The first of 3 posts about my experience of being an au pair. I have split the posts into ‘Finding a Family’, ‘My Month in Almansa’ and ‘Reflections’, in order to not publish one huge essay on the subject!
By the time you reach university, it’s a well-known fact that the novelty of the lengthy summer holidays soon wears off. After 2 weeks of television binges and spending the day in your pyjamas, you get a little tired of nobody ever winning on The Chase, and nobody ever finding true love on Dinner Date. This summer I knew that I wanted to do something constructive with my time, and something that could even benefit my degree (French with Spanish). I was originally offered a job with Eurocamp, but admittedly panicked that the thought of cleaning hot tents for 10 weeks and getting drunk most nights may not have been quite what I was looking for, let alone have a chance of improving my languages. Despite not having much experience with children, I decided to look for an au pair position.
Family finding websites:
There are lots of websites that will charge you quite a large fee to find you a family. In my experience, it is not necessary to pay a penny and these sites have no more guarantee of safety or compatibility with a family. I created a profile on a lot of free sites, and was quite bombarded with responses, some of which I immediately declined (think middle aged Italian man with no children wanting an Au pair for ‘company’).
My first successful response came from the website NewAuPair and was from a couple living in Limoux, France. They lived in a beautiful house and seemed to lead a relaxing and luxurious lifestyle. I was also offered quite a large sum of money in return for some cleaning duties, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t initially find this inviting. Following a Skype interview, however, I had to decline their offer of a 10 week stay because I felt like my personality didn’t suit their lifestyle. This may have been when they asked “Do you play any instruments, Lauren? Our previous au pair was excellent with the clarinet!” With the best I had to offer being my year 3 recorder solo of ‘London’s Burning’, I decided that perhaps we weren’t the perfect match. I politely declined their invitation by e-mail and wished them luck on their quest to find a suitable au pair.
The next website that I received messages on was AuPairWorld. This website has a good layout that allows you to see all of the crucial information about the family and send them messages. An important thing for me was the potential to meet other au pairs or people my age in the area, as I think it’s helpful to have those connections when you’re away from home. One family whose children had a tutor for English, who was one year older than me, caught my attention. We exchanged a few messages and I asked them about things such as what kinds of food they eat, what they like to do in their spare time and what their children enjoy doing. The responses matched my own hobbies and opinions, and therefore I quickly said yes.
Lessons learned and things to consider:
Know your family before you go. Despite me having no problems with my family, I would not recommend confirming anything before having a Skype interview. I had become quite tired of searching for a family, and rushed into saying yes to one that seemed perfect. Admittedly, I put myself at a slight risk here as, as my mum repeatedly reminded me, “they could be anybody!”
Thoroughly consider what you want to get out of the experience, and whether the family in question will provide that. For me, the most important things were to form good relationships and to improve my Spanish/French. Whilst Limoux seemed luxurious, the couple were actually English and it would have been unrealistic to expect to progress much with French.
Ask for photos of the house and the room where you’ll be staying. It’s all too easy to exaggerate over the internet, and you want to see where you’ll be living. Your bedroom, after all, will be the only place that you will have to yourself.
Before you commit to doing something like this, make sure you fully understand what the family are expecting of you. I was asked to simply speak to the children in English, however when I arrived it seemed that I was expected to give them an hour long class every day. Due to how busy we were, this resulted in me exhausting myself by waking up early to plan some lessons.
Additionally, be clear on what you will receive from the family. Will they collect you from the airport? Will you earn any money? What are you expected to pay for? Do you need any specific items of clothing (especially if, like in Spain, there will be themed fiestas!)
Research the location. I found the ideal family and decided I wasn’t too concerned about where they lived. It was south Spain and the weather would be great! The nerves did kick in however when I started to browse the area on Google maps, and only came across fields and dirt tracks. I’m used to living close to a city, and I did really struggle with only being able to leave the house when the mum needed to go shopping, because the closest taste of civilization was a 20 minute drive away. Some people might find this peaceful, but I ended up feeling a little trapped.
If you’re going to a country where a different language is spoken, consider your language level. Some families won’t mind you not speaking their language as they only want their children to learn English, but I can see how it would have been very isolating if I hadn’t spoken Spanish. I’d only been learning Spanish for a year, but at quite an intense level. It was easy to interact with the adults who knew to speak slowly to me, but it was more difficult to bond with the children until I got used to their regular phrases.
Choose a realistic time period to spend abroad. Some people do gap years and spend the entire time as an au pair. Others, like me, choose to spend as short as a month. I wouldn’t recommend doing any shorter than a month, in order to make sure you can really bond with the family and get a full cultural experience. Given that this was my first trip completely alone, though, I decided to trail just one month to see how I’d cope.
Plan to spend as much time with the family as you can. From the day you arrive, try to sit where they sit and join in with what they’re doing. It’s tempting to close yourself in your room and wonder what on Earth you’ve signed up to, but you’ll only make things more difficult for yourself in the long run.
Overall, I feel extremely lucky to have landed such a lovely and welcoming family. I admit that I rushed into booking the flights slightly after having declined Eurocamp’s job offer and panicking about how I’d spend my summer. The advice I would give would be to communicate thoroughly with the family before you confirm any arrangements, to ensure that everybody feels comfortable and there are no surprises when you arrive!
The next part to this post will be ‘My Month in Almansa’, which will include photos and stories of my actual experience.