Updated: Apr 12
Sometimes, we feel as shy as an 11 year old, faced with the dread of a blank page during that very important exam. That exam that will make or break whether we will pass the Brevet, or BAC or fail.
Shyness? Fear, most likely. Fear that the four walls are going to close in! If we fail, we may manage nothing in life, we won’t have a job, won’t get a wife,(or a husband) won’t even have a roof, and we will be put at the back of society! Only because “we failed” in the academic sense of the term… In the eyes of the other humans, we were that, because we candidly accepted to carry that burden. It gave us attention. The attention of the person who fails to confirm what they believe.
Kept trying, the teenager kept trying, and after many hours of “ramer” (to row a boat) when she got to the promised glory shore of the passing the exam (with no grade and with the ones who don’t work hard enough) there was nobody there to make a fuss.
Unsure of being a failure or not, the child, now adult, decided, after receiving a kick up the backside from her desinterested response to their suggestion of going abroad, “decided” to go (what was the alternative again? ) and have a holiday as an au-pair, in the country where, I was said, they did everything the other way round, where they sat down in the afternoon at 4pm and the ladies calling the maid for the tea serving, and where they had green fields and brollys.. That country. England. You. Yes, you. Off you go. It could count like a holiday really, couldn’t it. One could be going to England , one’s English was a bit merde but what the heck [as they seem to say here, to sound polite] . It would give one a break from those delightful (treading over sensitive territory there, danger of lynching) elders, no, not all elders. Others. Those delightful Others, where I grew up. Off one trotted to meet the Au Pair family in Victoria station. At 18. With a stroke of luck, and a driving licence dully passed. (it shouldn’t have been given as l nearly didn't stop at the orange light, but he was in a good mood)
The horrid feeling when I looked around Victoria Station (ok, you will have understood by now that this is about me, even if it all looks a bit thick) to see nobody with a board saying my name, all those crowds of rushing people around me, unsure where I was, unsure to have followed the directions properly, that was it, I was totally lost. A member of staff helped me eventually, and there He was by a large modern window, the Au-Pair Apparition, this man, semi-growling, semi-smiling-hyena, who didn’t quite look English as I thought English people looked like, and had forgotten to greet me with any kindness other than a :“You are late, where have you been, I have been waiting here for ages! I have a lot to do, you know!” I can’t remember if he had his kids with him. I think not. He seemed quite nice on the drive back. I was very polite and tried to appear jovial by sm,iling a lot. (It’s what good French people are taught to do – but see us being polite to cows)
There we arrived, Camberley, not quite there yet, Lightw****, Here we were, in front of what looked not at all like what an English Country House should look like, or an English Country Cottage, if you don’t have any of the previous type. Not at all. No English dream. It was a newly-built modern house! Next to other modern houses! In fact it was a large modern village! (With a shop!) All my dreams shattered. I thought I was going to have a nice time in a beautiful English garden, sipping strawberry what do you call those things, Spritzers or something, cocktails, with my (quickly acquired when I left home) sunglasses and swimming costume on. Teaching French to the kids who would be really sweet and would bring me chopped pieces of apple. One would have a dead fly on it because they would be playful.
Such was my dream (or, partly, unlikely fantasy) and as the front door opened, a grimacing, rather large, peroxide blonde 'beauty' opened her arms to give me, I was soon to learn that one, a fine chocking/asthma inducing/ Welcomeyourepartofthefamily hug.
What the hell was that for? Do they have sex with everybody they meet here? Don’t they know that en France, in the south, it is a 2 (off the cheek even better, no contact at all) on the cheek poutou? (kiss). Or, if you can’t be bothered, you just make the noises and don’t have to pout your lips even. There are lots of tricks on how to shut off a “bonjour” opponent in France. One we really don’t want to kiss. Never mind a “hug”! I was to learn that this was a thing which was done practically universally in England and it didn’t mean very much really. Except when they fancy you.
Her name? No idea. It didn’t stick to my head, maybe something like Shirley. His name? Even less. David maybe. The kids? They were called something like “Pigg*Cry” and “BossyR*t”. They were 8, and 6. They were not particularly well educated children, the parents as modern parents didn’t have much time to spend with them and loved them by buying them things. I am offered yet a third cup of tea. How many teas do they drink in this country? I thought it was only at 4pm.
