Bilingual Babysitter: The Story of Hedda and Smilla

About two years after I first moved to Berlin, I began babysitting two little German girls with ambitious parents. Their names were Smilla and Hedda—like I said: ambitious parents. Unlike newly minted Berliners, who might pick up a bit of part-time childcare to pay for the necessities, I was doing this to prove a point. I had never been good with children—had never really been around children in fact—and more than just trying it out and earning a little cash, I wanted to reassure myself that those in the single-digits didn’t necessary hate me. I didn’t happen upon these kids by chance: a friend of mine had stealthily introduced me to them as her charges one afternoon, no doubt hoping I would fall in love with them as quickly as she had and agree to take them when she went back to school in the fall. Their mother was happy enough to have found someone new for them without looking that she didn’t even ask if I had had any previous babysitting experience. That was good—because I hadn’t.

The first afternoon I was supposed to pick them up from their Kita – two colorful, boxy structures on a corner near Mauerpark—I was hyperventilating as I got off the S-Bahn, sweating profusely. I actually had to go find a quiet spot in the grass, cross my legs, and try to meditate—something that, much like taking care of children, I had never in my life done, and didn’t really know how to do. What had I been thinking? I said to myself, cursing as I crossed the street at last to where I was to fetch them. The truth of that sentiment was only underscored by the greeting I was given by the younger one, who saw me and promptly broke into tears at the sheer travesty of my not being her mother. Where was the little girl who had happily balanced along the edge of the sandbox with both hands up in the air after I painted her nails pink, her “real” babysitter (my friend) calmly looking on? And more importantly, why had I ever thought I could handle children? I didn’t even want any of my own.

It took a couple of Kita pickups and playground hours before I got into the swing of things, before I was proud to be on the playground with two precocious children instead of counting the minutes until it would all be over. Even months later, when everything had become routine, I’d end the afternoon by hugging them both and turning around so that they could do what they called “Rausschubsen”—pretend to push me out the front door with their little girl strength. It was only when I was halfway down the three flights of stairs that led to their apartment that I realized how quickly and thuddingly my heart had been beating the whole time. I had found joy in my time with them, but also fear. This fear, I reasoned, was the same that mothers everywhere had been feeling since the beginning of time. Thank God they weren’t mine. Thank God I could give them back at the end of the evening.

After a time, though, when things became easier, the younger one no longer cried upon my arrival but rather ran across the schoolyard playground to greet me and jumped into my arms, the older one began to feel superior at being older and speaking German perfectly when mine was still halting, when everything had begun to settle into a fairly predictable rhythm of Kita, playground and then home, I was able to stop focusing so much on making sure they didn’t walk into oncoming traffic, and start focusing more on other, littler things. These things, as it turns out, are the things parents take the most joy in, the things that make them forget all they’ve given up in order to be parents and, all together, make up that euphoric sense of “it’s all worth it and I wouldn’t be anywhere else” I’d heard so many exhausted mothers of young children describe—delusionally, I thought.

There was, for instance, language. It’s one thing to be the caretaker for two intelligent, mischievous little girls when they speak your language. It is quite another not to speak theirs. And when you don’t speak theirs and they know it, well, then they become intelligent, mischievous and far too confident for their own good. Although I did know a fine amount of German by that point, on direct orders from their parents I was not to let on, lest they immediately comprehend that I spoke their language and try to speak mine no more. The whole point was for them to learn English, and they could only learn English if they thought it was the only way for them to communicate with the dumb adult who had been charged with watching them. It was not at all uncommon for an exchange to go something like this:

Parent of a friend of theirs: [Saying something in German]

One of my girls: [In German] Oh, she doesn’t speak any German, she only speaks English, she’s an American.

Me: [Quickly getting into character] Huh? Oh, um…yeah! It’s true. Woah is me, I’m an American who speaks no German. Say something in English so that I may understand your ways.

One of the girls: [Laughing snarkily at my idiocy, or so I imagined]

Thing was, the girls were smart at most things, but they failed to follow others through to their logical conclusions. They believed I spoke no German, this I knew. And yet they barely batted an eyelash, and it certainly led to no further questioning, your honor, when they said something to me in German, and I replied in English. The fact that I understood their German enough to reply to them was a non-issue.

I was also constantly flabbergasted by their ability to pick up certain things one week and then lose them again the next. No sooner had I taught them how to count from one to ten than they were jumping from five to thirteen. They giggled at just about everything they did, though, so I could never tell whether their point was to mess with me.

Once I was walking home with Smilla, and our conversation, which was usually dominated by her know-it-all, lecturing style, turned to the various facets of the Altbau buildings we were passing on Gaudystrasse. She pointed to a set of three or four steps leading down from the sidewalk to a tiny, almost childlike door, evidently entranced.

