Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Friendship Optimism

So I think it's safe to say that I'm finally over the friendless hump that most all of us living abroad have gone through or are going through. I've almost built up my social life to what it was in the US (like the amount of nights I go out per week, etc). (No, ladies, no friends compare to you guys! Don't worry.)

To spread the optimism a bit (I'm talking to you, Linds), I'd venture to say that 85% of the change can be attributed to an improvement in my Portuguese, 10% can be attributed to more cultural awareness (which is sometimes hard to separate from the Portuguese), and the other 5%... Luck, mystery, and Alexandre's help.

Back when I wrote my ranty / sad posts about not making friends, I considered my Portuguese to be good enough to have conversations and all that, and it was. But I'm going to throw out a theory. There's a linguist named Krashen hailing out of Compton (USC, har har) who has a theory of learning a second language called i + 1. Basically he thinks that if you're trying to learn a new language, you should, as often as possible, be exposed to a level of the language that's just a little bit harder that what you can understand. I think there's a corollary: you learn by listening to more advanced language, but the people speaking think that you understand i - 1, i.e. a little bit less than you actually understand.  (Please be laughing, Jamie.)

My nerdy point is that, if you're a foreigner living in Brazil, people think your Portuguese is worse than it is. So they assume you're going to understand less than you do. So if your Portuguese is just average, they're going to interpret it as too basic to bother trying to invest in a conversation with you.  (This logic explains comments like "Wow!!! You understand everything I'm saying!"  and when people stop to throw in random English translations into your flowing Portuguese conversation because they think they're helping when you were understanding just fine.)

So yes. My speaking and listening skills in Portuguese are really advanced now (though my spelling is still horrific), so now people think it's good enough. Haha. I just realized that when we went to that fancy dinner on Saturday, I held my own in the group conversation at the table of 10 for the whole night and didn't even notice it.

The other very helpful thing is just the slow natural progression of networking. Remember that you're not only in a new country, you're new in town! I guess I never thought about it that way. You're new in town and it's not like you've got a bunch of friends of friends to get hooked up with for dinner and coffee dates.

Another thing is that I've been saying yes to going out with people, even if we don't have a ton of things in common. To be honest, this hasn't actually worked out so well. But I've met a couple of friends through these people, so that helps. (I'll write another colorful post later about my attempts at being social with the personal trainer at the gym. Life lesson: Buffets are significantly less enjoyable with your personal trainer watching what you eat.)

Related to this is the acceptance that, just like in your home country, there are sub-cultures and cliques and fads and Types of people, and you're not going to fit in everywhere. Here in "Caipirópolis", rodeos and Brazilian country music come with their own cult following. People drive all over the state of Sao Paulo to go to these dupla shows and rodeos. Along with this culture usually comes a certain small-minded-ness, machismo, and lack of education. It's no different from country/rodeo culture in the US. I didn't like it there, and I'm not going to pretend to like it here.  (That's not to say that I didn't try.)

Another recent change was a ... "discussion" that Alexandre and I had regarding his "guys' nights out" vs. his helping me make friends.  Basically... guys' night out can still be just that, even if the guys all invite their girlfriends and let us sit at the other side of the table talking among ourselves, right? Right. I've got proof. It worked. (I win.)

Something related to both the networking and the friends with friends' girlfriends is that when you start making friends with a few people in the group, you then have access to the invaluable power of gossip. Another huge friend-shifting factor. People like you more if they can talk trash about someone to you and you also know this person and have also had similarly unpleasant experiences.

In terms of luck, we got some new neighbors who Alexandre vaguely knew from the hospital. We've since become much closer with them. One has a super friendly girlfriend, and the other is the first person I've met here to (a) like almost all the bands I like and (b) respond to my introductory statement of "yes, I'm from America, yes, I've been living here 2 years" with, "Jesus Christ! How have you lived away from home for 2 years?! I'm from a city 5 hours away and I get depressed if I stay away for 2 months!"   We and the neighbors trade music and drink lots of wine and talk about life and Joanna Newsom. Getting back to my emo/indie roots. It's fantastic.

And then I think it's just getting used to little nuances of both spoken language and body language, getting better at reading people, and also knowing when to fold 'em. There are so many girls, especially in Alexandre's graduating class, that are just snobby, snobby, snobby biatches, and no matter how good my Portuguese is or now nice I am to them, they're still going to snub me. (Solution: see previous paragraph on gossip.)

So yeah. I guess my lesson as of late has just been that I needed to have more patience, and that my Portuguese wasn't as good as I thought it was, and that not speaking enough Portuguese OR cultural things that come up in conversation was what separated me from people more than anything. Oh, and the only way to improve those things is with time.  Lame, but not forever!

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

New Blogger Alert!

Fiona's here in Brazil now. She has a fantastic blog. (What a writer!) Check her out!

http://www.bloodpearls.blogspot.com/

Let's welcome her to the clique, shall we?

Fiona, send me your email, please! I won't publish it as a comment.

Monday, July 26, 2010

How to Build Up Private Students in Brazil

 So my previous posts on teaching in Brazil and private students have warranted a lot of success on the blog. They've also hopefully helped people in their teaching endeavors here.

When I moved here, I immediately started working in schools. but now, 2 years later, I only have private students. Here's what I did... hopefully some of my steps will work out for you, too.  Some are kind of sneaky, but you can decide.

1. I started in schools immediately. I was unemployed in Brazil for about 2 weeks before I started going stir-crazy. So I started working a few hours a week at 2 different schools. Even if your eventual goal is to only teach private classes, schools are a great way to network and market yourself. I don't necessarily advocate stealing students (though it happens, not gonna lie), but a huge bank of students for me has been friends and family of school students who aren't interested in a group setting. It's also a great way to get experience, especially if you don't speak Portuguese and/or you've never taught before.

