Expat Life

Need to get around Germany but don’t want to cough up a hundred Euros for a one-way plane or train ticket? Get Mitfahrgelegenheit! Meaning “carpool” in German, Mitfahrgelegenheit (roughly pronounced meet-far-guh-LEG-gun-hite) is popular and simple to use, thanks to the website (and Google Translate, considering I have no clue what I’m reading in German 90% of the time). It’s just a matter of searching for a ride between two places at a time that best suits you, comparing options based on the driver’s bio and rating as a reliable user (or not), then meeting at the designated point with cash in-hand and hitting the road. Yes, some measure of blind faith is required, and who knows how likely I’d be to use the system if I were a solo female traveler, but since you usually meet your driver and fellow passengers in a public place, you can address any immediate trepidation by just deciding not to get into the vehicle.

Last week, I mitfahred from Frankfurt to Berlin in a dusty, grey Mercedes minivan with driver and five college students (They looked college age, anyway. We barely spoke beyond initial pleasantries as we were all plugged up to our individual MP3 players). Dude hauled-ass down the autobahn, clocking in at five hours for a normally six-hour drive, with a ten-minute pee/cigarette break. We drove through leafy forests, underneath monstrous industrial windmills, and past Russian-built cargo planes at the Leipzig Airport. We plowed through fog banks and down steep hills and almost sideswiped an 18-wheeler. Halfway to Berlin, the driver stuck his hand back towards us and said in accented English, “Give me my money now, please.” I’m thinking, “Naw, potna. Not until I see a ‘Wilkommen in Berlin’ sign.”

Needless to say, we made it safely, and I’m open to giving Mitfahrgelegenheit another whirl. I just need to memorize the German phrase for “slow the hell down, mannn!” Or am I just getting old?

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Entrance to the Non-Revenue Containment Area at São Paulo's international airport

4:15pm– Arrive at São Paulo’s international airport for your 11:55pm flight to Miami. The standby list opens four hours before departure time and you get there seven hours early so you can be #1, having learned the hard way. It’s a Thursday and you’ve left work early, hoping to beat the weekend rush. And you are #1 for your departure time – theoretically – , but you’re really #6, behind five people who didn’t make the morning flight.

4:20pm – Easy conversation starts to flow between you and your fellow non-revs (i.e. relatives and friends of airline employees who’ve paid a ridiculously reduced fare in order to fly on a space-available basis and are therefore “non-revenue” passengers), and you find out where they’re from (Cuiabá, Goiânia, Fortaleza) and how long they’ve been waiting for a seat (48 hours, 24 hours, 16 hours).

4:25pm – A rowdy bunch from tropical beach town Recife pulls up six-deep, excited and, well, loud. Bless ’em, you all think. They’re insane if they think they’ll all get on the flight together. Everyone signs The List, securing their place according to arrival time, which will be used as a quasi-legally-binding document (because if you disrespect The List, thas yo ass) once the standby list officially opens.

4:30pm – The Non-Rev Containment Area on the ground level of the airport quickly descends into chaos as flights from other parts of Brazil arrive, depositing eager, already-tired folks into the confined space with the low ceiling and the soul-sucking fluorescent lighting. The horror stories start to circulate: a woman and her son have been trying since Sunday to get to Paris. 25 seats were available on the last flight to Milan but no non-revs were boarded. “Usually, it’s the Orlando flights that are booked solid; this is the worst I’ve ever seen for Miami.” Aw shit.

4:31pm – Light-hearted, enjoyable conversations ensue about culture, prices, shopping (EVERYone was flying with an empty suitcase and one clean pair of draws), and “seu português é ôtimo, cara.” Brazilians are hard-wired for unfailing affability and you’ll have 18 Facebook friend invites before you get outta there.

6:53pm – Word works its way through the Miami folks that the ominous-looking redhead who just arrived is an employee – The Employee – who will automatically have priority over everyone else, no matter how long they’ve waited. Word is, she’s also traveling with husband and teenager. She can smell the ire.

6:55pm – Haunches up, everyone queues (love that word) hastily next to their luggage, which has already been queuing silently for a few hours, and the Miami flight opens; 21 non-revs list for a flight with zero seats un-purchased, but that also isn’t overbooked, so there’s hope for a few. Hunger descends like a sledgehammer.

7:25pm – You follow #s 2 and 3 through the labyrinth of hallways in the “employees only” area of the airport to the Employees Only Snack Bar, which has a limited selection of eats priced at near-real world levels (though still one or two reals more than what you’d pay at the corner snack stand). You flirt with a couple of the check-in agents who ask where you work. You laugh nervously, then walk away before they call sekurrity.

