As the host of the Olympics, Brazil has been in the spotlight all summer. So, for our Motherhood Around the World series, we headed north of Rio to the island city of Vitória, where Brynn lives with her husband and five-year-old daughter, Audrey. Here, Brynn talks about raising a bilingual child, the “no makeup” rule at preschool and the Brazilian cure for hiccups…
Brynn’s background: Before moving to Rio in 2006, I worked as a graduate assistant in a Fulbright Program in Washington D.C. My husband was one of the Brazilian fellows. We fell in love and after spending his fellowship in D.C. together, I finished my graduate classes and moved to Rio with him. I knew right away that I could spend the rest of my life with him, but the first year was a test to see if I could live in Brazil for a big portion of my life. I didn’t speak any Portuguese, and I struggled with the crime, pollution and traffic in Rio. But once I let go of my initial expectations of the city (which took about a year, honestly), I realized what Rio lacks in infrastructure, it makes up for in culture and natural beauty. When my husband and I decided to start a family, we moved to the small island city of Vitória. We now live in a condo four blocks from the beach. Until last year, I taught economics at a high school but am now focusing on writing my first young adult novel.
On winter: Vitória is tropical, so it’s very warm year round. It’s winter right now, and today is actually considered quite cold for Vitória — at about 73 degrees. People are breaking out their coats! This morning, on the way to school, Audrey was wearing a hoodie with a bikini underneath because she had swim class. (Even in winter, she has swim class outside twice week.) There was a little breeze, so she zipped it up, and a woman stopped us and said to her, “It’s soooo cold today, isn’t it? I’ve got my jacket on, too, because it’s freezing.” Meanwhile, I’m wearing a T-shirt.
On being a dual citizen: Everyone was really excited about the Olympics being held in Rio. (We even went to see the Brazilian women’s soccer team.) Audrey’s school had their own Opening Ceremony, where the kids dressed up and played with streamers, toy medals and a paper torch. We’ve been talking with Audrey about how she has two teams to cheer for — Brazil and the U.S. She asked if other kids did, too, and was a little confused why she got two countries even though she was born in Brazil. She recently asked why her friends didn’t speak English and declared she was going to teach them all. We have a world map at home and point out the countries we read about. She can identify Rio and Atlanta (where we visit my family) and knows that she has relatives in both cities.
On being bilingual: Vitória is not a tourist city, so you hear very, very little English here. We speak English at home, but Audrey’s school is taught entirely in Portuguese. At age three, the students start doing 30 minutes of English in the afternoon. It’s great for my daughter because her classmates now recognize the language that she speaks with me, so it doesn’t make her “weird.” The kids are quite curious and love to come over to me and use some of the words they’ve learned. They like to say “bye bye” and “hello.” They like to say “My name is…” even though I have known them all for several years.
My husband speaks fluent English, but he has been asked by friends if he feels as if speaking a second language filters his relationship with his daughter in any way. He says it doesn’t bother him. The majority of the time we all speak English, but it’s not a hard-and-fast rule. If Audrey is playing a game from school, she’ll switch into Portuguese and he’ll go into it with her. My Portuguese wasn’t so great when I lived in Rio since so many people spoke English, but it has gotten much better since I moved to Vitória. Also, dealing with my daughter’s dentists, doctors, teachers and such has really helped.
On visiting America: When we visit my family in Atlanta, Audrey speaks English with them. On our last trip, however, we went to a playground, and I saw a little girl talking to Audrey and shaking her head, like she didn’t understand. At first I thought it was strange that Audrey was speaking to her in Portuguese because she knew we were in the U.S. But then I realized that all my relatives are adults, and she had only spoken English with adults. All the kids she knows are Brazilian, so in her mind she thought all kids spoke Portuguese!
On reading: One of my favorite things about being a parent is reading with Audrey at night. There are a few famous Brazilian children’s authors, like Ana Maria Machado, but most of the kids books here have been translated from English. (Audrey’s favorite is A Sick Day for Amos McGee.) Although I’ve heard that things are changing, reading is just not as big of a part of the culture here. Recently, a Brazilian friend came back from a resort vacation in Florida and said that when she went to the pool every single person was reading a book. She said it blew her mind, and asked if that was normal. The beaches in Brazil are a lot more social; people aren’t reading by themselves, but talking and having fun with their neighbors.
Moqueca fish stew
On beach days: We go to the beach every weekend, year round. Growing up in America, we’d pack a picnic, fill up a cooler or bring sandwiches and stay all day. If you did that in Vitória, everyone would know you were a tourist. We go to the beach early in the morning but never bring anything to eat. There are tons of vendors selling boiled ears of corn, sticks of chicken or cheese, popsicles, and brigadeiros, a popular dessert made from chocolate and condensed milk. Audrey loves when we drink coconut water directly out of coconuts. We often have lunch at one of the restaurants right on the beach. We’ll sit at the plastic tables and share a bowl of moqueca, a fish stew made with onions and tomatoes. My favorite thing to get at the beach is the fresh passion fruit juice. It supposedly makes you sleepy, which is not at all why I order it for my daughter around naptime…
On beach fashion: I’ve been to beaches all over Brazil, and teeny tiny bottoms seem to be a unifying national trend. Speedos for men and boys are the norm, although board shorts are getting more popular. I actually buy my bathing suits in the U.S. I’m just not comfortable without my entire bottom covered! I’ve also started wearing long-sleeved UV swim shirts to the beach for health reasons. We go to the beach a lot, and the sun here is intense.
