Chicken pox, tantrums, dead baby rabbits and a 1 year old German Shepherd on heat...


Welcome to the world of an au pair.

I think I should first start with quoting what one of my friends said to me when I mentioned that I was going to be an au pair in Italy (note: she has been a nanny for a couple of years):

"great, so you are going to be a nanny? have you done it before?" "No"; "no problem I am sure you will be fine, how many children?" "4"; "oh... do you speak any Italian?" "No", *long pause* "you will be fine..." - for some reason her words don't seem to instill a sense of confidence in me, and once again I think I may be throwing myself into something way out of my depth; but here we go...

I catch a taxi from the airport to what will be my new home for 6months. As we start driving through and then out of Florence I slowly start to panic - I am sure I remember the Mother (Francesca) mentioning that they live IN Florence... We wind our way to the outskirts of Florence, then up, up, up into the hills... Note to self: I really need to start asking more specific questions about jobs...

We drive past a house with a 200m driveway that backs onto an olive orchard and has Florence displayed at it's feet; then pull up outside what appears to be the side entrance to this same house... I gingerly press the buzzer to the house, and wait... the gate opens and I am met by a gorgeous Italian woman, 2 (out of the 4) children and a German Shepherd. "Francesca?" I ask, knowing the answer, and I am met with a very warm "si".

Literally my new backyard!!

Into the house and up the flights of stairs lugging my 22kg bag of clothes behind me (I am hoping that this time around I packed more appropriately...) On the 2nd floor there is a very quaint room for me, Francesca apologises for the size, but what she doesn't realize is that for the last 6months I have not really had a room to call my own, so this is an absolute luxury!

I am introduced to the children (Benedetta 4yrs, Alessandro 2yrs) the dog (Lola, a one year old German Shepherd, who it will turn out needs just as much attention) and the cook/cleaner/part-time nanny (Ruan, a lovely Srilankan man who doesn't speak much English, but is great with the kids, and will turn into a valuable ally).

After half an hour, Francesca says that she will take the 4yr old girl Benedetta with her shopping so I can get to know Alessandro. "Ok Mary, don't panic, you may have never been a nanny before and you don't speak any Italian, but you can do this..."

Alessandro is gorgeous! And though there is a slight language barrier, lego and playing it would appear, are the same in any language. This is a good start.

After meeting the rest of the family at dinner, Francesca and I go through what will be the weekly routine. They mostly want me focusing on the 9yr old boy Francesco to improve his English, as Elena the 12 yr old girl is basically fluent in English. The morning will be spent helping with breakfast, getting the little ones dressed, then I will normally have until 1pm or 4pm some days to myself. At night I will help with dinner (just get the little ones to eat, thankfully there is a cook, and I only need to cook once a week when it is his night off).

This all seems perfect, I will have my mornings to spend on myself. Though this is a new experience in and of itself, I do not want to wile the time away, it is going to be 6months, and I am getting past the age where I should just be doing something for the sake of doing it. This is a great life experience, but there is more I can gain from this in terms of upskilling myself; i.e. read more, write more, exercise - all of the things which are easy to put off in the real world. I have no excuses here, so let's see how this very noble and idealistic notion goes...

Here is a basic list of some of my goals:

  • learn 10 Italian words and one sentence per day
  • read one book on psychology per month
  • read one classic piece of literature per month
  • write one blog entry per week
  • walk 3x per week
  • 15mins of exercise and stretching every morning 
  • No drinking for a month 
  • Drink 2L of water per day

I think that this is more than enough to keep me busy in between looking after a house full of kids; perhaps slightly over-ambitious, but I will give it my best shot.

Lessons from 2 weeks in the role:

Learn some Italian quick: Francesca said that she hired me because I speak English, and only wants me speaking English with the children. This in practise sounds fine and like a nice idea; in theory however, when you have a 2 or 4yr old screaming or crying at you in Italian, you definitely want to know some basics! Words I picked up in a hurry:
"vai Via" - go away (which Benedetta has taken as her favourite phrase when her parents or anyone else is out of earshot)
"I am cold/hungry/tired"
"Cativo" - Bad; which the children have been saying to each other a lot AND to me
"I want Alla" (Alessandro's favourite toy dog, which on another side-note, you definitely want to make sure you know where this is at all times, because heaven help you if you can't find it come bedtime..,)

And then of course I have mastered already numbers, colours, days of the week and fruit. So I have a fair few basics down in 2weeks, but nothing much that will help me in grown up conversations, or to chat up a cute Italian guy - or maybe simple would work...

