The Teeth

A lot of people in Brazil keep dogs, they are popular as pets, but also serve rather well as protection in a country where barred windows and eight-foot fences are, regrettably, the norm.

The first place I stayed with dogs was in Taguatinga, and they had two: Lugubrious Dog and Terribly! Over! Excitable! Dog! Lugubrious Dog was a large and elderly Brazilian Mastiff, and she served the role of guard dog. Though old, creaky, and suffering from some hideous ailment that, amongst other things, caused her to lactate despite never having whelped, she was still a dog with whom one would not mess. Terribly! Over! Excitable! Dog! was not a good guard dog. He wasn’t friendly in a tail-wagging, affection-begging sense, but he was so terribly, terribly excited by such things as cars, leaves, his own tail, a full food dish, an empty food dish, a food dish that had been moved from one corner of the kennel to another, and so forth, that actual interaction with a human being drove him into ecstatic paroxysms of yippy glee such that he would almost fall on his side with delight. But Lugubrious Dog had to be dealt with because, though slow-moving, she still could probably take down a small horse. A couple of meat patties were sufficient to earn her initial trust and, over the months I stayed there, she came to rather like me—largely, I suspect, because I took the effort to interact with her, rather than treating her as a noisy inconvenience. If I was sat working in the yard she would drag herself over and slump against me, oozing her elderly, diseased milk over my legs in a manner which I had to take as affectionate. Her owner, who has previously been mentioned on this blog for her rather extreme mood swings and temper, occasionally took this as a personal affront.

I’m now staying for some days in the house of an American friend in Niterói, a suburb of Rio de Janeiro, and though it may be somewhat more peaceable than other parts of this violent, beautiful, paradisical hell-hole, it still is wise to have some kind of deterrent. The neighbours have an electric fence. Andrew has a dog.

Andrew’s dog is far better cared for than Lugubrious Dog and her ebullient companion, but nevertheless serves as a guard dog, and is duly protective. Technically called Tufa, he will be remembered by history as The Teeth, Meu Deus, The Teeth, and he is fairly clear about which bits of the world are his, and who is permitted in them. He is a large white dog, built like a German Shepherd, and boasts an impressive set of gnashers. He has not, I think it is fair to say, taken to me as Lugubrious Dog did.

Thus far a careful game of musical chairs has been played, with The Teeth being moved from front yard to back, or to the washing room, and variously chained or barred from accessing me; however he still exhibits strong displeasure upon seeing me, and seems to be capable of the spectacular feat of simultaneously growling menacingly and barking furiously. This morning, after having spent two days carefully working my way round him, I decided the time had come to try and change the situation a little. Dogs are, after all, pack animals, and a key part of relating with them is showing them who is boss. I therefore screwed up my courage, stood the other side of a barred gate to him and, basically, shouted him down. When I was a kid I was terrified of dogs and, though I now rather like them when they are not being needy bundles of saliva and fur, an angry dog still can cause a latent jitter to arise within me. But I did the deed, albeit protected by six foot of cast iron, and yelled “Para!” at him until, probably to both our surprise, he quietened down.

He’s not yet my friend. I am still, clearly, an interloper and a threat to the family silver. But I think I have the wind in my favour now. Tomorrow we shall buy some carrots—The Teeth likes carrots, presumably he knows the vitamin A will help keep those incisors sharp and pointy—and I shall take another step towards rapproachement. I leave for Picinguaba on the 27th. I am determined to pat him on the head before I go.

In which a phonological and orthographic mismatch grant me a new, but serendipitously apposite, moniker

If you have, somehow, managed to live your life thus far without entering a Starbucks, you may not know that the barista who takes your order will ask your name to write on the cup, so that the barista who makes it may then familiarly call you by name when it is done. I’m a bad man, and in the UK I get my petty revenge on this minor act of corporate cosiness by giving somewhat abstruse names—usually that of a Roman emperor. But this is Brazil, the land that gave us Sócrates, Hércules Florence, and César Camargo Mariano; I have friends called Oseias and Átila, and used to get my hair cut by a guy with the magnificent name of Euripides Mendes. Trajan fazes them not one jot, nor Domitian, nor Vespasian. But Stuart, ah! now there we suddenly have a problem.

Portuguese does not end words in stops—that is, consonants like d or t in which the airflow is entirely halted—and consequentially they have problems pronouncing these and, when they import words such as internet or pub, an epenthetic -i sound is almost universally added. The addition of the -i then, in most dialects, turns the sound of t into tch, because dental stops are palatalized prior to high vowels, giving “intchernetchi,” “pubbi,” and, in my case, the magnificently mangled “Estchuartchi,” which features the terminal epenthetic i, the palatalization of both ts and, for good measure, an extra epenthetic e at the start of the word, because word-initial st is also out. Today I’m in Rio and there, where s is almost universally said seanconneryishly, I shall be treated to “Eshtchuartchi.” So much for pronunciation. But it turns out that they have trouble spelling it, too.

Combine all the above with a traditional cursive r, which looks all the world like an n to me, then you get this:


My name, as transcribed by a Brazilian barista.

