The New Slavery

Maids in Italy – August 2009
Our house in Italy overlooks the roofs of the old town, the historical centre, the centro storico is a nice way of putting it that the Italians have. With just two exceptions that I can see from here, all these roofs are of Italian pantiles. Pantiles are tiles made from a curved piece of clay – the story goes that the old tile-maker would fold the clay over his thigh before putting it in the kiln, so producing a thigh-length curved tile that is wider at one end than the other, as was his thigh. By laying these tiles on the roof wide-end downwards, the upper tiles cannot slip forward. The tiles are in fact laid in alternate vertical rows u-shape and n-shape, ie alternate ways up, the n’s sitting half over the u’s. And to be more precise the u’s are laid wide-end upwards, the n’s downwards, so the u’s are practically hidden by the n’s. Now where was I?
The effect of the pantiles is quite picturesque as the tiles mature in different shades of yellow, orange and brown and get lichens on them over time. All the old towns in this part of the world have predominantly pantiles on those roofs of the traditional design.
Of the houses that I can see from my vantage point, just two have not kept to the traditional roofing material, and one of these is just across the street. This is what we call the slave house. No one lives there permanently; it is the holiday home of a couple who live most of the year in Rome. A couple in perhaps their forties or early fifties; he a slight man with a protruding back of his head, who dresses in pressed white slacks and shiny brown shoes; she a rather pained-looking woman, also slim, with blond or blonded hair. They arrive for a fortnight each summer in an expensive motorcar – this year it is a Porsche Cayenne – and they keep themselves much to themselves. This morning I watched as they returned from a shopping trip in the Porsche, carrying two plastic bags from a supermarket, plus two bags that looked like they might contain clothes from a quite-expensive shop, and a further bag that seemed to have in it several rolls of gift-wrap.
The reason we call the house the slave house is that each year when the couple come they bring with them their slave. They’ll probably call her their maid. We’re not sure whether the slave is the same one each year or different, but whether just one person or a string of them, she is of far-Eastern appearance, possibly Filipino, and young. We do not get much opportunity to examine the slave as she seldom leaves the house, but she does appear from time-to-time on the roof-terrace. This particular house has a roof-terrace, and very occasionally the slave will appear, dressed in housework overalls, and fill a bucket from the tap at the front of the terrace. She’ll usually take the opportunity to look over the railings at the street, left and right, very quickly and for the briefest of moments. It is at this point that we can see that she looks to be about fourteen years old, though perhaps she’s not quite as young as she looks.
We don’t see the couple themselves on the roof-terrace – just once I saw the man come out for a moment in his long white towelling dressing gown and slippers – and the slave does not come out there at any other time, and that is not at all surprising, for these terraces will get immensely hot in the sunshine – whoever designed a house like that? Probably the same clueless builder who failed to use the traditional tiles but used instead some modern red composite ones. The couple are clearly not short of money, and perhaps that is part of the problem; the wall bricks with rustic stone infills, the false beam ends, the modern roofing tiles: all of these point to a style that is quite out of keeping with the centro storico. Also the house has white shutters; they are actually of wood but look from a distance like pvc. Our shutters look like what they are: ageing wood. I have to re-stain them annually. Can be a messy job.
The couple are not the only wealthy Italians to keep a female Asian factotum, I had to wait in the mini-market one day while a woman, perhaps in her 60s, was doing her shopping accompanied by her maid, or slave. The woman fiddled and faddled about loudly, preceding each sentence to the shop assistants with, ‘mi da’ (give me . . .), which used to be used in London by some people of my parents’ generation, who thought it made them sound self-contained or something, ‘Give me a packet of Garibaldi biscuits!’ – mercifully this rather rude-sounding inflection has died out in the UK, I think and hope, but still seems to be alive and kicking in Italy. The shop assistants showed humble deference to the lady of the manor, or whatever it was she thought she ought to be, I just thought she looked like an unreconstructed joke.
And the slave? Her job was to carry the shopping basket. But I gave her a smile and a wink and she did the same back, I think she may have been Indian and looked like she thought much the same of the loud lady as I did. But it’s a job.
Also there was our friends’ experience, see Good Morning, Sahib
But back to the couple. At the end of their annual stay they get in their Porsche and drive back to Rome, presumably with the slave sitting meekly in the back seat; or do they send her on the bus? Unlikely, but we’ll try and keep an eye out to see. Do they include her in observations they make about what they see on the motorway? Or do they not observe anything as they drive along the motorway? A mean streak tells us that it is probably the second.

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