The front desk clerk looked at me sympathetically, shot out in Portuguese “Sim, tudo bem,” and got right to work. I had come to her that morning with a torn 50-real bill and asked her to tape it back together. I thought it would take a minute. She thought otherwise.
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First of all she looked for the right adhesive tape, the most transparent possible, which took a good few minutes. Then she took scissors, made a careful 2-centimeter incision and taped it. Then another small bit. And another and another, cut and tape, cut and tape, until I nearly lost my mind. I wanted to give up. I tried to take back the bill, but she smiled and went on. It took for-e-ver. At least it felt that way. In the end the bill was taped together, but the bus to the Olympic park had left. Without me.
The clerk was not an exception. That’s the norm in Brazil. Everything is slow, patient, without a hurry. And with horrific inefficiency. And so, not surprisingly, when the organizers advised us to head for the airport five hours before the flight, we did so. I got to the airport and stood immediately at the end of a huge line for Iberia airlines.
I stood helpless, expecting the worst, until a young woman came up to me and asked politely: “Would you like to take advantage of your privilege?” What privilege, I asked her. “Your age,” she replied. I quickly came to my senses and answered, “Yes.” She took me out of the line, bypassed it, something like half a kilometer, and brought me straight to a special clerk, before whom the line consisted of one silver-haired man. That was it. Instead of four hours, I waited four minutes. So who says there are no advantages to getting old?
The Brazilians take all work seriously. You see the street cleaners, for example, sweeping up every leaf, without skipping a single cigarette butt. When traveling by car you’re amazed by road workers who repair potholes in the most thorough way possible. And every group has its own uniform, with work boots and hard hats — the exact opposite of the slovenly Israeli laborer, who does things approximately, comes to work in sandals — and gets hurt.
The many soldiers that were stationed along the road to give Olympic Games tourists a sense of security (it worked), also manned their posts with all due seriousness. A military vehicle stood at the ready with four soldiers in the front and two in the back, weapons drawn. Nobody rested. Nobody chatted. The opposite of the Israeli army.
I returned to Israel only on Thursday, because I chose to stay another day in Rio to enjoy it like an ordinary tourist: Sugarloaf Mountain, Corcovado, a tour of the downtown. I arrived at the center, and then, to my great dismay, I found the streets empty. Everything was closed, even the markets. It turned out that the mayor had declared the day before that this would be a special day off at the end of the games, to celebrate Brazil’s 19 Olympic medals.
And that’s the difference between them and us. There, they live in open-hearted fun, always celebrating. Here, we run around tight-assed, trying to get as much as possible and never satisfied.
And maybe that because of our existential situation. No enemy threatens Brazil, so they can allow themselves to chase after the good life. Here the threats are many and war has been going on for 100 years, so we’re busy protecting our lives, not our quality of life. They are normal. We’re not.