Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Important events in my life

    There are so many important events in a person’s life that is very difficult to mention just a few. How could I name one event and not mention another one? However, I will try to name the few that certainly changed my life. The first event was the day my father gave me my first notebook. I was seven years old and was eager to write down everything that happened during my day. I became a child that observed more than talked. From then on, barely a day passes when I don’t put some thoughts on  paper. The second event was the day I met my husband. We were just college students interning at the same institution. I never believed in love at first sight until it happened to me. Even before we exchanged our first kiss, I had no doubt we would be together for the rest of our lives. The third event was the day my husband and I moved to California. From that day on, I learned to understand and respect other cultures in a deeper way. The fourth event was the birth of my son, Nicolas. On the day I realized I was pregnant, I became a mother and that changed me even more. I became more patient, more dedicated, and less lazy. Another very meaningful event in my life, until now, was the day my father passed away. His passing has changed the way I look at life. I try to enjoy every day at its fullest: no more sadness, no more regrets, no more harsh words. I laugh more and I don’t complain because every day should feel as good as a vacation day. Therefore, every day should have important events. Even if they are as simple as brushing my son’s hair, cooking dinner, calling my mother, taking a picture with a friend, or saying “I love you” to my husband.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Chico, the monkey

When I was seven years old, my family and I lived in a very big house in the suburbs of Sao Paulo, Brazil. My two sisters and I were fascinated by animals. My parents encouraged us to be loving towards all animals, so they allowed us to have many pets. We had one dog, two turtles, four cats, six chickens, a pair of ducks, eight rabbits, countless birds, and a monkey. The monkey was the most unusual pet I ever had. His name was Chico and he lived on a diet of fruit, vegetables, nuts, and, sometimes, a small cup of milk and coffee. The milk and coffee was a treat my mom would give him, but she would not let us give him any cookies or sweets. My mother gave Chico away one day. An uncle, who lived in the rural area, came to visit and Chico fell in love with him. It was so obvious, we all agreed with my mom. The monkey lived a very happy life and died many years later at my uncle’s house.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

“They've Got an Awful Lot of Coffee in Brazil”

The day of a Brazilian is filled with coffee, figuratively of course. The beverage is not only drunk at breakfast but is also the literal word for breakfast in Portuguese: morning coffee. During the day, people have so many coffee breaks that offices and government departments have a thermal bottle of coffee available for their employees. Having a cup of coffee is not just a habit, it is a social occasion. So, with this cultural background, my first experience at a Californian Starbucks was quite shocking.

Before starting my story I have to say that, eight years ago, when I moved to California there was no Starbucks in Brazil. Our coffee shops are straightforward places where you simply drink a cup of coffee, or espresso, and relax. In Brazil, all the offices and government departments hire an old lady to be in charge of making fresh coffee throughout the day. Meetings, for example, won’t start till the coffee arrives. I remember very well having to wait patiently for the coffee, staring out the window. Everybody at the meeting room would be exchanging half smiles, clicking pens, crossing and uncrossing legs till the coffee arrived. Then, the mood suddenly changed: everybody enthusiastically getting up to go to the coffee tray, taking a cup to their seats, and happily chatting.

The first time I had coffee in the U.S. was on my third day living in California. I barely spoke English, but I was confident enough to order something simple such as a cup of coffee.

I went to a Starbucks and I asked the cashier, “May I have a cup of coffee?”

“Tall, original or short?” He replied.

I had no idea what he was talking about. Surely noticing that I didn’t speak English, he pointed at three different sizes of cups. Well, after all these years living here I still don’t see a “short” cup as a small size. In my opinion, the “short” cup at Starbucks looks like a medium size. So, I pointed to the short cup and paid for it.

When my name was called, I picked up my cup and opened to pour some milk. I immediately felt discouraged. I wasn’t even able to order a cup of coffee in English! Instead, he understood tea and gave it to me. But I felt that I should speak up for myself and fix that situation, even with my poor English. So I went back and said that he made a mistake, because I didn’t ordered tea. I had ordered coffee, of course. Tea sounds completely different, I was thinking. He made a mistake, not me.

