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 2, 2010.
Cracked out on plane sleep and bad movies, I watched the twins babble at me across the back seat of the car. I was disconnected and strung out: a shadow watching myself watching them from somewhere over my shoulder. I’ve heard that moving forward and backward through time zones shortens your life expectancy. Then again, so does every minute you are alive.
Blond, four-years-old, and twins: Franciska and Franz Joseph. Janet had made no secret about it: they had been an accident. “I thought I was too old to have any more children, so I stopped taking the pill. Then I got pregnant again and it turned out to be two…” At this she shook her head and laughed, looking at her accidents like they were little Hallmark cards. “But it was the best surprise I’ve ever gotten.”
Before the twins, the family had lived in a small normal-family-sized house. But with two more buns in the oven they’d bought the mansion down the street. The mansion that Franci was excitedly pointing out of the car window at. “Do you see the butterflies in the window?!?? That’s my room! I love butterflies!” I didn’t see the butterflies, but I saw wrought-iron balconies, columns, and a five-story stone building that expanded as I looked at it until it inhabited an entire city block.
“Anna is fixing lunch, so why don’t I show you your room and you can relax until the food is ready.” Anna was the cook. Mr. Walter carried my suitcases up the stairs to my room on the fourth floor, and I trailed behind him. The stairwell was large, the steps finished wood—had the building once been divided up into one-floor apartments? On the first floor I glanced quickly at the kitchen, dining room, formal and informal living rooms, office, and dining room. On the second floor we passed the three oldest children’s rooms; on the third the twins’ rooms and the master bedroom; on the fourth my room, the workout room, two guest rooms, and the sauna; and above me on the fifth floor was an empty space filled with light, couches, and dormer windows.
I sat down on the bed and stared blankly at the large white Ikea dresser. Closets are rare in Germany, I would find out, and there were Ikea dressers everywhere. Most of the house had come from Ikea. Janet prided herself on not being decadent in her wealth, in not buying extravagantly expensive furniture. Are these the nouveau rich? Does that concept even exist anymore, outside of dusty British novels? Perhaps they have become the Armies of Ikea…
A knock at the door proceeded a short balding man with rim-less glasses through the open door. “I’m Jens,” he said extending me his hand. I shook it. A business man’s handshake: calculated in firmness, uncompromising in eye contact. This was Janet’s husband. “I have to get to a meeting, but I just wanted to say hello. I’ll be at the office late tonight—a meeting with some folks in America—so I won’t be here for dinner. So until tomorrow night then.” I nodded, and he was gone.
Downstairs on the patio Markus—the oldest of the family’s five children—was sitting at an umbrella topped table reading while Anna set the table. Markus was 16, with dark blond hair, and a future at the expensive international boarding schools of Europe’s elite. He made small talk while I downed shots of espresso and pretended that I had fuck-all clue what he was saying. I had nine years of high school and college German behind me, nine years German, a seven-hour plane ride, and the Atlantic ocean. I went into the kitchen to get more espresso.
We had already sat down to lunch when Tommy and Susanna arrived. Susanna had her mother’s long dirty-blond hair, was quiet and kind. Tommy threw his backpack on the ground, filled his plate, and began to inhale his food in the way ten-year-olds about to hit a growth spurt do.
Anna ate with us as well. She’d been an au pair with the family too. She’d come from Spain, taken care of Markus and Susanna and Tommy, and done the family’s ironing and washing and grocery shopping for the last ten years. She had married (and later divorced) a German man and their daughter kept her from moving back, she would tell me, though she so often missed the Spanish culture and climate.
“Tomorrow you’ll meet Maria,” Janet informed me from over a cup of coffee. “She’s the cleaning lady, but she already went home for the day.” A driver, a cook, a cleaning lady, and an au pair. Until that moment I had been uncertain that people this rich even existed. Rich people with a gaggle of hired help were something you heard about, myths, characters in the novels I’d had to read during college. And here they were eating pasta on the terrace of their German Big City mansion and here I was, the newly hired live-in help.
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