Arquivo da categoria: a blog with an accent

Life As He Says It’s Supposed To Be

Having concluded that life as they say it’s supposed to be is high-maintenance, let me take a brief look at what’s wrong with it, reflecting on life as He says it’s supposed to be.

The first big difference is that He says you’re supposed to seek first His kingdom and His righteousness. [1] You’re supposed to love Him with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind. [2] This changes everything, because it changes your priorities and your perspectives.

Just like them, He, too, says that you must work hard: you’re supposed to do whatever you do with all your heart—but as working for Him, your Lord. Not for your human boss or a company. [3] Not for money, either. You’re not supposed to serve money, because He’s supposed to be your only boss, or love money, which He finds detestable. [4] Instead of storing up life-long, earthly treasures, which perish, you’re supposed to store up eternity-long, heavenly treasures, which don’t. [5]

The second big difference is that He says you’re supposed to love your neighbors as yourself. [6] “Neighbors” include your family and friends, of course, but remember even family and friends are capable of betrayal. [7] “Neighbors” are everyone. You’re supposed to be generous to those in need, and invite them to your banquets. [89] You’re supposed to love even your enemies. [10]

Regarding romantic relationships, He says: if you’re single, you’re supposed to stay single, unless you need to marry; if you’re married, you’re supposed to stay married. [11] Simple as that.

And as for all the rest, He says not to worry. You’re not supposed to worry about your life, body, food, or clothing. [12] Instead of worrying about something that’s missing, you’re supposed to ask Him that it will be given to you, and seek to find it, and knock so that doors are opened to you. [13]

It all makes so much more sense and is clearly much simpler and less high-maintenance than a life that is self-involved, career-centered, money-oriented. Isn’t it puzzling that we insist in living a life as they say it’s supposed to be rather than a life as He says it’s supposed to be?

Life As They Say It’s Supposed To Be

They say you’re supposed to study hard so that you get a good job. Once you get it, you’re supposed to work hard, to earn a good amount of money, or at least to get work experience that will eventually help you get a better job with better pay. After all, you’re supposed to own and consume all sorts of goods and services, and for that you’ll need a good amount of money.

But money isn’t all you’re supposed to seek. You’re also supposed to hang out with family and friends, cultivate relationships, including romantic ones. You’re supposed to get married eventually, and have kids at some point. By then, of course, you’ll need to be working even harder to be able to provide for your spouse and kids, and to help others in need, your obligation as a human being.

At the same time, remember you’re supposed to keep growing intellectually, to be constantly up-to-date on what’s going on in the world, and to have opinions. That, in turn, will require of you quite a bit of exposure to the news, and to literature and cinema and music and the arts, generally.

But don’t forget to take good care of your health and appearance. Not only that: you’re supposed to work out regularly and have some sense of style and fashion, because you’re supposed to look good. Oh, and you’re supposed to have some sort of hobby, as a pastime, because, although you may feel ovewhelmed, you’re supposed to have some amount of time to pass.

If you think you’ve been managing to do all of the above, you may even want to feel accomplished, but don’t flatter yourself: you’ve merely done what you were supposed to.

Life as they say it’s supposed to be is so high-maintenance.

The many facets of an addiction

I think it all started with Frank Sinatra. Or maybe I first thought about it because of Frank Sinatra. I once gave a ride to a friend of mine, and he remarked that I was one of probably very few people my age whose car stereo playlist included a major selection of Sinatra songs.

After Sinatra, it continued with my living room decoration. First, the picture frame with a photograph of me in my NYU graduation attire in Washington Square Park. Second, the four black and white posters (printed from my own night photographs): Manhattan Bridge, the skyline from the Top Of The Rock, Brooklyn Bridge, and Washington Arch. Third, my NYU diploma on the wall.

It is of course all over pop culture, TV in particular. I’m not sure whether anyone could avoid it, even if willingly, but the truth is I’ve never even tried to avoid it. Well, as with any addiction, I seem to seek it no matter what. And so it appears in my favorite TV series—Friends, Law & Order SVU, CSI: NY.

My friends and colleagues often ask me about it: how the experience of it was for me, whether I want to dive into it again eventually, and when. Some ask me for advice on how to enjoy it the best way possible when they dive into it themselves.

