Real Talk: My Summer Abroad as an Au Pair

By Lauren Leavens

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Cies Isles

“Travel while you’re young.”

It’s a cliché that many of us have been told. “Don’t waste these years while you have little responsibilities!” It’s the kind of thing people say that makes a millennial resentful of lack of job prospects, student loan debt, and other “little” responsibilities. Many of us would love to travel but feel we don’t have the means to do so. So what is the smartest way to see the world while you’re young and broke? Get a job while you travel.

“Oh, get a job? Just get a job?! I’ll just strap on my job helmet and squeeze down into a job cannon and fly off into Job Land where all the jobs grow on jobbies.” (It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, for those who didn’t get the reference.)

I know, I know. It’s not as easy as it sounds. However, I’m here to tell you that getting a job abroad may not be as daunting as you think. There are many ways to go about working abroad such as working in a hostel, teaching English, or in my case, becoming an au pair.

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Praia de Patos

An au pair is basically a domestic assistant from another country who works and lives with a host family. Their primary responsibilities include childcare and housework. In exchange for essentially being a nanny, you get free room and board plus a monetary “allowance.” If you are lucky, your round-trip plane ticket may be paid for as well.

The most common ways of becoming an au pair are through agencies and websites. I used and it worked out wonderfully. The whole process took about one month. The site makes it easy to become an au pair in a country that interests you. I selected three countries that I wanted to visit (Italy, France and Spain) and it directed me to the profiles of different families from those countries. The process is weirdly similar to that of a dating site. Host families will make profiles detailing what they want in au pair, and in turn you will make a profile highlighting how you are competent, experienced, and just loooovveeee children, animals, and rainbows. If you find a host family that you might want to work with, you can send them a private message and they can send you a message if they like what they see on your profile. My advice is to contact as many host families as you can. From there, you will likely message back and forth, going into detail about expectations, duties, how much money you will earn, etc. Eventually, this may lead to a video chat interview. If the host family feels that you are a great fit, then you are good to book plane tickets and the rest is history!

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Galleria Borghese

As with anything on the Internet, it is wise to approach this process with caution. If something seems suspicious, it is. You should not be sending money to a prospective host family or agreeing to be an au pair for a family you have not seen via video chat, at least. Furthermore, you should know if a host family wants a slave instead of an au pair. Some people use an “au pair” as an excuse to get cheap labor. Therefore, ask as many questions as you can to a potential host family. Go with a host family who values this as a mutually beneficial experience and considers you a part of their family, not a servant. Use common sense, and you will be okay.

With those ideas in mind, I had a great experience as an au pair. I ended up being an au pair for a host family who lived in Vigo, Spain (which is a beach city in northwestern Spain, right above Portugal). My responsibilities were to babysit and “teach” as much English as possible to a four-year-old girl named Elena*. The word “teach” should be taken lightly, as really the best way to teach English was to play and talk with her. Elena is adorable and incredibly smart. Although a bit shy at first, she quickly adjusted and we got along pretty instantly. She actually was very effective at teaching me some Spanish as well.

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Sunset in Vigo

My housework was incredibly minimal; preparing food for Elena for breakfast and lunch was the extent of it. I took care of her from 9 in the morning to 2 in the afternoon on weekdays and had weekends off. My host family was also kind enough to give me some days off to take side trips to Portugal and to Italy.

The host parents were incredible and I will forever be grateful for being an au pair to such kind, caring people. Carmen*, the girl’s mother, only spoke Spanish, so I learned a lot from communicating with her. Antonio*, the host father, was incredibly fluent in English. He taught himself by reading and watching American television. We bonded, as he was the only person who spoke English that I interacted with in Galicia.

My general impression of Spanish people is that they are warm, friendly, and family-oriented. Not only was I able to interact with my immediate host family, but I was able to interact with their many relatives as well. I would see both Carmen and Antonio’s extended family almost daily. I loved hanging out with the cousins, particularly two girls around my own age. Again, being immersed with that many Spanish speakers was the best way to learn.

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Porto Cathedral

I can’t stress enough how appreciative I am about the living situation. I had my own room, and the house was a five-minute walk from the beach. Galicia is absolutely beautiful and is known as being the “green” part of Spain due to the rainy season in the winter. Although Galicia is known to rain a lot, it rained perhaps a handful of days in the whole two and a half months. During my time in Galicia, I learned how to surf, ate amazing seafood, and drank sangria at beautiful beaches. I went to Santiago de Compostela (a destination of those walking El Camino). I was able to make trips to Madrid, Rome, and Porto (Portugal). My trips allowed me to gain experience booking and staying in hostels (a skill that I will definitely use for my next trip). Through staying in hostels, I was able to meet some great travel buddies to visit sites such as the Colosseum, Igreja Do Carmo, and Buen Retiro Park.

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I’m struggling with how to express my feelings of gratitude for this experience. It was truly an incredible trip. My last day, I cried even though I told myself I wouldn’t. Before I left, Elena said that she wanted me to play house with her tomorrow. I told her that I had to go back home, to which she replied “Okay, well come back next week then!” I bawled. On the way to the airport, I asked Antonio to played “The Show” by Lenka, which was a song that Elena always asked to be played. I can’t listen to that song without thinking of them.

I absolutely miss being an au pair and would do it again in a heartbeat. I would recommend that anyone who is interested in traveling consider it. The chance to live with a host family is extremely valuable in learning about the culture and language. The experience is indescribable and yet I’m trying to put into words how positive it was. The skills that I’ve learned being an au pair will also be useful for my next big trip (teaching English in Thailand). Even more important than those skills is the life-long friendships that I have made through being an au pair. I am so grateful for this opportunity and hope that whoever reads this is able to have as much of a positive experience.

*Names are changed

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