Our first talk was brief; a ward against loneliness. I wasn’t familiar with the place he was from but its distance impressed me. At first I thought it was warm; a party city at night, that’s how my mind’s eye imagined it.
But as it happened, the first time we had a real conversation was in his small apartment about a week later. Only then did I notice his dark hair; his delicate nose, features on his round, pale face rimmed with blue glasses. It was summer and the afternoon felt long. I was surprised by his volubility; of his detailed descriptions of an early modern European philosopher he studied; of how he came to date and his relationships; about his city.
His origins were equally foreign to me – but intriguing, unexpected. He was born in a small, rural town, a descendant of a historic German community that had settled in the area. Unlike the majority of Brazil, which is Catholic, he was Mormon, having converted after missionaries came to his birthplace. That he was also gay was directly in conflict with being Mormon. It was also the basis of our link.
We quickly established a rapport, and Felipe and I talked nearly every day. I felt that we were not so different: most of our conversations revolved around our moods, articles we had read online, silly jokes, or just flirtation. I started calling him by “flowery” nicknames in Portuguese, Fel-Ipe (“Ipe,” a word with native origins, is how the Brasilians call the genus Jacaranda), Fapoula (a joke on “poppy”), etcetera.
The sense of place I created with Felipe began with him and his apartment and radiated outward. He showed me things on his desk that were meaningful to him – a slim Buddha statue, cards from around the world. Every now and again, his city would creep into the picture, as if waiting to be called. He would show me photos from walks around town – the fog in a park with mossy trees on a wintry day; a library at the glassy campus where he’d studied, layered with tropical trees; a selfie he’d taken in a mall bathroom. Each photo was a puzzle piece; irregular, difficult to arrange.
I turned to modern tech to understand the place on a basic level. Wikipedia: Porto Alegre is the capital and largest city of the Brazilian state of Rio Grande do Sul. It also provided that the city has a colonial history tracing back to its founding in the late eighteenth century (skimmed). Google Maps gave me a visual. Zooming out, here was the city, located in the southern tip of Brazil, bordering Uruguay and Argentina.
But the attempt to comprehend slice-of-life Porto Alegre was confounded by details he would regularly share. The climate is not hot and humid as I had expected, but rather, varied and with yearly frosts (and snow in the higher regions.) He shared that he had been robbed at knife-point twice, once during the day, and once at night. (Brazil has one of the highest rates of violent crime, and Porto Alegre’s homicide rate is in the Top 50, according to a report released early this year by the Center for Public Security and Criminal Justice.) Had he not told me a picture he sent me was of a notorious favella, a Brazilian slum, I would have assumed it was a nice area because it was on a hill. (Favellas are usually on hills because these areas are less developed; and are at a high risk for flooding and landslides.) Once, he sent me a video he’d recorded of a traditional Brazilian-African drum ceremony at the mall without comment; I was left flabbergasted.
After a continued economic downturn, on April 17, 2016, the lower house of Brazil’s parliament voted for impeachment of then-President Dilma Rousseff. Suddenly Felipe, who usually wore an easy smile and laughed often, became miserable and worried. He told me that with Dilma’s impeachment, there would be less funding of public universities in the coming years. Universities were one of the few places where Brazilians had opportunity and were treated equally. Were it not for the scholarships he had received, he would not be an intellectual in the city, but rather, “I would be in the countryside now working in the land,” he said.
We watched the impeachment process together with awe. His eyes were locked on the other corrupt politicians, mine were on the massive protests and burning effigies. Whatsapp, a messaging app used to feed a texting habit I picked up from my travels to Israel, and which we used to text, was blocked for days. As Brazil appeared to be crumbling on the verge of the 2016 Summer Olympics, the eyes of the world joined ours for a brief moment. It felt as if what the world saw was that Brazil got what it deserved; that it was laughable for the country to consider itself a developed nation. (SNL, realizing the comedic gold of the moment, aired a skit on the Impeachment and the coming Olympics).
Felipe was caught up in the wave of uncertainty that swept through Brazil during the impeachment. He was afraid to go out in the streets and described how the smallest interactions could quickly become volatile with diametrically-opposed political views. He also worked to support himself and had to go out every day. During this time, he realized he wouldn’t be able to timely complete his Master’s program and the school came after him to pay full tuition, which he could not afford.
I witnessed Felipe apply, interview, and ultimately be accepted into a scholarship program that funded applications to PhD programs in the United States. The program even paid for his visa. (It did not, however, end the scholarship process on which Felipe relied; he would have to secure a full scholarship to schools where he wanted to study in order to attend.) It was his hope for escape (and selfishly, my chance to see him). When he was accepted into the program, he was ecstatic, having overcome impossible odds. He confided to me that “honestly if I get this chance to study my PhD in the US . . . I will try my very best for not come back to live in Brazil again.”
And yet, as the long summer came to a close, just shy of the Rio Olympics and the confirmation of Dilma’s impeachment, Felipe withdrew from the scholarship program. He realized he was depressed in his Master's program, a lonely intellectual who preferred to be a schoolteacher. All of the uncertainties of living in Brazil became the common threads that held his daily life together. Place became a reason to stay. He withdrew from the scholarship and began to search for jobs in Porto Alegre.
I don’t know if I will ever visit Porto Alegre. It would certainly be the most remote place I have ever visited, an 18-hour flight with at least 2 layovers. Or if I will ever see Felipe outside of a screen; hear his voice unfiltered through voice calls in apps. And yet.
Though I may not understand it any better now, my mind holds room for Felipe and Porto Alegre. There, the city is not a singular place, but rather one of hustle-and-bustle, subject to shifting moods, and ephemera bursting forth. The city’s name means “Joyous Harbor,” and the Porto Alegre I constructed continues to be a source of respite, and of friendship. ~
Asaf Kletter is a bibliophile, wanderer, and lifelong student. He recently moved to Los Angeles, CA.