When Anita Madsen and her friend, Tina Harboe, walked into Kokomos, a Chippendales-style club in Irvine, they bumped into a dozen other young Danish women--all au pairs like themselves.
"It was amazing," said Madsen, a 21-year-old from the village of Hjorring. "Denmark is such a small country and they all seem to be here."
And it's true. Orange County, with the state's second-highest population of children, is also one of the most sought-after destinations for college-age Scandinavians and other Europeans who choose the life of the au pair , loosely translated from French as "on par" or "equal with."
These young men and women seek a break from their college studies, taking a year off to study American culture firsthand: fast food and freeways, malls and movies. In exchange for lodging, a little pocket money and weekends off, they'll baby-sit the kids and do a bit of dusting.
It's impossible to know exactly just how many au pairs are in the United States, since most entered the country on tourist visas and are working here illegally.
But unlike most of their Scandinavian sisters, Madsen and Harboe are different: They're legally here, brought in through a fledgling cultural-exchange program administered by the U.S. Information Agency.
Under USIA program rules, host families pay an up-front cost of about $3,000, which includes air fare, orientation and $300 toward education--au pairs must take some type of academic class once they're here. Au pairs also get a tax-free stipend of $100 a week.
When Madsen and Harboe arrived in the United States last summer, visas in hand, they were part of a platoon-load of newly arrived au pairs. When greeters from their sponsoring agency dealt out the domestic airline tickets, they were the only ones in their groups headed for Southern California.
"I had always wanted to come here," said 19-year-old Harboe. "We didn't have any say in where we would go--I just got lucky."
Madsen, who came in June, and Harboe, who arrived a month later, were part of the first classes flown in by the Laguna Beach-based EurAuPair, a nonprofit foundation operated by the American Scandinavian Student Exchange.
Operated out of a converted apartment that overlooks Main Beach, EurAuPair is one of only eight groups authorized by the USIA to bring au pairs into the United States and the only one in Southern California.
And while Los Angeles and its suburbs are the favored destinations, the area is behind its sophisticated Eastern sisters of New York and Boston in the demand for au pairs.
"It's relatively new here," said Tammy Fisher, western regional director for EurAuPair, which placed 500 au pairs by year's end. While the nonprofit organization has placed au pairs in 30 cities throughout the United States, only 40 were in Southern California.
"Every one back East knows about au pairs," she said. "But it's not as true here. We could use lots more families--especially Southern California families."
While Joanna Cappelle of El Toro was thumbing through the Saddleback Valley News last spring, Anita Madsen was a junior college student back in Hjorring, mulling her career ambitions.
For Cappelle, something in the newspaper just clicked. It was an ad for EurAuPair, and it offered a better solution than after-school programs for her two children, Diana, 6, and David, 11.
For Madsen, something clicked in a conversation with her neighbor. The best way to enhance her chances for a job in international banking, the neighbor suggested, was to get practical experience using English.
What got them together was Foreign Operations Appropriation Bill 2757. Passed in September 1988, the bill greatly expanded what had been a two-year experimental program administered by two East Coast agencies.
The new program increased the number of agencies to eight, and each of these nonprofit groups is permitted to bring in as many as 2,840 au pairs annually on J-1 cultural exchange visas.
"I had always wanted an au pair , but I just couldn't hire an illegal," said Cappelle, a native of Australia. "I would never exploit someone like that."
"I didn't want to come over illegally," said Madsen, who knows countless other Danish girls who used trans-Atlantic neighborhood "networks" to hook up with American families as illegal au pairs . Others had told her exactly what to do to get through the sometimes-tough U.S. immigration. "Have a round-trip ticket and pack a letter in your suitcase from your 'Auntie.' And never tell them you're going to work--say you're a tourist," recited Madsen. A few years ago, Madsen was a high school exchange student in Upstate New York, and entering the United States on false pretenses just didn't appeal to her.
"When I heard about EurAuPair, I filled out an application. It was perfect."
Anita's three-page application was on the top of the pile for Don and Joanna Cappelle. They liked her letter, her age (at 21 she's older than most), her previous child-care experience and the smiling face that beamed out of the color snapshots.
The chemistry has worked. "I just love this family," says Madsen. And the family loves her. An eight-foot-long "Welcome" banner graces Anita's second-floor bedroom. On her bedside desk sits a handmade pine name plaque--a gift from woodwork hobbyist Don.
Mornings at the tree-shaded Cappelle home are Anita's. While the kids are in school, Anita takes a stationary spin on the Lifecycle or a swim at the nearby Sun and Sail Club. After doing some grocery shopping or light housework, Anita's real work begins. It's 2:30, school is out, and Anita is off and running in the family's blue Volvo.
If it's Monday, it's science class for David. Wednesday is tennis. Tuesdays and Thursdays are soccer practice for Diana. Friday is ballet.
At night, Madsen shares dinner with the family, then settles down to the television (she likes "Cosby" and "L.A. Law") and does a little knitting.