At work they encourage it. My boss sends me news items about it from time to time. It seems that even the contents of my bilingual business cards, mentioning the jurisdictions where I’m licensed to practice law, were provocatively designed to remind me of it.

However, I don’t blame others for keeping my mind wrapped around it. I’m liable, more than anyone else, for my addiction. A recent expression of it is my obstinacy about watching all of Woody Allen’s movies, prioritizing those involving it.

I guess a growing urge to listen to the complete works of George Gershwin is its next expression. And there a cycle will be completed: from music to interior design to television to social interactions to professional activities to cinema to, once again, music.

My addiction to all things New York has been persistent ever since I moved out of the City—that is, I moved out of it, but it hasn’t moved out of me. My unwillingness or inability to let go of it is clear from the hope I express in my previous post:

New York is not the place where God wants me to be, at least for now. […] It could well be that I’ll go back to New York eventually, or it could be that my time there is over. There’s no way of knowing it for sure, so I’m taking one day—or year—at a time.

Rereading this, I realize my stance has changed at all. I would love to go back.

To be fair, I’ve been honestly striving to live [in] Porto Alegre to the fullest extent possible (my main restriction being my work hours, naturally, and to the exception of a few dark months I’ve been through earlier this year, during which I wasn’t really motivated about anything but work). I’ve been making a consistent effort to adapt and significant progress in adapting to life here—functioning in the city, absorbing its atmosphere and culture (even its accent), getting involved with its academic life, making new friends, cultivating existing friendships, seeking a church community. I’ve now lived longer here than anywhere else in the previous four years. Longer than in New York.

It just doesn’t feel like it. I miss New York City, simply being there. I miss its cultural life (which, being a student on a tight budget when I lived there, I enjoyed as much as I could, but certainly not as much as I would have if I had had the money). I miss the endless academic opportunities at NYU and That Other University Uptown. I miss my friends, most of them from City Grace Church, but also a few from NYU who are still there. I miss City Grace, its pastors, its solid theology, its strong sense of community.

In sum, what I am living now is very real—I’m just nostalgic. Reality equals Porto Alegre. Nostalgia equals New York.

Interestingly, though, I’m well aware that what I’m nostalgic for doesn’t necessarily exist anymore.

If I were to live in New York again, I wouldn’t be a Master’s student: I’d be an overworked (and potentially underpaid) professional like many if not most New Yorkers, desperately seeking work-life balance. Even if now, as a professional, I might have the money I didn’t have as a student, I probably wouldn’t have enough time to enjoy all the cultural effervescence and the many academic opportunities New York has to offer, or to be with the friends I still have there, or to make new friends. Plus, I would be missing my friends who are here just like I’m now missing my friends who are there. As for the church, City Grace is what probably went through the least change, considering the New York I’m nostalgic for. But who knows? It might as well have changed quite a bit.

So I sometimes wonder whether my nostalgia holds me back or whether it keeps my heart beating. Should I try to overcome my unwillingness or inability to let go of New York? Do I really have a pathetic New York addiction, an illness, or is it a healthy expression of my love for New York and what it meant, means, or could potentially mean again for me? Depending on the answer, it might be advisable for me to simply archive (so to speak) my New York experience.

But I don’t want to.

I love you, but you’re bringing me down

I went back to New York in June not only because I like New York in June, but also because I had specific plans. As I wrote in my previous post, I intended “to make up for last year’s ‘lost’ summer, catch up with my friends and family, and take the attorney’s oath.” I did all that and so much more… I made great new friends, expanded my professional network, applied for a few awesome jobs. It’s hard to believe I was there for only 39 days—I mean, 40. (The original plan was to stay for 39 days, but I ended up staying for 40 days. All part of the story.)

In only 40 days, I got a taste of New York’s best and worst. Having to go to the UPS Customer Center in Maspeth. Interviewing with firms in The New York Times Building and the Bank of America Tower. Depending on the G train. Being offered an internship. Leaving a job interview knowing that they wouldn’t call me back. And the most amazing thing is that I can’t precisely indicate which of those experiences were good or bad. New York City, more than any other place I’ve been, reminded me that life can be surprising.

I arrived in New York reading Charles Dickens’ “Great Expectations,” and I couldn’t finish the book while I was there. In my job search as in my readings, I left New York with great expectations: two very promising (and, in my mind, highly likely) job opportunities that could lead me back there later this year.

