Meet Lilia

Lilia DubsieDubsie spends most of her days in the company of a Ukrainian woman whose name is Lilia. Lilia grew up in Dnepropetrovsk, in central Ukraine, about 300 miles from Kiev. She is our au pair. Let me explain what that means, exactly.

Au pair is a French word that literally means “on equal terms” but in the parlance of America means “a live-in nanny.” Readers may be surprised to learn that Lilia has been living in our third bedroom, quietly and un-blogged-about, since September.

While I’m feeding Dubsie breakfast, Lilia steps lightly down the stairs to have her granola and yogurt. “Hi Lilia!” Dubsie says with a huge grin and wave. Soon Lilia is whisking Dubsie upstairs for a bath, while I finish getting ready for work. I say this partly in the spirit of disclosure. From reading this blog one might conclude that I am watching after Dubsie all the time in my slightly neurotic fashion, but in point of fact, most weekdays Mummy and I are off at work, and the diaper changing and washing and napping and long hours of child’s play fall to Lilia. The fact that Dubsie is not yet two and knows all the words and hand motions to “Itsy Bitsy Spider”, “Patty Cake” and “Little Bunny FooFoo”, can count to twenty, is somewhat dextrous with a crayon,  is mostly potty trained, and can come up with miraculously complete sentences, like “What are you feeding me?” is due in large part to the gentle ministrations of our young Ukrainian.

I hear their conversations in the bath while I’m in another room buttoning my shirt. “Wash it??” I hear Dubsie say, in her heartbreakingly adorable way of repeating every statement an adult makes. Lilia responds in a tone too low for me to make out. “Float the ducky??” Dubsie squeaks in reply. Again a patient murmur. They are an amiable twosome, our slight 26-year-old blonde Eastern European employee and our dark-haired moppet.

Lilia is our second au pair, and the second to come from Ukraine. Our first au pair was named Lena. Neither came to us via the standard route. The way it’s supposed to work is that you sign up with an au pair agency and peruse its online catalog of young women from across the globe. There are hundreds of them. After somehow narrowing your search down to, say, Germans over the age of 21 with an enthusiasm for face painting, you arrange Skype meetings with your top candidates. If you make an offer and the girl agrees, you have a match. It’s kind of like online dating. Except in this case choosing to “go on a date” means that that a perfect stranger will leave her family, fly from another continent, live in your house, eat from your fridge, and oh right, take care of the most precious person in your life for an entire year.

We sidestepped all that with Lena, who happened to be ending her first year with a family who were friends of friends. Then Lilia came our way because she’s a friend of Lena. They could hardly be more different.

Dubsie, Lilia and Lena get their crayons on.

Lilia is blonde, with blue eyes that widen with surprise, while Lena is dark-haired and dark eyed, broad-shouldered and buxom, and seemingly impervious to being surprised by anything. She carries a world-weary air that seems Eastern European. Lena would seat the infant Dubsie in her high chair with one deft and muscular motion, and would put up with no nonsense. She had some good tricks. Lena was the one that taught us to get Dubsie to open her mouth by blowing in her eyes.

It was shortly after we hired Lena, the first of our two Ukrainians, that things started going haywire in their country. First came the demonstrations in central Kiev, then President Yanukovych fled and his government collapsed, and then Russia barged in and annexed Crimea. I was amazed that the world’s attention should focus on Ukraine in the very year we had a Ukrainian living under our roof. I would come home and say “Lena, wow, look at the crazy stuff that happened in your country today!”

And Lena would just grimace and shrug, as if to say same idiots, different day.

Lilia is, like Lena, from a midsize city where many of the factories have closed and the jobs have disappeared. Dnepropetrovsk has about one million residents and makes pipes and car parts. Lilia’s mother, Zhanna, retired from a data-entry job at a metal plant, and her father Vladimir is a construction worker. Looking at Lilia, in her Gap hoodie, you’d never guess that she has both a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in metallurgy.

The curriculum was all books, however, and she graduated without getting her hands dirty or smelting a thing. She got a job as a receptionist at a hospital. She also took seven years of English. Ask if she learned much and she shakes her head. “We didn’t learn anything,” she sighs. Get on the topic of Ukraine with Lena or Lilia and there is a lot of sighing.

Prodded further, she does mention that, unlike here, apple and apricot and cherry trees are everywhere, fruiting so plentifully in the short warm season that you can just take what you want. The steppes that surround Dnepropetrovsk are beautiful, Lilia said, planted with sunflowers or wheat. She remembers vibrant yellow plains of wheat, receding to the horizon against an empty blue sky.



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