“Living Danishly” in my head & other stories

Today has been a reasonable sample of what a really busy day at work is like for me, and as such, I thought it worth describing in some detail along with the storm of emotions it is prone to building inside me.

The backdrop to today is positive. It was a hot day in May, the wind was strong but it was comfortably t-shirt weather still for which I am extremely grateful. Just a week ago, when a friend of mine commented on the positive turn the weather seemed to be taking I incredulously retorted, “Ha – don’t speak too soon”, but happily, I have been proven wrong daily ever since, it turns out that we are having a spell of summer this year.

I started the day with a hearty breakfast, a little too hearty perhaps – my tummy was a little overstretched – whilst digging into another chapter of The Maze Runner. I enjoyed The Hunger Games trilogy and, if TMR is as far from the film adaptation as THG is, there’s a high likelihood that I’ll enjoy the books. So far, James Dashner’s plot has whetted my curiosity enough to keep me reading, but I’m not yet gripped by his writing style. Admittedly, I did have to force myself to put it down for fear of making myself late for work this morning, but I don’t look forward to my job in the first place. The majority of my secular work is cleaning, partly domestic and partly commercial so for all intents and purposes I tell people that is what I do for a living when they ask. I had run out of a couple of chemicals so I quickly nipped into Home Bargains at around 9:30 before my first cleaning job. My husband, whom we shall call Remi (after the real name of Hergé, the cartoonist who created Tin Tin, on account of my hubby’s hair being fashioned much like Hergé’s Tin Tin), has come down with a cold so I picked up some supplies for him as well.

My first clean today was at an elderly widow’s house whom I have known since I was about 16 years old. Rose is one of the most positive and upbeat people I know, every time I go to her house I come away feeling better. She insists on paying me to spend an hour once a fortnight vacuum cleaning her bungalow and doing a few other cleaning tasks, but I would gladly do it for free just for the satisfaction of helping her out. She has difficulty walking without a stick, besides other health problems, but she refuses to dwell on her limitations. She always greets me with a kind, broad smile and welcomes me into her home with a hug and a kiss. Recently we have taken to my bringing my iPad and showing her some videos of talks and discourses which I’ve downloaded in advance, she laps up the knowledge with delight and has even built up enough confidence to poke the screen a bit in an effort to navigate it by herself. I left Rose’s feeling warm and relaxed, Maybe today isn’t going to be so bad after all, I thought.

The next client is one I was not looking forward to, however, on account of our difficulty in communicating as well as her idiosyncrasies which drive me up the wall. Asmi is a stay-at-home mum whose kids are at school for most of the day, and to this day I do not know why she needs me to work at her house. I try to put her off, refusing to go on any day other than Mondays which means that sometimes a whole month passes by until she has a free Monday, but she persists in contacting me until I acquiesce.

The way I work best is to be clearly told what is expected of me and in how much time, the client needs to make it clear what is the highest priority and then leave me to get on with it while they go and do something else. Ideally I like to be left in the house by myself, but I don’t mind other people being around, provided that we avoid getting in each other’s way as much as possible. At Asmi’s house, it is rare that any of these preferences are met.

“So, what is there to do today? Toilets and vacuuming as usual?” I asked on entering.

Asmi smiled, “Yes, and keetchen as well. Also mopping.” she added in her broken English.

“Alright. I’ll start in the downstairs toilet.” I announced, she nodded and I got to work. Soon I was finished and, after telling Asmi, I went upstairs to deal with the bathroom and the thick, dry limescale. I may not be the quickest cleaner in the world, and I may not enjoy it, but when I am cleaning I like to do it thoroughly and to the best of my ability within a reasonable amount of time. The upstairs bathroom had been neglected (probably since my last visit) so I reckon it took longer than usual. Once finished, I went back downstairs to pick up the vacuum cleaner. Asmi reappeared.

“I’m just going to vacuum the floor upstairs – ” I started.

“Keetchen pleasse.” Asmi interrupted, pointing to the kitchen.

“Okay. You want me to do the kitchen? Now?” I asked, slightly annoyed at being stopped before completing the previous task.

“Yes.” She said firmly.

“Alright.” I sighed. Putting the vacuum cleaner down, I picked out my equipment for the kitchen. The hob was thick with burned and dried ghee, the sink dull with limescale. Determined to have it all clean, shining, and as close to new-looking as possible, I doused it with bleach and set to work scrubbing, spraying, rinsing and scrubbing some more. Asmi  wandered back and forth moving all the appliances and clutter from the worktops onto the dining table. I disliked the proximity but it wasn’t intolerable, that is, until she was finished and decided to stand a couple of feet away, just watching me.

“Here please.” She said pointing to the windowsill.

“Okay. I will.” I clipped. I hadn’t finished the sink.

“Are you working?” she asked.

I frowned. Was this some sort of sarcastic remark on how long it was taking to sort out her disgrace of a sink? I couldn’t even hide my indignation. I stopped scrubbing and turned to look at her.

“What?” I asked evenly, frowning.

“No, no, I mean. You are doing some different work?” she rephrased, suddenly realising what her previous question sounded like.

“Er, yes, I have cleaning work all day today, until 8pm tonight” I went back to my scrubbing. She wasn’t satisfied.

“But you are doing some new job?” she tried again. I don’t know what prompted this, perhaps the fact I’ve been so elusive lately.

“I have three jobs.” I said, coolly. “Cleaning, interpreting and photography.”

