I’ve had my eye on the Smurf movie billboards for quite some time. No, it’s not the type of film I’d see, but when I spotted a giant sign looming over the 405 showing those blue creatures with white hats, I recalled knowing them 30 years ago as “Les Schtroumpfs,” as they are called in France, and my time as a vielle fille au pair.
I fled to Paris in the early ‘80s after my life suddenly and shockingly unraveled. I had the mistaken idea that taking up residence in the most beautiful city in the world would efface the sorrow I was carrying around but guess what? I found myself just as sorrowful and lonely, only thousands of miles away from friends and family.
I worked as a fille au pair for several families in the years I spent in Paris, taking care of children of various ages and differing degrees of being spoiled. I called myself a vielle fille au pair—old maid au pair—because I was the advanced age of 25, and most young women who worked as filles au pairs were between 18 and 22, Irish or English girls who crossed the pond to Paris on a bit of a lark. I would see them clustered in cafes in the evenings, freed from their au pair duties, smoking and laughing. As an aged American au pair, I was a bit of a novelty, and I kept to myself for the most part, still nursing my wounds and often feeling vaguely embarrassed about my situation or, as my mother would call it, “the jackpot” I’d gotten myself into.
My second au pair stint, which happened to be the longest, was taking care of a little girl I’ll call Eloise. A darling child of 3, sober and placid, she loved music. She had a record album—remember those?—of “Les Schtroumpfs.” I lived with her family, entertaining Eloise during the day while her parents worked, and sleeping on their fold-out couch at night in their apartment in the 12th arrondissement.
Eloise would ask me to put on “Les Schtroumpfs” album every day, waving her arms, twirling, and marching sedately in a circle in time to the music. When the album ended, she’d crow, “encore!” and I’d start it over again. I need to mention here that the Les Schtroumpfs’ voices sounded unfortunately similar to those of Alvin and the Chipmunks. When I’d lie down at night on the fold-out couch, the nasal refrain repeated endlessly in my head: “Le pique-nique, le pique-nique, c’est ça le rigolo.”
I used to recount every fairy tale I could remember to Eloise, and she would listen, fascinated. My French was passable, but no doubt my translations were weak and my honking American accent less than desirable. I remember cringing when Eloise’s grandmother sniffed that I had said “géant” (giant) incorrectly as I told “Jack in the Beanstalk.” I had pronounced the “t,” an egregious but somehow fitting error. Said that way, it sounds like “j’ai honte” which means “I am ashamed.”
And ashamed I was. Of my crummy accent, my decidedly unchic clothes, and of my circumstances—living in this glittering, romantic city, but near broke, essentially working as a servant, and despondent.
But I was very fond of Eloise, and she of me. Her mother showed a slight envy at times, I think, because I spent more of Eloise’s waking hours with her, and while of course no one can ever replace a mother, I did know more fairy tales by heart. I didn’t realize it then, but that year-and-a-half I spent looking after Eloise was the closest I would get to having a daughter.
The Smurfs billboard prompted me to google Eloise. She popped right up, with a photo showing her as a simply stunning young woman, and short video clips of her acting. I’m not surprised she pursued an acting career. I don’t know if she is married, or has children, or if she’ll come across a billboard or ad for “Les Schtroumpfs” movie in Europe. If she does, I wonder if I have any place among the childhood memories Les Schtroumpfs might trigger, even if only as a hazy image of someone patiently putting the needle back to the beginning of that album, or rattling off stories of giants, glass slippers, towers, vengeful stepmothers, and spinning flax, mispronunciations and all.