Jeanne

sink

Even though I live in a small apartment, I’m not especially good at keeping it tidy. I’m fairly neat and organized, which is essential when living and working in the same space. But I’d rather spend my time baking brownies than scrubbing sinks, if you can believe it.

Jeanne is my housecleaner and she comes every other week. (Except during her eleven-week summer vacation.) The first time we met, she strode in the front door for her interview, and immediately said to me, “Je ne suis pas une voleuse, monsieur”—”I am not a thief.”

I was sure she was telling the truth, since she was better dressed than I. She arrived wearing a silk scarf tied impeccably around her neck and strode through my door in elegant leather pumps. The flowery lilt of French perfume wafted towards me as she entered, and her hair was so neatly-coiffed and sprayed into place that a mistral, the violent wind that sweeps through Provence, wouldn’t have been able to budge it.

Being from San Francisco, I did the brief Adam’s-apple check and yes indeed, Jeanne was the real thing.

But lest you think Jeanne was dainty and sweet, think again. The first time she came to clean, she kicked off those fancy shoes, put on her slippers, and padded off in search of the eau de javel, that universally-loved liquid developed here in 1789 that’s still very dear to the French to this day.

In fact, they’re still beaming with so much pride that they’ve named a métro stop after it, called “Javel.” Imagine if there was a subway stop in your city called “Bleach.”

It’s one of the few métro stops in Paris I’ve never been to—but I presume it’s the cleanest.

Because my apartment is just two rooms, you’d think it would be simple to clean. When we first met, Jeanne originally said it would take her two hours to do it, which sounded like quite a long time. But since it takes me about two weeks to work up the energy to unearth and untangle all those cords and hoses on my aspirateur (I always manage to find something more interesting to do in Paris than vacuuming), I went along with it. During her first visit I left and went to the cinema.

When the movie was over and two hours had passed, I figured she’d have finished up and it was safe to return. When I turned the key in the lock, the door swung open and there she was, still padding around, engulfed in fumes of bleach. Although she’d been there way past her estimated time of departure, she was cleaning around the buttons on my fax machine like a madwoman…but hadn’t yet made it to the kitchen or the bathroom.

I hung around and tried to stay out of her way, and when she finished, I suggested that the next time she came, it might be better if she started in the “critical areas”, namely the bathroom and kitchen—instead of detailing le fax. Jeanne slipped back into her pumps, neatly folded her rubber gloves, and finally left a good four hours after she had arrived.

Since our first encounter, we’ve been together for years and Jeanne’s become a fixture in my life. So much so, that I’ve slipped from using the more formal vous to the friendlier tu with her. Although she still uses vous, I guess she feels pretty comfortable with me, since each time she arrives, she scrutinizes my face very deeply and tells me she’s worried about my health. She says I should be eating more red meat, a diagnosis that she brings home by vigorously punching her fist in the air. I want to tell her, thanks—now could she just clean the toilet? But I’m worried about that well-manicured right-hand jab, so I don’t say a word.

I’ve finally got her down to cleaning my tiny place in 2 hours and forty-five minutes, a feat that’s taken me several years to accomplish. I couldn’t tell her outright to leave, so I come home and feign surprise each time that she’s still there, praying that she might get the hint. That’s after I’ve sat through War & Peace, stopped somewhere afterwards for a glass of wine, then wandered aimlessly in the freezing rain until I thought, “Of course, she must be finished by now” hoping to be allowed back into my home again. But lo and behold, no matter what time I return, there she is. Bleach in hand, scrubbing the rubber bumpers under the base of my KitchenAid mixer.

But I’m not complaining.

True to her word, nothings gone missing and I’m happy with the great cleaning job that she does…in spite of the small fortune I’m spending on bleach. My next task is to convince her that I participate in this new-fangled thing called “recycling.”

Still, I can’t imagine life without Jeanne and I’d miss our bi-weekly sessions of her doling out health advice, and me wishing she’d concentrate her energy on the kitchen floor instead of detailing the plastic holes behind my alarm clock.

shoes

Oddly, one day I came home and she’d already left, which was a first. She left a note that she was missing a sock and if I found it to please let her know.

I looked under the shelves, where there was not a speck of dust. I moved a few boxes around and saw the walls and corners had been scrubbed and polished. I lifted up the sofa, and the carpet looked as fresh as that day I installed it. But no sock.

Feeling the need to stop in the bathroom, something struck me as odd: I looked around and noticed that it hadn’t been cleaned.

Like, at all.

I don’t know what she’d been doing and how someone could spend half-a-day cleaning a two-room apartment but forget the bathroom. Yet I was happy to forgive her. Because when you’re all alone in a foreign country, it’s nice to have someone looking after you. And I think it’s a good idea to keep her on my side.

Especially with that right-hook.


