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First off, like the previous review, I was not an au-pair in America, but agree that it should be posted here, under careers and not the service.
~*~ Why did I become an au-pair? ~*~
It was a completely last minute thing. I had not been home for long from my previous trip to Australia but, no matter how hard I tried, I couldn't get work. And I was becoming increasingly bored. Also I was starting to worry about University in September...was I confident enough to ensure I had a brilliant time? I'm on a gap year in between College & University, and the big reason was to get out there and have some unforgettable life experiences. Suddenly, my mum's idea of au-pairing didn't seem so ridiculous after all...
~*~ My Country ~*~
My experience was in Finland and was only for five weeks, which is much shorter than the average au-pair contract. If you have my reviews, then you'll be well aware that I have a great interest in Finland; I had actually been there four times before the au-pair role. And so the obvious question: why did I choose to go back there to au-pair rather than somewhere new? In short, it's because although in the past year, I've travelled to many countries, I have always been with friends and so for my first experience alone I wanted to be in an environment in which I felt comfortable. Finland offered to me both comfort and challenge, as it wasn't going to be a walk in the park; I still had hardly any knowledge of Finnish and still had a long way to go before I would say I had great social skills.
Besides, although I stated Finland as a preference on the website (www.aupair-world.net), I was set to go to Italy before that fell through, so it was clearly meant to be :)
~*~ My Family & The Contract ~*~
It's probably not the wisest idea but I decided to use the website mentioned rather than the agency. Obviously there were safety concerns but because I wasn't looking for a long-term contract and I trusted my judgment I took the risk. The other problem here is that I just had to hope the family would stick to the guidelines laid down by the site. They were a family of four, mum, dad, a girl aged ten and a boy aged 9, who lived in the suburbs of Turku in an, apparently, average sized house (this may be so in Finland but it was bigger than average for the UK.) I was given my own rather big room, with a bathroom which I shared with the kids. For the first weekend, I just spent time with the whole family as I settled in. Then we arranged that I would work for five hours a day, 6 days a week. This would either be the 'day shift' from whenever I woke up (imagine my happiness at the thought that I could wake up sometime around 10:30 every day!) to 4pm or the evening shift which started from 5pm till when the kids went to bed, which on a good night was 11pm. I thought it was odd that such little kids were going to bed so late, but they told me it was only like this in the holidays. I ended up usually working 6 hours with one hour cleaning the kitchen, which was probably because I didn't work half as quickly as I could have done. The main task here was to teach English to the children who had practically no background of the language, to prepare them for moving to an English-speaking country in the coming months. This was for 70 Euros a week, plus food and accommodation and paid trips whenever I had the kids with me or did something as a family.
Usually walking through customs in Helsinki is a pleasure, and although I was pleased to be back, to say I was nervous is an understatement. But when I saw the family, my smile wasn't forced for long: I was welcomed with my name on a painted giant sign with warm friendly smiles from everyone. Surprisingly the journey to the house, which was two hours, wasn't really awkward and I had interesting conversations with both of the parents (the kids were asleep.) Unfortunately, the first few days were rather awkward with the children. I admit, although I have younger cousins, I didn't have much previous experience with kids and the fact that neither of us could understand each other didn't help. I felt that the children were rather reserved, which is obviously because I was a stranger in their home but also, it is true that Finnish people appear to be more reserved than other cultures. However, I had them laughing frequently after a few days, which had to be a good thing.
~*~ My Days With The Kids ~*~
At first, we did what the kids wanted to do, and this seemed to work because they liked me for being laid-back (I was trying to fit in with the relaxed lifestyle that they were living). However, as I see now, this wasn't the best idea with little kids and I can really relate to the saying "I'll bang your heads together in a minute." But there were great times. I took the kids to the boat museums, to the library, to the park, on many, many bike rides but it was the little things I think they appreciated most, like pretending to be different animals on the trampoline. Also everyday, I had a little teaching session with them. I'm amazed just how well this went, considering a few days before I had just brought these relatively cheap kiddy English books from Wilkinson's and was just making up the lessons as I went. It was really amazing to witness a child starting to grasp something as big as a new language. And it must have paid off, because by the time I left the little girl could understand practically everything I said to her and the parents, and was making really good sentences. The boy still has a way to go but there was still some improvement there.
