Her name was Lisa. Slim, with long brown wavy hair and unusual blue eyes. A princess, many called her. Cinderella, she thought of herself, once again, ironing T-shirts for her guest family.
Being an au pair wasn‘t a dream job, especially for a young girl of twenty-two years, just having graduated from university with a degree as a teacher of foreign languages. Lisa could easily find a job in her quiet, little home town, but the soul of a romantic and naïve girl craved something other than certainty and routine.
Lisa was not raised with a silver spoon. She lived in a modest apartment with a loving family. She was deprived of her happiness and carefree childhood when she was six-years-old. To help pay off her family‘s debts, she and her little brother had to sell products at the local market from their parent‘s factory, as well as vegetables and fruits grown in their summer garden. The factory her parents worked for went bankrupt and instead of getting a salary, they received flour as payment. However in her spare time from selling apples, Lisa studied very hard and finished from one of the best schools in her small town. Having successfully passed the exams for entering the university, she received a scholarship at the age of eighteen, and became almost independent from her parents.
Now, she was twenty-two with a teaching diploma in foreign languages. Her life seemed to be laid out in advance. After university, she would take a low-paid teaching job with naughty children at school or kindergarten, or she could work in a small company in her provincial town. Then she could start her own family and a vacation once a year at the nearest lake. Everyone in her small town lived like this. It was an endless circle from which it was impossible to escape, the circle of routine, more routine, and a simple provincial life.
The world seemed so enormous, interesting, unknown, alluring and frightening to Lisa. Studying foreign languages and looking at exciting pictures of distant countries left her dreaming of adventures and journeys to distant lands. Lisa dreamed of traveling, and seeing something completely unknown to her.
The dream of travelling solidified within her from year-to-year, more and more. She eagerly learned foreign languages at school. Like many other young people of her age, full of energy, enthusiasm and illusions of youth, her dearest wish was to travel around the world. But how could it be possible to undertake such a journey for a young graduate with no money or connections?
The dreams would have remained dreams, except on one ordinary day, Lisa stood in the hallway near the office waiting for the next seminar in her university. Accidentally distracted from her homework, which, as a good student, she had been painstakingly writing all night long, Lisa saw a little a small ad hanging on the wall among other advertisements and schedules. According to the ad, young people with an education could try their luck and submit a resume to spend a year helping families with childcare and housework.
The name of this service was a beautiful and romantic French name: au pair, which meant "„equal“.
Lisa read the following definition of au pairs: An au pair is an unmarried young adult aged eighteen to thirty years, who has no children and travels to a foreign country for a defined period of time to live with a host family. The au pair is considered as a full member of the family during the entire stay. As such, he or she helps the family with childcare and can be asked to assume some light household tasks. In return, the host family provides free board and lodging, as well as pocket money. However, the au pair is neither a housekeeper, nor a nanny.
The main purpose of the au pair placement is a cultural exchange, which gives the the au pair an opportunity to improve his or her language skills. For this reason, child minding in your own country doesn't count as an au pair stay. The au pair should also attend a language course in the host country. He or she should, however, have some basic language skills beforehand. Whether it is the au pair or the host family who pays for the language course depends on the prevailing practice of the relevant host country. The same applies to the cost of travel and insurance.
Sounds great, Lisa thought.
Thinking about travelling to distant countries made Lisa‘s heart beat faster. It seemed like a fairy tale, the place where wishes can come true, where people have everything except for problems, where people are always happy, or perhaps where a Prince Charming was living. It was so far away and mysterious, that she certainly wanted to spend a year in this fabulous place, and improve and practice her knowledge of a foreign language. Even though she was a teacher of foreign languages, according to her diploma, for which she spent dozens of sleepless nights, attending lectures and writing hundreds of thousands of pages of term sheets, living with a host family seemed to be the smartest and cheapest way of travelling abroad.
