German grannies take up new calling as 'Mary Poppins'

by Yannick Pasquet

HAMBURG, July 15, 2011 (AFP) - In Germany the idea of a teenager spending a few months abroad looking after someone else's children while she studies or travels has given rise to a new concept -- the granny "au pair".

Newspapers now explicitly solicit applications from older women rather than students with ads such as: "Family living in Australia with two children aged 4 and 2 seeks German replacement granny for three to six months".

"Older women (aged between 50 and 70) are often better than young ones because they have more life experience," says Michaela Hansen, 50, who has set up an agency in the northern German city of Hamburg to help put families in touch with would-be hired "grannies".

And the German "Mary Poppins" have as good a reputation abroad as the fictional eccentric nanny with magical powers from the children's books.

Families are keen to take on "serious and reliable" women "who will know how to look after a child and be strict when necessary," says Hansen.

Anke Vendt, a 61-year-old retiree from a naval construction company, remembers harbouring some doubts as she fastened her seatbelt in the plane flying her to Spain.

"But what am I doing?" she remembers thinking after she responded to an ad from the agency calling for a mature woman to look after two boys from a German family living in southern Spain.

But a year later, as she sat sipping coffee back in her home town, she remembers the experience fondly.

"I had a super life there," she says.

"My work involved me taking the two boys, aged 13 and 16, to school in the morning and fetching them in the evening.

She got on well with the family and now returns regularly to look after the boys when the parents have to travel for business.

At the other end of Germany, in southern Bavaria, Embjoerg Elster remembers looking at the snow fall, thinking it was a romantic sight but that nothing very much happened in winter at home.

The former air hostess, who retired aged 55, had raised her own two daughters, but both had long ago left home.

So she accepted a job in Hamburg, as an au pair, looking after four children, aged 3, 8, 10 and 12.

"At first it was a little difficult getting used to all the noise," she said, smiling.

But like many older women taking up such jobs, what mattered "was having the feeling one was still useful," she says.

"The idea is to find a new calling in life after years of working or looking after a family," says Hansen.

"I'm in shape and active," says Elster who is soon to go to Munich, in southern Germany, to look after two other children.

Vendt also sees it as a way to broaden her horizons.

"It's another way to travel, an opportunity to discover a country, away from the beaten tourist track, and meet the locals," says Vendt who has been working on improving her Spanish.

The agency, known as "Granny Au Pair" just helps families and "grannies" get in touch. It charges 35 euros ($50) to register and 250 euros if a match is made.

But "granny" and the family must work out their own agreement about terms and conditions.

Asked if some women might not be exploited as cheap labour, the agency boss suggests the "grannies" benefit in many ways.

"Compared to what it would cost them to live abroad for three months, with room, board, and a little spending money, this hardly amounts to exploitation," says Hansen.