Shakespeare in São Paulo

I love the theatre, on the whole. Recently though, I am at a play with a friend, which, we decide, is a failure on every level. The reviews for this play have been good. My friend and I swap emails in astonishment: “I think we were the only two people with our eyes open at that play,” I write. “I would have begun my review with ‘that was the worst play I have ever seen,’” my friend replies.

I’ve just started reading “Summer House with Swimming Pool” the new Herman Koch novel and there is a brilliant paragraph on seeing productions of Shakespeare. He mentions, “Romeo and Juliet in the never-completed tunnel of a subway line, with concentration camp photos on the walls, down which sewage trickled; Macbeth in which all the female roles were played by naked men – the only clothing they wore was a thong between their buttocks, with handcuffs and weights hanging from their nipples.” He explains how time “coagulates” when sitting through a bad experience at the theatre: “I can remember delays at airports that must have lasted half a day, easily, but which were over ten times as quickly as any of those plays.”

My recent experience and reading this remind me of my first taste of theatre in Brazil.

Two days after I arrive in São Paulo, Isabella takes me to a play. My Portuguese at this point is non-existent. In the car on the way to the theatre, she tells me we’re going to see Othello. Ok. At least I know the story, I think. Can’t be too bad.

We arrive early to beat the traffic, which means we are there well over an hour before it is due to start. As we pick up the free tickets she has organised, I see a sign that even I can understand: 3 horas 45 minutos. Fuck. We cross the road and wait in a café. A couple arrive who seem to know Isabella, an old, craggy, leather-faced man in sunglasses, a suede jacket and too-tight trousers, and a small, shrill looking woman with big hair and a dramatic nose. The man takes Isabella’s hands and mutters some compliment or other, prompting giggling and much feigning modesty; the woman scowls openly at her, arms crossed, snorting and stamping her feet.

This is the director, and Desdemona. Of course. We meet our friends and take our seats. It’s then, just as the lights are going down, that I am told that the director is an old boyfriend of Isabella’s – he her mentor; she his muse – when at drama school,  and that Desdemona is his current muse. Mentor. Ok. So, the likelihood of me enjoying the play is significantly reduced. That the opening scene involves half a dozen naked Brazilians wrapped in cling film certainly doesn’t improve things. That the acting is execrable and direction unfathomable – and that both of those things are clear despite no understanding of the language – means the experience is slightly less enjoyable than invasive dental surgery. At the finale, after 3 hours and 45 minutes, The Doors’ ‘The End’ plays and I weep. This is bad Sixth-Form drama at its worst.

Oh well. On the way home Isabella accuses me of not liking it because of the director. I point out that this is a fair reason for not liking a play. She chooses to misunderstand this. I then accuse her of criticising Desdemona’s performance because she is now with the mentor. (Fact is it was one of the worst performances I have ever seen.) Isabella doesn’t like this much either, but, sadly, does not choose to misunderstand it.

Suddenly, stuck in traffic on the way home, 3 hours and 45 minutes doesn’t seem like such a long time.

An open letter to Pieminister

Dear Pieminister,

Yesterday, I walked past your advert for a chicken pie with black beans, which states: “Get a Brazilian this Summer!” I was pretty annoyed by it. Afterwards, I reflected that I might have had a bit of a sense of humour failure, but I think that what on the surface might appear to be a harmless play on words, is in fact indicative of a deeper issue. I don’t even necessarily think it’s your fault: the term exists, after all, it’s become part of the lexicon – but not as a chicken pie. So I think it’s worth explaining why I was annoyed.

Over the last ten years or so, I have had countless conversations – often with strangers, mainly with men – who, when learning I was married to a Brazilian woman, said: “Lucky you.” The implication was clear each and every time: you are lucky as she must be a) insanely attractive and b) well up for it. I am very lucky to have been married to Isabella, that’s true. I am lucky as Isabella is a fiercely intelligent, independent, talented, funny, caring, and loving woman who knew me and all my faults and still loved me and lived with me. (The last bit of that line was inspired by a conversation with Jenn Ashworth on a Friday morning in Wetherspoons.) Admittedly, Isabella is pretty gorgeous, but that’s not why I fell in love with her. And I certainly didn’t fall in love with her because she is Brazilian. We met in London, by the way. I only ever went there because of her.

