portugueseThe first release from the exciting new collaborative-poetry series of Tin House and Octopus books, Brandon Shimoda’s Portuguese has its origins in a racial slur. As Shimoda explains in the epilogue: “The bus is driving itself. Floating. Out the windows the trees are thick green, with passing revelations of yellow and brown. The fourth grader makes one final attempt, though his enthusiasm, at this point, feels forced: Portugueeese. He brings his pointer fingers to the sides of his eyes, pulls the skin to make his eyes disappear, and says it once more.”

December 11, 2009 – L.A.X.

In general, I feel good about this. Three months isn’t such a long time, and I certainly wasn’t accomplishing anything in L.A. So what if all anyone has told us about Brazil is that it’s dangerous, and we’ll be beaten and robbed within seconds of landing in Sao Paulo. Just because everyone has a third- or fourth-hand account of a girl who was slashed or a guy who was shot doesn’t mean we’ll be slashed and shot. Never mind that story in the Times about how Brazilian police kill hundreds of innocent people a year. Just don’t ask the police for help. And just don’t think about that other story in the Times that said gangmembers in one of Rio’s favelas just shot down a police helicopter. That was Rio.

Everything’s going to be fine.

 

December 15 – Sao Paulo

On Sunday, Day One, it was raining, so after breakfast we went to a nearby mall. I don’t see how Sao Paulo can be dangerous. At the entrance a man stands with a machine gun strapped to his bulletproof vest, the cuffs of his black cargo pants tucked into his army boots. That seems to be the hip look for scary paramilitary types. When a man tucks his pants into his boots, you can just assume he has no problem with cold-blooded murder. Think about it: those Blackwater Nazis? Tuckers, to a man.

Inside, there are five security guards for every civilian. Men in dark jackets stand about thirty feet apart, watching every move we make.  When I take my wallet out of my pocket to pay for some cheesebread, I do it very slowly.

Yes! We successfully ordered cheesebread! We communicate with the natives via pointing at what we want. As a result, we tend not to get exactly what we want, but we are adaptable and our stomachs are strong.

 

December 16

Stomach pain!

Shouldn’t have gone from being vegetarian straight to eating chicken wrapped in bacon.

Also, Portuguese is hard. It shares words with Spanish, but Brazilians pronounce the Rs like Hs at the beginning of words but like Ds in the middle of words. They pronounce Ds like Js, and Ts like CHs (as in “Chanukah”), except when they don’t, and I have no idea when that is. Basically I have to rely on context to make a guess about what people are saying to me.

Have discovered local Starbucks. Emotions: conflicted.

 

December 17

Karen is jealous that I get to hang out all day while she has to work. I sympathize, but hey, I’m working. These crossword puzzles aren’t going to do themselves! I mean, I’m trying to plot my novel, but well, it sucks. And right now, someone is using a circular saw right on the other side of this wall, and the sound is like a demon screeching inside my head. I would leave this place, but I’m waiting for coffee. Still learning the local customs. I’m relying wholly on tone and context here, but I think the barista just said to me, “Sit down, bitch! I’ll bring you your goddamn coffee when it’s ready!”

I miss my dog.

 

December 18

Brazilian greetings are complicated. Before noon, it’s “Bom dia!” (but you say, “Bong gee-a”). Then, “Boa Tarde!” (“Ta-ch-jee!”) and then at night, “Boa Noite” (“Noichee or Noich.”) But you also might get, “Tudo bem?” or “Tudo bom?” which are apparently interchangeable. If someone says “Tudo bem?” your response is supposed to be “Tudo bom!” and vice versa, but so far all Karen and I have been able to do is smile and repeat whatever they’ve said to us, or lapse into a lame “Hi.”

I’m at a mall. I flew six thousand miles to sit in a mall. Next to Starbucks. But in my defense, it’s an outdoor mall, and it’s the only place in like a three-mile radius where you can be outside without suffering the noise and air pollution from the cars that clog every street.  And I’m not at Starbucks. Just next to it. At Fran’s Café, which, I’ve been told, is the Brazilian Starbucks.

