I have worked as an au pair twice, once in Paris, France, where I was looking after 10 year old twins and a 3 year old for 10 months and once in Zaragoza, Spain where I was looking after a 4 year old for 2 months (guess which was easier!). As a language student au pairing is a fantastic opportunity to improve your language skills and to experience the culture and daily life of the country you are studying. Even if you’re not studying another language it’s a great way to live abroad cheaply, have some new experiences and make some new friends!
In this blog post I have revisited all the questions I had before I became an au pair for the first time – so if you need a summer job, are about to go on a year abroad, or want to take a gap year here is all my advice and experience.
So, what exactly is au pairing?
Being an au pair is basically child minding, just normally in a different country! You look after a family’s children and in exchange you live with them as a part of their family. Most au pairs live in the same house as their family, with their own room and sometimes their own bathroom. You will also receive a weekly salary, which in France and Spain ranges from between 50-90€. As an au pair you shouldn’t be working more than 30 hours a week (normally 6 hours a day Mon-Fri, though some families may exchange a weekday afternoon for Saturday morning) and if you do work more hours (for example babysitting) you should be paid extra.
In France the family had had the garage converted into a living space of about 30m², with bedroom, kitchenette and bathroom, where I lived. Several other au pairs who lived in the centre had their own small flat, either next to or above the family’s. This is the better situation, especially if you’re already at uni/graduated and are used to living on your own. It’s nice to have your own space where the family doesn’t disturb you. In Spain I lived in a flat with the family, I had my own room and shared a bathroom with their child. Although this means you get a little less privacy it also means that I was better integrated into the family and also gave me lots of chances to talk to the parents and so improve my Spanish.
Is it right for me, even if I don’t speak or study a language?
In my opinion au pairing is right for pretty much everyone, unless you really really hate children. Au pairing is a really good way to live cheaply and easily in another country. As you don’t work long hours you will have loads of time for weekends away to visit other places and also to explore the place where you’re staying. In France I usually started work once the children got home from school around 4pm and worked until 8-9pm when the parents arrived from work. During the day I took French classes (twice a week) and visited Paris as much as I could. In Spain, as it was during the summer, I worked from 9am-3pm, which gave me all afternoon off to relax by the pool or meet up with other au pairs in the centre of Zaragoza.
As to the language, au pairing is a good way to learn a new one and it doesn’t matter at all if you don’t speak a word of it before you go! I arrived in France with only French GCSE and left 10 months later with a level close to the first year of university. In Spain, although I am already fairly comfortable in Spanish, I also took some writing classes and spoke as much as I could with the parents, which helped improve my fluency. But even if you don’t really want to learn a language au pairing is still for you! I have met many au pairs who speak only English with their host families (some families will prefer that you do this) and spend most of their time with other English speaking au pairs. They are using au pairing as a way to travel and meet some new people, and picking up some words and phrases along the way.
How do I become an au pair?
If you’re a member of the EU and want to au pair in the EU then it’s really easy! The first time I went au pairing I did it through an agency. This has a lot of advantages. Both you and the families are screened and checked and if there are any problems you can report it directly to the agency and they will be able to help you to sort it out, or if necessary, place you with a new host family. It will also be easier to meet fellow au pairs as the agency will have a list of families with au pairs in your area. For an EU member in the EU the agency shouldn’t charge you! To au pair to France I went through two agencies free of charge. Some au pairs I have spoken to have ended up paying £300 or more to be placed with a family – this is too much. Firstly I spoke to Dr Ruth Campbell who runs Au Pair Ecosse, an agency that normally places French au pairs in Scotland but also has contacts to place au pairs from the United Kingdom in France. She then put me through to Europair, an agency which places au pairs all over France. As the site is in French, for those who don’t speak it, it may be better to get in contact with Dr Campbell first.
However, if you’re a little more confidence and you don’t want the hassle of filling out lots of forms for an agency, then you can also set up your au pairing placement directly with the family. I chose to do this when I au paired in Spain as I was going for a shorter amount of time and knew what to expect from the family. I used the website Au Pair World. You create a profile which host families can see and then you can search for a host family that matches your requirements (country, number of children, length of stay etc.). Once you have found a family you like you can send them a message and being getting to know them. Be warned it does take a lot of patience to find the family that is right for you, and sometimes when you think you have found the right one they might chose to go with another au pair. But persevere! Using this site I found a really lovely Spanish family who were very keen to make me feel welcome.
Where should I go?
This is totally up to you! If it’s your first time au pairing I would recommend staying close to home, in Europe, sometimes it takes a bit of time to adapt and it’s nice to know you can go home easily for a visit. It will be very easy to au pair in most European countries, obviously I would recommend France or Spain but you can go basically anywhere. If you’d rather an English speaking country it’s also possible to au pair in places like Australia and the US, though in this case it will probably cost more as you’ll need a Visa. In this case I would definitely recommend going through an agency.
What should I expect from my host family?
Your host family should treat you as part of their family, like an older sibling to the child(ren) you are looking after. They shouldn’t try and take advantage of the fact that they have live in childcare and make you work lots. You are also there to explore a new country and have fun! If possible try and get your host family to write and sign a contract with you about how many hours you work and how much you get paid. If you are really unhappy with the family and not enjoying yourself then leave. It is not worth being in a situation that makes you miserable. That being said au pairing can sometimes be hard so don’t give up immediately!
What will my host family expect from me?
In accepting you as part of their family for a while they’ll expect you to act like part of their family. Although obviously you don’t have to spend all of your free time with them it is a good idea, especially at the beginning, to hang out with them a bit and get to know them, especially the children you’ll be looking after. I usually tried to eat dinner with my host family during the week, and to spend at least one afternoon with them at weekends. If you’re there to improve language skills talking to the parents can be one of the best ways to do this and if they’re good host parents they should be happy to help you. Just remember that although you’re working for them you’re still a guest in their house so be considerate of their rules and routines.
How can I meet other people my own age while au pairing?
Meeting other au pairs is very easy. No matter where you go there will probably be a Facebook group you can join (search for: Name of place, au pairs, the year you are going) and if you go with an agency they will probably provide you with a list of contact details for other au pairs in the area. If you’re au pairing during the school year you might also meet other au pairs while picking/dropping the kids off at school, or your host family may know other families who also have au pairs.
Going to language lessons is another good way to meet people. In Paris there was a French school (France Langue) specifically for au pairs which only had lessons during the day, rather than in the evening when most au pairs are working. However if you don’t want to speak English all the time (most likely the language you’ll be speaking with the other au pairs) it’s a good idea to try and meet some local people, though this is often much harder. In Spain I placed an advert for a Spanish-English conversation exchange on a local council website for young people and I met a girl my age who needed to improve her English for an oral exam. Another way is to join a sports club which several au pairs did in Paris and they were able to meet lots of French people.
I hope that’s answered all your questions – happy au pairing!