Curitiba: The Real and the Fairy Tale

Curitiba: The Real and the Fairy Tale

    Curitiba has enjoyed an international reputation as Brazil’s point city
    for the twenty-first century.
    Its bus system is celebrated, its ecological
    awareness much-publicized, and a number of its
    progressive social
    policies have been widely imitated. The city has now parks honoring
    immigrant groups
    such as the Japanese or the Poles.




    May 28. We hear on the radio in our room at the downtown Hotel Eduardo VII an announcer chortle at a story of
    how a seventy year-old man in the U.S. was sued for divorce by his wife because he had an affair after taking Viagra. "The
    United States is such a source of fascination and ridicule to Brazilians!" exclaims Eva. We proceed to gloss the announcer’s
    story as it fits into a Brazilian imaginary: in the U.S. men are old, and they can’t satisfy their wives, who have only the
    recourse of law. However, by God, the U.S. does deliver the Latest Thing, i.e. Viagra, which apparently has just come on the
    market here, possibly to be greeted with more anxiety by Brazilian men than American ones.

    Later, we stroll down Curitiba’s famed "Street of Flowers," which has effectively become a pedestrian mall. At one
    point we pass a T-shirt shop. Eva translates for me the slogans of the shirts featuring versions of an American flag or Uncle
    Sam. "Brasil. This is not your fate," reads one. Another has one word, "Brasil," and another, "USA," below it; the caption in
    between reads, "who uses you doesn’t love you." Seeing such T-shirts, I applaud the spirit behind them now. Strange to realize
    that I feared the same spirit when I first came to teach in Brazil eleven years ago.

    Later still this first day in Curitiba, Eva buys a sandwich for a little girl who is hanging around begging at the door of
    the bakery where we stop. When we leave, a man suddenly comes up to me and asks for money. I decline. He mutters
    something as he moves away. Eva chuckles. "He said
    pé de porco. It means, pig’s feet—or cloven hoofs. In other words, he called
    you a devil. I’ve never heard this one before." "Would it have been worse," I laugh, "if he had known I’m a gringo?"

    There’s the most vulgar-looking man in the hotel lobby, ostentatiously talking on a cell phone, while a woman
    slobbers over him. You might see this sort of thing in an American hotel lobby. But it wouldn’t signify in the same way. I miss
    the significance. Eva doesn’t. What the lobby signifies, she emphasizes, is powerful and clear: male privilege. Women who
    hang around in a hotel lobby are whores. Eva hurries through the lobby once the elevator stops as if the men’s glances are
    going literally to cling to her. No gaze exists in the lobby but the male gaze.

    More’s the shock to us both, I think, not so much because we haven’t stayed much in hotels in Brazil as because we
    love hotel lobbies. The more posh, the better. At your basic 4-star just about anywhere in the world, the lobby is a fine place
    to relax, in the middle of a tourist day; you just have to look, and, more important, act as if you belong. In Brazil, though,
    as in all countries where the family is the defining center of social life, women don’t belong in hotels, unless they’re wives.
    Perhaps the fact that Eva left the Bandeirantes early each Maringá day guaranteed to the staff her spousal status. Apart from the
    big 4-stars at tourist cities, there’s normally no reason for a wife to be in a hotel.

    Consequently, a woman in a hotel lobby is coded as a whore, even if she’s with a man; slobbering, in a sense, just
    activates the operation of the code, which is ready to go with the appearance of any woman. If such mechanics sound crude to
    Americans, it’s because our hotels are organized to accommodate our mobility as a society, and our women are included within the
    script to be mobile. Brazilian women, on the other hand, are handed a narrower, more remorseless cultural script, and it
    doesn’t encompass hotels. Their lobbies cut to the very heart of why Eva is pleased not to live in Brazil, where, every time we
    return, she feels as if relieved not to be a whore, as a function of being amazed that in Brazil she had ever been content to be a woman.

