Monday, December 19, 2011

Where Are Women Going?

“The greatest achievement for a woman is to be as seldom as possible spoken of.”

Unfortunately, the quotation still rings true today. It was written during the 4th century BC by the Greek historian Thucydides.

When recently in New York City, I saw the entertaining film Margin Call which is roughly based on the final days of the investment bank Lehman Brothers. Over a 24-hour-period, the fiction film follows the actions of seven employees from the boss to junior traders, as they try to salvage the bank by unloading its toxic assets to clients. Demi Moore plays the head of risk management, the only woman among these Wall Street’s Magnificent Seven. Although she had warned the boss of this impending financial disaster (but no one listened) she is now slated to be the sacrificial lamb. But we only learn this later.

When the film credits were scrolling on the screen, my neighbors, two middle age women started to chat and one said with a shrug: “To be able to stay all night at the firm, this woman cannot have kids”! I had a jolt, and if she had kids? Why do women keep blaming professional women for wanting to be successful? Is motherhood the only success criteria for a woman? Actually the film raises two related issues: women’s professional achievement and the poor recognition for it, more on this later.

In my generation, women aimed for the corner office; some got there but many of them chose to stay single or childless. In the 1980s, progress was impressive, but progress brought false expectations, namely that thanks to generous maternity leaves careers could be balanced with motherhood. Too many Western women believed that they could combine home bliss with successful workplace. Business construed this as an ambition-gap and a woman’s lack of commitment to the corporate bottom line. As a result progress in the workplace stalled, private sector female salaries continued to lag behind that of their male colleagues and female occupations became increasingly segregated with less pay and subsequently smaller pension. Promotions are also increasingly biased towards women. Studies indicate that women are promoted on their performance and men are rewarded on their potential. By being constantly tested women have slower promotions. Many women have come to think that a successful career means becoming a member of the rat race and that it is not for them. Consequently, a number of successful North American women dropped out to stay home. It is a Catch-22 situation.

Early December 2011 The Economist magazine[1] ran an online debate entitled “This house believes that a woman’s place is at work”. At the end of the week-long debate, 53% of the respondents had disagreed with The Economist. Although it was meant as a quip, the title was not liked by many women respondents who thought it was too dogmatic. The debate was old-fashioned for its lack of new ideas. Apart from a couple of contributions from macho provocateurs, it was the voice of the gynecium (Thucydides probably kept his wife in one of these). One of the conclusions was that many women “were compelled to work”. In other words women would have preferred not to work but stay home with their children. Unless a majority of men join women in regarding paid work as a requirement and constraint, the work-centered and the home-centered groups of people are defined by gender determinism.

In her book The Second Sex (1949), Simone de Beauvoir asserts that women have difficulty to reconcile their reproductive and productive capacities. Both allow them to contribute to societal well-being. Beauvoir stressed that “woman is neither exclusively a worker nor exclusively a womb”. Sixty years later, women’s social contribution is still overly reduced to that of reproduction: wombs wins over brains. Wombs belong to the home and brains to the workplace where both men and women can engage their minds in creative and competitive pursuits.

According to The Economist‘s special report on women and work (November 26th-December 2nd, 2011), data on what is best for children are far from being clear cut. The quality of parenting depends on several elements; stay-at-home mother is one of them, significant but not fundamental. If baby-boom mothers had full time jobs at home, 21st century mothers in OECD countries[2] have a much lighter load as their fertility has dropped to 1.7 children per woman. They also tend to be much better educated. In economic terms, these highly educated stay-at-home mothers seem to be a waste of talent and money. For the state, the return on investment is absurdly modest. In Europe, the tertiary education system is predominantly financed by the tax payers.

On the other hand, many studies have made clear that a large number of women in the higher echelons of the workforce are good for both the economy of a country and the financial and market success of companies. Similarly, countries that have the higher number of women in political decision-making are in general much better managed. In these troubled financial times, it is probably not coincidental that the Nordic countries show a better socio-economic performance than Greece, Italy, Portugal and even France. Sweden, Denmark, Netherland, Norway and Finland have an average of 40% women in parliament. Greece, Italy, Ireland and France don’t even reach 20%[3]. In some situation numbers are not relevant as women tend to be elected by parties on the left which often bestow unrealistic social benefits that the economy of a country can ill afford. E.g. by granting unrealistically long maternity leave and benefits to women only, these politicians are de facto distorting the job market, making women workers less valued than men.

The current predicaments of women in general and working women in particular result from a lack of women critical mass in decision-making positions in both workplace and political sphere. Legislation and fiscal policies should able to reconcile productivity with reproduction. Not only women’s views must be heard, but women must understand the socio-economic implications of their choices. Once again the diversity of the workplace provides a much more dynamic environment than the isolation of the home for healthy work-life balance decisions.

One cannot discuss women issues without bearing in mind the impact of globalization. There is evidence that women in emerging economies will leapfrog and achieve a higher level of political and economic empowerment than their developed economies’ sisters. The formers obviously started from a lower base. In a competitive globalized world, the deflated economies of the aging developed countries can ill afford to allow 40%[4] of their human resources cut from the productive sectors.

In China, in the 1950s, Chairman Mao Zedong got women out of the house. He liked to quote and old Chinese proverb “women hold up half the sky”. In many parts of the world this proverb is still more aspiration than reality. Many would have added that women hold the better half. Now women should run with it, and the world will be all better off.

The title of this article is a quote of a Greek philosopher who died 400 years BC. The punch line is from a 21th century woman role model Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook COO who according to Forbes magazine is the fifth most powerful woman in the world: “So, the question is, what are you going to do with it (your education)? What will you do with this education you worked so hard to achieve? What in the world needs to change, and what part do you plan on playing in changing it[5]?

This article is dedicated to four bright young women Elsa, Clémence, Tiphaine and Béatrice who are pursuing higher education. I hope that they will hear Ms. Sandberg’s message and manage a harmonious work-life balance by reaching their full potential as productive and self-reliant women.

[2] The Organization for Economic Co-operation for Development, OECD has currently 32 country members; most of them are high-income economies.
[3] Ireland: 15%; Portugal: 26.5%; Greece: 17%; Italy: 21%; France: 19%.
[4] OECD average: 64% women employed in 2010.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Caught Trunk Driving

On Wednesday, November 9, the most wanted drug traffic boss of Rio de Janeiro was caught by Brazil special forces hidden in the trunk of a car. Antonio Bonfim Lopes better known as Nem was trying to escape the Rocinha favela the shantytown which was his business base and was under siege by the police. Scores of other less prominent gang members were also caught in the police noose. For a traficante, drug kingpin of Nem’s status, it was an anticlimactic grand finale, more soap opera than “Elite Squad” (the prized Brazilian film “Tropa de Elite”).
What is astounding about this "catch-a-drug-dealer" episode is how easy it was. At the same time, it makes a fascinating story due to the personality of the central character, as well as the frightening reputation of the Rocinha shantytown.
Rocinha is probably the largest slum in Rio de Janeiro; no one knows exactly how many people live there, any number between 70,000 and 200,000 (picture below). Rocinha is a sprawling hillside slum which divides residential Rio in two parts. It is a well-established gang sanctuary in the middle of Rio de Janeiro. During periods of gang and police confrontation, the roads are blocked and the city is de facto taken hostage.

Rocinha is regarded as a drug supermarket, and Nem was reigning supreme over this multifaceted and prosperous business. In order to make Rio de Janeiro safer for the 2014 Soccer World Cup and 2016 Olympic Games, the local government has embarked on a vast favela crackdown operation. During the past two years, drug gangs and dealers have been physically removed by force from some twenty favelas around Rio. So far the pacification efforts have led to broad social improvements. These operations were regarded as dress rehearsals for the occupation and pacification of Rocinha.
Nem, 35 (see picture below) became the drug king of Rocinha in 2005 when his former alcoholic boss lost control and was subsequently killed by the police. Nem did not look the part. He ran his drug cartel as a savvy businessman rather than an unsophisticated drug trafficker. Nem filed income tax, but didn’t report any income although his revenue is estimated at US$ 5 million a month. He invested in real estate and in the health and education of his kids, not in samba schools like other drug kingpins. Nem did spread his wealth around, helping many destitute people in the shantytown. Many “needy” policemen were also on his payroll, apparently half of his profits were spent on local police “protection”.

