities to American neighborhoods. It was odd to be there. Uberlândia never looks like this. It didn’t feel like we were in Brazil for that little while. I’d like to know the story behind this neighborhood.
Southeastern United States or Southeastern Brazil?
I wondered why I waited until the last week of our stay here to see Karaiba. I think I know: I wasn’t interested in anything “American.” I wanted to experience Brazil, so I filled my time with Brazilian things. I was also busy teaching and traveling, so there wasn’t much time to sightsee. And, at a certain point, we were just leading regular lives, keeping up with the day-to-day. Now with the semester over, I’m catching up on a few things I missed, and maybe in a poetic way, finally seeing the Karaiba neighborhood was a subconscious way to help me prepare to return to the U.S.
Read various articles about “reverse culture shock.” Also known as “re-entry,” it’s “a common reaction to returning home after [being] abroad.” As I read about it, it was scary how accurately it described what I’m going through, and I’m not even home yet! How did I start reading about this? I was telling my boss in the U.S. how I was feeling about coming home. He recognized the signs and sent me a link to an article about this phenomenon I’m apparently suffering from with the following advice: “Don’t underestimate its effects.” Wise counsel I’ll take to heart in— according to the articles— the coming weeks and *months.*
Another word for what I’m experiencing and will surely continue to experience is “saudade.” Saudade is a uniquely Brazilian word that has no English translation. Perhaps it could be described as a combination of missing, longing, sadness, and having nostalgia for something or someone. Tom Jobim’s song “Chega de Saudade” is sometimes translated as “No More Blues,” and blues might be a close word for saudade. I’ve known about the word saudade for years and that it famously cannot be translated, so I wondered if I would ever truly understand what it means. I think I understand it now: if I ever had saudade for something, it’s Brazil.
Sat on my bed with a faraway glance. I stared out the open window, watched the lights flicker across Uberlândia, and listened to that now-familiar hum of cars pass below on Joāo Naves de Avila Avenue. It was a beautiful sight and sound.
Repressed and let tears flow freely. Have you ever tried running while you’re crying? It’s hard. At home I was irritable. My poor family had to endure my mood swings. Throughout the week, I was frequently wandering around in a dream state, highly aware of each fleeting moment. Sometimes the most mundane task was an effort. Images seemed to freeze in time and yet flash by. I didn’t want all of this to come to and end, but there was nothing I could do except watch it slip away.
Worked on this post. Usually I write a post at the end of a week, but for this one, I wrote in real time. As events happened and as thoughts about our time here occurred to me, I stopped what I was doing and wrote them down. I think writing in real time has been therapeutic in helping me deal with the many emotions I’ve been feeling as we prepared to leave.
Read messages from my students. At the start of this last week here in Brazil, I sent a note to all my students, about 30 people, to express my gratitude for having them as students but primarily to provide information about Millikin University, in the event they have an interest in studying abroad. I consider this a basic privilege of being a Fulbright Scholar— extending the cultural exchange. What happened next, however, was unexpected: an outpouring of beautiful messages from my students with heartfelt sentiments about having me as their teacher. It made me cry (again). I truly wasn’t fishing for compliments. My intent was simply to provide information, and I said as much in a response to the students’ messages. One student wrote back with an answer so perfect that the only thing I can do is reprint it here, translated:
“Our compliments are also sincere, professor. Everyone really enjoyed it. You injected new fuel into our popular music program and challenged many of us to break out of our cocoons. See you at Millikin.”
Maybe the students learned something from me, but I feel like I was the one who learned. In a way— their uniquely Brazilian way— they taught me what love is.
Worked from UFU. The semester ended last week, but as you can imagine, I was missing my students and my routine, so I went up to UFU several times to work on various projects. It was like a magnet, drawing me to it. I simply wanted to be there. The halls were quiet. Everyone had gone home for break. I unlocked the door to Sala 7, turned on the lights, and sat at the desk. I looked around the room. A flood of memories washed over me as I remembered many special moments in this room with students and colleagues. One of the first photos I took after arriving in Brazil was of me in this room a few weeks before the semester started. It was quiet on that day, too. Everyone was still on break. Anticipation filled the air as I contemplated what the next five months would bring. And now, as I look back, with the semester over, one of the last photos I take is of me in this room, with the many wonderful memories it brought over the past five months. And it’s quiet once again. I can’t believe it’s over already. It was a little sad to be in Sala 7 this week, but it was comforting at the same time. Saudade.
