Sunday, April 18, 2010

EFM: Excessive Frivolities, Maids

Hope you enjoyed "Upon Further Review" Week. I might pull use that method again after I've arrived at post to see how my views have changed.

One view of mine that could definitely change is the topic of domestic employees, or hired help, or maids, or whatever you want to call them.

As we began sharing the news that we were entering the foreign service, the few people who knew what that meant congratulated me on the life they figured this meant for me: Natalie goes to work at foreign embassies and consulates; I lounge about in a life of luxury as our maids cook and clean around me.

Well, I never saw that in the brochure. And quite honestly, it is not a life I would want.

I'm from the Midwest (sorta). I never knew anyone who had a weekly maid service, let alone a live-in maid. And I grew up in a fairly opulent suburb of Cincinnati. Maids and servants were more of a Victorian ideal than a reality to me.

Little has changed for me. I'm still uneasy with the idea of a maid, live-in or otherwise. For one, I like cooking, so I don't want to give that up. Secondly, the idea of a stranger washing my underwear seems odd and invasive. Finally, we don't have any children, so it isn't like I need help with the household chores because there are kids to feed, entertain, change and observe.

As more and more information filtered down to us, reliable or not, I came under the impression that there is a level of expectation that American diplomats hire local help as a way to support the local economy.

So I've been tussling with a way to reconcile my preconceptions of what having hired help will be like with my preconceptions of what is expected of us in terms of being American diplomats on foreign soil.

I definitely could use a little help when we arrive in Mexico. For example, I probably could use some help with Spanish and local customs. And while I would not want to give up the cooking duties, it would be great to learn how to make Sonoran cuisine from someone who knows the ins and outs. And driving in a foreign country doesn't sound like much fun either. (Side story: I studied Mandarin in college, and one of my teachers related to us how shocked she was to see that Americans voluntarily follow traffic laws. I've heard similar stories about several other countries, that traffic laws or more of suggestions.)

Then again, if these preconceived notions that diplomats out to hire local domestic employees are unfounded, then I'd much rather not have to put myself through this. (Though Natalie disagrees. She likes the idea of not having to do laundry.)

So I will pose the question: What are the expectations regarding hiring locals to give back to the community? I imagine, like everything else in the foreign service, it varies from country to country, from post to post. But are there any guidelines?


  1. There's no expectation, at least not here. It's more the people that are leaving have grown fond of their household help and want to make sure they are taken care of after they depart. I have not hired a maid because I don't like the idea of someone having a key to my house and everyone is fine with that. Also, don't necessarily expect cheaper prices or your maid to do your laundry without paying more.

    Also - sonoran cooking can be done in 3 easy steps:
    1. kill cow
    2. grill meat
    3. put meat in taco.

  2. Just in case you haven't seen it... Ryan, "trailing spouse," talks about the acronym he would choose for you guys and talks about being a male EFM:

    Love the acronym he suggests!

  3. We do have a maid here in Monterrey and I have to say, I was skeptical at first. But since I have children we decided to give it a go and I'm glad we did. The floors here are constantly dirty, no matter how much you clean them. It's dirty outside and everytime you open your door, some flies in. Our maid does not have a key to our house, nor will she ever. I am not that trusting! She comes while I am here and does whatever I ask her to. She does not touch our laundry, but I do have her iron for us. Basically, she does the floors, bathrooms, kitchen, ironing, dusting and keeping the garage and patio clean. We've had her for 2 weeks now and it's take a LOAD off of my plate and has allowed me to get a few personal things accomplished.

    As far as driving goes, IT'S CRAZY! Stop signs are just "suggestions" and you can turn from any lane you want to. BUT everyone here is more aware because the driving sucks. It took me 3 weeks before I was willing to drive in Mexico, but I'm good now. You'll adjust. Just remember that you need to be aware of everyone infront of you and the people behind you will be aware of you and everyone else infront of them. Never worry about what's going on behind you...unless you hear screaming tires. :)

    I hope my novel of a comment helps!!

  4. Oh, forgot to say that our maid comes once a week. We don't need her anymore than that.

  5. Great insights! I particularly enjoyed Every Town Has a Pub's assessment with Sonoran cuisine. Love it!

  6. Hi,

    I found you through Ryan Locke's blog.

    I agree with Bryn (whom I haven't met, though I met her husband when the DCM was in town recently). My husband, Bill, was totally opposed to having a maid, and I was a little weirded out by the idea, but then I hurt my hand (be careful when cutting avocados!) and couldn't do much of anything, so we got one temporarily and just kept her.

    Taking care of the house State gave us is a lot more work than our apartment in D.C. was. It's three times as big, and we have no dishwasher. Washing dishes alone is a huge chore. The floor turned our feet and socks black for the first two months we were here, despite constant moppings. (It takes a lot of mopping to get that layer of grime from the workmen gone.) Bill is usually stressed from work when he gets home and doesn't really want to clean, but he also doesn't want to make me do it all. Getting a maid gave us a lot more free time and eliminated bickering about chores.

