ON BEING AN AU-PAIR (A LONG TIME AGO)

Sorry, this one is very long…

I’ve given hints here that I could a tale unfold if I wrote about my au-pair days back in 1985-6. I have just signed a reference letter for a girl student to be an au-pair in Britain and this brings back many complicated memories. I had a very hard time being an au-pair but, as I told this girl, this is an experience I would never erase from my life.

In these days of Erasmus grants, I guess that being an au-pair is not as popular as it was among girl students of English in my time. I decided to take a gap year between my second and my third in the five-year ‘Llicenciatura’ (BA) in ‘Filologia Anglesa’ because I was not making progress in English as fast as I wanted. Also, to be honest, I needed a change of air, as I could put up no longer with my father’s demands that I worked full-time (the money I made by teaching part-time went into books and fees). Once I decided to be an au-pair, I also decided to take the Proficiency examination, as that would provide a clear focus to my stay abroad and would help, as it did, in finding teaching jobs once back.

Just when I returned they started offering the first Erasmus grants. I never applied, fancy asking my father to send me abroad… I’ve often wondered how many poor students are by-passed as I had to be.

I worked for a grand total of five families in one year: one in Lincolnshire, one in Humberside, three in London. What went wrong? I applied too late and was sent, they told me, to the only family who would have me in October (most au-pairs started in September). This family was too poor to keep an au-pair so they soon chucked me out. My Spanish agency washed their hands of me, I was found another family by a local agency. I was given a big house to clean, owned by a couple formed by an older man… and a previous au-pair. It took me much tact to navigate her jealousy. I hated, anyway, being alone all day long in the middle of nowhere and decided to head south to London.

There, I was placed with a Greek family from Cyprus in Mill Hill, about one hour by tube from central London. I learned to dislike intensely suburban life, as I felt stranded all the time. Finally, I started attending school in preparation to taking the Proficiency exam. My lady employer, who’d placed entirely in my hands her huge house and also two little children for many hours, told me she did not care for my studies. Also, she had me working Saturday mornings, which left me with no time to go sightseeing with the other au-pairs… I decided to leave and found a family in Hampstead with two teen boys.

I loved Hampstead. Also, the couple who employed me were cultured persons and would point out to me interesting places in London, as they noted my eagerness to learn. I read non-stop as I was given free use of their library. Only later did I join a public library, something I should have done much earlier. This would be my first recommendation to would-be au-pairs: join a library, ideally a reading club –or any other club where you can make friends. Back to my tale: things grew stale between this unpredictable lady employer and myself; I grew awfully nervous around her and had all kinds of little domestic accidents to the point that she threw me out one early morning. Luckily, I had already met an elderly lady who promised to take me in if necessary and she honoured her word.

I was employed by this lady and her husband, both retired and living on their own, for the last five months of my stay. I was happy with them. My tasks were simple and clearly defined. They did talk to me and held actual conversations beyond giving me orders. Not all was perfect but I just wished I had found them at the beginning. The funny thing is how I found them: thanks to an ad on the window display of a local newsagent. Perhaps the most intelligent thing to do is to travel where you want to work as an au-pair and find an employer this way: face-to-face, in their own home.

I had a very romantic notion of what being an au-pair was about of which I was quickly disabused. It took me a while to understand that my diverse employers did not see a university student in me but just cheap foreign domestic help. Many hired me because they could not afford proper live-in help. I was never employed just to babysit, much less so in the house where they had the two little children. At that time Spain had a military service for young men and I used to joke that I had passed mine in Britain…

My best memories are of my free time roaming the streets of London (how I loved Hampstead, really!). I made friends but they were all au-pairs like me, which was not ideal to improve my English. The natives, of course, had no need to meet au-pairs (mere servants) at all. I never felt part of any family, none of my employers bothered to show me around or asked me questions about who I was and why I was in Britain. Other au-pair girls were much luckier than I, other faced a much worse deal.

I did pass the Proficiency examination, which comforted my poor, suffering mother. In those days my family had so little money I was not even back for Christmas, Dickensian as this may sound today. Cell phones did not exist and I wrote many, many letters. I returned a completely different person, much more confident, having proven that, if necessary, I could support myself by the sweat of my brow. I was a working-class servant for one year, and this I will never forget. Also, I read so much that I taught myself possibly the equivalent of two university years.

Yes, I often think of my employers, gossiping about that terrible Spanish au-pair they had back in 1985-6 and her itchy feet…

Beatriz (and all the other au-pairs in the world): my very best wishes, I hope you enjoy the experience.

Comments are very welcome! (Thanks!) Just remember that I check them for spam; it might take a few days for yours to be available. Follow on Twitter the blog updates: @SaraMartinUAB. Visit my web https://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

2 thoughts on “ON BEING AN AU-PAIR (A LONG TIME AGO)

  1. This is a very interesting post and I can see why you wouldn’t erase these experiences from your past – these are exactly the kind of experiences that make us grow into well-adjusted adults.

    I’m afraid that a lot of what you mention hasn’t actually changed much. Lots of young people still come to London expecting the streets to be paved with gold. They don’t realise it takes time and effort to succeed, as you’ll never find exactly what you want – you’ll have to create it for yourself over several years.

    I see this all the time and obviously I was the same when I arrived, but I learnt very quickly that I had to change my attitude and so does everyone else who succeeds.

    Another thing that hasn’t changed as much as you might think is the human relationships. London is a ginourmous city where lots of people come and go. It takes a very long time to build a circle of friends and very often they don’t last, as people move back home or on elsewhere. And there’s such a variety of people in this city that even if you speak excellent English (i.e. even if you can and do socialise with Brits), you’ll find that a lot of your friends won’t be native speakers of English either – which isn’t necessarily a bad thing!

  2. Thanks, Samuel, for your complementary view of how London swallows up people… I must say I was fascinated by London but much happier in the human-sized Glasgow where I spent a year as a doctoral student. Of course, I was by then bound to none and, believe me, the exprience of having people in whose house you live control your time is hard to stomach for a young person. Anyway, it would be funny to have Felicity Hand tells us know her own experience of being an au-pair in Barcelona in the 1970s, and see how this contrasts with my own experience!
    Sara

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