Friday, November 6, 2009

Doing Dishes

My host mom Claudie works as a middle school art teacher four days a week, has two kids to raise pretty much by herself, cooks dinner every single night without fail, does the laundry for herself and four others, cleans the house, pays the bills, and has never once asked for my help, other than to please put the sheets in the washing machine if I would like them washed.

I have done the dishes every night in this house since the first dinner I shared with my host family. The dishwasher was broken since the day I got here. So, giving the tableware a hearty manual scrub has been my way of saying a meager thanks, of removing one unappetizing obligation from Claudie’s stacked agenda, and above all, of staying on her good side.

Because it’s pretty easy to blunder about in this tiny house of five. Let’s see: I’ve leaked permanent ink onto my pretty pink bedspread, I flooded the bathroom the first time I showered with the detachable showerhead (apparently bewildering to me), I’ve left lights on, I’ve tracked rain and scum into the house, I’ve misplaced all sorts of household items, I’ve left my heater on with a cracked window (although to be fair I did not how to completely shut off the heater at the time).

Claudie leaves little notes for me every time I make these petits bĂȘtises: a post-it note on my door, a message scrawled on the chalkboard in the kitchen, or non-written communications, like a closed window in my room that I did not shut, or my toothpaste placed quietly in the cup with the toothbrushes instead of on the windowsill. Duh. Or a vacuum, awaiting me in earnest at the top of the stairs.

I don’t think I am doing that badly as a guest in this house, though. I should make that clear. Like I say, it’s a small house, we are five people, and so there is simply not a lot of room for my silly gaffes. Thus, to maintain an even score with my host mom, I wash the dishes.

So what started as a polite gesture is now the household ritual. My Canadian brother dries. And, Claudie has said, we win points for being the first North Americans to do so.

Claudie has been talking about getting the dishwasher fixed since the first night I took up the task (note: just now, I forgot the dishwasher. I could only remember la vaisselle. It took at least ten seconds to summon the English word from the dusty files of my English linguistic storage. Linguistic regression is going smoothly I see). Or really more like threatening to get it fixed. Threatening to slash my enormous handicap in this game of household mini golf, or something, if I knew what a handicap was.

“One of these days I’ll get running again,” she’s always saying, as I hand off a sparkling salad bowl for her to put away inside some hidden dish stash. This makes me nervous. I laugh nervously. “Ha ha ha! But you have me! Ha ha ha!”

To which she always shakes her head and says, “But Laura, not forever.”

This dishwashing gig is how I know (or like to think) I am at least being tolerated in this household. My raw hands are how I counterbalance the ink-stains and the wet floors.

So when evil arrived at this house, it came dressed as the French version of the Maytag Man. Yes, I came home from class sometime last week to discover a strange mustachioed man in the kitchen, tinkering with the backside of a gleaming new dishwasher. Claudie hovered over him, with a brimming smile on her face, apparently overjoyed that the day had at last arrived. I shook the man’s hand. “Merci,” I said, but inside I cursed him and his craft. Now I would have to actually start being a respectful host student, rather than one desperate to please.

The machine ran beautifully, and I was out of a job. I would hurry to class in the mornings, distract myself in my studies from the sudden instability of my home life, and on the way home I would consider purchasing flowers on the way home, chocolate, tea, anything to delight the host mom.

Of course, I hadn’t done anything wrong. And it is not actually that often that I mess up. It’s just that I have ultimate respect for Claudie, and want to avoid as much as possible the chance of her thinking me lazy or inconsiderate or particularly reflective of any American stereotype. As the ninth or tenth host student to have lived with her family in the Treehouse garret, I would sure like to make a good impression. And then, I kind of do want to stay here forever, doing the dishes, eating chestnuts by the fire, discovering that CĂ©sare had been using my toothbrush for an unknown duration of time. All of which has happened. It’s idyllic (seriously).

Two days ago I came home to find that the brand-new dishwasher had stopped working. “I have some luck,” Claudie said. I made a sad face. “Mon retour!” I said. "Ha ha ha!" Internally I rejoiced, and also felt badly about the curse I’d laid upon the repairman’s head. I wish him the best in Grenoble households that actually need their appliances. But so long as I am here, he is not welcome in my Treehouse.

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