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 27, 2010.
Eight months had passed before a question started to form in her mind, becoming more and more urgent as she met each of my parents in turn and, while playing at the role of kindly host mother, started learning more about my life. And the question was this: what the hell is this woman doing working for me?
One afternoon in the kitchen she asked, delicately avoiding the fact that this was really a question about class, about privilege. It was a question she never would have asked Maria— who she knew would have been fucked without her job cleaning Janet’s toilets—or Anna—who had spent her entire working life raising Janet’s children.
Anna and Maria might have fit neatly into Janet’s idea of “hired help” because neither had been to college or had any “professional” work experience. But I came from middle-class privilege, she knew now, and had a college degree from a fancy schmancy college. This meant that I had the qualifications and the connections to be working at what she would have called “a real job”—and yet I was playing hide-and-go-seek and wiping four-year-old ass. Neither did my story mirror the stories of her previous au pairs or those of her friends, many of whom had taken the job in hopes of finding a permanent way out of a bad situation at home.
But me? I was, as far as she could tell, doing this for fun, and this must have been confusing: after all, these were her children, and she wasn’t even raising them “for fun.”
“So why is it you wanted this job anyway?” She was wiping down the stainless steel counter tops when she asked, and I was picking at the leftovers from lunch.
“I’m a writer,” I told her, a little surprised at the question, sure we’d discussed this during both of my interviews. “I wanted to get into travel writing and improve my foreign language skills, and in order to do that I needed to travel. I thought this job would be an interesting way to get to know a new country. I know a lot of people who got their fix studying abroad, but I think you experience a lot more of a culture’s nuances when you live with a family.” (Admission: there is no way that this is what I actually said because I still have no clue how to say the word “nuance” in German, and my German now is a trillion times better than it was then. But I said something like it.) Never mind my political and philosophical reasons for abandoning corporate life. That wasn’t a conversation I felt Janet and I’s relationship was ready for.
She nodded slowly, absorbing the words. Writer. Writer? “Have you been published?” She sounded like she was trying to sound nonchalant, but something like fear was creeping into her eyes.
“Yeah I have actually. I co-authored a little guide book about the college I went to, did some newspaper articles, a few things on the internet.” She stopped wiping and looked at me. Recognition flashed in her eyes, and for the first time since we’d met it felt like she was actually looking at me. It had never occurred to me that someone might feel unnerved by my profession. But writing is about communication, and maintaining one face for private use and one for public use is about keeping secrets.
“But you’d never write about us would you?” Suddenly she was slathering every syllable in the syrupy, artificial tone she used for socializing, for her public face. Suddenly she was remembering ever soap-operatic family story she’d ever told me.
But I have a syrupy “social” voice of my own, and I lied right to her face, just as she had when she’d told me that of course I would be paid for overtime. “Of course not,” I said. “Never.” Liar, liar pants on fire.
I have a few words of advice for you, dear readers, and heed them or be damned: never trust a writer who you’ve just spent eight months treating, well, let’s just say “not as an equal.” Then again, maybe I didn’t lie, but just avoided the question with a shrug, and left the room. Memory changes details. There is no such thing as non-fiction.
Today, thinking back on that conversation, I wondered what Janet would think if she were to read the things I write about my year working for her (extremely pissed off). And for the good times, because there were a few of them and it could always be worse, I’ve changed enough names and details to keep them anonymous. Perhaps they wouldn’t even recognize themselves. Because Janet could be so many people, really, and my story is one of thousands just like it.