British stereotypes

King Charles I as imagined by the Ilha do Governador samba school, 2012 (Rafael Moraes, Ascom Riotur)

After two years in Rio defending us Brits against various stereotypes, I must admit I’ve been reassessing after being back home in the UK for nearly six weeks. In no particular order…

We’re cold, and it’s not just the temperature

The first thing I noticed, somewhat in shock as I drove away from Heathrow, was the particular insipid blue that the sky was, and the worryingly pale skins of the people in the streets. It’s true that I was in Feltham, and its probably fair to say Feltham is not the UK’s answer to Rio de Janeiro in terms of glamour. Next I noticed that to add to this sombre pallette, most folks seem to wear dark colours, as if the lack of anything vivid in the natural world wasn’t grim enough. I went to see New Order that night which served as a kind of baptism of fire (of ice?) into Britishness, though brilliant. Electronic, industrial soundscapes filled the (cold) room, and everyone did that curious bodyless dancing they do to electronic music in this country. It’s not dancing with a partner, there is certainly no sexuality in it, or contact with other human beings whatsoever.

A couple of times, people I spoke to made it obvious (in that non-confrontational way that English people do) that it was time for me to go away. I was engaging everyone in conversation as Cariocas tend to do, but here in London folks are liable to call the police if you linger for a little too long. The sense of constantly having to defend my personal space was blessedly absent, but in its place there was no one near me at all. Which brings me to the next one…

We’re drunks

Everything changes when people have got a few drinks inside them. People even flirt with each other and talk to strangers, enthusiastically, but there is no danger of this happening at the beginning of the night. Admittedly its difficult to tell when Brazilians are drunk as they can be just as deafeningly loud without it, but flirting is a part of daily life in Rio in a way it just isn’t here. People react incredulously to the idea that Londoners resort to the internet to meet each other. It has taken off to a small extent in Rio, with sites like adultfriendfinder.com augmenting the sex lives of some; but this is a bit like the idea of John Terry taking Viagra – probably unnecessary, and a bit frightening. It seems to me that Londoners use the internet to schedule in a girlfriend or a boyfriend, like they would a meeting with their accountant, but then that person becomes a sort of buddy or flatmate, another sexless component of their lives. Of course there are commendable exceptions (and I’m not talking about John Terry) but in many cases, buying a house and ticking the next lifestyle box is deemed much more important than passion. Unless you’re drunk, when everything is permissable. And then never spoken about again.

The food is terrible

This one annoyed me the most in Rio; as much when it came from people who eat beans and rice for every meal as when it came, as it frequently does, from Americans (I am afraid it is unacceptable to claim the achievements of Mexicans as your own here). I thought of all the great meals I’d eaten over the years in London, roast dinners in Cotswold pubs, Indian food in Manchester’s curry mile (alright, I admit I’m doing the same thing as the yanks), oysters in Whitstable, etc, etc. But I do have to concede a little here, at least to Brazil.

People eat much, much more processed food here (since when is a “steamed meal” anything other than a microwaveable pile of processed junk?), and when they do eat well, it is always so damned pretentious. Scotch egg, anyone? Would that be a free-range egg wrapped in Tweeberry Farm organic pork, sprinkled with chopped flat leaf garden parsley? Fresh, simple food has been sold back to us as a branded, overpriced lifestyle choice, rather than being the normal and unfussy way to eat as it is in Brazil. With everything so stylised, it ceases to be pleasurable and becomes yet another miserable status symbol. Note the gastro pubs and new restaurants reviewed in the Sunday broadsheet supplements, the recipes full of fennel and langoustines, aspirational to the wood-fired, organic core and not actually cooked by anyone. Microwave meal and Ginsters scotch egg it is.

Complaining

Not sure I’d have the nerve to deny this one. There are few things as depressing in life as unrelenting positivity, especially in the face of a very negative reality, but the Brits do love a good moan in the face of a pretty decent reality. I’m torn here as they can be hilarious with it but ultimately I’m going to opt for the Brazilian approach: be sad, then move on, rather than wallow in misery day in day out. Or, as the Mangueira samba school says, agonizar não é morrer (to agonise is not to die).

I’ve got a few more but must sign off, I’m in a Starbucks and few things are more worth complaining about than that.