Since Julia Michaels started RioReal blog last August, the blog has become a great source of the latest news from Rio in both English and Portuguese, as well as analysis of Rio politics and current events. I decided to find out more about this Rio gringa and her experience in the Cidade Maravilhosa.
How did you originally end up in Rio? What was it like for you in the beginning?
I first moved to São Paulo, in 1981, a newlywed-- married to a Brazilian I'd met in grad school in the U.S. We moved to Rio in 1995. I had been here as an exchange student in 1978, living in Barra with a family-- where there was nothing except the round church and some low buildings by the beach-- and a lot of motels. I got here two days before the 1978 World Cup, having never heard of it. I got up to speed fast, over a feijoada that some people served to me at their kitchen table before the first Brazil game, and then sat down only to watch me eat! I loved Brazil immediately and knew I'd be back, somehow. Now it's so familiar that it's hard for me to imagine how it seems to a first-time visitor.
What made you decide to make your life and raise your family in Rio?
My now ex-husband's job brought us to Rio. Our twins were ten and the youngest was five. They were furious about leaving São Paulo, but soon picked up the accent. But they're still São Paulinos... By the time we got here I had stopped working as a journalist and was writing fiction at home in my mothering-free time. Rio is such a rich subject; I was happy to be here and write about it. I wrote a novel (Stowed Objects May Have Shifted) which I'll soon be looking for an agent for, about the "disappeared" Praça Onze, which is where the samba was born in 1916 and is also where the first Jewish immigrants went to live. I'm now finishing up a memoir set here, Single in Rio, City of Love. The title says it all. I should add that I feel at home in Brazil because the emotional-- relating to other people-- is given more value here than in the U.S. in general, and this suits me.
What kind of work have you done in Brazil, both jobs and volunteer work? Do you have a favorite non-profit or community group?
My only "real" job here was as foreign non-fiction editor at Editora Objetiva, from 2005 to 2010. I acquired foreign books and shepherded them through the translation and entire production process, including cover creation and flap copy. I loved the job and learned tons, including how to write in Portuguese. My claim to fame is that I bought Eat, Pray, Love for Brazil before it was big in the U.S. or anywhere else. It's still a bestseller in Brazil, as is Liz Gilbert's followup book, Committed. I was active in my neighborhood association in São Conrado and a founder and board member of CDI, an early NGO that sets up computer schools in low-income communities. I'm particularly interested now in entrepreneurship and microcredit, key to Brazil's continued growth. And yes, working with Comer, Rezar, Amar inspired my memoir!
A blog seems to be a natural project for you to share first hand news and perspectives from Rio. What do you hope to accomplish with the blog?
For the last couple of years I began to feel an itch to be directly involved in the life of the city, whose woes and joys I had long been tracking. When the Olympics were announced I could see we were entering a magical moment, a one-time opportunity. I wanted to help make sure the changes under way would last, would bear a legacy. A friend happened to say that the most important dynamic is that people know about the changes, approve of them, and want them to last. That was when I remembered I'd once been a journalist (In São Paulo, I'd freelanced ten years, for The Christian Science Monitor, Advertising Age and The Wall Street Journal, among others), and knew how to contribute to what my friend was talking about. I quit my publishing job and started the blog last August. It's more successful and necessary than I'd imagined. It's more than a full-time job. And I need funding! As soon as I finish my memoir I'm going to find some.
In your opinion, what is the biggest challenge for Rio and how do you think it can be tackled?
I think it's two things: that people learn to trade in their allegiance to small interest groups, for the greater good; and that people learn to work towards an external standard of excellence, instead of tailoring their efforts to each particular set of circumstances and demands. These are actually challenges for all of Brazil, not just Rio de Janeiro. And I believe that the learning can be helped along by way of both positive and negative reinforcement, from government, employers and schools.
What is one thing you wish more people knew about Rio?
That it may be carefree and funloving, but that it's a serious city with serious work to achieve... so you shouldn't pee in the street!!! Can you tell my Carnival panic is setting in?