My last days in Sala 07 at UFU. The best memories.
I walked through what was a quiet campus on my last day at UFU and photographed my final view of this wonderful institution.
OUR TIME IN BRAZIL
While here in Brazil, I developed a nice friendship with a guitarist named Douglas Martin. Douglas works for Eastman Guitars, the brand of guitar I play. He got in touch with me to coordinate some things for an upcoming guitar festival we’ll both attend in Colorado in a few weeks. Douglas has lived in China for many years. We’ve been comparing notes on what it’s like to live and perform abroad. It’s been a wonderful ongoing conversation. I’ve been telling Douglas about my “saudade” in leaving Brazil. He understood perfectly and made a powerful insight: “When a place speaks to you….you’re never the same again. Some people… never experience that. We’re among the lucky ones.”
How right he is. I’m not the same person I was when we arrived five months ago. Brazil has changed me forever, and I'm so grateful to have had the experience of being here. My colleague at UFU, Mauricio, said he felt similarly when he came back from Spain. He daydreamed about it for weeks, months, years. His heart was still there. He had a hard time concentrating to the point that he almost needed therapy. It’s a real thing. Among Douglas, Mauricio, and me, we’re talking about three different countries on three different continents, but all with the same results. Who knows why someone is drawn to a certain place, but it happens, and when it does, you truly are never the same.
Douglas suggested trying to stay involved with Brazilian culture in the U.S. as a way to cope with missing Brazil. I’ve already started planning Brazilian activities for when we get back. My friend André is from Uberlândia and, incredulously, lives with his family in our city in the U.S. We’re planning some regular get-togethers with other Brazilians, including one of my former colleagues from Millikin, Marcos, who's from São Paulo. I need to stay engaged, to have Brazilian things to look forward to. I think it will make the transition back to the U.S. a little easier. Frankly, without Brazilian things to look forward to, I think I’d go a little crazy. As André said, even though I’m American, a little piece of my heart is green and yellow, Brazil’s national colors. I love that.
I’ve talked previously about things I’ll miss, like the beautiful weather and delicious food. While I’ll certainly miss those things, what I think I’ll truly miss is the everyday.
I’ll miss the constant alarms— cars, apartment buildings, stores— going off somewhere in the city. I’ll miss the garbage truck that drives through the neighborhood with its pre-recorded upbeat message and catchy jingle about keeping Uberlândia clean. I’ll miss the lady that cleans our apartment building every Tuesday and Friday, who always says hi to me cheerfully amidst the soaked floors I gingerly step over on my way out to walk or run. I’ll miss the little owl perched on a city wall who turns his head 360 degrees to eye me as I pass him on Almeda Uberaba Street. I’ll miss the crooked sidewalks that have tripped me up more than once and the many potholes on the roads that make our car rumble. I’ll miss the delicious aromas that waft into the air no matter where we seem to be. I’ll miss the sight of people trudging through the streets carrying home plastic bags from the grocery store. I’ll miss that little species of bird that I hear everywhere that just emits one single really cute high-pitched squeak. I’ll miss the abandoned lots throughout the city with random fires burning in their fields. I'll miss the many sweet and docile dogs who endlessly roam Uberlândia. I’ll miss the daily ritual of remembering which of the many unnumbered keys on my key ring opens the various classrooms I used at UFU. I’ll miss getting up in the morning and checking my WhatsApp to find messages from colleagues and students. I’ll miss all the Brazilian Instagram pages and YouTube ads that pop up because of my location in Brazil. I’ll miss walking into our living room bathed with sunshine and opening the sliding glass doors of our balcony to let in the cool breeze on the fourth floor. I’ll miss that wonderful warm sun on my skin. I'll miss waiting for the elevators on the fourth floor and looking through the little window to catch a glimpse of the panorama of the city, my eyes adjusting from the bright sunlight back to the light of the apartment building as I step onto the elevator. I’m not sure I’ll miss the crazy iFood motorcyclists who weave recklessly through the streets to make their next delivery on time, but I'll certainly never forget them. I’ll miss hearing the musical strains of Portuguese everywhere I go and the incomparable opportunity to engage in a conversation in Portuguese at any moment. Most of all, I’ll miss some very special people here in Brazil who touched me deeply and left a permanent impression. If you’re reading this, you know who you are.
