First for the bad news...
1. You live with your boss.
Photo: Bart Everson
As an au pair you are essentially an extra family member. On the one hand, this means that your “job” involves “tasks” like outings to the cinema; on the other, it means you live in your office, with your boss. It can be hard to know how to fit in. To what extent are you professional, to what extent do you treat your host family like your own?
Host Mamma, as I came to call her in my head, was pleased to see me cuddling up with her daughters to read them a story, but I doubt she would have been happy if I'd acted towards her the same way I might to my own mum, shouting up the stairs, “MUM! I'm borrowing your shoes thanks, bye! [Front door slams.]
2. Culture shock.
Photo: Mike and Annabel Beales
For me, it wasn't like I had to change continent, but there are still a few things that take some getting used to:
a) The general acceptance that cake and biscuits are suitable breakfast foods (this was one of the nicest shocks).
b) The sheer amount of stuff Italians put olive oil on. Bread, sure. Steak, okay. But cheese? Popcorn?
c) The national obsession with staying warm. I come from Manchester, in northern England, where admitting you're cold is considered a sign of weakness. I got emails from my mum saying, “Wear short sleeves! Get some vitamin D!” while Host Mamma was telling me off for not zipping the girls' fleeces up to the chin, so that they wouldn't get ill.
d) Related to c) – Illnesses that only exist in Italy. Colpo d'aria? I have failed to find a definition of this common malady. Stiff shoulders, blocked noses and vomiting can all be blamed on being “hit by air”.
e) Family dynamics. In three months I did not see the father of my host family help out with cooking or cleaning once. Clearly, in his opinion this was the woman's job; he would even order his wife “get me a spoon,” rather than standing up from the table himself.
3. Great expectations.
Photo: Phil Roeder
Host families can have unreasonable expectations about how much English you can teach their kids in a few months. A friend of mine was an au pair to children who had been studying English for under a year, but the parents expected her to make them fluent. However, the kids' mistakes can be pretty adorable. The seven-year-old I looked after figured out that a lot of English words were basically Italian words with the last vowel chopped off. She really went to town with this trend, telling me her electric toothbrush needed to “ricarick” (charge) and that she had dropped her “forket” (fork).
But there's good news too…
1. Home sweet home.
Photo: The Falcondale
Since most families looking for an au pair are above-averagely wealthy, this means a chance to live in gorgeous homes rent-free. My host family lived in a huge flat decorated like the one in the British TV show, Downton Abbey: billowing silk curtains, huge Persian rugs, silver ornaments on every surface. One of the best things about au pairing is getting to move straight into a house much more luxurious than anything we could afford otherwise.
2. You can pick and choose.
It's not easy for anyone to find a job in Italy nowadays, let alone a 20-year-old who speaks imperfect Italian and hasn't graduated. However, finding au pair work was incredibly easy. I quickly made a profile on a website, www.aupairworld.com, which sets up families and au pairs, and within hours I had a handful of interested responses. Suddenly I was able to pick and choose – I wanted to be in a big city, I wanted to look after girls, not boys, etc. Most families said they didn't even want me to do housework (because they all employed cleaners), they just wanted me to speak English to the children. As a native speaker I was a highly sought-after commodity.
Photo: Stefan Jurca
There are great perks to having the hours of the school day free, particularly going sightseeing in the quietest periods. I felt like I was practically robbing the family on the days when I had seven hours free to wander around in the Milanese sunshine. It was great to have the chance to explore the city at my own pace and spend time lingering at the tourist hotspots.
By Louise Naudé