21st Century
The Future
World Travel
Books & Film
Original Fiction
Opinion & Lifestyle
Politics & Living
Film Space
Movies in depth
Kid's Books
Reviews & stories

The International Writers Magazine - Our Tenth Year: Life Abroad

The Maid
Amanda Callendrier

After a long, jet-lagged sleep, I enter my in laws’ kitchen to discover the house vacant, except for the maid.  She has cleaned their house for twenty years, and she is as much a part of their home to me as the small European refrigerator, or the neatly-lined row of hand towels, each with a clearly-defined purpose – Hands, Dishes, Counter.  She cries, “Amanda!” and gives me the accustomed two-cheek greeting.  I can never remember her name, which makes this all the more embarrassing.  Worse, I usually encounter her like this—alone and disheveled from sleeping.

She must wonder why I look like this.  I am not wearing matching pajamas, a robe, or even slippers.  I’m in gray sweatpants and a 5K race shirt from five years ago.  My hair is rumpled, and I haven’t brushed my teeth yet.  The French do not look like this.  Ever. 
The cleaning lady (I’ll call her Maude, for convenience) is wearing a beautiful black sweater and leather pants.  No, she’s not going anywhere special later; this is just how she dresses.  At home, our maid dresses like I’m dressed now.  Since she weighs about three hundred pounds, this is probably for the best.  Maude, a grandmother, is fit and looks great in her leather pants.
She always seems so happy to see me, and I have to take this at face value, since the French are anything but phony.  They tell you what they think, and they don’t usually worry about hurting anyone’s feelings.  Maude and I always chat for a bit in the kitchen, as I sit down for my late breakfast and try to remain unobtrusive as she cleans.  Though I speak French and am married to a Frenchman, my first conversations always taste a little strange.  By the end of the visit, it has become automatic, but it is a relief to know that in these early attempts, Maude will be kind and ignore my foreignness.
She asks me about the flight and the baby, since I am visibly pregnant, and about my upcoming move to France.  She is thrilled that we are coming.  She knows that my husband will be so happy.  We talk about schools and my daughter, who both of us believe will adjust easily.  “But you,” she shakes her head sadly.  “It will be hardest for you.”  The pity in her eyes is palpable.
She is right, of course.  I stick out like a sore thumb.  My foreignness goes beyond my inability to dress properly.  I’m a bit of a bull in a china shop here.  Everything is too small.  All of my movements are too big.  I would go on to break an untold number of appliances, and to have dozens of accidents in parking lots.  In sum, I don’t fit in, and this is obvious to the most casual of observers.
I know all this, but I put on a happy face (one thing Americans are good at doing). “If I find a job I like…”  I say lamely, trailing off a bit.  I’m seeking a teaching position, but finding one is not a given.  This is more optimism than I really feel, and she’s not convinced.  She tells me about a relative who lives abroad, who is now divorced and remains an expatriate to be close to her children.  I stare at her in horror, and she returns my gaze levelly. This anecdote was not chosen at random.  It wasn’t told maliciously, either.  It occurs to me that she is trying to protect me.
Later in my visit, I found myself in the kitchen again with her, but under slightly different circumstances.  I had been feeling a little unwell, dizzy, not an unusual thing during this pregnancy.  I know better than to ignore this, too, since I’m a fainter.  I’ve been known to swoon at the grocery store, and even once during lunch at my kitchen table—Gone With the Wind-like collapses that send me crumpling in a heap on the floor and everyone else around me scrambling for water, air, smelling salts, anything.
This was one of those occasions.  I could feel it coming, and I knew I needed to sit down.  I thought that maybe, just maybe, if I could get a glass of water, it would pass.  When I finally made it to the kitchen, it was too late for the water, and I barely made it to the nearest chair, the ringing in my ears covering up the sound of my daughter crying.
It was in such a position that Maude found me.  My lips thickly formed the word in French for “water,” which she rushed to get, repeating, “Oh, la la!!”  I knew that the episode would be over quickly and tried to tell her so, but the words wouldn’t come out.  She scooped me up and half-carried me to go lie down.  Then, she tried to call every number she had for my family, trying to find someone to come take care of me.  When I felt a little better, I sat up to tell her that I would be all right, that she didn’t have to baby-sit me.  She admonished me about taking care of myself, like my mother might have, and told me to get some rest.  I nodded and smiled.
The rest of the family heard the story later with great amusement, since I clearly appeared to be fine.  My father-in-law pointed out helpfully that since Maude had witnessed it, the entire town would hear about the pregnant American who fainted at their house.  I felt a sudden, new loyalty to my unlikely savior and said, a little defensively, “Well, I’m glad she was there.”  Of course, of course, everyone said. 
When you are in a foreign country, the self that you knew before in your native country is gone, replaced by someone who has difficulty ordering food at a restaurant, someone who unknowingly makes embarrassing social gaffes.  You are diminished.  Even if, like me, you contribute years of your life to the study of a language and its people, you remain foreign.  All of your efforts are wiped away when you have to repeat your order at the bakery, or when you make a phone call, only to hear yourself referred to at “that English lady.”  Worse, finally, you acquiesce, and accept yourself as “that English lady” (oh, American, it’s the same, really). 
I haven’t seen Maude since the fainting incident, but if I do bump into her at the grocery store, I’m sure she would be happy to see how well I’ve adjusted.  I have a job, friends, bilingual children, and I’ve learned to navigate the bureaucracy of a country that has plenty to spare.  None of this would stop her from thinking of me as “la pauvre,” or “that poor girl.”  That is OK with me.  When someone has picked you up – literally – off the floor, they can think what they wish.  Fortunately for me, I continue to meet people like Maude, willing to extend a hand as I take on this foreign adventure. And if Maude does feel like telling the entire village about that poor, pregnant American who fainted, the story is hers for the telling. 

acallendrier at
More life stories


© Hackwriters 1999-2009 all rights reserved - all comments are the writers' own responsibility - no liability accepted by or affiliates.