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Day 65: São Paulo

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With Isay Weinfeld, top hotel designer, and the wall that shows the several stages of São Paulo security.
Michael Palin - BrazilI'm beginning to get the distinct feeling now of the difference that others have pointed out between Brazil's two biggest cities. Rio is indeed an outdoor, street-life town. A playground, by comparison to São Paulo. Rio is blessed by the rolling ocean; São Paulo, though only seventy kilometres (forty-three miles) from the Atlantic, is around 800 metres above it, on the cooler, cloudier plateau. In Rio the footwear of choice is flip-flops. I haven't seen a single pair up here. One thing that Paulistas believe makes a big difference between the two is in the sphere of politics and ideas. Perhaps it's because it's less sensually distracting that São Paulo is more conducive to intellectual activity.

Fernando Henrique Cardoso, one of the most significant figures of modern Brazil, and recently voted one of the world's top hundred living intellectuals, has chosen São Paulo to set up an institute in his name where the important issues facing the country can be discussed, researched and debated. Apart from being a prominent intellectual, he's also one of a group called the Elders, independent international wise men brought together by Nelson Mandela 'to promote the shared interests of humanity'. He served two terms as President of Brazil and is credited with turning round the economy and building the foundations for all the progress the country has made since the bad old days of hundred percent inflation. He's agreed to meet me at his institute, in a tall building at the heart of downtown São Paulo, adjacent to City Hall.

The lift delivers us to a spacious open reception area on the sixth floor, furnished in the minimal-traditionalist style. It was once the home of the Automobile Club of São Paulo, from which it inherited a solidly elegant wooden bar with a long granite counter, as well as a shoe-shine chair, grandfather clocks, cane-bottomed chairs and a fine timber floor. Grafted onto this, very successfully, are glass-walled meeting rooms where young, bearded men are hunched over tables, deep in discussion. Cardoso, known to everyone by his initials, FHC, is eighty-one and just returned from a trip to Europe. He sits opposite me at the table, and I'm immediately put at ease. There is no power-play here, and none of the sense of self-importance that many lesser men than he can convey.

He's just short of medium height, neatly dressed, sandy-haired, bespectacled and compact. In his eyes there's both warmth and wariness. I quote back to him a passage in his book The Accidental President in which he admits to conveniently becoming an avid football fan during the World Cup of 1994, which coincided with his campaign for the Presidency. He knew that he was perceived as a more distant, academic figure than his man-of-the-people opponent, Lula. Hence Cardoso made sure that he was seen jumping up and down in front of the television, applauding every Brazilian goal. It was a gamble which paid off. Brazil won the World Cup and Cardoso beat Lula to become President, a position he held for the next eight years.

He smiles at the memory and admits that he was worried at the time that he might be seen as too stiff.

In Brazil, he says, 'If you want to be respected you have to be informal.'
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Isay at the bar of the Fasano, the hotel he designed.
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  • Series: Brazil
  • Chapter: Day 65: São Paulo
  • Country/sea: Brazil
  • Place: São Paulo
  • Book page no: 277

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  • Miscellaneous
  • Day 3 
  • Around the World in 80 Days
  • Day 34 
  • Full Circle
  • Day 22 
  • Pole to Pole


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