~*~ Negatives ~*~
As much as I loved it, I can't deny that there were some big issues I struggled with. Mainly, not being able to speak Finnish. It's not hard to imagine how awkward it is when the kids are having a giant party and everything's so hectic that no one speaks English to you, for instance. It was times like this that I felt like an alien, as it did get annoying occasionally when people would just not make any effort with you , in fear that their English wasn't good enough. The language barrier was never invisible with the children either, e.g the parents wanted me to make more contact with them when I wasn't working, but there's only so much you can say when they don't understand. I know that the boy especially found it frustrating not being able to communicate and sometimes he just wanted to be around his usual Finnish surroundings.
~*~ Positives ~*~
-The language barrier can also be seen in a positive light...if I can somehow communicate with those who have limited knowledge in English, then really speaking and socialising with people in my own country shouldn't be a problem. I was quite proud that I learnt a little Finnish anyway :)
- I had a great time for free! Who could complain at getting paid for being in their favourite country? Ok, so I had to pay for the flight, but with my wages, it basically made up for it.
-I met some amazing people and some good friends. And now I have accommodation secured for my next visit :)
- I couldn't have had these experiences anywhere else. One day I'm discovering a beautiful nature reserve and I'm eating blueberries in the forest, the next I'm partying like mad in Helsinki. Also, who else can say they attended a 95year old's birthday party in a country with a language you don't understand?!
- Learning: I firmly believe that travelling and being in these situations enables you to learn a lot more than the formal education system. Not only did I develop my social skills, my childcare skills, my teaching skills; I was able to learn from a culture other than my own and I think that's a money-can't-buy thing.
So as you can gather, I would firmly recommend au-pairing to most young people who are looking for something different in life.
** I was an au pair in Italy, not the states, but this category is under professions and occupations, i.e. the job itself, not the Au Pait In America scheme In January 2000 there was a BBC documentary broadcast which followed the lives of a handful of au pairs in various countries. Not meaning to be horrid, but most of them were appalling. The only one who looked like she was doing her best looking after the children, and trying to fit in to life in a new country was called Zoë. Perhaps it was as a sign. I had no particular desire to be an au pair. I realized I would probably be a better one than most of the girls featured in the program, but that wouldn’t be hard. However, I wanted another job abroad following a successful summer in Germany the year before, and being only 17 at the time, my choices were limited. Au pairing was one option, and I had the experience and skills for it, so I did some research and applied to a few agencies. I couldn’t go with the best ones as they have qualification and age requirements I didn’t meet, but a few of the others seemed interested. If you’re thinking about going for a long time and / or have never traveled alone, I would recommend that you do it properly: start ages in advance, only apply to the most well-known agencies and so on. I was only going for the summer, and I knew I could take care of myself if the family turned out to be nutcases, so I wasn’t overly concerned. All I wanted was someone to give me a job. After a few complications, and some disappointments I don’t need to go into here, I had a placement. 3 days after my last A Level exam I would fly out to Milan, and spend the summer caring for and teaching English to a family with 3 children. We landed in Malpensa and, luggage collected, I slowly began to make my way to the arrivals hall. I can honestly say it was the first time in my life that I began to wonder if I’d bitten off more than I could c
hew. I had had one hour of Italian lessons a week for 6 months – not a lot by anyone’s standards. I was used to babysitting, but I also liked being able to give the kids back and leave when the parents returned home – would I be able to stay sane living in the same house as them 24 hours a day for the summer? I needn’t have worried. The parents and 8 year old were there to meet me, and during the 3 hour of so trip back to their home, I soon realized the language barrier was not going to be too much of a problem. After the usual “How was the flight? Where do you live? What do you like to eat?” questions, we ended up having a lively discussion – all in Italian, I might add – about the latest happenings in Dawson’s Creek. The 8 year old was a huge fan, and delighted to hear we were a season ahead of them, so I could tell him what would be happening. It was not what my Italian teacher had in mind, I’m sure, but her lessons had taught me more that I could have imagined, and all the words and phrases needed to describe the ongoing Dawson-Joey-Pacey love triangle. The family was fairly well off and had a huge house in the suburbs, with a large garden. My bedroom was normally their study, but was still a welcoming place, with a large double bed, plenty of wardrobe space, shelves and tables. In fact, apart from the computer in the corner, you would have no reason to believe it was anything but a normal spare room. I was up on the top floor with their oldest daughter – a 16 year old who I soon became friends with thanks to the minimal age difference. The 1st floor was home to the parents’ and younger kids’ rooms (a 12 year old girl and 8 year old boy sharing – odd? Not to them). The ground floor had a living/dining room and a kitchen, and the basement had utility and laundry rooms. It was a nice, roomy place, and I soon figured out that I wouldn’t have any problems if the weathe
