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Foreign Correspondent

Being the Ongoing Tales, Triumphs, Struggles (mostly struggles) and Occasional Adventures of Freelance Foreign Correspondent Shawn Gerald Blore, based in Rio de Janeiro

Thursday, December 07, 2006

DIY, Slavery, and the esoteric joys of owning a home

Here is Rio I recently bought a house, and have discovered as all homeowners have throughout recorded history, owning a home is mostly a matter of buying things and fixing things. According to my older home-owning brothers, this is not a process that never ends, entropy of course being ceaseless. But engaging in the traditional home-owning duties presents particular challenges in Brazil.

Brasil is not a land of do-it-yourselfers. It’s another of the perverse legacies of slavery. In the Iberian tradition there was no premium put on personal competence, and no Protestant valuation of honest labour with one’s own hands. On the contrary, the work of mere mechanicals was seen as degrading, as beneath the dignity of a fidalgo. And all this was back in Portugal.

In Brazil, according to Boxer and Roberto Mattos and others who’ve written on the colonial Brazil, even competent Portuguese craftsman – blacksmiths, brickmakers, carpenters – would within a year or so of their arrival on these shores have bought a couple of slaves and ceased all work with their hands.

In Para, where Africans were unavailable, the settlers resorted to long expeditions up the Amazon to capture and enslave native Indians. The Jesuits, who were attempting to convert and settle the Indians, complained about the raids on their missions, but the colonists responded in genuine bafflement that they simply had no alternative. The Jesuit fathers reply that they could always do the work themselves made them no friends. Indeed, the outraged letters of protest back to Lisbon at this outrageous suggestion contributed directly to the expulsion of the Society of Jesus from all Brazil in the late 1700s by the Marques de Pombal.

Slavery was abolished here in 1888, but thanks to a vast underclass labour remains so cheap, and the subtle social injunction against manual labour so strong, that few men in the mostly white Brazilian middle class know one end of a socket wrench from another. Most don’t even own a decent set of tools.

Things are different where I come from of course, where the ancestral ideal is Jefferson’s hardy yeoman farmer, capable of growing grain, brewing beer, splitting rails and crafting solid lasting furniture, all from his own lands, all with his own hands. On my Canadian side the ancestral archetype is actually the protestant Scots farmer, too damn cheap to hire someone when he could just as well fix it himself; either way, knowing your way around a tool set is highly valorized.

I’m not a complete captive of my upbringing. I will hire others to do work I could do, if it saves me time I could put to use on my writing. But that too presents challenges in Brazil.

For example, upon moving out of my apartment, I was required by my lease to have the place repainted. Fine. It’s a two-bedroom apartment, 1000 square feet, and a friend of a wife’s who lives in our local favela put me in touch with his brother-in-law who said he could do the job for R$700 (US$315), paint and supplies included. Considering the paint costs about R$250/US$110, I thought this a pretty good deal. The painter had a partner. I reckoned it would take the two of them about 2 and a half days to three days to do the whole place ( by which their take per day would be about R$85 (US$38) or about US$4.75 an hour). Not bad by Brazilian standards.

It took them a week. Two guys. Two bedrooms. One week. What did they do with the time? I have no idea. I had reckoned on normal Protestant capitalist thinking to spur them along. It’s not like I was paying them per day or hour. The faster they worked, the more they got paid for their time. But that is not how Brazilians think.

The patron wants this done. He doesn’t pay us much. Fine. We won’t hurry. (Eventually I had to resort to calling and yelling at them to speed things up.) And we won’t do a good job. I arrived to inspect the finished product, I discovered they hadn’t painted the outside of the front door. (you said inside). They hadn’t done the window frames (you said walls) and while they had painted the outsides of the doors of the bedroom closets, they hadn’t bothered with the inside (you said paint the inside of the apartment. The closet doors aren’t inside).

Two guys. Seven days. Half the stuff left unpainted. What had they done with the time? When I shared this story, I discovered countless others had painter stories. My landlady says when she hires painters, she personally supervises most of the process and , and has them do it over until she gets the result she wants. A Dutch friend of mine hired the son of a acquaintance to paint her living room. He took weeks. She finally told him do it by the end of the week, or I’ll do it myself. He laughed at her. How would she paint. That was manual labour. She couldn’t possibly know how. He showed up a week later to pretend to work again, only to find she had carried out her threat. Gringos can do work.

This bizarre attitude to work I also put down to slavery. In colonial times, the attitude was, yes, you own us, you can force us to work. But there’s no advantage to us to work fast, and there’s no benefit if we work well. So we won’t. Not unless you watch us. And force us.

The inefficiency of this system was one of the reasons slavery came to an end. Before he went on to design Central Park, Frederick Law Olmsted was a journalist, and one of his more interesting commissions was to go and report on the South and the “peculiar institution” of slavery. His reports were lengthy and wide-ranging, but one of the most interesting passages he compares the cost of a paid-wage day labourer in New York with that of a hired out slave labourer in the South. The day labourer cost about 1/3 less, and did a better job. Just one of the reasons the South lost out to the North.

Alas in Brazil, the attitudes toward work have lived on long past abolition. The patron doesn’t pay much, but he can’t make us work hard, or well.

When I moved into my new house I came face to face with the previous owner’s penchant for scuffed white walls and fluorescent lights. The lights I could change. The walls? I could again hire painters. The cost would be about the same. But then I’d have two guys hanging out in my house for a week, pretending to do work.

I did it myself. Took me day and a half, working alone. Considering what I can make in a day, it might have made better sense economically to hire the painters. But I actually like painting. And I did a better job.

While I painted, I discovered other things that needed doing. Cracks in the cement patio. Light fixtures not working. Dry wall peeling from water infiltration. These two, I would have to fix. So I stopped in at a local hardware store to pick up some plaster and a bag of sand and a couple of kilos of cement.

The owner and I chatted a bit first. He admired my motorbike and commented on my accent. I gave the customary compliments to Rio women (to which he agreed), and the customary complaint about Rio violence (to which he also agreed). We were friends, which in Brazil is the essential pre-requisite to doing business.

But as I ordered more and more odds and ends- a tape measure, some wood screws, some light switches - he looked at me ever more puzzled.

“You know what this stuff is for?” he asked

In Canada, to question a man’s knowledge of hardware it to question his competence, and thus his manhood.

“Claro,” I said, tightly. Of course.

“You’re going to do this yourself. You know how to fix things?” Again, with incredulity.

Yes. Again with razors in my voice.

“Here in Brazil, people normally hire someone. But you gringos. You like to do things yourself. “

In my country, I tell him, almost everybody does things for himself. There are even big stores that sell things just for people who want to fix up their homes.

“Yes, yes,” he says excitedly. “I’ve seen that. On television.”