About 150 years ago, Charles Dickens wrote, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times . . . . ” Today his words still ring true. He must have known the power of his words since he chose them as the very first line of one his most famous novels. In that opening sentence of A Tale of Two Cities, Dickens continues with a series of contradictions in one long sentence, including “. . . we had everything before us, we had nothing before us . . . . ”
I was reminded of this extraordinary opening sentence while contemplating these last days before the Olympics begin. Although most people enjoy the Olympics, Brazil is mired in corruption scandals, a sinking economy, and rising unemployment. Every day there are articles describing another Olympic-size disaster waiting to happen. A sailor practicing before the Olympics in Guanabara Bay crashes his boat into a submerged couch. Several people try to steal and/or extinguish the torch as it makes its way around the entire country on foot.
Even those of us who rarely watch sports, love the Olympics. What makes the Olympics so exciting? It may be the only time husbands and wives together share the same couch and enjoy sports on TV. As an old tagline from a US network sports show noted: “It’s the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.”
There is so much at stake in the Olympics that we can’t help but marvel at the spectacle, the tales of endless training, the tears on the medal podium. The stories of triumph are overwhelming, and it’s the only time we see an honest emphasis on women in sports. The human interest stories of athletes and their families fill the endless hours of TV broadcasting for the entire two weeks and the weeks leading up to the opening ceremony as well.
Some athletes are setting records simply by appearing, such as swimmer Michael Phelps, who will be in Rio for his fifth Olympics, having just turned 31 years old. There’s the track star, Aries Merritt, who won a gold medal as a sprinter in the London Olympics, then later had a kidney transplant, and now will return for the Rio Olympics.
This leads me back to the Dickens sentence. Can there be a better setting for contradiction than the beauty of Olympic hopefuls coming to Brazil? The world’s finest athletes will gather in the same place, a city full of corruption and poverty, in a country a few days away from a vote to impeach the president.
Dickens knew what he was talking about – it is the best/worst of times. So how are we to fathom such contradiction, this obvious incongruity? To quote another writer in English, Scott Fitzgerald: “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.” What Fitzgerald pictured as the strength of the human imagination, Dickens translated into political history. Contradiction is no stranger in our lives; in fact, the Chinese have been talking about it for thousands of years using the image of the tao – the circle of black and white that symbolizes male/female.
What is fascinating is how often bleak, bizarre, and amazing contradictions enter everyday life here in Brazil. For example, one of the first things any travel guide exclaims to would-be travelers coming to Brazil is the lack of timeliness. How do you run a country where nothing happens on time? Appointments rarely adhere to a rigid schedule. For people accustomed to punctuality, this can be a problem. However, the first rule of travel is adaptability and that means respecting other cultures; travelers and expats should adapt to their new surroundings.
The big surprise for me came once I’d learned how not to be on time. Suddenly, I realized how refreshing a change that is. My slavery to the clock melted away, like the famous Salvador Dali painting. The bizarre reality I discovered is tardiness has its advantages; namely, it’s impossible to be late. And when I am late, there’s no need to apologize. If I arrive 15 minutes late for an appointment with a Brazilian and apologize, he won’t know what I’m apologizing for. No more sweating it out in a traffic jam or a bus delay, sending messages to report my progress. I’d learned my first lesson in Brazilian contradiction – tardiness has its pluses!
I have since discovered another lesson in accepting contradictions, through a Brazilian trait that is much talked about these days of Olympic preparations – the neglect for advanced planning. A Brazilian family will not know what day they are leaving on a vacation or where exactly they will be staying. However, I’ve learned that when children grow up this way and accept it as normal, as adults they don’t stress over travel details. No one cares if the destination changes at the last minute because of a weather problem. There is a great deal to be said for playfulness and spontaneity, especially in the pursuit of fun and relaxation.
What I perceive now is, if we expect everything to run like clockwork, we’re going to freak out when faced with a long, unexpected security line at the airport. My suggestion is that we apply this attitude shift of lowering our expectations to the coming Rio events. If we expect perfection, we’re going to be disappointed, but if we expect disaster at the Olympics and there are only minor hiccups, then what a glorious experience it will be.
Brazilians are the masters of low expectations because they were never taught, like Americans, that they have a constitutional right to happiness or luxurious vacations in Europe. They don’t expect to drink the tap water in their homes. If they are lucky enough to travel abroad, when they check into a hotel in the US or Europe, they ask if they can drink the water. If I ever write a novel and need a big Dickensian opening line, it will be: “Expect the worst and you’ll be delighted when it doesn’t happen.”
Living with contradictions is not a new experience, as we know from Dickens, etc. Yet, it seems today we face new vistas in Brazil when it comes to living amid “two opposed ideas.” What travelers sense is that cultures are different in ways more fundamental than we had imagined. I expected to get lost in the Portuguese language when I first came to Brazil, but I never expected to grasp the joys of contradiction.
Now that I’ve learned to embrace contradiction for its ability to instruct, I see other levels of inconsistency that are not exclusive to Brazil. For example, while some people believe computers are having a negative effect on our lives, they are also the haven and heaven for all of us information hoarders. We can save every photo we take, every interesting article we read.
Thus, for us information lovers, what could be greater than the Internet. For 5 reais per month, I can store all my emails forever. What could be more liberating than knowing it’s impossible to be late. Yes, these are the worst of times for Brazil’s political and economic stability, but if nothing disastrous happens at the Olympics, oh what a joy. It could be the best of times, like a dream where you find yourself young again.
B. Michael Rubin is an American living in Curitiba.