Saturday, March 8, 2014



        Somewhere in a Posh Suburb of a Mythical Brazilian Metropolis


Grand Hotel Fofoca is as exotic as Grand Hotel Budapest but will never be as famous. Nor does it compare with Hotel des Bains in Venice which inspired Thomas Mann’s novel Death in Venice.  F. Scott Fitzgerald uses the Seelbach Hotel in Louisville, Kentucky, as a model for the venue of Daisy and Tom Buchanan’s wedding in his The Great Gatsby novel. The Savoy of London still serves its famous fluffy Omelet Arnold Bennett named after the novelist who wrote Imperial Palace in the hotel. Hotels have always motivated story telling by great and not so great novelists. I evidently place myself in a third category, that of amateur writers.

My source of inspiration is Anita Brookner’s novel Hotel du Lac, the 1984 Booker prize winner. Her heroine is a mild-mannered English spinster who observes the visitors and boarders of a hotel on the shore of Lake Geneva. Another spinster, neither English nor mild-mannered, surveyed the coming and going of the guests and staff of Grand Hotel Fofoca (GHF).



                 Archive picture of Grand Hotel Fofoca, circa 1980

Fofoca is gossip in Portuguese, and GHF is a gossip mill, more the setting of a telenovela as soap opera is known in Latin America than of a novel. Brazil is seen as a happy and hassle-free country and Grand Hotel Fofoca is a microcosm of Brazil. GHF offers both anonymity and friendliness. For infrastructure and services the hotel is worth three stars, but in matter of gossip it deserves five. Its mix of long-term residents and passing guests makes the hotel fascinating.

People tend to wrongly believe that hotels are only inhabited by short-term guests. Very much to the contrary, it is their long-term residents who make hotels legendary. Who would remember the decrepit Chelsea hotel in New York City, except for its colorful long-term residents? Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin, and Leonard Cohen to name a few. The Claridge hotel in London is best remembered for the many European kings who took refuge there during WWII and for Hollywood legend Spencer Tracy who claimed that he would rather go to the Claridge than to heaven when he dies.

There are many hotels named Claridge in Brazil, but I doubt that any of them match Grand Hotel Fofoca’s vibrancy and melodrama. Like many Brazilian telenovelas, GHF is effectively a miniature of the social mix of Brazil, a Carioca version of the British television dramas Upstairs Downstairs and Downton Abbey, guests and residents upstairs and staff downstairs. In spite of its apparent easygoingness and casualness, Brazil is still a notably unequal society very much like that of the 1920s and 1930s in England.

About thirty percent of the GHF apartments are occupied by long-term residents who have known each other for years and enjoy exchanging news and gossip. GHF also takes pride on its low staff turnover; thus, old timers are found on both sides of the social divide. Like Downton Abbey, this situation creates bonds. In GHF, some residents are more equal than others, and comparison between GHF and Downton Abbey stops here. The patriarch of Downton Abbey is benevolent and hands-off, on the contrary GHF is run like an absolute monarchy by a nouveau riche autocrat more Putin than Sun King. GHF is his Sochi, both his personal preserve and playground. No one dares questioning his decisions. Not only are the “downstairs”, i.e. the staff terrified but the “upstairs” are passively accepting his diktats.

Brazil is experiencing a fast upward social mobility and the GHF boss perfectly illustrates this change. This foul-mouthed and ill-mannered fellow moved from a suburban environment to the most expensive and elitist corner of the city. Now he lives and runs an elegant hotel, and success went to his head. A perfect case of social climbing syndrome. Literature has not been kind to this sort, epitomized by Gatsby. If they move up, they can fall back down again.  On the other hand, Brazilian telenovelas are quite tolerant towards the crass and power hungry, they are called cafajeste. A Brazilian parvenu rarely loses his money, unless his name is Eike Batista who happened to lose US$ 33 billion in 2013. His piggy bank is full enough to protect him from the disgrace of moving back to the suburbs.

In GHF, the “upstairs” are mostly single, female and past a certain age. These ladies know how to flatter the despot’s ego and machismo, an additional attribute to his personality. He dotes on them with small favors but they are no fools and giggle behind his back.

