Part II – Au Pairs in America
Some of our dear friends featured in this story pre-dated our move to the Peaceful Valley – but when talking about our au pairs, it’s not possible to leave anybody out. Until our move to Pownal in 1994, we lived in a small 2-bedroom house in Bennington, Vermont – ten miles north of our current home.
It was 1990 – I was pregnant with Erik and contemplating our daycare options when I saw a poster in Williamstown promoting a cultural exchange program called, “Au Pair in America” – sponsored by the American Institute for Foreign Study. The program matched young adults (mostly European) aged 18-25 with American host families for a 12-month stay. In exchange for full-time childcare services, the host family provides room, board, a weekly stipend and treats their au pair like a family member. The cost was comparable to what we would have to pay for Shawn and Erik to be in full-time childcare – and the benefit and excitement of having a live-in childcare provider from another country was enticing. We made the decision to go forward, moved our bedroom into our unheated attic, moved the boys into the master bedroom and gave the au pair the 2nd bedroom. Our first au pair arrived shortly after Erik’s birth in February, 1991.
Karine was from Paris, France. We interviewed her by phone and I mentioned my concern that Vermont would be too slow and too isolated for her. She assured me it would not, so we invited her to join us. She was charming, bright and sophisticated. We enjoyed her immensely. She was great to hang out with and we had many wonderful conversations at night after the boys went to bed. The kids loved her, we loved her, she loved us. Sounds like a “happily ever after” story, right? I suppose it could have been if she didn’t have to take care of the kids. Shortly after she arrived, she asked if we could put the boys in daycare. Haha!!! “Pardonne–moi?,” I asked. She was serious. I think not my dear Parisian friend!! We parted on friendly terms and she moved to a family in Alexandria, Virginia. C’est la vie!
We believe the agency was embarrassed by our experience with Karine, because our next au pair was a professionally trained nanny. Lucky us!! She hailed from the Isle of Wight off the southern coast of England. More rural, certainly somewhat isolated (it was an island!) and her interest in “child-minding” equalled her interest in a year in the U.S. Tracy arrived and we had a fabulous year with her. So good, in fact, that she came back to spend another year with us after nannying for a family in London in between! She took Shawn and Erik on many outings and kept a book to track Erik’s development. The boys were both extremely attached to her. On some weekends, we would get another babysitter and enjoy a night out with Tracy and some friends. Memories of Tracy and another au pair, Sam, dancing on top of the speakers at a club in Montreal are ingrained in my memory!! Tracy worked hard and played harder. It’s hard to believe she’s 40 now! Her son recently posted on her facebook wall, “For those of you who think I’m crazy, just look at my mother and you’ll see where I get it!!!”
Selina from Northern Ireland was our third au pair. When I finished interviewing Selina by phone, I was so impressed by her English! Okay, so I didn’t know that English is the first language of almost 100% of the people in Ireland! I thought they spoke Irish or Gaelic. Anyway… that’s my embarrassing admission for the day. And also reinforces the value of cultural exchanges. I had my first lesson about Northern Ireland before she even arrived. Selina came from a coastal town near the famous Giant’s Causeway and Carrickfergus Castle just north of Belfast. Selina was a firecracker. Full of life, always ready for a party, loved to laugh, dance, dress up, go places, meet people and more! We hosted a joint adult Halloween party that year with all of our friends and hers. She and her friend, Jenny, did the catering for another party we hosted on March 27th, but a freak snowstorm prevented all of our guests from coming except for the two who arrived on skis. It was a small party with a ton of food – but lots of fun just the same. Shawn and Erik loved Selina and she kept them very busy with fun activities and trips. There were times when Erik seemed to talk with an Irish accent. And Shawn started using Irish expressions. That was the year that the “wee little Irish tooth fairy” came to collect Shawn’s tooth.
Following Selina was Christelle from the beautiful Brittany region of France. She joined us a few months before we moved to the Peaceful Valley. Within her first few months with us, I became pregnant with Weston, lost my job, started my own accounting practice and we moved to our new home – a fixer-upper, to say the least. Certainly a time of upheaval. While our wood floors were being refinished, we moved into two rooms of our big, old farmhouse and slept on the floors. That was when the house still had ghosts. Christelle was our only au pair to experience the friendly ghosts of the many generations of the Bates family who built and owned our house. The boys were very attached to Christelle and she showered them with love and affection. She was calm and always happy. I never doubted that she would be a fantastic mom – and now she has three beautiful children of her own. She promised her daughter, Floriane, that they would visit us someday and we hope that’s true.
Nuria was our last au pair and was with us for about four months. She was sweet and charming with a beautiful smile. She rarely understood what we said to her – but smiled anyway. Weston was born shortly after she arrived. I remember the fearful look in her eyes when I asked her to hold him for the first time. She was from Barcelona and struggled to adapt to country living. The challenges were too many and she decided to return to Spain.
That ends the chapter on the au pairs… when our home was their home too. Our incredible trips to England and Northern Ireland will have to be covered in separate posts. It’s been great to meet the husbands and children of Tracy and Selina and we look forward to future visits with all of them someday. It’s hard to believe that chapter of our lives began twenty years ago!