Who am I? What am I to you?

15 Aug

Finally the papers are all in Ottawa and if everything goes as planned I should have my passport (with visa!) back by the end of the week. Then I can see what this whole married thing is all about! With my return to Moscow finally on the horizon, I’ve been thinking about what living in Russia will be, what it will mean for my identity, how circumstances are different and how it will be different from other places I’ve lived (and not just because it’s Russia). This post may get a bit Intercultural Communication-y.

I’ve made a handful of moves abroad in my adult years, starting with a study abroad program to France when I was 19, and pretty much every country since then was related to study in some form. I’ve never moved anywhere where I didn’t speak at least little of the language, where I didn’t have immediate connections to locals, whether it be through living with a host family, with local roommates, or friends and family from there. It’s a shift in thinking to approach this move NOT as a poor college student (still poor maybe, but not in college anymore 🙂 Sometimes I forget that I initially came to Brazil to finish my MA thesis and that I lived with three host families and in four apartments with Brazilian roommates before the B and I got domestic.

This is also the first time I’ll be a “trailing spouse.” The reality is, as much I think it’s cool to run off and live other places, we’re specifically going where we’re going because of the B’s job. I did a research project on trailing spouses for my MA, so while I’m interested and academically informed, I have no first hand experience. I’m not even sure how I feel about being one. Don’t they join clubs and play cards? All I can think about is my friend who did a case study of Finnish trailing spouses in China who all wound up joining AA from the drinking problem they developed due to all that extra time on their hands while the hubs were at work.

I guess what it comes down to is that I’m coming to terms with being called an “expat”. I’ve probably referred to myself as an expat now and again, in a general sense, but occasionally I’m reminded that the people within that category come in many different shades. There are those here for love, those for money, those to escape from something (if you’ve lived abroad, I think you know who I’m talking about). For the most part, though, it conjures up images in my head of people who aren’t me at all. Of people who work in finance, who have expense accounts, who infuriatingly “live” somewhere without ever learning the language or meeting a local (who isn’t their hired help), or at best who bumble along in some half-understanding cloud and make sweeping generalizations to their friends and family back home.  Are we going to become those kinds of expats?

Being the partner of a Brazilian put me in my own category in Brazil. I had an in, a language partner, a cultural interpreter, a home. I think even that category can be subdivided as, in my experience, gringas married to male Brazilians can be all together a different animal from gringos who’ve married female Brazilians (that could be a whole other post). Living in your significant other’s country means you temper your words and rants, allowing the negative feelings to seep out either in other company or in other ways. What will it be like with both of us being strangers in a strange land? I’m bracing myself for a rough hit of textbook culture shock in Russia. As I once told a friend, having a degree in Intercultural Communication doesn’t save you from culture shock, it just makes it less surprising when it happens.

Right before I left Sao Paulo the recent influx of expats to Brazil became overwhelmingly apparent to me. How many hours had I longed to meet a fellow American or Canadian? I’d met a few over the years but they had all come and gone. This wasn’t fair! One particular evening, though, after a few frustrating conversations, intellectual clashes and missed marks, I reminded myself of something that’s important to always keep in mind. Just because someone has the same passport as you doesn’t mean you should be friends, or necessarily have anything in common. I knew I wasn’t going to be friends with some of those people and hell, I’m not friends with their Brazilian equivalents, either. 🙂


sala de espera

31 Jul

Four months since my last post. So many things have happened and, at the same time, so few.

April was spent in Moscow, attempting to get to know a sliver of that crazy city in between translating a book (lots of lessons learned on that project). It’s wonderful to see the arrival of spring in a cold, cold place. There was also a fabulous long weekend in Saint Petersburg.

May felt like it was spent mostly in airports and on mattresses on the floor. I spent a week with friend in Miami Beach, a week in Sao Paulo attempting to pack up the apartment, a delightfully relaxing week in Bahia, then it was up to Vancouver to visit with family.

On June 11 the B and I got married Canadian-style. We already had a common law marriage and a União Estável in Brazil, but those mean nothing to the Russians. Brazil required too long of a waiting period, so it was just us, some of my family and the justice of the peace. We did it up right and, as the B said, we had the wedding everyone wants to have but doesn’t have the guts to do. I’m going to say that may apply more to the Brazilian show-off church wedding types, but our little wedding on my parents’ front porch overlooking the lake (with a live feed for far away friends and family) felt just right. And the B was a real trooper, making three flights each way and crossing 3 time zones to get here, then turning right back around.