“Oh,” I said, “isn’t that cute. That’s probably the cellar.” Smilla looked at me quizzically. “Like the German, ‘Keller’?” I said tentatively.

“Oh,” she answered, seemingly satisfied. And then a few moments later as she skipped along: “Giulia…heff you a….cellar?” Her first attempt at a sentence, no matter how short, filled me with waves of babysitterly pride. But I think the highlight of my time with her, over three years, a bit embarrassingly, was when she started singing “Let It Go” from Frozen, first in German, then in halting English.

Hedda could be a bit quieter, a bit more contemplative, certainly a perfectionist, and definitely very concerned with her schoolwork. She could come out a bit cheeky at times, but after one incident I realized it was really her friends I had to worry about.

It happened as I was picking her up from her afterschool playgroup—or as I should more accurately characterize it, her after-_skating_ playgroup, as she was a figure skater with Olympic-sized ambitions and talent to match. I would occasionally arrive a bit early, and sit down with the other girls Hedda had been playing with as she got her things, often engaging them in probing conversation, just for fun. On this particular day, I believe they were all constructing little bits of abstract child art out of construction paper, feathers, and sequins, and I spoke to one girl about her project, asking her what it was and whom she was making it for.

After a few polite sentences, however, she suddenly went all honest on me: “Du kannst nicht so gut deutsch, aber dein Haar ist schön.”

That, for the monolingual, roughly equals, “Your German isn’t very good, but your hair is pretty.” I didn’t know whether to thank her, snap at her, or growl at her, “Listen kid, my German is a helluva lot better than your nonexistent English.” It would have all been the same to her; she was already turning away to gather her sequins as she may.

Very soon, I was blindsided, just as parents are, by how quickly the years were flying by. I had come into this job free to pick up the kids any afternoon I wished, with very little else to deter me or challenge my schedule. Now I was holding down two office jobs in PR and editing, as well as a slew of freelance writing gigs. I hated to admit it, but they all paid me better than babysitting did.

The kids, of course, were getting older too. Hedda had gotten to the point where she didn’t need me to help her find her way home anymore, and she knew it. Smilla would soon go to the same school as Hedda, and the two could make their way home together when they weren’t being picked up by a parent. Hedda had begun bonafide English classes in her school (they start kids with their first foreign language at six or seven in Germany, instead of, you know, never) and had already proclaimed them, “sooo boring…I know everything already.” I pointed out to her that she had already had a very strong foundation in English, but she shouldn’t look down on the other kids just because they weren’t lucky enough to have a babysitter from America. They would catch up soon enough.

It was obvious that I was going to move on, and when I finally broke the news to Hedda and Smilla’s parents, we were all devastated…but unsurprised. They agreed that they would be the ones to tell the girls, but on the day that was supposed to be my last, it became increasingly clear that they hadn’t. I was ready for tears, at least when I picked up Smilla, but instead I was met by their usual greeting: not being hugged so much as jumped on and climbed upon, being dragged upstairs and down as they gathered their things from their classrooms, questions about what we’d be doing next. Not a sign of sadness or—what I feared most—resentment.

When I finally got a chance to pull their parents aside, they admitted that they hadn’t said a word. “We just couldn’t tell them,” they said, and with that, I realized, neither could I. In fact, I finally was aware that I had become much more than just a babysitter to them—I had become a fixture in their lives, two steps away from being called “Aunt Giulia” I’m sure, and I’d have to figure out a way to remain so.

I’d already rehearsed a little speech I’d recite when they came to me in tears, asking me why, but to my surprise, I found myself giving it to their parents instead: “We’ll still be in each other’s lives,” I promised, “except now instead of coming over to babysit, I’ll stop by to play. I’ll go to every party, every ice skating competition, every important event that happens. They can come over to our house whenever they want.” For a second I wondered if perhaps I should skip over “auntie” and inherit the title of “grandma” immediately.

Sine then, mom and dad have more or less kept to their side of the bargain with Aunt Giulia, letting me know when a birthday party or Einschulungsfeier is taking place, pushing me to find good weekends for the girls to come over, inviting me sailing, making sure I don’t miss a moment, that I know how much I’ve meant to them.

When I was a child, for reasons that are beyond me even now, my parents hired a German Au Pair to take care of me – a young woman who was studying in New York and needed work and a place to stay. If the childhood videos and cards exchanged between the two of us are any indication, I loved her to death. She moved back to Germany when I was about four, though, and we lost touch over the years. One day an old neighbor of mine who had stayed friends with her encouraged to me to get in touch, and that’s how I found myself sitting across from my old babysitter, once again, a middle-aged woman and the child she took care of, now a grown woman, having a drink together by the Spree.

I told her I had been babysitting two little German girls and that I had loved them. I wonder at the scene that will perhaps take place twenty years from now, when Hedda and Smilla tell me the same.