There are security guards everywhere. The patrons of this mall are professionals and the super-rich. I’m the sketchiest-looking person here.

 

December 19

I did our laundry for the first time yesterday. It’s a complicated business, that begins with my calling housekeeping and saying, “Posso reservar a lavanderia?” and the housekeeper’s saying, “Que?” and my trying again and her saying something unintelligible that goes on way too long but ends abruptly so that the silence extends into awkward territory until I say, “Um…” and she says, “Agora! Agora!” and I say, “Oh, now? OK!”

I took the elevator down to the stiflingly hot basement where the laundry room is and where the housekeepers all marvel at the gringo man doing laundry. I don’t know much about Brazil yet, but I’m guessing they don’t have house-husbands here. I think of saying in Portuguese, “A woman’s work is never done!” but my courage fails me.

The machines are slow and stubborn, and the dryers don’t actually dry. I used up my entire allotted three-hour window, and still had to hang clothes from every possible place in the apartment to dry them. I managed to hang all of Karen’s undies on hangers, five each, which I then hung from our dining table chandelier. If all else fails, I will become a panty-mobile maker and sell my crafts by the roadside.

 

January 4, 2010

New year, old shit. Trouble sleeping. How can I detach the critical part of my brain?

I’m in the penthouse common room of the hotel. The view is 360 degrees of high-rise buildings, beautiful in a sort of tragic, pre-apocalyptic way. Every now and then a helicopter flies by and keeps going or lands on one of the office buildings in the neighborhood. Those guys — the ones who take helicopters around the city — just have to be all-star douchebags. There’s just no way around it.

There are security cameras in here. They’re also in the hallway outside our room, and in the elevators. Do they make me want to adjust my scrotum and pick my nose more than usual, or am I just more aware of these urges?

 

January 7

The housekeeper is messing with me. I leave the room at the same time every day to allow her to clean, but today I leave for two hours and come back, and she still hasn’t been here. What do I do? I am a home-person. I’m the roommate about whom other roommates moan to their friends, “He’s always home!”

I can only sit in so many cafés, and the hotel roof gets too hot in the afternoons. Where can I go?  Who will care for me? Is this how my ancestors felt? Would building a golden calf make me feel any better?

 

January 8

No.

 

January 9? 10?

I’ve lost track. Feeling a bit… low. I’m working at the juice place I’ve been going to so the servers at the cafés don’t think I’m stalking them. It’s pouring rain. It’s rained every day that we’ve been here, which is fine with me. I could go back to the room, switch the green Favor Arrumar o Quarto card on the door handle back over to the red Favor Não Incomodar, but then the room won’t be cleaned! What if we should want to shower again today?! The towels will be — gasp! — damp!

Karen says she doesn’t think the room needs to be cleaned every day — we certainly don’t have a housekeeper in real life — but I’m afraid of setting a precedent. Skip a day and the housekeeper may never come back. Or skip a day, and then I’ll skip two, and then three. Before we know it, we’ll be living like animals.

Also, I just left the hotel, and I can’t run that gauntlet again. On my way out I had to walk past the front desk, where no fewer than four blue-blazered hotel staffers milled around, all smiling fakely and saying, “Tudo bem?” or “Tudo bom?” or “Bom Dia!” Then there was the stoic security guard at the door, his deep “Bom Dia,” and then the three valet parking attendants. I just nodded and kept walking, like someone who is busy, very busy. No time for chit-chat, I have places to be, people to order coffee from!

No. Can’t go back to the hotel.

 

January 11?

Why can’t I get my shit together and get some work done? What’s my problem? Why won’t the housekeeper be consistent? Why doesn’t this hotel have a back door?

It’s too hot to think in this climate.

Stomach pain is back. Yesterday we accidentally ordered a stew that had at least four different animals in it.

When we get back to the States, I’m going vegan.