“Ohh!” she remarked, eyebrows raising, she seemed impressed. “So… you do cleaning, maybe 3 days in week?”

“Not necessarily. I’m cleaning all day today, and cleaning is the most regular of the three, but it depends when people want it. Interpreting depends on when people want it and the photography we do is seasonal. With cleaning, I have regular work, people have me every week or every two weeks.” I explained, not stopping my vigorous cleaning. She continued to smile, evidently reassessing me.

Once the sink was sparkling, I started back at one end of the kitchen worktop aiming to work my way around the whole kitchen.

“Okay, upstairs mopping now.” she piped.

“What? Now?” I asked, baffled.

“Yes. I finish this.” she confirmed.

“Right, okay, whatever.” I sighed. She hit a nerve, reminding me of why I had nearly always come away from her house grumbling under my breath.

Obediently, I went back upstairs with the vacuum cleaner, cleaned up and mopped and worked my way down the stairs and into the downstairs rooms until I was at the entrance. Meanwhile, Asmi watched, sometimes crossing her arms, sometimes sitting down on the sofa, whilst I purposely avoided eye contact with her for fear of my gaze petrifying Asmi on the spot.

I finished, she paid me, and I left, vowing that as soon as I can permanently jack some cleaning work in, Asmi will be the first to go.

Domestic and commercial cleaner. There’s a stigma attached to that job description, and the reaction to it is usually a thinly veiled cocktail of disappointment, disregard and a subsequent underestimation of my education and intelligence. The fact that I am self-employed and thereby able to set myself what most would agree is a “very good wage”, that I can pretty much choose my work days and hours, and that I can afford to work less hours than I ever did in any of my previous jobs (this includes working in a mortgage broker’s office and as a sales advisor for an international brand) is besides the point to certain individuals. In fairness, I only spell this out to people who ask me why I don’t do something ‘more’ with my life, like spend it working more hours for less pay for the sake of a more socially respected job title (of course, they don’t word it quite as bluntly as that.)

My third clean was at the home of a new client, Zakia. After several phone conversations and texts I finally caved and agreed to come for a one-off job since she was so “stuck”. A friend of mine whom we shall call Roxanne went to this lady’s house some months ago to clean for her but it didn’t go well. Roxanne had told me a frightening tale of how the woman had shouted at her, followed her around and even banned her from answering her phone; she never went back. This account of events left me with a very bad impression of Zakia and I was put off ever going to her house myself. On the phone, Zakia complained that Roxanne was slow, too young for the work, and her fee was overpriced, even though she charged the same as me. On account of her persistence and my concern that she might dissuade one of my regular clients from continuing to employ my services, I chose to consent to help Zakia clean as a ‘One Night Only’ appearance.

Still stressed from my morning with Asmi, I arrived at Zakia’s house sporting a rather forced grin. Zakia, for her part, made no effort to put me at ease, her demeanour was almost cautious, almost mistrustful. Having nothing to lose, I carried my equipment in, put it on the kitchen floor and without small talk asked, “So, what do you want me to do?” She told me she wanted the oven cleaning and the kitchen seen to. “The oven? Let me look at it. I might need a different product.” She told me she had lots of products that would be suitable, opening a cupboard she pointed out kitchen cleaners by many popular brands. “No.” I said determinedly. “It has to be a proper oven cleaner. I have some at home. I’ll go and get it, otherwise it will take me ages to clean that oven.” She hesitated to agree but I wasn’t taking no for an answer, I reassured her that I didn’t live very far and would be back within 10 minutes, which I was.

I worked ferociously, wanting to get the job done as quickly as possible, hanging on the last straw of my tolerance for domestic cleaning. This impressed Zakia, she saw it as a mark of intense, meticulous work. She began to soften, smiling even, commending my work, leaving me unsupervised in the kitchen while she went to do other jobs around the house, she even offered me a cup of tea which I refused but, as a result, I began to relax and ease up. Before I knew it, she was re-heating a samosa for me, pouring on some homemade dip, and she pulling up a chair for me, I ate with gusto. When I was done, she gave me a few more tasks until I said I simply had to go home because of my next job. She paid me and we parted ways, amicable and, on my part, with a transformed first impression.

On three weekdays, or rather, week-evenings, I have a commercial clean at a farm office in a nearby village. At 17:00-20:00 tonight that’s where I was, listening to the audiobook  A Year of Living Danishly by Helen Russell. In it, she described the equality experienced by the Danes. The way their country is set up discourages class-distinction, she remarked on how daily life is established in such a way that it is commonplace for CEOs to belong to the same clubs as cleaners and supermarket staff; people simplify their lives so they can work less and spend more time with their families; and the Danes rank #1 in numerous polls on happiness. Like any country, it has its down sides, but I couldn’t help but think how cleaning would be more enjoyable in Denmark, and also that Danish clientèle would be less likely to prejudge me or my reasons for being in this line of work. That said, they were described as such tidy, minimalist people that I probably wouldn’t find much work.

Sometimes the condescension gets to me, I start finding it harder to focus on the perks, namely all of the freedoms I get with being self-employed, I get hung up on how I find cleaning boring and repetitive, and I start to make myself hate it. At those times I’m more sensitive to the way people look at me and the way they speak to me, but it only takes voicing this to my husband, my mum, my brother or my in-laws and they soon set me straight, reminding me of how little the opinions of strangers matter. My family love me for who I am, what I can do, and what I do do for others, and at the end of the day, it’s their opinions of me that carry the most weight.


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