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Finding my feet and losing my head in Sao Paulo

February 10, 2009

It is my firm belief, yet to be disproved, that any urbanist worthy of the name can find a decent bar within 24 hours of their arrival in any city on the world, and preferably less. Read Ernest Hemingway’s Paris: A Moveable Feast. It’s Chapter 1. No-one knew bars like Hemingway. In Sao Paulo, as in Paris even today, it would be impossible to fail this challenge. I found mine this evening right next to a more famous bar at the corner of Sao Joao and Ipiranga which has started to believe its own mythology and therefore lost everything that once made it a bar worth celebrating in song, and I settled in to watch and learn.

I’ve already got so used to joking with barmen and concierges about my poor Portuguese that it’s almost like an icebreaker. The bar was haphazard, white tiles, and giant freezers which got the beer down to an appreciably glacial degree of cool, decent salgados and two grades of chili source to accompany them (hot and really hot – no-one has the first choice, of course).

Bars are human sociality at their most basic, their most primate-like. I once worked on a zoological expedition studying monkeys in Kalimantan, and there is very little I’ve seen in bars that I haven’t seem being done by other primates (apart from the serving of cold beers, which explains most of what happens in bars that you don’t see in monkey groups). The forced-together bonhomie, the silence amongst the mostly male clientele as some particularly fine example of the female of the species walks by (and that happens an awful lot in Brazil), the arguments about sport and politics, the group-dominance by alpha-males – at least in the absence of any alpha-females – it’s all there and it’s all – excepting the beer and the salgados – monkey.

It makes one depressed and optimistic at the same time. You know that anywhere that humans go, somewhere in the universe, there’s going to be a bar just like this. And yet, it makes you wonder whether we will ever manage to solve the enigma of cities, a solution that will bring in those shadowy figures who lurk just beyond the reach of the bright lights of the bar – the stick-thin figure of the beggar-woman who passed me twice this evening, the guy selling lottery tickets at the last minute, the prostitutes and thieves who have been driven to these ends because of the city, because their existence and the existence of the city don’t quite seem to coincide in the same way, the same spacetime. There’s a reason good urbanists need to find a good bar. It isn’t always for the same reasons as everyone else.

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