  1. I met a partner in a big law firm. He gave me the best job advice ever, and said he would like to explore the possibility of hiring me as a junior associate. After our first meeting, I was interviewed by three of his partners. When I left New York, he and his partners were considering whether or not to hire me.
  2. I applied for a position in human rights advocacy with a Christian organization. It was so interested in interviewing me that it paid for me to postpone my flight to California. (It was because of this Christian organization that I ended up staying for 40 days—a biblically significant period—rather than 39 days. Voilà.) When I left New York, they were considering whether or not to hire me.

I left there with profound realizations, too. At this point, I must share a few paragraphs I wrote for an email update—to my New York friends—a few days after I left, when I was in California. I ended up sending the email update without these paragraphs, because at the time I thought they were slightly bitter, but it’s interesting to reread them now. They may be slightly bitter, but they are still current and true.

For two years I’ve been asking God for job opportunities in New York (or Geneva, but leading back to New York!), while always adding, “but Your will be done.” I have come so close to offers in both places—and ended up with nothing at all. If these last two fail, I should probably take this succession of almost-successes as a negative answer.

The bottom line is: these two [law firm and human rights organization] are my final attempts to find a job in New York for now. While I had an awesome 40 days there, spending quality time with many of my friends, realizing that New York is where most of my friends are, confirming that it’s where I want to be, and feeding the illusion that (despite being a foreigner) my education and (legal, language, and other) skills would allow me to make it there as a lawyer, it may be time I get real and go back to the only place the Westphalian system of sovereign nation-states allows me to live and work without visa sponsorship: Brazil.

As of now I have no idea why God may apparently want me to be there. I feel as much of a foreigner in Brazil as in the U.S., Switzerland, or anywhere else I’ve been. Maybe that’s the damage my “internationalized young adulthood” caused me and I’ll get over it eventually, but maybe that’s just my Christian self—I’ll be a foreigner anywhere I am.

A week after I left New York, the law firm partner called me to say he and his partners were not in a position to make me an offer of employment. He did, however, recommend me to three law firms in Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. All of them were quick to write me back. In my first few weeks back in Brazil, I was interviewed by all of them (and did quite a bit of traveling on my own expense for those interviews), but none of them was in a position to make me an offer of employment. And last week the human rights organization wrote that they chose a more experienced candidate.

Back to the only place the Westphalian system of sovereign nation-states allows me to live and work without visa sponsorship. Back to the job search. Back to square one.

New York loves me… loves me not.

The same day I was rejected for the human rights advocacy position, I was offered a job in a boutique law firm in Brazil. No, not one of the firms recommended by the New York partner; a fourth one, recommended by a Brazilian friend. It’s a generous offer of employment (for Brazilian standards), to do interesting work with domestic and international business contracts in Porto Alegre, the capital of my home state. Where I never thought my qualifications and experience and skills would be valued. Where I have family and some of my best friends. Where people don’t think I have an accent different than their own. Where I could sooner or later develop a sense of belonging. I still feel like a foreigner around here, but life can be surprising, after all.

I got the offer a week ago. Last Sunday I attended worship service with friends in Porto Alegre. Interestingly, the preacher spoke about human rights (!), but that’s not the point I want to make here. One of the biblical passages he displayed on the screen was the Lord’s instruction to the Israelites exiled in Babylon:

Seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the LORD for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper. (Jeremiah 29:7, NIV)

That’s the New International Version in English, but what the preacher showed on the screen was the Portuguese version, which translated back into English reads:

Seek the prosperity of the city to which I deported you, and pray to the LORD for it, because your prosperity depends on its prosperity. (Jeremiah 29:7, NIV)

I haven’t been technically deported, but it does feel like I’ve been deported back to my home state. And of course I want to prosper (and who doesn’t?). So what I must do is quite clear: work and pray for the prosperity of this city and my home state. It’s clear to me that New York is the place where I most aspired to be, at least for now. At the same time, it’s now equally clear to me that New York is not the place where God wants me to be, at least for now. And I’m sure that’s for my own good.

Why do I keep saying “at least for now?” A friend asked,

Is that part of the spiritual take on the situation?

Yes, it is. I’ll explain with what another friend wrote me the other day:

As for your dream of going to New York, I think that, although it may be God’s will not to lead you there right now, it doesn’t mean that He will never lead you back there. Consider whether this dream flies in the face of God’s principles. If this is not the case, I don’t think God would let you have this dream without allowing you to make it real someday. In other words, don’t quit.

