Friday, October 20, 2006

Domestic Goddesses of Buenos Aires

When an Argentine earning over 2,500 pesos (just over US$800) a month is classified as part of the top 10% earners in their national economy, any double-income family with that level of earnings are considered clase media. Indeed, as long as they limit their consumptions to local goods and services and never set foot in a stronger economy, they can sustain this very comfortable middle class bubble.

Official figure of unemployment is still in the double digits so you can imagine affordable labour is abundant. For this and other deeply- seated cultural reasons, most of these "middle class" families engage domestic help at least a few hours a week if not full time.

These mucamas, domestic helpers, are mostly ladies from surrounding countries such as Bolivia, Peru and Paraguay. Due to their ethnicity, they are also often referred to as morenas (fem. brown) by the porteños – I've been reassured repeatedly by many of them, the porteños I mean, there is nothing wrong with such tag. However, Guillermo, his close Argentine friends and I have never used it and definitely never will.

When we first moved into our apartment, my mother-in-law proclaimed that I was desperately in need of a mucama to keep the place clean and tidy. I explained that both Guillermo and I do not have the same exigent standards as hers and we'd manage on our own. The truth is, I grew up with live-in maids and I didn't want to give up our privacy so easily.

However, to avoid having my in-laws' maid, in her white frilly apron and collar get up, coming over to help and snoop around twice a week, I reluctantly looked for a part-time cleaner. An acquaintance told me to ring a domestic helper she had come to know very well through her expat friends who were leaving the country. I did and our lives changed for the better...

Our maid Graciela, with her buttercup blonde (to the secret envy of many porteñas, that's her natural hair colour) and bright blue eyes, reminds me of Sister Maria in The Sound of Music. She is Argentine but had lived in California too long, she epitomises great service with a big smile; she sees what needs to be done, makes a rotation plan of various chores and off she goes - missions are always accomplished with great efficiency, to the highest standard and she is not even in an uniform! She is chatty and always cheerful, we simply love her.

Graciela is extremely hard working and has a few jobs on the go so we told her we would be flexible with the time she comes. One day a week she comes at six in the evening and doesn't leave until ten thirty or later. I would be cooking while she cleans and when the food is ready I'd set her a place and leave her a share of our dinner.

Same deal on the other day of the week she comes, I would tell her to help herself to coffee, cookies or cake whenever she likes and lay out lunch for her when it is ready. She often jokes "I come here to eat".

Some of Guillermo's relatives are uncomfortable about our casual familiarity with a maid, I don't see anything wrong with it; we are happy with Graciela and just want to show our gratitude. We cannot change the reality of life or the inequity of the society but we can be nice to the person who helps to make our lives easier. To us, she is not a servant but our domestic fairy godmother.

Graciela loves a roast dinner. The first time I made roast chicken on the night she came to work, she cupped my face in both hands and kissed me, "you're spoiling me" she exclaimed. It really was no effort; I mean both spoiling her and making the chicken.

Slow Roast Garlic & Lemon Chicken
(from the Va Va Voom Domestic Goddess, Nigella Lawson)

1 chicken cut into 10 pieces
1 head of garlic
2 lemons, unwaxed
fresh thyme
3 tbsp olive oil
150ml white wine

Preheat oven to 160C.

Put everything in a roasting tin. Mix well. Cover with foil and bake for 2hr.

Thereafter remove foil and turn up the oven to 200C. Cook uncovered for 30-45min. until skin is golden brown and lemons begin to scorch.

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