9:05pm – Laughs and jokes all around as you get to know your listmates a bit better…the cool-ass couple from Cuiabá who had Sawgrass on the brain, the husband-and-wife jokesters from Belém who could do every regional dance that exists in Brazil, the thick-accented gaúcho businessman who’s skin was turning green because he hadn’t eaten meat all week due to a diet imposed on him by his wife. Mad coolness. Mad Brazilianness.

9:25pm – No non-revs make the Madrid flight. People are not liking that.

9:40pm – Two non-revs make the New York flight, from a list of 15. Campers not happy.

10:15pm – Milan, none.

10:50pm – Miami? None. Not even The Employee, who almost made it.

10:51pm – Furniture moving.

10:52pm – You purchase an over-priced bottle of water at the coffee shop near where you were sitting (you thought somebody had a chair thrown at them, didn’t you?).

10:53pm – The group is advised to try again in the morning at 6:30 for the 10:30am flight. A list is organized by the passengers, as it’s not the airline’s responsibility, to keep things as civilized as possible; you’re still #6. You’re also the only person among the group – besides The Employee – who lives in the city, but if you expect to be #6 in the morning, you better put in the time.

10:55pm – The Orlando people get told there aren’t any seats on the plane.

11:00pm – Nobody gets to Paris, either. Not even the lady and her son. All the people waiting for flights to Europe have another 23 hours to go.

11:05pm – The captain of the Orlando flight comes down to the Non-Rev Containment Area and snags, oh, about 12 people and takes them on his flight. Campers damn shole ain’t happy, now.

11:43pm – You drop into a fitful sleep under the now-very-bright fluorescent lights, supported by your suitcase and a luggage rack. The temperature drops into the upper 40s.

11:53pm – You wake up and squirm around a bit.

12:03am – You wake up and squirm around a bit.

12:13am – You wake up and squirm around a bit.

3:53am – You wake up and squirm around a bit.

4:03am – Fuck it. You get up and start doing some of the work you should have been doing since 4:15pm yesterday.

6:10am – Everyone’s up and the list has grown. There’s anxiety as everyone wonders if someone’s going to try and jump the line (and receive the subsequent beat-down).

6:31am – Listed!

10:29am – The Employee shows up.

10:31am – Zero go Miami way (Nelson-from-TheSimpsons-style “ha-ha” to The Employee & Fam).

10:50am – Numbers 1, 2 and 3 drop out and decide to either stay in São Paulo for a few days or go back to their hometowns. You, the couple from Cuiabá, and the Recife crew say screw dat…we gettin’ to Miami!

12:03pm – Can…barely…keep…eyes…open.

2:03pm – Can…barely…keep…eyes…open.

4:03pm – Your Portuguese is getting good as hell, since you’re getting more practice in one day than you’ve gotten since moving to Brazil.

4:15pm – You’ve hit the 24-hour mark. There’s a gang of people on the list behind you (ha-ha) and the Europe flight wannabes are getting restless in their blazers and skinny jeans.

4:50pm – Shift #3 takes over and the manager gets yelled at by the disgruntled non-revs regarding last night’s Orlando debacle. He tells some kind of lie about jumpseats and whatnot, but he says it so commandingly, people believe him. You, of course, don’t and yell “I’m somebody’s son, too!”

6:20pm – Almost that time…natives, restlessness and whatnot.

6:32pm – Listed #3. No sign of The Employee, though two random old ladies try to Bogart their way up to the front, talkin’ bout they “stayed at the airport for the last three days.” Yet no one from the last day seems to remember these people, lyin’-ass old ladies.

7:20pm – You and the thick-accented gaúcho businessman go for some McDonald’s: you’re craving meat and it’s the cheapest thing in the airport, after the Employees Only Snack Bar. You bond over crazy regional accents in Brazil and the States, him teaching you a few gauchisms and you teaching him how to say “Pahk yo kah aht in na yahd” the way you say it in Nawf Flah-da.

8:20pm – Tired, exhausted, fatigued, and worn out, everybody waits, trying to avoid even having to consider a Plan B, but considering one anyway. The fourteen possible seats have been whittled down by half.

9:25pm – A few people make the Milan flight, but there’s shade because the dancing couple from Belém don’t make it, though they were slated to. Something about people in the line behind them knowing someone who knows the captain’s cousin’s sister’s best friend’s former roommate. Frowns all around.