2. Make some kind of email address just for students and work-related things.  I made up a separate email address (it's just Gmail, nothing fancy), but I gave it out to students at the schools.  It was a pretty sneaky thing, actually. For example, if we had a test, I'd give them my work-related email on the board and I'd say, "oh, if any of you are at home studying this weekend and you have any questions, feel free to email me."  Students rarely asked for help, but later, when they were talking to friends who wanted English classes, they'd remember, "OH! I have my teacher's email!". Then, because I didn't give out the email saying "Oh, if you have friends who want classes....", they felt like it was their idea, and not that I was force-feeding them my advertising.

But I say to give a separate email because then the students won't also try to find you on Facebook and Orkut.

3. Mention that you teach private classes while at the schools.  This is also a kind of sneaky thing that I did. I usually mentioned private students to explain a similar problem that another student had or something like that, but in telling my stories, I'd say, "oh, in one of my private classes at home, a student told me that....xyz".  The focus of the story is not my private students at home, but the students get the information nonetheless. Then they often come up after class and ask for my email or number because a friend/boyfriend/neighbor wants private classes and can't afford the school or something.

I never asked my school students directly if they wanted me to be their private teacher. I never offered my services to students that were already paying at the school.  But a common occurrence is that students are unhappy with the school for some reason and/or finish the school's advanced program and want to continue, and then they approached me. In those cases, I told them to contact me once they were completely done with the school. I'd give them my email or my number but I didn't get theirs. Still a bit shady, but my logic was that the students would be quitting either way.

4. When students invite you out to social things, go.  Sometimes students organize happy hours and things like that, either as a class or with their friends outside the school, and then they invite you. Go, and be nice. You'll have possible friends and also be meeting new potential students. (Everyone's going to introduce you as their English teacher!)

5. Make business cards if you want.  I never did, because if I met someone somewhere that ended up wanting my contact information, I just gave them my number and they put it directly into their cell phones. But it can be helpful and more professional.

6. Decide if you want to go to students, if you want students to come to you, or both. When I moved here, Alexandre was renting a tiny 1-bedroom apartment. We decided to move into a 2-bedroom so that I could use the second room to teach. In our situation, it made more sense to have students come to our house for classes. This works because (a) we live in a small town so no one lives too far away (b) rent is relatively cheap so renting a 2-bedroom doesn't break the bank and (c) Alexandre often needs the car to work in other hospitals or clinics, so I can't rely on it.

The cons of having students come to the house is that it always has to be clean. Also, it's kind of tiring for Alexandre because he can't play loud music or walk around in his underwear if he feels like it. He also hates cleaning.

In bigger cities, having students come to you isn't always a viable option. Going to students, you spend more time getting from class to class (which cuts into your work day), and you spend money on transportation. But you may save money on rent and you may save time on cleaning.

Some teachers opt to do a bit of both, and to just charge more if they go to the students. I did this for a while when I had fewer students wanting classes, but it got a bit complicated with the car sharing situation.

For me, the best benefit of teaching from home is time. I can schedule students in back-to-back classes and just work in blocks. I can also cook lunch and then have class right after. The other benefit is that, because students can be flaky, if they're coming to you, you don't waste time going anywhere just to have them not show up.

7. Accept a crappy schedule for a while.  If you're new in the city and the industry, you've gotta take what you can get. So that means you'll have to accept students early in the morning and late at night on the same day sometimes. Just know that it gets better, and it's worth being tired for a little while. Your schedule will never be perfect as a private teacher, but the more people that you have calling for classes, the pickier you can be. But... you won't have a lot of people calling unless you're already teaching people.

8. Once you have a few private students, plan a night out with them. I did this when I was teaching quite a few basic and intermediate students that were all in separate classes. I planned a night at a local restaurant, and told them to bring friends and family, and that they'd practice speaking English in a social setting with other students. They tried speaking English as much as they could, but of course there was also a lot of Portuguese.  I didn't charge for it, obviously-- they just had to pay for whatever they ordered. They bring friends that also want classes, and if it's fun, they'll definitely tell people about it later.

9. Be prepared and have good material.  If you're a native speaker, your English is what's going to attract new students, but your material and your experience are what's going to keep them around and make them recommend you.  Take the time to research good books. (Amazon's a good place to start. Seriously. So is Cambridge Press.) I use Cambridge's Touchstone series. I really don't like their Passages book for "advanced" students, and their Interchange series is just okay. (Both are hugely popular here in Brazil because they're so grammar-based.)

It's good to find a book that comes in a series with different levels. Yes, you'll have to buy them. You'll have to buy a lot of things to teach private classes, especially if you teach from home, which is why some teachers don't do it. To teach from home, I had to buy things like a printer (which requires refills of ink and paper, duh), a CD player, a white board, an answering machine, a table and chairs, and then other disposable things, like white board markers and erasers.

No English book is perfect, so no matter what books you end up using, you'll need to prepare supplemental material if you want to have really quality classes. You may also mix and match material from books, printing out or copying particularly good activities from books that are not your main material. This takes time in the beginning but you can reuse things in the future, so it gets easier.

10. Have emergency material and activities for all levels with you at all times. This seems like it wouldn't happen, but it does: Students come to class without their books or homework or anything. (For example, they had to stay late at work and couldn't run home to get their stuff.) Or sometimes, students show up with a friend that they'd like to have in class who's interested in possibly having classes with you. Or you have a group class of 4, and only 1 person shows up, and the activity that you planned doesn't work with 1 person.

Good emergency material includes general, fun discussion questions (this site is the best source for them), song lyrics and a CD (if you like using music in class; I don't, but students love it), and also headlines and short newspaper articles that students can read and discuss with you.  Oh and also a list of funny problems that people have that students can read. They then offer their advice. (Example: "My mother in law calls every day!" or "I have a nosy neighbor.")

11. Have set rules about your classes, methodology, scheduling, pay, etc. People will respect you more if it's obvious that you know what you're doing. With my first private students, I was too "oh, whatever you want!!"  and I realize now that, while I thought I seemed friendly and generous, they interpreted it as inexperience. Now, I have a very set system for starting and meeting with new students. I schedule a time for them to come to my house (or in your case, for you to go to their house). It's free of charge-- don't be a cheapskate. The purpose of this first visit is to check their level of English and to decide what material I'm going to use in the class, and then usually to make the contract.

