Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Les Tattooages et Le Chewing Gum

During my stay with the family in France, I spent a lot of time with the two twin boys: Luka and Adrian. Sometimes, we would leave the house and do other things for the purpose of the boys to have activities and then sometimes, they'd come along with me to do special errands or to buy food. Sometimes, we went with mom and dad, but more often, they'd come along with me alone and this was usually very fun for all of us, though if there were short time restrictions, a bit stressful. I didn't really prefer to take the kids to the market right down the street from our house (first called, "ATAC," then later the name changed to "Simply Market") because there were always toy issues. Like, no matter how many times I told Luka that he was not to expect a toy at the market, he would somehow end up wandering away from me at the store to look at the books and the toys. He'd come back to me and say, "you're not going to like this, but we have to buy this 'Playmobile,'" or "Hotwheels" car. I used reason a lot, but reason with a five-year old who wants a toy rarely sinks deep enough. I said things like, "I didn't bring enough money" (which usually was pretty true) or "this is your mom and dad's money, so I can't make a decision about a toy like that with their money." I think they got that. We came to the agreement that the "tattooage" was the best reward/bribe to get the boys to first of all, come with me to the market in the first place, secondly, to not cry or throw irrational fits about toys at the market, and thirdly, to have them get a reward for behaving without paying 5 or 6 euros each! The "tattooage" is simply put a temporary tattoo that was sold at "La Presse" (specifically, a store selling all sorts of press, like newspapers, magazines, and greeting card [? Ok, not necessarily a form of press, but you get the idea]) for 15 euro cents. There, at the counter, was a plastic bin full of tiny little chewing gums individually wrapped up in a temporary tattoo. There were even ones that in addition to containing a tattoo, would turn your whole mouth a bright color green, purple or blue. Usually, the tattoos were of some sort of American superhero. I remember "spiderman" and "superman." In French, you say "speederman." The only real problem I could foresee with buying these temporary tattoos as a form of reward was the fact that the twins never had a piece of chewing gum before and weren't really allowed to have it either. So, in the beginning, I would let them take the tattoo out of the package and throw away the chewing gum. They would smell the chewing gum. Really, that was part of the reward, "OK, now smell it, does it smell good? OK, now throw it in the trash bin." And for a while, this was acceptable to them. They would smell it and sigh, "oooh, ca sent bon!," and then gently place the gum part into the trashcan. Once in the mouth, one of the boys didn't really like it, he said he preferred to just smell it. I encouraged that as much as I could. The other one, really liked it, so I had to remind him firmly, "remember, 2 minutes!" I would often use these types of tactics... time limits, but the cruel part is that I usually would just guesstimate the times. They didn't question it in the beginning. Spitting the gum out became the hard part...especially after the one who decided he didn't like chewing the gum, realized that the different scents also tasted differently, too and he discovered that he did like certain ones. He liked the "citron a la menthe," which the other one found too "piquant" (spicy). He was much more the "peche" or "fraise" type of guy. The spitting out of the gum was sometimes done on the sidewalks by mistake. I guess I would tell them, "OK, spit it out," and out it would go right onto the sidewalk, little blobs of bright green, pink or blue. I'd make them pick it up and put it in the trash can, but sometimes would have to go into lengthy explanations about stepping on chewed gum on the pavement and how that is just the worst because it won't come off for months. The parking lot of the market was under construction at one point and so to make spitting out the gum more interesting than keeping it in the mouth, I would allow them to spit the gum down into a deep hole, dug in the dirt that was dug along the edge of the parking lot. That was great fun, but I told them to hurry up so no one would see. French people seem to spit a lot, but also seem to judge foreigners who do the same things as they do, a lot. But, I guess that's relative to the fact that I could realistically imagine any culture doing this. I felt a bit guilty, allowing the boys to put gum in their mouths for the first time, and then to be the one who allowed them to discover that it wasn't all bad as they'd been taught (which, it is: Bad for the teeth, and unnecessary colors and sugars.) My guilt began to worsen, so I slipped up one day and said, "don't tell your mom and dad." They were so proud of their tattoos. We'd stop on the way home and sit on this bench on the side of rue frère robinson and apply the tattoos onto their little forearms. They wanted them a certain direction, and it was important that I listened closely so I didn't mess it up (again). Upon arriving at home, the boys would immediately show off their tattoos to their parents. Then, slowly, it would all come out. First it was a look that Luka would give me like he was going to tell, but he was trying very hard to keep the secret. And then, "Kara let us put gum in our mouths for 2 minutes! Only for 2 minutes, and then we spit it out. It was really good, 'ça gouté si bon!'" little Luka would say to his father, who would snicker a bit, while raising his eyebrows. What was truly glorious about this family is that these were the least of our worries. I knew I'd never get reprimanded for behaviors like this in the end. After all, I spent so much time with them... and choosing my battles was part of a successful job-well-done.

