My final year of Archaeology and Anthropology at the University of Oxford was folding in on me. I wanted to do a Master’s, but I didn’t know where, or in what academic area. I was floundering through finals like a Magikarp that has just been doused with Confuse Ray. Then it struck me: au pairing! What a fabulous idea! It would be just like my degree. I would live abroad with a host family, learning about their language and culture. I would develop some serious life skills without having to worry about accommodation or looking for a steady job. I would get paid to cook for and play with children. What a great idea; well done me.
I studied German at school. I didn’t really see the point of learning a language as a fourteen year old, so I chose the one that required the least amount of effort. This choice was made, however, despite regular skiing trips to the French Alps and my fascination with French cinema. (I used to hole up in my room watching Francis Truffaut on the family laptop and dream that one day I would look as cool as Jean Seberg did in Au Bout de Souffle.)
It was this intrigue I had of French culture, as well as the mellifluous sound the French language makes that caused me to choose France to find a host family. Oh, and I really like cheese.
So I hopped on an au pair website, made a rough profile, with some innocent, child-friendly photos and copious amounts of blathering about my love and experience with children, and waited. One family who messaged me caught my eye.
Come live us, they said, we live just outside of Paris, that wonderful, magical city of light. We have three beautiful, elegant children and two adorable cats. Our house is practically a mansion, with a huge lawn. All you have to do is cook dinner and lunch, and pick up our youngest darling from school. You have weekends absolutely free. You’d be like one of the family.
One of the family, my frozen yoghurt.
As soon as I arrived on the family’s doorstep (tired, disoriented and not knowing what anyone around me was saying) I was holed up in the worst room of the house, at the back, on the top floor. In fact, I was on the same floor as the noisy brats who appeared so serene and sweet when I Skyped them. My room had a window the size of a matchbox. One single, solitary window. I couldn’t even climb out of it to jump to a somewhat splattered freedom. That’s probably why it was so small. Oh, and the temperature of my room fluctuated between freezing and boiling. But I wasn’t allowed to open the window. In addition, they took the heater from my room so that one of the kids could keep her large room warm. You see, one heater wasn’t big enough to warm the entirety of her Aladdin’s cave.
Furthermore, I had to tell the family where I was going on my days off. It’s as if I was some kind of delinquent who couldn’t look after myself, never mind the fact I cooked and cleaned for the family five days a week, and picked up the youngest from school, helped the kiddies with their homework and tidied their rooms.
I was also expected to do things that I didn’t realize I’d be tasked with. They said that they only needed me to cook for the children and pick up the youngest from school. But when I arrived they asked if I could ‘help out’ with the laundry; they asked if I could ‘tidy up after the kids,’ despite the ‘kids’ being between the ages of ten and seventeen – surely old enough to clean their rooms, let along cook after themselves. ‘Oh, and can you feed the cats on your days off? And when we fly to Rome for a holiday and then for a week to go skiing in the Alps?’
And no matter how hard I scrubbed the kitchen, no matter how hard I wiped the table, the taps and the fridge, nothing was ever clean enough. The father’s OCD standards meant I cleaned the kitchen twice a day in an attempt to please the family.
It didn’t work.
And to top it all off, I was paid a meagre €80/£60/$89 per week. My hours stunk. I was lonely and isolated. I felt weird not buying my own food… I felt as if I was somehow stealing from the family by eating ‘their food.’ The job was free bed and board, but I still felt that unrelenting nagging in my gut. So I tried to eat when no-one was around, or after the kids had finished eating, so that I didn’t ‘letting anything go to waste.’ And when they all sat down for lunch or dinner at the weekend, I always wondered whether I was I supposed to join them. Did they want me there, or did they want some ‘family time’?
I felt like an extra toe. A little used, a little unappreciated and very bored. So much for grasping the opportunity to experience another culture with both hands. I certainly grabbed the bull by the horns, but ended up getting gouged in the process.
But all things considered, I learned a lot from my experience as an au pair. Not only did I gain cooking skills that even Gordon Ramsey would turn green in envy at, but moving to a foreign city, not knowing the language nor anyone there was a real wake-up call. My French is now better than it ever was and I’ve met some of the most interesting and wonderful people. I wouldn’t recommend au pairing to anyone, but I do recommend moving abroad to eke out a living for awhile. You never know who you might meet and what you might learn.
Posted by ETE’s Regular Contributor: Cherry Jackson