By: Jocelyn Schwalm
If you’re currently a broke student who has wondered how to travel the world with minimal to no cost, you’re most likely not against the idea of living in a stranger’s home to raise their children for them in your spare time. In theory, becoming an au pair is an amazing gig with little to no downside, but in reality, many more facets affect this decision. The following is a field guide of what to expect during your first experience abroad as an au pair.
The first thing you may want to consider is that you will be living where you work. At first, you may not even take this fact into consideration, but know that this is a fundamental part of your experience as an au pair. It is extremely important to clarify which hours you are working and which you have off, because in this strange situation, lines easily become blurred. As an au pair, my host family would want to spend as much time with me as possible (understandably, at times, such as when I was teaching their children English), but it soon turned into family trips on the weekend on top of my designated working hours. Going home after a long day of work with young children can be awkward when home for you is up a set of stairs.
This brings me to my second point, which is that you won’t realize how the guilt of living in a stranger’s home, while trying to maintain a social life, can weigh on you, until it’s too late. This was a big one for me. I had just met a group of new friends in the city outside of Barcelona, called Castelldefels. With everything still new and exciting to me, I wanted to explore the city, yet I couldn’t shake the guilt that crept over me every time I left the house. It is not a typical 9-5 job, and this can make things complicated, but at the end of the day, it is important to remember it is a job nonetheless.
With everything still new and exciting to me, I wanted to explore the city, yet I couldn’t shake the guilt that crept over me every time I left the house.
This had never struck me as a bad thing until I realized that I was unaware of all the customs that defined Spanish culture. At first it was a foreign concept for me to do the standard “double-kiss” greeting and avoid handshakes, as they were firmly frowned upon. It took a while to get used to local norms. Being the foreign one was also a big factor in the way the kids saw and treated me. It was hard for them to understand that every country comes with its own separate customs, and this can leave you feeling like an alien at times. Being an outsider in a small town can come with its own set of obstacles.
Being foreign had never struck me as a bad thing until I realized that I was unaware of all the customs that defined Spanish culture.
This only applies to people who are picky with what they consume on a daily basis. Unfortunately, I fell within this category and spent about 99 percent of my weekly earnings trying to keep up with my seemingly healthy Canadian diet. In Spain, it is customary to consume mostly seafood and wine at every meal. While I wasn’t completely opposed to the constant wine consumption, seafood is not my favorite thing in the world. Not wanting to offend the family, I ended up eating quite a bit of it; this resulted in me getting sick by the end of the first month. It is important to consider your host family’s diet and lifestyle. Whether or not you and the family have a similar understanding of a healthy lifestyle, diet is an important factor to consider when choosing your host family.
Amount of New Friends
The excitement of going to a foreign country by yourself comes with a fair amount of nerves, but all that is alleviated if you meet other au pairs. It was so exciting to meet new people from different countries, all of whom were around the same age and living situation as me. I think I learned more about various foreign countries in those four months than I ever did in all the years spent studying them. Any stereotypes or prejudices are quickly dropped when you’re spending all your free time with people from around the globe. I had the good fortune of meeting two new people who I would now consider best friends.
When signing up to become an au pair, I’d definitely underestimated how much of a role language has in connecting us as humans. Prior to going, I had considered working in France, as I had spent 16+ years of my life learning the language, but quickly changed my decision when I considered the beautiful weather in Spain. I assumed that because I knew French, I would quickly learn Spanish and be able to get by on my own almost immediately. I didn’t realize how isolating life can be when you are foreign with no means of communication other than simple gestures and facial expressions. When you have no other choice, you learn the language pretty quickly. This was the case living with my host family, where only the mother was able to speak fluent English. Luckily, one of the main languages in Catalonia (the province where Barcelona is located) is Catalan, which has quite a few similarities to French. I was able to pick up quite a bit by the end of my stay, although I have to admit, I am not fluent.
This is a bit of a bittersweet one. It’s always exciting to get a free vacation, but it is easy to forget that you’re expected to continue your working hours—not to mention you’re being taken away from your new friends and put in a situation where you are reliant on the host family.
I consider myself to be an ambivert—outgoing when the situation requires, but mostly quiet to restore my energy with alone time. This is next to impossible living in a stranger’s home. It was hard for me to wake up and begin every day with a broken English/Spanish conversation (with long pauses to look up complicated words in a dictionary) when all I wanted to do was eat breakfast by myself and reflect. I believe that no matter how welcoming the family, there is no way to avoid the fact that you are almost never alone, and this can be tough. I found myself constantly running off to a local coffee shop on my free time to simply feel like myself again.
This leads me into my final point, which is making sure the family shares similar expectations and values as you. If nobody in the family has previously worked as an au pair, or you happen to be their first au pair, it can be hard to communicate what you want. Discuss your role before the actual experience in order to define what your job as an au pair is—teacher, babysitter, friend, and what it is not—housekeeper, slave, constant source of entertainment. To have an open and thorough discussion before embarking on this type of adventure is important, and it always helps to go with a family who has had the experience before and knows what to expect without looking to you to set the standard of what an au pair should be.