After reading the ad, Lisa decided to try her luck and send her resume for the job of a babysitter. It was quite easy to apply as an au pair. She simply had to register on a website and fill out a questionnaire and upload a photo. Her friends at the university said,
"Don’t put a pretty picture of you. Otherwise your host family will think that you want to get married."
Lisa found a photo that was taken during a walk in the forest. Her hair was slightly disheveled, and there was no makeup on her face. With this, she certainly would not attract anyone.
Then Lisa wrote a short application:
Dear host family,
My name is Lisa. I am twenty-two years old. I am a language teacher and I have a lot of experience in international communication. I love working with children. I can give your children a lot of new knowledge (teaching foreign languages, playing the piano, etc.). I also think that I can help you with your household. I like cooking.
In participating in this program, I see a chance for me to improve my foreign language skills.
I hope that I will be a good au pair for your family.
She filled out the questionnaire on her skills:
Have you ever been an au pair abroad? No.
Do you have experience in childcare? Yes.
Do you have experience with babies? Some.
Have you attended a first aid course? Yes.
Do you have a driver's license? No.
Do you have experience in your household? Yes.
Can you cook? Yes.
Can you brush? Yes.
Can you iron? Yes.
Can you sew? A bit.
Are you into sports? A bit.
Can you ride a bike? Yes.
Can you ride? A bit.
Can you swim? A bit.
Do you play an instrument? Yes.
After some time, Lisa received an e-mail from one family. Lisa read the questionnaire that the host family had answered:
First Name: Clara. Married, with 4 children in the household.
The age group of the four children was 0-1, 2-5, 6-10, 10+.
The hobbies that were in the family were dancing, sports and playing music.
The host mother has no religious affiliation. She is employed full time. She is a dentist and an entrepreneur. The host father is also employed full time. He is the CEO of a well known company. The family lives in a town house. The only pet in the home is a hamster. The family lives in 70km from major cities. There is a train every hour to travel into town. The next language school is a city. It is 0km from the home.
The host family has never had an au pair. They are expecting childcare from their au pair. They are also expecting help with domestic chores and cooking. The au pair will have a private room available for the duration of their stay. The description of the room is unknown, as it hasn't been put together yet. The room may possibly be a small apartment. The room could also be in the home, which is 25 m². The au pair will receive $260 a month in the USD currency. The travel expenses of the au pair may be reimbursed. It was a family of dentists with four children, with a tiny picture attached to the e-mail showing a beautiful couple with their four kids. The e-mail was as follows:
From: Family M.
Subject: An Au Pair
Our future dear au pair girl,
We are a young family with four kids. We live in a big house near one of the most beautiful cities in the world. Our family lives in a little town of 12,000 people that is situated directly in the suburbs of the city. The responsibilities you‘ll have as an au pair include helping with the kids, some easy housework (iron, cook, and shop at the supermarket). As your host family, we will pay for your language courses and will always take you with us when we travel somewhere. Your pocket money will be 300 dollars per month. You will have your own room and your own shower.
We are looking forward to welcoming a new nanny as soon as possible, who will be a member of our family and become like our children's older sister.
And there was continuous correspondence with her future host family.
To: Family M.
Subject: An au pair
Thank you for your message. Working with children brings me a lot of joy (since I have a teacher‘s education). Also, I can do housework and cooking. I hope to be a good helper to your family.
With kind regards
According to this contract, Lisa, as an au pair, could expect:
Duties: child care, domestic help, cooking
Does the au pair have a private room available? Yes
Brief Description of the room: a room in our house, about 25 m²
Reimbursement of travel expenses: maybe
Assumption of costs for language courses: Yes, up to 2 courses
Takeover of travel expenses to the school: yes
Payment is made for monthly tickets: yes
Entrainment of au pairs in the holidays: yes
Soon Lisa received the following e-mail.
From: Family M.
Subject: An Au Pair
Many thanks for your quick response. July would fit in very well. As of August, my children have school holidays for six weeks. That would be a very good opportunity to meet and get used to each other’s company.
