Really and Truly, Finally Goodbye

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So it’s over. Today is the fifteenth of September. Friday the nineteenth will mark a full year since I struggled down the cobbled streets with my oversized suitcase and sat dazed on the sofa bed in my new, empty flat. This time last year I was worrying, and panicking, and packing, and unpacking, and obsessively checking where my passport was. It feels like a very long time ago.

I suppose it was, really. In the last year I’ve worked three jobs, lived with two french families and spoken in one new language. I’ve learnt not to panic on the phone, how to turn a blind eye to a tantrum, and how to get twenty french children to sing ‘Heads, Shoulders, Knees and Toes’. I can make croissants and tough decisions. I’ve loved hard and lost hard, been homesick and at home. I’m not the person I was when I left.

I moved to France to learn french, and I have. Throw me into a French situation, and I can swim along quite happily, muddling through the idioms and the jokes that leave me laughing half a minute too late. But I’ve learnt a lot as well, the mushy, personal life lessons that you never know you’ve learnt until the teacher is gone. And I made memories that I want to keep, memories with all my friends out there.

So here, my friends, are the moments I treasure. I treasure thanksgiving, when you at the end of the dinner you brought out stacks of cakes for me and Sue. I treasure the day in December when we bought a Christmas tree, dragging it back from the market with the needles in our gloves. I treasure Christmas, too, with the flat full of people and the squishy parcel you got me, Lianne, with the Christmas jumper inside. I wore it to school on the last day of term, trying to explain to the bewildered children the whole concept of a Christmas jumper, and why on earth I would want to wear one.

I treasure sitting on the harbour in Monaco, eating pastries because we couldn’t afford a restaurant and staring at the yachts. I treasure stumbling home after parties, and Emily and Dalia, I treasure the hundreds of times we walked down my street together so that I wouldn’t have to do it alone. I treasure the week of eating crazily, one posh meal after another, until we couldn’t move and the thought of another starter repulsed us. I treasure the picnic on the island the weekend I came back, and the nights I spent on Steven and Sarah’s floor.

I hate to say goodbye – to you, to France, to this year. So I don’t think I ever really said it. I was one of the first to leave, hamster and mother in tow, so that I wouldn’t have to get glittery eyed as one by one you went home. Strange, isn’t it, that in a way I’m the last one back. You all have a grip on me stronger than you can imagine.

I won’t say goodbye – not to Britain, Canada, Germany or the USA. I promise I’ll try, with all I’ve got, to see you all again. I won’t say goodbye to France either, because this country has a hold on me now. It’s home. So au revoir you wonderful people, because this is not goodbye. This is until next time.

Seeing as my Year Abroad is over now, this blog feels slightly redundant. Should I keep writing? What should I write about? Give me your ideas!

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A Secret, and Some Snapshots

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Halfway up Mont Veryier

I have a horrible secret to share. Reader, please don’t hate me – I had to get it out somewhere. The thing is, C has a cough, and I can’t stand it. I’m an unsympathetic bitch, and this cough is ruining my life.

It’s two o clock in the morning. Earlier in the evening (at like, ten, this aupair thing is tiring!) I crawled into bed hoping for oblivion. But now, in the dark, what is this sly sound I hear creeping through the walls?

Cough cough. Cough cough.

I roll over. I pull a face, and shut my eyes again. I pretend it never happened, and that I’m still asleep.

Cough cough. Cough cough.

I pull the pillow over my ears. I’m determined to get some sleep. I’m selfish like that.

Cough cough. Cough cough.

Then…

Maman! Maman! Maman!

Here’s the suspense. Will Maman come? I would say that half the time she does, and then C gets a cuddle, and slips back to sleep, and I follow. Problem is that she’s trying this new ‘self-soothing’ thing, where C calms down on her own. It’s ok for her, she sleeps in a beautiful bedroom on the other side of the house, and I’ve got a sneaking suspicion that she owns a large range of earplugs. I have no earplugs, and a joining wall.