Monday, December 22, 2008

The End is at the Green Soccer Fields

I've never been much of a runner. In fact, there was a time in my life when I didn't think I even needed to eat or exercise. Why? I don't know, but I went through phases where I didn't eat much and had no intention of exercising. Somewhere between high school and college, I started to think a lot about food, eating healthy things: high fiber, vegetables, low fat foods, less sugar, etc, but I still did not want to exercise. I didn't understand it. I convinced myself that the anxiety from exercising was worse for me than not exercising, so I wasn't going to make myself go through that agonizing anxiety if I didn't want to. In the summertime, I began exercising more regularly. Once, I moved to California for a period of time and discovered the joy of hiking. After all, I was living in the California mountains. Hiking was great because it was a slower pace and there were many distractions along the way, like beautiful fruit trees that I rarely saw in Wisconsin, or a view of the ocean from a mountain trail. I realized that running was the real fear in my exercise life, not exercise itself. I didn't like how my body felt so tired when I was running. I didn't like how hard I was breathing. I didn't like all the little side aches and small pains felt throughout my body. It just didn't feel good, therefore, I wasn't going to do it. Battling depression for most of my life, I read in numerous books, journals, or articles that one great way to fight symptoms of depression is through diet and exercise. Everyone makes goals to start exercising, and I made goals sporadically to start running, but never made an ongoing routine of it. While having heard that walking is just as good for you as running, I would convince myself that the walking I would do during any given day was enough, but I still felt fatigued and limp: a little weary day in and day out.

In Bordeaux, I decided I would just try it again. I wanted to be in good shape and ultimately look pretty. This time all I had was myself as motivation. I didn't want to be forceful, but I did want to accomplish good exercise, getting my heart rate going, burning calories, and releasing those endorphins as I had never done before. I remember the first time I ran in Merignac (that small suburb of Bordeaux), I chose an interesting route. Habitually, I'd leave around 8:10pm. Normally, I'd be with the boys until 8pm, run down to my room, change my clothes quickly, grab my IPOD (again, a savior of sorts) and be out the door: running. That first time I ran out onto our street (rue Louis Jouvet) and turned left onto Rue Frere Robinson, left onto the street that "La Mairie" (the Town Hall) was on and down by "Le Pin Galant." I was able to run for 15 minutes and I remember thinking what a long 15 minutes it was.

Running in France on the street is an experience. I knew I was the ultimate American woman. I got the notion that Europeans didn't typically run outside. Maybe they run on a track or on a treadmill, but the French really prefer playing sports or going to the pool. Hiking seemed to be common and most men played "le foot" (soccer). I would see a random man running here or there and sometimes on a Saturday, I would see couples jogging through "Jardin Publique" (a huge public park in Bordeaux) but usually only on a weekend.

