Broken Hallelujah


Goddamn you, world. You just gotta kick a gal when she’s down. Leonard Cohen died this week, one of my favorite poets. This loss coming on the heels of Trump winning the election in the USA, and the Republicans taking both the House and Senate. Seriously, life just isn’t fair sometimes.

People here in Brazil are shocked at the election results, if you’re curious. They’re sad and angry and confused. Lots of them want to process those emotions with me, want to understand more about what they are seeing on the television.

I am walking through my days with that tremor behind my eyes–the kind that warns you not to blink too hard or the tears will sprout–and a lump just above my heart and just below my throat that just won’t go away.  I can’t unplug from social media. I keep trying to reach out across thousands of miles to lay my hands on my ailing nation.

I’m a lousy ambassador. All that I have been able to offer those poor, concerned souls that want to talk to The American about the elections is a half-smile, a quiet nod to their statements, a half-hearted agreement, and a silence that says: Please, don’t ask me about the elections. Please. I’m not going to be able to hold it together. It hurts to explain how much this went wrong, what it’s going to mean for so many people. Please, just… don’t.

One friend asked straight up why I was suddenly so silent these days. I took a deep breath and, I’m in pain, I replied. I can’t laugh with you at jokes about the election. I’m sorry. I just can’t. It is difficult to smile, because these are my people; that is my country, the democracy that I care so much about. This isn’t just a normal election,  I tell him. We’ve lost elections before. This is about that uncontrolled man who is sitting in the highest seat of power. This is about a nationlistic fever that has seized my nation. People are going to get hurt. I am watching images of them getting hurt now in his name, and I’m really afraid that it’s going to get worse. My country and our democracy might not recover for a long, long time. This isn’t just any old election. Forgive me, my friend, I can’t talk right now. He nodded his head; he understood.

Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah is arguably his most famous song in Brazil. Lots of religious musicians sing a Brazilian version it in Portuguese that always makes me chuckle because the original English version of Hallelujah is racy and beautifully sad. They have no idea what they’re singing, or not singing. The original song isn’t about traditional religion at all–just the opposite. Regardless, it’s one of my favorites. It leaves me gasping for air every time.

I’ve seen your flag on the marble arch
But love is not a victory march
It’s a cold and it’s a broken hallelujah.

I did my best, it wasn’t much
I couldn’t feel, so I tried to touch
I’ve told the truth, I didn’t come to fool you
And even though
It all went wrong
I’ll stand before the Lord of Song
With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah

Somehow it is fitting that it is echoing in my mind this week.


(I drafted this last night. Then after I went to bed Saturday Night Live’s Kate McKinnon played this version. Yeah.)

Stars in the Sky


“Don’t be jealous of others’ successes…. 
Imagine how sad the night sky would be with just one star shining.” – me

My students were bickering over who had stars on the Awards Wall. One was proud of her achievements, but disgruntled that there were other students’ on her heels–soon to achieve the same thing she did.

Negativity is not allowed in my English classes. I watched the dynamic for a minute, conjugated a few verbs in my head for good measure, then interrupted with–“Just because someone else has beautiful things in their life, doesn’t make your own any less beautiful.” Not my most poetic moment, but it got the point across. “Preach it, Malvina!” one student hooted.

I thought about it all evening. How often do we do this? How often do I do this? Someone gets a new house, a new car, that key promotion, and we feel that sinking feeling in the pit of our stomachs. They’re doing SO GOOD. I didn’t do anything like that lately. Maybe I’m not as special as I thought I was.

beach-1d-web-copyYou guys–it’s a such sick cycle. It has us chasing possessions and working too many hours and talking about our friends behind their backs.

And yet so many beautiful things can only exist because there are MANY of them. A field of flowers. Trees in a forest (each one bent its own particular way, not a single one trying to bend like its neighbor). Grains of sand at the beach (this last one is a mind-blower, by the way–have you ever seen those up close? amaze-balls!)

And stars. Lordy, if there’s one thing I love it’s a night sky full of stars. At the farm, far away from the city lights, it’s steal-your-breath fantastic. Each sun up there shining its heart out. Only beautiful because they’re all doing it at the same time.

