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Can I play too?

A yellow bike on a yellow wall in Verona on the way to my new Italian home.
A yellow bike on a yellow wall in Verona on the way to my new Italian home.

I’m babysitting. I guess that’s the best word for it because if I say I’m an au pair it suggests that I’m doing a lot more than I actually am. Either way, whatever the terminology that you choose to use, this afternoon it’s me and an Italian kid.

It seems we’re surprisingly similar: both independent and introverted. The kid’s got a powerful sense of focus, such that I can imagine most adults envying him. I watch him play with his lego. He follows the instructions with impeccable attention to detail. He rarely makes a mis-step.

What’s clear however, is that he’s going to do this on his own. He was reluctant to let me even open the packet, let alone touch his bricks. But I can understand. When I’m working on a project I often find interference terribly frustrating. I also hate asking for help.

However, when you’re in this position of watching over a kid, and preferably bonding with said kid, you rather want them to play with you. Nobody likes not being wanted as a play companion, least of all the new babysitter who doesn’t speak the language and is reliant on the kid, who knows a handful of English words, to say when he needs anything.

So I spent a good long while in this predicament. I know the pleasure of peace and quiet and time to play alone, but as the responsible adult I want to be responding to something.

The good news was that the kid, who’s terribly polite, didn’t seem to have any objection to me being around. There’s no crying for an absent parent or telling me to go away. If anything, he mostly seemed mildly bemused by me.

To satisfy my need to parent, I found ways to make myself useful. I got him a drink – I don’t want the parents coming home and the kid complaining of a headache. I sliced an apple and gave it to him. He ate it quietly, whilst continuing with his lego. I sat on the sofa and read my book.

And then, a few hours later, he suddenly decided that he wanted attention. The change was remarkable. Suddenly he wanted to go outside and play football with me.

Football? Yes! Something I can do!

The kids don’t have to love you and other thoughts on being an au-pair

Being an Au-Pair
I believe a street in Cervera, Spain, 2016.

The kids don’t have to love you.

They do, typically, become very much attached, but you can’t force it. There’s a certain sense of discipline that’s required. You’re not their best friend, you’re the responsible adult. An overdose of flattery isn’t going to help, nor is allowing them more sweets, TV time or access to a tablet.

Sometimes they are adorable, wanting cuddles and happy to quietly play a game. Then some very short time later, they can be causing a commotion by sticking their tongue out at you when they thought their parents weren’t watching. Tears ensue. You wonder what you did to deserve such a change in character. Where did the nice kid go?

The truth is, you’re a temporary wall between the child and their parents. When things are going good, this is a wall that gives the child a bit of private freedom from their omnipotent gods. When things are not so good, they are going to play bulldozer or try scrambling over the top of you.

Parents love you of course, while they’re enjoying their moment of space. Peace and quiet is a luxury. But when they panic that they no longer have complete control, they act all sorts of unpredictable. Those I’ve lived with have generally been very good at demonstrating their gratitude, but I’ve known numerous au pairs whose families constantly have au pairs, and so feel taken for granted.

The kids, when they love you, see you as theirs, a precious playmate. But when they hate you, you’re a second-rate commander. You’re an adult, but unlike teachers and parents you’ve failed to be omnipotent. Younger kids follow the stance of the older kids. Saying no to their requests can fire you from best friend to evil overlord in an irrational second. You have to not take it personally. These are kids, they lack empathy or perspective. They don’t know if their words and actions will hurt you, but they’re curious. So, guess what, they’re going to do all they can to ignite a reaction. And then, if successful, perhaps they’ll laugh.

But some days, they’ll curl up on the sofa and ask what you’re reading. And they’ll listen as you talk of philosophy in a language they don’t understand. Some days, they’ll take the drawings you do to school, and you’ll realize that their teacher knows your name, as do their friends and their friends’ parents. This sweet child who refused to put their shoes on has told everyone they know about you. Occasionally, when the school gates open, they’ll scream your name and run, leaping at you with a hug disproportionate to their size.

And then, one day, in a final act of betrayal that somehow feels crueller than any middle of the street tantrum a five-year-old could throw, you’ll pack your bags and leave.


A story about a postman


It was coming up to one o’clock in the afternoon. At such a time, even in the narrow streets that wind through the village, the sun casts little shadow.

Here, there is a rather large and expensive house with high walls. I’m told its home to the ‘Countess’, although the translation is hazy. To me, it looks like a castle. The only people I’ve seen coming in and out are the gardener and a man with numerous tattoos, whom my eight-year-old (not really mine) stared at until he’d left our sight and then told me was not a man to be trusted.

