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.
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.
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.
I haven’t had a lot of luck with literary agents, although I did manage to get noticed by a handful, met up with one, and was actually represented by another for a while. One thing I quickly learned is that in addition to being a writer, agents will expect you to be your own slick marketing tool. You will need to reduce not just your book but even yourself to a few juicy sound-bites.
Agents will ask you: What’s different about your book? Why will it sell? And it’s no use bridling as if you’ve just been asked to strip off and walk down the High Street naked. This is no time to get precious about the baby you’ve brought into the world with such love and care. The fact is you are just another hawker in the marketplace selling words by the page. So how are your words any more special than those words the guys are selling on the stalls all around you? In fact, if you had to cut through the market babble to pull the punters over to your stall, what would you be shouting?
It’s product analysis, and most of us didn’t set out to create a product much less analyse the life out it; but since you insist (and the agents do insist) here are some of the ideas I came up with for the outside of the ‘package’ of my product.
It’s a fresh take on the’ Brit abroad’: I like to think ‘Barefoot’ is something of an antidote to that, by now, ubiquitous, middle-class, white, Brit abroad, who converts an old farmhouse, saves a vineyard and is in turn enchanted and exasperated by the natives. By contrast Jeli is just a working stiff doing a mundane job in Florence with no agenda except to pay her rent and hang out with her ex-pat pals. So when she’s drawn into a love affair with an unlikely character such as Luca, it’s with no small sense of wonder.
Young, British and black in 70s Italy. There was a blithe innocence about the pervasive racism in Italy at this time that stemmed from the sheer novelty of meeting any black people at all. Back then Italy had no history of immigration and such was the rarity of seeing a black person that people stared as if a unicorn had just stepped into the clearing. It was assumed that any black person was African and the Italians didn’t seem to want it any other way. My claims to be British and black merely baffled them and met with shrugs of disbelief.
It’s the flip side of Florence: The book lifts a lid on the hard-bitten tourist industry that powers Italy. Everyone is familiar with the artistic, cultural and historical draw of a city like Florence, but the ‘Barefoot’ perspective is new ground. In 1973 tourism in Italy was maverick country; with no employment regulations, whimsical hiring and firing and derisory pay. Foreigners like Jeli were easily exploited because it was the only kind of employment open to them in Italy and they were usually desperate to stay in the country any way they could.
It catches the Italian zeitgeist: There’s an on-going appetite out there for all things Italian whether it’s about food, art, music or its perplexing political life. Italy past and present intrigues. From the BBC’s Inspector Montalbano and Italy Unpacked to the Oscar winning film, The Great Beauty, slice it any way you like, people can’t seem to get enough of Italy. ’Barefoot’ is right on trend with Italian food, style and art all part of the seduction as the romance unfolds.
It’s a sexy international love story in one of the most alluring cities in the world as Jeli struggles to square what her head instinctively knows with what her heart can’t help feeling. So yes, it’s an old and oft-told story, but in this case it’s with conflicts of age, race, nationality and class all at the same time. This gives it an appeal to an international and multicultural age-range of women, and judging from my readers so far, plenty of men as well.
The buzzwords then for the book: Sexy love story; Italy; the groovy 70s; British’ n black; the dark side of tourism. You could say it’s where My Fair Lady meets La Dolce Vita with an afro!
As for the buzzwords for myself, I can do no better than quote one of my enthusiastic Australian readers who said the book read like ‘a late 20th century afro-hip Jane Austen’ and that’s good enough for me.
I set out writing Barefoot in the Piazza with my storyline and characters all clear and raring to go in my head. I planned to tell a foreigner’s tale of Florence back in the 70s, from behind the scenes of the tourist industry, that powerful engine that drives the city. Back then English-speaking foreigners were the essential fuel that kept the engine going at full throttle. Mostly female, we were often girls who had dropped off the au-pair circuit, foreigners with Italian boyfriends, or older single women in their thirties who were at some kind of cross-roads in their lives that they couldn’t or weren’t prepared to face back home. Continue reading