The A-Z of Au Pairing!
So you're sitting there on a March/April afternoon during your University Easter break and are wondering how you should spend your mega-long university summer holiday and all of a sudden, it comes to you! Why not try au-pairing? As a languages student, surely it's one of the best ways to spend your summer? This was my exact thought process when I was in my first year at the University of Leicester and wanted to fill my 12 (yes 12!) weeks of summer doing something that would prepare me for the trials and tribulations of second year!
It was an excellent experience as I was lucky enough to find a family who were lovely and adventurous with whom I am still in contact. I have even returned to visit along with my family and my boyfriend, however, like most trips and multilingual/cultural experiences, there are harder times too!
A - Acceptance
Probably the most important thing to do when arriving in a foreign country whether it's for a work placement, an Erasmus stay or an au pairing stay, you must accept your surroundings and embrace it. When I arrived, I was extremely homesick. Everything made me want to cry as I missed home so much! Even seeing certain things being done in the home set me off as I knew that I would not be doing these things in my own home for a long time i.e. setting the table, sitting down for a meal etc.! Sounds silly, but homesickness can really take its toll! It felt unreal that I was going to be away for a month without my family and boyfriend, and for a while I didn't want to believe it but you must accept things before it's too late because the time really does fly and before you know it you'll be crying on your last night like I was after striking up an amazing relationship with your host family!
B - Brave
You have to be brave! Not just where homesickness is concerned, but also "manning up" to things and cutting out the crying, especially when trying new things is concerned! For example, I'm not a keen swimmer at all and the sea sometimes terrifies me (all those things living in it that you can't see eeeeek!) but my host family took me on a beautful boat trip around Mallorca that included kayaking and swimming points and not wanting to let them down or have regrets at the end of my stay, I took the plunge and had a go! This is just a small example but what I am trying to say is that it is always good to give things ago, especially the things you would usually stray away from back at home. This way you'll have countless stories to tell everyone when you get back home!
C - Calling home
A good way to settle in and get into a routine which is fantastic for beating homesickness is to plan a time in the day when you're gonna call home. I know it sounds silly but if feeling homesick, knowing that at 7pm you're gonna have a girly catch-up with your Mum or a nice chat with your boy/girlfriend can really do wonders for battling those nostalgic blues!
D - Dread
I'm not going to lie, although I was excited at first, when the time for heading out to Mallorca drew closer, my dread of leaving became stronger. As you probably can tell by now, I am actually a 20-year old baby who has to battle with some form of homesickness almost everywhere I go! However DO NOT let this stop you from having a good time! I get bad homesickness sometimes and I still had an amazing time when all is said and done! Talk it out, even hug/cry it out, and find ways to cope! (See other letters for coping mechanisms).
E - Excitement
It's an exciting experience! You get the excitement of finally being able to see the people you've been emailing and Skyping for so long, the excitement of being there and having a good time and also the excitement of coming back home and seeing your family and friends again after X amount of weeks/months!
F - Friendship
When I went to Mallorca, I had no idea that the family I was going to stay with were going to turn out to be life-long friends! At the beginning, I was so homesick and longing for familiarity that this notion never even occured to me! However, almost a year and a half on, we have met up twice (once in London and once in Mallorca for a holiday with them) and I wouldn't have it any other way. This just goes to show how good au pairing can be for meeting new people and striking up friendships. Unfortunately, there were no other au pairs I knew of in the area I was staying in, so I didn't get to meet any other young people my own age, but once I had settled, this really wasn't too much of a problem for me. It would have been a welcomed bonus to my experience!
G - Grow
I don't mean as in get taller as most of us students have already reached our maximum height (lol) but I mean it in the sense of intellectual growth, growth for the senses and the mind! Being abroad allows you to broaden your mind and become more accepting of different things. You see things being carried out differently, you can try new foods, and new ways of life! All of which allow you to return home a more well-rounded and cultured person, which looks excellent on your CV!
