swf seeking family of four: the almost au-pair

 

Will they like me? 

Will they think I’m attractive?

Am I showing enough personality? 

These are all questions that sprung to my mind as I surveyed my bio. I felt waves of confidence–then shivers of self-doubt. But my work, for the moment, was done.

I had carefully selected five or six photos, chosen for the version of me they projected. I had curated a mix of “fun,” “professional,” and “good hair day.” I had spent two hours distilling my experiences, qualifications, and goals into a few breezy paragraphs.

Now came the hard part. Waiting to be noticed.

I wasn’t looking for eligible bachelors, but married Frenchmen with children.

In other words, I was the newest addition to Au Pair World dot com.

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Au pairing was a backup plan, on the advice of my business-manger boyfriend. I’m not so good at initial plans, not to mention backups. I have rarely had too many choices.

But there I was, lingering around my hometown, waiting to hear back about a teaching job in France. Though I’d received a positive response to the candidature spontanée I had sent to a small school in Provence, it had been several weeks with no further correspondance.

My other job applications had gone unanswered. After a flurry of emails, I learned I could not enroll in a university in Nice. Trop tard. I’d missed the deadline.

I was content to wait around–at least I thought so–because combing through Indeed.com does not my favorite activity make. I was a bit stressed due to a lack of direction, but largely at ease, ensconced in a cocoon of novels and homemade cookies, with the distraction that comes from again living with a family.

Victor, living in the real world as he does, shattered my illusion. He reminded me that opportunities weren’t going to fall into my lap. It was only June, but it would soon enough be September–la rentrée, back-to-school time–and if I did nothing, the laissez-faire approach would surely leave me with just that. I (begrudgingly) appreciated the reminder.

Victor asked me if I’d considered au pairing. The more I thought about it, the more sense it made. That was one job I knew how to do. It would provide me with a change of scenery, some security, and the chance to figure out a next move from within France: making the future job search a lot more fruitful.

My profile went live, and it wasn’t long before messages from interested families came rolling in. Several days later, I had my first Skype meetings.

Just like in the dating world, this was all based on chemistry. We smiled and asked each other the same few questions–what are you looking for?–but what we were really doing was looking for chemistry. More than any perfect response, the important thing seemed to be intuition, the pursuit of le bon feeling.

I got a little nervous before each new date, checking myself out in my laptop’s camera. Then I would laugh at the reflex. When you’re dating families, you don’t want to look alluring and attractive. Those are not the right words. Mary Poppins, maybe, is the right word. I needed to look polished, responsible, and like I was the kind of girl who could pull lifesaving, boredom-killing objects out of my sizable purse on a whim.

I did the interviews, quite a few of them, scrambling to keep the information straight.  There were several families that didn’t play hard-to-get. They told me straight-up: we’re interested. Call me. My experience with teaching, interest in the Montessori method, and ability to figure things out on my own (since I’ve already lived abroad) helped me stand out as a reliable candidate. And my status as an American citizen was in-demand.

And so all of a sudden, I had options. Offers. I could say yes, a well-considered oui, and my life would change. 6 months forward, I imagined:

Paris. Two little girls. Parents not much older than me. We hang out, drink wine on lazy evenings. With the girls, I sing silly English songs. We make gâteau au yaourt. I master the metro. I take classes at the Sorbonne. I ride a bike, shiver in the brisk Paris winter. (I make a note: I’ll need a new, warmer coat.) Victor flies up once a month to visit. We stroll around Montmartre, red cheeks and chocolat chaud. 

There it is, the skeleton of one future. Parisien me could be reality. She was close enough to capture with keystrokes. The funny thing is, almost all decisions are significant. It’s just that we usually don’t know that at the time. Sometimes we never put the pieces together. But I have always loved working backwards, identifying the little decisions that led to the massive change. Pulling apart the what-ifs.

Finding an au pair family felt like choosing my future. Like knowing, for once, what my decision might bring. Sure, it was a bit of an illusion. Still there was an agreeable feeling of power to it. I could research people’s lives and have total freedom to decide whether I wanted to drop in or not. How often do you get to choose a city, living situation, bedroom, and family in one simple move? The future was in my hands. Plus the pressure that went along with that.

I kept scouring profiles and doing interviews. I continued my rêveries, now with an outdoorsy family in Bordeaux, a big family living just across the German border, a single mom with two little boys living in a renovated farmhouse in the Alps.

