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Interview with Dona Gretchen – an Estonian expat in Brazil

Updated 21 Aug 2018

Dona is an Estonian expat who first arrived in Brazil as an exchange student to complete her Master's degree. After meeting her future husband in São Paulo, Dona has learnt to call the city home. Read more about her adventures on her blog, Living it Brazilian, or her Facebook page.

About DonaBrazil%20Dona%20Grete_0.JPG

Q: Where are you originally from?

A: I am originally from Estonia.

Q: Where are you living now?

A: I am living in São Paulo, Brazil.

Q: When did you move to Brazil?

A: I first moved here in July 2013.

Q: Did you move here alone or with a spouse/family?

A: I moved here alone but ended up marrying a Brazilian and staying.

Q: Why did you move; what do you do?

A: I first arrived in Brazil as an exchange student (I was completing my Master’s degree at the time) but then I met my future husband and ended up getting married and staying in Brazil. I now work at a multinational company as a Marketing Coordinator for the LatAm region. In addition, I write a blog – Living It Brazilian – about the experience of being a foreigner in Brazil and coping with the cultural differences. And last but not least, I run a small jewellery business called Kivikê.

In my free time, I do yoga, try to keep in touch with my family and friends, read books and binge watch Netflix series. Whenever I can, I spend time in the countryside to breathe some fresh air and balance it out.

Living in Brazil

Q: What do you enjoy most about São Paulo? How would you rate the quality of life compared to Estonia?

A: São Paulo is definitely a complicated city. After my first four months here, I said I would never ever live here longer than needed. However, life happened and I have come to change my mind. Although huge, noisy and very busy, São Paulo has its charm. I enjoy the endless options of pastimes, culture and restaurants. I have built my life here around my neighbourhood and that is definitely the way to maintain a good quality of life.

Luckily, since I mostly work from my home office and live in a central location, I do not have to spend hours in traffic. In comparison to my home country, I would say it is definitely much more difficult to maintain the same quality of life here. Just to illustrate the dimensions of the change for me – I come from a little and very safe country with clean air that has approximately 1.3 million people in the whole country, whereas São Paulo alone has a population of approximately 20 million.

Q: Any negatives? What do you miss most about Estonia?

A: What bothers me the most in São Paulo is the pollution and the number of people absolutely everywhere. And the bureaucracy of course – it is just ridiculous. I do miss my family and friends very much. Sometimes I get nostalgic about the comfort of living in a small and safe country, where you can do almost everything from getting a prescription to voting digitally and without any headache, where people are a lot more transparent and where most things follow clear rules. But then again I remember that I came to Brazil for a reason – to learn from a different culture, to become stronger, more versatile and flexible.

Q: What are the biggest adjustments you had to make when settling into expat life in Brazil? Did you experience any particular elements of culture shock?

A: Oh, yes, I definitely experienced culture shock in its most varied forms here. From bad dates and friends that did not show up, to conversations I could not participate in just because I could not get a word in, to a completely different work culture and even sexism. You name it, I experienced it all. That is how my blog was born. It is a way to analyse and express the changes I am and have gone through and what I have learnt about Brazil and myself in the process.

I could not have done any of it without my husband, though. He has been incredibly supportive and understanding since the very beginning. And I never cease to be amazed at how it is possible that I found my other half literally from the other side of the world. Sometimes life is funny that way.

Q: What’s the cost of living compared to Estonia? What is cheap or expensive in particular?

A: As I live in São Paulo, everything is expensive. Especially if you compare the prices to salaries. I would say living in São Paulo is definitely more costly than living in Estonia when you want to maintain the same or a similar lifestyle. Moreover, wage gaps are extreme here.

Q: How would you rate the public transport in São Paulo? What are the different options? Do you need to own a car?

A: Well, I use the metro and the bus for shorter distances in the city and outside peak hours. And go by car or taxi/Uber everywhere else. Everything depends on the situation – where you need to go and when. Public transport does not take you everywhere. I am very fortunate to live in a central and well-connected area and since I mostly work from my home office, I do not have to spend hours in traffic jams either.

The only thing worse than being stuck in a traffic jam with your car in São Paulo and take two hours to get to places that normally take 10 minutes, is having to take the metro or the bus at peak hours. After four years in São Paulo, I still cannot do it. It is a sea of people pushed up against each other, moving a centimetre at a time and when they finally get to the platform and in front of the line, they still have to squeeze themselves into already packed trains before the doors close, keeping their tummies tucked and personal belongings very close in until their stop arrives.

Q: How would you rate the healthcare in São Paulo? Have you had any particularly good/bad experiences with regards to doctors and hospitals? Are there any hospitals you would recommend?

A: It all depends on your possibilities. Public healthcare is what it is in Brazil. If you want to make sure you are always well taken care of in a sensible timeframe, it is important to have a private health insurance/health care plan. In hospitals like Einstein or Sírio Libanes you get world-class doctors, equipment and treatment. They are very costly, though, so be prepared and get a good health plan if you can.

Q: What are the biggest safety issues facing expats living in Brazil? Are there any areas expats should avoid?

A: The best rule to adopt in Brazil (and anywhere else, for that matter) is to always be aware of your surroundings and never flash any expensive belongings or draw too much attention to yourself. Stay humble and alert whenever you are on the street.

There are, of course, safe areas and less safe areas (and you should never wander around the outskirts of the city as favelas are still considered dangerous), but you should always be aware and never make yourself look like easy prey.

Q: Any areas/suburbs you’d recommend for expats to live in?

A: Jardins, Higienópolis, Pinheiros. Also, Moema, Vila Olimpia, Itaim Bibi.

~ Interviewed August 2018

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