Every Loser Wins (Not Reflections on Nick Berry)

In the last few days, deep into a rather silly card game I was suddenly accused of being too competitive. While admittedly I had almost sunk my claws into a fellow player to lay my card down before theirs and therefore further my aim of winning at least that round, but in fact I was somewhat taken aback by the statement.

I never have thought of myself as being competitive. I think that this largely stems from a childhood that had two main reasons why I never grew up thinking about competition. First I was an only child. As such I did not have to compete for attention or anything else for that matter – although the biologist in me is knocking at the back of my head and reminding me that all offspring compete with their parents if only to maximise attention (versus that attention going elsewhere). Secondly, I was so gloriously unfit and from a household where the only physical exercise came from walking the dog (my job) and mowing the lawn (yes, me again). At school, I was completely used to being humiliated and last at pretty much any physical activity, bar a very brief period around twelve/thirteen where my early onset puberty meant that by sheer size I could compensate for lack of speed on the rugby field sometimes literally crushing the opposition before me. Then everyone else caught up and it stopped being fun again. Therefore, I hated competitive games and saw them mainly as something you needed only to survive them as best that you could.

Even now, while I love my running, I am an antisocial runner and rarely run with anyone. I’m not interested in being faster or going further than anyone else – the only person I am competing with is me.

At primary school, I was often at the top of the class and was accustomed to being the one with the best results. That area of competition soon stopped too when I ended up at Newcastle Royal Grammar where mid table respectability on the academic front suddenly seemed to be my destiny. This was even further emphasized when, after scraping into Oxford, you suddenly realise that everyone is brighter than you. It is quite a shock. You do your best to cope, get a decent degree and reserve any thoughts of competition to the playing of board games; come to think of it even there I can largely recall every single victory as there were so few of them.

Being uncompetitive at games or even at studies is one thing – one is entirely optional fun and the other you can work around usually; when it relates to love, it can be much harder to handle. My initial explorations into the weird and twisty world of romance were an unmitigated disaster. Not content with getting dumped by email after only a few weeks by my first girlfriend, I then managed to waste the next couple of years trying to ‘win her back’.

Yes, I know, I had to learn, OK? I’m not good at letting go.

I made the mistake of thinking that by generally treating her like a princess and generally doing anything she wanted (I hate to even think of the money, time and tears I spent) that I could somehow compete with the succession of boyfriends she went through. Each time she used one up I was convinced that this time it would be different, her eyes would be opened, heavenly music would come down from on high and all would be wonderful again. But no. Another man gets ahead of me – and when that man is at least 20 years older than me, that feels like a punch to the stomach. With a razor-sharp knuckle duster.

It didn’t work in the end of course, almost never does; you cannot make someone love you –  no matter how much you put yourself through in trying to change that someone’s heart. I know this now, but that was a lesson that had to be learned through pain.

So, competitive? Me? Surely not.

Nonsense. Of course, I’m competitive. We all are. We all have egos that we need to feed although we might not think about it consciously. We want attention. We want to be loved. We like to succeed and to win. It feels good and often we get more from the joy of the act of winning then we do from the prise itself. Equally, when we feel we have lost out it can be the worse feeling in the world, especially when what we have lost is something precious.

All we can do is keep competing, enjoy our victories when we have them and hope that at the end of the day we have done better than break even.


Monumental Statements

So, I could not have asked for a larger contrast than Sao Paolo as I was driven from the airport into the centre of Brasilia. As I left Sao Paulo the last of many phases of habitation that surrounded the roads and stretched off into the distances as far as the eye could see was a ramshackle collect of walls and roofs, huddling together for mutual support and I presume sheltering as best they can many, many people.

Around the airport at Brasilia, there was nothing of the sort. Here it was parched park land with palms, new roads with relatively little traffic one them and a feeling of relatively newness; correct considering the Brazilian capitol was only inaugurated in 1960.

As the taxi coasted down the boulevards to the business hotel and meeting rooms that would be this week’s home, I noticed that the main road thoroughfare seemed to be closed to traffic – this was a Sunday – and instead populated by a smattering of walkers, joggers and people on bikes. Compared the hustle and bustle of Sao Paolo it all seemed very quiet and sedate, and largely proved to be over the coming days, at least in comparison – although crossing Brazilian roads is still an exercise in speed, courage and possible the odd prayer at times depending on just how many lanes you must scamper across.

In retrospect, I would summarise the difference between the two cities as being wrapped up in what they are about. As noted last week, Sao Paulo seems to me a place where the most important thing are the people who live there themselves. In the case of Brasilia, it is not about individuals or the mass of humanity, but about how Brazil wants to project itself and its institutions. If you look up any of the buildings – most designed by the architect Oscar Niemeyer – they are indeed impressive, even if you do not happen to be a fan of concrete. They are making bold statements and in most cases, at least adhere to my personal view that functional buildings do not (and should not) be boring. Though it was hard at times to get away from influences of the period in which they were designed – on of my favourites, the National Museum Honestino Guimaraes, to my reckoning does look like a spaceport as imagined perhaps in a post Star Wars cheap rip off. Nothing wrong with that, by the way. Next to it, the cathedral is a stunning piece of work, causing you to enter down a dark tunnel only to emerge into a huge light auditorium where monumental metal angels cascade down towards you in a scene reminiscent of many medieval ceiling paintings.