    Our maid comes once a week and does about 5-6 hours of work. She loves working for us because it's much less work than the people who have kids, but we still pay the same. For us it's a bargain - 300 pesos (about $25 USD, depending on the exchange rate) a day. Between her various employers, she earns about $500-$600 (USD) per month - not bad for Mexico, especially when you consider that she has only a high school education. It's not much to us, but she uses the money to pay for her cell phone and buy clothes for her daughters, among other things. It's the only way she gets her own money, instead of having to ask her husband. The job has little perks for her, too - whenever she wants a new computer, she asks one of her employers if they have an old one they don't need, and if they don't, then they ask around the consulate community for her. It's also flexible - if she has a meeting at school with her daughters' teachers, I don't care if she comes in late, or comes on a different day, or even has to miss a week, which she couldn't do if she worked at a shop or a restaurant.

  7. [Second half of my post...sorry, I talk a lot!]

    Our maid doesn't have a key, because she only comes while I'm here. But if we had to give her a key, that would be fine. She is totally trustworthy. She used to work for another consulate family, and the husband told me that she once returned 500 pesos that she found in his pants while doing laundry. She's told me before that her friends have asked if they can come hang out with her while she works, and she says no, because if something gets lost, she or her friend could be blamed for stealing it and it would sacrifice her job. She's been working for consulate families for a couple years, and her sister-in-law works for a bunch of other consulate families. So for them, a lot is on the line - they're not going to do anything stupid or dishonest that would cost them (or their sister-in-law) their jobs. And keep in mind that your maid is security-cleared through the consulate as well, you're not hiring some random person off the street.

    What your maid does is totally up to you. I know some do grocery-shopping and cook, but ours doesn't. She sweeps and mops the whole house, does the dishes, and does the laundry and ironing. She also dusts and straightens things downstairs, and takes out all the trash. That really fills up most of her time. We're not really formal about it - some weeks she does more than others - but I don't really care, because even if she were slacking off (which I'm pretty sure she's not) I still feel like I'm getting a deal.

    I thought it would be weird having someone else in the house, but it turns out to be kind of nice. We chat a little bit, in between other things, so the house doesn't feel so big and empty and lonely when she comes, and the cat thinks she's fascinating to watch so he quits biting my ankles for the time she's here. (The days that she's here and the GSO guys come are the best, because I'm totally scratch-free those days!) I work from home, so I can't get out much, so some weeks my only real conversational Spanish practice comes from talking with her.

    When you get to post, just ask around about the maid situation - I can guarantee half the consulate families will be pushing their maid on you. I haven't yet met anyone who's had a bad experience.

    - Heather
    Monterrey, Mexico

  8. No maids, nannies, or household help in Iceland. You won't find them and/or would be too expensive (at least when we were there, the economic collapse might have changed things).

    Caracas was a different story. I wanted a live-in, my husband said "No way!". Had a fear about the maid seeing him in his jammies. Two weeks after we hired a day maid, he wondered why we could never go out at night...I pointed out the obvious, that sitters were not to be had, hence most people had LIVE-IN maids.

    Two maids later, we were in heaven. Mind you, we had one child and one on the way. I never had to clean, walk the dog (but I did, as I enjoyed it), she cooked if we wanted, and her tween daughter was so loving with our daughter that she thought Audrey was her older sister.

    We LOVED it. I only wish we could have taken her with us, but she planned on retiring a year later. She had planned wisely for her future and her doctor son, engineer son, and dentist son were going to take care of her in her retirement years.

    Would I hire household help again overseas? You betcha! I would be more discriminating, though, but would not hesitate to have at least a full-time maid. Plus, after my husband does a UT "over there" for a year, I think I will have earned it...but that's me being selfish :-)

  9. I lived as an expat in Indonesia for 10 years and went through about a dozen maids/drivers/cooks/gardners...all live-in.

    We only had one that we kept the entire time and we still help her financially when she needs it. We even flew her to the USA once for a few months as well.

    Some become part of the family, most just move on to other things. One driver (turned out) was an architect who got a contract to construct a bridge, go figure.

  10. I'm late to the party, but I agree with the above - we're posted in Bangladesh, and between the huge apartment (6 bath, 4 bed, and it's just 2 of us) and the terrific amount of grime, it was too much for us to handle on our own. Our socks were black all the time and there was a layer of grit on everything. Also, no dishwasher. And you need to do additional things like clean your water distiller, constantly dump the dehumidifiers, and hopefully clean the air purifiers and AC units if you get around to it. So ... we've had a full-time lady (not live-in) for a year and she's great. She does all our cleaning, laundry, ironing, and some errands but not cooking.

    On the other hand, we've managed without a driver despite the totally crazy driving. So I wouldn't say there are expectations - you can make your own choices, but just might want to go in open-minded, since the living situation is totally different from back home.