Updated: Mar 12, 2020
"I cannot believe you would embarrass your own Mother like that."
"Landa, come now, they're just tired."
"I don't care, Phillip. They speak to me like this and you do nothing? It's no wonder they do these things to me every day." Landa angles her entire body towards the car window as she unashamedly scoffs at her sons' manners - or lack thereof. She mutters in Spanish. Her husband, Phillip, looks back at me every ten seconds as if expecting me to get out and run.
"Landa, in all fairness, they did say 'hello' before you got there. What more did you want?"
"I just wanted my family to present themselves well. Did you tell them your names? I bet you didn't. You know how important neighbours are, Phillip, don't start with me. What must we look like, uh?"
"This is all so ridiculous."
"Ridiculous? You know what's ridi-"
"Oh, please, boys just apolo-"
"No, Phillip! I don't just want you to do this. They should know to say sorry." She throws her hands up and continues the rant in her mother-tongue. Again, Phillip makes sure I haven't done a runner.
It's been a little over five minutes and yet the driveway is only twenty feet behind us. With his arms folded tightly and no cheeky dimples insight, the middle child, Olivier, says something in Spanish. It's delivered with undeniable venom. Andre's eyes widen the second the words leave his younger brother's lips. Though he can't help but smile from the anticipation, he simultaneously winces, as though preparing to embrace a hurricane. I heard the word "puta". I've seen enough of Narcos; I can only imagine. Landa puts her fingers to her temples. I haven't blinked in a while.
"What did you just say, young man?" Phillip's arm whacks the back of the passenger seat as he swings around to engage Olivier's eyes. "What did you just say to your Mother?"
Unsurprisingly, the boys' nerves are wavering under his patriarchy. Though, judging by the shocked faces of relief that they were wearing just moments later, what followed was absolutely for my sake.
"We'll discuss this later, boy."
"What do you mean 'later'? Why later? They call me a- why am I sitting here listening to this?"
Phillip checks on me again, a maniacal smile spread across his face. This time, I contemplate running. Suddenly, following another disrespectful comment from Olivier, the whole family (including the youngest of the three brothers, Jacob, who up until this moment had been blissfully silent) erupts in a frenzy of screaming and Spanish. Olivier isn't backing down, only riling his parents up more and more. Phillip's doing his best to exploit the benefits of a baritone voice while he still can, but incredibly it just seems to evaporate.
After a while, "English, English! Ashley is here, poor girl. What a bloody terrible start to the day."
Jesus, don't bring me into this. I quickly gesture my complete withdrawal from the conversation. This is only day four, I'm not ready.
"I tell you now, Oli," Landa's finger waggles, "I've had enough of you. Just be quiet until we get there. No talking. At all. Nada. I am disgraced."
Phillip quickly turns the engine back on and naively waits to pull out of the junction, leaving the argument shrinking in the rearview. Oli's mind, however, is so clearly being taunted by the silence. Also, the fury of being denied the final say is written all over his face. Peace Time lasts around ten seconds - or just until we pull onto the main road - before they're at it again, with Andre acting as his brothers' defense lawyer, Jacob providing the sound effects and a dejected Phillip chuckling like a man, totally out of options.
"You are terrible, boys, terrible! I did not raise you to be like this-"
"Oh, for God's Sake! Can all of you just shut the hell up for a minute?" Pleads Phillip, gripping the steering wheel. The car door flies open, "I don't want to spend another second in here with you."
We all watch as Landa makes her way back to the house in the rain; both the boys and Phillip clearly wondering which one she was directing that final comment at.
I just can't believe she ran before I did.
Back in July 2019, I was mid-breakdown. I'd spent the last eight months doing my best to ignore the warning signs and depressive episodes of a future I didn't really want, no matter how much I forced myself to pretend. I managed to land myself a job with LS Productions; an incredible stills and motion service production company. When I say incredible, I don't just mean in what they do. They are the most welcoming, trusting and understanding group of people I've ever met. An entire workforce of fiercely passionate people, of whom I'd say 85% are women - which is huge for any industry, never mind tv and film! I trusted in them wholeheartedly when I started to feel the black fog come back and they gave me the time and support to figure out what I really wanted to do. When it comes to working, I've never really believed we're supposed to only have one path. This could possibly a commitment issue thing; that feeling of "oh shit, this is it", but also maybe it's just that I don't believe we have to pigeon-hole ourselves and close the hatches on our other passions. I also believe it's a suppressive notion that stops the lower classes from having options and keeps them in line, but I won't get into that. Anyway, for example, I've always adored writing; I've always had an intense love for animals and nature; I've truly grown to love educating, specifically as an ESL Teacher and, like most people these days, traveling has always been the one thing I was always sure I'd do.
