It’s vast, daunting, and far from safe. But after moving her family there, Helen Joyce has found that inside this teeming modern city is a village trying to get out 

From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, September/October 2011

What worried me most about the prospect of moving to São Paulo was its sheer size. My first view of it—at rush hour on a Monday morning, from the back of a cab from the airport—was one endless traffic jam, set to a symphony of beeps from the motor-cyclists weaving their way through the stationary cars. There are 11m people living in São Paulo proper, almost double that in the metropolitan area—and if you lined up the 7m cars its inhabitants own, they would stretch farther than its paved roads. I sat silently stunned at the enormity of what lay ahead of me: the smoggy days stuck in traffic, the appointments missed and interviews cancelled.

Afterwards, though, I realised that São Paulo isn’t a big city: it’s a small one with millions of people living around it. The movers and shakers live and work in a few central districts. They went to the same schools, joined the same clubs and eat in the same restaurants. It turns out I can walk to most of my meetings. It’s rather like working in a gossipy village. Once, a well-known scientist I was talking to mentioned a politician in disparaging terms. The reason? “His children went to the same school as mine, and he always asked such stupid questions at parents’ evenings.” 

Far outside this bubble of privilege is a sprawling periferia, whose residents rely on slow, crowded buses to get to work. They are always tired. Some Paulistanos I have seen sleeping: the entire staff of a sushi restaurant with their heads down on the bar a few minutes before opening time; five municipal workers in orange jumpsuits sprawled in a park on their lunch break; a motorcyclist on an eight-lane highway slumped on his handlebars at a red light—he only awoke when the lights changed because the cars behind him started beeping. 

Brazil is one of the world’s most unequal countries, and I doubt anywhere else has as many rich people living among poor ones as São Paulo. Super-rich? Mega-rich? Hyper-rich? It’s hard to find a prefix that is sufficiently superlative. These people interact with their fellow Paulistanos over shop counters and restaurant menus. But mostly rich and poor are separated by security guards, high walls and bullet-proof cars. You still see jarring contrasts. Last Christmas our local mall, the venerable Shopping Iguatemi, put up at its entrance an enormous animatronic Santa and his trumpet-playing dogs (no, I don’t remember them, either). My younger son, four at the time, asked if Santa was going to come alive one night and steal him from his bedroom. My husband, I’m ashamed to say, told him not to worry, our electric fencing would keep Santa out. To which the poor child replied that he might squash one of the homeless people who sleep nearby. 

Foreigners used to be well-off here (though nothing like the local rich), and of course, compared with most Brazilians, anyone from the developed world still is. But the currency, the real, is now stronger than it has ever been, and any sort of luxury—dinner out, a new shirt, an air ticket—is eye-wateringly expensive. It would have been fun to live here ten years ago, when the dollar bought nearly three times as much. But it’s lucky I didn’t—I don’t know how I’d be coping now with my reduced circumstances. 

Still, São Paulo is a great place to be seeing out the global recession. Brazil’s economy is booming, and much of the benefit is being experienced lower down the income scale. My boss, Mike Reid, the editor of The Economist’s Americas section, who lived in São Paulo in the late 1990s, says that better diet and greater self-esteem mean that poor Brazilians stand noticeably taller now. One private-equity dealmaker told me his family’s maid and nanny have both started to sell cosmetics door-to-door in the evenings. He doesn’t think either will still be with him in six months. To hear a Paulistano complaining that you can’t get a good maid these days is to be reminded of Bertie Wooster’s constant fear that one of his friends would poach Jeeves. São Paulo is in the throes of a full-blown Servant Problem, and I feel privileged to witness it.

People are utterly amazed that we don’t have a maid—and it must seem odd if you think, as most Brazilians seem to, that clothes must be washed if you so much as look at them and bedding changed three times a week. I suppose everyone, wherever they are, thinks that their attitude to housework is just right, and everyone else is either fussy or a slob. But I have to face it: by local standards I am a slattern. I once jokingly quoted Quentin Crisp to a Brazilian: “After the first four years, the dust doesn’t get any worse.” From her revolted look I understood that I might as well have said that I never bothered washing, that after a year or so one’s nose shuts down. I still don’t dust, but now I keep quiet about it.