Wednesday, May 27, 2009

I Miss My Au Pairs

Throughout my childhood my mother waxed poetic about the numerous French au pairs she'd had to help her when we were little. There was Jocelyne whom my brother wanted to marry at the age of two. And Francine who could sew Vogue patterns and had gorgeous long legs. Mom first shared the secret of her third pregnancy (me) with her. These girls apparently doted on us, and as I absorbed the stories, were absolutely lovely and all good. So, when I found my life rather out of control with the growing business of the cooking school and a small toddler to care for, I immediately considered the solution of an au pair. I didn't have family nearby, and didn't know Erick's aunt well enough to consider asking her to care for Leo.

Erick wasn’t too sure. A stranger in the house? No one else nearby had chosen this solution. However, they nearly all had mamies (grandmas), which I did not. So, I persuaded him that it wasn't normal that I was sick nearly monthly; and that, with the sleep deprivation plus the house responsibilities, I'd never be able to get the business off the ground if I didn't have help. Perhaps if I didn't have my father's sleep needs (8-10 hours), I wouldn't be in such need, but... Best accept this fact and proceed forth to a solution.

So, I sent out word by email to friends, family and cooking clients to let them know that I was looking for a good-humored, helpful, Francophile young woman to help with my toddler, dishes and house-work. Amazingly, Carrie, a marvelous, hard-working, gracious, funny, and adept French speaker answered my call and came across the ocean from the Mid-Western United States to help.

From the day of her arrival I leaned upon her heavily. I had months of sleep to catch up on, and gratefully would pass Leo to her waiting arms and then go back to sleep – firmly closing the two doors to my bed room so I’d hear no cries, squeeks or burps. As with many a new mother, I could sleep through the local garbage trucks, but not through my child’s peep.

Carrie was a godsend. Discreet, up-beat, adept at using humor to move the stubborn Leo around town—oh, you don’t want to walk? Ok, let’s just sit and watch the world pass us by. Just tell me when you’re ready…

With her there I was able to get myself back together, advance on projects, and improve my nightly cooking offerings. Having another adult to cook for helped me keep to meal rhythms, and knowing I was no longer on dish duty I was able to cook more inventively. Carrie was there for our first expanded Provençal cooking programs. She got to know the guests and proved an enormous help with set up, serving, dishes, and occasionally interpreting when I left the room. Can I say again that she was a godsend?

Carrie was also tall and skinny. I felt a need to nourish her. So for her benefit, I worked on my broccoli and cauliflower au gratin, my béchamel sauces, and other richer dishes. She loved food and enjoyed working alongside us in the kitchen. She even returned to France a few years after her stint with us and often assisted during our cooking classes.

But, at the end of the summer, it was time for her to go home. And so, another girl was hired. She lasted two weeks. And so another came over from England. She lasted one week. So I gave up for that year and asked Marie, my neighbor who ran the Laundromat if she would help me. From that point, I settled into a daily routine of awakening, feeding and dropping Leo off at the laundromat every morning, picking him back up for lunch. On days with cooking classes Marie kept Leo all day, bringing him home with her for lunch, etc.,

This was a nice arrangement, but, not the ideal one. So, when a client suggested her step-daughter, I jumped at the chance. Shortly after, the lovely and gracious dancer-writer from a prestigious New England private university arrived. More beautiful than Helen of lore, Betsy had cascades of thick gold hair down her back, the longest and thickest eye-lashes ever, and a swishing gait as she ever so gracefully took Leo to the park every day. Betsy wanted time to write, and to learn French (she spoke none upon her arrival). Helping her with these two desires was an easy exchange. Gentle and calm, she quickly earned Leo's affection as well as the attention of many young men in town. Numerous mothers of eligible men suggested they take out Betsy, and I encouraged her to accept. “After all, if it’s their mothers that set them up, they’ll treat you correctly, and what a good opportunity to practice your French.” So a bit doubtful, but laughing at the justice of the observations, Betsy went out with these various young men, and safely made her way back home without incident.

Betsy had been a vegetarian before her arrival in our home. But to prepare, she'd eaten a juicy hamburger back home before coming -- it made her sick. However, undeterred, she enjoyed everything we served, and became a fan of our gardian d'agneau with white wine, green olives and potatoes. A favorite dish that she subsequently made up in Paris where she chose to continue her studies for a time. I still remember seeing a little belly form on her previously ballerina figure, and teasing her (gently) about this. Nice to know what you have to offer is appreciated!

From Leo's 18 months to his eleventh birthday, I hired au pairs. Not many stayed longer than six months, even the best of them. They weathered 9/11 with me, and the build up to war in Iraq. They were there for Jonas’ birth (Carrie is his honorary godmother), and as the business grew and developed. They were there when Erick worked non-stop on the bed and breakfast and I took the clients all over Provence. I've seen the good, the bad and the ugly. Some were amazing, hard-working, delightful, good-humored, generous of spirit and infinitely bright and capable. Others were stubborn and unpredictable. One had her valium pills with her (she didn’t last long). Another took pride in arguing ferociously and declaring herself under-appreciated and under-paid, as well as taking a strange pleasure in speaking bad French to Jonas.

But then there was Penelope, with whom perfect moments were lived. We shared so much, the children, good food, outings to visit the hat-maker, outings to the beekeeper (Penelope briefly dated her stone-carving elder son), yoga, test hikes (for my then new program of Hiking and Feasting). She adored fun and quirky clothes. Gift giving was a treat -- at times a found object from the flea market, at times a flouncy pink top from Monoprix. Creative, generous, funny, sincere. The build up to the Iraq war frightened us all, and so she left early to be with her family. However, as with Carrie, we are still close and I treasure the innumerable gifts she gave me in her presence and assistance.

