Archive for the 'Investigation' Category

Twinkle Twinkle Little Steiner (continued)

MAN! I feel like I’ve landed on a polemical goldmine!

It was no mistake I ended my last post where I did. I simply had no time or energy to continue on what is a difficult subject, especially one so close to my heart. I fear I might have presented myself as entirely won over by Steiner schooling.

Still, the replies have kept flooding in and everyone has a story to tell. To those of you who feel you have been unhelpful: please don’t. I am grateful for the opportunity to see this whole schooling fiasco in a multi-dimensional way. The premise is that we felt completely out of the loop with regard to how to secure a decent State funded education for our son. I guess it’s a side effect of coming into parenthood when we had not prepared for it.


We both had misgivings about the possibility of introducing our kiddie to an ‘alternative’ method of teaching  right from the moment we stumbled upon Steiner.

The first that springs to mind is that ‘safe’ and ‘protected’ are both synonymous with ‘sheltered’.


Yet this is a stereotype which is commonly applied to all private school education in the UK. It is so easy to paint everyone with the same brush.

Both me and my ex (I’m tired of referring to him like that – From now on, he is  ‘Daddya’ – see my post ‘Swings and Roundabouts‘) have been educated privately and in UK State schools at different points in our lives. Since I moved here many years ago I’ve seen how bitterly resented this division in British society is – and now, having no real resources to fund a creme-de-la-creme education for my child, I can see why, even though neither is a guarantee of future success.

However, I take the view that despite some formidable schooling being offered on the State, you get what you pay for. It’s just the way it is. For example, I buy Sainsbury’s ‘Basics’ smoked salmon; it tastes fine but comes in smaller pieces, almost like salmon mince. It does the job pretty well on my toasted bagel but it’s not quite up to the standard of the Wild Alaskan ‘Taste the Difference‘ range. OBVIOUSLY. We can grumble about the difference in the quality of public and State school education until we’re blue in the face but it doesn’t change the fact you are likely to get more if you are prepared to part with the cash. Sucks to be skint like me, but that’s life.

I think this bitterness underlies a lot of the prejudice against Public school educated children in this country. Are plenty of them sheltered? Of course. Are many of them snobs? Naturally. But that will never be the whole picture. It’s as ridiculous as saying every State educated child is down-to-Earth, unprejudiced and well-integrated. NONSENSE.

But then, there’s sheltered and there’s completely, harmfully alienated… Continue reading ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Steiner (continued)’


Twinkle Twinkle Little Steiner

After our applications for a State school place were declined a few weeks ago, me and my ex found ourselves confronted with the disheartening prospect of our son falling behind on his education. We decided to reapply to the remaining schools in our borough – the only ones that weren’t ridiculously oversubscribed, for all that may imply. Desperate times, desperate measures.

It was upon visiting one of these schools that our hearts really sank. It just seemed wrong. As lovely as the two kids who showed us around were, the fact that this was an oversized inner city dump where there were no longer any toilet seats just could not be disguised. ‘Perhaps‘, we thought, ‘we’re being a little pompous and unrealistic‘. The truth is that children all over the country attend schools such as this and worse and hopefully turn out fine. The Ofsted report gave it a grade 3. Furthermore, parental involvement is integral to any child’s overall education and we both care too much to let him miss out.

But to send our baby to that place felt like sending a  little lamb to slaughter.

(I sound like a mum!)

So we decided it was time to change our tactics and start researching our local private schools with the hope that we might be able to send him somewhere, somehow, someday. They all seemed like shining beacons after what we had seen, and they were all hideously above our budget. And that’s when we stumbled upon Waldorf Steiner.

At £4.055 per annum for their kindergarten (ages 4-7), it was a lot cheaper than any of the other prep schools we had looked at. Still a stretch, but one that we could just about cope with.  The memories of the inner city dump made the local Steiner school’s website  seem a wholesome and rustic idyll. But upon closer inspection we began to realise that this was not your average school, nor your average educational ethos. Something about it reminded me of what I’ve heard so far about the Montessori method, but Steiner seems to go beyond that. Thus began our investigation.

The Waldorf Steiner method of education was formulated by Rudolf Steiner, according to his personal philosophy of Anthroposophy.  It began when a friend of Steiner’s asked him to open a visionary school for the children of the workers at the Waldorf cigarette factory in 1919. You can find more about Steiner’s life and beliefs here, as I cannot pretend to have any expertise on the matter.


