Finding Happiness as an Expat

It’s been a while since I posted something, partly because of being busy and partly because of not knowing what to write about. I always thought my first post about living and working in Canada would be entitled something like, “Why I Left London to Live in Canada”, with a list of all the great things about the move and my new life overseas. But as the weeks went on after arriving, I realized writing this would be untruthful. Many blog posts enthuse about the joys of being an expat, encouraging readers to ditch their full-time city job and move to another country for a “better life” (the definition of which, it should be added, differs between everyone). Everything seems all rainbows and daisies, and achieving the “dream lifestyle” is so seemingly easy. I’m sure they exist, but rarely have I come across a blog post that has delved into the difficulties life as an expat can bring.

The first challenge is making friends. In this regard, I’d argue there is a difference between being an expat whose purpose is to travel or study, and an expat whose prime purpose is to work full-time in a professional role with the intention of eventually applying for residency. The first two contexts offer environments where one is more likely to encounter and interact with people of similar age and with the same academic/recreational interests and levels of life responsibility. When I backpacked through Canada in 2011, I had no trouble meeting people in hostels, on guided tours or on help exchanges who I developed friendships with, and I’m sure it would be the same today. When you’re trying to get your foot in the career-door however, putting time towards meeting people can’t always be a priority, and depending on where you work, you can’t always guarantee meeting people you can form friendships with. As an example, I worked as a temp for the provincial government for a few months, where only 7% of the entire staff were aged under 30. My chances of meeting a new buddy were low.

On the one hand I am very lucky. My boyfriend is Canadian, and upon arriving here in late December 2016, I was not forced into the unknown territory of a hostel, but instead welcomed by a second family that I’ve lived with for my first few months here. On the other hand, having and living with a partner – especially one you haven’t seen in several months – offers a comfort that can prevent you from making much of an effort to meet new people. Living in a relatively remote area where access to a vehicle is often required to get around can also play a limiting role here. The friends I have here so far I have met through my boyfriend. While this doesn’t mean they are not friends of mine in the fullest sense of the word, and while I can safely say that these friendships are not contingent on there existing a relationship, I’m aware of the value there would be in having friends I met independently of him.

In March I was fortunate to meet a Belgian girl who was staying with my boyfriend’s family for a month on a Workaway exchange. Being the same age and having shared similar experiences, we clicked and at a time when I was in between temp jobs, she became my dog walking-companion, brunch-buddy, yoga-chum, movie night-mate and dancing-sidekick at our own little spontaneous 90s disco party. My experience in Canada was definitely enriched by the short time I spent with her, and yet there are no photos on social media that have captured these memorable moments together and can therefore “prove” that we shared a fun and supportive friendship. Nor are there photos depicting the times I have tried out a new cafe with other friends, gone for sunny group hikes or seen the Chili Peppers play in Vancouver. In fact, there aren’t really any photos of me on Facebook anymore that show me in sociable situations surrounded by others, and in this day and age, it almost seems like this is something I should be concerned about. No photos, it seems, indicates no social life, and no friends.

My Facebook news-feed is filled with an array of photos: pre-night out pouting selfies; impressive plates of food from fancy restaurants or the latest trendy Shoreditch pop-up; tilted head-smiles with cocktail in hand; couples on dog walks; group selfies from house parties. There have been times since living in Canada when I’ve looked at my page in comparison, and wondered if my lack of “socializing evidence” means I’m not fun, that I have a boring life which will wither away without anyone noticing. There have been times when this has made me feel sad and lonely. The rational part of me always soon remembers that Facebook is a superficial social platform, and that my life isn’t boring and that I do have friends, even if they are spread all around the globe and I can’t see them often. Nevertheless, I now make a conscious effort to only spend time on Facebook if it’s for a communicative or informative purposes, and not for aimless browsing of other people’s lives. I also maintain my stance that there is no obligation (or desire from others) for you to share photos of every single sociable thing you do online.

Along with the expat’s challenge of making physical friends (i.e. not those met and interacted with through a blogging forum), there is the challenge of the job hunt. In London, I was paid a good salary for a job that I enjoyed doing and that gave me a desirable level of responsibility and valuable management experience. It was also a job where I had met and worked alongside one of my closest friends. I knew I couldn’t count on being so lucky in Canada, and based on economic factors, I also knew to expect fewer job openings and a pay cut in the small Canadian city I was moving to. I was also aware that it likely wouldn’t be a case of just sending a company my CV and being offered a job within days of arriving. However the difficulty I faced in landing a job still came as an unsettling reality check. Upon starting that tedious task of writing cover letters, I discovered a surprising amount of stylistic differences between British and Canadian English. I soon learned that while my visa made me eligible for any job, adapting myself to the Canadian job market would require more effort than I’d expected. I would apply for jobs that I knew I could do with my eyes closed only to be “ghosted”, and it began to hurt. I knew I was putting pressure on myself and that this was maybe unreasonable considering the small job market I was searching in, but I wasn’t one of those expats content to get a part-time job in a cafe or house-sit while living modestly out of a backpack. I came here aiming to earn a living and develop a career further with the intention of applying for permanent residency later.  Temping proved to be a good solution when it became clear that finding a permanent job with my temporary work visa wouldn’t be so easy. Almost five months after arriving in Canada, I have been offered a permanent job that I am thrilled about, but the journey was a long and often demoralizing one.