There was bubbly and delightful, super-competent Laura whom the children adored. She had Jonas completely under control. Evening after evening she'd bring him down clean and in pjs for his good night kiss before putting him to bed (we were in the kitchen or the dining area with clients -- it was a very busy year!). There was ever-good humored and mellow Ashley, Jonas' favorite. Leo greeted her by running to her and hugging her with his head pressed against her bare belly (the year of hipster pants, belly-button rings and short tops). She was in heaven with all the good food, Erick's cold-smoked salmon "à volonté" and the fun guys she met at the Irish Pub. (my English party-girl).

And last, but definitely not least, Hayley. My last au pair. All the way over from Australia, thanks to a couple who had briefly stayed in our b&b. She is perhaps the one I over-worked the least, who had the most time to enjoy Provence herself, and who was thus freer to help me as she could. She had the freedom to go to capoeira four nights a week, and to accept offers for weekends away in Switzerland and Spain. But I could count on her completely when she was with me. -- She epitomized what I'd grown to understand all along, that my au pairs were happiest when they were able to build a life of their own outside our house and family. They needed their own friends and social life, be it by joining a drumming group, going to French class, finding a boyfriend (not necessarily my favorite solution... but one that has to be accepted and adjusted to when it comes up, however obnoxious that may sound on my part) or learning capoeira.

The boyfriend thing is hard in that sleep-deprived and distracted is not the state of mind a mother ideally chooses for a young woman who has an hour's drive on dangerous roads to her sons' school. That they need to live their lives, and that that includes finding love where it is offered, I cannot debate. I was living with my first boyfriend at the age of 18 in my university dorm room. Thus I try not to be a hypocrite, and recognize the need to juggle, to understand, to adapt, and to adjust on both parts.

As I settled into my house in Avignon, and stopped returning to Arles every weekend, Hayley was there. As I worked on the garden, so did Hayley. She weeded right along side me, planted crocuses with Jonas, went running down our dirt paths, roller bladed with Leo, helped repaint the floors (a yearly task before the summer rentals), scrubbed the pool with me (ah, t'would have been nice to have her with me this year!). I could count on her to cope calmly with any crisis and manage tons of driving. Her first two months she spent nearly alone in Avignon with my boys while I worked non-stop in Arles. And never did I hear a complaint.

Hayley was also there when I first started seeing my vintner. She laughed with me at my comments, my reactions. She encouraged me in fun ways. We would sit out in the sun, painting our toe nails and chatting in a wonderfully girly way. We did an Ayurvedic cleanse together, each there to support the other and keep it up for the full month. I know she'd love to see my rose bushes now, and the vegetable garden well planted. She'd be beside me plucking the strawberries from the patch, removing the snails and laying wood ash beneath the leaves. She'd be amazed by the height of the butterfly trees, and sad at the death of the fig tree.

I--we-- asked a tremendous amount of these young women, barely finished with their studies. For some, I could give back sufficiently in kind to make their hard labor worthwhile, or at least give it some sense. For others, I was simply the taskmaster who expected way too much. The years the business was developing, and taking more and more of our time, plus our choice to put Leo into the Rudolf Steiner school -– an hour’s drive away--placed way too much responsibility and sheer hours of work on the shoulders of these young woman (and one young man). Those who managed were, as I was well aware, heroic. And, unfortunately, there were those who quit, who complained, who became disagreeable. Ironically, more than a few have asked me to write recommendations for their future jobs, graduate school applications and more. And this I've done with great pleasure, emphasizing their strengths under pressure, their willingness and ability to juggle many tasks, and to adapt to a house-hold and culture not their own.

And now, on my own, with three more children under my roof to boot, I miss the companionship almost more than the assistance that they offered me so freely. An American in France, in small towns of the South, it took me a long time to find my French friends. And, friendships that you make as an adult, at least for me, don't necessarily have the open context of being silly, girly and frivolous that friendships from high school or college would permit. So I regressed with pleasure with my girls, enjoying their Anglo-saxon openness and spontaneity. I enjoyed their presence and their complicity. I appreciated immensely being able to count on them. I also enjoyed teaching them, showing them Provence, stimulating their political curiosity and interest. We went on hikes together, they accompanied me on visits, we biked and explored, shared personal frustrations. And yes, they were aware of the cracks in my marriage before many another. They learned to love my children, for which I am ever grateful. It was rarely just a job, and they were rarely just an employee. I was lucky, very lucky, to have girls who were okay with that arrangement. It is never easy asking another to help you with one of the most important aspects of your life. And, it is a big deal to shoulder that responsibility. Thank you again.


Rosie said...

This was a wonderful thing to read. I am currently trying to plan my way back to France after I graduate in a year and I suppose I will either be an au pair or teach English.

Madeleine Vedel said...

Dear Rosie, Just be as clear as possible with the family. Speaking from the family side -- it's really hard not to over work live-in help, even with the best of intentions. But, we try, truly. Carve out your time off, and be clear on expectations, and yes, love the kids (if they're lovable, but most are somewhere inside the mess and the tantrums). I'm just so lucky I was able to develop such great relationships with a good number of my girls. With others... it was pretty horrid for us both. But we're all human. Good luck!

Mélanie said...

I'm french and I was an au pair in America . That was the best adventure I had in my life .

Madeleine Vedel said...

oh Mélanie, I'm so glad to hear it!

Vanessa said...

how refreshing to hear... I ran across your blog in my continuous search for anything French/Parisian/au pair. I am an au pair in Paris right now, and I am the first au pair the family has ever had. After reading your post from a parent's perspective, my heart is warm knowing that these wonderful people I am spending this year with will cherish the memories we've made together. Thanks again!