Learning the Hard Way: A year as an au pair in Paris
Part 1 The Job Search
I arrived in Paris on a whim. My life was in chaos; I was looking for an escape. After a visit to the French capital, I found myself unwilling to leave. However, my living arrangement was growing precarious. After a tumultuous month, it became clear that I needed work that guaranteed ample time to study, and an apartment of my own. As most au pair jobs are supposed to meet these conditions, I applied for a handful of positions advertised on Craigslist, FUSAC, and AngloInfo. In mid-September, I accepted interviews for four positions based on the number of hours I needed to work in exchange for housing, and how soon I could be out of my current apartment.
– Image from https://www.st-christophers.co.uk/
This family occupied a sprawling flat across from Jardin du Luxembourg. I arrived early, and fantasized about the hours I might pass reading by the Fontaine de Medicis. The location was ideal: central, safe, quiet (well, quieter than Bastille!). They offered a newly renovated, independent studio (standard 9m^2 chambre de bonne) with ensuite bathroom, in exchange for 20h/w and without salary.
Two girls, 5 and 7, dressed as ballerinas met me at the door. During the interview with their mother, I learned that the girls already had a fulltime Filipina nanny. My job was solely to speak English with the girls. Paradoxically, at the end of our meeting, she expressed anxiety about my inability to speak French fluently. The nanny, I was told, could not speak French very well and the au pair would necessarily have to complete and correct all her children’s schoolwork. Nevertheless, I was asked to return later in the week to meet her husband.
On our second meeting, the family arrived 30 minutes late. I was annoyed, but desperate enough for a room that I waited patiently. Once we were all together, the father gave his blessing. We viewed the apartment. They said I could move in the next week. However, the week came and went, and my phone calls were left unanswered. Presumably, they found someone else for the job, or changed their mind, but never felt it necessary to notify me. Luckily, I had continued my job search as I was waiting for this position to start!
My second interview was with a family of four kids on Rue de Rivoli overlooking Tuileries and Louvre. They asked for 15h/w of afterschool English tutoring in exchange for an independent room. I refer to this as my Quasimodo job when I discuss my au pair experience with friends. The whole meeting was surreal and awkward. The parents looked like they had walked straight out of Grant Wood’s American Gothic. They were tediously dry and rigid, wearing blank expressions as we spoke. I could not gage whether or not I was the cause of it, and kept trying to change my approach to bring life into the conversation. To overcompensate for the dreary mood, I enthusiastically gave each of the children la bise as I met them. This was received very poorly, and after two years in France I am still unsure if it was inappropriate or not–cultural assimilation is hard!
During the interview I was shown the apartment. We took the back staircase to the 7th floor (no lift). It was a somber Lilliputian space with dark slanted walls, a small window, shower, desk, and a single mattress on the floor (they asked me to provide my own bedding). Around the corner, down two hallways, and through several doors was a squatting toilet used by everyone on the floor. They assured me it was cleaned regularly, and I assured them I was not horrified—apparently quite poorly as they sent a kind rejection email the next day. Honestly, I was relieved.
The third family wanted an au pair to watch two boys all day Wednesday and weekends for approximately 25h/w in exchange for a chambre de bonne with shared toilet, and without salary. She charged an additional 50 euro a month to cover private cleaning costs for the room. They lived on the Quai d’Orsay. Another central location with lots of activity, and immediate access to Seine picnicking. Not being aware that two entrances to the building existed, I mistakenly rang the house from the servants’ side. When I entered the building I was surprised to myself in an enclosed courtyard. I walked up the back stairs to the apartment, and rang the buzzer on the door. I heard a woman shuffling things about, laughing, and periodically exclaiming ‘c’est trop bizarre!’ When she opened the door I could see that we were in the kitchen. After watching many episodes of Upstairs, Downstairs, I quickly realized what I had done.
We walked to the salon for the interview, where she invited me to sit on the stiffest couch in existence (from the second empire, if I had to guess). Her 7 and 9 year old boys played on personal iPads while we discussed my resume and the conditions of the arrangement. I would be expected to entertain the boys with English speaking games and activities, organize outings, prepare meals, do light cleaning, and be available for additional babysitting. They already employed a fulltime Filipina nanny for the other days of the week, but wanted someone to care for them on the weekends. The interview went well, and she said I would receive a call after they had interviewed the other applicants. In the meantime, I had another meeting scheduled near park Monceau.
I met the mother of two children 2 years, and 6 months at a café for a preliminary interview. She explained that she wanted to go back to work to set a good example for her daughter. They had just renovated the chambre de bonne upstairs. The arrangement was a maximum 15h/w in exchange for the room and cost of amenities, but no weekly salary. She described herself as an adherent of positive parenting, wanting to provide her children with a bilingual Montessori-style education. I was asked about my life, goals and interest in taking care of children. Having answered these satisfactorily, I was invited to view the room and to spend a supervised hour with the children. If the supervised time went well, I would babysit during the evening later in the week. If the kids survived the evening, I could have the job.
In the end I received job offers from family 3 and 4. Although I could have moved into the Orsay apartment immediately, I found myself unwilling to pay the petty 50 euro cleaning fee out of principle—they didn’t appear to hurt for cash, and I wasn’t getting paid. They tried hard to convince me I didn’t need anything more than they were willing to offer: I would learn French from the kids, they would lend me to their friends as a babysitter, I could accompany them during family vacations, etc. Once I made my decision, I had to firmly and continuously restate my rejection without any explanatory reasons and stop responding to further emails.
I was not familiar with the 17th arrondissement (it seemed boring), but I identified with something in the last family. They seemed normal—at least, less opulent—and I felt they would be a better fit for me. The hours allowed me to keep my weekends and days free to explore Paris, and work on essays. I also liked the room. Primarily, because the apartment had a bright south facing window. It was really small, there was no lift, and the toilet was shared by 5 other tenants, but it was the most luminous room I visited. I felt I could make the space my own, and started work two weeks later.
None of the positions I interviewed for offered a salary to help with everyday living expenses. At the time, I rationalized that the lack of salary was acceptable because I was still enrolled in University and received money for living expenses during the year. However, I do not think it is advisable for anyone to accept a non-salaried post, particularly without an alternative source of income. If I had read Olivia Brett’s post Au Pair Hours and Pay before accepting my position, I would have known that an au pair is legally entitled to a room (independent or live-in) and a weekly allowance as the most basic conditions of employment.
Once I decided on a job, I thought the most difficult part was over. After all, I had a warm bed to sleep in and only work 15 hours a week! As it turns out au pairing is much different than I expected.
By Amelia Jones
We are very happy to welcome Amelia Jones to Ultimate Au Pair, this is the first post in her new mini-series ‘……..’ which recounts her real experiences as an au pair.