the origins of hazing

Those of you who have been reading for a while will remember the au pair chronicles—a serial about how it is that I ended up in Germany and what it was like spending 10 months au pairing for a insanely rich family in Frankfurt am Main. Well, I’ve been busy writing new installments to share with you during operation whirlwind baby. But since a hell of a lot of new readers have become regulars since I first began the series a year ago, I thought I would start by re-publishing the series thus far—both to buy me baby time and to get everyone caught up before continuing the saga. You can find an index of the entire series here. This segment was originally published on January 4, 2010.

For the first week I wasn’t expected to work. Instead Janet drove me to the Ausländers- behorde (alien’s office) to fill out visa paperwork, to the central train station to find a photo machine that took passport-sized photos, to a language school to take placement tests, and to another office where I was issued the Frankfurt Pass that would get me discounts at museums and a free membership at the library.

The paperwork was easy, that first time. Health insurance, visa application, address registration—Janet was organized and experienced because every year there had been a new au pair to lead through the bureaucratic gauntlet.

Before me there had been a woman from Eastern Europe who the family would laughingly compare me to over dinner: I was vegetarian who ate tons of vegetables, and Olga had eaten more meat than anyone they’d ever met. Before Olga there had a been a woman from Africa who, according to Janet, had never eaten cheese before moving to Germany. “You should have seen her. She gained at least 10 kilos. But she didn’t buy new pants, she just left them open and tied them up with a belt. She always said ‘Why bother? When I go home there won’t be any cheese, and I’ll lose all the weight.’” The rest of my predecessors however, have already faded from my memory, as, presumably, I have already faded from the twins’. Every year a new au pair.

Janet was a stay-at-home mom, and in the case of the wealthy, this tends to mean paying others to do the grunt work and parading the kids around like little trophies when it is convenient. More specifically, it meant that Janet spent most of her time in her office behind the computer, shopping, and at her weekly sewing course. She wore her motherhood like a gold metal, but left the work to Anna, Maria, Mr. Walters, and I.

My average day would go like this, she had told me: wake up the twins and get them dressed, breakfasted, and to kindergarten. The rest of the morning belonged to me, or my German class, depending on the day. After lunch, which was a formal sit-down affair prepared (and served, and cleaned up after) by Anna, I would play with the twins until dinner. In the warm months this might mean going to the park or taking them to a friend’s. On Tuesdays it meant driving them to English lessons at the country club. In the winter and in the rain it meant playing Barbies and doctor and car chase and hide-and-go-seek. Later there would be baths and dinner, television and sleep. I should sit on the stairs until they dozed off, Janet told me my first night, and then I had Feierabend (end of the work day, literally a compound of the words “celebration” and “evening”).

The first week the twins did what kids often do when a stranger shows up and tries to order them around: they acted like monsters and did everything they could do to expose my limits. At the end of my second week in Frankfurt—my first week working—I sat on the stairs shaking my head at a screaming match I had just won. Janet had heard the ordeal from the master bedroom, and when it was over, she came out and looked at me, sprawled out on her wooden stairwell, relaxed. “I’m really impressed,” she said. “You’re the first au pair who they haven’t pushed to tears after the first few days.”

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Friday March 16th 2012, 9:00 am 12 Comments
Filed under: au pairing,conspiracies

12 Comments so far. Please leave a comment.

“… and in the case of the wealthy, this tends to mean paying others to do the grunt work and parading the kids around like little trophies when it is convenient.” Haha! This was always my impression of the job. Why is it that upper-class stay-at-home moms need so much help anyway? My parents worked full-time, my dad gone for 24-48 hour stints, and I turned out a-ok…

But that’s pretty much the reason I never wanted to do the job. It sounds pretty plush, and the idea of visas and health insurance getting worked out so easily is dreamy, but maaan. They probably wouldn’t wanna hire the heavily tattooed daughter of revolutionaries anyway, eh?

Congrats on not crying. :)

Comment by Lauren Quinn 01.04.10 @ 8:19 pm

…”Janet was a stay-at-home mom, and in the case of the wealthy, this tends to mean paying others to do the grunt work and parading the kids around like little trophies when it is convenient. More specifically, it meant that Janet spent most of her time in her office behind the computer, shopping, and at her weekly sewing course. She wore her motherhood like a gold metal, but left the work to Anna, Maria, Mr. Walters, and I.”

