One more storm…

I got notified by email that a decision had been made about my latest visa application, but the email did not say whether the outcome was positive or not. I would have to wait until I got my passport back to find out. Time was ticking, I had already missed the official induction and first few weeks of my PhD programme. I was in Porto Alegre with my mum and my sister, waiting.

I had been provided with a tracking number for the package containing my documents, including my current and expired passports, and the answer to end my agony. I would check the Brazilian postal services tracking system every day, until this one day when I logged on and the status of the package was showing as DELIVERED. Except that I didn’t have it. I rushed downstairs to check the letterbox, only leaflets from restaurants and bills. So I did what a sane person would do and rang the Brazilian mail customer service, a generic number to a central in Sao Paulo. The attendant on the other side helpfully informed me that the package was showing as delivered in their system, which I obviously knew, but kept trying to explain that I didn’t get it. Delivered where, then? I don’t know, madam. Ok, can you give me the contact details to the Porto Alegre distribution centre, please? Sorry, madam, I’m not authorised to do that. Great. Next stop, Google. I called the main distribution centre in Porto Alegre, they said they didn’t have it and gave me the number to another distribution centre. I rang that many times and no one was picking up.

This was a Saturday, so the chances of sorting this out over the weekend were looking increasingly unlikely. I was narrating the saga to friends online, who justifiably wondered how many things could still go wrong with my attempts to move back to Scotland. At this point, I started thinking that either the postie would still deliver the package on that same day, or they had delivered it the day before to a neighbour. I had been out most of the day with my family, so that was possible. I also thought that if that was the case, said neighbour would have given the envelope to me by then, but hey… Saturday mornings.

While I waited, I began thinking… if this envelope was lost, I would have to report 3 passports lost (including the expired ones), ask QMU to re-issue my BA diploma, report my US visa lost and apply for a new one, and then try to find out somehow whether or not I had been issued a UK visa and apply for a new one AGAIN! And get a new passport, obviously. Meaning that would result in a whole year wasted. Granted, it looked like this could be the Brazilian mail system’s fault, but I couldn’t help thinking that all the hassle could be avoided if the UK hadn’t given their visa business to a third-party agent and operated in a similar line to the US, who deliver passports to your nearest consular unit and you just pick it up from there. I never thought I’d speak highly of the USA, but there. Although I only applied for a visitor’s visa with them, my experience was way better.

It was approaching 11am and still no sign of the mail. I was planning to start knocking on doors soon, deeming that an acceptable time. I began to assess my neighbours and the likelihood of them holding my envelope hostage: my favourite neighbour was a retired Art lecturer across the hall, who knew I stayed up late and had my number, so even if he had received the envelope but had to go out or something, he would have sent me a message about it. Next door, a guy I never spoke to much, who seemed a bit odd but not crazy. He wouldn’t have any reason to withhold the package. Downstairs there was an empty flat, a girl I’d never seen, only heard about, and another guy who had passed me in the hall the previous night and said hello – presumably, if he had the envelope, he’d have mentioned it/given it to me then.

I decided to go and camp out downstairs, waiting for the postie. Art lecturer across the hall went out, I told him about the drama, he said he had received a parcel he’d been expecting the day before, but nothing for me. I kept on waiting. Guy next door went out with his dog, said he hadn’t been at home either so he hadn’t received anything on my behalf. I waited some more. Eventually, a random car pulled over and a guy wearing normal clothes came to the front gate holding an envelope. I ran towards him and lo and behold, it WAS MY FUCKING ENVELOPE! Given that this guy was clearly not a postman in service, I believe there was a genuine fuck-up somewhere in their delivery system. But all that stopped being important because I dashed upstairs to open the envelope and find all my documents intact and MY SHINY NEW UK VISA in my current passport! Words can’t describe the relief that overcame me. It was only buying time, but I was finally going home.

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La Niña Barro in Riveramento

After crowdfunding through the 24-Hour Trilingual Poetry Marathon, we managed to fund our mini tour of La Niña Barro to Brazil and Uruguay. As a thank you to the community of my hometowns of Rivera and Santana do Livramento, we did one free performance of the show at the old Livramento railway station, no longer used.

