Losing in Geneva, winning in Paris

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One of my most memorable events in Paris took place in July, 1998.

I arrived in Paris in July via Switzerland, where I had left my 11 year old daughter in a summer camp. It was the first time she would be away from home, and I was a bit anxious. Friends had assured me that the school was a great place for girls to learn French fast, but I still felt anxious.

Knowing that, my friend Sherry decided to come with me. Our plan was to leave Chiara in Geneva, spend few days in Paris – to make sure she would adapt well to school – then return to New York. That was also a good excuse to see Paris again, of course.

I left Chiara at Le Rosey, a beautiful school on the shores of Lake Geneva, my heart broken with the separation. To make matters worse, at night I saw in disbelief Brazil lose the final match of the World Cup to France. I was born in Brazil, where soccer is a serious business, and watched the nervous match with hundreds of Portuguese immigrants and some Swiss people on a big screen placed outdoors near Lake Geneva. Everybody was rooting for Brazil, but nothing helped. Sherry sat by me and tried to be sympathetic, but being from Boston she could not understand the passion soccer awakens in people – I go crazy when Brazil plays the World Cup.

Needless to say, I was not in a good mood leaving Geneva the next morning. Respecting my mourning, Sherry got a book and sat far away from me on the TGV, the fast train that connects the city to Paris.

We got to Paris in the midst of huge commemorations. Our taxi driver decided to bypass Avenue des Champs Elysees, which – he said – was full of people partying. He took secondary streets to leave us at the Ritz Hotel, where we had a reservation. Normally quiet, even the Ritz was in a festive mood that day – I had never seen so many French flags on Place Vendome.

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Asking the always correct concierge for a place to have dinner, we heard of a restaurant called L’Ambroisie. “It is one of the grandes tables of Paris”, he assured us. They were fully booked for dinner that night, would the ladies be interested in lunch the next day? Yes, we were. Anything to forget my country’s defeat…

I felt better the next morning, a night at the Ritz can cure me of any woes. The perfect doorman put Sherry and I on a taxi and told the driver: “Place des Vosges, s’il vous plait”. I remembered from French classes that Place des Vosges was the residence of French writer Victor Hugo, of Les Miserables fame, but was not familiar with it.

We were in for quite an experience!

One enters Place des Vosges through vaulted arches that separate it from the rest of the Marais area. It is the oldest square in Paris, a perfectly symmetric square surrounded by houses with the exact same facade. The feeling is of being back to the Middle Ages: finished in 1612 to commemorate the wedding of King Louis XII with Anne of Austria, the square and the houses around it were built with red bricks and strips of yellow stone resting over square pillars. For centuries these were the homes of the French aristocracy, easy to see why.

Our lunch at L’Ambroisie didn’t disappoint, either. Starting with the building itself, a hotel particulier facing the square – antique tapestries on the walls, chairs covered in velvet, wood floors – everything reminded of an old-world elegance and a more refined era. The food was extraordinary, each serving opened the way to new tastes and nuances I had never experienced. The plates were so beautifully presented, that at the next table few Japanese  dressed in identical blue suits were filming it all: as soon as the food was placed in front of them, each would get a camera, point it to his plate, and start recording. We were very amused by the scene, even the cooks came out of the kitchen to look.

After dessert, a waiter brought us a tray of cigars. Visibly confused as to whom to offer them first, as cigars are always offered to men, he clearly felt better when Sherry said “we don’t smoke cigars, thank you; our husbands do, but they could not be with us today, someone has to work to pay for this!” We all laughed at the sign of relief on his face.

This was a long, delicious and memorable lunch, never to be forgotten. Leaving that temple of fine food and getting back to the ‘real’ world, we took time walking around the Marais, charmed by its beautiful architecture and surprised at how lively, modern and hip the area was: art galleries, bistros, brasseries, fine boutiques and people from all over. We promised to be back to the Marais with more time.

It wouldn’t be at that time. Back at the hotel, I received a message from Chiara. She was not happy in the summer camp, was placed with a weird roommate and needed to see me. Immediate change of plans: I would be on the next train to Geneva. Sherry decided to go to London visit her Wellesley friends who live there, before returning to New York. We both said goodbye to Paris the next morning.