Anthroposophy was not a completely alien concept to me as my best friend in Brazil and her husband have been very keen to bring up their 5 year old daughter according to some of its teachings. Anthroposophy means, literally,  ‘wisdom of the human being’.

Well, I’m sure I can’t claim to be that wise because I found it all a bit radical and puzzling. Their daughter was not allowed any plastic or electronic toys; television and computers were forbidden; even recorded music was a no-no. When I landed in Rio with a 9 month old baby I felt slightly intimidated by this determination to occlude modern living. My son loved toys with flashing lights and music and I really couldn’t see how they could be so sure it was harmful. He was one of the happiest, most settled babies I have ever known —and I am not saying that just because I am his mum.

On my last visit to Brazil it was clear that they had had to relax their grip; financial and social constraints meant that raising their kid in an exclusively anthroposophical way became a bit of a nightmare — I think it also partly contributed to their break up last year. Clearly all this gave me a negative bias toward this philosophy, but I would be lying if I said I knew enough about it to refute it. All I am saying is that it probably didn’t come to me in the best light.


Nevertheless I can still see why an anthroposophical approach to education is appealing, particularly in the early years, which is the category my son falls into. It is certainly more caring and constructive than I imagine the nightmare State school could be. At best, it could help my child come on leaps and bounds in his personal development, for all that might represent. At worst, at this age, it wouldn’t harm him. I like the idea of play-based early learning; and I understand this is much of what he’d be doing at a State nursery at reception class – if he ever got into a decent one. My biggest concern over our lack of State school offers is that he would miss out on social interaction and structured activity if he was forced to spend the next year alone, particularly with mother dearest over here. Part of education is learning to be a social and moral being too and I like the Steiner focus on this aspect.

There is no doubt in my mind that the Steiner method is caring and that my son would have plenty of fun and human interaction — What else can I expect at the age of four? At a glance, kindergarten seeks to develop the senses through different kinds of play, giving the children a fair bit of autonomy with regards to their own development. Parents of young children see new milestones being reached on a daily basis and supporting these achievements makes a lot of sense. The focus on exciting children’s natural curiosity and satisfying their instinctive desire for learning is something you don’t hear often on the national curriculum. This was all interesting so I began to ask around.


I must have been living in a hole all my life. As soon as I mentioned Steiner, people started coming out of the woodwork with their experiences and opinions. The overwhelming majority used adjectives such as ‘well-rounded’, ‘creative’, ‘free-thinking’, ‘academic’ and ‘social’ to describe Steiner kids. The educational methods were perceived as ‘effective’, ‘revolutionary’ and ‘caring’, if a bit ‘too idealistic’ and lacking in technology. At university level, a broad and unconventional approach would set Steiner children apart as scholars too. However, another friend related that some of her own Steiner friends suffered breakdowns in their late teens because they found it difficult to adapt when the ‘real world isn’t all nice and reassuring, and doesn’t value individuality or creativity’. This same friend mirrored my own concerns when she said ‘In theory, I am completely pro-Steiner philosophy, but it’s worth thinking that school needs to prepare kids for life in the real world’.

The huge response I had on the subject is one of the reasons I decided to write this all down in blog format. This has been very thought provoking on several levels, hence the length of this post and my decision to break it up into smaller segments. There is certainly a lot to be discussed and I can only hope to scratch the surface here. My realist and idealist sides have been struggling against one another. The next step in untangling what I’d heard through the grapevine was to visit the school itself…

To be continued…

How do you Like your Lies for Breakfast?

A good friend of mine posted this link on facebook. It is an essay by Paul Graham about the lies adults tell children about the world in order to raise them from childhood to adulthood. It reminded me a lot about my constant battle with the ambiguities of postmodern parenthood.

I remember an event some years ago, when I was still an angry teenager. I had just been beaten up for no reason by strangers for the first time. I was growing more and more bitter with the world, moving further away from the open hearted tree-hugging country girl I had been. Dismayed at the realisation so many people seemed irrevocably evil, I asked a similarly  jaded friend whether she thought we would be better off telling our children the truth about the world so that they would be tougher early on. And she said ‘No. I think we should let them have their dreams.’

