Postcards from Rio
By John Miller
Postcards from Rio
I have been trying to get a perspective on TV 8:00 PM national news (equivalent to our
6:00 PM news service). Again, you have to scale everything. Brazil is 165 million people.
Australia 18 million people. The population ratio approximately 9:1. But the news service
is still only ½ hour in each country, not 4.5 hours in Brazil, so news does not scale
accordingly. Now we all know that news requires the extremes. That is what news is about.
So if you take the 11% most extreme news stories in Australia, and then apply this to
Brazil, you get the news in Brazil. So once every 9 days in Australia, something that is
news in Australia would be news equivalent in Brazil. Let me give an example, the road
Every second night on the news in Australia, you get some news item about a car
accident. Usually, horror of horrors, a couple of Aussies wipe themselves around a gum
tree, or ploughed into a telephone pole pissed as a fart, or some head on collision
involving two cars and a truck on the Hume Highway. Well it is the same here, but scale on
a factor of 9:1. So instead of 2 people getting killed, it tends to be a minimum of 6 or 7
people all in one car, driven over the edge of cliff, or a bus head on collision with a
farmer, his wife and six children and their donkey pulling the cart. So the news is bad,
some times horrific, but when you scale it accordingly, it is pretty similar.
Not many stilettos used by women in Rio de Janeiro. Why? I think it is because of the
Portuguese stone. Let me explain.
Most of the footpaths in Rio de Janeiro have been around a long time; this is an old
city. Even in Zona Sul (Leme/Copacabana/Ipanema/Leblon), which are less than 80 years old,
the footpaths were all made with the little Portuguese stone. The stone comes in two
primary colors: black and white, although you do see some red stone occasionally and some
of the black stone can look bluish in color. Each stone is of an irregular shape; it can
be squarish, triangular, oblong, sometimes round, just that uniqueness that makes it so
charming. The stones are laid by hand, and tapped into place to form the footpath and a
dry, course sand and cement mortar mix is spread between the cracks. The mortar is then
watered and the stones firmly fixed into place. About eight hours later, the cement
hardens, and voilà, a new footpath. Only problem with this is it’s very labor intensive
to make, and high maintenance. The reason for the high maintenance, is once one stone
becomes loose, it is not long before 3-4 stones become loose, and then suddenly the whole
footpath has eroded into a shambles. Whatever, it looks great, and they form the most
wonderful patterns with these stones, especially along Ave Atlântica and Ave Vieira
Souto. These footpath patterns are very famous and are seen in the photographic postcards
sold in all the newsagents.
One problem with these footpaths is they are very uneven, and the cracks between the
stones are the curse of stilettos. Hence the women here wear very practical shoes, not
much height, large heels, and very rarely stilettos. The only people that seem to wear
stilettos are the transvestites in front of the Copacabana Palace. Could be a good clue to
those wanting to make sure they are meeting the right people. This would have to be the
only city in the world where a size 12 is the most common stiletto shoe size! They are so
Le Bec Fin bar
Have you ever been to a restaurant that has been in continuous operation for over 48
years? Have you ever sat in a restaurant and wondered what famous people may have dined at
the same table? Ever been to a restaurant that says "This restaurant is not about
profit, it’s about passion for quality of dining?" Le Bec Fin is about this.
Some background to this. The restaurant market is a very tough game, long hours, plenty
of competition, and for people who supply products and services to restaurants, equally
demanding. Now in Brazil, one way that restaurant owners/managers keep food and beverage
salesmen at bay is to employ a sommelier, an expert on food and wine. The sommelier acts
as a consultant to the hotel, restaurants and even supermarkets, and delicatessens, and
are the chief technical buyer, and sometimes more (nudge, nudge, wink, wink). They wield
awesome power, and in Brazil they have their own society, a professional and an amateur
chapter. I deal mostly with the professionals, but the amateurs are very enthusiastic
buyers so they are also important.
