She takes a coffee mug out of my cupboard, reaches for a bottle of cleaning stuff, then points to all the cups and glasses and says something about a smell. I have absolutely no clue of what she is saying. Does she want to spray all my cups and glasses with this cleaning stuff to make them smell nice? She points to the dishwasher as well. Should I add some smelly stuff when I use the machine, so all my clean dishes will smell like roses, like spring, like lavender? I don’t know, and I tell her just that: sorry, but I really don’t understand what you want to tell me. She giggles. I go back to my book, she returns to the ironing.
“She” is Fatma, who for two weeks has been our cleaning and ironing lady. She is a happy woman, she laughs easily, works hard and when she cleans something, I have to come and see how black the water has become. That message I understand: You’re a dirty woman, Fréderike. I know, I hire Fatma for a reason don’t I? As for the rest, communication is difficult.
When we talk about general subjects, the conversation goes okay: where did you grow up, do you have children, what’s your husband’s job, how long have you lived here, are you fond of peaches too? Things like that. But when we leave common ground, we lose touch. That’s exactly what happened when she started talking about the smell of my coffee mugs (or whatever the talk was about), or, in other words, about the deeper shades of house keeping. She has worked as a cleaning lady for many people over the years and knows what she is talking about, but I don’t know the first thing about how Turkish women keep their houses squeeky clean. So even if I understood every word she says, I would still be puzzled about what she means. Like she looks at me with a puzzled expression when she asks what I am doing behind the computer, and I try to explain how I earn a living.
So I shouldn’t get too frustrated about my language skills. Fatma and I don’t understand each other easily, but that might have more to do with living in different worlds than speaking different languages.