PC 35 An Englishman Abroad

I sit on the little chair, up against the old wooden table, with the Olivetti typewriter in front of me. Through the window I can glimpse palm trees and the deep turquoise of the sea in the distance; the view over Flamingo Bay towards Sugar Loaf Mountain is breath-taking. On the coat stand hangs my Panama hat and linen jacket, essential items of one’s wardrobe. Overhead the lazy fan stirs the air like a reluctant Indian punkawallah, its circular motion somewhat erratic. “God! It’s hot!” As I struggle to keep cool, feeling the sweat forming in the small of my back, I hope that my iced tea is going to cool me down.

Dateline Monday 21st June 1932. Rio de Janeiro . ……” I stare at the paper in the typewriter, praying my weekly ‘copy’ for the Times of London is going to flow ….. although I know from experience it never does! My battered notebook, full of scribbles, lies open; I take a drag of my cigarette and look out of the window!

‘An Englishman abroad’. Nice expression, isn’t it? Conjures up soft images such as the one described above. And these days it’s still possible to ‘feel’ like an Englishman abroad. I even look like one, and here in Brazil stand out if only by the colour of my skin, which even after a few weeks of tropical sun is nothing more than tanned pink! We were meeting two girls on their Gap year, one the daughter of a chum, on Saturday for lunch; having never met before, we helped them by saying that I look English. They immediately saw us across the crowded café without a problem!

The European scramble for colonies in the C19th often determined spoken languages across the world. For example, in India the lingua franca is English, whereas parts of the Caribbean speak French. Here in Brazil they speak a sort of Portuguese, as they do in Angola and Mozambique. I learned French at school (mais je ai oublié la plupart de celui-ci), some German when stationed there (nur ein bisschen), Italian at evening class for some holidays (troppo tempo fa!) ….. but Portuguese? Not uma palavra! Staying in an English-speaking house here makes life easy for me, but I am trying! Not speaking the local language reinforces the ‘Englishman abroad’ label. What did the archetypal Englishman do (and some still do!)? Too lazy to learn the language, if the native didn’t understand they simply spoke louder! With a combination of online courses (DuoLingo and MemRise) and after many visits, I now know lots of words but haven’t yet got the confidence to join them together, in an appropriate order that makes sense, and pronounce them in such a way as to be understandable. I’ll get there sometime! Até amanha!

As Englishmen, did we really look down on those in Southern Europe and elsewhere who had a siesta during the heat of the day? Those lazy Latins? Do we still? When you live in the tropics, if you can be indoors during the heat of midday, with that fan or air conditioning on, why wouldn’t you be so? Noel Coward’s 1932 observation was right: “But (only) mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun!” He also observed that when it came to clothing, “The English garb of the English sahib merely gets a bit more creased.” How the hell did they manage? When I first came to Brazil, I packet my linen jacket; it’s still in the cupboard, unused! But the Panama hat, ah! Yes! Essential in … er … the midday sun!! Well, I am English!

Wow! How the world has changed since those interwar years …… when they shrugged off the ghastly memories of the ‘Great War’ and tried to enjoy life. And the change never more apparent than in the attitude of our societies towards dress. I grew up in what I sense was quite a strict environment. My stepfather was not a Victorian by birth but by upbringing certainly. His was a childhood of “children are seen but not heard” and of always dressing for the occasion. This manifested itself in what he expected at home, what I had to wear for dinner during the school holidays. Once I was 14 I could join my parents and brother for dinner, providing I wore a jacket and tie! I tried a sweater once … with a tie! And of course one wore shoes and socks; not wearing socks was not an option. If it was warm, you simply bought a pair of thin cotton ones. It seemed rather Italian not to wear socks with shoes; maybe we were rather jealous of their ability to carry it off, even if we branded them rather louche for doing so.

I hope I’m not alone in admitting that one of my pet hates is men wearing socks and sandals. Such a nightmare! In my mind, just so so wrong! Men’s feet, often not their best attribute, are normally covered with socks, so when it’s possible to give them an airing, what do we do (well! Not me! Of course!)? It’s a curious sight and style – ‘milk bottle’ white legs with white (at best) socks and heavy sandals. Looks silly on women, even sillier on men. “Now, where’s that podiatrist?” Here the standard footwear is the ubiquitous ‘flip-flop’ made by Havaianas of Brazil, or a moccasin-type slip-on.

As well as defining the local language, the European colonies adopted the mother country’s driving norm; here in Brazil they drive on the right. One learns the local idiosyncrasies quickly; motorcycles everywhere, everyone on their mobile phone, … and drivers on the third lane on the left suddenly realising they want to turn off to the … right. And they do, completely oblivious of the other traffic, cutting across everyone. And no one cares!! No horns, no hoots, no shouts ….. for this is Brazil!