55 comments

  • She sounds like a jewel despite her foibles. My own housekeeper is always having some crisis or other that requires her to reschedule, but she does such a good job that I would be loathe to lose her.

  • As long as you don’t find her sock in between your sheets, monsieur ;)

  • So funny — I’m sure that our housecleaners must be related. Mine is not a morning person and rarely arrives before 2 which means, since she insists that she needs at least 5 hours to clean my house (only 1700 sq. ft), that she’s always there well into the evening when I’d like to just relax in front of the TV (no one gives me the sympathy I need for this sad state of affairs either). She only comes every other week and while I’ve thought I could afford a weekly cleaning of only three hours rather than five, she insists that would never be enough time, so we stay bi-weekly. I swear, I have the most-dusted books anywhere. I’d be happy to dial down the clean to mostly bathrooms and kitchen, but like you, I’m so happy to have her keep coming to get me in order and keep the cobwebs under control that I just write the cheque.

  • Ha! This evoked Augusten Burroughs’s story about his diminutive cleaning lady in the book Magical Thinking. She demanded expensive hypo-allergenic cleaning supplies and a bottle of cheap white wine for each cleaning session, and only cleaned as high as she could reach, but integrated herself into his life past the point of no return. Until the lawsuit, that is.

    Please feed us more stories like this on your blog (though the food pictures are usually more appetizing than les assiettes en vacances).

  • I want a Jeanne.

  • Aw Dave,

    This warmed my heart. I don’t know you from Adam, but I wondered out loud to my husband the other day if this guy dave, from a food blog I read, every get lonely being an American in Paris without his family?

    I guess you do. I’m glad you have Jeanne.

  • kind of an aside here, but, there are a bunch of french words in the persian language — robe-du-chambre, mueblement, rimmel, maillot, are just a few that i can recognize and recall. every once in a while, i have an amazing a-ha moment where i realize that some word i’ve been saying for years within persian is actually a french word. (for example, it was only recently when i learned that the french word for ‘to heat’ is ‘chauffer’, that i realized that the persian word for heater, transliterated as ‘shofaj’, is actually the french ‘chauffage’.)

    anyway, i just had one of those crazy realizations as i was reading this. my mom has always referred to the solution of bleach in water as ‘ab jabel’. i never knew why. well — ‘ab’ is the persian word for water, and ‘jabel’ must be this javel stuff you’re talking about here. who knew?

    (random geeky language thing, but i get really excited about those =)

  • “Being from San Francisco, I did the brief Adam’s-apple check” as a fellow San Franciscan…. this made me laugh out loud… with the truthfulness of it. So think Jeanne would mind a 13 hour flight to come clean my 2 room apartment?

  • Oh David, how can you expect a house (no matter how small) to be cleaned in two hours? Jeanne sounds so much like a Turkish cleaning lady. Here, eight hours of cleaning is the norm and anything shorter than that will be considered a lousy job. Buttons on fax machines and rubber bumpers are routine. My cleaning lady even details my remote controls with a Q-tip dipped in alcohol. Guess who taught her..

  • I think even Jeanne would be flattered by this portrait of her. I do wonder what she gets up to that would cause her to lose a sock. I clean my own apartment and that’s never happened. (Though it takes me, like, 45 minutes so I must be doing something very wrong.)

  • stunning stunning stunning blog. You are the one I never miss. Congrats.

    I have a Flora without whom I cannot live – but she is also my friend and confidante, the mother of my gorgeous godchild, Eyam, and saver of my life.

    Please never stop writing.

  • If EB (of a few comments ago) would like to pool money to bring Jeanne to the Bay Area, I’d be willing to chip in. Though she sounds dour and mysterious, she also sounds like an absolutely-thorough domestic dominatrix. This is the kind of woman my Southern aunts would have liked me to have grown into. In addition to cleaning my house, maybe Jeanne could also stand in for me at the next family reunion. Wonderful story—-loved it!

  • “Being from San Francisco, I did the brief Adam’s-apple check” Wait… I don’t get it. I feel rather dumb right now like I did in sixth grade when my friend talked about 420 and I nodded like I knew what she was talking about.

  • I need her. How often does she come to Australia?

  • Actually, l’eau de javel is named after the place where the fabric was, le quartier de Javel (a zone in paris), not after the bleach of the same name. But Anyway, i prefer your explanation, it’s way more funny :)

  • Your copper pot is cool. Very attractive. What is the interior? Anodized aluminum? Non-stick? Sorry I’m so nosy, I don’t mean anything by it.

    Your comments about bleach were funny. In my kitchen I have started using wipes with bleach after meal prep. It is discouraging because it admits that my foodstuffs can hurt me. Let’s see: ground beef, English livestock, spinach, eggs, chicken, and tomatoes have all been accused of trying to do us in.