    We are here in Curitiba for two reasons: 1. the children, and 2. a two day "specialization" course that Eva has
    arranged to give at one of the private universities, Tuiuti, on popular culture. So it makes perfect sense this day that I go to see a
    ballet with Virgilia. The occasion is a performance of "pre-professionals" from the Escola de Danças Clássicas do Teatro
    Guaíra, a project which was apparently willed into existence some fifteen years ago and now has links with others involving
    young students all over South America as well as Brazil. The performance is free. In other words, culture for the people, if not
    popular culture.

    The people turn out to be a few hundred middle school students—very excited. They throw bits of paper, they run up
    and down the aisles, they hoot when the lights go out. "Hey, we can see you guys behind the curtain," shouts one kid behind
    us, before the curtain goes up. Have any of these kids ever seen ballet before? I doubt it. Back at the university, Eva is
    building her course around the great Brazilian comedian-director, Mazzaropi, whose films her grad students will think is beneath
    them. Here, the pre-professionals are about to perform before an audience who will think their art is above them. In Brazil,
    culture is always either too high or too low.

    The performance isn’t bad at all; one or two of the featured ballerinas are wobbly at times, but everyone else is
    fairly accomplished in a series of dances that are pretty meat-and-potato—or rather rice-and-beans—stuff. Even more
    surprisingly, the audience is not at all badly behaved. The only real exception is any time the lone male in the troupe appears. Males
    in the audience immediately send out choruses of "queer" and "faggot." The first few times the male appears, you can
    hardly hear the recorded music. What courage this young man must have to be pursuing ballet in a country such as Brazil! I
    want to stand up and beg someone to ring the curtain down. There’s no getting round the fact, no matter how you locate,
    stage, teach or gender it: ultimately, culture is a curtain.

    You travel in time as well as space. To step off the bus into each city is for us to step into the past. For Eva, the past
    is more raw: Brazil is her country, where she lived for thirty-two years. So she is wordlessly moved when we walk down
    Rua das Flores to Praça Osório and chance upon a demonstration by some students from the federal university, which is on
    strike. As part of a plan to privatize Brazil’s federal universities, which are free to students who pass enormously difficult
    state examinations, the government wants to charge tuition. This night, however, the students are demonstrating against
    official violence; pictures of students murdered by the police are held up in the crowd as people sing onstage. How could Eva
    not recall the years of repression from 1964-84, when such a demonstration would have been inconceivable? Then there
    were no pictures of students taken and tortured or killed. Eva begins to cry.

    For me, the past is—well, more past, at least in this immediate sense. So more’s the shock to see at 8:30 a.m. on the
    hotel’s "Multi-Show" cable station an episode of Monte Python! I’m entranced. It’s one of the best episodes. I laugh out loud at
    the sketches of Sir Philip Sidney saving England from an invasion by Spanish pornographers, or the soccer match between a
    group of gynecologists and a group of Long John Silver impersonators. My God, was it nearly twenty-five years ago that I saw
    my first episode at a motel on the way to Hartford, Connecticut and immediately fell in love? It was. Just as much is the
    shock to discover that Monte Python remains better—more inventive, more searchingly intelligent and wondrously
    nonsensical—than any comedy I’ve ever seen since.

    So many contrasts between these two events! Eva is presented with tragedy, while I see comedy. She has an
    intimation of her youth, while I have an intimation of my age. As usual, there is a national text: Eva’s past has to do with politics,
    while mine has to do with entertainment. There’s something else, though, that’s not usual: the past of each of us is finally
    not communicable to the other. I never saw one of my best friends in high school taken away by the police. Eva has never
    heard of Long John Silver. The experience of time that travel makes possible is remorseless. The past not only erupts to make
    us feel alienated from ourselves; it isolates us in our experience, and makes us feel like countries, which are what they are
    because they have each been excluded from the others.

