What I learned during what would have been my last year of college

It is a typical Thursday night. I am sitting in my room, putting clothes away and ignoring all of the dishes in the sink. Throwing some pants onto a shelf, I notice a turtleneck and register that I should pack it away; it’s almost summer. It is a typical May. My laptop is open and I am finishing a draft of a play for this summer’s Minnesota Fringe Festival. It is a typical spring. All in all, I feel numb from winter finally leaving us.

But it is not entirely typical. Oh, yeah: I graduated from college. Oh, wait — that was a year ago. And though the signs of May and spring are about the same as they are every year, this one is very different from all the ones before it.

I have spent this year living and working in Paris as an au pair. Normally, I would just be finishing my fourth year of college. But due to fate and last-minute decisions, I finished early and did not have a fourth year of college. Instead, I came here, and though I have spent most of my time trying to keep an iPad away from a 6-year-old French girl, I have learned more this year than I did in any one year of college, and maybe in all of them combined.

What did I learn, exactly? Now, there’s a great question.

‘Welcome to France’

That is what a creepy man murmured to me on the metro after hearing my accent a month or so after I got here. I was taking my host family’s 11-year-old girl to musical theater class. When transiting through Paris, it is only natural to try to blend in. That is why I started wearing a coat even when it is not cold out and why I have been experimenting with my scarf-tying skills (I still have not gotten very good at it; maybe you have to have French blood to make a double-knotted scarf look cool).

When I came to this new place, I thought studying its language for eight embarrassingly long years would make it easier to adjust. Eight months here have helped me realize there is so much to a language beyond learning words and grammar. If I had to divide learning French into steps, there would be one thousand of them. About a hundred would have to do with spelling and verb conjugation. The rest would come from countless small encounters with strangers: How to politely end a conversation when an old woman talks with you for a half an hour through her open window; how to express every kind of emotion by using the sound “bah.” No matter how hard I have tried to copy the musicality of French, hearing my words spat back at me by a know-it-all teahouse owner made it clear that there are a thousand more sounds I will never understand how to make because I was not born here.

Is it difficult to live in a place where you will always be a bit different? That depends. Being a white girl from the United States who has blue eyes and a college degree, I have had it so easy. I have found myself in situations where people treat me like a princess because of it, and it makes me sick to my stomach. Meanwhile, I have become friends with other au pairs from places as nearby as Spain and Portugal, and they are treated more discriminately just based on where they are from and what language they speak. It is no coincidence that my southern European friends do more laundry, ironing and cleaning in their jobs, while my other American au pair friends act mainly as English teachers, study buddies and big sisters to the kids they work with. The Paris foreigner experience varies with background and privilege, at least in the au pair world I have come to know.

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Let’s be honest about the skin colors we associate with these streets.

If au pair world is one thing, nanny world it is quite another. Jogging in the park, I have seen scores of white babies and scores of nannies from every part of the color spectrum. The ethnic makeup of Paris’s 8th arrondissement is very diverse if you collect data during the day. At night, white families sit down to dinners that other people have prepared for them, wearing clothes that other people have washed for them, and telling jokes to children who have been raised on weekdays from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. by other people too. These “other people” are the real backbone of society here, and are often taken advantage of. Yes, their bosses work long hours at the office, but that means even longer ones for the people working in their homes who make their lives possible. More often than not, these people are of different ethnicities than the families they work for. Many of them come from different countries. They too have adapted to Paris, but in a neighborhood where skin color and purse brands automatically put people on a figurative social ladder, it is not so easy for them to blend in just by throwing on a wool coat and tying a scarf around their necks. Welcome to France.

‘Two more minutes’

That is what the 6-year-old girl who I babysit says every time I ask her to stop doing something. Time to leave the park and go home. Two more minutes? Time to stop throwing pencils at the wall and get in the bath. Two more minutes? Time to put down the freaking iPad and go to bed. Two more … you get the picture.

These girls are used to having more. It’s not their fault, really. But it has been difficult not to unconsciously blame them for it.

I am a 22-year-old from a middle-class family in St. Paul, Minnesota. My father is a retired baker and a single parent. My brother and I went to public school, and sometimes to nature camp up north for a week in the summer. The family I work for lives in the middle of Paris, where the girls attend private school (Catholic school because if you are not Muslim or Jewish, that is where you go here). The girls learned English from going to summer camp in the United States for multiple years in a row, and they have a full-time cleaning woman and cook (who is perhaps my favorite person here), so the girls rarely, if ever, have to do chores.

When the 6-year-old screams at me because “it’s not fair” that she has to pick up a few toys in her room or the 14-year-old laughs at me for not knowing a phrase in French, I sometimes find it difficult to keep my cool. The little one has a pristine room cleaned daily by the housekeeper, for crying out loud, and my language skills would be much better had I had a private education supplemented by trips abroad every summer. There have been many times when I have wanted to scream right back at them, saying they do not know how good they have it, and they do not know how wrong it is that they are complaining about small details or trying to assert themselves as better than someone from a completely different background than them.

When these moments strike, I crack open a bottle of sparkling water (the family always has Badoit in stock), swallow the bubbles and remind myself that yes, these girls are privileged, but they are also just kids. I was not so different when I was 7 and my dad made me rake leaves and I threw a tantrum in the yard. Or when I was 14 and thought I was the smartest, most well-adjusted person in the world (I am now, of course). Knowing these people has helped me understand my own privilege more than ever before.