So here's my routine:
1. Schedule the meeting day and time.

2. At the meeting, let them talk for a bit in Portuguese about why they want English classes, how much they've studied in the past, their hopes and dreams, etc. (hint: they all say the same thing: "I studied a lot in schools, but we did so much grammar! I want more conversation. There are so many jobs that require good English conversation. Oh also, I want to go to the US to visit eventually, and I don't want to go hungry!"  Seriously. They all say that. Act very surprised and understanding every time you hear it.

3. Repeat what you heard back to them, psychology style. I usually say things like "yeah, it's so frustrating here because a lot of schools have limited resources with big classes, so you don't get a lot of time to talk and practice the grammar that you're learning. Also, you have the extra challenge of not being able to use English outside on the street. So speaking English is like going to the gym. If you don't practice, you forget and get weak!" And they say, "wow, you're so right!" and then they like me more.

4. Tell them that you'd like to ask them a few questions in English to see what their level really is. And that's really what you're doing.  Based on the books that I use, I wrote up a series of questions that get harder and harder. I start with super easy questions to help build their confidence a bit. I also avoid yes/no questions. The questions I wrote go in order of the chapters of the book. When they start getting lost or not understanding me, I know that's the chapter they should be at. The more teaching experience you have, and the more you use your material, the easier it is for you to get a feel for what level they should be in or what book they should be using.  So after I decide (it's pretty instantaneous), I tell them about their strengths and weaknesses a bit. I usually have to say, "your basic vocabulary is strong, but you make some mistakes that I wouldn't understand if I didn't speak Portuguese. So we want to work on making your English more natural and also helping you speak a bit faster, without so much éeééé'.... and ummmm....." For some students, it's evident that they read a lot of English but don't know how to pronounce anything, so I tell them when it's relevant, too.

5. Based on the level that they're at, show them the material that you'd like to use. Explain how it would work, what kind of homework they'll have, how much it costs and where they can buy it, etc. Tell them how long it would take to finish the book, and what kinds of things they'll be able to accomplish by the end. You know this from experience and estimation.  (For example, "it takes about 9 months to finish this book if you have 2 hours of class a week and if you do your homework. By the time you finish, you won't be FLUENT, but you'll be able to travel and communicate, rent a hotel room, etc". Whatever's relevant.)  I also point out that I have a lot of supplemental material that I've made myself that we incorporate into the class. Because that's true.

6. Then we start talking about price and hours, if we haven't already. I've mentioned before that it's acceptable in Brazil to charge higher prices for richer people and lower prices for people with less money. I don't agree with it, so I don't do it. I have one price for 1-1 classes, and one cheaper price for small group classes.When it comes to scheduling, students are always surprisingly in doubt about how many hours of class they want per week. So I tell them that most students have class 2 hours a week, and very busy people have class only 1 hour a week, but that it's hard to really progress with only 1 hour a week. So a lot of people also do 1.5 hours (1 longer class) and have extra homework.

At some point before Step 6 or during Step 6, I make sure to give them some breathing room. I say something like, "So, if you want to take a few days to think about it, talk to your wife/boss/etc, you can call me." I never jump right in and say "So, you ready to sign a contract???". They almost always say "não não, vamos fechar hoje!" (let's seal the deal today!"). But I like to be fair.

When it comes to scheduling, I have all my classes written on this fabulous PDF weekly calendar that I show to the new students. You can download it and print it out by clicking here or here. I write the times that I already have students, and I block out the times that I don't want to accept students (like Saturdays). Then they have an easy visual of when I'm available. The blocked out times also prevent annoying back-and-forths like, "oh but are you SURE you can't teach me at 10pm? Really? But let me ask you a 4th time, because maybe you'll change your mind!".  They decide when they want their classes, and then I pencil them in.

7. Make the contract. My other post about private classes has more details about this. Be prepared. If you go to their houses or their businesses, have a copy that you can hand-write on. Since they come to my house, I have the template on my laptop and we fill it out together, and then I print it out (with copies for them). But don't expect them to print it out for you or anything. If you're really desperate, you can offer to email it to them, but remember that (a) they're still gonna have to print it and (b) that'll delay you closing the contract, and they may back out.

While I'm waiting for the contract to print (my printer is sloowwww), I tell them a bit about myself (90% of the time, they ask). They're very curious as to why you're in Brazil, and giving them a bit of your story makes you seem more human, don't you think?

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This entry has become pretty long, so I think that's enough for today. I hope it was helpful. In the end, the thing that will make you different from other teacher is not being afraid of a little hard work or extra effort. Not everyone can wake up early without a boss that can reprimand them. Not everyone has the discipline to not cancel their classes if they're tired or want to go out instead. Not everyone is willing to prepare extra material for specific students.  Not everyone can handle the rejection of a student quitting a private class.  I just read a really nice article about the ins-and-outs of being self-employed. I think the author's tips and techniques are very relevant for people wanting to teach private classes.

I also welcome any of your experiences, ideas, disagreements with these ideas, rants, raves, etc. Group effort!

Have a good day.  :)

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Fancy Dinner and a New Bird

So last night, we went to a formal dinner for Alexandre's university. It was a dinner to honor the doctors, professors, and residents that the graduating students voted as their favorites. It was also a dinner to celebrate that the students are graduating in just over 100 days (that's right, people!! In just over 100 days, we'll be taking steps to get the heck outta hicktown!).

Anyway, the dinner was held at a sort of doctor's country club that's partly controlled by the hospital. It's right in our neighborhood, so we got all dolled up and walked on over.

After all the other events I've gone to with Alexandre's classmates, I wasn't expecting much, but it actually turned out to be really fun! There were yummy cheeses and hors d'oeuvres, and also bottomless champagne (fancy... and delicious!).

