LAPT Grand Final: Obrigado, Sao Paulo
We ate meat last night. Giant hunks of cow, lamb, chicken, and pig. It came to our plates bloody and oozing its juices with each careful cut of the giant blade. There was other food, too--potatoes, plantains, and grilled mozzarella cheese--but we there for the meat. Gluttonous slices of picanha. Gamey pieces of fraldinha. Melting medallions of alcatra. It didn't matter that a majority of us didn't know what any of the words meant. We couldn't speak to respond, anyway. When you're full-on into a meal that is certain to result in the fabled Meat Sweats, you just nod and choke out the word "obrigado." It means "thank you," and you mean it.
We sat in Fogo de Chao until the last of us turned away the final skewer of chicken hearts. We mumbled "obrigado" and stumbled blindly out into the Brazilian summer night.
One doesn't have to go to Brazil to enjoy a Brazilian steakhouse. It's an export that has caught on in other parts of the world. In fact, there are more Fogo de Chao outlets in the U.S than there are in Brazil. It's a statistic that led one American friend of mine to wonder why I would spend one of my few nights in Brazil going to place I could enjoy back home in the States.
"Isn't that like going to Olive Garden when you're in Italy?" he asked.
It was a valiant swing on his part, but it missed the mark. It was only after I recovered from the meat hangover that I realized why.
Italians (and anyone else who has ever tasted real Italian food) would rather eat McDonalds than Olive Garden. Certainly, Italians take no pride in the fact the chain restaurant exists. Olive Garden is an American creation, owned by the same group that owns Red Lobster. Enough said.
Fogo de Chao (literally translated, fire in the floor or ground) is something different, however. It's the creation of a couple of Brazilian brothers who studied under the great gaucho barbeque chefs before opening their own churrascaria in the late 70s. The restaurant has since been exported to the U.S. where people from Philadelphia all the way to Las Vegas can gorge themselves on fire-cooked meat on a stick.
Or, as I put it, last night, we were "going to the source." And, goodness gracious, what a source it was. I will need a week in meat rehab to fully recover.
We can't, however, reduce the Brazilian experience to "I went 12 rounds in a naked meat orgy and lived to tell about it."
It took 15 minutes down windy streets and quick drive past a university before we found ourselves in Vila Madalena, a bohemian area full of bars and restaurants that looked just as alive at 1am as it must have hours earlier when we were face down in a plate of bloody protein. A man took a few Brazilian Reals from us and parked our car in the driveway of an empty house. We stared at the car as it pulled into the dark space across the street, sure we would never see it again
Sergio Prado, our friend and guide for the night, shrugged and seemed not to worry about his car. He said "It's Brazil."
"It's Brazil," has come to mean something to me, but I've struggled to figure out exactly what that something is.
We spent a couple of hours at a rickety table on the sidewalk outside Jose Menino sipping on Chopp Brahma beer in little glasses. As midnight passed, Aspicuelta Street teemed with revelers. A giant screen over the street televised a strangely intense volleyball game. Inside the bar, young women sang along with a song that loosely translated declared, "Who wants to party? We want to party! Who wants to party? We want to party! (Repeat)."
As our beers emptied, waiters appeared with full trays of little glasses and set them around us, each time picking up a piece of paper from the table and checking little boxes to help them remember how many they had served. By and by, Brazilian poker player and Renaissance man Felipe Ramos joined us. After the meat, our stamina was low, and we tried in vain to beg off.
"One more round, and then we'll go," Ramos said. And we believed him the next three times he said it.
But it wasn't the Bacchanal that you might think. It was simply--all around us--a relaxed, natural happiness. No one was fighting in the street. No one was puking in the gutter. When a passer-by was accidentally hit by a member of our party, it was accepted as exactly what it was: a simple mistake. No fighting words. No silliness.
Over the couple hours we sat there, local artists and entrepreneurs tried to sell us trinkets, candy, and books with naked women on the back cover. Each time, Prado simply said, "Obrigado," and the salesmen walked away with a smile. And so, I learned that saying "thank you" here can mean a lot of different things.
Closing time was coming as our meat sweats subsided. We needed good rest to be here in good shape for the kickoff of the Grand Final. We pooled together our cash, with Ramos inexplicably picking up the largest part of the tab and cleverly ordering one more round. I tried to figure out what had just happened when Prado again shrugged and said, "It's Brazil."
I still don't know exactly what that means. I thought about it as Ramos' driver sped us over the Octavio Frias de Oliveira bridge. I've only spent about ten days of my life in Brazil, and I can't claim to know as much about the country as I know about others. But, whatever, "It's Brazil" means, I like it.
When I got home last night, I thanked Ramos and Prado on Twitter for being such good hosts for the city, remarking that they furthered affirmed by belief that Brazilians are among the best and kindest people in the world.
Ramos' response was the kind you'd expect. He said: "We are very happy that you are enjoying your stay so far. Warning: It can get better."
Obrigado Felipe and Sergio.
And, obrigado, Sao Paulo.