This was a long time ago but I still remember it vividly. And now as a mother I agree with her. The only difficulty is determining just how much wool parents should pull over their children’s eyes before they cross the line between protecting them and harming them.

More on the Vila Mimosa

Yo y’all.

I found another blog with a very entertaining entry on the Vila Mimosa, by a Carioca guy who goes to visit the place. Needless to say, his approach is much more lighthearted than mine, but I am the first to admit that I am sure there is a lot of fun being had in there, despite it being a shockingly fucked up place. There is no denying the Vila’s pull as a freak sideshow attraction, which in fact was probably the main reason I ended up there.  😉 Pretending there isn’t that side to it is futile and presents an unbalanced view. I also do not believe that it is necessarily helpful to envelop everything in a cotton wool wrap of political correctness. Above anything else, that would be decidedly un-Brazilian of me.


His page is in Portuguese and you can find it HERE.


I have also found another website, with more of a social conscience… Written by three women, perhaps unsurprisingly, and also in Portuguese… You can read it HERE.

And I have shamelessly stolen some photographs from there to illustrate this blog, but, as I have credited them, I hope you will refrain from casting the first stone.


 Now, to my enormous surprise, I have discovered that I am fast becoming an internet authority on the subject of the Vila Mimosa: I googled ‘Vila Mimosa’ and my blog was one of the top entries! Well, there you go. If you’re reading it here, you got it from the horse’s mouth.  Lucky you.

Revisiting the Rua Ceara

When I went home to Rio de Janeiro this May to visit my family and friends, my mind was fizzing with a plan to visit the Vila Mimosa once more. I was hoping that I might be able to pay a few of the girls to answer a few questions, and had spent some time thinking about what type of question these should be. Something inside me made me want to steer clear of the glaringly obvious, and avoid asking questions such as ‘How many men do you see every day?’, ‘What’s the dirtiest thing anyone ever asked you to do?’ etc., because my strongest feeling after visiting back in 2004 was that the mechanical performance of the act of prostitution necessarily concealed the people underneath. I feel that by making that sort of enquiry I would just be adding to the car crash voyeurism surrounding anything marginal, whereas I would prefer to get to know more about the people. I am not sure that I ever arrived at the right calibre of questioning but I was more intent on asking things that were completely unrelated to ‘the profession’, such as ‘Who do you admire and why?’, ‘What is your favourite food?’, ‘If you had only one day to live, what would you do?’. It all might seem a bit naive but that is precisely the point.


But I knew that there was a lot I could unearth before even going to the Vila, just by asking (men) in general chit-chat. A friend of a friend had recently joined the motorcycling club ‘Abutres'(not dissimilar from the Hell’s Angels although I am sure if any serious biker reads this I will be in hot water!!!!) and was undergoing his initiation, something which seemed to involve submitting himself to enormous amounts of abuse from the other members until he was ‘promoted’ to the next stage of membership. He told me that the club’s meeting place was by the Vila and that very often they would pay girls to come to their parties and strip and some of the members would go ‘the extra mile’. He claims that he never saw a single woman he would pay ten Reais(around GPB 3.50) to have sex with in all the times he ever visited the Vila, but that his friends often related having seen attractive girls in there. He told me he heard that an old acquaintance of his had recently been diagnosed with HIV and that the word on the street was that he had contracted it in the Vila, but that he was convinced this could not be true as all the girls in there used condoms at all times. He said that you could often see the girls disposing of the ‘used goods’ and handing over little packets to incoming customers. Unfortunately I could not spend more time discussing it all with him, because I am certain that there were plenty of details which he would have ommitted in polite company. Like every man I have ever spoken to on the subject, he maintains that he has never and would never pay for sex in the Vila Mimosa, but that it was a fun place to visit and drink the night away(if you are a guy, that is, because all I ever heard about it is that ‘it is no place for a girl like you to be in’).



My disclosure of my plans to revisit the Vila was met with mixed reactions. My best friend, who accompanied me on the last visit, was as excited as I was, whereas most of the guys I mentioned it to were concerned, incredulous and discouraging. Others gave me the ‘thumbs up’ so long as I made sure I dressed plainly and was accompanied by a good group of tough-looking male friends. My own feelings about the trip kept oscillating between my aforementioned excitement and icy cold feet, but I went ahead with my arrangements anyway. On a Wednesday afternoon I dropped off my Boyf and baby at the airport, with plans of going out with some friends that evening. We were to start at the Vila Mimosa and then move on to Lapa and Baixo Santa Teresa. I hailed a taxi from departures to kill the rest of the day at Posto 9 on Ipanema Beach, when my friend called me and I tried to convince her to come with me. Our conversation got quite agitated, and then I hung up.

