Friday, January 29, 2010

Feed the pig

Luiz is a master at saving money. When we first met I still had some student loan debt and I was running a (small) balance on one of my credit cards. He was aghast. Then he taught me his favorite axiom for staying debt free: “Don’t put your hand where your arm can’t reach!”

Once I was debt free I could really begin saving the money that has helped us make this transition without too much financial pain.

Now that we are here and earning a fraction of what we used to, saving money has been sort of impossible – except for the pig.

Luiz brought with him his pink porky pal and in the first few days after we arrived he declared the pig only ate one real coins. The pig became our travel funds savings device.

Now, two years later, the pig has literally filled to capacity with one real coins.

Time to pull the plug on her belly and count the coins.

This is where you call the kids in to learn a lesson about saving money. I counted the coins. How much do you think? R$500? R$800?

That hungry little porker helped us save R$1,328 rather effortlessly. Amazing.

Machu Picchu here we come! Yahoo!

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Cooking what I want

Somehow my blogging activity has me thinking about food and cooking. I’ve commented on how hard it can be to cook like a native and how much harder it can be to find the ingredients I need to cook like back home.

Yesterday I got inspired to cook esfihas (triangle spinach pies). The recipe I know comes from my mother, who learned it from her mother, who was born in Lebanon. Here in Brazil the savory, pastry finger food is very popular and the national chain Habib's has turned them into a cheap and delightful fast food.

But if you have ever tried to cook them yourself you know that they are anything but fast to make.

First I made 2.5 lbs of plain white pizza dough in my bread maker. (It took an hour.) While that was coming together I chopped three onions, four cloves of garlic, cleaned three bunches of spinach, and chopped and reconstituted about three quarters of a cup of dried shitake mushrooms (my mother never used dried shitake mushrooms, but we make do with available ingredients). Also, I should have included toasted pine nuts, but these are rare as and priced like gold, so I made due without.
Cooking slowly and for a long period I sautéed the onions with the garlic to release their sweetness. Then I added the mushrooms and spinach, cooking until the spinach was fully wilted. I added salt and pepper to taste and cooked a bit longer, uncovered, to evaporate some of the liquid.

Meanwhile, I crumbled a block of fresh ricotta cheese. After draining the excess liquid from the sautéed onion/spinach mixture I added it to the cheese and mixed thoroughly, adding a few shakes of the secret ingredient: nutmeg (noz-moscada).

Then I separated the prepared dough into a dozen or so balls and let them set a bit to recover from the assault. Each would then be again separated into two smaller portions. I should have just made really small portions from the get go – but my eye is always bigger than my stomach.

Once relaxed and risen a bit more, I took each ball of dough and pressed it into a nice round flat ready for stuffing. (I found using my fingers, pinching and pulling, superior to using a rolling pin.)

Placing a couple tablespoons of filling in the center of the dough I then wet the boundaries of the dough with water and grabbed three points around the circle: 12:00, 4:00, and 8:00, lifting the dough and pinching along the seams formed. Poof – triangle pie.

Placed on a lightly greased cooking sheet in a preheated 375 degree oven for 15 or 20 minutes… perfect!

The problem is: too much work for only a couple dozen pies. But when I get the itch – I enjoy scratching it. Delicious.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Viradouro in Niterói

As we get closer to Carnaval the various schools rehearse in the street, or more rarely, in the Sambadromo itself. We missed our chance to see our hometown favorite school Viradouro do a run-through in the Sambadromo. But last weekend we went downtown to see them parade down main street – in all their glory. The folks in green are from Cubango, a sister-school working their way up to the big leagues.

I’ve said it before – there’s nothing like 10,000 Brazilians singing, dancing, and making music all to the same beat. I can’t get enough.

Here’s a quick look at the fun last Saturday.

Fear the Boom and Bust

OK, call me a geek. I just finished listening to one of my favorite podcasts,"Planet Money" and I just HAD to post this rap video that has classic economists F. A. Hayek and John Maynard Keynes smacking each other down over their oposing economic theories. Brilliant!

