Au Paris: True Tales Of An American Nanny In Parisby Rachel Spencer
When twenty-something Rachel Spencer needed a change of pace from her corporate job, she traded in her power suit and stilettos for blue
"It's 2 a.m. and I'm wide awake, counting the days and hours until my plane leaves for Paris--3 days and 16 hours, to be exact. But ready or not, it's bonne journee for me. Croissant anyone?"
When twenty-something Rachel Spencer needed a change of pace from her corporate job, she traded in her power suit and stilettos for blue jeans and flip flops, said au revoir to Houston, Texas, and bonjour to a summer in Paris. Little did Rachel know she was about to take on her most challenging job yet: nannying three rambunctious children, ages 14, 11, and 7.
With razor sharp wit and heartfelt humor Rachel chronicles her hilarious adventures--and misadventures--as she works to master her new job, learn a new language, and find her place among a family of strangers:
• First Day Faux Pas--Determined to make an entrance her first day on the job, Rachel winds up tumbling down the foyer steps in a short black dress--and baring all to the children!
• The Nanny Book--A small leather-bound book written in Franglais (English and French)--detailing Rachel's daily nannying duties.
• Dressed to Impress--Despite dreams of capturing the tres chic French style, Rachel learns that strappy sandals and nannying don't always mix.
• Teen Troubles--When Rachel catches Diane, who is 14 going on 21, mixing rum and boys into her leisure time, she discovers there is a fine line between "nanny" and "friend"
• Country Living--During a trip to the French countryside, Rachel learns that French Country is much more than a china pattern!
• Where the Heart Is--By the end of her stay, Rachel realizes the answers she was searching for all along weren't in Houston or in Paris--they were in her heart.
A hilarious real-life tale, Au Paris is a story of self-discovery, independence, and following your heart at all costs.
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Read an Excerpt
Au ParisA Memoir
By RACHEL SPENCER
Kensington Publishing Corp.Copyright © 2006 Rachel Spencer
All right reserved.
Chapter OneIt was 2 a.m. and I lay wide awake, counting the days and hours until my plane left for Paris. Three days and sixteen hours, to be exact-which I could determine neither good nor bad at that moment. This could have been for a number of reasons, really. I was high on double lattes as usual, ode to Starbucks, but I wasn't reacting with the normal incessant tapping and fidgeting. In fact, I wasn't moving at all. I felt paralyzed, emotionless to the core. Tick, tick, tick was all my mind could hear, counting the clocks in my head as if an internal bomb were about to implode me.
Months ago, I had woken up at age twenty-three to realize I was living a life I'd never planned-one I'd never even wanted. Everything I knew was wrong-who I thought was, where I thought I'd go, what I thought I'd do. All those dreams I'd had as a little girl, the pining and praying and wishing and hoping, had faded from slightly recognizable to non-existent sometime during and after college. I didn't know what to feel or what to do. So I changed it all. In a matter of one week, I stripped myself of a job, an apartment, a community, and any familiar environment in an effort to regain what I had lost. Though at that time, I wasn't sure what lost was.
Paris was the freshstart, the place to begin the search for the life I had been missing. But, not being independently wealthy, I had to find a way to travel there without breaking the bank. I had heard about au pair programs-my sister had actually lived in Paris as an au pair for one year. I visited her there, met the family, stayed in their house. We had a great time. It seemed an easy enough set-up, with maximum reward for minimal effort, so I explored the option for myself. As luck would have it, they needed a summer nanny, they being the Vladescos-les Vladesco-Alex and Estelle, whose three children, Diane, 14, Léonie, 11, and Constantin, 7, I agreed to keep for six weeks while I lived in their home. An au pair in Paris-it was a good place to start.