He is a clean-living family man, didn’t do drugs. He had zero tolerance for crack addicts, and routinely fired his employees if caught taking crack. Crack addicts fail to report to work and tend to steal to indulge their vice. Nem worked-out daily in his house’s small gym; he also built a swimming pool on the deck of his house which has a commanding view over Rocinha. 
When the federal police stopped his car, the driver claimed diplomatic immunity to avoid a car search; he argued that he was none other than the honorary consul of the Democratic Republic of Congo. This indicates some degree of geopolitical sophistication which is not a usual trait among the Rio drug barons. As the police remained unconvinced, the driver changed tack and offered a $ 570,000 bribe. This is a huge amount of money for anyone let alone a policeman. Pay scale for policemen varies greatly but it averages $ 900 a month in Rio.  However, the policeman refused and opened the trunk. A rumpled Nem got out. Since this episode the policeman who goes by the name of Disraeli (like the 19th century English Prime Minister) has become the poster boy for honest police in Brazil!
This is the film version, the version that was offered to us to believe. Many think that the true version is slightly different. Nem is far too smart to have let the cops snatch him from the trunk of a fleeing car. His lawyer may have negotiated his surrender to the federal police in order to avoid being killed by the local police, his former business partner. Upon his arrest, the first thing Nem did was to call his mother on the phone and ensure that his kids were at school. He then exposed the rotten apples within the Rio police.
The Rocinha crackdown may be over, but another more messy one is just starting within the local police. Stay tuned.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Swindle in Provence: How to Buy a Medieval Abbey Without Money

In 1791, during the French Revolution, the revolutionary authorities launched a fire sale of national assets. The outstanding Montmajour Abbey, located on a rocky hill near the city of Arles in the south of France, was put on the block for the attractive price of 62,000 livres. Montmajour consisted of several buildings dating from the medieval period to the 18th century.   A commoner, Mrs. Elisabeth Roux-Chatelard, bought the land and monastery. However, there was a major snag: She was insolvent. It was not a deterrent for the entrepreneurial lady. To make money, she striped and sold the abbey’s wooden doors, panels and roof timber. Then for good measure, she sold the stones as well; the abbey became a profitable quarry. Her demolition zeal didn’t go unnoticed. She justified her actions by stating that the 18th century monastery that she was taking apart had been far too opulent for the  monks who should have lived in poverty.
It is worth pointing out that the monks of Montmajour have never been poor. The history of the Romanesque Benedictine Abbey of Montmajour goes back to the 10th century. The heyday of the community was between the 12 and 14th centuries when the abbey attracted thousands of pilgrims from all over the south of France. Successive popes and local rulers lavished privileges on the monastery. Its abbots enjoyed seigniorial rights. One of these outlandish privileges was the right to fish sturgeons in the near by Rhone River.
Moreover, these caviar-eating monks ran a lucrative indulgence business along with a relic exhibition. Indeed, Montmajour was the only abbey that could exhibit for a fee, a small piece of the True Cross of Jesus Christ. In the 12th century, a separate chapel had to be built to
                                Figure 1 Monks ‘burial ground
accommodate the overflow of the faithful. Montmajour became too wealthy for its own good. Spiritual and material prosperity rarely go hand in hand. The abbots regarded Montmajour as a cash cow and neglected the spiritual side of their tenure. The abbey was built on an island surrounded by marshes, but that was not a deterrent for uninvited guests. During the upheaval of the Hundred Years War against England it became a magnet for marauding soldiers. The religious wars of the 16th century brought additional hardships to the community.
At that time, the abbots were no longer elected by the monks and most of them only visited the abbey to pocket the rent. Consequently, monastic duties were side-tracked and the remaining monks were left to fend for themselves. The religious authorities decided to bring some order to the community. The congregation of Saint-Maur was selected, thanks to its reputation for redressing wayward monasteries. The Maurists took control and proved better builders than spiritual saviors. Needless to say that the resident monks were neither co-operative nor appreciative of the spiritual revival imposed on them. The Maurists built the imposing monastery that Mrs. Roux-Chatelard left in ruins a century later.
                         Figure 2 Montmajour Abbey in the 19th century
Montmajour suffered another indignity in the hands of the infamous Cardinal de Rohan, its last abbot. Rohan lived the high life of a debonair Parisian aristocrat who had access to the court of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. Like his predecessors, he was more interested in the revenues of the abbey than in its maintenance needs. He had already resigned as abbot when he got embroiled in the scandalous affair of the diamond necklace. Montmajour’s income may have been used by Rohan to buy a 2,000 livres necklace for the queen. It was an exorbitant amount of money for the period. This scandal was the first nail in the coffin of Marie Antoinette who became the poster girl for all excesses. Subsequently Rohan was expelled from the court and went into exile in the remote abbey at la Chaise-Dieu in Auvergne in central France.
Montmajour was secularized four years before the Revolution and its nine remaining monks (down from fifty) were expelled.
Mrs. Roux-Chatelard had to sell the abbey, and by the end of the revolution in 1795, Montmajour had been divided into more than twenty lots. Although the all-out destruction stopped, the indignities continued. The new owners used the still standing mediaeval buildings as barns, storage and stables. Sheep and cows were kept in the Romanesque cloister and drank out of the Count of Provence’s sarcophagi. The monk’s burial ground was also used as drinking troughs.
Mrs. Roux-Chatelard was not alone in converting historic buildings into quarries. It was a profitable business during and after the French Revolution. The near-by monastery of Saint Guilhem-le-desert was also dismantled. Sections were shipped to New York City. The Cloister of the Metropolitan Museum of Art on Fort Tryon in northern Manhattan is also the product of revolutionary zeal.
The misfortune of Montmajour ended in the mid-19th century when several Romantic artists and painters from Arles pooled their funds to save the abbey from further degradation. A slow restoration program began. When in Arles, Vincent Van Gogh spent time in the abbey sketching its inspiring ruins and surrounding landscape. He wrote that he went 50 times to the abbey, so fascinated he was with the site. Van Gogh complained that he could not paint there because the strong mistral wind prevented him from setting up his easel.
War again brought devastation to Montmajour. During WWII, the German army used the church as a depot for confiscated weapons. In 1944, before retreating the soldiers set them on fire. It was a miracle that the roof didn’t collapse.
Arles and Montmajour have been included in the UNESCO Heritage landmark list. Montmajour is one of the special sites that one can visit over and over and always discover something new to admire. Sturgeons are no longer fished in the Rhone, Montmajour is no longer an island only accessible by boat, mosquitoes are no longer pestering the visitors, but the mistral is still blowing.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Lord of the Castle: Picasso in Vauvenargues

“Art is the Elimination of the Unnecessary”
Pablo Picasso was a high-volume artist; he was also famous for his many witty and provocative quotes like the one above. True to his words, his Vauvenargues castle epitomizes his minimalist taste in interior decorating. Picasso was in his early 80s when he purchased the rustic and austere 17th century castle, 20 minutes away from the city of Aix en Provence in the south of France. The castle’s setting is enchanting, nestled on a small hill in a valley next to the small village of Vauvenargues. Picasso’s castle came with extensive land at the foothill of the famous Mont Sainte-Victoire so many times painted by Paul Cézanne who lived on the other side of the ridge.

