A record of what I forgot: a non-linear tour between São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro
I was a child with exceptional creative tendencies. From the bedroom to the kitchen, I would go on my own. From the kitchen to the bedroom, I would come back with a brand new imagined tale that I insisted on telling my parents about: a dialogue with a monkey; a man who carried the world on his head; a handkerchief that disappeared because it threw itself – “I swear”! – from the thirteenth floor of the building while I just watched; somersaults being performed by an elf on the bedroom’s bed…
I also lived a curious and disordered childhood. I remember my first contact with the computer. A fascinating machine, which was highly cherished by my parents, half beige half ice gray. So many letters to be typed on the machine right in front of me. A Mickey Mouse game. At first, I was allowed to use it only under supervision, of course! Although the experience captivated me for a while, it was not enough for me. Thus, it was only after a few months, that I felt the excitement of a new world being opened to me: I was, finally, allowed to use the computer by myself. At that time, I became a little digital artist. I genuinely enjoyed drawing there since I was no longer allowed to hang up my artworks, 16 inches from the floor, on the white walls of the house. Then, one day, I was not able to hang up my artworks nor draw on that fascinating machine anymore. Inside my exceptional creative mind, magically and mysteriously, the Paint toolbox disappeared to never return. Was that a move of the little hunchback who accompanied me? I never saw him, but perhaps he was always by my side…
In my disorder (Benjamin, 1987, 2013) I collected round glass toys, bottle caps, decorated papers that I never had the courage to colour, stickers … I also collected some memories. These memories I carry with me every day. I open them sometimes, in an act of (re)memorization that the city seems to impose on me.
From the drizzling land, I have fragments: an Italian canteen where I used to sing while eating pizza, a dark tunnel that I usually passed through, always carried by my mother’s careful hands, to catch the train. at the weekend, there was the fair, with screaming ladies, men with knives and fish in their hands, the sweet taste of grapes, and skyscraper stalls. A place where I wasn’t able to see great things — such a frustration! There was also the smell of fried pastry, which I always ate with my father, and the cane passed through a machine in which a greenish liquid came out – yuck! During the fair, salespeople who “inspected the lines of housewives who, laden with bags and nets, tried to guide their offspring, were positioned”
In my opinion, Sao Paulo is not a good city to grow up in as a child. It is always grey, filled with parking lots, noise, and a dirty-looking river crossing the city and dividing it in two. Not to mention the frenetic crowd of people in a hurry, always looking tired. This is the type of city that has a rhythm that a child cannot keep up with and would rather not face.
It was a grey and unknown São Paulo that stretched out in front of me in the light of the buildings and illuminated signs.
It was really good every time I and my family would go on a trip to Rio de Janeiro. The road was long, almost endless, but I knew it was leading me to my grandparents’ house. That city was always hot, with the aroma of cake and coffee at my grandma’s; the smell of sawdust, screws to tighten, and fried eggs at grandpas. While that pendulum motion between Rio-Sao Paulo could be tiring for adults, it was the definition of happiness for me. Through the car window, after long periods of sleep, I usually pretended to be watching tv: suddenly a new city appears through this glass screen, revealing a different urban landscape with people in more casual clothes, sitting in conversation. Beach and the noise of the sea!
One day, it became clear to my parents that our home was not São Paulo anymore. Therefore, I “would have to say goodbye for a long time, perhaps forever, to the city where I was born” (Benjamin, 2013, p. 61). But not! This change, for me, was not a bad thing.
This new (not-so-new) city was a mix of a relaxed lifestyle and a typical metropolis frenzy. The farther streets from the centre (where adults worked) were quieter. The friendly and talkative people lived in the simple streets, of common dimensions. These same people had a regular need to find out ways, daily, to deal with a 104ºF heat that made life difficult.
The days only started to get interesting at the end of the afternoon, always after the baker’s announcement, on a bicycle, of warm sweet bread. Finally, it was time to play. On the street, the flip flop served as an imaginary mark for the goal post. When we didn’t want to play football, it was time to dodgeball or play rubber bands. The quiet street suddenly became a war field. One team for each side. Save yourself if you can!
The evenings came slowly and the children were taken to dinner time. After this ritual was over, they all returned to the street. One after one. Chairs placed at the gate, the adults usually sat on a chatting circle. The children, on the other side, sat on the floor playing until the arrival of the horror stories narrated by my grandmother. “Chains that dragged along the walls of the rooms”, “the man with the black bag that passed to take the disobedient ones” and so on… At bedtime “there was no clear separation for me between the world that populated the windows by day and the one that, at night, waited for the right moment to assault me in my dreams” (Benjamin, 1985/1994, p. 195).
