Tuesday, 26 April 2011

"They Say That..."

I Say We All Lighten Up A Bit
If I had a Real for every time an expat in Brazil started a sentence with "They say that..." I’d be living in a penthouse in Alto Leblon.

Usually the words precede some health or safety recommendation and “They” refers to the experts from ‘developed’ nations on whatever topic is being discussed.  For example: “They say that cot-bed bars should be so many centimeters apart” or “They say that you should wear SPF 60 at all times” or  “They say you shouldn’t co-sleep with your child in case you smother it”. 

Knowing what “They” have to say about everything is the curse of being an English speaker.  More often than not the health and safety advice is completely at odds with reality in Brazil and only serves to turn you into a neurotic worrier and total bore who sees fault in everything.  

“They” sent me a childcare newsletter the other day, recommending that the under-fives should not take swimming lessons. It makes both the children and their parents complacent around water, lulled into a false sense of security because the child can (or thinks it can) swim.  If a young child does do a swimming class, they must have one-on-one adult supervision, wear a floaty, and never ever be submerged, even for a second.  (The last point was laid on thick; something about death but I can't remember what exactly.)  

Needless to say, my two and four year olds take swimming lessons here in Rio.  Neither wears a floaty and both spend most of the forty minutes underwater.   Today there was one teacher for four toddlers and the lifeguard only had to jump in once!  “They” would not have been impressed. 

You would think that there would be global consensus on what is considered ‘safe’, but I’ve come to realize that health and safety concerns are completely cultural.  Behaviour considered irresponsible or high-risk in one country is totally socially acceptable in another.  

Take smoking while pregnant;  I thought this was a universal no-no…until I made French girlfriends.  Almost all of them smoke and most continue to do so while pregnant, and it seems to be perfectly accepted.  (Accuse me of making sweeping generalizations if you dare, but take it from someone who has lunched with three pregnant French friends who asked the waiter if they could move to an outdoor table so they could light up.) 

Here in Brazil you see many other things, in addition to the swimming lessons, that “They” would condemn:  The habit of entire families in the countryside lounging on the roadside, not at the roadside, but on the tarmac itself, usually around blind corners, so cars have to swerve quickly to avoid them; the practice of undressing newborn babies so they can enjoy naked sunbathing sessions in the direct sunlight; the norm of putting young children in cars without car seats (this has only just become illegal but the law is still widely ignored).

And Brazil has its very own 'They' with a whole different set of things to opine about:  “They say you will catch pneumonia if you walk on tiles barefoot” or “They say that fresh cows milk is too strong for children to drink” or “They say that you can’t birth a 4kg baby without a c-section”...

They also say that at some point you have to stop obsessing about what others decree we should and shouldn't do, trust in our own good sense and live a little.

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