During my first year at Bard College Berlin, I lived in the Waldrasse 16 dorm, or as we BCBers affectionately call it, W16. There I experienced for the first time sharing five bathrooms and one kitchen with around eighteen other students. I remember arriving at the building and thinking: this is going to be a mess.
To my relief, the next morning I ran into Monique, one of the three cleaning ladies who form BCB’s Housekeeping Staff. She was as early as 7:00 am already tidying things up with her adorable dog Ginto following her around. Little did I know their working hours started even earlier, generally at 5:00 am, and sometimes even before that, as marked on the timesheets glued to the back of the bathroom doors. In order to arrive on time, the cleaning ladies all wake up at around 3:00 am.
Along with Monique, Carola and Hanh (also known as Hani) are responsible for cleaning not only my former dorm, W16, but also the campus’ eleven other buildings, including the Kuckoffstrasse 24 dorm, the two apartments in Treskowstrasse, the Administration building, the two teaching buildings in Platanenstrasse, the Factory (Arts building), Cafeteria, Library and Student Center. These buildings accommodate around fifty bathrooms in total, along with numerous kitchens and communal spaces, which are cleaned five days a week by this team.
To me it seems very easy to take this type of service for granted, given that, as students focused on academics or other “more pressing” matters, we rarely even pay attention to how everything is being kept clear and orderly for us. It was only until the week of Fall Break during my first year came, when the cleaning staff didn’t work, that I and many other residents had a reality shock and reflected on how much we depend on these three women and the crucial role they play in the smooth functioning of our college community. The situation of the dorm was chaotic, to say the least; there were toilet paper rolls all over the floor and piles of dirty dishes lying around. For nine days we really missed Monique and Hanh (the two cleaners in charge of the maintenance of W16 specifically).
Yet, it wasn’t only for the gruesome physical appearance of the environment that W16 for a week felt odd, distressing and empty (of human presence, assuredly not of material things). It was because running into Monique, Hanh and Ginto on a daily basis had become a warm and comforting routine for me. They made the whole atmosphere of the place truly much more vibrant and pleasant even with the huge language barrier that existed (and to some extent still exists) between us. Throughout an entire year we would greet each day solely by way of smiles, waves or cheerful Guten Morgens. Sometimes I would hesitantly venture asking Hani a question, mixing some scattered German words with confusing hand gestures, though I often failed miserably. At least we have some funny recollections of those incidents. Nonetheless, as cliché as it may sound, these encounters were the perfect start to my day and I can say marked a big portion of my stay at the W16 dorm, and my memories of my first year of college. We might not have engaged in deeper conversations, or known each other so well back then, but it was heartwarming to leave my room and see the amount of care that was being put into that space and how amiable these ladies were with us students, some of whom they barely knew.
Therefore, this piece is dedicated to thanking and appreciating you; Monique, Hanh and Carola, (and Ginto) for all the time, energy and above all, care you put into making this college, in all senses, feel like our home. Many times you go beyond your duties to promote our happiness and wellbeing, and we’d like you to know that you’re an integral part of our BCB family.
So, who are Monique, Hahn, Carola and Ginto? I had the chance to interview the Housekeeping Staff this semester with the help of Lejla (BA 2022) and, despite it still being quite hard for me to precisely and effectively communicate in German with them, we managed to have a lovely conversation nonetheless.
Monique is from a city bordering Berlin called Hohen Neuendorf, which used to be in the German Democratic Republic. She has been from a young age very much connected to nature, and enjoys outdoor activities in the woods involving horses and now her best pet friend, Ginto, a cheery, small black dog who often accompanies Monique on her cleaning rounds. While speaking about Ginto, Monique emphasizes how important he is to her, and how, since 2014 when she adopted him as a puppy, he is her fortress and means everything to her. Ginto is not only a world champion and collector of trophies in various dog competitions such as the Bundesliga, he is also our much adored on-campus therapy dog. Both Monique and Ginto arrived at BCB three years ago. After passing some tests, he was qualified for the job and now three days a week he supports our student, teacher and administrative bodies as well as Monique, Hani and Carola themselves by offering lots of love and performing cute tricks, cheering us all up when we’re feeling down. (In fact, at this precise moment of the interview Ginto started showing off his many special talents.)
Hahn is originally from Vietnam, and even though she has been in Germany for eighteen years, integrating into German culture was a bit of a challenge for her and she doesn’t feel very confident with her German language skills. Over ten years ago she moved to Berlin and says it is a wonderful city to work and live in. Hahn is also married and is a mother of two sons. She was given the nickname Hani by Monique.
Carola is from Oranienburg but has been living in Berlin with her partner for thirty years now, and they have a 27 year old son. She loves music and dancing.
What is striking about their story together is that all three women actually come from the same working space–before BCB they all worked together for around one year at a laundry firm, which is where their friendship began. Then, Monique was contacted by an acquaintance about a job vacancy here and came to BCB, later calling Hanh and Monique as well when there were more openings available.
When asked about their overall experience working at BCB, they say they believe their job goes way beyond what they’re paid for: washing and cleaning. Monique says that their favorite part about the job is in reality us students. Due to the tasks being difficult and tiring, Carola mentions how it makes a tremendous difference to them when they hear a simple danke schön coming from a student while they work, “It brightens our day.” At a quite emotional moment of the interview, they also talk about how hard it is to say goodbye to some students they got especially attached to at the end of each semester. “I sometimes cry when they leave.” says Monique. While telling me she has no children of her own, Monique emphasizes on how to the three of them, BCB also feels like their family. To Monique particularly, it is as if she’s our temporary mother. In regards to student workers who are hired to assist the Housekeeping staff, these end up having relaxed and casual relationships with Monique, Hanh and Carola. Monique even takes the opportunity to teach some of them mini German lessons along the way, which tend to be very comical, and offers to help with cooking if students are in need of any assistance.
However, there are some very distasteful parts of their job they believe they shouldn’t have to deal with, given all of us are adults. These include when students simply exceed the limits, because they are well aware that what they’re doing is wrong.“If they spill liquid on the floor, they should instantly go clean it.” When it comes to the dorm kitchens, it isn’t the Housekeeping staff’s job to organize the shelves or empty pans with rotten food for instance, this should all be the responsibility of whoever cooked the dish, yet the ladies do intervene at times because they care about our health and living conditions. Monique says it’s only a very small percentage of students who seem to not have much consideration for their work, but still it does pose unnecessary problems and extra workload. After all, the dorms are students; homes and everyone should help each other so that no one ever feels overwhelmed. This also applies to their own relationship with each other, as she states, “We work hand in hand and despite our differences and natural ups and downs, we really rely on each other for all our needs.” With the campus expanding more and more as time passes, the workload is also growing accordingly, which means they need each other’s and everyone else’s support more than ever.
The truth is our BCB family wouldn’t be the same, nor complete, without Monique, Hahn, Carol and Ginto. As the saying goes, “Family is what you make it,” and the word ‘family’ can have several meanings based on values, types of relationships, structures and more. The one thing that all family units have in common is precisely the fact they are a single unit made up of many necessary components or members which allow it to thrive. Concerning the concept of home, the word can also have multiple meanings. To me, home represents a place where one can feel secure, cared for, respected and loved. Thus, vielen Dank to the Housekeeping staff for taking this job to a whole other level; you’re one of the central reasons why BCB feels like our home away from home.