Tuesday, October 30, 2007

My Cleaner

One huge advantage of living in Turkey is that labor, particularly domestic labor, is cheap. For me, this means that once a week I get to have a woman come to my house and clean it from top to bottom. It's not unusual for people to have cleaners-- sometimes even the cleaners have cleaners. And even though I'm pretty uncomfortable with the idea of this 'servant' coming over to scrub out the toilet, it's way better than scrubbing out the toilet myself and this easily outweighs any discomfort. I recognize that having a cleaner is a wonderful luxury. She's totally worth the $45 or so a week I pay her, not only because it leaves me lots more time throughout the week to sit around and play with LE, that $45 a week completely ended the arguments BE and I used to have every weekend about housework. See, his idea was that I should work full-time and also keep the house on the weekends, leaving him free to sleep all day, hang out at the barbershop, and play video games. As you might imagine, this didn't sit well with me.

Finding a good cleaner isn't easy. Sometimes they're just not very bright, and you have to follow them around every time they come, telling them what to do and how to do it. Some of them do really stupid things, like my friend's former cleaner, who hosed off her balcony table, candles and all, and who opened a new package of dishtowels to use with bleach rather than use the rags from the drawer she'd been using for months. Other cleaners take it upon themselves to rearrange your house-- cupboards, furniture, knick-knacks. Once my mother-in-law came to my house with her cleaner. They chased me out of their way and I came back to find the whole living room reversed, and my entire kitchen re-organized in such a way that I couldn't find anything. It took me about three weeks to get everything back in order. Needless to say, I'm wary of letting my mother-in-law loose in my house unsupervised since then.

In my old house, my roommate's mother referred us to her old cleaner, who was the kapıcı's wife in her old building (a kapıcı is like a superintendent-- he keeps the building and grounds, but also will do stuff like run to the shop for you, or stand in line at the bank to pay your bills). That cleaner wasn't very good. I mean, she did a better job than we did, but not much. She brought her young son over with her, and both of them were terrified of me (sometimes people here are really scared of foreigners). She was Kurdish and her Turkish wasn't very good, but since her son was too scared to speak to me, communication breakdowns were common. Her son was also terrified of our kitten, and would scream and run away whenever it came near him. I assumed from his size, shyness, and his fear of the kitten that this boy was about 8, and was shocked when the cleaner told me he was actually 12. Since she'd been referred to us by my roommate's mother, we assumed she was trustworthy and left her in the house to clean while we were at work. One day, she apparently took her time going through all my stuff and just helped herself to money, jewelry, a portable CD player, and whatever else struck her fancy (though she didn't take even a kuruş of my roommate's spare change he left lying around). We fired her, of course, and confronted her about the stealing. She and her husband came to meet us at the school where we worked, the cleaner in tears and both of them swearing up, down and sideways that she hadn't stolen anything. They were afraid we'd tell the police, or the building manager where the husband was the kapıcı, which would put them out of both job and home (kapıcıs usually get free rent). They were both very tiny people, and very poor, and even though I was furious about the stealing it made me sad to have that much power over someone. In the end, after reaching an impasse (she wouldn't admit to the theft and we wouldn't rescind the accusation), they asked if we'd give her the cleaning job back.

The cleaner I have now is great. She doesn't need to be told what to do (and even scolds me for stuff like mixing white and colored laundry), and she puts everything back where she found it. She takes initiative about stuff like cleaning the windows every other week (which involves dangling out the 7th floor) and scrubbing the carpets. She's Alevi, like my husband, and very proud of that. She's also Kurdish, and is one of the few Kurds I've met who is openly proud of being Kurdish and speaking Kurdish. LE adores her and she lets him grab her face and hair while bouncing him on her knee and singing Kurdish wedding songs to him. The only bad thing my cleaner has ever done was shove a spoonful of jam into LE's mouth when I wasn't looking. He was about 4 months old when that happened, but it was easily cured by just not serving jam anymore with our breakfast.

It seems that my cleaner is sick every week with something new. She's a few years younger than me, but looks 10 years older. If she's not sick herself, someone in her family is, or they're having some new crisis or other. One week, her father's house got broken into. Another week, her youngest sister "ran away." I used the quotes because I can't really consider it running away when the girl is 20 years old. She's never asked for money or anything like that, but all of these sicknesses and crises, plus her son's school expenses, cost a lot, and reminds me it's really expensive to be poor in Turkey, too.

My cleaner is somewhere in the middle of 13 brothers and sisters. Kurdish families are usually huge like this. They've always had big families, so about ten years ago the Turkish government sent some nurses out to the villages to educate women about birth control. The local leaders got wind of this, and told the villagers the government was just trying to reduce their population to get rid of them, and encouraged them to make even more babies, not fewer. While I was pregnant, my cleaner and I talked a lot about birth and babies. She told me that her mother only lost one baby, a twin, and she had all her babies at home. She also told me that the village midwife was only available or affordable for a few of the births, so the rest her mother delivered by herself, including a footling breech and a set of twins that lived. My cleaner herself was married at 15. She was engaged the year before that, but they didn't marry her off until she'd started menstruating. Her first and only baby, a son, was born when she was 16. He weighed 10 pounds, which is astounding because I'll bet my cleaner barely weighs 100. She's about five foot two.

Her son is now 15 and just starting high school. I'm really impressed with this woman for a lot of reasons. She's marginalized in so many ways-- poor, Kurdish, female, and uneducated, yet she found the one way of taking some power in her world, which was to have only one child. She's quietly proud of herself for getting away with this (her family still pressures her to have more, to which she answers by wincingly touching her belly and claiming female sickness, though I suspect she's lying), and she's fiercely proud of her son. She cleans houses as part of her mission to get him to be someone (she's had to pay bribes all along to get him into better public schools than the ones they're zoned for), and to make sure he doesn't end up cleaning houses like her, or doing mindless labor in a factory like his dad. Like most teenaged boys, her son sounds like he's a bit shiftless and he doesn't do well in school (though he is quite handsome), but she's not giving up and I do hope one day he really is able to understand what his mother did for him.

For my part, it's not just the fresh-smelling and spotless house that makes me look forward to having my cleaner come each week. I like the chats we have over breakfast and I'm more than happy to hand over the $45 each time. I give her everything I can that I don't use, as much as she can carry-- clothes, baby things, kitchen things, bedding-- and I know it's going to good use in her huge family. But, like anyone from my background who's not used to a servant class, I always wish I could do more.

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