    My shopping is done at a chain supermarket and I don’t know if there is any way of determining the source of my meat or vegetables. If an American in Paris got sick from his produce what would he do about it? Would he know how to track back to the source? Are Parisians more proactive about their agriculture?

  • David,
    Your lucky both my wife and I had several cleaning ladies, they couldn’t cope with my wifes trying to tell them how she wanted her apartment cleaned, or simply they didn’t have the right stuff! One lady had her kids over one day when I got home, later we found broken glasses and stuff. Luckily nothing stolen but that was the end for us, were back to doing it ourselves!

  • Will she come to the 11th?

  • I wish I had a Jeanne, but unfortunately, I am my Jeanne.

  • Like Eileen, I too, am Jeanne. I have had the typical American merry maids, but had them break a couple of things which they tried to fix, but no luck. Then I had a cleaning guy service several years ago, but his helper had vision problems and the kitchen floor kept getting washed with dirty water, which was the final straw and they were history. So, I am Jeanne. I can do things also in about 2+/- hours myself, but am now cheap so I am my own Jeanne. I am sure that you would prefer the bathrooms and kitchen get done first, then she can use the “aspirateur” elsewhere. And you can’t tell her how to do her cleaning, but be happy to have her. She sounds like a gem.

  • My “Mrs. Mop” was a great Sardinian lady but unfortunately she broke her hip in January and I have been Mrs. Mop-less since…. She came to ours ( roomed apartment, kitchen + bathroom) for 4 hours every week, but didn’t touch my desk/work area (except if I was out but she had strict instructions not to move any papers, books opr touch the computer!). Now dear husband (who is much more of a hausfrau than I am) vgauely try to keep up….. but nothing like the standards of Mrs. Mop – and I don’t want the hassle of getting to know another one and getting her used to me and vice versa!
    Joan in Milan

  • (Delphine– I believe David is implying that when he first met Jeanne he found her so exceptionally well-dressed and impeccably composed, such an exemplar a particular idealized femininity that he wondered whether she was a drag queen. Thus the checking for a tell-tale adam’s apple.)

  • My lady work from 8:30 AM to 4:30PM, now what would you do?

  • Nice slice of life in the city of light! I enjoyed your post very much.

  • I love her.

    I come for the food writing, of course, but this is a wonderful, wonderful piece and I am glad you posted it.

    The missing sock has me worried though…

  • Jeanne is a true bijou. I used to have a Jeanne and I dubbed her “the whirling dervish of clean”. Not only was she lovely to behold but she flew about my house practically sliding down the winding bannisters. Unfortunately she was meant for better things and got married and went back to Poland. Her replacements are adequate but nobody could ever live up to her measure of speed and cleanliness.

  • David,
    I thought your story was great – as usual and I think your a saint.
    If I came home and found my toilet had not been cleaned I’d have had a fit no
    matter how much I liked the person. C’mon – a job is a job and she’s telling
    you that subtly by using ‘vous’ not ‘tu’. All you have to do is, in a kindly
    way of course, is feign surprise that somehow she must have forgotten
    to clean the bathroom. Next time I’ll bet it’s done.
    Bon Chance

  • Coucou David,

    Jeanne est trop drole. Elle me rappelle d’une dame de mon enfance. I love the way you wrote about her, displaying the obvious affection that you have for this larger than life lady. It was a lovely read and it brightened my day. Is fiction writing in your future as well?

    Bon weekend.
    Alexa

  • I want a Jeanne!! if only for the kitchen and bathroom duties, which I loathe …

    “je ne suis pas un voleuse” – love that!! prior to finding her own “Jeanne” (Sarah, in our case) my mother had more than one piece of jewelry go missing

    this post made me really miss Sarah, the cleaning lady who worked for my mother for 25 years – the woman was a marvel and spoiled me rotten with pressed sheets and perfectly ironed and polishd EVERYTHING

  • I am new here and just wanted to say that I love your blog. This story about Jeanne was so funny. Nice to get a little slice of life in France. My daugther is a college student majoring in French, and here in Oklahoma, that’s a little like a submarine with a screen door. What’s the point? But she is happy and planning a trip to France next year and we are proud of her. In the mean time, she’s learned to ignore those annoyinig questions and odd remarks about her choice in major. A friend of mine said, “Well, when we’re invaded by those French, she’ll be prepared.”

  • What a nice heartwarming post. Thank you, David.

  • Funny! I love it!

  • Mais comment peut-elle perdre une chaussette?? WHERE IS IT??

  • Sounds like something was amiss that day–maybe you should call Jeanne and see how she is.

  • What a lucky guy you are! Not those Philipinos and Indonesian maids you have.

  • David –

    First off – you are a dear and a marvel.

