Today marks my seventh anniversary of living abroad! On the 8th March 2011 I set out on an intended four month adventure to the French suburbs surrounding the Swiss metropolis of Geneva. Four homes and seven years later (with some border hopping in the middle), here I am still. Having done virtually no research save for previously reading a host of Victorian governess novels I had rashly determined on becoming an au pair. It was not my wisest decision. Neither was an identical decision, made at the end of the four months, to au pair à nouveau when I needed to find immediate employment in order to stay in close proximity to my brand new not-quite-a-boyfriend. I may have misjudged the family, but at least my romantic gamble paid off, as at the end of a week’s holiday driving around Corsica on the back of his motorbike (a last minute interloper on boys’ biker trip), around three weeks after our first ‘pre-date’ and in between swapping the first nightmare family for a second, he made his most romantic gesture to date by asking me to be his girlfriend.
Reminiscing, on such an auspicious occasion as today, on the horrors of au pairing is impossible – my first kir of the season (Spring is nearly here) and I are in far too celebratory a mood to dwell on such depressing subjects, so I will limit my observations on the au pair trade to a few words of caution…
To all aspiring au pairs:
- Reconsider. Au pair happiness is such a lottery – it can be a fabulous experience; it can be hell. Are you absolutely certain that you want to take that chance?
- Be wary of simply accepting blindly the first job that is offered to you. Then, be even warier of again accepting the first job that is offered to you if you are courageous and foolhardy enough to au pair for a second time;
- Insist upon talking to the family’s current au pair. In my first post my predecessor had fled well before I appeared to take her place (as did I eventually). It ought to be easy enough to tell if he or she genuinely likes the family, but do ensure that they are speaking to you in private and remember that they may be in need of assistance themselves. Casually mutter a code phrase worthy of James Bond himself (“In March the snow falls gently on St. Petersburg”, “The hungry dog barks at the weary bin man”, “The wise owl hoots at the nocturnal carp”…) and if they reply: “Verily, in the place where foxes say goodnight” (or words to that effect) then assume that the poor soul is in dire straits (and possibly Czech*) and call for a taxi at once;
- Remember that if the situation becomes intolerable you are at perfect liberty to leave. You cannot be kept there against your will – indeed most of the au pairs in my acquaintance (as well as myself) were never even declared officially as residing in France or signed a contract. There is therefore no obligation to stay.
My favourite memories from my first four months of au pairing were the day trips that I would take by myself each weekend. I was neither wanted nor welcome at home. I spent virtually all of my salary on petrol (for both solo adventuring and for carting human spawn around the countryside for wholesome extracurriculars, including dance, horse-riding, cricket and rugby – I was never reimbursed) and set off in the car, with directions scrawled on the back of an envelope, to exotic locations in France and Switzerland. As well as allowing me to be as gloriously selfish in my excursions as I could ever dare to dream, pleasing no one but myself, going exactly where I wanted and staying for as long as I chose, these trips also led to an accidental discovery and love of a genre of art previously unknown to me: 1920s and 30s travel advertisements (particularly the PLM range). Originally produced as posters these glorious works of art can generally be found as cartes postales in the major towns and cities, if enough time is devoted to hunting for them. Although I have now amassed a sizeable collection, I have developed an addiction that, unhappily, I have yet to satisfy.
By the end of my residency I had (through overuse) broken the milometer of an already ancient car, and worn out the brakes so much that they were no longer willing or able to do much braking. Clearly this is indisputable proof of a well-travelled and happy car and (during weekends only) au pair.
*”In the place where foxes say goodnight” is an English translation of the Czech equivalent for describing someone or something as being “in the middle of nowhere”. I think that it is wonderful.
Mots du jour:
La vie en France – life in France à nouveau – again PLM – Paris-Lyon-Méditerranée railway cartes postales – postcards