Never a dull moment, I thought to myself, as my train slowly left the gare in Paris, the Eiffel Tower disappearing on the horizon…

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New Year’s eve in Paris

476986_0444a1e84a6647a68b7af9d5c5074cbfI was in Paris for the 2007 Reveillon, as the French call New Year’s eve. The weather was typical winter in Paris: cold and grey with an occasional light rain, but the city was beautifully dressed up for the holidays and full of people from every corner of the world.

If you visit Paris occasionally you are used to tourists, no matter what time of year. But this time there were newcomers to the scene: Chinese, Russians and Eastern Europeans, people who could not travel when I first started going to Paris, many years ago. Now on one single block  we hear more languages than anywhere else. Paris is even more now the place the world meets to celebrate.

Right after arriving I went to Theatre des Champs-Elysees to get tickets for a show I had heard a lot about while still in New York: Sara Baras Ballet Flamenco, a Spanish dance company performing in Paris for a short and sold-out season. I was lucky and got one of the last remaining seats. Sara Baras flamenco is modern, different from the traditional flamenco I had seen in the past – a young, energetic and passionate dance group, visually exciting. After the show I had dinner across the street at Cafe du Theatre, where by chance the dancers were eating as well. I asked one of them when the group would come to NY. ‘December 2008’, was the reply. I can’t wait to see them again.

On the magazines stands around town many publications brought covers with president Sarkozy and his new girlfriend, Carla Bruni, an Italian ex-model well known in France. She seems to be much younger than the recently divorced Sarkozy, but this being France no one seems to care. As for Cecilia Sarkozy, the president’s ex-wife, no news and no magazine cover, which is probably just the way she likes it; she is said to be too private for the kind of attention a first-lady of France attracts.

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The restaurants, bistros and bars in Paris were all full, but with a little patience we could always find a table anywhere. The most acclaimed places require advanced reservations, but unless you really have to dine in a 3-star Michelin restaurant, the options were many. This is something I love about Paris – I don’t have to spend a fortune to eat well, like in New York or London. Even with the Euro at $1.4 a good meal can still come at a reasonable price.

Shopping was another deal – it was more expensive to buy anything, but  I kept my rule of getting good quality for less by avoiding the big stores full of eager tourists. In Paris, I love the charm of small boutiques with one-of-a-kind items, everything else I find easily in New York or anywhere else. I also like to remind myself that it is taste that makes Paris what it is, not money. On the same token, it is the Parisians’ priorities in life that brings me back every year.

And they do have their own way! A Parisian friend told me that many of the city’s top chefs were refusing to submit to the rigid criteria of the Michelin guide, traditionally the publication that rates restaurants in France. For the Michelin, three stars are the equivalent of perfection, a ‘grand table’. But many chefs were choosing to be more creative with less expensive menus, keeping in mind younger and less affluent clients, without sacrificing the quality. I find this trend very useful as we enter 2008. And it had to start in Paris, where else?

 

 

Tango in Buenos Aires

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Buenos Aires is one of my favorite cities in the world. Cosmopolitan, charming, with world-class hotels, restaurants and shopping, it is also where South American culture meets its European roots. Buenos Aires is vibrant and sophisticated as well, a place like no other.

 The Argentine capital offers the same advantages of international centers like London, New York or Paris – for a fraction of the cost. The exchange rate (as of November, 2008) is 3 pesos for 1 dollar. To give an idea, dinner in a top restaurant, with a great Malbec wine, costs less than $10 per person.

The elegance and good looks of the Portenos, as the natives of Buenos Aires are called, add a lot to this city’s allure.

 Not surprisingly, our Tango in Buenos Aires tour, last November, was great. We arrived in the Southern Hemisphere at the end of their Spring, when the hot Summer days Buenos Aires is famous for had not yet started. Coming from a cold end of Fall in New York, this sudden change of weather was most welcome – coats were off right on arrival at Ezeiza Airport.

 

476986_deb949d2d3874a6ba0d7851b83bf0e7dOur hotel was excellent: five-stars, elegant and calm, yet in the center of Recoleta, one of the most prestigious neighborhoods of Buenos Aires. Surrounded by grand French-style mansions, embassies and upscale boutiques, we were near Patio Bullrich, an international shopping center offering from Chanel and Yves Saint-Laurent to the famous Argentine leather and wools.

