frankfurt’s sachsenhausen: welcome to the monkey house
Left: The Frankfurt skyline. Sachsenhausen is a part of the banking capital. Photo (cc) flickr user Moe_
THIS is part 18 in a series about the year I spent au pairing in Frankfurt am Main, Germany. If you’d like to catch up on the rest of the series, check out the index here.
Frankfurt’s Sachsenhausen is a curious place. Though the moniker technically applies to an entire city section—residents, shopping, and everything in between—when you hear people talking about Frankfurt Sachsenhausen, they’re usually talking about the pub district, a concentrated city block of often touristy bars and clubs, a micro city with no permanent residents. It is a place full of trays of bright green shots and hair gel and fake tan, full of spilled apple wine and loud conversation and lost earrings. It is the kind of place you go knowing you’re going to be doing the walk of shame home later/aren’t going to remember most of the evening.
Among the people I know now, the mention of it elicits groans. But then, before Britta had returned to America and I had traded my job au pairing for one teaching English, it was also one of a large group of American and Brittish au pairs’ favorite haunts. To its credit, the Irish pub did give out free pints of Guinness on Tuesday nights whenever a U2 song came on the stereo.
Sachsenhausen was never really my sort of place, but it did have its merits. My favorite of those was a small bar without sign or name, a dark, crooked little anachronism jammed between two more modern architectural concoctions. Barely the width of three doors, it looked like the home of a wrinkled old city witch, the kind of building only visible to inhabitants of London Below. It was the kind of place that got around the law that pubs had to close between certain wee hours of the night by locking visitors in behind blackened windows. It was sordid, it was seedy, and I only ever went inside once. For better or for worse, I don’t remember much of that night. It was bound to have been a disappointment, and I’m sure it was. I’m glad that no memories of banal drunken conversation have replaced my musings of the more magical happenings that could be playing out between its black-bricked walls.
It’s other merit, though a far less romantic one, was Das Bett, a music venue on one of the pub-city’s outer edges. At the mid-sized music club that favored indie music, another American au pair friend, this one from New Orleans, and I watched skinny white boys in nerd glasses make music with a Nintendo Game Boy.
Frau Rauscher Brunnen. Photo (cc) flcikr user Chris Pirillo
I’ve heard rumor that Das Bett has moved house, but the “Frau Rauscher-Brunnen” (pictured right) remains, a statue that provides an excellent stage for people watching should you find yourself unwillingly pulled into what the Frankfurter Allgemein has so appropriately called “Ein Ort zum Fremdschämen” (translation: a place for feeling embarrassed for other people, note: English could really use a concise version of the word fremdschämen). Madame Rauscher does what you, someone who maybe doesn’t want to be drunk out of her mind or hassled by another bachelor party group, wish you could: she spits water randomly out onto the street. Unfortunately I’ve never seen her hit a moving target.
the au pair chronicles: the swarm
This is post number 17 in the au pair chronicles—and the first new post I’ve written for the series since February 2010. Maybe, just maybe 2012 will be the year that I manage to finish writing up the whole epic tale. If you missed any of the previous installments, you can find an index of the entire series here.
Expats tend to swarm. It’s a survival tactic really. If somebody were to drop you in the middle of the ocean, you’d swim for shore. Except that “shore” in expat terms is “a place where I can meet other people who speak my native language so I don’t have to be so god damned alone all the time.” Our hive those first few months was an Australian sports bar. Hard to imagine now.
I don’t remember how we decided on that particular bar, but I remember how I met Britta. We had exchanged messages on the au pair placement agency’s message board and picked a time and a metro station where we could meet. She brought another au pair she’d met on the boards, an Italian woman with long thick black hair and big hoop earings. She was the kind of woman who wears white pants and high heels and a lot of make-up, the kind who visits tanning salons. But Britta was a jeans and hoodies kind of woman, energetic, from California. I don’t really remember the details, but I think it’s safe to say we hit it off immediately.