I am lucky in having had a good education. Values were taught, and reinforced; certain standards became the norm; codes of behaviour and dress defined one’s life. But gradually, even reluctantly, some of these slip as society’s mores change and develop. Once upon a time my shirt collars were stiffened by starch, but by a process akin to osmosis the stiffness leaves the collar and me, the starch damp and eventually useless …. and rightly so. Even for a relaxed Englishman abroad!

Some jumbled thoughts to amuse – or not!

Richard Yates – richardyates24@gmail.com

PC 34 Recife, Brazil

Palm trees …… sea breezes …… the sound of the surf … and warm air; it’s easy to conjure up a typical tropical shore, huh? So we went north to Recife, a city at the eastern tip of Brazil, closest to Africa, where we found palm trees, sea breezes, the sound of surf and warm air. If you will indulge me with a little imagination and time travel, we met Robert Avé-Lallemant, an explorer from Lübeck in Germany, who described his visit to Recife in 1859 thus:

“A city entirely devoted to commerce with a population of around 100,000 souls. Lining the enchanted lagoons and in the city centre, the recently constructed houses and public buildings have already begun to take on a certain air of distinguished beauty which promises, one day, to make this city, risen from the waters, one of the most beautiful in the world, to rival even Hamburg with its magnificent Alster Bay. The views from the various bridges in all directions, especially to the north where the old city of Olinda sits majestically on a hill, are indescribably beautiful. With all this Recife in Pernambuco State is the true city of the future of Brazil.”

“So clearly, Robert, you enjoyed your time in Recife and saw its potential?”

Absolutely! It is a wonderful location, ja, with the Sāo Francisco river estuary creating these three main islands. Thanks to the Dutch and their experience of waterworks in Holland, they managed to drain and channel the river in a way that the Portuguese never imagined. The natural off-shore reef allowed for a wonderful protected harbour and this city became the major port of Brazil. Incidentally, the Dutch were thrown out in 1654and most sailed to New Amsterdam, which became New York.”

 “But wasn’t it the capital of Brazil?”

Ach! So! But as the trade in sugar in the north dropped off and that of gold and coffee in the south grew, the political focus shifted and Rio de Janeiro became the capital in 1763. It held that crown until 1960 when Brasilia superseded it.

“So what do you think people fly to Recife for?”

 “Fly? What is this “Fly”?”

“OK! We’ve learned to travel in the air! It takes three hours to travel from Rio to Recife …. a little bit quicker than your journey by sailing ship …. but if you can imagine looking down on Recife in 2015, the first thing you would see is the unconstrained building of high-rise apartment blocks as far south down the coast as the eye can see; like pins sticking up from a pincushion. Your prophecy that Recife is ‘the true city of the future of Brazil’ has sadly not been fulfilled. It now only attracts holiday makers to its beaches further south, particularly Porto de Galinhas.”

“So why did you come?”

“Eight years before you were here, my great grandfather Richard Sidney Corbett was born on a ship in the harbour. In those days I guess this now empty harbour was full of sailing ships. Along the old waterfront is a half a kilometre long line of abandoned sugar warehouses. I wanted to see this place, smell it, imagine the hustle and bustle of old. I also wanted to see the Cemitério dos Ingleses where a relative or two might have been buried.”

“But Olinda is beautiful, nicht wahr?”

“Robert, you probably saw it at its best! Today the small cobbled streets of this town that the Portuguese established in 1535 are crowded with cars and, whilst the little brightly-coloured houses are extremely picturesque and the churches numerous and ornate, it has a sad, rundown feel about it.”

“Bitte? What is a car?”

“We can not only fly, Robert, but burn minerals to drive carriages; no horses!”

Wunderbar! So did you like modern day Recife?”

“Well, some parts! Those buildings you talked about are still there; the pink Teatro de Santa Isabel and the Palacio do Campas das Princesas are gorgeous and they have restored some houses on the oldest island Bairro do Recife, although others are gaunt shells. The prison you saw, that one built in 1850 mimicking US gaols, is now the Casa da Cultura, with each cell occupied by a shop selling leather, lace or ceramic crafts. We enjoyed the Mercado de Sāo José, a covered market selling everything from crafts, to clothing, to fish ….. and some mounds of meat which defy description (!) but this was only built in 1875 so you would not have seen it. And then there are the two enormous forts, a mixture of Portuguese and Dutch architecture, which guarded the entrance to the harbour.”

Ah! Yes! I remember them. Magnificent! Maybe it’s best if I keep my lovely memories as they are and not allow them to be influenced with your modern view. Now, tell me more about flying and cars …… bitte?”

Richard Yates – richardyates24@gmail.com