r turned nasty and we were confined to the house for weeks on end. That evening the kids and I sat down and “chatted” in a mixture of English and Italian. Within minutes they were in fits of laughter, which I took as a good sign. I can be silly when I want to be. Officially my working hours were 30 – 35 per week, spread over 6 days. Theoretically I would have 4 evenings off. That was what the agency, family and I had agreed, and what the contract stated. As you can guess, though, things didn’t quite go to plan. The problems began because the mother was at home on leave from work when I arrived, recovering from a nose job (seriously!). Somehow she had wangled herself a number of weeks off work from her job - as a biochemist, or something like that. This meant that she was with the children all day, and although I was there too, I had little role to play. I would help to clean up the kitchen as the kids did, and tidy up now and then, but apart from speaking English with them all, and helping the oldest with her studies, this was all I was doing. Child-care was not really coming into it, and I found this a bit odd. For the first week I had a great time. Treating me as a member of the family, the mother, 2 youngest and I would go out into the city each day, shopping or sightseeing. The middle child was “nervous” according to the mother – I never did work out the correct translation for her condition - and was seeing a therapist each day, so we had to stop by the health center to drop her off before heading down the road for ice creams. In the afternoons we would be dropped off at the pool, where the kids would play with their friends, and I would keep a semi-watchful eye on them. Both could swim well, and in the small town everyone knew everyone-else, so I didn’t fear they would get lost. The mother told me in no uncertain terms to ensure that her 12 year old was “not doing anything she shouldnR
17;t be with that boyfriend of hers” but was a little vague on the details. As someone who had had her first child as a young un-married teenager, what did she think was unacceptable behaviour for pre-teens? The odd hug? Holding hands? Frantic orgies in the changing rooms? In the evenings, the mother and I would take the children to the local Piazza – an almost official meeting place for balmy July nights. The adults would sit and talk, while I would run around with the 2 dozen or so children there. On occasion, I was sent to the cinema with the oldest and her friends. I remember seeing Mission Impossible 2 there, and though my Italian was still very much rudimentary, I understood a lot more of it than I had the original, which I saw in English in the UK. While the parents were cooking in the evenings, the children and I would watch English cartoons, look at comics, play games. The middle child took it upon herself to teach me the rudest words she knew, and, if I couldn’t quite figure out what she meant, would draw diagrams with a level of detail I certainly didn’t know at her age. She was a good teacher though, and to this day I can still remember the word “coglione”. But the honeymoon period was coming to an end, and things began to change. The parents got snappier, over the smallest little things. Supposedly I didn’t stack the dishwasher correctly. I needed to be giving the kids proper lessons (something I didn’t have a problem with, but they’d never mentioned before). I should be driving (something I refused to do, having only passed my UK test a few months earlier, and still being unsure on the left hand side, let alone foreign roads. They had been told when I applied, however, that I could not drive at all, and had accepted this). The parents never went out in the evenings, and the mother was still at home during the day, so I still wasn’t working as much as I should have been –
; perhaps if I’d been frantically run off my feet, they’d have felt better. On my days off I went out – I was seeing enough of the house on the other 6 days, so I wanted to see the rest of the country. I traveled to Milan and Verona, both within easy reach of their home, shopping and seeing the sites, and generally being glad to be away from them all. I grew up with an older sister only, and had never before lived with young children, so this was all new to me. The youngest was a spoilt brat, and though his parents had come to realize this, they didn’t seem to be doing much to sort it out. Once when we were all together on the promenade, he started to spit and I told him off, not nastily, but enough that he knew I didn’t think he should be doing that. His mother turned around, surprised that I was bothering to comment on his behaviour when she was there, then merely shrugged her shoulders as if to say “What can you do?”