Bon ménage

The cleaning lady quit. Again.

(For anyone groaning, “You have a cleaning lady?” you may as well stop reading here.)

I am rarely without a cleaning lady. I use this outmoded term intentionally for two reasons: 1) The commonly used French term is ‘femme de ménage’, even though a former colleague used to proudly refer to her ‘homme de ménage’; I suppose it is technically possible to find a man willing and able to do the job, although I personally doubt the existence of such beings. 2) 99% of cleaners are women, so who are we kidding?

First, let’s get our terms straight. ‘Ménage’ is housework, ‘faire bon ménage’ means to get along well with somebody, and ‘ménage à trois’ you’ve probably already heard of in a slightly different context – this being the main thing on search engines’ minds when I googled ‘ménage’ in search of photos.

The official French term for the profession of cleaner is ‘technicien de surface’, a job which is filled by both sexes in supermarkets, hospitals and office buildings. But when it comes to households and their cleaning or ‘ménage’ (the same word refers to both), women dominate the field.

A series of cleaning ladies has swept through our lives in recent years. I am daily reminded of Patricia, a pixie-like woman with a cloud of red hair who arrived at our door looking like the French rock star Mylène Farmer. It was she who coerced me into adding Léo, one of my current cat bosses, to our ménagerie. Her particular obsession was dust in unreachable corners of the ceiling, and I would often see her perched precariously high while swiping at dust motes. As she was one of those whom we hired ‘au noir’, that is to say under the table, I often feared an accident for which we would be held responsible.

Another called Carole spent hours taking apart and cleaning the Dyson. She also snooped through our papers and regaled me with dirt about other clients, and the number of thongs she found under the bed. She was the only cleaner I have ever let go.

We tried several agencies so as to do things in the above-board way and, as an added incentive, get a tax break. I invariably found these individuals to be less gung ho than their cash-only counterparts. One rather heavyset young woman demanded that I supply her with enough wet wipes to clean the entire house. Another insisted on ironing (against my religion) but refused to take out the garbage. How can you clean a house without emptying the bin? Another scowled the whole time she cleaned, making me sure she hated us, our house and the pets. Later I learned that she had eye trouble, explaining both the frown and her selective vision of dirt.

When we are between cleaners, as we are now, I put on the red hat I reserve for emergency operations like moving house. I clear the area of pets and clutter, rally the troops (currently diminished to one half-hearted husband), let go a battle cry (“Time to clean!”) and wield my vacuum cleaner with gusto. A couple of hours later, our house is more or less clean. Unfortunately this state is all too transient and, in the hours and days that follow, I am transformed into a clean freak, a kitchen counter kamikaze, toilet seat totalitarian.

When we find another cleaner, I will be able to quit this thankless task and our household will return to its normal state of bon ménage.

How do you approach house cleaning? Or not?


  1. Dana · April 13, 2017

    My family never had a cleaning lady but I do see the benefits of employing someone to clean your house! Maybe one day I’ll be able to as well!! First, perhaps moving into a place with less than 4 colocs? Interesting comparison about the work ethic between those en noir and those you declared through an agency. All of my tutoring jobs were en noir and I took them (perhaps too) seriously

    • MELewis · April 13, 2017

      I should probably have mentioned that mine never did either – my mother was a stay-at-home mom who would occasionally become completely overwhelmed by four kids, dogs and the mess – and get a bit of help, but it was not a regular thing. Perhaps growing up in a bit of a chaotic household explains why, when I finally got my own place, I became rather manic about keeping it clean. And even when money was tight, I always found spare cash for cleaning help because I felt better in a clean space and doing it myself stopped me from taking on other, better-paying work. The apple must not fall too far from the tree – my son recently moved into a shared house with 4 colocs and it seems that cleaning is an issue – he is among those who want to share the work to keep it liveable while others seem to be happy living in a (relative) pigsty.

  2. francetaste · April 13, 2017

    I had a cleaning man for several years. He had OCD and was meticulous. He cleaned for all my co-workers, so there was a lot of trust. I wish I could have kept him when I moved away.
    After trying a number of cleaners, I gave up. They were never as thorough as my guy or myself. And now the budget requires I do it myself. Husband likes things to be perfect, but only aesthetically. He has no concern about hygiene. He can spill juice on the floor and if it’s transparent, he’ll leave it, even though the floor is sticky. But if a paper is left on a table or a bag not put in the closet, he goes ballistic.

