Brazil 2014: São Paulo

In this episode, we spend a lot of money on plastic shoes and watch Germany hoard all the goals for the entire round.


We landed in São Paulo on a bright Sunday afternoon, welcomed to the city by Ana and Felix, who had converted their home into a bed and breakfast. Three stories of art and music, with a dog named Maggie, a bobtail cat named Miau, a couch made out of a bathtub, and an enormous free breakfast each morning, the house in Vila Madalena had us hooked from the beginning.

We were delighted to find our room had two things: US-style electrical outlets and shower controls. See, Brazil’s relationship with electricity is complicated. I’d read that they use US-style outlets, so didn’t bother bringing any of the adaptor sets, figuring it would be much easier than South Africa, which uses an almost proprietary outlet style requiring sexy adaptors you have to buy at specialty retailers rather than, like, Target. I guessed wrong: Brazil’s plug and outlet setup is a game of Outlet Roulette. In some places, you would have US-style ones, other places would have European-style recessed ones, and still others would have this combination Euro/US style that your plugs may or may not fit into. It wasn’t unusual to find multiple outlet styles in the same building. Because of this, adaptors are sold at pretty much every bodega alongside Havaianas and fifteen different things endorsed by Neymar, so it’s not too much of a drag to bring your gear up to speed.

Then there’s electricity in your shower. In most of Brazil, including 6 of the 8 places we stayed, the water for the shower is heated by an electric heater built into the showerhead. For the most part, they work fine, if a bit chilly, once you get over your trepidation at getting into a shower with wires coming out of it. The heaters have three settings: Winter, summer, and off. I was not able to discern what, if anything, the difference was between the winter and summer settings. Once I tried to adjust the temperature while I was already in the shower. Once.

After getting settled into the space, we took the rest of the afternoon and evening to explore the neighborhood. São Paulo is like every large city I’ve ever been to all at once. I’d walk down one block and be reminded of Montreal, only to turn the corner to Tokyo, then up a staircase in Pittsburgh across from Johannesburg, down a hill to Los Angeles, into the metro and two stops over to Toronto. It’s vast and diverse, with steep concrete stairs through fantastic street art galleries providing walkable shortcuts through town.

On the hunt for corn and bacon pizza for Mike, we took a shortcut through a large cemetery, passing enormous, elaborately carved family crypts. There were two homeless guys at the gates who called out to us.


That wasn’t the first time that’d happened, and it wouldn’t be the last. The longer we stayed in Brazil, it seemed, the more we were taken for Germans, or perhaps Dutch. Pink skin, fair-ish hair, and–Mike’s mom warned us about this in particular as a dead giveaway–light eyes means obvious gringos, but since most of the foreigners had gone home after the round of 16 if not the group stage, the logical leap was we were probably Dutch or German. Which makes sense, but to me seems a little odd, since I think we look American, and when I later told this to some German buddies, they said no, of course we don’t look German. Round features, artificially straight teeth–when I think European, especially central European, I think sharper, more angular faces. Hard to nail that down, though; the Brazilian-Americans I know look American and Brazilian, and my favorite German player’s a dude known for having giant frog eyes. It’s just something that crosses your mind when you’re at the World Cup, where everyone is expected to make their nationalities plainly obvious, and your own national team that year represents just about every avenue one can take to be called American.

Anyway, Mike liked the pizza, which had, ah, European-style thick chewy bacon on it. How come more pizza places in the US don’t offer corn as a topping? I’ve had it as a pizza topping in four continents and it’s damn tasty.

On the walk back to the house, we stopped for the best ice cream we had the whole month, and it was not at one of the city’s seventy brazillion gelato stands but at a small shop that focused on ice cream using Brazilian flavors. Mangaba, capirinha, goaiba, even weirder fruits that don’t even travel that far within Brazil, corn (as common as chocolate chip at Brazilian ice cream parlors), combos like açai and cupuaçu (both usually served at breakfast), that kind of thing. I had guava and cheese, which is a pretty popular dessert or breakfast food on its own, and it was excellent.

