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Saturday, March 7, 2015

Rio at age 450: Ten things I love and hate about the Marvelous City

RIO DE JANEIRO
From the blogger's apartment in Copacabana,
a view of the Sugar Loaf mountain near
where Rio de Janeiro was founded 450 years ago 
This week saw the city I have been calling my second home for several years now celebrate its 450th anniversary. St Sebastian of the River of January (to give it its full name)  was indeed founded on March 1, 1565, by Portuguese officer Estácio de Sá. Fresh on the heels of Carnaval, Cariocas (as Rio's residents are known) used the pretext to carry on partying, and indeed fun was had in different parts of this amazing city: concert in the Quinta da Boa Vista park (where the imperial family used to live), another one off the Guanabara Bay on reclaimed Aterro do Flamengo park, and a 450-m cake was shared by whomever showed up in old Rio. It was fun watching Carioca kids engaging in cake fights, a local version of  snowball fights.

For me, a foreign transplant during several months a year,  it is time to reflect on what I love about the city...and what I hate.

1. LOVE: My favorite streets: Paissandu and Constante Ramos

Actually there are more, but I will stick to these two. Paissandu Street starts from Flamengo Beach in the neighborhood of the same name and links it to another neighborhood, Laranjeiras, at the foot of Corcovado mountain. Lined on both sides by imperial palm-trees and graced by beautiful mansions that hark back to a time when it was the city's most desirable location (the street was built as a grand entrance to Princess Isabel's palace at the Laranjeiras end), Rua Paissandu was home to the  (fictional) couple in the novel A Sucessora (which according to some was plagiarized by Daphne du Maurier in her famous novel, Rebecca, - I read both and have to admit the similarities are just too many.)

Guanabara Palace built in the mid-19th century by
the Emperor Pedro II for his daughter, Princess Isabel.
It is now the home of the governor of Rio (2013)


Rua Constante Ramos is right at the corner of the street across from my building in Copacabana. When I come back back from
The best coffee in Rio (2010)
my daily dip in the water (weather permitting) I have no greater pleasure than admiring on my right the Capricciosa building, a stunning Art Deco mansion (now turned into serviced apartments) that looks as if it had been transplanted straight from Miami Beach. And, then, in front of me, the dramatic plunging view of the huge grass-covered and favela-free mountain that towers over the nearby buildings. Quite a sight. Just before I cross the Avenida de Copacabana into my building, is one of my favorite cafés in Rio: Cafeina, which serves  the best coffee in town and delicious pastries (brigadeiro is my favorite.)

2. HATE: Leaving items at supermarket checkout

An irritating feature of Brazilian shoppers, at least in Rio, is the tendency to fill their shopping cart with every item that catches their fancy as they stroll from aisle to aisle. And when they arrive at checkout that's when they start making decisions about what to buy and what to discard. This means that not only the checkout line (already long by nature) takes even longer to clear, but you also find yourself struggling with the bottles, fruit, cans and assorted item left on the belt. Particularly worrying are frozen/refrigerated food which is left to defrost or go warm for hours with nobody from the store (certainly not the lady at the cash register)  seeming to mind.

3. HATE: Random violence

The day in 2009  the blogger was shot at.
The bus I was riding  in received a stray bullet which went
straight through my window seat. The bus driver didn't stop
as "nobody was hurt" he said
The culture of violence and neglect in Brazil means that, without being paranoid, you have to be aware that you can become a victim of violence through no fault of yours, actually without even anybody's intention. Exploding manholes, falling buildings, preventable fires, predictable mudslides can happen at any moment. One of the saddest and scariest are stray bullets which a housewife busy hanging her laundry on her balcony can receive and fall mortally wounded. I myself was once in a bus when two cars drove by exchanging gunshots (sometimes it's gangsters engaging in shootouts, sometimes its cops in hot pursuit of them). One of the bullets went through my window (see picture left), passing a couple of inches from my nose. I couldn't find the bullet, but I still keep fragments of the window. By the way, stray bullets are a tradition in Rio: Estácio de Sá was killed by a stray arrow!