On friendliness: One of my favorite things about Brazil is how talkative and friendly everyone is, even to strangers. It’s so easy to strike up a conversation anywhere. You would never go into an elevator without saying “bom dia” (good morning) when you enter and “tchau” (bye) when you left. On our walk to school, when we pass the bakery, there’s always an older woman sitting outside selling newspapers. She and Audrey always say good morning to each other and have a little chat. When we’re running late, the woman will say, “I was wondering where you were, Princesa!” Just last night, when we stopped by on the way home from school, the cashier asked her how old she is now. Audrey said five, and the woman told her she remembered when she was a baby and my husband would bring her to the bakery in a front carrier. We were the only family around with a front carrier, and also dads don’t often take kids out alone. So, my husband and daughter were quite the local celebrities walking around the neighborhood!
On loving children: Brazilians adore kids! In Rio, I’ve seen waiters at a fancy restaurant lift and carry a stroller with a sleeping baby across an entire restaurant to the one free table in the corner. Recently when I was at the gym, one of the trainers brought in his new baby, and there was a group of super burly guys were cooing and clucking over a baby. It was adorable. Pregnant women and parents with a baby are often given special lines or allowed to come to the front of the line at banks or when boarding planes; I would get called to the front of the line at the movie theater while pregnant. There’s also no problem with breastfeeding in Brazil. I did it anywhere and everywhere, and I never used a modesty blanket. It’s too damn hot for that! Plus, my husband told me early on breastfeeding is protected under federal law — the child has a right to eat.
On piercing babies’ ears: After I gave birth, in the hospital, the nurse asked if we wanted to pierce Audrey’s ears. We decided not to, but soon learned that, without earrings, everyone thought she was a boy! When people on the street would walk up to coo over her, my husband would have to correct them (“ela,” not “ele”). We also got lots of beautiful stud earrings at our baby shower — I feel bad that they’re still sitting in our closet. When Audrey was a year old, we were walking down the street, and a Brazilian woman stopped us and said, “Your daughter doesn’t have pierced ears, I can’t believe it!” She freaked out because she had also decided to not pierce her daughter’s ears. She was thrilled and incredulous to see another baby girl without earrings!
On female beauty: When it comes to girls, there is a huge emphasis on appearance and being “calm.” All little girls are referred to as “princesa.” As a feminist and as a mom of a little girl in a city that really pushes girls to be pretty, it’s been tricky. When a little girl is crying, parents or grandparents will often say “Don’t cry, it’s ugly.” When I first heard that, I thought it was just awful — you’re conveying that the problem is her looks, not what she’s really upset about. Audrey had a girl from class over for a playdate, and during one of her more agitated moments the friend said, “Princes make a mess. Princesses are calm and polite.” My mouth dropped open. She was clearly repeating a phrase she had been told. Audrey has also started to come home from school and ask, “Who’s the cutest?” “Am I cuter than this person?” I try to tell her that everyone is cute, but that is not the most important thing.
On makeup: The women I know wear lots of makeup and jewelry, and I think I’m the only mom at my daughter’s school who doesn’t get regular manicures. Audrey’s preschool actually enforces a “no makeup” rule, because four-year-olds were coming to school with nail polish and lipstick! When girls come over for playdates, they’ll be dressed to the nines in fancy jeans, a jacket, boots, a bow in their hair and even a matching purse — and their hair will be perfect. (I don’t know how these moms do it; I can’t get my daughter to hold still for a ponytail.) On the days Audrey has swim lessons at school, the teachers will do the girls’ hair afterward. She’ll come home with the most amazing braids!
On not being critical: There are obviously very clear norms in Brazil, but you will never be criticized for not following them. Even though most parents dress their daughters very prettily, while my daughter is the one in spider socks, a dinosaur shirt and Barbie sunglasses, no one has ever said anything to me about it. People we know here are very accepting. Audrey is one of the only girls in her judo class at school and the only girl on her soccer team, but nobody has ever criticized my husband or me. We haven’t faced any negative feedback.
On household help: In Rio and Vitória, since the minimum wage is so low, even middle class families have housekeepers, which was hard for me to get used to. We’ve had our housekeeper, Teresa, for six years. We pay her more than minimum wage and give her a raise every year to keep up with inflation. She comes Monday through Friday; she cleans and cooks lunch, too. It took me a few years before I could give her tasks or ask her to run to the store without feeling guilty. But we don’t have any family in Vitória, and Teresa has been such a huge help.
The annual fall festival, Festa Junina, at school.
On hiccups: In Brazil, it’s said that you can cure a baby’s hiccups by sticking a tiny wad of paper in the middle of his or her forehead. I have no idea how this superstition got started. I first noticed it on my nephew. I went to wipe away this piece of paper stuck to his forehead and my husband stopped me saying it was for the hiccups. Then I came home from work while my mother-in-law was visiting and found my baby with a spitball on her forehead. I haven’t noticed it working, but people still do it!
On traveling: My favorite trip we’ve taken in Brazil was to the Amazon, before we had Audrey. (We’re waiting to take Audrey until she can remember it because it was just so amazing.) We took a boat out into the river and it was so big it felt like the ocean – you can’t see the shores on either side. Our guide pointed out a tiny speck of land on the horizon and said, “That’s an island.” The rainforest itself was incredibly dense. We took a guided tour around our eco-lodge and within ten steps the forest had closed in and you couldn’t see any trace of the hotel. That’s why there are signs everywhere around the lodge saying, “Do NOT wander into the forest!”
On creating a future: After ten years here, I really love Brazil. The enthusiasm and creativity of the people, the natural resources, the climate. We plan to move back to the U.S. in five years for Audrey’s education. But Brazil is my second home and two-thirds of my family. We’re a Brazilian-American family no matter where we live and will be for the rest of our lives.
Thank you so much, Brynn!
(Photos courtesy of Brynn. Interview by Megan Cahn.)