BBQ in the Hood

Neighborhoods are an important part of Brazilian urban organization.  When you speak to someone some of the first questions are ‘where are you from’ (because you have a funny accent obviously) and then ‘what neighborhood do you live in’?  In Florianópolis, I live near an old and respected neighborhood called Trindade.  There are many students in Trindade due to its proximity to the major university Universidade Federal de Santa Catarina.  However, there are also a lot of residents who have lived in or near Trindade their whole lives.  These are the people you will meet if you go out any Saturday or Sunday morning to buy some bbq which is referred to here as churrasco (chew-haas-co).


Going to get some churrasco on the weekend is a Brazilian tradition and this is how it works.  In the neighborhoods there are lots of minimercados which are typically a cross between a corner store and very small grocery.  Some of these have a well outfitted butcher as well.  On the weekends they setup what looks like a refrigerator sized rotisserie, powered by gas, and they slow cook beef, pork, and whole chickens to sell.  The churrasqueiro, the guy who cooks the bbq, sets this all up around 5:00 am and people line up to buy between about 9:00 am and 1:00 pm.  If you get there at or after 1:00 pm, you are most likely going to be out of luck.  Everything will be sold or spoken for already.  I have also seen that some of the old timers in the neighborhood have a system worked out with the churrasqueiro to hold on to a favorite cut of meat or ribs for them and they tip him when they pick it up.  This is not exactly how it looks on the street, but to give you an idea of churrasco in general here’s a picture:


There are always neighborhood guys that hang out around the minimercado.  They’re not there to do anything in particular.  They just have beers and talk about life.  They might be there to get some meat or they might not.  As a language learner, I saw this as a golden opportunity to interact with local Brazilians, doing local Brazilian things.  I must admit though, it’s intimidating approaching a bunch of locals in their natural environment and trying to get into their group.  My fiancee came to visit me in Florianópolis over the holidays and she and I went to buy some churrasco together one weekend.  I used the opportunity to meet a couple of people.  When she left she encouraged me to keep going every weekend for practice and that’s exactly what I’ve done.  Thanks babe!

So, how do you get in to the group?  My method was simple.  Meet the guy running the show, the churrasqueiro.  I got in line, got some meat, then I bought a couple of beers.  I went outside and awkwardly hung out for a few minutes.  I found out my neighborhood guy was named William and he thought it was cool that I was a foreigner that could speak Portuguese.  I gave him a beer and I was in.  He introduced me to some guys and made me feel welcome.  He even gave me a ride home and told me I should keep coming by.  I’m a regular now and that feels pretty cool.  Here’s a shot of Will and I hanging out:


Being in the group has a lot of advantages.  I’ve learned all sorts of things.  I met a Brazilian guy who had been to over 20 countries, mostly European, and he was happy to show me pictures and he proudly proclaimed he had never been to the U.S.  And he never wanted to.  I met a guy named Fabricio who was adopted at age 4 by a missionary couple from the U.S.  He grew up there but came back to Brazil in 2010 and has stayed here ever since.  I got invited to a neighborhood block party for Carnival.  I’ll have to report on how that goes next week.  I got invited to a local bar to watch a soccer game, which was a lot of fun.  I took some Americans and practiced my translation skills.  And finally I learned that William, the churrasqueiro, works incredibly hard and has a lot of respect in the neighborhood because of it.  He works, as the Brazilians call it, Domingo a Domingo (Sunday to Sunday) which is just another way of saying seven days a week.  He does churrasco every Saturday and Sunday and works pumping gas at the gas station across the street from the minimercado Monday through Friday.  He just had a baby last week and he’s going to bring me over to the house soon to meet the family.

I’ve done a lot of things in Brazil that have been great, but this is the really amazing stuff.  Brazilians are incredibly open and generous people with their time, their money, and their friendship.  Recognizing I just wanted to hang out, they’ve never once turned me away.  On the contrary, they’ve bought me beers, brought me into their conversations, and wholly welcomed me into their world.  They ask nothing more then to show up when you say you are and have a good time while you are there.  Saude! (cheers!)


