Recife gives me a warm, cozy, homey feeling. Although we got off to a rough start, things have stabilized greatly and I’m reminded on a daily basis why I love this city – and the nordeste of Brazil – so very much.
People are so friendly. We get smiles and polite greetings at the very least, everywhere we go. Usually the boys get an affectionate pat on the head from the men, while every female over the age of 15 exclaims loudly, “Que coisa mais linda!” which translates roughly as “OMG, you are the cutest little thing!” They get kisses on their pudgy, sunburnt cheeks and occasionally right on the lips by overly passionate middle-aged ladies. My belly gets rubbed and caressed by women I’ve just met, all of whom seem to agree that I’m having a third boy. (It wouldn’t surprise me.)
Most people, if they have a couple minutes to chat, are curious and want to know who we are, where we’re from, why we’re in Recife (of all places), and whether we love Brazil. North American tourists are not all common here, since it’s so far off the beaten track. We saw a few Dutch travellers in Rio and met a couple Italian guys here in the northeast, but otherwise most tourists come from other parts of Brazil. As a result, our pale-skinned family draws quite a bit of attention.
The best part of being back in Recife, though, is the sense of belonging. Here, I have friends and acquaintances, people to connect with and visit. We were invited to a Christmas Day church service nearby where a fantastic choir sang rousing, gospel-like renditions of holiday songs, and as soon as we stepped in the door, we were greeted by familiar old faces I haven’t seen in years – people who kissed and embraced us and welcomed us warmly.
Here, we have invitations to share meals in people’s homes, to travel to other towns for visits, to spend New Year’s together, to go to the beach together. In turn, there are people we can invite into our own home for coffee and dinner parties. In other words, we’ve graduated from being the awkward foreigners that we were in Rio, with minimal personal connections, to temporary residents with a purpose and a place here in Recife.
It’s a small world here, too, despite being a city of over 4 million people. (My theory is that, because there’s so much poverty and violence here, there are relatively few common public spaces where the middle and upper class residents of Recife go to hang out, which means that paths cross more frequently than they would in a city like Toronto.) Someone called out Jason’s name as we walked in Recife Antigo, a new friend he’d made at the CrossFit gym. It turns out that our lovely neighbours are my ex-boyfriend’s cousins, from a small town in the interior of Pernambuco state. It feels like there are interesting connections to be made everywhere, and I love it.
When I heard Jason tell someone that he already prefers Recife to Rio, my heart sang with happiness. I didn’t know if he’d ever say that, especially with our rough start. Recife can be a hard-to-love city. It’s gritty, dirty, smelly, industrial, and it definitely lacks Rio’s glamour. It oozes ugly poverty and violence and is unable to hide it as effectively as Rio does. But still, I love it – for its stark honesty, for the people who always have time to talk, dance, eat and drink, for all the ways that make this place so utterly different from anywhere else in the world.
We sure as heck aren’t in Ontario anymore, but it still feels a little bit like home.