Picasso bragged about having purchased the Saint-Victoire of Cézanne. He may have been shortchanged! Although the mountain is visible from the castle, one fails to recognize it, because it looks so unremarkable. Cézanne painted the other side of Sainte-Victoire which is much more striking.
During the three years (1959-62) Picasso and his second wife Jacqueline, who was 40 years younger, spent in Vauvenargues, the castle was primarily used as an over-sized storage space for his sizeable collection of paintings by Corot, Cézanne, Matisse, Braque and many others, as well as a junk-yard for refuse Picasso collected to make his thought-provoking sculptures.
Picasso was tired of the hustle and bustle of the Riviera; the castle’s peaceful surroundings offered a welcome change. Both countryside and castle reminded him of his beloved Spain. Actually Vauvenargues looks like many unadorned castles of Castile around Madrid. Vauvenargues was also strategically located between the Riviera and the cities of Arles and Nimes where Picasso and his aficionados travelled to enjoy bullfights.
When Picasso bought the castle its walls were bare, having been stripped of their fineries by the previous owners. Picasso bought some basic furniture, had heating installed and a bathroom built. He painted a faun playing the pipe on the bathroom wall to keep Jacqueline company, but Vauvenargues was too isolated, cold and uncomfortable for her taste.
The castle is as it was when the couple left for good in 1962, minus the art collection which was relocated to Mougins on the Riviera, their last home. Picasso gave Jacqueline the castle causing resentment and a feud between Jacqueline and Picasso’s four children from previous relationships. After his death in 1973, Jacqueline brought his body to Vauvenargues to be buried. The unmarked grave is located under a grassy mound by the castle’s front door. It is guarded by a monumental sculpture. Jacqueline committed suicide in 1986 and her body is resting next to Picasso’s.
Vauvenargues remained a well-kept secret for the following 20 years. Jacqueline‘s daughter by her first husband inherited the property and kept it closed to visitors. The village folks do not seem to have welcomed Picasso in the first place. After his death, they took action to prevent the castle from becoming a shrine and cause traffic havoc in the quaint valley. Now visitors are allowed during the summer months from mid-June to mid-September; visitors cannot roam free in the park surrounding the castle, and their number is also strictly limited. Vauvenargues is worth a visit. There is little so see, but much to feel: Picasso’s spell is overpowering.
Before starting the guided tour, visitors are invited to watch a short film on Picasso’s busy life in Vauvenargues. The artist is surrounded by the devoted and adoring Jacqueline, kids, and dogs. He seemed to enjoy the country life. Never a fashion icon, he usually wears casual and mismatched clothes, like a striped pullover and tartan trousers. He looks very healthy and fit for an 80 year old man. In 2011, the tour included a display of etchings made during the last years of his life.
Picasso once stated “There are only two types of women- goddesses and doormats.” I wonder how many of each type he had among his many muses, mistresses and wives.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

DSK: Post Mortem

The French Socialists are celebrating.  As of Tuesday, August 23, Dominique Strauss Kahn, DSK, their champion, is a free man.  A New York City judge has dismissed the sex case against him.

There won't be a trial, not because DSK did nothing in room 2806, but because his alleged victim, Ms. Nafissatou Diallo, the hotel maid, did too much. Actually she lied too much.  Since the accuser lost her credibility, the prosecutor felt he "could not prove the case before a jury beyond a reasonable doubts." 

The forensic evidence only indicates a hurried sexual encounter between Diallo and DSK without visible violence.  It is a text book case of "she says, he says". She claims a sexual assault.  He insists on a consensual sexual encounter.

DSK's statement looks totally ludicrous to me.  This aspect seems to be lost on the French Socialists.  Is this the latest NYC fairy tale: a tryst between a rich white man and a poor African maid in a discounted hotel suite?  Do you believe it?

For sure, something sleazy took place in the Sofitel suite. If the sexual encounter didn't involve violence, the truth may be found half way between the two opposing claims.  It could have happened like this: the male client requests a quick sexual service and for some reason the service provider, the maid doesn't receive the expected reward, she is upset and feels cheated.  We know what happened next.

So desperate to defeat Sarkozy, the incumbent president, the Socialist party places all its hopes in reviving DSK's political fortune.  I sincerely hope that female voters won't forget that a woman got the short end of the stick, literally speaking, in this story.  

This case may prove to be another setback for legitimate victims of sexual assault. The alleged victim’s past gets thoroughly scrutinized; she is put on trial before the trial. Unless she is totally virgin, she won’t get justice. On the other hand the alleged sexual predator walks out cleared without going through cross-examination.

Friday, July 15, 2011


Dear Ms. Sinclair,
Some days ago, I saw a picture of you coming out of the New York City Supreme Court; you were smiling next to your husband Dominique Strauss-Kahn, DSK as we have come to know him. You had just heard that the legal case against him could be dropped. Not that DSK did nothing in room 2806, but because questions were raised about the credibility of his accuser and alleged victim. Hence your jubilation.  It nonetheless puzzled me.
In the past you condoned the philandering behavior of your husband on the grounds that a politician “must seduce” the voters. Was French seduction at work in room 2806 during this fateful Manhattan week-end? It has been reported that within a twelve hour period, your husband successively had a hooker delivered to his room in the middle of the night and a 20 minute-long sexual encounter or assault (depends who you believe) with a room maid around mid-day. A couple of hours with a well-paid hooker followed by a blow job delivered consensually or forcibly (again, depends who you believe) reflects the behavior of a pathologically promiscuous sicko not that of a seducteur, French or other. Condoms were not found in the suite suggesting unprotected sex among other things. Have you weighed the dire consequences of this carelessness?
I don’t live in France and for this reason never had the opportunity to watch your television programs, but I only heard positive and complimentary comments about your work and skills. So why have you stand by a man who is clearly a sex maniac, a man who one day was bound to expose himself, and hurt both of you? DSK’s behavior shows him to be damaged goods. Therefore my question to you is why did you prop him instead of advancing your own political career?
The media reported that your ultimate goal was to have DSK elected as the first Jewish president of France. Why didn’t you instead bankroll your own election to the Elysée Palace, the French White house? Given your impeccable personal attributes, connections and money, you could have been the star of the Socialist party and become a serious contender for the top job in your own right.
Obviously, you and DSK are joined at the hip, at least until August. However, the case may drag on towards a trial. My advice to you would be to dump DSK into a sex rehab clinic. Perhaps Tiger Woods, who speaks highly of such a clinic in Mississippi, can advise you. Unbelievably and against all odds, DSK still has his fan club among some French Socialist party grandees. These beta males ludicrously believe that DSK can still revive his political ambitions and win the elections. I cannot visualize you, the smart and elegant Parisian acting as a Madam.
The Elysée Palace may be a house of ill repute but it is not yet a bordello.
Sincerely yours,
Wikibea-carioca, July 15, 2011.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Looking for Thelma and Louise

Wikibea is experimenting with video reports and has added the first one to You Tube here :

Remember the mezmerising road movie Thelma & Louise (1991)? My trip to the canyons was a pilgrimage to outdoor movie making before computer generated backdrops became the rage in Hollywood. Arizona and Utah are blessed with grand lanscapes, quintessentially western. In the 60s, John Ford's outdoor settings made the geology student I was dreamed of "roughing it out" in a dusty wilderness of ocre colours. Actually I fullfilled my outdoor longing by moving to Australia. I had promised myself to trail blaze like John Wayne, Robert Redford, and Thelma & Louise in the real western country.

With police cars closing in, Thelma & Louise drove past the "mittens", the red sandstone monoliths of Monument Valley. Finally cornered, the two doom girls decided to end the wild chase by literally going over the cliff. The film ends with a freeze frame of their convertible in mid-air over Dead Horse Point. This south Utah location owes it fateful name to the tragic demise of wild horses, which legend has it were abandoned and died of thirst only couple of miles from the water of the Colorado river.

