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Thursday, December 31, 2009

Once in a Blue Moon...

I'm taking advantage of a rare blue moon over Miami this December 31 (which provided me with a title...) to make an equally infrequent appearance here. I just thought that it might be nice to end the year by sharing a funny story that happened to me in Sampa. At the same time, I'll introduce you to the best taxi driver in the world; should you find yourself in that metropolis one day, you'll know who to call for transportation. I was there in November for a week and, naturally, paid a visit to all my favorite shopping destinations: Ciao Mao and Havaianas for shoes, Santa Luzia for groceries. (I'm sure you're familiar with the queen of flip-flops; in case the other two names don't ring a bell, the first is synonymous with gorgeous footwear and the last one is, well, let's say it puts to shame the finest food markets around the world.)

On the way home, my sister-in-law and I were loaded with packages and in need of a taxi. She hailed one in the street and said: "oh, goodie, the driver is a woman." She was not only a woman, but a young, beautiful one, who also happened to be a much better driver than any of the guys we've used there over the years. AND a fan of classical music, which was playing, softly, in the car. We chatted with her all the way home and told her that we were really impressed by our ride and would like to take her picture. She agreed, so when we stopped in front of our building, we took some photos, said thank you very much, what a marvelous driver she was, nice to meet you, got her business cards, promised to spread the word, and got off. Then she calls us back: "you forgot to pay!" That had us roaring with laughter, I went back, gave her the fare and added a nice tip. Her parting words were something to the effect that we had such good, positive energy, and it was such a pleasure to meet such fun women.

Isn't this a lovely story to end the year with?

This is Sueli and she's at the Ponto de Táxi Avenida Dr. Arnaldo, 3864-8884. The tattoos on her arm are of her two little girls.

The last time we had a blue moon illuminating the skies on New Year's Eve was in 1990; the next will be in 2028, so I'm rooting for a cloudless night.

Friday, October 30, 2009

La playa, la playa...

Well, if you read me, you know that sooner or later something irresistible is going to happen to me on a Miami bus. And it always does. I was in South Beach this afternoon and this gorgeous girl got on the local shuttle wearing nothing but a bikini. To be truthful, she was boarding the bus and trying to cover up at the same time. Inevitably, she caught the attention of a flock of old birds of the "entonce" clan. One of them started to exclaim "la playa, la playa" while the others proceeded to tsk, tsk, and otherwise manifest their disapproval. Something similar happened to me many moons ago on the island of St. Croix. We had just arrived from Boston on a very hot July day (whilst up North we had been sleeping under a blanket until a few days prior to the trip...) and I didn't know that it wasn't kosher to go food shopping in beach attire. So, off I went after some groceries clad in my lovely Java Wraps shorts. All of a sudden, I noticed this big, black lady following me around the aisle mumbling "beach at Pueblo, beach at Pueblo," this being the name of a major supermarket chain based in Puerto Rico. I learned a lesson that day: no matter in how many countries you have lived, the cultural faux pas may take place in your own backyard, so to speak.

The beach here is NOT at Pueblo, but right behind my building. At six-thirty in the morning I was pretty much alone with this bird. Java Wraps was a great clothing store in Christiansted. I hope it's still there.

Friday, October 23, 2009

It's All Peachy...and Fui...

I've been terribly quiet for several weeks and for a good reason: after publishing a Brazilian journal based on this blog, I've lost my voice. Not in the literal sense, but figuratively. I've received a couple of e-mails, though, that made me decide to write one last (maybe penultimate?) time. One came from a former Peace Corps volunteer who had written many months ago asking for a recipe. Sally wanted to make sugary sun-dried peaches in the traditional manner of Pelotas, Rio Grande do Sul. I had found a recipe for her and responded with a caveat: this is going to be a complicated process...I never thought she'd actually go for it, but guess what? I'll let you read about it in her own words:

Guess what....I DID make the passas de pessego--but I only used 12 peaches. It wasn't easy to remove the seed and still keep the peach intact. It took a little practice and a lot of patience. But, I did it. The sugar water baths proved interesting. I did some guessing here. But, this, too, worked. Then came the sunshine part. The first three days I did have sun and then the clouds rolled in. I had the peaches on a glass top table with a glass storm window over them--propped up on fruit baskets. Little containers of water were at the base of the table legs to keep the ants away. I had been through this procedure when making sunshine strawberry preserves--so I knew the routine. Anyway, it was great fun watching the peaches change over time. I would bring them in at night (we have raccoons in the neighborhood) and turn them over. The process worked and the peaches turned out extremely well. I did put them in a dehydrator for a few hours towards the end to make sure they were dry enough. That was really because some days were not so sunny. And, so, I have 12 (whoops) 11 peaches (I ate one). They are really good. So, thanks for sending me the recipe. Bet you thought I wouldn't do it!!!

