The Brazilian system of politics is very polarized. Now, I know some Canadians may look to our southern neighbors and think we understand polarization, but there is really no comparison. Americans are just more polarized than Canadians, but they can’t really hold a candle to Brazil.
In Brazil, there really is no longer any semblance of a center. To understand their political parties, imagine one political extremist scaremongering describing their opponent. Unfortunately, that’s actually a fairly good description of each of the major political sides in Brazil. Minha Esposa (my wife) even lost some very close friends after the last election, simply because she said that there were good people and bad people that voted for both, and could everyone agree that they hoped Brazil would prosper. That should be an incredibly innocuous statement, hoping that the leaders do a good job, and that one’s country prospers, but she was hated by both sides – how dare she suggest that anyone with any good in them could vote for the “other side”? And the vitrol with which they hate the other side’s leader, you aren’t even allowed to hope they do a good job. The best you are allowed to say is that you hope they don’t screw up too much. Meanwhile, the supporters of a candidate celebrate a win with fireworks and giant parties in the street; cheering so loud it seems like Brazil just won the World Cup.
You should also consider that it is unlikely you will get an unbiased political source in Canada. It is hard enough to get those on our own politicians, and we see our government every day. I’ve seen massively cherry picked articles in Canada about Brazil, and when I ask Minha Esposa about the context, I find out there is significantly more to the story, which sometimes changes the entire situation.
Corruption is also very common in the government in Brazil. Even the Brazilians who champion fighting against corruption are tarred and feathered with allegations of corruption against them, sometimes as scare tactics, and sadly, sometimes because its true.
I have only once been asked by a stranger (a single-serving friend) about my political opinion in Brazil, and that was because I was there during the election. I did not shy away from the discussion because I did not know better, but I lucked out because I agreed with him. Since that time, I’ve learned more about the tense political climate, and nowadays, I would simply say “being Canadian, it is hard to follow politics in Brazil. I just hope the candidate who is best for the country wins.”
In Canada, we almost have a two-stage greeting whenever chatting with someone. First we exchange some form of “Hello”, and then we exchange some form of “how are you?” This is fairly standard, and even repeated phone calls in a short period of time tend to start with this exchange. No one really cares what the answer to “how are you?” is, and any answer other than “good” is viewed as odd. If you want an actual answer, you have to ask a second time – usually varying the wording slightly.
However, in Brazil this is not done. A person does not ask “how are you” (Portuguese, “Tudo Bom?”) without actually meaning it. So, you don’t have the same exchange of pleasantries before getting into a conversation. For Canadians hearing this, it may seem abrupt, or even rude. But it should not be taken that way. In fact, it is actually a little odd that Canadians do this weird exchange, as it makes no sense to ask questions for which we don’t want an actual answer. I explained to Minha Esposa (my wife) that I even tend to do this when I go to the doctor, when I am notably not “good”, as that’s why I am at the doctor.
This is also something that Minha Esposa is having trouble with in Canada. She does not understand this exchange, or why people do it – she assumes people who ask her how she is doing actually want an answer, and she does not ask unless she is genuinely interested in how others are doing. And, really, that is how it should be. After spending some time thinking about this, the best explanation I can come up to as to why Canadians do this, is that we are essentially offering to let the other person speak first if they have something important to discuss. The “how are you?” essentially means “I would like to discuss something with you, but if you have something urgent, I am offering you a chance to speak first.” So, it is actually part of the stereotype of Canadian Politeness. While I have offered this explanation to Minha Esposa, she makes a good point that it is not actually all that polite to ask a question and not care about the answer. Since Canadians do this almost by instinct, it isn’t something I’d really thought about before. But, I love that learning about Brazilian Culture, it also gives me a chance to learn about my own.
However, in Brazil, it is not uncommon for women to kiss on the cheek when meeting, and men often exchange a pat on the back when greeting one another. Physical contact is important in Brazil for warm greetings. Due to the multicultural nature of Canada, this happens sometimes here, but not nearly as often as you’ll see in Brazil. So, I still find it odd and have difficulty getting used to it. But, it does make me feel extremely welcome.
Like in Canada, Brazilian Mother’s day falls on the second Sunday in May. Oddly for Brazil, this is not a holiday widely linked to a Catholic celebration, despite there being many countries around the world that do so.