One of the professional sommeliers we have met is a guy by the name of Marcos. Marta
has lead the way on the relationship with Marcos, and she has just been so professional in
the way she has gone about this. Now Marcos is the number 3 sommelier in Brazil, and his
mentor is number two. Both of these sommeliers have reviewed our wines in São Paulo in
May. So anyway, Marcos has invited to dinner to present our wines at Le Bec Fin, so Marta
and I go to this restaurant with Marcos and his wife for dinner at about 10:30 PM. It’s in
an old part of Copacabana near the Copacabana Palace.
We rock on up, the door is opened, and wow, this place is all establishment. It’s one
of the smallest restaurants I have ever seen, maybe seating for 40 people maximum, and a
bar area for maybe 12-15 people. The carpets are plush, the walls are all very handsomely
covered, lots of big mirrors and gold leaf, and the worlds most expensive coffee machine,
a $12,000 HG Wells Time Machine lookalike. Now check this out, the owner bought this
machine/museum piece in Vienna, it’s the only one of its kind in the world, it’s all brass
and copper, stands about 4 feet high, and makes well, good coffee. So we are invited to
sit at the best table in the house, and the manager comes over.
The manager’s name is Valmir (speaks 6 languages, all self taught), and he is the
number two sommelier in Brazil and the mentor of Marcos. Valmir started work at the
restaurant when he was 12 years of age as a kitchen hand washing dishes. He is now 40
years of age, and the manager of the restaurant, so he is a bit of a "legend" so
to speak, more famous than the restaurant (and he knows it, and is planning accordingly,
good luck to him). We pull out some wine to show, and he graciously takes them away. He
comes back with the Yalumba Method of Champagnes, and pours a glass, inserts a thermometer
in the glass, and then asks if we can wait while the champagne is chilled a further 3.2
Anyway Valmir gives us a run down on the restaurant, who eats there, etc. Names roll
off his tongue like Michael Caine, Robert De Niro, Sophia Loren, George Bush, João
Havelange, Pelé, Roger Moore, Vinicius de Moraes, late Brazilian President Juscelino
Kubitschek, Henry Kissinger, Placido Domingo, Rod Stewart, and Brasília’s
designer-architect Oscar Niemeyer. Naturally we are sitting at the best table, the
restaurant only has about 2-3 other tables dining tonight, and the service is just awesome
(excuse me, someone is mopping my brow).
The appetizers are caramelized horseradishes, pickles, olives, and char grilled
eggplant. The breads are divine. The menus are handed around, and all I see are zeroes
everywhere, minimum main meal is about $60.00. Now I am a bit concerned at this stage. Oh
well, too late to pull out now, relax and go with the flow. Marcos says, "I have
ordered for you the house specialty, a special freshwater sashimi Brazilian fish with
Iranian caviar, steak tartar entree, and then filet mignon, followed by crêpe suzette.
You must have the crêpe as Valmir is world-renowned for his crêpes".
"Hey no problem Marcos, and while your at it, can you organize a doggie bag for
So we sit, eat, drink and enjoy a few Australian wines (4 in all), and the conversation
flows, Marcos is going to do a few things for us, and Valmir keeps popping over every ten
minutes with some joke, anecdote or story. He brings over the wine list of the house, very
impressive. They are all here. Valmir shows me his scrap book of wines that have been
drunk in the restaurant. The oldest was a wine from 1860, but there are many Portuguese
Portos dating back to late 1800s.
We left at 3:30 in the morning, a memorable time. Oh, the bill… Valmir says, "We
must apply jeitinho to the ways of the world, John. Come and see me tomorrow and we
will work something out". I am a little nervous at this scope of generosity.
Next day he orders 4 dozen reds and whites, does not ask for the bill to be paid, and
just suggests to come and do a wine tasting next month with him at the restaurant. He is
going to organize the attendees. Brazilian hospitality leaves me gasping sometimes. I
leave him a small but special gift from Australia.