The best thing to do at formal parties is, of course, to gossip about everyone else-- what they chose to wear, who they brought as their guests, what they said in their speeches, etc. That's how we passed most of the time. Haha. There were 2 other girls at our table of 10 that weren't from The Group (ie the graduating med student semi-cult), so I tried to talk to them. It was pretty successful... more with one than the other.

Now that my Portuguese and my awareness of social standards are so much better, I'm realizing that most of the girls here are just really, really shy and a little immature... as opposed to bitchy (though, of course, a group of 60 med school students certainly has its share of bitches). I'm very much not shy and people say I'm pretty mature for my age (especially by Brazilian standards), so I think I usually just totally scare the crap out of these broads.  So last night I tried to change my approach a bit, and it was a bit more successful.

Also, with the bottomless champagne, a few of the girls who usually ignore me got a bit tipsy and opened up a bit and actually involved me in their conversations, so that helped (I think they're ones that fit into the shy category).

The actual dinner was decent (but forgettable, as is usually the case with formal catered dinners), but the actual catering service was really good, and the waiters (I guess they're waiters) were all very friendly and attentive. (The best part, of course, was the all-you-can-drink champagne!)

We didn't get many pictures, because Alexandre agreed to take pictures before we left if I agreed to leave the camera at home.  But we looked pretty spiffy, if I do say so myself!



And here's one that someone else took of me and my dear buddy Bruna (you can see the manicure I gave myself, the success of which was questionable):

Oh yeah, as you can see, I cut my hair and dyed it a bit darker. It has not been well-received (as evident by women's Latin American Honesty comments). According to the more traditional (read: caipira) women here, it's apparently sacrilege to dye your hair darker if you're lucky enough to be blonde (or even dirty blonde, which is still considered blonde here), or to cut your hair at all. But it's fine. It's my hair, and I like it, and Alexandre likes it. I don't care much about what the women at the gym or the corner bakery think about it.


Today, Bruna and I went for a walk around the local lake/park place. What a fabulous way to spend a Sunday morning! The coolest part was seeing what I think is a vermilion flycatcher (príncipe in Portuguese):


Really beautiful! Interesting fact: if they're kept in captivity, they lose their red color and turn dull and drab. They're migratory birds and they're only in Brazil for a short time, so I was really lucky to catch it.

So that was our weekend! I'm sad I missed out on the Rio American blogger meetup, but I tried to make the most of it. :)

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Coruja Friend

So the morning was a typical weekday, full of small-town shenanigans of simple tasks becoming very complicated.

I was making my way out of the mall without anything that I went in there for, grouchy and irritable after 4 hours out of the house dealing with customer-serviceless-drones, and ready to just go home, cook lunch, and sit down with the cat. I was actually literally mumbling to myself about how irritating everything is, when I heard a loud bird screech (you can click here and scroll down to hear the sound, but it'll ruin the suspense of the story a bit).

I turned sharply toward the sound and saw this at the foot of my car, staring up at me:


I didn't take this picture (so sad I forgot my camera!), but his stare was just like that.  He was staring at me so intensely. He would stare, then look away. Then stare, then look away. (Maybe he was a youngin' and didn't want his mama to see him making friends with The Big Creatures.)

"Hello there!" I said, so totally over social norms that I had no qualms about being seen speaking to an owl in English in a Brazilian mall parking lot. "Isn't it past your bedtime?"

He didn't answer, of course, just stared at me expectantly. I didn't have any food or anything with me, or I would've tried giving it to him.

We stayed there just staring at each other for about a minute. It wasn't the first coruja-buraqueira (burrowing owl) I've seen around here, but it was definitely the closest I'd been to one. It was fun. We bonded, had a connection. He calmed me down a bit. And then I went on my way.

Turns out they're diurnal owls. But they're totally cute and so expressive. I want one now. He and Gatinha can hunt together.

Totally made my day!

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Our Wonderful Healthy Lunch


The menu:
*Breaded chicken (frango a milanesa)
*Salad with tomatoes, onions, and carrots
*beans (all by myself!)
*rice
*a hot vegetable medley of chuchu, broccoli, onion, and green beans
*Peach tea (just Crystal Light (C-Light in Brazil).... I'm not that good)

It was yummy!!!!! It also had 8 different vegetables (if you count the beans). :)

Friday, July 16, 2010

Classic American TV

So because I typically work mornings and evenings, I almost always have the afternoons free to complete my tasks of housewifery. That means I get to enjoy Brazilian afternoon TV, which just means "American classics from the 90s". Don't get me wrong-- Brazilian cable is usually really up-to-date, sometimes only a few weeks behind the American season-- but they've got to fill the non-prime-time slots somehow.

Let me refresh your memory with the kinds of shows that you may remember from your tie-dye and biker shorts days:

Beverly Hills, 90210 (The Original)

At the end of the episode, the father often has a heart-to-heart with his daughter, whose life-learning thinking process is always accompanied by the same tinkering piano melody (a slow, somber version of the theme song).






Dawson's Creek
I watch scenes from this on TV here today, and I can't believe I liked it so much in middle school and high school. But it's a good way to learn 90s Portuguese slang from the subtitles. 









Charmed
I couldn't stand it then, and I still can't stand it now. Charmed is the anti-wine: it only gets worse with age.









ER
I was just under the radar for this show age-wise, but my confusions today haven't changed much, even with my adult sensibilities. It's just a show with a lot of characters who come and go and who talk really fast.













Felicity
Watching this show after learning Portuguese has been extremely comforting, because I now have the world folgada to apply to that whiny, ungrateful brat. God, that character sucked.








So yes, these 90s smatterings result in a lot of channel surfing and a lot of CNN while I'm folding the laundry.
Oh, but we do get Law and Order in every version ever like 6 hours out of the day. I don't consider Law and Order to be a 90s show because it is classic and timeless and it never gets old.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Adventuring in Argentina

Great news! It involves my dear friend Kristin (her ever witty blog can be found here). You may remember her from such blog entries as the monkey park and Danielle gets attacked by a turkey.

