Saturday, November 6, 2010

The Pre-Au Pair Guide

Maybe it’s something in the air. Maybe it’s the economy. Maybe it was the 10 page NY Times article on the 20-Somethings and our delay into adulthood; or maybe, just maybe, the itch has spread for some adventure, for travel, for a new experience away from a desk job. And this is why: Lately, I've been receiving a good amount of emails asking for advice by prospective au pairs. Why they deemed it a good idea to come to me for advice, I'm still wondering myself because even as Keith over at Taste of Garlic commented, "if you are thinking about becoming an au pair in France, it might be better if you don’t read The Au Pair Project until you’ve got the job!"

But hold on, let's not panic. I can switch gears and speak unbiased. No heavy lifting, no assembly required. I can even leave my resentment at the door and refrain from offering prospective au pairs my job here so I can return to the smoke-free skies of California. Did I mention that France is setting cars on fire while rioting and striking through the streets? So, just for the hell of it, for the sake of honesty, because I wish someone would've been honest with me, I’ll lay the cards out on the table.

Et bien... So you want to be an au pair? Really? No, but like really? You’re sure? You've put some thought into this? I admire your vigilance and possibly question your sanity, but okay. So what was it that lured you in? The travel? Let me guess, you love kids and you want to work with children one day? Or is it that the Au Pair Route is the easiest route to land yourself in a foreign country without completely draining your bank account? If it’s the travel, then wait. Save up and just travel. If it’s the love of children, then wait; this could (and most likely will) change your views. If it’s the latter, well then okay. Top sites for searching for a host family: There are beaucoup de sites out there for au pairs, but after talking with families and au pairs here in France, Au Pair World is the most widely used. Some sites advise that you use an agency, but I say skip it. Take that $200 fee that they will charge you and put it in your savings because once you find out your au pair salary, you'll need it. It's also You, who has your best interests at heart; not an agency. But if you're still hellbent on having someone do it for you, I'd be happy to search for you in exchange for a fee!