. It was also thanks to this little darling that I taught myself the word “imbroglione” – cheat. It’s funny the things you still remember 4 years later. I have no problems with children being allowed to win, but they need to play fair. Cheating on their part is not on. I came home in time to collect my A Level results, fully exhausted and glad to be back. But now when I look back on the summer, I have fond memories. I would not have lasted much longer with the family, and would have been very unhappy if I’d been supposed to be spending a year or 18 months there, but in a strange way, I’m very glad I did it. Some points to consider if you’re thinking of being an au pair ● The hours can be long. Unlike with some child-care jobs, unless you actively get up and leave the house when the parents get home, you’re never off duty. “Official” hours may be limited to 30 per week, but you’re supposed to be a member
of the family, which means helping out when needed, and playing with the kids for the sake of it, not just because you’re needed to take care of them at that point in time. Especially with younger kids, it’s almost impossible to explain to them that although you’re there all day every day, you’re only willing to play with them from 9 to 5. ● Along with the long hours, the pay is not too good. I got 40 GBP per week which was standard at the time. It sounds ridiculously low, but is only supposed to be pocket money. All the major costs – food, accommodation, language courses in some cases – are covered by your host family. You can’t expect to save much in this job, but you should have enough to enjoy yourself in your free time, and maybe do some traveling after you finish your stay. In most cases you are responsible for your own airfare, though some families will pay half if you stay to the end of your agreed period. Some parents and au pairs run into problems with things like phone bills, so it’s helpful to sort these out in advance. Yes, you might be home sick, but that doesn’t automatically give you the right to make transatlantic calls for an hour a time. ● A lot of the time you don’t get a choice as to where you are placed. I applied to an Italian agency because I wanted to go to Italy, but many of the more general ones cover all of Europe and beyond. When a choice of country is possible, the city or region probably won’t be. If you want to go to America, for example, but are only willing to work in New York, then you may have problems. Flexibility is the key. ● You’re living in a new country with a new family, so you cannot expect things to be just like at home. The weather will be different, the customs will be different and the lifestyle will be different. The moment that sticks in my mind, and this is totally true, is the night when the mother c
alled the 12 year old into the bathroom because it was time for her armpits to be shaved. The girl wasn’t trusted with a razor, so the mother had to do them for her every few weeks. It was definitely one of those “We’re not in England anymore” moments. ● The most desirable au pairs are female, 20+ years old with several years of child care experience. They have first aid certificates and driving licences. They have no allergies (families often have pets, for example) and are strong swimmers. Musically gifted and good at sports, they are also good cooks and enjoy promoting healthy eating. They are neither obese nor under-weight. They are friendly and adaptable, and love their host families as much as their biological ones. While a lot of us don’t possess every one of these qualities, if you have none of them, you might want to reconsider becoming an au pair. Families who have 2 working parents (or single parent families where the mother of father in question works) often consider using au pairs as a cheap option. While they are this, compared to qualified nannies who earn many times more, you have to remember that a lot of them are young girls going away for the first time, often with only a bit of child care experience. I would never leave a child under one with an au pair, and would need to think hard about whether I’d leave a toddler with them. For families with school age children, though, they can be a good option. You get someone to pick the kids up from school, and supervise them until you get home. You get to share ideas with someone from another country, and, if you’re willing, pick up another language. But you cannot forget that they are there all the time. Yes, that spare room might be empty now, but how would you feel having a virtual stranger in there, and in your way in the bathroom and kitchen every day? Au pairs are not slaves and should not be treated as such. They should only be expec
ted to do child-related housework – cleaning the little ones’ rooms, for example, or doing their laundry, and only when the kids are at nursery or school. They are primarily there to watch over the children, so if you only leave them to work while the kids are there, you shouldn’t expect them to have done much apart from care for the little dears by the time you get back. If you are still considering it, the internet is a good starting point. At www.aupairs.co.uk you can chat to hosts and get tips on applying. EF-aupair www.efaupair.com/ and Au pair in America, www.aupairinamerica.co.uk/ are two well-known organizations that place worldwide.