Recently Rio de Janeiro cinema festival was held on the beach in front of the
Copacabana Palace. The projection screen was assembled on the sand, and the mock up looked
like a giant clap board (Act 1, Scene 3, Take 2, Copacabana Beach, and action). The movies
ran for four nights and they were of excellent quality. My favorite was about a violin
that went missing in Portugal, then went to Spain, and finally ended up in the possession
of a blind beggar in São Paulo who played the violin for a living. The villains and the
good guys chased this violin all over the planet, as the violin case contained contraband
diamonds that were being smuggled across the borders of Europe. The beggar used the violin
case to collect the coins provided by people who donated to his violin playing. The final
scene shows him closing the violin case and the diamonds falling out of the case and onto
a subway train line (sorry I did not mean to spoil the ending for you).
Soccer and volleyball all continue well into the night in the flood lit areas of the
beach, so it’s just full on activity usually finishing about 7:30-8:30 PM. At this time,
the Carioca lets the estrangeiros have a go on the beach, and this is when
the United Nations rugby team plays. We usually play on Saturday night, I guess this may
sound strange to be playing rugby on a Saturday night at 7:30 PM, but you have to
remember, you do not even go out for dinner until 10:30 – 11:00 PM on a Saturday. Our
rugby team consists of players from Argentina, Chile, Wales, Ireland, England, South
Africa and New Zealand.
But of course, every Carioca woman wants to learn how to belly dance. The beach
is an ideal setting for this. Lessons every Wednesday night, in front of Ipanema Sol
Some Carioca behavior and ways to blend in.
For the male Carioca it is Speedos or board shorts (always black) hung very low
on hips revealing top of pubic hair, T-shirt, thongs (blue), money pouch, cheap
sunglasses, suntan, optional attire is a strap-on walkman. Other accessories include
bicycle, boogie board, surfboard (choose one only please). Definitely no towel.
For the lady Carioca, it is the dental floss, kanga, black Lycra shorts,
baseball cap, suntan oil, expensive sunglasses, strap on walkman (compulsory), sandals,
gorgeous full body tan, optional T-shirt. Up-market accessories include mobile phone,
beach chair (wood), and rich German tourist (optional but financially desirable).
Entering the ocean
The male Carioca enters the water at a jog and dives headfirst into the second
wave he encounters. He then swims about in the Atlantic washing machine, very rarely
swimming out the back of the break. He leaves the water by walking up out of the ocean to
the high tide mark, shakes his head like a dog to get rid of the excess water, flicks his
hair back with his hands, and adjusts the crown jewels at least 4-5 times to make sure
everything is straight and in its place.
The female Carioca rarely goes in the ocean, and if she does it is a real slow
process. First she gets up from the beach chair or kanga, and adjusts the dental floss,
removes sunglasses and Walkman. She then walks, struts, bumps, grinds in a very languid
way to the high water mark. She looks left and right, turns around and faces the beach to
see who is watching her. After ensuring the right amount of attention is focused on her
and not much competition in range, she turns and glides into the water.
The female Carioca then wades out to her waist, gently dips below the waves
holding her nose and her black mane of hair. She bobs up, adjusts the dental floss and
flicks her black hair back over her head. She walks out of the surf, and grabs her hair in
a knot, and wrings it out like a towel. She then flicks off some excess water, ensures
that the sun tan oil and water mix is driving all the guys nuts, and adjusts her bikini
top by tucking in the sides of her breasts. She then bumps and grinds back to her kanga,
puts on some more coconut oil, and gently positions her derriere back down. I have studied
this process a couple of thousand times now, it is definitely an art form.
Ever wanted to see the Last Supper carved in sand. Or life size Christ on the Cross
complete with gaping red dyed sand where the nails were put through Christ’s hands and
feet, and a sword put through his ribs. Maybe a Formula-1 racing car, or a miniature city
made from sand complete with Snow White, the Prince and Smurf dwarfs. Maybe you always
wanted to see a sandcastle of a dozen mermaids lying on the sand, or a complete life size
car with seats and everything, or maybe a mock up of a Vasco da Gama’s sailing ship,
complete with masts and sails. How about your every day pyramids of Cairo and the sphinx.