Who knew the recent and horrible economic collapse would have such a quirky silver lining -- I'm learning more about the nature of economics. I actually understand what they are rapping about!

Check it out - if you have the stomach.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Carnaval season has begun

It’s almost 1:00 pm and Luiz is still asleep. We got home at 4:00 am last night (this morning). Carnaval season has officially gotten started for us. Yesterday we went to Beija Flor da Nilópolis’ rehearsal. I love me some community partying.

In two cars we drove the 40 minutes or so to get to Nilópolis, a suburb of Rio and very proud home of the Beija Flor samba school. Beija Flor (Humming Bird) is a 60 year old school (community carnaval organization) that has taken first place in Rio’s annual competition in 5 of the past 7 years. The enthusiasm for this school runs high and is widespread.

Thursday night is rehearsal night and the entire neighborhood turns out. The street in front of the quadra (club space, rehearsal hall) is shut down and packed with food, beverage and T-shirt vendors. Everyone from 75 year old revelers who have been parading with Beija Flor since the beginning to 10 year old soon-to-be passistas (featured, celebrated, samba beauties extraordinaire) with their older sister are gathering in the hall to sing and dance – and learn their choreography.

The bateria (300+ member percussion group) pounded out the rhythm while a group of men sang the samba – again, and again, and again – for hours. It never got old. In fact it was hypnotizing and energizing

We hung out in a corner next to the Baianas ala (parade section featuring senior women) while they dutifully kept in line waiting for the word to march forward and rehearse.

Nothing but smiles. Everywhere smiles. Everyone dancing. All night.

Have I mentioned that I love Brazil?

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Keeping it real - and delicious

When Luiz and I were packing up all our worldly belongings in San Francisco to move here two years ago, I hoarded a huge stack of cookbooks in my “must go” pile. I love to cook and I particularly love to cook ethnic meals and fancy baked goods. After forcing myself to pare down the choices, I brought with me 12 different cookbooks (plus some choice magazines and booklets).

Now I think – what was up with that? The internet crosses all culinary boundaries and offers an infinite number of recipes, basic and more complicated.

Plus – the internet has given me access to Brazilian recipes I then encourage Luiz to make for us (see earlier post regarding my not cooking Brazilian meals).

Some sites and blogs inspire me to try new things. Some remind me how to do the most basic things without fail (like banana pancakes). Mostly I enjoy perusing the net for something new using available ingredients.

Here are a few sources I use to keep me excited and to help me cook my best.

Ceramic Canvas
Cooking Light
Cozinha da Nina
Hoje em Dia
Mais Você
Smitten Kitchen
Technicolor Kitchen
Weight Watchers
Worlds Healthiest Foods

And of course I simply Google searches for recipes when the question arises.

It's been two years already

Two years ago today Luiz and I got off the plane at the international airport in Rio de Janeiro – starting our new chapter together here in Brazil.

By then we had left our (super cheap) rent-controlled apartment in San Francisco, sold most of our belongings, placed the rest in a container for shipping to Niterói, walked away from our gainful employment (including the health insurance covering Luiz only two months after his cancer diagnosis), spent four wonderful weeks with my mother and her partner in Florida to catch up on and soak up more family love – to have then finally turned the page to begin anew in Brazil.

Two years. Seems shorter.

I gotta tell ya, no regrets. It’s been a great ride.

My favorites:
- Beaches, beaches, beaches
- Loving and embracing new family and friends
- A slower work life
- Exploring new food and drink
- Seeing Luiz being so loved by his mother
- Everyone’s commitment to joyfulness

My frustrations:
- The strange combination of new technology and old-school bureaucracy
- The relative lack of privacy in our extended family
- Low salaries combined with really expensive consumer goods
- Few friends are prepared to travel to Brazil for a visit

Had I to do it all over again… you bet I would!

Thanks for sticking with us.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

American comfort food

Last night I made good old fashion 'traditional' American-style hamburgers. You know the ones: thick, juicy, with onions, garlic, salt and pepper mixed into the ground meat, served with cheese and grilled onions, tomato, lettuce, ketchup and mustard. Plus moments-ago-fresh hamburger buns from the bakery down the street.

