Thank goodness for 21 year old, Julia Divine! Yes, Divine. Name of names. A Brazilian – her sumptuous, kind-looking mother, Victory Divine, recently opened an eponymous vintage and seamstress atelier in Park Parade – at last, who is willing to walk with me. A rare breed indeed. I’ve been trying for a few weeks. Emails, trips to local shops. To no avail. I went down Station Road – Harlesden’s little Brazil – and asked in shops like Planete Brazil. They turned up their noses. Seemingly, weary, disinterested at the suggestion. I was a little disappointed.
Until I found the lively, deliciously opinionated Julia. I’d found her amidst the pink feather boas and glittery jumpers in her mum’s shop. And now we are walking. “We came over from Brasilia in 2006,” she explains, “my mum is actually a pastor and she came with the church. My dad is a prosthetic dentist but they split up a long time ago. I was 16 when I came here and went to the Capital City Academy. It was a complete waste of time. The teaching was really bad and they made me feel different.”
Although Julia used to live here, she’s moved in with her fiance – who has a wonderfully strange name that I sadly can’t mention because post-walk they both have an attack of the privacy virus, but he explains later that his parents were hippies and it’s Anglo-Saxon as an explanation – in Acton. She met him through a friend who went to Cardinal Hinsley. The Catholic boys’ secondary school near me, that has now been re-named Newman Catholic College. “We’re getting married in June,” she says with sudden animation, “at St Lukes in Queens Park where my mum is a pastor. It’s an evangelical Christian church.”
By this time, we’ve walked down Station Road as far as the Amber Grill. Formerly the Willesden Junction Hotel – built in Victorian times for travellers who arrived by train and was probably rather grand, its original painted letters are still at the top of the building – it became a very tatty pub but is is now a Brazilian restaurant. To be honest, I’ve never seen anyone much in there and had relegated it to my no interest mindfile. But Julia is an unexpected fan.
“They do traditional rodizio,” she says, “where waiters bring you slices of slow-cooked grilled meat to taste at your table. I really like it here.”
The strangest discovery is that a pastor – they are popping up everywhere – co-runs it and that it is linked financially to the International House of Prayer next door. Another evangelical Christian church. I’m having a run of them too. The waitress is Brazilian and a member of this church. “I’m studying English,” she says, “and I live upstairs with my husband.”
The conversation turns to the defining qualities of a Brazilian. Physically. “I’m half-Italian,” she continues, “like many Brazilians, but there are so many different types of us. You can’t generalise.”
“There’s a waiter here who is half Chinese and half Brazilian,” says Julia confirming the Brazilian melting pot identity, “and we also have more Japanese outside Japan than any other country.”
Next we pop into the Associacao Portuguesa which helps Portuguese speakers with benefits, jobs and legal advice. “There are 30,000 Brazilians in Brent,” says Edmar, a PHD student who is volunteering here, “a lot came to learn English in the 90s, but US is the first port of call. It was difficult to get in after Sept 11th so they applied to the UK again.”
It’s her darling *****, 25, who used to be a DJ and a radio presenter but lately has gone sensible and got a job over the road as a bus mechanic with First Direct. “I usually work from 4 am til 12 30,” he says, “but since Julia is with you, I’m doing overtime.” Saving up for the wedding? “I am,” he grins contentedly, a young man who knows he’s lucky, lucky, lucky in love. They’ve already bought the dress on Ebay. It’s a size 6. After all if it doesn’t fit, Julia’s mother is a seamstress.
Julia hasn’t got a job at the moment. But she does have a voracious interest in criminal law. She is also ambitious. The Capital Academy has fortunately failed to drain her of that. “I’ve just applied for a job translating Portuguese legal documents,” she says.
She looks cute but goodness, she is sparky too. Sabor Mineiro is a little Brazilian cafe on the corner of Tubbs Lane. My friend, writer, Monique Roffey loved going there when she lived up the road. But Julia disapproves. “Their food is not seasoned properly, it’s not good,” she says authoratively. That doesn’t stop her giving me a quick tour of the mostly deep fried specialities from coxinha which have shredded chicken and cheese in dough, to pasteles which have minced beef inside a pastry envelope, to kibes which are a bit like falafel.
We cross over to Planete Brazil – the bikini and handbag shop which has also turned into a hairdressers. Bizarrely, the receptionist at the hairdressers, is still diffident. Just like last time. Even with Julia in tow. She says she doesn’t have time to speak. They have one customer. Mind you, he does look like a rotund version of one half of Jedward and has opted for a neo-mohican in a deep red.
Have I mentioned the flat screen TVs? Everywhere. They scream shininess. As in big new shine. How important new is to the newcomer. And their soap habit. “They’ve all got Sky,” says Julia pragmatically, “they get all the soaps on the Brazilian channel, Record.”
The butcher and mini-supermarket owner next door is much more friendly. He’s been here for 9 years and has 5 businesses. “I’m from a central state called Minusgerais,” he says, “and I always hang my Easter Eggs from the ceiling like that, it’s tradition just like they do in Brazil.”
And then we have an unexpected bit of information from Julia. “Look pest control,” she points out as we pass First Direct and her now invisible beloved. “Did you know number 18 buses are full of cockroaches?”
To be honest, I had no idea. “They like the back seat near the engine,” she says with the benefit of insider’s knowledge, “they always find loads there.”
After that brief but significant cockroach moment, we go into William Wallace. Another hairdressers, this time dominated by black and red, and thankfully, warmth. Down a corridor at the back, and we discover Brazilian Lingerie. It is truly secreted away. Patrizia, the mistress of the lingerie, gives me a tour of her sparkling bra-bedecked hangers. “The difference is that Brazilians wear bras like this,” she pulls out a verdant glossy one with diamante straps, “every day. It’s not special to us, it’s what we wear. Whereas in the UK, you’d probably wear it to a club. Also Europeans hide everything, we like a nice cleavage.”
Patrizia has been here 10 years. She came to learn English and ended up meeting her husband and having a child. “My great grandfather was Portuguese but I’m not Portuguese, I’m totally Brazilian,” she says her six inch wedges confirming it.
Our final destination is Kero Coffee, a cafe on the left past the Post Office. Here we find Limarie – a Brazilian with one set of French grandparents – who is full of beans and positively verbose in comparision to some of her compatriots down the road. She points out one of her customers who “is Moroccan but tells everyone he’s Brazilian because he wants to be Brazilian so much.” She knows her characters.
Limarie tells us a little bit of her story. “My Native Indian grandma was really pretty and my Spanish grandfather chose her, then raped her. She never forgave the Spanish, she wouldn’t let us get Spanish passports. But in Brazil, we’re not racist, it doesn’t matter what colour your skin is. And we don’t use skin whitener, we’d rather be dark.”
Limarie has one of those big, generous hearts. She has a 7 year old son, a 9 year daughter and an Italian husband. “My daughter gets bullied at school because her hair is curly and different. Those curls are so gorgeous and it makes me very sad that she is treated like that here.”
However, the next instant she look over at Julia – divine as ever – and pronounces that she reminds her of a celebrated Brazilian actress but she can’t recall the name. “Well, people do say I’m like a Brazilian Angelina Jolie,” pipes up Ms Divine. Stellar as well, it seems…