By June 15 the B was back in Moscow. And guess where I’ve been since? Living in my parents’ basement. What the B’s company promised would take two weeks is now going on seven. Still no visa invitation letter in sight, which would then be mailed to me so I can send it all to the consulate in Ottawa. Because yes, Russia has three consulates in Canada and they’re all within driving distance of each other, but not me.

After four weeks of waiting and horrible mishandling of paperwork by the HR department, the B asked for a week of vacation and we met up in Rome for seven days. It was nice, but strained at times, mostly because it was the first time we’d seen each other in person since the day after our wedding and over the last seven months we’ve spent maybe seven weeks together total. I think the first year of marriage is probably hard enough without being in a time zone 11 hours away.

So, for now, I’ll continue waiting.

Just call me Зои

26 Mar

Russian Visa, check! Plane ticket with a convoluted itinerary (my modus operandi), check! After all the confusion and unanswered phone calls, getting hung up on by a mean consulate employee, and tons of mixed information, I finally got my passport back yesterday with a 90-day, dual entry Russian visa. If any gringos out there are considering a trip to Russia, in spite of everything I really have to recommend getting it in a country like Brazil, where the locals don’t need visas and the employees aren’t used to handling your particular passport. Both times I was there I was the only person. I have never seen any consulate without a line out the door. The gruff employee was clearly unfamiliar with the procedure for an American passport, and rather than admit that, he seemed to prefer to just accept everything and not ask too many questions. In the end I didn’t submit half the forms or documentation that Americans are supposed to show, and paid about half the fee. I couldn’t believe it.

Of course, this is real life, so you win some, you lose some. Although I’d given notice at my job a few weeks ago, apparently my boss never put through the proper paperwork. Then I found out that, for reasons I don’t fully understand, I have been on vacation on paper only this month and therefore my official exit date from the company can’t be for another month. I took a vacation last year (well, as much of a vacation as my workaholic, sender of URGENT emails on weekends and at 3am can stomach), which technically wasn’t allowed since I hadn’t been working there for a full 12 months yet (rather, I hadn’t been working legally for a full twelve months as far as the Brazilian government knew). So I guess they don’t let you phone in your notice from the beach. What all of this means is that the day I’m supposed to go to my union office (I barely knew I was a member) to finalize everything, I won’t be in Brazil. Luckily the woman who is the closest thing to HR in my company is pretty awesome and she suggested I go draw up a power of attorney for someone else to go in my place, and she even volunteered her sister. Not a big deal, but it’s more time in the cartório and another R$180 I wasn’t expecting.

Monday will be a whirlwind day of running out to Lapa for my exit medical exam (which if it’s anything like my entry exam will involve an hour bus ride, an hour of waiting and 3 minutes of talking to a doctor), going to the cartorio and getting all my tax forms straightened out, then getting packed and ready to go early Wednesday morning. I never intend to go through the work visa process again in Brazil, and it seems like getting out of one is just as complicated as getting one. Maybe I should do a post on that some day.

I’ll be spending a long weekend in Miami at a friend’s house (the American wife of one of the B’s best friends who left Sao Paulo about a year ago) before going to Moscow the following Monday. This may or not be a good idea, as we tend to have a propensity to drink too many afternoon cocktails.

I’m really looking forward to no longer being at my job. While I love what we do, and a lot of the people who I work with, when it all comes down to it, it’s a family business, and I don’t get along very well with the family. I’ve learned a lot of things. How you deal with your family isn’t necessarily the most professional way of dealing with your employees. Great marketers don’t always make for great managers. I just found out that another coworker of mine gave his notice last week, and at least 3 others are just waiting for something else to come along to leave, too. While part of me would love to see a mass exodus, I know my boss will just think, “Great, now I can hire new people and pay them even less because they’re entry-level!”

My boss has been sulking since I gave my notice. In his own way, he let me know that I could keep doing a few parts of the job from Moscow. I toyed with the idea as a way of keeping some part-time income, but remembered how “a couple hours a day” to my boss can easily turn into eight hours, and opens you up to receiving his URGENT emails at all hours of the day and night. Better to cut all ties. About a week ago I got book project to translate, which was just the little nudge from the universe I needed to feel confident to make a clean break.

So, until next time… from Russia!

