Things I Wish I Knew

Nicole worked as an au pair in Barcelona, looking after a six-year-old and a one-and-a-half year old.  While the kids were at school she started a business that reviews city passes, museums, and cultural attractions across Europe.  Check out her blog here.

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When Karissa reached out to me about writing this article, I was relieved at the title she suggested.  I like “Things I Wish I Knew” so much better than calling this a list of tips because I really don’t feel qualified to advise you lovely, intelligent people on how to be a good au pair.

Mostly, I just figured it out as I went along.  This is my mentality for most things.  In some ways it’s great because it gets me into all sorts of interesting situations I never would have been brave enough to put myself into if I was a planner.  Allegedly, this is how you achieve personal growth.  It’s also how you get yourself chased by riot police on your first trip out of North America.  (Don’t worry, that was while studying in Turkey, no au pairing in Spain).

I’m sure I don’t have to tell you this, but the “just wing it” method that served me so well when I was a student would not have worked great with my host kids in tow.  As an Au Pair, I had the responsibility to make sure my tiny new friends were always safe and having as much fun as possible.  A little planning went a long way toward improving my peace of mind and getting me ready each day to do as well as I could.

Despite this, there were still a ton of things about working as an au pair that surprised me.  Obviously, there’s a lot you can’t plan for any time you visit a new country.  That’s why we travel, isn’t it?

Here’s my list of five things I wish I knew before au pairing:

1.  Setting expectations early are critical for minimizing awkward conflicts.

Defining goals and responsibilities is probably the key to peace in every relationship, but it’s particularly relevant in a situation where you’re living with your employers.  I’m pretty sure that only applies to Au Pairing and a handful of other work-stay travel arrangements.

This living situation was an awesome chance for me to learn to cook a tortilla espanola, practice my language skills (including picking up a bit of the local language, Catalan), and get the real scoop on Barcelona’s best attractions.  On the flipside, it was super stressful whenever job-related misunderstandings created inescapable tension around the family dinner table.

With the aim of helping you avoid that awkwardness, here are some things I wish I’d figure out with my host parents before I started work:

  • Was I mainly there as an English teacher or a parent’s helper?
  • What kind of discipline would be expected?
  • What about diet?  What was I supposed to do when the kid asked for her 11 millionth snack?
  • How often would I be having check-ins with the host parents?

2.  English language books are hard to find and more expensive in a non-English-speaking host country (duh!).

No matter how many summer dresses I thought I needed (pro-tip: way less than I brought!), I definitely had the room in my suitcase to pack a few more picture books to read with the kids.

10f76e_fd60532310a94ba086dffc4ac068f311-mv2Since my host parents weren’t explicit about their daughter’s ability to sort her “rays” from her “raise” and her “wails” from her “whales,” I should have expected to be working at a very basic level of English.  Instead, I foolishly brought along a couple books I loved from when I was her age, completely forgetting the fact she would be reading in a foreign language.

If you do happen to be looking after more advanced readers, you can have heavier, more challenging to pack chapter books (also presents, craft supplies, etc.) shipped via a local version of Amazon so that they’re waiting for you when you arrive.

3.  There are all sorts of ordinary, random things I couldn’t find in my host country.

Chapstick, moleskin, stick deodorant, 24-hour shopping… these are some of the things they haven’t yet discovered a use for in Spain.  Don’t even get me started on my multi day and ultimately fruitless quest to track down moleskin – the microfiber tape that prevents blisters and is a must-have for traveling with even slightly uncomfortable shoes.  It’s amazing.  Seriously, someone should start an import-export business to bring that stuff over here.

4.  It was up to me to convince myself that things were going well.

One thing I wish I could go back and tell my host family from the start – it’s so so so valuable to feel wanted.  Just a simple “thank you for watching the kids today” or “we’re glad you’re here sharing our home” would have made me feel so much better.

Unlike in college, I never received regular feedback from the host parents on how I was doing. This was so hard for me in the beginning, but in time I came to appreciate the opportunity to make myself less dependent on external validation.  I had to just tell myself that I was an important part of the kids’ lives and that I was doing the best job that I could.

5.  Friends will come and go quickly.

I was shocked by the number of texts unanswered, plans canceled at the last minute, and people who seemed excited to hang out then were always busy.  Even with the best of intentions to meet up with someone, I hate to say I had quite a few near misses, where we’d be unable to find each other in a crowded rendezvous location.  Once I got a Spanish mobile, learned to be super explicit about where to meet up (and how to recognize me), and gained a steady group of friends, these incidents of flakiness decreased significantly.  Still, those first few weeks were hard!

Let me take this opportunity to beg you to do everything in your power not to be flaky. There are a ton of distractions when you’re traveling, and sometimes it can feel like you’re getting pulled in a million directions at once.  But if you say you’re going to be somewhere, be there.

And on the flipside, don’t give up on people.  Forgive them for their flakiness, but don’t be afraid to call them out on it either.  Remember that putting yourself out there is worth it, because if you find someone to stay in touch with, maybe you’ve just made a lifelong friend whose kids are going to be au pairing for your kids one day.So there you have it, my top five things I wish I’d known before signing up for this crazy and deeply fulfilling job.  Au Pairing is definitely a unique experience that will launch new friendships and give you an awesome perspective on the host country.  Here’s hoping you’ll take the surprises in stride!

So there you have it, my top five things I wish I’d known before signing up for this crazy and deeply fulfilling job.  Au Pairing is definitely a unique experience that will launch new friendships and give you an awesome perspective on the host country.  Here’s hoping you’ll take the surprises in stride!

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