The next morning we prepared for our main focus for São Paulo: shopping. As we were near the end of the trip, it was time for serious souvenir pickup. Mostly Havaianas flip-flops, which have prices that are the same numbers in reals as they are dollars, i.e. US$28/pair in Boston = R$28/pair in São Paulo = US$14/pair in São Paulo. Plus they had this really awesome set of designs based on each individual tournament host city. Also, if the makeup shopping list in the Salvador chapter wasn’t tedious enough, I could go on about how I like Melissa shoes, a brand based in SP and devoted to candy-scented plastic footwear. AND there was the pair of Maz sneakers I got in Pipa that Mike wanted, but weren’t in his size, sending us on a wild goose chase of vanished popup stores throughout São Paulo looking for another set. (Never did get them). We ended up packing one whole suitcase for the flight home that was nothing but shoes for damn near everyone we know.

The first part of our quest took us to Rua Oscar Freire and other parts of Jardins, an upscale shopping district similar to Boston’s Back Bay. I wish I’d gotten a photograph of the vending machines in the metro station that dispensed books (mostly public domain classics or religious works) or on-the-spot customized Brazil national team jerseys. What I did get was one of the few really good cups of pourover coffee I had in a month spent in a coffee-producing nation, plus some Mexican-style popsicles that appeared to be super trendy this summer.

Also, shoes.

The paletas had me wondering what Mexican food in Brazil might be, so back in Vila Madalena that night, we investigated a well-recommended Mexican place…that only accepted cash or Brazilian debit cards…and wanted US$30 for a taco plate. I’m gonna be the ugly foreigner for a second and state my belief that if the only plastic you take is some proprietary one, and you’re charging $60+/pp rates, you’d better be Peter Luger, in which case I don’t really have any business eating at your restaurant anyway.

Where we wound up eating: São Cristovão, mostly traditional Brazilian/Italian dishes, but absolutely covered, floor to ceiling, in soccer memorabilia from around the world. Made me wish I’d brought some spare Revs or US scarves to trade. Jerseys, tickets, scarves, news clippings, flags, stickers, trophies, you name it, it was stuck to the wall, every league, every country, every level around the world. We never did make it to the national soccer museum in São Paulo, so we figured this was the next best thing. Pretty great food, too, and premium people watching; the house was packed with fans from all over.

We tried to spend a grey Tuesday hanging out in Liberdade, São Paulo’s Japanese district, but most places seemed to be closed, either having shut down early because it was a Brazil gameday, or not opened yet because they keep evening hours. We packed up and headed out to a mall in Pinheros, arriving just in time to see every store closing to allow employees to watch the Brazil-Germany semifinal. One store tried to close the security gates before we’d finished our purchase; I’m still not sure what they were planning to do with us if we hadn’t been able to leave. The movie theater screening rooms for the game were sold out, so we picked out a table at an adjacent restaurant. “Fechado,” said the host.

“Não importa,” we said, we just wanted to watch the game, not eat.

No good. Not just not serving, outright closed, and no, gringos, you can’t join the waiters around the table. Oh well.

We found one restaurant that was open and showing the game, though largely empty; it reminded us a lot of a default hotel restaurant, the kind where you go because they’re the only place open and you’re out of fucks to give. We ordered some snacks and settled in with a family of Brazilian tourists seated nearby. This was gonna be a great game.

“Oh, man, they’ll come back, this’ll be great”


The family at the adjacent table left quietly. It was just us and the house staff, who suddenly had a lot of silverware to wrap and tablecloths to straighten.

I walked around the deserted food court to find a restroom. The whole place was silent and deserted, except for one guy at a food court table watching the game on his phone with earbuds. I felt like I was in a zombie movie.

My phone battery died, and I could no longer look up the Portuguese phrases I most needed at that point. For your convenience, I have since learned them:
“Que horas são Meu Pedacinho de Chão?”
“Conte-me sobre MMA.”
“Quanto você acha que eu posso supino?”

The match ends with a consolation goal for Brazil, after which Thiago Silva is euthanized. We settled our tab and walked out to the rest of the mall to see when things would open. Slowly, the stores returned to life; grates opened, lights flickered on, and shoppers wandered out of their hiding places.

I suddenly remembered where and when I’d seen that kind of shocked, what the fuck man I don’t even know anomie floating in the air: It was what it felt like the few days after the Boston Marathon bombing. Now, I took some flack for this comparison online, and, while I understand the criticism, please note I’m not comparing the actual death and destruction to a soccer game. When I say the atmospheres were similar, I do not mean the attack itself or its aftermath among those directly affected; I mean the weird, helpless sensation that filled the city for those of us who could only watch, and how I personally experienced that vibe. It wasn’t the attack, it was going to work the next day thinking “uh okay now what?” You have a big party everyone’s hyped for, the rug is pulled out from under you, and you’re left with stunned silence.