I fully agree. I know “there is an appointed time for everything” (Ecclesiastes 3:1). It could well be that I’ll go back to New York eventually, or it could be that my time there is over. There’s no way of knowing it for sure, so I’m taking one day—or year—at a time. Yesterday I formally accepted the Porto Alegre offer, and I’m committed to staying at least a few years. Work starts next Thursday.


I’m back to New York for a while. Yay. And my blog with an accent is back. Yay. Even my New York eye twitch (an eye twitch I only had when I was here last year and which I had completely forgotten about) is back. Yay. (Nutritional deficiencies? Too little sleep? Too much coffee? Whatever it may be, it’s off topic.)

But I should probably explain myself. Many things happened in my life over the past few months, and I didn’t manage to share all that as it happened. So let me just give a shot at a summary.

In March I went from Europe back to Brazil (a few days before the flood in my parents’ hometown). I took the attorney’s oath in my home state, and kept working as a home-based consultant for IISD and as a freelance translator.

My flexible work schedule allowed me to visit all (!) of my aunts, uncles, and cousins, as well as most of my friends in several Brazilian cities. This intense activity explains (but doesn’t justify) my temporary absence from this blog.

Anyway, here I am—after 14 months in the U.S., 4 in Switzerland, 1 in Germany, and 3 in Brazil, I’m back to the U.S. for 2 months: 40 days in NYC and 20 days in San Diego, CA. During this time I intend to make up for last year’s “lost” summer, catch up with my friends and family, and take the attorney’s oath. Tomorrow, in Albany, NY.

And after this? Brazil. And then what? Good question. God knows it, and that’s all that matters to me. Besides, if I had all the answers, how fun could life be? For the time being, I’m happy to enjoy life as a quest for what He’s been planning for me in the long term.

The short and medium terms have been geographically unstable—to the point that I no longer have a sense of belonging. Anywhere. Still, I can’t complain about my life—and the consequences of my own choices.

The sense of belonging should come when I manage to stay longer at any one place. I keep hoping this would be New York, but it’s uncertain so far. In any event, I’m back. For now.

Please help my town! SOS Flood Relief

The town of South Saint Lawrence, Brazil (where I’ve been living since March 5th), suffered an unprecedented flood on March 10th. A tsunami-like wave invaded half of the urban area, flooding the homes of 20,000 people and reaching 10 feet (3 meters) in less than an hour.

Hundreds of homes are still covered with thick mud. People are piling up their damaged belongings in front of their homes. Flood insurance is not common in Brazil, and the population in need is significantly large. Many streets, sidewalks, and even buildings were damaged or destroyed. The cleanup, reorganization, and rebuilding work is overwhelming.

Tap water is not suitable for consumption because of likely contamination of the system. A major public health issue is feared. In addition to drinking water, people need food, cleaning supplies, mattresses, household appliances, among other items.

Please join the efforts to cleanup and rebuild South Saint Lawrence!

From Calvin City to Lutherland

Born to a Lutheran family, I owe my first name to Martin Luther. I attended a Lutheran church community in southern Brazil for most of my life, learned a bit about Luther in Sunday school, and studied him further in the pre-Confirmation course I did as a teenager. Although I studied hard, there’s only so much you can learn about theology when you’re 13 years old—that is: not that much, really. I see now that I then lacked the maturity to grasp many ideas.

Calvin first appeared in my readings through History books that portrayed him as an austere while influential theologian and pastor, and placed an unbalanced emphasis on his doctrine of predestination. In my first year of law school I read about him in Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, which stressed the (perceived) importance of the doctrine for the development of capitalism.

God’s mysteries led me from growing up Lutheran to getting involved in a Calvinist church community during my master’s in New York, and later coming to Geneva, the “city-church” where Calvin implemented his reformed theology. In New York I started to study more about Calvin’s theology with one of the pastors at City Grace Church, but I couldn’t advance much—I blame the (endless) readings for my master’s and later for the bar exam, but deep down I know it’s my own fault. Yet, as I mentioned in an earlier post, when I came to Geneva I was determined to give it another try.

