From Park End to paid employment, via Paris


After three years spent studying for a BA in English Language and Literature at Oxford, I came home to my parents this June with a first class honours degree and scabies.
“It’s not an STI,” I repeated desperately, as I handed over the cream which the pharmacist had given to me for the whole family to apply. At first, I found it all quite amusing, to have contracted such a bizarre, archaic-sounding, contagious disease. It felt like the icing on the cake of what had already been a comically stressful year. However, when it came to the actual logistics of ridding the household of these irksome mites, my humour began to vanish. As I furiously shoved yet another load into the washing machine, my mother told me off for slamming the door.
“I’m sorry mum,” I apologised. “It’s just that I’ve been feeling kind of down lately because, well… I’m twenty-one and unemployed and I have scabies!” Embarrassingly, I burst into sudden, uncontrollable tears, prompting my bemused mother to inquire as to whether I thought I might be suffering from a small bout of depression.
And thus began my life as a graduate.
For the following two months, I spent the majority of my time complaining about My Future. I was rejected from an internship at a major publishing house after two interviews for having too little experience (by which I think they meant unpaid experience). I was rejected from Pret for a part-time job making sandwiches. I whinged endlessly about the job market whilst applying for all sorts of unsuitable positions. Needless to say, I did not receive many positive responses (as a raging vegetarian, I was never going to have much luck in my application for the role of Features Writer at Meats Trade Journal). Frenzied, I drew up various charts entitled things like ‘Ella’s Graduate Plans’, containing sub-headings such as ‘Travel’, ‘Employment at Home’, ‘Employment in London’, etc. Variables included ‘Masters’ and ‘Money’ and ‘Debt’. Sometimes there were even illustrations. Given the immense thought to which I initially gave planning my graduate life, it seems peculiar that what I then eventually decided to do was chosen on such a whim: I moved to a houseboat in Paris to become an au pair.
I think I chose it because it sounds good. It sounded good to tell a friend with a scholarship at Grey’s Inn that I would be spending a year sailing on the Seine. It sounded good to tell an ex with a training scheme at Goldman Sachs that I had escaped to Paris so I could finally write my novel. And anyway, to me, it sounded better than fermenting at home for any longer. I did not know what I wanted to do just yet, and this way I would be – quite literally – floating.
However, I was to find that gay Paris was not quite what I had imagined. You know that expression, “It’s like working with a child”? Well, I know where that comes from. I always thought I was quite good with children, but my respect for childcare workers has increased exponentially since my employment as an au pair.
Homework was the worst. Whenever I would open the little boy’s homework diary, he would invariably roll his eyes at me and loudly bellow, “Oh la laaaaa!” Writing two sentences would take us an hour and a half and a series of increasingly scandalous threats. Lego was confiscated. Pudding was compromised. His very own iPhone 6 was banned for two weeks. Another source of boundless conflict was dinner time. To my great distress, I was to discover that these miniature French people liked neither ratatouille, nor brie, nor garlic. All they wanted was pasta, which I would have been happy to provide for them, except that it would have been deemed unacceptable by their parents.
My life had spun rapidly from The Graduate to The Nanny Diaries. I thought it was going to be like Amélie.
Intimidating power-parents like the ones I worked for colonise the streets of gentrified Paris, brandishing their chihuahuas and Chanel and chic live-in au pairs, and masking all trace of familial unhappiness. In my case, what eventually threw me overboard was the criticism I received on child-rearing from these people who, within a few days of me being there, had left me – in all respects, a stranger – to bath their kids. There were several other reasons why I decided to leave: the lack of wifi in my room; the repeated nit infestations; and just generally having to live with someone else’s family after three years of independence. However, it was mostly because of the way I was made to feel like The Help. And so, I threw in the towel.
Now, I am about to return to my childhood home, jobless and clueless once again, and while I acknowledge that I am incredibly fortunate to have a home to return to, it nevertheless feels somewhat disappointing. In my four months of graduate life so far, I have been unemployed, a drop-out, and periodically contagious.
In Paris, I did not succeed in finding my Nino (like Amélie), and nor did I write my magnum opus. However, I have learnt that: a) I need a job which I find intellectually stimulating, whatever that may be; b) Paris is a beautiful city and one day I would like to return not as an au pair; and c) I will never live on a houseboat ever again. Also, now more than ever, I have such an immense feeling of gratitude towards my own parents for the way that they raised me (themselves), for their continual presence even in their absence, and for putting up with me through the tantrums, the angst, and now the uncertainty.
Fundamentally, I think my problem over the past four months has been that I do not know what I want to do with my life. I do not have a clear path, like my Grey’s Inn lawyer friend, or my Goldman Sachs banker friend, or my Teach First teacher friend. And I hope that it may be a comfort to others to know that even people who may seem like they have the brightest prospects are sometimes still left in the dark.
However, our generation will be working well into our seventies, and I want to find something that I will love spending the next fifty years of my life on. So, for now, I am choosing to be happy, even though this means taking some time to make the choice. And, until I come to a decision, I am going to look for temporary employment at home to tide me over financially, and spend a little time with my own family. In a house. On land. Where I can eat as much ratatouille and brie and garlic as I like.


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