According to a 2006 article in the Corriere by Elvira Serra, American women spend an average of 4 hours a week doing housework. Italian women beat them, hands down. Here are the details: “80% of Italian women iron everything, including socks and handkerchiefs, 31% have a dishwasher, 2% use scrubbing brushes and 1% have a clothes dryer [Electricity is very costly in Italy, so most people don’t want a clothes dryer]. In the end, Italians devote twenty-one hours a week to household chores, of which five are spent ironing. Cooking is not included in the total.” So, 21 hours a week for Italian women and 4 for Americans.
These figures don’t tell the whole story, either. By and large, Italian homes are much smaller than American homes. The average house size in the U.S. is +/- 2300 square feet. Here in Italy, the average is 700-1100 square feet. So Italian women are spending 4 times the hours to take care of half, or less than half, the space.
This got me thinking, of course. Back when I had a full time job in Connecticut, we hired someone to clean the house. And wouldn’t you know, Kathy, and later Peg, came for 4 hours a week and took very good care of our 2700 square foot house. When we moved to Italy we continued our practice, and Lada cleaned our house for almost four years. (When her second child arrived, Lada retired… but she worked until 2 weeks before Daniel’s arrival, that’s how great she was.) Lada worked 4.5 hours a week, and did a terrific job on our 1184 square foot house, but ironing was not included in her job description, just cleaning.
Why does it take so much longer in Italy? Because in Italy a basic weekly clean includes a lot more than in the States. In the States the job entailed dusting, vacuuming, cleaning the bathrooms (but not the kitchen – there wasn’t time), and mopping the bathroom and kitchen floors. When I knew Lada was leaving I watched carefully to learn how to clean in the Italian style. First she carried all the rugs outside and gave them a good shake, and left them hanging over a railing. Then she dusted and vacuumed. In particularly high traffic areas (kitchen, stairs) she first swept, and then vacuumed. Then she washed all the floors, which meant moving all the light furniture around and then replacing it. Then she carried the rugs back in and vacuumed them. The house sparkled. After Lada retired I took over, and it takes me about 5.5 or 6 hours to do what she did in 4.5. But I do it all (over two days) because the house looks so nice afterwards.
Another big difference between here and there is the number of cleaning products. (The French gentleman above lives in Italy, too. Here his name is Mastro Lindo.) In the States we used amonia in the water to wash the tile floors, window cleaner for the windows, and, if we were feeling really fancy, some kind of spray on the dust cloths. We also had special polish for the wooden furniture, which we polished once or twice a year. Here there is an endless parade of cleaning products, each aimed at a very specific task – one to clean porcelain basins, another to clean tile floors and walls, another to clean stone, another to clean wooden floors, polish for furniture, window cleaners, anti-calcium cleaners (liquid for topical use, powder to add to the clothes washer) – it’s quite confusing to know exactly what to get. (According to the Corriere article, when Unilever tried to market a one-cleaner-does-it-all product it was a complete flop.) In desperation I’ve begun to make some of my own cleansers, but just the basic ones. I’m an American cleaner after all, it seems, a 4-hour a week girl. Even without another job I can’t imagine spending 21 hours a week on household chores. Nor can I imagine ironing the Captain’s socks!
Why do Italian women spend so much time cleaning? The Corriere article answers: “Perhaps a British poll can throw some light on the issue. The Discovery Channel Home and Health website asked 2,000 women aged from 18 to 80: 59% said that cleaning their homes made them feel in control of their own lives and 60% found housework “mentally therapeutic”.” Well, there is a certain zen-like monotony to house cleaning – you do the same old things in the same old way every week, and then you get to do it again the next week and the next. I guess that’s therapy of a sort. Me? I’d rather take my therapy in a swimming pool, at the gym or, better yet, at the dining table!