Language Learning: The Uber Method

I was having a conversation with my good friend Dr. Ben Penglase in, of all things, a California style burrito restaurant in Brazil.  Ben is an Anthropologist and examining how California beach, surf, skate, and ska music culture migrated all the way to the south of Brazil and culminated in a restaurant called Moochachos is likely more in his realm of expertise than mine.  But on this particular night I brought up to him what I have been jokingly calling The Uber Method of language learning.

According to the Uber country list, the service is currently operating in over 80 different countries.  The Uber Method of language learning is simple.  Once you have reached an intermediate level of language mastery, meaning you can string together basic sentences in the present tense, you are prepared to start engaging your Uber drivers in conversation every chance you get.  When else are you stuck in a very confined space with a native speaker of your target language who literally has to speak with you?

Taking an Uber to the beach? Find out where the drive is from, why they’re driving Uber, and if they have any tips for you!

In my experience, this works particularly well with Brazilians.  It seems that almost all the Brazilians I have encountered have a cultural necessity to engage in conversation with a person in a confined space and that can be a good or bad thing.  Take an elevator for example.  On my way to class Mondays and Wednesdays I have to take an elevator at about 8:30 AM to the top floor of fairly tall building.  Early morning encounters in your target language are the worst.  Your brain has barely started working in your native language and you find yourself trying to avoid interacting out of sheer anxiety.  Only here, this seems to be impossible.  You will be asked about the weather, the weekend, what a nice morning it is, where you’re headed, how classes are, or where you’re from if you cannot mask your accent well enough.  I brought this up to one of my Brazilian professors and they laughed but agreed.  For many Brazilians it’s almost seen as rude in such situations to not say something.

For learning your language via Uber, this is an excellent cultural trait.  If you are in a capital city, as I am in Florianópolis, you have the added benefit of meeting many drivers who are from different parts of the country.  This gives you access to different accents, different political view points, different generational views, and to a lesser extent different economic backgrounds.  I point out that last note, because Ben pointed it out to me.  To drive Uber you have to meet certain requirements like very basically owning a car and not-so-basically owning a fairly new car.  This necessitates that the driver be at least middle-class of some stripe and limits your interaction with other socio-economic groups, if that is your aim.  Despite this, I have found the other advantages to be invaluable.

Why are hearing different accents and political views so important?  Because, as I described in a previous post, Brazil is huge.  Knowing the different accents and what regions they come from is intrinsic to the Brazilian Portuguese experience and hearing all these interesting ways to speak Portuguese is half the fun.  And as a second, or third, or whatever, language learner you get to choose which accent you prefer to use.  How cool is that?  As far politics, Brazilians are not shy about sharing their views.  Listening to what they have to say can really increase your knowledge of the regional concerns that exist in a country and it also serves to deepen your vocabulary in your target language.

Given that Uber operates in so many countries , the service provides an excellent dual service to the language learner.  Of course this has some limits.  Maybe you’re in a city that doesn’t have Uber operations.  Maybe the public transportation is better or significantly cheaper and this can vary by situation.  The Uber Method, as I see it, is never wasting an opportunity to practice and learn when and if you do use Uber abroad, which I highly recommend.  Don’t let your language level or anxiety get the best of you.  Try it out!

Até mais!

English Without Borders / Inglês Sem Fronteiras

One of the great things about travel is all of the interesting people you run into.  I met a Fulbright student after a surf lesson here on the island who had already been in Florianópolis for some time.  After exchanging the usual pleasantries about how cool the island is and getting tips on good beaches to visit and restaurants to try, I got to hear a little bit about the work she was doing here.  As it turns out, part of what she had been doing was working with a group called Idiomas Sem Fronteiras or Languages Without Borders.


Languages Without Borders is an effort by the the university UFSC to provide classes and testing for students that would like to learn foreign languages.  Particular interest is given to English as the lingua franca for business, science, and scholarship.  Two American Fulbrighters here in Florianópolis work with the group to organize English speaking practice events for UFSC students and they invited some of us Americans to an event recently to serve as conversation partners.