Our children, especially the big ones, would be very pleased if you could assist them in completing their homework. Very good English language skills would be super. While taking care of the children, you will receive the support of our dear grandmother in the afternoon. In case of occasional trips to a city, we also have an apartment available.
Of course, we have the Internet. We have broadband both in my medical office where you could spend time with the kids during the day, as well as wireless internet at home. It is also possible to make free calls over the Internet because we have a flat rate.
My eldest daughter attends high school. It would be important to me if you could practice some piano lessons with her. Nick, our nine-year-old son is in 3rd class. Nataly, is six-years-old, and will go to first class in September. You will need to give her a little support learning the letters. The youngest, Luca, will be starting kindergarten in September.
Therefore, in the morning, all children are taken care of and you have time to study or do other things. In the afternoon, you would help my mom take care of the children. She is looking forward very much to your help.
We look forward to meeting you soon.
Clara, Christian, Luca, Nick, Nataly and Julia.
Lisa was given a contract that explained all her rights and responsibilities. Under the contractual agreement, the family had to get insurance to pay for her accommodations, as well as her meals and language courses. She was entitled to a private room with a private shower. She was expected to spend four days with the education of the children, and have one day off per week.
She was satisfied with her future arrangements. The host family seemed so nice. She had been corresponding with the host mother, Clara. She was confident that this family suited her needs. She was also confident that she would be able to suit theirs. Lisa was the most excited about being taken on their family vacations. She was also going to get $300 a month in pocket money. She could save up this money or take the train into town. She would get to travel and explore the city. She could shop in the local stores and try the food at the local diners. She would only be half an hour away from the nearest large city. This was going to be a paradise.
Lisa signed the contract with her agency. She was going to travel and be an au pair for this family for exactly one year. After she signed the contract, she collected a great deal of paperwork. Shortly after, she received her Visa in the post. She started getting excited about the journey she was about to go on. This was the happiest Lisa had been. She had been studying for four years and she was looking forward to the change of scenery.
According to the conditions, Lisa would receive a great opportunity for learning the culture, communicating with her host family and the children, a modest little room, food (which was very different from the food in her country), as well as a salary that was so little that many referred to it as pocket money for ice cream or pins.
Of course in exchange for all that, Lisa had to take care of someone else’s children. Not everyone would have enough courage and determination to leave their adjusted quiet life in a small town, as well as their beloved family and friends to go to a new country, where they had nobody, and didn’t speak the language. But Lisa‘s soul, so young and naive, certainly wanted to fly to some mysterious and beautiful country.
After the contract was signed, Lisa had to collect a necessary mountain of documents before the trip. It seemed to be almost impossible to fill the numerous in the questionnaires, tests, and have an interview at the embassy, but the obstacles were overcome, and all the documents were ready. Soon, the economy class flight ticket "Lovely small provincial town – Big City was in her fragile hands. Checking the tickets, money, Lisa found it was impossible to sleep the night before the flight, but there was something exciting and unusual in the air.
At 23:00 the night before the trip, Lisa lay on her bed in her room. She was nervous about the trip. She was going to be far away from her family for a full year, without any friends or connections. She was also going to be away from her loving cat. Lisa was going to miss the sound of her purring. She heard a growl from beside her, where her cat was. After tonight, all that remained between her and her new job was a nights' stay in the hotel.
Before she could fall asleep, Lisa looked around her room. She had the feeling she was forgetting something important. Maybe it was just her books. She wasn't used to being without them after four years. Now, she no longer needed them. She wasn't sure how to feel.
She was getting to travel quite the distance. Her excitement only grew.
The following day at 9.31 am, Lisa was waiting at the train station. She climbed into the cabin of the long, dark train. After she found her seat and settled in, she rested her head against the window. She needed to take a nap. She had tossed and turned all night and she was exhausted.
At 2:00 pm, Lisa was at the airport. She had just gone through the security check before walking through the terminal. This was the first time she wanted to cry. She was excited and nervous. Her best friend had come along to see her off. She hugged her tightly. They both had moist eyes and held back their tears. Lisa didn't actually cry, but she felt like she was going to.