Although I'd actually really wanted to work with animals, Au Pairing was something I'd always considered, too. Plus, it pays, whereas most animal-related jobs are either voluntary or you pay them. I really don't have the money for that yet but there are other ways; it's not always what you know or who you know - it's often who you meet and which opportunities you pay attention to.
As for The Au Pairing Files, I've always been so inquisitive (or just nosy as fuck) when it comes to other families and their own little traditions, running-jokes, taboo subjects, the teachings and disciplines, the relationship dynamics - all of it. People, in general, fascinate me with their little mannerisms and tells. As you read before, it was day four when I realised I wanted to start writing about this family and documenting my time with them. It's going to be a huge learning curve for me and, hopefully, for them too.
Note: For the purpose of this blog, I have changed the names of all my host family members. Their frequented locations will never be disclosed. Their nationalities remain the same, as do the boys' ages.
So let's get to it.
On the lowest branch of the tree is Jacob; eight-years-old, sweet chubby cheeks, huge, marveling conker-like eyes, tantrums-galore, and a passion for creativity with a seriously stifled imagination. Next, Olivier, the middle child; ten-years-old, perpetually agitated, painfully rude, glued to his phone and has a face that lights up any room when it's happy. Finally, the leader of the pack, Andre; twelve-years-old, a sweet, innocent grin protected by braces, a calming nature, a fiery temper and a fifty-foot tall pedestal that he likes to perch on.
We then have the mother, Landa; a wonderfully kind lady, who radiates comfort and has built an incredible career in green engineering. She often speaks of her homeland, Spain, with such bliss. She seems constantly torn between her family and her work; I suspect she gets the respect she deserves at the latter. She's doting and she's impervious; a worrier and a warrior.
Finally, the head of the household, Phillip; born into a wealthy family in Yorkshire (yes, Yorkshire). He attended grammar schools and then, later, Oxford before moving to Brussels to work for one of the EU governing bodies, where he now dedicates his efforts to an eco-friendly future across their domains. My personal biases really do flips on this guy. He has traditional beliefs to a certain extent but always likes to teach about inclusivity and try to understand the foundations of the modern world. He is a great conversationalist but decides in seconds whether he's actually interested in what you have to say. He's fair, he's brutally honest, he has his sons hanging on his every word and, whether it's right or wrong, his word is always final.
Going back to the beginning of this post, just after Landa got out of the car in protest, Phillip screamed at the boys to run after her and apologise. They did. Phillip turned the car around, drove thirty-feet back to their garage and followed them all into the house, saying 'families!' to me as he went. I sat in the car and waited, watching as the dregs of the storm in Britain ripped through the huge, towering trees of Belgium. I couldn't help but think that this wasn't actually just a regular family spat at all, it seemed familiar, well-rehearsed and, more than anything, it clearly weighed on all of them. I thought back to the first Skype interview I'd ever had with Phillip and Landa. Towards the end of it, they told me that I had an outlook on life that they wanted their kids to adopt; they seemed to be impressed by patience and the skill of listening. I'd put the whole morning aside by the time they got back into the car and we headed into the city centre for my little sight-seeing walk (much to the boys' chagrin). There was much more moaning once we got there. At lunch, the boys were told that they could go on their phones if it kept them quiet. Landa had gone full Aunt Josephine from A Series of Unfortunate Events and, after an A-board collapsed on the street, declared that she was furious we'd even left the house when it was this windy. The boys left any and all please's, thankyou's and smiles in the house, prompting perpetually pink faces from their parents. When we got home they suggested a game of Trivial Pursuit. I declined due to both exhaustion and fear of appearing foolish and being mocked as they all seem to value intelligence above anything; putting it simply, I think this is the root of most of their problems.
On Sunday evening, just as my weekend was ending and my first full week with the boys was looming, I was intrigued by what drove them; what angered them; what relaxed them; what piqued their interest and, mainly, what they were deprived of. The final clause on my contract with Phillip and Landa was: "teach the boy's good manners and how to be humble humans." It was as simple as that, really. I'd agreed to it. I may not have known the full extent of what that meant at the time but I was going to put all of my efforts into these boys and find out exactly what each of them needed to grow happily and wholly. I wanted to help all five of them if truth be told, in any way that I could. I decided that I was just going to let everything unfold as it usually would over the next five days; I needed to see it and live it and absorb it, like a damn Super Nanny crash course. Well and truly, in at the deep end.