If Maman doesn’t come, then no sleep for me. As soon as C’s finally fallen asleep, I’ll hear cough cough, cough cough. It’ll start all over again.

This, dear reader, is why I’m going to have to present the weeks’ events in short-but-sweet vignettes. I’d say it was a wonderful stylistic choice, but I’d be lying. The truth is that I’m too bloody tired to concentrate on anything for more than two minutes. Enjoy.

Weekend with Steven.
Picture the scene. Last night, boosted by wine and some incredibly strong Belgian beers, we decided to climb a mountain. Mount Veryier, all 1200 metres of it. ‘I’ve climbed Everest’ I said to myself ‘so I can obviously do this.’ Two hours in, and two thirds of the way up the mountain, I take it all back. I can’t even enjoy the view at the top, because I’m dreading walking back down. When I tell my host mum what we got up to at the weekend, she gives me a funny look.
‘I live here, and I’ve never climbed it. Why on earth did you?’

A Cooling Dip.
The lake is the cleanest in Europe. From the bank, you can see layers of fishes swimming around before you hit the rocks at the bottom. So I had to swim in it, right? So what if the day my friends visited was cold and grey? So what if we were practically the only pedalo out? I HAD to.
‘If you stick your legs in, then after a while it’s not too bad!’
A promising start. Not. So I dangle myself over the side, hoping that I’ll fall in. I can’t do it voluntarily. I wobble. I topple. I’m in.
‘Ahitscolditscolditssososocold!’
‘It’s lovely once you get in, isn’t it?’

Oh The Grand Old Duke of…. Somewhere.
I’m in the south with my family, tagging onto their holiday for a weekend. We’re having dinner on the cute little village square. Turns out that we are there for some sort of festival, and we’ve unwittingly stumbled upon a historical reenactment. Over the country dancing, the announcer starts telling the story, and I put on my ‘listening to french’ face. I don’t understand a word, but I reckon I can blag something well enough to impress my family. Suddenly, five men and women on horseback charge through the square.
‘Are they the good guys or the baddies?’
‘The goodies’ I confidently assert.
So they fight, and through the flashes of swords I can see the numbers dwindling. It’s all looking good for my theory. Then the man on horseback in the red coat, the one I’d pointed out as the hero of the piece, falls to the ground. I start to worry about how my I-speak-fluent-French myth will hold up.
I try to keep it up through thick and thin. It’s only when they drag out an effigy of red coat and hang him and burn him at the same time that I turn to my parents.
‘Ok, so maybe they were the bad guys’.

My Heart Gets Warmed.
At the playground, J and C come running over to me. C’s howling, her face covered in tears.
‘C fell over. Will you kiss it better?’
When my kiss cures her instantly, I feel like I’ve made it as an aupair.

The Ultimate Au Pair Quiz

What type of an au pair are you? Take our quiz and find out:

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What are the names of the children you are looking after?
A – The Ugly Sisters (but not to their faces, of course!)
B – How should I know? I couldn’t care less about their names. Probably horrible though.
C – Anything vaguely posh and Edwardian. No newfangled nonsense.
D – Sweetie when they’re good, their own name over and over again when they’re not.

2) You’ve spent the afternoon doing a craft project with the kids, and now there’s mess everywhere. Do you…
A – Clean it all up. And then sweep and dust the rest of the house, just in case.
B – Stand over the kids with a face like thunder until every last scrap of paper is in the bin.
C – Whistle sweetly, and show the children how to click their fingers to tidy up while singing a beautiful song, thus turning the job into an educational game.
D – Start bargaining. ‘If you put all that paper in the bin, I’ll clean the table. Ok half the paper. Ok one sheet, at least it’s a start…’

3) What is your au pair style?
A – The family hand-me-downs.
B – Full military gear.
C – Something elegant and classy, with a frilly apron over the top.
D – A teeshirt, accessorised with a bit of toothpaste on the hem from when the kids interrupted you this morning.

