After years of babysitting and tutoring, I decided to become an au pair for a couple of months in Italy. It would give me a first-hand cultural exchange experience and I’d be able to earn a small income so that I could travel afterwards. You can read more about how to become an au pair here. I luckily got to experience au pairing for two families. This is an account of the first family, an experience I could simply call hellish.
I found a family situated near Venice and had planned to stay with them for two months. The family seemed nice, they had an online presence (which quelled some of my anxieties) and had one cute 4 year old. I was happy with the location, the family and my duties, which were simple enough: teach English to the little girl when she gets back from school and help the family with theirs through conversation.
One month into this experience, I found myself in need of a new position with another family. This is what happened with the OG family, in Part 1 of the Au Pair Diaries.
I walked through the doors at the airport empty-handed and was greeted by my hosts, Family OG. The mom held a sign up for me, while the little girl (4) was standing with her father. They had been waiting for me while as I dealt with my missing luggage. Once we met, they assured me that I need not worry about it. We set off for their apartment in a nearby town, about 20 minutes from Venice.
Once inside, I was shown to my room and introduced to the first rule of the house: no shoes allowed. Each time you enter inside, you need to remove your shoes and walk around with house slippers. Not a problem, I thought as I removed mine. At this point, I had no idea that this rule was number 1 of 500 that I would seemingly be incapable of following. My first meal in the house was a spicy tomato pasta dish.
And with that, I had been introduced to two ‘firsts’ on my first night that would have an important impact on my stay: rules and food.
I had the mornings to myself. I often opted to sleep in until after the family had left, so that I could start my days with some time to myself. Little did I know that ‘sleeping in was frowned upon by the mother of the house. On the kitchen table would be a placemat, plate and cup (all plastic, so I assumed they were the child’s) and a note. The note, written in broken English would be a daily instruction on something I either must do (like walking the dog in the cold and rain) or mustn’t do again (touch anything with ‘oily’ fingers or cook in a way that lets a smell radiate though the house).
It wasn’t all bad: I got to see an Impressionism exhibition held in the center with the mother and the family took me on a day trip to Ferrara, a Renaissance city.
As the days went on, I learnt how to adjust to a new way of living. I learnt that sauces were not a thing (at least in this household), that food portions were tiny and made no sense together, that a block of cheese is dessert, and that fresh milk is very hard to find. I’ll never forget the day I was about to cut a slice of cheese, wiping clean my knife on the edge of the plate before hearing a dinner-halting “wait, wait,” followed by a dash by the dad to get a clean(er) knife. Bathing in the winter when the water temperature reached a maximum level of ‘warm’ was rather difficult.
Italy is known for its food and it’s one of the reasons I was so excited to visit. In this household, I should have held off on that. The food was ‘light’ and ‘healthy’ according to the mother. That really translates to: instant-everything and no butter or oil (unless you want it drizzled over your meal afterwards). So many paradoxes in one paragraph, I still can’t make sense of it. A woman who lambastes the Chinese for eating dog, but owns a fur coat and eats horse meat. Horse – As in the animal in the painting that hangs in the living room and the two that your husband saved.
I often had to deal with the mother as the father often worked. She was a peculiar woman and certainly the most delusional person I’ve ever met. There were daily complaints about how ‘heavy’ life and her duties were as a mother, a wife, a pet owner and a teacher. Meanwhile, this is a woman who works part time with one day of the week off, who has a lady to clean her house, another to help with the child, friends who walk the dog, a school that gives the kids lunch, and who makes everything from processed food that is ‘cooked’ in 10 minutes. Sure. South African women are definitely the MVP’s.
Treated as a child, I’d be reprimanded roughly six times a day. Even when I tried, I wasn’t doing it right. I either used the wrong utensil again or put the dishes on the wrong side of the sink or put the stove high enough to burn the pot (?). A military-style run abode with rules that meant you tip-toed in the house, rather than lived in it. The child always asked why my response was “oh!”. The answer is simple: like Lewis Carroll’s Alice, I “was too much puzzled to make any other remark.”
I found myself doing more work than I had expected to, although I held my breath because the pay-off was still pretty good: stipend, accommodation and some food; I could manage the extra work. By extra work, I mean an increasing amount of dishes to wash, longer periods spent with the family and child in the evenings, walking the dog and vacuuming every day.
Children are raised differently in Europe and that’s a fact. They are treated like babies for a far longer time than I’m used to. So when I saw a 4 year old in a high chair, with a bib and bottle, I was quite shocked. What I also came to learn is that the delay in growing up meant the ‘terrible 2’s’ phase came later too. Tantrums were had— about one a day, especially when it involved spending time with me. She’d throw herself, screech and commence very loud and drawn out crying. During one the tantrums, she even told her mother that I smacked her! Another time, when she got her way, she made sure to flash a sly smile in my direction to make sure I knew of her success and hold.
