Thursday, October 29, 2009

Au Pair (Of Shoes) Part 1: How I got worn in, worn out, and tossed into a Parisian poubelle

When I first decided to sit down and write the story of my au pair experience, I was curious to know how much had already been written on the subject.  So I browsed through online library catalogues, glanced through a list of titles on Amazon and was pretty surprised at what I’d found.  Among the smattering of “how to” guides and “diaries” on the subject was a laundry list of tacky novels with the words “hot,” “sunk-kissed,” and “skinny dipping” in the titles, featuring tanned, bikini-clad bodies sprawled out on their covers.  

Because I did not actually read those novels, I cannot presume to know whether they are well written, truthful, or substantive.  But common sense--and a vague understanding of how book covers advertise content--tells me that those novels are likely a distortion of the au pair experience, an experience, which, for me, rarely included sun bathing on the beach and almost, almost never involved any skinny dipping.  

Of course, I’m speaking only from my own experience.  And mine was a strange, often times psychologically crushing one, as my romanticized dream of living and working in France fizzled out like a half-way blown up balloon that slips from our fingers, leaving everywhere a splatter of spit and exhaled air.  The splattered mess that remained was hard to clean up in light of the fact that I was alone in a foreign country, living with strangers who cared very little about me or my psychological well being.  They cared little about giving me the experience I was looking for, so I was forced to create it for myself.  

So I did. With a tiny balloon in hand, I inhaled, puckered my lips, then poured my heart and soul and breath into that space, trying my best to create my own inflated dream world.  I climbed inside, knowing that I could maintain my dream if only I could keep that fantasy balloon afloat. But inevitably, the weight of the truth made it droop and sag until it finally fell to the ground.  

*  *  *
I had been teaching French and English at a catholic high school on the north side of Chicago when the idea first came to me.  After two years of teaching French there, I learned that the school was cutting down its World Language Department, which meant that I would no longer be teaching French.  When I was told this by the principal, something clicked over in my brain, a sort of either-or switch that compelled me to offer him an ultimatum:  Either I’m allowed to teach French, or I’ll leave.  

As much as my principal did not want to see me go, the decision to shrink or grow the department was not his to make, so he had no other choice but to let me leave.  I thanked him for his understanding and support, as he was genuinely a person I trusted.  But that switch that had clicked over turned on a crazy decision-making machine, for not much time passed before I had made the decision to go to France to live and work as an au pair.  I remember feeling triumphant over this decision, feeling certain that following my heart--my true passion--would lead me to a life full of joy, and more importantly, one devoid of regrets.  

The dream was a simple one:  move to France for a year or so, immerse myself in the language, learn all that I could, and enrich my life in ways beyond belief.  Sounds simple, right?  I was so convinced that I knew what I was doing that I tuned out all arguments to the contrary and set about looking for jobs. That’s what I was feeling when I began my online search for agencies that would help me to realize my dream.

I started my search by simply Googling nanny and au pair agencies just to find out preliminary information about the process of applying for such jobs.  The first company I looked into told me point blank that I was too old to be hired by an au pair agency, as I was--ahem, cough, cough--thirty years old, which made me five years past the twenty-five year-old age limit of accepted au pair candidates.  I didn’t stop to think about it at the time, but when I would revisit the experience in later years, I found it very curious that those agencies were seeking out younger, less mature (and less stable) women to uproot their lives and live with strangers, having virtually no support system.  When I was rejected by those agencies, I resorted to looking up internet want ads, and believe it or not, the first one I inquired about wound up being the one.  

It was a beautiful spring evening in late May when I dialed the ten numbers that would seal my fate.  I spoke in French as the female voice picked up on the other end.

“Hello.  Is this the Silverman residence?”
“Yes, may I ask who’s calling?”
“This is Christina Smith.  I’m replying to your ad for the au pair position.”
“Oh, yes.  I would like to speak with you, but it is one o’clock in the morning, here.  May I call you back?”
“Oh, I’m so sorry, Ms. Silverman.  I was so excited about calling that I forgot...”
“Its okay.  I’ll call you back.”

So I had made a dazzling first impression on my prospective new employer, having jolted her from sleep at all hours of the night.  Yeah! Clearly, I was off to a running start and things would only get even better once we were able to talk when she was actually conscious.  Yes, I was on a roll.  As soon as she’d slipped out of REM sleep and wiped the schmutz from her eyes, my sparkling personality and spellbinding charm would win her over, like that!