4) What do you do on your evenings off?
A – State wistfully out the window and dream of going to the ball.
B – Head to the gym to practice your old Olympian moves.
C – Dance on rooftops and make polite conversation with your umbrella.
D – Sleep.

5) How does your host family treat you?
A – Like dirt.
B – You run the family. It’s more about how you treat them.
C – With a bemused benevolence, as if they can’t quite believe you’re real.
D – Like part of the family, bless them, but they’ll never be your own.

6) What is the best part about being an au pair?
A – Well, at least the family have a wonderfully clean home.
B – Teaching the little shrimps a few manners.
C – Teaching the parents a few manners.
D – Getting paint in your eyebrows as you and the kids create some masterpieces.

Answers:

Mostly A)
You are Cinderella. Darling, you might think you are making yourself useful, being wonderfully helpful, and an all round tip-top perfect little au pair, but you’re being taken advantage of. It’s all fun and cleaning at the moment, but watch out. Very soon your bedroom will mysteriously move to the scullery and ashes will be your new go-to look. If you don’t want to rely on a pumpkin and some white mice in order to get an evening out, you need to toughen up that backbone!

Mostly B)
You are Miss Trunchbull. You believe that children should be seen and not heard, and your main goal is to get through the day without a peep from those little buggers. Stricter than an army Sargent, you’ve secretly been practicing your hammer throws with their teddy bears. Watch out! All you need is one know-it-all madam to start levitating things with her eyes and your fear factor will crumble. And what on earth would you do then?

Mostly C)
You are Mary Poppins. Firm but fair, sweet but stern, you’re practically perfect in every way. You could take the toughest little toe rags in the world and turn them out walking in step and whistling as they go. Your strange nanny magic can get the nursery tidy without you lifting a finger, and means that you’ll never be stuck for something to do. One problem? The moment you’ve turned the kids around, you’ll be gone, and they will never even look back.

Mostly D)
You are an actual human person. You are normal. You do try your hardest to do everything right, but there are only so many tantrums and sleepless nights and protracted negotiations over a bowl of cereal that you can take. You’ve done baking and salt dough and the pool and the beach, but you still feel like your are rennin out of options. If you are once again lying on the sofa saying ‘gaga’ in a game of mums and babies, take heart! It’s not for forever, and you’ll bloody miss them when you’ve gone.

Zen and the Art of Tantrums

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Precocious, funny, and a world class screamer, C has taken the publishing world by storm. Her latest book, Zen and the Art of Tantrums, has spent three weeks at the top of the best seller chart, holding off stiff competition from No! I WON’T Go to Sleep and Keeping Your Dummy When Mummy Says No. In this exclusive interview, Deux Plaques talks to C about crying, kicking and when to stay sweet so that no one twigs that you’re faking.

DP: C, your book has been an instant hit! Did you ever expect it would have such a wide reception?
C: I’ve always known that harnessing the power of a tantrum can change lives, and it surprised me that no one had done this before. There are literally millions of children in the world who still have very rudimentary skills in this area, so yes, I did always think it would be big. It’s a skill that toddlers just can’t do without!

DP: What should children be aiming for when they throw a tantrum?
C: There’s a common misconception that tantrums are for little things. This couldn’t be further from the truth. If someone takes a pen from you, you throw a tantrum, and you get it back, all you’ve really achieved is getting back to the place you were at before. Children need to think bigger. The perfect tantrum isn’t about a lost pen – it’s about the deep existential crisis of being a power-hungry tyrant in a powerless three year old body, disguised as wanting a pen back. It’s all about turning the situation round to you.

DP: Ok, so the perfect tantrum is about a power struggle. Can you give us some tips on how best to perform them?
C: Some people have a tendency to focus too much on the screaming. Don’t get me wrong, screaming is important, but a good tantrum is also all about physicality. Try to take over the space. Lying in the middle of the floor, kicking your legs, and banging on the walls are all good ways to get someone’s attention. Doing something potentially dangerous, like heading for a busy road or climbing some flimsy shelving can also work wonders. Basically, you need to make it impossible for the adult to leave you alone, because from the moment the tantrum kicks off it will be all they want to do.