Luiz and I had to pinch ourselves. We practically said in unison: "Why haven't we been making these more often?"

To be fair, the burgers here are great. They are always fried in a pan or on a flat grill. I’ve never seen ground meat at a BBQ (unless spiced and wrapped around a skewer, Lebanese style – mmm-mmm!)

Late-night munchies are often satisfied by a humungous “X-tudo.” I love this twist of language. The letter X in Portuguese is pronounced “sheesh.” This sounds somewhat like the English word “cheese.” The Portuguese word for “everything” is “tudo.” So if you want a Cheese Burger with Everything you ask for a X-tudo. And believe me – Brazilians know the meaning of “with everything.” Fried egg included.

But in the end – man I loved that home town burger last night!

Monday, January 18, 2010

Brazilian cooking

I have a rule. I never cook Brazilian food for Brazilians. That includes my husband, his parents, our friends, new friends, nobody. It is a set-up for disappointment – on all accounts.

Without fail I will have forgotten to remove a bitter vein, used too little salt, chopped things too large, boiled things too briefly, sliced things too thin, added too many extraneous spices, served the meal without a crucial accompaniment, failed to make something sweet enough – the list goes on.

I have learned my lesson.

Me – I am the guy who cooks exotic things from around the world! Authentic Chinese stir-fry, curiously delicious Mexican mainstays, delicious American hometown favorites, odd but tasty finger foods from the Middle East, robust Italian tomato sauces over vegetable pastas, vegetable side dishes never before conceived, and desserts that expand on tart or purée themes.

That’s how I prefer it. I don’t fail to cook correctly, I try to cook things that are forever a curiosity and a delight to my Brazilian guests.

It must be said that many of my family and friends are not interested in having their culinary world expanded. Dare I say that I’ve found many Brazilians a bit hesitant to try something out of the ordinary? Still, for me, this is the route I have taken. It works for me.

Sometimes I am the only one eating what I have cooked. My father-in-law will often not even try what I have prepared. But hey – it’s all good. Tastes differ. Generations think differently.

I choose to embrace the new cooking ingredients in front of me and try new things.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Luiz Health Update

Short and sweet: We went to the Cancer Institute last week. Luiz's Complete Blood Count numbers are stable. Some have improved (his platelets count is now actually hovering in the normal range!) and those that have progressed in the wrong direction have done so only within the margin of error included in the measurement.

It was nice to hear the doctor remark on the negligble progression from one year ago. So often we focus on the incremental changes and Luiz is frequently saddened by the slow march forward. But at this stage of the Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia game we really have to keep a perspective that looks out over a longer time period to be reminded just how stable his situation has been and continues to be.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Haiti touches Brazil

It has been truly heart wrenching to watch the news regarding the disaster in Haiti. And here in Brazil people have been watching with interest in particular because the Brazilian people have been providing a disproportionately large number of so-called peacekeeping forces on the ground over the past few years in Haiti through the United Nations.

Given the similarities between some of the shanty towns in Haiti and those here in Brazil, the “officials” have declared (rightly) that we have a bit of experience to bring to bare (unfortunately).

So there were an unusually high number of our people there – and as such an unusually high number or Brazilians have been killed in the disaster.

I have nothing to add to the commentary, but I would hope that the following piece recorded after the Katrina disaster in New Orleans keeps us focused on what we can help make happen in Haiti moving forward.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

A profile of Luiz and I online

There’s a terrific new blog on the scene, DEEP BRAZIL. It’s a more in depth look at Brazil than my more personal musings. As its author notes it goes “Way beyond Carnaval.” I’ve enjoyed it from the start.

Early on Regina (the producer of the blog) solicited ideas for content. I spoke up and suggested taking a look at the quality of life for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender folks in Brazil.

Brazilian President Luiz Inácio 'Lula' da Silva

You know what they say: “Be careful what you wish for.” Regina thought it might be fun and relevant to her readers to profile Luiz and I, our relationship and our immigration story. So we collaborated on an interview and that article now appears on her blog.

Follow this link to get the full story.

Thanks for including us Regina.

