There was no mention of apple pie or baseball.

Instead, it was aerobics, "Sesame Street," Robert Redford and suburbia. That's what America stands for -- at least to two students from Germany who have spent the last year here.

"I know everything about 'Sesame Street' now," says Gertrud (Gigi) Sterzl, 22.

"Yes, and I learned Spanish," says Angela Horstmann, 22, "by watching 'Sesame Street.' Mi Casa es su casa," she says, mocking the show. " 'Sesame Street' is brought to you by the letters A and E and the number 2."

Sterzl and Horstmann are among the first legal "au pairs" -- the French term traditionally given to European college-age students who act as live-in nannies in exchange for room, board and a small weekly salary -- to be admitted to the United States. The term literally means "on a par with" or "even with," and is used with the intention that the helper is on a par with or a member of the family, not a servant.

For years, illegal au pairs -- usually here on tourist visas, which meant they were not allowed to be employed -- have been brought in through neighborhood networks. The recently passed immigration law, making employers liable for fines up to $10,000 for hiring illegals, is creating a tougher climate for these au pairs.

And more recently, young women from the Midwest have begun traveling to the East Coast for a taste of big-city life and doing the same kind of live-in child-care work, providing considerable competition to the Europeans.

Last September, however, the federal government initiated the J-1 "cultural exchange" visa, allowing two different federally approved year-long exchange programs during a two-year experimental time frame. One is the American Institute for Foreign Study (AIFS) and the other is the Experiment in International Living's "AuPair Homestay USA."

So, while the idea of having a young European caring for your children is not new, the legality of it is.

"We're pioneers," says Gigi Sterzl.

And like any trail-blazers find, at times the path has been smooth and at other times rocky.

"It's been a learning year for us and it's been a learning year for the au pairs," says Mary Brady, director of the Experiment's program: learning, among other things, that first impressions, particularly those given by TV, are not always accurate.

They compare "what America is against American television over there," says Brady, explaining how many au pairs came to expect what the typical American family is like. "The overwhelming impression is that America is 'Dynasty,' 'Dallas' and the Cosby family."

"They {au pairs} find it unbelievable that you have to make deals with American children." -- Lauren Kratovil, AIFS director It wasn't all small screen, though. They also have found out about the vastness of the country. "And what the space of America means," says Brady. "The downside of that is what we mean by discovering suburbia. Suburbia is a half hour to 45 minutes from downtown. All have found public transportation to be way below what they're used to. Americans need a car. And when I hear them talk about it, I sort of smile."

Lauren Kratovil, director of the AIFS program, said her au pairs also mentioned suburbia.

"They felt the homes were far apart," she says. "They felt much more alienated, alone. And that was felt as much in New Canaan, Conn., as it was in Great Falls, Va."

And yet long-distance travel has been easier and cheaper than what they're used to. Many au pairs have taken trips to places across the country, as well as Mexico and Canada.

But most of all, says Kratovil, au pairs think Americans work too hard. "They think Americans don't have fun. That's bothered a lot of them."

As have many of the American child rearing techniques.

"They find it unbelievable that you have to make deals with American children," says Kratovil. "You don't say, 'go to bed.' You say, 'If I read three stories, will you ... ' And they all feel American children have everything."

To Sterzl and Horstmann, who cares for two children in a northwest Washington home with a housekeeper, the year has been "a mental pause" -- a break from the University of Cologne graduate school where Sterzl is studying medieval and modern European history and where Horstmann is studying to become a teacher. This year they've learned about fast-food, kids, malls and movies.

"I can't remember seeing more than two or three movies a year in Germany," says Sterzl.

"Here, we're addicted," says Horstmann.

The worst, they both say, has been "Crocodile Dundee." (Anything with Robert Redford, however, is just fine.)

And they'll really miss the shopping.

"What a wonderful feeling," says Sterzl. "We went to Safeway at 11 o'clock. It was so relaxing."

"I felt like I was in paradise," says Horstmann. "They have everything." Overall, she says, "We see ourselves doing things we've never done before."

Overall, says Brady, "It's a howling success. ... Families are simply enchanted."

In fact, 84 percent of the Homestay families have asked for another au pair this upcoming year, while about 70 percent of the AIFS families have re-upped.

"Which means," says Brady, "from the family side, the word I hear is relief. We do have a lot of happy families."

But out of the approximately 1,500 in each program, there were some families and some au pairs who were not happy. In the AuPair Homestay USA program, 4 percent of the au pairs were repatriated. In the AIFS program, about 15 percent went home early.

For both programs there were cases of illnesses -- bulimia, mononucleosis. And there were a few cases of chronic depression.

