It's Not Like The Sound of Music
Au pairing is one of the best ways to travel on the cheap; as long as you like kids, that is.
I first heard of the concept from a friend at uni who had just experienced three glorious months au pairing in the Spanish sunshine. In effect, an au pair is a live-in nanny that comes from abroad and takes care of the kids and light housework in exchange for room and board, an allowance, and an opportunity to learn a new language.
But for both the au pair and the host family, it is nothing short of a lottery. For every good match there are two disastrous ones that end in tears and a hasty flight home. When it works, however, it can be incredible.
In August last year I used Au Pair World to find a family from a town on the outskirts of Vienna in Austria, and in no time at all I was living with them. I had many ups and downs, but if I could I would definitely do it all over again.
1. You're more adaptable than you think
Before I au paired, I’d never done all the washing and ironing for a four person family, or cooked a meal while simultaneously entertaining kids. Actually, before I went out a lot of the things I would go on to accomplish would have seemed almost impossible, but I surprised myself.
You see, from the host family’s point of view, they’ve brought you over to work, and are giving you free food and a room to make sure you do. There’s very little chance of them giving you a week to ‘settle in.’ You are expected to start immediately, and that’s just what you do. Every au pair must adapt to the new job quickly, and many are surprised at how remarkably easy it can be.
Though the first few weeks may be tough, with a bit of perseverance, and support from both your home and host family, you will land firmly on your feet.
2. You learn a language faster than you ever could at school
For every au pair, learning the lingo is a big part of the experience, and it was no different for me. I went into a family with kids who spoke hardly any English at all, which was major motivation to work hard to learn German. After all, when you’re surrounded by excitable kids that want you to play with them and let you know what they want for dinner, you have to pick it up pretty quickly.
Kids especially are full of useful phrases, and you learn a whole lot more from their storybooks than they do! That’s not to say it’s easy by any means, and there are days where it will all seem too much, but the longer you stay, the better things become.
3. Au pair friends are awesome
If you au pair in a big city like Vienna, there will be a Facebook group of au pairs around you organising meet ups. It’s a great and easy way to meet likeminded people who know exactly what you’re going through.
It may be because of the nature of the profession, but in my experience, the people that au pair are some of the most open and friendly you will ever come across. It’s important to build a circle of friends when you are living away from home, and I had au pair friends from all over the world to meet and explore museums and cafés with, while also being able to talk through my frustrations with my host family to people who really understood the situation. You can make friends for life, and have quite a few adventures with them too!
4. Privacy is an important thing
It may be obvious, but working and living with a family under the same roof can lead to some awkward situations that you cannot help but be present for. It’s inevitable you will be around for very personal arguments and fights, not to mention moodswings and drama with extended family.
Remember, just because you might not be able to understand what is being said in an argument doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to give those arguing some privacy. I became a professional at avoiding these situations by going to do some washing up or taking the children outside to play, and it only leads to a mutual respect of privacy that benefits both yourself and your host family.
5. True independence
I’d lived as a student before being an au pair, and I thought I understood what it was to stand on my own two feet. But I had no idea. You may be hosted by a family, but they are not your family and you are there to work. You are removed from your home environment and must build a good relationship with your employers, whilst building a supportive group of friends and earning and managing your own money.
It’s the perfect job for those just leaving school or university, as it is a gentle nudge into adulthood and independent living. Much to my surprise, I grew as a person: I became more aware of my inner strength, had lots more confidence, and was more determined than ever to go after what I want in life.
One year on and the lessons I learned still serve me well today. Au pairing might be hard work both emotionally and physically, but I would recommend it to any twenty-something looking for an adventure and a thoroughly unique way to become a better person.
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