    • MELewis · April 13, 2017

      Ha, ha – those little differences among married couples! I have threatened divorce over husband’s chaotic, unrinsed dishwasher loading but to no avail. An OCD cleaning man sounds like heaven, but I get that budget is a factor. As long as I can justify cleaning help by working at something better paying I will, but it probably does me good to remind myself just what hard work it is from time to time!

  3. phildange · April 13, 2017

    I won’t sneak into housework tribulations since I dislike houses and hate work but as often into the words adventures . Ménage only means housework when it goes with faire , “faire le ménage”, either said or implicit .
    You forgot one meaning, a married couple living together : “La maison voisine est occupée par un jeune ménage” for instance, and that’s where this “ménage à trois” comes from, albeit no good catholic ethnically pure and properly right-winged French would dive into this deadly sin of course .
    Ménager is also a verb . It means sparing in “ménager ses forces” and the famous proverb “Qui veut voyager loin ménage sa monture” ( monture being horse here) .It is also being careful and soft with somebody’s feelings “ménager quelqu’un” is a very common phrase .
    So if you want to maintain your house slave in good working order you have to ménager ses forces, ménager ses sentiments (since nowadays these commoners claim to be human) and take care of your husband to prevent any ménage à trois .

    • MELewis · April 13, 2017

      That’s interesting – did not realize that ‘ménage’ was a married couple. I actually thought was more like ‘household’, regardless of marital state….but as for ‘ménager ses forces’ you are right – I need to save my energy for more worthy pursuits! 🙂

  4. Mél@nie · April 13, 2017

    well, faire le ménage, c’est pas une partie de plaisir, but I’ve always done it… and it’s been faster and easier since our 2 “old babies”(LOL!) left le nid… 🙂 it’s the answer to your question: How do you approach house cleaning? 😉
    * * *
    oui, ‘ménage’ = a married couple, too… 🙂

    • MELewis · April 14, 2017

      Pas une partie de plaisir: Agree! Although I kind of hate the everyday boring stuff, I do enjoy the ‘spring cleaning’. Hope you enjoy a lovely Easter weekend in your sunny Toulousain ‘ménage!’

  5. coteetcampagne · April 13, 2017

    I have a cleaning lady at the rental apartment. She likes to iron pillow cases & tea towels , thus setting me an impossibly high standard for our guests (when I do the change-overs myself) who now expect everything bar the bathtowels pressed to crisp perfection.
    I could not do this for a living and she is a veritable treasure above rubies.

    One of the bonuses of downsizing in France will be that the house there is very manageable. I like a reasonably clean house, if not a tidy one , as long as the disarray is aesthetically pleasing I’m fine with it.
    I look forward to actually enjoying this currently conceptual idyll, which appears to be a pipe dream right now….

    • MELewis · April 13, 2017

      I have known French women to iron towels – as they don’t use tumble driers they often end up a bit crunchy! I admire that aesthetically arranged disarray that I see in lots of designer places; however, my OCD tendencies have trouble with clutter of any kind. I do agree that a good cleaner is ‘la perle rare’ that you must keep at (almost) any cost!

      • coteetcampagne · April 13, 2017

        It has to be beautiful, symmetrical, meritricious clutter for moi!

  6. zipfslaw1 · April 13, 2017

    Thanks for the useful vocabulary items! Personally, I always find the question of who the cleaning lady stays with to be the hardest of any divorce. In the best-case scenario, she stays with both of you–she likes it because it increases her income, and you and your ex like it because of the bidirectional gossip possibilities.

    Regarding the issues of gender, I’ll point out that the advantages of dating an ex-military guy include the facts that we know how to (a) iron, and (b) clean. For me, Saturday morning in Paris is house-cleaning time–a little connection with my grandmother, who was also a Saturday morning cleaner.

    • MELewis · April 13, 2017

      Your Saturday morning tribute to gran’s cleaning is sweet! 🙂 I certainly hope that if it comes to divorce, the cleaning lady will not be part of the negotiations – our two Frenchies, however, may end up with shared custody!

