“Foggy from jet lag and an impromptu night of drinking, I struggled to get out of bed. The scent of stale cigarettes greeted me as I removed the duvet and discovered that I had slept in my clothes. Through the rustic pine shutters that actually closed over my one window, enough light penetrated that I could make out the shapes in my room. I sat up slowly and took in my surroundings. The small oaken desk stood against the wall near the window at the foot of my bed, the matching nightstand and armoire bracketed the head of my bed, and…a large sharpening stone on its primitive wooden stand was exactly where I left it shortly after entering the room – in front of the bedroom door, preventing yet another intrusion from the family’s oldest, slobbering dog.
After carefully maneuvering around the different pieces of furniture and pivoting away from the door the heavy tool that belonged more in a foundry than a guest bedroom, I followed some odd sounds that had first stirred me, across the flagstones of the Great Room, up two steps, through a doorway, and into the kitchen. Except for my new boss, no one appeared in the house with us. Had my graceless arrival the day before been forgiven? I wondered this first morning in France.
Madame Montagne must have heard my approach for as I crossed the threshold, she turned away from the kitchen counter and waved a bloody cleaver in my direction. On the cutting boards beyond her lay the headless, flayed carcasses of rabbits, readily identifiable by their rounded haunches, to be cooked for consumption. My startled expression humored her and she laughed airily as she explained that she was just preparing some of the food that we would have for the New Year’s celebration that night. I nodded dumbly, not so much for the red-stained horrors before us, after all, I was a meat-eater and eager to try new foods, but because ashes from the cigarette in her mouth were landing on our entrée. Well, I probably wouldn’t die from ash-laden meat, so I returned a smile to her. She returned to her task of hacking, while informing me that everyone else had gone out and I had missed joining them because I had been asleep. Arrgh, I yelled in my head. Could I do nothing right?
Out loud, I thanked Madame Montagne for the information and sat down to the scrubbed wooden kitchen table to eat a tasty breakfast of tartines, cheese, and café au lait, while making conversation. I questioned her about the housework and the children’s routines. She described the basic schedule that she had previously outlined in a letter to me.
As the family au pair, I would be responsible for driving the children to school in the mornings, washing the breakfast dishes, washing and ironing the clothes, mopping the floors, cleaning the bathrooms, dusting, picking up the children from school in the afternoons, giving them snacks, helping them to start their homework and ensure that they finish it, preparing their dinners, and showering them at night. On Wednesday afternoons, when they only had school in the morning, I was also responsible for teaching them some English, taking them to the library or to the pool, and tennis practice. As an education major, I had heard the term In Loco Parentis, but never before had I so fully understood it. For all this work, I would receive some spending money, free room and board, the use of a car, and the weekends to come and go as I pleased. It seemed ideal as I loved to teach, manage children, and do housework, which gave me a sense of accomplishment.
After I finished my breakfast and my mental fog had cleared, Madame Montagne thrust the dish of rabbit pieces into the oven to roast, and guided me down to the basement stairs to the ground floor in order to teach me the art of Doing Her Laundry. While I was to learn her way in this house, in due time I discovered that every family had its own laundry logic.
Passed down from generation to generation, away from the male spotlight of analysis and domination, unlike cuisine, how one dries, irons, and folds clothes had taken the top spot of pride in every French Woman’s heart. While the washing machines deftly washed the clothes, nothing could compete with how the garments look nestled in drawers and closets. And so, I was inducted into the craft of folding and ironing the laundry in Madame Montagne’s precise manner. Since drying the clothes in a machine would cost too much money, the Montagne family relied on lines strewn across part of the furnished basement in the winter. However, dried on the line meant stiff clothes, so hours of ironing were necessary to convey a soft, yet crisp, but not too crisp, feel to the fabrics. Since no career woman, and certainly not Madame Montagne, wanted to toil in the tedium of the actual chore, what better way than to have the au pair to solve the problem? The diligent au pair listened to the compendium of directions and followed them to the letter. When clothes appeared perfectly ironed, folded or hung, working women in France patted themselves on the backs for how well they had trained their help, and the help, according to their attitudes, were grateful for this exquisite knowledge. Besides the usual articles of clothing, Madame Montagne instructed me on how to iron the sheets, towels, pajamas, and underwear. I must have looked quizzically at her. She explained that the items fit better in drawers when ironed flat. I did not argue with her because it was her home. Madame Montagne wrapped up the education with “C’est logique, n’est-ce pas?” [It’s logical, isn’t it?] I dared not shake my head, so I nodded mutely instead. Apparently, the mark of a well-run household was how well the clothes looked in their place, but quietly I asked myself, who nosed about in other people’s dresser drawers?
Now that I truly was in the setting where I would perform all of these tasks, I could envision them more realistically. The ironing would take …”