The railway station building dates from 1910 and is a gorgeous example of the architecture of that period. The station was an important link along the international railway connecting Sao Paulo to Montevideo and Buenos Aires between 1943 and 1954, but as a result of the Brazilian railway crisis in the 1980s, the station was one of many being deactivated.  The derelict building was restored in 2012 and re-opened as a cultural centre, hosting films, exhibitions, and music gigs, but it had to be closed again at the end of 2014 due to water damage. The roof was being re-done while we were there and the top floor wasn’t the safest space to be with a large group of people, but the council agreed to let us use the main hall for the performance.

They were also kind enough to let us rehearse at the station during the week and lend us lights and ladders. Throughout the week, in-between rehearsals, we were going to TV and radio interviews on both sides of the border to promote the show. I got increasingly excited and anxious as the week progressed, as this was going to be the first time my family and my birthplace saw a piece that I directed. I mean, we had done Fronteiras Explorers two years before, but that was a different kind of project.

The day of the performance arrived and we were good to go. I was really unsure what to expect… we had a list of confirmed guests put together via facebook, but I wasn’t convinced everyone would turn up. It was a rather chilly night and we didn’t have a foyer/waiting area, so we closed all doors and as Alex and Eli used the last half an hour before the show to get ready and focus, I went outside to wait for the audience. The first person to arrive, very early for our relaxed standards, was this sweet elderly man. He travelled there by taxi and I helped him get out of the cab when I noticed he had a zimmer frame. He was alone and I couldn’t possibly leave him outside waiting in the cold, so I explained that the house was not open just yet, but he was welcome to sit in the security guard’s office near the heater. Other people began to arrive in their own cars, and following the true tradition of the border, when instructed to wait until we could let them in, remained in their cars drinking their mate and chatting to their friends. A nice long queue began to form, and before long, it was clear that we would have a full house.

We opened the doors to an audience of around 80 people, some of whom had to stand in the back or sides, as we didn’t have enough seats. We did not turn anyone down at the doors, but once we closed them and started the performance, there was a handful of latecomers that could not come in. If I had known that the event would be so popular, I would have considered doing two nights.

The number of people attending wasn’t my only pleasant surprise. The reaction was actually incredibly positive. I wasn’t sure how this audience of non-theatregoers would receive a piece which had been censored in Edinburgh and was very different from everything they were used to. I heard complete silence during the piece and saw many tearful eyes at the end. We offered a post-show discussion and were there for another hour. It was so refreshing to have a mature audience (I reckon the average age was later 30s to mid 40s) of regular punters – apart from a couple of arts teachers and local theatremakers, the majority of the people there were not involved in the industry. There was a blind woman who was very touched by the performance, as well as a lovely girl with Down’s Syndrome who told us during the post-show discussion how much she’d enjoyed it. My siblings and my mother were there and were also moved. But the one unforgettable comment, of all the comments and questions we had, was of that sweet elderly man who’d arrived before everyone else and stayed until the very end. He approached me and said he had followed the 24-hour poetry marathon on the radio, as he did not leave the house much due to his mobility problems. When he heard that we had managed to bring the show, though, he said he knew he simply could not miss it and found a way of getting down to the station to watch it.

These are the moments that will always serve as anchors for me to keep doing what I do. It is hard, it is incredibly frustrating at times, but then something like this happens and it suddenly makes everything worthwhile. Thank you Riveramento for this experience.

 

The 24-Hour Trilingual Poetry Marathon

It’s June 2015. On my way back from Sao Paulo to Porto Alegre, I get two pieces of good news:

  1. I have been accepted on the Drama PhD at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, studentship included, and
  2. La Niña Barro has been invited to perform at Perimetral, a showcase of international theatre in Uruguay.

I will write about the PhD on a different post, this one is to focus on item 2 above.

