Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Washing in strange places

One of my friends defines travelling with small children as doing washing in strange places. When we visited Berlin a few years ago, this was certainly the case. The washing facilities were Im Kellar, a floor unmarked on the elevator panel. It was accessible only in the company of Margaret – a six-foot-six hairy-legged deep-voiced twin-set-and-pearled transvestite – who held the key which, at a turn, sent the elevator deep underground. Margaret was reluctant to take us there, yet refused to lend the key. She also refused to sell more drying tokens than washing tokens, although every load of washing required two cycles through the dryer.

Twice, my husband sat locked down Im Kellar, a dark labyrinth of storage cages for the apartment buildings above, out of phone range, lit by a single bulb over the machines, for the two hours it took to launder a single load. The first time, I thought he had been kidnapped. The second time, he took a book. The third time, he refused, and we found a public Laundromat instead.

When we visited Hong Kong recently, Im Kellar came flooding back.

Day One. Baby eats everything in sight: bamboo shoots in black vinegar; steamed dumplings stuffed with pumpkin; bowls of noodles. Baby gnaws happily on salt and pepper squid, long dangly legs hanging out her mouth and swinging gently against her chest. Baby smiles at everyone, waves and shouts bye-bye to the ladies on the bus, the touts on the street and the dozens of people who take her photo.

Day Two. Baby throws up on everything in sight. Daddy, the shoe of a Filipino maid, Daddy, the footpath, the backpack, stairs, Daddy again. She waited until we were well and truly out, then was spectacular. Hours after we took refuge in our hotel, she threw up on Mama, Mama's new slippers, the bedspread, the carpet and the bathroom floor in one little spree.

We were in a hotel, so I called housekeeping. I had mopped up the worst with towels, but the maid insisted I stop cleaning. She flapped her hands at me, shooing me away before getting down on her hands and knees to polish the floor. I sat wrapped in a towel, sitting on the edge of the tub next to my sodden clothes, watching her back and waiting so I could take a shower.

Thankfully, our hotel had a laundry room. They sold us all the tokens we needed, we did two loads, and all returned to normal. But my friend was right. Travelling with small children means washing in strange places, some more strange than others.

It would have vexed me except, as another friend said: So what if your kids are grumpy - you're eating croissants in Paris! Or, in my case, dim sum in Hong Kong! Vomit and all, I was thrilled to do my washing where I could watch eagles circling the hotel, or see the tackiest light show in the world before putting the kids to bed. What a privilege!

But I do think of the maid, on her hands and knees cleaning up the last of the mess; and the Filipino maid on the street, so cheerfully dismissive of the splash on her shoe. Baby threw up on a Sunday, the day of rest. The Filipino maids left the apartments where they work and live to be with their friends in the streets of Central. In their thousands, they spread over several city blocks.

With nowhere else to sit, they laid out blankets and flattened cardboard boxes on the ground. Some arranged open umbrellas around their group, handles pointing inwards, carving out a small private space to nap while others chatted or read or played cards. Some passed small netbooks around, so friends could check emails. Some swapped photos, or dozed, or gossiped. And so many smiled and waved at my kids that my heart constricted.

Many were my age. Many have degrees, but can earn much more as maids in Hong Kong than in professions at home. And many have left their own children to earn the money their families need. It brought home how wealthy we are, I am. I went to look around. They were there to do other people's washing and look after other people's children, leaving their own children and washing behind them.

Every Sunday, they go out to see friends, rest, and prepare for the week ahead. And on that Sunday, as woman after woman greeted my daughters, who perhaps for a moment reminded them of their own little ones, my eyes filled with tears. How I long for a world in which they could do their own laundry, and where the only people doing washing in strange places were those mad enough to travel with young children.

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