Sao Paulo

Sao Paulo: please forgive all the bad things I’ve ever thought about you! I take it back! You’re amazing!

And I have to admit, I did think bad things about the city. In my defense, I only saw it on my way from the airport, when I was tired after a ten hours flight, but the entire city seemed to consist of high risers, and the only colours were off white, beige and sand. I didn’t get any sense of an actualy city centre, which probably was because there isn’t one. “People always ask me where the city centre is”, said Matthew Shirts, formerly of National Geographic in Brazil, who’s lived in Sao Paulo for twenty years. “And I always tell them that there isn’t one centre, there’s many. It’s a city of twelve million people.”

Matthew used to write a column about daily life in Vila Madalena, and probably single handledly turned it into the charming bohemian quarter it is today. It’s an abslutely lovely area: the houses are small and individuals, painted yellow or pink or clear blue or covered with street art. There’s art galleries, small shows, and bars. Plenty of bars. And a coffee shop named the Coffee Lab, so you see what kind of area it is. Unlike Santos, Sao Paulo are built mostly of hills, so the steep streets remind me of San Francisco. The area reminds me of San Francisco before the tech guys. I was there for an event in a great bookshop, and afterwards we walked slowly to a restaurant a block or so away, where a jazz band was playing inside and people were having dinner or a few beer with friends. When we left them at midnight the band was still playing and people were still hanging around.

A normal Monday evening in Vila Madalena.

Language and stories

I’ve been traveling for almost four weeks now, and I have worked. But it’s a funny thing about traveling: I’m often better at finding new ideas than working on the book I should be focusing on. It’s something with being surrounded by all these stories that exists everywhere, and being open to them. In DC I eveasdropped on conversations at bars, thought about what their lives looked like, listed what characterized people in DC, took notes on what people did for a living, and tried to describe all the different places and streets and people I saw. I was completely uninterested in the small English village that just a short time ago seemed so fascinating to me, and thought instead about what would make people in DC kill each other (not politics, much too obvious) and what situations a visiting writer might find herself in.

But Brazil was different. In Santos I could suddenly think about the old idea again. I revisited my English village in my head, and reconnected with the people there that I left behind when I was in DC. I think it’s because I was no longer surrounded by any stories that I could understand. Partly from a strictly linguistic point of view: I write better when I don’t speak the language around me. It’s probably caused by a longing to use more words than “hello” and “thank you” (I also write longer Facebook messages to all my friends). But I think it’s also partly because the environment and culture was so new and foreign to me that I couldn’t grasp any of the stories around me. I knew they existed, I just couldn’t access them. Everything was strange to me: the rythm, architecture, coffee, body language. I could listen to the three old men sitting at the table next to me over three empty small cups of espresso, but I could weave no stories around them. What did they do for a living? Where did they live? Where they friends, collegues, old enemies? Who knows?

But after five days here I have started to find stories again. I’m suddenly alive to the possibilities of it all. Oh, I don’t understand Brazil of course. It’s not a country you understand, even if you’ve lived there for twenty years or, I suspect, your entire life. But I’m beginning to see pontential characters in everyone I meet, and professions, and how people talk to each other, and suddenly I find myself abandoning my English village again and thinking instead of how my determined, settled and effevtive writer would cope here, and who would end up getting killed.

The sad state of books in Brazil

“No one buys books in Brazil anymore”, someone said and shook his head. “The only time someone ever buys books are at event”, someone else added.

Ask anyone that’s ever been involved in the publishing industry – publishers, editors, booksellers, writers – in any country and they will all tell you how difficult the times are nowadays. This has held true in every country and city I’ve ever been to, including Hay-on-wye, where a lady in a bookshop shook her head sadly and said there used to be many more bookshop there. But not anyway. She didn’t think there were more than 25 now.

There’s not quite 25 bookshops in the area close to the hotel, but it’s not that far off. I’ve counted some five just in the immediate area around it. Most of them are part of chains, of course: “There used to be many more independent bookshops, but they are all closing nowaday”, said a third person.