4. LOVE: Easily found, good home-made food

Sure, there are Burger Kings, McDonald's and KFC "restaurants" (the French in me just cannot accept to grant such places the noble accolade of "restaurant") as well as local clones such as Bob's, but they are outnumbered by a true Brazilian institution: the per-weight self-service restaurant. Due to the dreadful state of Brazilian logistics and transportation, it is is difficult to move (and keep) frozen food, so everything you see at these places is home made. And it is succulent. With particularly fertile soil, Brazil boasts great produce (fruit, vegetable, meat) which in turn makes for tasty food, something hard to come by in the United States or Europe.

5. LOVE: The irrepressible chatter of Brazilians

I lived five months in Zurich, Switzerland, last year. I never got to meet a single of my neighbors. The rare times I'd see them on the stairs or coming out of the elevator, they'd run away before I got to utter, "Gute Morgen." In Rio, people would talk to you anywhere: in a store, on the street, on the elevator, on a bus. Anytime somebody is next to you and they feel like sharing something with you, they will. Sure, sometimes the verbal diarrhea is a bit of an imposition, but the warmth and  the spirited conversation often make up for it.

6. HATE: Erratic urban planning and eyesores

The Ypriranga building popularly known as the
Mae West, as an obvious reference to the buxom
1920s movie star.  This Art Deco  masterpiece was
the first building  I visited  when I started  apartment
hunting in Rio. Renowned architect
Oscar Niemeyer had his office on the top floor
(2008)
Rio is famed for its beauty, but it is of course its natural beauty we are talking about. Man-made works tend to scar the landscape rather than enhance it. Almost any street will have buildings built at odd angles, asymmetrical, with an unequal number of stories. One of my "favorite" eyesore is the Othon Palace Hotel, the tallest building on Copacabana Beach. How on earth was this 20-story allowed to go up when according to regulations no building higher than 13 is allowed? That's Brazil for you. A couple of blocks down, there used to be a lovely Art Deco mansion housing the Austrian Embassy.  It was one of the last single dwellings on the beach. I used to love to sit next to it and in one swoop glance take in the Sugar Loaf and the Pink House as it was familiarly known. Not any longer. Despite being listed (and therefore protected) it was sold, torn down and some tall hotel will replace it.







Where once stood the lovely Casa Rosada... (2012)


...Destruction and suspense as to what will replace it (2013)
An even more (in)famous case was that of the Palácio Monroe, in Downtown Rio. Before the giant Christ the Redeemer statue was built, the Palácio Monroe was a symbol of the city until it was inexplicably torn down to make way for a...parking lot! (Fortunately, the city also boasts great buildings from its colonial past, many well preserved, and in the Cinelândia and Copacabana neighborhoods, gorgeous Art Deco buildings are a testimony that some efforts to mirror the city's natural beauty were not in vain.)




A successful architectural mix of old and new at the MAR,
Rio's most recent museum, the week it opened (March 2013)
                                                                  



7. LOVE: Natural and human beauty
From Christ the Redeemer facing south:
Ipanema and the Lake (2007)
The breathtaking natural beauty of the city (which mixes beaches, tropical forests, mountains, hills, ocean and bay) has its counterpart in the Carioca. Largely the result of what Brazilians refer to as miscegenação, or mixed races, and a beach lifestyle, the physical beauty of Cariocas is legendary. Just stroll down a street or just sitting at a botequim (as traditional bars are called) and eye candy will brighten up your days in the form of naturally beautiful women and handsome men, often scantily clad. Of course, some of these perfect bodies have been helped by science, but that doesn't detract from the fact that no other city on earth has such a high concentration of gorgeous bodies, perfect faces and sensual people as the Marvelous City.

