“Are you nervous?” asked my mum as we drove to Birmingham airport. I didn’t really have an answer because, truthfully, I hadn’t given a great deal of thought to the fact that just four days after returning from Oxford, I was to work as an au pair in the South of France for a month.
How hard could it be?
Suddenly, the nerves came crashing in. What on Earth was I doing? An hour a week at an after school club for bronze D of E was hardly going to prepare me for this. Plus, if my “catastrophique” French results were anything to go by, a few temper tantrums might be the least of my problems. Soon enough I calmed down: how hard could it be? (Were my life a film, there would be some bad-auguring music to accompany this thought).
Arriving in Toulouse, I was pretty chilled and met the father at the airport. We chatted and listened to the France vs. Germany match on the radio. I understood what he said, and for the most part he understood me. So far, so good. We arrived and the children gave me a tour of the house, the 10 year-old boy excitedly pointing out his Union Jack rug, and the 6 year-old girl proudly showing me the loom-band bracelet she had made that afternoon.
A game of catch with a water balloon quickly escalated
The next morning we had a typical French breakfast in the garden, and a game of catch with a water balloon quickly escalated into all us, fully dressed, in the swimming pool. That evening, the family had friends over and we enjoyed good food, wine and conversation (I think – I had no idea what they were saying)
Both parents worked long hours, out by 8am and not returning until 7, maybe 8 in the evening. This left a lot of time to fill with the children, and a lot of time for things to go wrong. Being brother and sister, they fought. A lot. Yet it was clear that they both loved each other dearly, so the day would swing between World War III and utter tranquillity. I quickly learnt to pick my battles, as it simply was not possible (or worth it) to intervene every time.
I learnt to pick my battles
As expected, I encountered many tests of my French. For example, their wonderfully caring grandma spoke three variants of French: a) French with a strong Spanish accent, b) French mixed with a lot of Spanish, and c) Spanish. Another test that particularly stands out is when, to the children’s horror, a lizard darted up the wall, across the window, and hung precariously on the curtain rail. I may well write to Nicky Morgan, the New Education Secretary and tell her, one Hugh’s girl to another, that part of the GCSE French Oral Examination should include a role play with scenarios such as: reassure two screaming French children that the lizard will not wee on the new sofa, hurt them, or eat their pet goldfish.
A further insect related incident taught the son more about ‘le garçon qui criait au loup’ (the boy who cried wolf) than it taught me about French. Having already tried twice that evening to spook us by pointing, wide-eyed, at a spot behind his sister’s head and screaming ‘a-a-a-arignée!!!’ (s-s-s-spider!!!), I did not believe him when he raced in the living room to tell me about a huge spider in his room. Yet, lo and behold, there on his pillow crouched the biggest spider I have ever seen. On the bright side, removing it gave me considerable bargaining power for the next few days. “Nope, you’ve got to tidy up. I moved that spider, remember…”
I couldn’t help but wonder what they would be like as teenagers and adults
At home and college alike, I spend 99% of my time with people my own age and older. Though challenging, and exhausting, it was refreshing to see their energy, and untainted innocence (which bordered on insanity when the son told me I was “trop fort” (really good) at football). It was odd (frustrating) to watch their difficulty in grasping certain things like sharing and thinking of others. I couldn’t help but wonder what they would be like as teenagers and adults.
Going into another family’s home for a whole month is eye-opening and a privilege; particularly when that family is French. It is such an interesting cultural exchange and against this, I learnt a lot about myself, as well as how to handle certain situations, and compromise with people who have no intention of compromising. I think I’m set for a career in International Relations.