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Kristen Dillman

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Abronzeata Au Pair: From Liberal Arts Co-Ed to Full-Time Help

Posted: 05/27/11 05:59 PM ET

Like many college students, I envisioned working as an au pair as the ideal summer job. Travel, excitement, earning a little money along the way -- it seemed perfect. Throughout my childhood, I spent many a home-sick-from-school day reveling in the romance and adventure of the 1999 constant re-run, Au Pair. Young, smart and beautiful MBA swept off via helicopter for the adventure of a lifetime as an au pair for a rich executive's spoiled kids (with hearts of gold, of course). At first the children frustrate her, but they quickly bond during an extravagant shopping spree in which she transforms from homely geek to ravishing siren. The film concludes as the rich executive falls for the newly beautiful au pair. Maid in Manhattan, Pretty Woman: Au Pair does not stand alone in its portrayal of the lowly worker rescued from banality by the wealthy, eccentric man. Perhaps this fantasy was still playing in my head as I signed a contract to become an au pair in Italy this past summer. Ninety days, no visa, a round trip ticket to a great summer job.

My summer turned out to be far from perfect, starting when I arrived at Milan Linate Airport after 20 hours of travel wearing a floral dress and toting a fifty-pound suitcase. My first few days were nothing more than a blur of jet lag and anxiety. As the second week rolled around, I ascertained exactly what I faced. My first charge was a three-year-old still in diapers whose Italian emerged as chewed up half sentences at best. He had either yet to hear or to comprehend the word 'no,' it wasn't clear to me which; either way it did not bode well. My second charge was a calm and sensitive seven-year-old. My small task was to teach him English over the course of ninety days. Find me a seven year old who wants to be spoken to in an incomprehensible foreign language all summer by a stranger. I dare you.

What I failed to consider before boarding that plane at JFK was that I would be living with my employers, whom I had found via the internet and three Skype video chats, five thousand miles from the possibility of two-weeks-notice. In Italian, au pair translates to "ragazza alla pari," "girl who earns her keep." I earned more than my keep that summer, as 40-hour workweeks subtly stretched into 45, then 60. I failed to consider that children who had always had help in the home might be less than considerate, that the family might take advantage of the fact that I lived with them, and that my job might quickly turn from English teacher and caretaker to full time child entertainer, with no exit in sight. The transition from private liberal arts co-ed to full-time servant with a fancy French title was hardly smooth, but it was certainly a humbling experience of how it feels to be "the help." So let my unwanted tan lines earned from nine-hour days in the sun serve as a warning to college co-eds seeking adventure and romance bundled into a summer job: there is little "alla pari," or equal, about working as an au pair.