Guest Post: Why being an au pair rocked

April 30, 2013 in Career,Life,Philosophy

When I was 18, I flew to Paris with the intention of spending my summer as an au pair for a family in a village in northeastern France. I was miserable: the village didn’t even have a bakery (in France!) and I was spending my days with an one-year-old and an infant. Not the best set-up to interact with French people and learn French. After about two weeks, I decided to quit and move to Paris for the rest of the summer: I took classes at Alliance Francaise and had my first taste of big-city living. Ever since that summer, I’ve always been curious about other au pair experiences–I do think that it’s still an incredible way to learn the language and the culture, but I do recommend making sure you’re in an environment that suits you.

Village outskirts in northeastern France

It’s not all Disneyland Paris deals and sunny afternoons at the Jardins de Luxembourg, but as Vanessa details in the guest post below: it’s a pretty fantastic way to have the experience of living and working in France.

To say I was “restless” my last semester of college wouldn’t begin to cover how antsy my feet were to get moving. I had just returned from an amazing semester abroad at Oxford while squeezing in a whirlwind tour of 12 different European countries.

With student loans and a frustration for classroom learning, I didn’t know what untraditional post-school options I had.

Then, one glorious day, my French professor said the fateful words to me,

Why don’t you go to France and be a jeune fille au pair, like a nanny?

Vanessa Prothe Au Pair in France

Hey, I could do that! The neighborhood kids begged their moms to leave sooner so that babysitter Vanessa could come and play. Not to mention that my lifelong dream was to finally say the sentence, “Yes, I’m fluent in [insert foreign language here].” Maybe that day would come sooner than expected!

Within days (seriously!), a French family contacted me, and by August I was on the plane furiously reviewing French 101, the only French class I’d taken.

The French are notorious for being, well, particular. How could I assume my new family would be any different?

 2_French family

My relief was overwhelming when Emmanuelle, my “French mom,” excitedly ran up to me in the airport and gave me a bisou on both cheeks. She eagerly chatted with me on the drive to the family’s home just north of the Arc de Triomphe. I timidly nodded along, only catching words here and there… until she asked me a question. “Oh god, she’s going to realize that I didn’t understand anything that she just said,” I worried. I looked pitifully at her and pulled my best, “Pardon?” Then she handed me her cell phone and said with a smile, “Maman.” Aha! She wanted me to tell my mom I arrived! Phew!

My first week with the family was a whirlwind of hospitality.

The parents were so patient when I spoke; the children snuggled up to me (after I gave them the presents I brought from America); and Paris, well, Paris and I began a beautiful French love affair.

3_Paris Love

For the next year, my life consisted of going to French class in the morning, picnicking and frolicking around Paris until late afternoon, picking up the two kids from school, playing in the park until dinner time, preparing a simple dinner for the children and me, bathing them, and putting them to bed (with a story and a song, if they were lucky). After 8:30pm, I was free to do as I pleased… and often found myself out dancing, eating, and shenanigan-ing (did I make up that verb?) around Paris.

While most of my friends were other foreign au pairs, and not true French people, we all spoke French together. Nothing surprises a Parisian like an Austrian, German, Swede, and American enthusiastically speaking imperfect French together on the metro!

Thanks to the patience of Emmanuelle, the children incessantly saying the same words over and over again until I understood, my out-of-the-box French teacher Patrick, and my au pair friends, within one year I could understand 99% of what was spoken to me and respond 500% better than when I first arrived in France.

Vanessa Prothe Au Pair in France

Being an au pair not only gave me an answer to the relentless, “So, what are you doing after you graduate?” question, but the hungry travel bug inside of me got fed.

Living and working with a French family was better than anything I could have imagined. Two and a half years later, I still Skype with my French munchkins and dream about the day when I have enough money saved to go back to Paris and see them again.

If you happen to be wandering around Paris and see these two cuties playing in a park, give them a big bisou for me!

Hi, I’m Vanessa from the travel blog Sautéed Happy Family! If you like to explore the world and be generally awesome, feel free to connect with our blog, Facebook, and Twitter! I’d love to hear from you!

  • Thanks for posting this, Christine! I totally agree… number one deal: make sure your location and host family fit with what you’d like (urban is usually better for you as a traveler). 😀

  • What a story! I considered becoming an au pair post-college, too, but ultimately decided against it. So glad you had such a positive experience, Vanessa. I’ll keep an eye out for those two cuties :)

  • Great Story! I was considering being an au pair for the summer before I started work, but there are few short-term opportunities for that. So glad you loved it!

  • Kim Gray

    I did this when I was 18. I had twin girls who were 18 months old. We remain friends today and are very much a part of each others’ lives – in Canada and in France. Of course I’m not going to tell you how old they are now. :) A brilliant experience, that, when it works out, can be life changing and more enriching that one might ever imagine! Even if the task involves wiping snotty noses, dealing with, yes, ‘particular’ French parents and peeling the likes of mac and cheese off someone else’s kitchen floor in a land far, far away!

  • So glad to hear that you are still in touch with your French family! Isn’t it funny how even the mundane tasks like picking kids up from school and cleaning mac ‘n cheese become tolerable when you’re in a new country? :)

  • Totally agree about there being few short-term options. Sometimes you can get lucky and find a personal opening on an au pair Facebook group (like Au Pair in Paris), but most jobs are for the whole year. Best wishes!

  • Thanks for your kind comment, Danielle! 😀 What I wouldn’t give to just run up to them and bury them in hugs and bisous! :)

  • Kim Gray

    Yah. It’s crazy. I can say that living in France set my life on a course I wouldn’t otherwise have pursued. I’m a travel blogger too. Check out our site! http://www.toqueandcanoe.com :)

  • camorose

    No worries, Vaness! And yes, lesson learned–I’m a city girl!

  • camorose

    I think it would be awesome in the right location and the right family–such a great opportunity to really immerse yourself in another culture and language!

  • lexalounar

    Vanessa, great post! I’m looking into becoming an au pair, hopefully leaving by end of September. These little munchkins are gorgeous! And you seem to have had a wonderful family… do you think they might be looking for an au pair for this coming school year? I would love to email chat back & forth with someone with experience instead of going into it blindly… what do you think? If you feel like giving some insight I would SO love to hear from you.
    Thanks so much! x

  • Alexa

    How did you meet other au pairs? and when you went out at night, did you go home to you host familys house afterwards?

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