So Fresh, So Clean?

For a number of reasons, among them my recent move, the question of household chores, cleanliness, cooking, and masculinity have come into play a lot lately. A week or so ago, I saw a report on some news show saying that the average Spanish woman between the ages of 30 and 45 works between 4.5 and 6 hours a day in the home or in chores dealing with the home. They also stated that all of the electrodomésticos (aka appliances) available to women haven’t helped reduce this amount of time. Then they said that the average Spanish male’s time spent working in the home was measured in minutes, not hours. In one of my classes this last week, the (government sponsored) health book asked the kids what active activities their moms and dads do at home–and showed the mom cooking, while the dad was…organizing his things? Putting away groceries? It was sort of hard to tell, some sort of organizing of boxes.

This is nothing new–anyone who has taken a women’s studies course, read a newspaper in the last couple of years, or lives in America with their eyes open knows that, on average, women do a lot more work at home than their male counterparts, in addition to holding down “real” jobs.


It’s no secret that I’m far from Suzy Homemaker. I’ve never been described as neat, tidy, or especially enthusiastic about household chores. And I also realize that these 6 hours probably include some aspects of child rearing, hundreds of little daily actions of which I’m mostly unaware. I also sort of giggled, because Spanish kitchens, even in “real people’s” houses and not student rentals, are notably lacking in appliances (dishwashers, garbage disposals, and often ovens, among others like dryers).


I talked to my roommates about this, about the Spanish woman’s seeming obsession with cleaning (they mop the sidewalk in front of their houses with bleach…many every single day). One of my roommates told me she thought it had a lot to do with machismo–if a man leaves the house with his shirt wrinkled, it’s a source of embarrassment for his wife, a sign she’s somehow failing. Women, according to my roommate, still largely feel like keeping the home, including all of the cooking and cleaning and shopping, is their job and that they bring shame to themselves and their families if they don’t do it as well as they can. So then I asked, “OK, but if you have to do it, why not do it as quickly as possible, without sacrificing much, or any, quality? ” I brought up dishwashers as an example, their greatness and their relative scarcity here. Everyone I have asked about dishwashers has belittled their importance, and both of my roommates were the same. “They don’t get the dishes as clean,” they claimed. “The glasses get streaky and ugly, so my mom doesn’t use hers.” They laughed at my concern for saving time, pointing out how American that concept is.

Then a woman I work with was reading the newspaper last week in the teachers’ lounge and pointed out an article with the headline, “Women are committing more accidents in the home.” Her response? “Well, propping your feet up in front of the TV isn’t exactly a dangerous activity for Spanish men.” Touché. But I couldn’t help but be interested in the fact that even as women do all or almost all, they are chastised for how they do it.

This is a huge statement, and probably not entirely true, but I am sometimes amazed by the fact that most Spanish people I know, including young people, have no interest in trying to do things differently than they have been done for the last century. If it works, don’t fix it. The Swiffer hasn’t hit Spain, or any other version of floor cleaner, because people have always used mops, which clean the floors just fine. When I said I missed Downy Wrinkle Release spray, my friend here didn’t understand what was wrong with using an iron. A lot of people here buy professional-style irons, with pressure measured in bares, because they iron everything, including sheets (and underwear–really? can that really be necessary?). It sometimes strikes me as painfully traditional and outdated, but I also recognize this is coming from a person who owned an iron for over a year before taking it out of the box. Still, most Americans I know will sacrifice a little bit of quality for quickness, leaving the “deep cleaning” for a couple times a year. We don’t necessarily equate the hardest way of doing things, or the way that takes the longest, with being the best. I am not sure the same can be said for the people I know here.

As I’ve mentioned before, to some extent I appreciate that Spain is so much less concerned with efficiency, that sometimes their appreciation of things, like coffee, is greater because they take the time to sit and drink coffee, real pressed espresso-style coffee, and chat with friends, rather than taking their drip junk in a go cup in the car on the way to work. But when it comes to cleaning, which few people truly enjoy rather than viewing it as a necessary evil, if things can be done faster, why not?

