Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Your girl in the campo

We experimented with having a household employee a little while back. You know, this semi-retired life can be pretty taxing, what with the trips to exotic places, playing in parks, leisurely strolls through museums, long conversations over coffee.

OK, let this be the first post that dispels the myth of the vacationing sabbatical. Anytime you uproot yourself from what you know--where everything is in the grocery story (what everything is in the grocery store!), where to buy underwear, how to pay bills, where to put trash and recycling, how to get a freakin' kids' bus pass (argh!), how to retrieve a package from the post office--the many, many simple things we take for granted where we live because we just know how to do them all, you will experience frustration, stress, and lots of time flushed away to places unknown.

But also the minimum monthly wage here with required benefits that household help typically earns is $300. That works out to about $1.75 an hour. As we've been working out ideas to earn money while here, the simple math is that if we can earn $2.50 or more per hour instead of doing housework we should get an employee.

Not required work uniform
So we got one. Doris (Doh REES) was a sweet, soft-spoken 16-year-old. It seems she was done with school, as many kids here are after the age of 14, though she was taking English classes Saturday mornings (she could count to 10 in English). And though she spoke just above a whisper, and though we do have that language barrier, there were still times when language couldn't have been the greatest barrier between us.

There is a fairly static and defined class system here that we North Americans know about but have trouble understanding. One of the manifestations of that class divide is the deference paid to a higher class. And part of that means not speaking unless spoken to, little to no questioning for understanding ("so you want me to..."), and performing as instructed and never beyond that (even in restaurants you typically won't be served without calling someone over).

So with our poor language, poor Doris would do only what she was sure we had asked her to do. So even if we said to clean the bathroom, we'd have to point out the very specific things to be cleaned and how to clean them.

But we probably would have been disappointed with her anyway, as our expectations were spoiled by our friends who have a full-time maid who is older and has been doing this her whole life. She cooks magnificent food, does much of their grocery shopping, cleans beyond all rational need, mends clothes, and babysits their daughter.

So poor Doris never had a chance. It was more work trying to manage her work. We knew we were leaving the big house in the country for smaller, more manageable digs in the city anyway, so we let Doris get back to her English studies.

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