Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Walking Stories VII

just the maid...

I clean the stairs of our apartment building. It's really like playing Cinderella. The spiral steps are made of stone pitted by the years, the railing is wrought iron topped with wood, the paint is peeling.

A friend of our neighbor passed as I was mopping one day. "Quel metier! What a career!"

I felt properly put in my place. Not only am I a housewife, une femme au foyer, but a cleaning lady, une femme de ménage. Quelle honte! What shame!


Then I thought about this grand 18th century house, now cut into a large second floor apartment and three small third floor apartments. I thought about how it used to be and who must have cleaned these stairs before me.

A little research (thanks Wikipedia France) told me how our neighborhood of Chartrons is not very chic now, it was inhabited by the traders and merchants of the wine industry until WWII. After a visit to the downstairs neighbours, I can easily see that the merchant's family would have lived there, with its three bathrooms, high ceilings, wood moulding and inner courtyard. The ground level was obviously for the carriage and the wood from the horse stalls remains.

So what was the top floor? For the servants, of course! I don't know if it was une bonne, a country girl come to work as a maid in a grand house, or if it was a slave brought from Africa. Wine wasn't Bordeaux's only trade. As this article states, Bordeaux was the point of depart for about 500 expeditions taking slaves from Africa to the Antilles. There were a certain  number that stayed in Bordeaux as household and farm slaves as well. And it wasn't their career, leur métier, they weren't paid for their work as I am, and they didn't have a choice.

People question my accent and immediately treat me better when they find that I am not just any immigrant, but an American. I can brag on my family's position, my father's job, the freelance writing I do. But I live in the maid's chambers and clean the stairs just as a slave might have done in old times. I like the feeling of being linked and equal to whoever it was that had that lowly task. It gives me a different perspective of this world. Whatever my nationality, education, career, gender or race, I am a human being, to be treated with respect and to give respect to those different than me.

Have you ever been put in your place? Did you see different things from that position? When you looked up from the ground, what did you feel?

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