What I Learned Working as an Au Pair for a Family in France

I have two expensive interests: I love traveling and learning French. I always expected I’d do more of both after college, but when I graduated during the Great Recession, travel and French seemed unattainable. I stayed in Oakland, Calif. to find work, and when I eventually landed a day job, I began taking night classes in French at the local community college and looking at pictures of Provencal lavender fields on the Internet. Sometimes, fulfilling dreams is about changing the dream.

After two years of night classes, I still hadn’t made much progress. I knew how to introduce myself to a stranger, talk about my favorite colors, and discuss my pets, but I wanted to have a conversation that branched beyond the subjects I talked about when I was in preschool.

So when my mom told me, three years after graduating from college, that the French teacher at the junior high school where she worked knew a family living in the countryside of Burgundy, France, who needed an au pair for the summer, I agreed immediately. (I later learned that there are several free au pair websites, such as www.findaupair.com, if you’re interested in becoming an au pair and do not have personal connections.) I had just finished my first year of graduate school by then and had the summer off, so being an au pair seemed like a good use of that time. It was.

I had to pay for part of my plane ticket, but all expenses were covered upon my arrival. Some au pairs also have their plane ticket expenses fully covered. I received $100 each week in addition to room and board, most of which I spent on train tickets to get away on my one day off each week. I booked two additional weekends in Europe beyond the dates of my employment, so that I could visit Copenhagen and Rome.

I was charged with taking care of three children, ages two, four, and six. They were not the playful moppets that The Sound of Music fantasies are made of. Rather than convert curtains into play clothes and twirl around the countryside eating berries, they elected to make fun of my accent and spit on me during bath time. I worked from morning to night, cooking meals and running baths. Speaking French all day long was great for my language skills, but it left me mentally exhausted. On my one day off each week, I took a train away from Burgundy and ate ice cream on a hill. I did not visit museums or important historical monuments. I just ate dessert and savored the precious children-free hours.

Meanwhile, my French was improving at a breakneck pace. Being an au pair in France turned out to be a pretty affordable way to learn the language. I spent about $600 per year on night classes in French at the community college (about $200 per class), and it cost me about $700 to work as an au pair for the entire summer in France. Even studying abroad in France for a summer might not have been as helpful, since most people living in larger cities speak English fairly well. But in the countryside of Burgundy, almost no one knows English, which forced me to up my game.

Still, there’s a lot I wish I’d known before I signed up for the summer. When I took the kids to the park, for example, I met other au pairs who told me horrors stories about how their employers had decided they no longer needed them, but their plane tickets—too expensive to change—would not let them depart until the dates they’d originally booked. Foreign au pairs don’t tend to have a lot of money, so when they are left without work, there are few options for lodging, food, and transportation.

The family you stay with will make or break your trip. I had it better than most because I had personal connections. I could talk with my mom’s co-worker about the family I was staying with. But it is not uncommon that au pairs are treated badly because there is typically no contract or other agreement to ensure that au pairs are paid fairly and timely. The au pairs I became friends with during park visits repeatedly told me they wished they’d checked reviews on the website they had used to find employment.

Here are a few other things that are helpful to know before becoming an au pair:

1) Study the language for at least a year beforehand. While my French classes weren’t super-enlightening, knowing basic grammar and how to string words together was essential to getting by as an au pair. It’s difficult to make much progress when you have no knowledge of the language and everyone around you is speaking it.

2) Write out your goals. I think this is a good thing to do for most things in life, but it’s really important when you’re about to be an au pair. Some days will probably be terrible—you will probably be lonely, sleep-deprived, and (depending on which country you’re in) potentially living on far less food than you are used to in the United States. I am a fairly small person, and I lost about ten pounds in my first month as an au pair because the portions were much smaller than in my regular diet. So, while crying and hungry in the middle of my trip, I wrote out my goals to learn French and see Europe. I was doing both. Reminding myself of this helped me remember that no matter how tough it could be, I was achieving the things I’d set out to do. Since I rarely get spit on as a graduate student in the States, I knew I could keep holding out to accomplish my dreams. In the end, my trip to France was everything I wanted it to be, and getting through particularly rough days was incredibly worth it.

3) Eat cheese properly. If you stay with a traditional French family who eats typical dinner courses, the last course will be the best. It’s cheese! Most plates will have between three and five cheeses. You will want to try them all, but don’t: it’s considered good manners to taste only four of the five. It’s polite to do so because it shows that you are already somewhat full from dinner. Abide by this rule even if you are not full from dinner. I learned the hard way from the grandfather at the house where I stayed.

