Feast Days


By Ian MacKenzie

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Intelligent and deeply felt, Feast Days follows a young wife who relocates with her financier husband to São Paulo — a South American megacity that impresses and unsettles, conceals and erupts. Here in her new home, she reckons with the twenty-first century as she encounters crime, protests, refugees gentrification, and the collision of art and commerce, while confronting the crisis slowly building inside her own marriage.

In stylish prose and with piercing wit, Ian MacKenzie tells the story of Emma, a young woman who has moved from New York to Brazil just as massive demonstrations against the government are breaking out across the country amid growing economic inequality. Emma has come to Brazil for her husband’s career, with no job prospects of her own, a weak grasp of the language, and a deep ambivalence about having a child. Her early days in Sao Paulo are listless but privileged; she dines at high-end restaurants, tutors wealthy Brazilians in English, and observes the city she now calls home.

But when Emma volunteers at a local church to assist refugees and grows more deeply connected to the people she meets in the course of her days, she finds herself unable to resist the tug of Sao Paulo’s political and social unrest.

As the country moves seemingly closer to a breaking point, so does Emma’s marriage, as she and her husband can no longer ignore the silent, tectonic shifts beneath the surface of their relationship.

Feast Days is a sharply observed story of expatriate life, as well as a meditation on the hidden costs of modern living and how easily our belief systems can collapse around us.

“Devastating, funny and wise, it’s among the best novels I know about the fate of American innocence abroad.”-Garth Greenwell


“Oh,” I said, putting my hat on. “Oh.”

—Mark Strand,
“I Will Love the Twenty-first Century”


My husband worked for a bank in São Paulo, a city that reminded you of what Americans used to think the future would look like—gleaming and decrepit at once. The protests began in late spring, although, this being the Southern Hemisphere, it was really the fall. I was a young wife.


So. We were Americans abroad. We weren’t the doomed travelers in a Paul Bowles novel, and we weren’t the idealists or the malarial, religion-damaged burnouts in something by Greene; but we were people far from home nevertheless. Our naivety didn’t have political consequences. We had G.P.S. in our smartphones. I don’t think we were alcoholics. Our passports were in the same drawer as our collection of international adapters, none of which seemed to fit in Brazilian wall sockets. My husband was in the chrysalis stage of becoming a rich man, and idealism was never my vice.


Our tribe was an anxious tribe. This was after Lehman Brothers, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, after Occupy—people were starting to talk about the economic crisis in the past tense, boxing it up in the language of history. The Great Recession. The name was something we needed. I was amazed by how fragile wealthy men seemed in their own eyes. They could be thin-skinned also, mistrustful, myopic, boastful, cowardly, and frequently sanctimonious. Call it the anxiety of late capitalism. I should say that it was my husband who belonged to this tribe. I was ancillary—a word that comes from the Latin for “having the status of a female slave.” That’s the sort of thing I know, and it tells you something about how I misspent my education. The term among expats for people like me was “trailing spouse.”


I wasn’t aware until after living there for some time that São Paulo lies almost exactly on the Tropic of Capricorn. The city was a liminal place, not quite tropical, not quite subtropical—really, it was both things at once. This fact, when I discovered it, possessed a kind of explanatory force.


One night we went to the Reserva Cultural to see the new Coen brothers film, about a folksinger in Greenwich Village in the 1960s who fails to become Bob Dylan, and afterward we walked up Avenida Paulista, past the radio antenna that from a distance resembled an ersatz Eiffel Tower, to a restaurant in Consolação. All the magazines liked it, a pretty restaurant on a bad corner. Nearby there were buildings covered with skins of stale graffiti, boarded-up windows, decaying brick, that sort of thing. I saw drug addicts in flagrante delicto. It wasn’t uncommon in São Paulo to find high-end dining in the midst of ruin. The whole thing could have been an art installation about gentrification: High-End Dining in the Midst of Ruin. On the sidewalk I saw the froth of old garbage, blown around by city wind.