DP: And as for the screaming?
C: Try to focus on one word, and repeat it over and over. Classics are things like ‘mama’ or ‘papa’ – and I’d advise picking the one who isn’t currently there. Complicated sentences or advanced reasoning are entirely besides the point when it comes to tantrums.

DP: You mentioned picking the adult that isn’t there – who should one address a tantrum too?
C: Ideally, a tantrum should always be focused on the weakest adult in the area. If Dad is unlikely to give in, shout for Mum, and vice versa. My situation is complicated a bit by the fact that I have an au pair, on whom tantrums don’t have a huge effect. What I would recommend in these situations is to focus on something that she or he simply can’t provide, and go absolutely off your rocker. Think of it more as practice for later tantrums rather than one with a current, achievable goal.

DP: Is there any other advice you would give to novice tantrumers?
C: Know when to stop. A tantrum is only effective when there is clear contrast between the adorable toddler of every day life and the screaming mess on the floor. If you throw one at every opportunity, they will have less and less of a result. Pick your battles, and make sure you give the adult who gave in a huge cuddle and a smile when you’ve got what you want. You’ll immediately switch back into their darling baby girl/boy, and it’s important to override the monster impression that you gave them minutes before.

DP: Thank you, C, for all your incredible insights! We wish you the best of luck with you upcoming tantrums, and we hope all our readers will soon be kicking sofas and climbing up the walls to achieve their goals.

Zen and the Art of Tantrums is available on Amazon for €15.99, or send us a picture of your best tantrum face and you could be in to win an exclusive signed copy!

Image from Creative Commons, D Sharon Pruitt

A Proper Cuppa Tea

20140726-145545-53745104.jpgIf a picture is worth a thousand words, the morning’s cup of tea was worth more than a complete annotated works of Shakespeare or a beautifully bound copy of War and Peace. It was worth more than all seven volumes of Proust. This morning’s cup of tea told me everything that’s right here, everything that I didn’t have before, and the steam rising off it smelled of summer and hopes and long evenings with a glass of rosé in hand. I don’t even think I’m being over dramatic. Honestly, it meant so much.

Two evenings ago, I made myself a cup of tea. Pretty normal, not unremarkable. But my host mum here did remake something. And suddenly a little funny chat about how much tea I drink, how I’m such a huge stereotype, and how I was dying for a proper British cuppa became a promise that tomorrow we’d go and buy some tea. ‘That’s nice’, I thought, and carried on with my life. I didn’t realise how special this tea would be.

The tea shop in Annecy is on a long road of other tea shops. Each of them has teapots in the window and tea leaves by the door. We walked along, kids in tow, until we reached the right one. Until we reached Mariage Frères.

For those not in the know (i.e people who aren’t crazy tea fanatics like me), Mariage Frères does some of the best tea around. It’s the stuff you find in posh department stores. It’s the stuff you find when you open a menu and almost faint at the crazy prices for tea, until you see the little star and look down to where it’s written – *’Mariage Frères‘. It’s good stuff.

The shop was a little secret cave, a shrine to tea. The walls were lined with casks in red and green, and everywhere was florid gold writing and intoxicating smells. With just us in I felt like I was part of some private ritual, as the owner pulled casks of the wall for me to smell and brewed up a tiny cup of one for me to taste. I came away with a sachet of English breakfast tea, a sachet of a scented green and a glow inside.

My cup of tea this morning was english breakfast. It tasted like home. But it also tasted of generosity, of someone who looked for the things I liked and tried to replicate them, who tried to make me feel welcome. It tasted of acceptance, and family, and people looking out for me. It tasted of everything I didn’t feel like I had in Rennes. So to my new french family – thank you. We’re going to have a great summer.

