Be Careful What You Ask For

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When I first arrived, it seemed to me that those crazy Brazilians sure liked to chop things down a lot.

“That’s a gorgeous, living being!” I gasped.

“Hah. It will grow back,” they said.

IMG_3998.JPGNowhere was the debate strongest than around the base of the huge tree in our back yard. Towering and shady, it was the corner coffee shop for all the local birds and even a few monkies. Its canopy provided the most delicious shade in the heat of summer. You could stand under it in the hardest of rains and not get wet at all.

“You’re nuts! Chop it down!” they said.

“No way!” I bellowed.

So I ate my serving of hippy, humble pie all toasty and warm one morning last year when we awoke to realize that it wasn’t thunder last night, it was part of that gorgeous canopy coming down.

It just missed our car, and shaved off the shed on our outdoor kitchen.

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Whew. We counted ourselves VERY LUCKY. We cleared the mess, rebuilt the kitchen roof for the better (really, the tree did us a demolition favor), and we were fine. That could have been so much worse.

I was sold. That tree had to go. It was a public health hazard. Grandpa Crônicas gave the aftermath one sideeye and started parking his car on the other side of the yard.

For the past year Mr. Crônicas and I have been sitting in its shade, eyeing up at that monster, wondering HOW, for the love of God, were we going to chop it back safely before it fell on the house? That gorgeous tree was the Wall Street Big Bank of our backyard–too big to be safe, too big to take down.

And then a torrential storm happened yesterday afternoon. We’re in the middle of a drought. Everyone has been praying for rain for weeks. In retrospect, maybe a little too hard. The rain and winds knocked out power in multiple sections of town and flood waters pulled up street paving stones.

We came home from work that night to find our driveway completely blocked by this:

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On closer inspection, it is more than a little amazing. 

It didn’t scratch the house.

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It didn’t hit the power lines.

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It didn’t hit any of the surrounding trees.

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And the whole tree came down at once.

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Seriously, we couldn’t have paid someone do to it better.

So whatever you call it–guardian angels, Mother Nature, Pachamama, dark matter, whatever–something out there is looking out for us.

And just a little reminder to you: be careful what you ask for. You might just get it.

Time is Everything

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bb_wos_title_800x800Hey y’all—I just wanted to share something with you. I’m wicked excited.

I started this great course (Happy Birthday to me! Thanks Dad!).

Why? You might have noticed that there’s been a lull in the writing over here at Minhas Crônicas do Brasil. Part of that is life with a toddler and a full-time job. Part of that is sometimes life gets a little too real to share. Who wants to read someone’s angst as they push through it all? Maybe once, sure, but not repeatedly.

So I was excited about the course as a way to work through some of that. Life adventures. “Brutiful” (brutal +beautiful) life experiences. Storytelling your way through it all. Yep. That’s what we’ve got going on over here. Sign me up! And let me tell you that it hasn’t disappointed.

The quote of the day: “Time is everything…. When you give [writing] out, it has to be a service…. It has to be because you have gone through all the personal stuff and gotten to the universal place. It has to be because you have seen the patterns and you want other people to learn from it. You need to write from a scar, not an open wound.” – Glennon Doyle Melton

So there you go. I found the words to describe my reasons for my absence. I knew in my heart of hearts that parts of this adventure weren’t ready to share. That lull was for a purpose.

It’s kinda scary writing this, dear friends. What if I write this and then…ppphffft. Nothing?

But I don’t think that’s what’s going to happen. The scar tissue is forming. It’s stiff and hard to bend some days, but I’m starting to move. Something is coming out of this, I can just feel it. I can’t wait to see what it is.

Daring-Do

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rainbow hair (photo courtesy of Mary Schmaling)

“Heard of rainbow hair?” I said, “You wanted me to go more platinum blonde. Ok. Deal. And when I do, I want that.” I showed her a photo.

She said, “You’re feeling radical?”

I said, “I’ve always been radical, you just never asked.”

But clearly this was beyond my hair stylist’s comfort zone so I gave up.

I said instead, “I’m tired of blonde highlights to hide the grey. Can you do lowlights and make it one shade darker?”

They said (I tried more than one): “Weeelll…I could, but with your skin coloring don’t you want to be blonde?”

I said, “With my skin coloring, yellow blonde makes me look tired. I’m the mother of a toddler. I don’t need help looking tired. Can we do something different?”