I’ll talk briefly about a few notable Brazillian women. Although she is on the receiving end of a fair bit of criticism at the moment, Brazil’s president is Dilma Rousseff, a woman of great courage who was tortured as a dissident under the Military Dictatorship, essentially for holding left wing opinions. Arguably Brazil’s most feted noveilst is Clarice Lispector, a writer of such extraordinary vision and intellect that to read her is an almost physically startling experience. (I recommend Agua Viva, beautifully translated by Stefan Tobler.) A recent exhibition at the Tate Modern showcased the work of Mira Schendel, demonstrating her reinvention of European Modernism. A contemporary icon is Tati Quebra-Barraco, a rapper who is notable as being the first female MC to break through in a male dominated and often overtly sexist genre. Hers is a political idiom: she highlights the prejudices suffered by residents of the favela (she was born and still lives in Rio’s most notorious), and her lyrics, though certainly very sexual, break down gender and sexual stereotypes. I have heard two interpretations of her name, based on slightly different translations: “shack-breaker”, as in having such wild sex that the shack breaks; “shack-wrecker”, much like the english “home-wrecker”. She has achieved fame across all social classes thanks to her music featuring on a popular soap opera, where a line of hers has become something of a catchphrase for young Brazilian women: “I’m ugly, but I’m trendy, I’m in fashion”. I think there is something of Beyonce in Tati. (Though musically they are pretty different: one description of Tati’s is “Nu Blackened Grindfunk Carioca”.) Have a read of Zoe Pilger’s piece for the Independent on the Nymphomania exhibition: she articulates something of what I mean far better than I can.

And yet.

Brazil can be a pretty sexist place. There is a macho swagger to many of the men there (yes, I know, this is a bit of a stereotype, and I know hundreds of men who are not at all like that) and an awful lot of ‘banter’ that is pretty mysogynistic. Some older, male Brazilian friends of mine were shocked that I have never been to a brothel. No, not shocked, appalled. And the Brazilian media is definitely obssessed with women’s bottoms. You only have to look at the magazine displays in the newstands to see that. The authors of The Vagenda would have a field day. And there are motels designed specifically for infidelity: you have your own private garage, the door of which shuts as you drive in to maintain secrecy. In Brazil, like Valentine’s or Mother’s, there is a “Secretary’s day” and the queues for these motels are famously long at lunch time on this day. Brazil is also defined – by foreigners, mainly – as a very sensual place. Brazilians are very tactile. When one of Isabella’s uncles used to greet me, he’d place his arm around me and then give me a sort of belly rub. This tactility is often mistaken by foreigners for flirtation or sexual desire. (Though I’m pretty sure Isabella’s uncle didn’t get the wrong idea when I began to reciprocate.) In bars, waiters will take a knapkin with your phone number over to a man or woman on another table if you are interested in meeting them. This did not happen to me as often as you might expect…

So, to “A Brazilian” as a term. We know what it is, but this is worth emphasising. Here is a description of the procedure from the website “Brazilian wax | Everything you wanted to know about Brazilian wax”:

“The Brazilian wax is a hair removal method that is used to remove hair from the pubic region using hot wax and a cloth. It is a procedure commonly performed on women, although some men also use it. We shall focus on women. The Brazilian is believed to make a woman more sensual by increasing their sensitivity during intercourse. This belief has caused it to consistently rank among men’s Top Ten Sexual Fantasies. The procedure also has health benefits – the British Association of Dermatologists credits it with the eradication of pubic lice. However, the procedure has some associated risks including burns, swellings and STIs.”

The term “A Brazilian” is, I think, adding to the irresponsible assumption of many people I have met that Brazilian women are promiscuous and provocative. Linked to the “Brazilian” is another stereotype: Brazilian swimwear. It can be very small, it’s true. It is for men too. (I even bought a pair of quite small trunks once. In order to muster the bravery to wear them, I convinced myself I looked like Jude Law in The Talented Mr Ripley. I didn’t. I looked better than that.) And connected to this, I have read pieces on the internet giving advice to men who want to pick up women in Brazil during the World Cup, on the beach or in nightclubs. It amounted, basically, to harassment: be aggressive and direct – they expect that, dating is like sport, this advice goes on – and eventually you’ll find one who’ll sleep with you, and she’ll be super hot and she’ll likely have had a Brazilian. I read a very interesting piece from theafrolatina.blogspot (link below), which has a line reflecting on foreign impressions of Brazilian women: “if you’re going to Brazil in order to get what you wouldn’t otherwise in your home country, then don’t.” I won’t attempt to deconstruct the advert, but choosing the word “summer” with its associations of heat, sensuality, and sultriness, contributes, I think.

