Cleaning and the meaning of life

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If you think the countryside’s cleaner than the town, you’re in for a nasty shock.

A few years back I used to enjoy a very guilty pleasure from watching a TV programme called Escape to the Country.

It was just another one of those estate agency programmes that litter the UK networks (Big Strong Boys, Place in the Sun, Big Strong Boys In The Sun, you know the kind of thing…). Each day, an aspiring couple, tired of the city, would decide to move to the country and task an estate agent with finding the right thing. Three or four properties would be chosen, and the people would view two of them. Brits being Brits, of course – a bunch of whingeing Poms – they’d never like any of them. 

One thing that always struck me, though, was the repeatedly expressed opinion (by the women) that moving to the countryside would entail less housework because ‘it’s so much cleaner’.

Hah bloody hah I’d think. Cleaner my backside. You’ll learn, missy.

The countryside is filthy compared with the city. Spiders, spider webs, flies, fly shit, chestnut pollen, poplar fluff, willow seeds, stone dust, barley chaff, arsenic bugs, dead leaves, dust, mud. I wonder which bit of the countryside these women are planning to move to that’s magically cleaner than town. They’re in for a nasty shock. 

I know because it was a shock to me. I was thinking about it again this weekend, as I scoured and scrubbed the kitchen and living room (penance for my taking all Saturday off to drive around the region, having a girly good time while the DH was working).

It starts in spring, when the house fills up with pollen and seeds – hazelnut, followed by poplar, followed by willow, which carpets the courtyard (and our ground floor) in white bunnies (called "kittens" in French). Then comes the chestnut pollen, which smells exactly like semen, in case you didn’t know – hence the local name ‘spunk trees’.

Meanwhile, in the gravel courtyard, up comes whatever my farmer neighbour Patrick planted last year, seeded into every crack. Every other year it’s wheat, but we’ve had maize, barley, rye and oats as well. Oats are particularly persistent, being a very natural sort of cereal and if I don’t get them all out, by late summer I’ve lost the path to the woodshed.

In an old stone house like this, the stone constantly sheds. Nobody told me that, did they? This house is ‘granite doux’, and doux (soft) it certainly is. It has to be constantly vacuumed to keep the dust at bay, and the rough, uneven surface provides a lovely home for spiders.

Spiders, of course, are just a way of life. We have to pretend different to visitors, but there are big crawly ones hiding in every crack, and overnight some of them will spin webs across a doorway or over a mirror. I get rid of them with a big brush that looks like a giant loo brush – the best thing ever invented, but you can never stay on top of them. "A happy home has spider’s webs," say the French, so I’m happy to go with that. They’re at their worst in summer.

I don’t kill them though – being a bit of a Buddhist – so I catch them in a big plastic jar with a lid and put them outside (my job, since the DH is scared witless of them). After all, spiders kill flies, which are much more of a problem. They start as soon as the weather warms up, coming out to feed on the ivy, and by mid-summer most of us here have fly papers (cat-friendly, of course) in every room, buzzing frantically with dying insects. I also have a bead curtain at the doorway. It is pretty useless, but I can’t bear fly screens. We only put these up once the mozzies start in late summer, and only then out of dire necessity.

With the flies, comes fly shit – something I’d never encountered before moving to France. Little brown or black dots of velcro-like persistence that coat all your windows, along with every cup, plate or pan you leave out on show. I quickly learned, in our open-plan kitchen, to wash utensils before every use. And after the flies come the wasps, attracted by our calva pear orchard and as insistent as they are dumb. The only things worse are the hornets, the sight of which has me running for cover. With these beasts, I am not going to argue. 

Then there’s the pets. Who doesn’t love the little darlings? But with six cats and a big-pawed mud magnet of a spaniel, no surface stays print-free for long, as the cats leap up with fur wet from the grass onto the sideboard and coffee table, and every two weeks there’s a faint brown line right round the sofa where the dog’s rubbed himself dry. Thank heavens for removable covers on all the furniture, and pale grey paint on the woodwork (believe me, it hides a multitude of sins). From spring right through to winter the critters tread either dust or mud into the house in kilos, and you can’t teach them to wipe their feet.  

There’s also the question of hair, and if anyone’s allergic to cats, they’d better never come in this house. Yesterday, after a period of neglect while I painted the bedroom, etc, I swept up a small dead animal’s worth of fur from the living room floor. I like sweeping, which is quite contemplative, but I also can’t afford to keep filling hoover bags, so it’s a necessity as well as a choice. A damp rag is the best thing for getting fur off close covers, if anyone’s interested.

Autumn, of course, means the house is full of leaves. Surrounded by orchard and woodland as we are, hundreds of kilos of leaves are shed around the house every year and a fair proportion has to make its way indoors, along with the odd rotting apple brought in by mutley as a toy.

Then, come winter, there’s just as much muck in the house, only it’s a different colour. As anyone with a woodburner will tell you, your house is covered with a fine layer of ash the whole time you use it, along with soot that drops out of the chimney and coats everything around the stove. Ours is peculiarly crystalline and gritty, which is just as well, as we usually get a bird or two down there each season, and you can brush it off a kestrel or an owl relatively well. But it renders housework like the Forth Bridge. I can write my name in the dust an hour after cleaning and whenever it rains, great rivulets of soot and rust pour down the back of the register plate over my freshly painted stonework, which gets whitewashed every summer.  

So now you know, country lovers. There’s a reason we country dwellers all have hard floors and no curtains. And in this house at least, we have two rules: never start cleaning, and whatever you do, never look up.


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