Ever since I started studying French in my first year in school I found myself enthralled by the idea of France itself, primarily Paris. All of the beautiful images of the Champs Élysées and the Tour Eiffel in my school book made me even more determined to learn the language itself, and hopefully visit it myself some day. Unfortunately, it wasn’t until I was in college studying French that I eventually got the opportunity to go visit. Determined to improve my spoken French, I joined an au pair website and, long story short, arranged for myself to work as an au pair in a small French village for the summer. I “met” the family on Skype, and soon flew into France shortly after to begin my été as an au pair. Excellent.
From the first few days, it became apparent that I wasn’t entirely happy. First and foremost, which I hated to admit- I seemed to have forgotten that I didn’t really, eh, love children. Particularly those under the age of seven. With a language barrier. The two boys that I looked after were often relatively méchants, and unfortunately my then lack of fluency in French prevented any chance to build a real relationship with them. And I was pretty sure that threatening them with a wooden spoon was illegal in France. However, everything was bearable otherwise. I had signed my contract and knew, according to horrific au pair reports that I had read about on the internet, I was lucky to have a family that accepted that I wasn’t some sort of a slave. The contract was fine- mainly involving ensuring that the children didn’t murder each other and light housework.
That said, I did find the relationship with the parents rather difficult. While I was lucky enough to only be assigned a small amount of housework per week (I have heard horror stories where au pairs had to complete hours of housework daily), I did get the impression that the mother of the children wasn’t entirely taken by the notion of an au pair. In fairness, I did later learn that many of their au pairs had left after short periods (ahem- more on this later) so it’s easy to understand the reluctance to welcome yet another foreign stranger into your home. The mother of my family worked as a teacher in the children’s primary school so was gone from the home for the majority of the day.
However, my real bugbear was regrettably with the father. Looking back, I did get the impression that he was slightly strange from the beginning, but I filed it away under the usual “cultural differences” bracket. He worked from home most days of the week, and as I had arrived in late May while the children were still in school during the day, much of my day was spent either a) avoiding him or b) pretending I didn’t understand what he was saying. I lived in a tiny village, and one day the father left to “go to work.” I walked into the village, got lunch and went home that evening. Perfectly fine, I thought. When he returned from “work” that evening, he asked me what I had done during the day- I replied that I had gone out for lunch. Strangely, despite having claimed to be working in a city an hour away, he could tell me the exact time and place where I had eaten. When I later got in touch with another Irish au pair who had fled the family before me, she informed me that he often drove around the tiny village in circles watching her out and about while he claimed to be at work an hour away. The same cycle occurred everyday when the father was alone at home with me.Bizarre. Apart from one glorious day of the week where he worked in a nearby town, I spent most of my time avoiding him and pretending not to understand him when I had the misfortune of bumping into him. He constantly asked strange questions. He insisted on adding me on Facebook and also produced Google Maps on his laptop one day and demanded that I showed him where I lived. (For the record, I showed him a random house thirty miles from where I lived. I hope he never visited the occupants…..ahem.).
Other little incidents like this continued to occur. I would go to bed at around 10pm and would wake at 12pm to see my door slightly opened. I’m a very light sleeper and would wake to see him quietly opening the door and gaze into the darkness. I wasn’t allowed to fully close the door because of it may have interfered with the air conditioning apparently. I could hear him in my room when I was in the shower. I was banned from using the hairdryer in my room- instead he informed me to dry my hair downstairs in the bathroom. I did this, and I could hear him running upstairs and entering my room while I dried my hair. Enough for me. I managed to track down the previous au pair that had left before me on Facebook and sent her a mail detailing my issues. Luckily, she was extremely supportive and admitted that she had literally fled the place because she didn’t feel at all comfortable around him.
Knowing that he worked in computers, and given the large numbers of Facebook mails that I sent to family members in Ireland complaining about his existence, I became increasingly paranoid. I changed my security settings that my Facebook account could only be accessed from my own personal laptop. Low and behold, the internet coincidentally “broke” the next morning. I smugly produced my contract and with wild hand signals, pointed to the bit where it said “connexion internet illimitée.” The internet was suddenly and reluctantly fixed. He then slammed the door, left the house and said he was going to work. And…I decided that it was time to evacuate.
In the most tense (and sweaty) twenty minutes of my life, I ran to the local tourist office and enquired about trains to Paris to organise a flight home. I got the information and learnt that a train was departing from the village in three hours. I ran home again and as luck would have it, there was no sign of a car on the street. Evacuation time.
I quickly ran upstairs and went to pack all of my belongings, between sending frantic Facebook messages to my parents to find out if there were flights to Dublin from Paris that evening. Luckily, there were. I quickly packed my belongings. But there was a minor problem- my pyjama bottoms (which I kept in my drawer) were nowhere to be seen.
He had actually stolen my pyjama bottoms.
I had no time to press charges. I ran. I sprinted. I grabbed a box of cereal from the kitchen (all’s fair in the world of stealing, isn’t it) for essential train snacks. I grabbed my suitcase and dragged it as fast as I possibly could through the village, forever terrified about the potentiality of a glimpse of the pyjama-stealing strange Frenchman on my travels. I somehow made it to the station with a few stressed tears on my way. The two hours that I waited for the train in the station were the most tense of my life, but luckily it arrived. I made it to Paris (my first time there) without any idea of how to get to the airport with my then limited French, but a kind stag party helped me on my journey to Charles De Gaulle. (Looking back, I definitely looked like an absolute lunatic wailing on the streets of Paris whilst dragging a suitcase. Nobody was harmed.).
Would I ever do au pairing again? Not in a million years. I hated it. The laughable ten days that I lasted were the longest of my life. Although I’m sure that lots of people had positive experiences, I honestly would never consider it again. I’m still in touch with the au pair that left my French family before me (that I miraculously managed to track down on Facebook during my time with the family) and although we’ve never met each other, we do still message each other occasionally to think about our lucky escape. I have no idea how many au pairs fled the house before I arrived and I pity anyone that arrived after me. I’m glad I didn’t tell them that I actually planned to leave- the girl that left before me done that and they refused to feed her for four days and also stole a phone charger from her.
Do I regret the experience? Not at all- it brought me to an area of France that I’d probably have never visited otherwise. I do prefer to see the funny side of it although I do hope that other au pairs who went to the family after me managed to survive without many issues. I do plan to go back to visit the village some day (while wearing a hat, sunglasses and a hood. Taking no chances.) for the memories. I do often wonder if the parents are still together. I did receive two voicemails from them that evening but chose not to listen to them- probably for the best! You can read my au pair advice here, but my main tip for anyone considering au pairing? Don’t buy expensive pyjama bottoms. 😉
Edit: Some people have expressed concern that I didn’t report it to the au pair website- I can assure you that I did. Unfortunately, as it was a free website (“aupairworld”) they accepted no responsibility.