The mixed joys of life with 'au pair' helpers
Paris — The classified ad in the Paris Herald Tribune reads: "Au pair girl for FrancoAmerican woman writer. Independent room. Paris. Call . . . " Every six or eight months the same challenging cycle rolls around. Though normally overly wordy, I manage to condense the ad into the shortest, cheapest insertion, which inevitably appears inconspicuously at the bottom of the help-wanted column on the back page: two lines of 35 spaces, each running on the Trib's special four-day rate.
In spite of brevity, these epic words convey several great come-ons to the fairly experienced au pair ad reader.
First is the mere fact of omission. No children are mentioned, which signals Utopia to harassed babysitting students."American" seems to ring a melodious sound of money to European girls, while "French" appeals to Americans over here to learn the language. "Writer" intrigues one and all, and eventually everyone wants to help me totter along the path to a Pulitzer prize. "Independent room" suggests a certain "Mimi" of La Boheme attic charm, although I am immediately obliged to explain to all girls who phone that the room on the sixth floor is also completely independent of central heating and running water.
The average American housewife has every known convenience and mechanical aid -- diswasher, washing machine and dryer, etc. Even if there were space for such wizard appliances in my kitchen in this 150- year-old building, walls and plumbing would promptly disintegrate if one tampered to any great extent. So the answer is "a pair of hands" to help with house work three hours a day in exchange for the room, all meals, and pocket money. Many girls, changing au pair jobs for one reason or another, seem to find this slap-happy unregimented household a welcome change from the strict regime imposed when infants are in residence with the understandably rigid schedule of formulas, bottles, and diapers.
More than 20 years ago my first venture in the fanciful realm of au pairing was Gisella. Born in Vienna, she literally sang for her supper, plus giving a songfest at luncheon and dinner as well. All the Strauss waltrzes were hummed off-key over the growl of the vacuum cleaner, and the Blue Danube reached the entire building while she cheerfully polished open windows.
At the age of 19 Gisella was the finest of all Austrian hausfraus, delivering whiter wash, the cleanest kitchen, the neatest cupboards. She arrived round as an apple and instantly grew rounder trying to help economize on grocery bills. Cooking varies according to each girl's personal tastes and nationality, and Gisella's favorite menus were based on starch and sugar with bread pudding as the piece de resistancem once a day. It was a great way to avoid throwing away stale loaves, according to her theories. Counting the cost of other ingredients , the gas consumed, and the resulting kilos on our hips, the economic factor of this strategy was open to discussion. The gas bill trebled, and I was off to the reducing salon for several expensive sessions.
When each au pair girl announces her "time is about up in Paris," she gets lured into helping find her replacement. The same ad goes back in the Tribune, the phone rings incessantly, and every "old girl" initially tries to convince any likely new candidate that the antiquated facilities on the sixth floor are truly a joy forever.
About 10 years ago Susie arrived, a 23- year-old German girl working on her master's degree in Paris and already speaking five languages fluently. Susie in the house was comprable to owning all 25 volumes of the Encyclopedia Brittanica. Ask her anything from the date of the first Visigoth invasion to a spaceship equation and you got an instant answer while she efficiently cleaned the house.
Susie helped discover Janine, a blonde, azure-eyed Midwestern American: charming, funny, and definitely not an intellectual Curiously these two girls became very close friends during the two weeks of showing Janine "the ropes" before Susie left to return to higher studies in Berlin. Janine immediately turned out to be a teller of shaggy dog stories; dusting and dishwashing were accompanied by a seemingly endless volley of "Didja hear the one about. . . ."
Janine and Susie may never have achieved any extraordinary meeting of the minds, but they went off hitchhiking together for a weekend at the 24-hour automobile race at Le Mans. Both, now married, continue to correspond with each other from their respective countries as they also write to me each Christmas with reports of their growing families.
The two most recent stars around here have both been American girls of Italian decent. Mary Jo Puntini speaks two words of the language, although her grandmother, living in Chicago for the past 50 years, has never thoroughly mastered English. Mary Jo Won the tierce race at the Prix de l'Arc de Triumph last October, and immediately took off for a little holiday in Switzerland to contemplate nature.
Patricia Valva from Oakland, Calif., measures less than 5 feet tall but managed to swing a wicked feather duster until she finally departed last summer to work for three months on the Countess de Toulouse- Lautrec's sheep ranch in the center of France. Patricia regaled us with long leters concerning the fine art of shearing sheep, pitchng hay, and babysitting all night with a sick horse.
Animal husbandry may be de rigueur down on the farm, but such skills are rarely necessary in the city. A French friend who has also had au pair girls for years called to tell me the tale of a pretty young Laplander who arrived in Paris and applied for a position.
"Can you cook a little?" the prospective employer asked.
"Can you sew, iron, clean the house nicely?" Another sad negative shake of the head.
Slightly bewildered, Madame inquired, "Well, just what can you do?" With a beaming smile Miss Lapland an nounced, "I milk reindeer."