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On May 4th, 2013, I graduated university. Ten days later, I was in Munich, Germany, to spend the better part of a year working as an au pair, basically a nanny from a foreign country, staying with a host family. I worked for a family with three children: boy and girl twins who were eight, and their six-year-old brother.
I was to work for them for three months, then after a short stay in Paris with my boyfriend, I would work in Vienna, Austria for six months. Everything was organized online and independently -- no agency meant no agency fees, and I could handle it on my own.
The first family seemed nice online, and in person they seemed fine as well -- at first. I was excited to practice my German and live in one of the most well-known cities in Europe. I had my own room and bathroom to myself. My contract cited working 30 hours per week, a pay of 260 Euros per month, with one day and three evenings off per week.
Since you must prove you are learning the home language, most families pay for half (or all) of an au pair’s German course as well as their transportation fees and insurance. The real point of such an exchange is not for an au pair to earn much money, but to learn about the culture and language.
The mother stayed at home (that is, when she wasn’t getting her nails done or shopping). The father was an engineer and I rarely saw him. He was kind to me. The kids were overscheduled. Every day was a different lesson: swimming, ballet, speech therapy, piano lessons, and “Mama school.”
Mama school was the childrens’ description of the hours of lessons they were expected to do after normal school. Their mother would sit with them and teach them well beyond what their classes required, and berate them if they didn’t sit still or did a math problem wrong. My German was good enough for me to know that this woman called her kids stupid to their faces.
My job was to make breakfast and lunches, neither of which I actually spent with the family. Every morning when the kids left, I made their beds, emptied the dishwasher, swept, cleaned all the glass surfaces, cleaned the bathroom, and washed the remaining dishes. Then came ironing. I've never particularly liked ironing, but I didn’t hate it before I was in Munich.
Once I stood in the hot, windowless basement for four hours ironing every little piece of clothing, including the kids’ pajamas. If I didn’t do a good job, I had to start over. This was not the “light cleaning” written in my contact. For a little while, I had a morning German course but if the cleaning wasn’t done, I wasn’t supposed to leave the house. I had maybe one day off per week, Sunday, when everything in Germany is closed. I felt like Cinderella.
Even worse were the kids. They didn't listen to or respect me, and the mother didn't help.
I started to hear some strange things about the family. Another au pair told me that her kid had to switch schools because mine had bullied hers so badly. Then I met a neighbor who confided that her family had found the last au pair kicked out of the house crying.
Not only was I berated verbally -- the kids physically attacked me. The youngest, when I forbade him from climbing an eight-foot ladder over the fence, had to be taken by the hand back to his mother. Obviously pissed, he slapped and scratched my arm until it was bleeding. When we reached his mother, she brushed me off and pretended not to notice her son's handiwork.
Some days later, I was teaching the eight-year-old daughter piano, and the youngest insisted on hitting his sister, and distracting us both. I put my hand on him, I'll admit it, but not in a violent way in any sense. I merely held him at arms-length while the girl finished her song. Not long after, the mother came upstairs and raged at me in German (so her children understood) that I had pushed her son. She threatened to throw me out of the house if I ever laid hands on any of her children again.
I assured her that I would never do such a thing, that it would never be allowed in my house either, and I was honestly frightened.
After one week of working 47 hours (the legal limit is 30 hours per week), I was fed up. I had talked to the mother before about the importance of keeping a contract, and she simply wasn't respecting it. It would be different if I felt like a member of the family -- if I loved the children -- but there was no chance.
One Tuesday I came home from my German class to five children instead of three. I could handle a playdate as long as the mother was around too. Until she wasn't. As I caught her running out the door with the twins to a birthday party, I was told to watch the three six-year-olds closely, not to leave them alone. I didn't even know the names of the two other children, if they had eaten, or if they would be picked up while I was there alone, and by whom. I asked feebly when she would be returning, but she just got in the car and drove away.
I was looking at a book and I look up to see the six-year-old son waving a three-inch pocket knife in my face. This was a knife I had confiscated earlier from his bed. I had decided it was too dangerous for him, and I gave it to his mother. I can only assume she returned it to him.
I was sitting and the knife was at eye level, less than two feet from my face. He was thrusting it at me just beyond reach, but enough to scare the absolute crap out of me. I put my hand up slowly to defend myself, and he continued. I told him to stop, that what he was doing was dangerous, and to give me the knife.
I was terrified. I don't know how I got the knife from him, but I took it away and walked out of the room.
I told him I was calling his mother. He threatened to do it first, taking the phone and miming calling his mother.
"Mom? Bekka hit me."
I could not stay there one day longer.
By the next morning, I had formulated a plan to stay in Munich far far away from this family. I’d get a student visa, which is pretty straightforward in Germany. I went to the appropriate government office and explained that I was an au pair interested in staying in the country as a student. She looked up my file, but I wasn’t in the system. I didn’t exist in Germany. As it turns out, I had been working illegally, something Germany very much frowned upon. I was uninsured, also illegal.
I began to cry, explaining in terribly broken German the events that had transpired over the past 24 hours. I was overwhelmed. I didn’t want to be breaking the law -- I could have been banned from entering the country for several years by working for these people.
The next step was the police station. By the time I arrived, I was late to return to work, which increased my anxiety. Even though I was going to take legal action against the family, I was still worried about the consequences of coming to work late. At the station, I kept apologizing and saying, “Am I doing something wrong?” They were incredibly sympathetic to my situation, agreed that I had been hired to be a billige putzfrau, a cheap maid. After several hours of crying and explaining what was going on to numerous people in German, they bought me McDonald's (my first meal of the day) and took me to pick up my suitcases.
Immediately the police realized that my description of my host mother was an understatement. As soon as she answered the door, she looked at me with cold contempt and the lying began. She told them I kept my bathroom a mess; they looked, and it was in perfect order. She told them the knife was a child’s toy, but when the police asked to see it, they were appalled.
They told her I was leaving and she had to pay me. I gathered my things while the officer stood in my doorway to keep her from me, and I cried. I threw everything into a bag (one that I had truly never unpacked) and they drove me to the train station. I never looked back.