Imagination rules the world

I’ve got a friend who is obsessed with Napoleon. I saw him last night, and he has a week off work. “What did you do on your first day off?” I asked him. “I went to see the skeleton of Napoleon’s horse in Chelsea,” he replied. Naturellement.

A picture that has always fascinated me is the portrait of Napoleon, in enforced exile on Saint Helena. He was put there because it was 2,000 km from any landmass, thwarting his desire to invade and rule.

The picture is of him gazing out to the ocean, none of his desire weakened despite the impossibility of realising it. I think I love that picture because he hasn’t given up, but also because it depicts human limits, fallibility and frailty.

Another friend gave me a locket, and I’ve printed out the picture of Napoleon on Saint Helena. I won’t really be in exile in Brazil, or at any rate a self-imposed one. Seeing the picture will remind me of missing home and those two friends in particular.

“The English are frigid, drink too much and don’t like sex”

My Brazilian Portuguese teacher told me what he thought of the English last night. “I like living here,” he said. “I’ve been here for 10 years and I can put up with the cold weather, especially if I go home to Brazil for a month in the winter.

“I do find the English people a bit… frigid. They don’t like sex, they are more interested in drinking.”

Every time I go away somewhere, I miss the orderly white buildings, the cool temperature, the silence of England. At least in suburbia, anyway. The quaint look of the streets compared to the ugly soul-destroying high rises in the Moscow suburbs was comforting to return to. The absence of anyone selling me anything I didn’t want was also welcome after two weeks in Mumbai.

I have to say that it is this frigid aspect that bothers me most about the English. My Brazilian teacher said that on a night out with a beautiful female friend of his who was on the hunt for a man, not one man chatted her up or responded to her approaches. “They were all sitting in groups, drinking,” he said. Not only that, but he said he noticed there was an absence of anyone hugging or being tactile anywhere in the club, even if there was no sexual purpose to it.

Northern hemisphere countries often tend to be pissheads (stand up Finland, Ireland, Russia, Canada and Germany), but not all have this lack of warmth and openness. It is such a cliche about the Brits or the English specifically that I want to resist it. Yet it’s hard to imagine a friend not talking to me for three months and us never discussing why in, say, Italy or even the States. Or the complaint of my friend’s mother that she wasn’t invited to a wedding, which it turns out, she would have rather wash her eyes in chilli sauce than gone to anyway.

At the weekend, a Spanish friend said to me it’s only in England that people “settle” for husbands and wives they don’t love, but who will be reliable/good providers/come from the right background/have agreed to fill the gap that no one more exciting has been willing to fill, etc.

I know I’m not heading for Utopia. Some descriptions of Rio de Janeiro are more akin to a hell below than any kind of heaven above. Friends have talked about constant traffic jams, getting robbed on such a regular basis that it becomes part of the weekly routine, appalling poverty and corruption.

At least this project has allowed me to swerve the pressure to marry someone I’m not interested in, who’s mother I have offended without ever knowing how or why. I’m sure after a while I’ll be craving the rain, the green lawns and most certainly a decent cup of tea, but you can keep the mond-boggling etiquette and misguided sense of propriety.