At dinner parties in Siena, the tables are boy-girl, i.e., the men sit at one end, all together, and the women at the other. The main topic at the men’s end is, apparently, the Palio, or professional soccer. One summer, with my family visiting, during a party at our house, my sister and I got up from our women’s end to clear one of the courses, and once safely in the kitchen, she asked me, “So what are the women discussing?” “Floor wax,” I told her, in truth.
The day my Italian ex-husband’s first wife moved out of the 11th-century fortress he calls home, his aunt moved in to keep house for him, and the day I moved in, she handed the housekeeping over to me. “I do a floor a day,” this 76-year-old explained, “starting at the top, on Monday, with the bedrooms and bathrooms,” including it turned out, washing their tile walls. I started to laugh when she pulled out the feather duster, but she carefully showed me how to clean the intricate woodwork of the bed with it, then how to brush the rugs—no vacuum-cleaners on site—with what looks like and must originally have been a bunch of twigs bound with twine, although not before clearing the walls and ceilings of cobwebs by means of a ring of bristles stuck to an extendable pole. She explained the importance of vinegar, for the drip stains on the shower doors, and bleach for the toilets and bidets. Had they ever considered hiring someone to clean, I asked? “Che ci vuole?” was Auntie’s answer, “What’s it take?” by which she meant, hardly any effort at all.
Daily straightening up (including polishing my husband’s shoes!), laundry, ironing (including all the sheets) and cooking (starting with squeezing oranges at 6am) were the province of my mother-in-law, who also eschewed domestic appliances. “Dishwashers don’t get things clean,” she assured me, never having used one. She introduced me to triolina, the chemical that gives the dry cleaners that distinctive smell. At the end of the winter, she would open my husband’s wide wardrobe and one-by-one take out his wool jackets, rub them down with a cotton rag doused in triolina, brush them, and hang them back up. Only if she came across a particularly difficult stain would she take a jacket to the dry cleaners to have it cleaned, but not pressed (half price), since what would it take to press it herself at home? Hardly any effort at all.
The floors, not least because they were extensive, were a major pre-occupation, as were all exterior doors which the sun seemed almost capable of eating right through. The key was linseed oil, crudo or cotto. The original brick floors were laid right on the earth, so they needed a coating of raw linseed oil at least twice a year (hands-and-knees, paintbrush, you get the idea), to keep moisture out. The doors got “cooked” linseed oil instead, and the upstairs terracotta, wax and more wax, though never enough to prevent my mother-in-law’s customary morning greeting of “When did you last wax these floors?”
Regularly, in summer say, when there were also the tourist apartments to clean, I’d get fed up, and hire a maid or a cook, and for a few months, draw up cleaning schedules and weekly menus, check for dust on top of the armoires or if the towers had been swept thoroughly, and feel briefly like a real castellana. But we were a complicated lot to please. My mother-in-law liked to test-torture any new arrival, for example, asking one poor woman, long married, who was, I believe, an accountant in her home country, whether she wore her hair long to attract lovers. Another time, per my instructions phoned in from work, the cook prepared not the chicken I had in the freezer but the carcass I was saving for soup. She and I laughed, but no one else did. And there were the more serious errors as well: one woman, forbidden to smoke in the house, ashed on a 17th-century desk, and another ruined an ancient table with a vigorous rub of the Italian equivalent of Pledge. Inevitably, I’d get angry with myself for managing these women so poorly, and opt to do it all on my own.
Thus, I’d often find myself in spring giving the parquet in the bedrooms, made from the staves of old barrels my husband had found in the barn when he renovated the place decades earlier, their special treatment, an all-day project that only my-mother-in-law was trusted to oversee. I was sent to the mesticcheria, a store that carries hundreds of seemingly obsolete products for taking care of your home, to buy a can of solid Ambra wax, which later that day, we spread over the parquet using dampened woolen rags. We then polished the floors with a machine my father-in-law hauled down from the tower for the occasion. There was a perk to all this toil though. One evening at a dinner party, I got to roll my eyes with the rest of the women at our end, when someone mentioned Ambra. Such an effort, the ladies all agreed, but what beautiful results. “Ma che ci vuole?” I countered. “Quasi niente,” I insisted, hardly any effort at all.