Seventeen Days


IMG_3232 (1)I have been in Brazil for seventeen days today! It feels like a century. When I come home I fall into bed and sleep and then I can’t remember what happened the previous day even though everything and then some happened. I could say that four million more times but it wouldn’t make it any less true.

Virna’s daughter came in town from São Paulo with a friend of hers to take a test to be a judge. I met her on Friday, and then again on Saturday when I went to lunch with Virna’s family. Virna has an incredibly smart family. Virna herself is a lawyer and works for some sector of the government.

Her youngest daughter, Livia, is a lawyer, studying to be a judge.

Her oldest daughter has a pretty interesting story. She was a Rotary exchange student like myself when she was sixteen and went to Germany. When her year was over, she decided that she wanted to stay in Germany since the education system is better (or something, I didn’t completely understand) and took a language proficiency test, passed, and now has dual citizenship in Germany and Brazil. She’s lived in Berlin ever since, and is now a doctor.

Virna’s niece, Natalia, is a lawyer and currently studying for her masters in law. She has a boyfriend who she will probably marry in the next year (I’m not certain about this, but that’s what Virna told me. She also told me that nobody really knows but it’s basically expected that they will marry soon since they have been talking about it forever.) The boyfriend is a doctor who is specializing in gynecology.

Virna’s boyfriend has been interviewed for a published article in the New York Times and is a sociologist.

And those are the only people I have asked about.

Anyways, before we went to lunch on Saturday, Virna, Viveca, and I went to a park where there was some kind of fitness festival and dance party. Viveca is Virna’s older sister. It was in a park that was kind of outside of the city and has a huge observatory that you can go into to see a view of the city. Unfortunately, the observatory was closed, but you can still get pretty high up and have an incredible view.

The dance party was kind of cool to watch, but really hard to dance in if you haven’t grown up with these dances since you can walk. I mostly watched. They all know the moves to the dances like we know the steps to the Electric Slide or the Cupid Shuffle, except these dances were WAY harder and a lot less intuitive. Also, they had a kind of different dance for every different song, but there were two people in the front demonstrating, and then people caught on. My favorite part was when Uptown Funk by Bruno Mars came on and everyone went crazy and danced their hearts out. It was really fun to watch.

After the fitness festival turned dance party, we went to lunch on Saturday with the family. Lunch is the meal that everyone meets together, comparable to dinner in the United States. This time lunch was at my host-grandmother’s apartment. Before it has been at my aunt’s apartment, and in various restaurants during the week. Natalia speaks pretty excellent English, but for the most part I just hang around and listen. These lunches are fun even though I don’t understand a lot of what they are saying. It reminded me of the Montgomery family, because they got into some heated debate regarding law and the government. That’s about all I could understand from what they were saying. Sometimes they stop to tell me the bare bones of what is happening, but that it isn’t often. I still wasn’t bored, though.

After the meal, I met the husband of Virna’s mother (I’m going to call her my grandmother since it’s easier). He is 95 years old, while my grandmother is in her late seventies. They have been married for fifty some years though. He is not the father of Virna and Viveca (Virna’s sister) because their biological father died when they were very young. But, for all intents and purposes, he is the grandfather. He mainly sleeps all day in the bedroom, and everyone goes to say hi/goodbye to him when they are getting ready to leave.

He is funny since I can’t understand what he is saying due to some slurred and mangled Portuguese, but he mentions Obama every time I see him and can’t remember that we have met before.

Speaking of President Obama, he is loved loved loved by the people here. They all mention him when I say I am from the United States. It makes my Democratic party soul sing because they love Obama more than the average person I meet on the streets in the United States. I had to move to a different country to find people who like my president. (I also went to a high school that had a mainly conservative student population, so I’m a bit biased.) They tell me that Obama is better than their president. My classmates were telling me a bit about the corruption in Brazilian politics, and the first thing they said was, “Our president is corrupt. Not like Obama. Obama is good.” Also, everyone seems so relieved that I am also a supporter of Obama since they know how divided American politics can be.

We talk to the grandfather, and then we said goodbye to each other. Brazilian goodbyes remind me of Montgomery goodbyes since everyone announces that they are leaving, and then we all hug and kiss each other, and then we drink another coffee and have another conversation, and then we hug and kiss each other again, and then we finally leave.

Instead of leaving completely, though, Virna and I just went down a few floors to Viveca’s apartment and watched Netflix and drank more coffee and coke and wine. It was fun. The shows are in English with Brazilian subtitles.

