PARIS — Faced with the possibility of just another summer job between college years, I decided to shoot for one that offered the adventure and new experiences most young people seek. Money would be secondary to the opportunity for meeting new people, seeing new places and picking up a bit of education.
The French have a phrase, au pair , that adds up to all that and a lot more. Pair means peer or equal, the phrase meaning that you live with a family as a full-fledged member, doing light housework and/or small-child care. All this in exchange for room, board at the family table and a modest amount of pocket money, usually less than $100 monthly.
My summer in France began when I found the name and address of a Paris agency that specializes in placing women ages 18 to 30 with French families. Your public or school library should have one or more books that list such organizations in Europe.
After sending the agency a resume and snapshot, I soon received instructions to fly to Paris, meet my "new family" and begin one of the most experience-crammed summers of my 19 years.
Meeting the Family
Le pere in my family was Michel, a film writer-director who is into all the good things of life: fine books, jazz, stimulating conversation until all hours. His wife, Maureen, also works in the film industry. She is a voracious reader and a superlative cook and doled out motherly care and concern when I needed it.
My charge was Justine, 16 months old and little a ray of sunshine. She learned my name in a couple of days, took her first steps into my arms, and thereafter followed me around like a wobbly puppy. She never cried, even when I played my guitar and sang American songs to her.
Shortly after I arrived in Paris, the whole menage headed south for the Cote d'Azur and a summer house in the vineyards and olive groves of Val de Gilly, a few kilometers inland from St. Tropez. We settled into a lazy daily routine geared to the summer heat.
I passed the mornings playing with Justine or wheeling her through the hills and picking wildflowers, perhaps grocery shopping with Maureen, with a stop at Cafe Sennequier in St. Tropez for a coffee or demi-panache , a beer and lemonade mix that tastes better than it sounds.
After lunch I put Justine down for an nap, caught up on my reading and did a few dishes, sat in the sun or did a little housework until 5:30 or so, when we headed for the beach and a couple of hours of swimming.
Then it was back to the house to help prepare dinner, most often a barbecue in the garden beneath a wild blackberry tree. We discussed art or politics, falling into bed after midnight.
The family gave me two full days off rather than the usual one, often letting me use their car to explore the coast. St. Tropez's Musee de l'Annonciade, once a chapel, has a respectable collection of 20th-Century art: Braque, Utrillo, Dufy, Rouault, a fine Vlaminck still life and a couple of Matisse works I learned to love.
But I usually ended up browsing the chic shops of St. Tropez, ogling clothes I couldn't afford, reading the Herald Tribune at a sidewalk table of Cafe Sennequier or sunning at nearby Pamplona Plage.
This went on until the end of July, when we all moved north to Brittany and the 15th-Century farmhouse owned by Michel's family. It is actually more like a small castle of honey-colored, rough-hewn stone, weathered walls, archways and an ancient circular dovecote across the courtyard that gives the place a distinct medieval air.
Brittany is the opposite of the Cote d'Azur: cool and a bit misty; you're always conscious of the nearby Atlantic's wind-swept beaches, bays and coves. Each friendly Breton town or village seems lovelier than the last.
Our family routine here was about the same, only by then Justine was walking better. I'd become fond of the oysters of Belon and our neighboring Bay of Morlaix, and strawberries and galettes bretonnes , cakes so rich with butter that one despairs of ever again fitting into last year's clothes.
How It's Done
So how do you end up spending a summer like this? Just do your homework, put your best foot forward in a resume that lists your qualifications, and mail the letter.
It's not important that you be fluent in French, Spanish, Italian or whatever. What counts is that you're ready and willing to adjust to a foreign situation, fit into a family and accept its pluses and minuses. Just do your job and muddle along in good spirits, realizing that you're here to learn about new things and people.
Living with a family as an au pair is not for the faint of heart, nor for anyone who finds it difficult to accept new surroundings. But it's a smashing way to have an inexpensive holiday abroad.
Write to L'Accueil Familial des Jeunes Etrangers at 23 Rue du Cherche-Midi, 75006 Paris, and ask for an au pair application, making sure to include a self-addressed envelope and international postal reply coupon.
Or check your bookstore and library for "Working Holidays," a listing of au pair and many other jobs for young men and women in countries around the world. It's published by the Central Bureau for Educational Visits and Exchanges, Seymore Mews House, London W1H 9PE, England.