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 18, 2010.
When Janet wasn’t behind her desk, she was wiping the stainless steel counters in the kitchen. The illusion of activity. Wipe the counters so you don’t feel guilty about paying someone else to wipe the toilets, the floors, the windows, and her children. Before lunch, I could often be found behind one of these counters drinking espresso after espresso in preparation for the afternoon of play. Anna would be behind the stove preparing lunch, and Janet flitted around sponge (or coffee) in hand.
That afternoon, we were talking about vegetarianism. I had come to Germany a vegetarian, which Janet seemed to find shocking and exotic. I had gone vegetarian about a year before, after reading Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation. I had been reading La Ninja’s PETA magazines since I was eleven and was horrified by the images I saw there, but I had always been partial to meat and had never felt like any action I could take would mean anything. Schlosser’s final chapter gave me a little pat on the back and said “Individuals can change things.”
So I decided to give up meat, to try the “vote with my dollar” approach to protest. I didn’t like the way animals were treated throughout the factory farming process, and I didn’t like the way that the humans working in the slaughterhouses were treated. Classic reasons for going vegetarian I suppose. But there was something else that bothered me even more so: a feeling of disconnection. At the grocery store I could buy a piece of beef in a sterile Styrofoam bed and never be even remotely reminded, or connected to, the fact that this plastic-wrapped piece of flesh had once been a part of a wet-nosed cow. I didn’t see anything morally wrong with the concept of eating meat, but I saw something terribly wrong with being so disconnected from the life that gave me life.
At the time I was certain I would eat meat again one day (a day which arrived in 2011). It was largely an exercise in appreciation, in reconnection to the real (and by that I mean physical) world. Could I have killed a fish? A cow? A pig? I didn’t know, but these were things I wanted to think about before eating another hamburger.
Back in the kitchen, behind the stainless-steel counters, Janet was telling me about an article about various kinds of vegetarianism that she had just read. “Apparently there are people called vegans who don’t eat any cheese at all,” Janet informed me, shaking her head. “I couldn’t imagine that. No cheese!” She shook her head again.
The night before I had finished reading Vegan: The New Ethics of Eating by Erik Marcus and had decided that as a vegetarian, I was doing a pretty half-assed job at boycotting the meat industry. Who do you think owns the milk and the cheese companies? I had never thought about it before, but—big surprise—it’s the same companies factory farming meat. I had been kind of nervous about breaking the news to Janet (part of your payment as an au pair is room and board, so I needed to inform her). Here was my chance.
“Actually, I was thinking that I would like to become vegan,” I said quietly, looking into my espresso.
“WHAT?” Now, I don’t like to use all caps much in my writing, but this was an all-caps response. “Are you serious?” She was obviously agitated.
“Yeah, well I just finished reading this book, and well…”
“Oh my god, I can’t believe this. Did you hear that Anna? This girl is crazy! No cheese! None!”
“It doesn’t have to be a big inconvenience. If we’re eating something for lunch that I can’t eat I can cook something for myself.”
“What about milk?”
“No. No dairy products at all.”
At that moment, Jens came into the kitchen. It was the rare afternoon that he joined us for lunch. “Jens, Nikki just told us that she’s going vegan.”
“ARE YOU FUCKING CRAZY?!” He actually said that, exactly that, in English. When I tell you these stories, I’m translating all the dialogue. Just imagine little subtitles playing under people speaking German as you read. Except for this moment, which he both translated and yelled. I wasn’t expecting it to be such a shock, but the Cole’s couldn’t imagine their lives without cheese or apparently even sharing a roof with someone willing to go without it.