Saturday, January 29, 2011

Seven years and I'm still botching it...

I´ve lived in this long, skinny country for seven years now (gasp!), but I must confess, I'm FAR from having it figured out. There are some guidelines that I know and do my best to abide by. There's a whole other set that I don't know/understand. And, then there's the set that I know perfectly well, but forget.

Let me set the scene by saying that having a housekeeper/cleaning lady here is quite normal- it is not an indicator of some new luxurious lifestyle. These arrangements range from live-in, full time housekeeper to once a week cleaning lady. I have the latter and I had a new lady this week.

I really like her. Not only does she work independently so I can take care of Ely and translate while she naps, but she helped me make lunch and split a beer with me at lunch. While I have loved my previous cleaning ladies, I was never able to convince them to have a beer in the middle of the day- no matter how hot it was. I’m not a big drinker, at all, but I do appreciate a cold beer on a hot day and Thursday was a scorcher!

So, we had our first day together and it was a relative success. She cleaned. We ate lunch. Split our beer. I paid. We both got what we expected out of the deal. Then, it was time to go and I messed up and made things all weird.

Let me give you a little background: As a whole, I find Chileans to be REALLY clean people. Like REALLY clean. Their houses are clean. While housekeepers play a part in that, I've found this to be categorically true even in homes without a housekeeper. (Side note: LB, if you're reading this, I bet you wish I'd spent more time in Chile before living with you in college. I've learned a few things ;))

Personal hygiene is off the charts (excluding boys between 18-20 who do their best to look dirty once they are finally free from the demands of their colegio, although I have a sneaking suspicion that their mothers make them shower daily and that their dirty appearance is the result of A LOT of effort). All of my (Chilean) officemates used to have toothbrushes in their desks for use after lunch or any random snack. All of the guys that work with R shower before leaving work. My darling husband ALWAYS showers used to shower before we (used to) go out at night- no matter how late we are running.

So, since it was such a hot day and she worked really hard, I thought our new cleaning lady might be uncomfortable going home without taking a shower. So, I offered her the option. Her response, "I don’t have a towel." To which I smiled and responded "I have one I can lend you" and scampered off to get it. I produced the towel and she took it and headed upstairs dutifully.

As soon as I was up the stairs, I had a ‘doh’ moment. I’d totally and completely forgotten what I’ve been told many times… some Chileans don’t share towels. Towel sharing has never been an issue for me. I just assume that if someone is offering me a towel, it’s clean. Maybe that’s naïve, but I’ve survived so far.

I know of a few ladies of a certain age who take towels to hotels. R’s uncle who is a great handyman was working here and brought his own towel for the end of the day shower. I’ve never asked what the issue is because I’m usually told in one of two contexts (1) Another gringa asking if her mother-in-laws no towel sharing policy is the norm (2) Going somewhere and R tells me to remember towels because X doesn’t share towels. I’ve never been comfortable enough to ask X "So, why you don’t want to share your towels with us?" Although, I do assume that it’s related to the cleanliness thing.

So, in an effort to be nice and sensitive to the cleanliness factor, I had accidentally forced an unwanted towel on my new cleaning lady. So as not to offend me, she’d taken it into the bathroom and appeared 10 minutes later, freshly perfumed. I chose not to address my faux paus. I couldn’t come up with anything that wouldn’t sound like "Why don’t you want to share my towel?" thereby making things weirder. So, I zipped it and said good-bye.

I went upstairs to get the towel to throw it in the wash I was doing- and noticed it wasn’t damp. I glanced over and the tub wasn’t wet either. I had made her so uncomfortable that she’d faked a shower to avoid offending me! Eeeekkk!

I really hope that she comes back next week… I bet she’ll bring her own towel, lest I force another on her.

At least when you’re new to a country and/or are clueless to the guidelines, you don’t know when you’ve botched it… I hate when this happens. Seven years into it, I’m definitely passed my "She’s new here. She doesn’t know" grace period.


  1. d'oh!!!!!!!! on the towel. I have offered to let a friend take a shower at my house and always get the same "I don't have a towel" thing. Which, duh, of course you don't have a towel, who carries one around all the time. Jesy told me about always having to pack a towel, and that's how I learned about it. I can't say I'd remember it on a dime though. I'm sure she'll come back, and bring her own towel!

  2. This is so true!! I have lived here my whole life and thought it was weird to carry my own towel whenever I would go spend the night at someones house... I just thought it was because people here don't have extra towels and don't use a dryer.
    But this cleanliness theory does make a lot of sense!

  3. How interesting. I had no idea about the towel sharing. Though I had noticed that our part time nana spends an inordinate amount of time in the bathroom before and after work ;)

  4. Allisons, good point point on the extra towel/dryer thing, although I know atleast one lady well enough to know she has both and still doen't share towels. Hmmm... I have a Chilean friend who grew up in the US who has been nominated (by me) to ask her mother about this. Maybe that will bring us some clarity.

    Lani, I do wonder about the before work bathroom time. I mean, if you gotta go, you gotta go, but there's never a flush... After work, I'm sure it's about freshening up. Before is a mistery...

  5. ahhh, the towel thing. I can´t believe you´ve been in chile for 7 years. We left the UK after six and I was still learning then. I´m in chile until August, I hope we can see each other. I´ll let you know when I am in Stgo