Harriet Were is a remarkable young lady I’ve known about for a few years but only gotten to know recently. I met her in Paris in January, on my last day there, just before I had to catch a flight back to New Zealand. I was a little nervous – from what I knew, she was very quiet and I was too exhausted to carry a conversation over lunch. But from the moment I saw her, she didn’t stop talking – her boss, eBay, the homeless people, Comme des Garcons (she was wearing an amazing charcoal woolen coat), knitting and the French. Turns out she hadn’t spoken much English over the past couple of months. She was planning an escape from the cruel family for whom she was working as a nanny/slave. The breakaway was successful, and now she works for another family with a fairly prominent neighbour. You might have heard of them… the Sarkozys?
Live in au-pair/maid. I, the young adult get paid to be a mum, so the mum can be a young adult. I’m also sort of like the dad too. I help out at breakfast, tidy it all away. Keep the children’s bedrooms in order. Feed the two fish. I’ve killed one already. Take care of Eddie, the puppy. He’s still alive. Buy milk and bread, sometimes everything. Take hair clips back to the hairdresser, take things to the dry cleaner’s and pick up the kids from school. I bathe them, heat up dinner, tidy it all up and put them to bed. Sometimes I take them on the train to London to stay with their Dad. My job involves a lot more than the usual au-pair, but there is a wonderful housekeeper who comes everyday. She does all the cooking, cleaning and tidying. I speak to her in English, she speaks to me in French. She’s Polish.
What’s the best thing about living in Paris?
Eddie, free trips to London, white cotton nighties, doll and teddy shops, socks, beautiful fabrics, loneliness.
What’s the worst thing about living in Paris?
French, beautiful food, concrete, no sea, no Pacific Island or Maori people, no wool shop ladies, Kate Tomson (Harriet’s tailor), or my bag maker.
What do you do in your spare time?
I laugh, and give Oreos to homeless men. Send stories to a few and do my book. I like to walk with the eyes of a child. Eddie’s always with me, I put him in my bag. Today I saw: this one year old baby with blue circular framed glasses with thick lenses strapped around his head. They looked like goggles, he looked like a frog. A metro fruit stall guy packing up all his apricots, the police beside him. He dropped two. Squashed one. If you keep your ears open too you can hear people practicing their piano and singing in their showers. Keeps me happy.
What’s your favourite place?
I don’t like Paris yet. But I love sitting on the metro line six in the evening. Dark enough for lights on inside, but people leave their shutters open. You can see everyone in their apartments. I’ve seen an old man in his underwear. You should try it next time. They should just shut their curtains.
Have you met the President?
No, but I see him almost every night running into his house while I’m cleaning dishes. I’ve met his wife, nicest woman I’ve met here.
When did you start knitting?
Mum taught me when I was nine. I knitted the longest, widest, heaviest, chunkiest, ribbed scarf and then gave it to her. She threw it out.
What will you do when you come home?
Take my shoes off, get some boots made and not let go of my Ma. Go to Golden Bay with my family, catch a salmon and live off him and feta for a couple of weeks. When my parents start telling me to grow up, I’ll knit. Then leave to wherever Carter (Harriet’s twin sister) will be and we will share a room to save. I’ll carry on my journey, with her next time. Or maybe just fabric design. I change my mind every couple of weeks.
In the photos: Daphne (Harriet’s eight year old charge) dressed up as Harriet, and Harriet (dressed up as herself).