So you just do you super-trooper. I’ll try to do the best to just do me. Together, we’re gonna light up the night sky.


p.s., the above is my first meme in Portuguese. It took me all evening, but I finally worked out the poetry of it all. I get there eventually.

12 Things About Brazil the Guidebooks Never Tell You


Photo courtesy of Mark Hillary


  1. Waiting in line is over-rated. Brazilians don’t really do lines. Unless otherwise directed, they tend to form a large, organic crowd and all push forward to the front. Why is this important? Banks, grocery stores, bus stations, they’ll probably have lines that people respect. But if you’re trying to get through a market or a concert or a traffic jam don’t expect a line or turn-taking to take place naturally. You’ve got to ignore any idea of personal space and push forward or you’ll be waiting for months.
  2. There’s a difference between a hotel and a motel. A BIG one. In the USA “motel” and ”hotel” are largely interchangeable words. In Brazil they are very different: hotels are for sleeping, motels are for sex. In a country where the youth often live with their parents well into their 20s or 30s until they marry, having a private place to rendevous with your lover becomes quintessentially important. As a tourist, knowing the difference is equally important if you want to avoid (un)pleasant surprises. (But maybe the names might clue you in: “Yes Motel,” “L’Amour Motel, “Motel Red Love,” and “Alibi Motel” are just a few fun, random examples)
  3. Brazilians stare. A lot. There apparently is no taboo about staring in Brazil. So get ready for curious children and strangers on the street to look at you an embarassing amount. Ladies, the amount of staring you’ll get might even make you feel threatened; it’s not (usually) intended that way.
  4. Requests are often phrased as commands, in a loud voice no less. To this day I still jump out of my skin when someone shouts at me, “Malvina! Drink some coffee!!” However, I have managed to learn how to shout appropriately at my houseguests.
  5. Shop clerks will be all over you like white on rice. Brazilians will get offended if they enter a store and aren’t approached within a certain (short) amount of time. It is considered good customer service to have a clerk there to answer your every question and accompany through your entire purchasing process. Personally, I often find it overwhelming and prefer to make my decisions without a salesperson peering over my shoulder (the fact that half the shopclerks don’t understand my accent doesn’t help), but you should expect it when you enter a store. They’re not stalking you; they’re trying to be helpful.
  6. On the other hand, waiters will not. The opposite is true of restaurants. The expectation is that you should be left to enjoy your meal in peace. If you want help, you can signal to the waiter. Compare that with the American expectation that the waitstaff check on you regularly to see if liked the meal and/or have any additional needs. Also they won’t bring you the check until you ask. Since they’re trying hard not to crowd you, this sometimes makes flagging down a waiter and paying your bill a little complicated.
  7. Not all banks accept all ATM cards. I’m used to walking up to an ATM, any ATM and withdrawing money. Maybe I’ll pay a handsome fee, but I get my cash when needed. In Brasil, some banks only accept their own ATM cards. The two banks I’ve found with essentially universal access are Banco do Brasil and Bradesco. Luckily, they’re in most towns. Silver lining to this inconvenient cloud? Brazil has no ATM fees.
  8. There is no such thing as “unscented.” Brazilians LOVE their perfume. They are one of the world’s top consumers of perfumes, and everything here has a scent. Air fresheners, perfumes for your car, perfumes for your mop water,  perfumed soaps, perfumed detergents, scented fabric softeners, perfumed lotions, and large daily doses of colognes are all standard and even expected. They even sell perfume for babies (because that beloved basic baby smell isn’t good enough?). As someone with skin allergies I try to avoid additives, and I’m hard pressed. I can’t imagine if scents actually made me physically ill. Travelers, be warned, and if necessary pack lots of your own products.
  9. Everything closes on a holiday. Every.thing. No grocery stores. No corner marts. No shopping malls. No restaurants. The only thing maybe you’ll find open is a pharmacy. As a tourist this is important. If your vacation spans a holiday, don’ t assume that you will be able to go visit the usual recreation areas. You might have a hard time just finding a bite to eat. It’s wonderful for the service workers, who actually get to enjoy their holidays with their families like everyone else (unlike in the United States), but if travelling you should be aware of this and plan accordingly.
  10. “Large” coffees are not. Brazilian coffee is served in small shot-glass sized cups. Even the large size is only 6-8 ounces, probably smaller than any small size in the United States. Since they make their coffee incredibly strong and sweet, that little drop will do you. But if you want a large cup of coffee to sip for the next 30 minutes? Good luck.
  11. This is no place for a vegetarian. Isn’t Brazil filled with delicious fresh fruits and vegetables? Sure it is. Doesn’t Brazil have vegetarians? Sure they do. But I’m sure they huddle for safety in the large cities. And all those vegetables? They’re just meat-delivery accomplices, my friend. Tell someone in the interior that you don’t eat meat and they’ll offer you chicken. Everything is cooked with meat. If pieces of meat aren’t actually mixed in with the vegetables, there’s a strong probability the pan was greased with lard. Happy events are celebrated with barbeques with very few side dishes (you might get a grated carrot salad if you’re lucky; it probably will have chicken mixed with it). “Salads” are usually just lettuce and tomato; salad dressing is olive oil and salt. Luckily Brazilians eat beans and rice with every meal so you vegetarians won’t starve, but at the end of your trip your taste buds will want to have serious words with you.
  12. SIM signThere’s no shame in asking for directions. Roads are poorly marked. Maps are rare. In some places asking for directions would mark you as a tourist. Here everyone on a road trip asks for directions–multiple times, even. The technique is simple: identify the landmark(s) close to where you want to go. Ask for directions to that landmark. When you arrive there ask for directions to the next landmark. Continue this way until you reach your destination.

