The Putzfrau comes home each week, to vacuum the floors, hardwood downstairs and carpet upstairs, to polish the hardwood floor panels, to clean the shower, toilet, and occasionally the windows. She is a Russian woman, in her late forties, with a quiet manner and a child-like smile. In her loose-fitting clothes she looks like a colourful bean bag, and although she moves slowly through the apartment, shifting from one room to next, her movements do not appear lethargic but suggest a steady force at work. At the end of three hours the apartment is transformed: no trace is left of the previous week’s disorder.
She has a key to the apartment. On Thursday afternoons, at around 1 p.m., when both Wife and I are away at work, she enters the apartment and leaves three hours later, carrying with her the money we place at the agreed spot on the kitchen counter, next to the Nespresso machine. On the days we forget to place the money, we return in the evening to find on that spot a sticky-note, or a paper napkin, with a message in clear letters: Geld!! On such days the apartment is as clean as on other Thursdays.
Thursday mornings are a stressful affair. Wife insists on getting the house clean before the cleaning lady arrives — to her there is no contradiction in this, it is just an “employee satisfaction measure” — so we load the dishwasher, gather clothes lying around, throw the garbage out, all this to make our home look “presentable”. The result, then, on Thursday evenings is a cumulative effect, due in part to the lady and in part to our exertions. Sometimes we are unsure who has assumed the larger burden.
She listens to music while cleaning, the thin cables of her earphones falling on either side of her face like a pair of black strands that stand apart from her brownish hair. When she talks on the phone, using the same earbuds to keep her hands free, she speaks in a soft, monotonous tone, without interruption, as though she were not having a conversation but giving a sermon or a lecture. All of it is in Russian, words and phrases with a richness that remind me of voices I’ve heard inside the St.Petersburg’s State Hermitage museum, in Alexander Sokurov’s movie The Russian Ark.
The lady also tidies up cluttered spaces, like the desk in the study with files strewn about or the bedside table stacked irregularly with books. Later, looking at the neatly arranged pile of books, I sometimes wonder if she ever gets curious about those titles. Does she peek into Herodotus, or flip through the Ramayana? What does she make of the unending paragraphs in One Hundred Years of Solitude, or the strange black&white photographs that spring up in between pages of text in The Emigrants? But these questions assume a degree of ignorance that may be misplaced: the opposite could be true, and the joke may be on me. She perhaps shakes her head glancing at my reading list, irretrievably stuck with the 20th century masters, and perhaps even laughs at my notes on the margins of some books.
This is not a puerile fantasy. The idea that a worker, a cleaning woman, could know far more than her employers do has been explored in literature and film. In The Elegance of the Hedgehog, a novel by Muriel Barberry, Renée, a fifty-four year old concierge at a high-end Parisian apartment complex, reads Karl Marx, listens to Mahler, watches films of Ozu, and contemplates the beauty of still life paintings by Pieter Claesz and Osias Beert, all without the knowledge of her keepers, elitist Parisians who can think of her only as an ignorant old woman who watches TV all day. In Goodwill Hunting, a movie by Gus Van Sant, Will Hunting is a janitor who mops the corridors of MIT and occasionally stops at boards filled with incomplete equations, problems beyond the best students of MIT, and solves them.
I sometimes think of our cleaning lady as a Russian version of Renée. In this fantasy, she is an authority in Russian literature, a specialist for whom Pushkin, Turgenev, and Chekhov are household names. She loves Charles Dickens, has no patience for Jane Austen, and thinks Henry James is overrated. The last novel worth reading was Proust’s Remembrance of things past, and she hasn’t read anything from the last three decades. Literature, to her, stops at post-colonialism. All this I gather in a conversation after I stumble upon her, sitting on the bed, vacuum cleaner by her side, book in hand, a slim volume that reveals itself, when she closes it and looks at me in surprise and with fear, as Jorge Luis Borges’s Ficciones.