Then we ended up at that bar. Maybe one of us had googled it. Maybe we just went for a walk and happened by. It was a boring place in the middle of downtown with nothing memorable about its decor or its atmosphere. But there were other people speaking English there, which annoyed me. I wanted to practice my German, and I sure as well wasn’t going to be doing it with a bunch of drunk Scottish jockeys. Eventually the Italian had an affair with one of the bartenders—one factor that kept us coming back—though I imagine now that it was really a lack of creativity and the presence of alcohol acting as a magnet. That and it was within walking distance of both of our houses.
Britta was taking care of two boys a few blocks south of the Cole’s villa. She lived in the family’s spare room, shared their only bathroom. But she did have her own balconey. They had an amicable relationship. The only au pairs I knew whose families didn’t try to take advantage of them were Americans. Wait, strike that, my host family did try, but didn’t succeed. Not being afraid of being sent back home, I asked for money when they asked for extra hours. They never asked again. Not so the Eastern block women who I met in my German courses. But that is another chapter entirely.
Though we eventually expanded our bar hopping into Sachsenhausen—an entire district of bars for swarming tourists and expats!—we kept going back to that Australian bar. Even after I dragged us off to the Au, a squatted venue where I felt much more comfortable, we kept going back to that fucking sports bar. Looking back I can’t explain why. Anything for the swarm, for the sense of familiarity we could claim after having visited it more than twice, a shore fashioned from bottle caps and beer glasses and a shared language.
happy birthday, i hate you, goodnight
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 February 22, 2010.
The twins birthday party had been chaotic and exhausting. The entire kindergarten class had been invited and Anna and I spent the evening herding, chasing, and picking up after them. It was more or less just like the birthday parties I’d been to as a kid, except they opened their presents right away, as people brought them, and there were different games.
Schlagtopf (hit the pot) is the only one that I remember now, a ridiculous game in which one person is blindfolded and candy is hidden beneath a small pot somewhere in the room. The blindfolded person is then given a big wooden spoon and crawls around on the floor hitting everything with the spoon until she hits the pot. Everyone else sits around and laughs and gives bad directions about where the pot and the candy are.
Now it was Jens’ birthday, and there was going to be a dinner party. We (we being the younger kids and I) ordered Chinese food, and Janet instructed me to give the kids dinner in front of the tv, to keep them upstairs and away from the guests.
The dining room had been laid out for thirty people, all white table clothes and silver candlesticks. I had forgotten to get something to drink, and when I walked into the kitchen it had been transformed: four women in cartoonish white chef hats were crowded around counter and oven, preparing the meal. This, Janet had told me, is what she had spent so many hours on her computer for in the last month.
Guests started to arrive around the twins’ bedtime. Franci went quietly, but Jo was agitated, aggressive. At the mention of bed he’d started throwing toys, toppling the tiny chairs and table where we would paint and draw on rainy afternoons. I got Franci into her pajamas, and then came back to try to get him to talk.
“Jo, you know I can’t do anything to make you feel better if you don’t explain to me what’s wrong. Will you try to tell me what’s wrong? Even if it’s hard?”
At first he didn’t react, distracted in his attempt to tip the wooden play tent that sat in one corner of the room, all the while making the same crashing, exploding sound effects he made when he was playing with his little metal cars.
I sat down on the bed and watched him, repeating myself every couple of minutes. “Maybe if you told me what was wrong I could help.” Finally he got out a few words.
“I hate them! My parents don’t love me. I’m going to burn down the house and run away with the dog.” Five years old.
He threw himself face down on the bed and pounded his fists against the mattress. I patted his back gently. There was nothing left to topple in the room, and soon I was tucking him in and singing him another goodnight song.
snapshots from bottom street
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 February 21, 2010.
Monday morning: extract body from bed, stumble in an attempt to put on pants, pray the caffeine gods make consciousness a little easier to bear. And I used to be a morning person.
