The law of averages.
Assuming you are not looking through families with the help of an au pair agency, you are going to hear ‘no’ quite often. I started looking for a host family in February, but I didn’t get offered a job until May. It was definitely discouraging at times, but if you keep sending out your application, especially to people whose schedule and offered payment match your desires, you will eventually get offered a job. Generally, I’ve found that I often receive a big batch of no’s until suddenly I’ll get multiple positive responses within short time frame. The law of averages applies to most aspects of life, not just becoming an au pair.
*Pro tip: most families don’t start their search until around a month before their desired start date, so neither should you.
Don’t rush into a contract because you finally got a yes.
DO NOT immediately agree to au pair for a family without looking at the holistic offering. You shouldn’t have to significantly compromise your conditions based on fear of never hearing another positive response. It may feel like beggars can’t be choosers, but you’re not a beggar. You are a professional with needs that must be satisfied.
There is a HUGE difference between a city and a town.
La Ville is a city, where you will probably be able to walk or take a bus/train to wherever you desire to go. Anonymity is easier here because there is a more diverse population. La Campagne (town) means limited public transportation and most people in that town were born and intend to die there. Everyone will know you are foreign, which is awesome if you don’t mind chatting about yourself often with strangers. You will most likely need to drive to get around or out of this town.
You need to be comfortable driving stick.
It is not (as I foolishly thought) something that comes naturally if it’s not how you first learned to drive. People are generally not enthusiastic about your eagerness to learn stick when their child’s lives are at stake. I know it seems quite obvious, but sometimes you (read: I) need a reminder of the obvious.
When European host families ask that the au pair can drive, it is a 97% chance that they are referring to a manual car. When I got accepted into my host family, we chatted casually for a couple of weeks. It was only by chance that they mentioned the “boîte manuelle” in the car maybe 7-10 days before I was set to arrive in France. I had never driven stick, but I’d seen my dad do it a couple of years ago so I thought I could pick it up on the fly.
I did drive a stick shift twice or thrice before arriving in France, but that was not nearly enough practice. I should also add that I only practiced in a flat church parking lot.
Smash cut to: I get off the plane and am greeted by my host family.
Host Dad: You’re all set to drive right?
Me: Excuse me?
Host Dad: You know how to drive?
Me: Yea, it was part of my contract after all! *chuckles, finger guns*
Host Dad: Great! We’ll pick up your car from the mechanic and you’ll drive it home.
Do you know what I didn’t think of when practicing stick shift? The fact that the French region I would be in was incredibly mountainous. Everything was going fine until we came across a very steep hill with a traffic light at the peak. As per the laws of nature, it turned red as we approached. There were two cars in front of me and one car behind.
As the light turned green the two cars, one being my hosts, effortlessly pulled away. I stalled. I tried again and stalled again. This happened innumerable times and before long there was a line behind me. People began to pass me and scream profanities out of their window. I truly don’t know what I did differently, but eventually I was able to pull forward and I continued the rest of the journey shaking.
If you will need to drive, please be comfortable driving stick before you go to Europe.
You can’t ever fully prepare for culture shock.
I was quite confident that I had done enough research about French culture that there would be nothing left to surprise me. I was incredibly wrong. There is an overall cavalier-ness to French speech that can only be conveyed through long(ish) term experience.
None of the reading I did or even speaking to my French friends even came close to hinting at some of the nuances I would face. I would discuss them here, but honestly I’d be unable to properly articulate my experiences. Furthermore, any cultural information you learn from consuming media, does not generally account for the behavior in whatever region of France you’ll be going to, unless it is deliberately specific.
In addition, there is something starkly different about living under someone else’s roof 24/7 as an au pair. There is no hiding or relief because you now must acclimate to their style of living and their “weird” habits. For me this was the biggest adjustment to make. One never realizes how some mundane task, such as washing the dishes, can actually be a point of injury in a relationship.
For instance, I have always used the rough side of a sponge to clean dishes, whereas my host parents used the soft side. Each time I did the dishes, I got remarks about it. The remarks weren’t mean at all, but being chirped at for something so menial actually wore me out on tougher days.
Don’t be afraid to find a new family.
Especially once you are in the desired country, it is exponentially easier to get a host family, because they don’t have to deal with flying you out or visa applications. I would imagine this is akin to a divorce. All your clothes are in the closet, how could you possibly leave?! I promise it is exponentially better for all parties to live and work under the same roof with someone who fits.
After 9 days of giving it our all, my hosts and I somewhat mutually decided it was best if I go. At first I was reluctant to leave them, but when I au paired with my second family, I could immediately feel the difference. The au pair experience was aggressively better once I found the family that fit for me.
*Pro tip: Families are more responsive in Facebook groups than on official websites in the event you need a quick turnaround.