I believe that your advert – intentionally or not – alludes to many of the false impressions and unfair stereotypes I mention here. It is not your company’s fault that the term exists. But I do feel you haven’t thought this campaign through. In Brazil, discrimination against women, prevalent prostitution – male and female – and sex tourism are significant problems. An inadvertent nudge-nudge joke on London streets will not improve anyone’s understanding of Brazil. Please reconsider.

Blood-Drenched Beard by Daniel Galera

Back to Brazil, then, but this time, literary Brazil. I’m going to start with a bold statement: read ten pages of this beautiful, devastating, hypnotic book, and you will have a greater insight into Brazil than watching/reading all of the blanket pre-World Cup media coverage put together. On the surface at least, this might appear slightly disengenuous; Blood-Drenched Beard is not a big, state of the nation book: it is far more interesting than that. And it doesn’t take place in any of the major Brazilian cities. Porto Alegre and São Paulo are both mentioned, but the action – or inaction – is in the coastal town of Garopaba, which shares, like many towns of a similar size, a certain independence from the rest of the country and an accompanying almost lawless edge. It’s Garopaba where Galera’s nameless protagonist goes to live after the suicide of his father. Much is made by travel agents of the paradise that these Brazilian beach towns offer and while Garopaba is not a traditional tourist destination for foreigners, it is a seasonal place and Galera’s protagonist is treated with growing suspicion for deciding to live there year round. Most people, he’s told, go there to surf or forget women. When pushed, he simply states: ‘I just want to live near the beach.’ There is an ominous sense that this not a town to live in without good reason.

The protagonist has a rare condition – prosopagnosia – which means that he cannot recall people’s faces. Connected to this, I think, is Galera’s decision not to name him. He is referred to as, simply, ‘he’, and while we get a sense of his physical nature through the comments of others – he is clearly handsome and growing a fairly impressive beard (not unlike the author, actually) – there is a nebulous quality to him at his core reflected in the way that he recognises – or sometimes fails to recognise – other people. He cannot even recognise his own face in photographs, and this creates in the reader the sense that this is a blank canvas of a man, a mystery, which adds weight to the simple life that he pursues as a swimming and running coach. He is popular with his students, but his arrival causes ripples of anger through the community. His grandfather lived in the same town and was a gaucho outlaw – ‘evil in the eyes of mankind, not in the eyes of nature’ – a dangerous man quick to use his knife, and he is there, in part, to find out what happened to him. The rumours suggest he was murdered at a town dance by an aggrieved group of men, his body disposed of in the ocean. Galera’s protagonist is the spitting image of his grandfather, and the novel explores ideas about fathers and ghosts, expectations and responsibility.

Galera’s prose has something of the rhythms of Auster or Murakami in the way that through description of routine – working as a swimming instructor; preparing simple meals and snacks; drinking a beer; taking his father’s dog for a walk – we inhabit the dogged mindset of the character. There is little reflection. This is a novel about choices, and a very real feeling is created that we never really have any. Free will is an illusion: we build our lives through repeating patterns of behaviour, through action and habit, and the consequences play out with an inevitability that the layered prose reflects. I was reminded of Red or Dead by David Peace in the sense that Galera’s character – though appearing to drift through life in sharp contrast to Bill Shankley – is in fact rooting himself in habit and repetition. The respite that exercise brings to the mind is explored in an original manner. Work your body and your mind becomes secondary, finds relief. The town may be small, but the ocean and surrounding hills are vast, and Galera’s protagonist seems to both revere nature and fear it, and it is when he overcomes this fear that he is most content.