H - Homesickness
This is an inevitable part of any traveller's life, even the ones who swear that they love every single minute of it! However, there are so many ways to battle it. I'm gonna use that cliched phrase used by 99.98% of travellers: "Thank God for Skype" and it's actually true! There is also the possibility of having your friends/family/other half over for a short stay if you're in a big touristy city or if your host family allows you to. Fill your days off with exciting things to do too, and make a plan at the beginning of your stay of where you'd like to go and what you'd like to do. This way, you're accepting that you're going to be there for X amount of time and are planning to make the most of it rather than just sitting around weeping and being miserable which is also unfair to the host family. At the end of the day, I'm a firm believer of 'home is where the heart is' and so for me, homesickness is a problem that I have had to learn to deal with and I can say that once you get the hang of coping with it, it really isn't that bad!
I - Internet
Use the internet to find out more about the area you're going to and your host family! For example, if they tell you that there's a place they like to eat at/visit etc. do your research on it! You might even find a Facebook group for au pairs in the area you're going to. And there might even be a special festival or event going on in the area you're going to be in. The Internet is endlessly helpful!
J - Jokes!
And not in the term "to tell a joke", but the South-Easy London slang work for "funny/good time!" You will have so many jokes (good times/funny moments) when away! From funny things that children do, to even becoming part of the woodwork and having quality time with the family, these moments will come, and you'll still remember them a year later! I know not all experiences of au pairing are positive, but even for those that don't work, at least you know what went wrong so that if you do try it again, you'll be able to find ways of incorporating these "jokes" moments into your next trip/ au pair place!
K - Keepsakes
A brilliant and creative way to document your time as an au pair is to collect little keepsakes such as train tickets, theatre tickets, beach shells, recipets etc. and put them in a scrapbook. This way, you'll have your memories with you forever and it's always nice to look at them when feeling nostalgic and also a good way to brag to family and friends upon returning! I unfortunately didn't do this when in Mallorca but am doing it now while on my Year Abroad and it truly is so fun and a good way of documenting memories. It also gives you things to do and thus keeps you busy, yet another way to cope with homesickess!
L - Learn
Au pairing is a fantastic way to improve your language skills! While many families like au pairs for the English language learning aspect, most families I have come across have one parent who has no English and thus communication in the target language is essential! Furthermore, if English is the language that they would like you to speak most, you can always go out and interact with locals which would allow you to explore your new surroundings too! Although I would negotiate that you get to practice your language skills as, after all, both parties should benefit from the experience.
M - Me time
This is really important when au pairing. Whilst you're there to communicate, interact, learn, and have fun. Everyone needs some time alone to clear the head, refuel and recharge the batteries. If anything, it will make your experience even better as you will be able to be consistently fresh and ready to go!
N - Negotiate
This is key/fundamental/all other synonymous words! I can't stress enough how important it is to plan your working hours before you go! This was one thing I didn't really do and, as a result, turned out quite problematic at the beginning. I was really keen on having a set few hours a day to myself whereas the family wanted a more relaxed schedule. The problem that causes though is that when you go off to your room for a bit of alone time, the family are left wondering why you're doing that and, out of geniune care and concern, worry that you're not happy. I would say that before going you shouls establish what kind of experience you actually want so you can tailor your search to families who want the same thing you do, i.e. more of a cultural exchange or a formal contract with working hours and days/hours off. Try to get this in writing before you go, and when you arrive, just have a lttle informal chat to recap what you've already discussed. This way you can ensure your wires don't get crossed, despite the language barrier.
O - On board
This is a personal little one for me: nothing beats the feeling of excitement when you're on board that plane after weeks/months of not seeing your family and friends! Although I was also sad to be leaving, I knew I would see my host family again as we became very close. I am a homely girl at heart, and for me nothing was better that seeing my family's and boyfriend's faces when I arrived back home! Use this thought to keep you going through the tough times too! It just reminds you that after the rain, there is sun!
P - Packing
Being a traditional diva-ish traveller, I packed like I was going to be there for 3 months and not 1. I was going to Mallorca in the height of summer and thought it necessary to bring at least 10 dresses, 6 pairs of shoes and so on and so forth! How wrong was I? The good thing about being an au pair in a hot country means that you can really travel light! Washing takes on average 15 minutes to dry (even denim shorts) due to the sweltering Spanish sun and thus overloading your suitcase really isn't necessary!