Inside the restaurant you were assaulted by tastefulness. The click of ice in a steel shaker, a curl of white staircase. The walls were stacked cubes of smoked glass. My husband said the chef was famous.


“Apparently this used to be a dive bar,” he said. “Caetano Veloso and Chico Buarque used to come here.”

“Those are co-workers of yours?”

“No, singers.”

“Oh,” I said.


“You’re doing Facts About Brazil again.”


The men wore shirts with open collars. The women wore as little as possible. The bartender, a skinny black tie. The menu bragged of steak tartare, ceviche, gnocchi, gourmet mini-hamburgers. Whatever it was, it wasn’t a dive bar anymore.


We ate out in São Paulo. Restaurantgoing was the local cult, and we got involved. A home-cooked meal, as a solution to the problem of sustenance, would have set off alarms—who made this? That makes us sound terrible, perhaps, and unable to look after ourselves, but it isn’t an exaggeration.


This was around the time I stopped thinking of New York as back home. I told myself this meant I was officially an expatriate. My husband’s transfer to São Paulo had come about almost entirely because he already spoke some Portuguese—college girlfriend, five semesters. We’d been in São Paulo six months already, and we might stay on for years. The adventure was open-ended. Everything depended on my husband’s job; on variables outside my control, on events that hadn’t happened yet. One of the first words I learned in Portuguese was the term for the fine rain that fell constantly in that city, something between drizzle and mist. I was blonde, slim hips. I liked to wear green clothes. At night the city had an electric chartreuse glow. I saw more dark windows than lighted ones in the concrete faces of apartment towers. I saw Brazilian flags, soccer matches playing endlessly on flat-screen televisions, traffic signals changing at empty intersections.


“So, in this scenario.”

“In this scenario.”

“In this scenario we wouldn’t even be here.”

“Or there would be a nanny. A professional caregiver.”

“I meant we wouldn’t be here in Brazil.”

“People have children in Brazil,” he said.

“But it would be different.”

“It would be different.”

“Because there would be this small creature with us all the time.”

“You remain skeptical.”

I laughed. “In a word,” I said.


The waiter interrupted us to ask, in English, if we were enjoying the meal. When he went away I could see that my husband was annoyed. He felt it was an insult to his Portuguese, since he had used Portuguese earlier with the same waiter. I was sure the waiter only wanted to practice his English. It was perhaps fair to say that both men wanted to show off. “He was being polite,” I said. “I know,” my husband said.


São Paulo was a metropolitan area of twenty-one million people, and always in the throes of something. There were rumors of drought. There were gangland killings, labor strikes. Carjackings. Whole bus yards mysteriously went up in flames a couple of times a year—that was a thing. Criminals used dynamite to blast open A.T.M.s. Drinking water was delivered to our door in twenty-liter plastic jugs, and Brazil was making preparations to host the World Cup. The term of art was megaevent. “We’re not ready,” said the Brazilians I knew. I wondered if you could classify war as a megaevent. São Paulo was a megacity. Information began to accumulate. I was told things. I personally knew only rich Brazilians, because of my husband’s job. But all Brazilians took such delight, perplexing to an American, in criticizing their country; it was a style of critique that managed to deprecate nation and self at once. They would break into spontaneous arias of complaint. Everybody did this—taxi drivers, dentists. The reservoirs were low, politicians were corrupt, the economy was failing. The levels that should have been rising were falling and the levels that should have been falling were rising. Taxes—taxes were high. I read in the newspaper that the police murdered more people than the criminals did. Everything in that city was intimately juxtaposed—favela and high-rise, crack dealer and opera house.


I saw a favela on a souvenir coffee mug before seeing one in person, and recognized instantly that the mosaic of crowded bright rectangles signified the makeshift roofs and walls of poor people’s homes, such an image having become global visual shorthand for the shantytowns of the third world’s developing urban gargantuas. Tourists bought the coffee mugs because apparently there was something heartwarming about aestheticizing squalor. Poverty was colorful. The middle class was said to be “emerging”: a moving target. As soon as you get a bit of money, the things you once tolerated become intolerable.