Big Brother Brasil

Big Brother Brasil has just begun its tenth season. It’s a very popular program, especially in our household. So popular, in fact, that Luiz actually sent in a completed book-length application questionnaire and a 5 minute video audition.

He’s so cute. Luiz has been secretly (and not so secretly) wanting to be a participant in this nationally televised reality show for a long time. When it came time to apply for the most recent season he pulled in a few favors to strategize with others who have applied in the past and to shoot the video with our friend Fabrinho who owns a photography/video studio.

Not one to stress in silence, Luiz spent the past several months chatting up our friends that he was an applicant. “I’m just putting it out there,” he would say. We both learned long ago that closed mouths don’t get fed. (Shout out to Craig.)

Well, there are two gay men among the 15 participants of Big Brother 10, but unfortunately neither of them is our Luiz. Sigh. One is a flamboyant and cute baby-gay (20 years old) and the other is a 44 year old gentleman who is a make-up artist by day, drag queen by night (and that would be 120 years old in gay years!)

Globo (the TV network) doesn’t know just how big a mistake they have made by not selecting Luiz. He is ideal for such a stint on television. Lord knows he could keep a microphone busy. Perfect for 24-hour TV. And I was looking forward to having him out of the house for three months!

But seriously, the real story is how nice it is to be engaged in the pop-culture of our new home. While some might not think too highly of reality TV (I get that), we are enjoying feeling the cultural vibe and being participants.

Cross your fingers for BBB 11.

Monday, January 11, 2010

You know you are in Brazil when

You know you are in Brazil when the bill for your internet service arrives in the mail today and the due date is (wait for it…) TODAY. If you are late even a moment, there will be a penalty.

This is not an uncommon occurrence. When the mail service was spotty late last year we would get some bills AFTER the due date – and yes, we were responsible for late fees. It was our responsibility to call the company and ask what we owed and to pay it, before the passing of the due date.

For my Portuguese class at the federal university I waited more than two months to finally get a bill. I was told the internal billing and payment processing system at the university was experiencing problems. It was not possible for me to pay prior to being issued a statement. When I finally got the statement from my instructor, the bill was due three days later. Carving out the time to wait in line at the bank to make the payment (no, you cannot just put a check in the mail – in fact it is against the law to send money/a check through the mail) I paid one day after the due date and was charged interest on the unpaid/late balance.

It can be a little ridiculous. (OK, maybe a lot ridiculous.)

Everything is the consumers’ responsibility.

Oh – how about this one? Luiz went to return a Christmas gift from a major clothing store (it was a personal appointment calendar). It turned out that he could have exchanged it for an item of the same value only until Christmas day (since past.) Then for the next week he could exchange it for 80% of its original value, then after the first of the year, just 60% of its original value. The store never loses.

Retail returns of things like cell phones are allowed only in the first 72 hours. After that you must deal with the manufacturer. The retailer passes you along…

Now believe me, we are grateful for the privilege of simply paying our bills on time, arranging for many to be paid via automatic deduction, and to pay some via the internet. Plus, we have sufficient funds in the bank to avoid all of the ridiculous and exorbitant banking fees charged regular folks here in Brazil.

My post is not meant to be a whine or a complaint. But I do think it is worth commenting on the high cost of just trying to engage with businesses. It seems we must anticipate occasionally paying a penalty just for the privilege of spending our money.

(Oh - and you should hear Luiz on the phone gettin' all American with the customer service rep. They don't have a chance. And he usually saves us a ton of money!)

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Our New Years in Boa Esperança

While I thought it better not to disclose our secret hideaway waterfall resort-ish spot, it seems we have been found out.

There are few places where you can get pounded by the waters of a serene yet turbulent waterfall, and fewer places where that privilege is accompanied by table service bringing you cold beer.

But by the looks of the crowd over the New Year’s weekend – I guess the secret is out.

Our favorite spot in Boa Esperança is at the São José waterfall. This weekend we spent a full day making a BBQ and keeping cool in the waters.

And many others had the
same idea.

It’s a beautiful spot. As frequent flyers - everyone knows our name. We are unofficial locals in a very rural and stunning location.

Viva Brazil!