And so I did. Surely the best thing about my long commute here is that it gave me time to read a book comparing Calvin and Luther—their personalities and life paths, as well as their thoughts on different topics. I won’t try to summarize the conclusions here. In fact, the author of the book doesn’t present any conclusions. In the postface he explains that synthesizing the contributions of the two theologians would harm their individual coherence—a view to which I fully subscribe. However, that doesn’t mean I can’t draw my own conclusions, without attempting a merger.

Through the eyes of those two great historic examples (not models), I understood better (or solidified the conceptions I already had about) God’s grace, my own helplessness, the foundations of Christian life. My trust in the Lord’s perfect will certainly increased as I studied the lives and works of those two men who submitted to Him wholeheartedly.

I also found out we (the three of us!) have a lot in common, from our anguishes to our interpretations of the Bible to our… academic background?! Yes: Luther was headed to law school and dropped out to go to seminary (so to speak); Calvin was already a lawyer (so to speak) and gave it up to become a theologian and pastor. (Will that ever happen to me? God knows. I don’t think it will, but what do I know?)

* * * * *

This is only the 5th but already the last post I write in the city of Calvin for the time being. The blog hasn’t even had a proper chance to acquire a French accent, and I’m already off to new adventures elsewhere in this world. Ironically, I’m leaving the city of Calvin for the country of Luther! But I’m not leaving unchanged. Yes, I have more work experience, more knowledge on international investment law, more people in the to-be-missed list—but those are all expected results of yet another short-term stay in a foreign land. What I mean is I’ve changed in deeper ways.

Reading the Luther/Calvin book certainly helped in significant part, but it wasn’t just that. Many other factors—including testimonials and prayers and messages and biblical passages and learning by both faith and experience—have drawn me closer to God over the past few months, in a process that is still (and I hope will remain) ongoing.

In particular, I’m much more confident—most importantly, not in my own abilities, but in His plans! To be specific, but not really, as of yet things haven’t quite worked out for me as I wanted, career-wise. Not at all. Normally, being the control freak that I am, I would be very frustrated, but that’s far from being the case now! Throughout this time in Geneva I’ve been having such clear assurances of God’s continuous love and provision that I’m not even slightly bothered.

If He hasn’t given me what I wanted so badly and asked for, and even if He never does, I’m okay, because I know He has something even better for me. “He’s up to something.” And while He doesn’t reveal it to me, I’m at peace.

Perhaps this is a good phase that will fade away, when my old dramatic self strikes hard again. But perhaps I’m no longer the odious control freak I used to be, and won’t ever go back there. I’m hoping and praying it’s the latter!

And so goes life

On the bus the other day, the woman sitting in front of me was the Uruguayan from a previous post. Beside her was this young man who I haven’t met, but who I often see having lunch at the UNEP cafeteria. And across the aisle I saw a Portuguese woman I usually see on my way to work. Familiar faces everywhere. And that’s when I realized I’ve been in Geneva for two months.

There’s more. There’s the group of kids making the bus absurdly full every morning till they all get off in front of the school in Carouge. There’s the English man who gets on or off two stops away from my stop, with his inseparable backpack, and always typing or playing or doing whatever on his cell. There’s the guy getting on the bus with a cello in the morning. There’s the girl getting on the bus with a cello in the evening.

It’s funny to think that Geneva and the Genevans may be getting used to me as well. Not to me exactly: to the guy who, every day on the tram from Carouge to Balexert, reads a book in French on Luther and Calvin (“it’s taking him a while to finish that book!”), and studies German (“so he must not be German after all!”), and types a lot on his cell (“he can’t be simply writing text messages—maybe an email… or even a blog post!”).

It’s pretty easy to get used to Geneva, because it’s pretty easy to get into a routine here. Every work day, from home to the office, from the office to home, swimming every other day. On the weekends, worship service and some cultural activity; posting and getting in touch with family and friends; groceries and laundry. You get used to the mass transit system. You get used to the delays in the mass transit system. And so goes life.

Some changes help keep it novel: snow, Christmas time in the air, ice skating rink finally open. So it’s not that I’m not bored or anything. Okay: maybe a little. Not only I’ve realized I’ve been here for two months—I’ve also realized two months is a long time to be here! Oh, Advent… You always invite these loose reflections on life.