If I come back to that place, I suspect that there will be still similar situations/traditions going on. The houses and their balconies serve as a border for the city of Rio. I was introduced to this city through my mother’s hands, whose responsibility was to take me shopping, to the doctor, to the world that reveals itself in the daily chores. Rio de Janeiro is a big city, and the small part that I became familiar with after moving from São Paulo, was part of the new middle class. Organized and clean urban spaces, many trees that cast great shadows on the sidewalks, wide avenues with large houses and some buildings lower than those of the São Paulo capital, balconies with beautiful and fresh curtains, children who left school and went home by car. Impeccable uniforms at the beginning of the day showing, on the returning home, marks of restlessness. Shops with elegant showcases exhibiting fashion and suggesting what ladies and gentlemen should wear.
I didn’t live in Rio de Janeiro shown on the postcards, nor in the violent Rio de Janeiro. I visited it a few times, on very special occasions. Guided by my father, I saw a huge man with arms wide open on the top of a mountain. “It’s Cristo Redentor, daughter”.
In this piece of the city, which I called the “postal piece”, I saw the houses of wealthy people, “mixed” with the simple tiny houses of poor people, crowded on the hills and coloured during the day. At night, you couldn’t see the colors of the houses, they looked more like Christmas lights.Oh, what a wonderful city! Speaking of the Christmas season, this was usually the time of year that I used to visit the seductive and intoxicating postal city. Although I lived in Rio de Janeiro, I only felt like it belonged to me in 1 out of 365 days. On my way towards the “postal piece”, watching the city through my window-screen, this was the time when I saw homeless people, contrasting with the people I was used to dealing with during my ordinary days. That shocked me: how few people can live with so much and many with so little? Strange, wild, and unfair, to say the least, this city dividing its inhabitants in such a deeply (in)visible way. It was only when I grew up, became an adult, and separated from the little hunchback, that I, finally, conquered the postal city. For a short time. I said goodbye to Rio de Janeiro early.
The act of remembering my childhood city in a few words is not easy nor simple. Between the cities of São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, there is only a note of what I forgot. Two large reading rooms, medium for reflection, passages-hypertexts unfolded in the eyes of this child. It is impossible to have linearity in my narrative: a child is distracted by the urban environment created by and for adults.
Among temporal experiences, there are also sensory experiences, a fragmentary memory arose here, in a double act of dismantling-reconstructing the city, which I consider sufficient to (re)open the access to the past. This exercise has its colour and grace: it is, in Benjamin’s way, a possibility to elaborate other futures — urban and personal — besides those that occurred. Thus, we find a new city universe between dreams and daily life.
Childhood has a special taste (and meaning) in our lives. This is a time period in which there is a different reason to live. Between home and the street, dreams and realities of this world unfold in front of us, which we observe carefully/curiously, always accompanied by a little hunchback that destroys the “conquests” of adults.
The monuments and architectures, the sounds and lights, the passages and scenarios are perceived, in this (re)memory, in a double temporal, in an interlacing of past and future, which happens now in the present. In the temporal dynamics of childhood, as portrayed by the German author, there is no linearity, but discontinuity and hiatus. The city is perceived as a labyrinth, a language, a knowledge and turns into an expression of the materialization of history. Not being perceived daily by adults, takes revenge in the present, through childhood memories.
It is worth mentioning that the evocation of childhood is not about verifying the historical materialization in a temporal chronological whole (the child tabula rasa vs. the adult, its improvement). Childhood is here perceived as a power, the centre of historical memory, a (re)appreciation of the creative subject, producer of culture, who offers, through an eye of him or herself as an adult, meaning to the world. Childhood, a place before the word (analysing it by its etymology), then constitutes itself in the moulds of Agamben (2008) and Benjamin’s perception, in an experimentum linguae: one who, being before language, observes the world as such, builds thought as a reflective creative activity. Finally, he understands the city as a medium, an organ that transmits every day, sentient and multiple texts.
I invite you, therefore, to remember and (re)visit: what are the cities of your childhood?
Agamben, G. (2008). Infância e história: destruição da experiência e origem da história. Belo Horizonte: UFMG Editora.
Benjamin, W. (1985/1994). Obras escolhidas I: magia e técnica, arte e política. São Paulo: Editora Brasiliense.
Benjamin, W. (1987). Obras escolhidas II: rua de mão única. São Paulo: Editora Brasiliense.
Benjamin, W. (2013). Rua de mão única. Infância berlinense: 1900. Belo Horizonte: Autêntica Editora.