Weekends are for sightseeing. Harboe and Madsen load up the Volvo and they're off--to Disneyland (twice), the beach (also twice), Sea World and to Marilyn Monroe's grave. Both felt a twinge of homesickness when they drove to Solvang--the Danish immigrant village in the Santa Ynez Mountains. "It was wonderful to walk down Copenhagen Drive and see the Danish flag," said Madsen, who used the trip to buy a little piece of home--10 packs of SorBits, a Danish chewing gum.
The employers of Harboe and Madsen say that the girls were answers to their prayers, but not all such matches are heavenly--on either side of the equation.
"I have a friend who's here (illegally) who is very unhappy," Harboe said. "She just sits in her room--there's no one to talk to. But if we have a problem, we just call Vince."
Vince O'Hanlon of Dana Point wears a beeper--and not just because he's a mortgage banker.
O'Hanlon is one of several volunteer community counselors for EurAuPair. And as such, he is part Dad, part Dutch uncle to a dozen or so au pairs .
In the illegal world of au pairs , horror stories abound. One family made their au pair sleep in the garage. Another paid only $35 a week. Then there are the au pairs who see living in the United States as one big vacation--cruising the bars every night until midnight. Or storming out, bags packed at 9 a.m. on a Monday morning, leaving the parents in a sitter panic.
But the legal programs are designed to minimize those problems with screening and orientation for both parent and au pair.
"There are a lot of expectations on both sides," Fisher said. "The au pair expects a 'Leave It to Beaver' family and it doesn't always turn out that way."
Before the young women (98% are women) even come over, O'Hanlon interviews the prospective host family. He sizes up their finances, their homes--au pairs must have a separate bedroom--and general suitability. According to Fisher, EurAuPair's typical Orange County applicant is an affluent two-career couple from South Orange County with one or two young children.
European care-givers appeal to them, Fisher says, because of their cultural and educational backgrounds and English proficiency. Some even hope that the au pair will teach their children a foreign language. "They can even choose the country," Fisher said.
In Europe, prospective au pairs are also screened. All must be between 18 and 25, speak English, have the equivalent of a high school diploma, some child-care experience and a driver's license. They also put down a $500 deposit as a good-faith guarantee that they'll give a year's commitment to the program.
During their orientation programs in the United States, "we tell them what to expect. And other (au pairs) are there to talk about their experiences," O'Hanlon said.
Problems inevitably occur when the au pair must bend to fit into the family fold.
"The No. 1 problem is getting the children's trust. It just takes a while to adjust," says O'Hanlon. Another is homesickness.
To help the au pairs get to know each other, O'Hanlon circulates a telephone list. He also makes frequent 'hi-how-are-you' phone checks. But domestic crises can blow up in a hurry--and for the desperate au pair or family--there's always O'Hanlon's beeper.
Fisher estimates that 15% of placements don't work out. EurAuPair tries to find another host family, but if it can't, the au pair must return home--as was the case of the program's only male applicant, a young German man who had lived with an Irvine family for a few unhappy weeks.
The USIA rules also call for reciprocity--each organization that brings in Europeans must also seek out young Americans who want to serve as au pairs abroad. EurAuPair has fewer than a dozen applications on file, and as of now, no European families who want them.
"Why would they want to hire an American?" says Fisher. "They can get other European girls so much cheaper--they only pay $40 a week." But Fisher remains hopeful that placements can be made in Germany, France or Sweden, where a weaker dollar and other factors combine to make the transAtlantic plane-fare tab and $100 weekly stipend more affordable.
Sharon and Michael Schneider of North Tustin aren't quite sure what they'll do next August when their contract calls for Tina Harboe to go home.
Tina's main role is to look after kindergarten-age Miriam, but she acts as an older sister and helper to the family's two teen-agers.
Tina is the third au pair for the Schneiders. The two previous ones were illegal Belgian girls found through an ad in a Belgian newspaper. But, says Michael, "Tina is by far the best."
"She's become a member of the family. I had three daughters, but now I have four."
Agencies That Sponsor Au Pairs
Under the federal cultural exchange program administered by the U.S. Information Agency, these eight agencies are permitted to sponsor up to 2,840 au pairs each.
250 N. Coast Highway
Laguna Beach 92651
151 Union St.
San Francisco 94111
Au Pair--Homestay USA
1411 K Street, NW
Washington, D.C. 20005
Au Pair in America
American Institute for Foreign Study
102 Greenwich Ave.
Greenwich, Conn. 06830
for Foreign Study
One Memorial Drive
Cambridge, Mass. 02142
American Heritage Assn.
P.O. Box 425
Lake Oswego, Ore. 97034
Interexchange Au Pair
356 W. 34th St.
New York 10001
Exploring Cultural and
/Au Pair Registry
P.O. Box 17041
Salt Lake City, Utah 84117
Guidelines for Au Pair Families
Qualifications: Family must undergo screening process to determine financial capability and social suitability. Family must have extra bedroom in home.
Duties: Child-care responsibilities cannot exceed 45 hours a week, or nine hours a day. No heavy housework can be required.
Time off: One weekend off per month and one and a half days off per week.
Compensation: Besides the up-front cost of air fare and counseling services, family provides room and board, weekly stipend of $100 and up to $300 for education.
Social: Since program is based on cultural exchange, family should include au pair in family activities.