Elevator Talk


img_6233They were all waiting for the elevator: a businessman, a young man and his stylish wife. Three in a row, all staring at their cell phones. 

The young man sighed and reached out to impatiently tap the “Up” button again.

The tall, thin Steve Buschemi look-alike in the business suit looked up. “It’s on strike,” he said.

(cultural translation: All the public banks are currently on strike and withholding all but the most basic services. Financial transactions are slow, slow, slow these days.)

The young man looked up from his Facebook feed and chuckled. “It was arrested,” he said.

They both grinned and said together: “Lava-Jato!”

(cultural translation: The Brazilian government is currently weathering a storm of corruption probes where major political leaders took bribes and engaged in money laundering in trade for lucrative government contracts. The investigations include Petrobras, the state-funded oil company, and all of the major political parties. The investigations go all the way to the top, and even the current president and her predecessor, Lula, are being investigated. Just this week the previous president’s Minister of Treasury was arrested. The investigations  are called the “Lava-Jato” or “Carwash” scandal.)

Everyone had a good laugh for a moment. Then they returned to gazing at their cell phones. No one said anything more.

And, that, my dear readers I can’t help but feel somehow sums up Brazilian politics at the moment. 

True story.

Racial Panels and a Drop of Blood


I have this cringeworthy memory where I’m pretty sure I offended a whole roomful of people of color repeatedly.

I mean, it’s one of those really bad memories where it flashes back and I mentally go: “LA-LA-LA-I-CAN’T-HEAR-YOU. LA-LA-LA-I’M-STILL-A-GOOD-PERSON-SO-GO-AWAY-LA-LA-LA-LAAAAA!!” 

Sigh. It’s an “oops!” memory of Epic Proportions. All of us probably have them (well… everyone except maybe Donald Trump, who seems to be suffering from massive amnesia in these sorts of things).

So what happened? Grassroots leaders had been called together to help communicate to minority communities the importance of declaring your racial status at the local hospitals. That’s because health disparities exist between races. Studies and research are almost always completed on white men, so there is little data on how various medications and treatments affect various populations. In addition, there’s growing data to suggest that people of all shades of non-pinkish skin get different treatment when they go to the doctor’s office. So, in sum, the goal of the meeting was good, verging on radically excellent.

I had a point to make: the U.S. Census racial categories suck. From years of work as an interpreter, I was tired of asking a series of questions that just don’t work that well to describe peoples’ actual realities. Case in point: I helped my partner (boyfriend at the time) and other Brazilian roommate complete our U.S. Census form. My partner checked “Of African Descent.” Yeup, that probably matches what the form-designers intended. Our roommate did too. Not so much. Unless you literally subscribe to the “one drop of blood” definition of African descent–in which case, 95% of Brazil probably qualifies–he didn’t really fit the category. But the U.S. Census definitions are arbitrary and confusing, and they’re often not descriptive of how people see themselves. And when you have people from other countries, they often have OTHER systems of defining themselves that don’t fit into our American set. It’s confusing. So be it.