4) Say “J’aime bien” instead of “c’est bon” after dinner. In my two years of community college French classes, I hadn’t learned that c’est bon has sexual connotations. The grandfather looked at me questionably whenever I said “c’est bon!” after dinner, and finally, after three weeks, told me to stop. I later looked up the phrase on Urban Dictionary, which helped explain his evening shock at my use of the phrase. The grandfather told me to say “J’aime bien” instead, which can be translated as “I like this.”

While I’m still taking French classes in California to continually improve, I now know enough French to converse with French speakers about subjects far beyond my love for animals and bright colors. I passed my French requirement for my graduate school program, I helped a French couple find the bus in Los Angeles, and I can randomly start talking in French when I am lucky enough to hear strangers speak the language in local coffee shops. My ability to speak French matters to me more than living out a clip from Sound of Music despite how much I’ve always wanted to wear a dress made from curtains.

 

Ashley Champagne lives in California.

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30 Comments / Post A Comment

laluchita (#2,195)

Is it just me, or does this seem like an actually terrible situation? $100 a week, plus a room and not enough food for upwards of 12 hours of work 6 days a week actually seems like sub-minimum wages to me. Is this standard for being an au pair? The idea that you were out $700 after a summer full of 60+ hour a week work is horrifying.

Cup of T (#2,533)

@laluchita It’s not just you- this definitely seems exploitative. I’m shocked to hear that other au pairs were even worse off! Room and board for a 60 hour week works out to pennies on the hour, faaar less than the 10ish Euro/hour I understand babysitters usually get (at least in Paris).

@Cup of T Apparently au pairs in France are required to take a French course (which they pay for) and the family should allow time for this. Also the duties should only add up to about 30 hrs/week and pocket money should equal 75-90 percent of minimum wage, though one website I found said this is about €315/mo which is not even close to 75% of the minimum wage of €1,400/mo, so IDK.

Also the official term is “stagiaire aide familial étranger” which sounds much cooler than “au pair.”

…and the family has to pay €528/mo for social insurance, hah. With that and the pocket money and the food you could easily pay someone minimum wage to work for you full time.

Cup of T (#2,533)

@stuffisthings I wonder if anyone enforces the payment of this social insurance? Also I know that (at least in Paris) you can enrol in free French classes through the mayor’s office… Still the prospect of coming to France legally and having a place to live is probably incentive enough for some people (evidently it was for the original poster!)

ragazza (#4,025)

I would add 5) make sure you LOVE kids, even the annoying ones. This sounds like hell to me, cheese or no cheese.

madrassoup (#929)

@ragazza : Right? Like maybe if I could have ALLL the cheese, but dealing with kids for cheese rations? Non.

cryptolect (#1,135)

For anyone with a year to spare, I would recommend working as an English teaching assistant in the French school system. (Slightly) better pay, (much) shorter hours and a much more official setup. I even have a couple of friends who never left France afterward, if that’s your thing.

Cup of T (#2,533)

@cryptolect Ohh seconded! I did this right after undergrad: I worked at a little school in Alsatian wine country and lived in Strasbourg (I only had to go to the school 3 days a week so it was worth it to live in a place with other people my age). You get all the school holidays (which, it’s France, they’re on holiday a lot) and you have juuust enough money to travel around Europe. You can also do it in France’s overseas territories if you’re looking for a year in the tropics (Reunion, Martinique, Guiana, possibly French Polynesia? Not sure on the last one)

themegnapkin (#444)

@cryptolect I did this too! I was stationed in a town outside of Lyon, where there were a few other foreign language assistants but hardly anybody spoke English. My position provided housing (I was lucky, this isn’t always the case) and a stipend of 600 Euros a month, which was enough for traveling. Highly recommend.

cryptolect (#1,135)

@themegnapkin My roommate was from Argentina and spoke no English. In a way that was ideal: we were forced to communicate in French, and we each talked slowly and simply enough for the other person to understand. We would also teach each other any fun vocab we picked up during the day.

blackframe (#4,802)

@cryptolect (and themegnapkin and Cup of T and anyone else with relevant experience)
Spain has a similar program (right down to the highly variable placements). Were you just being an English-speaking presence, or did you have to plan lessons and so forth? Also, does anyone have favorite English-language teaching materials or activities? Uno? Charades? Is there an activity that is like catnip for kids learning English?