9:28pm – In a somewhat botched attempt to quell the swelling angst among the masses, one of the ground staff members says, basically, if a captain comes down and chooses his cousin’s sister’s best friend’s former roommate over the 15 people ahead of her in line, she will indeed get to board and there is nothing you can do about it, bwa-ha-ha-haaaaaaaaaa!!!!!

10:40pm – The gaúcho makes Frankfurt and the lady and her son get Paris. Everybody cheers.

10:55pm – Success! You, the couple from Cuiabá, and one of the Recife 6 make the cut! But weren’t there supposed to be seven spaces on the list?

10:56pm – Saying goodbye to six or seven of your newly-minted friends does indeed suck, but all good things must come to an end; onward and upward, literally.

11:02pm – The Employee and Family are spotted passing through exit immigration. They didn’t even bother to come downstairs, the sneaky fiends! It’s all good, though…you’re finally off to Miami.

Epilogue – You help the cool-ass couple from Cuiabá change their rental car plans upon arrival at MIA, switching from Portuguese to English to Spanish and screwing it all up. They give you a ride to meet your peeps up in Fort Lauderdale. That’s what friends are for!

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The Wind Done Gone, but not everywhere.

I have help; I’ve had it since moving to South America six years ago. There’s a saying round these parts: “You either have a maid or you are a maid.” In my case, it’d be a doorman or handyman or whatnot. Either way, with the daily rate for a housekeeper being an exploitative R$60 (US$37), having help isn’t really seen as a luxury down here. I think of it as job creation. I don’t even want to know how much – or little – the nannies make.

I’ve always paid the help as far above the going rate as I could, considering a) just because I can exploit a segment of the population doesn’t mean I should, and b) most of the help in general consists of black/brown women with kids struggling to pay tuition at a private school so that their kids don’t end up as maids or servicemen themselves, ergo I empathize with the help. As I’ve said on this blog before, had it not been for an Anglo-American slaver bringing my ancestors this side of the Pond, the help could easily have been my mother, sister, aunt, grandma, etc. People here insist that I pay too much, that I “spoil” the help. Yet these same people don’t think twice about requesting raises from their bosses.

My help have always, always been honest, intelligent ladies who have left 100-real bank notes they found balled up in my shirt pocket flattened and pressed on the kitchen table in plain view. They’ve been meticulous housekeepers, and sometimes, expert cooks. My help has better budgeting skills than I do, never complaining even once when I’ve had to miss payment one week because of my own foolishness. The help doesn’t really get a lot of respect, either: “A smart maid is a secretary.” God bless my help.

Hats off to Señora Gladys, Teresa, Diva, and Rosa. Unfortunately, you’ll never know just how much your help means to any country’s “economic miracle.”

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Andre Kenji/Flickr

It’s 2AM on Saturday morning and you leave the club early because you’ve had a long-ass week at work and you’re tired and you just want everybody to shut the hell up already and go to sleep. You work your way past the line of partiers, in various states of inebriation, waiting to go in while you’re going out. Your ears thump with the muffled beat of the pop and house music playing upstairs as you break through the sweaty brightness of the club entrance and into the smoky chill of the dark, damp downtown streets.

A haggard-looking woman sells packets of gum and the Halls throat lozenges popped like candy in Brazil and a bus passes by, the tires making a splashing sound on the pavement as it moves, all lights and noise and a pair of dozing passengers. You could use some IHOP right about now.

You head towards home, a twenty-minute walk away, down almost-empty streets that yawn emptily into the speckled darkness ahead. Six hours before, the streets buzzed with couriers and executives and touts and vagrants. Now, only the vagrants remain, bedded down under lumps of cardboard and rags, steeling themselves against the chill of night. One or two other tired souls pass by, staggering home like you, from work and/or play. The streetlights glow weakly against the black on smoke on slate on charcoal on gray tones of night, the cracked sidewalks undulating with the almost-imperceptible breath of the city and endless rows of towers standing sentry with thousands of dark, mute windows. It takes a few seconds before you realize that you’re holding your own breath.

Up ahead, laughs and music from the corner lanchonete pierce the solitude as weekday working stiffs treat their ladyfriends to pre- or post-club golden fried goodness. You inhale, then consider stopping for a quick coxinha and a Coke. But you keep walking instead, warmed by the thought of just how much you love this goddamned city.