Well, South America is being graced by her presence once again. She's planning a multi-country adventure, the bulk of which will be taking place in Argentina (the Canada of Brazil! Kind of). So as a reward to myself for (a) being friends with awesome people like Kristin and (b) doubling my income since becoming fully self-employed, I'm gonna gallivant around Argentina with her for a couple of weeks in October.

Our plans (which are always a changin') currently include Buenos Aires and Ushuaia: the southernmost city in the world! If you go any farther south, you'll have to go to Antarctica!

Planning for this trip is by far my favorite pastime / procrastination tool / pick-me-up. If anyone has any ideas of things to do in either of these places or tips on getting around, please, comment away!

Expect to hear more as October creeps ever closer!

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Comparing the Food Situation between the US and Brazil

All right. So since I've lived here, I've had the idea that healthy foods (fruits, vegetables, and lean meats) are much cheaper in Brazil than in the US. I've explained the price difference as the reason why Americans eat so badly. So today, I decided to do some research to prove just how much cheaper everything healthy is in Brazil.

I went to our local non-chain grocery store. Most of the fruits and veggies are organic by default, but that doesn't necessarily reflect a stronger economy or healthier-minded people (it instead reflects a small family farming economy).  I bought all of our fruits and veggies for the week, plus a couple of cleaning supplies (laundry detergent, dish soap, toilet paper). I didn't buy meat because we didn't need any. My total was 70 reais.

To be realistic, this food is going to cover all of our breakfasts and lunches (because we never eat out for those), and about 4 dinners (we eat out a few times a week, and when we do, it's always for dinner). It also includes our snacks (fruits, crackers, cookies, and top ramen (miojo)). I also bought some oranges, a pineapple, and fresh mint to make 2 juices this week (gotta counteract the top ramen, right?).

It's really hard to calculate average grocery store purchases, because some weeks you need expensive things (like olive oil) and some weeks you don't. But our purchases average about 70 reais a week for the two of us.

So then I came home and tried to make a spreadsheet to compare the prices of the products I bought today to the prices of these same products in the US.  This proved to be pretty much impossible. This comparison was hard to calculate because...
1. Pounds vs. Kilos.  I'm terrible at math.

2. Dollars vs. Reais.  It's not enough to just say "oh, right now, 1 dollar is 1.80 reais." It's a little more complicated than that.

3. Price per unit vs. price per pound/kilo.  Lots of fruits and vegetables are sold by unit, not by weight. And we all know that produce in the US is super mutant-sized.  So it's hard to get an accurate comparison with those.

4. Online prices vs. in-store prices. I tried to use Safeway's online shopping site to do a fake shopping trip, but they have this arbitrary "units" system for the prices of their products and the units don't correspond to like, one piece of fruit or one vegetable (but even if they did, it wouldn't be of much help because of the aforementioned mutant produce).  I also don't know if online prices are higher than in-store prices.

So you can imagine that I got frustrated pretty quickly, and it's not even something that I need to do for money or a grade or something. So then I decided to just do some Google searches for average prices of veggies in the US.

I found this very informative site from the USDA that showed me something very surprising. The price per pound for fruits and veggies on this site are almost equal to what I pay here in the Sao Paulo countryside. (For example, 1 paid R$1.25 per pound for carrots, and the price on this site was US$1.28 per pound.)

As I said above, the dollars vs reais thing is kind of complicated. But I can tell you that an English teacher at a private school in a big city in California earns almost the same salary as an English teacher at a private school in a relatively small town in Sao Paulo. (i.e. my salary was the same in dollars and reais, but that's not true for all jobs and between all cities, and other cost of living factors, like rent prices, are very relevant).

So basically, according to the numbers on this site, it seems to me that prices of produce aren't that different between the US and Brazil.

Shocked? I was, too. Of course, this won't be true for every Brazilian compared to every American. Both countries have regions with higher costs of living, regions that are closer to the sources of different produce, different prices in different seasons, etc. But the American site shows national averages, and I live

So Alexandre and I got to talking. If fruits and veggies are about the same price between the two countries, why do Americans eat so badly? When I was living there, I ate terribly, too. Here's what we decided:

1. Even if produce is the same price, junk food is still cheaper. The alternative to cooking well at home is eating out. In the US, that can be a cheaper alternative if you stick to fast food chains. In Brazil, the same American fast food chains are very expensive. We just got a Burger King in town (BIG NEWS), and Alexandre's burger combo (with small fries and a small drink) was 18 reais.  So basically, in Brazil, it's cheaper to eat at home than to eat fast food. In the US, the opposite is true. It's also faster, more convenient, and delicious.

2. When do Americans have time to learn how to cook, let alone to cook?  We tend to move out of our parents' homes much earlier than Brazilian twentysomethings. We don't spend our twenties watching our mother cook and learning from her. We also don't get 2-hour lunch breaks (try 30 minutes), which is not uncommon for Brazilian jobs. So if you're Brazilian, you live at home, and your mother is a housewife, you can get a home-cooked meal for lunch and dinner if you want.  I'm not saying Americans are victims. We have set up our economy and formed our values and priorities in such a way that food and healthy eating is just NOT important. Independence is. Competitiveness at work is.

3. Eating at restaurants is the social default in the US.  Ok. Imagine it's your 28th birthday. You want to celebrate with a bunch of friends. What do you do?
(a) invite everyone to a party-oriented restaurant for dinner
(b) invite everyone to your parents' house for a lunchtime barbecue and ask your friends to bring fresh bread and/or fresh salsa, while you and your parents cook fresh meat. (You might ask your friends to chip in a few bucks each for the meat if there are a lot of people.)

If you're American, you'll likely choose (a). If you're Brazilian, you'll likely choose (b).  For American twentysomethings, the first idea of where to celebrate something is in a bar or restaurant (anyone disagree?). Bars and restaurants = much more fattening food.