It was always my plan to move away from my boyfriend’s place and live with other people after a few months, so that I had more space and more of an incentive to meet other people. Now I am living in a lovely place near the ocean and closer to downtown. In contrast to London, the value for money when it comes to rent is excellent, especially considering that it’s really a student apartment. (“Detached? A garden? A spacious living area? Nice clean furnishings and utilities that work? This must be a dream!” I initially thought when I first saw it.) The neighborhood I’m in is ideal for me too. I can sunbathe in my garden without feeling like neighbors are peering down on me, walk to the beach and breathe in the clean air and pet cute dogs and chat to their friendly owners. I can go for runs along pleasant trails and smell blossom trees and nosy handsome houses and get on buses where the drivers smile and passengers say “thank you” before they get off.

Does this mean my life is perfect and I am the happiest I have ever been? No. I still haven’t met many new friends, and while with my new home and new job position I am feeling in a better place from which to explore new places, try new things, and meet new people, it’s inevitable that I will still have moments of loneliness now and then. But do I ever wish I was still in London? Hell no! I obviously miss friends, I miss the theater and ‘Time Out Offers’, and now that it’s summer, I kinda miss scenes of “village cricket” during post-work runs around my favorite Regent’s Park, but my life here in Canada is so much more preferable for my personal interests. While I will definitely feel even more settled once I meet more people, I am one of those ambiverted characters who prefers having guaranteed tranquility and alone-time along with the option to be around people, instead of having no choice but people and noise constantly around me.

New surroundings

The first few months of being an expat looking for permanent professional work are bound to involve challenges. I was lucky in that I was already familiar with this country, wouldn’t have to learn a new language, and had contacts prior to arriving, but this didn’t mean things would be a walk in the park. My boyfriend recently introduced me to an American comedian called Louis C.K. In an interview with Jimmy Fallon, he humorously explained how, in a time when people crave instant contact with others via their cell phones, we should be more accepting of loneliness and sadness as inevitable feelings in life. Now that I seem to have overcome a major challenge I’ve faced in my first few months as an expat, I’m able to reflect on any setbacks or disappointments as useful experiences: experiences that were not simply reflections of unfixable shortcomings of mine nor an indication that my coming here was a mistake, but experiences that are a part of growing up and have helped develop my strength of character. Living and working abroad is definitely not for everyone and I imagine many people do call it quits and return back to more familiar surroundings. But if everything in life came easy, that would be a boring life. Soon I will turn the milestone age of 25, and when I look back on the life I’ve lived so far, the challenges I recall will be valued just as strongly as the moments of happiness.

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The Chiefly Outdoor Appeal of Squamish

 

Situated between the bustling city of Vancouver and the ski-haven of Whistler on the Sea to Sky Highway is the district of Squamish. Its name is approximate to the language of the First Nation people who were the original inhabitants of the valley since around 5000 years ago. Navy explorer George Vancouver encountered Howe Sound in 1792 during his expedition along the Pacific Coast, but the first European settlers arrived in 1888.

The district of Squamish spreads over various villages – Downtown, Dentville, Valleycliffe, North Yards, Garibaldi Estates. Whilst cafes and pubs will have their locals, I didn’t detect a huge sense of community around town. Perhaps the autumn season had dragged everyone into a slumber state, but it all felt a bit flat. This sense of detachment wasn’t helped by the unease of access to other villages without a car. Cabs cost around $15 or you can take local transit for $1.75 a ride. Without a car, options for getting out to Whistler and Vancouver are limited to coach services from Greyhound or Pacific Coach Lines. A journey to Whistler takes 40 minutes.

Many people live in Squamish and commute to work in Vancouver which is 68km (1 hour) away to avoid the higher rent prices, but housing availability is falling here. Residents are also concerned by the lack of available jobs which is an additional contributor towards forcing people to leave. Squamish previously had a large logging industry which eroded after closure of the pulp mill. My Air BnB host appeared to be one of the luckier residents in financial terms, having a job as an estate agent in town.  There is definitely hope for more investment in public infrastructure to help create more jobs and reduce the gap between high and low wage-earners. The Liberal Party’s promise of $125 in funding towards infrastructure development certainly appealed to voters here, the majority of whom chose Pam Goldsmith-Jones as their MP in the October 2015 federal election.

As a consequence perhaps of the lack  of material industries, tourism is now the main source of income for the local economy. Squamish is considered to be the outdoor recreation capital of Canada. The opportunities for climbing, hiking, mountain biking, triathlon and windsports are aplenty and are celebrated during the summer months through various festivals such as the ‘Test of Metal’ bike race. A music festival is also held in August which featured the likes of Drake in 2015.

There are eight provincial parks in Squamish, one of which is the Stawamus Chief park popular with climbers for its challenging granite rock cliff-faces. One of the largest granite monoliths in the world, hikers can tackle the ~5km return hike up to the three peaks of the Chief, which takes roughly 4 – 5 hours to complete depending on your fitness level and how many peaks you target. The trail leads you on a steep ascent of around 600m elevation gain that involves stairs, ladders and rope/chain-assist sections. It will be worth the aching thighs when you reach the top of the fir tree-dotted dome and are greeted by wonderful views of glistening Howe Sound and surrounding snow-capped peaks.

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Less aesthetically pleasing is the view of the tired-looking town below. It’s almost as if a jumble of characterless box buildings have been squashed hurriedly amidst great scenery, and they look quite out of place surrounded by such mighty natural superiors. (The photo below was one of the more flattering shots!)

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Expect wobbly knees on the way back down the trail and near the bottom, take a detour off to the left towards Shannon Falls Provincial Park for views of the pretty waterfall there.

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Experiences like the Chief hike certainly help point a traveller’s compass in the direction of Squamish. Whilst often overlooked by young tourists in favour of the commercial zeal and party-town feel of Vancouver and Whistler, there is something appealing about the modest urban development of Squamish, as this simply helps emphasise the range of outdoor activities available from the surrounding geographic features. The Squamish landscape has been featured in films such as Free Willy and Happy Gilmore. It’s easy to understand why people choose to live here – for the distance from its loud neighbours and the comparative quietness, and for the access to fresh, scenic outdoor areas and a subsequent healthy lifestyle. It’s therefore easy to understand why rising house prices and decreasing job opportunities are such a concern for residents.

A huge congregation of bald eagles roam Squamish between November and January. If wining and dining is your thing (and you have a designated driver for the evening!) there are also a few varied restaurants to choose from as well as pubs brewing local craft beers. Otherwise, autumn is perhaps not the best time to visit should you want to get a lot of outdoor activity out of Squamish. I look forward to returning one day in the summer when there is more of an energetic buzz around the place and warmer weather for getting out and about.

 

 

 

Appreciating the Simple Life in Tofino and Ucluelet

It would be easy to say “Is this it?” after arriving in Tofino. Located on Vancouver Island about a five hour drive upland from Victoria (depending on the number of tourist stops taken on the way), you arrive in a small town and it may not be immediately obvious what the appeal is to the mass of tourists that come here. There is no symbolic institution or landmark as such and the view of the ocean offered can be found at many other areas around the island. So what is it that people love so much about Tofino?

The obvious answer is the beaches. There are lots of opportunities to give surfing a go, with Surf Sister being a particularly popular company for girls to learn with. Experienced surfers are tempted by the waves on Long Beach. Those less keen to take a dip can sunbathe amongst the driftwood on quiet Florencia beach, or admire the lovely sunsets on Tonquin beach.

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There’s also plenty of hiking on offer, with various boardwalk  and trail routes available including the Lighthouse Trail, Rainforest Walk and others within the Pacific Rim National Park. These will take you on a journey that features Western Cedar and Hemlock trees, colourful fungi and possibly the odd bear or two.

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But the beaches and these hikes aren’t the main features that set Tofino apart from other coastal towns.

My sister and I stayed in the Tofino Traveller’s Guesthouse on Main Street. It’s a lovely place with a cosy, relaxing ambiance. There was no reception desk which made the atmosphere more welcoming, with the main rule being to take shoes off upon entry. The soft sounds of Bon Iver and Matt Corby played in the kitchen and in the morning, the host would make waffles for everyone. Guests were very chatty with each other. Particularly memorable was seeing a couple in their sixties talking about life aims and societal pressures to a young punky girl who was wearing only a flannel shirt and her underwear. I couldn’t imagine them talking in other, more urban contexts.

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The hostel featured lots of mottos conveying deep meanings. Reading ‘There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story’ made me feel restless and I had a sudden urge to stop thinking too much and just get on with personal projects. A poignant one referred to how people waste time devoting so much of it to something they don’t enjoy under the assumption that this will eventually allow them to do what they do enjoy…but this doesn’t happen. Reading this made me think of city life – how people in high-paying jobs tell themselves they’ll live the mundane office life with the 50 hour weeks just for a few years until they’ve saved enough money to escape to the country and live a restful life of part-time work. But as this lifestyle becomes routine and the income becomes comfortable, many abandon their vision for fear of losing security.

With its sleepy town-feel, Tofino definitely evokes a sense of the simple life. This is the kind of town where you can imagine the owner of the pub is best friends with the guy who runs the hardware store two blocks away, who happens to be related to the doctor at the hospital who is married to the lady who works at the cafe, who herself is sister to the owner of the pub. Friday night bonfires will always be favoured and new faces are welcome. The corporate world is completely alien and nobody is in a hurry. Routine is not regarded as boring but rather a guaranteed source of happiness, even if it doesn’t allow for ‘climbing the career ladder’ as such. Life just flows along at a nice gentle pace and people are content with it being this way.

This is why the fatal capsize of a whale-watching boat in October 2015 was such a momentous event. The sleepy town had to wake up to run an intense rescue operation that strained its resources and relied significantly on the personal initiative of boat-owning residents. It was a huge shock for the town psychologically and practically.

 

Located about 30km away, Ucluelet is even sleepier, with the main attraction on offer being the beginning of the Wild Pacific Trail. Once this had been completed, there was much twiddling of thumbs as my sister and I looked around for something else to fill our time with. We didn’t fancy paying $14 to go inside the small aquarium so went to Zoe’s Bakery and had some tasty carrot cake and frothy hot chocolate. The only other options after this seemed to involve eating more food, which wasn’t necessary.

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Instead we decided to turn up early to our rustic hostel. A wooden path led down to the water where boats dozed on the still surface. Here was a place of tranquility and creativity, and under this influence I found myself pouring out words onto paper.

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In the evening, the hostel manager invited the guests and some locals round for a bonfire. My sister and I got ourselves into a slightly awkward moment when we asked one of the local girls what she did for a living. Mistaking ‘server’ for ‘surfer’, we piped up with remarks of “Oh, cool!” only to unintentionally evoke less enthusiasm when she corrected us. She was from Toronto and I asked what she liked best about living in Ucluelet. She answered me with a frown and a tone that suggested she was puzzled by the question – “Because it’s one of the most beautiful places in the world.” I agree that it’s lovely, but I wasn’t convinced of the credit of this statement. I believe there are many more stunning and unique places in the world that have more character to them.

The guy running the hostel first came here on a vacation from Vancouver and ended up staying for five years. Then he followed a girl to Europe for a year or so, only to return here to remedy his symptoms of withdrawal.

As they sat smoking weed and talking about the funny guy eating fries in the cafe today, I found it hard to relate to these people and understand the appeal of their lifestyle. Sure these small quiet towns were nice detoxes from the busier, more populated world, but did they not get boring after a few months of seeing the same faces and places every day? And if these people did interact with the tourists that come and went, did they not feel a burning sense of curiosity to follow in their footsteps and see more of the world?

However, what is interesting is that these two people in question came from the city to the countryside. They came from urban density to rural seclusion, from an area of domineering social norms to one allowing greater freedom and acceptance of individuality. In some sense one could say they had regressed from life in a fast-moving, technologically advanced setting to a slower, less developed pace. But they were happier in this way of life.

Perhaps that is the appeal of Tofino and Ucluelet; it’s not so much to do with their looks but their humble, quiet characters that welcome anyone and let them be themselves, rather than imposing an identity on them. To entertain oneself in these areas, more emphasis is placed on the environment than on consumer goods, on personal communication over technological sources. Residents might not have as many responsibilities nor make a tonne of money but they’ll likely be happier, healthier and have more time for themselves and others. As snobby as city-based people may want to be about such lifestyles, deep down they are probably a little jealous.

Tofino made me envision a quieter, simpler life – one in which I would have fewer professional accolades but a more care-free routine that gave me time to appreciate the small things in life. I day-dreamed of running a guesthouse for income, writing stories for pleasure and going for daily runs on the beach for leisure. It’s maybe the case that people spend too much time looking for the next big thing to do and not enough time enjoying the present. And so I’ve decided that this is what makes these towns so attractive to those they welcome; they offer an alternative lifestyle that requires so little to achieve.

 

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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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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This post and others about au pairing are now featured on AuPairConnect.de