I was reading about rich people hiring modern butlers in a Sunday Times news review article entitled ‘Welcome toRichistan’ (an extract of a book 'Richistan' soon to be published by Robert Frank) and it reminded me of the weirdness of getting used to having staff working in your house: ‘Just as new butlers need training, so do the New Rich. Most of today’s Richistanis are not used to having servants. They’re used to doing things themselves, and they’re uncomfortable with the stuffy formalities that often come with hiring house staff.’
Now whilst being an expat certainly (sadly) does not make you a ‘Richistani’, you do have to immediately face the fact that there are people working for you, in and around your house every single day. For ‘in control’ super mums from UK and Europe, having house help can be difficult to graciously accept. A couple of people I know have actually rejected having any house staff in Kenya, preferring to continue bringing up children and keeping house alone. Others have house staff, but struggle with letting go of some of the mundane household chores. These are the ones that still load the washing machine themselves and refuse to have anyone dust their dressing tables. Others have unnecessarily high expectations of those working for them, where they prefer to manage a perfectly organised/stacked fridge or colour coded knicker drawer.
Personally, I was delighted not to know the whereabouts of our washing machine for some weeks after moving into this house, in spite of washing miraculously appearing clean and ironed in the airing cupboard. I’m happy to shrug off the odd colour run accident which I was often guilty of committing whilst living alone in London. In return I have no tiresome washing responsibilities (except for the occasional bit of hand washing) and more time to do the things I like doing, unfettered by laborious housework!
Cooking is another matter. I find myself constantly plotting to find a way of dodging this often boring chore, but to be honest am often creeping into the kitchen as an excuse when faced with the choice of bouncing on the trampoline or entertaining hungry children by pushing them on the swing endlessly. ‘I just have to get the kids supper ready….’ I shout over my shoulder, when I know that boiling spaghetti would be an easy task to delegate. I’ll be a terrible granny when the time comes, forever sidling off doing other jobs in order to avoid hands on childcare.
One thing that the Richistanis have to face, along with us expats, is the loss of privacy that comes with house help. Not wishing to sound too spoiled but it’s difficult not to feel self conscious when sheepishly greeting the night askari (who is about to finish his shift) in your dressing gown at 6am, as you let the dogs out. Lie in days are worse because when the children have been sent down to watch mindless tv for hours, you emerge dishevelled from slumber at 9am, knowing that your house help has had to get up at dawn in order to be at work on time (as usual). There are no locks on our bathroom doors (in order to be childproof) so it’s never very relaxing to know that someone may burst through the door brandishing the Harpic bottle at any moment. Our shower is downstairs and opposite some French windows, so every day we must necessarily leg it up the stairs in only a towel in an effort not to get spotted. As we sit down as a family to a weekend fry up late morning, there’s generally the sound of sweeping just outside the window, which never fails to make me feel guilty.
On top of this there are pay rolls; medical expenses; leave time and overtime payments to manage. Occasionally one staff member is disgruntled causing a bad atmosphere and it’s up to you to smooth things over (either that or spend your whole time out of the house in order to avoid the problem – this tactic has been known). It’s the old timer expats who have the system cracked and no one seems to know how they manage it! They can effortlessly knock up breakfast for twelve followed by Sunday lunch for twenty, have house guests staying for weeks and still have fresh flowers arranged everywhere too. Beautifully presented picnics and self catering safaris are organised with mathematical precision and home comforts like gin and tonics served in director’s chairs at sundown are always laid on. These people can make an afternoon golf game turn into drinks and a late dinner out with friends, without worrying about putting the children to bed (it will get done, systems are in place). On top of that, their staff are all happy and bright, secure in the knowledge that they know what they are doing and they are doing their jobs well. It’s us uncomfortable newcomers used to doing everything ourselves who hover around awkwardly, often stressed, obstinately refusing to hand over responsibility to others and necessarily suffering the consequences.