(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.
Let me share with you a day in the life of our little ménagerie. The word finds its roots in ménage, which means household, so perhaps it’s normal that a collection of animals is part of ours.
I am a dog person. There is no translation for this expression in French. You can say you like dogs, or that you are ‘plus chien que chat.’ You can choose to like neither although you will not be typical of the French who love their pets and generally have one or the other.
Which is to say I am not a cat person. My daughter is a cat person. We got her a kitten for her fourth birthday. Over the years the feline population in our household expanded to two. Madeline moved away to attend university a few years ago and we kept the cats.
The current pair (I’m tempted to say culprits but let’s keep this polite) are Bianca and Leo. Leo was foisted upon us by a former cleaner who saw a window of opportunity when we were momentarily down one. These cat people stick together. He had been rejected by his mother, she explained in a poignant tale of woe, and she’d tried to place him once already but after a week the woman had changed her mind. That person clearly was smarter harder hearted than I. Leo came to stay, although he almost got ejected after doing his business on my bed.
His younger cohort in crime is Bianca. A bit of a princess is our little girl. Or perhaps a white supremacist. In any case, she does not like to mingle with any Tom, Dick or Harry. So she hangs around the house a lot, requiring two litter boxes and frequent displays of worship.
I’m not sure what possessed me to agree to add two puppies to our ménage after the kids left home – put it down to empty-nest syndrome. Our last dog had died in tragic circumstances a few years before and we were feeling, well….outnumbered by the cats. So it really is all the cats’ fault.
My husband and I have always been suckers for dogs. Our preferred breed was chosen before we married, when we met our first French bulldog at a friend’s home in Normandy. A snorting, smelly, impertinent fellow he was – proving the breed to be well deserving of its name. We got our first Frenchie a couple of years later, then a second shortly after. Edouard and Dorothée were our first children. They taught us that, yes, we were capable of taking care of beings other than ourselves, going for walks, picking up poops. We passed our first caretaker tests with flying colors.
Sadly, the dynamic duo did not live long, whether due to problems of the breed or medical back luck. A few years (and one failed adoption of a stray) later, a third Frenchie came to stay. By then our own children were center stage (or almost, as they will tell you.) Mooqs was with us for ten years or so, until he became blind and stumbled into the swimming pool. Frenchies are not good swimmers.
Higgins and Humphrey now rule the roost. They are adorable dictators, who have me flying out of bed in the wee hours in the hopes that they will not have weed theirs. I let them out in the backyard first thing, while keeping a close eye on Higgins, who likes to search for truffles (left by the cats) while pretending to relieve himself. I also check the mat in front of the door to make sure that Leo hasn’t left one of his trophies – frequent offerings of mice and bird remains that the dogs are only too happy to devour as an apéritif.
Then it’s breakfast for the dogs while I go down to the basement and let the cats in to the laundry room where their food and litter boxes are kept. Let’s be very clear: cats are nocturnal beings and I am not. We live in the country so the cats are out at night (both are chipped and sterilized, so we are good citizens).
Should any cat people be about to protest: the cats have access to shelter in the cellar via a cat flap with a chip reader. This innovation has paid for itself in that we do not now feed half of the neighborhood cat population when we go away and leave their food out.
Then begins the daily ballet of my life as a cat and dog concierge. Imagine these scenes being played to the music ‘Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy’ from The Nutcracker.
Take the dogs for their morning walk. Stoop and scoop on as-needs basis (i.e., if on sidewalk, private property or when someone’s looking…). Return home, wipe their feet before letting them in (2 dogs X 4 legs = 8 feet). Make coffee. Leo pussyfoots by kitchen door indicating a desire to go back out. Open door, let cat out.
Take coffee upstairs to office. Remove dogs’ bed from workspace as Higgins snores so loudly I cannot hear myself think, never mind hear clients on the phone.
Bianca then comes by for a cuddle. Give her a scrub and close the door. Start in on work. Urgent mewing from downstairs. Open door and remove dead mouse from doormat. Leo comes in. Bianca goes out. Return to work. Ten minutes later, faint mewing from basement where Bianca has come in through cat flap but now wants in to the house proper. She can wait, I tell myself. Focus on work for ten more minutes.
Strange hacking and gagging sound comes from next door. Humphrey has just vomited his breakfast, along with several other unidentifiable objects. Curse, cover nose and clean it up before Higgins does. Return to work. Mewing becomes more intense. Go to basement, let one cat up as other goes out. Make another coffee. Return to work.
Flash forward to late afternoon, several door openings later. Dogs begin to circle in growing impatience as the time for their second walk gets closer. Go lie down, I order. Click click click, toenails on the floor. Grumble. Groan. Snort. Snore. Snore. Snore. Then click click click. Two pairs of feet, two wet noses. Take H & H for second walk. Clean eight feet again.
Refresh water bowl. Feed dogs. Leo circles impatiently by the stairs. Go down to basement, replenish already half-full cat food. Bianca watches from upstairs.
Evening settles in and it’s time to let dogs out for final utility run. Cats nowhere in sight. Get ready for bed and hear mewing from below stairs. Go down and let Leo out. Bianca nowhere to be seen. Come back upstairs and look for her. Check under beds, behind curtains, no cat. Settle in to bed with book. Eyes grow heavy. Begin to nod off. Plaintive cat call from basement. Go downstairs and let her out.
There are moments when I feel less like a concierge and more like a happy pet owner. When Bianca nestles in beside me and goes into ecstasy as I stroke her. When I look deep into those Frenchie eyes and see love.
The dogs sleep in the upstairs bathroom. There are several practical reasons for this. Our house is open plan and does not have many rooms with doors that close. Once I left them the run of the house and they got into their food. Came down in the morning to find two sausages about to split their casings. What followed was a purging session (both ends) that lasted 24 hours and almost made me split mine. Never again, I swore.
The French bulldog is an uppity breed with delusions of humanity. Basically it does not accept the notion that it is a dog. Therefore, any attempt to house them in inferior accommodation will result in a trashing of the premises that is simply not worth it. Also the bathroom is tiled which is easier to clean.
Finally, in one of those lovely synchronicities of translation: the word ‘pet’ means fart in French. ‘Nuff said.
How about you? Do you have any pets – or pet peeves?