Whether you want to do something meaningful during your gap year, are trying to learn French or you want to immerse yourself in a new culture whilst also forging lifelong relationships, being an Au Pair is an incredible experience.
But before you start, there are some things you need to know and some questions you need to ask.
1. You should use a reputable agency
There are numerous websites out there on the internet, but I would recommend going with a well-known reputable agency, such as GreatAuPair or AuPairWorld.
It isn’t necessary to pay fees for all the sites, but you may find that you have greater peace of mind and feel more comfortable with an agency that you pay for. That being said, be careful not to get ripped off. You shouldn’t have to pay more than €33 for any agency and it isn’t obligatory; for example, AuPairWorld is the most commonly-used site and it’s free.
When browsing the websites, make sure to use the filters to find families suited to your criteria.
For example, some jobs require you to have a driving license and the ability to drive in France and some will require you to have a certain level of French.
Think about what you want – do you want to live in a big city or the countryside? Do you want to look after babies, toddlers, or older children? How many hours are you prepared to do a week? All of these factors are listed on host families’ pages on these websites and you should think carefully before choosing a family, which brings me to my next tip…
2. Ask lots of questions in your interview
Once you’ve selected your family and set up an interview, use this as an opportunity to ask as many questions as possible.
Remember, you’re going to be spending the majority of your time with these people, maybe even living in their house and they need you more than you need them, so you can be picky with your selection. Use this interview as a chance to interrogate the people you’re going to be working with.
Try to get a sense of their personalities, hobbies, and interests as well as their typical routine and the parents’ careers.
It isn’t uncommon in France, particularly in cities like Paris, for the parents to go to work early in the morning and then return home at 8 or 9pm, so expect to work evenings, early mornings and even weekends, depending on their jobs. I work for two Air Traffic Controllers who don’t work conventional hours so I often work until 9pm or even in the middle of the day to have lunch with the kids.
Once you’ve got a sense of their routine and what your job entails, do be sure to set boundaries.
An Au Pair should not be cooking meals for the whole family or cleaning the house. Establish what the parents’ priorities are – most parents want an Au Pair to teach their children English, to tutor them, and to accompany them to school or other activities when they are working.
If there is any mention of “small household tasks”, this is a red flag. I know of multiple Au Pairs who were told that and ended up ironing, washing clothes, and cooking for the whole family.
If possible, get to know the kids before you start working. You want to know who you’re going to be taking care of and small children are notoriously difficult to look after but at the same time, it can be an extremely rewarding job getting to witness their first words, steps, or other milestones.
3. Consider learning a bit of French slang
Even if you have absolutely no knowledge of French before starting as an Au Pair, I assure you that this won’t be the case by the time you leave.
You’re going to be immersed in a French-speaking country with French speakers and living with French people. You’ll quickly pick up the argot (slang) spoken by the youngsters after spending time with French teenagers or children.
Even though your main goal is to teach English to the kids, they’re sure to speak French when you’re around so it could be useful to inform yourself of some of the most commonly used words to ensure that you always know what’s going on and so you can stay in control of all situations.
Living with a French family has taught me all the things textbooks never could, notably the argot words, including verlan (which is a dialect spoken by the French youth that involves reversing words eg meuf = femme).
Some of the most useful slang terms you might benefit from knowing include:
Bouffer – to eat
Un truc – a thing
Un type/un mec – a guy
C’est nul – that sucks!
Nickel! – perfect
T’inquiète – don’t worry!
C’est n’importe quoi – it’s nonsense
4. You get lots of freebies!
Along with being provided with accommodation, French law stipulates that Au Pairs are also provided with meals and a salary (often referred to as pocket money) that depends on the number of hours worked.
You’re also entitled to access to the public healthcare system in France. If you’re an Au Pair in Paris, you’ll most likely work for a middle-class family that only eats organic (bio) food, so you’re guaranteed to eat well and try new foods during your stay – and all for free!
Also, if you live in a big city like Paris, you’ll probably be provided with a Navigo pass, which is a travel pass that enables you to travel all across the region of Ile-de-France.
Sometimes, your host family will even pay for your travel costs to go back home, and you’re entitled to at least two weeks of holidays per year. If you’re really lucky, you may be invited on holiday with your host family for free in exchange for helping take care of the kids.
5. It can be beneficial to join an Au Pair Facebook page
Chances are that at some point during your stay you’ll get homesick or feel lonely, and what better thing to do than join a group online full of other Au Pairs in the same situation who understand exactly how you feel?
There are tonnes of groups on Facebook full of people from around the world (I’ve made friends with two Americans, an Austrian, and a Thai girl from Au Pair pages).
You’ll broaden your horizons and be able to make lifelong friends from around the world. You’ll probably have lots of spare time during the day whilst the kids are at school, which is the perfect time to meet for a coffee with a fellow Au Pair.
6. Your Au Pair Family is essentially your second family
Your host family is there for you in any situation, whether it’s crossing the minefield that we call French Bureaucracy, or you need to see a doctor, or you need a shoulder to cry on.
Make the most of having them there and don’t be afraid to open up to them if you have any problems. The chances are that you’re as close as a family, sometimes even too close as you’ll witness marital problems, sibling rivalry, and family disputes.
7. It will be the best decision you ever make!
If you have chosen your host family wisely and immersed yourself in French life, being an Au Pair will be the best decision you ever make.
Not only are you being provided with free food and accommodation, but you’re also learning skills that will set you up for life and forming lifelong bonds. It looks great on your CV and your French will improve much more than it ever could with any textbook.
Isabella, 20, has been living in Paris as an Au Pair for two years while studying French and International Relations.