Chen’s birthday was on Sunday, and he threw a party. However, nobody knew what time the party was. Chen is the exchange student from Taiwan. Regarding the fact that nobody knew what time his party was, I must tell you that that is so typically Brazilian that you don’t even realize how normal it is. The eight exchange students have a Whatsapp message group, and yet two of us missed the memo that the party started at eleven am, not three pm.

Claire and Virna having some coconut water.
Claire and Virna having some coconut water.

Because I thought the party started at three instead of eleven, Virna, my grandmother, Viveca, and I all went to Ponta Negra beach, which is just on the other side of the city from where we live. That’s where I went Paddleboarding last weekend. We sat in some chairs along the ocean and drank coconut water and they ordered some food for lunch. However, the fish was bad. I’m not exactly sure how Virna could tell since it was fried, but regardless, the fish was bad. Apparently it is illegal to cook directly on the beach, and when Virna asked where the food was coming from, they told her a different restaurant every time she asked. So she refused to eat the fish and Viveca and Virna and some guy had a very loud and angry conversation about it. Virna was really mad since she still had to pay for the food even though it wasn’t good food in her opinion. I have no idea if this is true or not, but I’m guessing it is, since everyone has told me to be wary about the food you eat on the beach and to always ask about it before you order.

Then we went to a different restaurant on the complete opposite side of the town, and after we had finished eating, Natalia showed up and started eating too. We talked and hung out with her. During lunch, Viveca and Virna were talking about the education system in Brazil, again reminding me of the Montgomery family. The students here in Brazil do not write at all. All of their tests involve multiple choice and the classes are simply lecture with no work attached with the exception of math. They don’t learn critical reasoning. They don’t have to defend their thinking by writing essays. Virna and Viveca told me during lunch that they also don’t learn about personal health and government, even though there are history and geography classes. This is not the case in Brazil. All of the classes they take lead up to a test that they take when they graduate. The test determines whether they are accepted into university or not. While I’m not sure which system is better, I do think that critical thinking is a skill that is needed if you ever want anyone to make informed choices on voting, the government, etc. In the state of Colorado, it is mandatory for every high school student to take a health class and Colorado government in order to graduate.

IMG_3235 (1)During the lunch, someone called Virna and told her that Chen’s party had actually started at eleven, but they hadn’t done the cake yet if I still wanted to come. We hustled to the hotel that Chen’s host mom manages and made it in time to eat cake and tell Chen happy birthday. I still had fun because I got to hang out with my school friends and my exchange friends, even if it was only for a little bit.

IMG_3236 (1)Manu, the host mom of Chen, invited me to come paddleboarding with her and Chen and Eric after the party at Ponta Negra like we did the previous weekend, and I accepted. However, this is Brazil, so while Manu and Eric’s host mom probably knew of the plans, Eric had no idea what was going on. All of the exchange students, led by Veera and Eric, wanted to go do something together after the party, like going to the mall just to hang out. We don’t see each other all together that often, especially Veera, since she lives on the outskirts of the city and doesn’t go to the same school as the rest of us. We tried asking Manu what was going on, but she just blew us off, and then we asked her if there was any way we could hang out together at the mall, and then she proceeded to give us a talking to about how the Brazilian way of life works, because apparently we have no idea.

She told us that in Brazil, Sunday is family day, so no we could not go to the mall, and that we had to hang out with our families since we hadn’t seen them all week. She said that if we had wanted to hang out, we should have done it on Saturday, but today was Sunday, and that she had plans with her family, and that Eric and Claire were coming along too. While I got her point, I thought that she was very judgmental of us, since all of us see our families all the time. I spent all day Saturday hanging out with Virna, as well as Sunday morning, and how was I spending time with my family if I was going to Ponta Negra with Manu? Veera’s host parents apparently do not work, so she spends all of her free time with her family. The other exchange students had similar reactions, but we decided not to push it.

It ended with Eric, Chen, and I going paddleboarding in Ponta Negra. After we went paddleboarding, we stopped by Haven’s house. I have no idea why. Again, this is Brazil. What I do is get in the car and just accept everything that comes. If you think one thing is going to happen, it probably will, along with a few other things. Manu had a talk with Haven and his host parents about I’m not sure what, while Chen and Eric and I went and messed around with a basketball and kicked a soccer ball around. We had fun, but it was eight pm and we were all starving and the only real thing the three of us wanted to do was eat and sleep, after a full day of swimming in the ocean and parties, etc.

I am glad I’m not the only person who wants to pass out from exhaustion after these packed days, since Chen and Eric were just as dead as I was. I don’t know how Brazilians do it. Virna is very suited for my personality since she goes to bed at 9:30 or 10 every night and doesn’t drag me around to people’s houses at 8 without making sure I have eaten.

