Below is an English translation of my article for the Brasil Post (Huffington Post). Enjoy.
“Não existe amor em SP” (Love doesn’t exist in SP), sings Criolo in that beautiful song of his. I must admit, I was inclined to agree with him when my Paulistano wife and I first moved to São Paulo from London just over two years ago.
During my first few months here the city felt like an impenetrable and ugly concrete jungle whose dense canopy consisted solely of bland high-rises. And, of course, there was the bumper-to-bumper traffic, smelly rivers and turnstiles on buses, which even now still baffle me.
Much of this I recorded on my blog, the book is on the table, which I started after my wife and sister-in-law thought my stereotypically grumpy British observations provided an amusing outsider’s perspective on life in São Paulo.
After six months though, something strange started to happen: I found myself starting to become defensive and even fond of my new home.
Firstly, I started to realise that my gripes about São Paulo were as much about my struggle to adjust to Sampa as they were about actual the city itself; I came to the conclusion that comparing life abroad with back home really isn’t good for your mental health. It ends up making you bitter and unhappy, and it’s also the quickest way to make you feel even more homesick.
Then my best-friend visited from the UK and we travelled from Rio down to Buenos Aires. Staying in hostels we met, as you do, a whole load of travellers and when I told them that I, a Brit, lived in São Paulo their first reaction was often: “Why the hell are you living there?”. This would often swiftly be followed by their repeated denunciations of Sampa as a city of doom and gloom; a modern day Sodom and Gomorrah:
“I couldn’t live there”
“There’s too much/many…. [insert one of the following: traffic / pollution /cars / people].”
“It’s not a tourist city, there’s nothing to do or see.”
“It’s just a big, ugly city.”
“It’s too dangerous.”
It was at this point that I found myself defending Sampa by listing all the reasons why it’s actually a very cool city, with my main point being that São Paulo is perhaps not a city for visiting but living in.
Sampa’s problem is largely that it is not as immediately captivating as Rio. Unfortunately, few take (or have) the time to scratch beneath the surface (even Paulistanos are guilty of this), because when you do you realise that its beauty exists in what lines beneath. Beauty, as the English saying goes, is not only skin deep.
This is something I discovered whilst exploring Sampa on foot, which in a city that is so addicted to cars and hostile to pedestrians is not always easy. However, ‘walking’, as British writer and psychogeographer observes, ‘is the best way to explore and exploit the city…allowing the fiction of an underlying pattern to reveal itself’.
For psychogeographers like Sinclair and, I guess, myself, walking is not just about getting from A to B, but also of rediscovering what actually lies between A and B.
And it was on foot that my indifference for Sampa became that of genuine affection. For example, walking at street level led me to marvel rather than startle at São Paulo’s vastness and epic skyline, something which is often so overwhelming for first-time visitors.
On one stroll along Avenida Paulista with my sister-in-law, I remember her saying that living and working in São Paulo makes her feel like a “citizen of the world” — like a small part of something big and important.
And it’s true. Whilst I love venturing into the wild, it’s man-made cities that fascinate me because they symbolise the complexity of the human condition. In his book ‘The Art of Travel’, Alain de Botton talks of the concept of sublimity in relation to places that, ‘gently move us to acknowledge limitations that we might otherwise encounter with anxiety or anger in the ordinary flow of events’. In other words the places that make us feel small and which make us put our daily woes into perspective. Whilst most people might think that about a desert, canyon or rainforest, I’ve found that it’s the complexity of a megacity like São Paulo which makes me feel this way.
It’s not only the city itself which is sublime. Back at street level, Sampa is a hive of culture and entertainment and in many ways – from its fine museums and galleries, theatre and the ballet at the Teatro Munipal or the fact that musically the city is always the first dates on any artist’s itinerary in South America – São Paulo reminds me of London. And, of course, its a food lover’s paradise, of which a personal favourite is the coxinha (with catupiry).
And the streets themselves are a living canvas: the void left by the absence of outdoor advertising filled with the angry but intriguing pichação, and street art, which in quality and quantity must rank amongst the finest if not the finest anywhere in the world. And let’s not forget the city’s pavements, which even if they are often a fractured and fragmented part of the city’s topography, are often tiled so proudly to the geographical shape of the state.
Most incredibly, I can even play cricket here.
So, does love exist in SP? Perhaps not for the uninitiated, for whom it may well intimidate. And for those who live here? Well, I guess it can perennially frustrating as well. However, give yourself the time to get stuck in and that where you’ll find its true beauty.
It’s unlikely you’ll fall in love at first sight with SP, but just maybe you’ll fall for it over time. It’s a tough love, you might say.