As I took my daily walks through our neighborhood and drove around town to various places this week, I reflected on how unfamiliar everything was five months ago when we arrived. The roads seemed unusual. Traffic patterns frightened us. We needed a GPS for everything. Now the roads seem fine. Traffic patterns feel normal. And we drive practically everywhere by memory. No GPS needed. What seemed a strange new world has become everyday. We adapted. Don’t get me wrong. I’m still fascinated by everything here in Brazil, but it feels familiar now. It has become our lives. And now... we’re headed back to our home country.
If you’ve been following this blog, then you know coming to Brazil is a dream I’ve had for 30 years, practically my whole adult life. Why did it take 30 years to get here? Life happened. School, work, family, moves within the U.S., cost, and time. But I think a larger, perhaps more unconscious reason, was that I just wanted to dream about it. I wanted to romanticize about what it would be like, because the reality could be one of two possible outcomes: a) awful, which would then shatter the dream, or b) far better than I ever imagined. In a way, though, I think I feared “b” more, because if “a” was the outcome, then I could just write it off, say I had been to Brazil, it wasn’t so great, and then forget about it. But if “b” was the outcome— and I had a feeling it would be— then I would never be able to forget about it. And, of course, “b” is exactly what happened. It’s a case of “b” careful what you wish for, because you might just get it. I indeed got it, and now look at the mess I’ve gotten myself into.
A couple of weeks ago we sat down as a family to answer the following questions:
1. What were your expectations of Brazil?
2. Did Brazil not meet, meet, or exceed those expectations?
The answers were generally positive, though our kids were anxious to get back to their friends in the U.S., which is totally understandable. When it was my turn, I said I didn’t have any expectations. For 30 years, I’ve been daydreaming, imagining, envisioning, wondering what it would be like to be in Brazil. But having traveled a lot before coming to Brazil, I knew that you can never really know what a country is like until you visit it, so I was ready for anything. No expectations. I suppose that means, then, that Brazil has far exceeded in an infinite way any inkling of an expectation I may have subconsciously harbored. It has been everything I dreamed about and much more in a scope and depth I could never have imagined in a million years and is not possible to put into words. Having lived here is simply one of the single greatest experiences of my life, second to none.
How’s that for an answer?
Brazil will always be a part of us, something special that will forever bind our family. It will live in our hearts. But one thing I’ve learned is that Brazil has always just been *my* dream. Not my wife’s dream. Not our kids’ dream. My dream. I think I hoped it would also become their dream after we arrived, that they would fall in love with it the way I did, but truly, it’s just my thing. While I think our kids and to a greater extent my wife will miss aspects of Brazil and find value in having had this experience, I don’t think they’ll ever have the deep attachment to it that I have. I've come to accept that. Everyone has their own dream. Mine just happens to be Brazil.
I think I always knew I had to come here. I was meant to come here. Brazil called me from a young age. I’ve always wondered why. To this day, I still don’t know. At the same time, I don't want to convey the notion that Brazil is perfect. It's not. I recognize that. This blog has certainly documented our share of mishaps in Brazil. Some of them were self-inflicted or could have happened anywhere in the world. Others, however, were the product of aspects of the culture that many Brazilians complain about and that has driven some of my Brazilian friends who moved to the U.S. away from their homeland. It’s easy to romanticize the good things and gloss over the bad ones as you’re about to leave a place. All the same, I feel at ease here. I loved it from the moment we hit the road from the airport in Uberlândia. I was exhausted from traveling for 18 hours, but if I wanted to get to our new apartment, I had to drive. I was nervous about that. I had never driven in a foreign country before. So on top of the exhaustion, I now had the extra stress of driving in an unfamiliar place, but as we left the airport and got into the city, it didn’t matter anymore. I was hooked. I fell for it instantly. It just struck me as the place I was always meant to be.
In this sense, it reminds me of Tom Jobim’s and Chico Buarque’s haunting piece, “Song of the Sabiá.” I’ve talked about this song before in this blog because the sabiá is the Brazilian national bird and is found here in Uberlândia, and Uberândia's main park is called Parque do Sabiá. I come back to "Song of the Sabiá" now for a different reason— it captures my feelings:
I’ll go back
I know now that I’ll go back
That my place is there
And there it will always be
There where I can hear
The song of the sabiá
I’ve been listening to this song for decades and always pondered how the authors must have felt as they wrote this beautiful song about their native Brazil, but I never thought the song would apply so completely to me.
Like the song, it’s not a question of if, but when I go back. So until I do *go back,* until we meet again my beloved Brazil, thank you from the bottom of my heart. I have no words. You have taught me so much. You have changed me forever. Até mais, meu querido.