I began running in April 2007 and this was when the days started to get longer. It was still light out at 8pm and would be getting dark around 8:45 or 9pm so I tried to be back by then. Eventually, I found a path I liked a lot. Instead of turning left on rue Frere Robinson, I turned right and headed down another path. I followed a somewhat busy street and there was a sign that read "Bordeaux," white sign, red border, black type lettering, meaning I had hit the city limits of Bordeaux, and this was right where I had been hitting minute 13 of my run. I realized then that minute 13 is when my body began to feel less fatigued and more energized, making me feel like I could run forever. Fresh endorphins were released at minute 13. But still, I would fight the urge to think things like: "just 10 more minutes and you can stop," or "you just have to do that one more time" and it'll be over. Running did not come easy for me, but for some reason, I was able to start a routine of it. Music helped... if I could just get lost in the music, I wouldn't realize I was tired. I began to treat my runs as discovery routes for Merignac. I would go through neighborhoods, listening to music that I liked while imagining myself living in any given house. There were fabulous gardens, old cottage-like houses, rustic, and very "French-looking." I can see the red poppies in fields of green that was a front yard...wishing I had a small camera the easy-to-transport while running type. One yard in particular was never mowed, but it looked fantastic. I could understand why they didn't cut the grass. They would have to give a farewell to the bright reddish-orange poppies that almost glowed in the light of the moon on those nights I didn't get home before dark. There were houses that had these fantastic little patios near the front, brick driveways or even the generic looking balconies. I had in my mind the tiny table and chairs along with the tiny coffee cups, saucers and spoons, a bowl of perfectly white glittery sugar cubes and tiny shot glasses of water laid out on top of a table linen I would own. I would sit at it while with a friend, perhaps a mysterious Frenchman and converse all the morning long out in the fresh french air. The trees and gardens would surround us. We'd have those table grapes in an attractive dish and perfect French baguettes would be laid out on the table: A wedge of triple cream. We'd dine out there in that air. We'd live a simple life. Getting lost in these types of thoughts is what persuaded me that running was possible... and then at those moments, quite enjoyable!

One day I ended my 24 to 27 minute run at this great big park by chance, "stade du jard," in Merignac. The footballers (I've taken to calling it "football" instead of "soccer" without intentions of sounding pompous) would just be finishing their practice as the sun set. I discovered Pieta Brown at this moment on my ipod. First it was her song, "lullaby," which made me want to transport the song to my ex-boyfriend in hopes he could gather the sentiment I had reaped from it. Then, it was her song, "Out in a Field" that struck me in a kind way... a sort of lucky way... that in fact, I had chosen to finish my run out in this field of green as the sky grew darker and the green grass smelled so strong. Where was God at this time? I'd been taught he'd been everything... but not really, at the same time. I'd felt like stretching and laying on the even, soft turf of the football fields and listen to this song. I created playlists for running that intentionally ended with this song. It's a sad song. Sad songs tend to ease my sadness and that was something few people seemed to understand from me.

Later, my runs became 30 to 35 minute runs. I'd gotten to a place where it didn't matter any more how long I ran, but that I did it and it ended up to be longer because it was a routine I'd grown to find crucial to my well-being. I had been stressed out to this point that I was unaware of the level of stress I'd been experiencing on a daily basis. The exercise helped ease myself down from the highs of the stress. I'd do stomach crunches in the field at the end. I'd do lunges as I walked. I'd stretch and then I'd walk home. I'd sing out loud, my American music as I walked slowly home in the dark Merignac. I'd hear teenage boys shout things at me in French: "Vous etes charmante!" They'd ride their motorbikes, speeding up and showing off while I'd be exercising: "Tu es si belle, mademoiselle!" I was flattered by the formality of the language. This was in fact quite a cultural difference for an American woman jogging on the sidewalk. I'd always pretend I didn't hear anything. I'd hide my giddy laughs as best as possible. I am sure I'd roll my eyes a bit.

Running became one of my main expressions of self-love. It was the way that I cared for myself in this way that was ultimately a challenge. Perhaps the best type of love is the type when there is a challenge involved. If love comes easy, it's easy to doubt. At the top of the whole challenge was the fact that I slowly worked at it, and it became attainable. It was an award I gave to myself. It was time spent with myself that was good for me and only me.

At the end of my runs, laying in the moist, green field of French soil, trespassing onto the even, plush grasses, listening to Pieta Brown's words was where my peace of mind flowed and the notion that I'd completed a job well-done.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Biking Bordeaux

The bicycle was one of my greatest assets in France. As part of my payment for childcare, I was given the use of a bicycle. It was a deep royal blue and fluorescent yellow bicycle with a few gears, mountain bike handle bars and a somewhat cushy seat that was dirty but still an incredible hot yellow. I liked it. I had a bike helmet that I packed in one of my suitcases: a "bell," that later was stolen from the bike racks at the "médiatheque" in Mérignac. Briefly, the médiatheque is a library, but also contains a lot of media type materials, like dvds, computers, access to copy machines, scanners and printers; it was part of the new wave of library systems in France.

