The Sweetness of Brazil
Tom Swick: In the World Heritage city of Ouro Preto, on Brazil's fine appreciation of life's everyday gifts
04.15.10 | 12:04 PM ET
The café had a statue of the Virgin on a cupboard.
“Some of them are hollow inside,” Ricardo explained between sips of his cappuccino. “Because the Portuguese took most of the gold that was found here, people came up with clever ways to hide it.” The term “hollow saint,” he said, is still used for people who are not as saintly as they seem.
The cappuccino was laced with chocolate and cinnamon. I shared a delicious cinnamon and banana cake with Lilian, my old friend from São Paulo, who was a friend of Ricardo.
Outside, we sent Ricardo back to Belo Horizonte and went in search of Lilian’s hotel. “Obriga-a-a-a-da,” she cooed to a vendor hawking his paintings, before assuring him that they were very beautiful. (This seemed to please him.)
The Pouso do Chico Rey sat overlooking a church on a sloping cobblestone street. It was like an 18th century inn, with creaking floors and wooden chairs and a desk with a guestbook bordered by candles. Though in the corridor the walls were hung with contemporary art, including a drawing adorning a poem by Elizabeth Bishop (who lived here in Ouro Preto for a time in the ‘60s.)
The woman who had let us in was in constant conversation with Lilian, the two of them often laughing and touching. Check-in Brazilian style. In the big, old-fashioned kitchen, a few guests sat at large wooden tables, including two young men with whom Lilian now chatted as if she’d known them for years. It seemed as though Brazilians had somehow dispensed with the whole process of sizing people up and found a way to move swiftly and effortlessly into a natural camaraderie. I felt as if I were observing a new and improved form of social interaction.
We headed out to explore the town, making our way back to Praça Tiradentes. Busts of black women with lovesick expressions filled the open windows of a souvenir shop. “They’re called namoradeiras,” Lilian explained. I told her they’d be considered racist in the States. Inside a store she showed me a clay shot glass—for drinking cachaça—made in the form of female buttocks. “Sexist,” I said. And she laughed, this graduate of UC Berkeley, at American uptightness.
More cobblestone streets took us past more churches and white-washed houses. The sign on one stopped Lilian in her tracks. “It says,” she translated, “Institution for People Crazy About Skirts.” (Loucos Por Saias.) She inquired of a man passing by who told her it was a university dorm.
From a distant hillside drifted the drumbeats of carnival practice.
We climbed back toward the center, stopping for dinner at Bené da Flauta. I ordered Menina do Sobrado, which was described as “sun-dried beef in manioc mush sided by smashed pumpkins (in honor to the local writer Cyro dos Anjos).”
“What is ‘sobrado’?” I asked Lilian.
“So I just ordered the girl from the two-story house.”
Our waiter thought that it was the title of a Cyro dos Anjos story.
The caipirinha was average, the food delicious, the view from the men’s room—of a steep and sparkling hillside—made you want to invite people in.
By midnight Praça Tiradentes resembled a rave. Throngs of people gathered near the statue of the dentist and revolutionary. (Even in the 18th century, Brazilians were comfortable enough with each other to call a heroic doctor the “puller of teeth.”) A car filled with young women passed, one yelling out the window: “That doesn’t seduce me.” (To a hollow Lothario.) Lilian and I drank beers at Café Chopp Real, where the video of a João Donato concert played softly.
“In the States,” I reminded Lilian, “the music would be blaring and we’d be straining to hear each other.”
The next morning the two young men from her pousada, Bruno and Arnaldo, joined us as tourists. Visiting the old mint, we ran into two of their colleagues and proceeded to a restaurant where Arnaldo knew the owner. The walls dripped with old photographs and religious icons; a buffet filled the back room with the aroma of beans, okra and kale.
A young man in a baseball cap took a seat at the head of our table; this was the owner’s nephew. His girlfriend soon joined us. We were now eight, drinking beer and stretching Sunday lunch. This was my second trip to Brazil, and it was all coming back to me: The easy-going warmth, the unquestioned fellowship. We tend to think of countries in extremes, and for most of us Brazil swings between brutal violence and erotic revelry, while the fine appreciation of life’s everyday gifts, the long lunches with strangers who instantly become friends, get lost in the middle.
In the evening I saw Lilian off on her bus, and the next day I headed to the airport in Belo Horizonte. Arriving at my gate, I checked the newsstand for a magazine in English.
“Ingles?” I asked the young vendor, who immediately stepped out from behind the counter, put his hand on my shoulder, and searched the rack with me.