Whilst I do not claim to have enjoyed my au pair misadventures (suffered ever such a long time ago now, and happily forgotten for all but a few moments each year) I must acknowledge that it was a wonderful learning experience and taught me so many undiscovered things about myself, about the area and about life in general. Here are ten things I learned from my au pair days:
- Driving on the wrong side of road is not as hard as it looks. When you have no choice other than to get on with it it is surprising how easily you can adapt. This does not mean that I instantly became a perfect continental driver. Au contraire, I have had several driving mishaps (mistaking a bicycle lane, separated from the road by a low wall of plants, for my exit at a junction in Versoix; finding myself stuck on a looping tram track in Basel; and driving up the wrong way on a dual carriageway in desperation, whilst attempting to leave Lyon, to name a few choice incidents) but these were mainly caused by poor navigation choices – the driving part was easy (and I never had an accident). Driving on the right side of the road (which is of course the left) now seems a terrifying prospect, and one which my husband has so far declined to endure, as my passenger;
- Au pairing is nature’s most efficient form of contraception. Forget medication, devices, natural planning, abstention…having sole responsibility (generally from pre-dawn until post-twilight) for a pair of over-indulged enfants rois (but no authority whatsoever) will kill any foolish feelings of sentimental broodiness for years at a time;
- As an au pair it is quite usual to start work at the end of summer, and to work until the end of the school year in June. This way you will have friends to go adventuring with for the whole year. Beginning the ordeal in March (as I did) means that everyone else has virtually finished making friends and sightseeing, and is starting to make plans to go home. Sight-seeing alone actually did wonders for my self-confidence;
- I can now ski (poorly). I took my first lesson aged 22, instructed by the indifferent Pascal, who spoke no English (and why should he?). I spent most of the lesson trying to work out what ‘ne penchez pas!’ meant, never having come across the phrase during French lessons at school. It turned out to be one of vital importance whilst skiing;
- I clearly do not understand the true definition of ‘Light housework’ (a typical au pair chore). Whilst I was under the impression that ‘light’ implied non-strenuous or stressful, in my first job this included panic hoovering five times a day in case the boss returned unexpectedly and yelled at me, and in my second included organising (within a five day deadline) decades worth of paperwork for the entire family into new filing system (known only to me as it happens!);
- No non-Brit appears to believe that Brits can cook. Even my raised-in-Britain Indian boss (of household number one) informed me, upon my arrival, that she would teach me to cook. I am still not sure how she intended to do this, since she was rarely home for dinner. Similarly my French boss (of household number two) abused British cookery mercilessly…until she found out that I am very comfortable in the kitchen. Then, still mocking my kinsmen, she used to require me do all the prep for her numerous dinner parties (part of my ‘light housework’ duties) and take the credit later (her husband clearly wasn’t aware of this little arrangement and once praised a particular dish that she had (not) made, whilst talking to me). I believe that I had the last laugh though – by her own admission the ‘best’ soupe à l’oignon that she had ever tasted came my American ‘Southern’ cookery book. I felt a great deal of pleasure in telling her the provenance!
- Terry Pratchett was truly a genius. I spent a very happy week roof-top-balcony sun-bathing whilst devouring my boyfriend’s Discworld collection, having picked up Guards! Guards! out of curiosity and boredom whilst waiting for said boyfriend to wake up from one of only lie-ins I have ever known him to take (my boss family was on holiday). I have now (several years later) read most of the great man’s works;
- Never put a bedroom next door to a room with an open drain – this ought to be self-explanatory;
- Switzerland has its own currency: the Swiss Franc. I did not know this until I moved to the French suburbs of Geneva, and I don’t suppose I even thought about it beforehand. I have once seen a thousand franc note (roughly £750 – it wasn’t mine); it is a beautiful purple colour;
- Moules frites à gogo are to die for.
Mots du jour:
jeune fille au pair – au pair girl au contraire – on the contrary enfant roi – spoiled tyrant ne penchez pas – do not lean (forwards in my case) soupe à l’oignon – French onion soup moules frites – mussels and chips à gogo – galore/aplenty