I’ve looked after both girls and boys of all different ages. I have shared a bond with each of them, even those who took a little longer to open up. But with this little girl… well, she rejected me and my every attempt. She didn’t like English, the fact that I was English or really anything that I did. She wanted a boy as an au pair, so really I didn’t stand much of a chance. Her most used word of all time with me? “No!”
Despite not having a bond, there was work to be done: I needed to play with her and teach her the language. So that is what I did, plus putting in extra time by watching cartoons with her and trying to become more of her friend than the help or another adult trying to enforce the rules of the house. The cartoons I showed her in English never managed to hold her attention for longer than 10 minutes. Again, my attempts were futile. She was a tom-boy and a rough one at that: all of the games we played were the same, with little room in her world for any variation. Even the puzzle had to be built in a particular way each time. Apparently I was not to teach her the word “yummy,” because she didn’t need to be learning ‘baby’ words (?).
Two weeks in, the family went way for a week. I took a weekend trip to Milan and the rest of the week was spent at the house recovering or out on day-trips to Verona and Venice. During my time house-sitting, I was to keep it clean, and so I did. The mother wanted to come back to ‘perfection.’ That day, I was to be out the house for the helper to clean. It was raining and I had nowhere to go, so I wound up watching Moonlight at the cinema, dubbed in Italian.
Perfection was indeed what they came home to, but that didn’t stop the washing machine or vacuum from being used at 10pm. I expected some kind of compensation, as this trip was arranged after my working dates had been set, meaning I had budgeted for them, but I got nothing. Once again, I held my tongue.
Back to the mother being delusional. She lectured me on how flexible she was as a mother and on how perfect her child was. The child who ‘does not cry or whim,’ who ‘wants to learn’ and who ‘loves me so.’ I can’t call this anything other than crazy: to believe in things so strongly that are so clearly untrue. The lectures must have been more of a self-convincing and self-righteous act than conversation-making. Take one scroll through her Facebook and you’ll see a multitude of shared PETA posts, as she believes she is a strong animal rights activist. Let’s not forget this is also the same woman who eats horse.
Right, so on to a new week. After a stroll through the center with mother and child, I was told to tell her everything we saw in English (apparently, it’s important that a 4 year old knows what a pedestrian crossing is called in their second language—talk about an overload). We stopped at a coffee shop, where I was subtly reminded of my status as the help (you can choose a miniature pastry or a coffee, while they had both). Then, I set off back to the apartment with the little one all to myself.
As we got back, she needed the toilet and went. Then, she called me to put her in the bidet. I asked to make sure she was ready, so I lifted her up as she responded with a ‘yes.’ As I placed her down, she was pointing to something on the floor. As it turns out, she wasn’t finished and I found myself quite literally having to pick her shit up off the floor, all whilst keeping my cool. Cue tantrum number one of the afternoon: she wanted me to wipe her clean, with my bare hand the way her mother does. This was one thing I simply could not and would not do. She refused my offers to bath her or to use toilet paper instead. So I let the water run, gave her a towel after and tried to calm her down.
Hot chocolate seemed to do the trick, although she sat at the table staring at it for a good long while. Then she decided that it was TV time. I knew very well that this was forbidden and so I had to switch it off and try to play another game with her. This is when tantrum number 2 hit. After 10 minutes of the fit, I used balloons which did the trick. When the mother finally returned, the child was very apologetic about the bidet incident that had ensued. I got no thanks, instead I was simply scolded for not wiping her clean with my hand. I explained that I was not accustomed to using bidets and that it was one thing I was no comfortable with. The response I got a ‘tough,’ in not so many words.
The next morning, I woke to another day of the vacuum outside my door (the not-so-passive passive aggression I had come to expect) and nothing on the kitchen table. I thought things were finally progressing until a lengthy text message let me know otherwise. She started by stating her many grievances, about me being quiet, about my apparent in affection and her disappointment at the little progression her child had made with English. She referred to herself as being too ‘cozy’ with me and that her family is ‘easy.’ She ended it off by saying that it was not appropriate that I stay there any longer.
I cannot force a child to speak or to stop ignoring me every moment I have with her. Rome wasn’t built in a day and English can’t be mastered in 2.5 weeks. At this point, I panicked: what would I do without compensation, accommodation or food for a month in Europe? I wrote down all the hours I had put in with the child, as well as the 100+ words I had taught her. It also stated my original and new responsibilities. I left it on the table and began to look for alternative families.
When she returned, she read the note and called me into the kitchen. We argued about its contents; she called me a liar, disagreeing with the hours I had put in and saying that many words written down she had already been taught at school. She left the house with her child and I started packing my bags. I told them I’d need a few days to make other arrangements and then the dad asked if there was a way we could make it work. I felt too unwelcome at this point to even consider that.