Trudge down the stairs and into Jo’s room. Say good morning. On autopilot the words play from the tape somewhere behind your ear.
When Jo wakes up with you sitting on his bed, running your hands through his hair, and whisper his name. He wakes up slowly, sees you, shouts your name and throws his arms around your neck, sleep-warm. “I dreamed of you!”
Hug him back and hope the aliens don’t come back for the replacement they’ve left in Jo’s bed.
It was a morning like every other morning had been for weeks: go downstairs, wake up Jo, and get him out of his pajamas and into school clothes.
But that morning, kneeling in front of Jo with his school pants in my hand, I came face to face with the last thing I was expecting: four-year-old morning wood. I stifled a laugh, he pointed. “Look, Nikki! It’s standing up!”
“They simply can’t go outside without hats on anymore,” Janet chided on the way out the door. Astounding logic from the woman who dressed her daughter in a skirt this morning.
Despite the lingering holiday cheer (or is that just the Gluhwein buzz?), it’s business as usual in the Cole fortress. Three maids a bustling, two twins a screaming, and an au pair hiding behind the tree.
When I got back from a week in Barcelona, Jo and Franci came running down the stairs squeaking and calling, they were so excited to have me back. Had I missed them too? Their excitement was almost contagious, but in two hours Jo was screaming and toppling furniture again, and it was like I had never left.
At first when I told Franci it was time for a bath she grabbed my hand and started to skip up the stairs. But then she stopped. “Nikki, do I have to wash my hair?”
“Yes. Yesterday you didn’t take a bath at all.”
Before the words were out of my mouth she was on the ground screaming.
“Washing your hair isn’t the end of the world, Franci.” More screaming. “If you don’t wash your hair you’re not going to have any friends.” Now kicking too. If she was clever, she’d have pointed out that the person saying this hadn’t washed her hair in over a week and had friends. Janet’s words coming out of my mouth.
After more yelling, and a chase in which I almost bit it trying to run on wood floors in only socks, I forced her into the tub, which I’d already filled with water and bubble bath. But in the water the screaming and thrashing got worse, and then there was water sloshing everywhere, which finally brought Jens out of the master bedroom two doors down where he had been attempting to read.
Janet had told me that your entrance is really important in ending a tantrum. Make a loud and theatrically angry entrance, and you’ll have them quiet in a few minutes. Jens burst into the bathroom screaming (like father like daughter), knocked Franci upside the head, and stormed out even more dramatically than he had come. “Women!” he declared in my general direction, as if that explained why his children were tantrum-loving brats. In the bathroom, Franci was quiet.
Our eyes met as I walked back to the bathroom, and he gave me a look that seemed to say “I’m sorry, I know, I hate them to.”
“Nikki look!” We were at the park and a woman—a midget who I’d often seen strolling through the neighborhood in a decadent fur coat—was standing next to the bench where we were piling coats and snacks, and Franci couldn’t take her eyes off of her. “Nikki, look, the small one, the small one!” She pointed and I pushed her hand back down to her side.
“Franci, it’s rude to point and talk about people like they aren’t even there.”
“But Nikki,” she said, now in a whisper, “she is so small.”
You could almost see the circuits beginning to toast as the gears ground together in her head, trying to comprehend this new being. Small like child. Face like adult. Can’t be child. But small like child. Can’t be adult. Can’t be child. Adult? Child? Childadultchildadultchildadult- childadult. Sizzle.
cyprus: escape to larnaka
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 February 10, 2010.
My journal entries from that lonesome week in Cyprus are full of embarrassingly adolescent ramblings about a boy I had a crush on at the time. (Embarrassing because he turned out to have the intellectual capacity of a cave troll, while I assumed, for entire days at a time, that we didn’t talk about anything interesting because my German was still too elementary.)