  7. Pingback: Bon ménage – Zipf's Law
  8. Katherine Wikoff · April 13, 2017

    You mention adding Leo to your menagerie, a term I’ve just always known from context, but now I’m wondering about its more nuanced relationship with “ménage.” A “household” of animals? Animals that get along well together? Clean animals?😄

    • phildange · April 13, 2017

      Not at all . “Ménage” has only a recent link with cleaning (and only in “faire le ménage”) . Originally it comes from “mener”, to lead, to administrate . La ménagerie was the administration of a big household and rather of a big farm . Then it became more exclusive to the ensemble of animals of the farm and in the 1600s for some unknown reason it started meaning an ensemble of rare and alien animals .

  9. Lisa @ cheergerm · April 13, 2017

    Nothing wrong with having a ‘cleaning person.’ We have had the same guy for almost 13 years, he only comes once a month now but he is quite OCD and does all the heavy bathroom cleaning. We (well, me,) still have to clean in between his visits but it’s super nice for it to be done fully once a month. He has become someone we really care about and we could never fire him, even keeping him on when it was a tad difficult to justify financially. My mum never had any cleaning help so I sometimes feel a bit slack but I seem to get over that feeling pretty fast. Hoping somebody new comes your way soon. (But only for the cleaning kind of ménage, not the one that involves three people…🤔)

    • MELewis · April 14, 2017

      Your cleaning guy sounds like a treasure, and how lovely that he has stayed so long. I think if I had someone do a really good job on the heavy stuff once a month, I could more easily get by with lighter cleaning in between. As for the other, well… I have a hard enough time managing two people in a relationship, never mind a third! 😉

  10. Susanne · April 14, 2017

    Are you familiar with David Sedaris, the American writer who also lives in France? He was a cleaning person in NY City and wrote a screamingly funny story (which I can’t recall the name of) about his exploits. His essays are wonderful. Here’s a little cleaning related article about him:
    I’ve never had a cleaning lady. My favourite thing to do on a Friday night, aside from reading blogs, is to clean the floors. After a week of sitting at a desk, I get a good aerobic workout running up and down the stairs with my BeeMop.
    Good luck with your hunt. May your home soon be swept and sparkly by a capable femme de ménage!

    • MELewis · April 14, 2017

      Thank you for sharing the name of David Sedaris – I had heard of him vaguely but not (I think) actually read anything by him. A quick peruse of your link reveals a lot of interesting parallels — I sense a soul-mate, and will definitely give him a read! As for your penchant for your BeeMop, it makes me giggle (my late mom was very tight with her O’Cedar), yet it’s oddly comforting to imagine you working off the week by cleaning the floors. Happy housecleaning!

  11. A year in Périgord · April 14, 2017

    We had to let our last cleaner go when he broke the bath. Don’t ask. Let’s just say it was the final straw.

    • MELewis · April 15, 2017

      Broke the bath? That’s quite intriguing but as you say don’t ask, I won’t. 😉 Having cleaned house yesterday, I am reminded how hard it is to do the job with vim and vigour while being careful.

  12. coteetcampagne · April 14, 2017

    We had a tenant years ago who broke the bath and couldn’t bring himself to admit how. Eventually his girlfriend let slip that it involved three blokes in the bath, all wearing stiletto heels (!?)

    • MELewis · April 15, 2017

      Wow. Never a dull moment, eh? I hope you charged them extra!

      • coteetcampagne · April 15, 2017

        I can safely say that my life has been largely devoid of dull moments.

      • MELewis · April 15, 2017


  13. poshbirdy · April 14, 2017

    I’ve never had a femme de manage but I wonder if Mylene is available on a local agency? I would of course cut her some slack – as people often did for me when I was a paid and much younger and poor(er) femme de menage myself

    • MELewis · April 15, 2017

      Do you have pets? Mylène was much more interest in vacuuming the dog (I kid you not) than actual cleaning. But a lovely person, as have been the majority of our helpers over the years. I have only the greatest respect for those who clean for a living, especially those who take pride in doing it well.