Soon learning that this was in fact no holiday at all, once the introduction was done, and that the “job” actually involved a several miles walk every day to fetch the two horrors from and to school*, THEN cooking them diner, or at first, watching Mrs telling me how to make their diner , after we had sanitised the area and sanitised our hands using very posh, strong smelling blue gel out of a clean looking plastic pump.
I had never seen a microwave in my life till I stepped into this household. There I saw the Oven of the DEVIL, this awful thing that created enough radiations to give one terminal diseases and diminished life and was going to kill the Human Race. They were RIGHT. It was the Oven of the Devil!!! The plate was cold, the food was scolded, or it was still cold in the middle, yet burned your finger! I am not sure I did learn how to use the microwave there. I may have told her I had an allergy to radiations. My Dad always warned me against those. The oven and gas hob were used, in an old-fashioned way. I remember cooking the darlings some fish fingers and frozen chips, sausages dry like bone, boiled peas, boiled carrots, which they didn’t eat of course, and that strange dish that the Brits call a pate (a pie, but you have the word from the French Pate, you couldn’t pronounce it so you removed a few letters) ** So, the kids sometimes had Oven Pate , which they loved.
All I can remember from that period is the feeling of what Cinderella felt when she couldn’t go to the ball. We have all lived that. Of course. We are not alone, are we, in this room. However, I felt that feeling, and felt rather trapped, in this lacking-of-substance household. You know the worst thing ? there wasn’t even a real fireplace in there. There was a WOOD BURNER THING!! You know, one of those Black iron, tiny thing, on which you can’t roast a chicken, nor make Gaufres, nor plug in a stove to cook Confit Ducks on; not toast any bread. Well you could toast bread, but you burned yourself opening the door, and then burned your hand whereas the bread you got burned for, was still white. No real fire!! Oh I will miss, my Quercy…. Yes, so Cinderella, well, they didn’t let me near their wood burner anyway as they had beige (cream coloured in French, in English it means middle-brown,) yes, you have indeed well read, “BEIGE” carpets! In a room with a fire in!!! (but no real fire, so maybe that’s ok, because it was so tiny there weren’t many ashes to be cleared). There was plenty of other housework to do instead.
That little lounge gave onto French Windows. (at last something I could recognise, from the name) (everything else so far looked alien to the country girl) Those French windows, gave onto a lawn surrounded by tall ever-green hedges so you couldn’t even peer into the neighbour’s garden. Fancy the Brits cutting half of the fun away of having a neighbour? There was nothing to look at in that garden. It was miserable. Lawn, hard area and hedge. Ah, and a washing line.
Mrs used to give me an afternoon off on a Wednesday, and then if I wanted at the weekend I could come with them on trips away (to save them some of the chores) and I felt so candidly innocent that I swore to them I would be there for them as they were so good to me to have me here. I could have insisted to do my own things, so some time joined an English Learning group. There was a bus from there to the further town called Camberley. The bus accepted to take me there but it took me quite a few trips to understand he wanted me to have a pre-paid ticket (???) and what the money meant of course. I had been given £5 from my nice British neighbour in Soussis, as she travelled a lot and fancied giving me some good luck on my travels (she had trained me to speak, to no avail, but she tried nevertheless. 7 years of school don’t teach you to say ANYTHING. ) Maybe I should stop moaning, now, at how bad my English was when I came over.
When I first saw Camberley I thought I was in a city. It was peculiar. It was all grey cement, tall shop windows where you can watch yourself walk along, (that is very nice, that) well, and a shop I had never come across anywhere, called Army and Navy, with the most un-tasty looking clothes I had ever seen, even in France, where they have stuff you wouldn’t know nor want – wear. (Do they still believe the French have a sense of fashion???) Camberley had something they called a “precinct” in our English Langue books, but the locals called it something else. There were lots of strange small shops in there. You could find all sorts. Even a pop-corn machine.
In Camberley, there was something very nice. It was called le “Town Spa” or something like that, (something similar to “Prescinct”) and in there, you could go to the gym, (I had never seen a gym in my life) you could swim your socks off (but, without) in the very handsome blue pool, and you could have a shower, in a “ladies only” changing room, then go to the sauna and the steam room! It wasn’t cheap, the monthly subscription of that sport centre in Camberley. It was something like most of the pocket money they gave me, which was around £30 (in 1996). I felt like a total donkey on those gym machines. Either that, or I was it. I was the Force!!! (Soon stopped the gym, too much hard work)
The sport centre… what a beautiful place it was… It was full of beautiful looking people, some who talked very kindly to me, (when they dared, I didn’t dare so, well, never mind) and it had kick-boxing rooms, and aerobics, and DANSE!!! It had dance! I made a few friends in there. One wasn’t a friend, but I wouldn’t realise it till many months later. No, there will be no real, crispy story, sorry) , and the other two were the friends in need. There were a lot of people just doing their thing, not willing to engage. I never thought at the time it could be because they were shy too or they just like to keep themselves to themselves.
