I’ve had several people ask me questions about being an au pair, how I got started, what the experience has been like, pros/cons, all those questions that people have when thinking about doing something new. My au pair series is still up for various bits of information, but this is going to be a full guide to the five W’s and one H of au pairing. And, I figured that since I’m wrapping up my time au pairing (I’m finished at the end of August), almost exactly two years after having started, now is as good as time as any to put this together.
Why should I be an au pair?
I, personally, became an au pair because I wanted to travel but didn’t have the money. I had just recently graduated from Loyalist College, was barely 20 and the thought of going into a job right away felt like the worst thing I could do. (Obviously, it wouldn’t have been, I’m being, as my mother would say, ‘overly dramatic’.) I couldn’t stay at home and I didn’t have money to go, so I sort of did both. I worked three jobs, searched the internet, had my wonderful mother help me untangle a lot of the paperwork and left my packing to the last minute. Because that’s what someone who’s going to leave for two years does, obviously. I would do it again, definitely a little differently, but I would. However, I won’t be continuing. After two years of living in other people’s homes, of following the rules of parents who aren’t my parents, of working evenings while my friends work days and not getting to see them as much as I would like, I’m done. But, I would suggest it to anyone and everyone as a way to go and see and do. You can do it for three months, you can do it for six months, you can do it for as long as you like. (Well, until you’re about 30 and then most countries go, “…shouldn’t you be looking for a real job now?”) But, if you’re kind of like me and don’t really know what you want to do, or if you have some time during the summer and want to do something different, consider being an au pair. There are some crazy adventures to be had!
How do I get started?
I think the hardest thing with anything new that people are starting is trying to figure out where to start. Once you find that starting point, everything else starts falling into place and one thing will lead to another. I would suggest starting with AuPair World. It’s the site where I’ve found every family I’ve au paired for and, except for the first one, I’ve found families that I’ve really enjoyed staying and working with. When I first started over two years ago (I started looking in February/March of 2012), I already knew I wanted to go to France. That made it really easy to start finding information and gave me a good, definite place to start. If you don’t know where you’d like to go, the site has great information about any and every host country you could want to visit. Figure out which country interests and draws you the most and from there you can start figuring out how to make it work. I’d suggest looking into the details first (eg: if you’ll need a visa/how much time in advance you need to find a family if you do to get paperwork sorted, how much airfare costs/time to save, etc.) before finding a family so that you give yourself enough time and aren’t feeling rushed, or, worse, finding a family you really like, but then realizing that you might not be able to get there right away. The site also has an A-Z of information from airfare and insurance to visas, weekly pocket money and contracts that’s worth checking out before you start looking for a family.
Where should I be looking?
This will vary from person to person. Everyone is looking for a different experience when they’re going abroad. I didn’t have any specific areas that I really wanted to go to when I went to France, so I talked with families from everywhere. My two friends in Plateau specifically looked for families that lived in ski resorts. Some people will want to live in a big city and so Paris, Madrid, Berlin, London, Barcelona, Venice, Rome, etc are popular spots. Others want to live next to the ocean, so San Sebastian, Nice, Barcelona, Lisbon, etc. are where other au pairs will look. It honestly depends on what you want your experience to be. When I came to Madrid, I was specifically looking to live in Madrid, so those were the only families I talked to. For July and August, I’ve been specifically looking for families looking close to the ocean. That either narrows or widens your scope, depending on what you do/n’t want.
Note: In regards to stereotypes of people from various countries: you can ignore about 95% of them. That last 5% I believe belongs to Parisians and people within the area. Almost everyone else I met in France were lovely, lovely people. Some of the older people (eg: grandparents) will definitely be more uptight about making sure you and their grandchildren use ‘vous’ or ‘usted’ instead of ‘tu’ and it can come off as uppity, but remember it’s culture and a form of respect. Remember: be a duck.
Who should I be looking for as a host family?
As to families, a lot of European families tend to have between two or three kids, though there are quite a few that are single children families and the odd ones that are four or more. While I don’t necessarily have favourites, my second family was easier in the sense that with three kids, they do a really good job of playing with and entertaining each other. While more kids can sound like more work, often times it can be less because they don’t need you to entertain them as they have each other. As well, be wary and take what each family says with a (huge) grain of salt. My first family and I did not get along, at all. The kids would yell at me and call me names, the parents were cold. During the three months I was in Chartres, I made no friends and the parents made little to no effort to help me with the activities I was interested in or offering suggestions. My second family was ridiculously active and the kids and I would go outside, have picnics, they helped with dishes and cleaning up. My third family was kind of in-between. Getting the kids outside was difficult, though they theoretically liked it. There was much more TV watching and hearing, “No,” was more than a little challenging for them. Every family is going to have their bumps and bruises, of course, it just depends on which ones you’re more able to put up with.
What should I be looking for?