When wealthy Brazilians left the country on vacation, they didn’t visit museums, or do anything cultural, as far as I could tell. They shopped. They shopped for clothes and perfume, for smartphones, for children’s toys.


In New York, I’d had a job in the public relations department of a multinational cement company. I wrote content for the company’s Facebook page and Twitter feed—a cement company with a Twitter feed. It paid as well as you would imagine. My husband used to suggest I do a master’s. He couldn’t say in what. I was twenty-five years old on the day of our wedding, an age when the future still seemed to shape itself willingly around whatever decisions I made. “With your degree,” said my unmarried friends—who were most of my friends—as if marriage somehow precluded the rest of life. But that degree wasn’t doing much for me. And I loved my husband. Something hadn’t jelled for me after college, professionally, and because I married early, because my husband made money, I was able to get away with it. “A woman without a job actually is like a fish without a bicycle,” as a friend of mine put it. “I’m not sure that makes sense,” I said. “Well, you have to imagine the fish looking really sad about not having the bicycle,” my friend said.


And so the prospect of living abroad initially had a primal, precognitive appeal—Brazil! I wrote the country’s name on A.T.M. receipts, cocktail napkins, Con Ed bills. We talked about what I could do there. It seemed like a chance to press the reset button. My husband, with the idea that I might write a blog, made the case that life in a foreign country automatically conferred interest. “You have the right sense of humor for that kind of thing,” he said. “And we could always have a kid,” he said.


We made love the night before leaving America and then lay in bed, at the hotel the bank was paying for, sharing a bottle of Gevrey-Chambertin and adding up all the relocation expenses the bank was also paying for. I wrote everything on the inside cover of the novel I was reading—Operation Shylock, in which Philip Roth discovers that someone named Philip Roth is causing increasing amounts of trouble in Israel—and then we both stared, mesmerized, now with more anxiety than excitement: it looked like a list of debts.


Once upon a time I had the idea of doing translation work, of making that my career, but “translation work” turns out to be a contradiction in terms, unless you know Chinese and want to translate technical manuals.


So we moved to Brazil. And that night, at the restaurant that used to be a dive bar, we ate too much; we drank too much. The chef was famous. The meal was expensive. My husband, reviewing the bill, said: “The bank’s paying for our flight home at Christmas.” It was a private joke now—any time we spent money, we recalled something the bank was paying for. If we dined out after my husband returned from a business trip elsewhere in Brazil, he would say: “Per diem.” As we left the restaurant and passed the maître d’, my husband said, “Valeu.” It was what people said after a meal. It meant: Worth it.


They came out of nowhere. They—three of them, boys. They hadn’t come out of nowhere, of course, but we didn’t see them until it was too late.  “O.K.? O.K.?” the boy who was holding a knife in my face said.


The security people at the bank had given a briefing during our first week. The man who spoke was short, ridiculously muscled, ex-police. Something he said lodged in memory: You have to remember it’s a transaction; you want to end it as fast as possible. My husband and I joked that the briefing should have been called “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Robbery Victims.”


Two boys worked on my husband—wallet, watch, phone. They searched his pockets by hand. Later, I thought of one’s helplessness during a medical examination. They told us what to do, how to behave, and we obeyed. The boy with the knife pulled the strap of my purse over my head. He had bloodshot eyes, wrists like old rope; he couldn’t have been more than nineteen.


“Aliança,” one of the other boys said. He meant my husband’s wedding band; I usually left mine at the apartment, on the advice of the ex-policeman. They were favela boys, dressed raggedly, seething with adrenaline and desperation. It was lucky for the boys that my husband spoke Portuguese—or lucky for my husband, or lucky for me. No foreigner without Portuguese would have known the meaning of “aliança.”