Oh my goodness, this sounds a lot like a family I work for, right down to the monstrous twins. Mom will sit on Facebook while her kids pester her for attention and she’ll say, “Oh, mommy loves you but she’s working right now… now go play with your Christine.” Like I’m a toy. Agh.

This is a very interesting serial, I look forward to reading the rest. :)

Comment by xine 01.04.10 @ 11:03 pm

Lauren: Yeah and the other irony/tragedy is that I don’t think her kids are going to turn out fine AT ALL. But I’ll get to that in detail later in the series, which, I’m realizing each time I write a section, is going to be really fucking long.

But there were a lot of perks besides the fact that I lived in a mansion with a sauna and had my visa and health insurance all taken care of for me (and food, and the very small stipend), like vacations to Cyprus and Dubai that they brought me along on. It’s still decently plush as long as you’re from a country you’re not afraid to be shipped back to. I met a lot of other au pairs who were doing this to escape bad shit at home, so they were afraid to speak up when their families violated their contracts and pretty much forced them into 24/7 slave labor-hood. There’s a lot of abuse with people like that. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

As for the not crying, well, I’m a cold-hearted bitch when it comes to bratty children. By the end of the year they had accomplished the exact opposite of squirming their way into my heart.

Comment by clickclackgorilla 01.04.10 @ 11:47 pm

You’ve got me hooked on this story.. Can’t wait for the next installment.. Not sure how long it will actually be but there’s a book in it..!
I work for an au pair agency and I am still surprised by the number of au pairs who contact us to help them away from a situation where they are stuck with a family who are taking advantage of them but they know the alternative is going home and not working..

Comment by Jay Poole 01.06.10 @ 2:46 pm

My last comment was regarding the other au pairs you mentioned in your comment – not necessarily this family where the story hasn’t played out yet.. (No axes in sight yet at least..!)

Comment by Jay Poole 01.06.10 @ 2:56 pm

stumbled across your writing through katey sleeveless, and have to say i’m fascinated and feel for you. i have spent the last 4 months working as an au pair in Tel Aviv, Israel. it is the most intense lifestyle i’ve ever had. i gave my notice in december, which was an option written into the contract. in a month i’ll be traveling across europe. my life will never be the same! look forward to reading more.

Comment by lucy 01.06.10 @ 7:44 pm

Thank you for insight into au pair culture, and i hope that everyone there is warmer than this fellow:

Comment by fenu 01.10.10 @ 1:31 am

this is a great story, I’m loving how long it is.

I’ve just started something similar, well kind of culture shock similar anyway. I’ve doing a 3 month stint as a personal assistant to a very rich person. I’ve never been around someone with so much money before, it’s kind of surreal. Grit my teeth and get on with it I say.

Comment by haveyouseenthisgirl 01.10.10 @ 7:14 pm

Hey everyone: Thanks for all the positive feedback. I think this is going to end up being a REALLY long serial because there is an awful lot to say about the year I spent au pairing, so hang onto your hats. Most of the time I felt like I had fallen into the set of some German soap opera no one had warned me about.

Jay: Yeah, I knew a lot of girls in that situation. Actually ALL of the girls I knew from poor countries were in pretty fucked up situations where they were regularly getting taken advantage of. This family briefly attempted that with me, but I pointed out the part of my contract that said how many hours a week I was supposed to work, and they didn’t continue.

Comment by clickclackgorilla 01.11.10 @ 4:30 pm

I like the book idea, even if that means just putting all the text in a PDF file and uploading it to Cafe Press. I’d buy a copy for everyone of my friends who’s thinking about being an au pair.

Comment by Lawrence Krubner 01.03.11 @ 11:19 pm

“The Origins Of Hazing”. Such a great title for this subject!

Comment by Lawrence Krubner 01.03.11 @ 11:23 pm

Thanks Lawrence. All your sweet comments on this series of posts really made my day. :) A bit of inspiration to kick my ass into finally finishing up the sucker, though it’s going to be a long one, I haven’t even gotten to the juiciest parts.

Comment by clickclackgorilla 01.06.11 @ 10:34 am

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