The second slide show includes Wikibea's pics of two national parks in south Utah. The hoodoos, the stone men of Brice Canyon will take center stage.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Rio de Janeiro: A French Obsession

If the French had not settled in the Bay of Rio in the 16th century, the city would never have been founded. This is not to say that the Portuguese were unaware of Baía da Guanabara (Guanabara Bay), as the area is known. They had cruised along the shore, but the bay had not interested them. The vast territory which was to become Brazil had been officially claimed by Portugal in 1500 when its fleet, under the command of Pedro Álvares Cabral, landed in Porto Seguro 1100 km north of today’s Rio. Actually, a couple of months earlier a Spaniard named Pinzón, a companion of Cristobal Columbus, had landed further north. But, a Spanish-Portuguese treaty had already earmarked the territory for Portugal.
The Portuguese claim didn’t prevent Dutch, Spanish and French navigators to maraud along the coast in search of Pau-Brasil, Brazilian wood valued at the time for its red dye. Then in 1550, a French aristocrat named Nicolas Durand de Villegagnon entered the Guanabara Bay with two ships and six hundred soldiers and colonialists. He built the small Coligny fort on a tiny island which now bears his name. Villegagnon’s purpose was not to plunder natural resources but to settle. He founded the France Antarctique colony.
Villegagnon was a colorful character even by 16th century standards. His CV is impressive; he started his military career as a Knight of Malta and fought the Turkish fleet in the Mediterranean Sea. Villegagnon was also a scientist, explorer, entrepreneur and adventurer, the last two occupations probably being the same thing. He was born a Catholic but had been drawn to the Reformation of Jean Calvin. His religious beliefs are still a matter of argument as they might have changed with his luck.
                                             Villegagnon Island, Guanabara Bay.
The purpose of France Antarctique colony was to have a place to settle Swiss Protestants and French Huguenots along with some Catholics. During this period, France and other parts of Europe were at the stage of bloody sectarian violence between the dominant Catholic population and those who had recently embraced the Reformation. It was pure Utopian to believe that the two religious communities could live in peace on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. As old habits die hard, soon after landing the colonialists started bickering, to the puzzlement of the local Tamoios Indians. Villegagnon left the island to seek reinforcements but never came back.
The Portuguese army defeated the ragtag survivors in 1567. The French dreamland had lasted nearly ten years. Euphoric with his victory, Estácio de Sá, the young Portuguese commander, subsequently founded the city of São Sebastião do Rio de Janeiro, Rio for short. It was not a total loss for the French. To drop their territorial claim they received 30 000 gold ecus from the king of Portugal. The episode is purposely remembered when the cariocas, the citizens of Rio want to nag the Portuguese: a French Rio would have been so much more glamorous!
Pirates and French, English and Dutch privateers continued to roam the coast of Brazil. Again the French had a knack to pick good spots. They traded with the Indians in the bays of Buzios and Cabo Frio not far from Rio. During the 20th century, these two fishing villages became sophisticated resorts visited by the rich and famous, including French icon Brigitte Bardot. In 1612, once again the French landed in Brazil, this time in the far north. They named their new colony Equinoctial France and built the fort of Saint Louis named after the King of France. The settlement was short lived; it was rapidly conquered by the Portuguese in 1615 and renamed São Luis. For a short time, the city was also occupied by the Dutch.
Brazilian coastal cities didn’t see much threatening French action until that fateful month of August 1710, when a Caribbean-born privateer named Jean Francois DuClerc tried to invade Rio. Gold had recently been discovered in the heartland of Brazil, in a region which became the state of Minas Gerais. Gold attracted the interest of DuClerc who wanted to endear himself with the Sun King. The king’s coffers were empty. DuClerc convinced the king to give him six ships and thousand and two hundred soldiers and sailors in order to invade Rio de Janeiro and steal its gold for France. Unfortunately, this straightforward plan went awfully awry.
The Portuguese were tipped of DuClerc’s arrival and the entry of the port of Rio was heavily defended, compelling the French to land in the swampy Barra da Tijuca 20kms west of the city. They had to trek back under the heavy fire of the Portuguese defense. Four hundred soldiers were killed and the survivors were taken prisoners, DuClerc included. The later was taken to a Jesuit monastery on top of Castelo Hill (leveled during the early 20th century urban development). His new home was not to his liking. After arguing that he had no vocation to become a monk, he was moved to the house of a Portuguese officer in downtown Rio. In September, DuClerc was murdered by hooded men in mysterious circumstances. The debonair navy officer had probably been assassinated on the order of a jealous husband. Who knows, taking the oath of chastity might have spared DuClerc’s life.
Not only was France still broke, but its self-image was severely bruised. Immediate retaliations seemed necessary. Now enters the resolute René Duguay-Trouin. He was a native of the port of Saint-Malo in Normandy where his family owned a shipping business. This walled city is fabled for having been the breeding ground of generations of French pirates and privateers. Museums to their glory draw visitors, and a statue to Duguay-Trouin graces one of the city’s squares. As a seasoned privateer, Duguay-Trouin was an expert in the art of ransacking, and he had many naval victories under his belt.
                                    duguay trouin                          
                                     Duguay-Trouin and the Sun King
On 21 September 1711, commanding a twelve ship strong fleet, he appeared in front of Rio. His fleet had entered the Bay of Guanabara with divine help, hidden by a thick fog. In an eleven day battle, his two thousand and six hundred men defeated a stronger Portuguese garrison. After capturing the hapless governor and his men, and freeing the prisoners, the sack of Rio started in earnest. It lasted for two months. The terrified population abandoned its houses and fled to the forest. On November 13, Duguay-Trouin was ready to leave with an impressive but diverse bounty; it included tons of sugar, two hundred heads of cattle, piles of money, bags of gold, church artifacts, and £4 million worth of African slaves. The slaves were promptly sold in Cayenne, the ramshackle capital of French Guyana. The ships were so heavily loaded with loot that a couple of them sank during the journey back to Saint-Malo.
Rio was left reeling, but France had restored its reputation as a nation of dare devil corsairs. The king rewarded Duguay-Trouin with title and land. He was to continue his brilliant navy career but his extravagant and lavish lifestyle left him so destitute that on his death bed he begged the new king a pension for his widow. Duguay-Trouin’s success marked the end of French aggression towards Rio de Janeiro.
The next French foray took place in 1816. Not only was it peaceful but it was welcomed. In 1807, Napoleon had invaded Portugal forcing the Portuguese royal family to flee to Brazil. In 1808, Rio became the capital of the kingdom of Portugal and Brazil. It was still a backwater in great need of cultural shine. In order to correct this situation, the king invited a group of French artists to Rio. Having worked for the defeated Emperor, they were unemployed and therefore keen to accept any work opportunity, even in Brazil. A former court painter, Jean-Batiste Debret, was the most famous among the group. He became a painter of everyday life in Brazil and that of Rio in particular.
His sketches of street scenes, as well as his official commissions of court life, are unparalleled documents of the period. The French mission created the first national art school. During the same period, many foreigners, adventurers and naturalists were invited to visit and document Brazil. Consequently France began to be regarded as a paragon of fine art and class.
This love story with French artists lasted longer than the Brazilian Empire. The young Brazilian republic called on French architects, landscape designers and sculptors to beautify and modernize its capital. Rio’s much photographed icon, the Christ on top of the Corcovado Mountain. was partly sculpted by Paul Landowsky, a Polish born French artist (1921). The statue was built in France and brought back in sections to Rio.
The most recent and significant French undertaking is the Cidade da Musica (City of Music) a cultural complex situated in an urban sprawl known as Barra da Tijuca, west of Rio. The concrete eyesore is the creation of the famed architect Christian de Portzamparc. It was erected to host classical music concerts. The highly controversial building follows the tradition set by other French-inspired cultural projects such as the Rio opera house (built in 1909 and a copy of the Paris opera), namely that they are indecently over budgeted and shamefully behind schedule. Initially expected to be inaugurated in 2004, the Cidade da Musica, renamed Cidade da arte will now be inaugurated in 2012. The first French building of Rio, the Coligny fort of Villegagnon was built on an island. Coincidentally, the Cidade da Arte was also erected on an island, but on an uninviting island set in the middle of two major thoroughfares. Has the French cultural elite lost its panache? Not entirly thanks to monsieur Le Bron! Leblon, one of the huber chic suberb of Rio was named after him!
Beatrice Labonne, April 7, 2011.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

A Latin Pearl with Seventeen Suitcases


On February 3, 2010, at the ripe age of 95 a lady who had been selected in 1972 as one of the “Best Dressed Women” by Vanity Fair magazine passed away in Rio de Janeiro. During the 1950s, 60s and 70s, Mrs. Perla Mattison had been the toast of New York City, Paris, Lisbon and Rio. Perla is Spanish for pearl. Her obituary was totally unnoticed by me until my friend Jackie invited me to join her to browse her vintage clothes sale. Perla had left behind seventeen suitcases of designer clothes, accessories and custom jewelry. During the last twelve years of her life, she had been the house guest of a former French diplomat. After her passing, the gentleman probably felt that the suitcases were taking too much space in his closets and decided to disperse the wardrobe and have a sale[1].

