A Swiss in the UK

Thinking about moving abroad? I was born in Switzerland and settled down in UK nearly three years ago. I got my first job and moved in my first flat within just over a year. There have been quite a few steps for me to take in order to achieve this; this is my experience as an expat, share yours with us here!

01 June 2006

Au pair - best practice

Far from being an exhaustive list, here are a few tips I can give about being an au pair, as far as my experience allows me to speak. This is not legal advice, but only things that made my stay easier when I understood them, sometimes too late:

1. Be yourself

I can hear you say "Yeah, right, I know that, thank you very much", but this is very important, so at risk of sounding silly, remember that you are here to get some experience, and that you don't necessarily have to cope with family problems, weird habits or extreme behaviour. In other words, you are already going through a lot of changes in your life: you have to adapt to another culture, climate, family, diet, language and/or loads of other, we agree on this; but you don't have to take on the role of therapist, mum or dad, slave or doctor. Of course, make sure you respect the family you work for, but also that every one of them respects you too.
Remember that your background and culture can also be a great benefit to the family you live with, and don't be afraid of introducing to them new ideas, food tips, sport or anything you think might interest them; it goes without saying that providing them with a four pages leaflet on how to roll up a joint might not be the best idea.

2. Speak your mind out

Whether it's because you have a problem to solve back home or broken the land lady's favourite china dish, say it. I believe that most conflicts starts with misunderstanding and hidden secrets. If you do something wrong, they'll discover it anyway, but saying it before they notice by themselves will help preserve mutual confidence, which is your most precious tool for ensuring you a better stay. If you lose their confidence, you might as well thank them very much for the experience, pack up your things and leave.
Shouting at the kids is not part of speaking up your mind; letting them know they have done something wrong and why it is wrong is speaking your mind out.
You are given responsibility for the children's security and well behaviour, so make sure they go to bed on time and get ready for school, but conform to the parents' directions and principles: don't be the parents though, as this might create very awkward situations.

3. Go out and about

There is absolutely no point staying in your bedroom when you have free time. You can do your bed time reading when it's bed time, and watch a DVD when you have to stay in. Believe me, it happens more often than you might think before being there. At least it did happen quite a lot for me.
Make sure you get home on time if you go out, and if you can't make it for serious reasons, give them a ring. After all, you can't be responsible for a late train. Make sure it doesn't happen too often, and have a very good reason for being late for appointments.
The more you go out, the more you learn about local culture. Meet as many people as you can: they'll be able to help you move on, in some circumstances (see point 7), give you advice about day to day issues, and give you support. Being a foreigner is not easy, and it takes time to create a network, but the earlier you do it, the easier. Don't leave it till later. Start going out at the first occasion, and make sure you create contacts.

4. Remain positive

Don't despair, ring up your family and friends as often as you can or feel like it, but make sure you keep a positive mood. And keep a smile on your face; after all, you decided to make this experience, the members of the family you work for won't be too pleased about seeing a grumpy face. I'm not saying you can be happy as Harry all the time, but show them some gratitude in being cheerful.
Avoid looking like a battered dog in the morning; for example, if you can't cope with it, don't go out till too late, and avoid greeting the family or getting the kids ready for school with a drunken face and heavy breath on a Monday morning (or any day of the week, for that matters).

5. Learn when to shut up

Don't speak too much about where and with whom you live. People talk a lot, everything you say will be known around the town. Especially if you tend to speak a bit too much when you're down the pub, for example. This can lead you to tricky situations... It is wise to keep quiet about the family's secrets, if you get to know them. Don't bring anyone home without the family's permission, or you might find yourself booking your flight ticket back home.

6. Learn

Learn as much as you can. After all, this is the whole point of the process: I assume your life-time ambition is beyond cleaning other people's bathroom and look after their kids; of course, if like me you have to learn a foreign language, make sure you have time in the week to attend language courses; you are entitled to it, and might even be lucky enough to have it payed for. Learn all you can about anything you can think of, read papers and watch the news: this will of course ensure you keep up to date with the rest of the "outside" world, but also allow you to keep a firm grip on planning what to do next.
All you learn while being an au pair is of course part of the experience, so make sure you make the most of it.

7. Move on

Keep in mind why you are doing this, and how you want to make things happen for the future. Make sure you know what you want to do afterwards, and have an idea how long you want to be an au pair for. I was actually very lucky myself with the transition, but I could have had to go back home without achieving anything if I hadn't be lucky enough to meet the right people. For example, I know people who have been able to work part time in other places while being an au pair.
Keep an eye on any opportunity that come across your way, as they might me your chance to move on to more exciting things, whether you decide to stay abroad or go back home.


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