"want to play?" "are you hungry?" "bad" or "time for bed..."

Meal times: There are certain aspects of the day which seem to be a constant battle and negotiation, meal times is definitely one of those things. Breakfast and dinners are a battle to keep the 2 and 4yr old at the table and get them to eat; everything is either too hot, too cold, too big, too small or just plain "bad". The 2yr old is easy enough to negotiate with, and I soon get into a nice relationship with him. The 4 yr old however only eats if her Mum is feeding her. It is a classic case of she still 'wants to be the baby syndrome'; and she fights for her mother's attention over Alessandro at every chance she gets, majority of the time winning out. 

Getting dressed: getting dressed would be the next daily battle; at night times they adamantly refuse to get into their pajamas  in the mornings they refuse to get out of their pyjamas as if their life depended on it. Or we go through a 'dress-rehearsal' where they try on basically everything because nothing is right, before coming back to the original clothes I had chosen for them. Again I get better at navigating my way through this tricky dilemma by turning it into a game for Alessandro, Benedetta however with 2 more years experience, is well aware of this tactic, and is also very aware of power plays - consisting of crying, screaming or running to her Mum and saying something about Alessandro or me in Italian (now I do not speak Italian, but ;tattle-taleling' sounds the same in any language - especially with my own name thrown in).

Exercise: Eat your heart out gym, it turns out running around after 4 children is a workout in itself. Between running up and down the stairs of the house, walking into Florence to meet Francesco at the bus station, pushing a pram up and down a hill, biking Francesco to and from athletics and walking the 1 yr old German Shepherd - well I say walking, but more 'being walked' or flying down the hill behind her as she catches the scent of another dog - oh and did I mention that Lola has just come into womanhood??... I am definitely managing to get some daily exercise in; and am feeling great! My body is actually considering forgiving me for the summer in Croatia I just put it through; though we have a long way to go...

Chickenpox: So I mentioned my timetable above that it seems great right? Well week 1 had plenty in store for me. Within 2 days of being here, Benedetta contracted chicken pox, so was home bound for almost 2 weeks. I have definitely done my fair share of colouring and have just learnt that apparently I am not as good as I would like to have thought - Benedetta tells me what I can colour, and generally takes over after a certain point because I am clearly not doing a good enough job. I also get very nervous when she watches me, as she quickly points out if I missed a spot - it is like having an overbearing manager, and I find myself making more mistakes than I think I would if she wasn't there... I didn't realize how stressful colouring could be! And I actually have to admit that one afternoon I coloured a picture all to myself when no one else was around just so I could have the satisfaction of finishing a picture - please don't tell Benedetta...

Animals: It becomes very apparent that Lola, needs just as much attention as the children, and in fact believes she is one of the kids. On a number of occasions when I am reading to the little ones, she comes and puts her head on my lap, tries to get in between them, or swipes at the book with her paw to get my attention - very cute!

And then with all of this going on, to my surprise I come home one day, to the children saying "Mary Look", I walk over to a box, open it up - and inside are 2 baby rabbits!! As if watching Alessandro and Benedetta wasn't enough, throw 2 baby rabbits into the mix...Now I have to watch that they don't run away, or that Alessandro doesn't squeeze the rabbit too hard - not quite understanding that you have to be more gentle than with a toy rabbit; not to mention Lola who is already jealous of the little ones, and who is not quite sure what these creatures are, but there is a look in her eye that tells me she should not be anywhere near them.

After the first night Francesca (bless her) says "Mary I think I have made a mistake..." after the little ones refuse to put them down, and there is already a delightful scattering of rabbit poo and urine decorating the living room and adorning the once white sofas... However her fear is short-lived, as another fear is realized... The rabbits are transferred to a rabbit house outside for the night; now I had my apprehensions, with Lola sitting very eagerly by the house, and pacing around like a hyena as we walked away... In the morning the screams of Elena and Francesca when they went to check on the rabbits before school could only mean one thing... that my apprehensions of the rabbits being outside were founded. And that is the end of that chapter. I feel terrible for the children, and even worse for feeling slightly relieved that there is one less thing to worry about...