After an eventful opening at Edinburgh Fringe 2014, we have been trying to get the show to as many places as possible, and this was a great opportunity for a wee South American gig. Only problem was, the festival would cover accommodation and food, but not the flights. We wouldn’t receive a fee for the performance either, so we needed to find the cash to offset the travel expenses. Think quick, what can be done?

Our timescale was very tight – only a couple of months to raise the money. This means that we wouldn’t be able to apply for any sort of public funding, in Scotland, Spain, or Brazil. My first idea was to try and find a private sponsor. I feverishly wrote to as many organisations with links to Spain as I could think of in southern Brazil and in Uruguay and finally got a reply from one – the Basque Association of Rio Grande do Sul. I was invited to one of their board members’ office and had a lovely long chat with her about the project. She seemed open and excited about it, but she said the Association itself could not afford to sponsor us. To her credit, she fired some emails around to other friends seeking help, but unfortunately, we didn’t get anywhere with that. Two weeks lost and back to the drawing board.

In the meantime, this idea was brewing in my mind. I have certain reservations when it comes to crowdfunding for theatre, but I was getting desperate and therefore becoming more likely to go against my own principles. It was the only thing we could do at that stage, so I decided to risk an Indiegogo campaign to help us fund the project. We needed to offer something extra to make the campaign appealing, though, and I decided to run with my idea of sitting in a cafe for 24 consecutive hours reading poems in the three languages I can speak. The rationale behind this was simple: I’m good with languages and poetry and at staying awake.

Cue a mad dash to find a venue, find someone to stream it online, promote it like mad, and curate enough poems in Portuguese, English, and Spanish to last me one whole day, which was much harder than I thought. I was so happy to see all the support this stupid idea got from friends all over the world, from my family, and from local businesses in my hometown of Santana do Livramento, where I decided to do it. Lovely folk at Costa Café agreed to host me and stay open overnight for the event, and local newspaper A Plateia provided an excellent streaming service and helped me with the PR.

It was a massive challenge, but so worth it. I was never alone during my marathon – there were no customers in the cafe between 3am and 5.30am, but the staff were there and there were enough people watching and interacting online, via facebook, email, and whatsapp. I had well over 1,000 poems in my selection, but I was flooded with requests, which just made it better. I had a handful of poems written for me, too, and some really emotional moments, including special dedications to dear people who passed away (like my dad and a couple of uncles, and my Brazilian literature teacher), and this sweet old lad who presented me with a book of poems that had been gifted to him by his Latin teacher when he was at school in the 50s. There were also funny moments, like the young girl who was incredibly taken with the whole thing and decided to just stand next to me for a good half hour or so, and the “cursed session”, which started roughly at 2am and went on for a couple of hours, with horror and erotic poetry.

I didn’t feel sleepy at any point and my throat/voice were ok – I had been preparing for it for a few weeks, through a vocal and physical exercise routine and reducing my intake of gluten and dairy. I only had two coffees and one energy drink during the event, but I drank LOADS of water. The only thing I didn’t expect was an incredibly sore tongue! All in all, it was such a great experience, which still resonated for days in the community after it ended, and I am grateful for that.

We kept the Indiegogo campaign going for a few more weeks after the event and managed to raise the money we needed, thanks to our very generous families and friends. Finally, I’ll leave you here with some interesting stats:

* Accesses to the A Plateia WebTV live broadcast: 126,000

* Poems read: 426 (233 PT, 109 EN, 80 ES, 3 IT, 1 Tupi)

* Poets read: 238 (170 M, 60 F, 8 Anon.)

* Most popular poets: PT – Vinicius de Moraes/Florbela Espanca ** ES – Pablo Neruda/Gabriela Mistral ** EN – William Shakespeare/Sylvia Plath

24hcafeepoesia

 

A wee break in Sao Paulo

Sao Paulo is huge. It contains 4 times the population of Scotland in its metropolitan area. I had been there a few times visiting relatives before, but they stay just outside the city, so I hadn’t actually seen Sao Paulo until I visited my friend Leandro in 2012. He lived in the city centre then, and gave me a detailed guided tour of Paulista Avenue and its surroundings – on which he had written his MA dissertation, so I did get a five-star tour indeed.