In the beginning of my stay in France, I was quite afraid to ride the bike. I told Erica (the mother of the children) that I didn't really want to because of the traffic. She understood safety concerns like none other. Safety issues rarely bothered me before this, but I began (only after arriving in France) imagining cars sliding into me while I pedaled on the side of the somewhat narrower roads. Another concern was my inexperience as a biker on the roads in any city. I had ridden around Lake Monona in Madison, and done a bit of biking downtown, but not enough to feel safe in another country doing it. I would then ask myself questions like: "what is the difference? It's not like in France, they drive on the opposite side of the street?" It took me about 4 or 5 months before I began using the bike regularly. I just wouldn't touch it before that. Eventually, I did figure out how to change the tire (which had been flat since I arrived) in order to begin riding it into the city, which was a good 30 minute bike ride, slightly up hill, but this was only on a weekend here or there. I waited until the rainy seasons had passed for the most part and it was warmer and nicer for biking. A few months after progressing through riding into the city on the weekends, I began considering the possibility of putting the bike on the tram, which was allowed during certain hours. There tended to be enough room and not a lot of traffic at the late hours of the night I would want to do this anyways. Often people stared at the bike. I wondered if they were just staring at me and the bike because I looked different but then I realized people always stared at those who had bikes on the tramway. I am still not quite sure why that is. I always had to fight the feelings of guilt from taking up so much space with my bike on the tram, but over and over I would carefully read "les regles de velo sur le tramway" (rules for taking a bicycle on the tramway) to be sure I was doing it at the appropriate times. These rules were well-posted on every single tram. I remember reading that you must always have one hand on your bicycle at all times to prevent it from falling over. I also remember that during rush hour, it was prohibited to transport your bike by tram.

At one point I thought about taking the bike and locking it up near Merignac Centre (the center city) where the bus or Tram would pick me up and drop me off to avoid having to walk in the dark. That way, the bike was waiting for me. I enjoyed knowing the bike was there, but sometimes I would get paranoid that it would be stolen. Bikes were prized possessions in this city and often stolen. Even parts of the bike would be missing at times (those parts not securely locked up. I had one peugot, orange, metal U-lock and also a skinny black one. I was able with the two of them to lock up all parts (except the seat, which I was warned to lock up as well or take with me) of my bike: rear and front tires. I did this when I was going to school at the University of Bordeaux as well because I was taking the bus. I have a feeling that the French would be extremely impressed with our bike/bus system here in the states. It's great to be able to stick your bike on the front of the bus here. In Bordeaux I could put the bike on the tram but not on the bus. The quickest route for me to go to school was to take the bus 35 from Merignac Centre to Pessac, where the University was.

There were times when the weather was nice that it was more enjoyable for me to bike into town than it was for me to take the public transportation. When the weather changed to spring and the sun was shining, I loved to follow the tram tracks (it was the quickest and safest way) into the city or home from the market. That springtime smell was the same in France as I always knew growing up in Wisconsin. And although there was no snow melting like in Wisconsin, there was plenty of moisture to continue the scent of humidity drying out in the warm sun as springtime approached us... all the way in France.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Nights Spent Out

It was really rainy sometimes, and cold. It wasn't just cold, it was damp and cold and I was taking public transportation. It was a nice amenity to have one of the best public transport systems in the world at my disposal, but there were problems. One main problem with this is that I wanted to go out on the weekends or nights during the week and meet up with people I met in class like other au pairs or James and Stephanie, who were a couple the family introduced me to (James provided childcare on my day off).

Countless nights were spent with me walking in the rain taking "le bus du soir"(the night bus), which required that I take the tramway (a light rail system) to a specific location, then to take this bus which only came once every hour or hour and a half after 9pm. If I wanted to have any sort of social life, this type of behavior was required and I did it quite often. I remember listening to Beth Orton on my IPOD while I waited for 30 or 40 minutes in the freezing rain for the bus to come. I should mention that it wasn't literally freezing rain because the temperature rarely dipped below 40, but it was windy and bone-chilling rain. Drunk French teenagers often were at these bus stops at 11pm or midnight as well, empty beer cans on the sidewalks next to the red bordered bus stop sign with the little "bus du soir, S3" logo in the corner so I knew it was the right stop. I began this escapade for the first few months, going out like this once per week or maybe twice because I had a lot of curiosity, energy and good foreigner's cheer. The rainy weather in February and March in Bordeaux would not keep me in my green carpeted room in Merignac (a small suburb of Bordeaux typically a 20 minute bus ride, but at these hours of the night more like a 45 minute wait and then another 20 minute bus ride and then another 15 minute walk). There was a lot of territory to discover and a real life in Bordeaux depended on my willingness to venture by way of public transport into late hours in the evening.

