Becoming an Au Pair
Tell us about yourself!
My name is Caitlin Houston! I’m a 20 year old living near Glasgow, in Scotland. I study International Business with Modern Languages (French, Spanish & Italian) at the University of Strathclyde. I’m just starting my third year of University, and next year I’ll be studying in France for a full year!
Where and when were you an au pair?
I was in au pair in the Summer of 2015 in the South of France. I lived in a tiny village in the Midi- Pyrenees, called Mazères, that I imagine you wouldn’t really know unless you were from there/had friends there. It was very small and so cute, and had such a buzz around it for such a small village! I was around 30 minutes away from Toulouse and 40 minutes away from Carcassone, but very remote and in the countryside. It was beautiful. I au paired for 3 beautiful girls, aged 8 months, 3 years and 9 years old. My host mum was an air hostess (but still on maternity leave), and my host dad is a pilot on long haul flights.
Why did you choose to go au pairing in that particular country?
I’ve studied French since high school, but my French grades at university weren’t what I wanted them to be. It was a shame, because I LOVE French, and I love studying it, but I just wasn’t doing well in class at all. I struggled with my confidence and had issues with basic French conjugations that I really should have known by my 2nd year at university. I’ve heard time and time again that the best way to learn a language is to live in the country where they speak the language for an extended period of time, and so that’s what I did.
What was the ‘aim’ of your year as an au pair?
My main aim for my summer was to improve my French. I knew that I had to do something if I wanted to keep up with everyone on my course, and then go on to study for a year in France (starting in 2016). I wanted to immerse myself in the culture and learn loads about France and the way of life, to see if I was still as passionate about my languages as I thought I was! Then, if I was lucky (which I undoubtably was), I wanted to be able to find a “home away from home”, and create a situation where I could stay in touch with my host family.
How did you find your au pair family, and what tips would you have for those beginning their own searches for potential families?
I was very organised finding my au pair family. I wanted to arrive in June, and started searching for a family probably some time around January/February. I used aupairworld.com – an amazing site that made everything so easy for me. You set up your own profile with small paragraphs about yourself and pictures, and then send private messages to families that fit your criteria, and they can send messages to you. It made me feel more relaxed and secure, as I didn’t have to give out my email address to anyone I was wary of this way. I emailed my host mum (to be) and she replied quickly, and I just fell in love with her family. From there it all went quite fast, and I’m sure within 3 emails back and forward to each other we both agreed we were happy for me to come and be their au pair. I would absolutely recommend AuPairWorld for any au pairs coming from the EU, the whole process was very easy. The website also features guides on each country and their au pair laws and even provides a copy of the au pair contract, which I found interesting to read as part of my preparation.
How did you find the first few weeks moving in as an au pair with a new family? Are there any things you wish you’d have known before beginning?
I’m sure as any au pair going to a foreign country might find, I found it a bit awkward for my first week or so! I can remember sitting in my bedroom on the first morning and I could hear the whole family was awake and downstairs eating breakfast. I must have sat in my bed for around 10/15 minutes before I decided to go downstairs to join them because I was so nervous! The language barrier was obviously difficult at first, but my host parent’s English level is fantastic.. so I always had the option to speak English if I needed to. This helped a lot as well for when I couldn’t think of a word I needed in French.. I could easily just ask them and they could give me the word I needed. We spoke a lot of “FrEnglish” which was so fun! I don’t feel like there’s much I would have liked to have known in advance, but I wish I had been more prepared. I left without things like my grammar book and dictionary, which would have been a big help if I’d had them all with me. I wasn’t in the mindset to “study” while I was away, but I feel like if I had been I could have learned even more than I did. I also wish I’d prepared basic phrases to use with the children before I got there, like basic commands and questions.
Life as an Au air
What was your daily routine like as an Au Pair?
I wasn’t in too much of a routine when I was away because I au paired in the summer holidays, and so every day was different. I also didn’t have set “working hours”, which other au pairs I met found strange.. but it worked perfectly for me! We lived in the middle of nowhere and there wasn’t much to do, so I didn’t mind keeping myself busy all the time. I bonded more with the girls I was watching because I felt more like a big sister to them and not at all like an employee or nanny.
Generally speaking though, I would wake up around about 8/9am and get ready.. depending on when my host mum needed me. I would usually watch the girls in the morning while my host mum would run some errands/do her gym classes etc. Then it just depended on the plans for the day!
