When Caroline LaFollette decided to follow in a sorority sister’s footsteps and spend her summer working overseas as an au pair, she registered with the appropriate website and began what she called the “online dating process” to choose a family.
The one she selected lived in Alcazar de San Juan in Spain. They were the Fernandez family: Rafe and Julia, husband and wife doctors, and their two children, Carmen and Carlos.
Caroline’s father, Stephen LaFollette, accompanied his daughter to meet the family, even though he wasn’t sure he would be able to leave his baby girl with complete strangers 4,500 miles away from home.
“My plan was to look those people in the eye and make a judgment call,” he said. “Had I not felt at ease, I would’ve thanked them for their time and told Caroline to gather her belongings.”
Stephen spent the afternoon in Alcazar, getting to know the family and sharing a meal with them, feeling more at ease with the idea of leaving Caroline behind.
Yet saying goodbye was still hard.
“Even with tears running down my cheeks, I mean sobbing like an 8-year-old boy, I felt deep inside she was going to have a great adventure that she could relish the rest of her life,” he said.
Caroline’s employment contract called for her to serve as a nanny for five hours of the day, speaking English the entire time. A good thing, Caroline said, since “I went there armed with only my high school Spanish.”
Even though she is used to Alabama summers, Caroline found the heat in Spain to be unbearable. One day the thermometer hit 106 degrees. “It is so hot here,” she said. “And there is no air conditioning.”
She has a fan in her bedroom but during the day she suffers the heat, both inside and outside. “Bless its holy name, I miss air conditioning,” she said.
Lunch is served at 2 p.m. each day and consists of large portions that remind Caroline of Thanksgiving meals back home. She is impressed that both children eat their vegetables without argument — things like cauliflower, broccoli and zucchini.
One day, she witnessed them eat a large bowl of plain tomatoes and, another day, a plate of sautéed spinach. “Nothing they eat is fried,” she said. “And there’s no Spanish version of ketchup or Ranch dressing to be seen.”
Caroline uses games like Twister to work on English words (hand, foot, left, right and colors) and she is a hard taskmaster on manners, insisting they say “please” and “thank you” when appropriate.
She employs the use of YouTube videos for learning simple songs such as “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,” but for the most part screen time is strictly limited. The kids love TV, but mom Julia won’t allow them to watch it. As a result, it is easy for Caroline to engage them with puzzles and games.
She supervises craft projects they have never done before, such as paper chains, noodle necklaces and handprint art. Much to their delight, she then displays their work on the refrigerator, something not done in Spain.
Caroline noticed that the people in Alcazar make assumptions about Americans based on Hollywood movies they’ve seen. For example, whenever Caroline battled homesickness, Rafe and Julia would offer her a container of ice cream, thinking that was what made every sad American woman feel better.
Midway through the summer, Caroline was given a three-day break and traveled alone to Barcelona. She checked into a hotel that provided her with glorious air conditioning. Tempted as she was to stay put and enjoy it, Caroline ventured out into the city to spend her time sightseeing. She even attended a soccer game: Barcelona vs. Manchester United. “I’m the least sporty person on the planet,” she said. “But I stayed for all of it.”
She found a Hard Rock Café and ordered a hamburger. “It was the most delicious hamburger of my life, and my parents, boyfriend, friends and neighbors all received a photo of it because it was that good,” she said.
Wandering the streets of Barcelona, she discovered a store called Taste of America, where she found, to her heart’s delight, Dr Pepper. “Anyone who knows me, knows how much I miss my Dr Pepper,” she explained. “Euro Coke just doesn’t do the trick.”
Caroline returned to the Fernandez home in time for the Fourth of July, in which she took over the kitchen and cooked a true American meal for her Spanish family. (It is amusing to note that Julia refers to America as “Ooosa” as she, using phonetic logic, thought that’s how “USA” is pronounced.)
In the kitchen, overcoming challenges such as measuring cups that employ the metric system or a lack of mixing bowls, Caroline managed to whip up a good, old-fashioned Ooosa feast of hamburgers, potato salad, cole slaw, macaroni and cheese and chocolate chip cookies. The children were not allowed to partake of such “rich foods,” but the adults ate everything that was put in front of them.
Caroline returns to Anniston this week and is ready to embrace her family and friends as well as icy cold drinks, air conditioning and “all things related to coldness,” she said, but then added, “I know I’m going to miss those little munchkins.”
Donna Barton’s column appears every Sunday. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.