Pega senha

14 Mar

The B has now been in Moscow for 3 weeks and I’m still here in Sao Paulo waiting to find out when I can go for a visit. I thought I’d be packing my bags by now, but I’m actually no closer to a Russian tourist visa (or buying a plane ticket) than I was when he left. An old coworker of mine is going to Russia for a conference next weekend and has been trying to get me on the same flight out, which would be great, but I doubt anything will happen between now and then. I can’t get anyone at the Russian consulate to reply to my emails or call me back, and despachantes want nothing to do with a resident gringa. I get the feeling they’ve secretly shut down the visa department now that Brazilians don’t need tourist visas anymore…

When you choose to spend your life with someone who has a different passport, aside from all the cultural and linguistic fun and games that go with that, you’re also choosing to take on a whole range of practical baggage ranging from bureaucratic headaches to full-on plan wreckers. And when you’re not on each others’ visa waiver list this is taken to whole other level. If you want to do things together, you’re basically taking on all the bad parts of both passports.

Luckily the B has never had any problems getting a visa to the US or Canada, although the Canadian consulate would only give him a single entry, so he’ll have to go through the whole process all over again next time. I was denied my very first visa to Brazil, but I’ve since received 4 Brazilian visas without too much of a hitch. There is, however, the matter of timing, and spontaneity often goes out the window. And lets not even mention the hundreds of dollars we’ve spent on just being in the same place at the same time.

We were offered a 10-day trip to Los Angeles over New Year’s for the B to direct a commercial shoot, but his 5-year US visa had expired in November and there wasn’t enough time for him to get another one. Neither of us were ever into the idea of a big, fancy wedding, but when you take into account the fact that wherever we would have one, half the guests would need to cough up a couple hundred bucks and a couple weeks of planning for a visa, on top of a pricey international plane ticket, well, the whole idea becomes even less appealing.

So, when the B finally gets a break gets to go to a place where he can just step on a plane and go, like Russia, I end up being the one having to sit around collecting papers and photos and playing the waiting game. Since we met over 4 years ago, we’ve had to spend a lot of time apart, but now that he’s had the bad luck of getting an impacted wisdom tooth taken out, and is recuperating alone in a sparse, temporary apartment, it just makes me hate these waits even more. But, I’ll get there soon enough and the next reunion will be all the sweeter.

Caindo na folia

6 Mar

This will be my 4th Carnaval in Brazil, and I’m just going to come right out and admit that I’ve never been a huge fan of the whole thing. While I love the days off and an excuse for a trip, my personality doesn’t really jive with the more well-known celebrations, namely Rio and Salvador. The combination of uncontrolled crowds, sticky mystery liquids, hot weather, pegação and urban legends about girls wearing mini-skirts or leaving the roped-off area behind the trio eletrico always made my little North American heart beat too fast.

And paying a fortune to watch other people have fun dancing in over-the-top costumes to very repetitive music? No, thanks. Likewise on paying a fortune to wear one of those over-the-top costumes. Out of the 3 major players, Olinda’s version is the most appealing to me, but I probably should have arrived in Brazil in my single early twenties to really get the most out of that one.

All the standard glitz and craziness is just not minha praia, nor is it the B’s either, so we often run away from it all. Last year we went to Buenos Aires, where there is no Carnaval to speak of (but a lot of Brazilian tourists). The year before that we went to Ilha Grande and the bloco and cross-dressing men of Vila do Abraão was all the Carnaval I wanted. To this day the B still likes to bring up how we somehow amazingly lucked out in timing our trip and managed to make it from SP to Angra in under 5 hours, avoiding Carnaval traffic madness.

But not going crazy over Carnaval doesn’t mean I’m a huge stick in the mud, either. Over time, I’ve come to realize that it’s really just a few aspects of some of the things about Carnaval that get to me, and it’s totally easy to avoid those and make Carnaval something your own. You don’t have to spend thousands to tag along behind Chiclete com Banana or get a box in the Sambódromo. Whether it’s dancing in the streets in a small town in Minas or sitting on a beach, there are a lot of other options.

Every year I look forward to the cordões carnavalescos in Vila Madalena. It meets all my lazy Carnaval needs: they start within walking distance of my house, move in the direction of my house (therefore putting me within a block of my bed by the time I’ve had one too many beers), pass by two friends’ houses (so I can make a clean bathroom break if needed), and allow me the pleasure of collectively blocking traffic with a lot of other people in costumes, dancing around and making the most of Brazil’s lack of open container laws. I may sometimes lament the lack of Halloween in Brazil, but this all makes up for it.

