Summer is marketed to us as the best time of the year – it’s a time for BBQs, swimming, the beach, holidays, long days and evenings spent with friends and a time to have no cares about school or work. But for the average student, being able to afford the perfect summer adventures that everybody’s instagrams seem to boast, can be quite a challenge. Flights and festivals are extortionate. And when your wealthy friends jet off across the globe for weeks on end, you spend your summer sat in your garden, trying to catch any ray of sunshine the British weather has to offer. All the time you scroll through your newsfeed feeling fed up every time another picture pops up of someones tanned bare legs stretched across a sun-lounger with an idyllic beach or pool in the backdrop.
(Tip: this can be turned into a drinking game, one shot for every set of ‘hot dog legs’ on your newsfeed.)
So to avoid this problem last year I decided to be an Au Pair. The whole concept is fantastic for students, get paid to live in someone else’s house abroad. Yes you have to look after their children for a few hours each day, but in your free time you can travel and see the world. Bear in mind though, it is not a proper job, you won’t necessarily make any money but the experience itself should not cost too much with the pocket-money you get. I spent three months in Barcelona last summer and my flights were all I had to pay for. That’s a pretty sweet deal. So if you are considering Au Pairing this summer, here are my tips for getting the most out of the experience:
Choosing the location
It sounds obvious but pick a place you actually want to travel to. Chose a city or country you are interested in and have always thought of visiting. I personally advise going for a big city or at least a busy sea-side town with plenty of stuff to do in your free time. If you get trapped in the middle of the countryside and do not get on with your host family you will literally have nowhere to escape to in your free time. Plus, Au Pairing should not just be about getting out to the sun and getting a tan, it should be about immersing yourself in a culture very different to your own. Biased as my view may be, Barcelona is an ideal city to au pair in. You have great nightlife, beaches, culture, history, shopping, palaces, parks, mountains… anything you want, Barcelona has it.
Remember language barriers! When choosing where you are traveling to, remember that you have to get by on your own a lot of the time so make sure you have some knowledge of the local language. Also remember to ask your host family about their abilities in your language. The last thing you want is to have to spend your summer months eating dinner in silence with a bunch of strangers!
Choosing your Host Family
Seriously consider how many children and of what age you can handle. For most au pairs you will be left alone to look after the child or children for several hours a day. As much as I enjoyed my experience, looking back as someone who had very little experience with children, taking on a set of 3-year-old twins and an 18-month-old toddler was probably a little too ambitious. I know our parents and teachers have told us this for years but… kids really are hard work! It is a big responsibility so make sure you match your levels of experience to the family.
Again, this may sound obvious but do not au pair if you don’t like kids! You’d be surprised how many au pairs I have met who don’t really like children and are just there for the traveling and the money. They are then shocked when they have to listen to the Frozen soundtrack on repeat for days on end and watch Peppa Pig in a foreign language every morning over breakfast.
Make sure you check the family out a lot. Skype them and email them regularly. Sites like Au Pair World do a great job at matching you with the right host families, but if they are not what you’re looking for then you do not want to waste your summer. Don’t just accept the first family that makes you an offer. There are hundreds of families on the site and so take your time really thinking about where and with whom you want to spend your summer. Make sure you agree clearly on house rules, curfews, working hours etc. A lot of families will say they want you to feel at home, like one of the family during your stay – ‘an older sibling’. I was fortunate for this to be true in my host family’s case. However, many other au pairs are falsely advertised this and some families will just consider you their employee and try to exploit your time and efforts. So again, make sure you firmly agree on working times. You’re only getting paid pocket-money, not a full wage and your responsibilities should reflect this.
Finally on choosing your family, have something to offer them! During my stay I taught the children some basic English. Within just a couple of weeks, even though they were only three years old, they could say “bubbles”, “let’s go to the pool”, “bath time”, “put your shoes on”, “please”, “thank you”, “yes”, “no” – they could name animals and colours in English and they even learnt a few English nursery rhymes. Kids really are like sponges and you’ll be surprised how quickly they learn new words and it is rewarding to watch. With my previous experiences as a lifeguard, I also offered the family swimming lessons for the children. Again, the lessons were successful, and by the end of the summer the twins were out of their armbands and jumping into the pool. Not only does having skills to offer your host family please them but it truly does make your experience more rewarding too and just sets a good foundation for your relationship with your host family.
Getting the most out of your stay
- Make friends! Join pages on Facebook to help find other au pairs in your town or city. I made great friends during my stay who I am still in touch with and having others to explore with only makes your free time more enjoyable! (Obviously be careful when meeting with strangers over Facebook – I advise arranging to meet other au pairs for the first time in the middle of the day at a crowded tourist spot, just to be safe!) It is a great opportunity to meet people from all over the world. I met au pairs from Scotland, Canada, USA, Belgium, Germany, Japan, Australia, Ukraine, France, Cuba and Argentina, most of whom I am still in touch with.
- Take a small gift for the family. They’re letting you into their home so it’s just a polite thing to do. Families also love gifts related to your home country, it is a cultural exchange after all! Nothing too big though or that can be awkward. I took the children a collection of Peter Rabbit books which they loved.
- Be prepared to act like a fool sometimes. If you think you’re too cool to run around in fancy dress, or pretend to be a dragon, or have imaginary tea parties, then au pairing for young children is not for you! But honestly, throw yourself into it and it can be a really good laugh.
- You can sleep at the end of your trip! You may feel tired from early starts and busy days looking after children, but force yourself out into your new surroundings in the evenings or you will regret it.
- Talk to the family. Take interest in their lives! Ask about the city’s history, the country’s politics, their lifestyles, where they grew up and their jobs. Every evening over dinner, the kids would be in bed and my host parents and I would sit and just compare our cultures and it was really eye-opening. Spain isn’t that far from England, and I naively did not imagine there would be much difference in attitudes and politics, but there really is. I learnt all about Catalonia’s history with Spain, I even learnt some Catalan words and phrases as well as Spanish and so when I left I really felt I got to know the city for the fascinating place it is.
Live like a local. Eat like a local. Ask your host parents if you can cook with them and they can teach you local dishes. Help do the shopping at local markets (never before had I seen let alone bought an entire giant €100 monkfish… to be honest I did not know what a monkfish was but there was a whole one sat staring at me, looking freakishly disgusting in the shopping trolley… but oh my god it tasted so good!) And bring your new cooking skills home… I think my actual family love me even more now I can cook a great paella! Honestly take every opportunity to live like a local. Obviously see the tourist areas but if you just stick to tourist spots you’re going to miss out on some amazing experiences.
- Explore! On a few of your days off get the train out of the city and see the surrounding areas. (If you’re in Barcelona, a day trip to Montserrat is a must!) And if you get just an hour to spare for lunch, take your camera and go for a walk and find a local cafe. And finally, search online for events in your host city during your stay. I was lucky enough to attend Barcelona Pride festival which was just an incredible day. Also, do not be scared to do things on your own. I had never been to a concert alone before, but I ended up going to several concerts at Pedralbes Palace and beach festivals alone and made friends whilst I was there. Just make the most of every day throughout your experience.
Being an au pair could be one of the best decisions you make this year. It definitely was for me last year. So if you find yourself with nothing to do this summer, don’t sit around envying other people’s beautifully filtered holiday snaps… go out and make your own!
(Just a quick thanks to Au Pair World and my Spanish host family for making summer 2016 the best summer of my life so far!)