Escape to Portugal: A Train Trip to Pinhão

When I woke to my alarm on my first full day in Portugal, I heard rain pattering on the balcony outside. The man at reception in my hostel said the weather was supposed to improve later, but I’d already decided I would head inland and take the recommended train journey to Pinhão.

Breakfast comes free with your booking at Magnolia Porto Hostel. I sat down with some cereal and juice and then a lady came and placed before me a plate of bread with jams and sliced ham and cheese. The only thing that would make the setting nicer was if the TV was playing traditional Portuguese music, rather than showing MTV and various scantily dressed women dancing. After filling my boots (because when it’s free, why not?) I asked the man where I could find the nearest supermarket. He said his brother at reception would show me on the map, which made me wonder if the lady who brought me the food was their mother. I hope so.

My geographical skills had not improved as I tried to find my way to São Bento station. Seeing me scrutinise my map, a man came over and pointed me the right way and with 10 minutes to go until my departure, I was in the queue for tickets. The member of staff asked if I was under 25 and when I said yes, he asked for proof. Amazing! The first time I’ve ever been asked to prove I am younger rather than older! With my age, a return ticket cost only 16.30Euros. Good on the Portuguese for offering international travellers discounts too. Telling me when the last train back would leave, the man warned me with a wink to watch out for the red wine. I found my train and asked the conductor (Jorge) if I could sit anywhere. He recommended the front carriage and sure enough it was empty so I could find a seat near the window. I liked how friendly and helpful both these men had been – if you just make some effort in the language to clarify that you don’t speak Portuguese (by asking “Fala Inglês?”) you will be helped in embarrassingly good English. Seeing him help a group of young French tourists in their own language raised an interesting point of comparison. Working on a train in England isn’t regarded as the most impressive of jobs, but over here the use of different languages makes it a very important one, alongside other hospitality and retail work.

At Campanhã station a lady got on with her teenage daughter and sat opposite me. The mum looked exactly how I’ve always imagined Portuguese women to be – curvy in a floral dress and sandals with a strong big-boned face, big brown eyes and hands that have worked. As the mother read some biblical pamphlet, the girl and I would occasionally catch eyes and with her sulky face I was reminded of those days as a teenager when your parents are the most embarrassing thing on the planet and you feel completely misunderstood and frustrated.

The cloudy skies began to disappear as we headed inland. Lush green jungle-esque vegetation strewed the landscape with a few dots of white houses with orange roofs here and there. We passed hills hosting wind turbines and then the glistening river Douro appeared, winding its way around hills zig-zagging with vines with cars slowly ascending the hairpin bends. The mum opposite would pat her daughter’s knee and encourage her to take photos, upon which the girl would unplug her earphones with a scowl.

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On this inter-regional train there were no announcements when the next station was coming so after two hours I started to check the signs at each station. Stepping onto the quiet platform in Pinhão, I instantly regretted still having leggings on from rainy Porto as the midday heat began to roast my legs. There was no bridge to cross to the other side so people would casually cross the rail track – a fine-worthy offence in England! Unable to find a washroom at the tiny station, instinct told me to turn left and along the quiet cobbled street. I needed a bathroom to change in and a cafe called Princesa do Douro looked promising. I wandered in and nobody was around, but there was a WC to the right. Hallelujah! Changing into shorts, I couldn’t decide if I was being travel-smart or being a trespasser. The pastries on the counter looked too good to resist and I wanted to say thanks in some way, so I called over to the lady mopping in the corner and chose a popular toasted ham and cheese croissant and a pastry coated in chocolate with apricot jam on the inside.

Wandering along with no idea where I was going, I noticed before a bridge  that there was an open metal gate off the side of the road. After going over curiously to inspect, found myself walking down some steps past a bunch of orange trees onto the river front. This was when I believed my traveller’s instinct had returned.

There isn’t too much to do in Pinhão and most of my afternoon was spent doing nothing apart from enjoying the quiet rural setting of a town that wasn’t overloaded with tourists. For a moment I wondered if I was bored. In London it’s hard to switch off and with so much always going on, doing nothing feels strange. I had to remind myself that I was on holiday and it was okay not be tearing around various institutions with the aim of doing something productive.

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Further along the river in the busier part of the village are the boat tours and wine merchants. I remembered what the man in the station had said about the red wine here, but it was definitely too hot to be drinking. I opted for a cooler liquid and walked into a mini-mercado. It must have been obvious that I didn’t speak Portuguese because when I went to pay for my water and iced tea, the old lady got a yellow sticky note just like the ones I use at work and wrote ‘1.80’, showing it to me with a smile. I was tempted to ask to keep it as a souvenir but wasn’t convinced I would be able to make the lady understand why I wanted a scrap of paper.

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In the early evening I headed back to the train station for the journey home. Hearing a lady tell a fellow French tourist that the train for Porto was “en face”, I quickly crossed to the other platform before I found myself sleeping in the station for the night. It was reassuring to know I remembered some French! By now the midges had introduced themselves and I ignored any odd looks I got from people as I slapped my legs irritably. There was no chance of me finding a seat on this rammed train and I found myself stood in the doorway with the French group from the train here and a Portuguese family. It was hot and my mouth felt dry but there was hardly room to get water from my bag. The thought of standing for two and half hours became more bearable when some merry men in the next carriage began to play the accordion and dance around. Thankfully at the next station a few people got off but I stayed behind preparing to remain standing as the French group shot forwards to grab a seat. Then the girl of the group looked back at me and pointed at a free seat whilst one of the boys held the door for me. I sat down gratefully, only to hear the little boy next to me (also French) say “J’ai mal au ventre!” and feel less comforted…

Following their cooperation I was tempted to make conversation with the French group, but I’ve also learned during my travels when you should just accept some things as a nice gesture and not a sign of possible friendship and company. Sure it might have been nice to go for a drink with them, but did I really need their company for the evening? Instead of changing trains back to São Bento, I walked back from Campanhã past cheap quiet cafes and staring men. I was perplexed to notice that my dorm was unlocked, and a little disappointed to discover there were two new residents inside. I’d been looking forward to lounging around in private. The lights had been fixed as well…and one girl seemed to be afraid of the dark, as well as glued to her phone. I asked if she was from Portugal and she said “Sim” before saying she didn’t speak English. The other lady was Eastern European with long legs and a scary face. Suddenly I wished I’d approached the French group afterall. Luckily the festival in the park opposite had a live singer tonight which covered up the hostile silence, with my restless skin-scratching filling in the gaps.

I was glad to have visited a more rural, quieter area of the country and experienced the interaction I did with the locals in Pinhão and other tourists on the train. I was feeling like a traveller again, getting something out of every seemingly insignificant moment. I was remembering how pleasant one’s own company can be and feeling truly switched off from other commitments.

The rain had stopped and tomorrow I would explore more of Porto.

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Part Three: Exploring Porto Without a Camera

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Escape to Portugal: Arrival in Porto

On July 28th 2015 I set off on my first solo trip in two years, and my first with hand-luggage only. The destination of choice was Portugal, on the basis that I wanted to visit somewhere with a warmer temperature and relaxed Latino ambience as opposed to the colder climate and outdoor pursuits-driven landscape of more northern areas of Europe which I’m better used to. I was excited to rekindle my sense of lone adventure, but felt out of practice too, and this became noticeable on arrival.

My plane touched down in Porto just before midday. My lack of preparation and the arrangement of the airport made for a muddled and delayed time there. After changing into shorts and a vest top in the washroom (and subsequently re-stuffing my small rucksack), I had to find an ATM that would accept my debit card, having been so busy that I hadn’t had time to change my currency beforehand. Then it was time to find the metro to take me into the city centre. After I wrongly approached the car parking machine on the lower level, a fellow tourist directed me back upstairs to the main level to buy metro tickets, only for me to be told by a member of staff up there that these had to be bought downstairs from the machine. (Life lesson: never take advice from an American man with long hair!) There were large queues for the three machines but there were no staff around to advise and the queues weren’t moving as confused tourists looked around helplessly. I finally reached the front and selected a ticket for zone 4, having read that the machine accepted 50Euro notes. Mine however was rejected meaning I had to walk all the way back upstairs yet again to buy some water for change. By now I was getting frustrated – I just wanted to be in the city out in the sun exploring.

20 minutes later I finally had my ticket for the violet line to Trindade at the price of 2.35Euros. Up on the platform my hands were full with change from the machine, tickets, receipts, water, a map and guidebook. I kneeled down and precariously shoved bits and bobs in various pockets, only to glance up and wonder why a man was staring at me with interest. A glance back down revealed that I was flashing a large amount of cleavage…The journey to Trindade only took about 25 minutes but because of my headless chicken-style running around in the airport, two hours had passed by the time I reached the centre. But I was finally here, it was time to think forward and that began with applying large amounts of sunscreen, ideally without involving extra exposure..!

I set off down the street noting the style of the pavements with their uneven, shiny-stoned surfaces. Câmara Municipal do Porto provides a great view down the Avenue dos Aliados towards the river Douro. People sit at tables under small trees reading the newspaper and drinking coffee. I noticed a lot of beeping going on by impatient taxi drivers which seemed to contrast with the ancient tram that would laze along the streets with an occasional clang. Unlike in other cities, it seemed you could be pretty relaxed about walking in the road without fear of being squished by one. Walking up a road to the right, I had my first sighting of a Portuguese bakery…and it was love. But I forced myself to wait a little longer before making a move. 003 004 008 010 Inside the Torre dos Clérigos (Tower of Clerics), a sign stated that the top would only be open to visitors from 7pm for 5Euros. With my first and only plan of the day out of the window, I instead headed down a little cobbled side road with quiet pastry shops where stray cats dashed underneath cars, leading me to the miradouro (viewpoint) which showed a sea of orange roofs with the iconic metal bridge of Luis I in the background. It wasn’t the most outstanding view I’d seen but I remained open-minded. Some steps took me down a narrow alley between scruffy stone houses and as I passed neighbours gossiping across to each other I felt almost invasive. Soon after this hushed local area of modesty came the Cais de Ribeira which was heaving with packed restaurants, but rather than the menus, I was attracted by the beautiful detail on the tall buildings, with their vintage look of tiled decoration and the balconies painted with corresponding colours. It’s this ancient beauty, combined with the collection of traditional wooden boats on the water, that probably influenced UNESCO to declare the Praça da Ribeira (riverside square) a World Heritage Site. My stomach was starting to rumble but I didn’t fancy dining alone in this touristy section. I dropped 50 cents into the case of two young boys playing guitar before wandering on towards the bridge. A long set of steps led me up past another poorer area where washing hung off lines attached to houses with paint peeling off the walls as young girls sat in a doorway playing games. 016035 036 039 040 041 042Crossing the top half of the Ponte de Luis I to the south side of the Douro, things get quieter. I felt more confident of finding a supermarket here and sure enough, quickly found a local fruit and veg shop, my mouth watering at the sight of fresh produce. Moments after walking in it became obvious that this was very much a place where a local few went, namely old women. “Desculpe!” I would say as I accidentally knocked one with my bag, but they never seemed to notice. The younger lady at the till would chat away with them as she weighed their bags stuffed with pears, nectarines, cherries and plums. As she weighed mine, I saw her glance quickly at my Oyster card holder which I was using to store notes (to save the space a purse would take up in my bag). Recognising the English words, she cleared her throat, looked me nervously in the eyes and slowly but profoundly said: “1.80.” Seeing her pride put a smile on my face and I walked out of the shop in a happy day dream, before almost flattening a girl stood right outside holding her hands out for money.056 058 060 Settling down in the green space of Jardim do Morro, the view of the town was much prettier, the river now more visible and glittering in the sun. I bit into a succulent peach and watched a young teenage couple on a bench in front of me look at each other with tentative excitement before locking their hands together. A few minutes later they walked off hand-in-hand giggling shyly and a busty girl in tight jeans who looked about six years older sauntered past them to sit on the wall. Then a motorbike revved past and her boyfriend pulled up beside her and rested his arms on her lap. It was a five-minute scenario that highlighted the phases of growing up and growing in love. At first there are the sweet, fragile romantic moments of making eye contact and feeling butterflies when you hold hands, then there’s the sexual excitement and physical comfortability as you spend more time together and grow more familiar with each other. I spent most of the afternoon resting here, enjoying the lack of visible tourists around, until around 5.30 p.m. I decided I should find my hostel. A steep cobbled street led down to the lower half of the bridge, where a group of young boys attracted applause as they jumped into the water. I was tempted to join; it was hot and I was still getting accustomed, the parts of my back that I hadn’t been able to reach starting to redden (one downside of travelling alone!)    061 062 066 Walking up past São Bento station, the looks and comments from local men began to increase. Of course I had no idea what was being said, but could tell the comments were pretty indecent. With my blonde hair I had expected to stand out, but was still surprised by just how ‘odd’ I appeared to be. The attention wasn’t perturbing and I didn’t feel unsafe; I just ignored the men and walked on. One thing I’ve learned from travelling alone is the art of bluffing. Even if you are completely lost or scared or uncertain about something, you have to put on a brave face, otherwise you make yourself more vulnerable to unwanted attention. I find that when in a foreign country, it feels easier to stand up for myself against harassment, perhaps because when one doesn’t understand the language it’s harder to get upset by the verbal reply, and also because since I know nobody else I’m less concerned about what people might think of me. This meant therefore that when the old homeless man came over with his hand held out and started poking me, I could look at him square in the eyes, firmly say “Não” and walk away with no further attempts being made by him.

After a few wrong turns I finally found Avenue Rodrigues de Freitas where Magnolia Porto Hostel is located, to the east of the city centre. I knocked on the big red door of number 387 and a lady signed me in and showed me to my dorm, which I would have to myself that night. The room had a homely ambience unlike that I’ve experienced in most hostels. It’s as if the owners have put more thought into the rooms than ‘You need a bed for the night – here it is.’ I washed my smelly feet and let them dry near the window, as I’d declined to bring a towel for the sake of luggage space.

At 8 p.m. I set off out again, glad to have only my camera bag on me. I wanted to watch the sun go down at the nice spot across the river from earlier. A grey cat sat looking vain on the walls of the Muralha Fernandina. Runners passed me down a flight of dusty steps from which I could peep into people’s kitchens through the open windows. The runners turned left to run alongside the river and for a moment I regretted not bringing my trainers.

Serra do Pillar is a nice viewpoint, and probably best enjoyed with a glass of local port (which, despite its fame and heritage here, I definitely was not fussed about sampling).  The green space adjacent was busier now, but with locals rather than tourists. I was glad to have come across the place – popular tourists areas rarely do it for me. By 9 p.m. it was getting chilly and I headed back across the bridge, pausing to admire the softening glow of the sun on the river and buildings, before wandering through random areas of the town map-less. Porto hadn’t overwhelmed me yet, but it definitely seemed to be a good city for just rambling around, finding interesting little things here and there such as the Sé Cathedral. 069 076 079 083 093Again, I got confused on the way back to my hostel. In the park nearby a sign read ‘Festival das Francesinhas’ and I translated the words ‘free entry’, but there didn’t seem to be much going on. I later discovered that ‘francesinha’ is a popular dish here – a thick sandwich filled with cheese, egg, sausage and other meats in a rich sauce. However in this heat the only food I felt like eating was the juicy fresh local fruit. This time a man welcomed me inside the hostel and I felt like I was returning home as I entered my quiet dorm. The lights didn’t seem to be working but I didn’t mind – it made things more cosy and I could crawl into bed tired from the heat and just wait for the impending darkness to come and send me to sleep.

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Would you like to take this article with you on the road? You can download a GPS version to your iPhone or iPad by following this link. Thank you for reading and happy travels!

Read about day two in A Train Trip to Pinhão

A Change of Perspective: My Second Trip to Warsaw

The first time I visited Warsaw was in October 2012 for a wedding. On a morning trip to the Old Town, a bleak sky took a little life out of the town buildings, merging their pastel colours into a blend of blandness. If you closed your eyes and listened to sounds of horse hoofs clomping on the cobbled streets, you could imagine being in the era of Soviet rule, hunched figures hurrying through the drizzle to buy their bread before rushing back home to their duties. Driving to the local salon to get my hair done for the ceremony, I remember pulling up outside a run-down building with peeling paint, the smoking staff scowling up at the cloudy sky. The weather had dimmed the mood of the town and its subsequent memorability.

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Fast forward to June 2015 and I was back in the capital on a brighter day. Driving past the hair salon, the sun shone on a freshly-painted building complete with a new sign and clean windows. Traffic levels boomed on the long weekend as people drove into the capital for a sunny day out. Status appears to be important in Poland as it strives to distance itself from its Communist connotations and develop into a more prosperous country with a greater preference for Western lifestyles. If you have money, you buy a fancy car. Branded clothing and accessories that many English people would find tacky are sought after here. Whilst many Londoners dream of a country mansion where they can work from home and avoid the urban grind, city life is the ideal in Poland, and the countryside is for the peasants. As someone who grew up in the countryside and gets frustrated with life in the city, this view is intriguing to me.

It never ceases to amaze me how influential the sun can be psychologically on one’s attitude towards a place. Summer scenes were vastly different from those I had seen in the autumn nearly three years ago. Approaching the Old Town, the buildings stood strikingly against the perfect blue sky, looking incredibly rich in colour like skin bronzed from the sun’s rays. Tourists in shorts and dresses ambled around slowly in a warm state of relaxation, the only sense of rush in the area being from the kids jumping around in excitement trying to pop the bubbles that ballooned from a man’s bucket. There was more energy around the place since I was last there, but less tension at the same time. People moved slower, but more progressively too.

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A group of runners milled around doing calf stretches and lunges as we looked for a restaurant to eat at. ‘Zapiecek’ is the place to go for traditional Pierogi – deep-fried dumplings stuffed with cheeses, vegetables or meats. Sat outside under white umbrellas, little conversation was exchanged between diners. Instead people sat lazily, smoking pensively or reading the newspaper. I drank a dried fruit compote whilst the waitresses stood in the doorway in their red and blue aprons, basking in the sunshine. 091099

Then as I was eating, a young girl of about 12 approached our table and asked for some change, none of which I had. Seeing her be ignored by the diners around me made me feel slightly uncomfortable, as I began to consider how increased prosperity makes members of society change their perspective towards the lesser fortunate. It made me think of those real-life rags-to-riches stories you hear about, and question whether these people really do stay humble, or if they inevitably become too embarrassed to acknowledge their past and those people growing up in situations similar to the one they did.

Destroyed by the Nazis during the Second World War, Warsaw has had to renovate itself dramatically. It doesn’t have the number of tourist attractions or social venues to be found in London, but I find that this simplicity makes the capital attractive. Hopefully the increasingly Westernised perspective that the country now holds towards consumer and lifestyle choices won’t make it sacrifice the quiet, modest charm of areas like the Old Town for big brands and brash buildings.

Communicating through Different Languages

Languages are commonly noted as a cause of difficulty when travelling. How are we supposed to know where we’re going if we can’t read a sign? How are we supposed to understand people telling us something in a foreign language? How are we supposed to be understood ourselves? Afterall, we can’t and shouldn’t assume that everyone we encounter can speak English. English-speaking travellers are fortunate in that most countries have English versions of documents and signage. However, there are inevitably moments when no translation is available and one finds himself frozen in speech, blocked by a barrier. This isn’t always a bad thing though; instead, it can teach us to use body language to express our thoughts and emotions. There is something heart-warming about ‘conversing’ with strangers without opening your mouth.

As a bridesmaid at a Polish wedding a couple of years ago, I was taken to a local hairdressers before the ceremony to get my hair done. I’ve always had long hair and my mum has always been my hairdresser (as well as my taxi-driver, nurse etc), therefore I was slightly anxious about how this would turn out.  A fellow bridesmaid drove the two of us down the highway before we turned off and entered a quiet village. Pulling up outside a small salon, a group of ladies stood outside smoking, leaning lazily against a wall with peeling paint. The oldest had platinum blonde hair tied back in a tight bun, and was accompanied by four girls who looked around my age. As I got out of the car they stood upright, surveying me curiously like prisoners checking out the latest arrival. I smiled a ‘hello’ nervously as my acquaintance explained what we’d like done, before following her tentatively inside. The blonde lady gestured to a chair and I sat down, feeling twitchy like a criminal waiting to be questioned. I found it quite daunting to allow a stranger who I could not issue with verbal instructions to have physical power over something that represents such a strong part of my identity. I gulped upon feeling the lady’s long, painted fingernails run through my wavy strands, but as she began massaging shampoo into my scalp, I began to relax.

Soon it was time to move to the other chair and my apprehensions returned. I approached it as if it was electric, unsure what the outcome would be. The lady opened her mouth to speak and then caught herself, remembering that I didn’t speak Polish. We looked at each other through the mirror as she gathered my hair into a bunch and moved it up the back of my head, wanting to know how high I wanted my bun. “Tak!” I said with a thumbs up, and she nodded her acknowledgement. Then she repeated this physical demonstration to ascertain how much volume I wanted on top.

As the lady played with my hair, I found myself unsure of where to look. I didn’t want to just stare at myself in the mirror the whole time, but I was unable to begin a conversation with the girls, and the other bridesmaid was busy chatting with her hairdresser. Instead, I looked down at my lap, playing with my hands and occasionally flashing glances at the girls in an attempt to assess how things were going. As if noticing my awkward discomfort, the lady doing my hair uttered something to one of the girls, who nodded obediently and turned around. On her return, she placed a bowl of chocolates in front of me, looking at me with a side-glance to them before backing away and putting her hands behind her back shyly. I smiled my thanks, unsure whether it was just a polite gesture or they actually wanted me to take one. Seeing the girl glance at me with embarrassment, I instinctively leaned forward and unwrapped the purple paper, enjoying the sight of her blush as I smiled and nodded a ‘delicious’.

Suddenly the lady’s hands stopped still. I looked up in the mirror with my mouth full of chocolate to see her looking at my hair uncertainly, biting her lip. The girls stood warily around her, eyes fixed fearfully on my hair as if it was about to explode. A sense of unease surged through me and I worried that if I attempted to swallow, I might start choking. What was wrong? The woman frowned in concentration and I could only sit helplessly wondering what she was doing back there, imagining her cursing the thickness of my hair. A few anxious minutes later, she stepped back and breathed out with a smile of relief. I returned it hesitantly. Then she got a mirror and held it up so I could see the finished result, checking my reaction with wide eyes of hope. It was exactly what I had wanted, and I flashed her a (double) hands up to show my approval, to which she beamed proudly. “The lady says you have beautiful hair,” the other bridesmaid told me. In the mirror the bridesmaids were looking at me and I said “Dziękuje” with a bashful smile.

The ladies waved us off with big smiles, looking rejuvenated. As a new face, I had made their day interesting (and challenging!)

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During the next summer, I spent some time travelling around Iceland. During my travels, I exchanged a smile and wave of recognition with members of a Chinese family after seeing them again only hours after a silent goodbye. I will never forget the look on their face when they saw me, with no words being necessary to express their delight. Then I spent a week doing a homestay help-exchange in Reykjavík. Painting the outside of the house on my penultimate day, I looked behind me to my right to see the cutest little boy from across the street watching me with interest. With his blinding blue eyes and white-blond hair, he resembled my brothers as six year olds. After a moment I said simply, “Ég tala ensku,” in an attempt to explain that I wouldn’t be able to understand him if he spoke. He nodded quietly…and of course began speaking Icelandic to me anyway. I looked at him to guess what he was communicating and after assuming that he was being a normal curious child, carefully presented him with my roller, pointing at the wall with an encouraging nod. His face breaking into a grin, he stepped forward and, taking the roller in two tiny hands, rubbed it up and down a foot’s length of the wall a few times. Then he looked at me expectantly and I said”Gott!” cheerfully, before he flashed his adorable smile again. 

Having a language barrier reinforces the value of observation. Helping supervise a children’s party during my job as an au pair, I could tell through my eyes only what the dynamic of the group friendship was. There is always the annoying hyper kid who laps up all the attention by putting on the Spiderman costume and shouting wildly, dashing around and almost breaking the plant pot. This contrasts with the ever-present shy, sweet boy who quietly plays in a corner with the jigsaw, expressing a wider interest in the things around him and showing his intelligence. I desperately wanted to go give him company but it wasn’t really possible; I could only smile at him encouragingly and hope that someone else would play with him. From greater observation over hearing, I could see when the adorable little boy wearing a bow tie with a pirate hat couldn’t open his lollipop, looking around worriedly as others opened theirs with ease, before relaxing as soon as he saw my outstretched helping hand.

Whether it’s the short-and-sweet smile of gratitude from someone to another offering a service; the lingering eye contact between two strangers at first sight; or the silent sign language of the hearing and speech impaired, communicating through body language can be quite a beautiful thing. Sometimes there is too much talking in the world without anything really being said. By using universal body talk to break down foreign language barriers, one can look deeper into the meaning of communication.

Life as an Au Pair in Switzerland: Closing Curtain

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I returned to Switzerland in early January for the final two weeks of my au pair job before having to return home for another commitment. The first week shot by, then after a day in Bern on the weekend with a friend, I was on the home straight! On the Monday morning of my final week, I was feeling fresh. ‘The best is going to be saved until last,’ I told myself as I strode upstairs energetically. Unfortunately, the ‘best’ comprised of the boy throwing up after breakfast and having a terrible cough all week, the path of which I was inevitably caught in. On the final day, I couldn’t believe that the end was almost here, and that the next day I would be heading home. It seemed like only the day before that I had arrived, wondering how I would last until Christmas, never mind now. But now looking back on the period, regardless of the difficulties I experienced at times, I can safely say that I am glad to have been an au pair.

What have I gained from being an au pair?

Many notable things. For example, I’ve cooked food for people without getting a hair in it once; I’ve not broken the large stack of glass bowls after lifting them off and onto a shelf;  and I still have my hair and hands after going ice-skating! But being serious, I feel proud of myself for seeing it through despite there being times when I really felt like quitting. I’ve integrated into a family and adapted to their household regime, as much as I may have disagreed or been unfamiliar with certain aspects. I’ve thrown my all into the role despite moments of being unhappy or fed up, and put myself out of my comfort zone many times, gaining resilience and patience along the way.

The immersion in two foreign languages has been extremely useful and I’m determined to keep practising when I return to England. I’ve learned much about Swiss culture, having interesting conversations about the national identity of a country with four official languages. I was even informed about the state of the economy following the recent soar of the Swiss franc. (Understanding economics was hard enough before a foreign language came into it…) I’ve also put aside my pickiness and tried many different (mainly cheese-based) Swiss palettes, of which one genuinely tasted like feet.

Having taken most of my instructions from the father and been under pressure many times, I’ve become less sensitive and better at taking criticism. All the stressful scenarios and red-faced moments were made worthwhile when, cooking on Tuesday evening with the dad, he gave a big compliment. He basically said that I take cooking instructions really well considering that 1. I don’t have a written note of them to work from, and 2. they are in a different language. He said that he really believed I would have no problem working as a cook in a kitchen as a result. Whilst I’m sure he was just being nice, and I have no desire at all to become a chef, this put a huge smile on my face.

With no teaching experience, and with little experience in general of children at this age, I’ve improved someone’s English. Whilst it has been very frustrating at times, with me wanting to scream “How do you not understand that this says ‘pin?'” etc, it’s also been hugely rewarding. I’ve had to think about how I explain things to both younger children and younger children of a foreign tongue, and have become more coherent as time has gone on.

From my observations, I’ve gained a greater understanding of younger children and how raising them works, including the importance of compromise. I didn’t become an au pair to learn how to be a parent, but the experience has made me think a lot about the value of a good upbringing – something that I have clearly taken for granted. How did I understand from early on to always wash my hands after the toilet? How did I turn out as a polite, well-mannered child? How did it come to be that I chose to be diligent and work hard in school? It was all because of my parents and their hard work. I now have an even greater appreciation of this role, and of the word ‘thankyou’.

I’ve also gained even more appreciation of the importance of family, and childhood. Watching this girl and boy play together, it’s quite sad because I know that in several years as puberty commences, they will gradually feel less inclined to play with each other. Then there was the time I explained to the girl during a lesson that our next one would be the last. “Owhh,” she said, making a disappointed face. “Why you have to go? Because your mummy said so?” I smiled and explained that I had to start a new job. “With your mummy?” she asked. “No, on my own! Because when you’re a grown-up you do more things without your mummy,” I said. Then I pictured her as a grown up, and found it strange to believe that here I was at 22, when it seems like only yesterday I was the age of this girl. “When your English gets even better, you can write me letters!” I suggested encouragingly. She said:”I can come visit. I will drive!” It was sweet that she said this, especially following what I had said, because it showed her understanding that she will become more independent. And yet I’m aware that by the time this is possible, I may very well be a distant memory. On the same evening, I asked the boy what he’d like to be when he grows up. He wants to be ‘the police’, catching ‘naughty people’ and putting them in prison. I can’t imagine him being an adult, and I don’t really want to…but it will come round before he knows it.

Will I miss being an au pair?

Err…

By Wednesday evening, I was getting super excited to leave, especially after what felt like a particularly long day. I started packing my bag, imagining reaching the airport (and changing my Swiss francs for a higher amount of sterling!) I envisioned the privacy and lack of having to clear up snotty tissues and what not, and couldn’t wait. But then on the last two days, I started feeling really emotional at the thought of saying goodbye. ‘What’s wrong with you? Previously you couldn’t wait to finish!’ I would think. I decided that I was partly upset because of the issue of saying ‘goodbye’ in general, based on past occasions. I really suck at it. I struggle to watch the scene in ‘Love Actually’ when Colin Firth has to say goodbye to his Portuguese maid without blubbering, even though I know they eventually get married. I also felt upset because of a slight sense of guilt for leaving after seven weeks, which is fairly short for an pair. Many times I’ve criticised ‘gap year’ projects where people volunteer in an orphanage for six weeks before leaving, because of the effect this coming-and-going can have on a child. But am I not now a bit of a hypocrite? These children have finally made a strong connection to me, only for me to drop it. The main reason I felt upset however, was because of that connection. I’ve inevitably become part of a family and got so used to a routine, that I can’t help but feel slightly moved. I’ve felt every emotion being an au pair, but it’s because of this that leaving feels like a big deal.

In the past two weeks there have been moments that illustrated just how integrated into this family I have become. For example, once during my French-eavesdropping, I noticed that the dad was asking his son to name the family members, after the boy asked who a present had come from. I heard my name mentioned after the boy’s parents and sister. Cue melting-heart moment. Another evening as the girl and I were making banded-bracelets together (meaning that I was watching her whilst offering encouragement, because that’s far too girly for me!), I asked if she liked being the oldest. She said she wished she had a sister rather than a brother, then her eyes lit up and looking at me imploringly, she exclaimed: “I want you as a sister!” Cue lump-in-throat moment. The next day, she wrote her name on a little piece of paper before asking me to write mine. Then she folded it up and put it in her special box, “so that I will never forget.” Cue watery-eyes moment.

‘Miss’ is a word that’s often over-used, perhaps because it’s felt it should be said to show that an experience has been enjoyed. However, I know that I will move on perfectly fine after this experience. I will feel no dependence on its existence in my life, unlike how at times I might really crave the hug of a distant loved one. Nevertheless, there are habits from this experience that I’ve got so used to, that I know I will fondly recall them.

I will fondly recall those little voices calling my name when they wanted my attention. I’ll fondly recall the childish naivity and gullibility – how I could convince them to eat their carrots because it would make them grow loads taller, and how the girl still believes that there is a mouse in that tree…I’ll fondly recall making their cocoa in their special little breakfast mugs, and always giving the girl an orange straw. I’ll fondly recall laying their clothes out in the morning and putting on the boy’s socks for him so that he could be ‘faster’ than his sister. I’ll fondly recall doing the girl’s hair before school followed by the standard: “No I didn’t want it like that!” I’ll fondly recall folding their tiny tops and trousers and putting them away in their wardrobe, always amused by how many clothes they had, and tactically organising the piles so that those clothes at the bottom had a chance of being worn (Yes, I did do this.) I’ll fondly recall making their beds and hoping I put their cuddly toys back in the right place. I’ll fondly recall spooning food onto their plastic plates at lunchtime, giving them the same colour so they wouldn’t bicker, only for them to inevitably start telling on the other to me. I’ll fondly recall the repetitions of ‘tan/gap/pig/sip’ with the boy during his English lessons with me and the feeling of elation when he read a story all by himself. I’ll fondly recall the moments when I would let the girl play with my hair (having decided she could be trusted not to chop it off) and she would say: “Tell me if it’s hurting you.” I’ll fondly recall the cheery tune of ‘Peppa Pig’ playing on the TV (and the programme itself – genuinely witty stuff). I’ll fondly recall sitting between the two of them on a Friday night after bathtime, eating pizza and watching CBeebies. I’ll fondly recall reading ‘Rapunzel’ over and over again to the girl at bedtime, her eyes wide with tireless fascination.

I’ll fondly recall eating dinner with the parents whilst watching the evening news, hearing the dad mock the French and the mum tell him to shut up so she could hear. I’ll fondly recall the moments when the dad and I experienced a language barrier (the best example being when he asked about my ‘Indian boyfriend’???) I’ll fondly recall One Direction ‘Story of my Life’ playing on One FM radio in the car all the time. I’ll fondly recall things from the wider community too, like the weird looks I got for wearing sno boots when it was sunny. I’ll fondly recall the teenage girls at the school with their skinny jeans and handbags, looking like they were going to shop rather than study. I’ll fondly recall looking out from the living room window at the snow-capped French Alps behind Lake Geneva, watching a train go past now and then in the distance. I’ll fondly recall walks alongside the vineyards and how dog-walkers would say ‘bonjour’ every time they passed someone. I’ll fondly recall the nice man who drove the 725 bus on two of my journeys, with a cheery ‘au revoir’ after I thanked him. I’ll fondly recall walking back from that bus stop near the local hospital in the dark, feeling completely safe. I’ll fondly recall the sound of beeping cars on Saturday afternoons following a wedding (having initially been quite bewildered, I learned that this behaviour is a tradition, and not that it was because my purchase of tampons and chocolate had caused a frenzy…)

The Goodbye

On my last day, I was asked to go and spend lunchtime with the girl at school, because the family car was in service and walking back home to eat before returning would be too rushed. It seemed fitting that I was spending my last day outside of the house more, doing different things. We sat in the cafeteria with the ‘big’ pupils and I got out the pesto pasta and fruit I had prepared. The girl looked around timidly at the students on their Iphones, whispering in my ear when she wanted to ask something or make an observation. Then she held my hand affectionately as we walked around the town, before I took her to a café where she could do some drawing. I bought us a cream bun to share, glad that I could speak in French and the lady did not feel a need to resort to English because this was what I spoke with the girl. The girl was really well-behaved, accepting when I said no to buying her an ice-cream. When we walked home later, we were jumping in puddles together. Then during her last lesson, she was lazy and naughty, drawing silly pictures of me (with ’boutons’, hmmphh) rather than doing as I asked. I threw the paper away and whilst she finally worked, drew a nicer picture instead, with my name written underneath. But she was cross with me for throwing the other away and later ran off to her room in a huff, saying she didn’t want this picture I had put on her table. But when I went in the room later, my smiling face was next to her pillow.

The boy had a tantrum so I didn’t say goodbye to him before he went to bed, even though I would be leaving very early in the morning. I read the girl a bedtime story for the last time, and managed not to start crying when she gave me her toy piggy to kiss, and held out her hand for me to shake like an adult. I gave my thank-you gift to the parents and watched the final news bulletin with them, before saying goodbye to the mum. I told her that this had been a very valuable experience, and she said “For us too.” The dad would drive me to the station in the morning. When I lugged my luggage up ready to leave at 7.30, I saw that everyone was awake waiting to wave me off again, and felt really touched. The little boy turned shy and didn’t want to give me a hug, instead looking at me in bashful silence with his lip turned down. The girl demanded a photo with me and her piggy. Then it was time to leave. During the drive, I told the dad everything I wanted to say – how whilst there were probably times when I made no sense, speaking German with him was really useful, and how it had been frustrating because sometimes I wanted to say more about a subject, but couldn’t find the word. “Tschüss, Shan-non,” he said sadly, before the customary three kisses. Then I got on the train and waved as it set off, before collapsing on a seat. I had a little cry, and then slowly the relief and optimism began to sink in. But now I’m crying again as I write this…

I would definitely recommend being an au pair, because the benefits, even if it may not seem like it at the time, will definitely outweigh the costs. Thank you for following my experiences, and a big thank you to the family and friends who were very supportive during the difficult moments! I leave you with my official au pair playlist…

The Delfronics – ‘Didn’t I Blow your Mind this Time?’ (The first impressions)

MC Hammer – ‘Can’t Touch This’ (The pervy moments)

Culture Club – ‘Do you Really Want to Hurt Me?‘ (The vicious moments)

The Police – ‘Don’t Stand so Close to Me’ (The ill moments)

Katy Perry – ‘Hot and Cold’ (The bewildering behaviour)

Guns N’ Roses – ‘November Rain’ (The despair…during November)

Eric Clapton – ‘I Can’t Stand it’ (The onset of anger)

The Supremes and the Temptations – ‘I’m Gonna Make you Love Me’ (The determination)

The Foundations – ‘Build me up Buttercup’ (The moments of promise)

Whitesnake – ‘Is this Love?’ (The turning point)

James Taylor – ‘You’ve Got a Friend’ (The sweet moments)

Boyz II Men – ‘End of the Road’ (The goodbye)

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My Morning Walk around Geneva: A Mixed Bag of Luxury and Comfort

‘Luxury’ and ‘comfort’ are two words often associated together when discussing travel. Luxury is defined as ‘something that provides pleasure or comfort’. Comfort is defined as being in a ‘state of physical ease with freedom from pain or constraint’. However for me, it came to be that during a morning in Geneva, Switzerland, the two did not fit agreeably in the same bag, and instead made quite an uncomfortable experience.

Having rushed to catch a train to Geneva on a Saturday, I arrived in the city on an empty stomach having not had time to eat breakfast. I studied the station map closely to look for lockers where I could store my backpack, and went wrong twice. When I finally found the area shown on the map, I still couldn’t see them. Commuters were rushing around so it was hard to find anybody to ask, and I couldn’t seem to find any staff. Fed up and not wanting to waste time exploring, I decided to just take the backpack with me. Big mistake.

If you walk down the Rue des Alpes onto the Quai du Mont-Blanc, you can admire the famous Jet d’Eau which shoots seven tonnes of water into the air, towering over the flock of yachts that look up at it in silent awe. Flicked by the sun’s rays,  the water was sometimes painted with rainbow colours. Swans glided over the shimmering water (the blue colour of which was a pleasant change from views of the Thames) which flows in from the River Rhône.

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Crossing the Pont du Mont-Blanc, you reach the (supposedly) English Garden. It’s a pleasant enough place, but unfortunately being located next to a busy road, it’s difficult to escape the noise of traffic. It’s a bit like Russell Square Gardens in London, with joggers and dog-walkers meandering around its paths (albeit without the squirrels). The Doobie Brothers ‘Listen to the Music’ played outside a café as I walked through the garden towards the main town, passing an Asian couple taking a zillion photos posing with their fore-finger ‘on top of’ the Jet d’Eau.

10900222_10155252362780495_84661736624735382_o Geneva’s atmosphere evoked the characteristics almost typical of what one associates with Switzerland as a nation – impersonal and rich. Walking past the likes of Rolex and Louis Vuitton with my grubby backpack, I felt slightly out of place. Nevertheless, I was stopped twice to be asked for directions, so I must have looked like I knew what I was doing! I scanned the sides of Rue du Marché for a supermarket but was unsuccessful, seeing only cafes and bistros instead. All I wanted was something small, quick and cheap! But it seemed my stomach would have to wait.

The sights grew less ostentatious and the atmosphere less snobby as I approached the Old Town. By now I was getting tired from hunger, and my shoulders felt sore as I trudged upwards along narrow streets. A man on a bike rode past with his son sat behind him, the little boy’s open mouth rattling “ahhhh” as they bounced over the bumpy cobble roads. I noticed a Co-Op bag in the dad’s hand, but could only watch helplessly as he cycled away.

My feelings of hunger were temporarily forgotten when I was greeted by the striking sight of the Cathédrale Saint-Pierre, built in the 12th century. Visitors can climb 157 steps to reach the top of the North Tower for views of the city. With my backpack however, that seemed to be too much of an ask, although looking back I should have checked if there was somewhere to put it.   10841895_10155252360695495_182192141877632288_o

Walking west from the cathedral, the smooth stone on the buildings reminded me of that seen in Bath or Edinburgh. Ahead there was a balcony overlooking the Parc des Bastions, famed for having a giant chessboard and monuments of famous figures from the Reformation. In summer I can imagine it to be a lovely area, with a tree-lined promenade and space for picnics and games. But seeing the muddy grass and dull, leafless trees, I decided not to make the journey down to it today, especially in my state of soreness and hunger. Instead with a sigh of relief, I released my backpack and sank onto a bench. A young mum sat opposite me with a pram, looking depressed. In fact, there weren’t many cheery-looking people around at all! I could probably discount myself as one of them too. By now, my stomach was rumbling loudly with hunger and I could feel two tight knots forming on my shoulders.

A flashy Range Rover drove down the Rampe de la Treille as I set off back towards the city centre. Private cafes and boutiques lined the quiet Grand Rue. They seemed to say ‘Only enter if you have lots of money’. Reaching the bottom of the hill, the traffic noise vamped up and a tram clanged its horn. I quickly explained to an approaching charity rep that I wasn’t a Swiss citizen and, dodging bikes, crossed the road determined to find a supermarket. I had no idea where to look, choosing to walk up a random street, only to stumble across a Manor shopping mall. Hurrah! I rushed inside like a kid desperate for the toilet. The food court was manic. Two Brazilian men asked for my recommendation of which brand of chocolate to give someone as a gift. I said Lindt. After nearly clearing some shelves and taking a child’s head off with my backpack, I was outside with food in a bag.

My energy rejuvenated from the knowledge that I would soon be able to eat, I strode back over the Pont du Mont-Blanc, back to the Jardin Anglais. Just as I was about to bite into a sandwich, I noticed a scruffy man sat on a bench 20 metres away drinking from a Heineken can staring at me, and stopped myself on the basis that I might have to move away. After deciding that he posed no threat with his drunkenness, I carried on gorging, watching with amusement as more Asian groups posed on the fountains. An old man with ragged clothes and a backpack greeted me with a “bonjour”, dragging a trolley next to him. Glancing at him and the drinking man, I realised that on the first impressions of others in this city, I probably had more in common with these two than the majority.

I still had an hour and a half to kill before I needed to be at the airport, but with my backpack, I felt no desire to wander around anymore. There are many interesting places in Geneva north of the river that I’d love to visit, such as the Palais des Nations (UN), CERN and the International Red Cross museum, but today wouldn’t be the day. Not only was my back cursing, but my bladder was now almost bursting. Instead, I forced myself to heave my backpack on again and walked back alongside the lake, amongst lycra-loving cyclists and tourists ogling at the water fountain.

In summary, I didn’t get a great impression of this small city. Through its display of luxury, it seemed quite uninviting and too money-orientated for my liking. But this impression wasn’t helped by my lack of travel comfort. Without this, I was restricted in my options and my views were tarnished by my self-pitying frustrations.

Lessons learned: 1. Eat breakfast; 2.  Even if it takes a while to do so, find a luggage locker.

In different circumstances I’ll happily give Geneva a second chance and see if I feel the same way!

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If you plan to tour Geneva and would like to use this article as a guide, with GPS included, please follow this link to download it!

Life as an Au Pair in Switzerland: Settling In

I’ve been an au pair in the French-speaking part of Switzerland for a week so far and I’ll admit, I definitely under-estimated how tough this job would be. It brings a lot of challenges, some of which are general and some of which are house-specific. I decided to become an au pair because I wanted to fill my time with a new experience in a new country whilst waiting on other jobs. A chance to travel to a country I’d never been to and earn money on the side seemed perfect. I signed up to an au pair website and within a week, had arrived in Geneva. It was the most spontaneous travel decision I’ve ever made. However upon starting, I realised that in my desperation to get out of the UK, my rationale had not been quite right, and my priorities did not fit with the reality of being an au pair.

The particular family I was hired by offered more pay than most families and I’ll confess that in my graduate state, this was a key factor in me deciding to take this offer. I did not consider that there might be a deeper reason why it paid more than most. I had assumed that I would have plenty of time to myself, to read and write and run, alongside the free weekends for travelling. I believed it would be similar to help-exchange homestays I’ve done, only that in this particular house, I would be looking after younger children than I am used to. But I figured how hard can it be to entertain a five and six year old for a few hours a day? Surely they would be in school for most of the day anyway? Then after agreeing to the role, I was emailed two days before I left with further instructions about my duties and details of the kids’ daily routines. It was then that I realised things weren’t going to be as simple as I had imagined. Perhaps this was why I seemed to feel the most reluctant I’ve ever felt boarding a plane to a new country.  This wasn’t going to be a working holiday; it was going to be a job abroad. And just because a job is in a foreign country doesn’t mean it will be a walk in the park.

Below are the key issues that au pairing has raised.

1. Free Time

Upon starting, I quickly realised that I wouldn’t have quite as much time to myself as I originally hoped, and have consequently realised just how much I value my free time, and being alone with it. Partly because of the weather and partly because of the family’s requirements, I have mainly been confined indoors doing little jobs and therefore not got outside to explore and exercise as much as I intended to. The view outside my home is like that on a postcard – Lake Geneva with the Alps behind. Many times I have gazed outside the window at the glistening water and snow-capped mountains longingly, yearning to be outside exploring.  ‘Why didn’t I just go WWOOFing or house-sitting somewhere over here instead?’ I have asked myself, knowing that these forms of homestay travel would offer more opportunities for being outdoors.

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The house is also surrounded by vineyards, the bronzed colours looking lovely when the leaves catch the autumn sun.

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I soon clarified that money really isn’t important to me; I value my free time much more, especially while I’m young. Since agreeing to work for this family, I have received emails from other au pair families in Switzerland, as well as from families in Germany, Norway, Italy, Spain and China. All are keen for me to stay with them for the same amount of time, and all pay less than this family. But most of these places would probably be more suited to my interests and aims, because of the older ages of the children and greater free time.

I can’t complain too much about this though, because I am being paid a generous wage amidst receiving wonderful hospitality. My host family parents are very friendly and accommodating people. The mother, who is around very little during the weekdays because of her job, regularly checks up with me to make sure I’m comfortable and has been marking pieces of French that I write. I have my own floor downstairs with a separate bathroom, and they insist I help myself to any food. They respect that I am a young adult and hence treat me like one. We have been watching TV together on an evening. Watching ‘Strictly Come Dancing’ with the dad, I explained that Judy Murray was Andy the tennis player’s mother (he doesn’t like him too much, but in the land of Roger Federer that’s understandable). I have also survived the first film-sex-scene moment without too much embarrassment (“Ooo, salut!” was the father’s comment.) They have explained train passes to me, and are just as encouraging for me to leave the house to explore somewhere new for a whole weekend as they are me to stay and go somewhere with them. On my first weekend, I decided to stay with the family because I wanted to get to know them better. They took me to an Arboretum which is basically a conservation park hosting various species of trees. This was lovely, and in the lead up to Christmas I will undoubtedly be invited to a few family outings.

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2. Young Kids

Being the youngest in my family and therefore not too experienced at looking after young children, I definitely over-looked how dependent five and six year olds are. They require constant supervision for health and safety reasons, and constant motivation to do things. How do you get them out of bed in the morning when they stubbornly refuse to get up? How do you get them to eat their breakfast when they moan that they just want chocolate? How do you drill it in their heads that they must wash their hands immediately after the toilet before touching anything else? (I expect I will catch a bug some time soon.) It drains your emotional, mental and physical energy. Sitting bored out of my brains smiling and making encouraging comments as the boy plays with his toy cars and the girl cares for her baby doll, I’ve realised that there is a large difference between liking children, and liking to devote all your time and attention to them. I’m used to home-stays involving teenagers or others closer to my age, who are less restricted in their capabilities to do certain activities and with whom I can have more mature conversations with, and I definitely prefer this.

Young kids are extremely unpredictable, testing your patience to the max when they love you one minute, only to throw a tantrum the next. The five year old has started shouting “You leave the house!” whenever he doesn’t get his way with me. Ouch. 10 minutes later after one of these outbursts, he was asking if he could come to my house and wanted me to get in the bath with him. He’s definitely going to be a heartbreaker when he’s older. Then today, the girl asked me about a knot in a tree. I told her that a mouse lived in there who only comes out when humans are asleep, and began telling her what he was saying. It was adorable seeing her (believing that it really was a mouse making the squeaking noises) press her face against the tree and plead him to come out, promising she’d give him some cheese. I felt super proud of myself for winning her engagement and getting her to describe in English the clothes she would give him (because he said he’d be too cold if he came out of the tree). Then when I explained that he’d gone to sleep and therefore couldn’t come out and say hello, she began balling her eyes out. Bugger.