There wasn't really any calm before the storm. In all honesty, even the lows felt tense; like when your washing machine convulses and starts vibrating and shuddering and moving around mindlessly when it's mid-cycle and it gets louder and louder and you think it's gonna explode but then all of a sudden - it, just, doesn't. That's what the atmosphere felt like every day during my first full week as an Au Pair until finally, that explosion came; just not how I imagined it would.
Every afternoon, I collect the boys from the school gates at four o'clock. Jacob is always there before me, playing a game that involves rocks with his best friend and giggling. Usually, upon noticing me, he frowns and shifts his gaze, as if annoyed that I've not forgotten him. He reluctantly picks up his (insanely large) schoolbag and comes to meet me. The conversation usually goes something like this:
"Hi, Jacob. How are you?" "Fine."
"Hm, are you sure?" "I wouldn't say it if I wasn't."
"Fair enough. Rate your day out of ten." "Why?" "I wanna know." "Um, seven." "Where are your brothers?" "Playing football. They're always last out." He pulls at the straps of his bag, lifting the weight from his spine. No eight-year-old needed a backpack this big. "What was your favourite class today?" "Art." "What class did you dislike?" "I liked everything. It's all useful."
Bullsh*t. I guarantee he's just quoting a parent. Jacob is one of those children that always seems to be chasing adulthood. "It's cold today." "You're clearly just not used to the Belgian weather," he says with a twinkle.
Eventually, Andre and Olivier come through the gates; using their heads to carry their coats by the hood and their arms to carry footballs and chocolate. They each give a muttered 'hi' and walk on. Jacob always runs up beside them and tries to get involved. His brothers always walk so quickly and solidly however that he gets pushed back at every lampost, bus stop and bin that blocks his way. He often ends up winding down to a pace even slower than me and whenever I wait for him he stops completely. From 4 pm until 8 pm, my daily timetable - and so, theirs too I guess - looks like this:
Pick boys up from the main gate.
Put away their coats, shoes, and bags and empty them of all food.
Give them a snack of edamame (yup) or a smoothie. Do writing activities/Do skills tests
Read Take children to their activities and collect (football, tennis, art, piano, guitar, etc.) Play board or memory games. Cook dinner for the boys while they do homework. Clear the table and play area. NO PHONES, NO IPAD, NO LAPTOP, NO TV
Once back at the house, I open the door and within seconds their shoes, jackets, and bags are strewn about the hallway. They go straight to the living-room, switch the TV on, charge their phones and throwback chocolate milk. A splendid start. "Boys, come put your bags and things away, please." I ask three, maybe four, more times. It's like this every day. "Can you please put the ____ away?", "Where is the _____?", "Why don't we play _____?", "How was your day?", "Did you get homework?", "What do you like to eat?" etc, etc, etc. Mostly, I'm ignored with perhaps a one or two-word answer coming my way from Andre on the eleventh time of asking. I would lose my shit if any adult treated me like this but, alas, I was sticking to the plan. I was just going to let everything unfold the way it usually would. How do you change something you don't understand? Watch, learn. Teach no lessons; observe everything and try not to be too passive or too demanding. For the next few days, I did everything the list told me to do and molded myself into their everyday lives.
There were some nice moments during the week, too. Although every time we tried to play or do something together, there was severe swearing, hitting and teasing, I did manage to teach the boys some card games they didn't know, which they got pleasantly giddy about. Olivier and I played Twister whilst his brothers were out one day and he laughed like a real child. One night, I even got a volleyball competition going with all of them in the hallway, using scarves as the net. Anything makeshift really amuses them; clearly the habit of people who have always had the real-deal. Jacob showed me his artwork one evening; pages and pages of it. His drawings were fantastic but his captions were all over the place. I asked Phillip if he knew how to write and he said, verbatim, "yeah, it's an odd one... it might be dyslexia or something but it would be great if he could learn to". Eight-years-old. Anyway, Phillip and Landa were able to join us together for dinner twice, apparently an uncommon treat. During this time, Phillip often quizzed the boys on geography, science, and colonisation. Though I did wonder if they ever spoke about their days to each other, it was wild and quite warming to see their excitement when he simply said "correct" or praised them with "clever boy". Landa would try to bring the conversation back to something a little more wholesome sometimes, but rarely to any avail. She would usually make dinner for Phillip alongside me; she said she felt the same relaxing energy from cooking, although, when I mentioned that, growing up, my mum was the baker and my dad was the chef she said: "how nice to hear of a man who does these things!" so I'm still not sure if it's a therapy or a chore. Sometimes we spoke of my family; often my brother. Landa was always curious to know if he was anything like her sons when he was a child and whether or not he grew into a good man. I usually avoided the question as best I could so as not to insult. One night, I told them he still lives in Edinburgh. "Well, that's not very good. Why doesn't he have a degree?" Andre asked. "What makes you think he doesn't?" "He still lives at home." "He graduated and then moved back to his home town afterward, actually." "Was it a good university?" "Why does it matter?" "Well, you have to go to a good university or it doesn't count. You'd just be a cleaner or something." Those types of conversations never sit well with me and as soon as I began to explain that you don't have to go to university to be successful and you definitely don't have to go to be happy, I was met with parental scowls and decided to just work on that in private for now.