All this makes for a mesmerising read and this is assisted by a marvellous translation by Alison Entrekin. The further I got into the novel, the more puzzled I was by Justin Cartwright’s review in The Observer. The mark of a good translation is, I think, when the sensibility, rhythm and colour of the original language is retained while communicated clearly, sensitively and interestingly in English. Cartwright suggests there are ‘many instances of jarring American colloquialism'; I disagree. When it is used, the American English is spot on. Brazilian Portuguese is a complex language and its speakers’ characters can be defined as much by their choices of words or idioms as they are by their actions. It makes absolute sense for a translator to use both American and British English to articulate the richness and variety of Brazilian Portguese. The translation was so effective, in fact, that I heard both languages as I read, and found myself smiling when I recognised what the original Portuguese must have been. It is exactly this that demonstrates the quality of the translation: the prose is English, but like the currents of the ocean that Galera describes with such beauty, there is an undertow of Brazilian Portuguese – and therefore Brazil – which guides and directs us. I can only hope that readers of The Observer take the many positives that Cartwright identifies; the last line of his review is especially disappointing, reckless with the life of a stunning book that provides an immersive, engaging and deeply moving experience. Boa, Daniel. O livro e foda mesmo. Mais, por favor.

Animals by Emma Jane Unsworth

I’m going to Manchester today, so thought I’d write about Emma Jane Unsworth’s wonderful novel, Animals. It is a lovely book. It’s about two friends, Laura and Tyler, who are pretty hedonistic, fiercely clever, and very entertaining. Laura though, is at something of a crossroads, engaged as she is to a boring man. (No, that’s really unfair: he’s not boring, he just doesn’t drink anymore.) And as a result, her friendship comes into focus and under strain. It deals with many resonant themes, but centres around one, I think: choice. And the consequences of choice. It’s really touching and funny and eloquent and rude and insightful and generally a riot and everyone I know that has read it thinks the same. So, instead of a ‘review’, I’m going to tell a few illustrative stories about my experience when reading it. Even my review of Lucy Caldwell’s sublime All the Beggars Riding (my book of 2013), which is the most serious and considered thing I have written here, is basically a reflection on my experience. But why not? I’m sure Barthes would approve, at least. Perhaps we only think about books in terms of our own conception of them anyway…


When I was reading Animals, I tweeted this line from it: “If he wasn’t forthcoming with boiler repairs, then it didn’t bode well for cunnilingus.” Not long later a genuine boiler repair service followed me on twitter. They’re still following me. (Boiler Fault Finder, in case you’re interested.)


Women friends of mine have told me that Animals really nails female friendship. I don’t know about that in the sense that this is a thing from which I will always be excluded. It seems to me though that Animals is about friendship. It’s about being in love with your friends, about holding them in, perhaps, unnecessary awe. About living with an enabler. It’s about the casual intensity of falling quickly and fairly helplessly for someone who has a likeminded, romantic disposition and a shared pleasure of booze and books. It’s about who you want to spend your time with, I suppose – an equivalent ‘choice’ might be: do I spend my evenings with braying men who are bored of their lives sinking pints after work, or intelligent women with who I can discuss which Bronte sister I fancy the most? (Emily, for the record.) I think the most interesting theme in Animals – and a prevalent one in Hungry, The Stars and Everything, Emma’s terrific first novel – is worthlessness, or, specifically, how we need our own self ‘worth’ to come from someone else. And how this is a mistake. The sense that, perhaps, we might be relying on, or seeking, validation from the one person who isn’t giving it to us.


A friend was reading Animals and I sent her a text: “Got to the filth yet?” A couple of hours later, she replied: “I fucking loved it, but am confused by your question which suggested a ratcheting up, or even climax, of filth. I assume you really meant, ‘Have you read page one yet?’” Some of the attention that has come the way of Animals has focused on the boozing, drug-taking and sex. (Think that Guardian piece on Literary Bad Girls, also featuring Zoe Pilger’s brilliant Eat My Heart Out. Think Caitlin Moran’s jacket quote: “Withnail for Girls.”) This is by no means a bad thing: the hedonism in the book is humorous, exciting, and, at times, desperate and sad; Emma explores, I think, a tension between behaviour and character. She asks: when do we accept that what we do on a daily basis – our habits – might define who we are as much as the big decisions that we make? It’s a frightening thought, and dismissing it with a glib ‘well, it’s time to settle down’ slyly disguises its significance. In Animals, Laura has made strong, definite, sensible long-term plans, but is finding that her day-to-day weaknesses are undermining them. Is she to blame, or is it her friendship with Tyler? And is the word ‘blame’ the right one at all? Do we actually ever have to start taking any responsibility?