For those around us Cyprus was the escape, the fantasy. I fled the beach for the page, dreaming up dates, jobs I would be hired for, books I would write, countries I would live in, languages I would learn—anything that would transport me for even a few minutes from my daemonic charges. The resort walls were not there to keep others out, no!, they were there to keep me in, and I was trapped there until an angelic voice would speak to me mercifully from above: “Now boarding flight 386 to Frankfurt International.” Oh hark how the herald angels sing!
While Franci became more and more aloof, Joseph became more and more doting. “Somebody has a cru-ush,” Janet sang at me across the dinner table, nodding toward Jo with her head. He looked up from the plastic car he’d been racing down the white table cloth and up at me. “Nikki, I have to poop.” I contemplated strangling her, smashing my wine glass on the table and leaping across the table, but the alcohol had already stunned me into placidity, an escape just as effective as my journaled daydreams. Instead I stood up and led Jo off to the bathroom.
My other escape was the small fitness studio where I ran on my plastic hamster wheel until blood had pounded every last thought out of my head. It was the one and, I am certain, only time in my life in which I will ever have washboard abs. So this is why people in prison end up with enormous muscles, I thought.
In two hastily taken pictures—”I guess I just want some sort of proof that I was really here,” I shrugged as I forced the camera into Janet’s hand—and the only two pictures of me from those ten days, my smile is a grimace.
The three of us slept in the same room, in the same bed; they were both afraid to take a turn on the small cot symbolically placed there upon our arrival and I refused to accept discomfort during sleep on top of the insults and the spit. They spread out, snored, kicked—there was no physical escape. Sleep, my most holy of rituals, was disturbed and cut off each morning too short. All that was missing was the yellow wallpaper, and I would have been ripe for a straight jacket and pills served regularly in little paper cups.
Halfway through the trip and with the theatrical grace that was quickly becoming her trademark, Janet told me to take a day off and go on one of the day trips the resort organized for the guests. As if giving me one day off in ten was a special gift she didn’t have to give me, but would, because she was just that nice. Technically it was illegal for me to work for eight days straight without a day or night off.
Technically. Some of my au pair friends were required to work hours like this all the time, and I was only being asked to do so because we were on a Greek Island. Maybe I never would have seen Cyprus otherwise, maybe I was the ungrateful little snot in this equation. Drink yourself numb! Cry yourself to sleep! Aldiana Cyrpus is perfect for everyone! The words took on a gruesome, futuristic tone, the way the would sound if I’d read them in Brave New World or 1984. And we would be leaving in two days. It was a tome I chanted until it became a prayer. “Two more days, two more days, two more days.”
My mother had wired me some money so that I could take a few interesting trips, and I signed up for Nicosia. Nicosia, I read, was the capital of Cyprus and a violent, tumultuous city since the 60s when it was first divided into Turkish and Greek sections. I could, an Aldiana barbie told me, pay someone to let me climb a ladder and peer over the wall at the Turkish side. (In 2008 a dividing wall was torn down in an attempt to symbolically create unity. Of course symbol and reality don’t tend to drink at the same bars, and the city remains “the world’s last divided capital.”)
But none of the other resort guests wanted to deal with tumult on their vacation, the trip was canceled, and I ended up on a bus to Larnaka instead.
How refreshing it was, to be out of the resort and away from my keepers! How refreshing to see a city whose architecture was influenced by eastern winds. My escape from Aldiana lent an exotic air to everything I saw. The man with skin like bark hunched over and between mountains of fabric in a tiny stone garage, the sandstone church and fort, the ragged tops of buildings that stretched out beneath the fort terrace and away from the graying sea, the Greek-lettered signs.
I wandered aimlessly through town, snapping pictures, inhaling my temporary independence like a fix-starved junkie. Little junk stores seemed as if brimming with treasure, alleys careened with sensual vines, and the old man sitting on the corner was most certainly a seer.
The town was everything that Aldiana was not: crumbling in places, pulsing, a little chaotic, alive. There was dirt and there was magic, there were real people filled with joy and sorrow and ambition. There were no hoses snaking the streets, and so there was little to green the landscape. There were most certainly poisonous spiders lurking in the cracks, and no one said hello to me pleasantly as I wandered down narrow streets.
cyprus: back to the place you’re longing for
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 February 9, 2010.
