The City of Lights

Don’t you just love it when you find a well-hidden gem in a familiar place? Well, I had one of those discoveries a couple of months ago.

I’m telling you, one of the best distractions when you’re waiting for important, life-changing decisions, is visits from friends. This time, it was Sophie who came to visit from the US. I first met Sophie back in our beloved Edinburgh in 2012, when she was out busking with her smokin’ squeezebox. I loved her rendition of Lady Gaga and Queen songs so much I invited her to perform live as part of my Fringe show that year. As it happens, both Sophie and I had to leave the UK shortly after that, going back to our respective native lands. But another thing we both have in common is the complete inability to spend long periods of time in the same geographical position, so I received an email from her saying she was planning to travel around South America┬á for a few months and would like to come see me. Yay!

So after trekking across the continent from Ecuador to Peru to Chile to Uruguay (apologies if I’m missing out any countries you’ve been to), Sophie arrived in my border hometowns for a few days of relaxed fun. I’ve got an already established tour route to show people round Livramento-Rivera, but I always try to find something new and exciting (which can be really hard sometimes). This time, I thought we could just tweak the route a bit and take her to a vineyard that no one in the family had been to yet. We have quite a few vineyards around here, so there are plenty to choose from. After doing a bit of research, my sister and I opted for this small, family-run place on the Uruguayan side.

We had a quick look at the map, shoved Sophie in the car and set off. And this is how we found out that the FlavNav does take wrong turns occasionally. The road signs were unclear, and we got to a dirt track ending at a crossroads. I suggested going left, we did. After driving for a few miles of nothing but empty fields, we spotted something to our right side. We were driving right on the border line and this thing was on the Brazilian side of the road. As we approached, we could see it looked like some sort of newly-built condo. It was fenced off, which wasn’t surprising as it’s a common thing to do around houses and flats here. What was unusual about it was that each corner of this isolated area was *ahem* decorated with a red spike with a cow’s skull, also painted red with black horns, on top. We slowed down to have a better view of the place. We passed a few houses and a small gatehouse with something written in German across the top. We continued on until we saw a large gateway with a futuristic-looking tower flying the Brazilian flag, and an arch which read “City of Lights” in Portuguese (Cidade das Luzes). The strangest thing was the last big building we saw near the other end of the fence, which looked like a temple, or place of worship. Its architecture seemed to mix and match Islamic and Judaic characteristics, but it also featured a cross in there somewhere. And outside on the porch and all around it, there were hundreds of garden statues of everything you can think of: gnomes, happy frogs, Snow White, saints, Orishas…

Anyway… we figured out the vineyard was NOT there, took a u-turn and eventually found the right way. We got there and woke up the poor owner’s son, who had decided to hide in his car for a siesta and was startled by seeing three random girls wandering into his wine-making sanctuary (he’s probably trained to identify alcoholics), and ended up giving us a lovely tour. Word of advice: book your vineyard tour in advance if you’re ever in these parts. People like to be prepared for visitors.

No, we never found out what the “City of Lights” actually was. Not even after the wine. Suggestions on a postcard.

From Basel to Rivera

When I was last in Europe, my sister was there with me. She’s a big fan of tennis, Roger Federer being her favourite player. She’s also a bit of a stalker (love you!), so we ended up renting a car and driving from Paris to Basel as she wanted to visit Federer’s hometown. Now, this is relevant because this is where “The FlavNav” comes from – we are cheap and decided to forego the rental car’s satnav, resulting in me yelling directions that had been googled the night before and jotted down on a notepad at my sister while she drove. As perfectly sensible people would do. It is also relevant because Basel sits on a triple border, and this theme has been recurring in my life and inevitably influential in my work.

I found it fantastic that I could say I’d walked from Switzerland across to Germany, then to France and back before breakfast. It shouldn’t have impressed me much, as I was born and grew up on a border town, Santana do Livramento, in southern Brazil. It is joined by the hip with Rivera, in Uruguay. There are no bridges, no rivers, no border control stations here. The two towns are one, and everyone can move freely between them. Now, in addition to the physical differences stated above, our Mercosul doesn’t quite work as well as the EU (as much as they try), and politically and economically speaking, Uruguay and Brazil are 100% separate countries. People turn a blind eye to A LOT that happens here, endless allowances are made because the place simply can’t be regulated like the rest of both countries. Yet, bureaucracy always manages to get in the way. I could go to school in Brazil in the morning, for example, and then to my English class in Uruguay in the afternoon (which allowed me to say for years that I studied English abroad, much to my own amusement), no problem. If I wanted to set up a business in Uruguay, however, I’d need to go through a silly amount of paperwork. Things like that, you get the picture. The freedom of the border is rather unique nonetheless. So much so that locals say the border means nothing to them – we don’t realise there IS a border until we’ve been to other places.

So last year I had the chance to bring my theatre company over and explore this border, its features, peoples, languages, relations. We were supported by Creative Scotland, a Brazilian university and many other local organisations and companies both in Brazil and in Uruguay. We had an excellent time and I’m very proud of what we achieved. We’re hoping to release a documentary about it this year, and will also feature in a book about performance pieces that happened in Portuguese-speaking territory between 2010 and 2013. If you want to know more about this project, please check out our blog on that.

Anyway, the point is, to this day I struggle to wrap my head round less amicable borders. Brazilian writer Donaldo Sch├╝ller said that “beyond a border, there’s threat and seduction”. I’ve spent most of my life being seduced by the other side, but now after the experience of the past few months, I’ve started to get a taste of the threat. I confess I would like to visit some of the most extreme bordering areas in the world so I have the whole spectrum. This was the idea of Fronteiras Explorers (the aforementioned project), but now my own border-crossing has come to a standstill, when I’m no longer allowed to hop over to the other side where I used to live.

Tomorrow I’m speaking at a local university in Santana do Livramento as part of a panel discussing the construction of a border-specific culture and art. Maybe part of it is to fully exploit this tension between the threat and the seduction. I’m sure it will be a thrilling debate.