I have not done house cleaning for years. I am one of the lucky who has someone, young and vigorous, to do it for me. When I came to Barcelona a friend said to me,” If you want a really clean house find a Russian.” A couple of days later an acquaintance said he had a Ukrainian cleaner who needed more work. So began my association with Ukrainian cleaners. They are wondrous. I am on my second, the first having had to withdraw her services because of a sick husband. This one is young, embroiders vestments for the Orthodox clergy in her spare time, and because of her abilities I never take down a book and have to wash my hands. I consider this miraculous.
In my first week of returning to housekeeping I learned how to use my Dyson vacuum, succeeding, without reading the manual, in learning how to empty it. I consider manual reading a sign of intellectual failure. But I also rediscovered the truth of one of Betty Friedan’s dictums in THE FEMININE MYSTIQUE that housework expands to fill the time available. Things began to appear that needed “doing”. Therefore, I firmly initiated a list of “no’s”. No windows. Only lower books shelves. Furniture polish once a month. Silver, brass and copper objects once a month.
My mother-in-law was Betty Friedan’s literary agent. One night at a small gathering when someone mentioned Friedan she said crisply over her martini, “She never would have written that book if she hadn’t had that nose.” I was amused, startled, I wondered how often a physical characteristic created a writer. I know of two cases, at least, where an inadequate father created a writer—Thoreau and Twain. The next evening at a family dinner I mentioned what she had said and asked if she really thought it was true. She looked at me wryly saying, ”Oh dear, I wonder how much I had to drink.”
I have always done my own washing. I own a dryer but only use it on rainy days, not only for ecological reasons but because I like the smell of a sheet that has dried in the sun.
There is an open space in the back of my building above the patio of the French pilot on the first floor, the principal, whom we do not approve of because a) he found a legal loophole that has allowed him to turn the apartment into an Air B&B, b) he refers to women as girls. These are serious offenses. He understands he is compromised by the first and, therefore, works very hard to be “nice” but I don’t think he has any idea about the second. I am planning a mild grandmaternal lecture for him in the future.
His patio, at the moment, is humped and lumped with athletic equipment and plant containers he has hauled out of a sort of closet at the back of the patio, which he is painting. This is definitely a quarantine activity.
In his favor, it should be mentioned that he has preserved the large plant on top of the closet that once a year puts forth a multitude of white blooms. On the wall behind the closet there is the sad tracery of a vine, which was executed before I moved in. My neighbors tell me it used to cover the wall with green leaves and once a year adorn itself with white flowers. But it dug its roots into the basement of the hotel causing them to cut it off near its base.
To the right of his space there is, beyond a high wall, the patio below and the roof garden above of what used to be the convent next door. It faces the street with a great arched door followed by another implacable door that I presume leads into the patio. To the side, in the gloomy vaulted area between doors, is a little window with a sliding panel through which you could make known your business.
When I hang out my sheets I look down sadly on the empty spaces of the convent. The nuns left, it may be five years ago now, lured away by the Church’s promise that the building would be renovated and they would return. They were elated. I was fairly sure this was a lie. My father worked for the Catholic Church, I was raised in it, and I have a thoroughly jaundiced view of that ecumenical corporation.
There were not many nuns and the youngest was in her late fifties. They were occupying a nice piece of real estate. I was quite sure the Church was coaxing them out so they could either sell it, BCN property values have been escalating, or alter it into apartments. A few months ago an architect came to look at it but nothing has happened since. Certainly they will not return. I have had friends who were nuns and priests and I know like many another international corporate entity the Church treats its elderly employees poorly.
Hanging out sheets I would often see one of the nuns tending her garden. She had no money to spend on plants, of course, so all she had in the way of flora she had acquired through gifts or cuttings from friends. She multiplied those cuttings and presents into her garden that bloomed and thrived under her love. Much of it still does although the little palm tree has died. Once when we talked across the evening air she said to me, “Soló los animales, y las plantas son inocente.” She was of Dostoyevsky’s belief. I didn’t tell her about sea gulls.
Beyond the high nunnery wall are the backs of the houses along Carrer d’En Robador. This translates loosely as Thieves Street. It is a narrow alley, not long, with an evangelical store front church that tries to help alcoholics and drug addicts, a bicycle shop, a laundry and a couple of tiny Pakistani supermarkets. It is a tough little lane and where it debouches into the square before the Filmoteca prostitutes of various colors gather, sitting on plastic crates or big water bottles or, if energetic, patrolling the street with their long black hair swinging behind them. But the backs of these houses are hung with laundry and the tenants I see are often in my age group.
I have been praying that nothing goes wrong in the house while we are in quarantine. However, the other day I walked into the kitchen to find a pool spreading slyly out from the dishwasher. I shut it off and mopped. Now I do my dishes by hand.
It put me in mind of things I am missing in quarantine. Not big things, because I don’t miss them with the same persistence as the little things. Outside of the obvious ones, the company of others and walking freely through the city, I think the main, irremediable one is flowers. I buy mine from a woman on the Rambla.
When I moved into my apartment I walked up the channel of flower sellers lining that famous street looking at the offerings. Since they were largely the same I then looked at who sold them. I chose my seller because she was a woman alone. Her thin, bespectacled face seemed a little withdrawn, slightly bitter to me but I became her faithful customer buying anemones and jonquils in season (we will miss them this year) and deeply scented lilies either pink or white.
Last Christmas I glimpsed what might be the cause of her withdrawal. In the local bank, she was urging forward gently, a smiling, awkwardly shy, ill looking little girl, holding a bouquet. She was perhaps nine and was almost bald. The bouquet was for one of the clerks at the bank. There was so much to guess and infer from that small scene. My flower lady did not see me but I felt guilty as though I had witnessed an intimacy from which I should have been excluded.
I wonder how she is managing with no income. So many are in that situation all over the world. A friend in Bangkok WhatsApped to say she is moving back in with her parents. She has had no income this month. Others are working from home and rearranging their lives. My grandson has a friend with two children who has lost his job in New York City. Luckily his wife, a lawyer, is still employed.
One of the first things I plan to do once the quarantine is eased is to walk to her stall and buy more than I need of lilies and if she has them anemones, jonquils and one of her tiny bouquets of violets.