As per my previous post on applying for a US visa in Brazil, you have to choose a consulate to attend an interview. You can pick from Rio, SP, Brasilia, or Recife. Brasilia and Recife are further away from my native south, and therefore, more expensive. I then opted for SP because it was the closest of them all and friendlier than Rio, in my experience.

Leandro doen’t stay there anymore, and my relatives, as I said above, don’t actually live in Sao Paulo, so I got in touch with a friend who had offered his couch a couple of times before (word of warning: don’t invite me to your house if you don’t mean it, because I WILL turn up eventually!) and decided to take a wee break to enjoy Sao Paulo for a week.

I was staying near the neighbourhood known as Vila Madalena, one of the coolest (albeit hipster-tastic) parts of town, so I took the opportunity to explore it on foot.

Vila Madalena can be quite pricey, but if you’re feeling lush, I do recommend eating at Lá da Venda, a charming retro grocer’s and restaurant with a delicious menu of typical Brazilian food and gorgeous coffee. In fact, if you are a coffee lover, Vila Madalena is packed with the stuff – I also had a coffee stop at Livraria da Vila (a brilliant bookshop) and bought a bag at the Coffee Lab (the funkiest cafe I’ve ever been to) to take home.

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Your own filter coffee served at the table at Lá da Venda

Now, if you’re a bit broke and just fancy a wander, it’s worth getting down to Vila Madalena to see Beco do Batman – an impromptu graffiti gallery outdoors. It’s pretty straightforward to find and you can easily spend a couple of hours there looking at the graffiti made by local artists.

Apart from Vila Madalena, I also went to MASP – Sao Paulo Museum of Art. Again, if you’re travelling on a budget, it’s free on Tuesdays and on Thursday evenings. There will surely be long queues, but they move fairly quickly. You’ll probably have to brave hordes of people taking selfies with the pieces, but once you get past that, it’s worth it, particularly their collection of Brazilian modernist art (I fucking love that shit!).

I was lucky to be in Sao Paulo when the LGBT Pride parade happened – one of the largest in the world, it gathered around 20,000 people this year and it was bloody FABULOUS! Homosexuality is not a crime in Brazil and same-sex marriage is legal, but it’s also one of the countries with the highest rates of violence against homosexual and transgender people (with 13.29 LGBT people suffering some form of violence per day in the country, according to a 2012 study commissioned by the Federal Secretary of Human Rights, available here in full in Portuguese). It was great, then, to be able to witness a day of celebration, which was also marked by intense political protests.

The one thing that left me a bit disappointed was, ironically, the theatre. I took a tour around the Municipal Theatre (an opera house, rather than a theatre), which was stunning, but didn’t attend any shows there. I went round Rooselvelt Square, where the fringe-y theatre types live, but nothing in their programme that week caught my attention. I watched one play that had been highly recommended to me, A Alma Imoral, which was good, but not mind-blowing. I was more impressed by one very simple, yet highly effective, street show by Catalan performer Joan Català, who was participating of the SESC International Circus Festival. What left me a bit disheartened was that I was looking for something that I knew I would not be able to find in the UK or in Europe, something more rooted and unique, but I realised with some sadness that about 80% of what gets put on Brazilian stages are adaptations of European or North American classics. There doesn’t seem to be a culture of new writing in Brazil, and devised theatre seems to be constrained within academic walls.

Other than that, my week in Sao Paulo was excellent. It’s not usually considered a tourist destination (or at least not as popular as Rio and the northeast), but it’s such a great place for a city break. There is loads on offer, and although it is generally more expensive than other Brazilian cities, it’s easy enough to adjust your plans to your budget. The public transport system is rather civilised (compared to the experience in Porto Alegre and Curitiba, for example) and I felt safer walking around there than I do in the south these days.

So there you have it. If you’re planning a trip to Brazil, do consider including Sao Paulo on your itinerary.

