It’s been almost 3 months since I landed in my home country. It’s the first time since May 2015 that I know I’ll have the same address for more than 6 weeks.
After almost four years away – with sporadic visits only – the first question family and friends ask me is “can we meet? I wanna see you before you go”, to what I reply “no worries, I’ll be here for a while”. Then when we manage to meet, the question is “how does it feel to be back?” and I struggle to find the right answer.
Now, almost 3 months later, I’m able to translate into words what I feel about this question. Not that it helps to understand my feelings, but it helps to process them. I’m not back; I’m here.
If I was back, wasn’t I supposed to have a sense of belonging? I do navigate the neighborhood where I lived during most of my time here with a lot of confidence. I know street names, reference points, that supermarket, this flower shop. Still, not enough to feel I’m back.
So the question should be “how does it feel to be here?”, shouldn’t it?
On being back – When I think of it, my mind goes to places already known, like my mom’s house. There I know where (almost) everything is and how things work. But if I say I’m going back to my mom’s house, I get an immediate idea that I’m going back to stay there. So I rephrase, and say I’m visiting her, or that I’m going to her place. I don’t think that this thing of being back applies to me.
There’s also the idea that “back” means regress (the action of returning to a former or less developed state, according to the dictionary), and I definitely do not think I’m regressing. On the contrary. I’m a completely different person from the one who left Sao Paulo 7 years ago, who was away from Brazil for almost 4 years, someone who felt real love for a country where she doesn’t understand more than 7 words – actually, more than 7… I can count to twenty and say a few words like thanks, hello, beautiful, rice, sticky rice (very important!), and a few other things. The past few years might look charming to outsiders, but they were tough. They forced me to revisit my values, my dreams, myself. No, I’m not the same person I used to be.
I don’t intend on staying in Sao Paulo. Those close to me know I wasn’t even planning on being here, ever again. Lesson learned: never say never – or ever again.
There’s also another nuance on this idea of being back. I don’t think I know this place anymore. I’m not back to something familiar to me. Yes, the streets have the same names (at least most of them), I still know how to get to the climbing gym (and still find it far as hell, still, I go and love it there), or where to find the best pizza in the world (no, it’s not in Italy, nor the Secret Pizza in Luang Prabang). But I feel like I was a foreigner. The city where I lived for 10 years, no longer exists. And the same way that I changed, so did my friends. With a few exceptions, I feel like I’m getting to know people I thought I’d known, and the truth is, I don’t think we’d if it was our first contact.
So no. I’m not back.
On being here – when I realized I’d be in Sao Paulo for a while, I decided I’d have to live the city in a different way. The decision to be here was very well thought out. Despite people thinking I’m impulsive, I’m actually pretty intense on my decision-making processes, weighting pros and cons, trade-offs, and identifying what the decision in question would add to my life. When I decided to book that ticket for June 8th I knew I’d need a different approach to being in the city I left saying I’d never return to.
I guess the main thing about being ok with being here was a rule I imposed to myself: no complaining (because I know paulistas complain about everything, and I really don’t want to become one of those people who are never happy or satisfied).
Rule #1 – do not complain.
Second agreement with myself: get out of my comfort zone. Territorial and sensorial comfort zones. I force myself to go to new and different places, mostly alone. I join zumba classes in the middle of the street. I ask if I can borrow the egg (shaker) and play with this band I’ve never seen before.
Rule #2 – get uncomfortable.
Third rule: take care of myself. Eat healthy and exercise regularly – even if it means waking up at 6am to meditate and stretch, or to commute for 1 hour to the climbing gym and be back home around 11pm. No excuses. Luckily I was able to find a place to live pretty close to work, so at least I have my morning walk every day. Mens sana in corpore sano. I have to spend way more time in front of the computer that I’d like to, and the only way to survive it, is to take care of this machine that carries me around.
Rule #3 – exercise.
Following these 3 rules it is easier to be here and to experience the present of being here. It is being in the present that I’m able to notice how this city changed – for the good and the bad.
After years away, Sao Paulo is not the city I was used to. I see more same-sex couples holding hands, I see women saying f**k off to catcallers and not crossing the street every time they notice a group of men standing on the sidewalk (yes… that’s something women worried – still do – in cultures like mine), I see public spaces being appropriated by people more often, and I think traffic is better than it used to be (I have more friends now that don’t have cars, or only drive on weekends).
On the other hand, I sense a strange and heavy energy in the air, I never feel completely safe when walking alone after it gets dark, I put my phone in one pocket, my bank cards in the other one, and leave my wallet in my purse. I almost never answer a phone call when I’m walking in certain neighborhoods, and after my first trip to the Sunday street market, I realized I can’t buy coconut water, sugar cane juice, or pastel to everyone that asks me to, because if I do, I go back home without my groceries. There are way more people living on the streets of Sao Paulo then when I left the city in 2011, people with their entire families, kids, babies, grandparents, pets. Some blame the crisis. I blame the lack of shame from the Brazilian political class.
I saw poverty in Laos. Poverty is everywhere. But there’s something about urban poverty, about Sao Paulo’s poverty that I can’t still name. Being here, made me even more aware of how countries like mine are unequal.
At the same time, being here allowed to reconnect with the Brazilian openness and warmth towards others. Despite our illegitimate government, our unequal and sometimes fascist society, there are so many initiatives with the intention to change the way things have been since I don’t even know when. Being here, helped reconnect with hope for my country.
So yes. I’m here. I’m not back.