Monday, 12 September 2016

Life as a domestic

Normally the summer holidays are just that, holidays, or in my case, time to plan all the courses I'll be teaching in the new academic year. This year has been different. The university had still not confirmed a contract for me by the time the holidays began and it wasn't looking very positive because no course coordinators had been in touch with me to ask if I was available. There was a deafening silence. So my holidays were almost entirely filled with trying to find work so I can stay in France. The search is a fulltime job, day and night. As a consequence of one of my initiatives to contact tourist outlets in the district I made contact with a couple running an upmarket Chambre d’Hôte. They couldn't afford to hire me on a contract (labour laws in France make it prohibitive for small businesses) but I did get a call asking if I'd be prepared to do occasional work for pocket money.

I'm grateful to them for giving me some spending money for my long-awaited trip to London. The job involved anything they needed and was often at short notice during the busy season.

It was an interesting experience. The property itself had been a farmhouse constructed in the time of Louis XIV. It had various incarnations, becoming a painter's studio at one point which may have attracted the wife who is a painter. Her husband is a famous French opera singer, currently performing in Tosca at Opera de Paris, Bastille. Mementoes of his career decorate the public areas. Sometimes while I was working in the kitchen I'd hear him warming up his vocal cords for a rehearsal.

It's an attractive venue, especially during a warm French summer, but what I was doing was very hard work. Sometimes I might be house-maiding for 5 hours straight (no breaks, pauses or drinks), or ironing in 36 degree heat without pause or drink for a couple of hours. Maybe I'd be clearing tables, making salads. There was always dusting, vacuming.

Changing the king size beds alone was not easy, especially when the fresh linen had stains or holes sent by the supplier. I had to start all over again. It's one thing to change your own bed and quite another to do it for an upmarket boss. They have strict ideas about details and what they want in terms of presentation. You have to ignore how you think it should be done. Everything MUST be perfect to meet the demands of an upmarket clientel.

No two rooms were the same and so the details of house-maiding were specific to each room. There were no photos or written instructions which would have made things more efficient. The rooms contained a lot of facilites and services which all needed attention. I found I was required to vacuum the roof spouting every day. Ironing took place in the cramped poolhouse overlooking the saltwater pool. It looked so inviting, that pool, during recent heatwaves, but I just had to concentrate on not burning my hands from the steam coming from the iron.

It wasn't the first time I've done such work. When I was 18 I worked for several summery weeks as a housemaid at the Travelodge, Riccarton, Christchurch. The housekeeper was an alcoholic and made our lives hell. We had to shut our mouths and lump it, even when we found her quaffing from bottles in the mini bars.

When I was 29 my teaching job didn't pay enough to live on so I was housekeeper twice a week for a couple of highschool teachers who lived in a huge two-storey house in Cranmer Square, Christchurch. I prepared meals, did all the housework and also had to supervise their son's piano lessons. My pocket money was only $5.12 an hour. But money is better than no money.

The problem for me this year is that I've changed with the passage of time. Doing such physical work is not good for an aging body. People say you are only as young as you think and I say - Bullshit. An 18 or 29 year old body says one thing and a 61 year old body says something completely different. Heavy lifting is not what I need these days but I did it, if a bit more slowly.

The owners of the Chambre d'Hote have made it through the tourist season with my help and have now found three people to help out. I don't think I'll hear much from them again but I do wish them well in their various endeavours. They gave me the chance to step out of my worries for a few hours and earn some euros for what turned out to be a lovely experience in London.