It's a bit of a shock to the system to be back in cold, rainy London after two glorious weeks in sunny Brazil. And unfortunately I mean that literally. Foolishly I thought I could get away with not bringing a jacket, and was forced to shiver my way home from the airport Tuesday in just a jumper. Now, of course, I have a cold.
It was an amazing trip, and really interesting - especially in the way we bookended it with some time in Portugal. We got a really cheap flight to Brazil with TAP, Portugal's national airline, but it required a 24 hour stopover in Porto on the way there and another stopover in Lisbon on the way back. So it was a little colonial recreation, if you will. This theme for the trip was heightened by the fact that the first port of call was Salvador, the capital of Brazil during the colonial period. The city is billed as having the largest collection of colonial architecture in Latin America, and it didn't disappoint.
The relationship between Portugal and Brazil has always fascinated me - the case of the colony growing so large it came to dwarf its former master. Much of what intrigues me about it is that it mirrors - in a sort of distorted, exagerated form - the relationship between the United States and Britain. Back in 2008 I wrote about how Portugal had changed its written language to the Brazilian form of Portuguese, a long-time-in-coming acnowledgement that Brazil is the world's Portuguese power. Both the written and spoken forms of Portuguese used in the two countries differs markedly (the differences are greater than that between American and British English, but not as stark as those between French and Québécois). It was understandably a hard reality for Portuguese to face, but the truth is this: Brazil accounts for 83% of the world's Portuguese speakers; Portugal has just 4.6% of them. It got me thinking about whether we could ever see the day where Britain adopts American English. After all, about 65% of the world's native English speakers use American English. Of course, the relationship between the US and the UK is not anywhere near as lopsided as that between Portugal and Brazil.
It was strange to go from a day in Porto straight to Brazil - and not just because of the dramatic temperature change! For one thing, the difference in the way Portuguese is spoken is so incredibly different. The accent in Portugal is truly strange. Whenever I hear it, I would never guess that the people are speaking a Romance language. It sounds slavic, with heavy 'sh' and back of throat sounds. The Brazilian accent, on the other hand, is much more melodic and clearly sounds like a Romance language. I was talking to some Brazilians about this and they all agreed that Portuguese people sound like they're speaking Polish.
But the differenc in energy was also notably different. Granted this could just be down to the fact that right now it's winter in Portugal and summer in Brazil, but walking around Porto the streets were nearly deserted and it felt kind of depressing. Much of the houses in the city centre were in a state of disrepair, and people generally had glum expressions. It felt like a shell of a place, really, a town whose heyday had passed. Though it did have a really great new metro system, apparently built when Porto was a 'European capital of culture' ten years ago.
Contrast this with Rio and Salvador- vibrant, energetic, full of hope and almost frenetic patriotism. Really, all of Brazil seemed to be filled with hope and enthusiasm, a natural byproduct I suppose of being one of the BRIC economies poised for exposive growth.
Brazil the island
At the sime time there was a vibe in the air in Brazil that I found very familiar coming from the United States. From the moment we landed I felt like we had arrived on a different planet. Not because of the different season or the wild atmosphere of carnaval, but because the place felt completely removed from the rest of the world.
For a country that is such a popular destination for tourists, I was surprised by the lack of English we encountered there. We spent the first week in Salvador and were hard pressed to find a single person who spoke English. We met up there with two friends who have been travelling around South America for six months who speak fluent Spanish, and they were even having a hard time finding anyone there who spoke espanol. Each time they would ask Brazilians if they spoke Spanish, they would shake their heads no. I found this strange because this was contrary to what I had heard about Brazilians - that they mostly understand Spanish.
Ok, but that was Salvador - surely in Rio we would encounter more English right? Think again. Even at our hotel, ironically named the "Hotel Ingles", none of the receptionists spoke even a word of English. Without a doubt, Brazil had the lowest permeation of English I've ever encountered in all my travels. I mean, I've travelled throughout Southern and Eastern Europe where English levels are fairly low, but usually the people you're trying to communicate with speak at least a few words of English and you can try to get the conversation going with those.