Also similar to Canada, everyone celebrates it somewhat differently. Meu Cunhado (my brother-in-law) sent Minha Sogra a ready-made breakfast, whereas the distance makes it hard for Minha Namorada and me to do anything more than call. However, a big distinction with Mother’s Day in Brazil rather than Canada, is that in Brazil you celebrate all mothers. If you have friends/family that are mothers, you wish them a happy Mother’s day too. I am of two minds when it comes to this.
I really like the sense of community that the collective celebration entails. It reminds everyone of the important role that mothers play in our society. Canadians, of course, realize this, but I still like the idea of having everyone together taking a day to recognize that importance. It also makes it into a bigger celebration, since everyone is taking part with everyone else in celebrating all mothers. There also tend to be lunch or dinner with the extended family, as all the mothers are feted together, and I always find the holidays with big family meals are better. They also keep the whole family close. Finally, it would be much harder to forget the day in Brazil than in Canada, which is always useful for us forgetful types.
However, on the other hand, I like that we celebrate our specific mother on Mother’s Day. It seems more special that way, and I would feel almost like I was betraying my mom by wishing someone else a Happy Mother’s Day (grandmothers excepted). Especially, since Mother’s always make birthdays all about the child, when really she’s the one that did more work that day. Other than the first couple of birthdays when babies don’t really understand what is going on, and so the husband does make it about the wife, there is very little done to celebrate one’s mom on the day she became a mom. So, I like that there is a specific day set aside when everyone is expected to celebrate their specific mom. Ideally, having a small intimate dinner with just the immediate family, where everyone is there to celebrate just that important woman in their life. It is the same as that I don’t want Valentines Day to be about celebrating all couples. for me, I want it to be celebrating just Minha Namorada. So, why would Mother’s Day be for celebrating all mothers, and not just mine?
This year Minha Namorada and I spent Christmas (called Natal) in Brazil. There were both a lot of similarities, and a lot of differences. Of course, the main difference, was the weather. They don’t exactly have White Christmases in Brazil. I found it initially hard to get into the Christmas Spirit because of this – Christmas is so associated with winter in Canada that once the hot sun hit me, it suddenly felt like it was no longer December. Brazil is the land of eternal summer after all. I did somewhat miss the feeling when you come in from a bitterly cold winter day and tear off the winter gear as the warmth from inside slowly soaks into your frozen limbs. The feeling of slowly warming up is very much associated with Christmas to me, but I’m also one of those crazy Canadians who loves winter. But, watching fireworks by the beach for Christmas is pretty good too.
Brazilians, like many French Canadians, traditionally have their Christmas Dinner at midnight on Christmas Eve. Many families don’t actually stay awake that late nowadays, but it has led to many more people having “Christmas Eve Dinner” rather than “Christmas Dinner” – Christmas being a day for relaxation and spending time with family. Christmas Eve, though, has many parties and outings, which start and end late, due to family commitments that run well into the evening. For example, we were out until about 3 a.m. drinking with one of Minha Namorada’s cousins, and some other cousins were at a party until 7 a.m. Christmas morning itself, is usually spent sleeping as a result.
Santa, or Papai Noel, as he is known in Brazil, is still just as prevalent, although his clothing doesn’t make as much sense when its not cold. I’m not sure the extent to which kids believe in Santa. Minha Namorada said it wasn’t that common, but when I showed my sobrinha (niece – actually one of Minha Namorada’s cousin’s daughter) the NORAD Santa Tracker, she was fascinated and constantly asking me to update her as to where Santa was and where he was going next.
The food is actually extremely similar to food in Canada. I would not have been surprised at all to have had that exact same meal in Canada.
While Christmas gifts are common in Brazil, neither myself nor Minha Namorada come from families that are big on buying presents for Christmas. We’d both rather just spend the time together, and maybe do a little bit nicer meals around the holidays.
I don’t have all the pictures we took, as we mostly used Minha Namorada’s phone. check out the gallery in a future update for them.
When travelling in Brazil, you will no doubt notice that hand gestures are different. There is a distinct lack of the North American “OK” gesture, and this is not without reason. The OK gesture commonly used in North America, is very similar to an offensive gesture in Brazil (and other places), as it technically means “asshole” in Brazil, but carries a stronger connotation. It is best thought of as the equivalent of giving the middle finger – essentially, the opposite of a North American’s intention. While the Brazilian may realize your intentions – either by realizing that you are from abroad, or from their own consumption of American Media, it is still best to avoid the potential conflict.