We would go for walks, paint, draw, play in the garden, visit the town and other surrounding areas etc etc. Then at bed time, we would maybe watch a bit of television, then I would watch the 7 month old baby while my host mum put the 3 year old to bed. I’d give the baby her bottle, she’d normally fall asleep.. and then bed time for everyone!
What was the deal with school holidays? (eg. Did you have the weeks off, or were you required to work during this time?)
I was an au pair for the 3 month summer holiday so I didn’t have a routine outside of this time! My host family were so accommodating, and gave me plenty of time to myself during the summer which they really didn’t have to. I was very lucky! I was able to travel to different parts of France: Rodez (where my host family’s mum is from), Sete (where I got to see one of my fav French artists at an amazing venue!), Toulouse, Carcassone, the beach a few times (I can’t remember the name of the town, oops!).. and more!!
What were your best and worst experiences as an au pair?
All in all, I had an amazing summer in France. I can’t pick one memory that means more to me than the others. One particular time that sticks in my mind was when the little village I stayed in had a huge Medieval party one weekend and it was crazy.. I loved that!! It was so different from anything I’d seen before and I struggled to take it all in!! I also got to see the Tour de France go by when it was in it’s 13th stage (I think) at Rodez!! It was amazing, such a buzz!! I also loved visiting Sete and watching one of my favourite French singers, Tal, perform live!! The venue – Théatre de la mer – was amazing as it looked over the sea!
Some of my favourite memories are the simplest – walking down the stairs every morning to see the baby laughing at me in her high chair; the 3 year old running up to me and shouting my name as “Cli-Clin” because she was too young to pronounce it properly; over-hearing the oldest girl proudly introduce me to her school friends when they first met me; and drinking wine until the sun went down and talking in to the night with my host parents about everything and anything.
All in all.. I cannot chose my best experiences as an au pair, but can only say that being an au pair has been the best experience of my life to date. My summer was filled with lots of tiny, precious memories that I will keep with me forever. I have changed so much as a person after my summer away, and I know it’s for the better.
I’ve changed the title here to “difficult” experiences, because I was lucky enough to not really have any particularly “worst” experiences.
I wasn’t a typical au pair in the way that you’re expecting me to say I was homesick in this section. I did not miss home at all, and could have stayed with my family for even longer if I could have. However, it’s the strong bond that I made with my family that in turn turned out to be one of the most difficult things for me to manage. I genuinely was/am so emotionally attached to my family that when the family was struggling with something I felt like I struggled with it too. I really struggled when my summer came to an end. I cried so much during my last few nights in France and I was heart broken on the morning I’d to leave. I couldn’t stop crying. I was in the airport and still sobbing away to myself. It’s actually something I’m still really finding difficult with today and I’ve been home for a month.
If you experienced any problems or issues with the family, how did you resolve them?
I had a grand total of ZERO problems with my host family!! I absolutely love them to bits, and will always have a huge space for them in my heart for as long as I live. They’ve given me more than I could have ever imagined from my au pair experience. The biggest problem I had was getting the 3 year old to eat her dinner BEFORE her ice cream… and if that’s the only problem I had, I know I am truly lucky.
Socializing and leisure
What advice do you have for making friends as an Au Pair?
I joined a Facebook group called “Au Pairs in Toulouse 2014-2015” which let me talk to a few au pair girls not too far from me. Toulouse was a bit of a way out from my little village, so I only met the the girls once or twice. If I had lived more centrally/been able to drive confidently I could have met them more often, but it was nice just to talk to them by Facebook and compare experiences/ tips etc.
How easy was it to feel part of the community? Did you make friends outside of the ‘au pair’ world?
At first I struggled to fit in with the community on nights out because I didn’t feel like I could communicate and I was nervous that I would embarrass my host family with my poor French. Once I could chat more confidently I felt so much more involved and got to know lots of family friends and their children. Everyone I met were always so lovely and very welcoming.
Learning the language and culture
How easy was it to find your language school, and did attending one help you personally?
I study French at university so thankfully I didn’t struggle as much as I could have if I’d had no prior knowledge of the French language at all. I could understand basic phrases and (sort of) hold my own in a conversation, and I progressed every day.
How did you improve your language skills?