The other e-mail was from a friend in Brazil who was rushing out the door to go to the airport, but wanted to tell me something before she left. To say goodbye, she used a word, a verb, that I'd seen used before in this context: fui. The past tense of ir, Portuguese for "to go." I guess it's the more economical equivalent of "I'm outta here." So, fui...

Here are Sally's sugary peaches. And my "Blog da Arara" book is available for purchase at

PS - I'm in love with Portuguese fados and want to go to Lisbon now. Wish I could write fui here, too!

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Life in a Tropical Depression

I'm suffering from a phenomenon that I had completely forgotten about: cabin fever. But this isn't winter in Massachusetts or central Ohio; rather, it's summer in Miami. But, but, you migh ask, didn't you USE to live there? Well, yeah, but in those days I had a regular job. I spent my days in a freezing museum, complaining about the cold, wrapped in the only sweater I kept when I moved to South Florida. I wasn't cooped up alone in an apartment, turning into a chair potato in front of my laptop. This city is not exactly the cultural capital of the world from November through May, but in the summer I guess they assume that your brain is too fried for anything above beach reading or elementary-school-level blockbusters. This means I can't even go to the movies (the films I'm interested in seem to play exclusively at the University of Miami and I don't have a car). The cherry on the cake of the dumbing down of the neighborhood: they're closing our Surfside library. Or what's left of it, since they're operating right now out of what looks like a container and most of the books are in storage. Good job, guys!

Naturally, my thoughts turn to Rio and its cultural centers and world-class free museum exhibitions, the art cinema houses cum bookstore and café in the lobby, the fabulous concerts and shows. Year-round brainy stuff to do, mind you, and especially in the summer, which is not as long as ours, but equally scorching. But, that comes with a price, as anyone knows who's lived there or reads O Globo Online with a breakfast cup of espresso: the shady or better, dark, side of my favorite city. I'll give you one scary statistic: in the past two and a half years there have been more than 18,000 violent deaths in the State of Rio, 530 occurred as a result of an armed robbery. I suspect that a very high percentage of those happened in the capital. I remember a woman who was killed one night as she stopped her car at a busy intersection in the fashionable neighborhood of Leblon. She was taking off her watch to give to the young man when he shot her. When people ask me if it's safe to travel to Rio, I always tell them to take the usual precautions. What else am I supposed to say? I'm unscathed, even though stuff like this was going on all around me. Am I just exceptionally lucky? Anyway, my friend Ellen in Pennsylvania and I were discussing this subject the other day. Is there a cultured city in this world with a decent climate (meaning temperate, no snow and ice, please, and no sweaters in August either, before someone mentions Vancouver, Canada) and a safe environment? Perhaps Melbourne, Australia?

In order to keep my kind of tropical depression at bay, I'm volunteering at the Wolfsonian Museum as of tomorrow. I'm helping with the new exhibition opening in October, "Styled for the Road: The Art of Automobile Design, 1908-1948." Can't wait to see if they are featuring my dad's Plymouth...And, before I forget, I'm taking a coat and my beautiful wool scarf from Rio Grande do Sul (pictured here) with me. You can read about it in "Around Brazil in Four and a Half Hours."

