04 June 2012


Mums the word . . .
Many, many years ago in France I was invited to a dinner party and wanted to bring a gift for the hostess. Flowers! Always a good idea, I thought to myself. So I arrived at the dinner armed with a huge bouquet of gorgeous chrysanthemums. But my bouquet was accepted with a very reserved "merci," spirited away to some back room, and never mentioned again. I chalked it up to French sangfroid. It was only days later that I was told by a friend who felt sorry for me that one never, ever, brings mums to a French household — unless the household is in mourning. Oops. Live and learn. From that day forward I understood that gifts are not so easily translated from one country to another. Don't bring clocks to a Chinese home, for example, clocks are for funerals. Don't bring white flowers to the Japanese, or anything white for that matter, it's the color of death — and funerals. (I think there's a theme here.) Invited to a home in Mumbai? Don't bring anything leather. And don't bring anything purple to an Italian home, you're just bringing them bad luck.

Well, wherever I'm living there's no way I can go to someone's home empty-handed. (Remember Goldie Hawn in Private Benjamin? We had the same mother . . .) Mark and I always bring something when we're on our way to a dinner, whether edible, drinkable, readable or playable. There's one thing very strange about the gift relationship here in Brazil, though. You go to a birthday party, for example. You put the gift you've brought onto a pile with the other gifts. But, if the gift isn't opened and gushed over immediately, only rarely do you get a thank-you note or a thank-you phone call. In the States, you spend half your childhood under instructions from your mother not to leave your room until you've written out neatly, Dear Grandma, Thank you for the pretty handkerchief that you gave me for my birthday. I'm sure I will use it well. Or Dear Uncle Morris, Thank you for the $5.00 you sent for my graduation. I'm sure I will use it well. Here it just seems not to be the custom. And what's even worse than the silences after birthday parties are the silences after weddings. Don't take this wrong, dear Brazilian friends, but on several occasions we have been to stores where a marrying couple has enrolled in the wedding registry. We've ordered a desired gift and paid for it. If it's not acknowledged, how do we know it's even been delivered? Are we supposed to ask? Help us here, we're truly in the dark.

Still blooming, after all these years
Now that I've gotten that quibble off my chest, let me add that Brazilians are not just the warmest, most loving, hugging-est people I've ever met, they're also way over the top in their own gift-giving. Plenty of times people have turned up at our house for a casual dinner as if it were Christmas in Bethlehem. We've received our share of beautiful flowering plants, some still alive and flowering, many years later; we've been pleased to receive cases and cases of wine, always very much appreciated, plus scotch, and champagnes of all labels. We've enjoyed lots of homemade goodies, too. Possibly the most original gift was a hand-blown glass swan, blown just hours before its delivery. The worst? Several sets of Brazilian underwear for me. Way too small. Way too uncomfortable. Way too intimate. I re-gifted it, and quickly. Among the gifts that have most touched my heart, though, are those that have come from our cleaning lady. She is forever bringing us vegetables from her garden and strange, exotic fruits plucked right off her own trees. And several times a month her mother — who's never met me, but has some idea I'm too thin — makes something sugary sweet for Dona Bárbara. What more warmth can a person receive?

1 comment:

  1. Barbara, first of all, I'm embarrassed for my countrymen for their lack of savoir faire. As far as I am concerned their neglect is at best expression of the disorganization of the wedding planners and at worst just plain rude. As to wether or not this is a constant among us, I cannot say. Therefore I contacted my extended family asking them to tell me about their experiences in this matter. I'll let you know what they say as soon as they respond.