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Polish cleaner lifts the lid on dirty Germany

Hannah Cleaver · 2 Feb 2011, 08:00

Published: 02 Feb 2011 08:00 GMT+01:00

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She is the magician who transforms a stale and dusty bedroom littered with dirty clothes into a restful place at the end of the day.

The sparkling toilet bowl and shiny taps, the lack of hair in the shower sink drain are all thanks to her.

They are generally silent, this army of women who clean, iron and polish. But now the memoirs of one Polish cleaning lady are the talk of Germany.

A best-selling book, "Under German Beds" (Unter deutschen Betten), has shocked, provoked and amused in almost equal measure, as the cleaner-turned-author exposes the chaos, dirtiness and downright filth – in all meanings of the word – of some German households.

Writing under the name Justyna Polanksa, the 31-year-old from Poznan says she hopes the book will inspire people to treat their home help with more respect.

“I had one man call my number and ask whether I would be wearing red underwear when I came to do the cleaning. Others call and ask where I am from and then call me a shit Polack before hanging up. It is no way to treat anyone,” she told The Local.

In her book, she writes of the casual xenophobia she encounters every day, as well as the sexism and the disdain many customers show for cleaners.

This includes employers who leave money lying around to test a cleaner’s honesty, and others who, bizarrely, seem unable to differentiate between real life and cheap porn.

“Sometimes men seem to think they pay me €30 to clean their house for three hours and show them my breasts too,” she said.

Polanksa came to Germany 11 years ago, arriving in Offenbach near Frankfurt to look for work as an au pair. Although she got a job looking after a family, she soon decided cleaning would suit her better.

“Cleaning was not my dream job, but if you don’t have the language it is one of only a few options. My German at the time was not good enough to work in a shop for example,” she said. “I thought I would do it for a couple of years just to make some money, but here I am still doing it.”

She had – and still maintains – dreams of becoming a beautician, but these have been put on hold until she can raise the funds for training.

This effort will certainly be helped by the publication of her book and the interest it has attracted. The appeal lies in the sharp tone she sometimes employs – as well as her tales of the more icky things she found under German beds.

The freshly-extracted molar tooth was fairly unpleasant, as was the mummified pet hamster.

“The worst thing I found? I suppose that would be either the used tampon, or the used condom. I mean what were these people thinking? I don’t know whether people forgot to dispose of them or if they thought the cleaner was coming anyway,” she said.

But what frustrates her most is that some employers simply make her work more difficult.

“Chaos, chaos, chaos,” she said. “I sometimes cannot get to the floor because it is covered in things. Or you go into a kitchen and there is three days’ worth of dishes there. I have three hours or so to do the place, and cannot do it properly if it is in chaos.”

Polanksa had expected the celebrated German virtues of organisation and cleanliness, but was shocked by the disorder and dirt she found in many homes she cleaned.

The real eye-opener is the reaction to her pulling back the curtain of Teutonic domesticity. There have been comments on websites urging her to return to Poland if she does not like it here, or accusing her of being ungrateful. And the biggest surprise has been the reaction of Polish commentators.

“There have been many comments from Germans and many of them find it very funny, while many are upset. But those from Poles have been the worst.

Story continues below…

“They say, because I have married an Italian man, that Italians are more dirty, or that English people are really bad. I don’t know, perhaps Poles are worse; I have only worked as a cleaner in Germany. That is what I know.

“I have written my story and expressed my opinion. It is not against German people, it is simply what happened to me. All I want is people to treat me and others with more respect and humanity.”

Her book gives voice to the experiences of hundreds of thousands of Polish cleaners and others from around the world working in Germany – and is probably very familiar to hundreds of thousands more in other countries across Europe.

Currently the best-selling German book on Amazon, the book is being considered for translation not only into English but Polish too.

Polanksa is still working as a cleaner, fitting in interviews about her book around her regular commitments with a mop and a duster.

“I quite like it. I clean quite a lot at home too. My flat is really clean and tidy – I will never be as bad as those people in the book,” she said.

Hannah Cleaver (hannah.cleaver@thelocal.de)

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Your comments about this article

