Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Au Pair (Of Shoes) Part 2: "Home" is where you hang your head

There I was, standing in line at the security check-point, turned the opposite way of traffic flow, as Adam and I were still waving goodbye to one another like little lost puppies.  Soon enough, though, I was forced to stop waving when a bevy of bodies pushed me deeper into the line, where people stood barefoot, holding their boarding pass and passport in one hand--sandals, slip-ons and flip-flops in the other. 

I wasn’t ready to turn away yet because I knew as soon as I did, all I would have of Adam’s sweet face and those soft ocean eyes were the photographs packed in my suitcase and the images that rested snugly in the confines of my brain.  

I wouldn’t be seeing him for another four months, when I would be coming home for Christmas.  I kept telling myself that four months is not that long a time, but those four months wound up feeling like four years, spent in a beautiful Parisian prison, complete with warden and weird little inmates that teased and taunted my sanity on a daily basis. 

At that moment, though, I had no idea what struggles awaited me.  In that moment, my biggest struggle was turning my back, taking off my shoes, and boarding a plane to Paris.

If it hadn’t been for the lovely woman I met on the plane, who endured my weepiness and repeated references to Adam--“my Bunny Wunny”--I would have been a basket case by the time I landed.  She listened to me for the duration of the six-hour flight, and that was all that I had needed.  

Because I had been to Paris on two previous occasions, I was fairly familiar with AĆ©roport Charles de Gaulle and knew how to maneuver my way through the crowds in order to retrieve my luggage and eventually meet up with my host family, the Silvermans. I had spoken with Mr. Silverman a few days before, and he assured me that he and the kids would be waiting for me in a particular seating area close to the main entrance.  

So I got my luggage, plopped down in a cushiony red seat, and waited.  And waited.  And waited some more.  My plane had arrived on time, around noon, and I was fairly certain I’d been clear with Mr. Silverman about my scheduled arrival time.  Still, I waited there for close to two and a half hours, not really even knowing the people I was waiting for.

When they finally arrived, I saw Mr. Silverman perkily pushing a baby stroller, surrounded by three other children who were jumping up and down, looking very happy to see me.  

They ran up to me, shrieking with delight, hugging a perfect stranger as though I were their long lost sister--the prodigal au pair who’d finally come home.  

“Bonjour!” I said, addressing the children.  “C’est un plaisir de faire votre connaissance!  It’s nice to meet you!”  

As the children began chattering back to me in French, Mr. Silverman shot me a look through a forced, fake smile.  

“Christina,” he said, whispering, tilting his head condescendingly.  “Mrs. Silverman and I would really rather have you speak English with the children, unless of course you’re helping them with their French homework.”

“Oh,” was all I could muster.  

Wait a minute, mister! I screamed in my head.  What? What? What?  No French?  What?  Are you kidding me?

In the meantime, the children were showering me with love.  The two middle children grabbed my hands and walked me out the door, asking questions about the flight, chatting me up like we were old friends.

“So Soryah has a birthday party to go to today, and I thought you might like to help her pick out a present,” Mr. Silverman suggested as we loaded into their car (a very shiny Mercedes SUV). 

“Oh,” I said. “Of course, I would.” 

Really, what else could I have said?  I smiled and widened my eyes, feigning delight, despite the fact that I was jet lagged to the point of collapse and had just found out that I wouldn’t be allowed to speak French while I was living with them--in France--when that was the only reason I went to France in the first place! Aarrgghhhh!!

We arrived at the store within a few minutes, and off little Soryah and I went.  The store offered a sort of upscale Target-meets-Toys-R-Us shopping experience, evidenced by its spectacular selection of goose down comforters down the aisle from a wide array of cheap plastic pointy bouncy crap. 

“So, Soryah, what kind of things does your friend like?” 
“She likes everything..toys, music.  I don’t know.”

Perfect!  That narrows it down!  Soryah was nine years old...how hard could it be to find a stupid toy or something?  

We searched up and down every aisle, peering at every fluorescent-colored doo-dad as though we were on safari, turning every corner not knowing what might appear around the bend. 