I could be in Nice, (somewhat) warm all year round. Or I could have a red nose from ski sunburn. Or a big group of friends, students in Lyon. Or the ability to while away whole afternoons writing in a hidden Parisien garden.

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It all tempts me.

I see a dozen pictures. This would be your room! They tell me. Would your boyfriend like to come visit? Do you like cats? Do you like to cook? We hope you enjoy wine. We want you to speak English with the kids. We want you to speak French with the kids. Come to Portugal with us. Don’t worry about the housework. Do worry about the housework. We’d provide a bike. We’d provide a car.

I learn that some families are looking for a big-sister character. Others, a full-fledged nanny.

I meet a family I fall for. The kids have my heart with their smiles. I am at work imagining a future. I am ready to cease searching and commit.

The very next day, I receive an email from the school: “thanks for your patience,” essentially. “We’d really like to talk to you about that job.”

population, 21: exploring Île Saint-Honorat

(a South-of-France staycation, ii)

When the throbbing commercialism of Rue d’Antibes and the reality of competing for a spot on the beach prove tiresome, just hop on a ferry and leave the bustle of Cannes behind for some peace. Île Saint-Honorat is a storybook-lovely spot for a tranquil morning walk: or, if you’d rather, a weekend (or lifetime) of dedicated prayer. At last count, the island was home to twenty-one people: all Cistercian monks. img_3423

Île Saint-Honorat is one of four Îles de Lérins. All four islands are part of the commune of Cannes, though the smaller two, considered îlots, are uninhabited. Sainte Marguerite, the other island accessible by ferry, is about six times the size of Saint-Honorat. Inhabitants of these islands (about forty altogether) are called Lériniens. I found it charming–a name for something so specific!– but considering the history, I think they’ve earned it: monks have lived here since 410.

Today, besides running the ferries to and from the island, the monks produce red and white wine as well as Lérina: a liquor made from 44 kinds of plants macerated in alcohol. img_3224

For about 17 euros each, Erika and I bought round trip tickets on the speedy little Saint-Honorat III. We left at 9 am and enjoyed the crisp sea air and the view of Cannes from afar.

When we arrived, our few companions scurried off the boat and disappeared up some concrete stairs, moving like they had jobs to do: which was likely true. The island has a gift shop, a restaurant and snack bar, and even, it seemed to me, a small hotel or hostel.

We picked a path along the perimeter, determined to walk the whole thing, lest we miss something (no excuse for that on such a small island). The morning air was cool, the quiet broken only by birdsong and the occasional church bell. The air smelled faintly of pine. And the color! A feast of sage greens, soft browns, and shiny black olives. (So inviting, these olives, framed by dusty green leaves, and yet so bitter. Someday I’ll learn).

We came to an arch and changed direction, walking under it and towards the center of the island. A wide dirt path bisected a vineyard, and over the fences we saw pheasants: their startling blue feathers flashing in the bright sunlight.

As we approached the monastery, the scene changed from sleepy storybook forest to something distinctly tropical. The Abbayé de Lérins, framed by flowers and palmiers, looked like it belonged in Italy or Spain.img_3226

We tried to go inside, but after wrestling a lot of locked doors, we gave it up and continued to faire le tour. We found a chapel every few minutes, it seemed, in various states of restoration or decay. The oldest, I think (12th century?) was in complete ruins, nothing but a historic pile of small stones.

It was interesting to divine the island’s rich history through its architecture. In addition to chapels and statues, there’s even an ancient cannonball oven.

On the presqu’île (which translates literally to almost-island), the lonely Forteresse de l’ile Saint-Honorat seems to sit on the sea.

img_2343We gave ourselves three hours to explore, but didn’t need all the time. A picnic lunch and a book might have extended the visit. As we went to leave, it seemed the new arrivals stepping off the boat had prepared for some serious hiking: the ferry was full this time around, everyone wearing hats and light jackets, many carrying backpacks and walking sticks. I’ve noticed this about France: if you plan to exercise, you’d better dress the part. What felt like a light, refreshing walk to me saw these families of five dressed as one might be for a half-day hike straight uphill. In the desert.

 

 

gypsy jazz

A lazy Saturday afternoon, some gypsy jazz, and flowing champagne. Taylor and I stand in la Chope des Puces, a tiny, ancient jazz club in Saint-Ouen in Paris’s 18th arrondissement. We are crammed against the wooden bar, standing-room only. The bar isn’t packed but it’s tiny, and several families and couples have already claimed the tables and are enjoying late lunches or glasses of wine. On the walls, the guitars of jazz greats share space with black-and-white photographs of Django Reinhardt, the French jazz guitarist with the Dalí mustache.

