Tuesday, February 28, 2012

That Time I Was an Au Pair: A Tale of Three Poops

“We’re not happy with you and we don’t think you’re up to the task.”
And with these words I completed my first day of work as an au-pair for a self-absorbed, upper middle class family in the rather dull city of Antwerp, Belgium.
Allow me to explain.
What exactly is an au-pair and how the hell did I end up as one? In theory, an au-pair is a young woman between the age of 18-26 who lives abroad with a host family for 1 year to work as a babysitter in exchange for free lodging and food and a cultural experience with endless possibilities! She will learn the native language! Become a member of the family! Have a profound impact on a child’s life! Fast forward to the bitter reality that an au-pair is often times treated like a foreign Cinderella: a low-cost laborer hired to not only become a family’s babysitter, but their personal chef, housekeeper, and chauffeur as well.
And how did I end up in this whole mess? First, I must rewind to my time living in Israel where I found myself in what I thought was a serious and potentially long-term relationship with a sweet but indecisive Israeli named Stav who was to begin studying in Antwerp. This is a whole other story in itself, but the basic idea is that I met someone with whom I thought I wanted to continue to spend my life even if it meant packing up and re-rooting in a dreary city in a boring country working a job I was mostly unqualified to do. Naturally, no one forced me to do anything, I did everything of my own free will but I was also under the impression that maybe I was doing something worthwhile by accepting all the new challenges I would be facing and that Stav might actually be worth it. Looking back on everything it’s impossible to deny that I was being incredibly foolish and naive about a relationship where only 50% of the involved parties actually took it seriously. And in case you haven’t figured it out by now, that 50% was me.
But going back to the whole au-pair business, there are many instances where the au-pair has a very rewarding experience, gains a second family and new language skills. Unfortunately, this was not to be my experience. Maybe it was doomed from the beginning, maybe it should never have happened at all. But it did and I survived to tell the tale.
After 2 months of extensive paperwork and planning I arrived to Antwerp with 3 suitcases, a few hundred dollars, and a shit-load of fear. I knew that Stav, who was to begin studying at the conservatory of arts, would be arriving the next day to meet me and that we’d be navigating this new world together, but I had no idea of who my future employers would actually be.
Well, not totally…
I had in fact been in correspondence with my future employers at least 3 months before my arrival to Belgium. We had met through an online nanny network that allows potential au-pairs to find host families. Think of it like a dating web site for highly paid adults who have more children than they can handle and who possess other domestic employees seeking to “complete” their families by bringing a “friendly, open, warm-hearted” young lady into their home to enrich their child’s life while also taking advantage of the ridiculously low wages legally required to pay such a person to do any and everything they require with complete submission. This is how I came to meet the Follie-Van Axelroy's*. Online, they presented themselves as a cultured and intelligent couple with a strong desire to enrich their daughters’ lives by introducing them to a well-traveled young American who would turn them into English speaking prima ballerinas. In reality, Peter the father was a pharmacist who could boast his own successful business, one failed marriage, and 4 unimpressive offspring. The mother Jotke (pronounced YOT-ka), 13 years Peter's junior, was also a pharmacist and a terrible narcissist. Her attributes included unfriendliness, extreme judgment, lack of empathy, tasteless meals, and the possession of her husband's manhood. From Peter’s previous foray into family life were twin teenage boys. I could never really tell them apart except that one was quiet and the other was even quieter. Further proof of Peter’s desire to procreate were evidenced by his 2 young daughters produced in cooperation with Jotke: Marisa (2.5 years) and Ilse (2 months).
*Names have been changed
I arrived to Brussels International Airport a week before my contract began and was met by my host family and employers, Peter and Jotke. During the drive to Antwerp we made pleasantries and discussed previous travels to New York City (a place we have all been to), Israel (a place only I have been, but Peter seemed curious about), and Tanzania (a place only they have been, but I was too sleepy and jet-lagged to think much about).
Once in Antwerp, Jotke dropped Peter off at work and continued to drive me to their house. It was just the two of us for the rest of the day and I couldn’t have felt more awkward. Jotke had this terrible habit of asking questions but never listening to the answers. It took me awhile to notice this, but as I was explaining to her what a kibbutz was (upon her inquiry), she interrupted to talk about her life and other completely unrelated things. At another point she asked if I spoke Hebrew. I answered yes and she informed me that I should speak English to her daughters and not Hebrew. As she drove through Antwerp’s winding streets pointing out the places she frequents, I felt as if I were being held under water gasping for air. She had inundated me with so much information before we even approached her street and every question I posed was met with either rolled eyes or a snicker. I immediately felt uncomfortable with her.
