A Ham Flavored Algorithm

Sophie Barbasch // Providence, RI

2005 was the year my father moved to Brazil. My stepmother and brother had already lived in Sao Paolo for two years. It was my job to tell myself that nothing was going to change.

The air in Sao Paolo was different from New York, but not so different from Manhattan in the summertime. The parks were bigger, greener, more tropical, but to me they were just a different kind of Central Park. Food was different. Time was different. I kept working on my mental equations, refining and revising, as if one simple algorithm would emerge that could be applied to anything, be it a smell or a city. My algorithm would root me during moments of confusion.

I applied the algorithm to my brother Tom’s new school in Brazil, his new thoughts stemming from a new language, his new house, and his new freedoms and limitations. I also applied it to my father’s future conditional: if he lived here, there would be a room for me, and I would visit with the money that would come from an unknown future job.

Boxes and tickets materialized and I went down to Sao Paolo to visit, still feeling like we were all just going on a vacation. Tom, younger by six years, was my leader, showing me streets and slang.

One night we ended up in the grocery store. The repetitive hum of my equation kicked in: narrower checkout counters, drinkable yogurt, wine for holidays, different plants, slightly different kinds of shopping going on at a slightly different hour of the night. I could buy a perfect mango at nine in the evening. That particular evening Tom was on the lookout for chips, because dinner is not taken so seriously in Brazil.

The chips aisle was impressive, with a very American profusion of logos. Tom eyed the selection with expertise. He explained that chips come with flavor packets in Brazil. As soon as I saw his choice of presunto (ham), I began to laugh in anticipation of the terrible experience awaiting him. The flavor packet was indeed terrible, like a hot pink ketchup paste. At home, we considered the presunto packet with giggles and the tension that lurks when an older sibling teases the younger one. I couldn’t bring myself near it, and I can’t remember if Tom pasted any of it onto his chips. We left it on the glass tabletop in the dark.

What a silly thing for me to remember! Tom doesn’t remember it at all. He refuses the possibility of having chosen the ham packet, despite my insistence. He denies eating any portion of it even more vehemently (on this front I remain flexible). I affix no meaning to this pork story, but I do get a glimpse of how the mind works in times of uncertainty: grasping, traveling, looking for significance in any tiny thing. I think I remember that pink packet because it was so there, so different and so funny. It is something concrete for me to hang onto, since, as it turns out, my algorithm never really worked.

Sophie Barbasch is a photographer based in Providence, R.I., where she is currently anMFA candidate at the Rhode Island School of Design. She has been an artist-in-residence at the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts, Ragdale, the Blue Mountain Center, the Vermont Studio Center, and CAC Woodside. She was recently included in Photo Boite’s 30 Under 30 Women Photographers. She has exhibited in New York and Rhode Island.

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