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Of Julia Child and Cod Fish Balls

I think I can honestly say that I haven't cooked in over a decade. You see, I don't call tossing a salad or scrambling eggs or making vegetable soup or even occasionally roasting potatoes with rosemary in the oven for myself 'cooking.' Not really. I do, on the other hand, have wonderful memories of cooking for my family, friends, and students all those years ago in Boston. Not that I was ever a great cook, but I loved having people over and feeding them, so I worked very hard at perfecting a few recipes and can proudly write that I made a mean feijoada and pudim de leite and passion fruit mousse and...well, cod fish balls. And this is where Julia Child comes in. But how, you may ask? Well, I went to the movies last night and saw the preview for "Julie & Julia." So, I remembered...When I first met Julia Child I didn't know who she was; this was in the early seventies and I had just arrived in Cambridge, Mass. from Costa Rica. She gave a cooking class at MIT in the lobby of 77 Massachusetts Avenue; she said she was going to teach us to make a proper omelette, since it was something easy to prepare and you could throw almost anything into it and make a meal out of it. She didn't see why students couldn't eat decent food...She proceeded to chop some tomatoes and ask us if we knew why men were better cooks than women. She had been talking all the while and at this point we were in stitches (That day I found out firsthand that Julia was a total ham). She told us it was because men were not afraid, they grabbed the knife and dice, dice, dice, chop, chop, chop. You get the picture. Years later, I added a little step she recommended in a recipe called "Aunt Priscilla's Codfish Balls" to my Brazilian one and have never since tasted a better bolinho de bacalhau.

I saw Julia a second and last time before I left Boston almost exactly 20 years later. I went to a button shop downtown near Filene's and in she walked with a friend. She seemed a bit frail and not as tall, but that unmistakable voice was as strong as ever. At that point, my daughter was moving to Europe, my marriage was on the rocks, and the cooking was, pardon the pun, on the back burner. The recipes survived, though, and were collected (during the years I lived in Ohio) on the website I created to keep in touch with my birth country.

This is more or less the story I told my daughter and her friend when we left the theater. So, now you know what Julia has to do with cod fish balls, which, technically, are Portuguese, but have become a Brazilian food par excellence. If you ever find yourself in Rio de Janeiro, there are a few bars that serve cod fish balls that rival, but not equal, my own: Jobi in Leblon and Bacalhau do Rei in Gávea are two that come to mind.

Coincidentally, a few minutes ago I clicked on the link to a blog from Rio I like very much and saw pictures of some of my favorite foods...ah, I DO envy you, Constance!

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Perhaps I Should've Chosen 'Happy?'

Two quite ordinary events this week produced a tsunami of saudade in me. You know, the kind where you're in danger of drowning in your own tears. The first was a message from my oldest friend in Rio. She ran into the woman who had been her first roommate; they hadn't seen each other in decades; Lu now lives close-by in the very same neighborhood of Leblon. They spent hours catching up; first in a restaurant with the very auspicious name of Santa Satisfação, then in one of the best cafés in Rio. I too have been trying to reconnect with people that I care for, but no one has leisure time to waste on face to face exchanges; my daughter suggested I try Facebook instead. Besides, they wouldn't let us just sit there, would they, American wait staff? Except perhaps, maybe, at Starbucks? (I need to try an experiment at my local French bistro: how long can I last with one cup of espresso?) I'm almost forgetting the second reason why I've got the mopes: a CD came in the mail. My beautiful friend Marcos Sacramento smiles at me from the cover photograph, clearly asking, "What the hell are you doing so far away, woman?"

Did you ever go to to see how different countries rate? Brazil is number nine, near the top; the U.S. ranks down there at 114th place. It's not what I originally thought, though, they're not measuring smiles or human warmth. Of course, if those were to be two of the criteria, Brazil would definitely be among the 'happiest' nations. It's been a source of amazement to me that people who seem to be eternally swimming against the current are capable of so much joy in their daily lives. Eye-contact, a smile, a greeting, the friendliness of strangers. I miss that very much. I'm still scratching my head, in any case, and my Brazilian friends are equally baffled. Considering the general state of affairs in Brazil, how could it place so high in this index? Well, read the report and see if it makes sense to you. I can see why we're not doing too well up here; that's obvious even to me.

Meanwhile, I try for what I can get and enjoy it fully. I found organic blackberries and cherries at the supermarket. And the other morning, I went to the beach at 6:30 to photograph the sunrise. This is what I brought back (plus about 40 mosquito bites on my legs, but hey...).

PS - I'm still picking up trash on the beach twice a day and (especially after a storm) have found some pretty disgusting items. Alas, no more dollar bills!

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Red, White, Blue, Yellow, Green...