Les Vladesco lived right in the centre ville, just near the l'Arc de Triomphe, which meant that a daily walk on the Champs, kids in tow, would become part of my regular routine. The whole thing sounded foreign to me, no pun intended, considering I had spent the past two and a half years reporting to a cubicle every weekday morning. The anxiety from quitting my job had only begun taking its toll when, two weeks after my last day in the office, nothing was direct deposited into my checking. True, losing one's source of income can rattle the most sound-minded of folks, but crazier still-I'd done it voluntarily.
For nearly three years, I worked in ad sales for the Houston Chronicle. It was what most people would call a good job. Good company. Great people. Fun industry. Looking back, now that I was unemployed, I had to mention the additional perk of health insurance. (Though I'd heard that if I should require medical assistance during my summer abroad, the one good thing about French government was free doctor visits.)
Perks aside, I wasn't inspired. Sure, I liked certain things about the Chronicle job. I even loved certain things about it-especially dressing the part, which was the easiest way to mask a deep-rooted dissatisfaction with my life in general. On my best days, I would avoid the truth in my never-fail black power suit from J. Crew: a dashing wool gabardine duo combining the four-button blazer and pencil skirt with daring back slit. And the shoes were twice as important. How I relied upon my darling and oh-so-sleek black Stuart Weitzman stilettos, so much so that my closest co-worker referenced them in her goodbye note to me: "Wherever life takes you, may you always walk with Stuies on your feet," she wrote. She was the one who inducted me into the Stuart Weitzman club, you see, and into all the other couture clubs beyond. Before her, I didn't even know how to pronounce Louis Vuitton.
But the rest of the time-as in the actual eight hours a day I was paid to work and not just prance the streets of downtown, albeit under the façade of a great wardrobe-I felt like a prisoner in my own cubicle. One afternoon as I sat watching the minutes on my computer screen clock change from one to the next, it occurred to me there could be more satisfying life quests. I was in need of drastic change. So I started plotting my escape plan right there from my jail cell of a cubicle.
I figured to really walk away, I needed a clean start, back to the basics, back to school. I wanted to be a writer. So what was I doing in advertising? I had deceived myself into believing if I took the advertising job at a newspaper, I could segue into editorial. Nothing was further from the truth. I was building a great resume for a sales career, but writing had nothing to do with it. It was time to change that. So I decided to go back to school to pursue my master's in journalism.
I spent countless hours at my desk with open Word documents typing a statement of interest and cover letters to those from whom I would request recommendations. I typed my application. I took a vacation day to take the GRE. In the space of the test designated to mark which schools should receive the scores, I entered the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, where I'd gone to undergraduate school. Columbia would have been nice, but New York sounded scary. I'm sure there were plenty of other choices, but Fayetteville sounded easy, even comforting after years of slaving in an unrewarding job. I knew people there. I would be taken care of there. So I decided to make a new beginning by going back to where I started. At the time, I was so sure it was the right decision that I rented an apartment there before I was even accepted into school. I had that remarkable impetuous quality.
But before the next phase of my life-before I moved back to Fayetteville, Arkansas, for grad school (even though I didn't know yet whether I was accepted)-I needed a serious vacation. Since I wasn't too far out of college, I still remembered the three months of bliss that were summer vacation. I wanted them. After being a cubicle dweller in a job I didn't like, I'd earned them. Besides, because I was starting grad school in the fall (if I got in), I was practically a student already. So I planned my vacation-the pre-grad school last hurrah, so to speak. I wanted it to be good, something I'd remember forever.
I sent an e-mail to my sister with the subject: "Do the Vladescos need an au pair this summer?" Sarah has always taken care of me and I usually expect her to know everything. In fact, she usually does. So I wasn't surprised when, not too many days later, an email arrived in my inbox from Estelle Vladesco. "Summer Au Pair Position" was the subject. We discussed arrival and departure dates and, knowing I'd been before and we'd already met, there was an instantaneous agreement. She wanted me there by June 17; I would turn in my resignation in May. It was a bold move. But the more I thought toward making this extreme life change, the less a paycheck mattered. After all, besides Stuie and Louis, who were the true sweethearts in my life, it wasn't about the money. There was more, and I wanted to find it. And I knew it wouldn't happen by watching time tick past in my tiny cube in Houston, Texas. So I quit.