As expected, businessmen make a sizeable portion of the “upstairs”. Many of them are in the oil business. They live alone, leave early, come home late and go back to their families for the week-end. “Putin” never misses a chance to ingratiate himself with these alpha males. They are the oligarchs of the GHF. Not all male residents work; one is notoriously idle, supported by a wealthy woman. Gigolos are expected to have good manners and social skills but he is the exception to the profession. Well past his prime and known for his big mouth and constant complaining, rumor has it that his lady protector has parted with him.  His days in the hotel may be numbered.  Yet he refuses to leave the apartment she provided him with. Brazilian legislation is on his side, so he may stay longer than common sense would allow.

And then there is Sujismundo, an inoffensive looking fellow with an offensive body odor. Sujismundo is the cartoon character of a government campaign to motivate Rio inhabitants to literally clean their act. The hotel’s Sujismundo is a long-term resident, originally from a southern European country who in spite of many years spent in Brazil has still not grasped that personal hygiene deficit is a capital sin. His foul body odor precedes him on the treadmill and lingers for hours after he steps off. As soon as he arrives people clear off, one wonders if it is not a ploy to work out solo. Surprisingly, the boss has failed to put an end to this smelly matter.

As expected, the hotel fills up with tourists during holidays like Carnival, mostly from Sâo Paulo and the south of Brazil. They want to have a good time and take advantage of Rio’s attractions. For these revelers the fun starts in the GHF, and the resulting cohabitation with the long-term residents is, to put it mildly uneasy. The swimming pool area and work-out room are battle grounds. The residents would prefer their hotel without any guests. Many old-timers leave during the holidays to avoid the confusion and rowdiness of the holiday partygoers.

Tourists come and go and are usually faceless except for two young ladies who recently spent a week in GHF. Their physical attributes and their inexplicable presence were the talk of the hotel. Every morning they would climb on the stair master and take hundreds of selfies. Coincidently, the workout room would become very crowded with people who never lifted weights in their whole life! The girls became known as Valesca Popozuda’s clones. Ms Popozuda (pictured below) is famous or infamous depending on one’s view, she epitomizes Brazilian celebrity trash. She makes a living as a showgirl, samba and funk music dancer cum singer. She is a silicone doll, having implanted one liter of the stuff in her breast and the same amount in her buttocks to impressive results. Like Ms Popozuda, the two guests displayed enormous boobs, huge buttocks and strong thighs, the result of strenuous workout. A glass could easily balance on their hard buttocks.


                                          Valesca at work

Brazil is probably the world’s largest consumer of silicone, and it comes second to the United States for plastic surgery. Silicone implants have become epidemic to the point that in the samba business it is mission impossible to find silicon-free dancers. Recently one of the leading samba schools advertised dancing position for girls with “beautiful and natural breasts”. Twenty were needed for the 2014 carnival parade. Only sixteen showed up and were selected!

GHF’s staff are not as well groomed as those of Downton Abbey but they compensate their training deficit by good mood, dependability and eagerness to please. “Downstairs” turnover is limited and in-house promotion has continued under Putin’s imperious micro-management. Most of the staff live in favelas, the slums of Rio, not too distant from the hotel. It is somehow ironical that the “downstairs” spend less time in traffic than the wealthy “upstairs”. Traffic in Brazil is chaotic and hellish in the large cities.  Being able to avoid a long commute is a privilege, many favelas dwellers enjoy this perk from their vantage point.

The majority of Rio’s favelas are no longer the war zones showed on television, rival drug gangs have been flushed out and no longer keep the residents in terror. Before the “pacification” of favelas, to use the local term, GHF’s staff would claim that gang activity was preventing them coming to work on time. Now this excuse is no longer believable. Hillside favelas with spectacular views of Rio are getting gentrified and it is now fashionable to visit their local bars and restaurants. In some favelas hostels have opened for business. Too bad GHF’s boss is not interested in their management.


                                     In the process of gentrification

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents either are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.