Brazil, from the beginning
Daniel and I are in the midst of planning our post-Christmas trip to Brazil. In honor of our upcoming vacation, I thought I'd post a personal essay that I recently wrote for my food writing class. Consider it a prelude to all the stories and photos from Brazil you'll be treated to in a few months. (This photo of Rio de Janeiro is from Editora Céu Azul de Copacabana, a company owned by Daniel's friend Felix Richter).
My plan was to stay two weeks in Brazil. I’d finally get to see Daniel’s country, meet his friends and family, but then I’d have to head home, the uncertainty of our future still uncertain. But after just a few days, I said I’d stay.
The first few weeks were blissful. Daniel took me to little hidden waterfalls scattered throughout Rio, to Pão de Açucar (Sugarloaf Mountain) where we admired the breathtaking views alongside mischievous monkeys, to all-you-can-eat meat restaurants where thick, juicy pieces of picanha were carved off skewers at a dizzying pace. I met his friends, his family, and fell in love with a side of him I’d never known while we were at college together in the States.
But soon my reality as an outsider started to set in. Sometimes we bumped into his sultry ex-girlfriends and at the beach I became uncomfortable, my J. Crew bikini much more conservative than the sexier Brazilian ones, my skin pale and pasty. At night, when we hung out with Daniel’s friends, I often remained silent as they spoke rapidly in Portuguese, my few contributions feeling straight from a textbook and forced. When we went to samba shows, I loved how the pounding drums made me feel, but hated how my hips moved so clumsily.
Everything about Brazil began to intimidate me, and food became my escape. I traded in my light lunches for the more customary large midday meal, finding comfort in our housekeeper Sandra’s black beans cooked with smoked pork, her tomato, okra and chicken stews, the fluffy white rice she made by first sautéing some garlic, olive oil and dry grains in a pan.
When we went out to a local padaria in the morning for breakfast, I listened to Daniel as he ordered my coffee, paying close attention when he said “bem clarinho” or very clear to help describe the alarming amount of milk I needed to cut some very strong coffee. When I was alone, I tried to order exactly as he did, knowing I’d be rewarded not only with my version of perfect coffee, but a much needed confidence boost. I continued practicing my pronunciation at Rio’s many lanchonetes, ordering exotic freshly squeezed juices, including pitanga, acerola and caju to wash down my chicken, cheese and pineapple sandwiches. And even though I eventually converted to a more fashionable bikini, I didn’t let my new skimpy swimwear stop me from devouring at least one hefty pão de queijo, a popular chewy cheese bread, every single day.
When I discovered meia-luas at a bakery near the school where I was studying, I used that as a topic of conversation with Daniel’s friends, delighted to find I had a fairly easy time expressing my love for the cream-filled, crescent treats. I also started ordering caipirinhas, Brazil’s national cocktail made with crushed lime, sugar cane liquor and sugar, when we’d all go out. Potent, but super sweet, I liked how after just one or two, I usually eased up a bit, feeling more confident with my Portuguese.
My visa only allowed me to stay in Rio for six months, so I was forced to leave right when my Portuguese was really picking up. Daniel and I broke up, but got back together soon after and are now married and living in New York. Each year, we go back to Rio for a few weeks to visit. My Portuguese always feels rusty at first, and I’m not always racing to get into my teeny bikini, but I know after a few good meals, I’ll start to feel at home again.