Proper forms of address are among the first things a person should learn in a new language, because getting that part right is a sign of respect. French makes it easy, you’re safe calling people either Monsieur or Madame until you get to know them better. Here in Brazil you might be tempted to use the Portuguese-language Senhor and Senhora as you would in French, but I advise you not to. The protocol is different, and slightly more complex. If you don’t know the person, say you just need some shopping help from the woman behind the counter, you would refer to her as "a senhora," in the third person (or "o senhor" for a man), something along the lines of, "Would madam help me please?" If, on the other hand, you know the person’s first name but don’t know them intimately, you use an honorific plus the first name: Seu José (Seu being short for Senhor), Dona Maria, Delegado Roberto, Doutor Paulo, Presidente Dilma (yes, it’s "President Rousseff" only in The New York Times!). So, Mark and I have been Seu Mark and Dona Barbara for as long as we’ve lived here.
"Gosh, it’s hot in Brazil with all these layers"
I have been thinking about these cross-cultural paradoxes because of the dilemma that our current caseiro-caretaker, Sandoval, has been facing. Sandoval belongs to a more modern crop of caseiros. He finished high school by studying nights, and he is now, at age 22, attending law school, also at night, after doing his day's work at the house. Sandoval, in addition, is making great strides in his English, and he is doing this not by sitting in a classroom for two hours a week but by hanging around with Mark and me. We made it a rule to carry on our business with him only in English — though providing him with the Portuguese when an English-language word is obscure. And, if he lapses into Portuguese when he’s talking to us, we will usually say, "OK, now the same thing in English please." But here’s the rub. How was he to address us in English? For Mark, he came up with "Mr. Mark." Nothing to think about twice here. But, wouldst that I couldst containeth my smile, he’s taken to calling me "Lady Barbara."
Another caipirinha, Milady?
I haven't corrected him. I can't bring myself to correct him. I don't have the heart. Besides, if you look in the online bilingual dictionaries, "lady" is the word regularly used to translate the Portuguese-language "dona." Mrs. or Ms. plus my surname would — in a country in which the President herself lacks a surname — simply require too abrupt a leap into an alien mind set, and Mrs. Barbara, Miz Barbara or Miss Barbara would obviously reek too much of the unreformed old American South of Driving Miss Daisy days, and worse. So Lady it is, and Lady it shall stay. Truth is, I kind of like it. The Old South is just as well dead and buried; why not resurrect Olde English? And doesn’t it make Mark a Lord? I have occasionally felt tempted to let fly a "Would his Lordship prefer his tea on the veranda?" Yea, verily, I would encourage our female friends to come and visit while the honorific is in place. I tell you, girls, it does give one a frisson of grandeur!
And finally, just for my sisters: Yes, yes, yes, every time I hear "Lady Barbara" I want to wheel around brusquely, hair whipping in the wind and scream, "Lady? I'm not your lady! I'm not any kind of a lady!" I know that you two hear it, too. (What am I referring to, readers? Aldonza's song, from Man of La Mancha, as screamed by — oh, sorry, as sung by Joan Diener. My younger sister and I performed this very number brilliantly in the wee small hours one morning at The Duplex, the quintessential Greenwich Village landmark for the Broadway-besotted.)