  ------------
All of this isn't to say that Brazilians have perfect diets. Low-income people in Brazil also have health problems as a result of poor diets-- they're just different problems (i.e. they eat only beans and rice instead of eating only Mc Donald's).  I've also had a couple of students that married young and moved out of their parents' houses early, and so they also have the problem of having to work more to pay their own bills and not having the time or skills to cook. The Brazilian equivalent of eating out on the cheap is lanches  - super greasy street-corner sandwiches.
----------------------

That's all we've come up with so far. I'd love to hear everyone else's thoughts. I know my calculations and my statistical logic isn't flawless. What other factors are affecting the prices between the two countries?  If you're not an economist, tell us about your life! If you've lived in both countries, what was your diet like? How did prices/your schedule/your social life affect your eating habits? I know that some of you went from small town to big city, instead of my opposite situation. How do the prices compare?

I don't know about you guys, but all this food talk has made me hungry. I'm gonna go make a cake. Old habits die hard!

Thursday, July 8, 2010

A Leash for the Cat

So after my sister's relative success with a leash for her cats (I'm hoping she'll post the video to youtube so I can show you all; it's hilarious), Alexandre and I decided to try out a leash with Gatinha.

The first one we bought was too small and we had to return it. Because she's a chub-chub.

The big kitty's leash has ladybugs all over it. It's darling.

We tried her out with the leash in the house first, giving her lots of treats and trying to get her used to the idea of not being kitty-naked. She was cool with wearing the actual thing.  The problem came when we tried to take her outside of the apartment.

The poor thing almost had a meltdown.

We tried to lure her and calm her with feather toys and treats:



But she just kept pulling us back to the front door of the building, trying to get back in:



The poor baby Gatinha. She's such an agoraphobe.
I felt bad for her, so I carried her back upstairs. She clung to my shoulders for dear life.


I guess she's just a homebody who prefers to cuddle with me than to go out. Just like her human daddy. We're gonna try again another day. Any suggestions?


On an unrelated note, I took these pictures without the memory card because I forgot to take the card out of the computer. So when I plugged the camera in directly, I also found the pictures from my birthday dinner, and thought my family would like to see them:

 Alexandre, chocolate, and caipirinhas. All I need in the world. 
(Also, that cake was totally overpriced. If I'd been more sober, I would never have ordered it! Ok. Maybe I still would have.)

Alexandre, me, and my buddy Lisandra. She's super great.


Our lovely dinner group, and people I'd call my real friends here. I'm all about quality over quantity when it comes to birthday dinner guests.


Wednesday, July 7, 2010

An Honest Entry

There are some days when living here in this godforsaken hick town makes me want to scratch my eyes out (or scratch everyone else's eyes out).  I mean this is going to sound totally snobby and American elitist but so much shit happens here that makes me think, "Wow. If you want to know what the Goddamned third world is, come on over here and have a look."  I am losing all my patience and becoming more and more economically republican by the day.

There is just absolutely no business sense here, and no respect for laws. The combination of these 2 factors makes completing the simplest tasks a huge freaking ordeal. I mean we have a few big chain companies (which we Berkeley hippies foolishly denounced), and they keep regular business hours and don't do completely asinine things, but the same can't be said for the local businesses, which close when they feel like it, open when they feel like it, don't have basic things like websites or even listed telephone numbers. You call a guy to fix something (an electrician or a mechanic or whatever), and he just doesn't show up. I just don't understand it. They have people willing to give them money in exchange for services, and they're too lazy to wake up and open the door for business. Sometimes I have only an hour to go do a quick thing, like make copies or return something I bought, so I run to a given store between classes, only to find it closed in the middle of the afternoon.

Also, so many people just DON'T WORK. Just one of many examples: Alexandre and I went to the supermarket the other night just before their 8pm closing time. There's a 10 items or less / seniors preference line. Fine, great, I respect that. But the supermarket was totally empty. There were only 2 cashiers working: one regular line, and this special line. We had a bit more than 10 items, but there was NO ONE else around except for the 2 people in the regular line. So we went up to the special line to see the young cashier picking at her nails.

"Can we come in this line?" Alexandre asked.
"10 items and seniors only." the girl said.
"Well sure, but there's no one else here. So can you help us?"
"I don't know, no."

Alexandre just sighed, but I couldn't help myself. "Oh my god, moça. I'm so sorry we asked you to work. Don't worry, you go ahead and keep on sitting there. I know it's so tiring."

(See what I mean about losing my patience?)

I just opened a bank account here (finally, yay!). If you've ever opened an account in an American bank, you'll know that it's a pretty simple thing. The same cannot be said for Brazilian banks. So far it's been about 3 weeks and I still don't have a card or full access to the account. One of the banks (Banco do Brasil) is government-run. It decided to open from 11:00am-4:00pm.  Imagine if this happened in the US. What would the other banks do? Open more, of course, and steal all the business from the public bank. That's what capitalism should be-- trying to be better than your competition. But what happened here? The bank employees at the private banks protested to lower the bar. So now ALL banks open from 11:00am-4:00pm. Yup. 5 hours in the middle of the day, with lunch breaks. IT DOESN'T MAKE ANY GODDAMNED SENSE. To be fair to the employees, they have to be there earlier and stay a bit later, but they are doing internal things and don't have to see any clients. If anyone can enlighten me on why the bank's schedules are so retarded, please do. Alexandre says "because bank tellers are effing lazy",  and I'd like to think there's more to it than that, but I can't be sure.