Instead, Brazilians use another popular North American Gesture, the standard “thumbs up”. It is used in a multitude of situations, far more than any other hand gesture. When I first arrived in Brazil, I noticed it immediately, and it really leaves a person with a feeling of friendliness. Generally speaking, I try to follow Brazilian culture when I visit, and so I try to integrate the thumbs up regularly. I use it instead of waving thank you, alongside anytime I say “obrigado” (thank you), and anytime I want to show a kind gesture. But, this is not the only reason I do this. I also know that I talk with my hands more than I should, and it would be very easy for me to accidentally use the okay gesture without thinking about it. By consciously using one gesture, it prevents me from absent-mindlessly using the inappropriately using the other.
I would note that Brazilians still will understand if you were to use The Finger, but I would highly recommend against using it in anger – my experience is that Brazil has a bit of an Honour Culture, and it is not a good idea to attempt to offend someone. Tempers can easily flare in Brazil, people do not back down as easily, and situations can develop quickly into a level of conflict that was not initially sought. It is better to avoid confrontation – luckily, Canadians are generally less confrontational than other cultures, so this should not be a significant issue.
As I have alluded to in earlier articles, I am actually engaged to Minha Namorada (my girlfriend), which is why in a few articles I have referred to her as Minha Noiva (my fiancee/bride). I’m just not yet to that point in my Journal articles. In fact, we already did a beautiful small civil ceremony in Canada, as I elaborate on the need for which below, so I should probably even call her Minha Esposa (my wife). But, we are planning a religious ceremony for Brazil, because that is where her family is, and in planning this wedding, we have come to realize how much cheaper, and better, we can have a wedding there than a local Canadian wedding.
Now, to get started, there are some complications to get married in Brazil. Brazil used to be a Military Dictatorship, and so treated their military very well. This included an inheritance of the father’s pension for sons until they turned eighteen, and daughters until they got married. As you can imagine, this lead to some abuse of the system, where a daughter would get married in a Church, but not conduct a civil marriage. The daughter would then remain unmarried in the government’s eyes, and continue to collect the pension, while being married in a religious sense to avoid any social taboos. The government’s solution to this was simple – they worked with the churches to require a civil marriage before one can get married in a church. Unlike most places in Canada, the marriage licenses in Brazil have a waiting time, so you could end up having to go down a month before your wedding to apply for the license. The easier way to handle this is to get married civilly in Canada, and then you can bring the paperwork to a church in Canada to have them contact their Brazilian equivalent, and certify that the marriage can proceed. If you don’t want a religious marriage, it is even easier – just do a quick trip to city hall before you go to do the paperwork.
While there are many options to choose from, we elected to go with this lovely venue called Porto Pinheiro for the reception. They are located right on the beach, with a lovely outdoor area for the ceremony (should you choose), and a large air conditioned inside (which is important for people who plan to dance the night away).
The inside is just as beautiful!
They do a set package for weddings on Sunday – Thursdays, which includes food, desserts (read: brigadeiro), cake, decorations, music, and lights. Drinks, except water/coconut water/ice, are usually not included, but can be bought easily – Duty free also allows you to buy up to $500 USD on landing in Brazil, which will allow you to supply your own alcohol should you choose. While prices for someone else might change, we are currently budgeting less than $10,000 Canadian to do the entire wedding in Brazil, which includes the the set package for 80 people, including an open bar, and a church ceremony. Compared with the cost of what Canadians usually pay for weddings, this option is a steal. Additionally, in terms of cost passed on to guests of a destination wedding, João Pessoa is extremely budget friendly – the flight is the only expensive part, and will probably be three quarters or more of the all-in cost. Depending on time of year, the costs can be comparable to that of an all-inclusive resort.
Brazil is well known in Canada (and North America generally) for Carnival, even to the point that some stereotypes of Brazil tend to focus on some traditional samba dance wear due to its association with some Carnival celebrations.
However, one of the other big Brazilian celebrations is nearly unknown outside of Brazil, that festival is called São João, also called Festas Juninas.
Sao Joao is a festival mainly held in the North and Northeast, but can also be found in the interior of São Paulo and other large urban centers. It started as a tradition imported from Portugal associated with St. John the Baptist, whose has a Feast day in June, leading to celebrations throughout the month, and sometimes even into July.