I feel lucky. The children of the 8th arrondissement have lots of advantages, but they also have their problems — like parents who come home too late to eat dinner with them or even to say goodnight. Although they have access to stellar educations, they are under huge pressure from their families to succeed and to compete with their peers. Paris is a harsh city. Space is limited and property values are high. People work 50 hours a week just to pay rent — huge Haussmannian apartment or not — and when a family has a fortune, a lifestyle and a reputation to keep up, the pressure trickles down to the little ones.

They get all the benefits of this lifestyle — nannies and servants included. But they are also servants to their own wealth. All of these kids are on a pre-determined path to maintain and add to it. Their clothing, their schools and their friends have all been picked for them as part of a grand plan to keep their affluence in a tight circle. It is difficult to break out of it, especially when dependant on this lifestyle. So these children have little choice but to follow it for their whole life. They will follow it for their children until it is time to swipe the iPad away and make them follow it. Sans tablet and sans fortune, I am relieved to say I have a freedom they will never know.

So when the little girl asks me for two more minutes on the gosh darn iPad, I usually give them to her. Normally it is because I am lazy and would rather yield than fight, but sometimes it is because I feel the farthest thing from jealous of her. She has a lot coming to her, someday. So why not let her fry her brain out over another episode of “Chica Vampiro?”

‘Even Mama’

One thing I have learned from taking care of kids: I am not a patient person. Also, I am not a kid person.

Also: I am no longer a child, but am I adult? I feel like I am floating somewhere in the middle, hesitant to latch onto anything that will make me grow up more, but also eager to push away from my childhood. Spending all of this time with young people has made me antsy to return to a more “adult” world where work is done in chairs in front of screens where we express ourselves with words rather than the number of pirouettes we can do between the park gate and the trashcan.

It has also helped me realize that adults are not as grown up as I once thought. Parents were just winging it, too, trying everything they thought of and seeing what stuck. What separates us are time and experience. I talked to my dad on Skype about what it was like to have two young kids as a single parent. “I did what I could,” he said. I said the same thing after the 6-year-old took my keys out of my purse and ran down the building’s stairwell before trying to throw them into the elevator shaft. The best solution I could think of was dragging her back up the stairs as she screamed, “you’re mean!”

In a calmer moment, one night before bed, she said to me, “we are all kids, even Mama.” She and my dad, though an ocean apart, are on to something.

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Even the children of Paris’s 8th arrondissement can be wise beyond their years.

She frustrates me. This little person has made me angrier and more restless than I have ever been. But the good moments with her also make me want to stay here forever — like racing across the grass in Parc Monceau, or singing songs from “Les Misérables” on a pile of gravel in the Luxembourg Garden, or getting a pat on the back from her while she said in her best surfer dude voice, “you’re a real pal, Hailey.”

She still pronounces my name “Hai-LEE,” or “Eh-leh,” her big spaced-out teeth jutting out over her lip. This silly girl who has a serious screen obsession is also pretty funny sometimes. Getting to know her and her family has helped me learn that trust is complicated, and keeping a family going is exhausting, and that sometimes, in small gaps between the complexities and the exhaustion, some pretty remarkable stuff happens.

Like after nights of arguing at the dinner table, the three sisters will find themselves hunched over a photo album, laughing about their shenanigans in the south together. Or the father will come home after a business trip, and the sound of his voice as he says hello to his children says it all. Or, after months of awkward interruptions, mis-communicated playdates and surprise babysitting shifts, the mother will smile and push a box of cakes at me, saying, “you need to try these,” or she will look at me in the eyes and just say, “thank you.”

My heart will be heavy when I leave them, but it also will be restored, and free.

The thesis is in

It is a typical Thursday night. Like after a day of classes, my mind is overloaded from a day of babysitting. And like any other spring, if you asked me what I have taken away from this past year, I would be at a loss for words. But all of these words are what I might take away after a year as an au pair and as a student of the post-college world.

What will next year bring, and how will my time as an au pair figure into that? When people ask me the inevitable, “how was Paris?” in perky Minnesotan voices, what will I say? I could tell them I learned a bit about race and a bit about class, and a whole lot about love.

But something tells me they will not want to hear that. So I will probably say, “good,” and they will go on to ask me if I’ve found a job.

It is a typical post-grad life. Thank goodness for a bit of a break.

“So how was Paris?”

I don’t want to think about that now. Right now, I have a turtleneck to fold up.

 

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9 thoughts on “What I learned during what would have been my last year of college

    1. Ms. Colwell. I stumbled onto your blog and very much appreciate your writing. Thanks. I also share love for Erik Satie’s music. I particularly like Gymnopedie No. 1 with any full symphony orchestra. Much depth and touches my soul. I cry in respone. I do plan to “live long and live old”. I related very much to your search for his music and residence in France. Take care and may God bless. Keep up the good work.

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      1. Dear Jeff, thank you so much for reading. Now that I have discovered Erik Satie, I have had the pleasure of listening to more of his work. I’m looking forward to listening to Gymnopedie No. 1 backed by an orchestra — thank you for mentioning that! I am so happy to hear that you can relate to this. You take good care too, and thank you for commenting. I really do appreciate it.

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