The war started with a bruise. Franci became a bitchy little snot in a matter of hours, twisted my skin until it turned black when I told her it was bedtime, and ran screaming into the “kids’ disco” across from the clubhouse
The disco was set up like a regular disco, but with lower tables and non-alcoholic drinks. I walked slowly in after her, counting, breathing deeply, doing anything I could to keep the rage in my head and out of my hands.
“Franci, what you just did really hurt my feelings. We’re going to go back to the room now, come on.” That’s what I had planned on saying. But when she saw me across the room she screamed, “Asshole, stupid asshole, I hate you!”
I turned around and left without a word. The situation was beyond my control; I needed to get mom and dad involved or I was going to break into a thousand little pieces that no one would ever be able to put back together.
Jens and Janet were sitting at a round table in the dining room with Franci’s new friend’s parents, eating fresh dates and drinking wine. My voice was shaking as I held out my arm and explained what had just happened. “Do you see that? Your daughter just did that to me. Then she ran into the disco, and as soon as I walked in the door she screamed and called me a stupid asshole. She won’t listen to me. I need one of you to step in.” Jens threw down his napkin, disgusted.
“I’ll take care of it,” he assured me, “Meet me back at the room.”
I could hear Franci’s howls from across the resort. Jens had her by the ear and was dragging her down the path. “You acted despicably tonight. If you don’t cut it out I’m sending you home on the next plane all by yourself.” She screamed louder. “Do you want to go home by yourself?” She screamed louder still. I stood waiting at the door, and he dragged her in past me and ordered her into pajamas and bed.
When Franci refused to talk to me the next morning, Janet suggested I ignore her. I was glad for the break, but ignoring someone who doesn’t want to have anything to do with you in the first place seemed like an ineffectual strategy. Fuck it. And then there was one.
With Franci out of the way—she now spent her time with her new friend James, and since James went to the Dolphin Club, so did she—Franz Joseph was easier to handle. With two there was always one who didn’t want to do whatever I suggested which meant that in the end we did nothing but sit in the hotel room: them hypnotized by Greek television, me staring longingly at the beach out of the terrace window.
Joseph preferred the heated pool to the beach, so one afternoon we joined the older Cole children there for a swim. In the deep pool I insisted that he put on his swimmies. He screamed. I insisted again. So he hocked a big lugey and spit in my face. I picked him up like a surf-board, slung the beach bag over my shoulder and carried him kicking and crying back to the hotel room. Fuck the Mediterranean, fuck Cyprus, fuck all-expenses paid. Now I understood Aldiana’s other motto, the one that was constantly being sung on the television commercials, “Back to the place you’re longing for.” I couldn’t wait to go home.
cyprus: urlaub unter freunden
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 February 8, 2010.
Au pairing isn’t a highly paid job, and The German Man dictates earnings: a 285 euro monthly stipend and at least one day off each week. The benefits are nestled between the lines—in the room, board, and health insurance the family is required to provide—and between work days, when the rich German matriarch announces one morning that you will be accompanying the family on their vacation to Cyprus.
A four-hour flight brought us from Frankfurt International to Larnaka International, and taxis brought us to the Aldiana resort where we’d be staying. The family, Janet informed me, would be staying in a suite located on the edge of the resort. The twins and I would be sharing a room just between the main clubhouse and the beach. I was not keen on completely dissolving the work/play boundary I meticulously maintained at home, but was willing to ignore the contractual breech in exchange for an all-expense-paid island getaway.
Aldiana is the German answer to Club Med. Book a vacation at an Aldiana resort and you can relax in a walled complex far from the messy cultural details of whatever country you are visiting (an irrelevant detail!) and socialize with your compatriots in your native tongue. I suppose this is the reason that the club motto is “a vacation with friends.” (Translation: “a vacation with other rich white people.”)