The sand artists of Brazil travel up and down the coast of Brazil building these amazing
sculptures, and just depend on the charity of the people to give to the beauty of their
work. They usually fix their work with a spray so that in the event of rain and or high
winds the sculpture has some chance of withstanding the ravages of nature. So much
creative ability, so fleeting the result.
"You find me with short pants" – When someone surprises you.
"The jump of the cat" – when you do something very clever and catch the prize
(i.e. the cat pouncing on the mouse).
"You travel in the mayonnaise". This means that you do not pay attention to
what the other person is saying.
"A bird in the hand is worth two in the air". Sounds familiar.
"In the river with the piranha, the crocodile swims on its back". One of my
favorites, so picturesque, it needs no explanation.
"Tudo bom, tudo bem, to the banco (bank), to the praia
(beach)". A little gringo cross over expression, that combines a casual greeting in
Portuguese and what life can be like for the Carioca.
Oh yeah, I nearly forgot the reason I came to Brazil, to get married to Marta Maria
Viana de Almeida. (Miller).
Marta and I have been planning this for about 12 months. We have had just one or two
obstacles put in our way, so this whole process is just one other mountain to climb. Just
to give you some background to this whole thing, my father died this year in January, and
this threw a few plans into confusion early on this year. On top of this, Marta had a bit
of a personal crisis early this year that was reaching a critical stage. No matter, Marta
and I are very determined, so we just take it one step at a time.
So the usual chaos on the morning of the wedding. We are in the process of moving
apartments, we are waiting on money to arrive from Australia desperately, we are sweating
on a sale that would double our total sales to date, people owe us $3000, we have no red
wine in Brazil, we reneged on a verbal agreement for another apartment so a real estate
agent is chewing us up, Marta’s daughter is moving house and needs some money, and a few
other things too complex to even mention. So yeah, it is a hell of a trip.
But Marta says we are strong and Christ is looking after us.
So we await the arrival of Marta’s bridesmaid, Flávia. Flávia has just had a baby so
you know, not everything can go to plan. She arrives in good time, we hit the gridlock,
and I am looking at my watch. In the car is Flávia (driving), Marta, Marina (Marta’s
mom), and moi. We arrive at 10:50 AM, 10 minutes early. Where do we arrive,
Copacabana Precinct for Births, Deaths and Marriages, i.e., Registry Office.
Fortunately it is not too hot today, but I am sweating. This is a pretty crowded place,
and we go in and get our number, 3. A few amigos on hand, Tim Moulton (best man),
Bárbara (Marta’s daughter), Christian (Bárbara’s husband), amigo Olivier (with
video camera), Tâmara (my Portuguese tutor) and boyfriend Rob.
First up is the signing of the documents, the legal stuff. We get this knocked over
with pretty quickly, but the photograph vultures are on hand to sting me for $50 bucks.
Ahhh, what the heck. The wedding certificate is signed and printed on an Epson dot matrix
sprocket feed printer (9 pin) with sprocket hole paper tied into a bow.
Now a small glitch happens. Globo TV are here to video some wedding ceremony for
Brasil Legal, a program that documents life in Brazil. I smell delays coming up. I
have hit the nail on the head. You have to understand this is batch processing, so about
25 couples are all waiting to get married at the same time, some waiting with shotguns I
am sure, as there are a few very pregnant ladies.
So its lights, cameras, and action while we wait for this bit of Globo news to
pass by. Tim Moulton is his usual genius self and has a bottle of Angus Brut Rose chilled
and brings it from his car so we can have a drink while the usual waiting game is played.
Like about two hours. We stand outside on the footpath, taking pictures, Olivier
videotaping, and just generally compare notes on past weddings, how different this one is.
Lots of jokes, who would believe this in Australia, man I cannot even believe it myself.
You have to understand we are in downtown Copacabana, this is not the Garden of Eden.
