Thursday, January 17, 2013

Housekeeping tips from Stew and Al

Since neither Stew nor I were raised in Downton Abbey-like splendor, we're not used to having permanent household staff. Having a couple of people working for us here in Mexico is a new experience that has entailed a bit of a learning process.

In Cuba, during the hazy, pre-revolutionary days, I vaguely remember a woman who used to come and cook for us, a luxury for which my dad and I were deeply grateful because my poor mom couldn't cook her way out of sack of black beans.

In Chicago, many decades later, Stew and I experimented briefly with a home-cleaning service that would send a woman, one who typically had arrived from the hinterlands of Eastern Europe a few days before, for three or four hours a week. That experiment with household staff went bust because of the high cost and impossibility of communicating with cleaning women who spoke mostly what sounded like Serbo-Croatian dialects.

As I recall these brawny women would fearlessly throw themselves on the floor on all fours and scrub the pattern right off the linoleum but were stumped by the cleaning of shower stalls, refrigerators and other modern Western appurtenances.

In Mexico we've been fortunate--extremely fortunate--to have found Rocío, the woman who cleans our house five hours twice a week, and Félix, the young guy we insist in calling a "gardener" but is actually a polymath of sorts who can paint, patch cement cracks, reattach pieces about to fall off from one of our cars, wash the dogs, plant a tree and house-sit when we are away.

And indeed our good fortune at having the two of them working for us has increased over the years, as we've accommodated ourselves to their idiosyncrasies--and viceversa.

May we introduce you to vacuum cleaners. Dust is a perennial problem here because it blows constantly during the dry season during which we still keep some windows open. Yet during the first few weeks of our relationship, about five years ago, Rocío shied away from our high-suction, high-decibel Hoover, even after I taped Spanish translations next to all the buttons in the machine.

It was as if the vacuum was either alive or radioactive.

She would insist on sweeping the area rugs with a broom or banging the dust and cat fur out of the furniture cushions, a process that mostly riled up the dirt up into the air.

After a series of mechanical malfunctions--Stew kept reattaching parts and patching up electrical cords that kept coming apart, hmm--Rocío finally came to love our Hoover to the point we might have recreated the dilemma of the Sorcerer's Apprentice. He's the guy who taught the brooms how to haul water but the couldn't get them to stop.

Nowadays, the blessed vacuum is roaring practically the whole time Rocío is around--there it goes again--while Stew and I hide in the office or just flee. This morning I went on a motorcycle ride to nowhere in particular. One day soon I'm sure we'll find Rocío vacuuming the dander off one of the cats.

Still, Rocío is nothing if not thorough in her chores and makes it a point to subtly letting us know. She'll dust the pictures but leave most of them slightly askew so the place looks as if there's been a slight earth tremor. It's sort of her signature. Our burgeoning collection of ceramics is another target of her ministrations: They'll be moved slightly here or there or in a few cases dinged or broken.

So next time you visit don't try to pick up anything to admire it: All the valuable and semi-valuable pieces are attached to the walls or the shelves with Velcro. Just admire the rugs, which are guaranteed to be dust-free.

Félix is enterprising about keeping himself busy but with some exceptions. He's never said so, but window-washing, a major job in our passive-solar house, seems to be a point of contention in his repertoire, I suspect because it might appear to be "woman's work." He'll do it after a few requests, but usually when no one is present, particularly Rocío. He'll rather turn the compost pile for the sixth time in a week than pick up the squeegee.

But ahh, washing the cars--or any auto-related activity--is quite a different matter. Félix will go about washing one of the cars inside and out and spend the better part of a morning at it. Waxing and polishing it will take an additional hour or two.

You don't dare complain because after all that TLC the darned thing will look practically new. There will be Armor All on all the interior plastic surfaces, and on the lining of your lungs too, for a few days following one his beauty treatments.

When he is finished Félix all will point out any new dings or other imperfections, no matter how minor, since he last cleaned the vehicle. We recently had our pick-up repainted and when we came home Félix examined every square millimeter of the job before declaring it, ¡Muy bueno!

While we're traveling, Félix and his wife and two young kids will move into our office which has a bathroom and doubles as a guest bedroom. He's never mentioned it but I believe the biggest thrill for him and his family is taking hot showers, a luxury not available at his one-room home with no indoor plumbing. After they used a whole bottle of antiseptic hand soap during one of our recent vacations, we learned to leave ample grooming and bathing supplies for everyone to enjoy.

One thing Félix takes seriously is security. After one trip we discovered he kept a machete under the bed, for what I'm not sure. One other time, apparently during a high-alert period, he recruited one of his brothers to stay with him. It wasn't clear either whether the brother provided an extra pair of eyes or just calmed Félix's nerves with his presence.

Félix has mentioned a few times that we should consider getting him a gun. Two big-city sissies like Stew and I have never even held a gun, never mind bought one. And we're not about to do so and then give it to the gardener. In a foreign country, no less.

The last thing we want is to return from a vacation to the scene of Mexican shoot-out, and in particular to find bullet holes in the ceramic pieces we'd so carefully Velcroed in place.

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