The Aldiana pamphlet says: “ALDIANA Zypern is perfect for everyone—singles, young couples, young children, and teens. The resort comprises a wide variety of sports, relaxation, and entertainment, all set amidst the beautiful coastal flora and fauna of Cyprus.”
Here another translation is needed: Aldiana Cyprus is perfect for everyone with money and for everyone too worried about security and/or xenophobic to bother with the actual country and people of Cyprus. Aldiana Cyprus is also perfect for people who think they would enjoy the “beautiful coastal flora and fauna of Cyprus” but aren’t actually prepared to deal with a desert climate.
But there is little that nature can do that Aldiana (cough, civilization) can’t take care of. And so dozens of hoses snaked the resort lawn, irrigating the Aldiana palms and the sparse Aldiana grass. As for the fauna, the poisonous spiders that would otherwise be inhabiting the landscape, an employee told us, are kept at bay with regular doses of insecticide sprayed across the entire property. Coastal flora and fauna indeed.
Greek travel propaganda had led me to believe that we’d be laying on white- sand beaches, but the beaches of Cyprus are gray, unspectacular in compar- ison perhaps, but beautiful and exotic to eyes accu- stomed to Jersey shore. That first day the twins put on their swimmies, I waded into the Mediterranean for the first time, and it was as glorious as it probably sounds.
In my former life I had been vaguely aware that resorts like Aldiana existed, but I don’t think I really believed in them. Like Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny they were just pleasant little myths that worked well on television. Real people wouldn’t actually visit them. Why would they want to? You could save yourself time and money and travel to the German coast to the same effect.
The employees—sailing and diving instructors, bartenders and babysitters—were all generically good looking and insistently pleasant. If you passed an employee on the way to the beach he or she would smile and say hello. Always friendly, always polite. Failure to do so, I imagined, earned you a flogging from the boss. And that might ruin your tan. I imagined that nights they let out steam in the employee lounge, out of sight of paying guests, Dirty Dancing style. Welcome to the Aldiana bubble: polite, friendly, safe, pleasant, plastic.
If you were tired of tanning, you could take diving and sailing lessons, if you were tired of the Mediterranean you could take a dip in the heated indoor pool, and if you got tired of taking care of your children, you could send them to the Dolphin Clubhouse—the resort’s day care service. Jens, always wanting to play good cop, had promised me that the twins would spend the entire day there, leaving me free to do what I pleased. The reality was that the twins didn’t want to go to the Dolphin Club. They wanted to spend time with their siblings and their parents, and instead they were stuck with me.
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 February 4, 2010.
October, and two months in Germany when a high school friend emailed to tell me that he would be in Frankfurt for the night. My mother would be arriving in a few weeks, but this would be my first visitor since moving.
We met at the train station and headed to a pub. I don’t remember where we went or what we drank, but I will never forget how, between drinks and pubs, we came past the Cole’s house. “Let’s go in for a second,” I suggested, excited at the chance to show someone from back home around the set of my strange new life. “I’ll give you a quick tour and we can use the bathroom.”
I showed him the stainless-steel kitchen and the pink-chaired dining room. “Can you believe these chairs?” I asked pointing at the plastic-backed, pink-velor upholstered seats surrounding the long wooden table. “Janet had them specially made.” Lodged in the (plexi?) glass chair backs were fake pink feathers. I had never seen such ugly chairs in my life, and it hurt my head when I thought about how much Janet had probably paid to have them custom made. They seemed to scream “I want you to find me avant gaurd and edgy,” but the execution was sloppy and tasteless, just like the stainless steel faux antlers she’d commissioned for the stairwell we were now walking up.
On the second floor we met Janet and Jens. In bathrobes. Lurking. Angry. “What the hell do you think you’re doing? Who is that?” Jens yelled. “No strangers in the house!”
“What?” I shook my head no. This was news to me.