It is not quite like getting married in a chapel in Las Vegas, but it is different. Marta
is just ecstatic, and I am pretty over the moon as well. I am a bit reflective at this
stage, wishing a few people were here to share in this moment. I lose it for a few
moments, recover well, and all is going to be OK.
So anyway, the judge finally arrives to anoint our wedding so we trudge back upstairs
to the civil ceremony place. Now you have to understand this is amongst people from pretty
humble backgrounds mostly. The people are here for one reason only, they cannot afford a
flash church wedding (me included), and just want to have a quiet ceremony that gets this
legal bullshit out of the way. But at the same time, it is all very important to every
one, it is a special occasion, and doubly so for Marta as she has never been to the altar
before, so she is just radiant. And looks it as well. Grooming, all dressed in white, just
so beautiful. So we pile on back up the stairs into the room with the judge and about
60-70 other people crammed into a 10X5 meter room.
The name of the judge is juíza Maria Vitória Raimunda Cantolino Guimarães Riera.
Maria calls the room to order and starts to intone the process. She is quite famous, and
claims the record for the most number of marriages conducted in Copacabana (that would be
pretty high up in world standings too). The usual stuff, very well done, I can tell, but
do not understand too much. I am shaking hands with fellow Bridegrooms, wishing them luck,
thumbs up signs, you know male bonding.
Then it hits me, a good time to hand out the business cards for Aussie wines, so I
start to flick a few of these around. Marta does not approve, so I quit. (Man, I could
have nailed about 20 dozen in this room, no sweat). The judge is getting a bit impatient
at the noise from outside the room, doors opening and people arriving late, but no matter,
things start to move. We are about the 5th couple to be invited to come to the
The Judge says "John Miller" and "Marta de Almeida" and we head to
the front of the room in front of the bench with our wedding party in tow, Tim, my best
man, Flávia, Marina, Bárbara, Christian, Tâmara, and Rob. Olivier is already at the
front getting everything on video. The judge makes some comment about Australia and I say
"Yeah, Kangaroo", and the place just erupts in laughter. You have to be here to
appreciate the vibes in the room. Also, everything is in Portuguese, which just adds to
The judge makes some solemn statements and I nod and say the right words at the right
time except I throw in my some adlib stuff like "Tá legal" and "Beleza"
which is sort of like "I am cool, and chilled out, no problem, no sweat stuff"
on top of the "Sim". The judge is very sweet, and notes I have an
Australian/Brazilian flag tiepin and nods approvingly. She is very kind and gives her
Now it is time for the rings and Tim has a bit of trouble opening the box. The judge
sorts this out quickly and then I get to make my vow to Marta; "Marta, I promise to
love, care and protect you".
Marta reciprocates with the words we first spoke "I speak German, Inglês,
Portuguese, Italian, Spanish, and I also will love and care for you". She is losing
it a bit here, but so be it. Man, we have faced a lot of obstacles to get to this point.
Mission accomplished. I am married to the most wonderful woman in the world.
We get out of here straight away, head downstairs to a boteco and have a round
of beers to celebrate. We toast, we drink and then it is time to move on as this is a work
day. Tim has to go, Olivier has to go, Tâmara and Rob have to go.
Flávia drives the wedding party back to the Garota de Ipanema. The bar staff are very
warm and lots of hugs and handshakes all round. We have a caipirinha (Brazilian
margarita), cerveja (beer) and a few nibbles, we reflect and then back to the
apartment. It is 4:00 PM and much to do today. Marta is very tired, and we need some
privacy very quickly. Soon we will do some good things and spoil each other, but for now,
we have a few more hurdles to get over.
So now I have been married in the registry office in Copacabana. Please do not pass
judgement, lets see how things turn out.
I am off on my honeymoon for 6-12 hours. Check you later.
São Paulo has just introduced a law to ban every car from the road between 7:00 AM and
8:00 PM for one day per working week for the month of August, depending upon the last
digit of the number plate. Of course taxis, buses and commercial vehicles exempt, but goes
to show what air pollution can do to a city with poor public transport. Why August?