 The main attraction of our tour was tango, and the high point of the day was a dance class in the San Telmo studio of Maria Edith, a warm and friendly dancer of international acclaim. She and her dedicated team of dancers introduced us to the magic world of this dance that – in its theatrical movements and dramatic sounds -embodies the Argentine culture. Maria Edith taught us not only tango steps, but also that for women this dance means allowing our bodies to be led by our male partner, following his moves and control. A fascinating cultural experience…
People in Buenos Aires are fun lovers and seem to live by night; no self respecting citizen dines out before 9 pm, and the streets are full until late hours. We soon adjusted, and each night took us to a different great restaurant: for the famous Argentine beef we chose a traditional place in La Recova area; meat never tasted that good. For local flavor we drove far away to La Boca, a working class neighborhood where tango was born and still rules,to a restaurant that is also a ‘shrine’ to soccer team Boca Juniors, the leading team in this city where soccer is almost a religion.
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The tango shows were simply fantastic! We discovered an off-the-beaten-path orchestra, Fernadez Fierro, which is starting to attract attention the way Astor Piazzolla did, before achieving international fame. The audience at this funky and far away place was mostly young people and Europeans, who seem to know where the special attractions are. This show was one of the best we saw.

 

476986_10664a7aae78417b9de24b8b9a7320f7Our excellent driver was a Porteno who knew his city well, and made sure we were always safe. With Mathias in tow we visited sophisticated Puerto Madero, hip Palermo Viejo, busy Calle Florida, the museums Evita and Malba, among many other beautiful sites in this culture-loving city.

On our last day we were lucky to attend the opening match of the Argentine Open Polo Championship, the major polo tournament in the world, as the Argentines are the undisputed leaders in the so called ‘sport of kings’. The opening of the polo season attracts a very international crowd, and nowhere else polo is played quite like in Argentina, as Matias explained, while introducing some of its rules. Nothing like a driver who knows his polo. Only in Buenos Aires.

Paris, August 31st, 1997

476986_85255bf2845e4fbc94f3c8b4a5c2ae8eI was in Paris with my family and our Colombian babysitter, Tatiana, when tragedy struck so near us…

We had just arrived back in Paris after a two-weeks vacation in the South of France, where we had rented a house in Mougins, near Cannes.

On the way there we had stayed at the Ritz Hotel in Paris, but returning to the French capital to get our flight back to New York the next day, we were told the hotel was fully booked so we made reservations somewhere else. It would be for one night only, so anything would do, really.

In the hotel someone mentioned restaurant Ma Bourgogne, on Place des Vosges, and we decided to have dinner there. I remember the date very well: August 31st, 1997, a day not to be forgotten.

Dinner was nice, the Bourgogne typically Parisian, but by 11:00 PM the kids were tired and we got a cab back to the hotel, driving through the tunnel of Pont d’Alma. About one hour later, a car carrying Princess Diana would crash in that same tunnel.

We learned about the accident the next morning. Tatiana had been out before us, and came back almost in tears: “Princess Diana died not far from here last night”, she said. I remember the silence that fell upon us all. Same strange silence later in the hotel lobby, when we checked out, no one speaking. People were mourning.

That heavy silence stayed with us all the way to the airport. Paris was quiet, a weird stillness in the air, even the driver said nothing. My ten year old daughter commented on how quiet things were, and on Princess Diana’s death. I replied with something like “she was a beautiful person and she died in the most beautiful city”. But no one really talked much.

We got to a Charles de Gaulle airport heavy with security guards, at the same moment Prince Charles’ Royal Air Force jet was landing. He had come to Paris to claim Diana’s body, we heard. Unreal. And if we had gotten a reservation at the Ritz, as we had wished, we would have been right where she departed from on that fatal night. I am glad we didn’t.

A long time after that date, I learned that the young French woman who, with her doctor boyfriend, got to Diana’s car crash site before anybody else, was the daughter of someone I knew well. The girl herself had been my guest in New York, years before. Small world!

I will never forget the days that followed, the display of emotions worldwide, the feeling that Diana left too early. Some people capture our imagination more than others, and she was one like that. Diana had something different, something hard to describe – she was real.

