Of all the things that mark our lives as expatriates as different from the Way We Live Back Home – shopping in supermarkets that feature whole skinned goats and a singular paucity of pork chops; feeling daring when venturing out in shorts that skim the knee – few aspects of daily life stand out more profoundly than the presence of what Grandmother Muscato, until the end of her days, referred to as “The Help” (mostly in the “not in front of the” sense).
Bottom line: we have it. Most people, and certainly most expats in our little Sultanate, do (remembering that “most people,” in this context, is shorthand for “that subset of the population that does not include the thirty percent or so of the total population who are imported, underpaid, and absolutely vital manual laborers” – fodder perhaps for future, separate consideration). Some people simply have an expanded, daily or nearly so version of the twice-monthly cleaning lady that is still manageable for many back in the States; some (and the Villa Muscato falls in this category, with our much-valued Ermilia), have a “live in”; some grander households have two, or several, or more.
You’ll notice, perhaps, an absence of nouns here. What to call one’s household help is a matter of some debate. Maid or housemaid are probably the most common; I tend to prefer housekeeper, conjuring up as it does images of Hazel and Ann B. Davis. Other terms in common local parlance include housegirl, houseboy (rare, but not unheard of, and not used in the Fabulon sense), nanny, and even steward. And that’s not including the others who are part of some households: gardeners, drivers, butlers, laundresses, et al.
As Americans, we are still less comfortable than some of our European and Asian friends in having servants (and that’s what they are, really, however discomfiting the word). We don’t quite know how to behave, and while after a while you find yourself diving into the endless expat conversations about the help (litanies of complaints, mostly, and probably the most common topic of social chitchat after the heat), there is always about it a funny feeling.
We’re very spoiled. I try hard to remember that, and that in Real Life we wouldn’t have all the time that’s created by not cooking, doing laundry, scrubbing, ironing (and everything is ironed), dusting, vacuuming, polishing, and so much more. That time, to me at least, is the greatest luxury of the phenomenon of The Help. Time, which I wish I could say I use more fruitfully – that novel’s still not written, the paper still piles up - and, not at all to discount it, ease. Getting dressed? Throw open the cupboards and admire the pressed trousers, the neat piles of T-shirts, the shoes lined up just so. Throwing a party? Your role will consist of giving instructions and putting on music. You can, if you like, dabble in the Dalloway and arrange some flowers. At the end of evening, with just a few friends left, you kick your shoes off and make a show of attending to the last few glasses, feeling very domestic. When you go upstairs, the beds are made, the towels fresh, and the bathrooms spotless. In the morning, the kitchen sparkles and the only reminders of last night are the neat packages of leftovers in the fridge.
For every Mrs. Bridges aspect of all this, there’s a Mrs. Danvers side. You trade off luxury with privacy, and you get used to having someone know a lot about your dresser drawers, and the way you leave half-filled coffee cups about, and things generally personal, unadmirable, or both. You have to set boundaries, and rules, and distances; you have responsibility, both legally and morally, for the well-being of someone just as far from home as you (for all The Help is expat, too). You are participating, for better or worse, in a system that, however well you personally behave, also gives rise to the stories you hear about and read of a spectrum of injustices from minor mistreatment to horrendous abuse.
Of course, they are participating, too, Ermilia and her friends and all the thousands more. They have set out from their families and homes to this particular corner of the world. They send money back, to Sri Lanka and India and the Philippines, that makes it possible for children (sometimes theirs) to go school and for elderly parents to live decently. They live in small rooms at the tops of houses or tiny quarters tucked behind the kitchen. They do the work, and they likely gossip and complain about us just as much as we do about them. I admire them, really, a very great deal.
All in all it’s a funny thing, and every once in a while I get caught up short by the oddity of it. I think we’re good employers, Mr. Muscato and I, and properly grateful even as we grouse about lost buttons or misplaced nail clippers (which really can turn up in the oddest spots). I like to think Ermilia is as bemused by us as we are at her occasional eccentricities, and we all get along fairly well. But I don’t think I’ll ever be as comfortable with all of this as was Grandmother Muscato, who bullied and adored her Help, the inscrutable Alice, for the better part of 40 years, not to mention others before and after, all her long life. I do admit, though, when I think of the dusting – I’m willing to try.