My IPOD saved me most of the time...and my Macy's clearance cashmere coat, which kept me exceptionally warm and dry despite the soaked exterior not meant for rain. But, it was the IPOD that made the time pass. I remember Michel Thomas' Beginner's French courses, which was downloaded from my best friend's collection by chance. I learned a lot from those first lessons. I had high hopes that I would be able to remember everything he was speaking to me at those late hours waiting at the bus stop. It was so dark. I would be repeating after Monsieur Thomas in a whisper so no one could really hear me if anyone happened to approach the bus stop. I was near the hospital (Hopital Pellegrin)...whispering with white ear buds in my ears, "Voulez-vous aller manger avec moi?" "Où voulez-vous aller?" I learned while standing out in the rain one night, the verb "to come," which is "venir," from Michel Thomas. I was determined and felt elated that I was learning this language that was everywhere around me, yet I still hadn't a clue. The amount that I did NOT understand was so overwhelming, but I followed the notion I'd heard about success in language learning: give yourself proper time, remember that it is possible to pick up languages just from being immersed in it, and put forth a little bit of hard work attending language classes. This helped me keep a positive attitude, believing it would eventually come. By the third month, I no longer needed Michel Thomas for I had surpassed his Beginner's French. I began to continue to take it out as a method of measuring my progress, to show myself how far I'd come. He remains on my Ipod and for purposes of taking me back to that bus stop in the cold Bordelais rain, I listen to his tiny voice for beginners in French now and then

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Free Time in Bordeaux

For the first few months, well really, the first 10 months of my stay in Bordeaux, I had limited free time. Usually, I had one full day off per week and was busy every night between 4 and 8pm as well as a Saturday shift that was typically 9am to 1pm and then 6pm to 11pm. During the school week, M,T,TH,F, I always picked up the boys from school, taking the bus or walking them home. Sometimes, because of my French class I would pick the twins up from after school care ("la garderie"). Taking the bus proved to be a stimulating activity that given the choice, the boys would usually opt for. I enjoyed my free time greatly, but I ended up with a limited social life because of the work schedule of an au pair. The nature of this gig provides the young woman with inopportune hours for meeting new people, socializing and building positive relationships outside of the home. Perfect for the individual who genuinely wants to stay at home and does not always crave a social life, a normal au pair's work schedule creates many trying situations that I now look at as excellent opportunities to build character. Incredibly thankful for my new and improved character and learning experiences, I now greatly appreciate the freedom but lack of extra finances that my current life affords me.

A typical day for me would revolve around a few hours in the morning preparing for dinner, folding laundry and cleaning up the kitchen. Perhaps I would drop off the dry cleaning (which was just about a block away from our house in Merignac) or pick up some groceries at ATAC (the supermarket just next to the drycleaners). In my mind while at the grocery store went something like: what will they want to eat, what can I make for dinner in an hour or perhaps an hour and a half that is not too meaty but provides enough protein (considering the mother's "vegetarianism", and one of the boys' anemia), and how can I make something for each night of the week, fill the fruit bowls on the table, and make sure there is milk in the refrigerator, enough cheese and enough pasta! I kept this all to a minimum time limit. About 2 hours total and then I could have a good hour or two of free time before my class at Alliance Francaise to do my homework and have a coffee at "La Riche," one of my favorites in Bordeaux because of it's convenient location just off of "Place de Gambetta" and friendly waitstaff (a rarity in Bordeaux, I was finding). On a sidenote, the French are not usually known for friendliness to strangers, but I was learning quickly that if they got to know you and your personal efforts to communicate to them, while making good eye contact and showing confidence, they were actually quite pleasant to meet on a day to day basis in random cafes.