The guy looked at my cup and said “That’s coffee.”

“It’s not,” I replied.

Well, we went back and forth a few times. He thought I wanted tea, after all, and showed me a tea bag. I kept repeating the word “coffee” until he showed me where my beverage had come from. Oh, oh… that was really coffee. I sat, took a deep breath and drank: it was disgusting. I felt I was having a tea with coffee flavor; or even worse; it tasted as warm water with something inside. There were no fruity or roasted flavors. There was not even the delicious smell of fresh dripped coffee. I didn’t finish that thing. I just returned the cup and left the place.

I laugh at the situation today, but eight years ago it felt like a big learning experience. My cultural shock involved not only learning a new language but also a new culture. I learned to order my coffee and I no longer miss Brazilian coffee. If you are wondering if I went back to Starbucks, I have to answer no. My favorite place is a coffee shop called “Chromatic” in Santa Clara. There, they serve real coffee.

Friday, November 1, 2013

The Mystery Letter

When my husband and I moved to our current place, everything was brand-new: the community, the house, the furniture, and the appliances. After all, it was a new life. During the walking through, we noticed the empty spaces reserved for the big appliances. There was no washer or dryer - not even a dishwasher. We hadn’t noticed anything strange until the day the fridge was delivered. Then, something quite mysterious came into my view.

The house we moved in belongs to a new community called Mission Gardens. The community has a big courtyard where the children like to run, a beautiful blue swimming pool where ladies like to sunbathe, and a tennis court where old couples like to play. The house itself is not unique or special. It has 3 bedrooms, one used as our office; it has two bathrooms with bathtubs (we couldn’t care less for the bathtubs), and a spacious living room. It’s not unique, but it’s quite comfortable. The office has a calming view to the gardens, which helps to get the work done. Sometimes, I even see mother duck walking with her babies.

On the day we did the walking through, the only things I noticed were the strong smell of wood from the cabinets and the sharp smell of the new carpet. There was nothing else there, besides the chandelier that my husband kept bumping his head on it.

Then we moved in. We hired two strong guys to move the heavy furniture and had the help of some friends carrying the many boxes of books, kitchen utensils and clothes. It was not much, but it was enough for two.

Two days later, I had to stay home to wait for the fridge delivery. Before its arrival, I double checked the empty space and cleaned the floor. Then, I went back to our office to get some work done. I lost track of the time until I heard the doorbell. The fridge had arrived. I opened the door to a humongous smiling boy. His body was of a giant, but his face was of a timid boy; even his voice was quiet. He carried that double fridge by himself. The other guy was just giving instructions on how not to hit the walls. I decided to go back to the office. I didn’t want to be just a nuisance in the middle of the kitchen, but before I left something got my attention. I saw an envelope on the floor where the fridge was supposed to go. Without thinking twice, I got the envelope and went to the office.

A letter? Was that really a letter? The envelope was sealed. How did this letter end up on my kitchen floor? No return address. What is this letter doing here? The postmark was from twenty years ago! Twenty years ago I was 15 years old, living in Sao Paulo and having no idea what I was going to be when I grew up. And now I had a sealed letter from twenty years ago on my hands. I was going to open that letter. I was going to do it as soon as the guys left.

Then, the boy called me. “Madam. I’m afraid there is a problem.” When I got in the kitchen, water was rushing from behind the fridge. A broken pipe. “Let’s shut off the water fast,” I said. There was water everywhere: under the dishwasher, inside the cabinets, in the living room. Oh, my brand new carpet. To tell the truth, after having to clean up everything in the kitchen, I forgot about the letter.

But it was there, on the office table, still sealed. I closed the door and the curtains, turned my phone off, and prepared myself to open that letter. The envelope was yellowish, the stamp was one of “Alice Paul”, and it was bulky. The letter was addressed to Virginia Mcky, 54 Ranch Drive, Santa Clara, CA. There was no return address, not even a sender. My hands were shaking as I was afraid to destroy the letter trying to open it. I had to quickly grab a kitchen knife and then, carefully, cut the envelope.

