You may know her as the American college student who writes for Piauí, the Brazilian equivalent of The New Yorker. Or you may know her as the gringa that caused an uproar at Rio's most expensive university with her blog post. Or you may not have heard of her yet, in which case I'm very happy to introduce the immensely talented Flora Thomson-Deveaux.
Flora is a junior at Princeton who is studying abroad in Rio de Janeiro, and is a like-minded gringa fluent in Spanish and Portuguese with a deep and abiding love of Brazil. She's admittedly obsessed with Brazilian music, specifically from the 1920s, which she is researching for school. She's one of those Very Smart People, and her accents in both Portuguese and Spanish are flawless. I spoke to her about how she ended up in Brazil and writing for Piauí, as well as her experiences living in the Cidade Maravilhosa.
Though Flora already spoke Spanish when she began college, she wanted to try something new. Portuguese was the "lazy" choice, she claims, since she found a Portuguese class for Spanish speakers. She began studying Portuguese her first semester at Princeton, but it was much harder than she thought, and she didn't like it much. But the second semester, she took a seminar on Brazilian cinema which she says was "completely infectious," and began to enjoy her Portuguese studies. At the time, there was an author at Princeton working on a Carmen Miranda biography, but she didn't speak Portuguese. After reaching out to the Portuguese department, no one was interested - that is, no one except for Flora. "I was delighted at the prospect," she told me, and despite only being in her second semester of Portuguese, began translating. She was told to do as much as she could, as fast as she could, getting paid an "embarrassingly low sum." It ended up being more an extracurricular activity, since the pay was so meager and she spent so much time on the project, sometimes staying up until 4 in the morning translating. In the end, she ended up translating not one but two Carmen Miranda biographies, including an entire biography written by the former director of the Carmen Miranda Museum, and part of Ruy Castro's Carmen biography. "It took me less than a month," Flora said, "but I basically didn't sleep."
Though she continued her Portuguese studies her sophomore year, Flora wasn't necessarily thinking about going to Brazil. She's headed to Argentina for spring semester abroad, since she loves Borges and had been looking forward to studying literature in Buenos Aires. But her interest in Brazil grew. She covered a Brazilian film festival during an internship as a radio journalist, and found herself trying to improve her Portuguese. She would sit at the Portuguese "table" every week at the Princeton dining hall, and listened to Brazilian music all the time. At Princeton, the Portuguese department emphasizes learning music as a part of learning the language, and Flora says she could sing in Portuguese before she could speak a sentence without stumbling through. She also loves Brazilian film, and devoured the Princeton library's Brazilian movie DVD collection before heading to Rio. During her last semester before studying abroad, she took three Portuguese seminars.
A large part of Flora's fascination with Brazil stemmed from her love of Carmen Miranda and Rio of the 1920s. "She's an acquired taste," Flora admits, and says even now that she finds a few of her songs to be "god-awful." But she's enamored of Carmen. "While translating someone's life from beginning to end, you lose all critical distance," Flora said. "It was total identification." In what she calls an odd, mostly emotional, and slightly incomprehensible relationship with Carmen, she felt like she bonded with her while translating her biography.
So for Flora, coming to Rio for the first time was a dream come true. In her blog, Flora relates part of a dream she had about Rio where she traveled around the city in a streetcar, and fell to her knees, weeping with joy. But Flora knew the city she had fallen in love with was very different from the one where she would be living. "I had this weird emotional attachment to a city that no longer existed," she said, "so I was prepared for pretty much anything." Most of what she knew about modern Rio was from movies, and she came expecting to discover a place that was completely new to her.
