Near Uruguay—wherever that is

Whenever I say I’m from Brazil, and people ask me where in Brazil… Well, first they put into question whether I’m really Brazilian, saying I don’t look stereotypically Brazilian and all that story. But eventually I convince them that I am indeed Brazilian (either by means of a short digression on the German immigration to Brazil in the 19th century or by simply showing them my passport), and then they ask me where in Brazil. I explain right away that I’m from the South, far from most of the Brazilian cities they’ve probably heard of—Rio de Janeiro, Sao Paulo…

To some extent, I feel bad about saying that, because I might be unfoundedly underestimating their knowledge of Brazilian geography, and this could be considered quite rude. But my experience has been that, more often than not, my approach is useful to give an idea where I’m from, since most people I meet abroad don’t know much about southern Brazil. I often get, “is it near Iguazu Falls or Curitiba?” Yes, those places are technically in the South, but still more than 1,000 Km away from my city. “No, farther south—way farther!” And sometimes I add, “near the border with Uruguay.”

I once told this to a Uruguayan friend of mine who has travelled a lot internationally, and she just laughed at me. “Oh, my poor friend, you’re so naïve! Do you think mentioning Uruguay helps? Most people don’t know where Uruguay is!” She could only be kidding. Brazil is larger than the 48 contiguous U.S. states; I can understand that some people might have no idea where a certain Brazilian state is. But Uruguay, a country—of course everyone knows where it is! Right? Right? Not according to my Uruguayan friend, and I have no reason to disbelieve her. Granted—I’m too naïve.

The other day I had a curious encounter at the UNEP cafeteria, where I usually have lunch. My colleague and I introduced ourselves to a young woman sitting at the table next to us. I noticed she had a bit of a Spanish accent, and asked her where she was from. “Uruguay.” That’s rare, to begin with (even in international cities like Geneva!), not to mention the coincidence of meeting an almost-neighbor so far from my home country, so I couldn’t avoid an expression of surprise. “Where in Uruguay?” It was her turn to be surprised. “Why, do you know Uruguay?”

She made the same assumption I tend to make—she assumed I had no clue about the geography of her country. I didn’t think she was rude, though; instead, I just thought… Fair enough, I know how that feels! “Actually, yes, I know a little bit of Uruguay; I’m Brazilian, from Rio Grande do Sul!” She replied she was from Montevideo, the capital. And then she said she would never have thought I was from Brazil, because I didn’t look stereotypically Brazilian and all that story…

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