At this time of year, I always used to feel the pull of the mountains. I grew up going on family skiing trips at Easter and one of my greatest ambitions was to do a ski season, once I reached 18, in return for such light duties as cooking, cleaning or babysitting. Now, though, I see my friends’ endless photos clutching mugs of Glühwein and gallivanting in the Alpine snow and I shudder.
This time last year, I was living as an au pair in a remote ski resort with a French family — but, in what should serve as a warning to others with similar aspirations, the dream quickly became a nightmare.
Best-selling books like Chalet Tiara and hit films such as Chalet Girl, one of my favourites, make this kind of role look so glamorous. And pre-Brexit, around 25,000 Brits headed to France every year to do seasonal work, forming a major part of the workforce in ski resorts.
Rules have since tightened and the application process is more complicated. Au pairs arriving from a non-EU country now need a visa. Without it, you are allowed to be in France for only three months.
Still, I was delighted to find an advert on the website Au Pair World, offering the chance to live in a gorgeous chalet with a wealthy couple and their two young children.
Delilah Murray says that she now ‘shudders’ at friends’ winter holidays photos. Stock image used – posed by model
Valerie and Laurent were looking for someone in their early 20s — a good skier (which I am) — to help with Delphine, six, and Louis, four. In return, they promised an incredible winter season and easy work.
We set up a video call and they told me their farmhouse was remote, positioned at high altitude on the side of a ‘red run’ ski slope and accessible only by snowmobile or, of course, skis.
They worried I might feel isolated because I wouldn’t be able to go into town in the evenings. But I’m happy with my own company, and when they showed me my accommodation — an independent wooden hut in the grounds, with a bathroom — I was thrilled. My own chalet!
Nothing rang alarm bells. I speak only a little French but Laurent’s English was almost perfect, whereas Valerie’s was sketchy, so he did most of the talking. He wanted me to stay from November until the end of March and assured me he would sort out my visa.
The Au Pair World website had rules, too: au pairs from a non-EU country are not allowed to work more than 25 hours per week, including babysitting. And, according to French regulations, I would be entitled to at least 320 euros in ‘pocket money’ per month. Laurent offered me 400 euros a month as well as a free ski pass and ski hire.
He would make his family cry with his rages
He explained that he owned a private jet company, so would pick me up from Biggin Hill airfield in Kent. It all sounded so amazing that I couldn’t help pinching myself.
And so Laurent flew me to France — my first ever trip on a private jet — much to the incredulity of my friends and family. But his manner on the flight bewildered me.
Arrogant and dismissive — nothing like the charming man I’d met on Zoom — he plonked me in a seat at the back of the plane and ignored me during the flight.
UK writer candidly recounts her time as an au pair in a remote French ski chalet. Stock image used
I felt hurt but told myself he was busy, and that things would be different at the chalet.
We landed in Annecy, about 25 miles south of Geneva, and then drove for over an hour in his Range Rover to a car park, where the family kept their two snowmobiles.
When the slopes were open, the only way to reach the house was to go up on the chair lift and ski down. When they were closed, access was by snowmobile — so I hopped on the back behind Laurent for the final leg of the journey.
I was excited from the start. The children were sweet and welcoming, and Valerie treated me like a best friend. Looking back, she must have been relieved to have me there.
The house was like something out of a James Bond movie. Huge pictures of semi-naked women hung on the walls in a vast open-plan space, where they would host private dinners at an enormous table overlooking the mountains.
It wasn’t long, though, before Laurent began to break promises. My hut didn’t have Wi-Fi, so I had to make calls home in the main house where I could often be overheard. Neither did he teach me to use the snowmobiles, which meant I was essentially trapped when the ski lifts closed. Valerie and Laurent were never keen to give me a lift anywhere as it was such an undertaking.
I tried to focus on how lucky I was to be able to ski every day. But as the weeks went on, certain things began to bother me.
We had agreed my job was to get the kids up in the morning, dressed and ready. Then I would accompany Valerie taking them to school.
