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Writers-in-Residence in Brazil
And the Bin-Man Drank

Goethe-Institut Rio
Goethe-Institut Rio | Photo: Clarisse Neri

With the Writers-in-Residence project, the Goethe-Institut, the Deutsche Literaturfonds and the Universidade Federal Fluminense enable German writers to have a four-week stay in Rio de Janeiro to network with the local literary scene. Resident Anne Weber captures her impressions exclusively for The Latest at Goethe.

By Anne Weber

Topsy-Turvy World

In Brazil everything is upside down, north is south (it gets hotter the further north you go), in November the days get longer, and if I were to try and speak German, the verb would probably not be at the end, but at the beginning of the sentence. The first feeling you have is of being overpowered. Rio meanders voluptuously along the coastline; the skyscrapers aren’t fingers scraping the sky but the city scratching itself lazily on the belly. Trees wrap around trees, wrap themselves around the foreign bark like a second skin, cocoon them. Orchids simply grow to where they’re hung, somewhere on a tree trunk by the road. The frigate birds don’t need the earth; they hover in the air, huge lightweight dragons, for months. Not far from the flat in Urca, a quiet neighbourhood of Rio, a shady promenade leads off Praia Vermelha along the coast. On the side of the road, like at home on bird watching or other forest trails, a few signs list some of the animals and plants you might encounter here. They include the boa constrictor. I came upon this sign on the second day of my stay. What a country! Here, in the middle of the city, hardly a few steps away from this path, boa constrictors live. Later, in Belém on the mouth of the Amazon estuary one of the students who attended my event at the university described to me how crocodile meat tastes. The young man was tall and looked very strong and healthy and athletic, with lots of white teeth in his thick beard. He said he was actually a journalist and had returned to university to study economics. Journalists eat crocodile here! What sort of articles and novels would result if our journalists and writers ate crocodile meat? Unfortunately, I had to leave before I had the chance to try it myself.

Copacabana by night Copacabana by night | Photo: Anne Weber

My personal scale of fear

Sure, I was frightened. Honestly, I was already pretty scared before my departure. My fears had been fuelled by reports from friends, websites including that of the embassy and the Institut Pasteur. There were mainly three that I’ll list here honestly on my personal scale of fear in the order of their degree of danger for my person: robberies, mosquitoes (viruses of all kinds plus malaria), and a pre-dictatorial political situation. As for robberies: I lost nothing except what I forgot somewhere. As for mosquitoes: I met one or two and even got bitten, but unlike European mosquitoes the Brazilian mosquito bites didn’t even itch. I’ll return home with three full cans of bug spray. As for the political fears: Back in Paris on the first of December 2018, I get the strange feeling I’ve returned from a peaceful country to a France where civil war-like conditions reign. Of course, these impressions don’t correspond to any reportable reality. There are many deaths every day in Brazil. There is the political situation. There are dengue and yellow fever. But there’s also what I saw and experienced.

The richest man in Brazil

On the plane from Brasília to Belém, the Brazilian version of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?" was offered as a computer game. One of the questions was: Who is presently (2012) the richest man in Brazil? Possible answers: Sílvio Santos, Roberto Marinho, Eike Batista and Lula, who is far from having ever been one of the richest men in Brazil. But with him up for election, people are inoculated with this suspicion, which is very convenient for some.

Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? | Photo: Anne Weber In Salvador, in a neighbourhood called Rio Vermelho, sitting in front of a secluded, quiet pub were just a few regulars and two musicians trying to set the mood. Many of the customers knew each other and were speaking with each other. Then a refuse truck passed and stopped in front of the pub and a thirsty bin-man jumped down. One of the customers offered to buy him a beer, but even though the rubbish collection was rather slow compared to the fast pace of the Parisian éboueurs, there wasn’t enough time. So the customer handed him his own full glass, and the bin-man drank, thanked him, and drove on. It seems to me that in a country where such a thing is possible, there’s still reason for hope. In France, in Germany, we’re very proud of our democratic state of affairs, but who of us has ever let a bin-man drink from their glass? Who ever experienced a similar scene? Is Brazil really so much worse off than Europe?

Topsy-turvy world Topsy-turvy world | Photo: Anne Weber