I gave a responsible thirty-day resignation notice backed by a responsible purpose: graduate studies. No corporation would ever frown on higher education for their employees. I was applauded-I was praised. How smart. How courageous. Way to go for what you really want! I leaned on the hope of a new life. Grad school would take me back to the person I was supposed to be, lead me to the career I was supposed to have, give me the life I was supposed to live. But first, a reward. First, I would spend a summer in Paris.
After bittersweet good-byes at the Chronicle, I lapsed almost immediately from suit-and-stiletto mode back into the jeans and flip-flops that were my college uniform. The transition was surprisingly simple, though I'd upgraded a little since college from brown leather reefs to gold leather Capri thongs.
They're shoes, not underwear.
Having paired the sandals with trendy jeans and my green cashmere cardigan, I'd found my outfit for the plane ride and felt confident enough to cross "dress the part" off my to-do list. And that's quite an accomplishment, considering I'd made it a personal trend to equate dressing the part with success on the job. I could have spent more time brushing up on my French or reading some books on childcare, but nine hours on a plane would be time enough for that. I packed my other outfits, not quite as strategically planned as the one for the plane, in a suitcase Sarah bought for me. I stuffed in every pocket miscellaneous toiletries that seemed imperative to keep on hand in a foreign country, though I didn't use them here. Powders and gels and sprays and lotions-whether superfluous or frivolous, they all went into my suitcase. It was the biggest suitcase Samsonite made, but I had to sit on it to zip it closed. So I sat and I zipped and I set it in the hall by the front door. Before I could stare at it long enough to doubt myself, it was time to go to the airport.
"Paris is always a good idea," Julia Ormond says in Sabrina. When you're craving a total life makeover, it is very easy to be so persuaded by this Hollywood philosophy that the 1700 dollars it takes to fly to Paris in June seems a nominal fee. Booking the plane ticket was where the real bravery began. I damn near burst the walls of my cubicle the day I booked that ticket. Immediately there was born in me a new hope, a thrilling urgency. I imagined myself boarding the plane and a shot of that airport vibe ran through me. You know that vibe. People going places; everyone is either coming or going or starting out or ending up and no matter the occasion, there is urgency in the air. I was ready to go places and I had a ticket. I knew nannying for three kids was not exactly as glamorous as Sabrina working at Vogue. But it was a new start, and one that would pay me to live in Paris. Yes, Paris was a good idea indeed.
How ironic, then, that upon arriving weeks later at the airport, on the day of my departure, the thrilling urgency I'd craved, that airport vibe, felt more like sheer panic. Standing in the George Bush Intercontinental Airport of Houston sans job and apartment, the only urgency rising in me was the one to flee that airport, run to my parents' house, and bury myself in a hole. I surveyed the crowd. Migrating toward the gate, a huge group of travelers chattered excitedly, all high on airport fever. From the looks of their baseball hats, matching T-shirts, and fanny packs, they were probably about to embark on one of those all-inclusive, ten countries in five days, tour-guided vacation deals. Gross. They should be required by airport security or foreign immigration officers to bear signs reading BEWARE OF AMERICANS ON VACATION. Though I couldn't imagine fanny pack translating into any other language.
Regardless of wardrobe, the traveling herds looked excited, in love, entertained, or at least accompanied. I, on the other hand, stood against a cement pillar, waiting to board, completely and utterly alone.
Alone. Being alone had never really bothered me. I grew up the youngest child, which by nature left me to entertain myself while my older sisters got to do bigger and better things. This provided me ample time to invent a world of imaginary friends and fictional roles with which to amuse myself. Though my imaginary friends deserted me some time ago, I credit those formative years with the building of my imagination, where I have since spent countless hours living big and dreaming bigger. Sarah says I live my life like a character in my own movie, and in lots of ways I suppose she's right. It can be a bad thing, but it has definitely enabled me to remain satisfied and unafraid on my own-until now.
