There is a church in Curitiba that blesses cars. When I first heard this, I didn’t believe it. In fact, there is such a large demand for these blessings that the priests must limit it to new cars. To assist those less fortunate – the congregants who forget to have their new car blessed – any car is welcome for blessing on the first Friday after New Year’s.
When I arrived in Brazil, I was familiar with the magic realism of South American literature from the books of Nobel Prize-winning author Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I’d read his One Hundred Years of Solitude when it was first published in English in the 1970s, along with other South American authors like Jorge Luis Borges from Buenos Aires and Salvador’s Jorge Amado.
When Americans read the translated works of these authors, we read them as novels, fiction. However, in their original languages, these literary meals are digested by Latin Americans as family memoirs – believable and accurate.
The 21st century awakened on September 11, 2001 with the disappearance of the World Trade Center in New York. Americans were faced for the first time since the Civil War in the 1860s with combat on their own soil. On that day the U.S. officially left behind what one American writer, Edith Wharton, once called The Age of Innocence. After 9/11, we could no longer recognize our homes as places of peace and security. For Americans, the world changed overnight.
I came to Brazil wearing this emotional armor, post 9/11, a cynical view of a changed world, one with hidden terrorists who fall from the sky. In such a cold place, there could be no room for enchantment or dreams, I believed. Instead, I have discovered a country where magic still reigns in many forms, like priests blessing cars.
My wife, who is Brazilian and Catholic, doesn’t consider the blessing of our car to be magical. She takes it seriously, having the car blessed the first week she bought it to ensure we would both be safe when she came to pick me up at the airport.
Living in Brazil, a country of nearly 200 million people, most of them Catholic, I’m encouraged to examine my mythological compass. Brazil is in the Western Hemisphere, like the U.S., but there is a different perspective below the Equator. To begin with, the seasons are backwards. For another, nearly everyone is the same religion. Also, the laws are different.
For example, there are guaranteed vacations for salaried employees when a couple marries. Furthermore, there is four months’ paid maternity leave when a female employee has a baby, whether or not she’s married. These laws are written into Brazil’s Constitution. They do not exist in the U.S. Magic – legal or spiritual – is an everyday reality in Brazil.
When my possessions arrived in Brazil after a 3-week voyage from New York on the high seas of the shipping container world, they magically passed through customs in the port of Santos in the middle of a customs strike. A woman I know who works for a logistics company explained to me that while the Federal Police were on strike, no cargo arriving by container ship could leave the storage warehouses in Santos, other than food or medicine.
It had taken me months to prepare the documentation for shipping, but my things were stuck inside a warehouse in the middle of a strike. However, after two weeks of praying by my wife, my belongings arrived at my apartment one Saturday morning on a truck from the Santos customs warehouse. Not only had they arrived during the strike, but nothing was broken or missing. The original shipping crate had not even been opened by the inspectors.
As my wife and I unpacked the 68 boxes, I sifted through my living past. After waiting 18 months while the boxes were in storage in the U.S., my excitement and relief were immeasurable. I concluded that something otherworldly had guided my life’s possessions safely over 5,000 miles of ocean into my hands.
When we had finally unpacked and our apartment was filled with the enchantment of my childhood memories, my wife announced our house smelled of New York. She said it as a compliment, a warm welcome into her Brazilian world.
Now, a year later, my wife insists she can still smell New York in our apartment. For her, the magical scent is not a mystery. I can’t smell it, but I’m learning.
Michael Rubin is an American living in Curitiba. He welcomes comments at email@example.com.