From North to South America
My husband and I landed in Sao Paulo – Brazil – five years ago on a typical grey and rainy spring morning.
I still remember flying over the city for 15 minutes before we landed, one of the more striking ways to enter the city, and taking in how truly massive it was.
The landscape is a series of copy paste creamy 20 story residential buildings tucked into slopes and hilltops, radio towers and favela housing.
Our new home was somewhere in the middle of all that and our life was about to become an incredible adventure.
We wanted to move to another country after my husband finished business school and he had his eyes set on South America.
I came for a visit, we toured Uruguay, Argentina and Brazil and there was just something about the vibrancy and energy of Sao Paulo that really struck me.
It didn’t hurt that was where all the jobs were and at the time I thought I might be able to transfer with my current company back in Chicago, as they seemed to have some type of satellite office presence there.
I hardly spoke a word of Portuguese
I barely spoke a word of Portuguese, my husband managed a bit more after a few months of lessons, but we were both still very much out of our comfort zone.
Sao Paulo is a city where you really need to know the language to get around and I remember being nervous to leave the apartment the first few weeks, afraid I couldn’t speak properly enough to even order lunch with the embarrassment of getting it wrong too overwhelming.
Just do it
I look back and laugh but it really is a process to adapt and grow in a new culture.
I think if I had known all the struggles we encountered the first year of living there, I might not have been so eager to go.
My husband started his job at a Brazilian cosmetics company and I took a little time to get to know the city and begin language classes.
It soon became quite clear that not only did I lack legal abilities to work, but the office connections from my job were in a totally different field.
I spent a few months wondering if I could get around the absence of a work visa and still work in urban design and landscape architecture, but it proved very difficult.
As I began to make friends I realized that very few wives of expats had legal abilities to work or worked full time.
Most worked from home via their jobs back in the U.S., decided to become mothers and take some time off or explored more entrepreneurial opportunities.
The expat community is actually quite large in Sao Paulo and many foster a unique space for creativity and entrepreneurial spirit: I met people starting cupcake businesses, cat food bakeries, catering companies and jewelry shops.
So many intelligent women that were otherwise bankers, lawyers and other more common occupations outside of Brazil, discovered what it is they love and were finding ways to make successful businesses following their passions.
Out of my comfort zone
This had a profound affect on me and I was inspired to stay outside the comfort zone and try something similar with my hobby for photography.
I knew nothing about starting a business
I had no idea if I was even good enough to have people pay me for taking their photos.
So I began with good friends, a couple and their dog, and they recommended me for a maternity session that was quickly followed by a newborn shoot with the same family.
I had never held a 6-day old baby before, let alone position them and move them around delicately enough that the mother felt confident I knew what I was doing (which I obviously didn’t).
It may sound cliché, but the first lesson in starting anything new is to do your homework and then dive in because you will never learn without making mistakes.
Practice makes perfect
With time I gained a client base and began to see my photos improve alongside my business sense.
I was challenged with feeling good enough to raise prices, never knowing if people were just hiring me because I was cheaper than the next person or because they actually liked the product.
I gave away a lot of work for free to meet people, learn new environments and put myself out there as the pressure of a free assignment is easier to handle when you are starting out.
Confidence and boundaries
Working in fine arts can often be seen as highly negotiable and it is up to you to draw the line and stop giving away work. It boils down to confidence and people will start to take advantage of you so it is important to be strong and take pride in what you make and sell.
The expatriate community allowed me to grow quickly within photography, but it was also a cushion as most jobs were in English.
Taking peoples photos requires a certain type of personality to connect and engage with subjects, allowing them to feel comfortable exposing intimate parts of their lives and letting you become a part of their family and memories.
I still feel rather guilty that I didn’t put myself out there more in the Brazilian community. Only in the last year and a half did I really start adding ‘locals’ to my client list.
I was apprehensive that I couldn’t reach the same level of comfort needed in getting great shots in Portuguese, despite Brazilians being such a warm and welcoming culture.
It was a challenge sometimes to be firm with pricing and shooting structure, because culturally they love a bargain and they are never on time.
So you have to balance what is important and know with some things you will just have to be flexible.
The thing I loved most about living in Brazil was the people I met.
Friendships for a lifetime, no matter where you live
We made friendships that will last a lifetime no matter where we end up in the world.
Lifestyle-wise Brazil is a very service oriented country and there is a service and a person behind it for everything.
Most buildings have 24-hour gated entrances, so you get to know the guys that work all the different shifts, the people that clean the building, water the plants and maintain everything. At the gym there are trainers that charge you but there are also free trainers in “training,” which I find hilarious but they make sure you know how to use equipment and are basically there to hang out and chat with you, something I found both useful and annoying but friends were made.
It’s also not common to drink the tap water so you have water delivered to your door every week in big jugs and even that guy becomes a friend. Most people have house cleaning, nannies and cooks or people that mix all those together and you employ them steadily at least once a week. They have rarely passed high school and therefore need these jobs, so while getting our small apartment cleaned every week was overkill, I came to love our maid so much and her presence in the house was always functional but also a welcomed friendship as she became part of the family.
All of these people enriched our experience in countless ways and I miss walking about the neighbourhood saying hi and making small chat with the people that kept it running.
Space to explore and learn
I loved being an entrepreneurial expat because I felt I had the space to explore and learn more about my new home and I was always around people, which constantly opened new doors.
No ‘what if’s’
It gave me purpose and fulfilled a dream where I might have always wondered ‘what if’ had I chose a more solid footing.
Even if I were to press rewind, I don’t think I would change a thing, other than maybe getting started earlier so that I could have taken more photos, met more people and had that much more to bring back with me.
Moving back to the U.S.
I am pretty happy returning home to the U.S. and having the chance to really think hard about what I’d rather do now: photography and running a business on home turf or going back into my previous career.
My 3 top tips:
1) Keep an open mind and plan to stay at least for a few years. It takes a while to get used to things so you need time to then enjoy it once you have settled in.
2) Don’t give up even if the path you expected to take changes, sometimes its in those moments that you find new opportunities and that’s where you really grow and learn both about the place you live and yourself.
3) Learn the language as quickly as you can and make friends outside of the expat community. I wish I could have done both better and before I knew it the journey was over. Four years flies by….
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