They said, “But you can be blonde. Don’t you want to be blonde??”

I said, “If y’all aren’t going to help me be something other than blonde, I’m going to get a box of home dye and do it myself. If I mess up, so what. Hair will always grow out.”

She said, “You’re daring.”

I said, “Honey, I ditched my whole life and moved to a different country. You think I’m afraid of a little change?”

So here I am. Three boxes of home dye and a few months later, I’ve got the right shade. Nothing fell out, and I didn’t even have to resort to chopping anything off.

I’m still annoyed at my hairdresser for not listening to me and/or not knowing enough to do techniques I know are possible (and I’m not really a hairstyling maven here, so what I’m suggesting probably isn’t rocket science). As a data point, a layered haircut here consists of pulling your hair into a ponytail and cutting it. Every hairdresser does the same.damn.thing. In front for light layers, in back for more dramatic ones. Which is ingenious, really, but definitely NOT complicated.

I said to my husband, “I tried to book an appointment with my hairstylist but no luck. I can never find time. I’m tempted to just cut my hair myself.”

“By yourself?” He said, “Really? You’re daring.”

I said, “I feel like I’ve had this conversation before.”

Yep. Color and cut by yours truly. I think I might never go back.

 

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The New Do’ (What? It looks a lot like my profile photo from five years ago? Yes, that’s kinda the point I’ve been trying to make all along.)

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Fotocrônica: Cattle Country

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It was a Friday night and we were driving down Main Street. There was a COW ambling down the opposite lane. No one was behind her, no one trying to get her back into a corral, she was just on her way up the block. This gives you an idea of how rurally imbedded we are in cattle country. Not to mention the state of our Friday Night nightlife (sigh).

I didn’t get a photo of her. She turned down a sidestreet into the suburbs before I got a chance. 

So here’s another one of a momma stopping by the preschool drop off. Just in case you were thinking that livestock in the streets was an isolated event. 
 

The Oxymoron of American Pizza in Brazil

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Brazilians have a funny idea of what is American. It’s a cross between what they see on TV and what they think is cool (which may or may not have anything to do with actual American customs. 

brazilian pizza To point, behold the “American Pizza” we enjoyed last night: sausage (check), cheese (check), sauce (check), ham (check), and palm hearts and egg (BZZZ! NOT actually American AT ALL). 

Not only are the ingredients not traditionally American, they would send your ordinary Meat n’ Potatoes American running in the opposite direction:”Palm hearts? I don’t know. Sounds kind weird…Eggs! On pizza?? What in the Sam Hill…Get me outta here!”

If I had my way, I’d add Brazilian pizza to that list of 100 Brazilian foods to try. It’s pretty tasty Brazilians like pizza a lot and have made it their own. Thin crust, less sauce (this irritates me–what did tomatoes ever do to you Brazil?), and regular appearances of corn, green olives, chicken, cream cheese, and palm hearts. 

Pizza is served with packets of mayo, ketchup (to compensate for the lack of sauce, ftw), and olive oil. Proper etiquette is to eat it with a fork and knife. No New York-style folding and jamming, thankyouverymuch. Brazilians are at a loss of what to do if the pizza is served before the utensils (me: you’re effing kidding right? You snooze, you lose…Slide that puppy over here!) In sum, Brazilian pizza is definitely worth trying, and definitely NOT anything like an American pizza.

Of course there’s nothing like the tastes of home. One of my delights at the farm is that we’ve repaired our wood-fired oven. American pizza (extra sauce and cheese, please) is a regular treat. Folding encouraged. 

Zika Madness

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I get a lot of questions from people in the States about how people here in Brazil are dealing with all the Zika craziness. Americans are absolutely freaking out about the problem. And Brazilians? My answer always is: “They shrug.”

It’s true. Ask any average Brazilian their opinion about Zika, and they’ll lift their shoulders and sigh. Because it’s transmitted by the same bug that transmits dengue and they’ve been battling dengue for DECADES with little success. Because it’s a symptom of a broken health system. Because it’s got Brazil in the international spotlight, and it’s not flattering and they’re embarrassed.