And then there’s the phenomenon of Spanish youth living with their parents much longer than American kids–often until they’re in their late 20s or even until they marry. So the poor mothers of the country are not only in charge of feeding, washing, and cleaning up after kids until they are 18, but until they finally move out in their 20s or 30s. Three different people, unknown to each other, have told me in the last week that their mothers always make an extra portion for them when they are away at college, and then when they come home to visit, they bring back weeks worth of food to their apartments, frozen in meal-sized portions. Sure, it’d be nice to have my dad make all of my food (that is, when I was living in Missoula) and perhaps it wouldn’t be so much work for him …but I’d feel sort of pathetic and fairly embarrassed. If I don’t figure it out now, when I’m young, when will I? But women my age are expected to know how to cook, even if their moms send them home food–the guys get sent home food because otherwise, what will they eat? It just feels so enabling and slightly creepy, this mothering of males until they are 30 and replace their mothers with their wives. Independence is not a characteristic that’s really valued here, in women or men. On the flipside, we Americans are kind of anti-social in comparison.

One of the other things I’ve noticed in my new apartment is how much more varied my food has been, being so close to Mercadona, a cheap and modern grocery store that has a lot more international and helpful options than most places. Spanish “recipes” go like this: one onion, one green pepper, one red pepper, a medium sized slice of chorizo, lentils, water, and a couple cloves of garlic–with olive oil. So for those of us who weren’t taught by our moms how to make lentejas or who don’t get frozen portions every few weeks, cooking is sometimes hard, being mostly oral and without any measurements–OK for experienced cooks and/or for food and flavors we’re really accostumed to, but more difficult with new foods. They don’t have any rice or noodles with seasoning packets, a few kinds of bad, salty powdered soup, one kind of crappy cake mix, and as a whole few “easy” food options. The other night, I made tacos and guacamole, both using seasoning packets I brought with me from the U.S. My roommate thought it was strange, these seasoning packets, and that I didn’t make the guacamole with an onion, a red pepper, cayenne, etc etc. But she thought the guac was really good, as well as the tacos, even as she seemed unimpressed with how they were made. Another guy I met at a party this week asked me, “Is it true that Americans only eat things that are frozen or come out of a box?” We DO eat a lot more pre-prepared foods, and perhaps that’s one reason why we are so much bigger than the people here–eating in the U.S. is really easy, if not always really healthy. But then it’s one more thing, cooking everything from scratch, that falls on Spanish women.

Perhaps the source of some of these observations can be found in franquismo, something I consider a huge influence on innumerable contemporary actions and concerns. Unfortunately, it’s also something almost no one is willing to talk about. (I recommend “Ghosts of Spain: Travels Through Spain and Its Silent Past” by Giles Tremlett, a fascinating, although sometimes repetitive, glimpse into how recent and not-so-recent past affects Spanish people today). While the U.S. and France and the UK and who knows how many countries were experiencing the changes and upheaval of the 1960s and 70s, Spain was semi-frozen, perhaps a bit like Cuba is now. Franco was in power for 36 years, from the end of the Civil War in 1939 until his death in 1975, enforcing censorship, outlawing languages, and reinforcing that a woman’s place is in the home. Divorce wasn’t made legal until 1982. All of the parents of my friends here got married during franquismo, so their gender roles, which I view as an outsider as really traditional, can be understood to some extent. Even as Spaniards stress how moderno they are–it’s a much used adjective, and always with a positive connotation–they also hang on to the past, especially in their actions. It’s also not that American women experience equality at home–far from it. But I don’t think the same spotlessness is expected.

I’m curious to hear what others think–so much of this is just my observations, my limited point of view. I also seem to equate traditionalism with being backward, or somehow lacking, a view I found a bit troubling even as I write here. All of this just seems to come up in conversation a lot lately…and my views, as everyone is quick to tell me, mark me as undoubtedly American

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