Realization of the day: I haven’t discussed being an au pair that much. That’s my bad, and since I had no idea what an au pair was this time last year, I figured I might as well do a little crash course. Welcome to Au Pairing 101.
To put it in the most basic terms possible, an au pair is basically an international nanny.
In actuality, an au pair is a young person, usually female but not always, who goes to a different country to live with a family and take care of their kids. At its core, it’s a culture-sharing program. One of the primary goals of most host families is to expose their kid to the native language of the au pair [usually English]. In exchange, the au pair gets free room and board, free food, and a small stipend. Every situation is slightly different, but something that a lot of people seem to forget is that au pairing is a job.
Why It’s Great:
If you’re low on money but want a ‘study abroad’ experience, this is a good option to consider. It’s perfect for budding language-learners or anyone searching for a budget gap year option. I’d highly recommend it for anyone taking a break between high school and college, just because it’s helped me reevaluate myself and my values so much.
Since most programs in the gap year field tend to be the long-term tourism kind—you know, like ‘save sea turtles for only $1298493 dollars!’—au pairing is an incredible way to really immerse yourself in a new place and become a local. It’s simply unsurpassable in terms of cultural education, language immersion, and, you know, general life stuff. Living with a family and learning about their daily comings and goings is, in my opinion, the number one way to experience a country long-term, as opposed to simple tourism or study abroad programs.
Since you also get an allowance in addition to not paying for room/board/transportation/food, it’s also a great option for those of us who are underfunded.
Finally, it’s a great way to use a place as a home base for other adventures on the same continent—especially Europe. As a European au pair, you’ll have a visa that pretty much marks you as an EU resident, so you’ll get cool discounts on stuff, free entry to a bunch of museums and sights, and the opportunity to just travel like crazy. [If you want to.]
Why It Sucks:
If you’re used to a higher standard of living or have big fancy dreams of moving to Paris and living in sight of the Eiffel Tower and eating macarons all day e’ry day, you’re out of luck. Picture more screaming children, sneaking around at 3 AM trying not to wake your host parents up because you were out partying all night, and being constantly covered in paint/ink/mysterious gooey substances for some reason, and you’re a little closer.
Since the majority of au pair gigs involve living with the host family, most of the conflicts seem to stem from that awkward not-quite-employer, not-quite-family relationship. If you’ve been living on your own for a while, it can be a rough adjustment.
Also, the visa process is straight-up terrible and I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy. It’s probably different depending on the country, but for France, getting all that paperwork [and there was so much paperwork] at the last minute had me on the brink. Plus, it doesn’t even end when you get here—in December, I had to go to an OFII office a million trillion miles away from Versailles to get… medical testing??? before I could have my visa stamped and ready to go.
A large brunt of the quality of your experience will depend on your host family. At the same time, however, a lot of it depends on you. I rarely hear one of those infamous au pair nightmare stories and straight-up think ‘wow, the host family is completely taking advantage of their au pair and disrespecting them.’ It’s generally a matter of miscommunication and personality differences, which is why thoroughly vetting potential host families [and au pairs!] is so important at the beginning of the process.
How My Experience Has Been:
While I wouldn’t say I’m used to roughing it, as someone who is pretty much happy with everything, I’ve been having a blast. I feel truly independent for the first time [living alone definitely helps] and my host family has been so accommodating and understanding that I’ve never once felt uncomfortable. [I can’t say the same for feeling awkward. Oh boy. Lots of awkward moments when you’re me.)
Since I make about as much as I did working a minimum wage, part-time job back in the States, I’ve also never felt particularly poor. I save enough to fund my traveling while also having enough to shop and occasionally treat myself. [Not having to pay for rent or groceries helps!]
My work has been relatively easy, and I have loads of free time with all of the random two-week long vacations France has, giving me plenty of time to travel and explore. I’ve met more friends than I know what to do with and get enough sleep. All is good, basically! My only possible complaint would be that I am painfully aware that I’m a minority when I’m with American au pair girls, and that I have a different mentality and general outlook on life than most au pairs as well. More on that later [?]
However, for a gap year, it’s been a pretty ideal situation. If you don’t mind working a little, like kids, and want to spend some time abroad, try reading up some more on becoming an au pair!
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