Bordeaux is a beautiful city. It has been cleaned up over the past decade. It's architecture is the first of it's kind: "Modern" Parisian architecture modeling that of Bordeaux, I learned from a French friend. The mayor (Alain Juppé) of Bordeaux desired greatly to prove his worth through revamping the entire city, after he was not elected mayor of Paris, making it one of the best places in France. I was there when the city was announced as one of UNESCO's world heritage sites in the summer of 2007. All of the buildings had been scrubbed of the black soot which accumulated over time since since the 1800s, now a sparkling white, the city glows even in daylight. The placement of lights and artistic sculptures and monuments are scattered throughout each quaint area of this city, and the narrow brick passageways are just what an American dreams about living and walking through the streets of France by night. There is the river, splitting the city in two, "la Garonne," which empties in from the Atlantic Ocean, just a 45 minute drive from the city. Since I spent in all 15 months in Bordeaux, I had time here and there to get to know the city. I spent much of my time wandering around the city on my Sunday off. At first, I would often just get lost and walk around until I found myself again. Now, I can remember each and every part of the city, so I know that losing myself was actually the right way to go. Besides, I earned "une petite pause" for stopping in a cafe and having a coffee to warm up on those rainy, cold days when my nice cashmere dark green, clearance coat from Macy's in Madison coat got a little soaked. I began to get used to that bitter french coffee and miss it now as I drink smooth lattés with perfectly frothed milk again. It's important to note that I was really nervous to enter a new cafe sometimes that I would walk around a block several times before going in. Then, I would be nervous about being nervous and also about people noticing me walking past the same storefront several times before going in. The cafe's I remember were called : Ailleurs a Bordeaux, Karl, La Riche, Tchai, and a little green one on the corner of Rue St. Remy (I think).

Rarely, would it snow in Bordeaux. I think I saw it as a light covering over the trees and grass for a day, and then it would melt away and become mildly cold and rainy. Dampness is great way to sum up the weather. I remember it being very warm in February or March sometimes: not what I was used to in Wisconsin. It seemed cold until you were sitting in the sun. At this point you would need to take off layers just to be able to tolerate the heat. It reminded me of the Mediterranean. Last year, some time after the new year, I had returned to Bordeaux and met a friend for lunch. We sat outside in January at a cafe and had a pizza and salad under the sun and we were both so hot from the sun we had to take off our jackets. Our cheeks were rosy and burned from that and the bottle of wine we shared.

I arrived in February and my first day off that I had I took the bus into the city and walked all around Bordeaux. I looked up on a free map that I was given from Alliance Francaise for all of the "marchés" (markets)and I noticed "Marche Capucins," one of the first ones I found, I decided to go. A MAJOR perk of working for this family was that they allowed me to pick up cheese from time to time and would reimburse me so I could try plenty. I would stumble through the language asking for the strongest smelling cheese from the very attractive man behind the counter. He worked with me and would ask me things I understood about 2 months later. I was always extremely nervous, my hands shaking, as I handed over 15Euros for the cheese I bought. I didn't skimp on the cheese. I loved it and so did Antoine (the father of the twins). I guess I was nervous because I had never known insecurity like this. I remember tears falling often after instances where I had to communicate in French. I had a high expectation of myself and thought that my one semester of French should have gotten me through ordering cheese alright. I let myself down almost every time for the first 6 months, but eventually, the language came. Strong feelings about learning second languages now encompasses my thought patterns in ways I can barely describe. Hopefully, I can write something about that in an upcoming writing assignment.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