“NO STRANGERS IN THE HOUSE.” The yell had become a threatening bellow.
“You never told me that before. Besides, this is an old friend of mine. I’ve know him for seven or eight years. I just wanted to show him where I live, he’s not staying, we just wanted to use the bathroom…”
“NO STRANGERS IN THE HOUSE.”
Eyes wide, we turned and scuttled back down the stairs and out the door.
“What the hell was that about?”
“Apparently I”m not allowed to bring friends over.” So much for the affectionate monologues Janet held when she was in a good mood about me being “part of the family.”
The next morning Jens found me in the kitchen. He wanted to talk. “It’s very important that you don’t bring anyone into the house.”
“Ok, that’s fine,” I conceded, “But it would have been nice if someone had told me that before embarrassing me in front of an old friend. I’ve known him for years. He wasn’t just some guy that I picked up at the disco. And he speaks German, so he understood everything you two said. You didn’t exactly make him feel welcome.”
“Well, maybe I should tell you a story. I used to be in banking. A few years ago I was hired to run this bank, and, well, once I had a look through the books it seemed clear that something fishy was going on. I called the police. Twelve people went to jail, and I get worried sometimes…”
He pulled his cell phone out of his pocket and pulled up the speed dial directory to show me the first number. “That’s why I have the police on my first speed dial. For a while we were worried that someone would try to kidnap the children. I’m sure you don’t know what it’s like to walk down a dark street and fear for your life every time you see another person coming in the distance, but that’s how I feel every night.”
Sure, Jens. No woman has ever felt that before. I nodded, wondering why a man with so much to lose would hire a complete stranger to drive his Porsche and take his 4-year-old twins to the park. Maybe I had been hired to kidnap them, Mr. Jens, ever thought of that? And even if I hadn’t been, what was one apathetic, underpaid au pair going to do to stop someone who did?
“Now I can’t get a job in the banking world anymore,” he admitted sadly. “I’ve been working for Janet’s father ever since.”
Later I Googled the case in search of more details. I had Googled the family name before coming to work for them, but without banking-specific keywords I hadn’t found anything about the Cole’s dirty little secret. There wasn’t much to find, but there were a few articles about a sketchy court case involving suspected embezzling, a tattling CEO, and some leniently interpreted Swiss banking laws.
After that, the drama of daily life in the Cole house started to seem absurd, hilarious. A Choose-Your-Own-Adventure, live-action afternoon soap broadcast right to my living room, dining room, bedroom, and kitchen.
beware the typewriter, for she shall smite thee
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.
the cookie monster
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 19, 2010.
Once she got over the shock of the “I’m going vegan” announcement, Janet alternately interrogated (“And you really don’t miss cheese?”) and taunted. She seemed to love to eat, but she didn’t have a particularly healthy relationship with the food on her plate. Every few weeks she would announce—over a bowl of broth and a glass of water—that she was going on another diet. First it was the cabbage diet, then Weight Watchers, then starvation. She would give up in hunger after a few days of each and eventually cycle back through the list after several months.
She wasn’t supermodel skinny, but I thought she looked good. She wasn’t as thin as her daughter (and as she, presumably, once was), but who is after giving birth to five children? There was even a treadmill on the fourth floor, and it sat silent and unused while she fought her way through bowls of cabbage soup. But I was the one with the strange eating habits. Me, the crazy vegan.
In December holiday cookies began appearing around the house. A rare fit of motherly feeling and a promise to bake cookies with the twins got me an afternoon off. In the kitchen again the next afternoon I was trying to decipher a German newspaper when Janet came in to snack on the previous afternoon’s results. She picked up a butter cookie and took a big bite. “Ha ha ha! You can’t eat any of the Christmas cookies!” I have a vague memory of her holding a handful of cookies toward my face while doing a little hopping dance and chuckling. She took another handful and left the room. On the days when she wasn’t taunting me, she would ask me how it was I stayed so thin.