  • When Searching for a Family: Let me demystify the Au Pair/Host Family vocabulary for you. Just outside of the city means: at least 30 minutes and unless you're in Paris, the public transport (aka the buses) end at an obscenely early time (even on the weekends) and aren't always dependable. Go ahead, ask my mom about the time I called her fed up because the bus to take me home never showed up and it was snowing and I had to hitchhike at 11 at night. Oh, the good ol' days. In short, be INSIDE of the city. Yes, families do exist there. The kids eat lunch at home means: find a different family because there goes your free time during the day. Pets mean: they will also, most likely become your responsibility. Just ask my friend Ife who lived on a farm with 3 donkeys, 2 dogs, x amount of birds, chickens, geese, cats, and this doesn't even count the stuffed animals that they kept inside of the house. And then there was the time that I lived with the American family that asked me to clean the cat's litter box. It's too bad I'm allergic. But more truthfully, I'm just allergic to all things that I don't like. Part of the family means: we want to feel comfortable enough with you to ask you favors without having to pay you extra--like we would with an eldest daughter. Strong willed means: means that you never want to hear or read this from a parent who is describing their child(ren). This is also courtesy of my friend Clare and well, let's just say that the boy she cares for is so strong willed that she is thinking about moving back to Australia. Clare?
  • Step II: You found a family. It's time to ask questions; be a curious yellow because well, you never know. Let me just remind you that you're giving up the familiar to move to a foreign country and work in a home of strangers. Let me remind you that ASSUME makes an ASS out of U and ME, but mostly, just you. Let me remind you of the family I came here for that served me up full of creme-fraiche and bacon, forcing me to use my modest stipend to pay for my daily serving of vegetables. But which questions do I ask? If you stay in the house with the rest of the family or if your room is separate. Do you have your own room? Do you have your own bathroom? Is there a closet for you to put your things? (Like I said, don't assume). Who does the house-keeping (because keep in mind you take care of kids, not the housework)? Who does the grocery shopping? Do you have a curfew? Do you have weekends free? Are you able to go out some nights during the week? What are your hours (Ask for a schedule!!)? Do the kids eat lunch at school or at home? Do you have Wednesdays off or do you babysit? (Remember that French children don't have school Wednesdays) Who does the cooking? How have the children reacted to previous au pairs? Can you contact the previous au pair? Do they draft up an au pair contract? Will you be covered by Securite-Sociale? If you don't live in the city, is there a car for your personal use? Are you expected to drive the children places? etc, etc, etc... The main idea is this: You need to have a clear sense of your role and responsibilities. Furthermore, each party should have a well-defined understanding of each person's needs because then, everyone is happy!
  • And as if you thought I forgot, ask about your salary. You can negotiate your salary. There is a minimum pay if they sign a contract with you (which should be required) of 300 euros a month, but if you settle on this, you might end up resentful when you realize what your job entails. A girl emailed me that a family wanted to hire her and just offer her room and board without pay. I told her to run away! The truth is this: People will give the least they can and take the most offered. It's basic human instinct and to heighten this theory, it's France. The country that gets a minimum, a minimum I tell you, of five weeks of holidays, but is outside rioting over retirement age. Remember the family I worked with for 3 months and was paid nothing? Do what I say, not what I do.
  • To supplement your oh-so-generous salary, you can advertise private tutoring or English lessons at your local school, local boulangerie, patisserie, market, etc. Just make sure to ask the owner if it's okay to post your advertisement.
  • Language Courses: The chances of finding a family that's willing to pay for your language classes is slim to none because the au pair sites tell them that they don't have to, which I think is pretty sneaky because with language classes that cost an average of 220 per month, you will end up with next to nothing for salary. Let's pretend you make 300 a month and you pay 220 to your language courses, which are required for your visa. Let's also pretend that you pay for your own transportation pass (which the family should pay for) and that's 25 euros with the student rate. Now you're left with 55 euros per month? That's not even 2 euros a day. You've now become on of those children on the donation commercials that are able to subside on next to nothing. Congratulations. But you want to take the language classes, I tell you!! It's time away from the house where you'll meet tons of people including other au pairs and hopefully, make some lasting friendships. If you're really really really "dans le rouge" and the thought of paying this fee every month is stopping you from taking the au pair plunge, then I will underhandedly inform you that if you stop taking language courses after the first month, the French government (or anyone for that matter) is not going to come check up on you. France is too occupied with strikes.  
  • A great reminder that came from a fellow Au Pair Clare, is to pay for your language classes in bulk, which usually results in a discount. And don't forget to enroll for the au pair language program. It's cheaper than the programs for other students.
  • Go meet some people, make some friends and get yourself away from the G-rated crowd once in a while! I can say with certainty and gratitude that maintaining my friendships has helped me to maintain my sanity. Aside from your language school, use It's pretty widely used here, according to others. Take an activity class like dance, singing, karate, n'importe quoi! And then, while you're at it, join Yes, it's the French version of So, what?! Everyone deserves a little "action".
Fact: If I had to do it all over again, I don't know if I would choose the Au Pair Route. I might seek other options like being a teacher's assistant or teaching English, but learn and live, right?! But it's also true that there are au pairs who love every minute of their experience. Lucky ones that end up with great families, their own apartment paired with a kick ass schedule. It also goes in reverse: there are families who end up with terrible au pairs. It all comes down to finding the right fit, which is why it is so so so important to ask questions and get to know each other. It's important.

Fact: I love living in France (yes, even with the riots, the manifestations, the lack of petrol because of the riots, and the worst customer service imaginable). I really do love this country. I love the language, the cafes, the culture, the flan, the way of life, oh the flan! I'm in love.

Fact: I also love my independence. Since I became an au pair, I haven't seen much of it. I miss going and coming when I want; oh what a beauty it was to have my own apartment. I miss not having to report to anyone on my whereabouts and I miss not having a curfew, but hey, 26 with a curfew isn't unreasonable, right?! Moving on...

