Remember that feeling of going back to primary school after the Christmas holidays, chuffed to bits with new books, Barbies or basketballs, only to have your bubble swiftly burst by your classmate (who Santa evidently loved more) clutching a Gameboy Colour or riding a BMX through the gates? Sometimes going back to class in St Andrews after summer can provoke a similar feeling – only now we’ve moved on from toys and are more concerned with how everyone has spent the long summer away from the Bubble. It’s a regular sight in September to see people arrive in their tutorial chatting happily about a summer spent at an obscure local music festival, a cheap holiday in Europe or a visit to friends abroad. Happy that is, until a flurry of chatter about city internships, transatlantic trips, African treks and teaching in Asia comes flooding at them from the other corners of the seminar room.
It was during such a tutorial last year that I resolved to ‘DO SOMETHING REALLY PRODUCTIVE WITH MY TIME NEXT SUMMER’. Procrastination sessions followed, with hours spent Google-ing ridiculously exciting possibilities of how to spend the 3 longed-for months. I’m ashamed to say that far too many hours were spent researching where exactly I would stay when trekking the Andes and how I would juggle all my volunteer work with nights out in Cusco, until I realised sadly that it was already April and, with time and finances crumbling away, this Latin American fantasy was about as plausible as the Queen skydiving into the Olympic opening ceremony.
My solution came in the form of the far less thrilling but aptly-named website, www.aupairinspain.com. Whilst the site had none of the ‘rustic yet glamorous’ appeal of my Peruvian dream or the same potential for daily life-changing experiences; it did suggest that I would have an opportunity to improve my Spanish for a much less bank-busting price. I bit the bullet – a productive summer would be mine!
A few weeks later and I found myself in an agonising 40 minute wait for my suitcase amongst a mass of angry Spaniards at Madrid’s airport. Approaching insanity as I watched the same tennis racket reappear on the conveyer belt about 20 times, I couldn’t help thinking ‘What on earth have I done?’. The stress of aviation and the many Spanish mothers screeching at their children around me brought back that frightful vision of ‘Au Pairing’ as one step up from slavery: I envisaged 5 weeks of tears, tantrums and traumatic language barriers.
In all honesty, I did experience a language barrier or two and yes, I did deal with a couple of tantrums and also a surprising amount of tears given the age of the two boys – ten and eight – but I soon discovered that the life of an au pair is not a hard one. Rolling out of bed at nine to say ‘Buenos Días’ to my chicos, making some breakfast, talking to them in English for an hour or so then heading on down to the shared pool for, oh, 3 hours? And then, after honing my cooking skills whilst preparing their lunch, I was free to do as I pleased from 2pm every day in the Madrid sunshine. And I never worked (if we’re calling it work) a single weekend. Living the Spanish dream? I think so.
I found myself with a wealth of time in one of the most exciting cities in Europe – a far cry from the three streets of St Andrews. I discovered that there was a whole network of au pairs living this cosmopolitan lifestyle of festivals and shopping and tapas and cocktails on roof terraces. The nightlife began at 2am – slight contrast from what we’re used to in the Bubble – and far from being an issue with the family, they encouraged it. They were happy to let me get the first metro home on a Saturday or Sunday morning, they enjoyed taking me to see interesting places and eat in fancy restaurants and, perhaps most importantly, they were very enthusiastic to promote the Spanish siesta lifestyle.
So maybe back in class when I say I was an au pair, I will be thrown a similar pity smile to the one I received the year I got a cuddly dog instead of the actual dog I was expecting for Christmas. Or maybe, just maybe, I will stick up for the glamorous life of an au pair as an ideal way to make the most of city life abroad. Oh well, whatever really – next summer I’m definitely going to Peru.
All images courtesy of Emma Robertson. Compiled by Lucy Thomas.