If your first associations with Brazil are samba dancing on Carnival floats, sun-kissed bodies playing volleyball on the beach, or smiley people sipping cool caipirinhas in the heat, think again.
When my flight left Rio for Curitiba the captain announced that the weather in Curitiba was fair (passengers exhale a collective “phew”) but that it was only 5°C (passengers visibly shudder).
It’s been a bit warmer during the day – but Curitiba, capital of Paraná state in Southern Brazil, has been blighted recently by a freezing (relatively speaking) cold wind from the Antarctic. There’s even been snow in some regions in Brazil located further south, with news of some waterfalls freezing up.
Locals have been talking about unprecedented chilliness, but their elders say this is how it used to be.
It has meant that the Curitiba winter fair has been uncommonly evocative of those held in Germany, particularly in Cologne. The tanned figures of the Brazilian masses were milling around the market clad in scarves and about eight layers of clothes.
The fair spans one of the city centre’s nicest parks – giving you lots to spend your reais on, including various types of food and drink and handmade crafts and bits and bobs.
As with most of the city’s square, towering above you are one of the quintessential symbols of Paraná state – the local Paraná pine tree, which give enormous pine nuts called pinhões (pictured right).
Although they don’t look particularly edible, they were being served hot at the winter fair – something very local, but according to my guide they “taste of nothing”.
However, the quentão (mulled wine – from quente ‘hot’) we tried was particularly welcome, given how far down the mercury had dropped. But the option of what to add to the mulled wine was, admittedly, a bit odd for me: condensed milk or marshmallows? (In mulled wine?! Que vergonha!)
The “local” Curitiban winter market, at first glance, is actually quite a national affair, showcasing foods from Minas Gerais, Bahía and Rio Grande do Sul regions. It also has an international flavour – with Japanese, Chinese and Indian foods and crafts all featured.
However, the country I wasn’t expecting was Polônia – Poland. But then I found out Curitiba is home to the world’s second largest Polish diaspora after Chicago – Polish cultural influences can be identified throughout the region.
And actually, when I cast my mind back to my trip here in January I do remember seeing a big sign with the word “pierogi” – Polish dumplings which I learnt to lepić (squidge together) in Poland in 2006.
This Polish immigration to the region, alongside other Europeans including Ukrainians and Germans, is well actually more obvious than you might think – including the city’s Praça de Polônia (Poland Square), Bosque dos Poloneses (Polish Woods), and several things associated with the late Polish Pope John Paul II.
Thanks to a local Polish folklore group you can apparently see traditional Polish dancing every Sunday (a chance to try out the video equipment, I reckon!).
The Polish population in southern Brazil started arriving in the late 19th century, with numbers increasing more rapidly in the 1920s all the way through to the ’70s. Many settled in Curitiba (or Kurytyba as it is in Polish… Ergh. Ugly, and reminds me of chickens for some reason).
Several politicians and famous faces on the TV have Polish roots – and Zbigniew Ziembiński is touted as being the “father of modern theatre in Brazil”.
And although traces of this notable migration can still definitely be seen – for example, most of the Jews living in Brazil have Polish backgrounds – today, fewer and fewer of their descendants speak Polish as the generations pass.
This is probably why there is such an effort by hardcore Polish folklore lovers to try to showcase the cultural and historical ties that the city has with its Polish-descended population.