The format of the event was well thought out.  They had several rooms setup for the Brazilian students.  In one room, they placed the American conversation partners and our job was to rotate through several Brazilian English learners and ask them questions to spark conversation.  Here’s my sample list of questions:


While using the questions could be fun if the conversation stalled, I actually had a lot more fun speaking with the Brazilians about whatever might come up.  The first Brazilian I spoke with had an awesome name, Thales Lavoratti, and an awesome Slayer t-shirt on.  For those of you not into rock music, Slayer is an American heavy metal band who was most popular in the 80’s and 90’s.  Thales studies mechanical engineering because of course he does, it’s the most heavy metal engineering discipline there is.  We talked about rock music, he suggested some Brazilian rock bands I should check out called Raimundos and Velhas Virgens, we discussed how difficult engineering is, and he invited me out for beers with his friends later all before we had to switch to new conversation partners.  Not a bad start.

My next partner was a Brazilian girl who sat down with a book bag and a pair of boxing gloves.  My first question was, “wow, do you box?”  To which she replied that no she didn’t, but she was going to Muay Thai class after the event.  A quick aside to explain why this was so awesome for me.  I spent a sizable amount of my life as a rock musician before going back to university in 2014 and I have trained in various martial arts, including Muay Thai kickboxing, since 2004.  I had been looking for both local bands to check out and a Muay Thai gym to train at, so my first two conversation partners were huge wins.  My new Brazilian friend recommended I check out her school Rilion Gracie Floripa which is not far from where I am living.  I will have to report back on how that goes in a separate post.

My last three conversation partners were also very interesting.  I spoke with another mechanical engineering student who specialized in acoustical frequency and resonance problems.  He was going to be working with a company called Embarco helping to design refrigerator parts that run quieter.  I spoke with a computer science and automation PhD student who though it was cool that I lived in Austin, TX because he had just been there attending a Design Automation Conference.  Finally, I spoke with a student who wasn’t a Brazilian at all, but rather an Ecuadorian student who was attending UFSC because of the prominent engineering programs.


Another feature of the event was a separate room setup with pictures and various facts about the people of the United States that an average Brazilian might not know.  Many of the images focused on American diversity.  I remember one Brazilian woman speaking up that she was surprised to see such diversity of skin color in Americans.  She had assumed, from our media output, that Americans were either “really white or really black”.  Before the event, the Brazilians were asked to list their preconceptions for American culture before viewing the photos room and before speaking with the American conversation partners.  Here was one delightful response:



Apparently we all look and dress like Madonna.  🙂  The Fulbrighters I met were awesome and setup a fantastic cultural exchange event.  I have a lot of respect for the Fulbright program and my experience with this event was a testament to the quality of individual cultural ambassadors that the program is supporting.  Overall I was extremely impressed with the Brazilian students.  They were all very insightful, interested, and interesting.  They are well versed in their areas of study and excited about their possibilities for the future.  It was one of those events that refills your optimism and I was really happy to be a part.

Até mais!

I’m a gringo?

An interesting feature of Brazil is that there really is no such thing as “looking” Brazilian.  In my time here in the south of Brazil I have seen Brazilians that run the entire range of possible heights, hair colors, eye colors, and skin tones.  The only rule is that there is no rule.  I’ve met a Brazilian woman with light eyes and dark hair who could speak English, but with an Australian accent.  I’ve met a Brazilian man who was the son of Japanese immigrants and who I assumed was an exchange student but who I found spoke perfect native Portuguese…though not much if any Japanese.  Brazilians are red-haired and pale or tan with light hair.  They are black, they are white, some are towering tall and others exceedingly short.  I’m surprised that I’m surprised at all because in this Brazil resembles some parts of the US.

braz-diversity(Photo from:

So, given this incredible wealth of physical diversity, how do Brazilians distinguish someone who does not belong?  They certainly couldn’t tell by looking at you.  You have to speak first using your obviously-not-native Portuguese.  Then they know exactly what to call you…gringo.  Gringo?  Really?


