Au Pair

A woman recalls a summer in France, where she discovered a sweetness she’s never forgotten.

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When I was 15, I went to France to be an au pair for the summer, to take care of the grandchildren of my parents’ friends. They owned a very grand chateau in the Loire Valley in a town called Vitry-aux-Loges and I was to live with Madame and Monsieur’s adult children and young grandchildren, who lived next door in a house on the edge of a field of black currants. I remember very little of those long-ago months, except for Monsieur, a large, elegant man. In July, Lady Diana would marry Prince Charles, and it is Monsieur and the doe-eyed princess-to-be that the summer of my 15th year has become distilled down to.

At home in New York I chattered incessantly, but once in France, armed with just one year of high school French, I barely understood people, missing entire swaths of dinnertime conversation. I felt things deeply and had a lot to say, as teenagers do, but could not put my normal teenage yearnings into words, despite the French-English dictionary I kept in my attic bedroom. In New York I was outgoing, but in France I was almost silent and alone, and despite my dictionary, I never did learn the French word for loneliness

I began to dream in French, and learned the children’s French so that I could communicate with my two little wards, their faces and names utterly forgotten by me now, and middle-aged themselves, I suppose. I learned how to read “Goldie Locks and the Three Bears” in French, and little kid colloquialisms like, “Je veux faire dodo” (I want to make sleep-sleep), a phrase I’ve neither forgotten, nor ever found a way to use in conversation.

Monsieur de Beauregard, the grandfather of my charges, was a bearish, charming man with a full head of white hair and a voice that reverberated throughout this quiet, aristocratic world. He seemed always to be laughing and holding out an arm to tell a story, and when he spoke, everyone turned to him and smiled, anticipating something lovely.

He was kind and generous, and had the air of a beneficent king. Even without understanding him well, he made it clear to me that he adored my parents, and would extend that adoration to me, despite my awkward silence.

The day of Lady Diana’s wedding, I was allowed to sit in the TV room with Madame, Monsieur, and their houseguests (who I only realized years later were the Prescott Bush family, of all people) and watch the pageantry. I studied Lady Di’s face, a girl herself really, just a few years older than I was. Mostly, though, I loved being in a room with Americans chattering away about Texas and New York, about the chateau, and even about Madame and Monsieur. It was a pleasure to speak English, even with people I didn’t know, and with whom I had very little in common.

Being invited to watch the wedding in the chateau with Madame and Monsieur was an example of how I was at once a servant and an honored guest. Yes I took care of the grandchildren in the mornings, biking to town at dawn to get the bread for the day, but I was also invited to the chateau as a guest to hang out. I see now that they made a concession for me because I was part of the same class as the de Beauregards, and that Monsieur in particular wanted me to go home to New York and tell my parents that they had treated me very well, which of course I eventually did.

After a few weeks, when I’d begun to dream in French, I wandered along the gravel path that circled the chateau. Along came Monsieur with the gardener who was pushing a wheelbarrow full of wine bottles. Monsieur stopped to tell me that there would be a fiançailles for his daughter here in a few days (a word I looked up that night and learned that it was an engagement party for his daughter). Monsieur was thrilled, waving off the man with the wheelbarrow so that he could tell me what they were planning. There would be a feast, he said, and the de Beauregards would be serving their own wine from their own vineyard that they kept in their very own wine cellar, and that cases of Champagne would be arriving soon too, and get this, he said, kissing his fingertips, “We will have des wheatras.” I oohed and aahed, trotted out words like, “Fantastique” and “Encroyable.” Later I searched and searched for the word “wheatras” in my dictionary, trying every spelling I could imagine. I never did find it, but understood that it was something as exciting as Champagne, which I knew about from Mom and Dad, who seemed to find reasons almost daily to pop open a bottle. An entire shelf of our fridge at home was dedicated full-time to keeping Champagne cold.

Over the next week, the preparations continued. Gardeners spruced up the grounds, raking the gravel, cutting away dead branches from the stocky little apple trees in the front of the chateau, while other workers backed vans up and unloaded cases of food, and armloads of fresh flowers. On the day of the event, the wait staff arrived, followed soon thereafter by the guests. It was not an enormous party — maybe 40 of us. People stood in the garden by the apple trees and drank wine. I wore the best outfit I’d brought with me, which I felt was shabby in comparison to the stylish visitors. I wanted to be invisible and was even thinking of sneaking away to sit in my garret and read.

But then out came Monsieur, greeting the little packets of guests, placing his large hand on their backs and waving them inside. When he saw me he came over. I thought maybe he was going to ask me to run an errand, but no, he came up to me, this shy, silent, underdressed 15-year-old, took my arm and told me that he had reserved a seat for me at the head of the table next to him. This unexpected sweetness flooded me with emotion. I hardly believed it. It struck me even then as a noble gesture for him to make on such an important day. He didn’t need to look out for me. I was no one, really. He and I would never see one another again after the summer, and the unnecessary-ness of his kindness impacted me.

Inside, there were overflowing vases of flowers everywhere, buckets filled with ice and Champagne bottles, and waiters rushing around. The sun was streaming in the windows, and a breeze blew in the open front doors. I felt such a hush of gladness to be a guest at this grown-up function, without my parents or other Americans present. Monsieur held out a chair for me and introduced me (as I’d seen my parents do for countless guests at their own table back home) to the people seated near me. He did not introduce me as his grandchildren’s au pair, but as the daughter of dear friends from New York.

My French was improving by this time, so I understood the toast he made to the happy couple. “Champagne?” he offered me. I said “Oui, monsieur. Merci,” and he poured me a glass before turning to charm other guests who were standing in a line to speak with him. I sipped at my Champagne trying to act like I belonged, like I went to hundreds of these things and was always at the head of the table drinking Champagne in a chateau in France. A waiter whispered in Monsieur’s ear, who then turned to me and with a sly wiggle of his bushy white eyebrows said, “Des huîtres ont arrivent.” The “something-or-others” were about to be served. A reigned-in feeling of pure expectation flooded through me.