Deciding which family to go to can be a tough descision to make if an agency are not deciding everything for you. One thing you may have to consider is whether you live with the family (like most people) or due to space or lack there-of (like me) you may have to live elsewhere. My family are by no means unsociable or snobby, there just wasn´t enough room in the flat for me and my rubbish! I therefore ended up living with the father´s grandparents (yes that does mean the greatgrandparents of the dear little one) who are in their mid eighties. I could see the advantages of this straight away (after living with the family for a week I was severely sleep deprived and needed to take a nap in the afternoons when Lukas did!). Moving in with the grandparents meant that I got a good nights sleep and also some quiet time on my own. I met other au pairs who had to wear earplugs at night because the bedroom was next to the kitchen and the children were so loud each morning..... Because I had my own key to the flat (well, eventually anyway) I could come and go as I pleased and I actually saw very little of the grandparents. This made the job more like nannying rather than au pair work where you are often "on Duty" all the time in the house. With my job there were set hours. The flat although not very large was in crawling distance of lots of pubs, which was also very handy at the weekend. As with most things there were downsides and this was no exception. Due to their age the grandparents were both in a state of ill health at one time or another, during my six months the ambulance was called out three times, each in the middle of the night. The first time I felt very guilty because I did not wake up and in the morning Eddie was in hospital and I did not know how to comfort Oma. I never got to the stage where I felt completely at home in the flat, I always thought that I was creeping about. Also because I was half living on
my own, I got quite lonely and missed having people to chat to ( I did not have very much in common with the grand parents as you may have guessed). Food was a bit of an issue too: it was never quite clear where I was suppose to eat. I could eat with Eddie if I wanted (Oma was only seen eating about five times in six months- she ate at night apparently) but breadrolls can become a little boring morning, noon and night. And the actual family only seemed to eat frozen food or MacDonalds. When I arrived in the morning this was Lukas´ cue to start to cry becuase he realised that Mummy and Daddy were going to go soon, but that only lasted about five minutes and I think that that happens with most kids anyway. Dont be put off with what I have said, one of the things I learnt here is that you just have to be flexible. Being an Au Pair is a great way of learning about a new country, culture and most of all meeting new people. Just bear in mind who you are going to live with and where before you start!
Whilst in the last year of my A-Levels i decided that i needed to take a year out before going to university. I wasn't exactly sure what i wanted to do but i knew that i to go abroad. In the school careers office i found some information on an agency called EF Au Pair. They were offering the chance to go to America as an Au Pair for 12 months with the option of a months travel after the completion of your work. It sounded great so i filled in the form and waited for a reply. A few weeks later i received a phone call inviting me to an orientation meeting. All i had to do is turn up with a completed apllication form. At the meeting we were told about the project from an area rep and had the chance to ask questions of two former Au Pairs. We did group exercises and were given an Au Pair hand book which contained information about the program and the USA. We then had an interview where your application form was discussed. I was given a conditional offer as i had not passed my driving test yet. Once i had passed my driving test things really started to happen. I had to have a criminal record check and medical. Send off for my J-1 visa. Fill out forms for insurance purposes. Then i had to sit back and wait. I had not heard anything for a few weeks and was worried that maybe the London office had not changed my phone number on their records, so i phoned. It turned out that a family had been trying to contact. One night i received a phonecall from my prospective employer. He told me all about the kids, his job, his separation from the children's mother and said he would like to offer me the position. I was delighted. On the 11th November i left England bound for JFK airport, New York. It is alegal requirement that all au pairs attend 'au pair school' prior to meeting there families. This was a 5 day course that took place. We talked about the laws of the US, childcare, hygeine and safety. You name it we discussed it. At the end of
