Monday, September 26, 2011

The Help

Grab this related post Widget!
I recently finished reading an excellent first novel of the same name by Kathryn Stockett. In an early 1960’s Mississippi setting, the book deals with the complicated relationships between domestic help (yes, maids) and the families who employed them.

I grew up in the South during these years but my family didn’t have the money to employ a maid. We were doing good to keep a roof over our heads and food in the refrigerator. And Atlanta largely avoided a lot of the racial tension of those eventful times so I read the book as a stranger and enjoyed it immensely.

Maids are actively employed here and since we now have one the subject matter was of particular interest. For months we cleaned the apartment ourselves, but one day the vacuum cleaner boy abruptly quit. That would be me.

In Vegas, because of the extreme weather, our home was so hermetically sealed that it stayed pretty clean. But here? Well, I’ve mentioned the “casual” construction standards in Cuenca before. Let’s just say our place enjoys excellent ventilation without opening the windows.

With that air circulation comes a lot of dust. Weekly cleaning is essential and it was taking too much of our valuable time away from important things like naps and enjoying long lunches with friends. This expat life is so busy!

Sonia comes every Thursday and cleans this place, literally, from top to bottom. She has her routine and knowing what it is we maneuver accordingly throughout the day to stay out of her way. At first we weren’t comfortable leaving the house while she was here. Although she was referred to us by a trusted Cuencano friend, we wondered, “What if she steals something while we’re gone.”

That attitude lasted two weeks. I said, “If we don’t trust her now, when exactly is the week going to come that we do? And how will we know when it gets here?” Since then we come and go without worry, and nothing will ever be missing.

Many of our friends also have maids, but a number of them observe political correctness and are uncomfortable using that term. Just like the book they say “I have help two days a week” or “I have a woman come every Tuesday.”

There’s an undeniable class system in Ecuador that, sometimes like other cultural standards here, seems rather quaint and old fashioned. Before hiring Sonia we were warned of certain “rules.” At the top of the list was “Do NOT overpay her.” This elicited no argument from us. Gringos are infamous for being either sincere do-gooder’s or simply clueless folks who pay too much for everything, but this practice eventually can create gentrification and higher prices overall which ends up hurting the most economically vulnerable. So we pay about 1/10 what our son coughs up for a maid service in North Carolina.

Another important rule was “Don’t ever be too friendly with your help or they’ll take advantage of you.” This one’s a little trickier. What exactly is “too friendly?” We’re not having Sonia and her family over for dinner anytime soon, but if it’s time for all of us to eat we invite her to sit down and have lunch with us. That’s probably a “no-no.” We don’t care. Plus it gives us a chance to work on our Spanish in a casual setting.

It’s fascinating to time travel like we sometimes get to do living in Cuenca. Individual maids went out of fashion and were replaced with slam-bam-thank-you-ma’am crews years ago in the US, yet here they are as common as a chicken and rice lunch.

I’d love to be a fly on the wall and observe how Ecuadorians treat their maids. I’m guessing the portrayal in The Help wouldn’t be that far off even though it’s now 50 years later. I’m pretty certain we gringos bring a more relaxed, informal attitude to the relationship.

We had a maid for a year or two when the kids were little but aside from that we’ve done our own cleaning the entire forty years of our marriage. But now that we’ve had help for several months we never want to have to clean our house again.

H-m-m-m---. I wonder if that attitude could have broader implications. You receive assistance. You get used to it. You don’t want to work anymore. Sounds eerily like all the welfare and entitlement programs in the US------.

Disclaimer!! Settle down, Social Security recipients (a group to which I proudly belong). We’re just collecting on what we paid in for years. I’m referring to all the good-for-nothing’s sitting on their asses and living off the rest of us.

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