Here where Roberto is from is a bit of a small town, really a neighborhood suburb of a bigger city I guess. It’s very different from the US suburban neighborhoods I’m used to though, especially because much of this town is made up of farms. It’s not really rural in the US sense (which I would consider more remote and further from the city), just a big cluster of farms around a small town with stores and businesses. It’s a little difficult to classify as urban, suburban or rural in the US sense, so the most accurate description I can come up with is “small town Brazil.”
There are many familiar small town attributes here. Everyone knows one another. If fact, as far as I can tell, more people than not are cousins or aunts. Roberto’s mom grew up in a house just a few doors down from where she lives now, and her two sisters each live in close proximity on the same street. We are walking distance from the church and social hall, a gas station, a restaurant, and several shops including two grocery stores, a home improvement store and some clothing shops. There are also quite a few botecos (dive bars). Roberto’s family obviously knows the owners of each establishment and probably has been to their houses at some point.
That’s another thing that stands out here. All of the mom and pop type shops are actually kind of refreshing. Here it still seems to be an attainable goal to open a retail store or restaurant without worrying about competition from huge chains. As a consumer I can enjoy a variety of individually-owned, unique and quirky restaurants with no McDonald’s or Applebee’s in sight. I like the feeling of supporting the local economy, too.
On being an outsider
There really aren’t many “outsiders” from what I can tell. Sure, some residents of the town have married Brazilians from other towns or from out of state and settled here. I don’t think there are any foreigners living in this small town. Sure, people go away to college or move to other places and sometimes come back. But for many people I come across here, not only am I a somewhat rare outsider, but likely the only American they’ve ever met.
So that makes things interesting for me. I’m a bit of an introvert and not one to relish in lots of attention so it has taken some getting used to dealing with people’s curiosity. Some folks play it really cool and are very kind. I’ve had some people, usually girls my age or younger, openly stand there and stare at me. Most people are fine but sometimes the blatant attention is unnerving!
This isn’t to say that I have been treated poorly or feel unwelcome. Most people are very generous and accomodating. I get invitations to visit people’s homes almost daily. Roberto’s immediate family have begun to treat me like one of their own. In general I can totally vouch for Brazilian hospitality.
Then there’s the language thing. My Portuguese is marginal at best and I have found so many different reactions to the fact that I don’t speak the language. People here just aren’t used to speaking with a foreigner. I typically get three types of communicators here. The best are patient people who understand what it’s like to study a new language. They speak slowly and choose words I would likely know instead of lots of slang. They use gestures and annunciate and even affirm that I understand once I reply. These are typically younger more educated people.
It would be easier for me to converse if everyone was like this, but there’s a second type of communicator that makes things a little more difficult. I think it’s a very new concept to this group that someone can’t speak in their language. They speak to me in the same exact manner they speak with anyone else, just repeating louder if I don’t follow. Though they know I don’t speak Portuguese, it seems as though they don’t know what to do with the idea besides talk to me they way they talk to everyone else. These are usually older women. One nice thing is they’ll talk my ear off regardless, so I don’t have to worry about trying to respond
Finally, amongst the last group I’ve consistently encountered are people who for whatever reason do not attempt to communicate with me at all. Or maybe they will say one thing to me and if it seems difficult for me to understand, give up and not address me further again. I think it’s a combination of embarrassment and lack of patience. This group is almost always older men or those girls my age who are kind of princesses.
Some things about life here in small town Brazil make me feel like I’ve stepped back in time. It’s not that there aren’t modern conveniences like cable and high speed Internet. The social structure just reminds me of an earlier time, at least from a North American perspective. People here get married young and have children early. More often than not, women stay at home taking care of the house and kids while their husbands work in offices or factories. It seems to be the norm and expectation that women take care of “woman’s work” and always seem to have dinner on the table promptly. I would be interested to see how financial decisions are made within these marriages. Who’s the boss? I get the idea things are highly patriarchal.
Yet despite the common throwback to a 1950′s household there are also modern social norms like those I’ve seen in the US. For each of Roberto’s female acquaintances who’s a housewife there is another who is in medical or law school or running her own business. Young people travel, go away to college and sometimes move to other countries (for example, many people in this part of Brazil have European ancestry and can gain citizenship to live and work in Europe). Single mothers are not unheard of and certainly not shunned as in the 50′s. In general, things are modern in many ways and things are old-fashioned in other ways.
These are just some of my observations after visiting here a few times and trying to learn more about the culture while I am here on this trip. It is an interesting opportunity for me to become familiar with two different (to me) cultures at once: Brazilian and small town. Now that I’ve introduced my perspective of what it’s like here in small town Brazil, I look forward to sharing some “culture-related” anecdotes in the near future.