There was no parking near their house on such a busy street so Jotke had to park a few blocks away. I dragged all my suitcases across cobblestoned streets in multiple trips to and from the car. She offered no help and disappeared into the kitchen to tend to Ilse. I didn’t really think much of it since she did have a baby to care for, but little did I know at the time that Jotke was something of a mere poule, an overbearing and obsessessive mother to her two children, completely aloof to everyone else around her.
Their house was a 4-story building full of staircases, dark corners, and cold floors. They were certainly living in affluence and with all that space, it was no surprise that Jotke had initially offered that both Stav and I could live in their house. I was shown to our room, a duplex in the attic. It was actually a pretty cool space, quite dark, but otherwise spacious and atmospheric. Jotke continued to show me the house, all 4 stories (plus cellar) and garden. Before I could have time to sit and breathe she took me grocery shopping and proceeded to explain driving directions that I would never be able to remember. That afternoon she took me to pick up Marisa from day care. We found her asleep in a little cot peaceful as ever. When she awoke and saw me, she smiled and turned her face away in shyness. Throughout the car ride home I turned back to smile at her and she’d always turn away and smile. I thought she was a very cute little girl and I couldn’t wait to get to know her better when she would be more awake. Looking back however, I preferred her in a sleeplike state because at least this way she was too tired to crank out her bratty temperament. And was she ever the little brat who knew no limits.
The comedian Louis CK often refers to his children as "assholes" in his acts. Most people find it reprehensible that he can possibly say this about any child, but I completely agree with him. Children are certainly capable of being assholes and Marisa wins the prize for being the most controlling warlord I ever met under the age of 5. Although I must admit it is not entirely her fault. Her parents treat her like God’s gift to the entire fucking universe and she knows it full well. To call her a problematic child would be an understatement. Surely she is the only person on this earth that so loves her mother because I cannot imagine anyone else with half a brain capable of doing so.
Never have I met another adult so disrespectful, spoiled, and ignorant rolled into one doughy, mediocre-looking woman with an unfortunate knack for lame facial expressions. She has no self confidence but finds it the schoolyard way of belittling others to build herself. She is a truly unremarkable person.

Prior to the start of my contract I spent several days milling about Antwerp with Stav and learning to drive a stick shift car with Peter. Surprisingly, Peter was a laid back driving instructor whose patience seemed to stretch forever even when I managed to stall his engine many times and burn his tires.
The day before my first day of work I was asked to prepare dinner for the whole family, something Asian since they’re so cultured and had a real-life Asian in their household. I hit the Asian markets for ingredients and spent the next few hours prepping and cooking what I hoped would be a delicious stir fry. While I didn’t expect that it would knock anybody’s socks off, I also didn’t expect that Jotke would repeatedly announce how salty it was, how I practically wasted her organic chicken then went on to prepare something else for Marisa’s delicate palate dare she consume any of my disgusting bowl of sodium. I cleared the table and washed the dishes feeling as if I’d failed some kind of audition. Except if I truly had failed an audition, I would at least have gotten to go home. But this was only the beginning.
The next day I officially began work. Unfortunately for me, it was a Thursday which was Jotke’s day off. She stayed home with me to explain the routine, her expectations, and carefully scrutinized everything I said and did. I knew this was coming since this woman was about to leave her most prized possessions in my care, but I felt that it could have been a more pleasant learning experience. Instead it felt more like the first day of work at a gun factory. I did a lot of running around, tried in vain to entertain a too-cool-for-school Marisa (literally, she doesn’t go to school on Thursdays so she can stay home with mom), and cleaned after every trace of human existence. At the end of the day I sat in the bathroom as Jotke showed me how to bathe Ilse, I felt exhausted and incompetent to which Jotke observed, “You look tired”. Well, yes.
That night I stayed in the attic crying over how unappreciated and belittled I felt throughout the day and how working for this woman for a year would cause me endless amounts of lowered self esteem. Stav returned home and saw me visibly upset and warned that Jotke was in a foul mood. Minutes later, Peter came up and summoned us downstairs.