 

Couchsurfing

About a week after I came back to Brazil, I journeyed back to my hometown of Santana do Livramento, on the border with Uruguay. My mum and my sister were going to Rio on holiday and I agreed to house and pet-sit. I was quite looking forward to having the house, the dogs and the cats to myself – it would feel like a much needed break. I’ve been freelancing as a translator since I left Scotland in 2012 and although I’ve travelled a fair bit during this time, my life has been so erratic that it’s easy to forget to simply have time off every so often.

Staying at home in Livramento in the summer now doesn’t have the same feel as it did when I was younger, though. Most of my old friends have moved away and the entertainment options are very limited. I tried to organise a group reading of a play, the South American version of a project run by my Edinburgh peers, but no one turned up. It would be a long month, even though it was February.

Then it occurred to me: my couchsurfing profile had been on the “I can’t offer you a couch” mode for a while – what if I turned it back on? I switched it to “yes, I have a couch for you”, thinking no one would request to stay there. People who can locate Livramento on the map are generally just coming from Porto Alegre or other parts of my home state to buy cheap booze, cosmetics and clothes in the Uruguayan duty free shops – not really the couchsurfing type. To my surprise, I received a request a couple of days after that, from an Australian dude.

This poor lad had probably met someone with a wicked sense of humour while visiting Buenos Aires, for this person recommended Rivera/Livramento for a fabulous Carnaval experience. You see… my border isn’t exactly famous for its Carnaval festivities. In fact, we were not even going to have a street party this year. You can imagine why, exciting as it was, his request confused me. I told him he would be welcome, but tried to warn him that he’d be underwhelmed.

It wasn’t a complete disaster after all – Freg was an awesome guy, really easy to chat to, involved with art, theatre and politics. As it happens, Rivera had a bit of action to offer and we managed to see some of their street party with samba and candombe groups. I shipped him away to Rio to see the real thing after a few days, and he drew me this lovely thank you card, showing a pair of candomberos and a funny numbat eating a golden butterfly:

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Transculturalism at its best

Then the requests kept coming in. I never thought Livramento would be this popular. One of the many things I like about couchsurfing is that it attracts the artsy community. So after my Aussie friend Freg, I hosted a pair of lovely Uruguayan backpackers: Alicia, who was just getting started with her travels, and Kobe, a tango dancer and excellent baker. They only stayed for one day, but had great chat.

A few days later and already into March, I got a beautiful birthday present: couchsurfers Rodrigo and Gabriela (no, not those ones), two talented filmmakers based in Curitiba, in the Brazilian state of Paraná. I remember the moment I spotted Gabriela’s big smile outside and (cheesy at this may sound) knew we would become good friends. Again, the time they spent in Livramento was very short, but the hilarity was immense. Rodrigo and Gabriela overlapped with Cristóbal, my last couchsurfer of the season. A music producer hailing from Chile, Cristóbal had been travelling around South America collecting data about each country’s folk music for his Latiendo America project. He’d been to Argentina and Uruguay and decided to enter Brazil through Livramento. I helped him contact local musicians and took him to a radio station to be interviewed about the project, it was all rather cool. He moved on, travelling across Brazil all the way up north and as I type this, he’s on his way to Paraguay.

Some people are a bit suspicious of couchsurfing, but I’ve only had good experiences with it, both hosting people and being hosted by them. I have made new friends, learned about their countries and others they had visited, and have encountered a handful of interesting journeys and projects. In spite of the surprising popularity when I switched my couch back to available, the practice is still not widespread in Brazil. My friends from Curitiba have recently worked on a documentary about their own experience, which might help people trust couchsurfing a bit more over here.

I left Livramento after that month and went back to being in a different place every couple of weeks, so I’ve turned the availability of my couch off until I have a more permanent base again. If you’ve considered using it at some point but weren’t too sure, go for it. It’s a great way of making new connections and expanding horizons.