From Christ the Redeemer facing west:
the Bay of Guanabara, the Sugar Loaf, Boatafogo and its
horseshoe-shaped cove (2007)


8. HATE: Brazilian red tape

For somebody used to the honors system so prevalent in the United States and in many parts of Europe, you will be shocked at the realization that the Brazilian government basically assumes that all its citizens are dishonest. As a consequence of this, any transaction you want to carry out (invest in real estate, start a business, become a resident, open a bank account...) requires you to produce an inordinately long list of documents, many of which requires each the production of another long list of documents. Most have to be obtained from quasi-government agencies known as cartórios, are not all inexpensive and take for ever to be produced. Woe betide you if one character is missing from one document, or your name is misspelled; you will have to start all over again. Patience is a virtue which, if you don't have it when you arrive in Brazil, you will learn to develop. (President Dilma Rousseff has appointed a cabinet member in charge of desburocratização or "unredtaping" similar to French President Hollande's efforts at simplification administrative - I wouldn't hold my breath at the success of any of these transatlantic endeavors)

9. LOVE/HATE: The informality/Lack of punctuality of the Carioca

The relaxed atmopshere of Rio de Janeiro means that you are not expected to dress up for most occasions. A T-shirt, bermuda shorts and flip-flops are perfectly acceptable in most cases. In the beach districts you can walk around, enter some restaurants, bars and grocery stores barefoot and with nothing on you but your tiny swimsuit (whose diminutive female version is referred to as "dental floss".) So refreshing that you feel in a permanent state of vacation.

The downside is that punctuality is a concept completely alien to Brazilians, especially Cariocas. Even in business settings. Set up a meeting for the next day at 10 am, and if people accept you will thing it's a done deal. You may be in for a big disappointment: nobody might show up at 10. When a Carioca agrees to a meeting, they are merely conveying that they are interested in seeing you again, whether on that allotted time or some other time, or simply that that they don't want to be rude and tell you they won't show up. For an American or a European this can be maddeningly frustrating.

10. LOVE: Incredible variety of cultural and sports offering

One can be easily awe-struck by the beauty of the Rio landscape as mentioned earlier.Less well-known is the sheer variety of museums, plays, shows, bookstores, art exhibits, concerts, cinemas available on any given day. When the federal government left for newly built Brasilia, Rio found itself with countless grand government buildings it didn't know what to do with. Many were turned into museums, and some often put on great shows. One that opened this week, part of the 450 years celebration, is at the old Post Office HQ in the old town, and it presents a great assortment of the amazing engravings and painting by French artist Debret who called Rio home for a decade in the early 19th century when the city went from sleepy colonial backwater to imperial capital and then capital of an independent country. Debret left us incredible detailed testimonies of every day life in Rio de Janeiro, along with historical events such as the only coronation of a European king in the Americas. Live music can be heard from basically everywhere, especially on weekends, from the Copacabana oceanfront to the bohemian district of Lapa. During Carnaval the energetic samba rhythms are hard to tune out. Sebos, as second-hand bookshops are known,  are a treasure trove of titles you will not find in the large retail chain stores such as Travessa or Saraiva. Theatre-wise, I prefer the West End and Broadway, but the quality of Rio's theatre offering is not to be scoffed at. An excellent production still playing is the musical Cazuza about a famous Brazilian singers from the 80s.

On the sports side, beach volley is  a great favorite on the beach across from my apartment (it will be the venue for that particular Olympic game). Frescobol can be seen the whole day. A few minutes down the beach towards the Copacabana Fort stand up paddle has become quite popular these last few years, as has slack lining where you balance on a rope tied between two palm trees. Hang-gliding for thrill seekers allows you to take in the stunning beauty of the city, and do I need to mention soccer which is a religion here (despite the calamity at last year's World Cup)?  Cariocas are way more sports oriented than culturally minded, but still there are newspaper stands at every street corner and the press offering is quite diversified and of surprisingly good quality (I couldn't live without O Globo here.)

Of course, I could go on for much longer. there are a few more things I positively abhor (such as the absurd prices, see my earlier post), and countless more that draw me to the country. My sincerest hope is that in the next few years the list of the latter lengthens, while the former are reduced significantly.


(The blogger has a second home in Rio de Janeiro where he spends part of the year. All the pictures were taken by him between 2007 and the publication of this post. When the blogger is not in residence, his penthouse can be rented. Check out the Airbnb listing, also available on TripAdvisor/Flipkey and Homeaway. You can also rent it straight from the blogger)