There was a drugs raid in this middle class commuter village the other week, and there is a guy who I occasionally see hunting through the bins, but the typical resident here sends their children to piano classes and hires a cleaner to do their household chores. Appearances are important. The houses whose balconies and windows look down onto the pavement are decorated with the yellow and red striped flag of Catalonia, often with the addition of a blue triangle and white star inspired by the Cuban/Puerto Rico flags. Independence is the battle being fought. I’m reminded of the streets of flags in Northern Ireland which made me feel ever so uncomfortable.

I have deviated into politics. Back to the narrow street where, at the hour of one, causing a traffic jam on a one-way street, sat a young girl. She was screaming and waving her clenched fists, in a rather unsociable fashion, without showing respect for the locals. Her face was all knotted together like a wrung out dish cloth, slightly damp.

Further along loitered the eight-year-old. Undoubtedly a contributor to the tantrum but having witness such tantrums many times before and being certain of the righteousness of his own actions, he appeared unfazed.  A car manoeuvred around us to make a parallel park. The postman zipped by on his yellow motorbike.

I frowned and sighed, wondering what it is that one is supposed to do in such a situation. A few weeks earlier I would have been highly vexed, but whilst I was frustrated, I counted my blessings that neither child was in any great danger and we had plenty of time before they needed to be back at school.

Reasoning would be my first thought, but reasoning is not plausible when two people can only communicate in simple games, like playing ‘I spy’ in colours and ‘what time is it Mr Wolf’; or with simple instructions, like ‘sit down’; or questions such as ‘Water?’, ‘Bread?’. Plus, there’s no point talking if nobody is listening and being temporarily possessed by a demon, the young girl had no intention of listening to me.

Without a common language, and nothing but a water bottle, distraction wasn’t an easy option either. I admit considering pouring the bottle of water on her to see if it would make any difference. It worked on the Wicked Witch of the West and I was running out of options. Dragging her kicking and screaming down the street was never going to work. The Spanish might be lax about health and safety and child protection compared to the UK, but I already have enough bruises on my legs.

Which is when, like a knight in shining armour, the postman intervened.

Now you might think that it’s a terribly embarrassing situation to be in, requiring the postman persuade the child you’re meant to be walking home with to go home with you. All I can say is children are children, and this one wasn’t even mine and if ever I am in such a situation again then I honestly don’t care who it is who solves the problem.

The magic was this. It started with “¿Qué pasa?”, a typical greeting meaning something along the lines of ‘what’s up’. Negotiations proceeded in Catalan and then from his motorbike his produced ten elastic bands. This amazingly stopped the crying and transformed the sprawled mess of child into something vertical. Persuading her to walk home took longer. He took the keys out of the motorbike and helped her up into the seat, whilst continuing reciting his spell. Her brother, not wanting to be left out, came and squeezed himself onto the seat with her.

Like the audience watching the magician, I didn’t understand more than a handful of words, but that didn’t matter, for after climbing off his motorbike, the children walked home without a fuss.

The village postman – my hero.

Two women enter a bar…

Two young women enter a bar.

It’s ten past nine on a Saturday night. One woman is blonde. She typically wears liquid eyeliner with a flourish and the wrong shoes for the occasion. Tonight though, her skin is bare and she’s wearing her feet relax inside an old pair of trainers. The other woman has brown hair. She rarely wears make-up, but tonight it’s her with the liquid eyeliner.

“Sorry I’m late,” says the blonde German woman.

They sit down at a table and the waiter comes over, followed a short while later by another waiter who helps them through the Spanish menu. They each order a can of Fanta and a bite size sandwich. The blonde orders a dish of fries.

On the TV screen at the back of the room Valentino Rossi is shown winning his pole position for the Mugello race the following day. It’s still too early for the bar or restaurant to be busy. As the women chat more people arrive and order food. This is the biggest place in the village you can gather for a beer or glass of wine in the village.

“I didn’t want to go to Barcelona tonight.”

“Me neither. It’s just too exhausting.”

“Yeah, my family think I’m so boring when I don’t want to make anything.”

“Mine too.”

“The last au pair went into Barcelona every night drinking and making party.”

“The last au pair at my place drank wine every night.”

It’s a quiet, steady conversation. ‘Clumby’ is corrected to ‘clumsy’ and an acknowledgement of how difficult it is to know if something is ‘stronger’ or ‘more strong’. It echoes back to an early conversation debating ‘shyer’ and ‘more shy’. Great amusement is found at the idea that ‘kitchen roll’ is practically the same word in German, ‘Küchenrolle’.

They both explain the make-up discrepancy. The blonde explains she was too tired and had been crying a lot during the day  because her friend who had been visiting had left to go home.

“I need the war paint to hide the fact I look like a zombie,” says the other woman.

They both laugh. The blonde woman orders another Fanta.

After a few hours talking, the blonde woman is blinking more frequently than normal trying desperately to get some moisture to her contact lenses whilst her companion is trying her best not to yawn. They both decide it’s time to leave and go home.

A mutual friend sends a message, “Are you at the bar yet?”