Finally, Chen, Eric and I made the executive decision that we were just going back to the house even though they had kicked us out, and we are happy we did because that’s when the pizza arrived. After we ate, we played video games and hung out some more (this time with Haven) while Manu talked with Haven’s host parents. We were so tired that we barely talked and hanging out meant us mostly sitting together staring into space.

I got home at around ten and just went to bed immediately. It was a fun day, but an exhausting day.

Exchanging host flags at the Rotary Club of Natal Tirol (not my real club).
Exchanging host flags at the Rotary Club of Natal Tirol (not my real club).

On Monday, I went to my first Rotary meeting. There has been some confusion as to which club I’m in. On my guarantee form, it says I am in Rotary Club of Natal. I told that to my fellow exchangers, and they all said that there is no such thing, and that there are only four Rotary clubs in Natal. Virna told me I was in Rotary Club de Natal do Sul, but when I went to my first meeting last week, it was Rotary Club of Natal Tirol. I gave the flag of Rotary Club of Aurora to the club’s president, Daladiana. And then Virna told me that she figured out that my real club is Rotary Club of Natal, the one that the other exchange students thought didn’t exist. Shows you how much they know, since there are actually seven clubs in the city, not four. I think I will be going to one or two meetings a month. My club is very traditional and they meet at 12:30 every Monday and eat lunch and have their meeting. I don’t know what they talked about, since it was too fast. The only interesting thing is that you are presented to the club president and exchange club flags. Luckily, I had more than one flag to give from Rotary Club of Aurora. They also gave me my allowance, which is R$200 a month. Thank you, Rotary!

Virna went to Recife on Tuesday morning for work, so I spent Tuesday night with Dona Fatima at the apartment.

IMG_3294Wednesday at school was a fun day since the students in my class threw a surprise going away party for our history teacher, who is changing schools. Everyone (except the exchange students who missed the memo) brought food and drinks cheered when he walked into the class. The entire class was spent taking selfies and eating and talking. The history teacher talked to the class too and there were girls crying (no boys cried, because they are too manly and cannot be degraded to such a position) and then everyone gave the teacher a huge group hug. I kind of felt like I was intruding since everyone was very sad to see him go, when I’ve only known this guy for a week and a half and have only spoken a few words with him, and yet the girls around me were sobbing. At least the food was good.

Entire class selfie.
Entire class selfie.

I spent Wednesday night at Jeanne’s house. Jeanne is the girl from France. Jeanne lives on the other side of the city but she still comes to Henrique Castriciano for school. Jeanne’s family is really nice. Their daughter is in Golden, Colorado, USA for her Rotary youth exchange.

While I really didn’t enjoy it that Virna was gone, I think that this is one of the best things that has happened to me this far since I was forced to speak in only Portuguese, while when I’m with Virna I speak in Portuguese and then can lapse into English if I don’t know how to say something. Dona Fatima and Jeanne’s host parents don’t speak any English whatsoever, and this really threw me into the Portuguese gear. When Virna got back today, I just started speaking Portuguese with her, and I didn’t really think anything of it, but she nearly fell over and told me how happy she was that I’m actually speaking Portuguese! It’s not right, and really slow, and I have to stop for words and restart sentences since I realize I can’t finish the one I was speaking, but it’s still Portuguese and it’s a start! This is week three! Imagine week four!

In school, there are some people that don’t know how to speak English at all, and some people who speak amazing English. The people who speak English in my class have told me that they are going to stop speaking English to me since I need to learn how to speak Portuguese. My new favorite phrase is “please repeat slower.”

Outside of my class, people flock towards me so they can practice their English. They tell me about their visits to the States and are so happy to have someone to practice with. My hair is a very hot commodity, and people love to touch it. I don’t think that they think it’s really real until they stroke it and pull it and make sure that it’s actually attached to my head. A lot of people just have thirty second conversations before they leave, because they are too shy to say anything else. I have learned a thousand people’s names and forgotten all of them since I only had a thirty second meeting with most of the people that I meet. Eric was complaining to me about all of the attention today (he’s from Finland), but I’m happy to give out my name and have people touch my hair.

On that note, I swear that the entire city knows who all of the exchange students are. Either that, or my blonde hair and light skin are dead giveaways. Today Eric and Chen and I were waiting outside of the school gate for Eric’s mom to pick us up, when a guy on a motorcycle pulled up and said that we were exchange students so we needed to wait inside the school boundaries because who knows what will happen outside of the school grounds. While at least we are in the school grounds the school is still responsible for us. None of us had ever seen the guy in our lives before. Also, to be fair, I have blond hair and blue eyes, as does Eric, and Chen is Asian, so maybe that’s how he knew we don’t come from Brazil.

