Monthly Archives: April 2014

Porto Alegre – Capital of the gaúchos

Gauchos, the South American equivalent to cowboys, do not only exist in Argentina. Which is not that surprising when you consider that the cattle drovers in former years, or rather centuries cared very little about the borders between Uruguay, Paraguay, Brazil and Argentina.

Like their southern relatives, Brazilian gaúchos – the emphasis is on the ‘ú’, distinguish themselves by their independence, their pride and their strong preference for meat and leather goods.* A combination of all three sparked up the revolução Farroupilha which defines the identity of the most Southern Brazilian state – Rio Grande do Sul – until today. The revolução Farroupilha comes from the word farrapen – in English roughly translated as rags – and started because the gaúchos felt that they would be better of without a federal government bothering them & their business. For ten years an army of volunteers fought thus for the independence of Rio Grande do Sul under a flag that looks suspiciously similar to the German one.

The revolution

What appears as a black-red- gold on a first glance is however a darkened green that – together with the yellow stands for Habsburg and Bragança, i.e. the Portuguese royal family. The red represents – just ask the French – the Republic. One way or another, the colors & flags didn’t make a difference and so is Porto Algegre today the capital of a Brazilian state and not of an independent nation.

The most characteristic aspects of Porto Alegre are the hills of the city, it constantly goes up and down; the green streets, where every tree has its own ecosystem thanks to the high humidity; and a particularly disfigured city centre – even by Brazilian standards.

The most ugly building in the city

If someone asked me, the award of the ugliest high rising buildings in Brazil would go to Porto Alegre… Probably, that’s not fair as most cities down here have managed to abandon or actively destroy existing historic city centres. One can even witness how most cities have grown along the same scheme: an old town or what’s left of it; the – then – modern administration building from the 1960s, 70s and 80s in Niemeyers’ concrete style, the 30 floors & more rising new buildings of recent years, most likely in a top location and last but not least, the favelas.

Porto Alegre is no exception to this rule but it’s pretty greened streets and the huge, protected river delta provide a pleasant contrast to the bustle of the metropolis. To come to an end: football friends who plan to assist a game of the World Cup are strongly advised to dress warmly. In winter, i.e. June and July – it can be quite cool with temperatures going down all the way to 0°C.

* It is possible to be a vegetarian in this country. Though not necessarily enjoyable.


Arroz e feijão

Arroz e feijao

“Arroz e feijão” – rice and beans – are an essential, if not indispensable, part of every Brazilian lunch. EVERY lunch, every day, 365 days a year…
The rice and beans are joined – also every day – by a piece of meat which, depending on the budget, might be frango – chicken, carne – meat, synonymous with beef, or peixe – fish. Further depending on the region also comes on the table vinaigrette, actually a kind of tomato salad and farofa, roasted manioc flour which varies in taste anywhere between ,sand’ and ‘tasty & crispy’.

Independent of this menu, the expression ‘arroz e feijão‘ also stands for the ordinary, the business as usual, the boring monotony that Brazilians remember longingly – com saudade – once they are abroad.  Oh, yes, saudade…

There is hardly a more Brazilian word to be found. It describes the longing for the good old days, order, warm summer nights, the good time with friends, freedom, the beach and much more. In English, however, there seems to be no adequate translation for it.

In any case, ‘saudade’ is a fundamental concept that helps to understand the Brazilian way of thinking and living. Just as important in that respect is “dar um jeito”, or in its short form “o jeitinho”, best translated as ‘to find a way’. It mainly means two things: or to help someone, to take heart, to support or to cheat, to muddle through and even to play a trick on someone. However, that’s not all.

In its trinity o jeitinho represents the  complexity of the Brazilian existence: First, it states that there is always a way,  a path to cross, for example, the jungle of the Brazilian bureaucracy. Second, the range of possible uses of this beautiful idiom reflects the wide range of characteristic Brazilian – not to say human – behavior: from very generous and helpful to spiteful and selfish; with one behavior not necessarily contradicting the other.

To finish, let me add one more particularly picturesque expression to this idiomatic collection: “pé na Jaca” . Jacas – better known as jackfruit to the English speaking world – when cut open, emit a very sticky secretion that is all but impossible to wipe of with soap and water. The expression reminds me therefore nicely of the good old German “ins Fettnäpfchen treten”*. 


Well, I hope I haven’t done just that with this post.

* to put your foot in your mouth – hardly as pretty as pé na jaca

Curitiba – the German city

Curitibanas and Curitibanos like to boast that their city is a German city. While this also includes the German immigrants from the 19th and 20th century, it mainly refers to the order, cleanliness and good urban planning . Or rather it referred to…

Deutsches Erbe III

At a first glance, Curitiba appears to a German about as as Brazilian as any other city in this country: You see the poor garbage collectors, the concrete housing blocks, and the traffic jam that ranges from one end of town to the other.

But the differences do exist: the well working public transport with its distinctive tube stops (there’s even an app to look up the timetable of buses*), the many large parks and the German restaurants downtown.

In the 70s Curitiba enjoyed a moment of near world-famous celebrity thanks to the public transport system. That the city shares nevertheless the same problems as any other one is, according to the statements of befriended Curitibanos, due to the inability of politicians over the past 2-3 decades.


Now, ranting about incapable politicians is a highly popular sport in Brazil, probably only second to football. In all fairness it shall therefore be added that Curitiba, just like the other major cities, has grown tremendously in recent decades. Especially the areas Metropolitanas, the metropolitan area with their  industrial suburbs and favelas, have often more than doubled in size since the 1980’s.**

Even without any preexisting problems but lots of money and good will instead, it would be a challenge to keep up with such a demographic development and to provide the necessary infrastructure, hence schools, sewage, electricity, etc.

Considering then the traditional nepotism in politics (after all, there is a reason for the ranting),  it is perhaps not surprising that also in Curitiba the stadium for a Copa will barely be completed in time. It’s unlikely that Curitiba will lose the self-attributed title of the ,German city’  but it’s one of the facts that highlights the very Brazilian character of the city after all.

* One really learns to appreciate such services after living for some time in a city where the buses come simply when they come and it is not unheard of to be waiting at the bus stop for hours.

** The Brazilian office of Geography and Statistics has some good data on the development of the cities;  Wikipedia provides also an overview of the metropolitan regions.