August.

The ass end of summer.

The time of year when I’m slogging through the drudgery of everyday life: the commuting, the second-only-to-L.A. traffic of Atlanta, the smog, the latest Mexican drug-trafficking hub that is Gwinnett County, the belligerent assholes in their giant SUVs with the faded “We’re Proud of You” and “Support Our Troops” magnetic ribbons, the tragic irony of which is no longer worth criticizing or satirizing.

I’ve always preferred the muted light of an overcast day; everything looks calm and friendly in the filtered light, which is strange since I lived in Florida for the first 28 years of my life. You’d think I’d be accustomed to sunshine. But in Florida we had afternoon thunderstorms that scuttled in from the gulf every day like clockwork. I adored those gray cumulonimbi.

PARIS, FRANCE-

I leave humbled.

Humble. It’s a word I never understood as a child. A word I don’t think I ever really understood until very recently. It’s a word, like bitter, that needs to be lived before it can truly be understood.

Although I’d lived in Paris before this experience, I came here with a very naive and cocky attitude.

Gargoyle

I thought nothing could touch me. I’m an American, I told myself. If the au pair thing doesn’t work out I’ll be able to find other work teaching English. After all, I’m qualified. I have a degree in an English subject and I’m certified to teach English as a foreign language. There will be no problems.

Plus, I know this family, I told myself. They’d never screw me over. I worked for them before. The youngest son was a pain back then, but four years has passed. I’m sure he’s grown out of his brattiness. Plus, how can I pass this job up? They’re offering me an apartment, a car, and 800 euros a month in exchange for 20 hours of work per week. I’ll have enough extra time that I can even continue writing if I want to!

I was wrong about all of it. Every one of my assumptions was wrong. And not only have I not had much time to write, I haven’t been able to write because I’m so bitter and hateful I would have ended up sounding like one of those people I’ve always wanted to strangle: “France wouldn’t be so bad if they’d get rid of all the French people.”

Really, that isn’t a fair statement. It’s not ALL French people I hate. It’s only two French people whom I utterly and fully despise. Yet, somehow every time I find myself being slighted now, I think, or scream, “Fucking French!” And then I have to remind myself again that not all French people are the devil incarnate. It’s not their fault I came here thinking, “I’m American, nothing bad can happen to me.”

Um, but you’re still a foreigner here. And without a visa to be here. That makes you an illegal alien. In America we don’t treat our illegal aliens any differently. In fact, I’d say we treat them much worse, but maybe that’s me being hyper-critical of Americans.

Farmworker

Basically, let me break it down for you:

Because I knew this French family from my stay here in 2003, and had worked for them before, I trusted them. Therefore, I accepted a job from them based on their word alone. I didn’t ever get a contract or actually anything in writing.

Because I didn’t get anything in writing, they have cheated me, and continue to cheat me, at every opportunity, starting with having never gotten me a work visa so I am automatically unqualified to get any other job regardless of my “qualifications.” Trust me, I know, I’ve tried to find other work. And despite getting calls back from every single place within less than 24 hours, I’ve never been offered a job because the second the visa question comes up they say, “Oh, well, thank you for your time.”

In addition to not getting me my work visa, they have cut 200 euros a month off my salary and added 25 hours per week to my agreed upon hours. They did this from the very beginning and without telling me. I just got my first paycheck and it was missing 200 euros. Up until then I hadn’t complained about the hours because I felt I didn’t have a right. I felt like I’d accepted this job so I have to do what they ask me to do. Plus, I’ve heard of far worse situations from other au pairs, so I figured I was lucky.

I did ask my boss about the discrepancy though. She said, “I don’t remember ever offering you that much money. And the hours will even out. We’ll balance it out so it works for both of us.”

Despite several conversations since then and a number of promises from her, nothing has changed.

Oh, oh, and I’m not working as an au pair. I’m working as a personal assistant. I see the children maybe 10 hours of my 45-hour work week. The rest of my time is spent grocery shopping, going to the post office, making her coffee, picking up laundry, making photocopies, and anything else my boss can dream up. My life is essentially the life of the girl from “The Devil Wears Prada,” only I don’t get the free designer clothes to make up for my psycho boss’ attitude.

So I’m giving up. After only seven months of what was supposed to be at least two years abroad, Tony and I are going back to California. I made one last attempt to get my boss to understand my point of view and she said to me, “You act as though we’re exploiting you here.” Um, yes, that’s exactly what I was trying to say.

On to bigger and better things. And I sincerely hope that one day I can return to Paris and love it like I used to. Maybe I’ll come back here with Tony in a few years and we’ll laugh about the time we tried to live here without visas. And I’ll say, “God, do you remember that devil child and his crazy mom? I wonder how they’re doing,” and I might really mean it.

Montmartre5

It’s possible that I am way, way late to this particular party, that everyone else in the western world has seen both installments of “Man vs. Beast” a dozen times and that every time I enter a room people are waiting for me to leave so they can resume their secret (from me) conversations about the show. But I saw it for the first time last night, and assuming there are other culture vultures out there with the same elephant-sized gap in their knowledge base, some context (and yes, the above photo of forty-odd midgets trying desperately to move a jetliner is completely relevant, though if anyone is looking for an explanation as to why the midgets seem to be color-coded you’ll have to go elsewhere, as that is beyond the scope of my (admittedly slight) “M v. B” knowledge):