Some will say I’m a bold adventurer, others a certifiable lunatic. Possibly a hopeless romantic or a masochist. Officially, I’m an American from a southern, suburban town outside of Atlanta, Georgia. I became an expat four years ago when I moved to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. I’m a teacher and writer. I keep a blog called Coconut Water about living as an accidental American expat in Brazil.
Where, when and why did you move abroad?
In 2005 while in grad school in Washington DC, I worked for a Fulbright program that brought legal professionals from around the world to DC for a year of networking.One of the participants was a very brilliant (and handsome) Brazilian from Rio. We started dating two months after his arrival. After finishing my grad classes, I moved to Rio, we got engaged and were married in 2007.
We have been living in Brazil full time since September 2006. After four years in Rio de Janeiro, we wanted a smaller city and two months ago we moved to Vitoria, the capitol of the state Espirito Santo.
What challenges did you face during the move?
Coming straight from college I didn’t have anything to move except my clothes, no kids, no pets, no furniture. I did ship a few boxes of books which are pretty much the only thing you can bring into Brazil and not pay very high import taxes on. I also brought my electronics (computer, printer, stereo) from the US because these things can cost almost double in Brazil what they are in the US.
How did you find somewhere to live?
I was very lucky. I had a local (aka fiánce) who arrived before me and had an apartment bought and paid for upon my arrival. I’m only learning about the real estate process now, four years later, because we’re looking for an apartment to buy in Vitoria.
We’re selling our apartment in Rio and I can tell you real estate in Rio is expensive. You are going to pay a lot of money for a closet-sized apartment in need of renovation if you want to live in the chicest neighborhoods like Leblon and Ipanema. Even in more middle-class neighborhoods apartments are overpriced for the size. If you do find something you like you have to snatch it up because, violent or not, the market in Rio is hot. Turn over is fast.
You can go through a real estate agent (there are many who cater to foreigners) but many list their own apartments or simply use word of mouth. In our case, we told our building’s doorman we were selling and through him we’ve already had several people look at the apartment without listing anywhere. If you find a neighborhood you like, it’s absolutely worth walking around and asking the doormen in buildings if anything is available (you will need to speak some Portuguese to do this.)
Are there many other expats in your area?
You can live for years in Rio de Janeiro, make lots of friends and not one of them will be Brazilian. Good or bad, the expat network in Rio is enormous and active. You can go to some restaurants in Ipanema or Leblon at lunch and hear every language but Portuguese.
Vitoria is different. I’m an expat community of one. Maybe that’s a slight exaggeration but in two months I have not personally met another foreigner to prove otherwise. I’ve heard rumors of an Austrian English teacher or British oil professional but I’ve yet to see any physical evidence of these people. I have searched online and there is not a single expat club in all of Vitoria (as opposed to Rio’s 1,113 different expat groups). I’m going to start teaching at a bilingual high school next month and I’ve heard many of the teachers are expats. I’m crossing my fingers.
What is your relationship like with the locals?
Because I’m married to a Brazilian from Rio de Janeiro, I was meeting locals from day one. Even with the family connections the language is still an obstacle to meeting Brazilians. You have to speak Portuguese to interact with the locals. I’ve found even the most educated Brazilians are not used to having non-Portuguese speakers at the table and they don’t slow down or make a point of making of including those just learning the language in the conversation. Particularly in Rio, locals speak very quickly and use a lot of slang.
Fortunately, Brazilians are very warm and open. They are more than happy to invite you to their homes or out for a beer. The few Brazilian friends I have (and I have very few considering I’ve been here four years) are fun to hang out with but from my American cultural perspective, they’re terrible about making plans and sticking to them. This frustrates me and I think this tension is a barrier to developing truly intimate friendships.
What do you like about life where you are?
I am loving Vitoria (to be honest, I was never happy about living in Rio – the city is too big and chaotic for me.) There are great restaurants, particularly for seafood and beef, and literally a hundred charming and beautiful beach towns lining the coast ranging from thirty minutes to four hours away. The beaches around Vitoria are empty compared to Rio, much less polluted and developed. The weather is warm enough year round you can go to the beach any time.
What do you dislike about your expat life?
I miss having a group of close friends. After three months, I haven’t made any friends in Vitoria yet but I’m hoping that will change once I start my new job. Even in Rio, my best friends were short term expats, only in Rio for two or three years, so we never got close, knowing that we’d all be moving on eventually.
What advice would you give to anyone following in your footsteps?
If you’re moving to Brazil you have to learn Portuguese. I can’t stress that enough. Maybe the friends you make will speak English but the your doorman, the workman you hire, the waiters, the bankers, everyone else will speak Portuguese and only Portuguese.
You will also have to be patient and flexible. Brazilians have a much greater tendency to show up late then I’m used to in the US. They will also change plans at the last minute and frequently not even call to tell you. It’s a “go with the flow mentality” that I’m still struggling to accept. Also, be prepared for how expensive things are. I was shocked how expensive everything from shoes to restaurants to electronics are in Rio.
What are your plans for the future?
Well, we’re planning on staying in Vitoria for the foreseeable future. We’re looking for apartments to buy. I’m starting a new job that so far seems like a wonderful place to teach.
We’re planning on starting a family here in Brazil in the next few years, so at some point I’ll be raising some little Brazilians. We’d like to move back to the US after my husband retires and put our kids through college there.
But for now, I’m improving my Portuguese every day and spending every sunny weekend on the beach soaking up the Brazilian sun.
Read more about life in Brazil at www.brynnbarineau.com