Luck—the part of life you don’t control. Or: you make your own luck. I can see both sides of that one.


The boy with the knife went through my husband’s wallet and took out the cash. He wasn’t satisfied. He threw the wallet to the pavement. “Tem mais,” he said. It meant: You have more.


He put his hand on my shoulder. I was now a prop in the argument he was having with my husband; he gestured with the knife between my husband and me, saying things I didn’t understand. While this was happening my mind was silent, empty. I didn’t scream. I nodded when words were spoken in my direction. When I thought of it later, my mind ran to the safety of cliché. I was petrified. My heart was in my throat. But it was already a cliché: poor, dark-skinned street kids robbing rich, white-skinned foreigners—it was a script other people had performed on countless nights before this. Two of the boys were suddenly moving away with my husband, taking him somewhere, leaving me and the one boy alone. “O.K.?” he said to me. “O.K.?” I was scared out of my mind.


You heard stories in São Paulo of robberies that went badly. People were killed. People who resisted what was happening, people who were too slow to hand over the car keys, people who failed to follow the script. That was the ex-policeman’s first piece of advice regarding the habits of highly effective robbery victims. Don’t resist.


The lights of a car blazed suddenly across the boys’ thin bodies. The sound of tires, other voices. It was enough to spook them. They ran. As he turned, the boy with the knife shoved me, and I fell to the ground. I closed my eyes and took a breath. I heard the sound of cheap plastic clapping on stone, going the other way, flip-flops.


My husband was there, lifting me, hugging my body to his. “I didn’t think,” he said.


I could see the light of the restaurant’s door, people going in and out, in sight of where we just were robbed. I was empty. I could have stood in the same spot forever, empty. Moments ago we had been paying a check.


“You were leaving,” I said.

“They were taking me to an A.T.M. They wanted me to take out more money,” he said.

“Then what would have happened?”


The next day we went to a police station. I knew at once there was no point. The city was too large, and there were too many boys, too much everything. My husband told the story, made a report. They asked him to provide a list of what was stolen. Wallet, brown, leather, brand unknown. Purse, black, leather, Dolce & Gabbana. Men’s watch, Burberry. Mobile phone, Samsung. Digital camera, Nikon. Cash, amount unknown. Wedding band, gold.


I wrote to Helen. Within hours, she wrote back:

That sounds god-awful. Of course I imagine they were black, and I imagine this somehow makes you feel worse about what happened. Don’t. Don’t think about it one more second.


Helen had also left New York during the previous year. She had a different set of reasons and went to Washington—a job, putting distance between herself and an ex-boyfriend, a general hunger that she had. Helen was my Republican friend. She said and thought things I would never say and rarely thought. She possessed a kind of Ayn Rand ruthlessness that troubled me but which I also admired. I replied:

Only one of the boys was black.


The cement vastness of São Paulo, seen from above, was otherworldly. Overgrown crops of high-rise condominiums extended endlessly under a pale yellow haze of polluted air, towers nuzzled together with tombstone snugness. Our neighborhood was south of Parque Ibirapuera, new money. The money aged as you went north; and then, farther north, the money disappeared. Poverty radiated outward to the edges of the city. At some point, driving around São Paulo, you crossed from the first world into the third world. Sometimes this happened in the space of a single block. Everywhere they were putting up more luxury high-rise condos, crushing to dust older buildings that had outlived their usefulness to the rich. I saw beggars and drug addicts going in and out of decaying structures in the last days before demolition. Creative destruction—that’s the polite way we have of putting it now.


