“Sem Juros”: The Brazilian Shopping-Mall

Everywhere in Brazil goods are sold on the basis of a 12-month ‘parcelado’ out of monthly income at source. The result is that every household has a jotter in which the running-cost per month of these deductions is recorded – just as the banks, a major player under the terms of “crédito consignado”, notify the citizenry of any current and future deductions arising from such purchases at the head of every bank statement – a scary block of liabilities which makes every retail addict shiver. (This ticker-tape of bad news is routinely delivered at the ATM.)

Now, if your car, computer, “cellular”, shoes, party dress, another party dress, beach-wear, hi-fi, wii-fi, frying-pan, ornate wall-clock, college books, living room furniture, bedroom furniture, bathroom fittings, bejeweSem_Juroslled havaianas, bedizened namorada and anything else which is not fixed to your skeleton by living tendons has been chalked up on the “sem juros”, then the chances are that a quaky economy is likely to bring those rental walls down around your ears some time in the future. And that is the great risk facing milliions in Brazil today. Exchange rates and inflation to one side, it is paying for all that personal clobber bought on credit in the form of zero-interest purchase – in which the bank’s profits have been ingeniously loaded onto the retail price at point of sale – that is going to hurt the newly-created consumer masses the most. (A massive 40% became new bank-card owners in the last 15 years by some accounts.)

Take me, for instance: I have been in Brazil for six months, living without collateral beyond what I can put in my pockets or strap around my neck, but because I am a university employee in the Federal System my friendly Santander salesperson is itching to lock me into a car purchase to the tune of 44K with a repayment schedule over 8 years. Ahem. In 8 years I will be a smiling public “idoso” of 75. Isn’t that a bit of a gamble? I know they wouldn’t take me on in Danske or whoever else is calling the shots in Ulster banking today. On the other hand, in 8 years time the 44K smackers involved in the transaction may be worth a bunch of green bananas in the nearest “kitanda” (grocery shop to you) if all goes as ill as the worst jeremiads hint.

An interesting guide in matters of getting and spending is the lexical field surrounding money matters. First off – to get it out of the way – savings are called “poupancas”, an endearing word. It sounds like something you could put your head on for the sake of 40 winks. Then there are withdrawals from the bank which are neatly styled “saques” – presumably from the verb “sair” to ‘go out’. But it’s when it comes to “spending” that the verb-system really shows its stuff. (In Victorian English is meant what a gentleman did when he sowed his oats, wild or domestic as the case may be.) The point in English is that there is a line between “spend” and “waste”. Not so in Portuguese, where “gustar” comfortably embraces both meanings with divil-a-difference between ’em. There is, in fact, a word for ‘waste’ in “desperdiçar” but I am told authoritatively that ‘we don’t really use it.’ Signs on it. It is all a bit like the lexical collision between the verbs for “wait” and “hope” which are identical (“esperar”) though, in context, they are often easy to distinguish – unless you are waiting for the bus to the University at 6.30 in the morning, in which case the distinct fades to non-existence like the bus itself.

Time and Money make a strange lexical pair in any language and, famously in Semantics, this is one of the areas in which the cultural character of Western society is most pronounced: we “spend” time, or “save” it; we “use” it, we “waste” it, or we can “take” it in a leisurely act of theft – all of this in the expectation of some profit or return. I suppose it was the Fuchs Brothers of the Lowlands who did this to us, or else some gentleman in Venice who figured out that every tick of the clock bore a constant relation to the cost of living and the value of a pound of flesh. If a Brazilian wishes to “spend time with you” it is “passar tempo” not expend, invest, waste or otherwise compute.

One way of characterising the money habits of the average Brazilian household is to reach for the vocabularly of mental health. The idea of retail therapy has virtually no application here since the treatment is, in fact, the normal condition. It is also the essence of popular politics since a special kind of spending madness was synonymous with the inclusion of formerly excluded classes of Brazilians in the credit economy by expanding the idea of credit-worthy borrowers to the full extent of the electoral role on the most optimistic estimate of what they might earn if in receipt of full allowances and maximum income from full-time work. Then there is the amazing desse-terceira, a 13th month added-on to the calendar in order to fill the national Christmas stocking or supply an annual holiday in France. (Alas, the falling exchange rate has now ruled that out.) In fact, 9 million Brazilians fell out work in the last quarter of last year and there is no sign of recovery soon.