To explain just why I had such a hard time with being called a “gringo” at first, I need to relate a little about where I come from.  I grew up in San Antonio, TX which is 60 to 70 percent Hispanic / Latino and is situated about 2.5 hours north of the border of Mexico by car.  In that area “gringo” is used as a pejorative for non-Hispanic and typically white people.  Though it is not a term I use myself, my parents in the baby-boomer generation and their parents before them used or heard the term used commonly in a fairly negative context.  In a more nuanced way “gringo” refers to someone who doesn’t get it or doesn’t belong.  They’re not Latino, they don’t know any Spanish, they don’t have any culture.  A person might say, “Oh look at the silly gringo paying too much for their Mexican food!  They don’t even know how to order!”  So for me the term “gringo” has always had a very specific meaning and, in my world, it certainly couldn’t refer to me.

So imagine my surprise when I find out that here in Brazil I am exactly that.  I am a gringo too now.  The Brazilians I have met don’t even really use the term gringo in an overtly negative way.  After some questioning I found out that it’s not just Americans that qualify either.  Here it just means other, foreigner, someone who is not Brazilian.  Even other South Americans are “gringos” when they come to Brazil.  (Apparently this is especially true of Argentinians.)

This is, I suppose, why we travel.  To blow away our own expectations and reset what we thought we knew.  This particular lesson was strange for me to comprehend at first.  It struck right to heart of my childhood where a person’s beliefs and ideas are buried particularly deep.  So, here I am in Brazil and I am a gringo.  (Sou gringo!)  And if you were here, be you black, white, brown or otherwise, you would be too.  🙂

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Game of Thrones in Brazil

The ability for a state to project influence by attraction rather than coercion, often referred to as soft power, is an interesting phenomenon to read about but even more interesting to observe.  If you are from the United States, it is inevitable that you will see this manifest  in a number of ways and mostly with the prevalence of English in restaurants, shops, t-shirts, etc.  However, sometimes just how far American influence reaches, and in what ways, will surprise you.


I arrived in Brazil just before the last episode of season 7 of Game of Thrones was set to air.  The picture above is from a party at a local UFSC student bar where the big attraction for the night was that the bar would be streaming the final Game of Thrones episode.  In Brazil, the show is called A Guerra dos Tronos which literally translates from Portuguese to “the war of the thrones”.  I can only speculate that the common word for game, jogo, is not used because it does not convey the same sort of gravity or seriousness needed.  Typically a jogo is particularly a non-violent situation.

The party itself was hotly anticipated by the Brazilian UFSC students.  It was very apparent that they were fully informed on the backgrounds of all the characters, the various houses depicted in the show, and the detailed lore of the story itself.  In fact, Game of Thrones is so popular here that one of the yearly UFSC costume parties is dedicated to the theme and many of the students are looking forward to dressing up as their favorite GoT characters.  Here is a flyer from the party itself:


FantasiArq is a play on words in Portuguese.  Fantasia means “costume” and Arq refers to the department at the university that is throwing the party which is arquitetura,  “architecture”, or arq for short.  All together, FantasiaArq is pronounced as “fanta-see-ar-key”.  Fraternities, sororities, and their associated large parties do not exist here in Brazil.  However, the various majors that students belong to function very similarly to the fraternity and sorority system in the US when it comes to throwing parties, student identification, hazing, and etc.  I will write about this interesting comparison in a later post.

One final note on language learning and popular culture is how the episode was streamed at the bar.  Many of the US students were worried about the episode being dubbed in Portuguese, as many do not speak Portuguese well enough to follow along that way.  The Brazilians assured us that here people actually prefer to watch GoT in English audio with Portuguese sub-titles and this was in fact the case.  In the bar setting however, this turned about to be both a positive and a negative.  Imagine watching Game of Thrones, at a intense moment where the dialogue and forthcoming revelation is of the utmost importance.  Then imagine that half way through the most important sentence, the entire bar erupts in groans and cheers so loud that you can’t hear the sentence being spoken.  Well of course, the Brazilians just read the reveal in Portuguese faster than it was spoken in English, and you just missed it.  Thus are the limits of soft power.  They can be pervasive, but they are not all encompassing.  So if you’re interested in travelling abroad, be sure to learn the language.  :o)

Até pronto!