The building we lived in was called Maison Monet. That delicate name belied the reality that it was a fortress. You passed through two locking gates at the entrance. There were cameras in the garage, in the elevators. At night, an armed guard, always well-dressed. The building had twenty-eight stories of floor-through apartments, a pool, a phalanx of doormen. The penthouse and its residents were a mystery; I never saw anyone push the button for the top floor. The features of the building were the product of fear, a set of fears that New Yorkers generally didn’t have anymore; New York had been tamed, but São Paulo was hairy with crime. We heard stories of apartment invasions, teams of men with guns. Men with guns swept through restaurants, hotels, they took everything. I thought about this every time I left the apartment, and the fact that I thought about it, that I was now a person who imagined the worst, bothered me more than the fear itself. The bank subsidized our apartment in São Paulo so that it cost no more than what our apartment in New York had cost, a difference of almost a thousand dollars a month. Here was one measure of my husband’s professional value.


I was able to track my husband’s phone over the Internet. There it was: a dot on the map, in a far northern zone of the city, impoverished and intimidating. I showed my husband. “Whoever that is, it’s not those kids,” he said. “And I already filed the insurance claim.” I zoomed in, and the digital map approached the limit of its resolution. The dot—an exact, real-time location, complete with geocoordinates—seemed like a promise, but I had the feeling that if I were to physically move toward it, it would simply move away from me.


We told our Brazilian friends about the robbery. Everyone cooed with sympathy and recognition: it was as if we had passed some test of admission. “They normally rob you with guns in São Paulo,” Marcos said. “Rio is knives,” Iara said. We laughed. They had stories of their own. Crime was a source of anxiety among the upper classes in São Paulo. Until you became so rich that you literally flew everywhere by helicopter.


At dinner, a conversation about money. Brazil’s economy, the mess it was in. Everything had gone so well for so long—and now the forecast was disaster. Our friends blamed the president, the party. Marcos worked with my husband and was married to Iara, and they knew João from somewhere. It was difficult to become friends with Brazilians—someone would suggest a time and not a place or a place and not a time—but after several months we were somehow still going to dinner with these people. They never laughed when they talked about politics.


Food appeared in portions so small they looked decorative, zoned on white plates, squares of black slate. Each plate-thing was accompanied by a lecture from the waiter: the per-dish speaking time was almost equal to the per-dish eating time. This was the tasting, the degustação. I didn’t make an effort to understand when the waiter talked; I wanted to know as little as possible about what I was putting in my mouth, to be totally unprepared. I wanted no context. In some cases, I couldn’t tell what the ingredients were, even after chewing and swallowing. Degust and disgust have the same root—gustare, to taste—but opposite meanings. Ignorance: that’s the word for what I wanted.


Dinner with Brazilians—the first courses arrived at the table after nine o’clock. We ate alien forms from the sea, Galician octopus, slate-pencil urchins, a funny-looking gratin of salt cod. This chef was famous, too, a woman. Late in the evening, she emerged from the kitchen, observed by the diners, admired, radiating gentle authority. She was young, roughly my age. People went to her, and she received her guests like an ambassador, calm and generous. We ate suckling pig. We ate pastes and jellies and cold soups made from native Brazilian fruits. I couldn’t disguise my dislike of certain things. My husband talked about every dish as if he were making notes for a review. Since moving to São Paulo, he had become one of those gastro-creeps. Food, as a subject for conversation, was for me on par with pornography. I wished that for him food were more like pornography: something to be enjoyed privately and not discussed as if it were art. I’m sure there is such a thing as better pornography and worse pornography, but you aren’t supposed to go on about it.


And we ordered the wine pairings, of course. My husband insisted on this, as if in life one thing were always destined to be paired with another. I had as little interest in talking about the wine as I had in talking about the food, but I enjoyed drinking it. The waiters were happy to top off the glass of whatever they had just poured and I had just finished, gratis. “I’m having the wine pairing with the wine pairing,” I said.



On Sale
Mar 13, 2018
Page Count
240 pages

Ian MacKenzie

About the Author

Ian Mackenzie was born and raised in Massachusetts, graduated from Harvard, and since then has lived in New York City, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and Sao Paulo, Brazil. He currently lives in Washington, DC.

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