Little Kenny's Au Pair

photo: carrousel & kids & nanny
Here's the au pair, and those are her charges.
The little darlings!

Ups and Downs of Paris Nannydom

by Tracy Turner

Paris:- Monday, 20. July 1998:- In Paris, there's a pecking order in desired nationality for one's jeune fille au pair.

Swiss and Scandinavians are seen as paragons of efficiency - and good for English lessons; Brits and especially Americans are last on the nanny ladder - such women are simply too independent for domestic service.

My au pair experience a few years ago was only possible because an American family needed an American nanny who could speak French...

Little Kenny was a four year-old monster, a true enfant terrible. He had been shunted all over the world and I was his sixth or seventh nanny.

He excelled in chewing up au pairs and spitting them out: 'embêtant!' pronounced my parisian friends. His mother, a guest performer at l'Opéra Bastille, owned an equally embêtant artiste's temperament.

However, my four months of indentured servitude was sweet bliss in the heart of Paris.

The Marais was my oyster, and every minute not spent with Kenny or doing housework was spent walking, museum-hopping, window-licking - the French idiom for window shopping, and grand-crème-sipping.

Until this point Kenny was enrolled at the Ecole Maternelle across the street; my vision of sweet bliss was about to come to an end. Keeping to his nature, Kenny refused to speak a word of French.

I bought storybooks in French, attempted simple lessons - to no avail.

The result? Kenny got ritually beat up every day at l'école, and when the beatings got so bad that his face started getting scratched and bruised, Chanteuse Mom pulled beastie boy out of the school. Giving him to me. Twenty-four hours a day.

The playgrounds of Paris then became my passion. 'Ne jete pas de sable!' my most often-screamed phrase. All the other French mamans sharply chirped at him not to throw sand, so I knew he understood that one.

I keenly studied my 'Paris Par Arrondissement' to find a new park every day - preferably ones which had kiosks serving lovely café-crèmes.

And I kept my ears open for any other children speaking American English. Jardin des Plantes; Parc Monceau; and the loveliest sandbox I've ever seen, in the shadow of Notre Dame's 'rose nord' window, between the cathedral and the river.

There is a real French man/American woman attraction paradigm at work - I encountered lots of Moms who had given it all up to marry un Français.

The kids resulting from these love matches have impeccable French, growing up in Paris; but their English is imprinted with melodic French intonation - and a bit of accent, resulting in the rugrats sounding slightly tipsy. I spokephoto: pool, jardin d'acclima lots of English on my park explorations, noting which children perked up and listened to me.

The trap was set, and I unknowingly had dealt myself an interesting hand: insight into Parisian family life, relatively unnoticed as another domestic in the house .

My first real catch happened way out west on métro line one: the Jardin d'Acclimatation, at Porte des Sablons. This is usually a busy park with an enormous play area, including lots of motorized rides and Punch and Judy - 'guignol' - shows.

One weekday, the KennyMonster and I showed up close to 18:00: still a few children, but the rides and the puppets had gone home for the night. However, a pretty blonde girl, about the same age as KennyMonster, came up to us on the push-carrousel.

"Hey!" she blurted out, "You guys are American!" "Yeah... and so are you!"

The four-year old took us over to meet Mom, who couldn't have been happier to chat with another American woman. Nathalie and KennyMonster played happily, and Mom number one invited us back to their highrise Neuilly apartment the following week for coffee.

And what an apartment! With a view of the curving Seine and other skyscrapers, their three-bedroom apartment floated above leafy Neuilly. I coveted the sweet neighborhood streets at the base of the building.

Although Neuilly is in still Greater Paris, there simply seemed to be more space around and above me. I made mental notes of cafés where I could duck in and feed 'chocolats chauds' to the Monster.

But the family's hospitality knew no bounds; though I never got to meet Nathalie's French papa - he worked for a major computing firm - Mom loved to have me around for American-style drip coffee and freshly baked cookies and brownies - bribery in food form!

Their modern rooms, strewn with American toys, were furnished in the usual 'we're-not-staying-here-for-long' Eurofurniture, from Ikea and Conforama. They moved, on average, once a year depending on papa's job posting.

Their shuttered windows, though, extended to the ceiling, and on warm May evenings, the ribbons across Nathalie's door would flutter in the cross-breeze.

Closer to home in the Marais, our local playground was next to Notre-Dame des Blancs-Manteaux, a working but beautiful parish church. Artists' studios, galleries, boutiques and trendy cafes beckoned a block away in the branché fourth arrondissement; but I was stuck in a playground, minding my Monster. We went to ND des BM almost every day.

It was here that Monster met his Franco-American match, in terms of playground terror. Christian was aphoto: champs de mars sand-throwing, badly-behaved, temperamental bully.

