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I'm a social worker from the UK who moved to São Paulo in February 2012. Blogging about the many humbling day-to-day episodes I am experiencing as I attempt to adjust to life here in Brazil. More Info

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The Book Is On The Table

In defence of São Paulo

November 7, 2012

Recently a friend visited from London and I took him on a mini-trip of Brazil and Argenitna, starting in Rio and ending in Buenos Aires (and stopping off on the way at Ilha Grande, São Paulo and Foz do Iguaçu). Whilst I did so I discovered something very worrying about myself, something which I’d like to share with you in today’s post. 

And this is?

Well, whilst travelling I started to find myself becoming defensive of São Paulo. Yes dear reader, it seems that I may have subconsciously acquired an affection for the place, an affection that makes me defensive when other people are critical of it.

“But, how is this possible?” I hear you cry incredulously, “From reading your blog I got the impression that you just moaned about everything in São Paulo right?”

Errrm, yes, but during the three weeks I spent away from the place I think I realised that I had reached a nadir in my cycle of cynical, Brit moaning.

“But, how Andy? This really doesn’t make sense”.

Well, as a traveller you meet all sorts and invariably – long before you become bestfriends after one day and end up downing shots of tequila in some godforsaken bar before never seeing each other again – your first interactions typically consist of mundane small-talk along the lines of:

“Where do you come from?”

“What do you do?”

“How long will you be in (insert name of city, town, country, etc)?”

“Which football team do you support?”

On this trip, when the mundanities came my way, I had to explain why I resided in São Paulo rather than London, and so, after answering the inevitable Why the hell are you there? question, I then had to listen to repeated denouncements of how São Paulo is a city of doom and gloom, a modern day Sodom and Gomorrah:

“I couldn’t live there” / “I don’t like the sound of living there” (Delete phrase depending upon whether you’ve actually been to São Paulo).

“There’s too much / many…. (insert one of the following: traffic / pollution / cars / people).

“It’s not a tourist city, there’s nothing to do or see”.

“It’s just a big, ugly city”.

“It’s too dangerous”.

Ok, there’s an element of truth to most of these points and that’s because at its worst São Paulo can tend to feel like a real-life Gotham City (Ed – Is this right? I thought you were supposed to be defending São Paulo?).

Ok, ok, I’ll get to that bit in a minute.

Anyway, yes, there are too many cars / people and yes, there is a lot of pollution and traffic. And sure, if you’re a tourist there really isn’t a stand out attraction. Ok, and yes, São Paulo is a huge city which is not particularly aesthetically pleasing. And yes, there is crime too.

Yet despite that, I couldn’t agree with the “I couldn’t live there” line of argument – and not just because I…errr…live there.

Why? Well, don’t those descriptions (apart from the lack of tourist sights) fit most cities? I mean, isn’t it just the degree to which these factors or problems exist in each one?

For my part, it’s interesting to note that of the thirty or so posts I’ve written about São Paulo none of them have included (yet) moans about traffic, cars, crime, overpopulation or pollution. Having lived in cities all my life I think I’ve just taken these things to be an assumed part of urban life, and São Paulo is just an extreme example of what that is and will become (whether we like it or not).

Perhaps, though, I’ve just become one of those people who defend somewhere, no matter how god-awful it is, solely because it’s where they live.

Or maybe not.

I have a habit of dwelling in places that have unfairly (or fairly depending upon your point of view) been branded as ‘shitholes’ (as we like to say in the UK).

For example, I spent seven years living in Hull in the north of England. I did my degree there, started a band there and then did my Masters. Like São Paulo, when I told people I had stayed on beyond my degree no-one could understand why. To be fair, Hull’s reputation hasn’t been helped by the fact that in 2003 it was voted Number 1 in Crap Towns: The 50 Worst Places to Live in the UK, a book in which it was described as:”a sad story of unemployment, teenage pregnancy, heroin addiction, crime, violence, and rampant self-neglect”.

Sound familiar? Only kidding.

