The Au Pair Experience: Your Foot in the Door of a Journey Abroad?
Au pair in Europe

Editor's note: Ana and Karolina, two OneEurope contributors, provide first-person accounts of their experience working abroad as an au pair. 

A very popular system in the USA (actually, more of a real programme there), the au pair “experience” appears to be getting more popular in Europe – in a way, directly proportional to the popularity of the so-called gap year.

Being an au pair consists in living with a foreign host family for a period ranging from 6 months up to a year (the most usual option), taking care of their kids and accompanying them in all extra-curricular activities, and in some cases teaching them a foreign language. In exchange, you will get a weekly or monthly allowance, free food, accommodation and language courses paid by the host family.

Ana’s experience

Four years ago, I had just quit my job and moved from Italy to Belgium hoping to finally pursue my master's degree and start an EU-related career in Brussels. Having saved some money during the previous job, it was still not enough to pay for a whole year of studying abroad and I was determined to finance my studies entirely on my own. I was experiencing some difficulties applying for a so-called “normal job” at the time and I remembered an article I had read years before about the au pair programme in the USA and in the UK. One quick Google search led me to several au pair websites that functioned on an ad hoc basis instead of the programme-like nature of its US counterpart. I selected some adverts from host families in Belgium and quickly got an interview with a Flemish family living nearby, which eventually picked me to take care of their young boys for the following year.

Once you are an au pair, you have everything paid by the host family in exchange for your services. I was able to save all the money from the monthly allowance and use to finance my studies the following year. I also became semi-fluent in Dutch in about 10 months thanks to the language classes that the host family paid for me, which is mandatory by law if you sign an au pair agreement. But, more than these two huge pluses, this experience allowed me to immerse myself in the Belgian culture and ways of living, their habits and traditions, through the close contact with the host family and the neighborhood. I have also met people from all over the world during my Dutch lessons, some of whom I regard today as close friends. It was not always easy, but in all honesty when I look back and see what I’ve achieved and how much I’ve grown in these past four years, I know that the au pair experience helped me get here.

I would recommend it for young people who would like to get to know a country better before settling there for studying or work, but be aware that it is not an easy job to be an au pair. There’s a lot of responsibility involved and you must really love being around kids to be able to become an au pair. Believe me, some days you will be so tired you will just want to disappear, so think twice if you reckon that it’s just minding the kids every once in a while and partying the rest of the time! But when all it’s said and done, it’s a great experience that can set you on the road to achieving your goals if you have the drive and the passion for it.

Karolina’s experience

Four years ago, I was done with my university studies. I was looking for a job in my hometown. However, it was summertime and many jobs were already occupied. My sister gave me a brilliant idea about an au pair program. I thought to myself: why not? I could work, learn a new language and at the same time save money for my future studies.  I started to search for a host family. It was quite challenging. Some parents wanted too much, some lived in countryside and had animals... But finally I found my family on an au pair website.

Moving to Sweden was easy and fast. I had only one month to prepare myself. Thanks to the au pair programme I had the chance to learn more about Swedish culture and take Swedish language classes. I have met many interesting people from different countries during my Swedish classes. I could say that if it wasn't for the au pair programme, I wouldn't be where I am today. Actually, at the time I didn't plan to stay for more than one year in Sweden but when I moved here I quickly saw so many opportunities for my development. Thanks to the Swedish classes I took, I am now fluent in Swedish, I have found a job here and am enjoying life tremendously.

An au pair program offers good opportunities and experience. If you dream about living abroad and learning a new language and discovering a new culture - an au pair programme is probably the right thing for you! It is not as easy as it looks at first sight: you are far away from your family, friends and your culture but in exchange you get a very valuable experience and knowledge which will definitely help you in the future. Moreover, it is a high-responsibility job. Children are lovely and funny but that is just one side of the coin. You need to have patience and be genuinely interested in them too.