I went downstairs into the living room where Jotke was waiting with a sleeping Ilse. Stav came with me for support and we sat on the couch opposite them. Peter began by telling me that they didn’t feel I was up to the task and that maybe they should find someone else. Jotke continued that she didn’t think I cared enough about her children and that she didn’t want to leave me alone with them. Peter asked me what I had to say. I stared at the fireplace and thought of my Mom. I wondered how they could be so critical after one day of work. I thought about Stav and felt a foreboding sense of doom. I couldn’t believe everything they had just said after I worked tirelessly all day to impress this woman, to memorize everything, to try and do everything the way she wanted, to interact and engage Marisa, to prove my ability to take care of her daughters and to demonstrate that I was a hard worker! And that it was only the first day and they succeeded to let me know they had no faith in me! As I conjured the words to say I felt a surge of tears welling up, my throat getting thick, and my blood getting hotter. I burst into tears. And in that moment when I felt completely weakened and destroyed, I saw a sparkle in Jotke’s eyes, the pleasure of victory at my moment of defeat. I could see in his face that Peter was taken aback by my sudden outburst and looked visibly uncomfortable. I could see sadness in Stav’s eyes, like she herself had been attacked. I cried for a few moments then finished and began to speak. I simply told them that their expectations were unreasonable for the first day, that I tried really hard and apologized for my mistakes. Peter asked if I thought I could handle the job. I said yes. “Voila!” he responded.
When the subject turned to living arrangements, we had a bad feeling about living in their house. While it was big enough and would be a great choice economically, we kept having doubts about the reality of living there. The more Peter and Jotke spoke with us, the more we realized we were dealing with selfish people who had no intention of welcoming us into their home but merely wanted to keep me under their watchful eye. They kept coming up with new rules for us, such as staying out of the kitchen and dining room when they were there, staying away from them during the weekends, and working more hours to earn our keep with Stav having to work as well. The sad reality is that I wasn’t smart or strong enough to call them on their bullshit. Normally, an au-pair would live with the family anyways, work 20 hours per week and receive her monthly wage. I should have argued against the extra hours and when I knew for certain that I wouldn’t be living in their home, I should have negotiated a higher wage since they wouldn’t be paying for my electricity and water consumption or groceries. But I didn’t do any of this because I was still feeling vulnerable, wasn’t officially registered in the city yet, and didn’t want to risk losing my eligibility to stay in Belgium with Stav. It never dawned on me that maybe I was over extending myself to an enormous degree for no proper reason. I wanted to stay in Belgium with Stav, I wanted to earn my own money, I wanted to have my own experience, and I wanted to meet the difficult challenge of being an au-pair. I didn’t really assess the situation thoroughly because if I had, I would have realized that I was about to subject myself to the whims of abusive employers and an emotionally unstable partner who might all have benefited by my absence from the start. But along I went…
I had hoped that each day would get better and that I'd feel more comfortable in my surroundings. Sadly, this wasn’t the case. When finally left alone with Marisa in the house it became a battle to assert my authority. I didn’t speak much Dutch and she didn’t speak any English. I used animated gestures, silly voices, and Google translate to get my point across, but using these methods as means of discipline was a total crapshoot. Picking up Marisa from school, she threw tantrums and screamed at the top of her lungs when I came near her causing the other children and mommies to look upon me with a mixture of pity and disgust. I felt like a child molester trying to drag a sweet child away from the monkey bars, except this was no sweet child. Once I managed to wrestle her into her car seat she kicked the back of my chair and threw things at me.
Once inside the house, I prepared her lunch. Peter and Jotke placed her on a strict diet of organic fruits and vegetables, organic meat, yogurt, muesli, and baby formula. Upon observing my own dietary habits, I was laughed at and told that I was not to have a negative influence over Marisa’s eating habits and not to eat in her presence unless I was eating the same thing as her.
After lunch I put Marisa to bed for a 3-hour nap. The first time I tried to do this she threw every toy in her bed at me including those dolls with the hard plastic heads! Every chance she got she’d crawl out of the bed and run towards the stairs but I managed to catch her and catapult her right back into bed. When I had had enough I simply left the room and shut the door while leaning my head against it in utter frustration as she screamed endlessly.
If I thought putting a child to bed was hard, waking her up was even worse. Three hours on the dot later I returned to her room to gently wake her up. As I tore her away from her dreamlike world she fought and kicked and screamed with all her might. In those first weeks I often carried her like a sack of potatoes to the bathroom to give her a bath. I couldn’t bring myself to forcefully undress her so I played with her bath toys to demonstrate how fun bath time was. Every day that Jotke came home, she asked how Marisa behaved. I answered truthfully to which she always responded with some predictable excuse for Marisa’s behavior.
“She still needs time to get used to you.”
“She’s frustrated because she doesn’t understand English.”
“She’s still adjusting to her new school.”
“She’s tired.”
“She’s the youngest child in her class.”