Cup of T (#2,533)

@blackframe It varies widely- I was in a language-intensive secondary school where I would basically just hang out and chat with the (almost fluent) juniors and seniors two days a week, but on the third day I was responsible for teaching several classes of 12 year-olds who were just being exposed to English (and German! Good planning there Alsace) for the first time. The novelty of having a young person/not their teacher was enough to hold the attention of most students. A friend I made while I was there was posted to a high-needs primary school where she was the only English teacher and was expected to plan lessons for a variety of grade levels, while another was basically not needed at her school and rarely went in. We all got paid the same amount. But roll the die! You will definitely come out of the experience with some great stories :)

cryptolect (#1,135)

@blackframe I had to plan lessons pretty much on my own, but I was in a high school and my kids had at least a basic grasp of the language. I remember using lots of pop songs and making the kids write stories about people in my photo album.

ohbailey (#4,812)

@cryptolect i’ve been researching how to get in to programs like these–how did you get started? did you have to go to school first to get certified? i’d appreciate any info you could shoot my way! :)

lizard (#2,615)

what would people think if you were a woman from a poor country and came to america to work for 100 a week?

@lizard *usually* the au pair system is intended for people from developed countries to go to other developed countries to learn the language (e.g. French in the UK, Americans in France). Dunno what the purpose of UK au pairs in the US is…

lizard (#2,615)

@stuffisthings there are a lot of “nannies” from mexico or poor south american countries. they do the same thing plus cleaning and we would be quick to villify this payment

@lizard yeah but au pairs are specific programs with education requirements, usually (see above) — not saying I think it’s a great thing but usually the exploited “nannies” are outside even this minimal legal framework.

sbizzle (#3,196)

I was just thinking about how much of an asshole I was to our au pairs when I was growing up. I used to think they got compensated well: room and board, plus trips with us, a couple hundred dollars a week (in the early ’90s), and my dad was home and helped in the afternoons. But now I’m not so sure it was that great?

Reutlingen (#4,183)

Never heard of number three. I’m French and I eat ALL the cheese.

lbf (#4,805)

@Reutlingen I’m French, I’ve heard of it and I usually disregard it. I’m totes fine with guests eating all of my cheeses, as long as they don’t eat ALL MY CHEESE – if you sample, take sample-size servings.

I think the rule applies in households where they serve shitty cheese. At my table, if you DON’T try my bleu de Termingnon, I’m kind of offended.

Oh, and make sure you don’t cut the cheese like an asshole (taking all the good stuff from the core and leaving the dryer part for the sucker ater you). If you’re not sure which way to cut, ask. We know.

squishycat (#3,000)

@Reutlingen My boyfriend is French, and eats NO cheese, which, yay, more cheese for me! But he also failed to instruct me in any kind of Cheese Etiquette. (Also when I buy cheese it tends to go bad before I can finish it by myself.)

fennel (#2,494)

The grandfather was being hard on you. Maybe it’s not a sign of a wide vocabulary, but it’s completely FINE to say “c’est bon,” which can mean a lot of things in different contexts, including “shut up/please stop explaining, I’ve understood.” It’s not necessarily sexualized at all.

Maybe he thought you were saying “c’est si bon.” That one is a little sexualized, but only because of old song lyrics.

lbf (#4,805)

@fennel “C’est délicieux, douchebag grandpa. Maintenant quitte le staring à mes tits.”

the assistantship program would be better than this time/money wise, but it is not all roses. you can get placed in a village in the middle of nowhere (alone), or a retirement community (raises hand), and things can get lonely. also, my school gave me zero direction when it came to ‘teaching’ my classes of students who pretended or actually couldn’t speak any English. I was lucky to have a fellow assistant to commiserate/travel with, but I’ve met some people who weren’t as lucky.

bacon (#1,500)

I thought all au pairs in France were sexually abused by their host dads? Or at least chased around the table or something? Is this, then, not true?

I was an au pair in Germany after college and a few years of work. It was a bit different–government regulates the “salary” at 260 euro pocket money per month for 30 hours of work per week, and the family pays for your food, lodging, and health insurance. Some families will also pay for a cell phone and language classes, but mine did neither; nor did they pay for my plane ticket, and I don’t think my visa.

I agree that it made my German skills improve immensely, but I also enrolled in a semester’s worth of intensive language courses, and went into it with 4 years of college German. I didn’t get spit on, but I definitely had a few experiences of inadvertently saying something sexual. (See: The time at dinner when I said something about someone coming with me…but you know…”coming” with me. Au pair dad had a nice snicker at that one.) I also found it much more of a challenge to work with the mother than the kids. Their father worked in a different city during the week, and was only home on the weekends, which I always had free.

It all paid off for me in the long-run, in that I got my language skills up to a level that would allow me to sit the language exam for university and I am now doing a masters there. I would definitely recommend it to someone else, but for sure skype at least a few times with the family before you agree to come over and definitely have a contract.

AshleyChampagne (#5,212)

@nevillelongbottom great to hear your story!

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