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FUNC - PREFEITURA DE SÃO LUIS

These whirling women lead rituals during the syncretic Festival of the Divine Holy Spirit, a tradition in the northeastern Brazilian state of Maranhão. They’re here in São Paulo for one week  (everything comes here). The elderly lady who opens the video is in her 80s! She was being possessed by the orixá, an African spirit manifested in Afro-Latin religions such as Vodun, Santería, and Candomblé. Somewhere in there, you can hear me say ‘Amen,’ cuz they was havin’ church, y’all.

Sorry about the craptastic quality of my camera. I’m working on it. You still get the picture. 😉

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Ramón Casero/Flickr

•    Everything is so clean.
•    Everything is so cheap.
•    There are indeed a few loud, obnoxious American douchebags. Conversely, most Americans are friendly, polite, and helpful.
•    Products come in too much unnecessary packaging.
•    The weather couldn’t be any more pleasant than in Northeast Florida in spring.
•    At 72, my mother is age-defying.
•    The McNamara Terminal at Detroit Metro Airport is off the hook (see image above). Motown, baby.
•    I remain deeply ambivalent about Wal-Mart’s (very handy) extra low prices.
•    The fruit looks unnaturally unblemished.
•    Tyler Perry continues to degrade the race and proffer pure d. coonery in the name of “success.”
•    The TV news is still slanted heavily towards inconsequential drivel while the country unravels socially, economically, and politically.
•    My faith that “the people” are informed enough to make wise electoral choices remains nil.
•    No free in-coming cell calls sucks!

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Feeling uninspired these days? Want to travel, but can’t? Eat Pray Love just not looking all that relatable to your demographic? Then check these out on DVD: four of my favorite black expat films, each one detailing an experience that I can relate to one way or another, from running away to running towards. The pickins might be slim when it comes to celluloid reflections of my particular, culture-specific type of experience, but what’s available ain’t exactly something to sneeze at.

Passing Strange (2008) – This phenomenal rock/soul Broadway production traces the true-to-life path of composer/playwright Stew, who left a place in middle-class LA in the early 80s to find “the real” in Amsterdam and Berlin.

Trailer:

The Josephine Baker Story (1991) – Lynn Whitfield turned in an Emmy-worthy performance in this HBO Original biopic about the first black (or any color, really) international superstar. An incredibly underrated film.

Trailer:

Mahogany (1975) – Proto-Beyonce Diana Ross stars as an aspiring fashion designer from South Side Chicago who makes it big first as a model in Rome, then as a designer, while being torn between her career and her love for fly politician Billy Dee Williams.

Trailer:

The Nephew (1998) – Hill Harper plays a mixed-race American kid who goes to Ireland in search of his relatives after his mother dies. As the Lone Negro, he’s at once cool and threatening. How many of us can relate to that?

Sorry, I couldn’t find a trailer, folks.

Netflix anyone? Any other suggestions (NOT Karate Kid neither!)?

Please don’t forget to follow me on Twitter @FlyBrother, and “like”
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Folha de S.Paulo

Through all the color and pageantry of seven samba schools competing for the top prize on the first night of São Paulo’s Sambadrome competition, one dark and controversial issue reared its head in the most beautiful and touching ways. The Acadêmicos do Tucuruvi samba school (less a school in the traditional sense than a Carnival parade organization) chose to honor migrants from Brazil’s Northeast as their theme for this year’s competition: São Paulo, Capital of the Northeast. They received threatening emails because of that choice.

See, the Brazilian Northeast is basically the cultural and historical equivalent of the American South – a former slave-holding society with some of the worst quality-of-life indicators, including famine, poverty, illiteracy, malnutrition, and teenage pregnancy. Because of these ills, millions of nordestinos (Northeasterners), particularly from the drought-stricken zones of the interior, migrate first to cities like Salvador, Recife, Fortaleza, and Natal before trekking thousands of miles to the industrial centers of the Southeast, most notably, São Paulo. Here, they work as maids and construction workers, nannies and security guards. They are almost invariably mixed with African and indigenous blood, and those who come from the worst situations are typically shorter because of nutritional deficiencies during their childhoods.

Many nordestinos inhabit the slums on the outskirts of town, spending two hours, one-way, on public transportation to get to their minimum wage jobs. They are often referred to as “lazy,” “stupid,” and “slow,” and are often associated with an increase in crime. “Nordestinos” were to blame, according to many conservative paulistanos, for Dilma succeeding Lula (incidentally, a nordestino) as president of Brazil, evidenced most dangerously by a pea-brained law student who Tweeted that people should just “kill a nordestino.” “They live in packs. They’re dirty. They play loud music all the time and whenever there’s two of them, there’s a party.” Hm, that last one sounds like the stereotype of all Brazilians to me.

