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Sunday, August 8, 2010

The Cleaning Ladies. Aka the Rudeness of The Spanish Middle Class

Now that I am safely back in America I can write more honestly about my experiences in Spain, especially things about Spain and Spaniards that I was not impressed with. Growing up I often looked askance at many aspects of American life all the while assuming that Europeans were more sophisticated, intellectually curious and oriented towards social justice and social welfare than Americans. This may be true of some places in Europe (Norway/Sweden for instance) but it is certainly not the case in Spain, where from my own experiences I’d say that the average Spaniard is slightly more ignorant than the average American and is far less concerned about social welfare or treating people well than the average American. Spaniards, of course, think Americans are stupider than they are but it’s really hard for them to judge us when they don’t speak our language or understand the culture. Ignorance, however, doesn’t particularly upset me. It was trying at times when people asked me a question and then immediately got bored with the answer. For instance what follows is a typical conversation. I’d usually have one like this a week:

Guy down the hall: Where are you from?
Me: Philadelphia.
Where’s Philadelphia?
Near NYC, about two hours south…..
Oh, so you’re from New Jersey with the others.
Well, I go to college there but I’m from Philadelphia, in Pennsylvania.
Oh. (Feigning interest.) So that’s where the north lost the war?…
Which war?
Your civil war.
No, the north won, the north was the USA. The south split off and attacked us.
Oh, whatever, I mean that’s where the war was.
Not in Philadelphia, no.
But in New Jersey?
You mean Pennsylvania, yeah there were some battles there.
So that’s when Washington was the general?
No, you’re thinking of the War of Independence. That was 85 years earlier.
(Looking annoyed.) So are you going to see Manchester United here?

Of course, most Americans only have a vague sense of Spanish history and I’ve even run into Americans who confuse the US civil war and what we call “the revolutionary war” (it’s “the war of American independence” in Spain and England.) But who’s keeping score? As I said, ignorance doesn’t particularly upset me. What did really upset me about Spaniards, especially the Spanish middle-class was their complete lack of concern with social-welfare. The most glaring issue that immediately comes to mind is Spain’s disgusting treatment of its Roma, who are literally treated worse than dogs. I had never experienced entrenched racism at all levels of a society until my time in Spain. To tell the truth I had never seen or experienced anything close. But much more revealing of the Spanish mentality is their treatment of fellow Spaniards from a lower social class, specifically the complete and utter lack of respect they show them. A very telling example I can give is how the cleaning ladies were treated in the dorm where I lived. I shared a suite with three Spaniards who had their own rooms and an American with whom I shared a larger room. This was in a fifteen story freshman dorm which had some 300 people living there. Unlike dorms in the US which are on campus and run by a single college/university, Spanish dorms are privately owned and house students from different universities. As the dorms are privately owned and essentially compete with each other for students, Spanish dorms are fancier than their American counterparts. This is most noticeable with the extremely high quality food which is served cafeteria style in the dorm itself. But this fanciness also extends to how the dorms are cleaned.

In the US student rooms are cleaned twice a year at most. Nobody makes your bed or cleans your shower or scrubs your floor for you. You clean your own room, dust your own shelves, and mop when necessary. In Spain, student rooms are treated just like hotel rooms and are cleaned/made up twice weekly. Some students also pay a little extra to have the maids do their laundry and sheets for them. While all of this was a bit shocking to me being an American, what really stunned me was finding out that few of the Spaniards even knew the names of the maids. One day the cleaning lady who did our floor came by and asked if she could come a few hours early. I said that I’d ask my suitemates and told them “(woman’s name) wants to know if she can come at 2.” “Who,” they asked. I repeated the name assuming that they had not heard me but they still remained confused. “(name),” I said “the woman who makes your bed every week!” They look at me dumbfounded and so “oh, the cleaning lady, yeah that’s cool.”

I thought we treated our cleaning ladies badly at Rutgers. Occasionally (let’s say every other week) a pizza would be left out on a table. Empty soda cans often wouldn’t quite make it into a trash can and would lie on the floor. On one occasion (and in two years I mean literally one) someone made a complete disgrace of a bathroom, tearing the whole place asunder with what basically amounted to a one man riot that was like a physical manifestation of a joke a five year old would get slapped for telling. People who vomited in the bathroom (and this happens weekly in American colleges) usually cleaned up their mess themselves or bullied someone else into doing it. In any case, it was rarely if ever left for the cleaning ladies. Everyone knew their first names and many of us knew how many kids they had, where they were from and what other jobs they worked and they learned our names and room numbers. That is just the kind of basic niceties that are expected in America. Overall, however, I thought that we were badly behaved. After all food sometimes got left out, occasionally toilet paper found its way into toilet balls and once someone decided it would be clever to, let’s just say, inappropriately use a shower. I wondered if the women would be treated this way if they weren’t immigrants but were, let’s say, poor native born Americans. In any case, I certainly thought the situation would be much better in “civilized” Europe. As we say in Yiddish “whose dream do you think you’ve woken up in?” or as they say in Philly “like hell.”

Not only did the Spaniards not know the names of the people being paid to do everything for them, they didn’t even acknowledge their presence when they walked in their rooms. No hello, no thank you, no goodbye, no “have a good Easter.” Nada. Far worse was the fact that the brats in the dorm where I lived purposefully trashed the place to an extent that would be simply unimaginable in the US. Students (18,19 year olds!) threw rotted food against walls, dropped watermelons down the staircase, lit firecrackers inside of cakes, broke ceilings and glass inside of elevators, spilled soda and vodka and left it spilled overnight, graffitied, tracked pizza and tomato sauce over several floors and left broken glass bottles on stairs and handrails. Most of these bromas, pranks as the students referred to them, were weekly occurrences. When I once dared to ask someone to consider the cleaning ladies as he took a bottle of ketchup and smashed it against a wall and smeared its contents all over, he looked at me and said “hombre, es que les pagamos a las mujeres” (dude, it's that we pay the women). “No”, I said, “your parents pay the owner to pay the women and they’re people just like your parents or Aunts.” He looked at me, shocked, and said “no, they’re ignorantas (ignorant/uneducated women) who are the children of peasants who mismanaged their land.” Well, what is there to say to such a thing?

In the US, on the east coast at least, the vast majority of cleaning ladies are foreign born. I thought that any disrespect they received originated in racial prejudice and/or was due to their being immigrants (I don’t give generalized ignorant/stupid behavior enough credit sometimes). In Spain, where such people are treated far worse than they are in America, they appear to be mistreated due to their social class. I don’t claim of course that what I was told by one prick is representative of middle class Spaniards or even semi-typical. But the complete and utter disrespect with which the dorm residents treated these women was near universal and never questioned. Whether this situation was unique to one university or a microcosm of typical Spanish middle class behavior is unclear but I’d venture to guess more towards the latter than the former. In a nation where children often live with their parents well into their 30s, where laziness is not only socially accepted but a time honored tradition, and where a stunning sense of entitlement prevails despite a 20% unemployment rate, rudeness is practically a patriotic value among the middle class. I have my own complicated theories about how this came to be that I will cover in further blog posts, but for the time being I’d like to hear from any Spaniards (in English or Spanish) who would like to refute, explain, or agree with anything I’ve said.