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The Art of Money

The Art of Money

The next act is the presentation of the new, amended bill. It is
still not polite to pay at this stage as the bill still bares no relation to the meal.

By Philip Blazdell

I have to confess that I love Brazil. Often, when things are going wrong such as people
don’t turn up for meetings that I have been struggling to organise for weeks, customs at
São Paulo impound another consignment of my scientific apparatus or the transformer blows
up at work leaving us without electricity for four days, and no one seems to care, I
wonder why on earth I am still here and ponder that perhaps I should really consider
finding a job in an easier country. And then, often when I am at my lowest point and in my
blackest mood, I find myself in a restaurant, with tears rolling down my face, and I say a
silent prayer of thanks to the Gods of travel and opportunity for letting me experience
the little known art of the Brazilian conta. Let me explain.

It was soon after my arrival that I noticed that my meals were costing three times the
amount stated on the menu and my severely limited funds were running dryer quicker than
last time I let my girlfriend loose with my credit card in Hong Kong. What on earth is
going on I wailed to my patient Brazilian friends. It’s like this they told me:

The conta (or bill) isn’t actually the bill you are expected to pay, it’s
the first wild stab in the dark and in actuality should bear no relation to the meal you
have just eaten—which after five months here seems as reasonable as anything else.
Never ever pay the first bill you receive or before you know what is happening word will
spread around and restaurants will be calling you asking if you care to dine with them. In
my experience, the better the restaurant the better the initial bill will be. Of course,
when I say better, I use the word in the more philosophical this is going to be an amusing
half an hour sense, and not in the degree of correctness sense. Rest assured no malice is
intended—it’s all part of the rich tapestry of life here in Brazil.

Stage 2: The Negotiation. This is perhaps the most interesting part of the whole
pantomime and can, on special occasions, surpass the meal in entertainment value. Each
item has to be carefully checked against the menu, of which the waiter (who I am sure is
always the innocent party in these games) will invariably have an out of date version, or
one that is so folded and creased it was only probably legible sometime during the reign
of Dom Pedro II.

Do not be so bold as to actually have a list already prepared; it is a game of give and
take. For example, we didn’t eat the lobster, but we had the steak. Off comes the lobster
and on goes the steak plus a side salad. At which point the waiter will almost always
point a finger at me and ask "are you positive—I am sure you had lobster. Or was
that last week?". We carry on this delicate ballet.

‘Ok, we didn’t actually have the side salad, but I had a rather nice soup’

‘So, now you come and tell me my salad is no good…’

‘No, honestly, it’s very good normally, I just didn’t fancy it tonight’

‘It’s not too late now…’

I once spent almost 90 minutes on this stage, but as our large party actually had no
idea what we had eaten or drunk and the fact that every Brazilian waiter has, by law, to
spend at least 20 minutes of every hour playing with any small children in the party, I
think this was wholly reasonable.

Stage 3: The second attempt. The next act is the presentation of the new,
amended bill. It is still not polite to pay at this stage as the bill still bares no
relation to the meal. Besides, you have to enter into the spirit of things and the waiter
will not be able to accept the tip he was already worked into the bill in good spirit if
you don’t at least play along a bit.

Besides, someone in the party will always decide to order another desert or the live
music will start, in which case the waiter will scurry off to add cover charges on. One
memorable night I protested at paying the excessive cover charge for the five minutes of
terrible music that I had to endure. The waiter told me that he wanted to waive the cover
charge, as indeed the singer did sound like she was inflicting grievously body harm on a
cat, but the management would not be impressed by his generosity.

So instead, he sat down, pulled out his antique menu and worked out a totally new bill
for us, including the cover charge, but using meals from the menu in such as way that
after careful consideration and a few more iterations we left paying exactly the same as
we would have paid for our original food had we not paid the cover charge. It was
beautiful to behold. Few times in my life have I had the opportunity to watch genius at
work, but surely this was it.

Stage 4: The utopian stage. Now you are getting close. The bill is in the right
ball park, the waiter is now on first name terms with everyone round the table, the
management are beaming as their restaurant is packed with animated people and the punters
all happily ensconced in the warm embrace of a dozen other tipsy friends. A kind of
quasi-utopian state is reached where everyone is more or less content. During this stage
the waiter will have demonstrated his flair in crowd control, abstract mathematics and
child care skills whilst the happy customers use the spare hour or so to put the world to
rights, discuss the latest twists in the soaps, plan a coup d’etat at work and all the
other things which were blotted out when the invariably fantastic food arrived. Me, I just
sit back in wonder. No one looses face, no one gets upset and regardless of how surreal
the initial bill is, I know we will be back there next week to dance this dance again.

Stage 5: Payment. This is where Brazilian waiters really come into their own. No
matter how many ways you want to split the bill, and how many different methods of payment
you want to use, they never ever make a mistake at this stage. I have seen waiters wiz
round a table of twenty people collecting credit cards, cheques, luncheon vouchers and
even cash and not make a single mistake with returning the right change. It’s fantastic to
watch—try splitting a bill three ways in London and see what the response is. You
want to pay 2R$ by credit card, 4R$ by cheque and the rest in used boot laces—of
course sir. 2R$ from this account, 25R$ from the wife’s and the rest from the numbered
bank account in Switzerland. Of course sir.

For me, it’s an art form in itself and it never ceases to make me laugh. Brazil may
occasionally play the beautiful game of football, but each and every night on the streets
of Fortaleza a far more beautiful game takes place, which as long as you remember the
rules and keep a sense of humour and perspective, is far more fun, far more accessible,
and a whole lot more rewarding.

The author is currently living in Brazil and believes that in Brazil
things are just that little bit different from the rest of the world. For all its thoughts
and sins, he believes Brazil is still a beautiful place. He may be contacted at philip@dem.ufc.br

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