Ask any expat about household help while living overseas and they’ll have a story to tell you, often not a good one. For many westerners, going overseas is the first time they employ a maid, a gardener or a driver and our inexperience shows. We’re uncomfortable with strangers poking through our physical and psychological dirty laundry and usually end up expecting less and paying more than the going rate, making ourselves unpopular with the locals. But every once in a while there’s a happy story . . .
Tania was my cleaning lady in Baku. After a disastrous first attempt with a woman sent from my husband’s company, I smartened up and asked my new expat friends for a referral. Tania cleaned for the American family upstairs and already knew we westerners liked hot water, lots of detergent and different cloths for the toilet and sink – hurrah! She was hired.
At first I thought it was a disadvantage that she didn’t speak a word of English, particularly as my Russian was non-existent at the time, but we managed with lots smiles and pantomime. However as my language skills slowly improved with lessons, I began to see the benefits. You see Tania loved to talk. She came to me in the afternoons, and as I knew she’d been working all morning, I’d sit her down for a few minutes in my tiny kitchen, we’d have a cup of tea and a slice of cake and she’d chat away to me.
She talked to me in very basic Russian, like a mother talking to a toddler. Soon I began to understand at least some of what she was saying. She’d tell me about her family, her husband who couldn’t get a job and her son who she wanted to go to university so he could avoid military service (she was worried about the prevalence of TB in the army barracks, a not unwarranted concern). She’d tell me about her church, their services and Sunday outings. She was a born-again-Christian and her conversation was peppered with “Слава Богу” (praise God). But best of all she’d tell me the gossip about all the other western families she cleaned for, who was untidy, who spoiled their children, who treated their driver badly and what new purchases they’d made.
Fortunately I didn’t have many skeletons to hide and was happy to answer her many questions about what I was cooking for dinner, my house in Canada and what to her seemed like an apartment full of wonderful gadgets. All this was a considerable linguistic challenge and we were constantly running to my Russian dictionary, but it was a great boost to my growing vocabulary and fluency.
Convinced we weren’t eating properly she’d sometimes bring me huge cauldrons of borscht, enough to feed an army. In return I loaned her videos of Mr Bean. She taught me the local tradition of keeping a row of cheap slippers, just inside my front door, for the benefit of visitors. When I threw out my son’s socks because they had holes in, she humbled me by retrieving them from the bin so should darn them and give them to children in her building.
Her eyesight was weak, but vanity (and perhaps economy) held her back from wearing glasses. As a result her cleaning wasn’t always top notch. But no matter, she had a big heart and as a teacher of language and local culture, her value to me was without price.