When Anita Madsen and her friend, Tina Harboe, walked into Kokomos, a Chippendales-style club in Irvine, they bumped into a dozen other young Danish women--all au pairs like themselves.
"It was amazing," said Madsen, a 21-year-old from the village of Hjorring. "Denmark is such a small country and they all seem to be here."
And it's true. Orange County, with the state's second-highest population of children, is also one of the most sought-after destinations for college-age Scandinavians and other Europeans who choose the life of the au pair , loosely translated from French as "on par" or "equal with."
These young men and women seek a break from their college studies, taking a year off to study American culture firsthand: fast food and freeways, malls and movies. In exchange for lodging, a little pocket money and weekends off, they'll baby-sit the kids and do a bit of dusting.
It's impossible to know exactly just how many au pairs are in the United States, since most entered the country on tourist visas and are working here illegally.
But unlike most of their Scandinavian sisters, Madsen and Harboe are different: They're legally here, brought in through a fledgling cultural-exchange program administered by the U.S. Information Agency.
Under USIA program rules, host families pay an up-front cost of about $3,000, which includes air fare, orientation and $300 toward education--au pairs must take some type of academic class once they're here. Au pairs also get a tax-free stipend of $100 a week.
When Madsen and Harboe arrived in the United States last summer, visas in hand, they were part of a platoon-load of newly arrived au pairs. When greeters from their sponsoring agency dealt out the domestic airline tickets, they were the only ones in their groups headed for Southern California.
"I had always wanted to come here," said 19-year-old Harboe. "We didn't have any say in where we would go--I just got lucky."
Madsen, who came in June, and Harboe, who arrived a month later, were part of the first classes flown in by the Laguna Beach-based EurAuPair, a nonprofit foundation operated by the American Scandinavian Student Exchange.
Operated out of a converted apartment that overlooks Main Beach, EurAuPair is one of only eight groups authorized by the USIA to bring au pairs into the United States and the only one in Southern California.
And while Los Angeles and its suburbs are the favored destinations, the area is behind its sophisticated Eastern sisters of New York and Boston in the demand for au pairs.
"It's relatively new here," said Tammy Fisher, western regional director for EurAuPair, which placed 500 au pairs by year's end. While the nonprofit organization has placed au pairs in 30 cities throughout the United States, only 40 were in Southern California.
"Every one back East knows about au pairs," she said. "But it's not as true here. We could use lots more families--especially Southern California families."
While Joanna Cappelle of El Toro was thumbing through the Saddleback Valley News last spring, Anita Madsen was a junior college student back in Hjorring, mulling her career ambitions.
For Cappelle, something in the newspaper just clicked. It was an ad for EurAuPair, and it offered a better solution than after-school programs for her two children, Diana, 6, and David, 11.
For Madsen, something clicked in a conversation with her neighbor. The best way to enhance her chances for a job in international banking, the neighbor suggested, was to get practical experience using English.
What got them together was Foreign Operations Appropriation Bill 2757. Passed in September 1988, the bill greatly expanded what had been a two-year experimental program administered by two East Coast agencies.
The new program increased the number of agencies to eight, and each of these nonprofit groups is permitted to bring in as many as 2,840 au pairs annually on J-1 cultural exchange visas.
"I had always wanted an au pair , but I just couldn't hire an illegal," said Cappelle, a native of Australia. "I would never exploit someone like that."
"I didn't want to come over illegally," said Madsen, who knows countless other Danish girls who used trans-Atlantic neighborhood "networks" to hook up with American families as illegal au pairs . Others had told her exactly what to do to get through the sometimes-tough U.S. immigration. "Have a round-trip ticket and pack a letter in your suitcase from your 'Auntie.' And never tell them you're going to work--say you're a tourist," recited Madsen. A few years ago, Madsen was a high school exchange student in Upstate New York, and entering the United States on false pretenses just didn't appeal to her.
"When I heard about EurAuPair, I filled out an application. It was perfect."