Pocket money: AuPair World gives a general overview of what’s the average pocket money per week for each country. Take into consideration if you’re going to need to be paying for your phone, a bus pass, language classes, etc. If your host family is willing to pay for some/all of these, a little less per week isn’t an awful idea. If it’s going to be up to you to pay for all these things, having a bit higher pay is definitely something to look for. Make sure that you’re never paid less than what the lowest suggestion is. While your room/board is taken care of, you still don’t want to be taken advantage of. As well, have the discussion as to whether or not you’ll be paid over holidays. It depends from family to family, though I’d heavily suggest looking for a family that will pay you over vacation. As an au pair, you really don’t make that much per week that your family shouldn’t be able to pay you for that week or two that comes up during your stay. As well, for every three months you work for a family, you’re entitled to a full week of holiday. Make sure this is something you and your host family discuss and are aware of so that you get your time off.
Timetable: The best way to make both you and your family aware (because trust me: you’ll be very aware of the hours you’re working) is to ask to have a timetable. This lets both parties see how many hours you’re working and allows you to say yes/no if they ask for more from you. It will also allow them to schedule in nights when you have to babysit and lets you then make plans around that, or vice versa. The one place this didn’t happen was my time in Plateau d’Assy. Because I was in the middle of nowhere, both parents worked/went to school more than an hour away or were away from home for days/weeks at a time, I ended up in charge of most things. By the time I left, I did all the laundry, cooked 95% of the meals, took care of the dishes, the general tidiness of the house, making sure the kids got to/from school, looked after them on Wednesdays, took care of grocery shopping, etc. Had that been happening while I was living in Madrid, I would not have been okay with it, but in the fairly isolated mountains where my friends both lived 40+ minutes away and there wasn’t much for entertainment, it helped me keep my sanity.
Note: Kids in France don’t have school on Wednesdays. They also have two week holidays every six weeks. These are things you need to know. As how Wednesdays will figure into your hours, because you’ll be taking care of the kids for up to eight hours that day. Also: if your days off are Fridays/Sundays, you’re still not allowed to work more than four/five hours on Saturday. Be sure they’re aware of things, make them know you know this. Keep them accountable.
Sneaky things they’ll sneak into your task list: Ask about pets, cleaning responsibilities and if the kids come home for lunch. In order: if they have pets, you’re probably going to be walking them at least once a day. Alex’s family has a dog that’s almost constantly sick and the poor guy is forever cleaning up dog puke or poop. A lot of families have people to come in and clean, but it depends on how often. Here I have three hours a day, five days a week. In France, I had once a week for four hours. Yes, you’re expected to help with light housework. Don’t let them take advantage of that. You’re there to help with the children and, most likely, speak English. You’re not there to clean. In Europe (especially France, Spain, Italy and Portugal), lunch is a good two hour affair. One of the girls I know never goes into Madrid during the week because she always has to pick the kids up for lunch and take them back. That eats up a huge chunk of your day. Another friend has arranged it with the parents that she gets two days off a week from picking the kids up and she uses those days to go into the city. So, if you can find a happy balance, that can work for you.
Accommodation: Make sure you have your own bedroom! You would think this is common sense and it’s actually against the rules for you to have to share, but some will try and be sneaky. You need your own space. Being in a new country, with a family you don’t really know means you need. your. own. space.
Transportation: Do a bit of research as to what the area is like. If there’s a good bus/metro system available, how long it will take to get to the centre of the city, what your options are if you want to do some travelling around the country, I mean this. If you’re host family says they’re a 15-20 minute car ride from the city centre, you’re probably a solid hour by public transport, which is what you’ll be using. Buses around here are every 15 minutes, until 9:30-10:15 p.m. After then, it’s every half hour until midnight. Weekends, the bus comes every half hour and it’s not always sure as to when, exactly, that half hour period is. When it takes an hour to get into Madrid, missing the bus can be the difference between being on time and being horribly, awfully late. (I can attest to this on so, so many levels.)
Activities: Check to see if there are any clubs or sports complexes that are available to you. Most au pairs have eight hours a day to fill five days a week and having a sport or activity is definitely one of the best ways to fill your time, as well as getting to meet new people.
When looking for a family: realize that you’re most likely going to have to go to the embassy of whatever country you’re heading to if you’re going for more than 90 days (this is a general note. Canadians and Americans can go for 90 days without a problem, other countries will have to look into what their rules are.). For me to go to France, I had to fly to Vancouver for a 10 minute interview with a very rude French lady. It had to be Vancouver because Saskatchewan falls under its region, even though flying to Toronto would have been cheaper by almost $150. That’s going to be an expense you won’t be getting back. I mean, I did get to hang out in Vancouver and took a mini three day break, which was nice, but still. It was frustrating and annoying because it involved money and time off work that I really couldn’t afford.
When/for how long should I go?