On Thursday, I hit my breaking point. Andre, Olivier, and Jacob came home from school in particularly bad moods that day. The older two were taunting Jacob about something in Spanish and he looked upset, not angry or moody, upset. His huge brown eyes were glazed with tears and so I asked Andre to help me diffuse the tension (I suspected Olivier was the true culprit). Jacob displayed one of his famous tantrums and stormed off, speaking loudly to himself as he stomped. After a few minutes, I went upstairs to find him angry-crying. "Can I come in?" "No." "Tough." As I made my way over to him, he moved to the bed and tried to get under it. "That gap 's about three inches wide, Jac. How small do you think you are?"
Quickly, he scrambled over to the bench, a piece of furniture no taller than my knee, and pushed himself under it. I found some marbles and positioned myself on the other side of the room. "Okay. Ten points if I hit your feet; twenty-five for your bum; fifty for your head." I threw one softly at his feet which flinched upon impact. "Hit!" "Hey, wait, you can't-" "Okay, twenty-five. Here we go." I throw another. Another hit. "Hey, wait," he giggled, "please don't do fifty!" "What if I use this one?" I held up a soft tennis ball. "Can I use this?" He said yes and so we aimed it at each other's heads for the next little while until he'd forgotten about the tantrum. If only all disputes could be solved this way. Shortly after we headed downstairs, there was a knock at the door. "Hola!" said the very beautiful older lady as she strode into the hallway. "Ashley, si?" "Si, hola!" Soy fluento, clearly. "Ah," we kissed cheeks three times, "soy Madre de Landa." "Ah, okay!" I closed the door and called out, "Boys, your grandmothers here!" "English or Spanish?" Asked Oli. "Spanish." "Yay!"
No need to read into that just yet. The boys emerged from different rooms and embraced their grandmother; it was lovely to see and, truthfully, the first time in close to a week I'd seen any affection. Jacob, however, looked unhappy again and skulked off, back to the playroom. Looking back, I wish I'd realised that making him giggle before hadn't actually solved any of his problems but I guess I just thought he'd snap out of it; I'd been told so many times, "oh that's just Jac". Knowing that their grandmother only spoke Spanish, I decided to let them catch-up in private and disappeared into the kitchen to make dinner for them.
The boys are painfully fussy when it comes to their food. No tomatoes; no peppers; no mushrooms; no eggs (unless scrambled for two of them, and poached for one); no onion unless finely chopped, white and caramelised; no cheese unless mozzarella; no fish unless tuna; no sauce with the pasta; no bread with butter, etc. I guess all kids are fussy to a certain extent, but I know through Landa that they haven't actually tried much of what they "hate". When I was about seven, my dad cooked a cauliflower cheese curry and I despised it. To this day, I won't touch cauliflower. But that evening, when the new dish was in front of me and he'd spent all that time making it, I wasn't allowed to leave the table until it was finished. These boys had never had that discipline, it was blatant; they were up and down in their seats, leaving the table before the other had even picked up their fork, staring at their phones (apart from Jacob who doesn't have a phone and won't until he's the ripe old age of ten), leaving dishes at the table half-eaten or, usually, with only a few bites taken because they'd filled up on chocolate. It was a mess. That Thursday evening though, the one where I hit my breaking point, had nothing to do with the food I was cooking.
I'd left the kitchen, where Olivier and Jacob were eating (Andre had gone to football), for no longer than five minutes. I went to clean up their playroom table, as instructed by the schedule, but what I was actually doing was playing with one of their cats. Suddenly, Oli ran in.
"Jacob has a knife." "What?" "Jac's got a knife."
"What do you mean? Where?"
"In there," he gestured. "He's crying." I ran past him and into the kitchen where, sure enough, Jacob was standing holding a knife. Not only was he gripping it tightly, but he was also resting it over his tiny wrist. "What are you doing, Jac?" I asked. He stayed silent, looking down at the blade. "Jac, stop being stupid," Oli spat, already on the attack. "That's enough, Olivier."