Don’t put it off—put it out

On my blog in Portuguese I have a column or tag called “what really grinds my gears,” where I discuss little annoying things from daily life—mostly situations that could be easily improved or even fully resolved with just a bit of rational thought and good faith effort. I seldom post under that column, and I never thought I’d teleport it to a blog with an accent. But you’ve asked for it, Genevan smokers! Smoking is outta control in Geneva. Everywhere. You look around, you see someone smoking. At any given time.

“I smoke, love it, and won’t quit—that’s none of your business,” retorts my hypothetical reader who is a devoted Genevan smoker. Not so fast. Tobacco is legal and I will defend to death (of lung cancer because of passive smoking) your right to smoke it. And as much as I hate smoking (and you’ll see I really do), I won’t even argue it should be illegal, simply because in principle I don’t think it should. People should be free to make their own choices, including poor ones, as long as the results of their choices don’t directly affect others in a negative way. One thing that affects me very much, however, is smoking in the streets, and that’s what I take issue with. So excuse me: smoking is indeed my business.

In economic terms, smoking in public can be considered a negative externality—when the act of an economic actor imposes uncovered costs on others, on the society in general. Those social costs, which can simply be a reduction in other people’s wellbeing, are not considered by the actor taking the harmful act. You could then say that the actor will underestimate the total cost of the good he demands, and will tend to overconsume it. In the aggregate, the demand will go beyond the optimal social level, that is, the level of consumption the society would ultimately desire.

When a Genevan smoker decides to smoke a pack of cigarettes, he only looks at his costs (how much he will pay for them). He doesn’t think about the social costs (the loss of wellbeing incurred by others). For that reason, a pack of cigarettes seems to him much cheaper than it actually is, and he will demand and smoke more and more packs of cigarettes—goods that are actually “bads.” All Genevan smokers together, then, will make an absolute mess: they will smoke way beyond the level that the Geneva society would find optimal.

Even the Genevan statue in Plainpalais smokes

In fact, acknowledgement of the externality of smoking leads governments all over the world to tax cigarettes. Such a tax—called a pigouvian tax—is a way to internalize costs, forcing the smoker to take into account the social costs of his smoking. In a perfect world, a tax that is properly determined and applied will mess up enough with peoples’ incentives to smoke that the optimal social level of smoking will not be exceeded.

In the real world, which is far from perfect, when you see people smoking like chimneys in Geneva, you are invited to think about at least three options. You can scrap economic theory (no way!). In the alternative, you can find that the optimal social level of smoking in Geneva is stratospheric (which I find hard to believe). As a last choice, you can conclude that the Genevan’s demand for cigarettes is strongly inelastic (even a large increase in their price wouldn’t push consumption significantly down) or that cigarettes are undertaxed—or both.

Now let me just be very clear why smoking in the streets imposes social costs, diminishes my wellbeing, and, more generally, grinds my gears.

First, it’s an obvious public health issue. The Genevan’s smoking increases my chances—as a passive smoker—of having respiratory problems and even lung cancer. Will the Genevan pay his share of my hospital bills? The Genevan smokes, but everybody pays: himself, people who may get sick, the government. Me.

Second, it’s a fire hazard. The lit up cigarette the Genevan smoker carelessly throws out of his car directly into the pile of dry leaves in my backyard causes my house to burn to the ground. Don’t laugh. That could very well happen. “Every year, almost 1,000 smokers and non-smokers are killed in home fires caused by cigarettes and other smoking materials,” only in the United States.

Third, it makes my clothes smell bad. I doubt it that the Genevan will buy my detergent and fabric softener, compensate me for the time and energy wasted in washing clothes that are stinking smoke but would be otherwise considered clean, or pay my bill at the dry cleaner’s. Of course that can become less of a problem if all my clothes end up burning to the ground with my house, thanks to Monsieur the Genevan smoker.

Fourth, the cigarette butts in the streets—a byproduct of the frenetic smoking in this city—are aesthetically unpleasant. Just now, as I waited for the tram, in a coup d’œil, I counted 50 cigarette butts on the platform. A fine (or should I rather say gross?) example of urban pollution.

It’s also a terrible thing for socialization. A new good friend might be standing right beside me at the tram stop, but if someone starts to smoke near us I’ll be forced to move away, and we won’t interact, and I’ll miss the chance of meeting him.

Finally, replace “a new good friend” with “the woman of my life,” and “him” with “her” in the last sentence, and you’ll understand why smoking can also be disastrous for people’s love lives.

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…