The bank's website has online banking. I tried to sign up for it, but it didn't work. Then I went into the bank this morning and tried to make a deposit, but it didn't work.  So then I had to go back during business hours to talk to someone, but the lady who has been "helping" me open my account was on her lunch break (it was 11:45am. Poor thing. 45 minutes of work is so tiring). So I had to wait for another guy, and explain my situation. He informed me that the central branch had released my account number (which I got from the lady when I called her on Monday to ask her what the hold up was), but that no one had gone into the system to officially "turn on" the account. (So basically when I called the lady, she saw that I had a number, but she didn't take the 30 seconds to activate it.) So he did that, which also was necessary to order my bank card (so that means if I hadn't gone in to ask, or if I hadn't tried to make a deposit without the card, who knows when it would've been ordered?). So at least this guy was pretty on the ball. But when I explained to him about the online banking thing, he said that savings accounts can't use the online banking. So then I asked if I could have one of those little checkbook balance logs (that was kind of hard to explain in Portuguese). He said they didn't have them. So I asked him how I was supposed to check and maintain my balance, because the ATM charges if I print out a statement more than twice a month. His answer? "You can make a spreadsheet in Excel or something." Fabulous. Amazing customer service.


My other issue is just the day-to-day every-man-for-himself lawlessness exhibited by the people around here. You see it most in transit, with the rampant red-light-running, drunk-driving, going-the-wrong-way-on-a-one-way-street madness. My students love to complain about their government and how the Brazilian government has so much corruption. Here's my take on it: the government may be corrupt, but the government is not an abstract idea. It's made up of people, and these people represent people. So many Brazilians have no qualms of committing their own acts of corruption on a daily basis. It's the cashier guy on the bus who pockets the fares. It's the doctor who doesn't pay his taxes. It's the copy place that makes illegal copies of books to make a quick buck at the expense of laws and the publishers. It's the people who go into Paraguay and bring back suitcases full of crap to sell in their hometowns, again to make a quick buck at the expense of Brazilian factory workers and businesses. It's the cop who accepts bribes from drunk drivers. It's the bouncer who lets 14-year-olds into the bar and the bar owner who ignores it. It's the guy who knows a guy who can clean your "points" off your driving record illegally. It's my neighbor who leaves her trash in the building's closed hallway because she's too lazy to go down the stairs to take it out, but she doesn't want to smell it inside HER apartment (so everyone else has to smell it instead) (yes, I knocked and her door and said something). 

These are all things that I've seen personally, and I could go on.

This is not a far-away idea of a "corrupt government." These are individual people making individual decisions.  And then some particularly ignorant people have the nerve to complain to ME and blame ME for America's tough immigration laws. I'm gonna be the one to say what people are thinking: If Brazilians want to live in a better place, BE BETTER. Act better. Make your own country better instead of just trying to run away from it.

Yes, I know I'm gonna get all kinds of Brazilians leaving comments on here that "well, America has problems too! Bad things happen in America, too!" That's right, they do. And when I lived there, I complained about it. And if you live there for a while and feel like you're always trying to do the right thing only to be counteracted by everyone else doing the wrong thing, you can complain about it. And I live here, and I'm allowed to complain about it. The problems of the two countries are not mutually exclusive.

I'm tired of having to keep my mouth shut all the time because "I'm not from here" so my criticisms are somehow more offensive than the criticisms from a native-born Brazilian. I am not an American ambassador.  I try to be optimistic and to focus on the good things about this country, but at the end of the day, I'm just one regular person who gets frustrated when things don't work correctly.

I'm really really really hoping that Brazilian big-city daily life isn't as infuriating. Because if we end up moving at the end of the year and this shit is the SAME, I'll probably just give up all faith in Brazil, and possibly in people in general.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Know Your Privacy Settings

I just posted this on my Facebook and thought I'd share it with you:

I'm getting a little freaked out by how much information people are making public on the internet. Sometimes, I think we're so excited to have someone pay attention to us that we don't think about EVERYONE that could be listening/reading.

Google has a new program called "Google Social Circles", which is connected to the new "Google Social Search." Basically, Google compiles a list of everyone you contact using any Google-related account (Gmail, Orkut, Gmail Chat, etc). It then compiles a lits of the contacts of YOUR contacts. 

On this list, it shows you anything that this person has posted publicly on the internet. So think about this. Imagine you've written an email to your boss once in your life using your personal email. That means you're now on your boss's contact list. Now, if you haven't set all these things to private, your boss can see your Google profile, your Google chat user name and signed in status, your Facebook profile, your Orkut profile, your Twitter, your Google reader sites, any blogs you have, and any websites you've made or commented on using your Google account. 

If your boss hasn't made these things private, you can also see these things for your boss.

Because your boss's wife is on a list of your contacts' contacts, she can also see some of this information, even if the two of you have never met.

Is anyone else totally freaked out by this?! 

Related to this freak-out is the kind of things I can see on people's Facebooks. Recent example: Bob and Jane got married. I am not Facebook friends with Bob or Jane, but Bob, Jane, and I have some friends in common. Bob and Jane's friend Lisa (who is not my friend) posts a video of Bob and Jane's wedding. Lisa tags some people who went to the wedding in the video. I am not friends with Lisa, but I am friends with some of Lisa's friends. So now, I can see the video of the wedding. It pops up in my feed. Bob and Jane did not invite me to the wedding. Bob and Jane don't even like me. But if I wanted to, I could watch a video of the most important, personal, and special day in their relationship.

HELLO!!?!! 

I think it's important to know your privacy settings and what information you're making public. Here are my tips: 

1. Do a Google search for your name in quotation marks. See how much of your Facebook profile is available to perfect strangers. (This is especially helpful if your name is not too common.)

2. Do a Google search for your email address. Do a Google search for any screen names that you frequently use. See what's public and if anything's worth deleting (comments on a questionable website, perhaps?)

3. Go to your Google Account settings and then your Google profile. Your Google profile is a list of all things you have that are Google-related. Make your Google profile private and delete any information that you don't want to be public. Take things like personal blogs off of your profile. Making your Google profile private will save you a lot of trouble in the new Google Social Groups feature. If you don't use Google Buzz regularly, delete it from your profile. Google buzz is similar to the Social Groups feature in that it shows all of your contacts what you're doing and posting.

