Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Tips To Prepare to Have a Rad Au Pair Experience and Not Get Screwed Over

Arzier, Switzerland -- October 2009
When all of my friends set off for university back in 2009 after our high school graduation, I took a different path and decided to become an au pair in Switzerland. A what? An au pair. A foreign nanny.

I was an au pair in the French part of Switzerland for two wonderful Belgian children.

Now, when being an au pair, a lot of things can go right and a whole lot can go wrong.

I'd first like to shout out that I had a magical au pair experience. The family I worked with was wonderful and so good in every way. So when I say, "make sure they don't _______" this doesn't mean my family did. My family was genuinely superb. They were loving and never took advantage of me. I am so grateful to have lived with them and worked for them. A lot of lessons I've learned have been at the expense of others.

This is on preparing to be an au pair. This post is on things to cover before you leave the country or commit to a family.

So... you've found your family.

Swell! Before you hop on board, it's best to set some terms up ahead of time, make sure you're on the same page, and really understand what they expect of you. Au pairing is interesting because often you live with the family -- you live at your work place. So, things can get fuzzy on if you're "on duty" or "not."

Some families are champ at this, but if they're not, you're going to dissolve quickly. Make sure they understand that, for example, your bedroom is your space. Before going, ask if you'll have your own room. Your own room that others don't need to go into. Since you'll be living in their space constantly (unless you get a gig with your own apartment away from them or own kitchen which is sweet!), you'll value having a way to be on your own. Remember, also, that you're not a bad au pair for not letting the kids in your room. Your call.

Ask what your hours are.

How often do they want you to work? What times? Are the parents generally good at getting home on time? When the parents are home, are you still supposed to be working? I had a really sweet schedule. I got Wednesdays off and didn't work the weekends.

How much are you getting paid?

Usually they pay per month.

Ask how many meals a day they expect you to prepare for the children.

I picked up my girl from school each day for lunch. We walked home and I made her lunch and then we went back to school. I helped with the snack too. They covered breakfast and dinner.

Ask if they are providing your food.

This isn't something that matters, it's just nice to know. My family was legit. They fed me.

See if you can talk to the previous au pair.

If they had a good relationship, this can be invaluable. However, this is also dangerous if the one before was a pessimist and can set you up with some false prejudices against the family. Your call. Keep your mind open.

Learn a bit of the language before you get there.

Maybe they're perfect at English, but not always. Being an au pair is a good chance to learn a language, but if the kids don't speak English, it can be a struggle. Children have emotional needs that they need to talk through, sometimes, which is tough in a foreign language. Take some time and really try to learn the language, even though they're hiring you to speak English with their children.

Ask if they expect you to help with household chores.

This one is huge!
This will make or break you.

There's a fine line between helping out (I made beds, vacuumed once a week, and helped with dishes - very reasonable) and them using you as their housemaid. I know a good handful of au pairs that were overused as housemaids and they were rarely happy with that. You are an au pair. You are there to take care of children. You can help keep the house tidy, that's reasonable, but you are not their maid.

Figure out, before you go, if they want you to do things like do their laundry. I would be weary, if they want you to. I never did the laundry of the family I worked for. I had one friend who spent so so so much time on laundry - washing, drying, ironing, folding, etc. That wasn't what she came to Switzerland for.

Another friend of mine got hired, by the family, as their maid in addition to the au pair position. She got paid extra to clean the house.

If possible, see if they will fly you there.

How long do they want you to commit for?
A year? Two years?

Do you get school holidays off?

Figure out insurance for being abroad.

Do it.

And here's one of the most important ones...

Get your visa! Seriously!

When you are an au pair, you are working which means you need a visa to do that if you want to stay longer than three months.

When I went over, I thought I would get a visa later while in the country. I found out that I couldn't (I tried many times, it was not possible). The family had assumed I would work illegally, getting paid under the table, as their last au pair had. Thing is, based on my research, Switzerland was protecting their borders a lot more, as of lately, and actually sending illegal au pairs home.

I chose to go home. With no visa, I was going to be illegal. That means that I couldn't travel to another country on the weekends because each time I crossed the border, I would have the fear of getting sent home. It means that if something went wrong and they discovered I was illegally working there, that could somehow prevent me from returning later on. I didn't want to do that.

So get your visa, guys!

You can get a visa, sometimes, by signing up to be an au pair and connecting with a family through those au pair sites. They will charge money -- but they can make the visa happen. I connected with the family through a rad, free organization that did just that, connected us, but no more. It was a neat experience! The family was great! But it was sad to leave early because I hadn't taken the time to get a visa.

And that's what comes to mind, right now.

If you have any questions, feel free to ask on. Being an au pair is an amazing experience to live in another culture and get immersed in their culture. Keep an open mind and remember that they're the ones letting you into their home. You're not there to change their lifestyle. The only one you can change is yourself.

The views from our back-yard.

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