Brazilians just don’t react much to the issue. I honestly have had more conversations about Zika with Americans (who have just had their first microencephaly case just recently) than with Brazilians (who have had hundreds, if not thousands of cases). This is not to say it’s not a problem. Even here in our little town in Minas Gerais, dengue is a problem. My mother-in-law was treated for it, as was a co-worker. It doesn’t happen a lot, but it happens. And if dengue is here, then Zika could be and also Chikungunya.

Some of this is just the Brazilian toujours gai attitude about life. Always cheerful, nothing’s ever a huge problem, smile and give ’em a thumbs up even when the world is about crash down around your ears.

Some of it is the tragedy of the commons–because the best way to stop the transmission of Zika and dengue is to eliminate all the places the mosquitos can breed which means everyone cleaning up all that trash that Brazilians have been tossing out their windows for ages (the mosquitos can breed in pools of water as small as a soda bottle cap) and screening in houses that just were never built to be airtight. A friend of mine gave us a honorable mention in an article about the problem. We’re the only house in town with window screens, and that’s because I imported kits from Home Depot in the States (thanks mom!). Solving the transmission is a massive public health undertaking and depends on each person doing their part. Which brings us back to part #1 of the problem–convincing the public that there’s a crisis that requires individual action. Which generally is tough to get Brazilians to do.

So imagine my surprise when I saw this public health campaign poster yesterday in the neighboring town of Novo Cruzeiro. Translation: “Free Novo Cruziero from the Chikungunya and Zika viruses–How many people will have to die for you to CLEAN UP YOUR YARD?”

Because DAMN.

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“How many people have to die for you to clean up your yard?”

Crazy Kitchen Chickens

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Our outdoor kitchen is infested with crazy chickens. Crazy or just incredibly dumb, but then dumb just comes with chicken territory. These two ladies take the cake, though.

It all started normally enough, with them selecting roosting spots within the kitchen. Ever seen it happen? It’s cute. Like newlyweds apartment hunting, the rooster leads the hens around showing them various locations. The ladies inspect the nest, toss the hay around, open all the cupboards, and have final say. We have one rooster who’s both a lady’s man and lazy, and he keeps trying to settle two girlfriends in the same suite. Needless to say, it never works out well.

These two roosting spots were not the wisest–on top of the (round) oven, and next to the wood-fired stove. The oven-top hen kept knocking her own eggs out of the nest every time she shifted until she had lost every last one. The stove-top hen kept losing her eggs to our maurading dogs (we debating lacing an egg with hot pepper to teach them a lesson, but that’s a story for another time). For those who haven’t raised chickens, they have this strange habit of shouting at the top of their lungs every time they lay an egg. Proud, I guess. I wonder how the species ever survived. Maybe we bred them to do this? Anyhow, she’d set up squawking and the dogs would come running every time for an afternoon snack. You’re supposed to leave one egg in the nest so that the chicken doesn’t forget where her nest is (see? Not smart, in general, chickens.), but after a few times of this I started racing the dogs to the nest and cleaning it out each time. And nonetheless–despite the fact that all the previous eggs had strangely disappeared moments after she laid it–every afternoon she’d go back to the same spot and lay yet another egg.

Which leads us to our current situation. Ms. Oven-Top has been roosting there for more than a month. We’ve tried shooing her away multiple times. One day I tried more than eight times in a row and finally gave up when I lost count. Mr. Crônicas has piled firewood on top of the oven in hopes of deterring her. Every time we bake something she squats in a crouch to keep her butt off the warm floor and pants with the heat. I’ll give her this: what she’s missing in smarts, she makes up for in dedication.

Ms. Stove-Top was steadfastly brooding on her one egg. She got up for breakfast yesterday and I think a dog finally got it. Her nest was empty and she was running about squawking bloody murder. I cleaned the area and moved the buckets we had placed around her nest to protect her from the dogs. Not being able to find her nest, she insistently settled into one of the buckets and has not budged since.

We’re at a loss what to do. There isn’t a single egg between the two of them, but they both seem determined to stay there until something hatches. Anyone who has experience with chickens have any advice?IMG_5468

Happy Easter everyone. May your eggs and chicks be plentiful, and may your mother hens be sane.

Veggies in a Box

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Our daughter fell in love with a plastic toy kitchen the last time we were home in the States. I decided that if I could find one at a decent price, it would be her big Christmas gift this year.