Out of the kitchen came a procession of black-clad waitstaff, each carrying a single burdened plate, piled high with fresh, glistening, raw oysters. They put one plate in front of each guest who groaned with delight, but not me. I was a teenager who did not “do” seafood. I had never even eaten an entire shrimp, and I certainly had never eaten an oyster, cooked or raw. Joy turned to alarm. What was I going to do?

Somehow Monsieur sensed my dilemma. Without looking at me, he leaned and said out of the corner of his mouth, “Have you ever eaten an oyster before?”

“Non, Monsieur,” I whispered, red-faced and sweating now.

“Just watch me.” Without drawing attention, he simply said quietly in French, “Okay, you loosen it from its shell comme ça, you squeeze the lemon juice on it comme ça, and then you slurp it into your mouth, and voila.” I tried out what he had shown me, picking up a shell, using my little silver fork to loosen the oyster from its mooring, squeezing a lemon wedge over its mucilaginous mass, and then, tilting my head back as Monsieur had done, I slurped the oyster into my mouth.

Good God. I bit into its spongy, quivering body only once and then swallowed it whole trying not to gag. A shiver ran through me. There was a heap of maybe 40 more oysters on my plate, and I steeled myself to eat every last one. I had to. That’s how I’d been raised.

Monsieur pushed his elbow softly into my side, and when I looked up, he was smiling, kindness radiating off him. I reflected back what must have looked like a worried little smile. Then he leaned over and said in soft, slow, simple French, “Here’s what we are going to do. When no one is looking, you slip an oyster onto my plate, and then I will place my empty shells onto your plate, one at a time. No one will ever notice. Oui?”

“Yes,” I said. Yes yes yes.

 

I have never eaten des huîtres since, but I have thought often about Monsieur who must be dead these many years, his unnecessary kindness so rare as to be almost nonexistent in my life since.

When the summer drew to a close, as a gift I suppose, the de Beauregards gave me their apartment in Paris for the week before I was to fly home. It was the early 1980s, which I mention because it isn’t likely today that a 15-year old American would be given an apartment by herself in Paris for a week, nor would parents allow that to happen even if it were offered. But that is what they did. Underneath my shyness beat a brave little heart, and with my guidebook and a little bit of cash that they had given me as au pair earnings, I got around easily on the Metro, which was much easier to navigate than the New York City subways.

My first day in Paris I dropped off my suitcase and went right out to sit at a busy café and have coffee. That would have been enough, to go out every morning and find a café to sit in. There’s hardly more that I want now, but at 15, I was sure that a Parisian café was as close to the center of the universe as I’d ever be. And I wasn’t wrong.

I did venture beyond the cafés, finding my way to the Louvre (where I discovered Lautrec), and Sacre Coeur (where I bought a little necklace with a cross hanging from it). I went to Napoleon’s Tomb where I pretended to be French to some American tourists who asked for directions, and later a bow-legged woman who wore a scarf tied under her chin waddled three blocks out of her way to help me find where I was going. Despite warnings that the French would be mean to me, I felt welcome and safe. At night I went back to the cavernous apartment, showered, wrote post cards, and read through my French-English dictionary until I fell asleep.

On my last night in Paris, the entire de Beauregard family came to stay and have dinner with me at the apartment. I was going home in the morning, and felt the proximate devastation that the end of summer always brings. But for now, it was still summer, if only its last gasp, and after dinner Madame brought out a basket of peaches she’d carried from the country. She called them White Peaches, something I’d never heard of before. They were the size of baseballs, and Madame stood at the head of the table peeling each one, then stabbing it with a silver fork and passing it like a lollipop down the table until we each had one. She used a tea towel to mop the peach juice dripping down her forearms, then passed around a large crystal bowl filled with white sugar. When the bowl came to me, I copied everyone else and rolled my peach in the white sugar and ate it, juice dripping down my chin. I laughed out loud, the most demonstrative I’d been all summer. I laughed out loud! The next morning, one of Monsieur’s grown sons drove me to the airport and that was that.

I’ve never seen any of them again.

 

Hard as it is for me to believe now, that young girl was me, and this is a story of me growing up. I tell it because I understand Monsieur’s munificence and my adventuring heart now in a way I was unable to then. I like to remember the generosity and bravery, despite, or maybe because of how ruined the world sometimes feels today. Or maybe I tell it to assert that there is still space for stories that lack cynicism, however warranted that cynicism might be. I tell it because it startles me that the powerful breeze of Monsieur’s sweetness is still stirring the curtains of my life.

I don’t recall the names, or even the faces, of the two children I cared for. I don’t know how I looked that summer because there were no selfies then, and because au pairs don’t get their picture taken. But I remember the early morning bike rides into Vitry-aux-Loges to get our bread, pedaling my one-speed while trying to keep the long loaves from tumbling out of my basket. I remember the smell of the sun beating down on the black currants beneath my attic window at sunset. I remember watching Lady Di’s wedding, she and I both so young, both on the verge of absolutely everything, both so vulnerable with hope.

Now that enough decades have passed, I understand that I will spend my life looking for a peach as delicious as the one I rolled in white sugar, the one that made me laugh out loud. I will always be searching for the scent of black currants baking in the late afternoon sun.

And because of crossing paths with that elegant man four decades ago, I still look for the shy people in every room. Even now, I can remember the feel of Monsieur’s large, plate of a hand at my back, urging me forward into the waterfall of my own, still very promising life.

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Comments

  1. What a wonderfully eloquent departure from the cynicism and gruffness of modern life!

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