Marisa was unable to poop in the toilet so she needed to wear a diaper and be read to in order to poop. They had it down to an exact science, this poop ritual, and I will never erase the smells from my soul. Before putting her to sleep I changed her into a diaper and read her a book as she stood next to the bed. As I read, she pushed and did this little dance with her feet as the lump in her diaper grew bigger and a foul stench filled the room. After each page she said “nog”, meaning “more”. When the book was finished she made her final pushes then ran to the bathroom, laid on the floor and threw her legs in the air. I don’t know why I thought changing her diaper would be like a baby’s, maybe it was my inexperience in the matter, but when I unfastened her diaper and began to get a whiff of that ungodly stench, my nostrils flickered and my gag reflex began to act up. I could not believe how much shit filled that diaper. I tried desperately not to vomit but I’m sure Marisa could sense my overall disgust towards her existence. I emptied what I could of her diaper into the toilet and flushed it away but cringed at the notion of folding the diaper and disposing it. See, cleaning her butt wasn’t the problem, it was handling the soiled diaper that disturbed me most. And with my luck when time came to roll the diaper up, my finger slipped into a mushy patch of poop. I jumped up and ran my hand under the faucet for a good 2 minutes. I forgot I left Marisa on the floor, bare-assed and waiting to be changed. I quickly changed her into a clean diaper and put her in her room before running to find any sort of chemical that could clean me of this excrement.
As time went on I was able to get Marisa to comply much easier and as her trust for me grew, we were able to enjoy our time together. Some days she would even hug me! Things were really starting to look up. After all, wasn’t this what being an au-pair was all about?
Not to Peter and Jotke it wasn’t.
When they saw that Marisa was warming up to me they decided it was time to tighten the noose. Now would be the time to mention that they also employed an Albanian housekeeper named Edvina. I had the pleasure of meeting Edvina only a few times, but she was always a friendly and talkative woman who often asked how I was feeling. To imagine this woman climbing all those stairs, cleaning after 4 babies, doing all their laundry, ironing all their clothes, scrubbing the floors and stairs, and cleaning the kitchen from top to bottom made me realize how little Peter and Jotke actually did inside their own home. God forbid these people lift a finger to clean after themselves. As days went on Jotke continuously warned me that with my presence Edvina would come one day less. Every time she said this I would feel my stomach turn knowing she had some extra housekeeping duties in her pocket for me, an absolute breach of contract by the way.
Contract, you say?!
Although I was incredibly na├»ve in my dealings with this family regarding many issues, I did sign a contract based upon mutual agreement. In other words, I did not agree to work as their housekeeper or personal chef, however I did agree to “light household duties”, “cleaning after the children and myself”, and “preparing light meals for the parents upon their return home”. In practice however, “light household duties” meant doing the whole family’s laundry, ironing, cleaning out the refrigerator, cleaning the oven, clearing the table after breakfast (even though I arrived at 1pm, they just couldn’t be bothered to clear their own table), and cleaning the cat’s vomit, among other things. “Cleaning after the children and myself” in actuality meant erasing all traces of ever having been in their house by the time they returned home. And the best one, “preparing light meals for the parents upon their return home” meant preparing and cooking a full 3-course meal for 2 adults and 1 child by myself, meals often times requiring oven preparation (as far as I’m concerned, once you open the oven, it ceases to be a ‘light meal’), all to be prepared while I’m supposed to be taking care of and spending time with Marisa?!
One Saturday Stav and I had been asked to work at baby Ilse's Christening party. We were invited to the Christening itself with the immediate members of the Follie-Van Axelroy clan, in what should have been an intimate family service that instead turned into Marisa’s personal Pop Idol audition, some wandering tourists’ photo opportunity, and extended nap time for a non-practicing, barely Christian au-pair and her Jewish partner who had no clue what was going on.
After the rituals came the obligatory fancy dress-up party for the sleeping Ilse and her parents spared no expense. Peter even drove to the Champagne region of France the week before to buy cases of the fine French elixir for the guests, hired professional chefs and a large waitstaff who spilled said champagne all over the church grounds. Our job was to keep the kids from running into the streets to get hit by a tram. I knew something was up when Peter's best friend Johann warned me of Jotke's tendencies to be smothering and when Jotke's own sister-in-law constantly regarded Marisa as a "difficult" child. It was on that day that I realized just how nasty a child Marisa really was. She treated the other kids horribly and proceeded to treat me like shit in the presence of her grandparents.
Two days before the Christening I had accidentally splashed some cooking oil on my face which left a small scar on my cheek. When Jotke returned home she pointed to the scab and asked with a smile if Marisa had done that to me. I told her how it happened and she laughed at my stupidity. At the Christening, Jotke’s mother Lina came to say hello to me. As we made small-talk, Jotke interrupted by pointing at my shrinking scar and said to her mother, “Actually, THIS is from cooking oil” and laughed. Lina laughed as well and said, “Someday you will learn.”