As I stood waiting to board my flight, I chased my loneliness away with thoughts of love. Perhaps I'd meet someone handsome and exciting on the flight. Perhaps we'd be seated next to each other, and fall in love before landing. After all, romance, like Paris, is always a good idea.
I scoped the male audience for lone travelers, imagining which one should coincidentally be assigned to seat 27E, right next to my 27F, so that we could spend the next nine hours engulfed in fascinating conversation. Vive l'amour! Unfortunately, the only remotely attractive man was ineligible for a plane-ride romance, as his arms were wrapped securely around a statuesque female, complete with a Rock of Gibraltar-size diamond weighing down her most important finger.
I was snapped out of my reverie by the flight attendant calling first-class passengers. As Fabio escorted his diamond-dripping beauty through the gate toward the plane, I was seized with panic. Grabbing my cell phone-the one last touchstone to my family and friends-I scrolled through my phone to Sarah's number. Her number was programmed as "Nitty", sort of a childhood nickname that stuck. I punched the call button, holding my breath as it rang and rang on the other end. Nitty, my voice of reason-I needed desperately for her to pick up and say, "Rachel, you'll be great! You've got everything you need."
"You have reached the cell phone of Sarah Spencer ..." Her voicemail came on instead. No last-minute lifesaver. No more touchstones to familiar voices. I sighed and left a message anyway. And that was it. With a leap of faith, I turned my cell phone off, knowing it would stay off for the next six weeks. I held down the power button, and watched the little good-bye icon appear, fade away, and sound its little goodbye jingle. Power off.
Of course I shouldn't have worried that I couldn't get through to Sarah. She'd already called at least five times to make sure I really did have everything I need. First, she called to make sure I had directions to the Vladescos' house in Paris. (I didn't.)
Next, she called to make sure I had adapters. (I thought I could buy some at the airport.)
Later, she asked me, "You've transferred some cash into euros, right?" (Sometimes it flatters me how high her expectations are.) Traveling is like Sarah's second job. The yearlong stint when she worked as the Vladescos' nanny was just one of her many jaunts around the globe. She studied abroad in England in college. She backpacked through Europe after college graduation. I think she spent one summer doing the London-Paris-Rome thing. And it's not just Europe-she's been to Russia, Africa, Australia, pretty much everywhere. She's a teacher and in her classroom she has an entire doorway framed with patches of all the countries she's visited through the years. Originally she collected them because my mom said she would sew them on a backpack for Sarah. But I think they stayed in a plastic baggie on top of my mom's other sewing projects until Sarah found an alternative use for them. Sarah had always been the most industrious member of the family. I, on the other hand, tended to take after my mom, with projects galore stacked unfinished in piles throughout the house.
In fact, the first time I went to Paris for a high school trip, I realized the night before I was supposed to leave that my passport was missing. My mom and I spent half the night tearing through my room in a fruitless search. I went to school the next day ready to disappoint my French teacher, who had tediously planned the trip for our class, with the news that I couldn't go. Luckily, my mom called just in time to tell me she found the passport shoved inside the pages of my dictionary at home. I had always heard passports are very important documents that mustn't be lost or stolen, so I wanted to be sure I put it in a place that no one could find. Mission accomplished.
I've never been one for minor details. It's because of this that people like Sarah think I can't go anywhere by myself. I may not be as organized, but somehow I get by just fine. Sure, she'd have a fit if she knew I left the directions to the Vladescos' at home. And if I told her I hadn't been to the ATM, she'd roll her eyes and sigh. Then when I clarified I had zero cash on me, let alone euros, she would probably lose her patience and exclaim, "Rachel!"
Excerpted from Au Paris by RACHEL SPENCER Copyright © 2006 by Rachel Spencer. Excerpted by permission.
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