Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Retirement Bumps and Living in Brazil

There are certain things that are quintessentially Brazilian for me.  Monday morning I woke up to one of them.  It was the smell and the faint haze on the horizon of burning sugar cane.  Perhaps this smell is rare nowadays since the practice is being phased out to avoid air pollution impacts.  But there it was.  It took me back.

The smell of burning sugar cane evokes living in Brazil more than 25 years ago when I was pregnant with our second child and playing in the yard with our then 2-year-old son – splashing water at each other in the afternoon heat and wondering what that faint scent was.  I knew I had never smelled it before.  Later I found out it was the smell of burning the sugar fields before harvest.  

My memory was tinged with feelings of sadness and happiness…nostalgia for times gone by when my son was just a little boy but happiness for the fun we had and the strong friendships we made all those years ago.  Now our son is a grown and very capable married man and our Brazilian friendships are stronger than ever.

The past week has been a series of good and difficult times for me.  Sort of like the memory of the sugar cane smell.  Periods of feeling at a loss as to how to handle the day, followed by having a wonderful time re-connecting with some long term friends at a family wedding (theirs not mine!) this past weekend.  

Curiously my two different emotions are inextricably mixed together – reminiscent of finding that at one moment you are laughing and then, at the next, crying.  There is a Brazilian word – saudade that doesn’t really have a perfect translation into English.  It isn't just nostalgia.  It is neither happiness nor sadness alone.  It is both emotions tied together in a memory, a longing for things past and present.  The week was full of saudade - or at least, what I, as a non-Brazilian believe saudade to be. 

I chose two transitions all at once – retirement from a very busy and fulfilling career and moving to Brazil – for three months this year and more in the future.  Many of my American friends and family were jealous.  Wow they said.  You are so lucky.  And realistically that is true.  But there are days when I miss autumn in the Pacific Northwest – the end of season roses and tomatoes in my Seattle garden; Indian summer weather and pumpkin patches in the Skagit; pulling on a favorite sweater and digging warm socks out of the bottom of my sock drawer.  I miss picking Washington apples and making a perfect apple pie.  

I love my adopted Brazilian town but being newly retired and being even a short-term expat can have its ups and downs.  So how did I make it through the hardest day of the week – Friday?  Well I definitely started out with a big café com leite.  Actually two.  I put on a pair of sandals and walked down the street to the nearest manicure/pedicure shop.  After having a relaxing mani/pedi, which I was sorely in need of (I had a wedding to go to after all…), I went to the local padaria (bakery), bought two lovely whole-wheat rolls and some buffalo mozzarella cheese.  Back at home I made myself a cheese and tomato sandwich.  How bad can life be if fresh rolls, buffalo mozzarella, sliced tomatoes and salt can all be combined together?  Not too terribly bad. 

I knew I needed to get some exercise.  Endorphins are amazing creatures and getting them moving through your body can do wonders to cheer up even the darkest day.  We had borrowed a mountain bike from a friend when we first arrived.  My husband had taken it to a local bike shop for service.  It was time to pick it up. 

Biking in Piracicaba, in fact in any city in Brazil, is SCARY.  The streets are narrow and full of ruts and potholes; surprisingly big fast cars tend to dominate.  I put on my bike helmet and gloves and rode carefully on quiet side streets to the university campus.  Perfect.  Wide boulevards.  Little traffic.  Gorgeous vistas.  It was Friday afternoon.  I rode around the whole campus.  It was hot but lovely.  Students were relaxing on the lawns.  The sun was shining.  People were out strolling. 
The ESALQ Campus
I was on my second circuit when a campus policeman pulled me over.  This was not terribly difficult since he was on a motorcycle and I was on an old mountain bike.  It turned out that there is a rule on the campus that no one can ride bikes except students who are going from one class to another.  I was flabbergasted.  Using my best Portuguese I told the policeman that I was a foreigner and my husband was a visiting professor and I did not know this rule.  He was clearly embarrassed and so was his cohort who had arrived soon thereafter.  The second policeman was also on motorcycle.

Now I am a less than 120-pound 60-something woman.  I was on a 20-year-old Trek mountain bike.  I had on my helmet.  Clearly I could be dangerous.  So I was reassured to see that they sent two pretty large cops on big motorcycles out to get me.  And by the way, they caught up with me right beside the entomology building.  It is a quiet corner of the campus where the mounted police likely thought they could subdue me without witnesses if I protested when they told me I was breaking the rules and needed to leave immediately. 

The Offending Trek
In the end of course, I acquiesced.  I told them I would leave the campus.  Without making more trouble.  But of course I had no idea of the shortest route off campus so I had to ride around a bit more to figure that out.  Now the Trek is waiting in my spare room while we negotiate the university bureaucracy and get permission for me to ride on campus.

There are a few things that retirement and living abroad share and these are not necessarily all good.  The good things are obvious – time; living in a (hopefully) new and interesting land; the opportunity to immerse oneself in a new culture, its food and music, and, in my case, given our history in Brazil, re-connect with long term friends.  But what about the bad things?  These are the inverse, and perhaps less obvious until you are in it – too much time; a somewhat unfamiliar place; language barriers, often feeling like a stranger and being overly dependent on my Brazilian friends.  Ahh yes it’s the yin and yang of life.  How is it that every silver lining has a cloud? 

I was on the cloudy side much of last week.  But by dint of continuing with my program – studying my Portuguese; working on my writing; going to the gym and exercising; cooking healthy food – I seem to have rebounded.  Of course all of these emotions could have happened in Seattle.  There is something that I think is super important.  Whatever you are doing, wherever you are, have a program even if very basic.  And stick to it in moments of doubt.  Do the laundry.  Sweep the floor.  Get some exercise.  Eat healthy food.  Go to work (or if you are retired like me take up one or more activities that use your mind and that you more or less enjoy – for me this is learning Portuguese and writing stories).  The blues will dissipate.

Still working on how to age gracefully.


  1. Chop wood, carry water.....yes, my friend, how familiar, wherever you are. l, Martha

  2. Aarrggghhh...the only quiet safe roads in the area and you aren't allowed to bike on them!!! Fingers crossed that you get permission...worst case scenario: sign up for underwater-basket-weaving 101 and then say you are riding to class:):)

  3. Still working on the permission but we are exploring rural options!