Behind every bitch is an even bigger bitch.
Lina Van Axelroy. This is the name of the woman who may or may not have given birth vaginally to her two children that bear no resemblance to each other or their parents. My theory is that no human child could survive in the womb of this soul-sucking woman. When bringing Marisa home into my care she condescendingly retorts that “we do things differently here than in your country” as she pours a bottle of Evian water into a kettle to prepare Marisa’s formula. You know, cause the USA is such a third-world country.
Thursdays carried the ominous feeling of being at the base of an active volcano due for eruption. Thursdays were Jotke’s day off and my longest work day. I was to report to work at 8am sharp. When I arrived, Jotke was usually in the shower with Marisa while Peter would be sitting at the table eating breakfast and reading the paper. One morning I arrived early dreading whatever commands Jotke felt like handing out that day. I poured myself a cup of tea with enough spoonfuls of sugar to help whatever was about to happen to me go down in a most delightful way. Around 8:30 Jotke came into the kitchen with Marisa and prepared breakfast for the two of them. I tried to exchange some pleasantries with Marisa using my newly learned and much practiced Dutch phrases. I was met with a snicker by Jotke who mocked my accent while Marisa just shouted at me. In a strange show of power, Jotke asked me to feed Marisa as she and Peter watched. What ensued was much less a feeding and more like a battle to get food into Marisa’s mouth. She wanted nothing to do with me whenever her mom was home. If I spoke to her, I’d be met with a loud scream followed by a full blown tantrum complete with fists pounding and frantic kicks. After Peter left for work I was all alone and subject to Jotke’s cruel attempts to belittle me. As I cleared the table of food and dishes, Jotke sat in the living room with Ilse and asked me to do random things, whatever came to her to small mind.
“You will feed the cat?”
“You can put the dishes in the dishwasher? But don’t start the machine until after lunch.”
“I forgot to clean Marisa’s sand box, you can do this?”
Maybe it was her poor English or maybe it was her way of convincing herself that she was being respectful, but Jotke always worded her commands as if they were questions. Usually we spent the majority of our time in the living room where she watched me pathetically try to play with Marisa. One day her behavior was so bad and Jotke’s inability to discipline her child so baffling, I walked out of the living room, opened my laptop and went online. Jotke continued to make her commands but I ignored her. As my stomach began to growl, I went to make myself some food.
“What are you doing?” she asked me.
“I’m hungry so I’m making some food.”
“You didn’t offer for Marisa.”
“Okay, so I’ll make more.”
“And also for me.”
“But you don’t need to make it now, I’m going shopping with Marisa so you will wait until we get back home?”
“That’s not possible, I’m hungry now and I need to eat when I’m hungry.”
“What are you making?”
“Rice and mashed potatoes.”
“You will make soup for Marisa?”
“Okay. So I will eat while you’re gone and have your lunch ready when you get back.”
“I would like that we will eat together.”
“I’m going to eat while you are gone.”
Mutters something in Dutch….
Jotke used to write in a notebook that she kept on the kitchen counter to communicate with me. In it, she’d write my chores for the day and tell me what to prepare for dinner. One day she told me there was beef in the fridge and to make “something Asian” with it. I looked in every cupboard for some sauces and spices and oils and couldn’t even find a single bottle of soy sauce. Furthermore, they had no rice or noodles. I had no idea how she thought I would make “something Asian” with no actual Asian ingredients! When I told Stav about this, she laughed and said “To Jotke, if you make something, it’s Asian.”
After some time I was really beginning to feel the negative impacts of working for such a selfish woman. My self confidence was at an all-time low, I was constantly stressed out, I felt bitter about everything only to dread that I had to wake up and do it all over again the next day. I also realized that Jotke was an unreasonable woman who truly had no respect for me but I thought maybe there was still some hope within Peter who always tried to keep things balanced. My relationship with Marisa was improving and I truly felt that things could really get better, but I needed to work out my problems with Jotke and her constant reminders that Edvina was going to work one day less now that I was there.