Her loving parents told Lisa that she was free and could control her own life. Tears welled in her eyes when her mother kissed her, when she said goodbye to friends and all had been known to her for the past twenty-two years.
“Be good, and enjoy your year of freedom!” Her friend cheered. This rang through Lisa's head as she headed off to board the plane. She waved back to her friend, forcing a smile to form on her face.
At 15:30, Lisa was on the plane, waiting for the take off. She was nervous. She had no fear of flying, but she was uncomfortable. She guessed it was because of her different emotions. She was excited to be taking this trip and exploring a new world. But, she was also nervous about the uncertainty of the journey.
The plane sped up, and familiar destinations, neat squares, streets, green fields, and rivers flashed before her eyes through a window. It was so strange and unusual to see the horizon, melting away under their feet. The plane was still gaining speed, lifting up from the ground and soon they were flying above the clouds, farther and farther away from her house and her past.
Lisa sat in the chair of the aircraft. She had a thousand thoughts whirring around in her head. Back and forth, making her nauseous. She was moving from a small village into a big city. She wondered what the city would look like. She wondered if her host family was going to meet her at the airport. If not, then, how were they going to be introduced? Was it going to be awkward or was it going to be welcoming? They seemed warm and inviting in their correspondence. But, what would their children think of her? Lisa hadn't spoke to the children yet. She only knew their ages. She wondered if she would spend the entire year with this host family. Then, she wondered about her language skills. Was it going to be easy for her to learn a new language when she only knew the basics?
Lisa wasn't afraid of the unknown. It wasn't scary to her. Her heart longed for something new and unusual. She wanted to see an unknown city in an unknown country. She wanted to meet people who spoke an unknown language. She wanted to eat food she had never seen before. She wanted all the new experiences. Her heartbeat raced as she thought about her destination. She felt like a teenage girl suddenly. She was going to arrive soon. She was going to experience all these new things in only a few hours. A new life awaited her arrival.
She looked out the window, trying to escape from her thoughts. Through the fogged glass of the window, everything seemed different and unusual. She watched as the plane lifted off the ground and headed into the sky. She watched the ground get further and further away. It flew over the famous places, manicured parks and roads. It passed over green fields and blue rivers. She felt like a young bird that was flying away from the parental nest of her old life.
The air plane continued to rise, and begun flying into the horizon. Lisa had never seen the clouds up close, now they were covering the windows. When she looked out, all she saw was an endless sky. There was no more ground. She was above everything and everyone. She looked at the window in a dream state. The air plane continued flying through the sky to the anonymity of an unknown country.
Her new life began at 7:00 am, at a huge airport in one of the enormous cities. It was a city of great hopes, where people spoke a different languages, where some other flowers are blooming, and where the wind smelled different to home. Lisa’s heart pounded because she was no longer in her calm, quiet provincial town where she grew up. She was in a restless, noisy, huge city.
Having successfully gone through many hours of registration upon arrival (and finding that she understood the foreign language of this country—sleepless nights at the University were not a waste of time), Lisa stood with what little luggage she had in her arms and high hopes in her heart. A little checkered luggage tag served as the identification mark by which the host family could recognize her, as agreed in their correspondence. Now knocking with her tiny heels, Lisa rolled her luggage through the airport. She could not calm down as the excitement did not leave her, because today, after landing in this big city, a whole period of her life had ended, and tomorrow a new one would start. All of it was unusual and unknown.
Finding a secluded place, Lisa sat modestly on a gray iron bench and peered into the crowd. Her eyes searched for her host family, whom she knew only from a little picture she had seen on the Internet.
An ocean of deafening sounds and boiling city life surrounded Lisa. A huge crowd of people arrived at the city lights like moths. It was a promised city, a fertile ground for unfulfilled ambition. People were running and running. People from all over the world were now landing in the airports of this big city of big dreams, which held the key to their possible plans, hopes, and illusions. They fled, paced or walked thoughtfully across the airport. They came here to their friends, relatives, loved ones, and colleagues.
