In November 2009 my wife and I travelled to Brazil, partly because November in the UK is grim but also because I had still yet to meet her parents.
Now, meeting the in-laws / your partner’s family can be a little nerve-wracking at the best of times, but seeing as I only knew survivor Spanish (not very helpful in Brazil) and they knew zero English (or so I thought), I was feeling distinctly edgy.
The nerves gradually increased as we landed in São Paulo and then caught a taxi – the destination being our in-laws’ apartment.
My disposition was not helped by the taxi seeming to take an age to wind its way through the city’s notorious traffic. Whilst this gave me plenty of time to rehearse my introduction (“Mutio prazer” – Nice to meet you), it also meant that I had even more time to ponder how it was all going to go wrong and I was going to make a complete tit of myself.
Nevertheless, we eventually arrived and it was time for the introductions – and my opportunity to impress with my extensive Portuguese.
“Oi, muito prazer!” I said as my mother-in-law greeted us at the door.
“O prazer é meu” (the pleasure is mine) she replied.
This was followed by that awkward moment where you have to guess the culturally acceptable way to embrace someone from a different country – foolishly I had not clarified this important point with my wife beforehand.
So, given that I’m a prudish Brit and it was my first time meeting my my-mother-in-law (and, as I mentioned, I was hoping not to make a tit of myself) I instinctively went for a good old-fashioned handshake.
I made a tit of myself.
“Não!” my mother-in-law exclaimed.
She then gave me a hug and a kiss on the cheek.
“Bem-vindo ao Brasil!” (Welcome to Brazil).
“Mutio obriagado” (Thanks!) I replied whilst trying to pretend that my handshake had never happened.
But what followed induced utter confusion.
“Andy, where is the book?” my mother-in-law asked.
There followed a pause and almost certainly a puzzled expression on my face.
Did I just hear that correctly? I thought.
“Andy, where is the book?” she repeated.
Nope, I’m definitely being asked by a Brazilian who speaks no English, “Where is the book?” – in English. How am I supposed to reply to that randomness? What do I do now?
I did the only logical thing that came in to my head – I scowered the room for the presence of a book. I spotted two on top of a cabinet.
“Erm….There are two over there” I offered, pointing at the cabinet.
“NO! Andy, where is the book?”
Hmm. I wonder if this is a test.
“Georgia, please translate that I said they are over there….”
“NO, the book is on the table!”
No, there are definitely two books and they’re not on the table, they’re on the cabinet.
“Georgia, tell her the books are on……..”
Cue laughter from both my wife and her mother.
Now, if I had known then what I know now I wouldn’t have made such a tit of myself – doing so once within the first five minutes of meeting your in-laws is enough after all.
Apparently, “Where is the book?” and, “The book is on the table” are the first phrases that Brazilians are taught when they begin learning English. Clearly, they’re also the only phrases people learn in Brazil even when they don’t study English.
Nobody I have spoken to (including my wife who used to be an English teacher in Brazil) seems to know how or why this is but somehow it has become a universal rite of passage amongst learners of English here.
Anyway, despite my initial embarrassment I quickly realised that this was just one of the many ways in which my in-laws, in a typically warm Brazilian fashion, were trying to make me feel welcome in Brazil and as part of their family. And for that I’m very grateful, as I am to almost all the Brazilians I have encountered since moving here, as they have seemingly gone out of their way to make me feel at home.
And to honour that moment, and given the predominance of the phrase here, I thought it would also be a memorable name for the blog.
By the way, a quick Google search emphasises just how widely it pervades Brazilian society. For example, there is a sports show on ESPN called The Book Is On The Table.
And there’s this, a music video that was apparently produced by some people from the fashion industry in Brazil. If you think that sounds bad, take a look. I think I made it to one minute, I’ll be amazed if you get any further.