Wednesday, November 17, 2010

A BNP Affair

I didn't think I would succumb because yes, I'm a bit of a stubborn soul.  I keep my guard up and I hold a soft spot for the familiar.  I don't like to get too involved, too hooked in, too personal.  After all, I arrived in France with the mindset of a single gal without no plans to stay here long term and little constraints. But you know what?  It happened.  It happened one sweet day. I've finally jumped on the bandwagon, let my guard down, opened myself up to possibility and well, the whole seems pretty promising.

Yes, ten months in and I finally opened a French Bank account. 

It feels pretty good. I'm treated well.  They call, but they don't call too often; just to see how I'm doing or invite me to an information session that offers student incentives.  I don't want to get ahead of myself, but they're better than some of the other banks I've been with in the past.  I'm being shown experiences that I haven't yet had until now in France--like being able to rent movies; like renting the city bikes; taking road trips with ease, because for most of the things here in France, your bank card needs that special chip; that chip that I didn't get in America; the carte bancaire.

I quite like my California credit union and despite the distance, we've made it work, which is probably why I stayed committed.  Plus, you know, it's hard.  It's hard once you've trusted other banks that looked good on paper, that your parents approved of, that promised not to disappoint, and then little by little, you start to notice that something's not right--a small fee here, a small fee there.  And that's how it begins.  It never ends well.

Sure, it's still difficult at times with a new relationship and of course, the language barrier can be a bit touchy, but there's patience; like the time they spent 17 minutes explaining to me how to deposit money into the machine versus how to deposit a check into the machine (because it's different than in the States).  Or the fact that I wasn't belittled when I hopelessly admitted, "umm, I don't know how to check my account online. Did you realize your website is all in French?" 

Yes, they did realize this.

I feel the way that I'm assuming my grandparents felt during the age of cell phones and email, but it's okay.  I'm making progress, I'm making efforts and BNP and I, we have a basic communication.  It's the foundation, right? Who knows what will happen when it's time to pack up and return to California, but for now, I know that I'm living in the moment.  I'm happy….with my new bank.

Monday, November 8, 2010

How To Misplace a Child in 5 Easy Steps (without even knowing it)

1. When the children's school starts at 8:30am, make sure you're running late to ensure stress and scrambling.

2. Once you've gotten downstairs from the 6th floor of your apartment building with the elevator made during the days of Yore, make sure the younger child ("CHILD A") realizes there's a page missing from her story-time book, a book that she doesn't need for school. This way, she will ask if she can go back upstairs to search for the page. This will take at least 6 minutes so you will tell her no, "Il n'y a pas de temps! We will be late!"

3. Cue Child A's tantrum, which will steal more time from your already rushed morning. You're more than halfway there. Let's keep going.

4. When the 7 year old ("CHILD B") asks if she can go ahead to school (which is only a few blocks away), ask if she knows the way. She says she does. Fall for her convincing affinity of independence. Don't consider the fact that you live in a large city and moreso, in the city center with lots of traffic and current riots taking place. She's totally capable, right? So tell her yes, "yes you can go ahead to school. We'll see you there." Assume that she won't get very far. Assume that the knot in your stomach is from the outdated yogurt you ate that morning.

5. Because you've had "that" kind of week, CHILD A will continue to throw a tantrum at the bottom of the stairwell for the next 3.5 minutes. Once you get her outside of the building, ensure that she throws a tantrum all the way to school, including in front of the police station (just for good measure and to add a bit of chagrin). Since you are running considerably late, assume that CHILD B made it to school just swimmingly because well, you didn't see her on the way. Comfort your doubts by reminding yourself that there are a few different routes to take. Drop off CHILD A in the nick of time, and voila, that's it!

You will return home to get your own books for school and then hear the buzzer ring, to which you will be stupefied to find that there is a strange woman downstairs with CHILD B. She will tell the heroic story of how she found CHILD B looking lost at a cafe on the corner of your block. You thank her. You inform the eavesdropping overly pretentious neighbor, when she asks, that the father returns from his business trip in two days (so that she will know when she can squeal to him about your incompetencies). Now you can proceed to take CHILD B to school, return home and take a breath.