The hours I put in, let’s talk about that. Each day, the child would arrived home at about 3:15. I would take care of her and teach her until around 9pm. I’d have to read and play with her, sometimes go for walks and then bath her. Food and TV followed and then playing once more after dinner. And this to the mother was apparently 2 hours’ worth of work a day! Sometimes she’d come back later than arranged, but I’d never be given a schedule and so I’d be ready and waiting at 3pm regardless. This is excluding time spent cleaning, of course. Towards the end of my stay, I was told at 11am that I had the day off. I wasted no time hopping on the train to Venice to escape for the day. It was my first ‘free day’ that wasn’t actually spent with them on some outing. Bliss.
Food was almost mystical in this house. For breakfast, there was only preserved bread (yuck), no cereal. So I’d have fruit and yoghurt if there were any, and coffee and biscuits (biscuits which were then hidden from me because they were the little girls). For lunch, there wasn’t much either. I’d cook a vegetarian patty with a slice of cheese or have to make pasta. Then dinner time would come around and I’d have to have another small portion of pasta, served with either olive oil or express sauce from a jar. Next up, would be the second course. One day it was a slice of ham, a whole cooked onion and well-dressed leaves which until then, I didn’t know was classified as a salad. One night we were lucky enough to get bolognaise sauce, about 2 tablespoons full. Other night a sausage (yes one- and I hate sausages!), more ‘salad’ and cannelloni beans served just like that. Food was an overall disaster but I made sure I said thank you after each meal. Not to mention the fact that I could pretty much only drink water: as in, natural, sparkling or flavored with a tea bag.
One of the mutual agreements made was that of privacy. I’d come into my room to find things changed around, my glass of water replaced by a more appropriate glass that was allowed to leave the kitchen. The one time I found a throw on my bed, with a note asking me to sit on that instead of on the duvet. Crazy, I know, but how did she know all these things? It was then that I knew I was being watched, the way the child is watched by those creepy cameras some schools have that lets the parents see their kid’s every move. Never was it clearer than the day she complained via a Facebook status about me using her truffle oil in a sauce. Other things that gave it away would be comments made that could have only been picked up by eavesdropping on my phone call conversations.
At this point, I had had enough. I decided to embark on an activity I referred to as the Petty Diaries. This had me breaking all of the small rules, like washing only my dishes, eating all the good chocolate, not recycling my rubbish and using up the Wi-Fi. I finished by taking back my gifts (biltong and Amarula chocolates, which had remained untouched until then) and eating them. If they asked (which they didn’t), I’d say I was homesick and an emotional eater —both are accurate anyway.
For my last weekend, they took me to their house in the countryside about 40 minutes away. It was the land of Prosecco wine and I got to see what inherited wealth-turned modern looked like. Before we left, the mother posted a Facebook status about what a terrible week it had been, how disappointed she was in the emotional investment she made and finally ended it off by saying (translated in English directly): ‘Confetti at the pigs.’ The weekend was comprised of more ‘off duty’ hours than I was used to, which were used walking up a crazy amount of hills, admiring the scenic vineyards around me and taking my photos. Dinner table discussions went from the mothers Islamophobia to the fathers’ homophobia. Glorious. I had to share a room with the kid, who of course protested this with a tantrum.
The next morning, I thought we’d be treated for breakfast since there was a bakery next door and the family owned the property. Wrong! I had a choice between digestive biscuits and ground porridge instead. I opted for oranges. I was told that I had to do morning dishes, so imagine my surprise on Sunday morning when they were already being washed. Apparently 8:50am is simply too late. They took me to see a castle nearby where they got married. The cafe wasn’t open by the time we got there, so they showed me to the ticket office. I felt compelled to see the castle and then found out I’d had to pay the 8 euro admission myself (seriously not worth it). They got coffee for themselves while they waited. We left to go see a church which was also closed (on a Sunday. Really?).
In the car ride back to the apartment, the dad asked me what my plans were and if I’d be staying on. I then told them that I’d be leaving the next day for a wonderful family I had found in Verona. He seemed disappointed. The mother seemed to know by the time I told her, simply nodding, smiling and saying “okay” as I said politely apologized for it not working out. Back in my room, I checked the mothers Facebook page again. There I found a post, posted before we left for the weekend (my internet privileges had been revoked ever since our argument). It was a picture of priest hold a cross and performing and exorcism! The rant referred to me as a ghost that had infested her house, eaten her child’s biscuits, used her truffle oil and thus was in need of either exorcism or a leg-hold. Horrified, I said goodnight to the child, locked myself in my room, made sure everything was packed and ready for the next day.
The morning of my departure, I left a small note hidden in the drawer. It was addressed to the next au pair, had ghosts drawn on it and simply read: Run. With that, I made my way down the flights of stairs with all my luggage and walked to the train station a kilometer away all on my own, with my body aching and bag nearly breaking.
Her last communication with me was a nasty text message. Mine was to the agency, reporting the family as hosts.
But I got out. With an incredible amount of resilience (and lots of venting), I made it.