Last year, I spent the summer au-pairing in Rome and it’s one of the best things that I have ever done. It was an invaluable insight into a foreign culture and another family’s way of life. I would encourage everyone who loves children and travel to do it. Since then, I am often asked many questions about my experience so thought it would be helpful to comprise a list of the 10 most common ones…
1) What is it?
The literal definition is:
a young foreign person, typically a woman, who helps with housework or childcare in exchange for food, a room, and some pocket money.
Au-pairing often involves going to another country and participating in a cultural exchange. This usually involves looking after one child or more and becoming part of the family, effectively a big brother/sister. Different families will be looking for different things but most of the time, you engage with the children and organize fun activities for them to do, such as take them to the park or have an arts and crafts morning. You may be asked to assist them with school work, and are usually required to speak to them in English (or your native language) so they can improve their language skills. You might also be expected to help the family with some light housework.
2) How much are you expected to work?
This differs in every country, but for Italy where I was, you shouldn’t be working more than five hours per day, six days per week. So, I usually looked after Domi from 8am-1pm. When I was originally looking for a family, I was talking to a woman who seemed lovely. While elaborating on my duties, she explained to me that I would be expected to look after the children Monday-Saturday from 7am-6pm. When I contested that this would go against the regulations, she blocked me. A few people do misuse the concept of au-pairing to find naive young people to exploit for cheap labour, so make sure you are aware of the regulations for your country. You are not a nanny, and you are not a cleaner.
3) How can I do it?
There are many websites which facilitate au-pairing, the one that I used is called aupairworld.com. I originally found out about it from a friend who spent a year in Italy as an au-pair. I was always watching her snapchats and it looked like she was having an incredible time so I decided that was how I wanted to spend my summer. She helped me set up my profile, but it is pretty straightforward and self explanatory. You just write a little bit about yourself (try to make sure you stand out as much as possible) and then you can enter in your preferences regarding age range, location, if you’re happy to work with a single parent, etc. There’s a great function called ‘EasyFind’ which automatically matches you up with families who share your preferences. Don’t be afraid to make contact first! Try and personalize your emails, don’t just send the standard formatted one, but tell them what you particularly liked about their profile and what you feel you can bring to the table. Don’t sell yourself short! There are also au-pair agencies if you’d prefer, but these may charge money whereas the websites are often free.
4) How should you choose your family?
You should take a while to deliberate over whether the family in question is right for you. After examining their profile, ask them any questions you are burning to know. You might feel awkward now, but that’s better than arriving there and having to book a flight home because you’re not compatible. Here is a good list of questions you should be asking them: https://www.aupairworld.com/en/how_to/questions_host_family – everything from if you’re expected to drive to what kind of food do they eat. When you’re comfortable talking to them, it would be a good idea to conduct a meeting over Skype to see what they are like and decide if you want to take it any further. If you’re both confident that your expectations align then au-pair world provides a contract for both parties to sign which explicitly outlines your duties and hours so there are no misunderstandings.
Try to start looking in advance so you have a good selection of options to choose from and aren’t forced to go with the first family that offers you a place. This is especially important if you’re looking to au-pair in your holidays. A lot of families need a commitment of a minimum, of say, three months. There are those that just need help during the summer holidays, but there will undoubtedly be a lot more competition for these places, especially as they’re popular with language students. I started looking in January and found my family shortly after, when I was due to start in August.
5) Where can you go?
You can go pretty much anywhere around the world, which is why it is such a great opportunity. You usually have to cover your own flights and insurance, which is why it easier for Europeans to go to most places in Europe hassle free. Some countries have taken to it more than others and it seems especially popular in Spain. Where you go is obviously a personal choice, as this is somewhere you will be spending your time. On aupairworld.com you can list your top five preferences for countries and they will match you up with families accordingly. You can also specify whether you’d like to be in the countryside, in a big city/small town, etc. It is good to go somewhere which gives you the chance to improve your language skills. Some families will offer a language exchange or even include lessons at a local institution for you in your contract.
6) Is it essential to speak another language?
No, not necessarily. It is probably more attractive if you have the basics of the language down, but it’s not always a prerequisite. I went to Rome for the Summer, and didn’t speak Italian. My host family prioritized their child improving her grasp of English and I spoke to her in my native language the entire time, so it wasn’t necessary for me to already know Italian. I was only there for six weeks, so I picked up bits and pieces of Italian, but if I were there longer term I would have definitely invested in language classes.
7) How much do you earn?
You don’t earn an official salary, but you are given ‘pocket money’. This isn’t a huge income so you probably shouldn’t be an au-pair if you’re trying to spend the summer saving up. Your food and accommodation comes as part of the deal and you will usually be provided with your own room so this money will just be your spending money. This varies depending on where in the world you are so check the guidelines, but for Italy where I was, it is usually around 50-70 euros a week. You could live off of this, but I took some extra money with me for any trips I planned to take, and so I could afford to occasionally go out for dinner or to a nice bar. It’s always good to have extra with you incase of emergencies such as if you need to book a flight home prematurely.
8) What is expected of you outside work hours?
Again, this depends. You might be expected to partake in family activities, so make sure that you discuss everything before entering into a contract to ensure that you’re on the same page. If you are the kind of person who prefers solitude and want to spend a lot of time on your own, you might not be compatible with a family who expects you at breakfast, lunch and dinner every day. Usually though, during your free time, you are permitted to do as you wish.
9) So is it basically a free holiday?
Not exactly. While you should absolutely take advantage of the opportunity to live in another country and throw yourself into the experience, it would be wrong to assume that this is a holiday. You shouldn’t be doing this solely as a means to travel cheap if you’re not willing to show any interest in the children whatsoever, it’s just not fair. By all means, go out and have a good time, but try to do this on your nights off. You should have at least one day a week off and some families are more generous and will permit you to have the entire weekend free. It’s just common sense, you can’t be expected to function in the morning after a late night fueled with heavy drinking, maybe if you’re working at a coffee shop, but remember that you’re being entrusted to look after someone’s child. Children are hard work and require a lot of attention. You should be engaging with them, not looking at your phone while they occupy themselves or else what’s the point of you being there.
10) Is it safe?
I would say so, yes. I met a lot of au-pairs, and I didn’t hear any horror stories. Some hadn’t got on with their families, so they moved on to another family, but nothing too bad had happened. Of course, you should have your wits about you, like with anything. My family was concerned at the fact that I’d met my host family over the internet. Especially my mother, who has watched Taken one too many times, and was convinced that I was going to be sold into the sex slave trade. In the end, they made me feel so worried that I began getting paranoid about everything. If my host family took a while to reply, I thought they were planning to kidnap me on arrival. When I got there, I couldn’t have asked for a better host family. They were so welcoming, inclusive and wonderful. Make sure you do have contact numbers such as that of the local embassy, the police, and nearby hotels in case you do need them in emergencies throughout your stay.