The meat was sizzling on the grill. The men huddled round puffing at the flames and performing arcane rituals to minimize the smoke and maximize the heat. The women were in our kitchen pulling together some side dishes. Carrots were being grated. Collard greens were being chopped. Community news (i.e., gossip) was being shared.
I watched my friends slice the collard greens. It was a slow process—roll the greens into a tight bundle and shave off a tiny slice, then another—and for this many people it was going to take a while. After half an hour of slicing they still weren’t halfway through all the greens. Clearly this was a task in need of some modern improvements so I whipped out our chopping board (rare in the interior, purchased in Belo Horizonte) and chef’s knife and began to make a demonstration of my quick knife skills. The women shrieked. “NOOOO, Malvina!! It’s too thick!” What? Here I was doing some tidy julienne strips and it was too thick? I watched their technique again. Sure enough, their way reduced the collards to angel-hair fine shreds. It also took two women 45 minutes to prepare just that one dish. “Our men won’t eat it if it’s thicker,” they explained.
I surrendered to their technique and sat back to contemplate. Now, really, if their men had to prepare that meal I’m pretty sure that the thickness of the slices would rapidly become irrelevant. So what we had here was love at its finest. The women prepared this dish in all its back-breaking tedium because that’s the way their loved ones preferred it. No matter what. I thought about it, and decided that while I loved my husband he was going to have to settle for thicker collard greens from his American wife.
There’s a lot of love in Brazilian women’s work. Really, if it weren’t for love how would you stand ironing every last piece of clothing off the line? Preparing a meal for hours? Scrubbing and mopping floors almost daily? For a large family each of these undertakings is monumental. Only love will get you through.
There’s love in the flip-side as well. The husband whose hands ache with the weight of every market purchase—including the yucca, winter squash, and bundle of pineapples—so that she doesn’t have to. The care that men place in washing their car by hand twice a week so that their family can always step out in pride. Quietly, steadily working 60 hours per week to make ends meet. The treats brought home—avocados from a cousin, the watermelon from the street vendor, oranges from a friend’s orchard—for the delight of the children.
This is a land that barely knows greeting cards or wrapping paper. I am from a culture where present-giving is raised to a fine art, extending from the lovingly hand-made to the laboriously investigated and purchased. Where tradition suggests that when you return from a trip you bring a present of your adventures. Where children make endless drawings as gifts for their mothers. Where birthdays are celebrations of an individual, with a shower of trinkets and adulations. Here birthdays often pass nearly unnoticed, gifts are rare (that’s economics speaking), cards are sold on one rack in one store in town and are mostly for Valentine’s Day and weddings. Here love speaks another language.
My Portuguese is approaching passable. It’s this other language that is now tripping me up. I’m sure that my in-laws have done things to show they care that sailed through my radar; I just don’t know where to look. They are puzzled by my gestures, like bringing pie to a holiday dinner (c’mon, it’s homemade PIE, people!), because it doesn’t fit into theirs. It’s all unspoken. Where is the guidebook that will teach me this language?
How many ways can you count to say “I LOVE YOU”?