This is completely and utterly up to you. A lot of families look for au pairs for the summer months, so between May/June to August/September. This is great if you’re a recent high school graduate or a university student looking to travel abroad for the summer. There are also a lot of families looking for au pairs for the year, which is an option if you’re someone who’s a recent high school graduate and doesn’t want to head into post secondary quite yet, or, if you’re like me and you’re really, really not sure what the next step is after post secondary graduation. Travelling is a great, amazing way to continue education and is in no way, shape or form a waste of time, so ignore that niggling idea at the back of your mind. Some au pairs go for three months, six months, a year, a friend of mine and I have done it for two years and I’m sure there’s a person or two who’s done it for longer! The one thing to remember is that most people swear by the three month rule, which is that the first three months are the worst (a lot of ups and downs, a lot of homesickness, a lot of feeling lost, adjusting, etc.) and after that things really even out. It was like that in both France and Spain for me and I’d suggest that, if things aren’t so hot, wait until month four has come and gone before deciding to go home.
Travelling as an au pair:
A lot of people become au pairs because they want an (fairly) inexpensive way to travel, which is what au pairing can give you. Au pairing in France can mean lots of opportunities to travel if you save up between your two week holidays. Take advantage of the time off and holidays that you get. Families will often allow you to stretch a weekend out if you organize it in advance and you can leave Thursday evening to come back Sunday afternoon. Europe has so many options for cheap travel (in comparison to what travelling around Canada is like) and all it takes is a little bit of give and being willing to share with others. A lot of people think you need lots of time to travel, but that’s really not true. Weekends away are just as fun and relaxing as weeks away and tend to be easier on your pocket as well. Make a list of places you’d like to go and figure out which are the furthest away and maybe save these for your longer weekends or weeks off to make up for the time travelling in between.
Remember: spend a little to save a lot. Within my first two months, I bought a youth train pass for 50€. At the time, that was almost all my pocket money for a week and I hadn’t been planning on doing it right then. But, I did and it was the best 50€ I spent. That pass meant that I could get anywhere from 25% – 50% off my train ticket prices. It helped me get across the country when I left Chartres and back to across to Plateau d’Assy. I used it for trips to Lyon several times, it came in handy when I missed my flight had to take the train down to Nice. Ask your host family if they know of tickets like that and, if not, the internet will be full of helpful hints!
The language barrier:
So this one depends on a.) which country you’re going to and b.) if you’ve taken any language classes. France was a no brainer because I’ve been speaking French my entire life and I really wanted to work to make myself fluent again. Unlike here in Spain, I spoke French 100% of the time with the kids. It was all the French, all the time and it was so good for my French. The first few months were, again, really difficult and there was a learning curve, but man, once I got around, away I went. Spain, however, has been more difficult. My first two weeks were brutal. That was when I was with the family on holiday and, while a lot of the family can speak English, when they were all together, they all spoke Spanish. (Obviously!) Which was weird and exhausting with my knowledge of counting to ten, a couple of colours and ‘hola’. My main job here is to speak to the kids in English, which means the parents like the fact that I came here not knowing Spanish because English had to be spoken. As time as gone on, I’ve picked up a lot and so dinner will have the family speaking Spanish to each other and I’ll interject in English. When the kids get mad and start insulting me in Spanish, I know what they’re saying. I can have fairly decent conversations and have had a few that were Spanish/English, where one party spoke to me in Spanish while I replied in English. It does help that Spanish, French, Italian and Portuguese are very much alike and have a lot of the same rules, but they are still different languages and it will take some time before things become familiar.
Taking language lessons will (or, rather, should) go a long way to helping you speak the language. There are also language exchange groups to be found once or twice a week where you can meet people and practice your new language. The length of your stay will definitely go a long way to how much opportunity you have, just be willing to grab all of them that come your way! As long as you give it an honest effort, whoever you’re talking to will find a way to communicate with you.
If things go downhill:
If you and your family don’t work out (this has happened to a lot of au pairs, including me!, so it’s not just you!), the general rule is that both parties get two weeks to find a new au pair/family. Make sure you get/give your two weeks! I had to fight for mine because my host family had made arrangements with a new au pair before we’d agreed to call it quits and I still needed to sort stuff out. It’s scary being in a foreign country and not knowing what’s going to happen next. Get your two weeks!
As well, please, please, please do not put up with an awful family because you don’t know what to do. There are always options and going home is not the same as giving up. It can be so hard and difficult and awkward to stand up for yourself while you’re living and working in someone else’s home, but that does not give them the right to walk all over you and does not mean that you have to allow that. If something is making you uncomfortable, say something about it. If someone is crossing the line, say something. There is nothing worse than letting things go and living with that resentment/annoyance/fear/etc. hovering over you. You’re there for a cultural exchange, to live with a family and become a part of it. Trust me on this: my first family was just plain cold and the host dad of my third family would go into my room while I wasn’t there, would corner me with accusations and catch me off guard. I spent months feeling stressed and anxious, which is not how the experience should be. If you do encounter a problem, you can contact AuPair World and get their recommendation, as well as look for a new family, whether in the area and close by or else somewhere else in whichever country you’re currently staying in. There are always a lot of families looking for au pairs and while a two week timeline is tight, it can definitely be doable if you would like to continue on.
That got rather long and winded, but I do hope that if you were looking for information, you got everything you were looking for! If you have any questions at all, give me a shout and I’ll do my best to answer them!