The English Bird Lady of Rio
One of my favourite relatives was fat Auntie Tessie from Leeds. She had a heavy Yorkshire accent and was always full of beans compared to her miserable old git of a doctor husband Abe Goodman. Two brothers from Leeds, both doctors, had married two sisters from Leeds. How and why they ended up in Liverpool I know not. Uncle Max was always in my life because he was our family doctor. Tessie and Abe loved to cruise. Not the done thing in the 1960s so it must have cost them an arm and a leg!! On one of the Mediterranean cruises they teamed up with another English couple from God knows where, the husband also being a doctor. They would meet again and again on the liners over the years as they had become lifelong friends. But this couple didn't live in the UK. Of all places they lived in far away Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
In the 1960s I saw a Hollywood movie where the opening shot was Corcovado with the statue of Christ. I saw the famed Sugar Loaf mountain and announced to whoever was my companion that I would one day go to magical exotic Rio de Janeiro. I always end up in life where I say I am going sooner or later.
In 1968 I was working as a travel agent for Global Tours, the third largest tour operator in the UK at the time. I had been to Lisbon for a week as a perk and loved the city and especially the language. The Portuguese describe Brazilian Portuguese as Portuguese with sugar. I must have heard the sounds of the Bossa Nova there and especially the famous 1964 song by Jobim - The Girl from Ipanema. By the time I got back to London my mind was made up. I was going to emigrate to Brazil!
No research. No contacts at that point. No guide books except the American bible - Frommer's guide to South America on $5 a day. I immediately enrolled at the Casa do Brasil in Lancaster Gate, under the auspices of the Brazilian Embassy and began my language lessons. Next came the Anglo Brazilian Society in London and their snobby meetings in Canning House, Belgravia, London for connections in Brazil.
I was on my way. The cost to Rio, the city of my musical dreams, was £450 return in 1968. Imagine!!! A fortune but I knew that if I stayed in my job for two years, I would only have to pay 10% of the fare. I plotted and planned. Auntie Tessie came up trumps with the name and address of her friend who had unfortunately been widowed by then.
In 1970 I arrived in Rio in a rain storm without accommodation or any planning in advance and ended up on the couch of a lovely British Guinean woman who was lonely and needed my friendship. I stayed with her a week and got to work on my meagre contacts.
I was eager to meet the elusive Madame X. I was expected as my aunt must have written and arranged the meeting. I recall taking a taxi to an exclusive district high above the city, up a winding hill. The large house was surrounded by high walls and I had to pull at a bell cord which made a loud resounding ding dong. I waited. The taxi left. I was all alone on a hilltop holding a bell cord apprehensively. Then the sound of barking and chains and bolts. The lady had imprisoned herself, locked out the outside world and become a recluse!
She greeted me dressed in flowing long white robes surrounded by several small yapping dogs and a couple of cats who had come to check out the guest from overseas. Her white hair was neatly pinned up in a bun. She looked like an angel without wings and exuded a spiritual calmness that you could immediately sense.
It was time for tea she announced but first I had to see her aviary. I don't recall a garden, I just remember lush green architectural plants, swaying palms in the gentle breese with white blossom everywhere. We walked into a large enclosed mesh area full of colourful birds of all sizes. Perhaps 50, making a cacophony of bird songs. Blue and yellow Macaws, red and lime green parrots and exotic colourful birds with unpronounceable names perched on branches carefully arranged inside one large cage. Madame X engaged not one but two men just to care for the loves of her life. Her birds. Her children. Each bird had a name and she proudly addressed each bird as if she was introducing me. What a memory she had. Her mind was as clear as a bell. She smiled lovingly at each Spirit. She saw their souls and was enchanted. All these introductions took a long while. Then I was introduced to her two faithful outdoor retainers all in fluent Portuguese naturally.
We ventured inside to the cool of her salon where we were met by another faithful retainer dressed in a white tunic and wearing white gloves. Black and white the exotic colours of mixed blood Brazil. His job was to serve the afternoon tea with slices of lemon a la Russe poured from a large silver teapot. Plates of thinly sliced cucumber sandwiches without their crusts were offered plus delicious home baked biscuits. I could have been in a stately home back in England. The tea was drunk with the tea strainer in bone Coleport china teacups and saucers bien sur!
She was indeed not in our world and spoke about how she contacted the spirit of her departed husband when they 'spoke' every evening. She never saw anyone as she had retreated from the outside world. I was the exception because she adored my Auntie Tessie as I did too. She explained she had become a Born Again Christian and was a devote believer with her own private chapel with stained glass windows inside the house.
The light was failing and so perfumed candles were lit by the man in white. There was no twilight. It was day or night in Rio. The dogs wandered in to say woof woof as it was feeding time. I began to make woofy sounds to them as I had learned how to 'speak' to my beagle Samson in Liverpool. Ears up, the dogs began to whine. First the birds and now the dogs. I was in cuckoo land.
Time to go back down the hill, back to the sands and waves of Ipanema. I never saw or heard from Madame X again.
Written in Athens, Monistiraki in September 2015.