I spoke French all the time with the family. That was my main method of learning. I would write down new words I learned in casual conversation in my vocabulary book and tried to use them as often as I could so I wouldn’t forget. I also watched a lot of English films on Netflix with French subtitles, and sometimes watched them in French with English subtitles. That helped a lot because I could then relate the two languages to each other. I also picked up reading the French Cosmopolitan magazine, and have even subscribed to it from Scotland as well now!!
Any tips for those learning a new language?
I would say find a way of studying you enjoy. If you don’t have an interest in French politics – don’t force yourself to read articles in French on them. Equally, if you don’t enjoy French music – don’t torment yourself by trying to translate songs you can’t stand listening to. Creating a pleasant study environment is half the battle, and if you can bring something you are passionate for in English in to learning a foreign language then you’re half way there. You’ll enjoy learning a language and absent-mindedly progress all the time. For me, I bring my love of all things Disney in to my French studies! I love watching Disney films in French that I already know so well in English and find it so interesting. I also love studying with music – so I listen to a lot of French artists and play them in the background when I’m getting ready in the morning etc. Do things that you love in English in your chosen foreign language, and you’ll come on leaps and bounds.
Do you feel as if you have progressed with your new language?
Absolutely. I feel like my confidence has improved more than anything, so now even if I’m conjugating incorrectly.. at least I’m conjugating! I can make sense of a lot more French as I read/ hear it around me. I’ve just had my first French class back at uni after my summer away and I feel so much more confident. More than anything – my summer away has made me even more passionate for the French language than I ever was before, and given me the motivation I’ve needed so that I can keep progressing even more now I’m back at university.
Life after being an Au Pair
How has being an au pair changed you?
Words will never be able to describe how much one short summer changed me! I found myself a whole new family, a whole new understanding of what it’s like to be French and a whole new way of thinking about my studies and my life at home! I feel more confident in myself and love France so much more than I thought I would. It was an experience that was genuinely invaluable for me for so many reasons and I’ll be forever grateful for my summer in France!!
Would you do au pairing again?
Absolutely, in a heart beat! If I could leave now I would. However, in the mean-time I’m hoping to return to my family again next summer if they’ll have me!
Would you recommend au pairing to others? And why?
Yes! I would recommend it particularly to every language student who wants to progress in their chosen language. There is no better way to learn French in a casual, understanding environment where you can have fun and create a genuine bond with the people you are technically “working” with. You don’t just learn the language – you learn so much culturally and about life in general. I was so lucky in finding my family and if you can match yourself to a family as well as I did, then I know for sure you’ll have such a positive experience like I did.
What advice would you give to those wanting to become an Au Pair?
Like I said, I was so lucky with finding my family. I’ve heard a lot of horror stories, so I would generally recommend thoroughly researching your family before you agree to go with anyone. Do NOT feel pressured to say yes to a family (I did a few times during my search). If it doesn’t feel right or you simply don’t want to/have changed your mind – trust your gut instinct. Potential host families are not your bosses yet during the initial chats, and they need you just as much as you need to find them, so take charge! Be polite, obviously, but don’t let anyone make you feel uncomfortable. Ask for references from previous au pairs/nannies and speak to them as often as you can before you leave, via Skype/FaceTime/Email.. anything!! If you are leaving with any doubt in your mind about your family and the conditions you’ll be staying in I’d definitely have another look at the situation. Have a back up plan incase something isn’t as you imagined it. Thankfully I didn’t need it, but I had back up money in my bank account in case of an emergency.
Overall (and on a more cheery note).. just throw yourself in! Don’t sit in your room too much! Speak the language! Go and play with the kids! Pick them up when they’ve fallen and skinned their knee, read them a bed time story at night, play hide and seek and chase them around the garden! It’s you who has the ability to CHOSE to be a member of your host family! You get out of the situation what you put in, and I promise it will be 100% worth it… and you will love your host family as much as I do mine.
Find out more about Caitlin on her various social media platforms:
My name is Caitlin! I’m an International Business & Languages student in Glasgow, Scotland. I started my blog to inspire more people to au pair and to keep track of my travel experiences while I was away. I’m home just now and unfortunately my blog wasn’t as developed as it could have been (I was so busy this summer!!) but I’ll hopefully add more to it in the coming months as I look ahead to my year abroad. You can follow me & my Scottish/French nonsense on twitter and instagram!