By Gillian Young
My cell phone rang and my stomach turned. I picked up and a stern voice started yelling at me. In frigid French, I’m told I destroyed a six-year-old girl’s sweater when I put it in the washing machine.
The voice told me to never do it again.
Where I come from, six-year-olds don’t wear cashmere sweaters. But this is the 16th Arrondissement in Paris — the neighborhood of chic apartments, Louis Vuitton purses, the wealthy and well-dressed.
After my first year of struggling as a fresh, young journalist at Ryerson, I decided I needed a change. I didn’t know if my program was for me, and the next three years before graduation sat dauntingly ahead.
So I decided to exchange my life of textbooks for a life as a Parisian au pair — basically a glorified nanny.
I’m not the only one. Maria McGraw, a program coordinator at Au Pair Canada, sees the amount of young women signing up to work abroad as nannies increase each year. Each year a couple hundred people sign up to find an au pair placement through her agency. McGraw explains that their reasons are similar to mine.
“Many go because they want to change something in their lives. They want to see their lives in a different perspective,” says McGraw.
“They want to go to Europe to have a unique experience.”
For many, being an au pair allows them to see another country while having a built-in safety net. In exchange for child minding and some light housework, families provide au pairs with a place to stay and a weekly stipend.
I first became interested in working as an au pair when I saw an ad posted online for a family looking for a nanny. I didn’t get the job, but the idea stuck with me.
I spoke a little French. I could fly to Paris, have an apartment, a job and a paycheque right away. I could work with an authentic French family and integrate myself into the city that makes every girl swoon.
But life in Paris wasn’t the dream I had imagined it to be. I found it hard to feel romantic when running after two small children while wearing a young boy’s Harry Potter backpack and a chocolate stained t-shirt.
I found the family that I wanted to work for through an online au pair agency.
The family seemed perfect: a young, stylish couple with a six-year-old girl and an eight-year-old boy, Hortense and Terence. The father was a banker and the mother worked in the fashion industry. They had no pets, I would have my own apartment and they lived in a posh area.
After writing e-mails back and forth and sending letters of reference and photographs, the deal was sealed. I picked up a one-way ticket for Paris and felt freedom in my hands.
I needed this year. A year away from poorly-lit classrooms, frat boys and bad cafeteria food. I needed a year in the real world.
The first day the father met me at the train station, tall and handsome with bright blue eyes. We drove through the city in the morning light, monuments and bridges painted gold in sunlight, the city presenting itself to me in all its splendor.
At the family’s apartment we feasted on baguette and fresh croissants. The kids, small in their cotton pyjamas, the mother tanned and blonde in a white linen nightgown.
The apartment itself was straight out of a design magazine, with white leather furniture, a modern table and chairs, a winding staircase and a view of the Eiffel tower.
At this point I had no idea what the next 12 months held for me. I never could have imagined the mother closing the door on my face months later, tears streaming down my face, after she scolded me for not being able to babysit one weekend.
When I was shown to my apartment, we passed the stylish lobby, went outside to where the garbage was kept and took the elevator up to the eighth floor where it sat. The hallway was dark and grey, paint chipping off the walls. My shared bathroom was at the other end of the balcony and I would have to slip outside into the night air if I had to go during the night.
While the apartment itself was well-decorated, it was the size of a small shoebox. When I pulled out my bed I barely had enough room to walk through my apartment. I was impressed that they managed to squeeze in a shower and a small kitchenette.
Soon my daily routine in Paris began. Everyday I would buy a baguette, walk up to the kids’ school and wait with all the other nannies and mothers. The nannies were mostly Polish, and would stand together and gossip in their native tongue. The mothers, always immaculately dressed in designer trends, would speak delicately amongst each other about their last holiday or their adorable children.
When the gates of the school opened I would pick up the two children. Terence would silently pick at the baguette I’d brought along, while Hortense huffed at the sight of me, as if even my smile was cramping her lifestyle.
Back in the apartment I help Terence start his homework, then listen to Hortense do her reading. When she’s finished I prepare dinner. I cook up a feast, only to have the kids complain again. I pray that at least the parents will appreciate the food I’ve left for them.
It was a huge relief when my French language classes began and I could exchange horror stories with other au pairs.
I talked to Julia Maximets, a beautiful blonde Russian au pair, who was left a note by the mother of the family she worked for, telling her not to wear red nail polish. After working herself to exhaustion, the note felt like a slap in the face.
It was stressful work — I was responsible for someone else’s children, making meals, buying groceries, doing laundry, cleaning dishes, all while staying sane and following a rigid schedule.
“Your nerves are always going crazy in a job like this,” says Marilyne Guillalot, a French au pair. “It’s not like working in a store, where you can go for a walk or smoke a cigarette, then come back and things will be okay. You always have to give your full attention here.”
For some, working as an au pair is much more than just an easy job. There are many who leave poor countries for a better life in Paris, and depend on their job to stay here.
One of those women, Dimitrina Ivanova left Bulgaria when she was 18 to come and work as an au pair in Paris.
“A bunch of my friends were going so I went too. The agency we went through presented the job like a dream,” says Ivanova, now 27. “But a lot of us came here and ended up feeling like slaves.”
Ivanova looked after two young girls, whose mother’s insensitive comments hurt her. “One night she told the girls to eat their fruit, because kids in Bulgaria couldn’t even afford fruit.”
McGraw admits that au pairs from Canada have it easier. Most of the families who hire Canadians to work for them want them for their language skills. They want native English speakers who will teach their children. But families who want someone to do a lot of housework as well as look after their kids tend to hire Eastern European au pairs.
“It’s a weird situation,” says Ivanova. “They pretty much have ownership over you, and both of you know that they can put you outside if they want to.”
I found my first four months in Paris especially hard. I left Canada and walked into a different culture, a different family and a different life. It wasn’t easy. I didn’t know the unwritten rules or my boundaries.
When I first started working I was told that I dressed too sexy, and that my low-rise jeans and short tank tops were sending out a bad message. At the end of a very long day I was yelled at because Terence’s homework wasn’t finished. I was blamed when the kids left their jackets at tennis, or when their toys trailed into the living room.
I found refuge with a Turkish family who owned a restaurant in Montmartre. One day I was standing at the Sacre Coeur, the beautiful church that overlooks the whole city, when a young girl approached me. She told me she thought I was beautiful, and wanted me to come to her family’s restaurant for a drink with her and her brother.
I was so lonely that I couldn’t refuse, and in the small restaurant of fast Turkish food, I found a family. I ended up eating dinner with them that night and came back every weekend thereafter. The family fed me, laughed with me, respected me and treated me like a second daughter.
Eventually I made friends too. Through my blog, I met exchange students from Yale University, and the weekends turned into rampages around the city and extravagant dinner parties. I met a young English teacher from New York who could talk for hours about literature.
I started to meet people everywhere, and my life started to take on an exciting pace. One night I went for dinner with a young music publicist I met, where the rapper Busta Rhymes was the guest of honor.
My year in Paris was a challenge but I came out alive. Not only that, but I didn’t kill the children, gain 50 pounds from all my croissant bingeing, or suffocate in my tiny apartment. I loved Paris, but I’ll never take another job as a nanny.