Tuesday, April 24, 2012

paranoia and the expat

Ay.  What a day.  Actually, a week.  Here's the story.

I work one day a week at a campus that is about a 40 minute drive outside the city.  Last year I started the year by driving, but quickly realized that the roads were sooooo crappy (think big trucks, heavy rains, and minimal road repair) that it was not worth adding more grey hairs to my head.  I was able to carpool with a group of teachers.  But this year, for various reasons, the carpool doesn't really exist.  At least a convenient carpool.  So I've been trying to figure out how to get to work without spending too much time (taking the bus) or without going thru too much hassle to meet up with other teachers to get to work.  Each week there are always various factors that affect my decisions regarding transportation.  And I'll admit, I've driven a few times.

A week and a half ago,  I drove.  I was having a great time, belting out "All We Need is Love" by the Beatles, puttering along in my VW Beetle.  Feeling so 1973.  And then I heard a VERY loud noise.  I was almost on the exit for the school, so I kept driving, but midway thru the exit I realized that I had a flat tire.  I almost freaked out right then and there, thinking "I AM IN A FOREIGN COUNTRY WITH A FLAT TIRE, 40 MINUTES FROM REAL CIVILIZATION."  But I was able to calm myself down, pull over, and start changing the tire.  Granted, I haven't changed a tire in almost 20 years, but darn it all, I was going to try.  And I actually got the car jacked up pretty good (like, on the jack, not messed up).  But thankfully a very kind man named Julio stopped and took over.  He changed my tire and also managed to make me feel very wonderful about being a) a teacher b) a native English speaker and c) someone who can play the guitar.  Wow, thanks Julio for changing my tire and giving me an ego boost!  The spare was a little low, so I drove to the nearest gas station to fill it up.  The guy at the gas station told me that my spare had a leak.  He filled up the spare to 30 psi (even thought I was pretty sure that I'd been told 24 was okay), and within 30 seconds it lost 2 psi.  He convinced me to leave the car there so that I could come back after work, refill the tire (that would be flat by that time) and drive to the closest tire repair shop.  I then walked to school, and even managed to make it to class ON TIME.  Yes, I am that awesome.

After work, I walk back to the gas station, and what do you know?  The spare tire is NOT flat.  He insists on refilling it up, and of course it loses 2 psi in 30 seconds, and at that point I was pretty sure that he really knew nothing about tires, and I'm just thankful that he didn't blow up my remaining tires!  I made it back to BH, picked up the kids from school and got home.   I then got the chance to look closely at the tire, and saw that I had hit something pretty serious, and ripped a big hole in the tire.  But I had to at least try to see if it could be repaired.

I went to the neighborhood tire repair shop, and was kindly informed it was a lost cause.  Then began my search for a good price on tires.  I went back to the place where we had purchased 2 new tires back when we bought the car, and the prices had gone up almost R$50 a tire!!!  I called around, but found pretty much the same price.  And of course, because the tires were used (not that much, but enough to count), I had to buy 2 new tires instead of just one.  This stupid drive to work was starting to get really REALLY expensive.

So I finally scheduled the time to get the new tires.  And that was today.  I took the car.  No problem.  The shop even called to tell me there was an issue with some machine and my car would be ready later than they had told me (that NEVER happens!  Usually I have to call the shop and harass them to find out when my car will be ready).  Finally, they call and say everything is ready.  I went to pick up the car, pay my hefty bill and leave.  But then I realized that I'd forgotten to check the spare, and make sure that they'd traded the old tire with the hole for the old "good" tire.  I pulled over a block away from the shop, and saw the old, holey tire.  So I went back and explain what I need.  And then this guy shows up holding a tube, and says that the tube has a hole so they can't give me a good spare.  But what happened to my two good tires?  The old tires that you just took off?  I went back and forth between the secretary and the grease monkey and I just didn't get it.  At that point, I should have called my husband to get his help with Portuguese and even to help me think rationally here.  The grease monkey said he would see if he could get a new tube and they would call me.  And I drove away.  And I felt this increasing sense of dread.  How was is that I drove into the shop with 4 decent tires, but then bought 2 new tires and drove away with only 4 good tires?  I should have gone back to the shop and tried to clarify things.  But instead I went to the grocery and then home.  By then I was feeling really crappy.  So finally I told my husband, and of course he was mad that they had put a hole in the tube (that was the only conclusion I could come to based on what they were telling me) and we were going to have to pay for yet one more thing. 

He called the secretary to ask how they were going to fix this problem that they created, and she was really rude to him, and then he got really frustrated.  He said that he was not going to let them take advantage of us, and we had to go back there and figure out how they were going make this wrong right.  In the process of driving back, we found out that they had broken the handle on the driver's side door that had just been repaired.  I didn't notice it when I went to the store because I was so upset about the tire problem.  Ug.

We get to the shop, and the secretary is still trying to talk over my husband, and is not listening to anything he's saying.  Finally the manager comes out, and explains.  All the tires have tubes.  Old tires.  New tires.  They used the old tubes (which were still good) with the new tires.  They didn't make any holes in any tubes.  The grease monkey was talking about the repairing the tube in the tire that I had put a hole in.


And he would fix the door handle.  He apologized about it, and was quite nice, even though we got all worked up about it.

So essentially I made a big mess of things by not understanding Portuguese.  And I realized, that we are still in the paranoia stage of being expats.  We still are very quick to assume that people are trying to trick us, take our money, and essentially use jeitinho to take advantage of us.  The blog that I linked to defines "jeitinho" as personal benefit or advantage that is detrimental to the benefit or advantage of others.  

It's tricky in Brazil, because jeitinho is alive and real.  Not a day goes by when I don't encounter it (either attempting to use it, or being it's "victim").  So it's easy to quickly jump to the conclusion that someone is trying to pull the wool over my eyes.  But there's also the reality that we are foreigners in a foreign land, with still a very limited understanding of social norms, culture, language and the many, many nuances of communication.  When I don't understand how something works, it's tempting to make a quick judgement that I'm being made fun of, and that my lack of understanding gives the person I'm interacting with full license to "get" me.  It's hard to be vulnerable.  It's hard not having the tools of language and culture.  It's hard to not understand.  And it's hard to live in a place where people can maneuver their way into benefits without following the rules (my rules?  North American rules?  Just who is making these rules...)  But somehow we've got to hold in balance the reality of jeitinho and our assumptions.   Like when it seems like someone is charging us too much for an inferior productOr convincing us to do something that we don't wantOr giving us the raw end of a deal.  Hmmm....

But my moral to my story is, if I don't understand, keep asking until I do.  And maybe try not to jump to conclusions so quickly, and then drag my unsuspecting husband into the paranoia as well.


  1. Sounds like an annoying experience but at least it worked out in the end. As far as I know, modern tyres on modern wheels don't have tubes any more but if you drive a Beetle, I guess that comes with the territory.

  2. I think you are not out of bounds to assume that commercial offices will try to pinch a bit more from you. Lead with your husband´s fluency.

    I feel your pain!

  3. Sorry you had to go through all that! I'm really impressed that you a) didn't completely panic when you realized your tire was flat b) attempted to change it yourself and c) could analyze your own potential judgement and paranoia and recognize it for what it could be. Way to go!
    And thanks for sharing yet another fascinating story from Brazil. Love it!