I will admit that, having acquired few housekeeping skills in my formative years, I must have been the world’s most inept au pair. Living in Paris during the 1960s changed this dubious distinction. The French family that I worked for was tolerant, if not amused, at my underdeveloped culinary skills and my less than stellar attempts at keeping their apartment immaculate. Rather than giving me walking papers, I was taken under Madame’s wing. She had been kind enough to hire me in the first place, and continued that kindness with lessons on how to be a careful shopper by treating each purchase as if it were solid gold.
Madame knew every shopkeeper and vendor at the local open-air market. She was solicitous about each item and would not bring home a piece of fruit or cheese without first giving it a taste. The family lived in a floor-through apartment near the Champs-Elysées, a space belonging to the matriarch, Madame’s mother, who sat down with the entire family every afternoon for a midday meal. The picture I am painting may sound a little too bucolic, but it’s true. For someone who had never experienced this kind of familial situation before (or since), it certainly made a positive impression.
The discerning attitude of the Parisians was duplicated when I lived in Berlin. Littering was virtually a crime; one was expected to walk on carefully designed paths in parks, never litter, and show care and respect for possessions, both public and private. My European education in the art of living quickly advanced when I began sharing a studio apartment with a roommate. For privacy we hung a faux leopard skin curtain on a clothesline in the middle of the room. I cannot remember the situation being in any way uncomfortable or feeling claustrophobic. One simply could not accumulate many things. This included clothes. With only a small cupboard, what you had you wore again and again. I trimmed my own wardrobe to a black ribbed turtleneck sweater and two pair of tailor-made slacks. That was it for the year.The tailor who made my pants was a Berliner who spent his nights working at the Old Eden Saloon where I was the hatcheck girl. I have no idea how he was trained, but what I do know is that the pants he made lasted for years.
When I arrived back in the states and moved to Santa Barbara, I was well outfitted but for the wrong climate. Fortunately, the thrift stores were not as frequented as in the present and I was able to outfit myself in vintage finery. Then came the electrical fire that burned up my house and all memorabilia from my time in Europe. I stood there with what I had no, no job, no money and one lousy drugged boyfriend. Fortunately, my brother was teaching set design at the University of California in Santa Barbara. He gave me the keys to the costume shop, and I wore dresses from Oklahoma for years, through all seasons.