But Lisa sat alone on a cold iron bench, without any friends or family waiting for her. She was alone in this the airport now, in this three million big city, where it could seem impossible to feel alone, surrounded by people. Here, Lisa had no one except for her host family.
Suddenly, Lisa saw a couple with a child weaving through the crowd.
A brunette woman with a six-year-old girl approached her. Clara and her daughter Nataly, she supposed.
“Lisa?” asked the woman with a Hollywood-style smile.
“Yes. Very nice! Come with us.”
And picking up Lisa’s small suitcase, they made their way through the endless crowd of newly arrived tourists and passengers and headed to the car.
Passing through this endless stream of people, Lisa could not believe that she had finally arrived. The rhythm of the airport now echoed in her heart. The huge city was full of lights, supermarkets, shopping malls, different smells and colors, illusions and reality, beggars and millionaires. It was the city that never sleeps, a city where life is always boiling and raging.
But a half-hour trip in the car led them to a quiet and green area of the country, where life was not raging, but calm.
“Welcome,” Clara greeted, graciously opening the car door to her new guest.
“…to this beautiful house,” Lisa wanted to add as she stepped out of the car. She stared in bewilderment as she was now standing in front of a huge three-story mansion. It had the most beautiful architecture Lisa had ever seen in person.
Previously, she had seen such houses only in soap operas. It looked like the kind of house that would be on the cover of fashion magazines. She imagined celebrities all lived in houses like this one.
Lisa was truly struck by the beauty and she couldn't help but think to herself that she was lucky to be staying in this home. Now, she would get to live inside one of those beautiful homes she saw on the blue screen TV that stood in the small room of her parents. The house even had a garden surrounding the front. When she started looking around, she noticed there were many cars in the driveway. One of them was a bright red Ferrari. There were two Cabrios, then a bunch of other cars.
“We’ve got five bedrooms and three bathrooms over here in the main house.” Clara pointed out the window and Lisa saw a big blue swimming pool, and behind that another house. Her heart thumped hard.
Lisa followed Clara into the main house. She looked around and saw all the antique furniture. It was all made from redwood. The bathroom was done in marble. Inside the bathroom was a private sauna. Clara lead Lisa into the kitchen, where the children were sitting. The kitchen counters were a similar marble to the bathroom‘s. Through the kitchen window, Lisa saw the whole garden. In the center, was a beautiful apple tree.
Lisa was introduced to Clara‘s children. The youngest child was a two-year-old baby boy. Nataly was six. Then, Nick was nine. Finally, Julia was the oldest at twelve-years-old.
Dinner was already on the table, awaiting the tired and worn down guests. It consisted of a baguette and some salad. Clara set the table, placing a dish at each seat. The redwood table was a huge and had more than enough space for everyone to sit around it. Over the course of the meal, Lisa was asked many questions. It was mostly about her travels and her studies in school.
"Lisa, do you have any experience with kids?" Clara asked her.
Lisa nodded. "Yes, I do. In fact, I have a teaching degree."
"That is good," Clara replied with a detached air. During the meal, Lisa noticed how greedily the children were chewing their salads. The two older children were in a separate conversation about their plans for the following day.
"Your duties are going to include helping out with the children, including their lessons," Clara said.
Lisa turned her attention back to her. She nodded to acknowledge.
"Every day you need to be in the kitchen at six thirty am. This is a strict time, not negotiable. You will need to set the table for breakfast. During the day, you will be completely responsible for the children. The older ones can manage for themselves, but you will need to help the youngest," Clara continued. Lisa nodded again.
"I understand," she replied this time.
"Also, our family tradition is to eat together at our grandmother's house. She lives about twenty miles from here. You will be required to get yourself to her home every day at twelve o'clock. If possible, we will take you with us in the car. Otherwise, you'll be required to use a bicycle to get around," Clara continued explaining.
Lisa was starting to get a bad feeling about the manners of her host family. She nodded and replied under her breath"Okay."