I was reading Animals in the Royal Court bar, sharing my table with a polite woman who was reading some fashionable historical novel or other. I reached a particularly funny scene and laughed very loudly. The woman gave me a quizzical look. Without really considering what I was doing, I read the passage out to her. It involved explosive and uncontainable diarrhoea. And a man in a bath. Who is Laura’s prospective father-in-law. The woman’s look remained quizzical, but by now in the appalled rather than amused sense. The table next to us had become vacant. “I’m going to sit over there,” she said. (I’ve had a number of these public embarrassments this year. Reading Apple Tree Yard by Louise Doughty, I said to a very elegant woman in Wagamama “Sex with you is like being eaten by a wolf” to explain a coughing fit. Her kids found it funny. Worse, perhaps, I almost choked to death on an onion ring reading Zoe’s Eat My Heart Out. The waitress tried to give me the Heimlich manoeuvre, which I mistook for flirtation. I mistake everything for flirtation. She did say she’d buy the book though, when I explained. Though she may have been flirting.)


So, anyway, buy and read Animals when it comes out tomorrow. It’s really, really good.

Swearing in Brazilian Portuguese (and the pitfalls of mistranslation…)

The Guardian has run a piece on translation, so I thought I’d share my top 6 Brazilian Portuguese swears with my literal translations and usage…

To start, though, two illustrative stories on the problems of translation. 

I have a friend called Bambino. He’s loud – burly, burned deep red, fifty-ish – and works in fashion. He likes to shock the wives of his friends and is an outrageous and insistent flirt. Outrageous in what he considers flirting to be – insulting women and then telling them he wants to sleep with them – and insistent in that no amount of discouragement will ever change this approach. There is a moment of epiphany when I suddenly understand properly something Bambino has been telling me almost every weekend morning since I’ve known him. He leans close and whispers – loudly, so everyone can hear, ‘Pegei uma puta gostosa ontem’.

This, I originally thought meant, ‘I pulled a super hot woman last night’, and while I find it unlikely given his questionable looks and charm, he does have a certain something, so I smile and say the Brazilian equivalent of, ‘Nice one, Cyril.’

This, though, is a grammatical issue. The word puta translates as whore but it also serves an intensifier, e.g. ‘That was puta cool!’ ‘It is puta hot today in the sun.’ Gostosa can be both slightly coarse adjective (essentially ‘sexy’, but with an emphasis on curves) and also noun (woman who is sexy). Naively, I believe that Bambino is using intensifier and noun. Turns out not. He is, in fact, using noun and adjective. So, for about five years, he’s been telling me stories about what I believed to be a series of interesting girlfriends. But weren’t.

There are many pitfalls with teaching teenagers, but one associated specifically with teaching foreign teenagers. My Portuguese is fluent and so when the kids in my class talk to each other, I understand them. Sometimes I even pick up new phrases, slang I haven’t heard before. The Portuguese word ‘Sussa’ means ‘cool’ or ‘relaxed’, from ‘Sossegado’, meaning ‘calm’. So, someone might ask you how you are and you reply, ‘Sussa, mate’. I’m cool.

My Upper Sixth Literature group throw this word about but add another to it, a rhyming word, ‘buça’, so the phrase becomes: ‘Sussa na buça’.

Fair enough, I think, it means the same thing, it rhymes, it has rhythm, it sounds good. You slap hands when you say it. Or you do that finger snapping, wrist shake. Very São Paulo.

A week or so passes and I am at a dinner party at my friends’ apartment, Eivy and Danillo. There are a number of people in their late-twenties and thirties who I don’t know. I have spent the afternoon with Bambino, and so am red-faced and refreshed and Isabella is working, so I have arrived alone. I step out onto the balcony and look out across the dirty greenery that fringes the favela Paraisópolis, see grim-faced men cutting their way through it. Danillo comes over and hands me a beer. Makes a few introductions.

