Searching for an apartment in Santos proves to be not only a difficult but also an interesting experience, especially for me as a foreigner. I hate living as a nomad but I like looking at apartments, seeing how other people live and how they set up their apartments. And I adore the old chic of many of these buildings, dating back to the 60s and 70s, today often in not so good shape anymore. And looking for apartments in Brazil is also a challenge, since many houses seem to me totally “normal” from the outside, but I encounter many strange things. It starts with the Porteiro, the gatekeeper and security person, who needs to unlock the gate that surrounds almost every building here, something to which I am by now used in Brazil, but I remember how shocked I was the first time I was here: all these fences, guards and security. It seems like a high-security environment, which is only sometimes true – often the porteiro is more a convenience than a security factor.

The entrance

Experiencing an apartment continues after the porteiro with a sometimes very elaborate, sometimes very run-down seating area in front of the elevators leading up to the appartments. Only one thing is clear about these areas: nobody ever sits there. Their only purpose seems to be to make the entree of a house look cozy. And indeed, these places can be very nice, even though highly dysfunctional. And then there is the thing with the elevator.

The elevator question

Most apartment-complexes I have been to in Brazil have more than one elevator, and that makes sense, since one elevator often isn’t enough for a big house with several dozen apartments. But with the elevators come complex rules. The first time I’ve been to Santos, I was perplexed by the mysterious choreography, with which my now wife chose the elevators. We stayed in a house with two almost identical elevators, but sometimes she chose to wait for the second elevator to arrive instead of taking the first one, which was empty and available. I learned that while these elevators may seem identical, they are in fact different, because one is called “social” and the other one “serviço”.

To use the elevators reflect another interesting and sometimes annoying aspect of Brazil: the social classes and hierarchies. Because up until today it is very usual for a Brazilian household to employ an “empregada” – a woman in charge of cleaning, cooking food, sometimes taking care of the children etc. As a German I have problems and social prejudice with this, but that is one of the best parts of going abroad: your values and experiences are challenged. Life with an “empregada” is deeply reflected in the architecture of these older houses in Santos and it still remains visible even in the modern buildings. And it is reflected in the rules of the elevators.

Taking the right elevator

While the differences between the two elevators may be marginal (sometimes the obvious difference is a mirror, which is does not exist in the “serviço”, while there is one in the “social”), there are unwritten rules of using them. The “social” elevator is used for normal, everyday tasks and is what I would call a little more distinguished. The “serviço” is used for carrying stuff. Now whole that may seem easy, it proves to be more complex in everyday live: If you come home from a dinner at night, wearing normal clothes, you use the “social”, same as when leaving the house to go to work. Every time you use the “social” you can also use the “serviço”, at your own will (but not the other way around). Since the dress-code in Brazil is very relaxed you can also use the “social” when using shirt, shorts and havaianas to go to the beach. If you come back from the beach, however, you have to use the “serviço”, because you might have sand on your feet, be wet or whatever. To make this even more complex: if you carry your own beach chair or an umbrella to the beach, you should use “serviço”. This rule seems to be another basic one: when you are carrying stuff (regardless of the cloth you wear), you use the “serviço”. However: if you get home dressed normally and only carry like one plastic bag from the supermarket, the “social” is ok. With many bags however you should use the “serviço”.

Everything clear? Once you learned these rules it is in fact not so difficult and can become quite natural. The interesting question for me is: what happens, if you break the unwritten rule? The good news: probably nothing. If you are a foreigner and since Brazilians are usually quite friendly, especially to foreigners, you might not experience any problem. If you break the rule for some time, the porteiro will probably point the rules out to you in a very friendly way (most houses have quite extensive camera surveillance in all the floors and the elevator, and the porteiro always knows everything – better not forget that!). That’s all. It would be interesting to know, what will happen, if someone willingly and intentionally breaks these rules for a long time. But this deals with the question, how Brazilians deal with conflicts, which is a completely different question and which I am still to find out.

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