Based on a true story.
The pay was standard. Room, board, and 150 euros per month. “Room” was a single on an 8th floor walk-up, with a communal bathroom in the hall. “Board” was lunch 6 days a week. The salary, less than $6 a day, largely went to the all the other meals I had mistakenly assumed would be included. But I wanted to stay in Paris for the summer, so I moved in the day after the interview.
The room was a classic chambre de bonne, with a single bed and unobstructed view of Sacre Coeur. Bonne is short for bonne à tout faire, “good for doing everything.” As such, the advertised governess job was more housekeeping than babysitting.
“We’ve never had an au pair,” Mrs. Dimas told me. “We are not rich. We can barely afford you.” She showed me how to vacuum the walls, which were covered in fabric. “My husband is a perfectionist,” she said, adding that it was he who insisted the bedsheets be ironed. The French word for perfectionist, when talking about cleanliness, is maniac. Pronounced “mahn-YAK.” She had a confidence, even when lying, that led me to double-check the driver’s license she’d sometime leave on the kitchen counter. Just 29?
There were two children. Four-year-old Patrice, dark-complected and moody, and three-month-old Sidonie, blonde like her mother, and the subject of a christening in the works, with family coming from all over.
I would arrive to clean up the breakfast table and get Patrice dressed for school while keeping an eye on Sidonie, who dozed off with a belly full of formula that we made with Volvic bottled water. (Madame herself drank Contrex, which was said to be slimming, while her husband, who owned a restaurant, preferred Badoit, the salty one that aids digestion. I found this very sophisticated, and was trying to decide which water brand best reflected the Parisian I was trying to become.)
After dropping Patrice off at nursery school, I’d go back to the apartment where Rose-Annette, as Mrs. Dimas asked me to call her, would go over the housework to be done that day, ensuring I understood the words on the list. She would pull me a coffee from the noisy espresso machine, and then make a production of getting dressed and leaving.
Rose-Annette returned for lunch most days around 1 or so, and we ate together. Usually Sidonie would be down for a nap. Rose-Annette showed me how to steam vegetables in the pressure cooker, and to bake clafoutis with fruit fresh she’d bring up from the market. “I can’t believe Americans buy mayonnaise,” she said one day, mixing a dab of mustard into her homemade mayo. I said, “I can’t believe you French eat horse meat.” I wasn’t sure if the playfulness I intended came across. “I adore horse meat,” Rose-Annette said. As a post-script, she added, “Vous.” She corrected me anytime I used the informal word for “you.”
On Bastille Day I was “verifying” the laundry (no holiday for the help, so I was following instructions to check every button and zipper before ironing and hanging the clothes). Rose-Annette was picking out blue, white and red outfits for the girls when the phone rang. I guessed it was her mother, because she didn’t seem to have many friends. After confabbing on the christening, slated for September—something about how many pounds of candied almonds to order, the traditional accessory for baptisms—Rose-Annette took the phone into the kitchen and closed the door behind her. “What am going to do when she goes back to America?” I heard her say. “I won’t have any help! I don’t know. Maybe it’s good. It’s getting too cosy.”
I was better off than the other au pairs that I met at the playground. Some would smoke, or vape, while our charges played, and we’d all wolf down snacks intended for the kids. I was the only one privileged to call madame by her given name, and to drink rosé with her at lunch. “We polished off a whole bottle,” I bragged to Birgitta, whose family used cloth diapers and made her serve dinner like a waitress. The families looked down upon us, and we upon them.
“What kind of work is it that you do?” I asked Rose-Annette over lunch. “If only!” she said. In the ensuing sentences, she may or may not have told me. I missed a lot while pretending to understand. What did become clear, though, to my surprise, was that she wasn’t working. It was a full-time job to get her old position back, she said. First, she needed her papers. The word was similar to “husband” and “baptism gown.” Not in the way it sounded, but in that I heard it a lot, and was aware of its importance in this household, but never saw it.
Of course, everyone in France talks about papers. It’s a bureaucratic country where one in five people works for the government, mainly shuffling documents. Everyone needed papers, no one had the papers they needed. Even I lacked papers. My visa had expired in May, not long after the final exam of the Sorbonne’s extension program. I was technically an “illegal,” as were most of the other au pairs at the playground. But none of us were concerned about it. We were white, and our host families were comfortable and connected. We had nothing in common with the bands of Afghans who would also congregate in parks, sitting in a circle, quietly passing around food. “I just purse my lips when I walk past a police station,” Birgitta said. We pulled French faces and imitated the high voices our madames used, especially when speaking to their husbands.
Chasing papers, and the stamps to validate them—that was a whole separate task, conducted in separate offices or buildings–sent Rose-Annette out of the house most days of the week. The manila folder, where the papers were collected, migrated around the apartment like a mobile religious object. She took a day trip to Brittany to look through boxes in her parents’ house. All she found there was her old monthly metro pass. She made a cute embarassed face when she showed me the photo-booth image on it, of her flashing a peace sign, and wearing the skunk-stripe hairstyle popular in the aughts. “Awesome,” I said in English, and we slapped hands in an off-center high-five.
“She’s meeting a lover!” Birgitta squealed. The love life of our madames was a big topic at the park. “No,” I said. “Not Rose-Annette.” For one thing, she primped more for her husband’s return from work than she did for her morning excursions. Rose-Annette was moony over Antonio, her Nino. She liked to stop in and hang out at the restaurant he owned, she confided to me, until he told her she’d have to put on an apron. “That, no!” she laughed.