The most fun you can have by yourself

My voice broke ridiculously early. I was about ten, and still in primary school, when gravity took a quick look at my thorax and certain related items, and decided she wanted a bit of them. There was no squeaky period, no teenage yodelling. I simply went to bed one night with a high, clear child’s voice, and woke up the next morning growling like a hungover badger, and with my bollocks banging around my knees. I can only presume that it is as a reaction against this precocious physical development that I have steadfastly refused to undergo any kind of emotional maturation whatsoever. Consequentially, as well as a love of smut, a total inability to defer pleasure, and the use of manipulative egocentrism as my basic interpersonal operational principle, I have never lost the childhood fascination—nay, celebration—of the various icks and oozes that evolution has bestowed upon our bodies. True, I accompany this now with an appreciative scientific wonder at the incredible sophistication of our bodies’ ability to respond to the external world: the amazing complexity of our immune system is little short of a miracle. But this is supplementary to, and a weak justification for, the basic love of the goo it creates.

However a line has to be drawn, and I draw it at earwax. There is nothing to celebrate in earwax. It is manifestly gross, it serves no exciting anti-pathogenic function, and is all-in-all a bit embarrassing. Doubtless you agree with me on this matter and this is regrettable, because we’re going to be talking about it now.

You see, my ears—possibly, though mistakenly, wishing to facilitate me in my joy at gross corporeality—produce the stuff on an industrial scale and, for reasons I cannot fathom, do so especially when I am in Brazil. So it was that, barely a week into getting here, I went through the now quite familiar process of increasingly muffled hearing until that final day when the blockage was complete, and I descended into a world of mute and subdued sound, accompanied by a discomforting sense of pressure, and a background of white noise as the blood rushing through the ears suddenly became audible.

This is genuinely a problem. With both ears gone more-or-less simultaneously I was really quite deafened. As the effect is not just one of reduced range of perception but of extremely reduced clarity in what is perceived, this becomes a real issue when one is operating in a second language, and renders detailed sociophonetic observation virtually impossible. The solution is, ultimately, to go to a doctor and get the damn things flushed out. In the UK nowadays the treatment is largely performed using a weird and noisy suction device, which is not a particularly pleasant experience; and this is a great tragedy because the old-fashioned method, which consists of a large syringe, plenty of warm water, and a kidney dish held under the ear is, well, extraordinary.

The last time a blockage occurred when I was in Brazil was a few years ago, when I was staying with a family the patriarch of whom—a magnificently eccentric octogenarian who slept under a portrait of Lenin, and who maintained a blog which consisted solely of dodgy renderings into Portuguese of the many propagandist tracts imported from the Soviet Union that adorned his shelves and which he had painstakingly and uncomprehendingly keyed into Google Translate—had been a medic, and his former protégé treated the family for free and without waiting. So, one day, we all tramped down there together for a joint queue-jump. The daughter of the redoubtable Blasco needed a repeat prescription of whatever medication she took to keep her furiously irritable and wildly irrational, her teenage son needed his surliness supplements, and I needed my ears cleaning. The husband did not come. He largely self-medicated with vodka.

So it was that, in front of two members of my household, as well as an attendant nurse, the white-coated medic rolled up his sleeves and whooshed water through my ears until the blockage was released. In previous centuries, surgery used to be performed in quite literally a theatre, where curious onlookers could watch as the local barber took his razor blade to an unfortunate individual, and I felt something of the ghost of this early medicine hanging over me as, on the release of each chunk of aural sludge, Blasco’s protégé passed sround the tray for the mixed admiration and disgust of the onlookers. But—as we shall come to—it was worth the humiliation.

This time round, however, matters were more problematic, because I have no amiable pet doctor to hand, and the Brazilian healthcare system is highly bureaucratic and expensive. So yesterday, having finally had enough of my deafness, but not wishing to spend hours waiting to sign forms and write large cheques, I decided to do the only sensible thing and take matters into my own hands. I went to a chemist and bought a decent-sized syringe and then spent a good fifteen minutes bent over the sink in the hotel room squirting warm water into my ears and, after a great deal of attempts, finally managed to liberate the right ear from the oppressive hold of its unwelcome and gooey squatter.

Oh! Oh, there is no poetry, no music, no sublime art that I can draw upon to describe that moment, that ecstatic, vibrant, long-awaited juncture when something shifts, the pent-up pressure releases, and a sudden rush of aural clarity fills the thudding, dull silence. No art can mirror it, and there is but one word in the vocabulary of this nuanced and rich language of ours that I can find to describe it. Ladies and gentlemen, I had me an eargasm.

The left ear, it is true, remains stubbornly blocked; and I have decided to leave it for a few days before attempting again, as one does not wish to over-aggravate the delicate internal mechanisms of our auditory systems. But, even so . . . shhhh . . . listen! I can hear again. There: the roar of traffic on Rua da Consolação! . . . There: the clicking of my laptop keyboard as I type this . . . and . . . shhh, now . . . be still for a moment and wait. Yes! . . . There! . . . I can even hear, from half a globe away, you quietly tutting as you read this and wonder how a man with such expressive talents as I could put them so egregiously to waste, writing a thousand words about grossness and gunk and goo.