Clara had a superior tone while she was speaking. Lisa felt these were not the smiling people from the picture she had seen. Instead, they were arrogant people who may not be appreciative of the babysitter.
After dinner, the family offered Lisa a tour of their huge home. The little kids did not leave for a moment, showing off their toys, and Lisa was surprised to discover she knew the language and could express her gratitude. Her host family kindly acquainted her with the house, which seemed to be so fabulous and big. The house had two floors. On the second floor, there was a library. The room was called the winter garden, a children's room, and a bedroom. On the first floor, there was a kitchen, dining room, and living room.
Each child had his or her own room. The boys had a lot of sports cars as toys, and the girls had many glamorous Barbie dolls. Nataly’s room was completely designed in a Barbie style: a pink dream world with Barbie dolls and a pink dollhouse. It took Lisa’s breath away. Upon entering the room, she felt she was in a fairy tale. Looking around, she felt that at least some of her childhood dreams could come true. A huge marble bathroom, private sauna, plush flooring and lots of exotic statues made the house look very fabulous and glamorous.
After the house tour, Lisa distributed gifts to the children. A Barbie doll for the girl and notepads for the boys. The presents were bought with Lisa’s small scholarship that she had saved for a long time. Lisa kept every cent in order to buy presents for her host family as she wanted to please her host kids and make a good first impression.
“That is it, Lisa. Now I will show you to your the room you will be staying in,” Clara announced.
“Okay.” Lisa mumbled, obediently following along behind Clara. They headed towards a slightly ajar door. Clara pulled it open and headed down the stairs that went into the basement.
“This is the laundry room,” Clara started, motioning to the main area in the basement.
“We have a washing machine and a dryer. We also have an iron and an ironing board perched off to the side.” Clara motioned towards the folded up board beside the washing machine.
“I see.” Lisa replied. She knew silence was rude, but she didn't have much else to say. The next room that Clara led her into was stuffed with unnecessary junk. It was the room that held off-season decorations and out of season clothing. Clara led her past this room to another room. There were no windows in the room, so it was dark. Clara turned the light on and motioned Lisa inside. There was nothing but some broken furniture. In contrast with the rest of the glamorous house, the room was tiny, with a wooden bed, a mirror with a table and a TV, which stood there more for decoration as it was broken.
“This is where you will be sleeping.” Clara announced. Lisa didn't know what to say in response. She looked around the room, placing her suitcase down on the floor.
“Well, once you're all settled in, you may want to take a shower. I'm sure the trip was long and you just want to relax for a little while.” Clara offered.
Lisa nodded, looking over at her. “Thank you very much.”
Clara nodded, turning around.
“There is another bathroom just over there.” She pointed across the basement to a closed door.
“There's a shower and a wash basin. There is also a toilet. This will be your exclusive bathroom while you're here.” Clara offered. Lisa nodded again. She was appreciative of having her own space, at least. Clara headed out of the room and closed the door behind her. Lisa looked around the room again, now that she was alone. Was this her place in her host family? Was she just another object between the laundry and some unnecessary junk to these people? She shook her head of the thoughts. She put her suitcase up on the bed and started looking for a change of clothes. She lightly pushed down on the suitcase to test the stability of the bed. This is where she would be sleeping for the next year, she thought to herself. She took out her change of clothes and headed across the basement. She opened the door Clara had pointed to. The bathroom was small. She turned the tap on the wash basin and splashed some water up on her face. It was clear that no one used this washroom. There was nothing inside of it, like shampoos or even soap. Lisa turned the tap on the shower and undressed.
After her shower, she headed back to the bedroom she would call hers. She cautiously climbed into the bed. It was fairly stable for something that looked so old. Lisa thought about her trip. It was hard to believe that just that morning, she was thousands of miles away. She was back home, with her family and relatives. She was surrounded by friends and people she knew. Now, she was in a whole new world where nothing felt the same. These thoughts crossed her mind, but exhaustion took over her body. She fell asleep immediately.