"I am 3/4ths Canadian, and one 4th New Englander - I had ancestors on both sides in the Revolutionary war." - Elizabeth Bishop

Friday, May 11, 2018

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 67: Paraty

Bishop’s letter of 23 September 1960 really got underway after she had dispatched all the updates. The next subject warranted a long paragraph: “We went to explore a place we’d heard about, called Paratí.”(or Paraty). It appears Lota had never gone there herself prior to this visit. In her inimitable way of engaging place/geography, Bishop offered Grace a description and account that prefigures her late poem “Santarém.”

She explained to her aunt that it was “a small port that hasn’t changed a bit for about 200 years.” This continuity appealed to Bishop, though one wonders if Lota, ever the modernist, enjoyed it as much as Elizabeth. While she knew change was inevitable, for Bishop, virtue inhered in tradition and the past.
Paraty (as Wikipedia prefers), Bishop wrote, “is right on the end of a long bay — in fact at high tide the water comes right up the ends of the streets; and at very high tide, in May, they put planks across the streets from sidewalk to sidewalk.” (I wonder if that is happening this month! One can’t help but wonder what affect is sea level rise having?)

Bishop recounted that “a friend of ours went there in May and went out for a walk at night, carrying a candle … and crossing the planks.” Perhaps it was this romantic, adventurous story that prompted their visit.

At the time of Elizabeth and Lota’s visit, “they [the residents] had had electricity for exactly one month … and everyone was still very excited about it.” Bishop related that “at night there were circles of children under every lamp post, just like moths.” From what I see online, Paraty is now a very popular tourist destination, so the electricity stayed and expanded, probably exponentially. But in 1960, Bishop noted that “we were the only car in town, except for one broken down one, and a few trucks.” “Everyone comes and goes by ferry, twice a week,” Bishop reported. There was also a bus, “twice a week.” 

This place, almost out of time, was small enough so that “you can walk around” all of it in “ten minutes.” What impressed Bishop most was that “every single house is perfectly beautiful — but so run down and poor.”

Interestingly, Bishop noted that one could “buy a huge house, perfect 18th century —  three floors, beams two feet square, etc — for about $2,000 — huge garden and palm trees, too.” Does this sound familiar? Five years later, Bishop did buy an 18th century house in Ouro Prêto, when timing and circumstances were better; but perhaps here she was already on the look out. Or, perhaps, encountering this real estate possibility helped trigger the idea that would come to fruition in the middle of the decade. Millier notes that Bishop paid $3,000 for the house in Ouro Prêto (370), a city that eventually would be designated a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Not only did Bishop see the value in buying a house, but she confessed to Grace, “I’d like to buy the whole town, just to preserve it.” Loving the ocean and shoreline so much, one might think Bishop might have acted on this urge, but she noted, “unfortunately, the bay is too shallow, no good swimming, and I’m afraid it would be hot, etc.” No place is perfect, after all, even in paradise.

Elizabeth and Lota stayed for a few days. “Our ‘hotel’ was something,” she observed, an “18th century mansion all divided up by wooden partitions.” This meant you could “hear everyone sneeze and snore — the travelling salesmen and us, that was.” Knowing Grace would find it both funny and charming, Bishop wrote that “the travelling salesmen strolled through the dining room in their pajamas and brushed their teeth, etc, at a sink in the corner.” For added effect, Bishop observed: “and the bathroom. Words fail me.”

Ever the take-command-kind-of-person, Bishop noted that “Lota put up a good fight, but we never managed to get it repaired.” The hotel’s “landlady — ‘dona Zezé’” eventually gave them “a bucket of water a few times a day and we’d flush it.” In spite of these plumbing and privacy inconveniences, Bishop declared, “But everyone was perfectly charming!”

Not forgetting the cuisine, Bishop observed that she “ate nothing but fish and bananas for three days” and that the fish was “excellent.” She was also smitten with the churches: “adorable.” The only downside, the thing that “ruined” the visit for them, was “the town’s one loud speaker — (elections are approaching here, too).” Even so, Bishop concluded that “it was worth the effort,” ending her typed account with a scribble in the margin, “a long long drive, over dirt roads,” a scribble looking perhaps something like the dirt roads on which they drove.

Paraty’s eighteenth century heritage and delights, its village atmosphere, clearly appealed to Bishop even at this stage, and perhaps helped seed her desire to find her own historic home. Curiously, she did so far inland, in land-locked Ouro Prêto. Millier notes that it was the “backwardness and inefficiency [of Ouro Prêto that] charmed her, the way Brazil had charmed her after her struggles with New York.” (370).

Bishop hadn’t finished all her local colour. More of it in the next post.

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