On Holding it Together

DSCF5622As I walked down the Royal Mile aiming for the fudge shop, it didn’t feel that it was my last day in Edinburgh again. It even felt like it was business as usual later on when my friends and I did a mad dash out to Falkirk to see the Kelpies before I left (which are magnificent, by the way), and after that, when we all had dinner at Toby Carvery in Corstorphine. I wasn’t ridiculously drunk this time and I wasn’t flooding the place with tears, declarations of love and promises to return soon. I was angry, though. I was fuming inside. The however many stages of grief, I suppose. If I keep going back and leaving, it will eventually turn into resignation acceptance.

So I came back to Brazil, I lost and recovered my luggage, I went to the beach for a few days, saw my relatives, etc. And then I had to have a haircut and I freaked out. See, my family and friends are now used to hearing about my struggle with the UK draconian immigration laws, but people who don’t know me aren’t, and the prospect of having to explain the story of my life for the umpteenth time to a complete stranger filled me with dread. Not just having to go over painful details that were now swept under the rug again, but to be seen as a failure. You might say this is not true, but this is how I feel when I start telling the story and people question each one of my moves. I obviously failed as a theatre maker because I didn’t get an Exceptional Talent visa – that means I’m not good at what I’ve chosen to do. I also failed at doing something else because I never got a ‘real’ job that would lead to a work visa – that means I’m not good at anything else. I failed at being a seductress because I didn’t score a British husband/partner that would get me a spouse visa – fuck knows what that means and that’s a different can of worms. I failed at being a smart ass rogue Brazilian and never got a fake EU passport – that means I’m not good at being dishonest. Please understand that I don’t necessarily think those things about myself, but I can see that thought process happening inside the heads of people I talk to.

I still needed that haircut. I kid you not, I rehearsed a slightly different life story at home before booking my appointment. When the inevitable ‘so what do you do’ and ‘where do you stay’ questions came up, I’d tell them I was a freelance translator and lived between Porto Alegre and Livramento, where I often visit to check on my mum. That’s all. Uneventful. I work from home, have few friends, I don’t go out and don’t travel much, only been to Uruguay a few times. Unmarried, two cats. No, never lived abroad, only studied English over here at language schools and then at uni. Yep, that’s it. We’re just trimming the ends today, nothing radical. That’s lovely, perfect. Thanks, bye.

It didn’t happen like that. I can be a good liar, but this whole situation and my angst about it are stronger than me. I ended up telling the hairdresser I lived in Scotland but had to come back for a few months to work on a project. So I managed to avoid the immigration chat, but I couldn’t bring myself to saying I lived in Brazil permanently. Maybe it feels that if I do, I will then be finally giving up and resigning to it. Maybe I just really couldn’t be bothered with the whole saga. In either case, this type of reaction worries me. It probably is only natural in the course to acceptance of a personal tragedy, but it can’t be right for someone to panic because they’ll be asked two ordinary questions at a hair salon. I realise how much of an overstatement that sounds, but trust me, it messes with your head.

I remember a conversation I had once with someone close to me that suffered from actual mental health issues and they asked me what my disorder was, assuming no one is ‘normal’. I said I didn’t have anything, or at least had never been diagnosed, or ever felt the need to be checked over. I have been ‘accused’ by a couple of exes of being ridiculously self-sufficient and aware, and maybe that is an indication of something. I get anxious and sad, but I believe those things happen at a level considered normal – I’ve never stopped functioning as a result of anxiety, sadness or even fatigue. I have no intention of hijacking attention from, or disrespecting people (including friends and family) who really suffer from mental health conditions, and I think I’ve generally been good at handling those (if you are one of my crazies and you’re reading this, I’m sorry if you ever felt I didn’t treat you right, I’m still learning). What I’m trying to say is that, although I didn’t lock myself up at home, I’ve close to having some sort of breakdown a couple of times since this started, and sometimes I’m not sure how I am still holding it together. Maybe self-sufficiency and awareness do come in handy, after all. I’m just not sure if they are everlasting.

What now, José? Joe Gets the Job

What now, José?
The party’s over,
the lights are off,
the crowd’s gone,
the night’s gone cold,
what now, José?

