Being an Au Pair: Living Abroad for FREE?!?
Two years summers ago, I spent two months living in the South of France. And it costed me nothing. NADA. RIEN. NICHTS.
Of course this doesn't mean that I spent each day sun bathing in Nice with people tending to my every need, hand feeding me grapes while I sip on a pina colada. No, I had to work to earn my keep. How'd I do it?
I was an Au Pair.
I get a lot of questions and reactions when I say I was an Au Pair. "What is it?" is probably the most common one I get it. Any francophones reading this know that the word Au Pair is French is for "on par" or "equal to". This helps to understand what the role is. So let's go over the who, what, when, where, why and how.
An Au Pair is a caretaker, typically from another country, who lives with a host family. Their main task is taking care of the children. Other common responsibilities include house chores and teaching. In return, you receive free lodging and food along with a small weekly stipend. This is general and depends on the family you choose. The thing about being an Au Pair is that your experience relies heavily on the agreement you and your future host family reach. It is important each side clearly understands the expectations you have for each other, which isn't always as easy as it seems, especially if there's a cultural or language barrier. But remember what the name is... Au Pair. This position is meant for both sides to see each other as equals. You are less an employee and more a member of the family.
The reasons people become Au Pairs are numerous; however, they usually revolve around the idea of experiencing living aboard for very, very cheap. In most cases, you even make money. I became an Au Pair, because I wanted to extend my month-long European backpack trip for the entire summer in a way that allowed me to practice my French without breaking the bank. I had also previously experienced what it was like to live with a host family in Germany. That experience was so positive for me that I wanted to try it out again. As a speaker of 3 1/2 languages (Spanish is a work in progress) , I have found that the best way to really improve fast is through immersion. Living in a country that speaks the language you want to learn is transformative. Notice I didn't say easy or always fun. Language learning is frustrating, and living somewhere, where saying "I'll take one of those" takes you literally 5 minutes of planning to say, can be a little exhausting. But learning is so natural that between the flashcards and exercises, you'll notice suddenly that "I'll take one of those" will become so natural. To recap, main reasons why people become Au Pairs: living abroad for free, learning a new language, traveling, and finding a new family and friends.
There's a big stereotype that Au Pairs are always women. WRONG. While a majority of Au Pairs are women, there's also a bunch of us guys out there taking care of kids of all ages. I took a weekend trip to Marseille while living in France, and as I arrived and checked into my hostel, my bunkmate (a guy) was also an Au Pair from the Midwest! We ended up spending the whole day together exploring the city, but my point is ANYONE can be an Au Pair. But....I won't lie. It can be harder for guys to find families. Plainly said, there are just more families looking for females to take care of their kids, but don't lose hope. There's still a good number of families looking for both or in some cases, just guys! Now that we've established who CAN do it, let's talk about who SHOULD. If you're outgoing, curious, adventurous, good with kids (kind of really important), flexible and open-minded, you should be good to go.
Being an Au Pair means being a frequent flyer outside of your comfort zone.
If that sounds like just the most unpleasant thing you've ever heard of, then probably not for you. This job is also not for the money hungry. You'll definitely walk away from your experience richer, but not in wealth. A weekly allowance is common, but nothing to flaunt on snapchat.
WHEN AND WHERE?
The short answer is whenever and wherever. Again, like many other parts of being an Au Pair, it all depends on the family. The market grows bigger in the summer, as families look for assistance with their kids, who are off of school and full of energy (I went from July-August). There's also a big market of families, looking for people more on a long term basis, anywhere from six months to two years. Where depends on where you want to go. Each country has different policies and rules that dictate how much you should be paid, how long you can stay, how much you can work, etc. Some even require that you take languages or college courses. Europe, the US and Latin America are the most popular locations for Au Pairs. Be sure to do you research before you cross the pond or gulf or mountains or whatever you cross on your way to your destination.
You've made it this far and now you know this is for YOU. How do you go about finding a family? There are many ways to be an Au Pair. I used the website aupairworld.com. Through this site, you create a profile with information about yourself and what you're looking for (eHarmony, anyone?). You can set your desired time frame and countries and based on your selections, they will provide you families with whom your criteria match. Take some time and read through their bios and look until you find the right match for you. It's typical (and highly recommended) that you Skype with potential families to make sure your personalities are a good fit and your expectations match. Don't settle or comprise, because, after all, these are people you'll be living with for a extended period of time. It has to be a good fit or your entire experience will not be what you expected.
THINGS TO NOTE
When deciding on a family, it is SO important to able to be honest and clear about your intentions and vice versa. Before I chose the family I did, Sharon, my future host mom, told me to be careful as not everyone's vision of an Au Pair is the same. Some people truly view you as an employee and will treat you as such (who wants to live with their boss? Yikes). The quality of the communication you establish with them will dictate how comfortable you feel, in other words, how well you'll able to integrate into the family.
All in all, I LOVED my Au Pair experience through which I made friends and had experiences I'll take with me for a very long time. I've even inspired two of my friends to go live their dreams in Germany and Italy. But, like all things travel, it is what you make of it.