She phoned me the next day--when she was awake--and the conversation went well.  I spoke with both her and her husband, who was very soft-spoken and seemingly kind.  Because Mr. Silverman happened to be traveling to Chicago on business in a couple of weeks, we arranged to meet for an interview at his hotel--a detail that left my mother and other family members a bit skeptical.  

“How do you know this guy’s not a creep or murderer, or something?” I was asked, about a million times.

“I’m not meeting him in his room, for God’s sake!” I assured them. “We’re meeting in the lobby, with other people around!”

Their concern was sweet and understandable considering the fact that Mr. Silverman was a stranger coming from France to meet a young woman.  But on the phone, both he and his wife had sounded extremely genuine, so I was fairly confident that his intentions were honorable.  Just to be sure, though, I brought Adam with me.

I met Mr. Silverman at a downtown hotel on a sultry night in early June, my heart aquiver with excitement.  I was nervous about making a good impression, but I also felt strangely at ease, knowing what this meeting represented.  If things went well, I would be moving to France for a year to live with this man and his family.  I would read to his children, take them on long walks, and frolic through lush French forests while singing French songs.

After waiting for a while in the lobby, I finally saw him.  He appeared through a bustle of hotel guests and heavy baggage, gliding through the main doors looking slick, slimy, and rich.  He looked at me with large, mischievous green eyes.

“You must be Christina,” he said, reaching for my hand, smiling.
“Yes.  It’s a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Silverman.”
“Likewise.  Shall we sit and grab some dinner?  I’m famished.”

I kindly told him I wasn’t hungry, which he probably deemed discourteous and gauche, but I had suddenly grown nervous and knew that any food I ate would eventually come back to haunt me.  While Mr. Silverman ate his manly butterbean-spinach salad, complaining about the “obese” American portion size, I sat and answered questions about everything from my family background to the reasons why a thirty year-old professional woman would want to become a lowly, low-paid au pair.  

I did my best to explain my reasons:  I had always loved French, I was a  French teacher, and while I’d visited France before, I’d never spent enough time to really absorb the culture.  I told him I wanted to immerse myself in all things French, and I think at some point during the interview he believed me because by the end of it, he’d told me that I was their first choice of all the candidates they had screened.  Yes!  I thought.  I’m number one!

When Mr. Butterbeans had had enough of his salad, he shoved it aside, wiped the corners of his mouth with the dainty tip of his napkin, and then looked at me with his ghoulishly green, cat-like eyes. Why is he looking at me? I thought.  

“Christina, you should know that the kind of pay you’ll be receiving will be under the table, so to speak.”
“You see, unless you want to go through the hassle of applying for visas and everything else, which takes time and money, and...well, it’s really up to you.”
“Is that generally how it’s handled?”
“Well, it varies. But yes, many opt to do it this purposes.”  
“But how long can I stay in France without a visa?”  
“All you need to do is say that you’re visiting and then you can stay for up to four months.  Since you’d be going home for Christmas anyway, you could leave, come back and again simply stay as a visitor.”

Mr. Butterbeans had obviously thought this through.  He told me they’d had au pairs before, so it made sense that he’d learned a few of the short cuts.  At the time, his explanation of the process had seemed perfectly logical, so I accepted it as such and didn’t ask any more questions.

“Oh, before I forget,” he added, pulling out his laptop from a brown leather bag. “I wanted to show you pictures of the house, oh, and the kids, of course.”  

Interesting afterthought, hmm?

One by one, he went through all of their names, ages, likes and dislikes, issues that each one was working to improve, etc.  They were a very good-looking family, but, I have to say, the house was a total knock-out.  He called it “chateau-style” and it certainly looked like one.  Immediately, I was enchanted by the prospect of living with this family in that beautiful home, spending time with his four adorable children who would love, love, LOVE me!  I was convinced.

“So, Christina, we’ll be in touch when we make our final decision,” he said as he stood to shake my hand.
“Thank you for taking the time to meet with me, Mr. Silverman.  I look forward to hearing from you.”

One week later, Mr. Butterbeans called and I accepted the position.  Two months after that, I was standing in the International Terminal of O’Hare Airport, blubbering like an abandoned child, watching Adam’s windshield wiper wave through a gaggle of chattering heads. 

I had absolutely no idea what I was I getting myself into.