"What? He's clearly just doing it for attention."
"I'm not doing it for attention!" Jacob shouted, his little face getting redder and redder.
"Jacob, you're such-"
"Olivier! Get out," my tone clearly had an urgency to it and he left immediately. "Jacob, please can I have the knife?" "No." "Jacob this isn't funny, give me it." "I don't deserve to be here."
Those words shook me to my core and I grabbed the knife somewhere in the middle as Jacob ran away, sobbing. It took me a second to piece together what had just happened before I started crying, too. Within seconds, the sorrow had seized my chest, weakened my knees and caused my mind to soar. I wasn't even sure I knew what self-harm was at eight-years-old. Why was he so sad? What happened while I wasn't there? Was Olivier capable of saying something so cruel that he would want to do this to himself? Where had he seen or heard about self-harm and why could he relate to it so easily? I was crying silently and uncontrollably, hidden behind a corner of their kitchen. I had to pull myself together if I wanted to speak to Jacob. And I definitely needed to speak to Jacob. I thought of my darkest days; the black fog, the feeling of emptiness, the numbness, the loneliness. Why did a child know these feelings? I was afraid I already knew part of the answer to that. I tried to compose myself but couldn't. My sobs were getting louder, too.
"Qué está mal?" Landa's mother asked as she came running in.
"Jacob es..." who was I kidding? I had no clue how to say this. "Jacob! Jacob!" She shouted, angrily. "No, no, no, por favor." "Jacob!" I realised that I wasn't going to have time to compose myself before seeing him again. Seconds later, his little pale face and huge red eyes were staring up at me, terrified. My heart was shattering. His grandmother spoke to him, frustratedly. "Jacob, please can you ask your grandmother to give us a few minutes alone?" She left and I closed the door, asked him to sit at the table and made his favourite drink; chocolate Nesquik. We didn't talk during those few minutes, but I could feel him watching me and could hear him picking at the skin around his nails. I'd noticed his scarlet fingertips before. When I struggle with anxiety, I bite the inside of my gum. I sat down opposite him. "Okay, Jacob, talk to me." "I'm sorry," he said, pawing at his face and wiping away the tears. "For what?" "For...I know it was stupid...I...I'm really sorry," he started to sob loudly. "Please don't tell my parents." "Look at me, Jacob. Breathe."
There was something so pleading about his eyes.
I struggled to fight back my own tears again.
He was calm.
"Don't you ever, ever, ever apologise for feeling like that. To anyone." He looked so confused. "Why do you feel like this?" "I don't know. I just do." "All the time?" "No." "Okay. So what made you feel this way tonight?" "I don't know."
"You must know. You said 'I don't deserve to be here'. Why? Why did you say that?"
He shrugs, timidly.
"Jacob, it's okay to be sad. But you have to talk to someone when you feel like that. And more importantly, we have to help you understand why." Tears fall down his cheeks again and he inhales rapidly between sobs. "Look at me. You are the most creative and funniest eight-year-old I've ever met." "No, I'm not." "Excuse me, sir, but I do believe I'm right this time. Every day when I pick you up, I see you making your friends laugh. I see how many people say goodbye to you when we leave the gates. I've read your comic books and they're amazing. I've seen you play the piano like a little Mozart. You are a special boy, Jacob," my voice was shaking but I was somehow holding it together. "You are a lovely little boy and you should never be embarrassed - or scared - of telling people when you're not feeling one-hundred percent happy." "Okay," he was still crying but he hadn't taken his eyes off me. "We're going to fix this, okay?" "But please don't tell my Mum and Dad." "I have to, Jac, I have to. I promise they won't be angry. We have to understand why you sometimes feel this way. Do you want to be there with me when I tell them?" At that moment, however, we heard a car pull into the garage and Jacob ran off again. It was late, so it could've been either Phillip or Landa. I checked my reflection in the window and saw puffy eyes staring back. Okay, no hiding this. My mind started racing, trying to pull together some sort of speech that phrased that night's events both delicately and seriously. I thought of how each parent might approach the situation, but truthfully I couldn't fully grasp it. I hadn't seen them deal with anything with much emotion. Landa was a worrier, it's true. The weekend before, when Jacob sat on Phillip's shoulders in town, she followed behind him with her arms stretched out for about twenty minutes. Phillip seemed more concrete; nothing seemed to phase him and I wondered, possibly biasedly, whether an Oxford education and that stiff upper lip, would have been his foundation for dealing with the more solemn emotions. I heard footsteps ascending the stairs and keys jingle in the lock. "Hola, chicos!"