These last 2 weeks, have definitely not been easy by any stretch of the imagination, but nor have I hated it, or for one second questioned what I am doing here. Just as much as it has been a lot of work, it has been a lot of fun and very (dare I say it for fear of sounding cheesey?)... rewarding. It is a far-cry from Croatia, and even further from my working life in London; yet I couldn't be happier.

Small successes:

Restaurants and Recipes: I told Elena and Francesco that we would make breakfast on Sunday for everyone and make it like a restaurant. So on the Friday night before, we made menus, and named our restaurant. Then on the Sunday, Franci and I cooked pancakes, while Elena took the orders - they had a choice of 3 toppings: strawberries and cream, butter and maple syrup or nutella! The children loved it, and I had so much fun doing it with them, and being from a restaurant background I couldn't help but try and instill a sense of pride in food and service. We have since started a recipe book, where we are going to write down all recipes we make, every week it will be a new desert and something else; so far we have pancakes, tiramisu, cheesecake and cupcakes added to it.

Cooking: In my normal life - well what society considers 'normal', when I was part of the rat-race working 50+ hours a week; I love food, but never really had the chance to cook much as there was always something on at night, or a new restaurant to try; and don't even dream of me baking! But I have the time here, and it turns out that cooking makes me very happy. Making cupcakes for the first time was a huge success for me; then on top of this in the weekend I had to  cook as Ruan was away. We had the children's Nonna and Uncle here too, now you try and tell me that cooking pasta for a family of Italians isn't a daunting thing... but they said it was great, and seemed to love my cupcakes and cheesecake too. Success!! (I don't think any of my friends could picture me in this environment)

Friday dates: As the week is very much focused around the little ones and Franci, Friday is my day with Elena. Now Elena is a gorgeous, talented wee girl, who is very polite, grounded and patient considering the hectic environment she lives in with all of the little ones - who take up majority of the attention and energy of the grown-ups.

So it is nice to spend some one-on-one time with her. Our first Friday we had lunch at a nice restaurant, and I walked her around 2 Exhibitions in Florence. This week we went to the San Lorenzo food markets, and next week we are going to climb the Duomo. It is a great feeling being able to show her around her own city, as though she has lived here all of her life, she barely gets time to explore - between dance, tennis, gymnastics, music and friends...Francesca would clearly love to be able to do all of this, but has her hands full as it is between work and running around after the little ones, so she is very happy that I can do this with Elena. It is also a great excuse to force myself to explore more, so it hardly seems like work.

A small conversation: Now Franci understands some English, but barely speaks it, generally I more get gestures or confused looks out of him than anything else.  But the other day I managed to strike up a full 5 minute conversation on super heroes with him, where he got excited about not only the topic, but I think also about the fact that he could communicate with me,

A lot can be said for a simple stroll: Every day I have been walking in and out of Florence. Walking around Florence was my favourite thing to do when I was here at the start of the year, and it still is. It is the simplest of things to do, but has the most refreshing impact on my mind and soul. Every time I head out for a walk, whether it is blue skies or grey, I can't help but feel grateful for my life, and everything that has lead me to being here. It also sends a lot of inspiration and random ideas one's way, which perhaps I shall reveal on here at some stage...

"Me thinks that the moment my legs begin to move, my thoughts begin to flow".  
~Henry David Thoreau

This all brings me to my thought for this week: "Success"; it is not a solid and stationary notion, but is fluid and ever changing depending on the individual and circumstances (me). 12 months ago my definition of success was being promoted to Site Manager at Goldman Sachs, meeting budgets, KPIs and completing staff training and stacks of paper work... This week it was all of the above and even more in the smaller moments in between which are often, but too much to mention here.

This is definitely shaping up to meet all of my expectations and then some. I do think however, that as much as I love this, that I will need to make some more friends in Florence, as it does have the potential to send me a little stir-crazy... but for now I could not be happier with how everything has worked out. 

And already this blog piece is a stark contrast to the usual 'booze, boys and booze' entries that I have thus far mainly managed to cover in-depth and at length. I always used to get annoyed, or thought it was ridiculous how parents on facebook have every other status update about their children... now (my single friends will hate me for this) I kind of understand... they really are entertaining, and there are so many moments that bring a smile to your face. I have only been here for 2weeks and already adore them, I cannot imagine how it would be if they were my own! But don't worry dear friends out there, this is not making me over-broody, I am definitely not ready for my own, this at least has a time frame, and my night off - is my night off - I am not sure if it works like this once they are yours...

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