The cabby looked at me through the rearview mirror.

‘Are you from Sao Paulo?’

‘No, actually, I’m from Rio.’

‘You seem to lead a very busy life.’

‘I guess…’ (Hmmm… Where is he going with this?)

‘Doing anything fun tonight?’

‘Uhhh yeah, I’m going out with some friends, y’know?’

‘Oh really? Going anywhere nice?’ (Hmmm… I see where he’s going with this…)

‘Yeah, I’m going to Baixo Santa, and Lapa, and I might do a little detour by the Rua Ceara…’


It was obvious that he was dying to ask me about this.

He asked me what I wanted to do at the Vila, and I said I was revisiting with the intention of doing some research for writing, and then I asked him if he had any stories he could share about it.

‘That place is Hell on Earth’, he said. ‘To me there are two kinds of whore: The ‘puta da vida'(whore of life) and the ‘puta de sangue’ (whore of blood). The puta ‘da vida’ is a woman who is forced into prostitution because she needs the money to live. As a taxi driver I know many women like this, who sell their bodies in order to feed their children. The puta ‘de sangue’ is in the business mainly because she likes the sex. These two types tend to behave differently, although a puta ‘da vida’ might get hooked on the perversion of the job and become a puta ‘de sangue’. A puta ‘da vida’ might lead more of a double life, behaving one way in the night but going back home to her normality, whereas the puta ‘de sangue’ is what she is.’

Wow‘, I thought, ‘this dude is being pretty direct…

I asked him if he had any suggestions for my research, saying that I wanted to reveal a bit more about the place, seeing as it is contradictorily poised between common knowledge and absolute secrecy, and the enormity of it swamps any trace of individual trajectories. He said that just from spending one night there I would barely scratch the surface, and suggested that a better course of action would be to spend several nights there, try and see if any of the girls stood out in particular, and make my way in more slowly. He warned me that I should never ever go there without male company, as men in there would see me as much of a sex object as the girls, and that I should never take any valuables with me. I asked him about the hostility I felt from the girls when I walked there before, and he told me competition is fierce between them, and they would wonder what the hell a well-presented little middle-class girl like me was doing there, and that they would envy me and I had to tread carefully.


He proceeded to tell me that the Vila Mimosa is the penultimate rung of the ladder in the life of a Rio prostitute. It is the place where women go when they have ugly faces or their bodies are no longer up to scratch, when they would no longer be accepted in the more ‘upmarket’ brothels in pretty much any other area in town. He told me that the last rung of the ladder in terms of prostitution zones is the Central do Brasil (or Central Station, for those of you who may have watched Fernando Meirelles movie starring Fernanda Montenegro), where women go when they are completely ‘gone’. In his opinion, the Vila is an interesting place to visit and have a few drinks but no man in his right mind would go there to have sex, that the occasional attractive woman who ended up in there never stayed long, and that he had personally never seen one he would have paid for. In spite of this, he related many friendships and even love coming out of the relationships between the women and their clients.


I asked him whether it was true that none of the girls in the Vila were minors, and he laughed. He said that there are girls as young as 12 in the Vila, girls who grew up on the street or who fell on hard times in one way or another. He said the pimps kept the younger looking ones upstairs and charged more for them. Fortunately(can I even call it that in these circumstances?) he confirmed the universal use of condoms. He told me I should write a book about the Vila Mimosa just from stories I could amass from Rio taxi drivers, and I thought that was a really good idea. I might just do that.

Suddenly, we were driving through Leblon, and the conversation changed directions slightly.

‘You know, as a taxi driver and a bouncer in Copacabana night clubs, I know a lot of ‘women of the night’ and I can generally spot one from a big distance. When I saw you hail my taxi I thought you looked like a well-to-do rich girl, but when you opened your mouth to speak…’


Cheeky fucker.