Temperature inversion month. Effect, traffic is a lot better, car sales are up, peak our
spreading to earlier hours, people start working earlier, air pollution no change.
Some numbers to mull over on São Paulo. Number of taxis: 25,000 (4 times new York),
11,000 buses, the Metro carries 4 million passengers per day. One road, "the
Marginal" carries 450,000 cars per day. The congestion in traffic is measured in
backup kilometers, which peaks in the morning at 280 km. On the weekend, an average of 1.5
million cars head to the beach at Santos. São Paulo is fed by one hydropower station on
the border of Paraguay that generates 11 gigawatts of power (no that is not a typing
error, I am pretty certain that is about the total power generating capacity of the whole
of Australia or pretty close to it).
I am in Sao Paulo about once every 4-6 weeks. There are two major rivers running
through SP. One is called the Rio Pinheiros, it ain’t pretty that is for sure. The Rio
Pinheiros descends at less than 2 cm per kilometer and I do not recommend lighting a match
near it. You can walk across parts of it (not because it’s shallow either), and I have to
so say, this is not a part of Brazilian environmental management that can be condoned.
Brazil can do better, and they know they have to.
The highway has been privatized between São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro (this is the
equivalent of privatizing the Hume Highway between Melbourne and Sydney). It costs
approximately $8 to travel the full 450 km for a standard car. It is segmented into four
fares for the full journey, each costs $1.86, and this stupid toll amount causes most of
the problems. People even stop their car and write a check for this amount $1.86.
Wasting time is one of my big issues, but I think not restricted to Carioca, I
have seen plenty of it in Australia. I hate wasting time, waiting in lines, waiting for
people, waiting for meetings, it just drives me crazy.
I have always had my watch set to Vince Lombardi time, and this is impossible here, you
just miss the mark by half an hour every time. For the Carioca, setting a time for
an appointment is like a game. I have yet to work out the objectives of this game, but I
seem to lose frequently. I lose time. Things go slow, late, take too long, man… But
remember the golden rule, John, if you go fast, you make mistakes, can be expensive,
Let’s skip to the important stuff…
R-rated Section – If you are under 18 years of age, please do not enter this
Unfortunately my pocket Collins English/Portuguese dictionary does not list the more
expressive English swear words for parts of the male and female anatomy and acts of sexual
behavior, but Marta (and for that matter most Cariocas) are very proficient with
these words. So I have had some expert help in this area.
Filho da puta = Son of a bitch (more or less), literally son of a whore, a very
Tarado = Horny man.
Peitinho = The part of the woman that a man gets as much pleasure as a baby
Peitão = How would you describe the super structure on Kate Fischer
Piroca, pica, pau, caralho = The piece of flesh where man keeps his brain half
Xoxota = Map of Tasmania
Boceta, buceta = More of the same, but closer to Hobart
Foder, trepar, meter, comer = What John’s Piroca and Marta’s Xoxota like to do
Chupar = Think of licking an ice cream. ( French kissing in South America)
Cu = Popular part of anatomy in Oxford Street
Veado, viado (masc) = The owner of the cu
Bicha (masc) = The other owner of a cu who likes to put his piroca in the cu
Sapatão (fem.) = Think of woman from Glebe
Piranha = Working woman (note the name is the same as the fish with the nasty
Grelo, grelinho = The part of the woman’s anatomy that Australian men cannot
find (sorry guys, this is to keep the balance of politically incorrect jokes).
Caralho = Expression of anger and to describe the crown jewels of a Carioca.
Porra = The equivelant of fuck in terms of usage by the Carioca,
Gozar = to come, umm, I think I should quit this before I get into any more
But then again, see it depends… Ciao.
John Miller is an Australian, living in Rio de Janeiro, selling Australian
wine. `Postcards from Rio’ is a journal of his journey in the land of the Cariocas.
John and Marta Miller
Rua Joaquim Nabuco, 106 / Apt 1001
Copacabana CEP 22080-030
Rio de Janeiro
Tel: +55 (021) 521 8568