4. If you have a blog or blogs, look at your blogger profile to see which ones are available for people to see. 

5. Remove your last name from any accounts whenever possible (like Blogger and Twitter, for example)

6. Take the time to read through Facebook's privacy settings. They're tedious, but not complicated. Important factors:

(a) You can make Facebook friend groups. This takes a little while, but will save you a lot of stress and time in the long run. You can give these privacy groups specific settings. So you can make a friend group called "real friends" and give only this group access to things like your wall, your status updates, your pictures, etc. You can also make groups like "coworkers" and block them from seeing things. 

(b) You can take your Facebook profile out of Google searches.

(c) You can control who finds you in a Facebook search if they type in your name or your email address. Right now, my profile is set so that if someone searches for me, I only appear if we have friends in common. 

(d) Do privacy tests. Type in the names of friends to see what they can see. 

(e) Stop showing your friends what kinds of things you like, and stop giving your information to ads. On Facebook, go into "my account", and then click on the last tab: Facebook ads. Where it says "Allow ads on platform pages to show my information to..." change it to "no one". 



Another option is to just stop typing out and publishing every personal detail about your life. Think twice before you talk about how drunk you were last night. Think twice about saying what you were doing during the day if you called in sick to work. Think twice about taking quizzes like "What is your best sexual position?" and publishing the results to your profile. Think twice about who you accept as a Facebook friend and who is still on your friends list. Think of it this way: If this person wanted to come into your house, read your diary, and look through all of your photo albums and your phone book/ planner, would you let them? If not, do you need to be their Facebook friend? Or, could they be in a more private friend group?


Is anyone else freaked out? Anyone else have any similar stories of inappropriate things they've seen? Anyone else have any other tips on how to make your information more private? (Anyone know more tips about Twitter? I don't use it.)






I'm not one of those conspiracy-theory, the government-is-out-to-get-you types. I just think it's way too easy for the wrong person to stumble upon something that they're not supposed to see.

Not Going Anywhere

All right. I just need to rant a bit, ok?

I went to a birthday party tonight. I had only met the birthday girl once before, but we have a lot of mutual friends (I almost wrote "friends in common", god help me), so they invited me. Alexandre's out of town for school stuff, so I went without him.

The birthday girl turned 30, but... I felt like an ambassador from the US... visiting 12 year olds.  I mean, there were a handful of nice, friendly people at the party, but there were some real... winners. 

Like the guy who shouted "SPEAKEE ENGLISHEEE?" every time I walked by his table. Or the other guy who kept saying "You can only come to the next party if you bring American amigas!" And just the people changing the subject in general back to the fact that I'm American in all of my conversations. Like... I know I have an accent. And I know they're curious. But after I tell them that I've lived here for over 2 years, and when I'm keeping up with their conversations just fine, you think they'd realize that we have other things in common.  After hearing the same jokes and comments so many times (partly because of the dumb factor and partly because drunk people repeat themselves), I want to just say, "GET OVER IT!" 

But the highlight of the night was definitely the drunk obnoxious birthday girl who came up to my table of friends and shouted, "DANI! Dani from the United States of North America! Why are you here?! You just came here to steal the good Brazilian guys!"

Ha. Hilarious. We were all talking at the moment when she came up shouting, so I just ignored her and went back to the conversation.

About 10 minutes later, I walked over to the fridge to get some soda. The birthday girl cornered me at the fridge and said again, "You just steal good Brazilian guys!" (Not really sure why she keeps saying I steal "guys", in the plural.) But this time, I said "yup, and I stole a really good one!"  So then she said something like, "You should be embarrassed!" And I said, "Nope! Not embarrassed at all! Really happy, actually!" Then I finished pouring my Coke and went back to the table. 

A little while later, the birthday girl came back to the table AGAIN and sat down next to a friendly enough girl that I just met at the party. (At the table was me, my best Brazilian friend Carol, her very nice boyfriend, and another friend of ours. Plus this new girl that we had just met.) The birthday girl pointed to me and then said to the new girl (in a loud voice for everyone to hear), "That's Dani. She steals good Brazilian men!" 

"Wow. The third time," I said, not hiding my annoyance. Luckily, my buddies pitched in to help.  
"Who's stealing who?" They asked sarcastically. "Alexandre stole a really good American!"
"I think you guys are a beautiful couple, Danielle."
Even Carol's boyfriend helped out. "Alexandre is great! And the best part? He's a Corinthians fan!" (that's a soccer team here, if you're out of the loop). This comment was particularly helpful because it got a rise out of all the men within earshot and successfully changed the subject.

The girl was so drunk that I'm not sure if she even held her attention long enough to realize that they were disagreeing with her, but I appreciated their effort and inclusion. It was a nice moment of humanity.  After the birthday girl moved on to another table, my friends said things like, "Don't mind her, she's just drunk. She's usually very nice." and "She was just joking, viu?"

I'm sorry, but I don't think that calling something a joke gives anyone free reign to be totally rude and insulting. Neither does being drunk.  I pretended to be tired and went home pretty soon after all that. 

I'm gonna go out on a limb here and guess that the birthday girl was feeling pretty shitty because she realized that she's 30, still single, and kind of looks like a rabbit. 

When things like this happen, I have a bad habit of remembering all similar events (even though they're relatively rare in relation to how many people I've ever talked to in this country). Like one of Alexandre's classmates, who "joked" with me that Alexandre was only with me for the green card. And another one of the hospital people who, upon seeing me at a party with Alexandre about a year and a half after my moving here, said, "oh, you're still here?"

Like... Ok. I know I'm sensitive. I know I take things too personally sometimes. But those comments are rude, right? There are times where I really just feel like I'm not taken seriously, or where people are so messed up with their own problems and I'm an easy scapegoat. I know it's more of the latter, but it's still sucky, and it gets old. 

Alexandre says not to worry about it, that our real friends respect me and take me seriously. That's true, but I don't see why someone who isn't a "friend" must be an enemy by default. 

I know, I know. Not everyone is bad. I'm just having one of those nights, and I'm ready for Alexandre to come home tomorrow.
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