Following his tradition, two men play gypsy jazz guitar in a corner at the front. I lack the ability to speak deftly of arpeggios or ostinatos, to grasp the logic of this skillful improvisation. I know only that this music sounds like Paris, golden-age Paris, and that it is frenzied and joyful and fills up the space.

I shout our order to the bartender, a statuesque gray-haired woman who looks like she’s seen it all. She hands us our frosty glasses of white wine and sets down a cheese plate. The heavy wooden board is crowded with soft triple-cream cheeses, sharp semi-hard cheeses, and a hunk of knife-sharp Roquefort. Scattered handfuls of fruit and nuts fill in the gaps. There is jam and butter and a basket of bread.

As we eat, I look around some more. The club is long and skinny and gives the curious impression of being slightly tilted, like someone picked up a shoebox diorama and shook it, scattering posters and paintings, rippling the tiled floor.

I notice one man in his forties. It’s hard not to: he’s wearing dark sunglasses and a snazzy silk button-down, dancing and snapping his fingers and exchanging cheek kisses with everyone he sees. A loyal fan. He tips the musicians extravagantly between sets and keeps the wine coming, and he’s generous. I notice him holding up a dripping bottle of champagne, tipping it into the glasses of everyone nearby. I nudge my friend–”want some champagne? Hurry, finish your drink.”

I catch his eye (as much as is possible behind the dark sunglasses) and sure enough, he approaches. We shrug, laughing. Santé ! He orders another bottle for the room.

A few seats open up and we share a table with an older woman wearing a bright turban. She has her dancing shoes on and she twirls and shimmies in slow circles as the men play. When they take a break, she leans over the table, and tells me in French how this is her kind of exercise, this is what keeps her young. She has a constant contented smile and a look in her eyes like a Christmas character: “a twinkle in her eye” is the phrase that springs to mind.

Taylor, my friend from childhood, is visiting Paris for the first time. Though she’s new to the French language, she’s been ordering for herself in restaurants and bars and her accent is great. I rarely need to step in for simple interactions. She wonders if the musicians know a song that she likes, so I tell her to ask, pronouncing for her the conjugation of the verb “to know.” She does and they do.

We leave a big tip and say goodbye. I’m reluctant to go, but these melodies will dance in my head all day. We have a train to catch.

 

 

french people tell me what to do

If I wrote my own version of Rebecca Solnit’s “Men Explain Things to Me,” it would be called “French People Tell Me What to Do.”

That’s what a lot of my life here is, saying okay when I’m not sure that it is, taking someone’s word for it because I certainly don’t know enough to argue with them. I thought it was due to the language barrier–the solid brick wall between what I meant and what I could express–but when I achieved fluency it just kept happening.

It’s not the French language, then, but the French way of life: something much harder to study. It’s sneaky and subtle. Some days I’m nostalgic for the early days of learning, the black-and-white satisfaction of memorizing vocabulary lists for Madame Wetzel: amener, appeler, arroser. 

In my French life, there is almost always a slight sense of bouleversement–disruption–the feeling that I don’t quite know what’s going on at any given time. All the yawning aspects of daily life have been shifted, a bit like that prank where you move every piece of someone’s furniture five inches to the right. I am the one pranked: I don’t notice when I walk into the room, but am surely going to stub my toe.

Being a foreigner makes me conscious of things I rarely consider in the States, like how I’m essentially at the mercy of so many strangers every single day. If they tell me to wait, I wait. Sign here? I do. That’ll be 36 euros? Let me get my card. As I organize a new bank account, long-stay work visa, and phone plan, I feel dangerously vulnerable, like this can’t possibly work out and I’m going to get scammed. Somehow it does, though, giving me a thrill like I’m cheating the system. How is this underprepared American doing it? Your guess is as good as mine.

Despite little successes, what I can accomplish here in a day doesn’t come close to my productivity at home. There, I expect to walk into the bank, post office, restaurant, gas station, library…and leave with what I came for. Check.

Here, I don’t count on that. Half the battle is finding the business open (and not on a surprise holiday or vacation or two-hour lunch break). Here, I have to remember that the bus still runs at 7pm–but only halfway through the normal route, so I might be forced to disembark in the middle of nowhere. That of course I can’t pay by card. That wifi is a luxury and that, even in a train station, I might need a euro handy to pay to use the bathroom.