‘You alright, mate?’ he asks.

I look around. The rest of the party are all waiting for my answer, a couple, two women and a man.

‘Sussa, mate,’ I say. ‘Sussa na buça.’

The women gasp, though one of them is trying not to smile and I register this for later. Danillo slaps me on the shoulder, telling me off. There are a couple of snorts of laughter. I’m confused.

‘Sorry,’ I say, ‘I probably sound like a teenager.’

More laughter. I wink at the woman I think is smiling, who shakes her head, giggling.

‘What?’ I say.

Turns out what I’ve said is: ‘I’m cool. Cool in the cunt.’


Anyway, my top 6 swears: 

1. Puta que pariu. 

Literal meaning: “The whore that gave birth like an animal.”

Common use: expression of surprise/indignation or description of a bad place, both figuratively and literally… 

“Vamos para puta que pariu!” – [Said, perhaps, at a party.] “Let’s go to a bad place!”

“Puta que pariu, meu. Ta horrivel.” – “Fuck me, mate, that’s horrible.”

[Football chant]: “Pu-ta que pa-riu, Os Libertadores Corinthians nunca viu!” – “Ha ha ha, Corinthians [Sao Paulo’s best supported team] have never won the Libertadores [South American equivalent of the champions league].”


2. Porra.

Literal meaning: Semen.

Common use: as punctuation when talking to someone. It can be swapped for ‘mate’, ‘wow’, or, to use the correct word, ‘Ahhhhh’.

“Porra, meu, o que vc ta fazendo?” – “Fuck, mate, what are you doing?”

“E ontem a noite?” “Porra, meu. Foi maravilhosa.” – “So, how was last night?” “Well, mate, it was fucking good.”

[Struggling to change a light bulb] “Essa porra não ta funcionando.” – “This piece of shit doesn’t work.”

“Que porra essa?” – “What the fuck is this?”


3. Caga ou sai no mato. 

Literal meaning: shit or get out of the woods.

Common use: To describe someone who is being indecisive.

No examples needed.


4. Caralho.

Literal meaning: large penis.

Common use: expression of surprise or an intensifier to show how good something is.

“Caralho, meu! Serio?” – “Bloody hell, mate. Really?”

“Foi bom para caralho!” – “It was fucking good!”


5. Para de encher meu saco.

Literal meaning(s): stop filling my sack.

Common use: stop annoying me. 

No examples needed.


6. Nem fodendo!

Literal meaning: “Not even if I were fucking would I do that.”

Common use: “No way I’m doing that.”

“Vem para o cinema?” “Nem fodendo, cara!” – “ Do you want to come to the cinema?” “No way, mate.”


Feel free to practise these with Brazilians. It’s the best indication of fluency in the language…



A Significant Anniversary

Tuesday marked a significant anniversary. Although it is two years or so since I left Brazil, it was one year since I separated from Isabella, which, effectively, meant I was never again going back to Brazil to live. It may have been the most amicable separation in history. She was in Paris staying with her sister and we went for a celebratory lunch at one of those restaurants where Hemingway and Picasso are supposed to have got drunk. We ordered a bottle of champagne for desert and the grim-faced, angry, practically seething waiter – he’d handed over our Steak Tartare with disgust, poured our wine with the air of a man perennially disappointed, personally aggrieved even, by his clients’ choices. The sort of waiter who wouldn’t want to improve your dish by spitting in it – begrudgingly asked what we were celebrating. When I told him it was our impending divorce, he smiled for the first time in the whole meal.

Soon after, Angus gave me a copy of Nicholas Lezard’s Bitter Experience Has Taught Me about his own adventures post-separation. ‘He’s ten years older than you,’ Angus said. ‘So you’re ahead of the curve.’ I took the book everywhere I went – and by everywhere, I mean The Whippet, The Museum Tavern, Truckles, The Duke etc – calling it ‘The Divorced Man Book’, laughing loudly, and then explaining to inquisitive bar staff just how funny it was as I was getting divorced. ‘Oh no, it’s all very amicable…I’m fine,’ I insisted, smiling. The bar staff looked unconvinced. My very un-Lezard moment occurred only a few months ago when I saw a picture of Isabella with her new boyfriend. I immediately sent her a message: ‘I can’t believe you’re going out with someone who tucks his shirt into his jeans, you sell-out!’ She replied a few hours later: ‘Er, everything alright?’ She always did understand me.