And speaking of people worrying about us being in danger, it’s kind of ridiculous and terrifying at the same time. Ridiculous because sometimes I think people worry too much. For example, I’ve stood in that same spot outside of the school gate every day after school waiting for Virna and have never been mugged/knifed/I don’t know what they are expecting. The school is next to a police station. Terrifying because the constant warnings about Natal being a very dangerous place and that we can’t leave the house alone, etc. have gotten into all of our psyches and freaked us out a little, since if everyone says it, then it must be true. Some days I walk to school with Lana, one of Virna’s cousins that lives in the apartment next door, and on the way there we take one road, and on the way home we take a different road because the first road is dangerous at that time of day. Lana walks everywhere, so I believe her.

I think all of us, but especially Chiara and Eric and Jeanne who have been here for two months, are going a little stir crazy since they can’t just leave their apartments when their families aren’t home. This is a very different lifestyle than we are all used to since in our home countries, most of us could either walk everywhere or had a driver’s license and could go places without our parents worrying that we would be involved in some sort of street violence. Our neighborhoods at home are safe to walk in or we live in small towns where nobody drives. In the outbound orientation, I was warned that we probably wouldn’t have as much freedom as we are used to, but I didn’t realize how true it is. There is public transportation here, but we aren’t allowed to use it until we have been here for three months and know more of the language, so we are driven everywhere.

I was also warned that I would probably pick up weight since the food would be really good. So far, my pants have only gotten bigger. I think the food is fine, but it’s really boring and bland. There is absolutely no spicy food. Every meal involves some variation of rice and beans. I crave spicy food so much. Last night I had a dream about some nice spicy curry. I woke up so disappointed. Tabasco just made it to Brazil, and it is sooo exotic, you have no idea.

The only other thing to report is that I have an ear infection. I think it is from swimming in the ocean, because the last time I had an ear infection I lived in Mexico two blocks away from the beach. I’m now on meds, and went to a doctor to get diagnosed and the prescription. The doctor is apparently a friend of Virna’s, so the visit was free. I think it would have been nearly so regardless, since most of healthcare in Brazil is free. The medication was a total of R$30, or $8 USD. Lovely country. I need to ask about insulin because I’m sure it’s cheaper here and that way my parents don’t have to ship me more.

Thanks for reading!

7 comments / Add your comment below

  1. Mercy! I’m exhausted just reading this, no wonder you’re zonked at the end of the day. I love all the news and your thoughtful and humorous take on your experiences. And apparently Diane’s mom is Brazilian. Or maybe a Montgomery. Or both. Anyway, how great to be in a place where visiting and human connection are so highly valued that goodbyes take forever. Thanks for the updates!

  2. Amazing adventures, Claire! You are great at journaling and really bring the feel of the place to us. If you get a chance, find out what “studying to be a judge” is all about. In the U.S. there is no such course of study. Once you are a judge you may get sent to a one week judge’s school, but that’s about it.

    I am prone to ear infections, too. No fun. I think you can get ear drops which you use after swimming to dry out the ear. That may make you less susceptible.

  3. Now you know why babies sleep so much! Trying to take everything in, learn a language, doing new things all the time, figuring out who people are, trying to explore and yet know what’s safe, new food, etc., etc., etc. Sounds like you are learning a lot and are making friends. Love you! Elizabeth

  4. I won’t reply much…but want you to know how much I LOVE reading about your adventures and non-adventures and every day happenings. So proud of you deciding to jump into Portuguese, ready or not!! You and your fellow world travelers will make our world a better place.
    Love you,

  5. I’m so glad you know a gynecologist now! That was keeping me up at night. Ha ha. Anyhoo, I think you are right that the Montgomery family are secretly Brazilian. Plus, I’m very impressed with the amount of caffeine you are taking in, which is obviously helping you stay awake for your very busy schedule. You are going to have serious withdrawal at some point. Let us know what you find out about the insulin

    Keep those cards and letters coming! Love, Mom

  6. It sounds to me that you totally lucked out in the family department. (And by family, clearly I mean your brazilian family. But of course your biological family is awesome too.)

    I loved this: “We talk to the grandfather, and then we said goodbye to each other. Brazilian goodbyes remind me of Montgomery goodbyes since everyone announces that they are leaving, and then we all hug and kiss each other, and then we drink another coffee and have another conversation, and then we hug and kiss each other again, and then we finally leave.”

    Ok…I’m curious: is Brazilian coffee different from USA coffee? And have a coconut water for me…yum.

  7. Claire, great hearing from you. We loved getting your email and look forward to hearing from you again soon. Everything is still the same here in Virginia and we are doing fine. Stay Safe! Love, Gmom and Gdad……..

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.