…And Why I’m Going Anyway

20140716-114539-42339322.jpg For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. For every part of me wanting to stay, there’s another part longing to leave. Not going now would leave my year feeling unfinished, half done, not to mention the fact that my new host mum would probably kill me (and I’d deserve it). So for every reason to panic,there’s a reason why I can’t wait to go.

1) The host mum. Out ofall the families I skyped and emailed, she is the one I really connected to. I find it hard to make a conversation in french; I find it hard to make a conversation with a stranger. She was a stranger, who only spoke french, and we managed to talk for over two hours about nothing in particular and everything under the sun. I really don’t think that, this time, finding someone to talk to is going to be a problem.

2) The host dad. Now, I feel a little bit guilty about this, but the truth is that the host dad is hot. Like, really hot. Plus he’s a doctor. In a white coat. I’m worried I’ll drool on him when I meet him. Obviously I’m not out to husband-steal, but a bit of eye candy in the morning is no bad thing.

3) Speaking french. After being back in blighty a while, I’m definitely sliding down the french fluency ladder. When I first got back I’d sometimes struggle to remember english words or phrases over french ones – sadly, no such problems now. Some people think of a language like a muscle, use it or you lose it. In which case I’m definitely ready for a six week workout.

4) The food. More specifically, the bread. I sometimes think my time in Rennes would have been easier if the mother hadn’t been gluten intolerant. Can you imagine living in France, next door to a boulangerie no less, and not having a scrap of baguette in the house? It doesn’t bear thinking about.

5) The kids. C and J are utter cuties, no mistake. It was J’s birthday in May, and as I was going to be spending the summer with her, I sent her a birthday card. What I got back was a thank you not, decorated, picked out by her, beautiful. And she’s only five years old. Spending the summer with these kids will be a massive education, and this time the children will be the teachers. You should always do the things that scare you. I’ve got a lot to gain from this. Why was I so worried? Find out here.

5 Signs I Might Be Making A Huge Mistake…

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The flight is booked. The deadline’s looming. On sunday I’ll be heading off on the last stage of my year abroad adventure – a summer spent au pairing in Annecy. It should be a magical experience, with a turquoise lake, a beautiful, canal-strewn town and a weather forecast that reaches 32 degrees next week. Dotted around though are five signs that I might be about to make a huge mistake.

1) It’s not as if my first aupair experience was very successful. I stayed for a month, and it is true that the family were kind, the flat was gorgeous, and I got to try a lot of french wine. But I also spent 95% of my time alone, either moping in my room or wandering forlornly around town. I am not equipped to deal with loneliness. What if it happens again?

2) The family have a swimming pool. ‘This isn’t a bad thing!’ I hear you cry. True, but a swimming pool needs a bikini. I can’t find one. I’ve looked in hundreds of shops, over and over, and I couldn’t even find anything on ASOS (which, for the un-initiated, must stock over a hundred different ones). I’m taking this as a divine sign that this pool is not for me.

3) I haven’t packed my bags. Normally, despite being a terrible packer, I prepare for it weeks early. Days are spent chucking things in the suitcase and pulling them back out again, putting together a ‘capsule wardrobe’ and then realising that nothing fits. This week I haven’t even washed anything. Not a good start.

4) Nervous dreams. You know the ones – where you’re about to sit an exam you haven’t studied for and then suddenly realise you’re naked except for your socks, or you bite into an apple and your teeth start crumbling out, or you’re just trying to walk to the shops but somehow you get incredibly lost and start wandering around in increasingly dodgy streets. I’ve woken up in a cold sweat more than once.

5) This month has felt like a gift. I didn’t expect to be able to see my family and friends at all this summer, thinking I’d be spending the whole time with a family that wasn’t my own. Instead I’ve been able to go camping with the best (and most random) group of people, spend lazy days in the sun having long-overdue catch ups, and cook a barbecue for people I haven’t seen since I was eighteen. I’ve come home each night to people who really care about me, and when I come downstairs the ‘good morning’ I receive is meant. It’s going to be hard to give up.

But, on the other hand