(“José“, by Carlos Drummond de Andrade)

I counted. Between January and November 2014, I applied for 39 jobs (2 in Brazil, 7 in Spain and 30 in the UK). I was only called for 1 interview. I’m still jobless a freelancer.

The Brazilian job market is weird. There are so many rules and regulations that do not benefit either the employer or the workers, only the government. It’s hard to find a job with a good career plan in Brazil, yet people tend to be tied to strict contracts – freelancing is still a reasonably new thing and part-time jobs are practically non-existing. Flexibility isn’t a thing in the land of Carnaval.

I didn’t spend enough time in Spain to have a better idea of how it works there, but they are still trying to crawl out of their big economic crisis and there aren’t that many jobs going – and the few vacancies that you might find will certainly go to Spanish people, they won’t be hiring foreigners at this time.

My UK job hunt met similar obstacles. HR people can swear as much as they like that nationality does not count, it’s only your CV that gets assessed, but I can’t shake off the feeling that the moment I tick the ‘non-EU’ box, that’s my application chucked in the NO pile. I can’t blame them, with all the restrictions imposed on employers as well, it is much easier to hire someone with a similar experience to mine, but who won’t require all the immigration faff.

All that said, I am aware it sounds like an easy way out simply blaming the political and economical context of countries for my lack of a job when the answer could simply be my own incompetence – which could mean either lack of knowledge/experience required for jobs I’ve been applying to, or bad CV/applications writing skills combined with weak powers of persuasion and inability to suck up to the right people. I thought back to the days when I was looking for a teaching job after graduating from my first degree in Porto Alegre and how hard it was for the first couple of months – despite an awesome TEFL CV. I realised I kept telling people at interviews that I was planning to move to Scotland within the next year or so, so they obviously didn’t want to invest on someone about to run away. Once I stopped saying that, I started being offered jobs and ended up working at two good schools (well, there was the Catholic school that rejected me because I revealed my atheism in the interview).

The thing is, I can’t quite figure out what I am doing wrong now, which is where my skepticism of HR neutrality comes from, particularly when I’ve had two near misses, both in Glasgow, when the people on the phone sounded mad keen to have me working with them right away, but were disappointed to find out I wasn’t a EU passport holder and therefore could not hire me due to the Home Office restrictions.

This whole experience reminded me of the story of José Zamora, who was having trouble finding a job in the US until he changed his name to ‘Joe’ on his CV and started getting loads of offers. Paradox, paranoia or coincidence? Open to debate.

The absurdity and the magic of borders

A few weeks after my latest visa rejection, I was invited to a meeting as a guest member of my hometown Cultural Policy Committee. The Brazilian government are trying to implement some big changes to cultural policies nationwide, and it’s meant to start locally, with each council electing a Cultural Policy Committee, which is meant to act as the midfielder between the official Cultural Secretariat and the citizens. As you will know if you know me personally or if you’ve been reading the other posts on this blog, my hometown sits on the border between Brazil and Uruguay, so in addition to the local Committee, border towns should also appoint a Bi-national Cultural Policy Committee. Ours is a bit all over the place, but that is not the point of this post.

The point is that I was invited to integrate a small group of representatives travelling to another border town further south for a 2-day seminar on the cultural integration between Brazil and Uruguay, which was very interesting. Lots of relevant issues were discussed and it was enlightening to hear about projects going on along the border line. One of the most intriguing aspects of the exchanges, however, was to notice how things function in a different way within one single stretch of land. The Culture Secretary of Jaguarao, the town that hosted the seminar, told us how jealous he was of Livramento, my hometown, for having a much easier time organising their book festival. Because Livramento and Rivera (Uruguayan side) merge together and share the International Park, where the festival happens, there is no red tape to go through regarding book sales. Uruguayan and Brazilian publishers can exhibit and sell side by side without any import, tax or exchange faff. Now, there’s a river between Jaguarao and Rio Branco, and a checkpoint on the bridge, which makes it a hell of a lot harder for the Uruguayan booksellers to go through and take part of the festival on the Brazilian side. Instead of just walking up to the spot and setting up shop, they need to deal with paperwork, licences and documents months in advance to be able to cross the bridge with their merchandise, which has resulted in some people loading their books on a dinghy and rowing across to the other side and back, unnoticed under the bridge (but I didn’t tell you that).