the week it was time to leave our new friends and head off to our host families. I boarded to a flight to Philadelphia and thats where my year began. I was met at the airport by my host father and the two children and a bunch of flowers. It was a bit awkward but it was really exciting at the same time. I think that was the only day the children behaved. I arrived in Delaware to a quaint little house (not all Americans have huge houses) which looked more like a cottage. I was thrown in at the deep end abit because i only had one day off before i was left alone with the children. A typical day: 7am - Wake up and get self dressed 7.30 - Wake 2 boys up and dress youngest 7.45 - Try and drag the oldest out of bed 7.50 - Prepare breakfast 8.00 - Mad rush to ensure all homework is packed in school bag 8.15 - Walk to School bus stop and send oldest boy to school 8.30 - 3.00 - Kerp youngest entertained, make lunch, tidy house, do laundry, plan evening meal. 3.30 - collect oldest from bus stop 3.45 - make snack 4.30 - Try and convince oldest to do homework 6.00 - Prepare dinner 7.00 - Tidy up in preparation for the arrival of dad. 8.00 - Wash youngest, and force oldest to wash 9.00 - Children off to bed (doesn't usually happen but thats the plan). That was when the father was on a day shift. If he was on a night shift, it was basically the same thing but with more responsibilties. My children were challenging and very hard to control. Before me they had had 2 au pairs - one lasted a week, the other 3 weeks. So i was determined to beat this record. There were many tough days, and i almost left a few times. But i am glad i stayed because raising children is never easy at the best of time but when they are not yours it is even harder. EF Au Pair ensured that you were in contact with your Local Childcare Co-ordinator at least once a month. This gave
you the oppurtunity to talk about any problems you were having and to meet other au pairs from the area. You were also given the address and phone number of all local au pairs so you could have some friends. I made friends with English and Swedish au pairs, which kept you sane at times. It is very important that in your spare time you get out of the house and see what the area has to offer. We were lucky to have a town next to ours that housed the University campus. And what does that mean lots of bars. The drinking laws in the US are VERY strict, you have to be able to prove that you are 21+ (ie passport). At the time i was only 18 but a few bars let minors in as long as they did not occupy certain areas. We also found other ways of getting into bars (can't say how its illegal). The agency arranged day trips once a month. many of these activities were suggested by the au pairs themselves. Day trips i went on included: Cow Town rodeo (yes folks a real rodeo), skiing in the Pocanos mountains, Six Flags theme park, Hershey's theme park, Halloween party, dinner and show (a buffet meal and a performance of 'Oklahoma' - very good), glow-in-the-dark bowling. As part of your program requirements you must also undertake 90 hours of study during the year. This can be any course although certain things are not permitted on your insurance. You have to be able to prove that you've been trying to learn about the american way of life. I did Self defense classes for 2 hours a week. It ws great and it got out some of that pent up energy. All in all, i had a great year. I made friends for life, not just au pairs but local people. Its a great way to see a different country, but you really have to enjoy working with children. Good Points: 1. See a foreign country 2. Doesn't cost that much 3. Looks great on a CV Bad Points: 1. You may not get a perfect family (but you can change if things are
not working out). 2. You may have to chase the agency up because sometimes they don't do things as quickly as they should. Wage/Pocket Money: $142 per week (in 1997) Requirements: 1. Between the ages of 18 - 24 2. Have been in full time education until the age of 18 years. 3. No criminal record 4. Full driving license is preferred (but enquire if don't have one) Cost: I was on this program in 1996, and prices quoted are approximately accurate for that time. Admin. Fee - £40 Deposit - £350 (this was refundable once the full 12 months were completed and the 90 hours of study had been done) Medical - Varies Criminal record check - £20 Visa What don't you have to pay for? Flights, accomodation, food, $500 of tuition fees. You may have to pay for your telephone bills or petrol depending on your family (i didn't). For more info EF have a website: http://www.ef.com/GB/ If anyone wants any info feel free and i'll email them with it.