I never met her, but each time I return to the Marais, each time I drive through tunnel d’Alma or see beautiful Place des Vosges, I remember the night Diana died, in Paris.

And I feel that we all lost something that night.

 

The princess who wouldn’t be queen

Few countries have a history as rich as Portugal, even fewer can claim such unique cultural traditions. The super-power of the XV and XVI centuries – thanks to the wealth brought by its maritime expeditions and conquests – Portugal erected some of the most magnificent palaces, churches and monasteries of Europe, and on its battlefields the destiny of Europe was once decided. The Portuguese have the oldest nation-state in Europe, with the same borders for over 800 years, and speak the same language throughout the country.
Birthplace of the first navigators, brave sailors who explored the African coast and the Atlantic Ocean before anyone else, Portugal lived for centuries in the abundance made possible by the spice and the slave trade it dominated, as well as by huge amounts of gold coming from their colonies in Asia and America. That golden era is now gone, but its legacy will forever be part of the country’s heritage.
As is Catholicism, at the heart of their culture. In Portugal, churches are full of people actually praying, not only taking pictures.
476986_809dc673e4d744eaaa6064f9f3368786The church was as powerful as the monarchy for many centuries, and its confluence created one of Portugal’s most beautiful stories: that of a royal princess called Joana, daughter of king Afonso V and heir to the throne until she was three years old, when her brother was born. In 1472, against her father wishes and with vehement protests of all in the royal court, Joana decided to follow her vocation and retired to a convent to become a Carmelite nun.
The princess was said to be very beautiful, ‘tall and straight’ according to tales of the time, with a shapely mouth of full lips, something not common in the royal houses of Europe. By the age of 17 she had already refused to be married to two princes heirs to their thrones – of France and of England, no less – despite her ambitious brother’s efforts to make her a queen.
Joana’s religious vocation had been clear since she was a small girl – pious and devoted, she was usually found praying in her room in the palace, rather that in the elegant balls of the court.
The sincerity of her pledges finally won over her father’s, and he agreed to let her follow her heart. Joana chose the humble Convent of Jesus, in Aveiro, a small fishermen’s town that welcomed her with open arms. Her presence would soon bring impetus to the economic and cultural development Aveiro so needed, and she lived there for the last last 18 years of her life – she died at 38 –  dedicated to charity and to the poor, just just like all the other nuns. Many miracles were attributed to her, specially – oddly enough – of women who could not become pregnant doing so after contacting her. In 1693 the Vatican beatified her as Saint Joana, and she is the patron saint of Aveiro.
The Convent of Jesus was closed in 1874, when the last nun died. It now contains the Museum of Aveiro, in which there is a magnificent 18th-century church whose interior is a masterpiece of Baroque art. Its elaborately gilded-wood carvings and ceilings are among Portugal’s finest; blue-and-white azulejo panels depict the life of Joana, whose remains are laid in a multi color inlaid-marble sarcophagus in the lower choir. The nuns former refectory is another wonder – its walls lined with magnificent camellia-motif tiles – and the 16th-century Renaissance cloisters one of the most impressive in the country.
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But the main attraction of the Museum is a particularly fine 15th-century portrait of Joana, a royal princess of exquisite beauty, that by refusing to be a queen became one of the most beloved figures of her country’s history. Her short but rich life was extraordinary in many ways, and the place she chose to live is today one of the most inspiring places in all Portugal.
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Charming Marais I

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I enjoy Paris much more when I rent an  apartment. And not only because I save money, but renting an apartment allows me to do as Parisians do – buy food at local shops, cook at home, have a warm baguette for breakfast with the smell of fresh coffee coming from the kitchen…

I guess I’m not alone, judging from the many rental agencies now specialized in short term leases for tourists. I’ve tried many of them, good and bad ones. On the bad side, I once got such a poorly equipped place that I had to buy bed linens and a coffee maker. But after trial and error, I now know the reputable agencies, and have eliminated disaster ones.

Having my own place also allows me to explore the city the way I like – in a relaxed pace, walking, really getting to know each neighborhood. Paris must be seen by foot, and nowhere this is more true than in the Marais.