I promptly fired off a letter to Santa with our request. I got a kind reply from one of his elves that “due to regional constraints” Santa was unable to deliver large items to Brazil. Had I considered an online vendor? True. Christmas trees are scarce. There’s a proper shortage of hearths and chimneys–Brazilian children receive gifts in their shoes! So I guess delivery options are limited. If it doesn’t fit in your shoes, Santa’s not shipping.

Anyhow, armed with that kindly advice I ventured into the world of Brazilian online shopping. Amazingly, I found one and it was even at a decent price with gender-neutral colors! Merry Christmas!

And on Christmas morning I set it up under the tree and promptly snapped a photo because we all know that this is the last time we’ll ever see all those small pieces in the same place ever again…

A few thoughts occurred to me as I staged my daughter’s first culinary set:

  1. Internet shopping is becoming a Thing(TM) in Brazil. Everyone wants First World products, and yet it’s incredibly hard to find them in your local stores OR they’re ridiculously overpriced. Online is the only place way to go, unless you’re so rich that you don’t need to care. In our rural town, we all shop online.
  2. Shipping is exorbitant. I always gasp a little at shipping times and prices here. Oh, how I miss Amazon.com’s free five-day shipping! That being said, I paid extra for fast shipping and it arrived on time before Christmas. So it ain’t all bad.
  3. Be prepared for prices to be truly cray-crazy. So check, and double-check. Online prices are regularly different from store prices. Sales often mean that they just marked it up two days ago, only to then “mark it down” come the sale week. This kitchen was affordable, even with the expedited shipping. But a kit of plastic vegetables to go with the kitchen? More than I spent on the stove itself. (Here kid, I made you some cardboard broccoli instead! Isn’t mommy creative?)
  4. Speaking of vegetables–SALAD in a BOX–who ever heard of such a thing? Apparently whoever made this kitchen has. And while I’m on the topic–who the heck OK’d the decisions on these foods? Salad in a box, plastic hotdogs, plastic eggs, a plastic fish, a box of cream, pepper, and ketchup, those are our ingredients for Toddler Dinner. My mind boggles. (by the way, the salad and cream boxes are no more because: toddlers; they lasted a day)
  5. Expect some pretty crazy translations. English is chic in Brazil, but no one can really speak it. Can someone tell me what this menu is supposed to say? Shares? Room time??
  6.  Truth in advertising is over-rated. The box shows what must be the world’s smallest three-year old playing with the kitchen. The spatula is huge in her hand, and the kitchen comes up to almost the top of her head. Now, truth be told, this kitchen doesn’t even measure up to my TWO-year old’s SHOULDER. So, clearly there’s been some creative photo editing.

But, all in all, my daughter and her friends are thrilled with her new luxury cooking duds. Our play area is the place to be these days for the under-five set.

And my daughter would like you to know that you’re welcome to stop by for some plastic hotdogs, cardboard broccoli, and salad in a box anytime.

We’ll keep the kettle on.

100 Brazilian Dishes: Blender Cake

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Blender Cake in the makingI had no idea what they were talking about when I first read the list of 100 Brazilian Dishes. Blender cake?

I learned later that most homemakers here make cake by throwing all the ingredients in the blender then pouring it into a cake pan. One more use for that trusty kitchen tool–juices, seasonings, and now CAKE. Seriously, I can’t imagine a Brazilian surviving without one.

Clearly, this was a merit badge that this Honorary Brazilian-in-training needed to learn. I made a mental note to find a recipe sometime.

When we had an overabundance of cream from our milk, someone told me that you could use spoiled cream to make delicious, moist cakes.

I googled it, and voila–a blender cake recipe! If you’re curious, here it is:

1 xícara de nata (1 cup of cream)

  • 4 ovos (4 eggs)
  • 1 xícara de maizena (1 cup cornstarch–I’ve learned that this should be sifted into the batter to avoid white clumps in your cake)
  • 2 xícaras de farinha de trigo (2 cups flour)
  • 1 xícara de leite (1 cup milk)
  • 2 xícaras de açúcar (2 cups sugar)
  • 1 colher (sopa) de fermento em pó royal (1TBSP baking powder)
  1. Bata todos os ingredientes na batedeira, menos o fermento, até a massa ficar bem clarinha (mix the ingredients in the mixer without the baking powder until very smooth)
  2. Misture o fermento, sem bate (mix in the baking powder, without beating)
  3. Coloque para assar em uma forma retangular por uns 40 minutos aproximadamente. (put in a square baking pan for approximately 40 minutes. Typical of most Brazilian recipes, it didn’t specify oven heat, pan size or exact cooking time. ON or OFF until done, I guess.)

