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In Paris Now

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No, not me (not at this exact moment, anyway). It's the name of a great new Paris group blog Emmanuelle Richard turned me onto, created by Laurie Pike, an LA journo I'd met briefly some years back. Here's a link to Pike's moving piece on her days as an au pair for several versions of the Wicked Witch Of The Better Arrondissements, via the job postings at the Centre Information et Documentation Jeunesse:

My first trip there was at the age of 19, shortly after I had moved to Paris from Cincinnati with $100 in my pocket. Coincidentally, the job I took was on the very same street, in a grand building overlooking the Seine. I looked after two children and stayed in a chambre de bonne on the 8th floor. The help was not to use the elevator.

On my first day as an au pair, Madame set out some fresh vegetable—vegetables I had never seen before—next to a coquotte minute, and told me to make a puree for the kids. I was too scared to tell her that my cooking experience was limited to tossing fish sticks in a toaster oven. “People just eat hamburgers in America,” she told her husband at a rare dinner I was allowed to attend. “And when they meet each other, they say, ‘Hello, how much do you make?’” She turned to me. “Don’t they?”

I was unhappy in my six months with the family, but what an experience it was absorbing aristocratic French life in their vacation homes in Avignon, Cannes and Normandy. I wrote home about waxing the children’s shoes, feeding them a spoonful of honey before bed, having to “verify the laundry” by checking every button and zipper before hanging it up.

After six months in France, I went back to Cincinnati a different person. I knew AOC from TGV. I sang French nursery rhymes to my little brothers. (I never did learn how to work the damn coquotte.)

I moved again to Paris two years later, a bit wiser but just as poor. I returned to the Centre de Jeunesse. I turned down a job offer from a man who hinted that sleeping with him would earn me a salary bump. I considered a governess position in Africa until my brother informed me the country in question had just had a coup d’etat. I ultimately settled in with a middle-class family in the 18th. They weren’t as stingy with food as my first family; “nourri” meant three meals a day instead of one. Madame made friendly small-talk with my French boyfriend before we’d go out dancing. I was fond of this family, and I cried when I left them—despite the fact that Madame commemorated my last day by giving me 5 hours solid of housework.

A few years later, I was making enough money to afford an actual vacation in Paris. I decided to take a stroll in the Champs de Mars, and I descended at the Bir Hakeim metro station. (To this day the name reminds me of the first Madame’s frequently expressed trouille over the increasing Arab population.) Unbelievably, as I approached the entrance to the building of my first au pair family, I saw Madame coming from the other direction with her now-older children, and the new baby she claimed she would never have, in a pram. I froze. Their faces looked blurry. I heard the buzz of the door and Madame screeching, “Attention à tes doigts!”

That line, and her harpie voice, rang in my head as I continued walking, feeling wooden. I passed the Centre de Jeunesse, and I smiled, my bloodflow kicking back into normal. I was happy I didn’t have to go in this time.

She goes back to the Centre, to the au pair wall:

I burst out crying. It was like looking at myself in the past. Were they down on their luck? Were they waiting for a $20 bill from their sister in the mail, as I once did for days on end? Would any of them say yes to a salary bump, winding up like Anna Karina in Vivre Sa Vie?

The entire piece (and a great new Paris blog) are at the link above. And while Laurie can't work a coquotte minute, I wonder if she's mastered the mandoline. It's the greatest invention in food slicing -- and, now, it will only set you back $29.99 on Amazon, and possibly, a fingertip or two. I bought one for my editor and another for my bookkeeper for Christmas, and sent along stern warnings to only use it with thick garden gloves, lest my bonus gift to them become an unexpected trip to the emergency room.

Posted by aalkon at January 30, 2006 6:49 AM

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