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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Last week, the good people over at TV Cultura, one of Brazil’s most respected public television networks, came to the Time Out São Paulo offices to see how we do things at the year-old local branch of the London-based entertainment and culture magazine. I was picked to represent our fair publication, and the crew followed me on an outing to the Museu da Imagem e do Som (Museum of Image and Sound) to update our review of the place. Our publisher talked about the importance of having Time Out in a burgeoning world city like São Paulo and my editor-in-chief seduced the crew with her take on how the city reveals itself to you, slowly.

The entire video is in Portuguese (with no subtitles yet – sorry), but essentially, I talk about the sections that I cover as assistant editor of the magazine, including music, nightlife, and travel. As an editor, I hardly ever leave the office during business hours, so I assumed the role of ‘reporter’ for the piece. We joked about me taking public transportation and how sometimes that’s the best way to meet Paulistanos and interact with the city. At the end, I talk about how I’ll go back to the office and compare my notes with what we’ve already got, screwing up a bit of the tongue-twisting Portuguese grammar in the process.

A bit of behind the scenes trivia: When we were taping in front of the MIS, someone shouted “It’s a lie!” from a passing car, hehe.

So, hope you folks enjoy my first foray on Brazilian TV:

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Me (with hair), El Rey Noé, y la Diosa del Caribe Colombiano

I’m not as religious as my moms raised me to be, but I’ll say that when I think about the many people that I have in my life – worldwide – who I can truly call friends, the only thing I can really call myself is blessed. I lived in Bogotá, Colombia, for 18 months back in 2006 and 2007, working at a university and sinking into the surprisingly-diverse cultural life of the Colombian capital, high in the Andes. It’s a chilly place, and at over 8,000 feet in altitude, often gray and rainy and cold and solitary. But on many a Sunday, I found a bit of warmth over at the house of Indira and Noé, two of the most amazing people in my circle of friends (though, now that I think about it, I have an inordinate number of amazing friends in Bogotá).

I met Indira at a party and we bonded over Spike Lee movies, house music, and the shared understanding that, as an Afro-Colombiana, she had to go to another country before she even considered herself beautiful, let alone considered beautiful by societal standards. She made it big as a model in Venezuela, then came back home to Colombia start her acting career. She’s still one of the very few black women on any screen or billboard anywhere in a country with an estimated 40% of the population having African ancestry.

Then there’s Noé, an aspiring photographer with a raucous, Venezuelan (read: raunchy) sense of humor who just happens to be Indira’s husband. As a man from a hot, Caribbean country stranded up in the Colombian Andes, Noé knows what it’s like to be out of his element. They brought me into their home on Sunday afternoons for movies and meals, our line-up spanning countries and cultures: Eve’s Bayou, Secuestro Express, Amelie. I caught many a sunset from their westward-facing balcony and picked more than a few golden retriever hairs off my sweaters (shouts to Bruno the Dog). I’m missing those days even as I write this.

As with everything, we moved on – I, to a job in Barranquilla, then out of the country; Indira and Noé to the responsibility of raising little Maximiliano, now three? Still, these wonderful people served as two of the larger of the many rocks I leaned on as an expat in Colombia, and for that, I am eternally grateful.

Indi, Noé, little Max, and Bruno…I love you guys!

Check out my peeps flowing with English on the red carpet. Noé, you got that ‘thank you’ down pat, bruh! 😉


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As they say in Nueva Yol..."una Barbiela!" (Manuela Scarpa/Photo Rio News)

Here she is, folks…Miss Universe 2011, the breathtaking Leila Lopes of Angola.

I definitely have to say that I had expected a Latina to win – Puerto Rico was my personal favorite, and the pageant industry in Latin America is just that…they make Misses. Still, the Philippines!, USA, France, and Venezuela all represented well. Brazil? Meh. The buzz down here is surprisingly positive, though; people feel the judges (which included Connie Chung and Vivica A. Fox, both looking good!) were fair in their scoring.

Unfortunately, I was relegated to the press tent behind the auditorium (aka WiFi Central) and couldn’t see the goings-on live and in person, but it was fun chilling with journalists from around the globe (including the boisterous team from Colombia’s Caracol network). I did, however, get to line up along the red carpet and snap this photo of outgoing Miss U, Ximena Navarrete of Mexico.

Miss U 2010, wrappin’ it up for the ’11.

The coup of the night, though, was my one-question interview with Judge Fox as she glided into the auditorium. Obsoive:

(I swear, y’all…I wasn’t trying to cut off La Fox! Her media escort said I could only ask one question, was giving the ‘wrap it up’ and was tugging on her elbow. I got nuuuuurvus.)

On the whole, it was a good, good night.

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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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Sometimes, living abroad can be an experience in cultural isolation. Despite the best efforts on everyone’s part, there are misunderstandings, misinterpretations, misconnections. It can get tiring, the thinking in other languages, the decoding of cultural cues, the deprogramming of absolute truths. Culture shock never really ends.

You get pensive. You start asking yourself and the universe: What’s the plan? What’s the goal? Why don’t I just get a real job and grow up already? But no one can really give you an answer and that questioning, and the fear behind it, becomes paralyzing – for a while – until somehow, you regain motivation through a conversation with a random stranger, the sudden memory of what you had originally wanted, or by simply waking up the next morning.

The key – the hardest part, then – is breaking through that paralysis.

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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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Anhangabaú. I love how the word forms in my mouth, all mellifluous, open vowels. It’s an indigenous word, Tupi for “water of the bad spirit.” It’s also the name of the subway station where I transfer to the bus and vice-versa, on my way to and from work. ahn-yahn-gah-bah-OO. Almost comical.

The station sits in a valley of the same name, once a pristine, gurgling creek and now a traffic-choked expressway and stretch of landscaped park coursing through downtown São Paulo. It’s connected to the Terminal Bandeira bus station by an overhead walkway that carries harried commuters from bus to subway to bus across six lanes of some of the fastest vehicular traffic on earth. One escalator is almost always broken. People rarely watch where they’re walking. I like listening to Audio Lotion’s Bad Timing when I’m running through the station; it’s like I’m in a movie.

I see a few office workers in gray pinstripe or coordinated high-heels connecting between the two modes of transport, but it’s mostly maids and security guards and construction workers and random old people, some of whom stop at the pharmacy or low-end Nescafé booth inside the station. Of course, the demographics change with the time of day. 10pm finds me sharing the train with working class strivers getting out of their night school classes. Some are taking college courses; others, high school completion.

I wonder how many of them know what the word Anhangabaú means.