My Italian father lived in Sao Paolo, Brazil for five years in the 1950s. He was in his early 20s and travelling with a posse from his village scrounging for work. A long way to go for work.
On the eve of his 74th birthday my father found himself wandering through the city, shaking his head in wonder, all over again.
As I saw it, Sao Paolo city centre was a seething mess of people. The city was so big it was too difficult to see the details – just general impressions. To me the city was alive and sharp. We walked along the wide thoroughfare Avenida Sao Joao which swings close by to the impressive city square, Praca di Repubblica. There were shops and opportunistic migrants selling their sunglasses and watches on the street. There were orange overalled cleaners trawling the footpaths and a magazine stand on every corner. Tall slim palm trees stood side-by-side with old fashioned wrought iron street lamps. Banana, mango and pineapple stalls cast a delicious sweet smell and everywhere people, people, people: those who were immaculately dressed with expensive watches, and those without limbs, scraping along on old skateboards.
But to my father the city was sadly empty and vaguely disappointing. He shook his head and painted a different picture for me: in the 1950s Avenida Sao Joao was open to street traffic and on hot summer nights the footpaths pulsed with young people like him chatting, drinking or heading to the popular Marocco cinemas. Too hot and tropical to stay indoors, people spilled out of doorways and wandered aimlessly, happy to be in the company of friends, even if none of them had any money to do anything. The thrum of cars competed with the noise of shouting, laughing and music. I pictured this scene in black and white. I imagined pomade and cigarettes, and crisp, clean shirts, even if the shirt was the only one the wearer owned.
We decided to find the house he had lived in, in a suburb called Barra Funda. My father wandered down the road, eyed his surroundings, crossed a street and smiled: he had found his bus stop and incredibly, the bus he used to take home still made the same journey. Twenty minutes later we find Barra Funda and more dismay. He finds an inner city suburb with empty shopfronts and cheap housing. The corner store no longer exists and again, there is a distinct lack of people. He told me the corner store was the neighborhood hang out and every night the streets had hummed with activity. Now it was looking rundown and tired. No one would hang out on the corner after dark catching up on the daily gossip.
But at number 543 we stop and he smiles again – this is the entrance to his house. Just a white door with decorative iron panels. We were so tempted to ring the door and ask to look around but neither of us had the courage. It was enough just to be there.
He smoked a cigarette and was thoughtful for a moment. I tried to take photos quietly and unobtrusively, of the street, of the surroundings and of my dad. But it felt vaguely like taking pictures of the gravestones at a cemetery.
Back in the city centre, in a crowded corner of the Praca di Repubblica, stands the Edificio Italia. It was built to honour the thousands of Italian immigrants who contributed to the wealth of Sao Paolo and hosts the Circolo Italia – the Italian Club. The foundations of the Edificio Italia, second tallest building in Sao Paolo (46 floors), were being laid just as my father was preparing to leave Brazil. He had always wanted to see the finished product. Now we entered this stylish tower, still modern-looking some 50 years later, and took the elevator to the observation deck. We looked out over 11 million people. Cream, brown and grey buildings as far as the eye could see. Snippets of green but otherwise a vast city in its full concrete, bitumen and plate glass sense.
From this high point of view the city was breathtaking in its own way but not, I would say, beautiful. ‘Overwhelming’ perhaps fits better. Could I imagine arriving as a 20 year old, without knowing the language, without any idea of where to go, who to see and what to do to find work? Without any money, any life experience. Confronted by hundreds, thousands of people and all the associated commerce. It was a sobering thought. Despite the excitement, the thrill of foreignness, of being free from the domestic and sedate life my father had led in a small hillside village, it had to have been terrifying and overwhelming. The pleasure of ogling sophisticated beauties in pencil skirts must have been tempered with nagging thoughts about how he was going to eat the next day.
I quizzed my father – was he disappointed? Perhaps he shouldn’t have come back? There are plenty of schools of thought which tell you, don’t go back, don’t look back.
No, no he wasn’t disappointed. He was melancholy, tired, a little disorientated by the travel. But he was relieved he’d seen Sao Paolo again. It satisfied his curiosity. Perhaps it made his memories far more vibrant and coloured for a moment too.
And now he had a new story to tell of his time in Sao Paolo.