France: the Positive Perspective

In my life, I am looking for meaningful experiences. I had been working at Whole Foods Market for about 2 years and I decided that I wanted to make more of my educational experience in life so I started to take a French course. I get bored easily and am looking for ways I can explore and excite my mind and my creative spirit. I loved learning French and found quickly that I was better at pronunciation than most of the other students in my class. This was not only my perspective but my professor's opinion of me. I had little to no problem learning correct pronunciation even in the first semester of French, which tends to be a challenging language for any foreigner to learn and specifically difficult for Americans because of the lack of sound at the end of about half of the vocabulary words in the French language. I began imagining a life where I could work and travel to another country and gain language skills quicker than if I stayed in the USA. I started to investigate options on-line and it wasn't long before I discovered the option of becoming an Au-Pair for a French family in France for up to 18 months. I thought that about a year would be adequate. Up to this point, I had had a few other international experiences, but all were short term (ranging from 2 months to 4 months). I wanted the challenge of living overseas for an extended period of time and felt that one year would be a challenge but also not be too long for me: a substantial and healthy goal. The Internet opened up a world of possibility. I used a website called Great Au Pair and found a family outside of Paris looking for an Au Pair. They interviewed me through email and I was offered the position. I used my other international experiences working with children (including volunteering at a babies home in South Africa), some references (one from my French professor and one from one of my dearest friends who is the mother of 3 children), and my interest and knowledge from working in the natural food industry in cooking healthy meals for a family as highlights. I really wanted to go back to school to get my master's degree eventually in “an international field” and felt that learning French and gaining these skills would definitely help me form connections. I was right, but it took some disappointment, persistence, hard work and time to get there.

After I had sublet my apartment in Madison, WI, put in my notice of resignation at Whole Foods and began organizing for relocating to France for a year, the family outside of Paris decided to keep another person as a longer term au-pair and go back on offering me the position. Immediately, I began looking for another family in France. It wasn't long before a family outside of Bordeaux contacted me and seemed to be urgently needing an Au Pair. The mother of the family called me almost immediately after the first few email correspondences and we had a series of phone interviews to make sure we would be a good fit (Au-Pair to family). It ended up that this was a Franco-American family, the mother being American and the father being French. The children speaking both languages fluently. Since I had a minimal knowledge of the French language at this point, this was a good option for me. It would ease me into the language and culture and make the possible blows of this thing called culture shock a little bit less abrupt. I was right again. We began to proceed with the visa process which is very long and somewhat tedious. There were a lot of hoops to jump through for me to get an Au-Pair Visa, but we ended up being successful as I was awarded this visa and I was on my way to Bordeaux in February of 2007.

After arriving in Bordeaux, I started work immediately, feeling connected with the family I was living with (Erica and Antoine, the parents) and the children (twin boys, Luka and Adrian) were really great. They were able to adjust and latch on to me very quickly. The boys were 4, but almost 5 when I arrived. After arriving in this place called France for the first time in my life, I realized how very little French I knew, barely able to make it through reading a children's book in French. The boys were cute and fun and excited to have a new Au Pair and not shy to request that I read English books to them. For the first few weeks I was working a lot (close to 45 hours a week). The days consisted of me taking the boys to the park, where we would play and meet other kids from the neighborhood, going to the market to buy food, preparing meals for the entire family and the children, and on Friday evenings, the boys were allowed to watch a movie. I started to do baking projects every other week or so with the boys. Usually, we would bake muffins or quick breads (like banana bread). Once or twice we made cookies and I tackled making a gingerbread house with Luka and Aidy which was a lot of fun. I think they enjoyed that the best. It was right before Christmas and the boys had been reading The Gingerbread Baby, so their interest in this was great.

From time to time, the boys would occupy themselves by drawing...and I would draw as well or I would be busy cleaning up or preparing meals. Sometimes, they could spend hours sitting at their little tables underneath the stairway drawing with crayons, markers or pens. They enjoyed making pictures of so many different things...the ocean, animals, boats, castles, princesses, or flowers and trees. Sometimes they would give these drawings away to me or to their parents. Erica and I enjoyed comparing their early drawings with the current ones to see how much they had grown up. Sometimes, she and I would have really good conversations and because I was living in their home, we grew pretty close.

