When I arrived in France to start my au pair adventure, fresh-faced and all of 19 years old, I thought I would easily integrate into French life. Instead, culture shock and isolation – as well as an introverted personality that hadn’t seemed like such a big deal back home – kept me from truly adapting. I felt completely alone; I had no friends in Caen, and letters from Canada were few and far between. (Don’t forget, this was in the Dark Ages before the internet, Facebook, Twitter, MSN Messenger, texting, and cheap long distance.) My loneliness ate away at me, so I did the only thing I could do: I ate back. In my final few months, I gained more than 20 lbs.
Maman was delighted. Like any predatory animal, she could smell weakness and knew how to exploit it. One day she mentioned that she had started looking for my replacement. “With a husband as handsome as mine, I have to be careful,” she said, watching me closely. “That’s why I only hire ugly girls.”
I know, I know – I should never have allowed this cat-and-mouse game to continue. The only thing I can say in my defence is that I was feeling particularly vulnerable: broke, naïve, far from home, and with a growing suspicion that this woman would happily throw me out on the street if I were reckless enough to cross her.
Her disdain for me didn’t go unnoticed by the children, and la petite fille learned her lesson well. She would routinely call me “Stupide Canadienne” instead of using my name, and Maman never batted an eye. Le garçon was sweet, though. “Please don’t read to me before bed anymore,” he asked me politely one night. “Your accent gives me a headache.”
One day I woke up and realized I’d taken enough abuse, merci beaucoup. I’d just finished a 3-week French course at the university, and spending my mornings with randy British teenagers more interested in going out on the lash than in verb tenses only served to emphasize how miserable I was. I didn’t want to spend my remaining days in France cleaning grout with a toothbrush, ironing underwear, and hearing how fat I was. I’d been hired to look after the children, and that’s what I decided to do. So when Maman said “this place is a mess,” I agreed with her and continued playing dolls with la petite fille. When she told me foreign girls were lazy and her next au pair would be French, I commended her on her decision as I showed le garçon where the next jigsaw puzzle piece might go.
“Battle not with monsters, lest ye become a monster,” Nietzsche said. Well, Nietzsche obviously never met Maman – he would’ve been itching for a smackdown if he had. When I finally mustered up the nerve to battle that monster – in what started off as a sensible discussion and deteriorated into a screaming match of epic proportions – I was able to regain a little bit of the spirit that took me to France in the first place. Yes, she stiffed me on my final pay. And she was “far too busy” to take me to the train station the day I left. But as I lugged my bags to the bus stop, my heart couldn’t have been lighter.
Nietzsche also said, “That which does not kill us makes us stronger.” Wise man, that Nietzsche.
Coming soon – Chapter 3: In which I reflect on what I learned