They arrived here expecting to find precocious little American children -- loud children with braces on their teeth -- being raised by workaholic parents obsessed with junk food.
America, Howard County-style, didn't match those images, much to the relief of the four youngBritish women. They are among 15 European "au pairs" working in Howard County who provide 45 hours of live-in child care a week for host families in exchange for room, board and $100 a week.
"People kept saying all American men go around in lumberjack shirts and that the women are glamorous and have their nails done," said Tracy Doyle, 20, of the descriptions she heard before leaving England. "The kids were said to be naughty. But when you get here, it's not the case. People are so down to earth."
An au pair -- the term means equal or on a par -- is treated as a member of the family rather than an employee. The program is a division of the American Institute for Foreign Study Inc., a private, non-profit organization that promotes a better understanding of American culture among young foreigners.
But the host families say they benefit from the cultural exchange too.
Bernie and Cathy Kelly of Ellicott City have used the program for five years, hiring women from Germany, France and England to care for their two sets of adopted Korean twins, ages 5 and 2.
"I like a young person in the house," said Cathy Kelly, a data analyst for Bell Atlantic. "They (au pairs) bring a lot of newness to everything. They are young enough to play games and sing songs.
"The more differences in culture you experience, the more you find out we are all the same."
For au pairs, who must be 18 to 25 years old and signon with the program for one year, the opportunity to taste the American lifestyle is high on the list of reasons to join the program.
Doyle, of Birmingham, England, left her job as a travel agent to jointhe program following a brief visit last year to Florida.
"This (the trip) really sparked me off and I thought I would like to get to know Americans better," she said. She has been living in Clarksville for four months with her host parents and their 4-year-old twins.
Michelle McCallum cited similar reasons for becoming an au pair. The 22-year-old had been working as a sales officer for a British telecommunications company, but several friends in the au pair program recommended that she join.
"My main reason for joining the au pair organization was to see America," she said.
All four women filled out applications and went through an interview process. Applicants must have a driver's license and not smoke. Once accepted, the au pairs spend four days of orientation in New York, where they sight-see, discuss American culture, and take a first-aid course. Their travel expenses between New York and London are paid by the program, as is one-way transportation from New York to the host city.
They also get two weeks of vacation with pocket money, and at least one weekend off eachmonth during their year in the program.
McCallum arrived in Columbia three months ago to stay in the home of Bob and Jennie Fitzpatrick and care for their 12-year-old niece, Kelly Plante, 18-month-old son, Conor, and 4-week-old son, Ryan.
"We have been very, very pleased and Michelle is a good fit," said Jennie Fitzpatrick, who was looking for someone with a strong regard for family to mesh with her own.McCallum comes from a household of four siblings, two nieces and twonephews.
"You can't live with someone from another country and not learn something about their culture," said Jennie Fitzpatrick.
Sunny weather, fewer restrictions on children and teen-agers, slower traffic, friendly people, and pushy men "who don't take no for an answer" are among the four women's observations about America.
They have enjoyed barbecues and crab feasts, concerts at Merriweather Post Pavilion and tours of Washington, D.C.
Cherry Sayers, 19, from Portsmouth, England arrived here in August to live with a Columbia coupleand their two children.
"This is a country of cars . . . the drive-in places, such as banks, are unbelievable," she said.
Joanne Callaghan, 22, arrived in Ellicott City in May to live with the Kellys and their two sets of twins. But she chuckles over her sudden transformation from ground stewardess at the Manchester Airport in England to au pair in America.
"I feel like Mary Poppins," she said. "When working with children, your sense of humor develops."
All of the women are enjoying the program's educational advantages -- host families pay up to $300 toward tuition costs -- by taking classes in language, dance and computers at Howard Community College and the Peabody Conservatory.
And the job offers some indirect pluses.
"Coming over here on your own, you learn new things about yourself," said Doyle. "I have learned to stand on my own two feet. Meeting new people made me a lot stronger and a lot more confident."