There was a second thing that in Brasilia struck me as different from Sao Paulo. In the latter, I was forced to spend most of my exercise time on treadmills as the part of the city I was in was not conducive to running. In Brasilia, the city park, a huge parched thing provided ample (if hot) opportunity for slow jogging. For me, having to go slow by necessity of the conditions had the advantage of allowing me to see many of the diverse bird species that share the park, from little ovenbirds, flycatchers, caracara or my personal favourite, the incredible cute burrowing owls. The zoologist in me was worried that I was not going to experience any of Brazil’s wildlife, but while it was not exactly a trip down the Amazon, at least it was a nice taster. So, Brasilia, for me, not about the people, but about the country and the identity it would like to project, set in a landscape while the owls look on unimpressed before vanishing down a burrow.

More Than The Sum Of Its Parts?

I have had the bonus of being sent to Brazil in the last few weeks for business meetings. There are some advantages to working for an international company. The meetings I am attending are/were – I am still here as I write – in Sao Paolo and Brasilia. The cities could not be more different based on my admittedly limited experience when I have could escape from my hotel and while both places have problems as far as I am concerned there have been things to enjoy. I feel the need to share impressions of both, starting with the better known.

First a bit of personal background. I have never been to anywhere in South America or Brazil before so this was all new to me and I was not entirely sure what to expect. In the back of my head I was wondering if my brief experience of the Philippines (a couple of days in Manila) might be somewhere near the mark due to there also being a mix of historical European influence mixed with something indigenous and unique and I think there were a few things that struck me as similar. But I certainly found lots of things that were new to me.

Sao Paolo is a mass of humanity. Apparently, it is the largest city in the Southern hemisphere and I can quite believe that. As I arrived and the pick-up took me to the hotel the city seemed to sprawl around me, starting out with very low grade housing and gradually getting more substantial as you approached the centre. It was very clear to me from the outset that poverty is rife here and over the time I was there the number of people who were living on the streets was much higher than I had experienced before and was quite effecting. When you walk through London you see plenty of homeless people admittedly, but here it was groups and on every corner, especially in the old centre of the city, which is naturally where I gravitate towards considering my interest in history. The centre did not disappoint me. There was no particular thing that I would point to – the massive cathedral, while impressive, is relatively modern, and the little seventeenth century church nearby, which was empty and quiet was far more memorable. But I enjoyed walking around the city very much and I was wondering why until it dawned on me that it was not the buildings, but the people. The sheer number of people, the noise and kerfuffle, from the hosts of young people twittering around to the shouts and the whistles of the men trying to persuade drivers to park in their specific private garage (it took me a while to work out what all the shouting was about). The atmosphere is rich, even if parts of the city are not. I also found most of the people to be friendly and helpful. This is a place where people live – which was quite a shock when I got to Brasilia, but more on that next week.

The one concern was that I felt I was getting wall to wall warnings on the levels of crime and petty theft from everything I read or everyone I spoke too; and to be blunt, it is overkill. Of course, you need to apply common sense and be aware of what is going on around you, but in public areas I do not think the risk is much more than in parts of London. In fact, I am probably more at risk back home due to complacency through familiarity. Most people, no matter how poor they are, are decent and not a threat. At times, I was too much looking over my shoulder having had the risks drummed into me to fully enjoy the experience of this city, which is a shame. But in the end as I flew to Brasilia it was the overall impression of a place, rather than a specific monument or site that would remain with me.


Roads Well Trodden

I do like to walk and while I am away in Brazil at this moment long walks with the Lovely Wife are something I definitely miss a lot. I can and will walk – I need to keep the level of physical activity up, and sometimes (as now, in Sao Paulo) the place you are in does not support running and I detest treadmills so avoid them at all possible. At home, there are advantages to spending a lot of time wandering around where you live, and investigating those footpaths between houses that you had not really noticed before. It provides a certain kind of delight to realise how sometimes they all connect up with each other or provide short cuts to going via the road, one things footpaths should always do is give the pedestrian an advantage over the vehicle in getting to the final destination in as short and as sneaky a way as possible. It also helps me build a network of traffic avoiding runs (much more pleasant and indeed safer) and finally allows you to better understand where things are in relation to each other, which can be helpful even if you are driving, especially in a town where some or other part of it seems to be constantly being dug up, accompanied by the joys of the four-way light control.

Outside your normal sphere of influence however something more circumspect is probably needed for people like me who have a tendency to saunter innocently through neighbourhoods with an air of genuine curiosity without much thought about the fact I’m an obvious British tourist (something which I believe is quite clear even from a distance) and that there are some places that curiosity is not actually very welcome. There have been times when I have been happily striding along and then stopped looking at the architecture and realised that what would be the most sensible thing would be to walk a little faster and more determinedly to remove myself from a situation that suddenly made me feel vulnerable and a little nervous. You probably know that feeling; you might not actually be in any danger but you are suddenly ‘out of place’ so the little alarm bell in the back of your head tells you to get a move on.

Most of the time my walks have been entirely positive. Recent wanders around Singapore (slow ones; we adopted the moniker ‘Singapore stroll’ to describe the slightly more careful stride a cold loving boy from Northern England should employ to survive in that constant heat and humidity). When I was in Japan many years ago I  walked for miles in loops from train stations and was amazed at how quickly with some of the smaller towns twenty minutes of solid walking got you away from the concrete and technology and threw you back a hundred year or so, with older ladies quietly working their paddy fields as this slightly weary Westerner walked past soaking the atmosphere up, only to mutter something under his breath after a bit of watch checking and suddenly hightail it back the way he had come, as the one drawback for being on foot is that quite often it talked that bit longer to get anywhere than perhaps you thought it would; to be avoided where at all possible, as let’s be honest, a forced march to catch the last train is never as much fun as a steady relaxed walk.