Sales as well as auctions of the personal belongings of deceased celebrities are usually exciting events. They attract a mix of nostalgic fans, bargain hunters and voyeurs eager to rummage through personal items. Perla’s fame was no match to that of Mrs. Wallis Simpson and Princess Diana, but I was nonetheless curious to see what a best-dressed, globe-trotting celebrity wore in another era.

So Jackie and I went to the “attic” sale. There were racks and racks of clothes, several drawers full of custom jewelry and scores of handbags lying on tables. We were informed that the best items, such as famous designers’ evening gowns had been given to a fashion museum in Paris and to the Zuzu Angel Fashion Institute in Rio. (There are plans to upgrade the institute into a museum sometime in the future.) Since Perla was 95 when she died, her clothes were truly vintage and mainly prêt-à-porter, the ready-to-wear type worn by the ladies-who-lunch in New York City or Paris. I didn’t find the collection very inspiring, and definitely too hot to wear in Rio. Although the wardrobe on sale spanned three decades, it was obvious that she kept her slim figure until the end of her life. On the other hand, her heap of custom jewelry could have come from Ali Baba’s cave! Jackie purchased a cuff bracelet, and I a heavy antic ivory necklace. My purchase had more to do with acquiring a piece of memorabilia than making a fashion statement.

Being the proud owner of a piece of Perla Mattison’s collection, I was keen to find out a little more about the lady. My Web search was disappointing; Google was not very informative. If La Perla, the sexy underwear brand from Italy had many entries, sadly Perla the socialite had very few; the different sources all quoted the same information. The more I searched, the less I found on Mrs. Perla Mattison. Although she knew le tout New York et le tout Paris, everybody who is anybody in these two cities, she is often listed as an international social figure often under her second husband’s name Mrs. Graham D. Mattison.

She was born Perla de Lucena. She was not Brazilian but from Uruguay, and as a young woman moved to Rio. Her first husband was named Michel Slimovic, he was a “director” at the Financial Times. Her marriage allowed her to launch an international celebrity life and build a designer wardrobe. From then on Perla’s name was associated with the European Gotha, and the Paris haute couture.

Graham D. Mattison, her second husband, was an American lawyer cum investment banker. Contrary to the first husband, the second one left a trail of entries on Google. He is mainly remembered for having been the lawyer of Poor Little Rich Girl Barbara Hutton and having made alleged dubious investments on her behalf. Other sources claim that he swindled $ 17 million from the Hutton estate. To add insult to injury, Mattison was a character in the TV miniseries “Poor Little Rich Girl: the Life of Barbara Hutton” starring David Ackroyd with Farrah Fawcett in the leading role of Barbara. She had died ten years earlier at the age 66, seven times divorced and with allegedly $ 4000 left in the bank. In the course of her short life, the Woolworth heiress had managed to squander some $50 million, probably a billion in todays’ money.

One of the highlights of Perla’s social life in Paris was her attendance in 1969 at the extravagant Oriental Ball. The ball was the tour de force of the colorful Baron Alexi de Rédé. She was ravishingly dressed as a Chinese princess. According to the media, the Baron’s ball put to shame the Sun King’s lavish fêtes at Versailles Palace. In 1972 came the highest recognition; Perla was elected the best dressed woman by the American magazine Vanity Fair. During this period, she was jet setting between Paris, New York and her mansion in Cascais in Portugal with luminaries like Oscar de la Renta, Pierre Balmain, Mrs. São Schlumberger of the oil exploration business, baroness Hélène de Rothschild, and writer Truman Capote. According to the New York Times, she also attended functions for Queen Sirikit of Thailand and shoe-obsessed Imelda Marcos of the Philippines.


In his “Conversations” interviews (1987) Capote mentioned that he admired Perla’s style and extraordinary South American chic. According to him “There is a certain kind of South American girl who is unique”. He also singled out Bianca Jagger for being another stylish Latin beauty.

According to a short New York Times obituary, Graham Mattison died in Rio in 1987 aged 81. The Google trail now gets cold. As her wardrobe indicates, Perla was no longer jet-setting and gracing Europe high society balls. It seems that her husband had left her with little money. She would occasionally travel to Paris but spent much of her time in Rio. Her wardrobe became more carioca.

For the proud owner of a Perla’s memento, my search for information was a frustrating exercise. I found more information on her Cascais house, which was pictured in Architectural Digest the decoration magazine (1982) than on her jet-setting lifestyle. Many of her high society friends like Mrs. São Schlumberger, Viscountess de Ribes, Baroness Hélène de Rothschild were the subjects of countless magazine articles; it would seem fitting for Perla to be remembered with articles by magazines like Vogue and Vanity Fair which had praised her so much for her style and grace. Otherwise her legacy will be limited to seventeen suitcases of clothes and a short sentence. She is quoted as having said in Portuguese that “To have glamour means to please without trying”[2].

Beatrice Labonne, Rio de Janeiro,

2 December, 2010


[2] Ter glamour significa agradar sem ter a intenção.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Soaking Wet On The Gold Diggers’trail

