Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Cleaning house in Italy: It's a family affair

Last week I wrote about the Babysitting Brigade and now, it’s time to tell you about the Cleaning Crew. This is another of those things that makes me marvel about life in our small town – that family members voluntarily offer to clean other family members’ homes, just because they like to help.
At least once a week, I see Paolo’s cousin, Antonella, at her daughter’s house, hanging laundry out to dry. Franca goes to her daughter’s house every morning and makes beds, even though everyone in the house is perfectly capable of making their own. When Paolo and I used to talk on Skype before I moved in Italy, I would often see Franca in the background, mopping the floor or ironing.
Now, I admit that I am no housekeeper. There are a thousand things I’d rather do than mop the floor or iron bed sheets. If I can write my name in the dust on the dining room table, that’s where I make my shopping list. It’s not that I never clean house. It’s just that my standard of a clean house does not meet the standard of the ladies in Paolo’s family.
My mother-in-law, Franca, first tried a subtle approach, advising me to keep a tidy home in case the doctor had to make a house call. I figure if I am too sick to go to the doctor and he has to come to me, clean curtains and wrinkle-free sheets are the least of my worries. So I would nod along, do some token dusting while she was around, and go right back to my regularly scheduled programming, which usually involved working at my computer, talking to friends on Skype, or walking the dog.
So when we moved from Paolo’s old apartment down to our temporary home in Franca’s garage, she realized she needed to take covert action. She became a stealth cleaner. She’d step out on her balcony and if my car wasn’t there, she’d pounce on the opportunity to clean the apartment.  I’d come home to a clean-smelling, freshly mopped and dusted apartment, and a stack of clean laundry neatly folded and yes, ironed.
When we went out of town, she’d call in the reserve troops. Paolo’s aunt and cousin would aide in the effort, pulling out furniture, sweeping and mopping underneath, and even organizing socks and underwear in our dresser drawers. I had hoped that after one of them discovered my vibrator and tucked it in neatly amongst folded panties (yes, they even folded the g-strings–have you ever seen a folded g-string? It’s about the size of a matchbook), they might be dissuaded the next time, but no such luck. So I kept hiding the vibrator in a better spot, only to return from a weekend away to find that spot, too, had been cleaned.
As a new-baby and housewarming gift, friends of mine, aware that I am missing the housekeeping gene, paid for six months of cleaning service. (Now that’s what I call a gift!) So now that we’ve moved (and Franca doesn’t have a key to our house—yet), when the ladies come to visit, it’s mostly just to see the baby. But when Franca’s not holding Naomi, she always asks if there’s something she can do. If I say “no, thank you,” she’s downright disappointed. So I usually try to find some laundry for her to fold, or an undershirt to iron.

Graziella & Franca. I told them to look stern for
the photo, and this was all they could manage.

Recently, we finished the second floor of our house, but it was still full of construction dirt and dust, little flecks of paint on the tile floors, and remnants of masking tape on all the new windows. I put the word out that I once again needed the services of the Cleaning Crew. Graziella, Paolo’s aunt, was out of town for several weeks (no doubt cleaning her son’s apartment in Rome), and she kept telling us to wait until she got back before we cleaned. And I had absolutely no problem with that.
So the other day, while I worked (“You work and make money, Liz, we’ll take care of the cleaning.”), Franca and Graziella attacked the second floor and within a matter of hours, had that tile clean enough to eat off and the windows clear enough to walk right into.
Still, we have different standards for what matters. Outside our second floor bathroom, a small bird of prey (a female lesser kestrel, I believe), likes to perch on the balcony at night and hunt mice in the abandoned vineyard below us. I’ve only seen her once, but she leaves plenty of droppings to let us know she’s a regular. Graziella and Franca were appalled at the pile of white crunchy bird droppings outside the window.
The conversation went something like this:
A female lesser kestrel,
though not the one
upsetting Graziella.
Graziella: A bird is shitting on the balcony.
Me: Yes, I know. She stays there at night.
Graziella: Put something bright-colored in the window and she won’t come back.
Me: But I like her. I want her to come back.
Graziella: Leave the dog out there and the bird won’t come back.
Me. But I like the bird.
Graziella: The bird is shitting on the balcony.

The kestrel let her displeasure be known.

So despite my protests to let perching birds perch, and that she hunts mice that might otherwise come and leave their poop in the house, the balcony got scrubbed clean. I haven’t seen the bird since, nor has she replenished the pile of droppings. But I did notice a new white splotch on the bathroom window. Her parting gift, perhaps. Mountain of poop or not, I’m still hoping she’ll come back. The poop is really no bother, since the balcony won’t get used until a teenaged Naomi uses it to sneak in and out of the house – she is her mother’s daughter, after all.
Despite thier disdain for lesser kestrels, it is still remarkable to me that the women here—and it’s not just my family—are so willing to help their sons and daughters and daughter-in-laws with work that I (and many of my American sisters, I suspect) consider drudgery. But one of the reasons Graziella was so insistent on us waiting for her to clean is that she was actually looking forward to it. And hearing her and Franca chatter and gossip and laugh together while they worked, I guess I can understand why. These women devoted their lives to taking care of husbands, now dead, and raising children who are now grown up and (mostly) out on their own. Helping, which is what they've done all their lives, makes them feel valued and needed.
So in full-on rationalization mode, I offer that I’m actually doing them a favor by letting them clean my house, spend time together, and feel needed by us. And they are needed, for reasons that far, far eclipse their ironing and bird poop cleaning abilities.
Now only if they’d stay out of my underwear drawer.

Gino just supervises. At 99 years old, he's entitled.


  1. If they want to come to the states, my house is in sore need. LOL

  2. Ha Kim - They would probably be happy to clean your house, but you'd never get either of them on an airplane!

  3. Will they adopt me and Braden if we move there?

  4. I live in Umbria ... send them my way!

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