Sunday, March 27, 2011

Pimp my lunch

As much as we love our London life, sometimes we feel the need to get away from the big smoke for a bit. Clear our lungs (did I mention we live in the most polluted zone in London?), clear our heads, and take some sea air. This was how, last Saturday, we found ourselves on a day trip to Brighton… having lunch with a pimp.

We had gone to visit my good friend, Renato. Brighton is a great city by the sea. Originally a ‘posh holiday’ town, it still retains an air of faded grandeur. Now, though, it’s a lively city with great restaurants, shops and of course a famous nightlife. On a sunny day, there’s nothing better than a walk down to the pier, and a pub lunch of fish and chips.

Little did we know our lunch would turn out to be so eventful. Right as we were set to eat, Renato got a call from one of his fútvolley acquaintances who was in Brighton for the day with his girlfriend and wanted to join us for lunch. If you don’t know what fútvolley is, I’ll take a moment to explain: imagine volleyball played like soccer – you can’t touch the ball with your hands, but you may use any other part of your body. It’s a game enjoyed by loads of cariocas every day on the beaches of Rio.

"I'm sorry," Renato told us after hanging up,"I couldn't think of a reason to say no. I hope it's okay if they join us for lunch." We assured him it was fine.

The couple who dined with us were very nice. He was a Brazilian immigrant to London who had previously lived in the US. She was a British PE teacher. They seemed relatively normal and we all had a good time. After we'd parted ways, I asked Renato why he hadn't seemed so keen on having them to lunch.

"Ah yes," he replied,"I have to tell you a story about that. The last time I went to London to visit this guy, we had to stop off at his house for something. Before getting out of the car, he turned to me and said ' there's something you should know'. I thought oh no, he's dealing drugs... but no. Instead he told me, 'I run a brothel from my house'. That was the last time I talked to him before today. I definitely don't need people like that in my life."

"Wow," I replied,"to think we've had lunch with a pimp and his girlfriend and we didn't even know! Wait, do you think his girlfriend knows?"

"I don't think so. Well, I doubt it anyway."

"Maybe," interjected my husband with a grin,"she's not really a PE teacher. All that talk of 'physical education' could mean something else."

We continued to debate the issue as we walked along the shore, enjoying the first sunny day of spring.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Brighton my day

London is slowly awakening from its winter slumber. The cherry blossoms and daffodils have all appeared, though the air remains effing cold freezing far chillier than I’d like, prompting fantasies of the tropical bliss necessary to balance my inner thermostat. Though I refuse to part with my winter coat (and hat and mitties), we are determined to enjoy spring. And what better way to enjoy it, and recall my time in the tropics, than a visit to my dear Brazilian friend who now lives in Brighton?

I first met Renato through my cousin who lived in Rio, about a month after my arrival in the cidade maravilhosa. My cousin ran a travel agency specialising in ESL courses abroad, and Renato was to go to Calgary in January to study for six months. We immediately hit it off, him being THE party guy, and me in desperate need of some serious partying. When it became clear that my cousin’s gorgeous mountain oasis did not exactly offer easy access to those with no car, Renato’s generous family offered to let me stay with them. He’d be leaving just after I started my Portuguese course, and I could have his room. It seemed like the perfect solution.

We decided to test it out for a week before he left to see if I got on with his family. It was much easier to come and go as I pleased… with one tiny problem. I had no key.

“I’ll give you my key when I leave,” he said, “but for now you will be fine.”

“But what if there’s no one home? How will I get in?”

“Ah, relax. There’s always someone home!”

There was nobody home the next day when I arrived from my course. I tried to call his sister – no answer. I tried Renato’s mobile – straight to voicemail. I knew he’d been out partying the night before, and often slept off the festivities at one of his friends’ houses. I had no idea when he would be back. I could do nothing but wait in the 42C heat. Wait, and compose a little poem.

It’s afternoon, the sun is high, and still he is not here.

Perhaps he stopped along the way to drink another beer.

Just how much did he drink last night? And how far did he roam?

Because it’s two pm right now and he has not come home.

So now I sit here wondering, what was his drink of choice?

And did he smoke enough last night to make him lose his voice?

Wine, beer, cachaça, vodka, gin, he ordered more and more.

And now he’s sleeping, snoring, still passed out on someone’s floor.

He loves to drink, he loves to dance, he has a wicked tan.

But when he goes to Calgary he’ll need to have a plan.

In minus thirty two degrees he won’t get very far

If he decides to stumble home from drinking at the bar.

Renato, my dear friend, I want to warn you of a place

Where setting foot outside can freeze your feet, your hands, your face.