08:47 February 2, 2011 by marimay
I am not the least bit surprised. Poor lady.
09:09 February 2, 2011 by Simon_Kellett
Cleaning is an unpleasant job, cleaning for others more so. The minimum in return should be at least respect and a reasonable wage.
09:32 February 2, 2011 by MunchingInMuenchen
Comment removed by The Local for breach of our terms.
13:24 February 2, 2011 by ovalle3.14
I work as a hand for a moving company here and I share this woman's views, some people really make your work next to impossible with their lack of consideration. However, I think anybody who has worked as a housekeeper anywhere in this planet, has such stories.
15:17 February 2, 2011 by Johnne
Can´t people clean their homes themselves??
15:41 February 2, 2011 by finanzdoktor
You know what people are really upsest about? That there self-importance and ego-centricity has been brought into the light of day. They try so desparately to maintain one image in public, when it is quite another in private. Not one of them would dare pick up a used condom or tampon in their line of work, but would expect someone else to pick it up for them in their home. Makes you wonder how many of them are now saying "Well, you would never find that in my house" while in the back of their mind wondering where they put that condom or tampon from last night.
17:46 February 2, 2011 by Gretl
I put myself through college as a housecleaner. So when I had a German housecleaner twice a month, my kids and I spent the day before putting things away so that she could come in and clean. I only had her do the bathrooms, kitchen and wood floors - things I just wasn't getting to as often as I would like. When we went on vacation, I always would schedule oven and refrigerator cleanings so that she still had work. And we gave her a Christmas bonus equal to one cleaning (50 Euros). I was always grateful for the work she did for me.
19:34 February 2, 2011 by DinhoPilot
When there is no other way people just have to suck it and do the dirt job. At least she had a job, many don't have...
21:28 February 2, 2011 by fryintl
Ah the Polish, doing a job a German won't do.....bring them out of the shadows, have sanctuary cities and give them welfare, free schooling, universities and start printing all of your government documents in a foreign language to keep them from having to integrate....
22:58 February 2, 2011 by danclarkie
In her book, she writes of the casual racism

>the casual racism


Dear TheLocal.de



Perhaps your article writers should consider putting down their MacBooks and picking up a dusting cloth
04:51 February 3, 2011 by JAMessersmith
Last I checked, "Polish" wasn't a race. There are four human races: Caucasoid, Negroid, Mongoloid, and Australoid. If she was being taunted or discriminated against for being white (i.e. Caucasian), that would be racism, but anti-Polish sentiment would be more aptly described as "bigotry" rather than "racism". FYI.
09:12 February 3, 2011 by JensS
Comment removed by The Local for breach of our terms.
12:27 February 3, 2011 by rajkshan
I don't know what is all the fuss about her. If she doesn't like her job, then close it. If one does not like, just say sorry i cannot come from tomorrow. Every job has it's plus and minus.
16:49 February 3, 2011 by SockRayBlue
Having been inside many homes during my career it is truly amazing seeing how others live. At times quite disgusting! It just goes to prove what people will do to survive.
20:37 February 4, 2011 by brnskin2010
I guess cleanliness isn't next to godliness for some...LOL...@ JAMessersmith...there r three races..australoid is not one of them......everyone has some natiness about them...i see germans all the time digging in there noses and plucking mucus off of there finger....how unsanitary is that......I mean come on people there is nothing wrong with cleaning for a living....at least it's honest work......but down right filthiness...there is no justification for that........i mean even the creator told the jews that when they went to ease themselves outside the camp when they were in the wilderness to bring a spade so that they could cover it up because no one wanted to smell or step in dung ().
10:56 February 5, 2011 by tomjack
How clean is your House?

There are a lot of lazy people out there fur coat no knickers and top show both come to mind. I mean tampons and condoms under a bed where is the justification for that filth I cant imagine what was in their top draws.
14:06 February 5, 2011 by Englishted
I went to Poland once never again ,now there is a dirty place.
18:59 February 5, 2011 by Jever
I don't think it really matters where the cleaning lady is from and what country she works in.

I just find it interesting that she would write a report about her "findings". It might be fairly amusing to read and yes, maybe a bit more so since this is about Germany, the land of the saubere Hausfrau.

Not me, I am German, a freelancer and homemaker and since I work from home, I have no cleaning lady:-)
20:06 February 11, 2011 by sabine6364
I'm German living in the US. Housecleaning is just something I am not good at. My family would rather I cook for them (something I enjoy and am good at) than stress about how clean the house is. They don't care how clean the house is anyway as long as they get to their activities, have clean clothes, and good food to eat.

Since housecleaning is my hangup, I have help once a week. I pick up before she gets here. I put my families things on their beds so they have to put them away before they can use the bed. Michelle cleans the bathrooms, floors, kitchen, and dusts. I had to explain to my husband that she is here to clean, not pick up after us. I know I am lucky we can afford help. I offer lunch since she works 9-2, and have driven her when she didn't have her own transportation because good help is hard to find.
09:01 February 18, 2011 by authun

I guess that's what books are all about, to relate something interesting, so I guess the cleaning lady's qualifies like any other. Agree that the saubere Hausfrau angle makes it more interesting.

If you're indeed German, how/why do you write English so exceptionally well? :)
17:23 February 22, 2011 by sabine6364
I first came to the US when I was 8, and went to school here and in Germany until I finished high school, then went to college here. I also live in a community where there are other Germans so I can keep up my German, and the rest of my family lives in Germany so I see both sides of the issue. My cleaning lady is American, not an immigrant but I have friends whose helpers are not from the US.
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