Myths and legends part 1

It has struck me that when you are in another country, talking to other people who have moved there from abroad, a strange thing happens.

People behave in lots of ways that they wouldn’t do at home, but one of the weird things they do is accept wholesale any information given whatsoever about the new place. Without questioning it, without judgement, nothing.

So it came to pass that my friend from the US, when in England, was told that the English drink a lot because one year the Irish topped a poll of European drinkers, and we didn’t want them to ‘win’ again. This was related as a fact, not a funny anecdote. I can imagine Winston Churchill (for some reason, it has to be him), announcing gravely over the wireless that it is the duty of every man, woman and child to go to the pub immediately, to defend the reputation of our great nation. Everyone gathered round sombrely, determined to do their patriotic duty.

Thus the off-the-cuff remark becomes inscripted in marble.

Another Brit living here told me with great authority why it is that Brazilian women actually cultivate (rather than avoid) bikini lines on their chests. Topless sunbathing is banned, but she said the actual reason is that they want to show men they are quite pale underneath the tan, and capable of having white children. There is plenty of evidence of racism, unfortunately, in this country that bills itself as ‘a country for all.’ But this was just pushing it a bit too far. In that case, why not be like the folks I met in Thailand, who avoided getting a tan at all costs, and tried to look pale all over?

Since the same woman, mother of two youngsters, advised my 45-year-old friend and I to have children for a permanent visa, I can only conclude that she was one of these tedious sorts who thinks the meaning and purpose of everything begins and ends in children. Not sure who has less chance of doing this, me or a 45-year-old woman. In any case, the lack of spontaneity and freedom motherhood inevitably entails would mean I might as well live in the UK after all. No need to go to all the bother and expense.

For the record, I think Brazilian women do this because men find it sexy, since it shows the outline of the breasts. When analysing the sense of any theory, I think it makes sense to acknowledge that the male fascination with breasts is a more powerful drive than most.

The city that celebrates itself

Recently, in a blast from my past employment, I went to cover the premiere of a new animation called Rio. It was strange how it was like riding a bike, the adrenaline, the chatting to celebrities, improvising when you’ve run out of questions and competing with everyone around you while maintaining a fixed smile.

In this case, the celebrities are just providing the voices, and you could argue that the real star is the city itself. It’s going to be followed later this year by a movie called Rio, Eu Te Amo, a series of 10 short movies about the city. That’s following the similar ones about Paris and New York which we’ve already seen. What with the Olympics and the World Cup coming here, there is a resurgance of pride which can only be a good thing. Cariocas themselves often wear clothes with tourist slogans on them, which I can’t imagine happening too often in London.

Of course it brings its downsides. People are talking about a property bubble in the exclusive areas of Leblon and Ipanema. Some of my older friends are cynical that they have heard all this before, that Brazil is perpetually on the up but never quite arriving there, and of course the building for the games and the football is behind and there are constant stories about how corruption means nothing will be ready in time.

I sense another problem too. When I was in London, something which now strikes me as strange was always happening among people I knew. People would say it was the best city in the world, and obsess over books and pictures of the historical city to the exclusion of interest in other places. How could they know it was the best city in the world when they had never lived anywhere else! Perhaps all cities that aren’t in the United States feel the need to assert their cultural identity to some extent. A part of it is discovering who you are, exploring the factors that created that identity. Too much and it just becomes smug, and ultimately a little dead and irrelevant. Nothing reminds me of this more than the skinhead/soul scene I used to be a part of. Religiously dressing in the same clothes and restricting themselves to the same limited genre of music, what is fascinating about it is the extent to which these people are living in an England which doesn’t exist anymore. Perhaps it never did.

Here it is difficult to hear music other than samba, funk, forro and choro, probably in that order. Funk might have its roots in Miami bass but ultimately it is a resolutely Carioca sound not made anywhere else in the world now. A British friend of mine says the reason he could never live here permanently is the lack of openness to new or different things. Interesting bars have opened and closed down again in a nanosecond in Ipanema as people prefer to stick to the classics they know and love. In a way this is the strength of Rio de Janeiro. Unlike the feeling I got in Mumbai, where the assumption was that all things Western are culturally superior (even to the point where young Indians I knew were lapping up bland doughy pizzas and “grills” instead of their own delicious cuisine), there is a strong sense of identity. But just congratulating yourself over and over again is not a recipe for progress or creativity.

Depressingly, the outside influences that stick tend to pull the city towards the worst aspects of the US. People buy a cheap laptop in Miami and then think it’s a model metropolis. The challenge is going to be keeping this unique identity that makes Rio special while becoming the dynamic “world city” that the economy demands. As with funk, perhaps being open to outside influences doesn’t have to mean being swallowed up by them.