Only au pair gossip reveals the story about the really wild one who went through three families before being sent home.

Brady puts it this way: "We have had cases where they're unable to make the adaptation to the rigorous standards required by American families, and where they have found it very difficult as independent young people to fit into the restrictions of family life. It wasn't the job for them."

For both programs, one of the biggest problems was with expectations -- on the side of the family versus the au pair.

"Most people don't know what it means to be an au pair," says Horstmann. "They just think, 'Oh, a baby sitter.' "

And because some of the families thought of au pairs as slave labor, the requirements of the Homestay program are tougher this second year on families. "We've turned down a number of families," says Brady. Home interviews are now routine. Kratovil of AIFS says they have had such a great response that the demand of families is going to quickly exceed the supply of au pairs this year.

One way the Homestay program is dealing with making expectations more realistic is by starting orientations for families. While the au pairs always have had an extensive orientation period, now there will be orientations run by clinical social workers for families.

Topics that are covered include what it means to be an au pair in America, the differences in life stages between a person who is 19 or 20 and a family concerned with work and children, and a wide variety of practical matters. It helps make clear what's expected from both parties.

Other aspects of both programs have undergone changes after this first year as well:

Education. Because the program is intended to be a "cultural exchange," the au pairs are supposed to be encouraged to take classes and families are to provide up to $300 in tuition money.

So far, that has meant everything from computers to bridge to quilt making. Many au pairs were counting aerobics classes as their "education" in America.

"Yes," says Horstmann, "now the big discussion is, 'Is aerobics education or not?' "

Generally, the au pairs have found something that leads them to interact with Americans, even volunteer work. For some in the AIFS program that meant teaching Sunday school and being a volunteer fireman.

Driver's licenses. Although an international one is required, it was found by many au pairs and families that it was not good enough for insurance here, so au pairs in this area had to go through the experience of getting D.C., Maryland or Virginia licenses.

Social Security numbers. Many banks require them to open accounts. Asked Horstmann, "What should I do with my money? Put it in a stocking?"

The matching process. Some families and au pairs just didn't hit it exactly right. One family in New Jersey complained that "the matching process was rushed." On the flip side, some matches seem to have been made in heaven.

"They are the perfect au pair family," says Sterzl of her experience with Kevin McAnaney, Catherine McCabe and their daughters, Sheila and Cara. "I'm getting pretty sad to leave. I'm so attached to them."

A visit to their brick Bethesda home gives a clue. It is 7:30 on a warm summer night. Sheila answers the door with Gigi Sterzl not far behind.

She is exactly "four and three quarters" years old, she says, before the rest of the family appears.

It was difficult for Sheila to adjust to having a new care giver at first, says her mother, although she'd had live-in care givers before. "She was not terribly trusting at that age," Catherine McCabe explains. "It took about a month for her to get used to Gigi."

Cara, her sister, is 22 months old and tugging at Gigi to play with her. For about a minute the two sit at a table to color.

"We've been waiting years for this program," says McCabe. "We're both lawyers and wouldn't take the chance on an illegal one. When we heard about this program, we jumped on it. And Gigi will be a tough act to follow."

Gigi is on duty from about 8:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. She does the children's laundry and their dishes. At first Catherine McCabe made out menus for every meal. Now Gigi, along with some help from Sheila and Cara, chooses what they will eat for lunch.

Having a new person living in the home took a while to get used to, including dealing with a lack of privacy.

"I think that's probably the hardest part about a live-in situation," says McCabe. "People are really worried about the privacy. But when you've got more than one child, you don't have any more privacy anyway."

One important and potentially explosive part of child care is discipline. McCabe's suggestion is that for a good relationship between au pair and family to exist the two must be in agreement about discipline from the beginning.

"The consistency of our backing you up," she says to Gigi. "They can't run to Mommy and have Mommy change the rules."

Both family and au pair have been flexible, which Kratovil of AIFS says is crucial to success. For McCabe, it's been successful in more ways than just that of an employer/employe.

"One of the truly wonderful things is the company," says McCabe. "It's like having a younger peer. It's a friend."

For Gigi Sterzl, America has been more than the Carringtons, the Ewings and the Huxtables.

It's even more than aerobics, although Sterzl and Horstmann played the Jane Fonda tape regularly. (But only on Sundays. "We're American, says Sterzl, laughing, "but not too American.")

The experience has shown them, and probably all au pairs, something more about America, something about independence.

"When I go back, everything will be too tight for me," says Sterzl. And she doesn't mean her jeans. "Here there are no borders ... I'm going to have to change again."