Memoires of a Reluctant Au-pair part I

Bullrunning for beginners

Even at 18 I knew I wasn’t cut out to be an au-pair. I had no interest in childcare or even children for that matter, and other than being based overseas, the job in itself held no allure for me.  But back in the early 70s au-pairing for young British girls was the easiest way of getting and staying abroad for a while. So I suspect that like many others in their late teens it wasn’t a pressing desire to work with kids that got me out to Italy, but an urge to experience something new.

So I found myself sharing a household with a family whom I knew nothing about, in a country I knew nothing about, all in a language which I hadn’t taken the trouble to learn.

My first family were well-to-do Florentines, owners of a jewellers in the centre of town. He was older, or so I thought at first, but after seeing her first thing in the morning and glimpsing the array of pots and potions on her dressing table, I began to think they were probably about the same age. With a lovely figure, she really knew how to work that look of bronzed, spare elegance that was the signature-look for wealthy thirty-something women back then in Italy; a simple linen shift dress and a pretty pedicure with gorgeous leather thong sandals, and sleek, dark, glossy hair. The girls were 7 and 13 and the Signora dressed them in identical outfits despite the age difference. While her husband came and went like a shifty lodger, I sensed the girls were afraid of their mother with her savage sense of style and her edgy moods that never seemed to lift. No wonder they were drawn to the big Calabrian housekeeper who came in every day, cooking and cleaning and spreading good cheer; something that seemed to be in short supply in that elegant apartment with its huge roof terrace overlooking the Arno.

After two weeks in Florence we all transferred to their seaside retreat; a pretty little bungalow about a mile and half from the beach at the stylish Tuscan resort of Forte dei Marmi. That is  we all went to the sea except for ‘Papà’ who toughed out the gagging heat of Florence to  flog watches and silver bangles to the tourists. He would join us on Saturday evenings, go for a swim in the sea on Sunday and disappear again later that day.  My daily routine would be to cycle down to the beach with the girls at about 10 am and sometimes the Signora would drive down later to join us. She would kick off her pretty beach mules, get the eldest girl to oil her up, and then lie lifeless on her lounger like a lizard absorbing the sun. Her stunning array of designer bikinis, showed off her great figure and her nutty-brown tan to perfection and she knew it. She ignored the girls and me entirely as we splashed about at the water’s edge and romped on the beach, and we knew better than to try to engage her as she set about the serious business of giving herself, body and soul, to the sun.

As for me, well I had a head start in the race for a sun tan but even without trying, after just a  week at the sea in Italy I was black. When I looked in the mirror I couldn’t believe the dark stranger that stared back at me. This darker version of me made my teeth appear scarily white as well as accentuating the whites of my eyes which seemed to flash back at me.  Of course I was black, but born and raised in the UK, I’d never been in a hot climate before.  I was black, but I’d never been this black before and if I’m honest, I didn’t much like it. I was still vain enough to think my freckles were quite attractive but they and the rest of my features were now lost in darkness.

I was the only black person on the entire beach except for a couple of dark-skinned Arabs who came selling coconut slices along the rows of beach loungers every day.‘Noce di cocco!’ they called. Buono! Fresco! Noce di Cocco!’   I stuck out like a sore thumb on that beach and not a day went by when I wasn’t accosted, propositioned or generally harassed by all manner of Italian men. ‘I don’t speak Italian’ I would say trying to avert my eyes from their ludicrously skimpy swimwear and I would rush to join the girls who were usually fighting over their inflatable raft. I soon learned that the trick with the men was to keep moving; otherwise they would come at me, sometimes two at a time, taking turns to pick around the English. ‘‘Where are you from, please? I have car. We go to restaurant tonight? You like the Italian ice cream, yes? We go buy it now?’

The Signora knew what was going on but she never stepped in to defend me from these random Romeos. Although one day, after seeing me try to shake off two hairy pests at the water’s edge she drawled across to me from her lounger: ‘Danno fastidio, vero?’  They’re annoying, aren’t they?

I would have liked to take her up on what seemed like the opener for a stab at conversation, something that had never happened between us. Except glancing out to sea I saw to my horror that her youngest daughter was drifting blithely out into deep water on that damned inflatable raft. Moments later I was gulping mouthfuls of seawater as I thrashed into the surf in pursuit of the child and raft.

By the time I dragged myself back to the loungers, bedraggled, exhausted and cross, the Signora had flipped onto her stomach and was facing away from me. She seemed unperturbed by the closely averted disaster. Clearly she hadn’t felt the need to rush to the rescue of her daughter. In fact, I wasn’t even sure she could swim. I’d never seen her go anywhere near the water. Then again, she may not have wanted to risk ruining her gorgeous Emilio Pucci two-piece.

But I remember there was no sympathy for my predicament in the Signora’s passing remark. If anything it was said with a sort of sardonic amusement. I was a half- dressed young woman; provocation enough in a nation of men who considered chasing fully-dressed young women as a national sport. On top of which, in case I hadn’t noticed, I was black as the ace of spades. My novelty value was at a premium. What did I expect?  I was a red flag taunting a herd of over-sexed bulls and I had better learn to cope with it, was the gist of the Signora’s remark.  In those days I don’t think I’d even heard of Pamplona in Spain, but many times since, I’ve thought of those early days in Italy as my personal Pamplona; especially on the streets of Florence, where it often felt as if I were trying to outrun the whole snorting stampede on a daily basis.