Postcard from… São Paulo

Too crowded. Too polluted. Too dangerous. Just a few of the immediate reactions I get from people when I tell them I live in São Paulo, a city of some 19 million inhabitants spread over 2,000 sq km.

In defence of my adopted home, I should first say that a crowd is much easier to take when the people are smiling, that bright sunshine goes a long way to mitigate haze and that violent crime rates have dropped significantly over the last several years. Beyond those basic rejoinders, it often surprises non-Brazilians to learn that, as the largest city and the business and financial capital of Brazil, São Paulo is also without doubt the most cosmopolitan city in the country and arguably in South America. It boasts impressive architecture, a vibrant culture and arts scene, and restaurants and nightlife to compete with most major cities around the world.

I make my home in Sumarezinho, a quiet residential enclave running along the top of São Paulo’s highest ridge and sandwiched between the neighborhoods of Pacaembu, home of the legendary Corinthians football club, and trendy Vila Madalena, teeming with shops, bars and restaurants. While I could live comfortably within walking range, like most Paulistanos, I go near and far by car.

Although I have now lived in São Paulo for almost a dozen years, I only recently moved up to Proskauer Rose – up river and upstairs. My corner view from the 17th floor of our offices in Vila Olimpia, a new business area carved out of one of Brazil’s famous favelas, not only confirms the sheer magnitude of São Paulo but also provides a spectacular collage of the city. On a clear day, amid swirling helicopters, I can see boldly designed office towers, exclusive shopping centres, multi-million dollar residences, the Jockey Club and green parks. All of this is juxtaposed with the still fetid Pinheiros River, lined with a dozen lanes of often idle traffic and the stubborn remnants of urban slum life.

In the ever evolving São Paulo, Vila Olimpia is but one of several commercial areas that is also becoming mixed-residential. With many other law firms and clients located here or in the not distant Berrini, Faria Lima and Paulista business areas, and many of the city’s most interesting restaurants and bars located in Vila Olimpia itself, or in nearby Itaim and Vila Madalena, it is not uncommon to spend the working week moving, albeit slowly, within a relatively small area of the city.

São Paulo has an extremely wide range of options when it comes to eating out, in part due to the large numbers of immigrants who have settled and built up communities in the city over the years – Japanese, Italian, Lebanese and other international restaurants sometimes seem to outnumber their Brazilian counterparts. Even in the more traditional Brazilian restaurants, menus are varied as a result of the diversity of ingredients and cooking styles found throughout the different regions of the country. Personal favourites include Jam Warehouse for its mix of sushi, art and music, Filipa for its eclectic cross of Thai and Bahian cuisine, Le Tartine for its authentic bistro atmosphere and tiny Tenda do Nilo for its home cooked Arab delicacies. Visitors to the city often appreciate upmarket churrascarias, or all-you-can-eat meat restaurants, such as Fogo do Chão, or restaurants with stunning views of the city, such as Skye or Terraço Itália.

Paulistanos have a reputation within Brazil for working too hard and being incapable of enjoying life. While the first part of the stereotype may be accurate, the second part is more difficult to understand. Come nightfall, Paulistanos rock, samba, forro and anything else that lets them move to the music. Evening may commence with dinner or a show at one of Sao Paulo’s large number of theatres, galleries, cinemas or concert halls, which together display a broad mix of national and international arts. Then its on to a bar, such as Bardot, Aurora and São Bento, that are packed from the early evening with people enjoying an after-work chopp, or draught beer, but who give way as the night goes on to a more glamorous crowd dropping by to sip a caipirinha cocktail before moving on to their club of choice.

Traffic in São Paulo is a serious issue and any journey can test one’s patience. Red lights, stop signs, marked cross walks and even bridge clearance notices seem to be treated as suggestions only. Meetings scheduled for first thing in the morning are often delayed as one or more of the participants are held up in the chaos produced by an overturned tanker truck or an aggravated fleet of motoboys. But the working day in São Paulo tends to finish a little later than in many other cities around the world, and it is not uncommon to be stuck in heavy traffic at 9 o’clock at night. Just to comfort you, the latest traffic information, including the total number of kilometers of gridlock on the city’s roads, is constantly being broadcast on elevator panels, roadside electric signs, TV and radio news channels.

Given the pace of life in the city, it is no surprise that many Paulistanos, myself included, opt to escape for some peace and quiet at the weekend, with the majority heading for either the nearby beach resorts or the rural interior of the state. The 60km trip to the coast can provide a scenic several-hour journey on holiday weekends. I myself head inland most weekends to my farm near Porto Feliz, tending my orchard, with more than thirty types of fruit tree, and my herds of sheep and goats. My pride and joy is Galego, Brazil’s Grand National champion Anglo Nubian who, in a miracle of scientific indiscretion, is now the father of some 20,000 kids across five countries.

Once the harsh cold of the Brazilian winter sets in, as now, the mountain resort of Campos de Jordão beckons all. With average temperatures plummeting to 12°C, Paulistanos can wrap themselves up tightly, sip hot cocoa and wander around the faux alpine village. Having grown up in northern Canada, I am often asked if I miss the cold and snow. In the words of that famous Brazilian, “Deus me livre!”