The next evening I cooked a full dinner and put Marisa to bed before returning to the kitchen to speak with Peter and Jotke. I began by telling them how much progress I had been making with Marisa and how she was beginning to feel more comfortable with me. They agreed. I then voiced my concern over Edvina's “1 day less” debacle by making clear that I did not come here to work as a housekeeper and that many of the things I was doing were already a stretch to what an au-pair should actually do. Jotke’s face turned red and she responded without hesitation, “I don’t think you do enough. I think you should do much more. I don’t think you are motivated to do these things.” In that moment I couldn’t help myself but laugh. I laughed at her utter lack of respect for me. I laughed that she truly thought she hired a second housekeeper. I laughed at her ugly red face. Peter stepped in and agreed that I should do more and that my “job is to take care of the kitchen” otherwise they will just “find someone else who can”. I reminded them they already have someone else who can, someone named Edvina. They argued that Edvina needs to spend more time cleaning Peter’s pharmacy, that’s why they hired me. So in fact they did not hire me to take care of their daughters or to contribute any of my culture into their upbringing, but to take care of the kitchen. I told them I didn’t think it was fair that I was cooking full 3-course meals when all I agreed upon were light meals. Peter shot back, “We can’t cook for ourselves, we’re working all day. That’s what you’re for.” I told them it wasn’t realistic to do all their required cooking and cleaning while also taking care of Marisa. This didn’t seem to concern them much. It began to dawn on me that their initial concern wasn’t really for Marisa, but for themselves. They just wanted a second housekeeper and hiring an au-pair was a cheap way of doing so.
I was hitting a wall with my arguments so I moved to the subject of Thursdays, that I felt undermined and useless being there when Jotke was home and that Marisa showed no respect for me. Jotke turned red in the face again and reminded me that I work for her and that Thursdays are her holidays, that she shouldn’t have to work and when I don’t do something, it means that she has to. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. She also added that I could not drink Coke in their house anymore, that it was a bad example for Marisa. I asked how it was different from their drinking wine and beer but they scoffed and said it wasn’t the same thing. Jotke decided to further attack me by saying she spoke with Nadine, the woman who ran the au-pair agency that filed our paperwork. Jotke argued that Nadine agreed with her as if that should have justified anything. I excused myself and realized the only thing I had succeeded in doing was unearthing Peter and Jotke’s true intentions in hiring me.
The next day I paid a visit to this Nadine woman who so eagerly agreed with Jotke but never bothered to hear my side of the story. I felt this was wrong so I had to make it right. I located her address online and took the tram out to Linkeroever where I discovered Nadine’s office was actually her home. I rang her bell and she appeared behind the door with a puzzled look on her face. I introduced myself and who I worked for. She invited me in and I told her everything from the beginning up until our conversation the previous night. To my surprise, Nadine didn’t know any of this and agreed that it was bordering on abuse and breach of contract and urged me to speak clearly with them my concerns and demand better treatment.
After my meeting with Nadine, I wrote and delivered a letter to Peter and Jotke listing my conditions of continued employment. First, I asked to be treated with respect. I continued to remind them that they were exceeding the limitations of our contract and in doing so, were required to compensate me for the extra duties I was doing, that they had no right to tell me what and when I could eat and drink, and that my job should revolve around their children, not them. I concluded that if they wanted me to continue working for them, something would have to change.
I received a text message that same night telling me not to come to work the next day. At the end of the week Peter called to tell me that they decided not to continue with me, that I could come to his pharmacy to collect my remaining paycheck. When I went to the pharmacy I saw Edvina and told her that I wouldn’t be working for them anymore. She winked and said, “Its better this way.”
I learned that people truly have no limits when it comes to selfishness. That Marisa and I were starting to communicate better and that her trust for me was growing didn’t matter enough to her parents to keep me in their employ. They should never have hired an au-pair for the kind of demands they had but should have opened their wallets bigger and hired a second housekeeper, a qualified nanny, AND a trained chef. Or rather they should have hired an au-pair from a third-world country desperate to live in Belgium lest they be sent back home to await poverty or death. Instead, they chose to hire me. I’m glad I stood up for myself and demanded better treatment and I’m surprised I lasted as long as I did. But I still had one lingering concern weighing me down…
I still wasn’t registered in the city of Antwerp and my Belgian visa was due to expire in a month. And since I was no longer working for the Follie-Van Axelroy's, my work permit was no longer valid.
Outside the workplace my situation in Antwerp wasn’t exactly going so positively. Stav grew increasingly unhappy with her new school and classmates and her overall emotional instability became a growing infestation of unhappiness and stress. I wasn’t without my faults. I had just spent a month working in a highly stressful environment for awful employers and a nasty 2 year old and also began to feel the pressures of my existence in the country. To say I disliked Antwerp would be a massive understatement. I detested Antwerp and many of its inhabitants. Never had I felt so mistreated or looked down upon in any place in the world. Many of the Flemish people I encountered were unfriendly, unwelcoming, cold, and racist. Going to the supermarket became a war.
Shortly after, I began modeling. I met some interesting Belgian, Dutch, and German photographers who were enthusiastic about my unique appearance in a place where the pool of models usually consisted of blond and pale-skinned folks. Each weekend I went on a location shoot in Antwerp for a few hours to build what would eventually become my portfolio.