He dropped me off at Posto 9 and I thanked him for the chat, which was truly interesting and has given me loads more ideas about how to go about furthering my research, and he also highlighted the risks involved in it. Unfortunately, that evening a torrential rainstorm flooded and gridlocked most of Rio and I never made it to the Rua Ceara, so this remains a work in progress. Nevertheless, my curiosity is spiked and I will continue to keep digging at this den of iniquity at the bowels of the city until some more of its secrets are revealed to me.

Vila Mimosa

As some of you know, I am Brazilian. I lived in the state of Rio de Janeiro until I was sixteen, when I relocated to London.

A couple of years ago, on a visit back, I found myself incredibly bored on a Saturday night in a grotty suburb called Duque de Caxias with my best friends Binho and the stunning Fefeli and her then (grotty as I can’t describe)boyfriend. Desperately seeking thrills, we decided to gatecrash someone’s party.

Already drunk, we were met with a frosty reception that bordered on comical. I really couldn’t have cared less as being around any people, even of the obnoxious and grotty type, worked as a buffer zone between me and the grotty then-boyfriend. My reaction to their disparaging comments at that point was to play guitar and sing even louder, but my companions felt less and less at ease as the minutes progressed.

It was at this moment that a sympathetic man took pity on us for the wretched treatment we were made to suffer for our boredom. Like the player who had been holding his best card to his chest until the choicest moment, he called us girls to the side and asked:

– How would you two like to visit the biggest brothel in Rio?

– When?!!! Now? How?! What do you mean, the biggest brothel in Rio?

– It’s called the Vila Mimosa. I can drive us there, it’s not too far. There are plenty of bars there, we can have a good time and we won’t have to put up with anymore shit from these arseholes.

Our sense of adventure had suddenly been turned up a couple of notches. The biggest brothel in Rio!!!  With visions of a decrepit colonial mansion with a crumbling pink facade, or a warehouse on a disused factory site, we began to ponder escaping from the worst party we had ever attended. Satisfied that our fellow attendees were not going to warm to us anymore than they had already done, the five of us pack into this guy’s VW Beetle and set off on our wild escapade.

As we approached the borough of Sao Cristovao we drove past the Northeastern Flea Market, our driver turned into a street on the right, and after a while turned left. A Military Police Car was blocking the road, and we were told to pull over to the side. At this point our driver(who, may I add, we hadn’t met before the party)panicked, and decided to reveal he has a *small quantity of weed* in one of his pockets, and that we would basically have been screwed if he got searched. Knowing there was no way of discarding this through a window, the then-boyfriend suggested us girls could hide it in our bra or knickers, to which our outraged companion interjected:

Are you fucking stupid or something? That’s the first place he’s going to look. We’re not in the Zona Sul, ladies, he will stick his finger everywhere without giving it a second thought!

Frozen with fear, our illusions of ethical treatment crumbling beneath our trembling feet, we put on the sweetest, most wholesome expression we could possibly muster in that state of forgotten sobriety, and fortunately it seemed to work. After having his documents inspected under torchlight, our driver was given permission to proceed.

Finally we parked up somewhere, and wandered out through the streets lined with streetlamps like  inverted fluorescent fingernails; bars playing loud music and people spilling out, while Rio goths(a somewhat different breed to London goths)loitered around the corners looking menacing. And then, we are there:

We take a left and then a right(I dont really remember the order), and suddenly we are on a traffic-free cobbled street, packed solid with people. A woman walks out across the street into a bar, wearing nothing but a see-through red thong and high heels. Eh?

You may be surprised by my shock, considering us brazilian girls seem to think nothing of wearing impossibly tiny swimwear in broad sunlight; however, you may be surprised to know that topless sunbathing is illegal in most beaches, and frowned upon in a good proportion of the places where it is permitted. Furthermore, it was a chilly night in May. My London-toughened sensitivity to low temperatures still demanded a couple of warm layers.

Keeping our hands locked around our male companions’ arms with a grip of steel, we proceed to enter the dizzying labyrinth of gaudy neon-lit makeshift bars, where more and more women in various states of undress parade themselves upon the crowd that we have soon come to identify as 99.999…% male(i.e. my friend and I were the ONLY ‘unprofessional’ women there).

