Elitism in the English Countryside: My Experience as an Au Pair
Our conversation switches from jovial to awkward in an instant. His words come out staunchly. Like there’s nothing you could say or do that would convince him otherwise.
“People in small houses aren’t happy.”
I splutter on my lukewarm Earl Grey. Alfie is the closest thing I have to a best friend in England. We spend countless hours together, sharing meals and chatting together about the minutiae of the day. I’m always there if he’s in trouble. He laughs at my jokes at least half of the time. I thought I knew him, but I never for a moment expected this.
“Sorry, what was that?” I ask.
Maybe I misheard him. He’s swirling porridge around his bowl, oblivious to my distress.
“People in small houses aren’t happy. Because they don’t have swimming pools and nice things.”
We sit in stunned silence as I try to formulate replies in my head. Nothing sticks. I want to pull Alfie up on this, but how? He tends to react badly when he doesn’t get what he wants. Is it the cultural difference? Is he being facetious? Maybe I’m just a typical Australian not picking up on sarcasm.
My companion throws his spoon down on the table and looks me straight in the eye.
“I need to go wee wees.”
Alfie is three years old. I am his au pair.
For the past six months I’ve lived with Alfie’s family as a full-time domestic worker: cooking, cleaning, childminding, walking the dogs. The pay isn’t great but there are perks aplenty. I get to live rent free in a three-story mansion in Oxfordshire, the entire top story of which is mine alone. Everything that normally puts strain on a traveller’s wallet is taken care of. Food? I can have whatever I want from an overflowing fridge. Transport? I have a car to drive and am reimbursed for petrol.
As a recent high school graduate, I’m not unused to comforts like this. My own upbringing in Australia was privileged – two middle-class professionals as parents, a private school education and a comfortable house in white picket fence suburbia. I grew up so surrounded by elitism that I was completely blind to it. So why is it suddenly so confronting to me here?
The mother of the house decides she doesn’t like me early on. I never learn why. She doesn’t have to work, so she hovers around me a lot as I clean her house and look after her two children. Charlotte is eleven, so once I’ve driven her to school my main charge is keeping Alfie occupied.
I have to pry him away from his mother most mornings, deflecting questions about why I’m there at all. Sorry Alfie, I always say, Mummy is very busy so she can’t play with you today. The father works long hours in finance so we mostly see him on weekends.
Any au pair will tell you that our job is a strange balancing act. On one hand, you’re meant to be part of the family. You share meals with them, a roof. You bear witness to the minutiae of their everyday lives. Yet, you’re not one of them, not really. An invisible line always distinguishes you as the help. I’ve never been so aware of such a staggering class divide as I am in England, probably because I’ve never been on the other side of it.
It’s worth noting that for me, this experience is temporary. At the end of my year I can quit my job, move back home and get a University education. Not everyone has access to the same liberties.
I become close with the cleaners: a married couple, both Polish immigrants in their 50s who come to work on the house twice a week. Tesia tells long-winded stories while her husband, Henryk, listens with an amused smile. She talks about her sick mother back home in Poland, how her dream is to return one day with a little bit of money to look after her.
“You’re the first au pair to ever speak with us,” she says. I’m shocked. The girl who did this job before me was an old school friend.
One day, Tesia finds me crying after a particularly bad fight with the mother of the house. She pulls me into a hug and writes down her phone number and address for me.
“She gets angry with us like this too. She treats us very badly, always underpaid, always complaining. Call any time. You can stay with us as long as you need.”
By the time Alfie tells me with total conviction that people in small houses aren’t happy I’m not as surprised as I might otherwise be. After his potty break, I broach the subject with him again.
“Hey buddy, you know what you said before about small houses? Who were you talking about?”
“George!” he says. My stomach drops. George is Alfie’s preschool friend who lives just down the road. His home is spacious and beautiful, with chestnut floorboards, high ceilings, and more rooms than his family needs for their three children.
When I was three, I only knew what my parents told me about the world and valued what my parents valued. I never heard statements like the one Alfie made escape his parents’ lips, but I didn’t have to. I saw it in the way they acted. It wasn’t such a stretch to imagine their candid conversations, out of my earshot but not their children’s. It’s nurture, not nature, that produces a toddler who considers living in one-storey house grounds for misery.
I know it won’t make a difference, but I have to try. “You know, Alfie,” I say, “George actually lives in a very nice house. You’re very lucky, not everyone has a swimming pool or their own playground. And life isn’t about what you own, you know, it’s about, uh… love. And happiness.”
The complexity of life, flattened by a 19-year-old who barely understands it into blanket statements for a child.
Alfie ignores me and tips his entire bowl of porridge onto the ground.
Cover by James Bold