Other people’s kids are not my scene. Yet, as a modern language student, grand ideas of summer internships in the city or care-free jobs at festivals are overruled by the importance of work experience abroad to secure that 2:1. Volunteering opportunities abound at the Careers Centre, but last year as my bank account faltered and with Le Monde an unlikely, though ideal, work experience option, au pairing beckoned.
It was daunting, initially. And that was even before getting on the Eurostar. Discerning between good, bad and downright dodgy opportunities is borderline impossible. Most sites "security check" applicants, but I was never asked for a CRB or a police check – was my host family? Have no illusions: it’s up to you to vet prospective families. A host of online “agencies” charge host families a premium to view your profile. I used ABC families and Aupairworld to list my profile – a brief statement on why I wanted to be an au pair and a brief employment history. The British Au Pair Agency has a directory of agencies registered in Britain who also offer overseas placements as does their French equivalent.
According to the German based Au Pair World, in the first half of 2012, 20,000 au pairs found host families through their website, yet at least one serious complaint arose daily from au pairs in difficulty. Au Pair World professed to being able to supply only an estimate of how many au pairs successfully completed their placements. Tellingly, official statistics on the number of British au pairs working abroad are elusive. Given the vulnerable nature of the work, and the average age of short term au pairs, shouldn’t there be more information available?
The system is efficient though. Within a day I’d received offers for Skype interviews; within three weeks I had a contract to sign; four months down the line I found myself a stone’s throw from Louis XIV’s bachelor pad and a commuter train from Paris. Pavements too narrow for prams meant that yummy mummies shared the roads with 4x4s as they meandered past gated houses. The marché, the park and a cluster of schools formed a suburban Bermuda triangle where even the most devoted Libération reader might find himself losing his political bearing. I had been swayed by the promise of six weeks accompanying four children as they flitted around l’Hexagone. Family weddings and babysitting en masse was juxtaposed with apéros of snails and champagne. Au pairing is a complete immersion in the target culture. It may well turn out to be a baptism of fire.
The lot of the summer au pair, is that of a strange half life. There is none of the catharsis that comes with clocking off at 5pm. By opting for my family I sacrificed a social life for more money, more sun and more French. Diplomacy is paramount as you attempt to keep your contract and your sanity intact. Is it justifiable for the family to count your day off as one that involves an eight hour car journey to the next holiday destination? Where do you draw the line in babysitting other children outwith your original family? Talking about grey areas like this before turning up at the host family's home will smooth your ride in the long term and give a good impression at interview.
Most contracts have a cooling off period of around two weeks, and then a notice period of two weeks except in serious circumstances. If your host family offers to buy your train or plane ticket, insist on an open return to ensure that financial problems on your part don't tie you into a difficult situation.
You’re expected to participate in family events and sing for your supper (in English) even when off duty. All that in addition to walking the cultural tightrope thrown up by comments such as “they have less words in the UK for cookery, that’s why they’re worse cooks”. Whatever happens, you will definitely have an "experience" to talk about. You may end up with nonstop fiestas in Barcelona or sedate suburban strolls, worn out by days spent snorkeling off the Mediterranean coast, stifled by repetitiveness, or all of the above. But you will find yourself rubbing shoulders and sharing canapés with an array of characters fit for a modern day Dickens novel. For people watchers and language enthusiasts it’s a veritable Shangri-La. From marathon running, National Front voting, septuagenarians to old army captains and TEFL teaching expats with chain smoking, leftie leaning, TV producing husbands. But beware this is a two way mirror and you're just as much a part of their summer entertainment as they are yours.