  14. acflory · April 15, 2017

    -giggles- NOT! I had a cleaner once, many years ago, but I found that I spent more time ‘pre-cleaning’ than if I’d just done the deed myself. These days I’ve become quite relaxed about cleaning. Things that must be clean – kitchen and bathrom – are cleaned for hygiene. Everything else gets done on a rotating basis as I refuse to do more than one hateful chore a day. It’s not ideal, but life’s too short for unnecessary housework. 😦

    • MELewis · April 15, 2017

      I admire your approach — life is indeed too short — and am (sort of) trying to break in down into chunks so as to avoid the super stressful ‘clean sweep’. Of course, I do pick up and tidy the place before the cleaner so as to not waste their time skirting around clutter. One hateful chore per day sounds about right. Maybe the trick is learning to love them all? 😉

      • acflory · April 16, 2017

        Yes, that’s what I told myself too – save time, their time. :/ For me it just became too stressful. Silly, I know, but I actually find this minimalist approach much more relaxing. 😀

  15. Redterrain · April 16, 2017

    This may be something you’ve already tried, but perhaps try to find young people travelling? They are usually looking to find somewhat steady work and if you’re hiring someone who’s travelling on a shoe string budget (backpacker etc) they will work really hard – they are saving for the next leg of their trip. I found hiring bartending staff in Melbourne was quite easy with the traits above…they were so eager to work and the wages in Australia do tend to be very liveable. Young travellers (who aren’t french) – I never found as good results of reliability or just enthusiasm for work in Australians so focused my recruitment efforts to included plenty of backpacking travellers. Shame about a woman snooping through your papers and gossiping about clients… some people are very liberal with private information.

    • MELewis · April 16, 2017

      That’s a great idea! I’d be happy to hire anybody who is motivated enough to do the job, and especially if it helps them realize their dream. Although must admit I would no idea how to reach that group…we don’t actually see many backpackers in our area. Possibly because we are so close to Switzerland but actually in France, and prices (therefore wages) are much higher just across the border. Good suggestion, though, will keep it in mind! 🙂

      • Redterrain · April 16, 2017

        Do you have something like a CraigsList? Also even just a shout out on Facebook might be spread to the right person? You could check out a couch surfing site – and also maybe place little adverts at pubs or the library (haha backpacking travellers tend to find libraries for free wifi). Just ideas… In Australia we use a site called Gumtree – which you can list items you’re selling, jobs your needing to fill or even a room for rent. If you have something like that it would be the best place to start. 🙂

  16. midihideaways · April 18, 2017

    I would love to have someone clean my house, it always gets done after I’ve cleaned the gite for the guests – after all they pay!! I know how difficult it is to find someone who turns up reliably, and who won’t just do what she/he thinks they should. As far as declaring a cleaner goes, have you thought about cheque emploi? It’s fairly easy to use and process.

    • MELewis · April 18, 2017

      Priorities, eh? 😉 Yes, I’ve heard of those ‘cheques emploi services’. We have been using a home service agency that takes a small cut but does the work of finding and vetting the person. So far it’s been okay but if they don’t find someone new soon I will have to figure out a plan B…. It’s easy to get used to having the hardest part done for you!

  17. The Laughing Housewife · April 18, 2017

    I like the French way of thinking: I am now not a housewife, but a hometechnician.

    • MELewis · April 18, 2017

      Sounds like it should be better paid, eh?

  18. Britt · April 18, 2017

    My first kid essentially never stopped crying or wanting to be carried. He was happiest strapped to me in the Bjorn as I pushed the Dyson around. Doing that while pregnant with the second kid threw me into pre term contractions and my darling husband insisted I hire help. The first batch was from a big company. Their team “forgot” to vacuum, left crumbs on counters, and broke the only expensive thing we owned. We now have a husband/wife team that come every other week, but are basically family.

    • MELewis · April 20, 2017

      I remember having constant Braxton-Hicks contractions throughout my second pregnancy every time I tried to get anything done. By then my first was 3 1/2, and I certainly never carried him while vacuuming! I can only sympathize with having cleaners who don’t actually do the job – it’s actually worse than having to do it yourself! Glad to hear you got help in the end. Every other week sounds like a good compromise!

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