When I was nineteen years old, my friend Julie’s sister was working as an au pair in Paris. She was having a great time. Each time I saw Julie she would tell me about her sister’s adventures and I would listen with both ears wide open. Her sister was living in a big, fancy house, dining on cheese, baguettes, grapes and wine. After seeing the children off to school in the morning she took classes in French and art until it was time to pick the children up at the end of the day. In her spare time handsome young men escorted her as she explored Paris. I was fascinated and decided that a working holiday was exactly what I needed.
Through the help of my local Manpower center I received a book about seeking employment in Europe and quickly learned that there was a high demand among European families for au pairs, a fancy term for a live-in babysitter. The job description sounded great. As an au pair I would live with a family babysitting a few hours a day, preparing the odd meal if the parents were out, and helping out with light housework. I would be working six days a week with several afternoons or evenings free – generally spent taking language classes, sightseeing, and getting to know the country. In return I would receive room, board, a small salary, the chance to become fluent in another language, firsthand experience of the country’s customs, and occasionally the opportunity to travel with the family on their holidays to the mountains or seashore.
I traveled to London to visit domestic agencies that specialized in locating au pair positions throughout Europe. I signed up with an agency, paid a $50 fee, and received a job in Madrid. The position sounded good: a six-year-old girl and a three-year-old boy, and the family typically spent the summer in the mountains or at the ocean. Laura, another potential au pair from the same agency, and I traveled together on the same flight to Madrid. Laura told me that something had gone wrong with her placement. She was supposed to work for a family with a baby, but when she had phoned the night before to advise them of her arrival, another British girl had spoken with her on the phone saying the Madrid representatives had given the job to her.
We arrived at the Madrid office, a language school that handled domestic job placements on the side, and sat for hours in a chaotic office full of employees who spent more time socializing than working. I was awaiting my new employers to collect me while the staff attempted to locate another employer for Laura. Late in the afternoon an extremely agitated young woman stormed into the agency arguing in Spanish with the staff. She poked her head into the room where we were waiting and asked in English:
“Are you Laura?”
My new friend said yes, but then the staff hustled the new girl down to a room at the far end of the corridor where the yelling in Spanish continued. Laura didn’t speak Spanish, so I translated as much as I was able to grasp. Apparently this was the girl who had been given Laura’s au pair job and she was unhappy with the position. She’d come to Madrid as an au pair, but what this family wanted was a nanny, and she was not prepared to do the extra work and demanded a different job. After a few minutes everyone returned to the office where Laura and I were waiting. The angry British girl spoke to us rapidly in English so the staff couldn’t understand. She said they were ganging up on her, and in need of support she told them we were her friends and she wanted to be with us. After another thirty minutes of heated discussion, they agreed to find her a new position. In the meantime word came from my new employers that they were at their summer home in the mountains and would drive back to Madrid the following day to pick me up. For a minute I wondered if I’d be spending the night on a couch in the office, but in the end the agency put me into a hotel across the street for the evening.
The next day the father picked me up and we drove a couple of hours out of the city to a town named Siguenza where I met the mother and the two children. They had a spacious three-bedroom home that they called a chalet, but was more like one half of a duplex. It was a nice location, an historic city with cobblestone streets and outdoor markets, woods to walk through, and an enormous public swimming pool where we swam daily. They had a maid who took care of meals and cleaning. The parents needed me to watch the children in the pool and be at home in the evenings when they went out. I got along well with everyone, but after a couple of weeks I learned that the parents would be returning to their jobs in Madrid and only planned to be in Siguenza on weekends. The plan was to leave the children at the chalet for the balance of the summer and I was expected to fully care for them until the parents returned on the weekends. We spoke honestly about it, and I told them I didn’t feel I could do this as I had concerns about handling an emergency situation in a foreign country. Also I didn’t want to look after the children exclusively for that length of time. We all agreed the best thing would be for me to return to Madrid and have the agency locate another position for me. The following day I boarded a train back to town and returned to the agency where another family picked me up later that day. They had two girls aged five and seven and the parents held shift jobs requiring someone to be at home with the girls for the periods when they were both working.
My first impression of their apartment was shock that four people, soon to be five, could live in such a small space. There were three bedrooms, a tiny kitchen, a combination dining/living room area, and a bathroom. The furniture was sparse and mismatched.
At first things went well. The girls were fairly well behaved and we spent our days at the park behind their apartment. If it was too hot we stayed inside and watched TV, played games, or I read to them the Spanish version of the fairy tales I had enjoyed in my childhood. But as the weeks went by the mother asked me to do more and more housework: make all the beds, sweep, do the laundry, and the list went on. What she really needed was a maid, not an au pair, and they were not paying me for the extra work. Besides, I was not interested in full-time maid duty. I was not getting the time off that I needed, and even on my days off the family expected me to wash the dishes that accumulated all day in the sink when I returned from my outing.
After living with them for two months I had had enough. I packed my bags while they were out one day, and when they returned I said “adios” and walked out of their lives. The parents were angry and accused me of leaving them for another job. The last thing the father said was that if I received any more mail he would tear it up, prompting one of my friends to nickname him José The Ripper after she learned that I didn’t receive her letter and we guessed its fate.
In the end au pairing did not turn out to be the pleasant experience that I had expected. There was no big fancy house, no handsome young men and no dining on wine and cheese. Relieved that I had quit, I moved into a hostel and remained in Madrid for a few more weeks. Intricate displays of architecture and magnificent artwork awaited me at the Royal Palace, the Prado Museum, the monastery in El Escorial, and the walled city of Toledo. Spaniards smiled at me and said “hola”, often breaking into song as they strolled past me on the streets. Eventually I escaped to the Mediterranean and spent two weeks in Torremolinos. It was here that I met three handsome young men from El Escorial. They included me in their outings, escorted me around town, and ensured there was wine and cheese at all our meals.
You have to push through the bad to get to the good, and being an au pair for a short period gave me an incredible learning experience and an introduction to a wonderful country I might not otherwise have seen.