In Brazil, Carnivals are usually drenched; Carnival 2011 was no exception. Rain or shine, carnivals are nonetheless celebrated with equal fervor. I decided to escape the chaos of street carnival in Rio de Janeiro and fly to the colonial towns of São João del-Rei and Tiradentes located on the Old Gold Trail in Minas Gerais. The state de Minas Gerais (MG) endured non-stop rain during the four-day long holidays.
Consequently my trip started badly. The rain was so heavy over São João del-Rei that the small propeller plane couldn’t land and skipped the stop-over. It finally landed in Belo Horizonte, the capital of MG. We then drove back to São João del-Rei. With heavy traffic and a wet road, the 180 kms drive lasted four hours.
Gold was discovered at the end of the 17th century in several rivers in a rough wilderness of forests and mountains some 300 kms as the crow flies north of Rio. Mining gave its name to the state: Minas Gerais means General Mines in Portuguese. Gold mining was a gift to Brazilian architecture; it offered Brazil some of its most charming colonial towns namely Ouro Preto, Mariana, Sabará, Congonhas, São João del-Rei and Tiradentes. The first trail to link the gold mining areas to the sea for shipment to Portugal became known as the Caminho velho, or the Old Trail. It linked the town of Ouro Preto in MG to the port of Paraty south-west of Rio de Janeiro.
Two decades later, a new and shorter trail, caminho novo was opened to reach the city of Rio de Janeiro. When diamonds were discovered in the region of Diamantina 380 kms north of Ouro Preto the new trail was extended to reach the diamond fields. The old and new trails make up the 1605 kms long Estrada Real, or Royal Highway. The trails are still partially paved.
Tiradentes, Diamantina and the small quaint port of Paraty are my favorite colonial towns. When gold and diamonds became exhausted at the beginning of the end of the 18th century, these towns were left to their fates. They don’t quite qualify as mining ghost towns, but they were passed over by development and nearly forgotten for over hundred years. Tiradentes and Paraty are located on the old gold trail. Their long economic slumber preserved their baroque-style architecture, and the atmosphere of the quaint streets. The cities’ unspoiled colonial heritage makes them particularly attractive to tourists. During this very wet 2011 carnival, Tiradentes was drenched by rain and flooded by tourists from all over Brazil.
The easiest and more comfortable way to visit Tiradentes is to fly[1] to São João del-Rei which is 12 kms from Tiradentes. São João is a very prosperous city which weathered the gold bust by finding economic alternatives such as trade, agriculture and industry. One would think that this reconversion obliterated its colonial heritage, but this not so. The town is worth a visit; many of its remarkable cultural sites are well preserved notably in the small colonial center. The colonial 18th century is well illustrated by five impressive baroque churches and several mansions referred to as solares in Portuguese. It also displays ornate and colorful early 20th century Belle Epoque architecture legacy of its continuous prosperity.
The family house of São João’s famous son Tancredo de Almeida Neves is particularly attractive (left). Tancredo as he is affectionately known in Brazil was democratically elected president in 1985 after two decades of military dictatorship. Sadly, he was never officially president as he died before taking the oath of office. Across the street from Tancredo’s solar, one can visit the house of another famous member of the Neves family, that of Tancredo’s cousin Lucas Cardinal Moreira Neves. Lucas Neves was considered a serious papal contender to replace John Paul II. He was a descendant of slaves on his mother side. Unfortunately the Neveses’ brilliant prospects were defeated by their respective poor health. Don Lucas died two years before the pope he was tipped to succeed. It is not all lost for the Neves dynasty. The young, dynamic and good looking Aécio Neves, former Governor of MG and now a federal senator, could become the candidate of the opposition for the 2014 presidential election. Thanks God, Aécio seems to be in very good health!
One cannot leave São João without visiting its five splendid churches. Two are notably stunning, São Francisco de Assis, and Nossa Senhora do Pilar; known as matriz, equal to a cathedral. The later has a statue which required 12 kilos of gold, countless diamonds and emeralds.
It is too bad the rain drenched the street carnival. São João is renowned for its old fashioned parades, which are a healthy antidote to the high-tech, over-the-top samba schools parades of Rio. São João is also famous for its white rum cachaça and its pewter artifacts. Although tin is no longer mined in the region, the pewter industry survived. Mineiros, as the inhabitants of MG are known pride themselves as cachaça connoisseurs. Hundreds of brands of hand crafted cachaças can be purchased in selected stores. My favorite brand is the famed Cachaça do Beethoven. There is a very simple explanation to this incongruous name; it is the name of its owner. Beethoven da Silva or Beethoven Sousa Perreira, who knows?
The most exotic means of transportation between São João and Tiradentes is with the famous Maria Fumaça, or Smoky Mary, the grand old dame of steam locomotives. The one which I took was built in the United States of America in 1912. The 12 kms ride takes about 35 minutes; Maria Fumaça leisurely slithers through the suburbs of São João del-Rei; there are no railway crossing barriers, and the whistle warms car drivers of the incoming train. It is such a beloved attraction that even local people wave at Maria’s passage.
The train rides alongside the Rio das Mortes, or River of the Dead. The river owes its creepy name to the deadly battles between the rag tag explorers and gold diggers from São Paulo, called the bandeirantes, and the Portuguese gold prospectors. Gold had been discovered by the former in 1702. The town of Tiradentes owes its name to Joaquim José da Silva Xavier who was born in the vicinity. Tiradentes (pull teeth in Portuguese) was his nick-name as he occasionally practiced as a dentist. Tiradentes became a republican hero for having, at the time of the French revolution, raised a small army of followers against the Portuguese colonial government. He was hanged in Rio in 1792.
Even during its gold digging heydays in the 1700s, Tiradentes never compared with elegant towns like São João del-Rei or Ouro Preto. It has retained its charming rustic feel; its streets are still paved with big uneven stone slabs known as pé-de-moleque in Portuguese, because only bare foot street urchins could manage this rough pavement. Its main church, Santo Antonio, has an unassuming façade. However half a ton of gold was used to cover the rococo engravings and carving of its nave. The choir displays a beautiful Portuguese organ dating from 1779, and which is still working.
My favorite church is Nossa Senhora do Rosario dos Pretos which, legend has it was built at night by slaves using gold dust smuggled under their finger nails. The church is modest in size but displays a beautifully painted ceiling. At the time of the gold rush the Africans, slaves or free men, made up 70 percent of the population of the settlement.
Now Tiradentes is going through a second golden age, that of tourism. The main attractions of Tiradentes are music and religious festivals, handicrafts, boutique hotels, gastronomy and eco-tourism. The village has become a large craft emporium selling folk art, textiles and furniture made out of salvaged wood in the neighboring village of Bichinho. During this carnival, hordes of tourists, their dripping umbrellas in one hand and wallet in the other, were busy raiding the many small shops in search of the perfect souvenir. Restaurants seem to be opened 24 hours a day! Since my last visit three years ago, many have now become “kilo” restaurants, selling food by weight. “Kilo” is the Brazilian response to buffet meals.
Tiradente should be avoided during tourism hustle bustle times such as carnival and Holy Week when Cariocas, the inhabitants of Rio; Paulistas those of São Paulo; and Mineiros mainly from Belo Horizonte descend on the city. Tiradente is best enjoyed when empty, the way it was when it went into oblivion, isolated from the aggression of economic development.
The sun came out the day of my departure. The plane landed safely in SJ del-Rei and we took off for Rio, a thirty minute flight.
Beatrice Labonne, Rio de Janeiro, March 13, 2011.

[1] TRIP airline flies from Rio de Janeiro’s Santos Dumond airport.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Oscar & I

"I think that God in creating Man somewhat overestimated his hability".                  
Oscar Wilde.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

The “Vampirish” Black Swan of Darren Aronofsky

There is so much media buzz about Black Swan the film of Director Darren Aronofsky that movies goers want to see the film for themselves.  According to the many film critics who reviewed Black Swan, the film is either brilliant or utterly manipulative and shameless. My curiosity got the best of me. I reluctantly went to see the film, à reculons as the French say, walking backwards. I was not sure that I will like it in spite of the positive comments made by a lady friend.
The beginning of the film was not auspicious. All the main characters, Nina (Natalie Portman) the fragile and infantile ballet dancer, her mother, and the maître de ballet were all mean characters, as well as caricatures of their trade. Erica, the mother embodied the Mommy Dearest stereotype, without the flourish of Joan Crawford, the all-time queen of mean. I also found Lily, Nina’s nemesis totally miscast. I am not a ballet expert but this girl has neither the body nor the posture of a ballerina. She exhibited a big eagle tattoo on her back. Was I watching the Guardian Angels’ version of Swan Lake?
clip_image002Oronofsky’s Black Swan
Natalie Portman’s dancing looked fine, but she is no first ballerina material. In order to compensate for her lack of ballet skills, her training focused on her arms and upper body. The leg and foot work which was seen on the screen was that of a true ballet dancer. Although I admire Portman’s talent as an actress, I could not take her ballet part seriously.
I understand why the film struck such a raw nerve in the ballet community. At one stage I felt like leaving, but as I was seating in the middle of a row I was “prisoner”. I tried to concentrate on the plot, part thriller and part horror.  Nina is both destroying and reinventing herself in her search for emancipation and perfection. I often closed my eyes to enjoy the haunting music of Tchaikovsky which was mixed with electronic elements to a very dramatic effect. Sorry to admit but I giggled at the last scene when blood gushed out of the white swans’ stomach. Vampirish.
The bottom line is that I was certainly brainwashed by the negative reviews. After seeing the film, I read a couple of positive reviews which I didn’t find very convincing. I found the film entertaining but goofy and far-fetched. It is loaded with standard clichés of melodrama. Nathalie Portman’s performance is mesmerizing, bona fide Oscar material. The masturbation scene and the lesbian sex episode were risqué elements in an otherwise campy Hollywood fare. I look forwards to your comments (any languages) and argument. Select the “Anonymous” profile to do so.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

IT obsessed,

To my mentors, Caryl, Peter and Luis Alfredo,
Writing is a hobby which I kept on the back burner when I was employed.  Then I wrote reports, chapters in books, keynote addresses, etc.… As soon as I retired from the United Nations I started scribbling stories, irreverent anecdotes and travelogues.  Brazil and the south of France titillated my inspiration.   Peter invited me to post my articles on his website  He gave me web exposure.  I never worried whether my articles generated hit traffic!  Peter never cared either, he would upload them no question asked.  I was one of his literary guests.
English is not my mother tongue but I relish the additional challenge and rewards of writing in this acquired language.  French, my native language is not a language for beginners.  It has strict rules and complex codes and doesn’t come to me easily any more.  Moreover, I can’t compete with my articulate French friends who eloquently write about their activities and tend to dismiss everything outside their self-defined norms.  One of my friends has even released a real book sold on  To write in English is a safer way for me.  It is the lingua franca of my globalized playground.  Last but not least most of my French speaking friends read English, mine in particular.
My New York friend Caryl played a central role in facilitating my literary pursuits.  During all these years, she has been my patient and considerate editor.   A brilliant “track change” wizard, she helped me polish my rough sentences to ensure that they made sense to English-speaking readers.   Caryl may lament that in spite of her steady editing, I still haven’t fully mastered the art of English punctuation.
Finally, my buddy Luis Alfredo, who shared with me an earlier addiction to minerals stimulated my interest in one-way blogging.  He recently launched a blog celebrating luminaries like Keats and Proust.  Ex-geologist and present day “bon vivant”, Luis Alfredo gave me my boarding card to the blogosphere.
Three wonderful friends to whom I owe a mega byte debt of gratitude.
IT: Information Technology.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Winter Fashion In Rio de Janeiro: The City of Fur Trimmed bikinis.

