Advice for au pairing in Italy
Why au pair?
I had always been interested in the concept of au pairing. I loved the thought of living with a family abroad, rather than staying in a hotel, ever since I did my first French-exchange in year 12. I love the way you understand a culture so much more when you are really integrated in a normal, everyday environment. This way, you are able to experience everything, from exciting day trips, to every day routine tasks, yet in a foreign language, every opportunity is a chance to learn! Food shopping is particularly fun and most definitely beats learning vocabulary from a book any day, as you try to navigate the weighing scales to print labels for your fruit and veg!
So it was with all this in mind that I decided to apply to become an au pair. There were a few offers which I received through my university Modern Languages website, but in the end I decided to use the very popular ‘aupairworld.net’ site. My experience with this was a very positive one, but it’s true that like with anything on the internet, you do need to be careful.
My au pair family
Every au-pairing experience is unique; mine perhaps more so because I was an au-pair for slightly older children, a girl aged 12 and her 15 year old brother. I was keen to live with a family with children nearer to my own age as I thought that they may gain more from learning a foreign language at this slightly older stage. Working with older children certainly had its positives and negatives.
I chose a lovely family living in the Veneto region of northern Italy. I had my own bedroom and bathroom and because I was au-pairing during the summer holidays, it was very relaxed. I was more like a big sister, and the two children could show me around their home town in the day while their parents were at work. We mainly just practiced English in an informal way as we went about daily tasks, and I provided homework help as and when it was wanted. During the summer holidays it is worth noting though that obviously, kids have had enough of learning! So, teaching English casually proved to be the more popular option.
It is difficult though: you are trying to integrate yourself into somebody else’s family, which can leave you feeling homesick, especially if, like for me, the family you choose resemble your own to quite a large extent! I was treated very well, the food was delicious, the house was beautiful, I was taken on a little weekend break to the seaside and a day-trip to Venice and I have kept in touch with the family ever since I left. The mum, a wonderful lady, sent me home with recipes and ingredients so I could recreate some of her delicious cooking, and sometimes even now I find myself day-dreaming about Italy, nostalgic about my summer au pairing.
The effect of au pairing on learning a language
From a language perspective it was by far the experience which most improved my command of Italian. I happened to choose a rather remote, small Italian town, and I was the only foreigner there.
In fact, when I tell other Italians I’ve been to Cornuda, they’ve usually never heard of it, or are incredulous at the fact that I know where such a small countryside town is! A real highlight was going to the bakery one day, and being asked to wait at the counter while the lady who worked in the bakery went to fetch her husband to show him that they had a real English girl in their bakery! Being somewhere a little more isolated was a real plus though because I had to practice the language from morning ‘til night: Italian was always the first language I used in the morning and the last one before I went to bed.
Despite being almost completely silent during the first few meals at the dinner table when I arrived, I was shocked by how quickly I could adapt and begin to follow conversations. By the end of my 4-week stay I could have deep conversations with the mum about all sorts of topics, and it was great to feel like I was learning a language in such a natural and useful way: without being able to speak Italian, I would never have had a way of communicating with this family.
Advice and suggestions
We Skyped beforehand a couple of times, and the family were also keen to meet my parents on skype too, just to put their minds at ease, as they said themselves that they would be a little nervous if their daughter were going off to au-pair for a strange family in a strange country. This was a really good idea, and I would really recommend doing this. One tip though would be to take the address of the family as soon as possible; as we sleepily drove to Gatwick at 5am, it was not ideal to realise that despite all the contact I had had with this family, I’d never asked them exactly where they lived. My parents weren’t too excited to be waving me off to ‘somewhere in the North near Venice’. It seems very obvious, but it’s easy to forget when you are constantly emailing them, exchanging phone numbers, home phone numbers and email addresses etc, so just make sure to take down the address too!
I felt that 4 weeks was long enough. If possible, see if your host family can match you up with other people of a similar age who live nearby – be it other au pairs or locals. Making friends helped me to feel more ‘settled’ and more like I was having a ‘normal’ time there.
Sometimes the kids just wanted to play computer games and watch TV. I would definitely advise taking plenty of individual things to do with you – reading, essays, anything like that. They don’t want you to be with them 24/7, and no matter how well you are treated, you won’t ever feel as comfortable as you do in your own home.
Be as creative as possible when being with the kids; we cooked, arranged birthday parties, had ‘sleepover’ chats in the evening before going to bed, watched films and all of these provided the chance for mutual language learning from both sides. I also found that it worked really well if the kids feel like they are teaching you something too, they felt a lot more grown-up and responsible teaching me the words
for ‘wooden spoon’ and ‘frying pan’, and this helped to put us on a more equal-footing!
Try and meet as many people as you can! I loved talking to family friends and especially grandparents; they wanted to sit and talk for hours, and had slightly different accents and ways of speaking, so were a bit more of a challenge to understand.
Having au paired once and enjoyed it, I don’t think it is an experience which I would repeat. I have many fond memories, bike riding with the younger daughter (and getting lost!), going swimming, going to funfairs... it was all great and it certainly gave me the chance to appreciate a country from a different perspective, but I personally feel like it’s just something that you do once. If I were to do it again, I think I’d be constantly comparing it to my first experience and would already have expectations and ideas of what au pairing is about: for me part of the fun was discovering the unknown! I would recommend giving it a go though, just to try it out, and to watch your command of a language flourish right before your eyes!