One of the greatest aspects of living and working for this particular family was that they were incredibly good at helping their children understand how to be generous and how to care about other people. If one of the boys was acting in a way that was rude or selfish or ungrateful, the parents took an active role and were involved in conversation over dinner or any other time that was needed to deal with the boys appropriately, helping them understand why we treat people the way we do and how we can help others by caring for them in healthy ways. On the flip side, we comforted the children when they were hurt and I learned about the fine lines surrounding helping children heal from emotional or physical wounds. I learned a lot about how receptive children can be when we slow down and take time to help them understand these deeper concepts. Parenting (especially with an Au Pair) often neglects these crucial aspects. I feel that too often, adults don't consider the capacity of a child to understand or to begin understanding life's deeper meanings concerning human compassion. With the family I was fortunate to be a part of during 15 months of my life, communication with the children was a foundational value, so I learned to deal with children in a way that respected the children and respected myself along with my beliefs and values. I did not feel conflicted with the way the family wanted me to care for their children and the way I desired to care for the children. Practicing childcare through being an Au Pair is much more than simply being an adult presence in the household, it is learning to manage a household and learning to work as a team alongside the parents, knowing that the parents rely on and trust their Au Pair to make decisions all day long concerning the well-being of their children (not frequently arguable, those most important in their lives).

Something that was a challenge for me was planning the meals so that the children and the parents would all eat together and eat the same foods. Often, I would prepare food for the boys and something else for the adults to eat simply because it was almost easier than convincing the kids to eat the adult food...not to mention, we liked to eat somewhat spicy foods sometimes. The meals were always balanced and the parents shared my value of cooking and eating healthy and whole foods: dark green, leafy vegetables, raw or cooked, whole grains, including whole grain pastas, brown rice, quinoa, bulgur wheat, both vegetarian and non-vegetarian sources of protein. Quiche was a favorite for me to make because everyone enjoyed eating it and there were typically leftovers. We made fresh fish often or boneless, skinless chicken breasts and always used the leftover Bordeaux Wine for a red wine vinaigrette dressing for salad. Often we encouraged the children to eat fresh fruit at the end of the meal as a dessert. I constantly held fast to the belief that whatever was made for dinner was what the children would eat for dinner and if they didn't like that or refused to eat it, then I had done my part. Often, I would ponder this issue to come up with solutions or alternatives in order to make eating more fun. I would ask the boys what types of food they would like to eat. They had a meal plan at school, so Erica asked them what they enjoy best at school to eat. The French school system had many options on their lunch menu that were foreign to me such as: leg of lamb, rabbit stew, pate, etc. One thing that wasn't so foreign to me was beef roast, except for the minimal time for the roast to spend in the oven, making it a very rare occasion. We preferred to have the meat cooked a bit longer ( because the mother was also American) and the boys tended to love it. Against my beliefs in the kitchen is using prepackaged seasonings, meal kits and sauce mixes, but I learned to compromise for the sake of the children eating properly! I bought a “sauce echallote” (shallot sauce) to accompany the “roti de boef” (beef roast) and this was exceptionally well-received by the boys and especially by Aidy, who we had a particularly difficult time getting to eat.

For me, learning to assert my authority in a way that was good for everyone showed itself to be one of my greatest challenges. The children picked up on my inexperience right away and would often refuse my initiation of ideas, projects, and especially the routine affairs that necessarily needed to be accomplished in the day. I learned patience and then how to be confident in my requests. With two 5 year olds (for they were 5 for the majority of my stay) one must learn to be confident, not afraid to be the boss, but also flexible, sensitive, and respectful at all times in order to really hear the child in their needs: both physical and emotional. To be an effective communicator with 5 year olds is something I learned through practice with these children in particular.

Overall, this experience of traveling overseas to work for a year under the conditions that I received room and board and also the ability to study a second language was one that I will most likely never have again. It challenged me in many ways that helped me practice skills that now come as second nature. I gained an amount of confidence and strength that I believe I would still be struggling to find had I not done this work abroad project. Not only that, but I gained the gift of speaking another language almost fluently, understanding and conversing with the French proved to be a challenge that I am very proud to have accepted and succeeded in. I gained relationship with a family (real relationship with both negative and positive aspects) that included inevitably certain struggles but also came the learning we all acquired from living through the experience together. In addition, I gained an understanding of another culture from actually living in it day-in and day-out in a way that I don't believe many people get to experience for one reason or another. In all ways, emotional and intellectual, I have grown from that experience. There were dear friends, beautiful surroundings, cultural traditions, delicious foods and interesting conversation in a language that had been completely foreign just 24 months earlier from today. I was able to be a part of all of that. And it changed my life.
Through this blog, I look forward to sharing recipes from my au pair experience and responding to questions and concerns with day to day issues that arise when one is working with a family (or a family working with an au pair). Please let me know what you think of it.