The life at the au-pair 'holiday home' was not extremely pleasant. The food was (quite) grim, the un-rinsed washing-up liquid tinting every plate and spoon with the narcotic flavour of the Fairy Liquid, the granary bread one of the most edible things spoiled by they didn’t know anything about butter (they had spreadable margarine, which the Mrs said was so she would lose weight) they had that (not to my taste) bitter jam they call marmalade, brown paste called peanut butter, yet, not even Nutella!!! The French children love Nutella: I guess it’s like that here in the UK too, seeing the number of Nutellas we can still spot nowadays. You see: our French and British children have that in common now.
Ah sorry, I diverted from the subject, let’s go back to the au-pair life . l didn't know how to speak to children, nor what to tell them. So one day, i told the 8yo daughter that lw as thinking of giving french lessons in town to earn extra money. It didn'tg o where l thought it would, l thought she would keep it to herself, (a boring thing to tell a child) but that day l was unfairly told-off by Mrs, whose daughter was hugging her thigh as she shouted at me. The daughter had told her mum that I was going to do something, I still don’t know what she told her, but it sounded like, me, a catholic grown person, doing unthought of things with men to earn extra money? Anyway, it’s what the mother seemed to mean, I said I wasn’t, that I couldn’t really give French lessons because my English was too bad really and I was too shy and not confident enough and her darling daughter totally mis-understood and I thought to earn more I saw an advert for French lessons but it’s not because you don’t give me enough pocket money! I wasn’t being greedy, but what they were giving me wasn’t quite enough. This put me off for life, I never went into teaching French after this, in the 26 years I lived here. It’s a gift, being good at teaching. If you’re not, you shouldn’t be doing it.
And as if all those insults weren’t enough, the other kid one day: “Look, you, you have a very big nose which is not very nice”. I shreeked. So much, I can’t even spell it. (Yes, nerds, my word prediction hasn’t found it yet) I just looked at him, took the insult to the heart (I already knew I had a bigger nose than my prettier French friends) and thought to myself some quite negative thoughts about this little boy, this little girl, this little quite-rich family in their newly-built house, who really only wanted a maid and couldn’t afford one. This square garden with the hedge-view, this no-barman and no-cocktails, and no feeling of belonging here, with this family. No feeling of “welcome”.
Needless to write it there, but I felt rather lonely. Yes, I had made a couple of friends at the centre but I didn’t feel I trusted them yet, and all I had in myself was that yearning to dance, to go on stage, to sing, or do anything that could mean I could learn about who I was, through playing different characters. It is only a way to know ourselves. There are other ways. Sometimes, Life teaches you who you are by putting experiences in front of you. It just seems to take longer to learn about the self. If you are desperately shy, the stage isn’t really the right place to experience. So, I did it myself. What I couldn’t get into, I played with. Fashion. Singing. Playing. Even stand-up comedy.
Who asked you to add a summery of the following chapters, Fernand? “Sorry boss, it escaped”. Fernand, don’t do that again. “Yes boss”.
The period with the au-pair is a vague blur, all I remember is I suffered from an extreme shyness and inability to remain in a group to feel at all part of it, even if it was just sports. I remember feeling quite depressed, for the first time. I had nowhere to go, didn’t feel the family treated me very well (did they treat themselves well? Not really…the food they ate was awful, no wonder they were overweight)
I just didn’t feel good in my skin and had to break out of this situation somehow. No idea what happened around my parents, as I was just 18. So, I was an adult. I had the right to choose my life. I could not back to France, on another failure. Not yet, not till I have something to show them that I could be proud about. France had nothing to offer, the teachers had told us there were no jobs, that we could be in University for years learning something we were not that interested in, that breaks our hearts and shuts the fairy world out of our vision. Then, we could sign-on and be of the part of society we were always warned about as being the world of drugs, alcoholism, debaucherie, and brigandry. France? No thank you!! I had to stay here, in England. I had to make it. So far I had had very little success making English friends who lived around Camberley. The ones who wanted to know me were all foreign, or of a dark skin tone (is that how you say “Black skinned” or “Indian” in politically correct language, nowadays? Call me a white frog if you like, it’s all right) . In a way, it made understanding each other easier, as we spoke slowly, and mostly badly, except for the Afro-Carabean person who was in Beyonce’s latest dance video and had perfect posh sounding English. There were a couple of Iranian men who were also very friendly and I saw a lot of, as well as a bossy Turkish lady who kept calling me up to do things I didn’t really want to do. (have you ever had that friend you don’t really want to be around, but you have no other so better stick with that one?)
