It’s a standard conversational piece at any get-together: a chance to show one’s true worth at the negotiating table, an opportunity to display one’s in-depth arrival into local society.
The hourly price of a maid.
And no matter how wealthy you are, anyone who pays fifty cents more an hour than you do wants their head examined; and as for anyone who pays fifty cents less... Jeez Louise!
Every morning, except Sundays, thousands of maids make their way across the Spanish landscape. Poor things. They arrive by bus or on foot. Some few are long-sufferingly picked up by the patron from their apartment on the other side of town, and then there are a small number of them that arrive in a better looking car than the house-owner has.
These are the unsung heroes of Spain. They make the bed, they wash the dishes, they polish the silver, they do the laundry and they wipe the baby’s ass. They sometimes get into the gin.
They don’t dress up for the occasion, however, like the French ones do. Oo la la.
There are two schools of thought about the preparation of one’s house for the domestic onslaught. The first type has it that the maid should never suspect what a scruff they are dealing with, and so these proud home-owners will set to with a will to make the bed, dust, wash up and hide the empties and all the rest of it leaving the bewildered maid when she arrives with nothing much to do at all. Perhaps they are right – after all, maids gossip freely about their employers.
Then there is the second type, which is impervious to criticism and figures to get their money’s worth. They will leave everything in complete chaos.
Good Lord, I’ve just described myself.
Spanish maids are useful for teaching ‘kitchen Spanish’. There is many a foreign housewife whose command of Spanish might best be described as ‘inadequate’ and who has learnt just a hand-full of useful words and yet at the same time, and with the modest help of a dictionary, knows the name of more different vegetables in Spanish than the green-grocer himself.
In Madrid, the fancier establishments will have a live-in maid from the Philippines (for no reason that I can fathom) and, if there are children present in the menagerie, then there will be a nanny from Dublin. Furthermore, a ‘lady companion’ for abuela (Granny) will visit every day and will need to speak proper Spanish (and be immensely patient as she takes her out for walks). Ideally, she should be the same height as well. She’ll almost certainly come from Ecuador.
Here in Almería, you might discover after a few months that you in fact have a Romanian maid: but then come to think of it, you might have a Romanian green-grocer, so be sure to check your dictionary.
As one’s Spanish (or Romanian) improves – it can take a while for recent arrivals to discover which language they are in fact learning from the kitchen staff – the maid – or ‘the cleaner’ as they are sometimes called these days – can also fill you out on the ins and outs of life in the pueblo, as a sort of ambulatory and knowledgeable Who’s Who. When you have finally mastered the history, intrigues and relationships between everyone from your Spanish maid’s barrio, you will be ready to enter into polite society, local-style. Your maid, needless to say, will by this point have become your master.
Maids often come from extensive families. Their joint estates, pieces of land or tumbled down cortijos way to hell and gone in the hills, inevitably coveted by adventurous foreigners, can make them potentially more wealthy than the Duke of Wellington. The social history of Spain is wrapped up in that land and your maid knows the stories.
Spanish maids are often very useful as babysitters, too. The kids disappear with her for the weekend while the liberated parents go off for a trip or to a party. The children will be returned, spotlessly clean, on the Sunday night having taken part in some particularly bloodthirsty pig-killing at the farm of old ‘Tío Antonio’ and clutching a small packet of oil paper wrapped sausage as a souvenir.
Christmas can be tricky. Your domestic will expect an extra month’s pay and a day off and you’ll probably end up with an expertly wrapped humorous ashtray from that new Chinese emporium. Decency prohibits you from accidentally breaking such an item until Lent. You will also need to budget for saints days, fiestas and other dates in the calendar when no one, maids included, show up for work. On those festive occasions, stick to sandwiches is my advice.
But these are small concerns.
So, aside from the potential problem of language which, as we have seen, can sooner or later be straightened out, the only remaining hurdle is a decent cup of tea. Tricky. While much could be forgiven of a maid back in the United Kingdom (assuming you could afford one there) as long as she could come up with the goods in the char department, here you will just have to make it yourself. Come to think of it, tea doesn’t go down to well with a piping-hot tortilla, which a Spanish maid will happily prepare for you and serve... therefore, for refreshment, you should probably stick to a nice glass of wine.
So, as you climb into your bed tonight, brushing off the chocolate mint from your pillow, consider how lucky you are to have found a teacher, a cleaner, a chum and a companion.
Who doesn’t snore.