This holiday has now become a celebration of the rural life of farmers (called Caipira – this word has similar associations to the redneck or yokel though, so they can use it to refer to themselves, you cannot), with boys dressing up in straw hats and plaid shirts, while girls dress in country dresses and pigtails.
They dance in “Quadrilhas” (think square dances – even the music is surprisingly similar), and the festival celebrates the fertility of the land by hosting a mock wedding as the centre of the Quadrilhas.
Common midway games from North America are also found at the festivals, including mock “fishing” for prizes, ring/dart toss, and three-legged races. One-legged races are also popular stemming from their association with the Brazilian folklore surrounding Saci – a Brazilian prankster genie, who grants wishes to those who trap him or manage to steal his cap.
Essentially, when trying to imagine Sao Joao, think of the Calgary Stampede, with a less rodeo, and a lot more emphasis on country dancing, and you’ll get the gist of it.
As I’ve mentioned, I’ve now been learning Portuguese for about two years. It is difficult learning a new language, although I still think my progress is going well. But, here are some of my initial observations from when I started learning.
The best way that I’ve found to learn Portuguese is on the Duolingo app for your phone. The lessons are short (15 questions), and there is significant gameification to make it enjoyable, and it slowly builds upon itself. Don’t bother with Duolingo Plus, it is a waste of money. The main benefit of it is the offline mode, but, honestly, how often don’t you have internet connection? Regular Duolingo just requires you to start the lesson when you have internet, you can go offline during the lesson without any issues, so, even an intermittent internet connection is good enough.
From the start, it’s important to acknowledge that learning a language is a marathon, not a sprint. Don’t expect to learn useful phrases right away, for those you should look for a tourism phrase book. Learning a language is a lengthy process which takes dedication and commitment. Duolingo will teach you unusual phrases, and these actually help you remember the words better, but gives you very little useful knowledge at the beginning. It takes time before it all starts to click together.
You will learn a lot of pronouns, which are useful, but you will almost never hear them used by native Portuguese speakers. Portuguese tends to just use the conjugation of verbs in place of its pronouns. Learning the pronouns will help you to learn how to conjugate words, and will help when you are speaking. They will allow others to understand you even through the (doubtless) grammatical errors of a newbie to language.
Add don’t get upset if your initial progress slows down. Portuguese is very similar to Spanish and French, languages which many North Americans have a fair amount of exposure. This helps a lot in learning the language, as you’ll already have some basics, but you will quickly exhaust those stores of knowledge. You might think that you’ve plateaued, and that can be disheartening, but its actually that you are now at a normal learning pace. Keep going through it, and you’ll eventually hit other milestones as the rules and phrases start to click.
I was once asked what did I view as the biggest challenge in my relationship with Minha Namorada (My Girlfriend), and my answer was that I do not speak Portuguese. That is still my answer today. Luckily, Minha Namorada speaks English quite well, and that has allowed our relationship to flourish. However, it is still very important to me that I learn Portuguese. There are many reasons but one of the most important reasons is culture.
Culture helps define who we are, it tells us where we came from, where we are going, and it binds a community together. While Minha Namorada and myself are building a life together now, and while A Familia Dela (her family) always do so much to make me feel welcome, I still always feel a bit excluded from her Brazilian Culture, simply because I don’t speak enough Portuguese to participate fully. Unless there is an English translation out there, I can’t understand the shows Minha Namorada watches in Portuguese, I can’t read the books she’s read. But, even translations tend to lose much of the raw emotion and feel of the originals
As well, at the best times when families are just laughing and joking, and everyone forgets themselves, it becomes that much harder for me to follow the conversation – I am inadvertently excluded at the time when everyone is attempting to make me feel most welcome. I am never offended by this, and in fact am very touched that they are so welcoming towards me, but it does bother me that I can’t follow along with everyone.
After two years, I can generally read news articles in Portuguese without too much difficulty, and I’ve learned enough Portuguese to be understood one on one. Minha Namorada’s friends and family are always impressed with how much Portuguese I’ve learned since we first met, but I still have much to go. It is a slow process, as I expected, but one which reaps many rewards. And not just in my relationship, but also in my ability to broaden my horizons. Being able to read non-english sourced newspapers gives me new perspectives on world events that I would not have known if not for those newspapers. Only about 1/7 of the population speak English, so learning languages helps me learn about the other 6/7ths of the world.
So, let’s start a conversation about tips/tricks, and other observations about learning (and hopefully eventually mastering) Portuguese.
