Starting up this blog has got me thinking about beginnings; in particular, my very first foray into expat life. At 19, I registered with an au pair agency in Paris. On a whim. When I got the letter offering me a position with a family in Caen, I thought, “what the hell, that sounds like fun,” and off I went. Oh, to be young and clueless again!
Culture shock is definitely a dominant theme in the few letters that survived from that time. I was cowed by the coldness and formality of the Caennais, and was absolutely terrified of using my high school French outside the confines of the house. The lack of shopping centres, clothes dryers, and fast food joints baffled me, as did what can only be called the hands-on attitude of the French toward their daily bread. (The first time I saw Maman rip off a chunk of baguette with her bare hands, I was too shocked to speak. Had these people never heard of bread knives? Buying the stuff was no less astonishing, as I wrote to my parents: “The bread is bought in those long, crusty loaves, and they don’t wrap it at all, they just give it to you and you walk around with a loaf in your hands.”)
I’m laughing about it now, but culture shock was only part of the problem. I also had to deal with:
Language Issues: Although my French improved considerably, I was too shy to initiate conversations with strangers. And spending my days (and nights – Maman was a slave driver) solely in the company of a 4-year-old and a 6-year-old meant that when I did speak, I sounded like a little kid.
Isolation: My day off was Sunday, the day the entire town went into lockdown. I was desperate to get out of the house, but nothing was open, so I would spend hours wandering around aimlessly or reading incomprehensible French novels on my favourite grassy knoll. I even went to church, just to have something to do. One Sunday I hit the jackpot: I stumbled upon two lost backpackers – one American, one English – staring forlornly at their map in the centre of town. Once I started talking to them, I found it impossible to stop. I was hoarse for days afterward. They must have thought I was a lunatic, but I was just starved for friendly conversation and self-expression.
Home Life: Papa worked in Paris, so we only saw him on weekends. He was a lovely man, and I wished he’d spend more time at home. Maman, unfortunately, had a split personality: adoring wife and parent two days a week, terrorizer of timid foreign girls the rest. She reminded me of Becky Sharp in Vanity Fair (the book by Thackeray, not the magazine.) Like Becky, Maman was a loving mother…when it suited her. At dinner parties, the children would make an appearance that was more choreographed than a Lady Gaga video. They’d stand docilely in front of Maman while she stroked their hair and laughed indulgently at their (coached) chatter. After about five minutes, she’d say, “Give Maman a kiss, my angels, it’s time for bed,” which was my cue to whisk them out of the room. Then she’d ignore them till her husband came home Friday night, when the charade would play out on a smaller, more domestic scale.
Coming soon – Chapter 2: In which I grow a pair.