I was also asked if I saw any riots or unrest after the game. Nope. If there were, they weren’t in the parts of town we were hanging around that night. What we did see, as we walked back to Vila Madalena to find a late dinner, were huge street parties, as though everyone had planned on taking the night off to celebrate and after the loss decided eh, what the hell, might as well get tore up anyway. Honestly, a 1-0, 2-1 loss, something that ends on a questionable call, that you can get upset about, but a 7-1 pasting, nope, nothing more to say than “we sure got spanked.” Lots of people running full cocktail bars or short-order grills out of the backs of their cars. We wanted a sit-down meal, however, and we found one just in time for the nightly comedy panel show the sports network ran, in which sports and comedy writers discussed the day’s news.

They were running game highlights interspersed with stock footage from the early days of World War II. I was honestly surprised they didn’t just flash “SIM, NÓS FOMOS LÁ” onscreen.

Wednesday morning, we made another souvenir run, this time to Rua 25 de Março, a downtown market district that’s like an entire city of dollar stores. Vast multi-story warehouses offered enormous selections of clothes, shoes, jewelry, gifts, religious paraphernalia, and all manner of decorative crap at rock-bottom prices. Unfortunately, we couldn’t load up on too much, because we were going straight to the stadium for Argentina-Netherlands.

We would have taken the opportunity to do more touristy things, but as it was a municipal holiday, much of the city was shuttered. Living in Boston, we’re used to holidays only observed by the city (Evacuation Day) or the state (Patriot’s Day) but for the most part, the only way you know those are holidays, especially the city ones, are that the parking meters are shut off. (You know Patriot’s Day, even outside Boston, as Marathon Day). Most business don’t close; certainly not retailers or offices. Heck, the concept of Columbus Day, a federal holiday, as anything besides “why didn’t the mail come?” was totally alien to me until I moved to Boston.

Not so in Brazil. Federal, state, municipal, and your more popular religious holidays–and we mean popular by pious standards, so Corpus Christi counts–are a day off almost across the board. Somewhere in all that planning I did, I did not read up on this whole holiday business, meaning we had multiple “surprise, you’re not getting anything done” days. Seemingly every time we went to a new city, we encountered a new holiday.

The city set up special express trains to the stadium from downtown; the train you took depended on which entrance (east or west) your tickets indicated. We found the platform for the east entrance train, and, since it was a special express route for gameday travelers, no trains came for about 20 minutes, allowing plenty of time for the entire population of Argentina to fill the platform and first approaching car. With a train that tightly packed, it’s hard not to eavesdrop on other travelers’ conversations, and I soon found myself in a chat with an elderly Brazilian gent, a guy from Waltham who now lived in LA, a lady from San Francisco, and a guy from Buenos Aires who turned out to be a fellow BU alumnus. Nothing like a World Cup and crowded train to make fast friends.

Arena Corinthians, the day’s tournament venue, was by far my least favorite of the seven stadiums we visited. Mike’s least favorite was Recife, an instant suburban white elephant, but I appreciated how its small capacity allowed close seating even in the cheap sections. Corinthians, however, was one of the parks that had been retrofitted to accommodate World Cup crowds, bumping its capacity from about 45,000 to 65,000. It was also one of the ones with a couple of fatal construction accidents, making the quarter-assed upgrade all the more conceptually displeasing. While the exterior LEDs looked fantastic in the dark misty postgame, the rest of the park felt somewhat less luxurious than Columbus Crew Stadium. The seating expansion consisted of nailing up a bunch of aluminum bleachers and leaving them uncovered, which was just peachy on a chilly, rainy winter day.

Worse, the special trains that sent all the fans (a bit over 63,000 for this particular game) to the game unloaded into one tiny tunnel per entrance. You got off the crowded train thinking you’d have a little breathing room, but no, you’re in a skybridge with everyone else, unable to move more than a few centimeters per step. The crowd dispersed a bit outside the skybridge, but that’s when you started to find one of the major groups of World Cup pests: the evangelists.