After that, I had free time to ski until they needed picking up and taking to ski club in the afternoons. In the evenings, I’d help with dinner and get the children ready for bed.
The problem was, we ate out almost every night and Laurent would insist we all went, even the children. These dinners would often go on until 3am, with Delphine and Louis falling asleep, exhausted, under the table.
Afterwards Laurent and Valerie — by then drunk — would race each other back up the red run on two Ski-Doos in the pitch black. This was a white-knuckle ride, dodging pine trees, with me and the children hanging on for dear life on the back.
When they hosted elaborate dinners at the chalet, I had to prepare food and then scuttle upstairs to keep the children quiet while they ate and drank.
I would then get maybe three hours’ sleep before having to wake at 6am and get the exhausted children ready for school, while Laurent and Valerie nursed hangovers in bed.
Meanwhile, I was beginning to worry Laurent hadn’t sorted my visa. When I asked about it, he’d swat me away, telling me he was busy and would do it later. I felt I had no choice but to wait — and keep asking.
I had already seen him make Valerie and the children cry with his rages but then he turned on me. He’d go into my hut to check I’d made my bed to his exacting standards. He discovered a dream-catcher ornament I’d hung five inches from a light and screamed in my face, saying: ‘Are you trying to burn my house down?’
On another occasion, he told me he’d installed a camera in my hut to ‘see what sex toys I used’. He laughed it off, but I was shocked. I couldn’t see a camera, but I knew there were some in the main house.
I felt as though he was trying to break me
It was a huge relief when he went away on business, often two or three days a week. But then I noticed that 30 minutes after he’d left the house, the lights on all the downstairs cameras would switch to red and flash. If Valerie and I were chatting in the kitchen after dinner, he would call and order her to go to bed. It was clear he was closely monitoring us.
After four weeks of this, my parents urged me to leave, but I wanted to see things through.
I was already feeling a failure for dropping out of university — I’d left nursing school and returned to living back at home — so it seemed important not to give up on something else. Besides, the children were growing attached to me, and I worried about Valerie.
Then Laurent announced I couldn’t go home for Christmas as I’d expected, and refused to pick up the presents my mother had sent me from the local post office. I eventually got them in the second week of January.
As time went on, I started to see Laurent in an even more sinister light. There was a disabled boy in Louis’s class and Laurent would refer to him as ‘it’ or ‘that thing’ in front of the children.
He talked about how stressful a recent trip to Paris had been because there were so many black people. By now I was working a seven-day week as my duties had slowly increased.
I was regularly looking after the children until past midnight. If I tried to put them to bed earlier, Laurent would yell: ‘It’s too early!’ It felt as though he was trying to break me.
By February, I had overstayed my 90 days in France and without the visa Laurent had promised, I couldn’t go to the police or complain about his treatment. He openly admitted he hadn’t sorted it out. When he insisted we all go to the South of France by private jet for a few days, he ordered me to hide in the back after we’d landed, so customs officers wouldn’t see me at Toulon airport.
I comforted myself that the ski season was almost over. When the family prepared to leave the chalet to head back to their home in Paris, I made it clear I was leaving.
Valerie begged me to remain for the spring and summer and Laurent was furious — but by then I couldn’t wait to get out.
There was no private jet for the return journey. Laurent dropped me unceremoniously at the bus stop with all my luggage.
Such was my relief at getting away, I’d almost forgotten about my missing visa — but then I was detained at Geneva airport.
By then I’d been in France for almost six months, and unsurprisingly the French customs officials looked at me like I was an idiot. They threatened me with a huge fine and insisted on checking my bank account to see if I’d been working illegally.
Luckily, nothing showed up —Laurent had always paid me in cash. They let me go with a firm warning: don’t come back for at least six months.
As the plane took off, the sense of relief made me start to cry. A woman sitting next to me patted my arm and asked if I was OK.
‘I am now,’ I told her. ‘But I think I’ve had a very lucky escape.’
Names have been changed to protect identities.
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