Thursday, July 28, 2005

Ruthless efficiency, seventies style

When my stepsister and I were small, my mother went out to work full time. It wasn’t because she needed to – my stepdad was doing very nicely, thank you. Regrettably she just didn’t like us very much, and chose to escape to an office for eight hours a day, leaving us in the summer holiday care of a succession of au pairs. Seventies au pairs were a very strange concept, if you ask me. A generally European, generally about eighteen-year-old girl, who lives in your house and is treated as the seventies equivalent of a plantation slave, for the princely sum of around ten quid a week. These poor girls were expected to look after my sister and I, clean the house, do the ironing, cook meals, do shopping and lord only knows what else in those worryingly liberal times. We had a French one, two German ones and a Dutch one. It’s not that sis and I were unruly monsters leading to an overly high turnover of petrified, floundering auxiliary staff, it was more that my mother was, and is, unpleasant and demanding and therefore home was never far from the forefront of their minds. The French one was sort of nice – she wore a very very long woolly scarf, and made French apple tart for pudding. I was four, and this was the best way to win my affection. I don’t remember too much more about her as I was very small and she was very, well, nice. The Dutch one had buck teeth and body odour, but nevertheless won the Lovely Legs contest at Pontins that summer. It’s just a shame they weren’t having a Biggest Summer Job Mistake contest, or she could have doubled her trophy count. She didn’t last very long – I don’t know why and I don’t want to know. Ours was a strange household at the best of times, and throwing homesick flatlanders into the mix can’t have improved the dynamic much. One of the German ones was very lovely, and in fact returned voluntarily the following year for a holiday which leads me to presume that she must have had some sort of drug problem or, at the very least, mental health issues. The other German one, however, was about as far removed from lovely as I think is legally allowed without resorting to incarceration or a cull. I was, and still am, claustrophobic, and as a child was afraid of the dark (oh come on, it was big and there were things in it), but our preferred spot that particular summer was a side niche in the cupboard under the stairs – we’d crawl in, clamber over the sewing machine and pull the door shut behind us. How random is that – I could, if pressed, recall every item that lived in the cupboard under our stairs in 1979. Most notably a giant ball of string, and a pair of boots that would have had that dirty looking dark-haired one off of Abba salivating at the thought. We’d hide in there for hours, unaware that the au pair in question was utterly disinterested in our whereabouts, preferring to lie in bed all day smoking Camel cigarettes, rising ten minutes before my mother was due to arrive home, in order to be standing at the ironing board pretending to have been slaving away all day. She had a scary Cherman friend with a big booming voice (a lovely lass), and they both had very hairy armpits. My sister and I survived that summer largely on cabbage, which was the only thing she could be arsed to cook. My irrational fear of other people’s cheese stems from her making me a sandwich from grated cheese which had been left, uncovered, in the fridge for so long that it had attained the texture of uncooked long grain rice, which she forced me to eat by threatening to tell my mother that I’d called her a very rude name if I didn’t. That was not a good summer. In addition to their various funny little ways, all the au pairs in the village would congregate in each other’s host families’ houses, so there was a constant melee of European students slagging off their employers, and bored, confused children who had no idea where their next meal was coming from.

Strange days indeed. I wouldn’t recommend an au pair as a childcare option. Not that it’s affected me though – I’m the most well-balanced obsessive-compulsive needy control freak you could ever hope to meet.



Blogger Who is this Dave? chimed in with...

My au pair is wonderful.* But then my children have grown up and left home (along with their mother) so life here is alittle different to your childhood.

*She also looks like the blonde one from Abba (see my blog, 6th July).

28 July, 2005 18:45  
Blogger surly girl chimed in with...

hmmmm, Solveig i believe. am not entirely sure the term "au pair" applies if you have no resident children and simply give house-room to a young, accommodating swedish girl......

29 July, 2005 09:14  
Blogger Who is this Dave? chimed in with...

I don't know what you're suggesting.

Mind you, I thought I was talking about whistling when I responded to your comment on my blog - but when I put the phrase 'Just put your lips together and blow' into Google just now - to check whether it was Humphrey Bogart, or Lauren Bacall who said it - I discovered that all sorts of porn sites seem to make use of the phrase.

Can't see why myself...

29 July, 2005 17:23  

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