    It’s Sunday in Curitiba. This means it’s time for the Feirinha do Largo da Ordem, a large street fair, which branches
    out in a number of directions from a downtown church plaza. There are books laid out on the ground, there are booths
    displaying everything from fine embroidery to commonplace clothes. I buy a children’s book made out of cloth; each flap develops
    a story about a duck. It’s painful to have to resist buying a wooden bird too large to fit into our burgeoning suitcases. Only
    crafts engage me. There’s just enough Japanese paper cuttings or pine cones from Paraná on display. The only booth at which
    Sara and Luci stop is one featuring some glittery baubles for their hair.

    Today is some sort of Italian Day. In an adjoining theatre, the stage is full of
    Curitibanos dressed up in folk costumes—the women in white dresses and flouncy blouses, each festooned with stitched designs, the men in tight white pants and
    straw hats with red ribbons. They all look to me like Greeks. In two trips to Italy, I’ve never seen Italians dressed like this. But
    of course that’s not the point. A people takes its culture where it finds it, or else just invents the memory of one, and
    celebrates it anyway. I take a picture, so we can show it to our Italian friend back home, who doesn’t speak Italian and who will
    believe these people are preparing for Carnaval if I say so. Sara and Luci are completely uninterested.

    At one point we stroll past a portion of the plaza where an old man is playing an electric fiddle. He’s dressed up like
    a gaucho. The man just walks around the encircling crowd, mugging up the music with wide facial expressions and
    outsized gestures. The music is wonderfully syrupy
    caipira stuff, the sort of thing Eva was too ashamed to admit she liked when
    she lived in Brazil and then delighted to sing out loud when she began to live in the United States. Just as Sara and Luci
    begin to tug on my arm so we can move on, the gaucho suddenly breaks into a spirited rendition of the theme from
    Titanic. The twins stop tugging. The crowd begins to applaud. I can’t resist smiling myself.

    Curitiba has enjoyed an international reputation for some years now as Brazil’s point city for the twenty-first
    century. Its bus system is celebrated, its ecological awareness much-publicized, and a number of its progressive social policies
    have been widely imitated. One of these policies is the establishment of a civic culture. If any Brazilian cities have one, not
    many display it like Curitiba, which very recently, for example, constructed a series of parks honoring immigrant groups such
    as the Japanese or the Poles. The park for the Germans is near where the children live. On our last afternoon together,
    Daniel, Sara, and Luci take Eva and me for a walk there.

    The park is lovely! We enter from the top. There’s a circular wooden memorial-auditorium cum-chapel-shrine
    dedicated to Bach. (Closed, alas.) Wooden stairs take the visitor down, down, past terraced waterfall, to the bottom of a forest.
    There begins a series of markers—slightly receded from the path—each representing with picture and text episodes from
    Hansel and Gretel. At the end there’s a big gingerbread house, where inside this day a woman dressed up as a witch is telling a
    group of preschoolers the story of Hansel and Gretel. "Do you really eat children?" we hear one girl ask. "Of course I do" the
    witch replies. "But only the bad ones."

    Then it’s on to the front entrance (some sort of generic "European" concrete façade cum porch cum gate) and then
    back up the hill, past some of the most fortress-like, the first being that of the former governor of Paraná, who must have been
    pleased to have a dirty swamp transformed into a lovely forest, right in his backyard. One could be cynical about this: a
    monument to civic culture is of immediate benefit to one of the richest men in the state. But it’s not a time for cynicism. It’s a time
    for good-bye. Strangely, the children don’t appear to be sad. Whatever our visit has meant to them, perhaps even they don’t
    know yet. Just so, not everything, public or private, comes complete with its consequences. Especially in this instance, where
    the best model for our visit might be that of a fairy tale, in which children are lost and found all by themselves according to
    laws beyond those of human design.

    To be continued. Next: "Campo Grande/Rio Verde"


    This text is part of an essay called
    South of the Border, South of Brazil: Reflections on Another Life.

    Terry Caesar is the author of, most recently, a collection of essays on academic life,
    Traveling Through the Boondocks. He has been traveling to Brazil for some eighteen years, ever since he first arrived in Rio de Janeiro on a Fulbright. He
    welcomes your comments at


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