I attracted the attention of this creature by blowing bubbles; the other children were happy to merrily pop as many as they could, or attempt to balance them on the tips of their tongues.

Christian pushed into the fray, fists flailing, popping more kids than bubbles and this is not overstatement. I scolded him in French, while Monster sidekick, emboldened behind my jeans, told him off in English. He answered in English. I was doomed.

If Nathalie's family house was out of the tidy American mold, then Christian's family - again, Mom americaine, French papa - lived 'à la français.' Their house was found through an oaken-doored courtyard off rue Vieille-du-Temple - a real long step back in time.

Exposed beams, split-level rooms, and organized clutter characterized every room. Christian, and his two - mercifully, lovely - younger sisters shared two rooms, with Christian's room serving as the treasure trove for most of the toys.

One time, their hide and seek game took them to their parents' bedroom - a super excuse for me to, one, have a look, and two, while shooing them out.

Again, the irregular beams were set off by the whitewashed walls; the high double bed was strewn with sleeping furs, with - instead of a crucifix - a large gilded icon of Our Lady of Vladmir hanging above the headboard. If the bedroom was Mother Russia, their adjoining bathroom was 100 percent French - a supersized bottle of Chanel No. 5 had pride of place near the bath.

This fantasy homebase was also home to a friendly West African cook, who ruled the narrow kitchen, constantly preparing 'gouters' - snacks - for the brood.

Mom number two and I never really hit it off; she'd met her husband while working for a major bank in Manhattan, and had abandoned her career to raise her three kids, all under six years old.

She explained how snubbed she felt by other Parisians, who identified her as merely maman, and not as an international finance consultant. Plus I wasn't extremely happy to babysit a total of four kids - giving her a break - but giving me a headache. Papa the financier and I never met: again, too busy at work, night or day.

The most insightful look into Paris family life came after an encounter at the most chouchou playground in the world. The Very Upmarket Notre Dame Sandbox can be found between the riverphoto: group jardin d'acclima and the cathedral, and it boasts a couple of horses on springs and a sand mill - plus a superb view. No café-crèmes here, just blossoming cherry and chestnut trees in the spring, and the whole world promenading past.

Two dark-haired sisters - porcelain dolls who had come to life - were having the time of their lives playing with Monster. "Gosh, that's unusual," I thought, glancing at their North African nannies. But they were twittering away in English when I approached; and it turned out that there were few languages the girls didn't speak.

Their mother was French and Arabic, and worked as an editor for a fiction publishing house. Her current project was revising the firm's Russian titles. Papa's calling was as curator of an absolutely obscure collection at the Louvre: woodprints from a certain decade in the 1500's - or something.

The setting: the top two floors of a luxury building on rue des Saints-Pères, in the Latin Quarter. The Algerian nannies were part of an entire family - minus Algerian dad - who served as live-in domestic help. Their walls were pale yellow, with fine plaster moldings everywhere; their carpets were cream and neither their two girls nor their two dogs dared to make a stain.

Unfortunately, Editor Maman spoke in British English, confusing Monster no end.

"So Kenny, how do you find Paris?"

"Where?"

"How do you find Paris, darling?" [Meaning: 'whaddaya think of it?']

"We're in Paris!"

"Yes, but how do you find living here in Paris?" She was still smiling, stooping down to his level. But Monster didn't understand, and got shy and quiet. Which was fine by me.

Later in our friendship with the family, I made American pancakes for the girls' afternoon 'gouter.'

Their kitchen was kitted out with the latest German appliances, fridge, stovetop - just like in a cooking show! It was a good afternoon, and I was amused by five year-old Celine'sphoto: looking at bear insistence of putting lots of sliced peaches on top of her mini-stack of silver dollars, "Parce que les pêches, c'est trés bon pour la sante!" Peaches are good for your health!

Probably the best thing about hanging out with Céline and Anne-Catherine was their absolutely civilizing effect on Monster. Because their manners, conversational skills, and poise were impeccable, he strained to imitate them - making my life much easier.

Also, having three nannies for three children made afternoons in the Luxembourg Gardens a doddle. I almost would have paid my employer - instead of the other way 'round.

Looking back on my misspent au pair days, I'm thankful to have had a relatively uneventful couple of months of indentured servitude.

Sometimes I think back to my British friend Sally, au pairing a placid three-year old boy. Sally was one of the lucky au pairs whose employer - a single maman - provided her with her own studio apartment, on another floor of the building.

Just off Place Victor Hugo, her flat became the epicenter for exploring the cafés and traiteurs of the 16th by day and 'Party Central' by night.

I always thought it was weird that Sally was so well paid and had her own place - and Sal didn't know what maman's job was.

Maman was a high-class practitioner of the oldest profession in the world.

Tracy Turner©1998
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