A Birthday With Familiar Strangers

There is a silence in the house which no amount of music played on full volume on my laptop can shatter. My wrist watch says it’s 8 p.m, but it feels later. Moco, our slightly obese, cheerful Labrador retriever silently eyes the half-empty plate of pasta on the dinner table as I sit in the kitchen, wondering if this is going to be the loneliest birthday I have ever had.

I am in Sao Paulo, Brazil. I’m teaching English at a small school, the brainchild of an entrepreneurial Brazilian by the name of Roberto. I share his old, labyrinth-like house with him and his wife, plus a couple; Yulia and Peter.

Earlier today, I passingly mentioned to everyone that I wanted to have a few drinks that night to celebrate. So be home by 7-8, please. It’s 8:30 now, and I am starting to believe that they have all but forgotten about my birthday.

Roberto and his wife come home at around 9. They stop by the kitchen to have a glass of water, then seem to suddenly recall the occasion, and give me a hug each, wishing me a happy birthday. Then they say goodnight and head to their room. I sit back down on my chair, scroll through my laptop’s playlist and slowly sip my beer. Kiky, the lithe, striped cat joins Moco in keeping me company.

It’s 10:13 p.m. I rub my eyes, shut down my laptop and head upstairs to my room. It has been a long day with work and all and I’m tired. It is too late to start drinking now anyway, I reassure myself. Maybe we could grab a drink tomorrow? As I go into the bathroom to brush my teeth, my phone buzzes in my short’s pocket. There is a message from Peter; “I have been trying to contact you! Where are you?” “At home.” I text him back. “We are in downtown. Taking a metro back now. Don’t go to bed!” He responds instantly.

They seem pretty lit when they get back. Yulia is singing some Russian birthday song for me. I join in with her and we form the world’s worst Russian-Australian band. She says she knows a local bar that might still be open. We take a beer each for the road, put on our jackets and head out.

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Familiar strangers at a local pub helping me celebrate my birthday

There is a BBQ set up outside and the barman tells us to help ourselves as he hands us yet another round of Cachaça shots. It’s the national distilled spirit, made from sugarcane. But that doesn’t make it any easier to swallow. We take it like tequila shots; salt, Cachaça, a slice of lime, in no particular order. The bar suddenly erupts all around us. There is screaming and people are jumping all over each other. Brazil has just scored in the World Cup Qualifier game against Ecuador. I think it is Neymar who has scored too. We hug our beers tightly and join the raucous celebrations.

Everyone wants to shout us beers. Then they all want to take selfies with us and invite us to their homes. We oblige to the first two requests happily and turn down a few of the third type. We drink and chat and the more we drink the less it seems to matter that me and Peter speak no Portuguese at all. I use a pidgin Spanish-English hybrid while Peter is happily blabbering on in English and occasionally Dutch. More people arrive at the bar and are introduced to us and they too want to buy us a beer and take a selfie.

Eventually, the bar shuts down. We are walking toward home and yet we don’t want to go home. I suggest we hitch a ride to downtown. “We cannot find a ride this late. Let’s find a taxi.” Says Yulia. Literally just then, a car pulls up in front of us and it’s one of the guys from the bar with his wife. They offer to take us to their favourite pub and of course, we say yes because we are pretty drunk and why the hell not?

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Anderson and his wife taking us to their favourite pub

It’s almost 4 a.m. We are sitting around a table littered with beer bottles, cocktail glasses and a mini-BBQ at a very busy pub. We cheer one last time and everyone downs their drinks and we get up to leave. Yulia is singing that Russian song again and our new friend, Anderson, can’t find his car keys. His wife, who seems to be the least intoxicated of us all, comes to the rescue, fishes the keys out of Anderson’s pocket and teasingly announces it would be best for all of us if she drives. Nobody protests.

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Anderson and his wife take us to a friend’s BBQ

On the way back, they invite us to their family BBQ the next day. They won’t take no for an answer; we are told we will be picked up at 2 p.m. tomorrow and we better be ready. “How is this for a birthday man?” Mumbles Peter drunkenly, a huge smile radiating his face in the darkened car as he tries to give me a pat on the back.
“It’s been one hell of a …” I stop as a familiar tune comes on the car’s radio. It’s Eddie Vedder’s Long Nights; oOne of my favourite tunes! I’m aghast. What are the odds? Both Yulia and Peter are singing along to the lyrics of the song and I know it has been a long night, but I’m okay now and I’m with my people. So I lay back, close my tired eyes and sing along as we drive into the night;

“Long nights allow me to feel…
I’m falling…I am falling
The lights go out
Let me feel
I’m falling
I am falling safely to the ground…”


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