No bookshop in Santos can compete with The Bookseller’s. This Saturday he had organized a little celebration at the bookshop after the events of the day had ended. The doors were open towards the warm evening outside, people were having a beer out on the streets, and a man with a guitar and a woman with a violin were playing inside. And everyone was of course surrounded by books. I even got to go backstage. I miss being allowed into storerooms now that I no longer work in a bookshop. Isn’t it an amazing view?

A Bookseller in the Tropics

It was our last evening in Santos, and we were having beers and hamburgers at this great bar. The Bookseller told me that he planned to write a book one day called The Bookseller in the Tropics, but until then he used Facebook to revenge himself on annoying customers. They seem to be just as many in Brazil as in Sweden.

A few examples:
An annoying lady came by the bookshop. I missed the background on why he felt so sure he couldn’t help her, but apparently she wasn’t having it anyway:
She: “I have looked everywhere! You are the only one that can help me!”
The Bookseller: “I doubt it.”
She: “I’m sure you can!”
He: “I’m sure I can’t.”
And so it continued, back and forth, until he decided to just stand there, quiet and immobile, “turning slowly into a stone” until she eventually left.

He also shared with me the best example of the customer that doesn’t know what she’s looking for (you know the type: “I don’t know the title or the author or what the book’s about, but I remember that the cover is red. Or possibly blue. Can you look it up in the computer?”). His customer didn’t even know the colour, but she knew it was “this thick”, using her index finger and thumb to measure it. Naturally the Bookseller then walked around the bookshop measuring all the books he saw. I suspect that she too left in the end.

But I don’t want you to think that the Bookseller is asocial or grumpy or dislike people like, say, me. No, no. Wherever he goes someone is calling out a greeting and receiving a smile, a pat on the shoulder in return and a loud and happy “oi!”. He seems to know half the city and like everyone; and everyone certainly likes him.

Speaking of “Oi!”, I have to introduce you to the Driver. You might remember him from the drive from the airport when I had just arrived to this fascinating country. And he continued to drive people back and forth between Sao Paulo and Santos all week. We often see each other outside of the theatre where the book festival is; he while dropping off or picking up or waiting for people, me while smoking. He talks very little English and I almost no Portuguese, but we always greet each other like old friends. “Hello!” he says, and I reply with a “Oi! Todo ben?” He smiles encouragingly everytime and pretends to be impressed by my Portuguese. After that we have basically used all the words we have in common, and have to rely on gestures, smiles and shrugs. But don’t they always say that a true sign of friendship is that you can be quiet together and don’t have to talk all the time?

A new writer had joined us that evening called Antonio Ladeira, a Portuguese writer and literary scholar who lives in Lubbock, Texas. He’s the only one I met who voluntarily moved to Lubbock. He was extremely fond of and knowledgeable about (fountain) pens and could never remember a name. By now he had called Ana Margarida some three or four different things, like Ana Christina, Ana Maria etc. I like pens as much as the next author, but I’m not even close his level. He kindly informed me that there were several great pen shows in the US (he had been to them too, I’m sure). He had brought three pens to Brazil: one “cheaper, from China” that he didn’t really care about (I didn’t either). The second one was a Parker ’51, which apparently is an iconic pen that was produced between the 30ies and 70ies (or something like it), but still retains a classic, modern feel some four decades after it stopped being produced. I loved that pen and will definitely buy one. I don’t remember the name of the third one, but it was the most expensive, and it was also the pen that Neil Gaiman swore by. He kindly let me try all of them, and then he turned to me and said: “So, Margaret…”He blinked confusedly when me and Ana Margarida started laughing. “Now you remember Margaret”, she said and shook her head.

At the end of the evening I turned to the Bookseller and told him that he really should write that novel. “But maybe you shouldn’t have told me about it, because it’s such a great title that I might steal it.” – “It’s my gift to you”, he replied seriously and then added: “Since you’re stealing it anyway, I’m gifting it to you.”

PS. I was kidding. I would never steal someone elses title. But I would love to read that book.

My mom

… is very much cooler than me. This is just one example, speaking of ships: my mother used to work on one. This was in the 70ies, before I was born, and it fills me with equal parts admiration and jealousy. She traveled from Cape Town, to Rio de Janeiro, up through the Panama Canal, and on towards Sac Francisco.

During these trips she did of course visit Santos, but what’s more: she also once worked on a ship named Santos.