I also live about 2 blocks from where Pérola Negra is located which gets me in the mood. OK, I look less forward to their ensaios that go into the wee hours and that start months before I even start thinking about Carnaval, but they add some festiveness to the neighborhood.

My very first Carnaval was a sad, lonely affair that I spent alone holed up in my apartment in Perdizes for 5 rainy days. I was short on cash, had no real understanding of the all-encompassing power of Carnaval and thought the time off work would be the perfect opportunity to work on my thesis. I had no idea that I would literally be the only person in my building and that everything would be closed, so what I actually did was spend 5 days eating whatever food I had in my cabinets, watching the desfiles on TV as I made absolutely no progress on my thesis, while the B lived it up with his cousins in Recife.  I vowed to never let that happen again.

So, how is it that once again I find myself sitting here in my apartment in rainy Sao Paulo for another Carnaval? For reasons that are just as much my fault as those of my coworker based in Argentina, who wasn’t thinking of Carnaval when he set two major deadlines for projects on Monday and Tuesday, I will be working. I never even thought to check the calendar when he told me two months ago. Also, with the B’s job up in the air, we never made any plans. At least he’s missing out in Moscow, right? Nope, he bought a last minute ticket to Amsterdam to meet up with a group of our friends from Sao Paulo who are running away from Carnaval there.

But, at least this year I got my dose of Carnaval in Vila Madalena, I’ve got more than microwave popcorn and a jar of palmito in my kitchen, and that damn thesis was handed in long ago. And I’m pretty sure that when we leave here I’ll forget my least favorite parts of Carnaval and long for it all.

Hiking in Havaianas

24 Feb

This is kind of a ridiculous headline, and definitely made me giggle. There’s no real point in arguing the newsworthy-ness of a People magazine post, but I love how they make it sound somehow scandalous.

I grew up in the woods of Eastern Kentucky with some parents who were definitely leaning to the “back to the land”, hippie side of things, meaning we went hiking and camping a lot. My dad loves gear and used to spend hours thumbing through Sierra Trading Post catalogs looking for great deals on waterproof packs and leather hiking boots. I grew up believing there was appropriate gear for every situation.

We went to Ilha Grande with a small group of friends for Carnaval in 2009. If you’re not familiar with it, there are no cars and to get around the island you either depend on taxi boats or hiking around the several rainforest trails. Being true Sao Paulo city mice, we really don’t get out into the great outdoors as much as we should, so after making the reservations I was immediately concerned about my lack of appropriate footwear for all this hiking around. The B insisted I’d be fine. By the end of the first trek out to a remote beach, I realized every Brazilian was walking all over the place either in havaianas or just barefoot, and I soon followed suit, hopping around the dirty, rocky trails in bare feet and a bikini, something I would have never dreamed of doing in the US.

And then I realized that even though my dad loves cool hiking gear, he grew up walking through the woods to get to school, and unless it was snowing, he went barefoot. I guess I’m not all that far removed from hiking in sandals after all.

Bonecas russas

19 Feb

It’s official. The B finished negotiating the sweet job in Moscow last week and is already in Russia. I’ll head over in about a month to join him, then we’ll both be back in Brazil in May for a quick trip to Salvador to replenish our vitamin D reserves and finalize everything with our apartment, visas, etc. And if the whole thing stinks and we don’t like the agency or the city, all we have to do is say bye-bye.

So once again I’ll be off to live in country that makes me jump through 5,000 hoops for a visa. My head already hurts trying to figure out how I’ll handle applying for a Russian visa in Sao Paulo, losing my work visa when I leave Brazil, applying for another Brazilian tourist visa (from Russia?) just so I can come back and pack up, and then get another long-term Russian visa. Oh yeah, and with a quick trip to Canada to visit my parents thrown in for good measure.

But I’m excited to start a nova fase with the B and discover a new city in the way that only fresh eyes can. And of course the language geek in me is delighted at the opportunity to learn Russian!

In the next few weeks I think I’ll be posting about things I’ll miss about São Paulo. But before that, here’s something I won’t miss. We’ve lost power in my building 5 times in as many weeks, each time for at least 4 hours. It goes out during thunderstorms and sunny afternoons. The best part is looking around from the balcony after dark and seeing that it’s always just our street. Thanks, Eletropaulo.