Then, go ahead and ruminate about what in the (profanity spoiler alert) hell were you thinking letting a 7 year old go to school by herself in the center of a city, with traffic and riots going on?!? You can proceed to question your own capabilities while a surge of anxiety washes over you. Out of resentment, you can then reminisce of the days in California when you weren't responsible for children. You can even Freud yourself, questioning if you did this on a subconscious level so you could be fired and sent home.

I'm not fired. I'm still here.

Let's do some gratitudes:
  • I have a really really fantastic support system in California!
  • My dad and brother are coming to visit in a little over a month!
  • While studying at a cafe the other morning, an 85(ish) year old man bought me coffee and sparked up a conversation with me for the following 30 minutes. This fulfilled my longing for friendly strangers, which I think is rare here.
  • I'm done with cranberry juice!

Saturday, November 6, 2010

The Pre-Au Pair Guide

Maybe it’s something in the air. Maybe it’s the economy. Maybe it was the 10 page NY Times article on the 20-Somethings and our delay into adulthood; or maybe, just maybe, the itch has spread for some adventure, for travel, for a new experience away from a desk job. And this is why: Lately, I've been receiving a good amount of emails asking for advice by prospective au pairs. Why they deemed it a good idea to come to me for advice, I'm still wondering myself because even as Keith over at Taste of Garlic commented, "if you are thinking about becoming an au pair in France, it might be better if you don’t read The Au Pair Project until you’ve got the job!"

But hold on, let's not panic. I can switch gears and speak unbiased. No heavy lifting, no assembly required. I can even leave my resentment at the door and refrain from offering prospective au pairs my job here so I can return to the smoke-free skies of California. Did I mention that France is setting cars on fire while rioting and striking through the streets? So, just for the hell of it, for the sake of honesty, because I wish someone would've been honest with me, I’ll lay the cards out on the table.

Et bien... So you want to be an au pair? Really? No, but like really? You’re sure? You've put some thought into this? I admire your vigilance and possibly question your sanity, but okay. So what was it that lured you in? The travel? Let me guess, you love kids and you want to work with children one day? Or is it that the Au Pair Route is the easiest route to land yourself in a foreign country without completely draining your bank account? If it’s the travel, then wait. Save up and just travel. If it’s the love of children, then wait; this could (and most likely will) change your views. If it’s the latter, well then okay. Top sites for searching for a host family: There are beaucoup de sites out there for au pairs, but after talking with families and au pairs here in France, Au Pair World is the most widely used. Some sites advise that you use an agency, but I say skip it. Take that $200 fee that they will charge you and put it in your savings because once you find out your au pair salary, you'll need it. It's also You, who has your best interests at heart; not an agency. But if you're still hellbent on having someone do it for you, I'd be happy to search for you in exchange for a fee!

