Friday, November 1, 2013
The rest of the family went by car along the faster and more attractive seaside avenue while I went by school bus. It was a more sinuous journey, the red and yellow vehicle had to go through Copacabana's the two main arteries, Avenida Copacabana and Avenida Barata Ribeiro in order to pick up the other children. Both avenues were covered with lush trees and with electric wires that produced exciting sparks when the trolleys passed. By eight o'clock they were already jammed with buses and dark robust 50's style cars. Drivers hooted for no reason and boys from the nearby favelas whizzed in between them rolling wooden carts with their bare feet that slid on and off a bar that almost scraped the asphalt.
We saw them from the window with a mixture of envy and fear. They were about our age but could, and would, easily beat us up if given the chance. In their carts they carried groceries from the open air markets, the feiras, which changed neighborhoods every day but seemed to be the same smelly place regardless. The odor of fruit, meat and especially fish exposed to the hot sun and their unmistakable noise announced their presence from blocks away. Big black guys in torn shirts shouted out songs and rhymes about their goods to attract the madames: “Only today! Pretty women have a discount if they take half a kilo!”, “Look at the fresh Bananas, 10 Cruzeiros a Dozen”.
On the main corners, elegantly uniformed mulato policemen controlled the traffic through whistles, glances and hand movements that resembled a rare bird's mating dance.
There were no classes that day and excitement filled the air. The school had been covered with Union Jack and Brazilian flags, and after they had cleaned up the leaves and rotting fruit, the playground patio looked immaculate. We settled in and waited for the other classes to leave for the assembly hall across the crowded playground. Our teacher, Mrs Feitosa, was a strong blond in her mid forties from Manchester and married to a Brazilian. Her make-up and fancy dress did not take away her authority as she closed the door and stood in front of the blackboard.
“I want everyone to sit down and listen carefully.”
We stopped whatever we were doing, fell silent and she continued.
“Good. Can you all hear me? Today everybody must be on their best behavior. Am I clear?”
She gave us "the look" from behind her glasses and twisted her thin lips. As if by magic, each thought that she was directing her evil eye at him and we were relieved when someone opened the door to say that it was our turn.
“Now, I want all of you to hold hands and come with me.”
The grown-ups outside were dressed in their best clothes and were proud of us as we passed. They waved and smiled but at the same time they kept turning their heads around to see if the distinguished guest had already arrived.
When we were about to reach the School Hall’s entrance, we heard sirens and Mrs Feitosa stopped to look back. We followed her gaze and saw it happen: no less than Queen Elizabeth the Second, Her Majesty, Head of the British Crown, was entering the British School of Rio de Janeiro accompanied by her entourage. She was standing in the open Rolls Royce in a white dress, waving and smiling at the crowd under the rows of palm trees that went from the entrance gate to the playground. Her car was escorted by the most impressive motorbikes that any of us had ever seen. They were huge and loud, with enormous radio antennae swaying behind their riders in leather jackets,and dark glasses, protected by transparent shields with the emblem of the military police.
Mrs Feitosa took us out of our trance and told us to get into the Hall and to climb onto the stage before the grownups came in. We were lucky to have the best spot in that Hall. When the Queen came in, silence fell and the place assumed a dimension that we had never realized it could have. Prince Phillip followed right behind and stopped to talk, of all people, to my sister Sarah who was standing in the ex-students' section. She was amazing: confident and polite.
The pupils selected to perform the leading acts were part of the English thoroughbred clique. The couple of students chosen for the welcome's highlight came into the hall dressed up in traditional costumes. As they approached, the boy walked up to Her Majesty and threw his cape on the floor in a chivalrous fashion, then bowed down and shouted out something that I didn't catch, but that sounded very appropriate. After the royal approval, she turned to us.
Mrs Feitosa lifted her hand and we sang our part. We were well rehearsed and sounded good, much to everyone's relief. After the applause there were other presentations and speeches and, in the end, royal tea cups were handed out. The festivities continued long after she had left. If there ever was a golden day for the British community in Rio, that was it.