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The Job That Showed Me The Real Paris

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Artwork: Anna Jay
After six months in Paris, I still hadn’t quite cracked the whole “feeling like a local” thing. It was winter 2013 and I was interning near the Champs Elysees, but I wasn’t used to consuming ungodly amounts of bread, shop assistants side-eyeing me or the overcrowded Métro, which made the Tube look like the Orient Express. I was only just working out that I had amazing music venues on my doorstep in Montmartre and where to pick up good vintage. But I still felt like an outsider…that was, until I started au pairing.

So, how did it happen? My internship hours were halved at short notice, and even though interns are paid the minimum wage by law in France, my new hours meant I would struggle with my €700 a month rent. And so, I began to look for a second job. A friend suggested the burger place where she had waitressed the previous summer, but I feared that I would make the teenage clientele giggle. After all, I was frequently reminded by everyone from the bank manager to my landlord that I spoke "properly" (read: "like someone's great-grandma").

Then, I caught sight of children on pavements outside my flat, and inspiration struck: I could become a nanny. Sure, my only babysitting experience up to that point had involved a few teenage stints binging on potato smileys and Gilmore Girls, but how tough could it be? I turned to Craigslist, which was (unsurprisingly) filled with requests for cam girls and masseuses. There are sites which I wasn’t aware of at the time which would probably also have been useful, too, like Au Pair World and Great Au Pair, or even Workaway, where you can sign up to work pretty much anywhere in the world in return for accommodation.

Finally I found a family, and agreed to meet them one afternoon. The dad – who, thankfully, didn't appear to be an axe murderer – ushered me inside their home. The boys were friendly, he and his wife explained, but the younger one, who we'll call "S", 6, could be "challenging". Conveniently, he was at his granddad's that afternoon. The elder brother, let's say "J", 9, emerged after much cajoling and gave a terse "hello". The 'rents asked when I could start. I was triumphant (Yay! Euros!) but also wondered what I was getting myself into.

And so began a crash course in childcare par excellence. S was fiercely intelligent, but when his mood-swings descended he would scream and insult me. I thought about quitting more than once, not least on the day he did a disappearing act and I nearly called the police. However, I also grew fond of him, and compared notes with his mum on a daily basis. I had previously found middle-aged Parisiennes aloof, but I came to realise that many of them simply have a wall up until you’ve built a rapport.

My language skills began to improve rapidly, too. Although I’d been employed to speak English with the kids, I had to speak French with everyone in their world: teachers, karate sensei and the neighbours – who were frequently complaining about noise.

I was also seeing a different side of Paris after months working in the bustling centre and living close to the tourist haven of Sacre Coeur. I learned about the kinds of board games that French kids play, the after school snacks they eat for a 4pm goûter, and observed the strange classes they attend (S’s dance group was somewhere between ballet and interpretative dance, with an old dear tinkering away on the piano).

Carting the boys around, reading them stories, rationing out Nutella and chasing them around the park, I got to see both how rewarding and how utterly draining raising kids could be. And – for the first time in my life – I thought that one day having some of my own might not be the worst thing in the world. When it was finally time to leave for good, I really missed them, and hoped that they got to the bottom of S’s difficult behaviour.

Although it was a bizarre period, I don't regret the time I spent with S and J. If I hadn't found them, I wouldn't have seen both how fun and unpredictable au pairing can be... and I might not have learned those rude words that stopped me sounding quite so octogenarian. Unfortunately, the next nanny job I did the following year was a total nightmare. I resigned within days, but there was a fraught period where I was terrified that the stressy, Type A mother might withhold my wages. I felt terrible for quitting, but it only showed me that sometimes it’s not the kids who are the childish ones.

Au pairing is a great way to broaden your outlook in a new city, and I would recommend it to anyone looking for a job that can fit around other things: language classes, an internship, travelling... even sunbathing, depending on where you go.

Building up a relationship with a family can give you a sense of belonging, too. A friend who au paired in Madrid the same year got on so well with her family that she ended up going back after graduation to work with them for a further three months. They might be screaming their lungs out on a pavement near you, but let me assure you – when it comes to experiencing a new city, the kids are more than alright.
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