When I was planning this trip and contemplating the jobs I might like to do in Italy one thing was certain, cleaning toilets was out of the question. How is it then that I find myself each day armed with rubber gloves and cleaning products on my daily round of some of the B&B’s rooms and apartments? Did I really sign up for this? Oh yes I did.
My work day typically starts at around 8am where I spend the first few hours helping serve breakfast. I like this part of the day the most as I’ve learned to make good, strong coffee from a machine and I get to talk to the guests about where they’ve come from, what they’re doing today and where they’re going next. I’m getting to practice and improve my Italian, utilise my English, and have even started learning a few French words which are of course only related to food. It’s interesting to see what people eat for breakfast; the Italians scoop out the best part of their rolls, cast it aside and fill the shell with jam; the Germans eat ALL the bread and I usually have to either ration it or go back to the bakery to buy more; and the French have a little bit of everything, mais juste un petit peu. While I am clearing up after breakfast the Signora comes.
I don’t know her first name, she is just Signora to me. She is the mother of the B&B owner and is one hell of a scary lady. She’s petite and skinny with an abrupt personality. She is a ball of energy and is fueled by a combination of cigarettes and coffee, and she speaks in a thick, Sicilian dialect that I struggle with at the best of times. I have to work with the Signora.
In my first few days of volunteering I was challenged on so many levels. From following the Signora around between apartments like a pack-horse laden with a shopping bag full of cleaning products, to being barked at to ‘do this’ and ‘clean that’ when I knew fully well how to clean things, to staring into countless toilet bowls and bidets armed with the task of cleaning them. It was a far cry from the safety and familiarity of my old office job.
On one particular day I was asked to help the Signora go shopping. I was so excited because in Australia I’d dreamed of being taken to the market to buy fresh produce and an array of delicious cheeses and small goods. Instead we went to buy cleaning products. And then I was made to carry ALL the bags. When the Signora saw I was struggling with the load she offered to take a bag and asked which was the lightest. That day my shift ended with some quietly shed tears on the walk back to my room. What on earth was I doing here?
But towards the end of my first week I was given more and more responsibility. ‘Take the keys’, the Signora said one day, ‘you know what to do now’. It was so hard to hide my excitement, freedom at last. And in the apartment that day, doing it my way without supervision, I started to feel better.
In the very short time I have been here I’ve come to love the daily snippets of life I am privileged to witness and be part of. There is a primary school near the B&B and every morning the street is chaotic with badly parked cars and motorbikes carrying three or more passengers. Horns toot for street access, chubby children chatter incessantly. The lady in the bakery knows me now and is helping me learning the names of the different types of breads. I’m so hopeless with remembering names that I’ve been looking them up on the internet so at least she’ll think I’m understanding her. A definite highlight on my rounds is the little old man who sits in the doorway of what I think is a mechanic’s workshop. He greets me with a crooked smile and a bongiorno signorina as I pass by. I love the fact that I’m a signorina to him even though I’m 43. He seems so sweet and frail that I wish I was staying longer so I could get to know him better as I am sure he has some stories to tell. And even though I can’t understand a thing, I love listening to the heated arguments that regularly occur in the streets here – these Sicilians are so passionate and fiery.
In exchange for my four hours of work a day I have the tiniest room in an apartment that I’m sharing with Italian language students. I have nicknamed the room ‘the cell’ because it’s so small. It is however clean and relatively comfortable. A definite benefit of being one of the cleaners is that I have ‘borrowed’ quite a few items for my room and am the only one who has clean towels and sheets regularly.
Sharing my living space with strangers is interesting to say the least, I have no other word to describe it. I’m so used to living alone with my own standards that someone else’s toothpaste stuck to the side of the hand basin and hair that is not mine that is selfishly left in the plug hole is a foreign concept to me and a bit disgusting. My old manager Louise, who was, and probably still is, forever cleaning the work kitchen, told me once that she did it for herself and not for others. I totally understand what she means now. I scrubbed the bathroom from head to toe after a couple of days so I at least could clarify dirt from stains. And it’s taking all my resolve not to say something to the lazy American girl who tells me she doesn’t have time to clean up after herself in the kitchen but will do nothing except sleep the day away. I just know the good kitchen knife and all the tea towels are in her room!
I know I must be painting a terrible picture but I really am having such a great time here. I never imagined I’d been living with language students and I get to practice with them every day as they would all rather speak Italian than their native tongues. I’m never short of company and have the opportunity to participate in as much or in as little as I want. I’m always invited to dinner and have spent many a night in large groups sharing cheap carafes of red wine and travel stories, followed by the obligatory trip to a fabulous Gelateria that has the most amazing flavours. One restaurant in particular has appalling service but the food is so good and worth the wait that I have been there four times already.
The Signora and I are getting to know each other a little bit better every day and I seem to be breaking down the barriers. She’s still a pint-sized ball of aggression but I knew we’d turned a corner the other day when she said I looked elegant because I was wearing a dress. I am now always greeted with a smile and a kiss on my cheeks and have been told on many occasions how brava I am. A guy came in one day this week to work on a trial basis with the view to be permanent help for the Signora but I haven’t seen him since. I learned today that he didn’t come back because he didn’t expect he’d be cleaning toilets. What was he thinking!