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

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Bear in Mind: Preparing for a Scare in Glacier National Park

‘Failure to prepare means preparation to fail’: that’s something we’re told growing up, whether in school or before competitions. You would think the same motto applied to travel, and in most cases it does. However, the most memorable experiences from travelling do not necessarily arise from preparation, but pure unpredictable chance.

When I started my road trip through the USA, I didn’t consider the possibility of seeing a grizzly bear to be very high. Having not seen one in the Canadian Rockies three years earlier (a black bear from inside a bus doesn’t count), I assumed history would repeat itself, regardless of the breed’s higher population in Montana. Only when my travel buddy and I were walking along the interestingly-named Thunder Knob trail in Washington’s North Cascades one morning,  did the prospect of coming across a bear seem greater. A clanging noise grew louder through the trees and we passed a couple in expert hiking gear walking their dog with a bell attached to its collar. My friend looked down at his outfit and said, “Okay, now I feel unprepared.”

In Glacier National Park in Montana, tourists are briefed to prepare themselves for seeing a bear. On arrival at the park’s entry stations, drivers are handed leaflets explaining what to do in the event that they encounter one. (Interestingly, this leaflet recommended making occasional bursts of noise, rather than a constant sound.) Bears were described as more likely to avoid human contact than pursue it, but that didn’t make a backcountry hike seem any less risky.

We drove on to Bowman Lake, the secluded ‘primitive’ campground (‘primitive’ meaning there were pit toilets and no showers, hence a subsequent cheaper price of $15 per night). From the park’s west entrance to the campground in the north-west, it’s a 32 mile drive which mostly involves dusty gravel roads, switchbacks and plenty of potholes. Some cars turned back, fed up with the slow-driving conditions. At six miles, Polebridge is the closest ‘village’ to the campground for stocking up on supplies. A small female ranger at the entry station greeted us and we asked her for clarification of what to do upon coming face to face with a grizzly. “Oh well…you know… you just want to show the bear that is has plenty of space to pass,” the lady began slowly in a cute high-pitched voice, tucking some hair behind her ear. “Just stand still and be nice and calm, you know – ‘hey bear’,” the lady’s tone piped higher as she mimed a shy tiny wave that stemmed from her wrist. “Let him know you’re not a threat, you know, just relax…and back off slowly.” We nodded at her and I bit my lip to stop myself laughing at the thought of this little lady waving up a grizzly saying “hey bear”.

Many more potholes and tight pull-overs later, we were rewarded for our patience by views of Bowman Lake with its scenic mountainous backdrop, before we found a spot in the rustic campground. Accompanying the descriptions of each 12 mile-return hike was a warning about bears. All these warnings, understandable as they were, made me a little nervous. As we set off on a hike along the Lower Quartz Lake trail, I found myself constantly looking over my shoulder, occasionally calling out “hey bear!” in a voice that sounded way too wimpy. Blood flowed to the tips of my toes and fingers. I was in flight-mode and instructions saying to stay still and not run away upon meeting a bear did not seem realistically achievable. I certainly wasn’t going to stand there saying hello with a wave…

An anxious walk along the Lower Quartz Trail

An anxious walk along the Lower Quartz Trail

Why was I so worried? This wasn’t like me. Was it because I was with (male) company that I felt a greater excuse to be scared? Or was it because all these warnings increased the expectation of being confronted by a huge animal? It probably didn’t help that my friend, walking behind me, began telling me a story he’d read about a mountain lion leaping from a tree onto a man’s neck in Washington. I laughed sarcastically to suggest I didn’t believe him, all the while glad he was behind so he couldn’t see me scan the trees suspiciously. “I doubt we’ll see one to be honest…” he then said reassuringly, and I felt a little better. “…But if we do and it comes for us, I want you to run away while I distract it.”