And it’s this hypocrisy that most annoys me about the whole nordestino issue, as if the immigrant ancestors of 80% of São Paulo’s population came to the city because they enjoy smog. They came here – from Italy, Portugal, Germany, Spain, Japan, Syria, Lebanon – to escape famine and poverty in their own countries, helping to swell the city proper’s population from 300,000 to 11 million in a century, and now want to deny that same opportunity to others. They seem to forget the fact that even the original Portuguese settlers were the second sons, criminals, miscreants, outcasts, and other assorted ne’er-do-wells from the old country. Let’s not get it twisted.

Acadêmicos do Tucuruvi courageously honored a demographic that suffers from harsh generalizations and broad discrimination on top of the physical and mental damage done by poverty. They honored it with floats depicting folkloric Brazilian art and gastronomy (all of which stems from the Northeast) and the city’s main cathedral as seen through the eyes of a recently-arrived migrant. They honored it with costumes depicting weary parents trekking thousands of miles to provide better lives for their children, folkloric festivals that are popular throughout the country, and the various musical rhythms Brazil is known for. They honored it in the touching lyrics of their samba:

Sou cabra da peste
Vim lá do Nordeste
São Paulo é minha capital
Levando alegria, eu vou por ai
Eu sou valente! Sou Tucuruvi!

Loosely translated:
I’m a bold, brash mofo
Come from the Northeast
São Paulo is my capital
Bringing happiness, I’m headed there
I’m valiant! I’m Tucuruvi!

Hearing the song over and over again as beautiful, multi-hued paraders reveled in a culture that grew over the centuries from regional to national, watching clay-covered migrants playfully sputtering through the Sambadrome in a rickety old bus with suitcases on top, I felt a wave of recognition and understanding wash over me. As a black man, a Southerner, an immigrant, an expat, an American, I know what it’s like to be stereotyped and unappreciated, even as my culture is being appropriated by the very people who revile me. I choked up for a minute and, standing in the middle of all the frenzy and glee taking place in the Brazilian city with the largest population of nordestinos, the city I love, I felt a couple of tears. The very last line of the samba: “Reconheço meu valor.”

“I recognize my worth.”

Bless you, Acadêmicos do Tucuruvi.



For still photos, click here.

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Sunset from Galipán, Venezuela

Being a writer is like being a born-again Christian. Everyday, you have to rededicate yourself to the overall endeavor. Sometimes, especially in the face of temptation and distraction, that rededication takes mountains of faith. So here I am, faithful and rededicated – again. Let’s see how long it lasts.

Writing isn’t the only endeavor that requires rededication, however. Moving abroad hardly ever turns out to be the endless vacation envisioned upon first visiting a place on vacation (try to say that three times quickly in succession). People who seemed proactively amenable to assisting with any need suddenly disappear. Things that were supposed to cost one price end up being double with unannounced taxes factored in. Offices keep strange hours and functionaries take four-hour lunch breaks. The paperwork alone is a bitch. There’s the isolation that comes with local holidays when everything’s closed and everyone’s with their families. There’s the lack of understanding from people who don’t get that just because you live overseas, it doesn’t mean you’re not working a 9-5, or have shitty co-workers, bills, traffic, and overall fatigue to deal with. There’s the anxiety that comes with being unsure if you’ve made “the right” decision – the “right” decisions – since there’s no playbook; you’re the trailblazer, the rebel, so you have no one else to blame if you fuck up.

And that’s when the faith steps in. Faith that I’m not making the “right” decisions, but decisions that were the best I could make at the time and being okay with that. Faith that, through the bureaucracy and hassles, through the isolation and disappointment, through the fear and anxiety, I’m living where I want to live, where I’ve wanted to live, for the longest time. Faith that, in spite of anything and everything that might happen, I’m leading an interesting, extraordinary life. A life nothing short of adventurous.

Be adventurous. And know that it’s never too late to rededicate yourself to any endeavor.

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A View from the Crib

So, I’ve settled into a new one-bedroom apartment in Downtown São Paulo. The place has character: huge rooms, high ceilings, French doors leading out to a small terrace where I can sit and write (theoretically), with my feet being massaged on top of the clothes dryer. My street is one of those formerly-grand boulevards gone to seed, complete with prosties and crackheads (think ’70s Times Square). In fact, twice, I was propositioned on the sidewalk in front of my building by unscrupulous and sordid characters. It’s all novel-worthy, if anything.

Here is the view from my living room, at night and in the day. Come visit…I’ll protect you from the crackheads!