Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Our trilingual babysitter

Until Nina was born I had managed to balance motherhood and keeping my brain active. I had completed a correspondence course Masters degree in Teaching English as a Foreign Language while Marc was a baby and toddler. I submitted my dissertation two days before giving birth to Nina and received my degree eight months later at Sheffield University. I had not really thought what I would do afterwards except more studies or journalism, since it suited me and meant I could stay at home with the children. But when I tried to work on a PhD proposal or articles on bilingualism it was impossible.

Nina was a light sleeper and usually woke up grumpy. She had colic and was fussy, needed me to hold her in an upright position. She stayed up late, often to ten at night and I was at my wits end wondering what to do with her. Whereas Marc had quickly settled into a 2-hour daily afternoon nap and had a regular 7pm bedtime, Nina refused to miss out on the action. On top of that Marc stopped sleeping too in the afternoon, needing entertaining and taking out to play. In the mornings too I had usually worked efficiently for three hours while he played at home or at the child minders.Now working was out of the question and in the autumn I hovered near depression, suddenly finding motherhood overwhelming with two young children. Our charming Swiss chalet apartment on the second floor became a nightmare as I lugged the car-seat and baby up the flights of stairs or bags of shopping with Nina on my hip and Marc trailing behind.

I stopped Marc going to the Swiss childminder in the September because he didn’t want to communicate with her or the other children and seemed unhappy. People asked me what I doing for him educationally and I worried that he needed more stimulation, especially linguistically. But the French school was miles away and expensive. One Montessori school in Zurich was highly recommended but was also a commute away by train which seemed a lot for a two and a half-year-old. So I tried a busy nursery in the next town where they spoke some English but Marc cried and I felt guilty leaving him. In the end he stayed at home with me and Nina. I felt that since I couldn’t work anyway I may as well have both of them at home.

Seeing me tired and run-down Jacques suggested looking for a babysitter for the mornings. We put up an advert in the supermarket. ‘Babysitter wanted for 2 young children in Bassersdorf. Must speak some English.’ We had only one reply and it was a lady speaking very fast French. I thought it was a mistake and I passed her to Jacques, who organized a interview that same day. Madame Soraya was a robust lady from Algeria dressed all in black, who was a refugee in Zurich. Her husband had had some trouble and the only way out was to run. As refugees they were offered a house, a living allowance and social cover. But Soraya needed more cash, under the table, and this offered the perfect opportunity. We accepted straightaway and she started the next day.

I soon realized that she was way ahead of me linguistically; she spoke Arabic, Berber and French fluently and had studied at university. However her English was shaky and her Swiss German very low, in fact she relied on her primary-school daughters to translate and explain things to her. We communicated in French mostly. Like most Middle Eastern woman I had met she was warm, generous and kind-hearted. She was fantastic with the kids, chatting excitedly in French to them. I was relieved to have some support. In the beginning she came to our apartment while I went out, but later she preferred the children to go to her house while I stayed at home alone and worked. This was heaven!

Soraya fed us frequently, if anyone visited her home we were invited to join them for a buffet lunch or dinner, or share sweet honey cakes in the afternoon with a glass of tea. We would all squeeze into her tiny kitchen and she would stuff us till we could eat no more. Soraya lived near the park and if we walked past in the afternoon her daughters would run out and play big sisters, pushing Marc on the swings, cuddling Nina and generally being adorable. The Swiss mama’s kept their distance and gossiped between themselves but I didn’t care, she was worth ten of them anyway and at least we could talk to each other.

No comments: