This past May, I graduated from college. With my bags packed, I was off to teach a 14-year-old English in the Italian countryside. To me it sounded like a dream after graduation: live rent free in Italy for the summer before figuring out life or perhaps figure out life in Italy. At any rate, the dream turned into much more of a privacy nightmare.
I am no stranger to living with Italian families. I lived in Sorrento with a family of four women when I was just 18. By 20, I lived with an elderly Florentine couple for an entire semester. I knew what it was like to live in the home of a culture I did not share. Things could always be somewhat kooky. Sharing a bathroom with 70 year olds was challenging at times and having to eat three-hour dinners with chatty Italian women tried my patience on more fatiguing days, but I always had a door.
I never realized just how important a door is. Think about it. The times you want to get away from roommates, parents, friends, you may crave that personal space which normally has a door. That blockade is ever important towards sanity. Now imagine not having that door while living in a foreign country. Could you live without it?
This Italian family lived in the boonies of Italy, somewhere I imagine similar to living in rural Kansas. I apologize to Kansas’s rural locals. I was told they lived in a bigger town near Bologna. Not the case. Next, I was assured I had a private bedroom and bathroom. Not the case. The bedroom resembled a hallway, connecting the office and daughter’s room with the family walking in and out of my room at all hours of the day and night. There was no door. The most privacy I had came for those precious five minutes in the shower. On top of everything, I had nothing to do. The family did not want me to start teaching for a month into my stay, so I spent my few days there in not so splendid isolation reading my trashy airplane book I did not plan on looking at post flight.
I do not mean to sound naïve, picky or like a bambina, but I would not want another soon to be au pair to make a commitment in a foreign country without asking their host family some important questions. I have heard countless stories of the situation working and being a dream. On the other hand, I have been told stories of bags being packed and heading home within days of arriving. Here are my top four questions to ask your potential family in order to avoid the latter scenario.
1. What will the payment be? This tends to be an important topic. It can be a slippery slope with not wanting to offend a potential employer, let alone offend another culture. However, it is important to organize how much you will make, what day of the week you will be paid, and other services such as meals and rent that will be provided to you.
2. What will my accommodations be and can I see photos? This question haunts me to this day. If I had seen a photo of my accommodations before departing, I probably would have never agreed. It may be asking a lot of the family, but if you approach the question in a professional manner, there should be no issues. Gauge the family’s honesty with the accommodations as well. If they say you will have a private bedroom and bathroom, ask for their definition, its position in the house and most importantly, does the room have a door? Well I may be joking about this question but you never know.
3. What will my daily schedule be? I could not get over the fact that this family had nothing for me to do when I arrived. Ask for a specific detailed daily schedule of what hours you will be teaching, when you will have days off, and any family vacation days. Make sure to know your days off. My family was extremely vague as to which days I would be working and when. Know your days off and stick to them to ensure the family does not give you a response of “Well you can ask me what days you want free.” Days off and vacation time should be set in cobblestone.
4. Where exactly do you live and how can I get around? It is important to know where you will be living, a good or bad part of town, in the middle of nowhere or right in the middle of a city. Ask where specifically the home is and how often public transportation runs nearby. Those respites from teaching and getting out of the family home will become necessary and if there is no transportation to do so, you will be stuck. My situation allotted for either a deathtrap of a bike ride into town along what seemed like a German autobahn or a bus that ran every three hours just on weekdays.
Please share your stories if you had a good or bad experience being an au pair in the comment box. I would love to hear about others not having doors or better yet developing lifelong friendships with families around the world after their au pair experience.