Now don't get me wrong, I'm not being a lazy American complaining about people not speaking English just because it makes life more difficult for me. I was actually intrigued by this lack of English, which I really hadn't expected. But what was even more surprising - and really kind of bizarre - was this: Whenever we would try to communicate with someone who didn't speak any English (which was basically all the time) they would just speak Portuguese at us louder. Like English speakers do when they're abroad!
It seemed a peculiar assumption on their part, that surely we must know some Portuguese even if we just said we don't speak it. I mean, let's be honest, when English speakers do it it's not an unreasonable assumption. But Portuguese? Not exactly a popular second language to learn. One time, when we were asking directions of someone who didn't speak English, the person decided he would solve our communication difficulties by writing us an essay on how to get to where we wanted to go - in Portuguese! Bless him for wanting to be helpful so much, but if we don't speak Portuguese, how exactly would writing it help?
It all seemed to be part of a wider feeling of insularity I got from the country. Brazilians in the service industry (receptionists, waiters, cab driver, etc) seemed to speak no languages other than Portuguese, and the way they were yammering away at us it seemed like they were unaware that the rest of the world might not speak the same language they do. Now can you see why Brazil reminded me a bit of America?
Flipping through the terrestrial TV stations in the hotel, I also quickly became aware that there were no languages other than Portuguese on the dial (not even Spanish), a big difference from TV in any European country. And while in Portugal I noticed that they use subtitles for English-language TV programming, in Brazil such programming was all dubbed into Portuguese.
This is what comes with being such a huge, self-sufficient country I suppose. Brazil is the massive powerhouse of Latin America. Its wealth and development is outpacing any other country on the continent. It is also completely energy independent. What reason does the average Brazilian have to interact with other countries? Think about where the main population centres are. The vast majority of the population lives within 100 miles of the coast, and there are no big cities anywhere near Brazil's borders with other countries. It is a remarkably isolated place really. Seperated from other cultures by oceans, mountains or jungle, it might as well be an island. Reminds me quite a bit of the land I come from really.
Knowing your place
Contrast this with Portugal, which had already ceased to be an important country two centuries ago. Even before Brazil gained independence it had eclipsed Portugal in importance, so much so that even before the Napoleonic Wars the Portuguese monarch was considering moving the capital of the empire to Rio (they eventually did in 1806). Portugal went through decades of the 20th century in deep denial of this reality. During the years of dictatorship under Salazar, the country gained the title of the most delusional and desperate European power as it refused to give up its African and Asian colonies. But as it emerged from the decades of isolationism in the 1980's, Portugal has changed profoundly. It has become an active, enthusiastic partner in the EU project. It's no accident that the most recent EU restructuring treaty was signed in Lisbon.
I could feel this as we walked around Lisbon on our way back to London from Brazil. I'd been to Lisbon before, but during this visit I was thinking about what it means to be a small state versus a big state, and the different outlook this entails. Portugal is just a much more international place than Brazil. But that's because it has to be. It's a tiny country that can only be an important player in the 21st century in a union with surrounding states. Brazil, on the other hand, can afford to be isolationist. And so can the United States.
The analogy can be stretched too far, but I can't help but see comparisons to the position the UK finds itself in today. Like Portugal, Britain has watched its former colonial possession grow to dwarf it and dominate it culturally. Certainly the UK is a far more important country economically and militarily than Portugal, but for how much longer? The world is changing, and the 21st century will be dominated by the two superpowers of America and China. In the rafters will be the economic superpowers of India, Brazil and Russia. Where will the UK be in this new world? If it chooses isolationism and cannot accept the reality that it cannot be independently powerful like the United States can, it may suffer the same fate as a misguided Portugal did during its decades of dictatorship. However if it can learn to swallow its pride, accept the new reality and become a strong voice in a powerful EU, it could be up on that stage with the BRICs and America in the coming years. But it can only be there in that seat as part of a united Europe. The only other option is isolation and irrelevence, and as Portugal could tell you, that didn't work out too well for them.
All in all it was a very nice holiday. Carnaval was amazing, the beaches were beautiful, and the people were tons of fun. Now it's back to reality, and time to find an apartment in Brussels. I move there in just two weeks!