To get in to my apartment building you need to be buzzed through two electronic gates. In 24-hour attendance at these gates are a series of lovely Porterios, who let me in, any time of day or night, and smile at my terrible Portuguese. When I first arrived I couldn’t decide if these gates meant that my building was really safe or really dangerous. It was so different to my Brighton flats, with their broken intercoms and stairs to climb. One friend in Brighton still throws the keys down to every guest that arrives. No electric gates or Porterios there.
I needed to ask the Porterios a question; down I went fully prepared in halting Portuguese to see him in his little gatehouse. There was a woman there and she helped to remind me that although there may be gates and guards and sunshine and samba I can still find familiarity in my Brazilian life.
I didn’t know this woman, I had never met her before but somehow I felt like I had. Maybe you have met her too?
She is short and round, in her 50s, her hair is dyed a shade of reddish-orange. The exact shade of rich Brazilian mud. She is sucking on a sweet, a mint I would guess, and chatting animatedly to the guard. She has a few over stuffed bags slung over her arms. She uses lots of gestures as she talks, patting the Porterio on the arm and waving her hands around. As she talked the guard nodded and continued with his work, not paying her much attention, he didn’t really have a chance to speak. She was laughing, gossiping and sharing.
As I approached with my well-rehearsed question she turned to me, fascinated, immediately launching in to a torrent of Portuguese, touching my arm, laughing and asking me questions. She accompanied me back to the lift, constantly checking and chatting despite my mumbled “nao fala”. I feel sure she was finding me a husband, saying I looked peaky, asking me about England, offering me dinner and generally (s)mothering me. I couldn’t understand a work of her sweet sucking sounds but I understood her because I have met these lovely brassy gossipy maternal women before. I am well on my way to becoming one myself, a different shade of hair dye, a couple more shopping bags and I’ll be spitting on a tissue to wipe a mark off your cheek.
By moving away I start to see the universal human archetypes that transcend culture or borders. The brassy woman and also her counterpart, the interfering old man. I was waiting to pay in the supermarket, trying to practice the art of patience. An older man was ahead of me, chatting to the cashier. Once again I have no clue what he is saying but once again I could read the type. Older man, bit of an eye for the ladies, fancies himself as a charmer. The girl at the register rolled her eyes at me and I smiled. The man carried on chatting and flirting with the young woman. Then he saw me, an older woman, not so pretty, smirking at him, probably another universal archetype of ‘disapproving woman’ unimpressed by his antics. He decided to wind me up ‘when’s the baby due?’ He asked laughing and prodding me in my flabby belly. I didn’t need to be fluent to know he was being rude. ‘Oi!’ I laughed and batted him away. I had found another archetype ‘The Rude Old Man’. I took my offence at his comment home and laughingly shared it with twitter.
In school I see more universals. I was worried before I came here that despite 13 years as a teacher, I wouldn’t understand these privileged international pupils. Their childhoods so different to mine, their lives so different to anything I had experienced, how would I connect?
But with teenagers too some things remain constant. Eleven-year-old girls fall out, argue and try to hurt each other with ever-changing friendship groups. Sixteen-year-old boys think they know everything and try to asset their emerging masculinity whilst retreating back to scared little boys at a moments notice. Fifteen-year-old girls think they are too fat or too stupid to find a boyfriend despite being beautiful, intelligent and perfect.
In adults these universals remain too. A group of teachers from my school; Brits, Brazilians, teachers, Porterios, maintenance staff, played football against a group of Argentinians. After the game, beers and BBQ. Despite being from different countries, incomes or experiences what did they end up doing? Pushing each other around in a trolley to see how fast and how far it would go before they fell out. Exactly what my student mates did in Northampton in 1994.
So by moving away we can be reminded of the connectedness of human beings. In the last few days I travelled to one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen; Iguazu Falls on the Brazilian/Argentine border. We went on an exhilarating boat ride, speeding across the water, under the falls, sprayed by the wonderful waterfalls, screaming like kids. As we zoomed around the river grinning at each other, a boat full of strangers, sharing the moment, absolutely connected. In that moment as we shouted and waved at the other boats on the river smiling at everyone, no language, no cultures, no clashes. Everyone was linked together by the experience of being surrounded by that awesome sight. Revelling in the moment, being part of it, joined together as human beings, a universal connection of being together in this beautiful world. Surrounded by the best the earth can bring, alive with beating hearts.
Or maybe it was just dam good fun?
Either way, I tried to savour the moment, to pause and take it in. To recognise how far I had come. But in that moment I was not far from home, I was exactly there, in that place, not surrounded by strangers but friends I didn’t know. Joined together in appreciation, joined together. And so, as I crave familiarity, I try to see the familiar in the strange because then I am not so far away.