I wheeled round and cried for him to stop it, unable to bear the thought (ha). ‘I am never going travelling with a boy again,’ I thought as we carried on up the path, with him now singing a made-up song to a bear in a baritone voice. “Can we turn around now?” I asked a few minutes later. “Are you really that worried?” he asked in surprise. I don’t think I was; I too was starting to believe we wouldn’t see a bear. But the anticipation of doing so was making me skittish, frustrated with the boring trail. “Okay, okay, 10 more ‘hey bears’ and then we’ll head back,” my friend promised. When we got to 10 I turned around and took off running for home, side-stepping tree trunks and skipping roots in the ground. The potential danger had charged me with adrenaline and I felt a mixture of anxiety and excitement as I dashed back along the trail, blood pumping, not looking back. It was a feeling reminiscent of that I’d experienced in BC in 2011. We reached Bowman Lake breathless with fatigue, relief and laughter, and jumped into the glacial lake, fears forgotten in the freezing cold water.

After all the cautions and expectations, we had not seen a grizzly bear. ‘That’s how it always seems to go,’ I thought. Both of us agreed that we probably wouldn’t see one the whole time we were in the park.

Beautiful (but cold!) Bowman Lake - the 3rd largest in Glacier National Park

Beautiful (but cold!) Bowman Lake – the third largest in Glacier National Park

A day later, we had made our way along the incredible Going-to-the-Sun road and stopped to make sandwiches at the quiet picnic area in St. Mary. As I innocently opened the trunk to find the bread, a French lady nearby started gabbling excitedly to her husband and grabbed a camera. Intrigued, we followed her to the edge of the picnic area where a few other people had gathered, whispering giddily. 20 metres away, a small grizzly strolled casually out of a narrow path and ambled past the picnic benches, oblivious to the humans staring at him in fascination. “He looks pretty young…” my friend remarked pointedly, but still people crept out from the bush to take a closer shot as the bear wandered on absent-mindedly into another pathway. Two couples peeped out from the path the bear came from and called over “Has it gone?” French-couple waved them over. “I’m pretty sure it was a cub,” my friend said louder, but again, his hint wasn’t registered. However, it soon became clear the bear was alone, and people went back to eating their sandwiches, as if nothing had happened. Indeed, it was almost as if it was the thousandth one I’d seen; there was no overwhelming rush of fear or excitement as I had expected, perhaps because I had been bracing myself for this moment for a while, and because the sighting had occurred in a more populous area and with less drama than I had anticipated.

"hey bear"

“hey bear”

A few minutes later, we ourselves walked along the very path the bear had emerged from to sit at the edge of St. Mary Lake. Even though there was a fresh pile of bear dung feet away, decorated oh so prettily with huckleberries, I didn’t feel nervous at all, completely unfazed by the possibility that this bear might return the way it had come. Likewise, the first mile of a hike to Otokomi Lake later that afternoon featured bear droppings every 100 metres or so, but still I felt no fear. Finishing the 10 mile-return trail in one piece, I joked light-heartedly, “Calling out ‘hey bear’ probably wasn’t the most sensible phrase to use.” My anxious anticipation had reduced now that I had actually seen the talk-of-the-town for myself.

Definitely makes the 5-a-day of huckleberries...

With this huckleberry consumption, bears definitely makes one of their 5-a-day…

Our sighting was an experience that many tourists diligently prepare for, researching promising time periods of activity and driving themselves to the most recommended locations before spending hours waiting there, all just to catch a glimpse of a grizzly bear. And yet, like forcing oneself to struggle until a math problem is solved or dance routine learned, it seems that trying too hard at sightseeing might even threaten progress. Events happen when you least expect them and are least prepared. It’s easy to get drawn into the hype of potentially seeing a special wild animal in risky circumstances; it’s the expectation created by this hype that can make us more nervous than is perhaps necessary, and subsequently less successful. I feel really lucky to have seen that bear, knowing that many tourists will leave Glacier National Park feeling disappointed about missing out. It almost seems unfair that it happened so easily. Sometimes people simply find themselves in the right place at the right time, and there are no bear necessities when preparing for this type of experience.