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Memoires of a reluctant au-pair – Part III

Keeping it in the family

They haven’t made the au-pair reality TV show yet, which is amazing given the obvious material for all those slavering armchair voyeurs out there. When I set out thinking around the au-pair experience of the 1970s I said that at that time it was considered the easiest way of getting and staying abroad, but we also believed it was the safest way for a young woman alone. After all you would be held in the bosom of a family. You were guaranteed a roof over your head and something to eat and there would be a little pocket money in exchange for helping out with kids and housework. The fact that these young women on the cusp of shaping their own lives, were being thrown into the choppy waters of other peoples’ marriages, strangers and foreigners at that, while cut off from their own family and friends (there were no mobiles or internet, remember),seems almost shocking to me today. I mean really. What were we thinking?

Most of us were expected to sign up to a family for a year though there was no formal paper-work. So if you were going to have any life of your own during the next twelve months, you had better get out there and make some friends, fast.

So you make the kids their breakfast, wipe down the kitchen, sweep the tile floors, make the beds, but mostly you seem to spend a lot of time sitting in playgrounds and parks with the pushchair crowd. And you wonder: how did a smart, go-getting girl like you, end up being an underpaid skivvy and childminder while dodging someone’s randy husband? Then one day you spot another girl attached to a child in the park; she looks as foreign and dislocated as you and it turns out she’s from Dublin, and guess what? She knows another au-pair from Amsterdam who lives around the corner, and she knows etc. Pretty soon you know most of the girls on the immediate au-pair circuit and instead of the office water-cooler you find yourselves hanging around the drinking fountains in the park trading your stories. They are nearly all the same. The kids are a nightmare; the Signora is snappish and begrudges you any time off; the husband has the sex drive of a rhesus monkey. It’s grim but oddly comforting to know you are not alone. But there were a lucky few who seemed to have landed on their feet with their family. Gretchen from Munich was one of them.

I met Gretchen in the park one day as she watched a little boy terrorising the pigeons by trying to mow them down on his tricycle. She told me that her host family were wonderful. It was like living with pals. They sent her to Italian classes and let her borrow the car when she wanted. She and her Signora were great buddies. They often went to the cinema together and she and Gretchen would often swap clothes. The pair of them would even have giggling girlie sessions trying on make-up together. As for the little boy, Francesco, Gretchen nodded fondly at the little three-wheeled assassin. ‘Isn’t he adorable? I’d like a little boy just like him one day’ she crooned. I followed Gretchen’s gaze to see that Francesco had now been joined by Barbara the Pigeon Slayer, my own four year-old charge, who was laying about her with a big stick she had found, bent on the wholesale slaughter of pigeons everywhere. ‘Bar-ba-ra! Stop it now! Put that stick down. What did I say? I said put..’

As I dragged Barbara away in a hail of kicks and flailing arms I remember thinking: good for Gretchen. It was nice to think that at least one of us was enjoying and not enduring the au-pair experience. Nice to know it could happen. She likes the kid and she likes the parents, and they like her back. That’s all it took to totally transform the situation. I felt a little glow of warmth stirring inside for Gretchen’s good luck with this special family. It’s probably what helped me resist the urge to give Barbara a good old-fashioned clout as she yanked my arm almost out of socket and aimed a big gob of spit at me.

Many months later when I was living and working independently in Florence, I ran into Gretchen again in a popular bar in town. We had coffee together and I discovered that, despite her positive experience of it, she too had broken free from life as an au-pair. She was now working in a ceramic shop off Ponte Vecchio. I told her I was working in a shop too and sharing a flat with American girls my own age;really enjoying the freedom. Gretchen told me she had her own place on the other side of the river. I was surprised but impressed. Few of us young, foreigners could afford a place to ourselves, but it would be just Gretchen’s luck to have pulled it off, somehow. ‘But don’t you ever get a bit lonely?’ I asked. ‘Oh, didn’t I say’ she said ‘I live with Mario. You remember. Francesco’s dad’. She ran the flat of her palm tenderly over what I now noticed was the baby bump of her belly and she smiled with a sort of shy pride. I congratulated her and took her phone number. Of course I would stay in touch, I lied. The fact is I was shocked. After all, there was getting on with your family, and then there was getting it on with your family. Most of the au-pairs I knew worked at fending off the husbands, all too often it seemed to be an occupational hazard, but here was a new twist. Here was a girl who had welcomed the advances, maybe even encouraged them, who knows?

And what about Gretchen’s gal pal, Mario’s wife? I’m guessing she was still living out in the suburbs with little Francesco. Was she in shock or did she see it coming? Gretchen had looked so content back there in the bar, but it all left a sour taste in my mouth. Somewhere in a suburban park in Florence, I thought, there’s an unhappy kid on a tricycle who’s making those pigeons pay.