French Illusions: My Story as an American Au Pair in the Loire Valley
One week after placing my ad for a French teacher in the local newspaper, I met Rob at a local café.
“Linda, your plan may backfire,” he warned, furrowing his brow.
My eyes searched his face. “I guess I’ll take that chance.”
“All right then, I’ll help you.”
Most lies are told with the expectation that no one will uncover them. In the summer of 1979, I told a monumental lie, fully aware that mine would be discovered.
I was twenty-one and working as a medical assistant for a busy family practice clinic in Seattle. Every morning at seven o’clock, I dragged myself to the office and performed the same mundane tasks—answering phones, scheduling appointments, and escorting patients to examining rooms.
My roommate’s burgeoning career presented a dazzling contrast to my dull job. Carline, an aspiring model, returned home from auditions bubbling over with enthusiasm as her glamorous vocation took off. Dressed in stylish clothes, she dashed in and out of our apartment from one appointment to another.
Cindy, my other close friend, seemed poised for stardom. She took to the stage, blowing audiences away with her strong voice and artistic abilities, her years of hard work finally paying off.
Months passed and I grew increasingly disenchanted with my career.
“That’s it. I’ve had enough,” I mumbled, frowning at my reflection in the mirror. “I’m finding a new job.”
Intrigued with the notion of overseas travel, I researched my options and decided to pursue a flight attendant position with an international airline. I imagined myself on sojourns in cities around the globe, meeting fascinating people and living life to its fullest.
My resume landed me an interview with World Airways, Inc. and three weeks later I flew to California for the event. The panel of two women and two men voiced their approval as I answered a battery of questions, but their smiles vanished when they discovered I didn’t speak a second language.
“I’m sorry, Miss Kovic, but World Airways requires all flight attendants to be bilingual.” The interviewer’s words struck like daggers in my heart. “However, if you learn another language, we might consider you for a position in the future.”
“Which one would you recommend?” I held his gaze to emphasize my sincerity.
“Spanish, French, or German.”
“Thank you.” I replied, rolling back my shoulders as I left the room, already contemplating my next move.
French appealed to me more than the other languages because I loved the way it sounded, and total immersion seemed the best way to become fluent in the shortest amount of time. Once I learned the language, I would return home and reapply for a flight attendant position with World Airways. But where would I get the money? I only had a few hundred dollars in my bank account.
A coworker came up with a remarkably simple solution. “Maybe you can become an au pair for a family in France?”
Unsure what this would entail, I wrote to several agencies and received applications along with informational brochures detailing the job expectations. My primary responsibility would be childcare, twenty-five to thirty hours a week, along with some light housework and cooking. In return, I would have my own bedroom, a small allowance, and one day off per week. One brochure boasted “the au pair becomes almost like a member of the family as he or she is immersed in a new cultural experience. Often both parties remember the experience fondly for the rest of their lives.”
Reading on, I discovered a colossal problem. All the agencies required prospective au pairs to have familiarity with the language, conversational French at the very least.
How will I get around this, I thought. Maybe I could fill out the applications as though I spoke French. I would hire a private tutor and learn some common phrases before I left. Once I arrived in France, I would somehow persuade my host family to allow me to stay.
Aware that the hoax would upset my parents, I kept this element of my plan a secret, confiding in only a few of my closest friends. Both Carline and Cindy questioned my judgment on more than one occasion, but I dismissed their concerns. I had set my mind to go.
With Rob’s help, I completed four applications. A month later, one of the agencies replied detailing a possible match. The response read like this:
We have found you a host family living in a real-life castle in a small town called Songais within the Loire region of France. Monsieur and Madame Dubois have two children, with another one expected very soon. They are excited to welcome their first American au pair and they are especially impressed with how well you write and speak French. How soon can you make the trip to France? Can you stay for a full year?
The Dubois family sounded perfect, but a shudder ran through my body as I formed my next thought. I hope they’ll forgive me when they learn that I lied.
Pulse jumping with anticipation, I wrote back, agreeing to all their terms, with an expected arrival date in August. I purchased my ticket, sublet my apartment and gave notice to my employer.
Three weeks later, captivated by French illusions, I boarded a plane for Europe.
A great book trailer for French Illusions.
Linda Kovic-Skow resides in Gilbert, Arizona. She earned an Associate Degree in Medical Assisting in 1978 from North Seattle Community College and a Bachelor of Arts in Business Administration from Seattle University in 1985. She has been married for 27 years and has two daughters. An enthusiastic traveler, Linda also enjoys boating, gardening and socializing with friends. French Illusions, her debut memoir, is the culmination of a three-year project.
Sonia Marsh Says: What an exciting “gutsy” thing to do. You took a risk and it paid off. Now I want to read french Illusions to see how you handled your “lack of” French, and how Mr. and Mme. Dubois treated you. Can’t wait.
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