Despite the introduction of my cool new hobby, my personal life was beginning to burst at the seams. Stav and I ceased to have conversations that didn’t turn into arguments and we were constantly exhausted. She was incredibly indecisive and couldn’t find ways to make her experience more bearable. Any solution I offered was usually dismissed and we both kind of disappeared into our own heads. Without fully realizing it, I was desperate to keep my relationship from falling apart that I took most of the blame for our dwindling situation and felt determined to make an improvement. But first, I needed to find a new family to hire me and sponsor my work permit.
I spent the next week combing through the nanny databases for potential host families and met a man named Geert from Zandhoven (about 15km from Antwerp) who was interested in hiring me to care for his children, Ernst (6) and Halle (4). We met and discussed our expectations and experiences. I made it clear that I intended to continue living in Antwerp with Stav and he said he preferred this as well since their house was under renovation. He invited us to watch his wife’s musical performance that weekend. His wife Catherine was a very talented musician and they invited me to stay in their home the next week and have a “trial” day of watching the kids while Geert went to the USA on business and Catherine had to teach in the evening.
Geert and Catherine lived in a lovely country home in the middle of green fields and horse stables. Ernst and Halle were adorable children with good manners. Ernst was very talkative and excited to have me in the house and Halle was a loveable little girl who followed me everywhere. I had a good feeling about this family and knew straight away that these kids were much sweeter than Marisa. Catherine remarked how good my Dutch pronunciation was and hoped I would learn more to speak with the kids. She was very welcoming and asked me many questions and actually listened to my answers. Once she left the house the kids remained well behaved and talkative. I didn’t struggle to get them to eat dinner or brush their teeth or go to bed. I read them a story before bed and Halle held my hand as she fell asleep.
That night, Ernst decided he didn’t want to eat the mashed potatoes and soup I made for dinner but wanted oatmeal with milk instead. I thought it was an odd choice for dinner, but I tend to eat tuna and pickles for breakfast, so who am I to judge? Maybe it was the excessive amount of milk but Ernst had explosive diarrhea that night. I felt so bad for him and stood next to the bathroom door trying to comfort him as he winced in pain. When he finished, he insisted he could wipe himself and proceeded to use lots of thick toilet paper. I flushed the toilet after him and saw the water wasn’t going down, but coming up! I ran around the house looking for a plunger but couldn’t find one. Luckily the water stopped rising just at the rim, so I closed the lid and told him not to worry, that I would fix it tomorrow. I gave him some water and sat next to him as he fell asleep and reassured him that everything was okay. Catherine later explained that he always uses too much toilet paper and that the toilet has been clogged before.
In general, I thought Catherine was feeling good because Geert texted me that same night that he wanted to get the paperwork started as soon as he returned to Belgium. The day after he was supposed to return I still hadn’t heard from him so I called him. He never returned my messages, so I wrote him some emails. He responded that he was still in the USA and had more work to do than planned. I didn’t hear from him or Catherine for another week. I was stressing out because I didn’t know what was going on, if they had changed their minds even! My visa had 3 weeks left and I was panicking. I called the Antwerp registration office explaining my dilemma and they told me not to worry, that I could receive a visa extension while awaiting my work permit to be approved. I had plenty of reason to believe that Geert and Catherine would file for it as soon as possible, didn’t I?
When Geert finally returned to Belgium, he wrote me that he and Catherine had decided not to hire me because they wanted an au-pair who would live in their house. He apologized and wished me luck. I went through my memory wondering what I might have done wrong in those 2 days in Zandhoven. Did they blame me for Ernst’s diarrhea? Was it because I allowed him to use too much toilet paper? They knew from the beginning that I wouldn’t live in their house so why did it suddenly matter now? I couldn’t come up with an answer and left it to fate. I had been let down yet again.
At this point I probably should have gotten the massive hint the universe was giving me to just pack up and go home. I had not only one, but two failed au-pair attempts, no valid work permit, an expiring visa, a ticking time bomb of a relationship, and the days were becoming increasingly colder.
But stupid me called the Antwerp registration office yet again and asked about the details of applying for a cohabitation visa. I had the required documents but explained that my partner was not yet registered due to her school’s administration process. They told me again not to worry, that I could receive an extension while awaiting her registration.
Shortly after, I was contacted through the nanny databases by a kind Swedish artist named Sonja asking me to watch her daughters. They lived only 2 blocks away and required me during simple after school hours. The next day I met Sonja, her Nigerian-British husband Abassi and their two beautiful daughters, Zima (10) and Emily (3), both of whom spoke English.
