From junior high taunting to arguments with landladies, managers and clients, manipulative boyfriends, turnabout relatives, from being vehemently told, “You’ve just created a pain in the ass,” to being accused of lying, to “Are you going to behave well now?” I’ve reacted fairly calmly to most confrontations with those in positions of power in my life. I can take it. And I can usually give a little bit back, so that I can leave the conversation free from thoughts of vindication.
until now. I’ve just had a fight with my host-dad, a term that implies far too much affection and doesn’t come close to hinting at the power struggle involved. As a preface: in the near-month I’ve worked for this family, the parents have regularly changed my work schedule on an hour’s notice, asked me to work weekends, failed to tell me how late I was working a particular day. The friends I’ve made here, who knew my predecessor, says she had the same problem, unable to schedule social activities because she never knew when she’d be expected to work. Sometimes even woken up and asked to work right away, as I was, the other day.
In that atmosphere I felt the safest plan was not to plan at all. Easier to adapt to their needs for my last few days here, than worry about timetables. My friends and I had tentatively planned the next two days, leaving this weekend and Monday wide open. I fly to England on Tuesday. When I discussed leaving with the host parents, nothing was said about transportation, and I assumed since they were spending their holiday outside Barcelona, the easiest way for me to get to the airport was to get a ride from them. I would return to that house sometime between Saturday and Monday, and on Tuesday, the host-mom had agreed to drop me off at the airport in the morning.
In Reus today, where only the host-dad is staying right now, I walked downstairs to get my third Nutella sandwich, and instead got, y’know, a knuckle sandwich. He suddenly needed to know exactly what my plans were for the next four days, down to the hour, and whether or not I was going to the holiday house again. He didn’t listen to my responses, constantly reacting as though I was foolish and inconveniencing him by not having clear plans. Suddenly he wasn’t sure if it was okay for me to spend time in the holiday house by myself. Suddenly he was offended that I didn’t want him to bring my suitcase down to Reus. Suddenly he wanted me to stay in Reus until I left Spain, though yesterday he had insisted I had to be out of this house and back in Barcelona tomorrow. Suddenly he was an asshole.
But not really suddenly. As angry as we both got during this conversation, until I was about to walk out of the house, I wasn’t surprised. I’ve avoided this man since I gave notice and his reaction gave me grave concerns. I haven’t blogged about this family since I started here, wanting to respect their privacy, but better I write this than resort to more violent forms of self-expression.
Having had all my conflicts with the host-mom and feeling much more comfortable with the dad, I gave myself an “easy out” (I thought) by telling him I was leaving, instead of her. I told him the Spanish heat made me so uncomfortable that I had to accept an offer from an English family. I said nothing about his family or his children making me uncomfortable. His reaction was, “Well, that’s funny, because we were going to talk to you about your not seeming very happy here with the kids.” He went on to describe all the things I had done wrong with the older children, and suggest that I probably shouldn’t be an au pair. According to him, I should have been more gregarious, done everything the children asked me to do, and told them more about myself. He never acknowledged that the children only recognized my existence after the parents were outside the house, that they were manipulative themselves, and that their tantrums might overwhelm a stranger. Startled, and guilty of conscience after many conflicts with the middle child, I gave him plenty of line and he fished for fifteen or twenty minutes. It ended with me on the phone with my mom, in tears, saying, what can I do? He’s right, I’m terrible with kids.
It took a conversation with her, and a few hours, for me to realize how spiteful his reaction had been. Regardless of how comfortable or loving I was with his children, giving me such criticism at that juncture could only have been driven by a desire to hurt. If he felt I was such a terrible au pair, he would have said something much earlier for the sake of his children. On the other hand, if something held him back for three weeks, why didn’t it after I gave notice? If someone tells you in the most nonconfrontational way that they’re leaving, you may feel relieved, but there’s no reason at that point to tell them all their shortcomings. Unless you’re an asshole.
Contrasting that with his always-friendly behavior prior to my giving notice, I chided myself for thinking only his wife was passive aggressive. As I learned more about what the surrounding community thought of this couple, from the host families of other au pairs to a student of the host-dad’s, my desire to avoid him grew. At least the host-mom’s hostility was consistent.
This fight today left me nauseous, but unfortunately I can’t react as honestly as I’d like. I’m still living in one of their homes, with belongings in another. It makes one aware of how servants must have felt for generations in Europe, powerless in their aristocratic employers’ homes, unable to assert themselves financially or emotionally, forced to support lives they hated.
If even half those aristocrats treated servants the way this couple does, it’s a miracle the nobility survived at all.