It’s strange to know you’re not going back somewhere, that after almost ten years you’re really no more Brazilian than you ever were before you went. I pretend that I am a sort of half-Brazilian, but all I really mean is that I can swear properly in the language. It’s strange too how we attribute meaning to random acts as if in themselves these moments dictate what we do, when of course by attributing meaning to them we’re justifying to ourselves what we’ve done. Recently I somehow found myself sitting on a bed alone with Sheila Heti at a house party smoking a cigarette – it’s all very hazy. It should have been my greatest triumph. I was attempting to explain how when Isabella had last visited me in London her first action at Heathrow had been to spill coffee all over Aftermath: On Marriage and Separation by Rachel Cusk, the book I was reading. Later, I took this as some sort of hostile yet also benign act imbued with meaning, with a significance I hadn’t grasped at the time. I didn’t explain it very well. ‘Do you think you can call me a taxi?’ Sheila eventually replied, declining my offer of another smoke. It’s also funny how – when drunk – we’re always on the verge of saying something deeply profound but can’t quite manage it, yet moments later we’re able to reel off postcodes and names of streets we don’t even know we’ve been to, charmingly give complicated directions to an indifferent Addison Lee operator. Or as Luke pointed out when I told him how a friend had described the Rembrandts in Kenwood House as ‘self-important men pea-cocking about and miserable looking women’ – ‘that sounds like a night out with us.’

If there is one thing I’ve learnt it’s the absurdity of how leaving the person who cares for you the most means you’re able to discover quite how much other people care for you. (Apart from, perhaps, my mum, who had grown, understandably, tired of my answering reasonable questions with: ‘I don’t give a fuck if there is any fucking milk in the fucking fridge! I’ve got bigger problems!’) An afternoon – 12pm is the afternoon – in The Whippet as I dithered over whether to stay married or leave Isabella with Lee was a case in point. Somehow a discussion on David Foster Wallace and West Ham helped me make my decision.

When I make mistakes I generally know that I’m making them even as I’m making them. Leaving Isabella, leaving Brazil definitively, was one mistake I was careful to make not knowing if it was one. For that reason alone, perhaps, it feels like it wasn’t a mistake. You understand a place better when you’re away from it, and I’m now engaged in a love/hate relationship with São Paulo. I met someone on Sunday who said to me: ‘Oh, so you lived in Brazil? Well, that makes you interesting.’ I’ll always be grateful to Brazil for that: for making me interesting – to a guy I’ve never met in a pub full of Liverpool fans cheering as their team batter Man United. After twelve years in a relationship, living together in New York and São Paulo, that’s what being single in London again is like: being in a pub full of Liverpool fans cheering as their team batter Man United.

My late night experience in a São Paulo Favela

Favela – (n.) slum. Central São Paulo’s biggest favela is Paraisópolis, or Paradise City.

One Tuesday night, during the holidays, I do something remarkably stupid. I’ve been playing tennis and then head to the condominium bar to drink, eat a sandwich and read, when I am joined by Julião, a large, bald man in his fifties known for his prodigious capacity for alcohol. He looks like a cross between Shrek and Big Daddy. He is a good man with a good heart, but when drunk…let’s just say that he makes questionable decisions. I’ve seen him before in the early mornings when going down to the garage to drive to work, padding about barefoot with a can of lager, chatting to the seguranças.

We talk and he quickly nails two or three bottles of beer – the tall, 600 ml type that one normally shares. He tells a succession of filthy jokes and I try to keep up with his slurred and coarse Portuguese. At closing time, he wanders with me towards the lift.

‘Let’s go to the favela?’ he says.

‘Why?’ I ask, not really wanting to know the answer.

‘Another drink. I know people.’

I think about what Isabella will say when she hears of this and decide to never tell her. She has warned me before and like many middle class Brazilians has a deep distrust and fear of the favelas, especially, and not unreasonably, for me as a gringo.

‘You’re a prime target,’ she’s said more then once. ‘Don’t you ever let him take you there.’