Having missed Independence Day celebrations for the past four years, I was looking forward to this day with anticipation. Actually, I was anticipating a hot dog and a hamburger, you know. Food that you wouldn't catch me eating on any other day of the year! What I got (at a friend's picnic) was rice and curry, boniatos, sushi, and hummus and pita chips. So, I feel like I went to the amusement park and had to pass on cotton candy. Anyway, I got home wishing I had peanut butter and white bread in my cupboards. Too proud to go scrounge from my neighbors, as my friend Ellen just wrote, I made myself a tuna fish sandwich. With French bread, of course. For dessert? All I could find was a chocolate croissant.

Well, at least the weather is holding up and if it keeps like this I'll be able to watch the fireworks. I have my fingers really crossed!

Happy 4th of July, everyone!

The photograph here is of jilós, a veggie I've only seen in Brazil (so far!).

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

On Becoming Real

Tomorrow this little guy in the photograph and I are turning 65. I've decided to begin this post with a quote from "The Velveteen Rabbit," which I confess I've never read (the book). Even if my bunny is made of terrycloth and reminds me of an old bathrobe. It's the answer to the rabbit's question "When do you become REAL?" and I think it applies to people too.

"It doesn't happen all at once," said the Skin Horse. "You become. It takes a long time. That's why it doesn't happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don't matter at all, because once you are Real you can't be ugly, except to people who don't understand."

As you can imagine, we've been through a lot the two of us, but, miraculously, we've both managed to keep our eyes. Through severe myopia and strabismus and early-onset cataracts surgery (me) and ten years spent hidden away inside an old armchair in my parents' home (him). Yes, I lost my rabbit when I was about five and found it again at fifteen. Have been carrying him around with me ever since. At this point, we go together like "The Blue Danube" and that PanAm flight to the space station in "2001." Perfectly suited for each other. His cotton loops and my head covering are still hanging in there, thank goodness. At this point in life, thinning hair scares me more than death. And I take care that we don't get shabby either, except where it can't be helped (I'm afraid we've become a tad deaf, somewhat faded, and so on). We strive for stylish still, as best as we can. So, when will WE become REAL?

The miniature Ritz Carlton beach chair I expropriated from my friend's desk at The Wolfsonian museum in South Beach years ago. The white beach bag came from a lingerie boutique at the Shopping Leblon in Rio de Janeiro. They tied that with a ribbon onto a little shopping bag. Brazilians are simply fantastic with attractive packaging...The picture was taken on a table at the back of my building when I moved in and we had perfect blue skies.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Jetsam and Flotsam

This little post is subtitled "Where Do All the Plastic Caps Come From?" There, I've asked the question. If you know the answer, at least regarding Miami-Dade County, please leave a comment!

In all the years I spent in Brazil I almost never went to the beach. The one exception was Fernando de Noronha. The reason being that I got completely spoiled by numerous diving and beach-bumming vacations on the British Virgin Islands. I hated the beaches in Rio; way too crowded and littered for my taste and, lately, much too chaotic and noisy. Thanks to the utter lack of city management over the past several years, a number of industrious and enterprising cariocas were able to helter-skelter take over the sands. They rent beach chairs and umbrellas and let you run a tab for cold beer, coconut water, and even food, if I remember right (you just wave your hand and they'll bring it to you). That wouldn't be so bad if they hadn't started offering free (and very refreshing, I grant you) showers, illegally pumping water from artesian wells, using deafening and polluting gasoline motors! I'll let you imagine what happens to the groundwater below.

Anyway, I'm pretty pleased with the quiet and quite deserted beach here, with the exception of the ubiquitous trash. You can't get away from this sad evidence of what humankind has been doing to the planet. I try to pick up what I can every day in the small stretch of beach I call my own. So far, I've found a disposable diaper, a long piece of fabric with large staples still attached to it (I assume it was once a boat curtain?), dangerous pieces of glass, an assortment of plastic bottles, and a ton of plastic bottle caps. Usually, feeling virtuous (yeah, yeah, I'm taking liberties with Ovid here!) is its own reward, but today I actually got paid one dollar for my efforts. I even took a picture of my bounty!

The title was inspired by something I read in "The Riddle of the Sands." One of the main characters was very fond of throwing overboard everything he didn't want or need. I know the book was written in 1903, but I still can't forgive him!