Brazil feels like a European country that was accidentally misplaced into the tropics. If you’ve travelled much in Europe, you’ll recognize the street signs, and the cars, and the ways buildings are designed a little differently than the U.S. You’ll even find the language tantalizingly close to French, Spanish, or Italian… close enough that you can puzzle your way through a menu or a shopping center. Although be careful! Some words that sound like they ought to carry over will get you in trouble. Tell your host that the food is “exquis” in French, or “exquisito” in Spanish, or “squisito” in Italian, you’ve complimented their exquisite food. In Portuguese, calling dinner “esquisito” means you’ve just told them that it tasted weird.
But Brazil is sunnier than Europe in more ways than the weather. Apparently, the national attitude is “cheerful.” People will strike up conversations in line or on the street in ways that I’ve never seen in Europe (except, perhaps, in Italy). It’s a young society, unlike the demographically-doomed European cultures. The music is happy and makes you want to dance, unlike Europop which is apparently designed to make you want to take heroin. And, unlike the physically-cramped, psychologically-shrunken, history-laden horizons in Europe, you can find open vistas that are untamed, untouched, and ready to be exploited.
I’m not going to go into the whole Turner “frontier thesis” here, but I think it’s very real, and I think it makes Brazilians more akin to Americans than they are to their European ancestors.
And the ancestors are definitely European. Intellectually, I know that Brazil is one of the most diverse ethnographies in the world (perhaps second only to the United States). And, from reading, I know it varies a lot geographically, from dark-skinned descendants of African slaves to copper-colored indigenes to blond Teutonic giants in the (cooler) South. But in the states of São Paulo and Goiás, and in the Federal District of Brasilia, the people I came into contact with were uniformly “European” in appearance… just a small handful of individuals who would pass as “black” in America, and even fewer Asians. That surprised me, because I had a few odd facts lodged in my head such as “São Paulo has the largest Japanese community in the world outside of Japan.” Maybe so, but they must stick to their own districts. Whether on the Avenida Paulista or in a São Paulo “big box” shopping center, we were in a crowd much less diverse than you’d see in Alpharetta or Roswell.
Brazilians are a lot thinner than Americans… you don’t see any of the hugely obese that you see at any American mall. Healthier-looking. Clearly there’s a culture of beauty (for men and women). And they seem to smile a lot more. (Maybe not in these pictures…)