While every stadium had a perimeter through which tickets were required for entrance, there was a zone between the tickets only area and the no private cars area, and this is where the evangelists camped out. Every game, you got to walk through a gauntlet of people handing out religious tracts or souvenirs. If you saw anyone offering free face painting, they were a church group. While Brazil’s mostly Catholic, apparently any time you have more than about five Protestants together, they’ve formed a church and simply MUST tell you about it. I realize this is the literal definition of “evangelical,” but it was still a bit much; at least they were more on the friendly, Jesus Loves You bent than the shouty We’re All Going to Hell guy who hangs around Boston sports venues. Still, although they were easy enough to dodge in the other stadiums, in the narrow chutes leading to Arena Corinthians, they were an outright hazard.

We climbed to our seats in the upper level of the bleachers, hoping they’d be structurally sound enough for the day, and settled in for the game. Two stylish, exciting teams, with hard-partying fanbases; what a great match this should be. The referee blew the whistle to start the game, and

Netherlands: “You should really play Germany in the final. We insist!”
Argentina: “No, YOU want to lose to Germany!”
Netherlands: “Oh, no, please, go ahead.”
Argentina: “I couldn’t possibly impose, be my guest”

[continue for 120 minutes, in a cold, wet park filled with chain-smoking Argentines who won’t stop singing “Bad Moon Rising”]


As did the Russians two rows ahead, and the even more irritated than we were English guys in front of us, and the drunk Brazilian lady behind us who lived in Boston for six months and just kept shouting “USA!” at us after a while. Seriously, the man of the match to that point was the guy about ten rows down who was wearing a stitch-perfect Pope Francis costume, except it was orange, and his sash was the Dutch flag. Eventually, Argentina won the penalty shootout, and we all trundled back onto the trains and into town.

Mike and I decided we’d take one more shot at seeing Liberdade, so we headed there for dinner. We walked around a bit until we found a Chinese restaurant that had a lot of hard to find dishes, mostly Taiwanese, and sat down at a table. The host informed us they were closing the kitchen in thirty minutes. Not a problem, we figured, and I ordered a soda as we studied the menu.

The waiter took our dinner order, and then a manager, I guess, came out and said they were out of what Mike ordered. Okay, how about this? Não. Isso? Não. Uh… Não. We got up to leave, certain the establishment was a mob front, but not before the host insisted we pay for the drink. At least I got to take it with me. It was just as well, because we wound up eating next door at a fantastic Japanese restaurant, with nice warm noodles and fresh sushi to close out a chilly evening.

For our last day in São Paulo, we decided to take it easy, spending the morning at the house chatting with Ana and getting things repacked to leave. We’d found a vegetarian restaurant that kept primarily lunch hours earlier that week, and had to investigate. On the walk to the restaurant, I spotted the one souvenir I still needed for myself: a sealed glass bottle of Coca-Cola.

See, since the first time I went to Europe in college, I’ve made a point of getting one sealed, full glass bottle of Coke from every country I visit. I mentioned this in the South Africa diary, but didn’t get too far into the details. In a lot of countries, glass Coke bottles are strictly deposit in, deposit out items, with the distributor keeping a close watch on inventory. In Johannesburg, I was able to offer a guy at a corner store R20 (about US$2.50) to tell his distributor the bottle broke. Of course, that’s in Anglophone South Africa. When I went to Japan in 1999, the proprietor of a Kyoto izakaya did not understand the language barrier, the bribe, or the dumbass gaijin lady who didn’t want to drink her soda on the spot.

Similarly, when I found a lanche in São Paulo that had the bottles, the owner was not interested in me taking one para viagem. “Por favor, diga o distribuidor a garrafa quebrou,” I said, and handed him R$20.

He shook his head. “Não, não, que não é possível.”

I asked for a pen and paper and tried to express my wishes via Pictionary. After much confusion and puzzled looks from everyone in the room, the owner finally opted to take R$5 and let me have the bottle, undoubtedly just to get me the hell out of the store. I’m certain he’s still telling his regular customers about the time some nitwit gringo didn’t understand how beverage distributors operate.

The restaurant we picked for lunch was excellent. Called Goa, it featured one prix fixe menu per day, with diners able to choose from two or three appetizers, entrees, desserts, and juices. All super fresh, house made breads, focus on traditional Brazilian dishes like feijoada (bean stew, usually involving sausage), most dishes totally vegan. We chatted with the owner a bit as we settled the tab. He asked if we were German.

We went back to the house to say our goodbyes to Ana, Felix, Miau, and Maggie, and packed up for the airport. We were off to Rio.

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