Day six in Brazil, Minha Namorada (My girlfriend) and I had to go to Recife for Meu Cunhado (My brother in law) to attend a Concurso.
Now, as a first thing, Minha Namorada and I are not yet married (although we are engaged, so sometimes you will see me refer to her as Minha Noiva – my fiancee). So, it may seem a bit odd for me to refer to her brother as Meu Cunhado. However, it is common in Brazilian Culture to refer to the significant other of a family member, even if not married, as if they were married. Accordingly, Minha Namorada’s parents refer to me as Genro, and I refer to them as Sogro (father in law), Sogra (mother in law), and Cunhado (brother in law). Some Canadians may be a bit scared by this, especially those who are afraid of commitment, but I found it very wonderful – from first meeting them, I had a place in their family. I guess that’s more of a reflection of how I already felt about Minha Namorada than anything else, but it also felt so welcoming.
Now, a Concurso is a public competition for a job. Think of it like any Canadian Federal Government job – usually there is a test involved, and a few interviews, and you are ranked against a number of other candidates with the top candidates getting the job. These also tend to be the best jobs in Brazil, so it was important that Minha Namorada and I support Meu Cunhado in attending his Concurso. This threw a wrench in our plans for the week, but as I told Minha Namorada, this was clearly important, and all I really cared about was spending time together, so I didn’t mind at all.
We drove out early, dropped off Meu Cunhado, and then we decided to spend the day at the mall while we waited to him, not knowing how long it was take. The mall was very pretty, with very similar stores to what you’d find in Yorkdale or any other Canadian Mall). Being tired though, I thought it would be a great time to explore Brazilian Coffee.
The first thing I noticed was that almost no store in the mall served brewed coffee or Americanos. Even dedicated coffee shops almost exclusively served espresso. I found this frustrating, but I realized it does make sense. In a hot climate, you don’t want something warm to sip on for awhile – you want something that will get you the same effect but smaller so it won’t warm you up, hence the reason for the espresso.
The other thing I realized is that coffee was surprisingly expensive in the mall. After seeing how inexpensive I could find beer in places, I was surprised at how expensive coffee was relatively speaking.
Eventually I decided that the Canadian in me wouldn’t be satisfied with an espresso, so I elected to go to McDonald’s for a brewed coffee – banking on that McDonald’s is basically the same all around the world. However, this turned into an adventure in itself, as Minha Namorada and I experienced a very hostile employee.
First we were told they didn’t serve coffee, despite it being on the menu. Luckily, the manager was walking behind the employee, overheard, and corrected the employee.
Then we ordered, and the employee wouldn’t take credit card, because he said the internet was down. We didn’t have enough cash, so had to leave and come back (the bank being a 10-15 minute walk to the other side of the mall).
Then when we came back, we tried to order the coffee (along with other breakfast items), and we were told they didn’t have change to give us from the bill. We were paying with a $100 note (about $40 Canadian), for a meal of about $28 (about $10 Canadian), nothing unreasonable.
Afterwards, we decided to directly approach the manager, who was clearly upset at his employee, who then said he had lots of change. We finally got our order (which had two wrong items the manager fixed for us), and left.
Now, I could have very easily been turned off by this experience. The employee gave me many dirty looks, and it was clear he gave us trouble because I wasn’t Brazilian. In fact, he even explained his actions to his manager that Minha Namorada just hadn’t understood him – presumably, not realizing that Minha Namorada is Brazilian. However, this was a complete one-off situation. I met countless other Brazilians on my trip who were excited to practice their English with me, or had large amounts of patience as I attempted to speak to them in Portuguese. I just felt bad that this guy must have had a bad experience some other time by a foreigner to make him dislike me, and it just increased my resolve to show good manners as a guest in Brazil.
Surprisingly, Meu Cunhado finished his concurso shortly after we had our delayed breakfast/lunch, and we headed off to pick him up. We went out to celebrate him finishing the Concurso (it is important to celebrate finishing BEFORE you know the results – so everyone can celebrate, that’s what Chartered Financial Analyst’s do in Canada). I won’t tell you the results of the Concurso, because that is Meu Cunhado’s story to tell, but I will tell you that the restaurant we went made a giant Risotto for us, and between the four of us (Meu Sogro, Meu Cunhado, Minha Namorada and myself), we ate enough “servings” for six, of which I probably ate half. The food is just so good in Brazil.