The Air Must Circulate

Renée E. D’Aoust


At nine o’clock in the morning, our Swiss landlady knocks on the kitchen window or, sometimes, the kitchen door.  Rap, rap, rap.  As I open the door, she points at the beveled glass windows inlaid into the door.

“Umido,” she says.

Condensation has formed on the glass.  The landlady shakes her head.  She starts talking rapidly, in Italian.  I nod.  It is not difficult to understand.  She gestures to the door, mimes wiping it.

I take a dishrag and wipe the glass.  She takes the cloth from my hand and begins wiping away the condensation herself.  She opens the kitchen window, and then she walks into our bathroom and opens that window too.  She looks into the bedroom and shakes her head.

She says something that turns out to be the only Italian phrase I can remember at the end of two months: "L’aria deve circolare."  The air must circulate.  She lifts her nose and sniffs the air.  Then she frowns.

My beau and I are living on the ground floor of a two-story home in a small village in the Italian-speaking section of southern Switzerland.  My beau speaks the language fluently.  I do not.  Day after day, the landlady repeats her instructions.  She knocks on the window, I open the door, she begins speaking rapidly in Italian, she mimes wiping the door, she takes the dishtowel from my hand to wipe the door herself, and then she opens all the windows in the apartment.

“L’aria deve circolare,” she says.

In my desk drawer in Idaho, I have two university diplomas, the most recent from Notre Dame, where I met my beau.  I know how to prune for white pine blister rust.  I know the difference between a dog-hair thicket and a glade.  I volunteer as an Idaho Master Forest Steward.  I am excellent with dogs.  I do not know how to wipe down a window.

“Sono stupida,” I say.  I slap my hand against my chest.  The landlady nods.

She reports my every move, my every comment to my beau.  He reports to me: “The lady says you didn’t open the shutters early enough today, and she says you said that you find speaking Italian very hard, and you prefer to speak American.”

“I didn’t say that,” I say.

“Of course not,” says my beau.  “You don’t know enough Italian to say any of it.”

“I said, ‘Sono stupida.’  And you know I hate triangulation.”

In Switzerland, we wake to the sounds of donkeys braying.  It’s a new sound to start the day.  My beau has a post-doctoral research fellowship.  During the week, while he is at work, I leave the bathroom window open all day.  I open all other windows for fifteen minutes every day.  I diligently fling the comforter out the bedroom window, letting it air like I see everyone else doing in the village.  Despite my obvious stupidness, the lady does not give up on me.  Daily cleaning lessons continue but still black mold starts to grow on the white-plastered walls.  Proactive, I show the landlady the black mold.  I point aggressively.  She shakes her head.  She points at me.  By now I know the phrase.

I take to hiding.  Occasionally, I sneak around the back of the house, so I won’t be seen leaving, and I spend a lovely day at the ultra-modern public library in Lugano, a short train ride from our village.

We pay our rent on time.  We keep the house American clean if not Swiss clean. We are quiet, we do not smoke or drink, we are gone all day Saturday and Sunday hiking in the Alps.  We did not complain when she raised the rent three months after we moved in.  I even smile gracefully when she enters the house and inspects my cleaning, but still we do not let the air circulate enough.

We start the “KLM Project,” meant to “Keep the Lady Mild.”  In addition to what we were already doing, we put all our things in cupboards, institute a new rigor in our household efforts.  All my beau’s favorite maps are folded up and put away.  We leave little papers in doorways, so we can tell that she enters the apartment when we are gone.  We empty the garbage can every evening.  At my mother’s suggestion, I begin turning on the vacuum cleaner and letting it run for several minutes daily.

I do not mean to disparage the landlady, but I cannot help myself.  I feel isolated in my language and inadequate at basic household maintenance.  I did not realize renting here would include supervision but know that at almost eighty years old, the landlady is not going to change.  She has incredible energy.  She takes yoga.  She lets us use her washing machine, which is a blessing as the concept or reality of laundromats has not made it to southern Switzerland.  I could do without all the cleaning lessons, but it’s a different culture.

Friends from America send me e-mails:  How is Sweden?

I write back, Switzerland is great.

No one realizes they’ve confused two incredibly different countries.  To Americans, we now live in the lump that Americans call Europe.  I exist inside the contrasts of bi-continental living.  It sounds sexy.  In late fall, I hide behind the curtains in the living room, watching the landscapers clean the yard.  I'm doing a lot of hiding.  I’m so over the lessons.

Where I had seen none, the workers pick up leaves and shove them into huge green bags with handles.  The hedge is trimmed, making it look even more proper and stern than it had previously.  Compared to our family forestland in Idaho, this doesn’t look like a garden.  More like a museum.  Several hardwoods are mercilessly pruned, rendering them stark naked in the open air.  The landlady follows the laborers, and she points and points and points.

The landlady bends over, also picking up leaves.  She turns and sees me staring through the curtains.  She gestures.  There is no mistaking the motion.  She wants me to open the windows.  The air must circulate.