  • When Searching for a Family: Let me demystify the Au Pair/Host Family vocabulary for you. Just outside of the city means: at least 30 minutes and unless you're in Paris, the public transport (aka the buses) end at an obscenely early time (even on the weekends) and aren't always dependable. Go ahead, ask my mom about the time I called her fed up because the bus to take me home never showed up and it was snowing and I had to hitchhike at 11 at night. Oh, the good ol' days. In short, be INSIDE of the city. Yes, families do exist there. The kids eat lunch at home means: find a different family because there goes your free time during the day. Pets mean: they will also, most likely become your responsibility. Just ask my friend Ife who lived on a farm with 3 donkeys, 2 dogs, x amount of birds, chickens, geese, cats, and this doesn't even count the stuffed animals that they kept inside of the house. And then there was the time that I lived with the American family that asked me to clean the cat's litter box. It's too bad I'm allergic. But more truthfully, I'm just allergic to all things that I don't like. Part of the family means: we want to feel comfortable enough with you to ask you favors without having to pay you extra--like we would with an eldest daughter. Strong willed means: means that you never want to hear or read this from a parent who is describing their child(ren). This is also courtesy of my friend Clare and well, let's just say that the boy she cares for is so strong willed that she is thinking about moving back to Australia. Clare?
  • Step II: You found a family. It's time to ask questions; be a curious yellow because well, you never know. Let me just remind you that you're giving up the familiar to move to a foreign country and work in a home of strangers. Let me remind you that ASSUME makes an ASS out of U and ME, but mostly, just you. Let me remind you of the family I came here for that served me up full of creme-fraiche and bacon, forcing me to use my modest stipend to pay for my daily serving of vegetables. But which questions do I ask? If you stay in the house with the rest of the family or if your room is separate. Do you have your own room? Do you have your own bathroom? Is there a closet for you to put your things? (Like I said, don't assume). Who does the house-keeping (because keep in mind you take care of kids, not the housework)? Who does the grocery shopping? Do you have a curfew? Do you have weekends free? Are you able to go out some nights during the week? What are your hours (Ask for a schedule!!)? Do the kids eat lunch at school or at home? Do you have Wednesdays off or do you babysit? (Remember that French children don't have school Wednesdays) Who does the cooking? How have the children reacted to previous au pairs? Can you contact the previous au pair? Do they draft up an au pair contract? Will you be covered by Securite-Sociale? If you don't live in the city, is there a car for your personal use? Are you expected to drive the children places? etc, etc, etc... The main idea is this: You need to have a clear sense of your role and responsibilities. Furthermore, each party should have a well-defined understanding of each person's needs because then, everyone is happy!
  • And as if you thought I forgot, ask about your salary. You can negotiate your salary. There is a minimum pay if they sign a contract with you (which should be required) of 300 euros a month, but if you settle on this, you might end up resentful when you realize what your job entails. A girl emailed me that a family wanted to hire her and just offer her room and board without pay. I told her to run away! The truth is this: People will give the least they can and take the most offered. It's basic human instinct and to heighten this theory, it's France. The country that gets a minimum, a minimum I tell you, of five weeks of holidays, but is outside rioting over retirement age. Remember the family I worked with for 3 months and was paid nothing? Do what I say, not what I do.
  • To supplement your oh-so-generous salary, you can advertise private tutoring or English lessons at your local school, local boulangerie, patisserie, market, etc. Just make sure to ask the owner if it's okay to post your advertisement.
  • Language Courses: The chances of finding a family that's willing to pay for your language classes is slim to none because the au pair sites tell them that they don't have to, which I think is pretty sneaky because with language classes that cost an average of 220 per month, you will end up with next to nothing for salary. Let's pretend you make 300 a month and you pay 220 to your language courses, which are required for your visa. Let's also pretend that you pay for your own transportation pass (which the family should pay for) and that's 25 euros with the student rate. Now you're left with 55 euros per month? That's not even 2 euros a day. You've now become on of those children on the donation commercials that are able to subside on next to nothing. Congratulations. But you want to take the language classes, I tell you!! It's time away from the house where you'll meet tons of people including other au pairs and hopefully, make some lasting friendships. If you're really really really "dans le rouge" and the thought of paying this fee every month is stopping you from taking the au pair plunge, then I will underhandedly inform you that if you stop taking language courses after the first month, the French government (or anyone for that matter) is not going to come check up on you. France is too occupied with strikes.  
  • A great reminder that came from a fellow Au Pair Clare, is to pay for your language classes in bulk, which usually results in a discount. And don't forget to enroll for the au pair language program. It's cheaper than the programs for other students.
  • Go meet some people, make some friends and get yourself away from the G-rated crowd once in a while! I can say with certainty and gratitude that maintaining my friendships has helped me to maintain my sanity. Aside from your language school, use It's pretty widely used here, according to others. Take an activity class like dance, singing, karate, n'importe quoi! And then, while you're at it, join Yes, it's the French version of So, what?! Everyone deserves a little "action".
Fact: If I had to do it all over again, I don't know if I would choose the Au Pair Route. I might seek other options like being a teacher's assistant or teaching English, but learn and live, right?! But it's also true that there are au pairs who love every minute of their experience. Lucky ones that end up with great families, their own apartment paired with a kick ass schedule. It also goes in reverse: there are families who end up with terrible au pairs. It all comes down to finding the right fit, which is why it is so so so important to ask questions and get to know each other. It's important.

