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Memoires of a Reluctant Au-pair – Part II

Breakfast with Benny

Au-pair. It’s got such an airy, breathy, any-thing-can-happen sound about it to an English ear. As if you’ve just opened a door to something rather exciting and, let’s face it, maybe even a little bit risqué. It’s origin meaning ‘on equal terms’, ie: an exchange of mutual services between two parties, all sounds very right and proper, but think about it. Take one adventurous girl and move her in with a young family in a country she knows nothing about and where she knows no-one. It’s not exactly a recipe for good times, in fact it’s just as likely a recipe for exploitation, loneliness and anxiety.

My first au-pair experience was a brief one. It took place over the summer holidays between my two years of sixth form. The second stint was more intensive. Once again it was based in Florence and again, there were two girls; an adorable 18- month old toddler whom the Signora mostly looked after and an out-of-control four year-old called Barbara. I called this child’s name so many times throughout the day, pronouncing all three syllables the Italian way ‘Bar-ba-ra!’, that I began to feel like an old ewe bleating for my lambs. I called it plaintively, impatiently, desperately and wearily. The kid seemed to court disaster. If there was a swing to fall off, a river to fall into, a busy road to dash into or some other poor kid to torment, Barbara was on the job. It was thanks to her that I quickly learned all the key imperatives in Italian until it felt as if they were on a loop. ‘Basta!’ That’s enough. Smettila! Stop it. Lascialo stare! Leave it alone! Non toccare! Don’t touch. Andiamo a casa!’ Let’s go home. I was like a sergeant major who was never off parade.

As an au-pair, certainly at the beginning, it’s a bit like been under house-arrest. Yes, you can actually leave the house, but where would you go on your own? Who do you know? There are no friends to call up and wherever you are in the world, getting up the nerve to do the sights solo isn’t always easy and it feels a little sad. On the other hand if you don’t go out when you get the chance, the Signora has you captive and she will usually find some extra chores for you. But it’s scary out there on your own and the men ( in Italy at least) are a perpetual nuisance….

So much for the anything-can happen part of the job. Now for the risqué.

The irony was that for a lot of au-pairs the real danger was right there in the house. Forget the crazy kids and the demanding Signora, the biggest worry was often the husband. The man of the house would be polite and respectful enough around his wife and kids, but any chance he got, he seemed to think it was part of the au-pair package to be able to try it on with you. Mornings in the kitchen become a battle of nerves and nifty sidesteps. The Signora is performing her morning ablutions in peace while you are alone sorting out the kids’ breakfast. You reach into a cupboard for the sugar and he’s right behind you. With his hands on your hips he’s sliding passed you with a lot of groin to buttock contact. And when you step to the fridge for the milk, there he is brushing behind you again, because, guess what, he needs something from the fridge too. You know perfectly well that what he’s after doesn’t come chilled, but you force yourself to make light of. You have to. You keep hoping the Signora will put a stop to it before it all gets a bit Benny Hill, but he’s crafty and he chooses his moments carefully, and sometimes it feels as if she actually doesn’t want to see it. At your most paranoid you find yourself thinking; does she know? is she letting this happen?

You even start to get nervy about going to bed because your bedroom door has no lock and you know that strategically placing your empty suitcase behind the door (you’re susceptible to drafts, if anyone asks) is no kind of precaution. And you fantasise about being a feisty Calamity Jane type of frontier gal who sleeps with one eye open and a loaded shotgun at the side of the bed.