Some of you may laugh, having visited other sanitised prostitution areas as the Red Light District in Amsterdam. My shock came mostly from having an insider’s knowledge of Brazilian culture. This was no ordinary place designed for the attenuation of male lust: This was the place some of the poorest, loneliest and most desperate men of Brazil came to enjoy their Panis et Circensis as they received their miserable wages. The women who dangled themselves between the metal bars of the two or three-storey constructions lining the alleyways were not glowing with the fire of sensuality which is the stereotype of our nation; these were women of all ages, from girls who frankly did not appear to have conformed to the 18 years rule the Vila insists it subscribes to, to middle aged females who wore the physical marks of having borne many children whilst suffering the strictures of destitution. Just as you may walk down King’s Road on a Summer’s day and observe the radiant glow of incredibly attractive people who have obviously had a supermodel for a mummy and a hedge fund manager for a daddy and benefited from an optimum diet from conception, you may perceive the opposite on the weathered, beaten, ugly faces of people who have struggled for survival from the time they came from a half-starved agricultural labourer’s sperm. You can tell the difference from the people who were loved and cared for from the moment they were born to the people who came when there was no more affection or money to go round.

And still we stumbled drunkenly through the fanfare. Taking in the spectacle with our inebriated eyes wide open. The driver dude points out that all the prostitutes are squaring in their gazes at us suspiciously. Among those streets where every artery was clogged with men whose vacant eyes seemed to devour them, our fully clothed forms stood out like sore thumbs. Apparently it is pretty unusual for women to visit, a fact that probably accounts for my not being aware of the existence of this flagrant, unapologetic mecca for the sexually starved underwaged brazilian male until this point.  We were reminded of this continuously as group upon group of roudy punters circled us two girls and shouted:

E’ essa!

Ehhh, in case you were wondering, this is not a place I would advise an unaccompanied female to visit.

Speaking of the men for a minute: There were THOUSANDS of them. THOUSANDS. They were of some of the most humble origins in the country: lorry drivers, builders, pubescent young men from the favelas. There was something about the look in their eyes that I can’t quite put into words(I saw it expressed later in the work of photographer Hanspeter Schneider, more of which to follow). If any of you have ever been victims of violent crime, you may be aware of the instinct of peril your attackers instilled in you just before they made their move; this was in some way comparable, a ‘zoning into prey’, a search for the target. Evidently, it wasn’t as aggressive as a rudeboy kicking you in the face: It was the facial expression of absent human empathy. A vacant, but sinister gaze.

The lascivious, sexually aggressive, coarse persona of the puta seems convincing to the customer who has no desire to engage with the person underneath. A more sensitive observation reveals that the persona is just that; sheer performativity, an act. These are the women who will call out to men on the street as they walk on with their children in tow, will throw themselves at tourists with hands cupping a bollockfull. They make themselves obvious at a beach party amongst other scantily clad, gyrating women by dancing harder, ever more obscenely. They place themselves at the very margin of society, subjected to the attacks of the confusing canon of Brazilian morality which retains the ideals of chastity forever upheld by Catholicism whilst simultaneously sexualising women from infancy.  These women are object of scorn and disgust, of schoolboy jokes and violence. But going there, seeing them perform, made me curious. What brought these women to this place? Who were they when they left, at the end of the night, once they could drop the act?

I became determined to find out more about the Vila Mimosa. There is very little information about it on the internet, and whilst I have come to realise that it’s a subject for schoolboy locker rooms, no man I’ve met so far admits to actually having sex with one of the Vila girls – it is something friends would never let die down. One of the materials I did find, however, was a coffee table fashion book, shot by Hanspeter Schneider, called, would you believe, Vila Mimosa.

Basically the guy spent some time in the vila, scouting prostitutes for a fashion shoot where they wore Agent Provocateur lingerie(with the tags still left on, I bet he thought it was a really witty idea). The photography in the book is gritty and fairly raw, and did not annoy me much per se, apart perhaps from some shots that are highly stylised. What really cocked me off was an email sent by one of Schneider’s assistants which is published at the front of the book. It made the place look like subversive fun, like the women were free, like saying ‘the time you had a copper badge flashed in your face and an AK47 elegantly put to your stomach’ is something that should be glamourised rather than addressed for the barbarity it represents.

Anyway, my reason for posting this is that I am going for a short holiday in Rio next month and I intend to visit the Vila again, this time sober, and see if I can interview some of the girls. I will keep you informed.