I’m going to start this post with a confession, one that I know isn’t going to give me a whole lot of street cred, but anyway, here goes….
I’m a Downton Abbey fan.
I know, I know; with this admission goes all of that hard work I’ve put into growing my ‘cool’, hipster beard. But the truth is, I’m hooked!
I can’t put my finger on why I like the show so much. I’d like to say it’s because before the show I’d not really given too much thought about life in England in the early 20th century …but really, that would be a massive lie! My reasons for liking Downton Abbey are not nearly this sophisticated.
I guess firstly, I enjoy the ridiculous story lines and the Dowager’s cutting one liners. Then there is Lady Edith. Poor Lady Edith. I’ve been really rooting for her to find a boyfriend for the last few series, but it doesn’t look like this is going to happen any time soon. I’m sure even Susan Boyle watches the show and feels sympathetic about the state of Lady Edith’s love life.
Another reason I enjoy the show is because as an expat, it’s quite nostalgic to watch a show that is so quintessentially British. Above all though, it is an enjoyable hour of escapism, a dramatisation of a period of our history that isn’t much of a reflection of the country anymore.
So what am I banging on about Downton Abbey on my blog for? Well, as soon as those credits begin rolling and I snap back to reality, it is hard to ignore how the world of Downton Abbey has a definite likeness to one aspect of the country I am living in right now.
Brazilian Culture vs Downton Abbey
The whole Upstairs-Downstairs set up of the show is something I cannot help but draw parallels with when visiting my student’s houses . You see the vast majority of my students have maids.
On Downton Abbey the Crawley family can afford them because of their immense wealth, but here in Brazil things are different. There are A HELL of a lot of maids and/or home-helpers working in people’s houses because, for a significant number of the population, employing them simply isn’t all that expensive. And for those who can’t afford a full time maid, there are those who will at least employ a cleaner for one or two days in the week.
I’ve even heard stories of maids employing other maids to clean THEIR houses while they are at work. So this industry is a pretty big deal over here.
Bizarrely, in a number of apartment buildings maids have their own separate elevators to get to their employer’s gaff. Once inside, there is usually an area that acts as their the maid’s living quarters. Those Brazilians with serious money don’t stop at employing just one person in their home. Oh no! Why have one maid when you can have four, a child minder, cook AND a driver to support your family!
Many of my students insist that maids are important to the running of their household, that they couldn’t possibly do without them. Some have even said that they even think of their maids as being a part of the family. Having said this, I do sometimes wonder if they mean the sort of family you love, or the sort that you merely tolerate because you HAVE to! Why do I say this? Well, I’ve noticed that mocking the maid seems to be fair game in São Paulo. “My maid is an awful cook” remarked one of my friends, “mine is so lazy” commented another. And then there is my favourite: “My maid buys me hideous ornaments for Christmas every year, and because she is in the house five days a week, I have no choice but to put these things up!”
The Maid Effect
On Tuesday afternoons I used to go to a 15 year old school boy’s house to teach. On the day in question, I’d not been giving class in the family dining room for too long when their huge Labrador managed to push the door open and come bounding in. It was running about all over the place for almost a full minute until it was eventually sent back outside. Before leaving though, the excitement had proved too much for this dog and it left behind a steaming puddle of piss in the corner of the room. “Sorry about my dog!” My student said after taking it outside and closing the door behind him.
“Oh look” I remarked delicately, “your dog has messed in the corner”.
“Yes” he said, “it does this sometimes”.
As someone who never had a dog growing up, I’m not really comfortable with sharing my breathing space with fresh dog piss, but it became obvious that my student wasn’t all that bothered by it.
I glanced from him to the piss, and then from the piss back to him. I realised I hadn’t been clear enough with what I was hinting at. “Well aren’t you going to clean it up?” I enquired, hopefully.
My student considered this for a moment, before assuring me that he would. But instead of getting off his chair to do it, he simply screamed “Anitttttttaaaaaaaaaaa!”
Moments later the maid (I was correct in assuming she was called “Anitttttttaaaaaaaaaaa!”) appeared, and was made aware of what the dog had done. “It needs cleaning” my student instructed (pretty firmly). Less than a minute later she’d returned with a cloth and had squatted down into a dog-piss cleaning position. Then he sat in silence and watched her mop it off the floor. After successfully soaking this all up, the maid left the room and we continued with our class. ‘That poor woman’ I thought to myself as she walked away, ‘surely my student doesn’t think cleaning this up is beneath him?’
In less than one minute my impression of this student had really changed. In my mind he’d gone from being a very down to earth kind of kid….to a Mariah Carey-esque diva. In his defense though, if he’s been brought up to call on the maid to do things like this for him, he’s bound to think this is quite normal. Right?
Again, I’m trying not to judge, but I am fascinated that there are people here who would think nothing to calling a maid into a room, watch them ‘work’ like this and feel comfortable about it.
Perhaps times are changing for maids in Brazil. According to this report from the BBC, it looks like the numbers employed is decreasing.
The number of women choosing to go into domestic service is shrinking. This is because of better access to education and job opportunities particularly in the poor north-east of the country from where many people travelled in search of work.
Domestic workers are asking for higher wages so for many in the middle class the live-in maid is no longer feasible. People are employing staff by the day and more household chores are being done by middle-class men and women who are also now buying more household appliances.
This makes me wonder how long it will take until there aren’t many maids left in Brazil at all. Perhaps 100 years from now Brazilians be sitting down on a Sunday evening to watch a dramatisation of life in their country about maids and their employees…and like Brits tuning in to watch Downton Abbey now, they too are going to think this life was all very quaint, but not much of a reflection of their country anymore.
What do you think about the maid culture here in Brazil?