Q - Quarrel
This is not something you want to do when away in a foreign country by yourself. Naturally, things get lost in translation which can lead to feelings of offence or isolation. However, chances are you've just misunderstood something. Very early in my experience, I misinterpreted something and got quite upset about it which led to an awkward exchange with my host family. However after some "me time" and a clearing things up conversation with my host family, everything was fine. Seriously, just don't argue! It could lead to all sorts of horrible possibilites and being an argumentative young girl or guy in a foreign country alone with noone else you know probably isn't the best predicament to land yourself in.
R - Rewarding
Although it isn't always plain sailing, it is overall a truly rewarding experience. Not only do you get an invaluable experience but so do the family, and knowing that you have helped make their summer unforgettable is a great feeling!
S - Skype/Safety
The heralded social medium that has helped maintain relationships and friendships worldwide. It seriously is fantastic! I still remember my Mum's face when I introduced it to her before I left for University! It is a great way to build your relationship with your host family before you actually arrive. You will be able to see them which makes them more real rather than just some people who you're emailing and are going to live with with for a few weeks! It is obviously also good for keeping in contact with family and friends back at home and, best of all, it is absolutely free!
Safety is an obvious one but seriously just keep your wits about you. Don't travel home alone in the dark and make sure you have your family's (host and home) contact numbers with you in case of emergenices! Also, get an EHIC card! You never know when you'll need it! I used mine 3 times in Mallorca because of allergies to mosquitos!
T - Teach
Au pairing is a fantastic way of testing the waters of a career in teaching. I got the opportunity to actually do some sit-down lessons with not only the two girls that I was au pairing but also their Father! It thus gives you the opportunity to see if teaching is for you or not before actually taking the plunge and applying for your Postgrad teacher training course! For those that do decide to do it, it also puts you in good stead for when you apply for a teacher training programme, as it shows employers your ability not only to teach but to adapt to different surroundings. It shows too that you are able to work with people from different ages and backgrounds
U - Understand
Part of au pairing means that you need to understand that not everyone thinks the same way that you do and this is especially pertinent when in another country. For example, when someone says we're going out for dinner later, we Englishmen and women think "oh yeah, around 7pm" but when in Spain, oh no sister, it can mean anything from 9 to even 11pm!
V - Visit
Like previously stated, before going do your research about the place you're going to so you can plan fun visits! Visits not only allow you to add to your map of "Places I've been to" but also break up the time nicely and make any homesickness that little bit more bearable.
W - Worry
Like most trips, worrying is an unavoidable part of au pairing. From the worrying before you go (if the people will like you/you'll like them to worrying about missing out (with family and friends back home it is bound to happen!) However, two words: Chill Out! I wish someone had told me this before I went! I spent a significant amount of time worrying that it even affected half my stay as I felt that I was missing out on things back home i.e. the birth of my baby cousin. However, when I did eventually calm down, half of my trip had passed! So the moral of the story is to relax and take each day as it comes!
X - "xxx"
For the thousands of kisses you put after every text/email/fb chat message to people back home while you're away, and to your host family once you've returned.
Y - Year Abroad
From my personal experience, being an au pair is a fantastic experience for those of you have to embark on a year abroad as part of your degree! It really does put you in good stead for the challenges ahead, and it goes a long way in reducing that shock factor when you arrive in your YA destination! For those of you in relationships, it gives you the opportunity to see how you cope and allows you to test out methods for surving your long-distance relationship so that by the time your year abroad comes, and it does come very quickly, you and your significant other half will be that little bit more ready to jump on the long-distance relationship wagon!
Z - Zen
Find your inner Zen! Ok, well that might be an over-exaggeration but seriously, after a stressful year at uni, slugging away at the library and running around between lectures and tutorials, au-pairing (in some cases) can actually be quite relaxing! Ensure that you negotiate working hours with your host family so that you get that well needed time off and you can relax, doing the things YOU want to do, be it shopping and getting your nails done, chilling by the pool or at the beach, or reading a new book in the park!
To conclude, au pairing can be a marvellous experience, and although homesickness and long-distance love can be difficult to deal with at first, rest assured from someone who knows, that there are countless ways to cope with it so as to gain fantastic experiences. Like those cheesy 1D boys Louis, Niall, Zayne, Harry and Liam say: "Live while we're young!"!