The results were fantastic, and it’s become a regular offering in our house. High, moist, dense and vanilla-flavored (despite not having any vanilla added); almost like a pound cake.

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My next challenge is to master baking it in our outdoor wood fire summer oven. I mean, if you want an Honorary Brazilian merit badge, you might as well work for it. First attempt was singed (wood fire ovens also seem to only do ON or OFF) but tasty.

Stay tuned, fellow foodies!

(oh!–and my 100 Brazilian Dishes tally? 51 down, 49 to go!)

Bucket Brigade

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IMG_4501We have endless water at the farm. Most of the time. It’s a true luxury. It runs day and night, and we do our best to route it to the most useful places so that its abundance isn’t wasted. It’s easy to be casual about it, because if it isn’t used it just means that a cistern somewhere is overflowing.

We have hoards of water. Until once a year–in September and October–when we don’t.

We are usually one of the last farms to dry up. Many of our friends reported dry wells long before our stream slowed to a trickle. The top of the farm usually still has a few springs that keep going. But our house? Dry as a bone as of a few weeks ago.

I’ve learned something new about myself. I can cross continents, do international travel with a toddler, learn a new language, navigate foreign bureaucracies and strange cities, learn a new culture and a variety of other adventures without batting an eye. But, by gods, there had better be running water at the end of it all.

Our water ran out, and we gamely soldiered on for a few days. We conserved. We used water that we brought by the gallon from town (which also is starting to have shortages and rations in the afternoon). We talked to the municipality about bringing their water truck to refill our cistern and they turned us down–their water is low enough, they said, that they needed to save it for city and couldn’t justify trips to the rural zones as they had in the past.

And somewhere in there I might have had a small breakdown. I grew up in a rural zone with a shallow dug well that sometimes ran dry. I know how to conserve–military showers, reusing your greywater, flushing only when necessary, the whole lot. But juggle a house, a toddler, and a full-time job all with no running water at all? There might have been tears shed and strong words spoken about finding another wife because this one wasn’t up the challenge.

I’m not naive. There are many women in Brazil who do this. The entire Northeast region lacks water for months on end. People walk miles for a few buckets. The entire city of Sao Paolo was on water rationing, with running water only on alternating days. I wasn’t alone in my struggle. I didn’t even have it that bad. But I had discovered a line in my series of adventures that I couldn’t cross. I need water.

Thankfully, Mr. Crônicas decided I was worth keeping, and showed up the next day with the truck from work and two 500L barrels in the back. It took three trips to the top of the farm and back. Over an hour to fill the tanks, 20 minutes to pump them into our cistern. What a man will do for love. And a hot shower.

We decided to empty the cistern before filling it. The last dregs of our water supply had not been pretty, and better to rinse the cistern before putting in the new, fresh well water from the top of the farm. On a normal day, we’d just dump the water out and let it run willy-nilly wherever. But things were dying out there. So while Mr. Crônicas was on Water Trip #1, I formed a bucket brigade. I set buckets and watering cans under all the main faucets, and ran outside with one while the next filled. With the glaring, Brazilian noonday sun on my shoulders I watered fruit trees, and grass transplants, garden seedlings, and yard flowers. I sought every leaf of our hard work, and poured some life on it.

It’s amazing the difference water makes. Plants literally get instantly greener. You can see them come alive again. You can see them sigh and stretch their leaves out. Bucket after bucket. The air around the farmhouse grew moist. The breeze became cool again.

I was pouring out the last bucket as Mr. Crônicas pulled up.  He linked up the pump, and water began to fall into the cistern. Water falling has never sounded so good.

Water falling has never sounded so good.

Water falling has never sounded so good.

And this is what we have done every weekend since then. Life is almost normal again. We fill the cistern, and conserve during the week. My bucket brigade continues, watering the garden every morning and the yard every afternoon with our greywater from laundry and dishwashing.

I am thankful for our luxury. We have a truck to bring water. An old pump to put it into the cistern. A water source that is not dry yet. We are rich.