This part of the 4eme Arrondissement is perfect for walking. One of the oldest neighborhoods of Paris, the charm of its narrow pedestrian-only streets and small specialty stores is known worldwide,  as are its restaurants, boutiques and cafes. The Marais is also the gay district of Paris, full or art galleries and shops with the latest in clothes, shoes, home decoration and everything else in between. Even food looks better in their windows!

Some of the stores there are so ahead of their time that they deserve a visit. Like L’Eclaireur, an impressive avant-garde style store-cum-gallery that no self respecting trendsetter or fashion editor could ignore. Places like this abound in the Marais and make sure Paris will remain the fashion capital of the world.

I was in the Marais for the New Year in December of 2007, and had time to retrace my favorite walking route: I started everyday near the apartment on Rue des Tournelles, just around the corner from excellent Brasserie Bofinger, then would go on towards Rue du Pas de la Mule, passing by a small restaurant always full with locals, Bistrot de L’Oulette, then turned left at the corner to go to Cafe Hugo, right on Place des Vosges. Named after French writer Victor Hugo, who lived next door on what is now a museum with his name, Cafe Hugo’s food is nothing special, what makes it be always crowded is the great view Place des Vosges, a magnificent square right in the middle of it all. Even in the winter it is possible to seat outside, as the Hugo provides  movable heaters in an area covered with transparent plastic. I feel like a queen sitting there having a capuccino and watching the world pass by – people watching is one of the greatest things to do in the Marais.

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After Cafe Hugo I would visit antique shops and art galleries under the arches of Place des Vosges, where all styles – from very contemporary to more traditional – are represented. Moving on to Rue des Francs Bourgeois, leaving Place des Vosges behind, I would pass Rue de Turenne, always stopping for some window shopping. This is an area crowded with sophisticated locals and well heeled tourists, all sporting the latest fashion styles and the newest iPhones. Lots of Americans there in December,  no one would say our dollar was so low, $1.44 against the Euro, the weakest it had been in a long time. God bless.

Despite the weak dollar, I managed to do a little shopping: for white shirts I went to Anne Fontaine or Rayure; for the latest in fun designer clothes at reasonable prices there is always La Piscine, on 13 rue des Francs-Bourgeois. Last time I bought such a nice dress there, my 20 year old daughter just had to have it for herself!

476986_1482ff66f36a4dc49f45646f89f2e9a6I like to walk on Rue des Francs Bourgeois passing Rue Sevigne, then turn left on Rue Pavee towards Rue des Rosier, the heart of Jewish Marais. This is where the best delis and boulangers (bakeries) in Paris are located. If you like falafel, look no further. If you are a shoe lover, like me, there is Miguel Lobato, on 6 Rue Malher, right beyond Rue des Rosiers. Many elegant women shop there.

I find Rue des Rosiers one of the most charming in the city and love to spend time there.  Mid-way through it, there is a deli called Chez Marianne, a perfect spot for a mid-afternoon break. From there I walk to Rue du Vieille du Temple, home to many gay bars and trendy boutiques, and after browsing their stores I turn left at Rue du Roi de Sicile. Sometimes I go to a creperie called Page 35, on Rue du Parc Royal – it’s a small place removed from the crowded area, but their crepes are excellent and the service very pleasant.

 

But there is much more to the Marais than restaurants and boutiques: there is the Carnavalet Museum, about the history of Paris, a great Picasso Museum that covers his earlier period, and many cultural activities. To see the whole Marais one just needs time, and curiosity – everything else is right there.

As I never have that much time, I usually return to New York before the end of my “to see” list.

 

Next time, hopefully. The Marais will be there, for sure…

A fine portrait

476986_62199c77c46d46eebfbda2d86f77a0d3Looking at the faces of our children is one of the most rewarding things in life; seeing them on a portrait painted by a fine artist, is pure joy!

When the The Connecticut Society of Portrait Artists – CSOPA – and the Greenwich Arts Council selected my daughter’s Chiara’s portrait by painter Candance Taubner, as part of their exhibition Faces of Winter 2008, I felt very proud. The portrait was selected by an independent jury from hundred of entries and they carefully picked a total of 57 portraits representing some of the most talented artists in Connecticut and New York.

