In the summer before my A levels, I spent a month in France being the world’s worst au pair.
I set off with no childcare experience or domestic skills of any kind. To be fair, my French was excellent and I could talk at length about existentialism and Sartre’s mauvaise foi. I had other talents, too: I could play the solo in Telemann’s viola concerto, and write an amusing limerick on any given subject.
None of these skills, it turns out, is useful when one is required to help a single mother living with two small children in the French Alps.
I quite liked children in general — cute ones who chatted and showed you stuff and asked you to read them stories. My small charges, on the other hand, were semi-feral and hugely resentful of having a stranger looking after them. I tried —
I honestly did — but they completely refused to do anything I asked them to do.
So I was put to work in the kitchen instead. The family was in charge of the catering for a summer activity camp. Forty children needed to be fed three times a day. It quickly became clear that my vegetable-chopping, washing, drying, sweeping and cleaning skills were all as well-honed as my ability to win over hostile small children. The mother was surprisingly patient, though she didn’t hide her opinion of me.
One day, trying to make conversation, she held up a vegetable I didn’t recognise. (Looking back, I suspect it was a leek.) “What do you call this in English,” she asked. Not wanting to admit I didn’t know what it was (although in fact her opinion of me couldn’t possibly have sunk any lower) I said, “Um…celery.” “That’s funny,” she replied. “We have a food in France called céleri but it’s something completely different.”
Perhaps surprisingly, the month I spent au pairing was not my lowest achievement of that summer. Before arriving with my unlucky host family, I had spent 24 hours as a waitress in a French tennis club. Twenty-four hours, because although they wanted to sack me more quickly than that, they didn’t feel able to throw a 17-year-old on to the streets before making sure she had alternative accommodation.
Twenty-five years have gone by since then, and we now have our own au pairs. We have this in common with so many other north London Jewish families. My kids go to a Jewish primary school and, at their sports day, there was a mums’ race, a dads’ race and an au pairs’ race. Say no more.
I’m well aware that this makes us very privileged. In actual fact, au pairs are probably the cheapest form of childcare you can find — and if you have two working parents, childcare is an essential part of life, not a luxury. But of course the privilege comes from the fact that, to have an au pair, you have to have a spare room.
Inviting a young girl (or boy) from another country to live and work in your house is absolutely fraught with difficulty, though when it works it’s brilliant. There really isn’t any sure formula for success, so we just try to be basically kind and decent and hope for the best.
Miscommunication is rife, as demonstrated by this conversation with one new incumbent:
Me: “Will you be here for lunch tomorrow?”
Au pair: “’Flunch’? What is ‘flunch’?”
Me: “No — for… lunch.”
Au pair: “So we are having ‘flunch’ for lunch? But what is ‘flunch’?”
Furthermore, misunderstandings are by no means always the fault of the au pair. At work one day, I suddenly remembered I’d left a mug by the sink that had a special coating which would be ruined if put in the dishwasher. I sent a text to our au pair to that effect.
Her unpromising reply: “And you’re telling me this, because…?”
My heart sank. This au pair was very new, but I’d had the impression she was sweet and helpful and polite. I texted back, explaining that I needed her to wash the mug in the sink.
The answer came with what appeared to be thinly-veiled sarcasm: “Thank you for letting me know. I will make absolutely sure to hand wash it with great care on all future occasions.”
At this point, I glanced at the top of my phone screen and realised that the entire conversation had taken place not with my au pair, but with my friend Sara.
Despite many mishaps, we are still in touch with almost all of our old au pairs. We know that we’re lucky to be able to have them and that it’s a tricky job to do.
I, on the other hand, did not stay in touch with my French family. I suspect that the mother still tells stories of that idiot English teenager she had to put up with one summer, long ago.