It is a curious feature here that, in spite of the constantly rising proportion of cars in the streets with ‘vende’ signs pasted to their windows, the real poor just disappear to the places where the real poor live – far from the shopping mall and the “atacadao” – where C&A and Priz Unique set the tone for citizen shopping styles. .Yet all of this increasing poverty sits side by side with gobsmacking signs of wealth. Natal is littered with towering apartment blocks whose underground car-parks are stuffed with the kind of cars that only appear in such numbers in movies celebrating the life and times of James Bond. Come night-time, There they are, .the Landrover Evoques and Lamborghinis disgorging their super-smart occupants onto the pavement outside “Buongostaio”, the city’s mostest gourmet restaurant on downtown Petropolis, while that rag-collector with his broken-down mule stumbles by in harness and a half-clad “manobrista” extracts 50 centivos for waving a limb arm in the direction of the parking-space. (Who knows who he has to fight off to retain his bit of turf? – a killing of that ilk was recently reported.)

And this is the peculiar thing. When you look at the much maligned favilas, you see an enormous rent-free population who have cobbled together the brick and mortar, electric cable and sewage lines in order to build where the spirit listeth – often in the most scenic parts of the city, overlooking the environmentally protected dunes if not – as in the case of Mae Luiza – actually in them, just the place where the billionaires would like to live if the law allowed them.

Poverty is rife and there is doubtless disease and infant mortality but in the main the conditions are such that a practically-minded urban administration and a fairly exiguous health service could quarantee their quality of life. it really seems to the innocent foreigner that the entire population is failing to grasp the national opportunity for a modest communitarian paradise because they are looking in the face all the time. Or else peering in the wrong direction – as happens in “under-developed” countries. Take the climate. With a little adaption of the working day, perfect. Food? Cheap and freely available – from rice and tabioca to macaxeria and inhame (roots) or banana, papaya, manga .. to name only the pronounceable offerings of the forest in the lucious fruits department of tropical fare.

All right, it might not be that easy – but surely a community-based politics is the way forward in such a climate, instead of the manic investment in all-too-destructible roads and bridges to carry the insane volume of truck and car traffic from one devastated urban landscape to another. Not that Natal qualifies as a devastated urban landscape as its neighbours up the North-East coast so eminently do: Recife and Forteleza. (“Deo me forteleza ..”) In Natal, with its rotting urban centre and its dilapidated Ribeira along the river front, the multitudinous tourist-oriented high-rise apartment block are the architectural hallmark of “City of the Sun” today. It used to be called the “City of the Winds” but they have had to brake back on one that since the high-rise developments have had such a marked impact on the circulation of air in the formerly breezy city on the North East littoral.

That, at least, was the developers plan, now stalled by lack of investment. So, instead of more shiny needles of futuristic dwelling-space for vertigo-free plutocrats, we have a horizon increasingly polluted by the ghostly forms of half-build blocks, each clad in its proleptic winding-sheet apparently designed to counter dust – certainly not as a safety net for the high-wire building crews – each a prophecy of the ghost city which will supervene when the race of get-rich contractors have moved on.

Then there are little seaside towns up and down the coast like Cotovelho (“Elbow”) with its pretty red cliffs and its monstrous backdrop of wafer-thin apartment blocks aiming their balconies exclusively at the eastern sea-view, their blind backs turned against the sunset over the worthless” real estate of the Brazilian Interior – where, as it happens, the majority of the population of Rio do Norte actually lives. And from which badlands their concierges and arrumadoras all come dutifully trooping by bus each day to attend to the domestic needs of the denizens of high-rise apartment blocks – seasonal, in retirement or glorying in their grasp on the rental value of the streets and turrets of this city of underground carparks and super-silent elevators.

Not since Babylon has the divide between the haves and the have nots been so marked – and the miracle is that the have-nots actually sing – albeit increasingly evangelical songs – as they go to work in the houses of the super-rich. One suspects that nothing short of a bed-pan service would satisfy the residents and, at the time of writing, there is no sign that the servants are reluctant to provide that service. All of this would be fairly craw-sick-making were it not for the theory of rising boats which renders those totally out-of-place mascot cars a symbol of a brighter, better future for the Brazilian people. There is a helplessness here before the facts of the economy which makes me think of Ireland. And now the poor bloddy British are going to go into Brexit and discover what it is like to be helpless before the facts of the economy as well! I think I might be turning into a revolutionary. Where’s my urban struggle mini-manual?

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