The little inconveniences happen every day: not enough to really dampen my spirits, but just enough to keep me on my (stubbed) toes.

Even today, I was ready for a full day of writing in a café. I had errands to run, a bag for my groceries, a fully-charged computer, comfortable heels. But the bus didn’t come. A little old lady walking a little old dog asked me what I was doing: don’t you know it’s la Toussaint, mademoiselle? In other words, everything is closed. Of course I didn’t know about it. But now that my successes are slowly outweighing my French failures, this kind of thing just makes me laugh (and hope there’s enough food in the pantry for dinner).

I’m a spontaneous procrastinator who lives for last-minute decisions: to the bar! to the gym! to the store! to Bordeaux! and what I’m discovering is that being here cramps my style because it’s just not the way things are done.

Paradoxical France, the country of the romantic yet stubbornly practical. The concept of a “dream job” does not come from this nation.

I grew up hearing American Girl, 90s girl-power wishes: “Be YOU! Follow your dreams! You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take!”

I laugh imagining that here. “Follow your objectives,” is how I think it would translate, and that is not something you hear (all the better; what a lame motivational statement).

C’est pas possible seems the default for risky or creative endeavors.

I tell people I want to be a writer. I mention articles, books, magazines. I mention passion, figuring it out as I go along. In France, they look at me and squint. You mean you’re in journalism? 

This used to get on my nerves, but I’ve accepted that it’s just a different way of seeing the world, a way I appreciate but don’t fully accept. I’m thankful for my American upbringing, even with its flaws, its inaccurate food pyramid, its pie-in-the-sky-positivity. It’s made me just stubborn enough to wrestle with France.

 

 

bordeaux: à la foire

Bordeaux began as all good trips should, as a decision made at two in the morning the night before. Blame train travel for enabling my dangerously spontaneous ways: the luxury (or gamble) of the young and single.img_3612-1

Bordeaux was another city I knew nothing about, but for its association with red wine. It was closer to Montluçon, though, and I wanted to avoid another six-hour train ride, if possible.

I’d like to write about epic dinners enjoyed in grand chateaus, but the truth is Mary and I spent both nights in Bordeaux running around the carnival. There was something deliciously wrong about this, a feeling akin to skipping school and eating pancakes in bed.

Bordeaux’s Place des Quinconces is one of the largest public squares in Europe, and every foot of it was covered in roller coasters and kebab stands, ferris wheels and trampolines.img_3604-1

Dressed for dinner in silk, ankle boots, lipstick, and after a dinner of seafood pasta and wine, at the fair I felt like an elegant Charlie let loose in the chocolate factory. It was kitsch and bright lights and the smell of sugar, just like anywhere, but with a more insouciant (and much skinnier) crowd. We dodged groups of French teenagers, the straight hair, skinny jeans, and cell phones, to climb aboard dizzying rides like the inexplicably-named “Sexy Dance.” The magic ended at midnight, so we had to act fast. It helped that there were no lines. Maybe the French aren’t as accustomed to putting their lives in the rusty metal hands of carnival machinery.

We rode a Halloween train, in which you sit in a monster’s claw and visit a cave containing all sorts of melted-wax-looking monsters, and tried the flying carpet ride, a breathtaking view of Bordeaux that required trying to keep your balance in a metal cage as a pair of mechanical arms lifts you over the city.

We ate fair food–overly-sweet crêpes–and rode the French “Octopus,” La Pieuvre, a spinning ride that played Olé Olé Olé and released clouds of noxious strawberry smoke that smelled like a trip to the dentist. The only ones on the ride, the controller gave us the choice to keep spinning longer than was probably healthy. Continue?! He yelled.

On the Mouse Coaster we had the front seat next to a grinning six-year-old and her big brother. C’est bien? I asked them. With several teeth missing, the little girl breathlessly recounted how great the ride was. We’ve been on it trois fois!

So the fair was expensive and gave me whiplash, but a French city isn’t all cathedrals and art galleries and stained glass. My best travel memories don’t come from completing checklists of must-see attractions, following in the footsteps of every tourist before, but rather from those things I’ve done naturally and spontaneously. Chasing the incongruities. I’d recommend it, the view of Bordeaux under neon lights, drunk on laughter and music (not to mention half a bottle of red wine).