Fact: I complain, I know, but the truth is that the travel aspect of this job that comes every six weeks (because French school systems break every six weeks) makes every part of this job worth it. I think I forget this sometimes, (these last couple of weeks especially). Without this experience, I probably wouldn't have had the opportunity to gallop and sashay my way around Europe; to get lost in the streets of Cannes or salsa my way through Barcelona; tan myself nude on the beaches of Croatia; hike the canyons of Casis; road trip through France or regret making out with the way-too-young-for-me med-student in Dubrovnik. I earn next to nothing but have gained so many experiences and stories. Traveling changes the soul. It changes one's outlook and opens the eyes to things you've only imagined. It's quite magnificent and for that, I'm grateful.
So, if taking the plunge as an au pair seems manageable, then take the jump. It could be something really fantastic. Bon Courage future au pairs!!

**Updated Nov. 9, 2010, because I care. 


  1. Hi Lauren

    Great article!

    I was only sort of joking when I warned prospective au-pairs from reading your blog (I think?)

    Glad to hear you're still in love with France - that never goes away (or, at least, it hasn't for me.

    Have to admit that I haven't, so far, got round to...

    "...sashay my way around Europe; to get lost in the streets of Cannes or salsa my way through Barcelona; tan myself nude on the beaches of Croatia; hike the canyons of Casis; road trip through France or regret making out with the way-too-young-for-me med-student in Dubrovnik."

    But.. give me time!

    All the best


    P.S. Did you mention the bits about... making out with the way-too-young-for-you med-student in Dubrovnik and tanning yourself nude on the beaches of Croatia in your blog? If so, I must have missed those bits - and that's not at all like me!

    P.P.S. Do your parents read your blog - just asking?

  2. Yes, what is this about this boy in Dubrovnik? You are withholding from me and I am hurt. ;) This is a great post for anyone considering being an au pair. I do not fall into this category, but I still love your humor. I miss you!

  3. 1. I'm pretty sure I got bored at the end of my Croatia trip and I thought he was 29. He definitely wasn't. THat's when it ended.

    2. Yes, I think my parents do read my blog! Maybe I should be more discreet ;)

  4. Yes, parents read this with great enthusiasm. Great article, kid. LOVE YOU. Dad

  5. LOL Lauren - great one! Could be turned into a thesis.

    I reckon (@ future au pairs) that you only need to enroll at a lanaguage course (you could do a month's worth of lessons say) and then drop out - no one is likely to check up on you if you don't want to pay or do the language classes. ALSO, enroll as an 'au pair' in you language school coz you get a discounted price. AND if you have some money buy 2 semesters worth of classes at once (mine cost 1500 euro for 8 months of lessons) which is also a saving.

    Don't look after strong-willed children - very correct! But French children are different from anglo-children as children are different in every culture. Start building your fortress' in your eyes, ears and hearts NOW!

    Lot's of people use 'meet-up' to get in touch with people when you are first lonely in a new city/town to make friends.

    If you want to supliment your wage become a private language tutor and charge around 10 - 15 euro' an hour.

    The alternative to becoming an au pair to live cheaply in France is to become a Language Assistant in a school. Check your embassies websites there are links to how to apply for the program etc..

    Bon courage!


    PS LAUREN what you doing this weekend? xxxxxx

  6. I am also an au pair but I have been on the semi-lucky end and have a pretty good family with decent kids. I do however live "just outside the city" which means I live a 15 minute bus ride past the last train station and the buses don't run past 7pm on weekends and 8pm on week nights and there is nothing more than a Carrefour (walmart) in my town which is closed by 9:30pm so my week days are spent pretty low key so its true what she says about being just outside the city, don't do it unless you like the peace and quiet of nothingness.
    Also, my language classes cost 1400 euros for 10 months and that is about 2000 us dollars so yes, beware if you are on a tight budget.
    Great post, even though I have had a completely different experience from you, Lauren, I agree with nearly everything you have written because I have either experienced it on a smaller scale or heard about someone who has experienced it. I will be recommending people read this blog because I, too, have received questions about being an au pair as well!!! Good luck!!!

  7. Hey Lauren!

    As one of those few individuals that Lauren has so kindly provided au pairing details to via email (it's psaran6 here), I'm thrilled to see alot of this honest information on your blog and I'm sure it will be useful for many people.

    p.s. I immigrated to London and accidentally made out with a teenager. It happens to the best of us. ;)

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