Very soon after I got my Matric results I sat at the dining room table with a map of the world. I had never been overseas and didn’t know anyone living in any other country than South Africa, but I wanted to move away as far as possible. With my eyes closed I waved my hand through the air and pinned the tip of my finger down on an unknown spot. When I opened my eyes I announced to my family that I would go to work as an au pair in Holland. It was a common job for school leaving girls to do; it wasn’t quite as dangerous back then to travel alone as I now think it has become. Still, I was scared witless but determined to go through with it. My parents were terrified of letting me go but wanted to give me the opportunity to broaden my horizons and break free from all the strongholds I believed were limiting my life. I refused to cry on the airport or the plane. My tears came later.
The flight was my first ever and I made the very best of it. I had my journal, music, magazines, ate and drank whatever the attendants offered and took pictures of everything. I had a window-seat and only figured out after about an hour that the wings of what I thought was another plane flying very close to ours, were the wings of the plane I was in. I giggled at myself, very glad I hadn’t shared my thoughts even with my journal. The snow-capped Alps were breathtakingly beautiful and I was awestruck by the changing landscapes so far below, the clouds underneath us covering their puzzle-pretty images from time to time.
Upon our arrival in Brussels for a short stop-over, it was announced that the flight to Amsterdam had been cancelled because of bad weather. No kidding. I left South Africa in sweltering December, as hot as it gets, and arrived in what seemed like a snowstorm unlike any my home country had ever seen.
Once my mind wrapped itself around the temperature, I realized I had no idea of how to get to Blaricum, the Dutch town that was my ultimate destination. I knew I should contact the family that employed me, but had only SA-currency in my pocket and not enough even to take to Foreign Exchange.
I looked at the phone booths with utter despair, everything about them seemed incomprehensible. A feeling of being utterly and completely lost in the big world out there settled within me and I very nearly burst into tears when a man offered to help me. All the possible horrors of getting abducted and gagged and raped, or imprisoned for being a drug mule couldn’t convince me not to let him put his own coins into the booth to get my employers on the line, with the names and numbers I had given him. They sounded so relieved to hear from me and, noticing the panic I couldn’t hide any more in my voice, they asked the friendly stranger to help me get a taxi, which they would pay for at my arrival.
While he helped me go to the place I was meant to get my luggage from, I kept wondering if this would be the end of my life. Would I be one of many naïve young girls who went missing at airports? Would I become part of a statistic on what happens when parents let their daughters leave the country for work? With these fearful thoughts filling my mind, they told me that my luggage was temporarily lost. There was no way they would find it before my taxi arrived and my friendly helper assured me they would send it to my new address as soon as possible. (I got it three days later.)
I felt slightly more at ease as I got into the taxi, although not trusting the driver altogether. He was making conversation about where I was from and where I was going. I gathered that SA-girls were popular and known for being hard workers. I learned that Blaricum was a small, picturesque town with mostly very wealthy residents. He was also wearing a broad smile at the prospect of getting paid for the long trip.
My heart skipped a beat at the grandness of the house I was being dropped off at. I knew I wouldn’t fit in. I came from a completely different background and had sudden visions of five sets of cutlery on each side of silver dinner plates. When the door opened the faces were friendly and happy and I was welcomed with open arms.
To make a long story short, that was where the happy moments ended. I hated the first few days without my own clothes. I hated the two weeks my predecessor stayed in Holland to work with me and show me the ropes. I hated the woman I was working for and I found her extremely attractive at the same time and hated myself for that as well. I hated the father of the house who worked in Germany and only came home on the weekends and swore at everybody non-stop. I hated my little room at the very top of the three-storey-house, because it was never mine alone; I was never given any privacy. I hated that my backpack would get searched as I got back from grocery shopping – my employer didn’t want another au pair getting fat on all the delicious things traditionally Dutch. I hated the kids whose slave I was employed to be and I hated that I wasn’t more resilient or brave or persistent in making it work.
In my despair my journal writings became more and more aggressive and derogatory toward the members of the family I was working for. It was my only way to keep sane, to keep my head together, to keep doing the things that were expected from me, to keep from saying how I really felt: used, dominated, belittled, discouraged, dehumanized. After every time I sat down and wrote some, I felt ready to face my job again, for a while, then I had to write again. My behaviour remained controlled, polite, selfless, professional, thanks to my journal.
One day when I was out attending a Dutch Language class, the lady of the house thought it a good idea to go through my personal things in my room. I had my journal with me, but I didn’t remember to insert the couple of loose pages I scribbled on one day when the old one was full and the new one not bought yet. She unpacked my little bookshelf and scratched until she found what she had been looking for: an example of what I was forever writing about.
When I arrived home Lady was sitting in the lounge, her husband and best friend at either side. She was clearly enormously upset, hysterical actually, and told me that she couldn’t possibly have me in her house any longer. She showed me the pages, told me the Agency had made copies of them and that it was decided that my employment be cancelled. My flight back to SA was booked for the next morning.
I could feel the blood draining from my face, then my entire body within seconds. The humiliation I felt I can compare to very few memories in my life. The friend accompanied me to my room to pack and I broke down in her arms, crying like a child. I couldn’t use my hands; I was numb and limp and in shock. She ended up packing all my things and left me alone there with a couple of notes pushed into my back pocket. It was enough to cover my expenses back in SA, between the airport and the arms of my parents.
There are many details left out here. Yes, I was too young to go and would have handled the situation so much better later in my life. No, I wasn’t cut out for the job. Culture shock and my own unhealed hurts and probably those of the employing family as well all played a part, as did many other factors. Many other girls had wonderful experiences as au pairs.
Now, more than a decade later, I remember how beautiful Holland was. I can recall with a kind of nostalgia the Millenium Party I was part of in Amsterdam. I am glad I learned to ride a bicycle properly and I can be vaguely proud of the bravery that was involved in going overseas in the first place.
But mostly I can still taste the horrifying knowledge that someone had read my innermost thoughts. It was a violation second only to sexual abuse.