By August, the bottle of rosé was de rigueur at lunch. “My parents are being difficult about the christening,” Rose-Annette told me. “My father still cannot accept that I married a Portuguese man.” She shrugged her shoulders and lowered one eyelid in existential resignation. “Because of them, I couldn’t let Antonio gain nationality by marrying me. He had to be naturalized before I said yes.”
I thought about this as I finished off a bowl of berries in sour cream. If Rose-Annette resented her parents’ disdain for Nino, why did she subject him to their requirements? That seemed so French to me. Rose-Annette loved to consider herself an outsider for having a foreign husband. She found it deliciously outrageous that they allowed Patrice to keep her hair cut in a short buzz. But, with their pastel candied almonds–”they’re expensive, butone must,” she had explained–they were as bourgeois as any of the other parents we dished about at the playground. Sometimes at lunch, after a couple glasses of wine, I got an urge to ask her about French traditions, specifically how she came to reject some and emulate others. But even if I’d had the language skills, I didn’t dare, and I would stand and pick up dishes. “Instead of attempting to change the country during your junior year abroad,” read a pamphlet handed to us at orientation at the Sorbonne, “try to understand and respect the cultural norms in France, even if you disagree with them.”
I wrote home to my sister, “Rose-Annette doesn’t even buy baby food!” When the baby started eating solids, I spoon-fed her veal puree’d with butter. My last chore each evening was to wax and buff the girls’ navy leather shoes.
A heatwave began. It was exhausting speaking staccato French all day. Going home to the States would be like taking off roller blades and walking without fear of wiping out. My au pair comrades started dropping out of sight, accompanying their host families on vacation to Normandy, Provence, the Riviera. Rose-Annette’s handful of friends also decamped, or so she said. The two of us took to watching a soap opera after lunch. “I’m different, she said during a commercial for a cut-rate airline. “I’d rather take a vacation in winter to someplace warm. Nino can’t leave the restaurant, and I prefer not to desert him.”
I bought my return ticket online and, after bringing Patrice home from the crèche, slipped Rose-Annette a note across the kitchen table with the flight information. She gave me a “What am I going to do?” face that was endearing, even touching. She opened a bottle of Brouilly—a red served chilled—and invited me to stay for dinner: cervelles d’agneau. I wondered if I should go get my dictionary. Instead I walked to the living room, where Patrice had turned on the TV. I said, “We’re having lamb brains tonight.” She shot up her fists in the air and said, “Oui!”
Back in the kitchen, Rose-Annette said, barely audibly, “My paper chase is coming to an end.” The manila folder, which I hadn’t seen in a couple of weeks, had materialized in her hands. “You’ll go back to university,” she said, curling the tab at the top, “and I’ll go back to work.” Now was my chance to get clear on her profession. Teacher? Secretary? One of France’s 13 million bureaucrats? She didn’t seem to have any passions beyond family and food.
The theme music for a game show came on, and we both turned toward the TV. I raised my eyebrows. “Ah, oui!” Rose-Annette said, bringing over the bottle and two glasses. “Scoot over, Patrice.”
As I walked down the stairs from my chambre de bonne the morning of the 31st, I wondered if Rose-Annette would give me a tip, or a gift, with my pay. Maybe we’d have a coffee together and she’d give me the day off to finish packing.
She was dressed, with her cross-body satchel strapped on. “My mother is coming to stay for a week,” Rose-Annette said, clasping her hands to her head. “You think my husband is maniac? My mother is worse.” The list of chores began with vacuuming the walls. “I’ll drop Patrice at school so you have time for a top-to-bottom,” she said. I don’t know if I’ll be back for lunch because I’ve got one last stamp to beg for.” I blinked at the list. “Wow,” I said. “So you’re really going back to work.” She nodded yes, wild-eyed, and called for Patrice to put on her shoes.
Sidonie was acting up. I couldn’t clean and entertain her at the same time, so I turned on the radio loud and let her wail. I sweated like crazy scrubbing mineral deposits off bathroom tiles. When I finished, I taped up the nozzle of the Cif, the white cleanser. I loved the smell. There wasn’t anything like it in the United States. As I was burying it in my purse, I heard the front door, and I froze.
Rose-Annette appeared in the apartment hallway, looking alarmed.
“She just started,” I said over the din, jumping up to turn off the radio. “I’ll go get her.”
I calmed the baby by changing her diaper. I gave her a clean outfit, too. When I came back out from her bedroom, Rose-Annette was hunched over, opening a bottle of wine at the kitchen table. She looked up and said, “Are you OK?”
“Yeah, yeah,” I said. “Sorry. Just a little frazzled about my flight tomorrow. I want to get everything done.”
Rose-Annette reached out for Sidonie with one arm and pulled off her satchel with the other. She smelled the baby’s neck and rocked her. I heard sniffling.
“I can’t believe it,” she said, her voice an octave lower than normal, and gravelly. I suspected something serious, something about Nino, maybe. She couldn’t be that worked up just because the baby had been yelling. Or even that I was leaving. I tried to think of an excuse about the Cif, which she may have seen me steal. But then the baby stopped crying, suddenly, and I thought about Rose-Annette’s confidence, which had impressed me when we’d first met.
I took a step closer and put my hand on her shoulder, a barrier neither of us expected to be crossed. With a face that reminded me of our soap opera heroine, she closed her eyes and leaned into my hand. She mumbled, “I lost all my papers on the metro.”