Flora arrived in Rio a month early to begin research for one of two of her junior papers, which are basically a practice run for her thesis next year. She has been doing research on popular Brazilian music of the 1920s at the Instituto Moreira Salles, the Biblioteca Nacional, and other institutions, and has recently begun writing her paper. In addition to going to class and studying, she also writes her blog, and occasionally stops in at the Piauí offices. She was excited by the recent talks on Fernando Pessoa and other cultural events throughout the city. Sometimes, she hunts down samba places in Lapa that play "the old stuff" from her favorite time period, or if there's nothing else to do, she'll head to the beach. Also, she started rowing on the lagoon after asking to try a few months ago, despite never having rowed before. Now she rows regularly at 7 in the morning, starting her day by soaking in the stunning views of the city. "I'm like a kid in a candy shop," she told me eagerly. "Rio seems inexhaustible."
Originally, Flora had no intentions of writing professionally while in Rio. She started a personal blog to keep in touch with family and friends at home, and to share her experiences. But one of her former professors at Princeton was reading the blog, and sent her an email telling her that other people would enjoy her writing. "I didn't think people would find it interesting," Flora admits. But her professor insisted it would be great, and asked if she'd like to publish it on a different site. That professor was João Moreira Salles, acclaimed documentary filmmaker and the founder of Piauí magazine. And so Flora began to write for Questões Estrangeiras on Piauí, writing in English with a mixture of Portuguese, as well as the introductory post in Portuguese.
Flora found it easy to adjust to Rio life. When I asked her about adapting to Brazilian culture, or things she found strange, Flora had trouble thinking of ideas. She did find it odd that Brazilians laugh at all kinds of movies, even documentaries or dramas, something she'd encountered in both Miami and Rio. She also was a bit taken aback by the lack of importance (or entire lack) of the family dinner, since growing up in a small town in Virginia, family dinner was sacrosanct. She says not much shocks her, although she was not at all prepared for how bad the Carmen Miranda Museum would be.
In a way though, she was surprised about how she is often viewed as an outsider, even though she feels very much at home. Though she expressed her desire to want to fit in, she lamented that "it's very depressing to think that I'll only ever be taken for a tourist." (In addition to having very pale skin, Flora has red hair, which is not very common in Rio). She avoids really touristy areas so that people won't automatically assume she's a foreigner, but sometimes she'll even get funny looks when speaking Portuguese. People have told her: "tem cara de gringa." (You look like a foreigner) But despite her looks, Flora feels like a native. "As soon as I started to get to know Brazil, I felt as if it was something I already knew...it always felt like a part of me." While writing critically about Brazil on her blog, she later realized she felt she had the imperative because she doesn't feel like an outsider. "I felt Brazilian," she said. "I don't feel like an outsider."
You can tell by talking to Flora of her abiding love for Brazil, and especially Rio. Before moving to the city, she asked around if she would be able to live there without rooting for a local soccer team. She was adamantly told she had to pick a team, and was lobbied by various torcedores. She originally analyzed the teams based on the team preferences of famous authors, but in the end decided on Botafogo. She loves Sérgio Augusto's book Entre o céu e o inferno about the history of the team, which she describes as both heroic and tragic. She rattled off some statistics and anecdotes about the team, and continually referred to the team not as they but as "we." Her first Rio soccer game was a Botafogo game, which they won, but she says she would have decided to root for them anyway. “It's glory and suffering, and you have to embrace both sides.”
While Flora's semester in Rio has been wonderful for Flora, her family did have misgivings about her decision, even though Flora has never felt afraid about living in the city. Her mom watched Notícias de uma guerra particular with her, though Flora tried to convince her that it was already outdated. But her mom was unnerved, says Flora. At a pre-departure meeting at Princeton, a student who had studied abroad in Brazil came to talk about her experience and "warn" her fellow students. "When Brazilians find out you're American, you can practically see dollar signs in their eyes," the girl told them, according to Flora. The girl also told the students to watch movies like Bus 174 and City of God to prepare themselves, and other advice that Flora found "ridiculous, xenophobic nonsense." Flora walked out in the middle of the orientation.
Flora hopes to return to Brazil as soon as she can after finishing her next semester in Argentina. "I'd do pretty much anything humanly possible to move to Rio," she confessed, though she joked not to tell her family, since her grandmother had asked her not to move to Brazil. But it's too late. "I've fallen in love with Rio," Flora said. "It's hopeless."