Fact: I love living in France (yes, even with the riots, the manifestations, the lack of petrol because of the riots, and the worst customer service imaginable). I really do love this country. I love the language, the cafes, the culture, the flan, the way of life, oh the flan! I'm in love.

Fact: I also love my independence. Since I became an au pair, I haven't seen much of it. I miss going and coming when I want; oh what a beauty it was to have my own apartment. I miss not having to report to anyone on my whereabouts and I miss not having a curfew, but hey, 26 with a curfew isn't unreasonable, right?! Moving on...

Fact: I complain, I know, but the truth is that the travel aspect of this job that comes every six weeks (because French school systems break every six weeks) makes every part of this job worth it. I think I forget this sometimes, (these last couple of weeks especially). Without this experience, I probably wouldn't have had the opportunity to gallop and sashay my way around Europe; to get lost in the streets of Cannes or salsa my way through Barcelona; tan myself nude on the beaches of Croatia; hike the canyons of Casis; road trip through France or regret making out with the way-too-young-for-me med-student in Dubrovnik. I earn next to nothing but have gained so many experiences and stories. Traveling changes the soul. It changes one's outlook and opens the eyes to things you've only imagined. It's quite magnificent and for that, I'm grateful.
So, if taking the plunge as an au pair seems manageable, then take the jump. It could be something really fantastic. Bon Courage future au pairs!!

**Updated Nov. 9, 2010, because I care. 

Friday, November 5, 2010

The Versatile Blog Award

There's an award for everything these days. It's true. I've yet to receive one for my awesomeness in being an Au Pair but, BUT there's still time! Anyway, the wonderful blog: An International Affair was kind enough to give me this blog award

In order to accept this award, I must do the following:

1. Thank and link back to the person who gave me this award
2. Tell everyone 7 things about myself
3. Pass this award to 15 other bloggers

Thank and link back to the person who gave me this award.

Merci!! I appreciate the recognition, especially after creating this little project just for me and finding out that others follow it.

An International Affair is a fabulous blog about a thirty-something year old woman of mystery who is on an international search for love and laughs! In her own words, "It's about the life you didn’t choose. Your alternative choice. The path not taken. My blog is about what if you didn’t marry your high school or college sweetheart. What if you didn’t have children with them in your late twenties or early thirties. What if you said “yes” when your company asked you to move abroad (five times). What if you pursued your career relentlessly and with single minded determination to get ahead and be the best. What if you left your friends and family behind. What if you gave it all up for a new adventure? And what if you didn’t care so much about the end destination but more about the journey and decided that life is about laughing about yourself rather than taking yourself so seriously?" It's how I'd like to live my life!

Tell everyone 7 things about myself:

1. I will sheepishly admit that since I moved to France, I have no idea of the current events going on in the US. This includes but is not limited to politics, news stories, movies, television and everything in between. I am, however, current on the concert tour dates of Lady Gaga. Priorities.

2. I love airports. I love everything about them. They are "pavloved" to the part of my brain associated with vacations.

3. Even in France, I try to work the "That's what she said" joke into conversations whenever possible. And in English.

4. I hate cranberry juice. I associate it with bladder infections. I bet you wanted to know that little fact! I also hate cold pizza... but not because of bladder infections.

5. I live in France and I wish I could speak Italian. Go figure.

6. In my head, I have the delusion that I speak really really well French. Ditto for singing.

7. I incessantly lie to the children. I told the girls last night that it was against the law to not brush your teeth; that the Pastry shop was all out of pastries; that I let them stay up until 10 pm, "which is way past your bedtime!" (it was 8). It's all about morals.

Pass this award to 15 other bloggers

Some of my favorites:
Et voila! I'd love to go on, but I have French Administration to deal with this afternoon. Bon week end! (And yes, I do find it bizarre that the French break up the word "weekend" into two words.)