Candance Taubner (photo), is known for an outstanding ability to reveal the essence of her subjects. She says that ‘the face is a universe unto itself – ever changing, surprising, mysterious and compelling. I seek to discover and reveal the essence of my subjects, no matter what age they are. It never fails that I find unique beauty in each person, and I delight in revealing it to them and to the world’.
Her portrait of my daughter is a proof that she achieved her goal, once more.
                                                                                                                      New York, March, 2009

Rio and beauty

476986_7fb7ac45b8b74d5fb29cd41623d584a0Rio’s beauty dazzles visitors even before they land at Galeao airport. From the air, this Brazilian city of 8 million people looks spectacular: the blue waters of the Atlantic shining under the intense tropical sun, the white sands of its coastline against the lush green mountains, and – on top the the highest peak – a colossal statue of Christ, the Corcovado, blessing the city with open arms.

The word dramatic doesn’t begin to describe Rio. No city I know matches the scale and the exuberance of its landscape, or displays such a colorful and energetic culture. Its natives, the cariocas, are warm, laid back and fun, and their music, the samba, is a contagious beat heard everywhere. Rio’s Carnaval – the four days of hedonistic revelry right before Lent – is a feast to the eyes, and Brazil’s biggest party.

476986_482725a044fa4589b1bea0ad093a74faRio is not only blessed by its geography, the cariocas are drop-dead gorgeous, too. This city worships beauty in all its shapes and forms, and the sex-appeal of its  women is well known.

Once a secret of Brazilians only, these charms were made known around the world by the song by the song ‘The Girl from Ipanema’, a bossa nova tune describing the walk of a girl walking to the beach every day, ‘tall and tanned and lovely’. In the original Portuguese version there is no mention of tall, by the way, it says only ‘linda and cheia de graca’ (beautiful and graceful), which perhaps is an indicator of the many cultural differences between Brazilian and  American culture. Tall is not a big deal there, curvaceous is.

On Rio’s beaches beautiful women show off their perfect and barely covered bodies everyday. It was there that the famous tanga – a tiny bikini that leaves very little to the imagination – was first spotted. Rio’s  genetic good fortune might be attributed to Brazil’s notorious mix of races, but cariocas also put a lot of effort into health and beauty: at daybreak the sidewalks of Ipanema and Copacabana beaches are already crowded with joggers and walkers of all ages, a routine that’s part of life in Rio.

And they not only take good care of themselves, they love to talk about it. As soon as I arrive in Rio I start hearing about the latest workout fad or nutrition programs ‘guaranteed’ to prolong youth; every friend seems to have a special vitamin mix, or a cream to keep wrinkles off their tanned faces, or a formula to make their skin shine or hair grow stronger. Judging from their looks, these efforts are perfectly rewarded: it’s not uncommon for women over 50 to look like 30’s elsewhere. A  friend of mine jokes that “Rio doesn’t know what a 50 year old woman looks like”.

While the aesthetic standards are very high , they are quite different from the ones in the Northern Hemisphere: round shapes and curves are a must, ‘noticeable’ butts considered a blessing. Being skinny is associated with illness, not with elegance. Brazilians definitely have their own beauty guidelines, and they are proud of it.

Not surprisingly, plastic surgery flourishes there: Rio has some of the world’s best surgeons and more cosmetic surgeries are performed there than anywhere else in the world!

With all this attention to beauty, one may be inclined to think that Rio is a superficial and frivolous society. Not at all. Life is not easy for a big part of the population; people work hard for their money, poverty is a reality in many areas, and crime too common in some areas of this metropolis of huge gaps between the haves and the have nots.

Yet, even the poorest of the poor is high on life and exudes a contagious joie de vivre. People with modest incomes save the whole year to buy a costly costume and be part of the Carnaval parade. Visit a favela, as the slums are called, and you will see broad smiles, happy kids playing soccer on the streets, and crowded parties where on the weekends the samba beat goes on until the morning.

Rio, in spite of its problems, is a happy place; it lives by its own standards and moves to its own rhythm. One must step out of the box to understand the different set of values they seem to live by, and the best way to do it is to get immersed in their fun-loving culture. Once once we understand it, we will love Rio forever.

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