    Secondly, I am lucky enough to have my own “Jeanne” – and we had to be on a waiting list for her! Then, when a day opened up, she really would have rather begun at 7 or 7:30am. It took real begging to have her start as late as 8am!

    My husband and I greet her, bleary eyed, we engage in mutual cat adoration (luckily she is a cat lover and has two of her own and can appreciate our furred royalty) then we stagger downstairs to our basement to work, while she cleans upstairs.

    I have been told I need to clean out my sock drawer.

    I have been told I need to clean out my spices.

    I have been reassured that, little by little, it will all be okay.

    I have my gifts. She has hers. And I am very, very grateful when she shows up to share.

    But though we are on the west coast, I have never had to check her for an adams apple : )

  • I recently read that the average American couple spends 40 hours on housework. I can’t imagine what they’re doing, that just seems so wrong to spend that much time doing chores. My house is tidy, sometimes even clean, but there are too many books to read, pies to bake, walks to take. Lovely post David, thanks.

  • I never knew Javel, the metro stop, was named after the bleach. I assumed it was some famous person. I’ve never had a cleaning lady. It sounds like an interesting experience especially when I grab my toilet brush-and Javel- and head to the bathroom.

  • The housekeeper, la gardienne de l’immeuble, didn’t show up on Friday. When I saw her the next day I asked why she didn’t come and her answer was a rather snooty “I don’t have time to clean anything in an hour.” She could’ve cleaned the bathrooms and leave it at that but I refrained from suggesting it because it was pretty clear to me that she wanted to do her job her way… I prefer to keep my chocolate bar in the closet and get up several times rather than keeping it next to me and possibly eating it too fast. I think housekeepers get in a meditative mode while scrubbing, sweeping, ironing, folding… a mode that may even turn into a trance-like state of mind, some place where socks get lost and toilets go unattended.

  • My Jeanne is/was Rosalita, and she was deported six months ago. No one has been able to clean like she did. Rosie would lift up the end of the sofa with one hand, then clean my hardwood floors by hand with a cloth in her other hand, while still holding the end of the sofa aloft. Amazing. I’ve gone through three housekeepers since then, but no one is quite up to the standard I’ve gotten used to. If anyone reading this is in the DC area and can recommend someone, I’m all ears. :)

  • As exchange students in the dorms in Tours, on a budget bien sûr, can you imagine our Jeanne’s horror when my friend bought nice piece of cloth at LeClerc to make a handbag…you know, the nice thick white cloth with a blue stripe for mopping the floors!
    We loved our Jeanne with her blue cover-up and her close-talking. And especially how she looked the other way when we Americans used the bidet to hold our pots and pans! YUK! = P

  • Jeanne. What a great portrait of her you’ve painted David. And I’d say that she has indeed stolen something after all… a place in your heart.

  • I lived with my sister for eight years. For seven of those we had Serge coming to our home bi weekly to give advice, sing disco with his shirt off, and make the place spotless. I miss him so much and I envy you your Jeanne.

  • I guess you checked for an Adam’s apple because if she had one she’d be a thief :-)

  • i love this story. makes me want some bleach and french cleaning lady. do they have those in berkeley?

  • What a fantastic story!

  • OMG, David, what a great story, but I want the punch line, what happened????? DId you find her sock? Did you find out why she never cleaned the bathroom? I’m dying to know! If that was my bathroom, I would have called her and asked if she was coming back tomorrow! :)

    Thanks for the laugh!

  • …she was washing her ‘smalls’ like she usually does to economize on water and time, soaking them in eau de javel in the toilet, flushed one sock down the drain, blocked the loo, just had time to use ‘le serpent’ but didn’t have time to clean the rest of your gigantic watercloset. :) My version of ‘Jeanne, home alone.’

  • Dang, I need a housekeeper–but I think I’d prefer a Serge to your Jeanne! Excuse me… now I have to check the bumpers under my kitchenaid. Ack!

  • beautifully written.

    good luck finding her sock.

  • Yikes, I had no idea there’d be so much interest in her sock. So far, I haven’t found it.

    And at this point, I’m not sure I want to!
    : 0

  • Only a woman in Paris would go to work to a job like that in full make-up, hair and heels! That’s awesome!

    My cleaning lady wears khakis and a polo shirt. And sneakers. :)

    I also dread the days that the maid comes. It’s just a hassle. Yes, it would be MORE of a hassle if I had to clean the house myself, but it’s still a hassle. I always feel like I have to clean up before they get here — clear a path, so to speak — and then you just wait all day for them to be done. It just disrupts everything in the house. When they leave though, and everything is GLEAMING … it’s so worth it!

    Great post DL.

  • hm, i wonder how she lost it… ;)

    wonderfully written. i really enjoyed it.

  • Dear David, I was wondering if omitting scotch from your butterscotch and pecan ice cream will make a lot of difference? I’ll be serving it to kids as well.