Once, the Iranian friends invited me over to their flat to meet (I forgot her name, we will call her Michou, actually, it wasn’t a Michou, it was someone a lot higher class sounding than that, Like… Emmanuelle.) She, Emmanuelle, was French, and she was recently married to one of the brother’s. She was about 24. She spoke French with a Britany accent which sounded vaguely Parisian to me, but sounded very posh, and she sounded very very posh when she spoke with her fluette voice in English to everyone around her who listened in delight. One could say she was delightful. She spoke as with the potatoes in her mouth. I thought she was much superior to me and everybody was going to notice how peasant-like my manners were. She was very educated (obviously had nothing worthwhile fretting about instead of doing all this good study) It was really odd being around her . She had the most amazing blue eyes and wide teeth. She was a bit of a shock. She worked in Army and Navy and had really frizzy, long black hair.
Her husband had cooked us a special tomato Chicken dish from Iran he was very proud of, with their rice which has the crunchy bits at the bottom which is so delicious. Can you remind me what this was about?!! Getting lost in the memory of the past.
The scary break… about life as an au-pair… happened. I asked the two brothers if they had a spare bedroom. They had , said they would need rent but would give me one month free so I could find a job. After that, it would be £180/£200 a month, something like that. A fortune!
Despite the uncertainty of the future, and being unsure my parents would agree to what I was doing, I left the Au-Pair family, and this is how it happened.
One morning, I had packed my bags and taken my decision to go, because l was too unhappy there. l didn't like them, and they didn't like me. I came downstairs trembling and shaking, to face Mrs and told her I didn’t want to “sejourner ici” any longer, that my pride was higher than this, that I didn’t like how they treated me, and that I was going to live out into the world. She was shocked, at first. She had a moment when she looked fish-like. Then, she warned me with such tone of voice, to this day it sounded like a curse. She said the world out there, outside this blessed house, was cruel; it was nasty, beastily, and I would get caught in it and it eventually would destroy me! That I wouldn’t make it! That I would end up under the bridge! That I should better stay here with us and be our maid! I said no. I wanted to go. Seeing her voodoo didn’t have the desired effect, she erupted out with all of her green nature, (so, this is what all this was about?!Green is usually a nice colour) blaming me for having cost her so much money and did I know how much the agency cost her, well it was £165.32, (plus VAT) and how ungrateful, what terrible girl I was, and how awful I was being to her and her two children, and her husband, who worked hard at the local Toyota offices to keep me. Her two offsprings were there looking at me with crocodile grins and tears. When I walked out with my suitcases, I didn’t feel very assured, but I knew if I wanted to have an interesting life, I could not remain there. My mind was rotting around them.
That bus was waited for, in Lightwater, one last time. I was a nervous wreck, in tears, yet delighted to not be at their mercy any more. I wrote a letter to my parents to explain what had happened, and kept the draft of it, which I still have somewhere. I felt so old at the time, at 18, yet at the same time with no experience of Life or the world, to live alone, like this, without anyone’s protection. (some kids do it a lot younger, I know, and I admire them who fly off the nest at any age…it takes courage)
If you are crying with pity after reading all that, dry your tears, all this is written with a smile on the face. It’s not all misery and gloom really, In my family, this is the sort of humour we delected (to “savour” in French) in, exaggerating about how awful things were, just for a laugh. So, this is written a bit like that, just imagine you can hear some circus tones and voices in the background. It felt grim, but I was lucky and had to see the good side in the story, looking back. I am here today, so it must have been good. 22 years later. Cool.
(*Something in this phrase is an exageration, but it may not be necesserally what you think it is, look again)
** This is an utterly uterlable , terrible, exageration.
PPPs any mick-taking of any country habits or generalisations are only written for effect and are, if taken apart, truly politically correct or at least meant in a politically correct way as we all are very polite and don’t peer in our neighbours’ gardens. Any politically incorrect material can be blamed on my youth and inexperience of what a human being should be.