A couple of years ago, I spent five weeks living with a family of strangers au pairing in Northern Italy.
You might be thinking, what on earth is an au pair?
An au pair is basically a full time nanny that goes to a different country to live with a family and babysits their children, teaches english, and helps around at the house in exchange for a free place to stay, food, and sometimes a small stipend. The main idea of it is based off cultural exchange, since both you and the family are getting exposed to each other’s culture and learning from the other.
It sounded like the coolest thing ever to me. I love children and love being immersed in different cultures. I was going to Italy to do a month long study abroad program, but really wanted to stay in Europe for longer. I didn’t have the means to backpack for a long period of time after, so staying to “work” for an extra month and some time was the perfect plan.
I easily found a family through aupairworld.net. It’s a website that matches you with different families and can message and Skype them to see if you would both be a good fit for each other.
The family I chose lived in Rovereto, Italy, a small town close to the Austrian border surrounded by the Alps. They had two girls – one of them age 10, the other age 12. The mother owned a children’s clothing store in the middle of the small town and the father worked nights as a security guard and was also a professional body builder on the National Bodybuilding team of Italy. He had the biggest muscles I’ve ever seen and pretty much ate only chicken and egg whites.
I didn’t really know what to expect when I first came to live with them. From what we had discussed, I was only expected to teach the girls English and basically spend a fun summer with them doing various activities.
However, being completely new to their city and not being able to speak the language proved harder than I thought it would be. I felt really lost in what I was supposed to do all day. I wanted to take the girls on adventures around the city, but it’s hard to know what to do when you’re in an unfamiliar place and the girls weren’t much help.
The girls ended up watching a lot of TV on Italian Disney Channel and the mother always encouraged us to play more, but everything I offered to them, they refused and wanted to watch TV instead.
I taught them daily english lessons, but they were very stubborn to do that as well and it was very hard to get them excited and engaged.
The mother always cooked food for us, she didn’t allow me to cook for them. I expected the Italian food to be delicious, but the mother basically cooked about four things and that’s it. Peas with eggs, pasta or rice with tuna, and piadinas which is basically a cross between a sandwich and a quesadilla.
It was also really hard to be included in conversation because when you can’t understand anything anyone is saying, you can’t really contribute to conversation. The younger girl spoke pretty good english, but the older one barely spoke any, and being sisters, they chatted in Italian all day long and I couldn’t chime in.
I definitely felt out of my comfort zone and was finding that the language barrier made it hard to connect. I felt very purposeless and essentially like I was living someone else’s life.
I kept thinking, what am I doing here? Why aren’t I at home with my own family? It was a very strange feeling to experience and live someone else’s life.
As the weeks went on, it became easier and I was starting to learn the different personalities of the girls more and what worked and didn’t work.
A big breakthrough happened when we decided to put on plays for their family. I came up with the idea since our days were so boring and I hated just sitting inside all day on their couch watching Hannah Montana in Italian.
The girls loved performing and were very into dance so they owned a lot of various costumes. We started creating stories and building little shows to show their family at the end of the day. We had so much fun picking out costumes, dressing up, and collaborating on how the order of the show would go, and what acts we would do.
It was the perfect way to bridge the gap of our language barrier and connected us in a fun and productive way.
Yet again, it proved that theater and sharing stories give people a common language and understanding and fosters what we all crave most: connection.
At the end of my five weeks, I was sad to go, but definitely thought I would never au pair again. I craved more independence and didn’t like that I was stuck inside the confines of their own home and had to do whatever they wanted to do.
Reflecting back on the experience almost 3 years later, I am so grateful I pushed myself out of my comfort zone in this way. I learned how to not rely on language to communicate. I learned how to feel comfortable in the uncomfortable. I learned that Italians use the word “strabella” to describe everything, which means “how beautiful”.
How beautiful, indeed.
Now, I’d love to au pair again and this time really discern what the family expects out of me and what I expect out of them. It’s the perfect way to work on a language skill and find a family out of strangers.