Under the tropics the arrival of winter is usually a nonevent. The State of Rio de Janeiro, which straddles the Tropic of Capricorn, is the exception to the rule. In the state capital São Sebastião do Rio de Janeiro, Rio for short, the climate doesn’t make winter, fashion does. Women’s fashion, that is. With the strong encouragement of the local fashion industry, the Carioca (inhabitants of Rio) women have created winter for the sake of changing their wardrobe.
All year round, Rio enjoys temperatures ranging from 20° to 30° Celsius. Based on my personal experience, we tend to sweat twelve months a year! According to the Lonely Planet guide of Brazil, the Carioca winter occurs between June and August. Temperatures stay in the mid-20s, and very rarely drop to single digit at night. However, for Northern Hemisphere visitors who are used to harsh temperature swings, winter in Rio comes and goes hardly noticed. I have recently been spending Southern Hemisphere summers in Rio. I then pack off for Europe as soon as Rio women start wearing darker colours. In the 1970s, when I lived and worked in Rio, I remember wearing the same summer clothes all year round. I added a little cardigan in the evening and a light raincoat when it rained. Nowadays, dressing habits have changed dramatically.
Rio women take their winter, albeit one of an inoffensive variety, very seriously. By mid-March, Carioca shop windows start displaying winter fashion. The bright and vivid hues of summer give way to all shades of brown, olive green, bronze, purple and black. Foliage brown seems to be the “in” colour of this season’s winter glamour. On the Paris or New York winter catwalks, these colours are just as fundamental as woolen coats, tartan skirts, furry hats and suede boots. Yet, in Rio, the cuts and styles which were popular in summer seem to have been recycled. An untrained eye can easily dismiss winter fashion as summer fashion in darker colours.
Leave it to the local fashonistas to spot the fundament differences in a teeny-tiny dress, for instance. In addition to clothes, shoes and accessories are offered in matching dark colours. Fashion is becoming big business in Brazil. If Rio is the indisputable leader of summer style, it still cannot compete with colder São Paulo, the trendsetter of winter fashion. Carioca fashion victims will fall over themselves to outdo their Paulista sisters. There is no limit to their creativity, except excess.

Only in Rio can one buy a winter bikini! The winter number is not a more modestly cut swimwear. It is the standard Ipanema beach bikini, but cut in a darker print. Excess in bikini fashion rarely equates with more fabric! I spotted a fur-trimmed string bikini in the window of one of Rio’s leading bikini shops. As boots are the must-have winter item for fashonistas, soon Cariocas will strut their stuff in Ipanema in fur-trimmed bikinis and matching fur-lined boots!
For me, brainwashed by European prejudice, I find winter fashion without winter weather rather incongruous. I scoff at the idea that women can enslave themselves to designers’ whims, and follow their fashion diktat. As there is no obvious link between climate and clothes, the main purpose of wearing winter clothes in Rio is to make a fashion statement, and possibly answer an emotional craving. I strongly believe that the Carioca designers have something up their sleeves-literally.
A recent issue of the US Vogue magazine ran a visionary article on the probable impact of global warming on fashion. The author was lamenting the likely disappearance of “seasons as we know them.” By creating the illusion of season change, haven’t the Rio designers anticipated the impact of climate change? The fashion victims of today may become the fashion gurus of tomorrow.

Beatrice Labonne, Rio de Janeiro. 10 April, 2006.
Revised: 1 February, 2011.

Monday, January 31, 2011

The Disposable Carnival Woman


    A couple of weeks before the Rio carnival takes place, Brazilian newspapers start disclosing the carnival trends.  Chief among this year’s trends was the arrival of a previously unknown female species referred to as fruit-women or mulher-fruita in Portuguese.  Carnival over, these women disappear as mysteriously as they had appeared.

    Brazil is a tropical country endowed with both curvaceous women and big and juicy fruits.  Melancia, morango, maçã, abóbora, mamão are the respective Portuguese names for watermelon, strawberry, apple, squash, and papaya.   These names sound better in Portuguese!  Fruit women experts certainly are able to tell the difference between a morango and a melancia woman.  I can’t; for me they all are large butt women.  Actually, I should add large butt and big thighs.  Brazilian women always have taken pride in their generous “derriere” but the big thigh thing is a relatively new fad. 

    “Fruit of the loom”

    A sample of Fruit Woman. Photo courtesy of Globo, Feb 23, 2009.

    To qualify, a potential fruit-woman has to spend hours working out and weightlifting.  Leg curls and leg presses are the tools of the trade to tone those quadriceps and butt muscles.  The result is quite striking.  One celebrated fruit woman of the 2009 crop displayed thighs so big that in comparison American football players look like pencil-leg boys!

    These muscular body shapes cannot be achieved with hard work only.  It has been reported that anabolic steroid cocktails are part of the diet.

    “Nip and tuck” comes in handy too.  Brazil is a leader in cosmetic plastic surgery and to make surgery affordable it can be paid in easy installments.  Body enhancement requires kilos of silicone implants in strategic locations like boobs and bum.   I am pretty sure that Brazil is the largest consumer of silicone per capita. The above pictured lady had 400 grams injected in each boob and another 500 in each buttock.  In newspapers, fruit-women are commonly described by their hip and breast measurements, as well as the number of cosmetic surgeries they went through and the loads of silicone in their body.  Trade-show cows don’t suffer so much indignity.  Obviously the fruit-women relish the short-lived publicity.

    Although the fruit-women are very young, mostly in their early 20s, many may not last very long.  Like fruit, they have short shelf-lives.  It is quite ironic that in spite of the effort and expense, the 2009 crop has not managed to outshine the beloved queens of the carnival parade.   This year again, Luiza Brunet and Luma de Oliveira were all the talk of the Sambodrome.   Once more these 40 something former models have taken the carnival avenue by storm.  They have paraded for years and keep breaking the youth beauty paradigm, not to mention Suzana Viera, who at 63 is the samba queen grandma.

    Suzana and Beethoven, the samba parade dog.  Photo Globo.

    However, the true sweetheart of the 2009 samba parade was a stray dog hastily named Beethoven.  By parading uninvited every night during the whole carnival week, Beethoven proved to be a true Carioca dog.  His status consequently was upgraded from unwelcome stray to top dog:  He got proper credentials for the last night of carnival and also found a good home for the rest of its life!

    Vanitas vanitatum omnia vanitas” isn’t it so Beethoven?

    Beatrice Labonne, March 21, 2009.

French Cowboys Don’t Wear Jeans


The French cowboy was officially born 100 years ago in the Camargue in the south of France in Provence.  In fact, he was reborn as a folk hero, American Wild West style in 1909. Cowboys have always lived in the marshes of the Camargue (the delta of the Rhône River). The region is the ancestral home of the diminutive black Camargue bull, the smallish white Camargue horse and the normal-size pink Camargue flamingo.  Camargue cowboys are known as gardians, and like their American counterparts they herd cattle.  Cattle ranches are called manades which is the French translation of manado, or herd, in the local Occitan language.   

The inventor of the folk hero gardian was the romantic eccentric “Marquis” Folco de Baroncelli of Provence.  Because he bred livestock and loved the Camargue’s way of life, he dedicated his life to revive, re-organize and promote its local traditions. On 16 September 1909 the marquis founded the Nacioun Gardiano1 which in Occitan means the Gardian Nation.  The Camargue’s traditions are centered on the bulls and additionally on the horse and its rider.  The marquis had recently befriended William Frederic Cody aka Buffalo Bill during his 1889 European and French tour.  Consequently, some authors claimed that Baroncelli was so impressed by the Wild West folklore that he wanted to replicate it in the Camargue which offered the necessary attributes.  Other pundits believed that the marquis, who was a dyed-in-the wool Provençal and an Occitan speaker wanted to protect the local traditions against the centralizing and controlling forces of the Paris-based French République.  

