Ex-Pat Interview Series: Helen Joyce of The Economist

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A few months ago, I read this great article a journalist for the Economist had written in More Intelligent Life on living in São Paulo, which she entitled, São Paulo: Being There. While reading the article, I found myself nodding a lot in agreement, laughing a little thinking, “She’s such a foreigner,” and after reading it said, “I want to meet her.”

And so I did. My cara de pau self wrote Helen Joyce, The Economist’s Brazil Bureau Chief, an e-mail inviting her to coffee and asking if I could interview her for my blog. She more than made herself available for a chat, and we met up for breakfast.

I had prepared all sorts of questions and notes and thought of possibly recording the interview, but as soon as I got there, Helen was so friendly and chatty that I thought, “To hell with it, let’s just have a chat and then I’ll write about the more fun stuff on the blog.” So here goes, a little bit about Helen from what I recall and the few notes I jotted down, and her thoughts on Brazil, politics, economics and just overall being an expat here!


Originally from Ireland, Helen had been living in England for quite a few years and has been with the Economist for about 5 years, where she started as an Education Correspondent. She told me that at the magazine, after about four years, journalists are often asked if the would like to switch to different assignments or departments. In her case, she was invited to go from Education Correspondent to Brazil Bureau Chief.

Oi? What’s that? Basically, it’s a fancy word for “The only correspondent to cover stories for the entire region that encompasses the country of Brazil, and maybe manage a few other South American regions... sort of.” 

The Educational Aspects

One thing that was probably most interesting about meeting Helen, was having the opportunity to talk to someone as smart as she is!! She would throw out random words I would nervously jot down and then think to myself that I may or may not have seen this in Economics classes in college, but probably not since my education was American (... oops, did I just say that?). There were two concepts we talked about that greatly concerns Helen when it comes to Brazilian politics and the economy which I thought I’d share, a - because she’s right. and b - because I’ve always thought this as well, just didn’t know the terms for them... 

Brazil is... an economy of scarcity... Brazilians, in general, especially rich Brazilians, have this sense that what’s expensive, is better than whatever is cheaper. They are prone to purchasing veblen goods (a term Helen taught me!), roping off VIP areas at clubs and concerts (odeio pista VIP), making sure their children attend the best schools and public university (which is free!), and limiting access to the lower ranks of the economy on a number of occasions. What Helen was trying to say of all of this is, Brazil seems to be a country in which everything seems limited to those who have economic means. Sure, there’s public health, but what are the waiting lines like? What about public universities? How many spots are available? And do those who attend public high schools have a chance of being admitted? 

All of these were things Helen and I talked about and it was great to talk to someone with a different perspective from middle class Brazilians who I usually hang out with awho accept all of this about Brazil.

Expat Life

I also asked Helen about Expat life, since my own experience wasn’t exactly that of
an expatriate.  There were a couple of things she mentioned I thought would be good to share with those who have either recently moved to Brazil or are planning on moving to Brazil!

Nine Month Rule - Helen told me that when she first got to São Paulo, it was all a big
adventure. Getting to know the city, trying to find her way around, learn the language,
get her children settled into school, etc. And then at one point she started to feel
miserable and want to go back home and really just hated a lot of things about Brazil
and São Paulo... Until she went to the UK, and vented to a friend who had lived here
for a while, who told her about the 9 month rule in which at around 9 months, expats
tend to fall into this slump... For her to not worry, it would be over soon enough and
she would get through this and start to feel better soon enough. And she did!!
Family - Since Helen relocated her husband and 2 boys to São Paulo with her, I
asked her a little bit about what they thought of the move and how they’ve been
getting along. Her husband, as she put it, fortunately, is very easy going! He’s a
writer, and I’m sure it hasn’t been easy to find much inspiration amongst the concrete
blocks that make up this city. Her 2 children are at an international school here, but
unfortunately, their transition hasn’t been the easiest, but it's getting better as time goes on.

Difficulties - So what have been some of Helen’s difficulties? Besides the language? And maybe her kids’ school? Like most of us who move to Brazil, accepting the prices of things!! Need I say anymore? :-P

Overall, Helen’s Feelings on São Paulo...

Likes... Friendly people who are always willing to help out. At some points, it almost
makes her feel bad that people waste so much time trying to help her out!

Dislikes... The Tietê River (I don’t blame her), Rich Brazilians and their obsession
with having domestics, and getting around the city (ahem... traffic, much?).

Finds Funny... Relationships between Brazilian women and foreign men. She
thinks it’s funny how “average looking” foreign men get here and all of a sudden
are so attractive to beautiful Brazilian women who here, are so “average looking”
themselves. Oh, and of course... muffin tops.

So there you have it, my interview with the Brazil Bureau Chief of the Economist. A
delightful, funny, intelligent, and sarcastic journalist! Needless to say, it was a great
breakfast, and I’m looking forward to more with her!

Do any of you have questions for Helen?

And some more questions for you, my readers! 

What do you all think of the rule of scarcity in Brazil?
Did any of you experience the same sort of slump at 9 months?
Did you find any trouble in adapting or your family adapting?
And has anyone else noticed the excess of muffin tops in this city/country?

Hope you enjoyed, and let me know if you have any more suggestions for interesting people to interview for this blog (or if you'd like to share your experiences yourself!)

Photo Credits: Helen's husband, Andrew! Check out his blog at - Meanwhile, In São Paulo 

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