Julião’s little excursions are well known and other friends of mine have been with him, vowing never again. Well, it turns out he is not the only one capable of making bad decisions, and before I really know what I’m doing, I’m jumping into the passenger seat of his car and we stutter and shunt down the hill into Paraisópolis. He parks – ‘parks’ doesn’t really capture it. The car rides up onto a curb and grinds to a halt, almost by itself, it feels, like a homing device or family pet who has arrived home.

So now we’re in a tiny, poorly-lit street with a shop-front bar, mosquitoes buzzing around naked bulbs, crates of empty bottles of beer stacked up in the street. A couple of sullen looking men sit at rusting, beer-brand tables, not talking, raising their bottles and glasses of cachaça to the owner. They greet Julião with nods and look at me with undisguised surprise. I don’t fit in here. I have no idea where I am. I’ve driven through the favela once before taking a short cut to work at seven o’clock in the morning and even then the maze – the warren – was confusing. Hills dip up and down, the houses lurching out at odd angles, lines of washing strung across the streets. Each house looks different, but the same. The same rough brick and corrugated iron, the same painted on house number, the same noises echoing out from the hollow walls, the same thick smells hanging in the heat like clouds.

The point about a favela is that you are in it. It’s a separate place from the city, a community, yes, but an alien one. There aren’t too many pale, reddened faces here.

We sit and Julião orders drinks. I am tense, my legs shaking, though everyone who passes seems to know him and he introduces me as O Gringão, The Big Gringo. It seems to satisfy them. I don’t have my wallet, just some loose change and I wonder if that is a good or bad thing. I want to trust Julião, but you never know with him – he’s created his own myth, and I can’t be sure how much of it is fiction.

After what feels like an extremely long time (measured by two beers between us) a group of very young women saunters by. They stop to talk to Julião and he makes them laugh, though I realise he is being pretty provocative. They examine me like an exhibit and raise their eyebrows, suck their teeth, slap hands. I find out later that they are prostitutes who come to dance Samba in the little, grotty garage bar opposite the condominium on Saturday afternoons. One nice thing about Julião – he doesn’t judge and will befriend anyone. A few young men in shorts and flip-flops pass by, calling out to the owner. They look a little more hostile. I try to reason with myself. Just how much influence does an old drunk really have? They eye me a little. I’m saying nothing, drinking too quickly to compensate. I start to think how I’m going to explain this to Isabella. I tell Julião I need to leave, make something up about having an early start. It is already past two o’clock. He grunts something about a saideira, one for the road, but I know that he rarely just has one. I ask about a taxi and he laughs.

‘I’m not letting you go off on your own,’ he says.

I’m not reassured.

Another beer is ordered. I think about Isabella, wonder where she is, know that she would be both worried and angry if she knew where I am. Part of me is relieved by this. We’re not spending much time together and perhaps when she does find out she’ll understand why I’m doing it, why I’m feeling a little lost in São Paulo.

The young men are joking and laughing at something. I hope it isn’t me, but I can’t be sure. They’re speaking in a rough slang much of which I don’t understand. And I’m trying not to listen too carefully anyway. I’m trying to sink into the background, but it’s a bit like hiding a glowing light bulb under a thin sheet.

There is a light breeze. It’s that rare thing in São Paulo when the heat finally dissipates and the freshness is cool and comforting, like the dusk in summer in England. Here, you have to be up in the middle of the night to feel it. The houses that bend over us in the tight street, their irregular shapes jutting out at odd angles, corrugated extensions hanging low, seem to sway with the wind. There is a low, constant crackle of electricity in the wires strung criss-crossed above us, straining to carry the current around the Paraisópolis labyrinth.

The girls amble down the street and the young men swagger behind, laughing at them, flip-flops slapping on the bumpy road. I look at Julião. He smiles and punches me on the shoulder, kisses me on the forehead.

‘Embora,’ he grunts. Let’s go.

We throw some money on the table and there is a tense moment as Julião does a quick round of goodbyes at the bar, each one taking a little longer than I’d like. I stand awkwardly grinning, nod my own goodbyes. Julião’s car staggers up the road and into the condominium garage.

I sneak into bed. Isabella, though, isn’t there.