And you won’t feel a thing, as soon your heart rate starts to slow.

The next thing that we’ll hear is you’ve been found dead in the snow.

So go ahead and drink, my friend, knock back those beers and giv’er!

To freeze to death is worse than what you’re doing to your liver.

When I wrote that poem, I never would have imagined we would both one day be living in the UK. Renato thankfully didn't freeze to death, and his course in Calgary was a success. As for me, I ended up living almost six months with his family (who I now think of as my Brazilian family). I think it's fair to say we've both grown up considerably since. I'm married and starting a new career, and he and his girlfriend are excited for arrival of their first baby. This last fact makes me chuckle. His days of partying are well and truly over. Somehow I doubt he's that upset, but when he changes that first dirty diaper, I'll know the cosmos are finally dishing up some sweet revenge for leaving me out in the blistering Brazilian sun all afternoon.

"Ah relax, Nato... their poo isn't as gross as they get older!" Heh heh heh...

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Global Tastes

Apparently this week there were lots of Brazilian carnaval parties in London. I say ‘apparently’ because, though I was invited to a number of them, I was forced to stay home sick this weekend. So unfortunately for you all, I don’t have any cool photos of awesome celebrations and sweaty samba. I mean, the best I could do would be to steal a photo of my Brazilian friend in her carnaval outfit (complete with a fake tattoo that reads “Daddy’s”), but since she helped me out so much getting settled here, I’d prefer to stay in her good graces.

And really, carnaval in London just isn’t the same. All those Brazilians, trying to have a good time, partying and drinking… but really wishing they were somewhere else. Kind of sad, really. I know the feeling. I spent carnaval of 2006 in Rio de Janeiro and it was amazing. I think all expats feel this way. There are certain things that can never really be properly replicated outside a country’s borders. Celebrations and traditions are difficult to imitate.

In my last post I mentioned the frustration that comes from not being able to find specific types of ingredients. This can be one of the most difficult aspects of expat life, as food is such a crucial part of cultural identity. Also, let's face it, I am a little bit obsessed with food. I mean, the second I finish a meal, I start wondering what I'll eat for my next. But I don't think this longing for specific tastes and smells is confined to the expat community. It can occur upon moving to another part of the same country (I used to bemoan the loss of these when I moved to the Maritimes for university), and even upon taking a vacation and tasting something so authentic and delicious you can never go back to your "fake" version at home.

This will lead you to say smug traveller things like, "sandwiches, pah! I ate the best sandwich of my life in France and all it had on it was butter, ham and cheese... it's all in the ingredients. These just don't compare," and "You haven't had a real mojito until you've had one in Havana... oh wait, sorry Michael, I forgot you can't go to Cuba." And trust me, once you've had crème fraiche, you can never, ever go back to sour cream.

But sometimes expats have a hard time explaining why they crave the foods they do. Sometimes they just have a hard time explaining food from their country, even if they don't crave it. Like last week, when my coworker discovered a food she'd never seen before. Now, keep in mind I work for a French company that employs mostly French nationals, and other suave continental Europeans.

Coworker 1: "Hey, can someone tell me how you would market pasta in a can?"

Coworker 2: "Pasta in a can? But, why would you put pasta in a can? Is it already cooked pasta?"

Coworker 1: "Yes, it's like ravioli in sauce... in a can."

Coworker 2: "But there are fresher, ready made pastas with sauces you can buy. Who would you sell it to?"

Me: "Oh, yeah. Pasta in a can. This is probably going to mean nothing to you, but it's like Chef Boyardee! You know... no? Right. That means nothing to you. Okay, well it's sort of like Kraft Dinner."

Coworker 1: "Like what?"

Me: "Kraft Dinner, pasta in a box, with powder cheese, and you make the sauce using milk and... I just realised how disgusting this all sounds."

(Coworkers share a look that plainly says 'remind me not to try Canadian food')

Me: "Anyway, it's probably a lot cheaper than fresh pasta, so you market it to teenagers, students, and overstressed low-income parents of picky eaters."

Coworker 2: "The same demographic that buys wine in a tetrapack!"

Me: "Um... wine in a tetrapack isn't always THAT bad..."

At this point I probably lost all credibility. I might as well start waxing poetic about disgusting Tim Horton's coffee. There's even a store that sells Timmy ho's on Haymarket Street. Why? Presumably so Canadian tourists (and those working at the Embassy just down the road) can get their fix. Smug traveller food cravings are strange things indeed. Ah, look at the time! I've got to get to the Asian market before it closes so I can get the ingredients to make Vietnamese pho soup. But you know... you haven't tasted real pho until you've been to Vietnam.