In that meeting I perseverated on that point. And perseverated. And perseverated. See, that’s the problem with us white people. Sometimes we’re so used to people listening to our opinions that we forget that there are others in the room. I can only imagine how it came across–this white girl assessing the race of this unknown Brazilian guy. There were others in that meeting with a LOT more first-hand knowledge about what it’s like to be a person of color in American hospitals. Really, I should have just said my point and then shut-the-eff-UP. (Note: So for all the people I know who were at that meeting, I’m so sorry. Really really sorry. I’m older now, and have learned how to shut up more and listen better. I hope.)

Then this week I learned that since practically everyone in Brazil is somewhat descended from Africans, Brazil uses controversial boards that visually assign racial categories to assist its affirmative action. The whole cringeworthy memory came rushing back and I got to thinking about the whole problem all over again.

The affirmative action part makes sense–every country has its histories of oppression; it makes sense to make policies to try to equal the playing field. Brazil didn’t outlaw slavery until 1888–making it the last country in the Americas to ban it. In that time it imported more than 5 million enslaved people–more than any other country. Even though there was much more egalitarian racial mixing throughout the slavery years than in the USA–for example, slaves could win or buy their freedom and the predominantly single, male European settlers often married female slaves freeing them in the process*, etc.–there is still a strong class divide in Brazil between those who have darker skin and those who are lighter in tone. You can probably guess who’s on top and tends to be on TV, running the government, and in the cushy, administrative jobs.

In our town’s conversations there seem to be four general labels for race in Brazil. There is branco/a (pale pink), pardo (beige to creamy-coffee colored), nego/a (cinnamon to dusky-dark), and africano/a (dark brown to blue-black). There is also the term “preto/a” (black) and that is a slur, similar to our “nigger.” The Brazilian government seems to recognize three of these–branco, pardo, and africano.

How does this work out in daily life? In the USA, I and my daughter are white, my husband is Black. We’re kind of an odd couple there, I guess. At least that’s what I gather from the double-takes we get. Here in Brazil, I’m branca, our daughter is branca to pardo (depending on how much she’s been in the sun lately), and Mr. Crônicas is probably legally pardo but everyone describes him as the negão. His father is probably somewhere between nego and africano, his mother parda.In Brazil lots and lots of families are like ours–mixed race. No one even bats an eye. One parda friend of mine always proudly displays her two very different daughters in this manner: “Here is my white one, and this one is my black one!” (the girls’ grandmother is very, very africana).

many colors

Which goes back to the original question: how the heck do you define all this mess? How to make sense of this complexity of the human experience?

I stand by my original assertion–our U.S. system of considering anyone with a drop of African blood as African-American is bollux. Plus, it makes life confusing for anyone with more than one identity, for example, Afro-Latinx or Blasian (Afro-Asian) American.

I’m not sure that Brazil’s racial panels are all that much better. Judging someone solely on visual appearance ignores the fact that while maybe you could pass as white, other members of your family maybe suffered discrimination and that limited your family’s ability to get ahead or carve out a stable existence. Transgenerational trauma is a real thing, y’all.

Both Brazil’s and the US’s systems judge the biological individual, not the social networks within which we live. But isn’t that racism in general? Defining and dividing people based upon arbitrary genetic factors? Wouldn’t it be dandy if the policies enacted to correct it managed to look beyond that?

* The marriage of slaves is definitely still problematic (is it really an equal relationship if you have to marry to be free? did these women enter into their marriages of their free will?)  and at the same time it can be compared to the USA’s history of racial mixing where up until the past century the children with mixed heritages were often born of rape or to women obliged to be “mistresses” (again problematic) to slaveowners.

Be Careful What You Ask For


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.


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:


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

It didn’t scratch the house.


It didn’t hit the power lines.


It didn’t hit any of the surrounding trees.



And the whole tree came down at once.



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


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.



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.



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.)


Fotocrônica: Cattle Country


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


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.