Yet whilst that was a pretty damning indictment of the city that I lived in, it wasn’t wholly representative of the Hull that I knew. Yes, it did have problems, but for me it was also a place where people were friendlier than in the south, where it was much cheaper to live and, most importantly, where some of my fondest memories still lie. For example, because I worked in the community I nearly always bumped into one or two people as I walked to and from work. In short, I felt like I lived in a proper community as opposed to a town of strangers. So, despite its problems Hull wasn’t a bad place to live. I could certainly think of worse.

But, places like Hull and São Paulo never get a chance and that’s possibly because, as Alain de Botton notes in The Art of Travel, explorers first and travellers later have:

come before and discovered facts that at the same time laid down distinctions between what was significant and what was not – distinctions that had, over time, hardened into almost immutable truths about where value lay….Where guidebooks praised a site, they pressured a visitor to match their authoritative enthusiasm, and where they were silent pleasure or interest seemed unwarranted.

In the same way, cities like Hull and São Paulo become maligned because no-one takes (or has) the time to dig beneath the surface or because they are not as immediately captivating as their prettier neighbours – e.g. York (for Hull) and Rio de Janeiro (for São Paulo). But, whilst anyone can see that Rio are and York are obviously beautiful, it takes a keener to eye to observe beauty or virtue where it is embodied in other less obvious forms.

And so, if I found it in Hull through its people and community spirit, where is it in São Paulo?

Well, through reading other blogs about Brazil, and from the response I’ve had from expats and Brazilians about mine, I’ve come to realise that many of the things I’ve been critical of in this blog (bureaucracy, pavements (!), public transport, etc), are Brazilian and not purely Paulistano problems. São Paulo’s is unfortunate in that because of its size those problems are magnified.

However, its size is also one of its marvels – once you get used to it. When I moved here in February I vividly remember my sister-in-law saying that living and working in São Paulo makes her feel like a “citizen of the world”, so that she feels a small part of something big and important.

And it’s true. Whilst I love venturing into the wild, cities fascinate me because they are man-made (typical sociology graduate) and symbolise the complexity of the human condition. De Botton talks of the concept of sublimity in relation to places that, ‘gently move us to acknowledge limitations that we might otherwise encounter with anxiety or anger in the ordinary flow of events’. In other words these are places that make us feel small and which make us put our daily woes into perspective. Whilst most people might think that about a desert, canyon or rainforest, it’s mega-city like São Paulo that makes me feel this way.

Anyway, enough of the philosophical bollocks. If that doesn’t convince you then there’s also the following: First, the quantity and quality of São Paulo’s street art must rank amongst the finest if not the finest anywhere in the world. It is, quite frankly, everywhere and if you exclude pichação (angry protest tagging), then on the whole it actually makes most neighbourhoods look much cooler and smarter than they actually are. I’d say that São Paulo’s street art alone is a good enough reason to visit the place.

However, if street art doesn’t take your fancy there’s the fact the place is a hive of culture and entertainment. You can find, at a price admittedly, many of the foods and restaurants that you would find elsewhere in the world – though SP does still lack a good curry house. There are different neighbourhoods to hang out in and have a drink (a boteco if you’re on a budget or somewhere plusher otherwise). I can even get a decent pint of London Pride or Guinness when I’m pining for home – again, at a price).

And at weekends you can go for a walk in Parque Ibiraquera (SP’s Central Park), go to one of the city’s excellent galleries or museums, watch a top South American football team, catch a film at an IMAX or, if it’s your thing, go to a play, opera or ballet at somewhere like the Teatro Municipal. And if you’re a music fan you’ll know that if an artist is going to tour South America then São Paulo will always be one of the first dates on their itinerary.

And, remember, I can even play bloody cricket here.

The thing about São Paulo is that whilst it can be intimidating (at first) and perennially frustrating, it’s can also be pretty cool once you get stuck into it. As the actress Marlene Dietrich once said: “Rio is a beauty – but São Paulo, ah … São Paulo is a city.”

by andyhpmartin. Find out more about andyhpmartin here.

Categories: Lessons Learnt