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The gorgeous houses of Europe. The wide, well aligned avenues, framed by pavilions, chalets, villas, single storied or on several levels, with gardens…And among them, there are those distinctive ones, decorated with all kinds of flowers and roses, designed to move the heart of every poor person, every migrant, designed to plunge them into daydreams…
“Ah, if that were my house, wouldn’t that be great? Look at that splendid terrace ! And the layout of the garden… My god, how beautiful it must be inside, how it must be filled with priceless things? Can a person living in such a house be unhappy ? Tell me, can she be unhappy?”
How many times have we heard those words, how many dreams were built on them, followed by a fall back into our reality, and then, oh how many sighs are heaved…
Of course, happiness does not dwell in all the houses where the windows reflect the golden rays of the sun from afar… You can never guess what secrets, what deep misfortunes, what irreparable solitudes lie behind the doors, enclosed within their high surrounding walls…
The housework fairies are the ones who know them best… The housework fairies with their dusting cloths in one hand, their mops licking the floors clean, the clear water in their buckets turning dark as they move through their chores…
Yes, you’ve read correctly; here, in Europe, most of these grand and solitary homes inevitably has an immigrant as house cleaner…
They spread out, rang doorbells at random, every one of them taking whatever their fate handed them.
Thus, they obtained a job, sometimes temporary, sometimes long-term. But if it’s undeclared, without security guarantees, honestly, both parties are satisfied. The owners are exempted from insurance, taxation and responsibilities, the working women are happy with the supplementary income, a daily amount handed over in cash, ready to use for daily needs, after the day’s work, in the nearest shopping center.
Gülsüm is one such immigrant housework fairies. Torn from the heart of Anatolia, with wheat-colored skin, she gathers her hair as thick as sheaves, pulls them on her forehead to wipe off the rain-like sweat, and heads out to clean the homes of those with an easier life. Gülsüm is a woman who was fed on the dark milk of poverty, who has tasted the heaviest of treasons, who was tripped and fell, a woman who passed through the sieve of fate. Perhaps this is why she stays away from people and chooses solitude. She lives alone in an apartment with her two young children. In the morning, the children leave for school, and Gülsüm for her housework…
Gülsüm seems to hail from an ancient tale when she comes homes, tired out, exhausted, when she seems to be like the nanny-goat telling her kids: “Open the door, I’m home with my mouth full of grass, my teats full of milk, I’m home.” Because when she comes homes, her arms also are always full.
She does not call on anyone, and does not open her home easily to others… Gülsüm is also beautiful…In the days when she had just separated from her husband, a friend advised her: “Be careful, you are young and you are beautiful also, don’t spend your time with married people, you never know… I swear I’m not saying this in my case, but you simply can’t keep people’s mouths shut like a purse”… In other words, she was warning her and since that day, Gülsüm has shut herself off from other people, thinking “my butter will do, I’l go on living and frying with it.”
Approaching Gülsüm, talking with her, becoming friends takes quite a lot of time and patience. But afterwards, you can lean on her, she has your back, Gülsüm, she is like a mountain…
Recently, she told me about the interior of one of those beautiful homes…This is why I felt the need to write this chronicle, in the name of all immigrant houseworkers.
After all, Gülsüm’s story, is also the story of all immigrant houseworkers
“For the past three weeks, I’ve been housecleaning in Elke’s house. She has a heart disease, not a finger has toucher her home, it’s dirty, disgusting everywhere… She didn’t even have the necessary cleaning products. In the second week, I made a list and bought all the products, I turned up my sleeves and set to work… While the curtains and carpets took turns in the machine, I cleaned everywhere, from the windows to the doors and finally, there was nothing my hands hadn’t touched, I covered the whole house.
A German couple came for coffee at Elke’s. Apparently, they admired how clean the house was and how nicely it smelled. They asked Elke if I could clean their home also. I accepted. As Monday is a holiday, Heinerfest…1
On Monday morning, I got up, did a bit of housework at home, prepared a snack and had breakfast. I left a bit of money for the children to they could go and have fun at the festival, or swim, and I left them a note. First, I re-cleaned Elke’s home for three hours. Afterward, I set out on the road with the Bergman couple’s address Elke had given me. Their house was in the same district, six bus stops away.
An elite part of the commune with nothing but cottages. Mister Bergman opened the door, the house is not a house, but a palace… It is big and spacious, it could shelter an entire family with elders and their descendants, if it were built back home. His wife, Mare, was in the garden taking in the sun in a lawn chair near the pool. The Bergmans had bought all the cleaning products, all that was required was that I set to work. Persian carpets on the ground, finely decorated Chinese ceramics on the walls, paintings, original oil paintings. Two stairs down, a chimney, a big plasma television as large as in a cinema… All the furniture are period pieces, the kind two people working for ten years could still not afford…But that said, the house was so dirty it was as if no one had ever cleaned it. Even the hairs from their dog, dead for three years, were stuck everywhere, and had stayed that way ever since. Transforming the kitchen into something bearable took me two hours. The magnets on their fridge showed there was not a single country they had not visited. Middle East, America, Africa, Southeast Asia.
Mare inherited the house from her mother. So Bergman is in her debt. Whatever she orders, he obeys immediately… “Bring me some water Bergman”, “Come here Bergman”, “Go away Bergman”…He is a tall thin man, about seventy years old. His looks are so salacious I can feel him detailing me even with my back turned. Mare fully lives her life of spoiled heiress, plays on her smartphone, constantly complains “drats, I lost again!” Mare is ill, she suffers from osteoclasis, when she speaks, her words stick in her throat like pebbles gurgling in a stream…They have a daughter, she is a diplomat in Frankfurt…
At last, after three cigarette breaks, and covering every nook and corner of the house, I cleaned everything including the windows. I cleaned the ceramic on the floors not once, but three times. Housework is detail work, you must collect the spider webs on the ceiling and work your way down to the collections of knick knacks, in every detail…
At one point, the doorbell rang, Bergman opened. They had ordered a meal from a Greek restaurant… My god, how hungry I was. The smells from the dishes crossed the rooms and landed in the garden. Sitting at the table, they ate with such appetite, such pleasure, I can’t describe it. I said to myself “you dirty bourgeois, you who stole the salt and the spices from India, who attempt to quieten you food complexes by overeating, who are you showing off to?” Thus did they gorge themselves to the end. These people, so called evolved, cultured, what are they next to my illiterate mother? While at home, eating a single bite alone in your corner is considered indecent, for these bourgeois, gorging themselves alone is an exploit.
I was so disgusted, I told myself that was enough for the day.
Bergman, still with his dirty looks, paid my seven hours of work with a shaky hand. Out in the garden, Mare moved waved a goodbye. There you are, that’s how, hungry, thirsty, I went home, fully conscious again of where I stood, class-wise…My arms and shoulders still ache from it.
Gülsüm is from Mesopotamia… She comes from the birthplace of the first civilization, from the fertiles lands watered by the Euphrates. She is one of those who best knows friendship and how to share.
Now she wonders: “for the love of god, what am I doing in these lands of exile? For years now, I’ve been unable to make ends meet, all my time is spent working, and experiencing the lack of the people I love…”
Honestly, is not Gülsüm’s story that of all immigrant women?
Illustration : Naz Oke 2022. adoptart.net
Translation from French by Renée Lucie Bourges
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