That sort of thing made me think of the arbitrary element of borders – the difference a river makes. We are talking about the same two countries here with their respective policies unaltered, but a completely different way of functioning on different spots along the same land boundary. That’s why the relevant agents have been calling meetings like the one we had in Jaguarao: to try and find ways of making our exchanges easier by listening to logic and negotiating.

I agree with Brazilian sociologist Fabio Regio Bento’s argument that a “world without borders” is a utopic and romantic notion, which isn’t necessarily better or more exciting than the world we currently live in. He says that most human experiences happen on the threshold of something – like the ultimate one, between life and death, for example. Liminal places never cease to amaze me, I just would like to see what they can do with fewer restrictions imposed on them.

seminariojaguarao

Livramento reps at the seminar

Singing gauchos

About a week after Sophie left, another accordionist that collaborated with my theatre company came to visit. Gwennie worked with me in Fronteiras Explorers last year, when she first came into contact with the gaucho culture of southern Brazil, Uruguay and Argentina. She became highly interested in this, as someone who works with Scottish folkloric dance and music back in the UK, and wanted to come back to my home state to do a bit of research on the gaucho folk music festivals we have. Her folk group, The Nest Collective, have a radio show in London and her aim was to do a radio special about gauchos, highlighting an aspect of Brazilian culture that is little known abroad – seriously, hands up who doesn’t automatically think of samba, capoeira and carnaval when they hear ‘Brazil’. Our own bloody fault, but yeah… I thought so.

Anyway, she flew to Porto Alegre, where Patricia and I met her. We also met her friend Phil, a photographer that also had an interest in doing some work about gauchos. Phil had decided to take the BUS down from Rio, and after 27 long hours, we picked him up from the bus station and shoved him in the car for another 3 hours to São Lourenço do Sul, where a folk music festival awaited. São Lourenço is a small town south of Porto Alegre, sitting by Lagoa dos Patos, the largest lagoon in Brazil. Despite being historically important and culturally diverse, it isn’t a highly popular tourist destination. Few non-Brazilians know this, but there was a civil war between 1835 and 1845 during which my home state of Rio Grande do Sul declared itself an independent republic from Brazil. São Lourenço was a strategic point during that war, where Italian revolutionary Giuseppe Garibaldi (look him up, he’s a super cool dude) set up his shipyard to build the fleet that would be used against the Empire. In addition to this nautical history, the town also offers an interesting insight into immigrant cultures in this part of Brazil, including the amazing contrast between Pomeranians from Germany, encouraged to migrate to find work in the New World, and Africans brought by the slave trade.

The festival itself, Reponte da Canção, is a long-running event and one of the largest in the area. We watched all three nights of the festival, spoke to a few musicians, organisers, local government representatives, and TV hosts. We were interviewed by the TV guys too, you can watch it here (warning: it’s all in Portuguese). Throughout the weekend, the project became to unfold into several projects, as we discussed the many layers that there are to gaucho culture and traditions – don’t worry, this is way too long a discussion for a blog post and I won’t bore you with that, but feel free to get in touch if that is something you’re interested in.

After São Lourenço, we headed back to Porto Alegre to dig a bit further. We took Gwennie and Phil to the Gaucho Institute of Folklore and Tradition, and to a nearby farm to see some gauchos in action. Phil wanted to see even more action, though, so we ended up heading north to the region of the Italian colonies up the mountains, to the even tinier town of Flores da Cunha for a rodeo (special thanks to Pati and Mateus for being delightful hosts over there).

The state of Rio Grande do Sul is bigger than Scotland. There were other things we wanted to do but didn’t have the time, like going to a mate/chimarrão festival. We managed to gather enough material for a couple of decent projects though, and you can see the first of these here, just published by the BBC. I think we did alright taking the road less travelled there, aye?

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  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.

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