Flashback Friday: The Time I Was an Au Pair in Europe

Alternatively titled, the time I was Cinderella in Europe. Without a fairy godmother or Prince Charming.

First off, a lot of people might be asking, what the heck is an au pair? When I told people in the United States of my plans to work abroad as an au pair I was usually met with a confused look. An au pair is kind of a babysitter, language tutor, and cultural ambassador hybrid. Au pairs are hired most often as a way for families to expose their children to mother tongue English speakers. Thus, most of the au pair’s time is spent with children speaking English. You may be required to help with chores around the house or prepare more in depth lessons, but usually you are only expected to do about 5 hours of work a day. In return, the au pair is given room and board and a weekly allowance of what is considered pocket money (in Italy this is less than 100 euro a week). So while you won’t be raking in the cash, by being an au pair in Europe you will be immersed in a new culture and make enough for a few glasses of wine (or pints of beer) on the weekend.

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Now, how did I go from recent college graduate to girl living in a subterranean cell? Well, as soon as my study abroad program in Rome ended in the spring, I knew I had to be back in that city. Finding a job in Europe as an American is incredibly difficult. With an extremely large pool of European workers who don’t need visa sponsorship, few companies are going out of their way to hire us Yanks. Especially in the bureaucratic nightmare of a country that is Italy. Working as an au pair is a good alternative for those looking to live in Europe.

After spending a few weeks weeding out families on the internet, I finally secured what I thought would be a great position with a single mother and 3 older children living in the northern part of Rome. Plane ticket purchased, bags packed, and airport pickup sorted, I boarded a flight to Rome in early September filled with joy at the thought of returning to my city.

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Within the first few days of arriving, it became apparent that much of what had been told to me about the job wasn’t actually true. 5 hours work days turned into 8. Light housework became scrubbing floors on my hands and knees. My private room was actually a moldy, dark, storage unit in the apartment’s basement. I was horrified. After many tear filled long distance calls to my parents and a long discussion with my host mother, I decided to leave.

But fear not, au pair jobs in Rome are plentiful and I soon had another gig lined up with a family. This family, with two elementary aged girls, welcomed me with a spread of wine, cheese, and salame. Off to a good start. I quickly fell into stride with the family and the schedule. Walk the girls to school in the morning. Tidy up their room. Pick them up from school. Help with English homework. Play hide and go seek. Braid doll hair. Eat wonderful home cooked Italian meals. All while still having time to sip cappuccini and wander the city with my crew of fellow au pair friends during the day and at night.

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Soon I was not only living with a family, I was completely immersed in another culture. Though I was only to speak English with the kids, the family spoke Italian amongst themselves and my listening comprehension and vocabulary skyrocketed. I celebrated my first “Name Day”. I ate a sheet of tiramisu made by my host grandmother instead of cake to celebrate the youngest girl’s eight birthday. We decorated the Christmas tree together (and dressed up like Santa Claus) in time for The Day of the Immaculate Conception. I was experiencing a part of Italy I had never gotten to see as a student or a traveler.

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When American Thanksgiving rolled around I got to share some of my culture. I make turkey (breasts, not the whole bird unfortunately), mashed potatoes, my dad’s famous stuffing, green beans, and even a pumpkin pie. My host father brought a great bottle of white wine to accompany the meal and after dinner we Skyped with my family back home. My host family loved the entire experience and it made my first Thanksgiving away from home much easier than I’d anticipated.

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As my time with the family came to and end that December, not only was I sad to say goodbye to my host family, I was sad to say goodbye to the entire experience. Which wasn’t something I thought I’d be able to say when I was living in a basement four months earlier.

Don’t let this post scare you away from pursuing a job as an pair. Do your research, go in with an open mind, and don’t expect every day to be smiles and sing-alongs a la Mary Poppins. Being an au pair is a fabulous way to experience another culture and live abroad as a young adult. Even with the ups and downs of my time as an au pair in Italy, I’d do it again in a heartbeat.

If I was on the other side 25, that is.

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