Kids of this age are sneaky and devious, lying to you so that they can get what they want from you/to their parents when they don’t get what they want from you. This is quite daunting should they make a very serious allegation. Another difficulty is when the mum and dad give conflicting instructions, especially because I don’t want it to seem like I’m listening to one parent more than the other. Little kids also invade your privacy, literally. Many times I’ve played ‘Where’s [boy’s name]?’ knowing full well that he is hiding behind me, trying to pull my trousers down. And once when home alone with him on an afternoon, I told him to continue playing lego in his room whilst I went to use the bathroom. He proceeded to follow me, opening the door (which doesn’t have a lock) with a grin on his face so he could watch me ‘pee pee’. I told him to count to 20 outside the door. Unfortunately, I under-estimated how quickly he could count in English…

Many times during my first couple of days, I would ask myself ‘What was I thinking?’, believing abandoning my favoured age-range for a younger one to have been a big mistake. I thought about the remaining weeks ahead and wanted to shoot myself for advocating the amount of time that I had to the family, pondering excuses I could make to leave. However, as I get to know the kids better, I’m learning more how to crack them and deal with their stroppy, sulky ways. I’ve impressed myself with my ability to be strict when necessary whilst remaining composed and without shouting at them (although let’s face it, they probably wouldn’t hear even if I did).

3. Foreign Languages

For an au pair, there is a lot of information to take in. Au pairs tend to be almost-fluent language students who want to practise speaking in the relevant country. I have therefore thrown myself in at the deep end since my French is very rusty following years of little practice, and I am only a mid-level German speaker. The dad is Swiss-German and works from home, so I’ve been receiving daily instructions from him in German (with some French thrown in), because he is not so comfortable speaking English (and at the end of the day, why should he speak a foreign language in his own country?) But it is easy for me to sometimes misunderstand things and subsequently feel awkward and useless when I have to be reminded about something, or am told I’ve done something wrong. I normally discover this after being asked about something I have done, for example how much of a certain ingredient I’ve used. Concerned to have done it correctly, I have to quickly translate what’s been asked, quickly clarify to myself what the answer is (heck, I probably don’t even know) and then quickly express it coherently in another language. A few times, my mind has gone blank and I’ve gabbled out a muddled mixture of French, German and English.

Meanwhile, on a few occasions when adult or family guests have come round, I have sat smiling blankly whilst everyone sits around chattering away in French, with me only understanding tiny snippets of conversation and subsequently feeling a little left out. This and the constant company of young children contributes to an occasional sense of loneliness, which is what I had most feared feeling before arriving. My room is my point of escape where I can finally be alone to return to my own world, and yet it’s easy to feel distant from the friends in that world, busy with their own agendas in different countries. I have missed being mentally stimulated by people my own age. I’m emailing my mum every day, because her advice is reassuring and her news is a distraction from any stress. I never get home-sick, but there are sometimes moments when I come very close.

However, language practice has by far been the biggest advantage of being an au pair. In working in the French part of Switzerland, I hoped to improve my French, and that is definitely happening. Nothing beats listening to a conversation and having that ‘aha!’ light-bulb-moment when you recognise a sentence. On top of that. I have spent way more time than I expected to speaking in German, and this has been really useful for my confidence. As the days have passed in my short time here so far, conversation has been picking up and becoming more detailed. Immersion definitely is the best way to sharpen up at a language, especially if your listening skills are your weakest area. Improving at foreign languages really makes this job, with all its downsides, seem worthwhile. At the same time, the main reason the family offered me a job was so that I could help the children with their English. Taking lessons gives me something to focus on, and whilst I think I would find teaching older children more rewarding, the effect my help has makes me feel like I have more value to offer in my role, therefore compensating  for any little mistakes I’ve made.

4. Comfort Zone

Living in someone else’s home means that you must adapt to their household customs. This can lead to you doing things that you would rather not, especially if, like me, you are pretty wimpish when it comes to advocating your preferences if they are in the minority. Here are a few examples so far:

  • I haven’t had a huge appetite in my first week. But whenever the father asks me if I would like more food and I say “Non merci, je suis plein”, he makes a face which I think is jokey, but in case he is actually offended, I feel obliged to take up the offer, subsequently forcing food down into my bemused belly.
  • Whilst I can tolerate it, I’m not the biggest fan of roast beef, lamb or pork. But I don’t want to come across as fussy, knowing that red meat is a major feature of many peoples’ diet, and therefore I have only said “Je déteste les champignons” and “Je ne bois pas le thé ou le café” when it comes to dietary requirements. Then, eating lunch one day, I saw roast beef on the table. My stomach went queasy at the smell of it. The father cut it to reveal a rather red-looking meat, and put some on my plate, saying that I could have it cooked for longer if I preferred. But everyone else was tucking in keenly and I didn’t want to seem too picky. So I chewed on this meat and hoped I didn’t look like I wanted to vomit.
  •  I mentioned above that I don’t drink tea or coffee. But when I found a cup of tea placed in front of me after a meal during one of the children’s crazy birthday dinners, it soon passed the point where I could politely refuse, because everyone was busy talking and the dad had already turned around. So I sipped my tea and hoped I didn’t look like I wanted to spit it back out.
  • On Sunday morning, the dad got out a bottle of something and asked me if I’d like a glass. I politely refused as it looked like sherry.  Reading the ingredients in English, I saw that it contained brandy and definitely knew I didn’t want some. But he held the bottle in front of me with an encouraging smile, saying the particular brand was a Swiss speciality and hence making me feel rude not to try. So I had a glass and hoped I didn’t look as light-headed as I felt.

However, situations like this can also be beneficial. There have been times when I’ve suddenly been asked to help with something that I’m normally not great at, for example: wrapping presents and tying balloons. Yes, you read me correctly. I can of course wrap a present, but it’s normally a pretty shoddy job, and I’ve always for some reason struggled with tying knots in balloons. And then there is perhaps a slightly more significant one: cooking. I’m having to do more of this than I expected (mainly because I had assumed the children would eat lunch at school, and upon finding out that they in fact come home for lunch, learned that this would not be a simple sandwich-and-apple job…) I’m happy cooking for myself, but for others you don’t know too well, there’s always that little bit more pressure (especially when you are reading a recipe or hearing instructions in a foreign language!) and giving the kids food-poisoning probably wouldn’t go down too well. So it’s crazy what difference it makes when you are in an environment where you feel you must impress. Your performance peaks and as a result you actually feel like a capable grown-up. (I have also now explained that I don’t tend to eat much red meat…)

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Am I regretting my decision to be an au pair? If you asked me this in the first few days, I would say yes without hesitation. I will always wish I had more freedom, but what’s been a great help is being told by an ex-au pair friend of mine that my struggles are common for an au pair. My mum has also made me review my perspective by reminding me that au pairs used to be paid peanuts and rarely got weekends off. I am now starting to get more used to this family’s routine, and have realised that I will probably come away from this experience having got more out of it than is perhaps obvious. It’s useful life experience to overcome a struggle without giving up, which I am determined not to do. I have adapted to the needs of the household, and tell myself that persevering through all the tantrum-handling and relentless-requirements will only be useful in the long run when I have kids myself…many many many years down the line. In coming to be in this position through a slight error in judgement, I have been the most out of my comfort zone within a confined period of time. But I believe that as challenging as it will be, and as much as I will want to pull my hair out at times and have my own tantrum, this will be a mistake worth having made.

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