What I saw blew me away. It was a package of wildlife pictures of birds: a crane, a toucan, an eagle, a kiwi, a flamingo, an owl, a woodpecker, and many others. It reminded me of a kind of international and modern version of “The Birds of America” book. And the letter said:

“Dear Virginia,
I hope this letter finds you well. You can tell I’m writing from Australia right now. The weather here is fine, the people are friendly, and the food is ok. I’m enjoying my work. Australia has such an incredible variety of animals that makes my work seem like a pastime.
I’m sorry for not being direct with you. The truth is that I miss you very much and I wish you had chosen to come with me. Now, we are not just miles apart but it also takes months to hear from you. I’m not even sure if you are getting my letters or if you just don’t want to reply to them.
I understand your brother is mad at me, but I couldn’t help falling in love with you. Please, tell him I still consider him my best friend. I was going to tell him about us before the party, but you were so beautiful I just had to kiss you. It broke my heart that he had to find out about us that way.
Would you reconsider my proposal? What can I do so we can be together? I’m leaving for Japan next week. Below is my new address, so you can write to me there. I will always write to you.
Address in Japan:
23-2-5 Yoyogi. Shinjuku, Tokyo. 100-8994”

Who sent that letter along with those pictures is still a mystery to me. I wish I could have found Virginia Mcky just by googling her. I can’t hire a private detective just to deliver a lost letter (and to amuse my curiosity). If you ever hear about her, please let me know. I still have her letter with me.

Increase in life expectancy: the jump from the Middle Ages to Modern Times

Even though life expectancy is a statistical measurement that varies from country to country and between gender, data shows that it has increased in the last centuries. During the 1600s, for example, life expectancy was an average of 35 years for women and men. On the next two centuries, people lived an average of 20 years more. Nowadays, the average is 75 years for both sexes, according to reports from the World Health Organization. The biggest causes of this increase, over the centuries, are the simplest ones: improvement of water and sanitation, development of agricultural techniques, and basic advances in medicine.

To begin, lack of drinkable water and of sanitation were some of the worst issues causing premature deaths in medieval world. Not everybody had access to fresh water and when they had, it could have been contaminated by human or animal waste. Beer and wine, for example, were drank often because the alcohol contained in such beverages killed all types of germs. The lack of hygiene also caused the spread of many diseases such as cholera, bubonic plague, and diarrhea. So, when water started being treated and sewage was collected and disposed in a safe way, less people died due to lack of sanitation. At the same time, people were improving techniques to transport water through long distances.

Consequently, the combination of potable water and better irrigation systems gave farmers the opportunity to develop agriculture techniques such as the use of water or windmills. These better and stronger mills accelerated the process of grinding grains to make flour, resulting in an ample availability of products made using that ingredient, such as breads, pies, and pottages. One more important example of basic agriculture technology that contributed to life expectancy was the invention of the mechanical seeder, which spread seeds uniformly throughout the land and made the crops bigger, resulting in more produce to be harvested. The more food available, the less people dying from hunger, marasmus, anemia, or other malnutrition related diseases.

Equally, significant advances in basic medicine resulted in the increase of life expectancy. Improvement of childbirth practices, study of anatomy, and the development of vaccines are just a few examples. Physicians relied as much in Astrology as on their limited knowledge of medicine. As artists started to study anatomy to improve their paintings, their drawings also helped doctors and scientists to learn more about the human body. At the same time, the invention of the printing press enabled these drawings to be copied and shared, thus spreading the knowledge of the human body. This awareness facilitated the work of midwives and doctors during childbirth, resulting in less casualties during childbirth. However, babies were not safe from smallpox, measles, or influenza until the invention of vaccines. The discoveries of Louis Pasteur, who was a French chemist, about the causes and prevention of diseases has saved the lives of many people since the 1800s.

As shown above, with all the improvements in water treatment, sanitation, agriculture, and medicine, it isn’t a surprise that we now understand the increase in life expectancy in general.