“Bonjour Réalité,” Said Paris To The Midwestern Au Pair Girl

If you’ve never used a Turkish toilet before, consider yourself lucky. For those of you unfamiliar with this human-waste gem, feast your eyes upon the following photo:

Image credit: open.abc.net.au

Image credit: open.abc.net.au

That’s almost a pissin’ image of the squatter I used as an au pair girl in Paris many moons ago.

After high school at the age of eighteen, I quit the waitressing job, packed a bag, and flew to Amsterdam where I took a crowded, overnight train to Paris to save a few bucks. A wise decision considering I had eighty dollars in my wallet and no credit card. Only a tiny piece of paper with the name and phone number of my host family who was supposedly meeting me at the train station, a family with whom I’d never communicated other than through an agency go-between months earlier (before email and cell phones existed).

Luckily, they showed up, but saying they were warm and welcoming would be a lie.

My quarters for the next year consisted of a tiny room on the servants’ floor of an old apartment building. My little sink ran cold water only; I had no heat for four months; and I had no electricity for three. Plus, you’ve already seen the communal toilet shared by us commoners.

Did I care?

No. I didn’t understand what an introvert was back then, but I knew I preferred my own quarters to spending my evenings in the family’s home. I used their bathroom to bathe, spent the days in their Parisian comfort, and limited my fluids after five pm.

Image credit: Microsoft Clip Art

Image credit: Microsoft Clip Art

So what did I mind?

The rude coming-of-age awakening that walloped me like a used condom. My apologies for the crude simile, but you’ll understand in a moment.

Up until then, I assumed girls could do anything boys could do, and that included exploring a foreign city on my own. Although I met some other au pair girls in a morning French class I took while my charges attended school, I never hung out with them afterward. Shyness was part of it, but I now understand the bigger picture. I liked being alone.

Big mistake.

Image credit: Microsoft Clip Art

Image credit: Microsoft Clip Art

My only day of freedom was Sunday. On my first outing, I collected my travel guide and with youthful zest, embarked on my Parisian adventures.

It took about a week to trample my spirits.

Why? Well, let me list some reasons:

  • “Hey, you, American girl, come to my room. I take photo, no?”
  • A bevy of Algerian men hanging outside my school as I and the rest of the girls walked out. To use the word leering would be understating their expressions. Lewd is more apt.
  • Several sightings of French men whacking their happy moles, either in their cars that I made the mistake of glancing into, or, yes, in broad daylight as they watched girls walk by on quiet streets.
  • My introduction to frotteurism on the Paris Métro. Come on, men, really?
  • Being cornered in an empty Métro station by a mumbling man and having to kick him in the shin to escape, then running like a wild woman to the next Métro station and trembling for hours in my dark, little room.

So yes, I grew up quickly. I learned to limit my Sunday exploration to between ten am and four pm. I learned which Métro stops to avoid. I learned I could still explore the city I loved, albeit looking over my shoulder the whole time.

Would I do it again? Absolutely. Youth saves us, don’t you think? Our naivety makes us take chances we otherwise wouldn’t.

And if I’d have missed out on that year, I’d have missed out on a lifetime.

*     *     *

Rubin4Carrie Rubin is the author of The Seneca Scourgea medical thriller. For full bio, click here.

284 Responses to ““Bonjour Réalité,” Said Paris To The Midwestern Au Pair Girl”

  1. K. Lyn Wurth

    I may be the only one, but I find the frotteur situation more disturbing than the Turkish toilet! LOL But any young woman learns defense if she wanders from the safe confines of home. It’s all part of the adventure, however unfair that may seem. I do think we should send all little girls through martial arts training, though. It might make the streets and subways safer.

    Like

    • Carrie Rubin

      I agree–the frotteurism was indeed worse than the toilet. Degrading and infuriating. Knowing self-defense is so important. I really should take a class in it some day…

      Hope all is going well! Nice of you to stop by. 🙂

      Like

  2. benzeknees

    I find what others consider a toilet alarming – probably why I am not widely travelled. Clean modern bathrooms are a must for me!

    Like

    • Carrie Rubin

      I can’t argue with you there, but I must admit–there have been occasions where I’ve been more than grateful for that Blue Boy. Hey, when you gotta go, you gotta go… 😉

      Like

  3. cynkingfeeling

    So sorry to hear about this. During a semester abroad in the UK, I did most of my traveling around the country alone. I never felt unsafe and ended up with many great experiences I wouldn’t have had with a group or companion.

    Like

    • Carrie Rubin

      Despite my “mis”adventures, I loved Paris and have been back since. I also love London. Okay, I pretty much love all European cities.

      Thanks for reading and commenting!

      Like

  4. leamuse

    Ah yes, my first experience with these less than regal thrones was in Vietnam. There are still a few in France but no longer the norm. I hope it won’t keep you from returning? 🙂

    Like

  5. gerard oosterman

    Yes, and no paper and…where is the water and soap? I dropped my cheque-book in a Parish toilet back in 1989 after using one cheque. I was in dire need of paper, any paper..

    Like

    • Carrie Rubin

      Ooh, that’s rough! At least we had paper in this bathroom, though I don’t recall a sink (gross, right?). But I did have a small sink in my room, so that’s good.

      Thanks for reading and commenting!

      Like

      • gerard oosterman

        Yes, I have often wondered how many tourists used cheques in lieu 😉 there must be thousands having walked around sans the use of toilet paper. Some might use driver’s license or old gas bill. Who knows?
        It never stops.

        Like

  6. Arlene

    Wow! So many of the paragraphs ended with me saying ‘wow.’ We were thinking of going to Paris next year but after reading about their like of the game whack-a-mole, I’m not so sure 🙂

    Definitely agree that when we are young we are so much more fearless. Now that I know better I am so thankful I got out of some crazy and dangerous situations I would never put myself into now. Whew!

    Sounds like it some great experiences though!

    Like

    • Carrie Rubin

      It was, and I know had I been traveling in a group or with someone, I may not have had as many of the unsavory experiences. When I went with my husband years ago, we never saw any of that. It’s a beautiful city otherwise. I hope you get the chance to go!

      Like

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