Working for Sonja and Abassi was a huge departure from working for Peter and Jotke. While the latter required me to cook everything from scratch using only the finest ingredients, the former fed their kids canned pasta for dinner and endless amounts of sweets. Marisa wasn’t allowed to watch more than 30 minutes of TV each day whereas Zima and Emily lived in front of the TV. You couldn’t even get their attention when the TV was on, though I have to admit that watching Dora the Explorer and Disney Channel shows in English was a huge improvement over their Dutch counterparts. Sonja even thanked me when I voluntarily washed the dishes...
My first day picking up Emily at her international school was like being back in school myself. All the moms were gathered outside the doors in separate ethnic groups. To my left were the Indian moms wearing colorful saris and sandals despite the freezing temperatures. Immediately opposite me were the white moms standing in a circle listening to one louder American mom dominating the conversation about her dog or recent trip to France or something or other. Next to the white moms stood the Asian moms. They all had friendly faces and impeccable skin. I thought maybe I should go stand with them? It seemed like the obvious choice. When the children were released it was like a parade of endless love. Each child was met and received by their adoring mother whose reaction was like a soldier reuniting with his sweetheart after a very long war. After much of the parade died down I went to ask for Emily. When she came outside she cried and screamed so much you’d think I killed her puppy.
Often times Emily does not like riding in her stroller. Often times Emily does not like when I pick her up from school. Often times Emily screams and cries at the school’s door and won’t leave her teachers. Sometimes her classmates notice her crying and offer her candy. Often times other parents walk by and sympathetically smile at me. Once her teacher told me to just grab her and go. Many times Emily screams at the top of her lungs, “Let go of me! You’re hurting me! I want my mommy!” which makes me cringe. A few times I managed to buckle Emily into her stroller only to find her wriggling out from the straps and standing vertically in the stroller. Once I dropped the stroller because her weight was too awkward to balance and she fell face first to the ground. Once Emily got so excited and/or nervous she shit herself upon leaving school. I noticed a huge bulge in her tights turning brown and emitting a foul odor, reminiscent of Marisa’s monster poop. I ran back to the school’s bathroom to clean her. I lifted her skirt and pulled her tights down to reveal an extraordinary amount of poop between her legs. The poop dangled from her tights to the floor. Oops. I sat her on the toilet and began wiping her legs which had been smeared with dried poop. I searched her backpack for a change of clothes but couldn’t find any. I ran to the main office asking for panties, shorts, pants, anything! The portly woman in charge gave me a pair of panties much too big for Emily but they would do. I returned to find Emily, tights around her ankles, skipping around the bathroom and dripping poop everywhere. I held my breath and took her back to the toilet. I removed her soiled tights and panties and changed her into the new ones. I put her poopy clothes into a plastic bag that I later threw in a construction site. I took her outside and put her in the stroller but couldn’t buckle her in because she had smeared poop all over the stroller. She fell asleep and I pushed her home. While crossing the street of a busy intersection, the stroller got caught in a dip effectively launching a sleeping Emily into the street. I saw it all happen in slow motion. Many times Emily runs into the streets without noticing all the cars, trams, and bicyclists. Every time I reprimand her and insist she hold my hand while walking. One time I told her that if she doesn’t hold my hand, she will get hit by a tram and die and never see her mommy again. And that’s when I knew I hit my breaking point.
In the end, I couldn’t secure a new work permit for fine-print reasons. While trying to obtain a cohabitation visa for a massively diminishing cohabitation, I was met with typical bureaucratic behavior from the folks at the Antwerp registration office. I was laughed at and made fun of and told there was no such thing as a visa extension. In short, there was no way I could legally remain in Belgium and frankly, even if I could, would I have wanted to? Stav was up to her neck in school and physical stress that my visa problem was the last thing she wanted to deal with. She had mentally checked out from our relationship long ago but I guess during my fruitless battle with bureaucracy and child rearing, I had failed to even notice that the very person I was fighting so hard to stay with really couldn’t have cared one way or another.
I spent my remaining days in Antwerp doing more photo shoots and traveled to Northern France for a much needed mini vacation. My highlight of living in Belgium would have to be that week I spent in France.
I continued to babysit Zima and Emily until they left for their winter holiday. Stav drifted further away from me to the point where I didn’t recognize her anymore. On Christmas Day, my best friend’s father died. That final week in Antwerp, a lot of things departed from this earth in so many ways.
Stav flew back to Israel 3 days before I flew home. I walked with her to her airport shuttle bus in the Orthodox Jewish neighborhood of Antwerp. And I last saw her just as I met her—surrounded by a bunch of Jews.