“How about this soccer ball, Soryah?” I suggested, perking up at the prospect of possibly getting out of that store and climbing into a bed--forever.  

“Um, okay.”  

Yes! Off to bed!

Obviously, I knew that I would have to spend more time with the family before they would let me retire to my quarters, whatever those were going to be.  If I hadn’t been so freaking tired, I might have actually noticed that I was entering the Twilight Zone. With my luck, little Soryah's limbs would suddenly stiffen, her eyes would roll back into her head, and she'd say, "I'm Talky Tina, and I'm going to kill you!"  

When we got back to the car, Mr. Silverman greeted me grimly.  

“Wow--took a long time, huh?”
“Oh, I’m sorry...Soryah just couldn’t seem to decide on a...”

“Next time, maybe you could offer her some more suggestions, huh?” he said, obnoxiously pointing to his watch. “It’s getting kind of late.”

Maybe next time you can take your OWN daughter shopping for her friend’s birthday present and let me get some god-forsaken sleep, Mr. Butterbeans!

“Yes, of course,” I replied, wanting to slap him.  “I was just trying to help her pick the perfect gift.”

“I’m sure.” 

As the children talked my ear off, curling up and crawling all over the seats like chubby roly-poly bugs, I listened to them for the first time, observing their family dynamic. They seemed especially hyperactive to me, but at the time I attributed it to their excitement over having met their lovely and charming new au pair.  Then, out of the blue, Soryah and her brother, Stuart, started rocking their butts back and forth, twisting their arms and legs like Bavarian pretzels. 

I looked at Mr. Silverman who rolled his eyes as though he’d seen this before. “Are you guys all right?  Can you wait till we get home?”

“Yeeeessssssss!”  they giggled, as they continued their strange ritual.  

I was beginning to have my doubts about this family.  But as weird as the children were beginning to appear,  I was impressed by their very fluent English.  In fact, they pretty much sounded American.  I guess that was partly due to the fact that Mr. Silverman was an American who moved to France after he got married, preferring to raise his children among the wine-drinking, scarf-wearing French, instead of Cheetos-chomping, Nascar-watching Americans.  (I sort of didn’t blame him.  I, too, really, really like wearing scarves--they're so pretty.)  He married Jeanette,--Mrs. Silverman, whom he’d met in Africa, and the rest is Silverman family history.  

“So here we are,” he said in his soft-spoken voice.  

We pulled into a long, brick-paved driveway that lead to a wrought-iron gate.  He told the eldest daughter, Lia, to get out and open it, and as she did, I sized up the house--and boy was it stunning.  Suddenly, I wondered how I was going to fit in there.  In that home, in this family.  

Before we even got out of the car, Mrs. Silverman was walking out the door, smiling and waving at us.  

“Welcome to our home, Christina,” she said in a rich, resonant African voice.  “Welcome to our family.”
“Thank you so much, Mrs. Silverman.  It’s so nice to finally meet you.”  

As I started walking toward the front door, Mr. Silverman corrected me yet again. 

“Oh, no, Christina,” he said, waving me over to the back entrance.  “We only use the front entrance for special occasions.”

Stupid! Stupid!  What was I thinking? I'm not special!

I smiled, my head swirling with thoughts of my parents’ condo back in Chicago.  They had two entrances too, but one was through the garage--a servant’s entrance, perhaps?

The kids were jumping up and down, grabbing my hands, leading me toward the only door I was deemed fit to enter.  I looked up and all around the grounds, taking in the scope of the place, as I glimpsed a young, dark-skinned woman peering down from a third-floor window.  She looked wistful yet full of hope, like a princess trapped in a tower, thinking perhaps that someone had finally come to rescue her.  

“Who is that up there?” I asked Soryah.
“Oh, that’s just Calixthe.  Our cousin.  She lives with us.  She does our laundry and stuff.”

She lives here? Then why do they need me?

I walked into the house and jokingly said with jazz hands splayed, “Honey, I’m home!” But no one laughed, and I timidly hung my head in mild embarrassment.

Clearly, this was anything but home.