In reviving the rural traditions this pioneer regionalist may not have anticipated that he was creating a winning tourism business for the region. The gardians of Camargue are the guardian angels of the bull herds. The bulls are free range, wild and plucky.  The gardians don’t participate in rodeos like their Wild West counterparts; they don’t throw lassos either.  They ride all day long to catch calves for branding, take bulls from the pastures to the paddock abrivado in Occitan and to the arènes or rings where bulls and men defy one another.  Bulls are mainly bred to become kings of the arènes during the courses camarguaises. 

Courses camarguaises are the local version of bullfighting without the blood.  If blood is occasionally spilt it is that of the man who teases the bulls. This man is known as arasseteur.  With the help of a hook (rasset) he tries to remove colorful ribbons artfully pinned between the bull’s horns. Gardians, bulls and horses are also fixtures of the fêtes votives, the annual patron saint celebrations of the hundreds of villages in and around Camargue2.


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    Figure 1: Camargue Gardians enter the arenas with their charges in St Laurent d'Aigouse, August 2009

To put to the test his reviving efforts, the marquis sought the approval of experts.  In his view, no one could do this better than Buffalo Bill and his Sioux chiefs. When Buffalo Bill returned to France in 1905 he traveled to the south.  The party set up its big tent in Nimes, a town located north of the Camargue.  The marquis invited the Americans to bull sorting and branding in le Cailar, a village still renowned for its festive and genuine fêtes votives.  From there, men, horses and bulls traveled to the village of Gallargues a distance of 10 kms.  The Americans were so impressed by the show that they presented the marquis a pair of pearl-embroidered Indian moccasins.  The whole episode was reported in a famous Occitan newspaper.  The Nacioun Gardiano had successfully passed the test. 

One would have thought that Buffalo Bill traveled to Nimes to see for himself the city where denim, the fabric of blue jeans was born.  In 19th century America, the rugged blue cotton twill fabric called serge de Nimes became denim for short.  Dry goods merchant Levi Straus imported loads of the textile through the port of Genoa (or Gênes in French), from which the word jeans is derived.  Levi Straus made his fortune by selling his riveted pants to both cowboys and gold diggers toiling in the American Old West. 

The Camargue of Baroncelli’s time was unaware of the blue jeans craze in gold rush California.  Ironically, blue jeans are anathema to the gardians’ outfit.  No genuine gardian will dare to wear them in public. The marquis insisted that the gardians follow a very strict dress code. They were required to wear cotton moleskin pants in grey, beige or black. However, the black soft brimmed hat was optional. 

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     Figure 2: Camargue abrivado: Gardians escorting two black bulls in 2008!

When the marquis founded the Nacioun Gardiano he may not have anticipated that the trade would become increasingly feminine.  It is not an entirely surprising development as there are more girls than boys in French riding schools. Reflecting the French race mix, the guardian business attracts riders of African descent.    

Now the Nacioun Gardiano is celebrating its 100-year anniversary.  The marquis may not have foreseen that his brainchild would still entertain the local folks, as well as attract thousands of tourists to the Camargue.  The region’s folklore is unique in France as both tourists and locals cheer together the bulls, horses and men.  Horse and bull shows are vital to the local economy. It is a small price to pay to keep old traditions alive.  Buffalo Bill and his Sioux would have certainly approved. 

Beatrice Labonne

Calvisson, France

September 2009

Sunday, January 30, 2011

The "Queendom" of chic bikinis

The INC girls with Lenny, the Carioca swimsuit goddess, January 2011. "Dress shabbily and they remember the dress;dress impeccably and they remember the woman." Coco Chanel.

Rio de Janeiro is regarded as a picture of hedonism; a postcard of Ipanema beach illustrates this perception.  For decades, Ipanema has been the trendsetter in beach-wear, and the home of the skimpy bikini.  One doesn’t visit Rio without dropping in at a bikini store near the beach.  This store is probably named “Lenny”.  Lenny is a house name in Rio.  It is the first name of Ms. Lenny Niemeyer who founded the brand.  In Brazil, celebrities such as soccer players or presidents, are one-moniker persons (e.g. Lula, Dilma, and Pelé).  Ms. Niemeyer is known as Lenny. 
Lenny was not trained a beachwear and swimsuit designer but as a lanscape designer.  She is related to the famous centenarian architect Oscar Niemeyer.  Legend has it that she became a bikini designer because she could not find any suitable bikinis on the market.  She started her brand in 1993; her Carioca beach wear and fashion business has now crossed the Atlantic and is known for quality, style and wear-ability.  Her business is an achievement, as well as a design succes.  Doing business in Brazil is not for the faint of heart! Brazil may be making a buzz in the economic section of magazines, but it is not an easy country in which to do business.  It ranks 127 out of 183 economies on the 2011 World Bank Doing Business list.  Lenny’s business success is only more outstanding.
 As the proud owner of couple of Lenny’s bikinis, I had always wanted to meet her and hear her story as a successful woman entrepreneur.  Many of my friends in the International club of Rio (INC) wanted to meet with her as well.  An appointment was set through Ms. Luiza, her marketing person.  Sixteen women from different nationalities went to Lenny’s factory in Botafogo, a suburb of Rio. 
We met in her spacious, light and friendly office.  Sketches were laying on a table and wall to wall garment racks made the place unassuming but business-like.  Lenny was wearing a trapeze-cut white shirt over skinny jeans.  She greeted us warmly with a kiss, a time-honored Brazilian tradition.  We felt very welcome; soft drinks and pães de queijo (a kind of cheese buns) were served.  We chatted for over an hour.
She candidly shared with us her experience as a business woman and the many challenges she faced, how her business grew one step at a time, her patience and resourcefulness to confront the odds to stick to her business model and finally how she organizes her workers (around 150) and manages her purchases.  She explained her frustration in maintaining quality control of her products and she lamented that she had to import accessories from China instead of buying them locally.  This matter was not lost on us since we had recently visited the Sebrae craft center in downtown Rio.  Sebrae is a business organization which helps craftsmen use their own crafts to build a reliable business.  Based on Lenny’s misgivings, Sebrae has its job cut out for it.
Many of us have Lenny bikinis or beachwear in our closets.  To buy a bikini is a fearful experience for any woman, unless they are 18 or have the body of Gisele Bundchen. The first challenge is to face the light of the dressing room which makes one look fatter and flabbier than one thinks.  Swimsuits never seem to have been cut for one's bodies.  If the top fits, the bottom doesn’t.  Women face a special hurdle in choosing a bikini in Brazil.  Here bikinis, as well as one-piece suits, are smaller than elsewhere, they are cut lower too.  Above all, the bottom part of the bikini is made of two minute triangles of fabric, with the back even smaller than the front.  Lenny doesn't sell these dental floss-type bikinis, moreover a woman can place special order bikinis with the bottom and top in different sizes to fit bosomy or flat-chested bodies.  Lenny’s bikinis are flattering because they are well-cut, in stretched fabric with pleasing prints.  
We visited her factory.  The print selection process was particularly interesting; Lenny purchases the printed fabric which she can modify to her choice with a computer program.  The visit ended in the show room where we enjoyed viewing her latest collection of beachwear and chic street wear, a new addition to her line of business.  Our visit over, we went to thank Lenny for her gracious hospitality.  She gave us a nice cologne with her new collection catalogue.  We were touched by her generosity and straightforwardness, qualities often lacking in successful people.  Lenny, the carioca swimwear queen had found the time to chat with us.  Surely many of us will become loyal Lenny customers.
Before organizing the visit I had searched the web for up-to-date information on Lenny and her business.  I came across the King Monty blog which irreverently claims that Lenny is the “queen of bums” for us she is the queen of chic bums.  It makes a hell of a lot of difference.

Beatrice Labonne, 6 February 2011.