I am writing this from a balcony in the salubrious area of Rio called Leblon. If Mayfair was below the equator, it would be here, with improbable-sized butterflies floating past, and some of the most exclusive restaurants in the city located just below. However, it wasn’t always thus.
A stroke of fortune has brought me here, but only on Tuesday I was thrown out of my last place. In truth, it had been hell since I moved in, more or less, due to a parade of noisy flatmates and a series of unfortunate events (if it hadn’t already been used as a book title, I would be bagging A Series of Unfortunate Events as my autobiography title).
The landlady moved herself in on January, and proceeded to do works inside at all hours, including weekends, though somehow failed to replace the rusty, 12-year-old washing machine with anything that didn’t turn my white clothes yellow. Grey would have been ok, but yellow just looks unclean. Anyway. I finally complained about this last Saturday, when I awoke to find a fat man shouting into his phone on the balcony, various hoovering and drilling sounds reverberating around the flat, and the contents of the cupboards in my hallway all over the floor.
Due to my complaint, she sent me an email two days later ordering me to leave by the end of the month, as well as informing me that the British Empire was now over, as was my stay in the flat, and the insult that I have a temper “like the Iron Lady.” I managed to put myself up in this flat (courtesy of ex-pat friends) but returned last night to get some of my things, only to find she had put most of them out for rubbish, and to find her screaming at me some of the most colourful Portuguese I had yet heard spoken outside of the football grounds. The porter had been told not to let me in, and “get out of my house!” was the most repeatable thing she said, regardless of my having paid rent until the end of the month.
This series of unfortunate events was precipitated partly by the “mercado parallelo” that exists for renting out here. If a foreigner (or anyone) wants to go through the formal renting process, they must find a fiador, a kind of guarantor who will agree to pay your rent if for some reason you find yourself indisposed. As with many bureaucratic laws here, it is so cumbersome and impossible for many to fulfil, including many Brazilians themselves, that a large alternative market has sprung up, informal, and without any paperwork whatsoever.
The politicians in Brasilia have beavered away to create a mountain of laws which would have protected me as a tenant; but since I did not have a contract, that protection doesn’t exist. Similarly, the laws governing buying a kettle or mobile phone require the showing of identification so as to prevent the use of certainly mobile phones in prison (kettles maybe not so much) which has created a huge black market for electronic goods. Hop down to Uruguaiana market in the centre of town and you can buy kettles and phones to your heart’s content, using cash, no questions asked.
The housing market here, when it comes to renting, is complicated further by the fact that many Brazilians still live with family members regardless of age. I know of many people with good jobs in their 40s who live with their parents, usually having moved back there after getting divorced. There is certainly no shame in it as there would be at home, and this has the twin effect that there are less places available to share and less people used to doing so. Landlords themselves seem unaware of the rights and boundaries tenants might expect to enjoy; but then again, if your mother still lives with you aged 40, perhaps the concept of boundaries is somewhat different.
It is partly because of this that couples go to motels routinely to sleep together, since privacy at home is often not a realistic expectation. This is as much true for established couples as those having affairs or one-night stands.
The irony of my situation is that while my landlady was keen to throw all the exploitative deeds of my country in my face, but now Brazilians are in a position to exploit Europeans and Americans at will, knowing that we are frequently forced into this parallel market where we don’t have rights, if we even know what they are supposed to be. I am still smarting over being described as being like Margaret Thatcher, regardless of the other expletives she flung at me. Just as in this city, you can be in the midst of what seems like hell, guns, noise, violence, etc, then turn a corner into a gentile, bucolic neighbourhood, I have found myself out of hell and into a peaceful haven – for now. How long this calm will last nobody ever seems to know.