When I got off the plane four years ago in Berlin, I was carrying a pocket German-English dictionary and a couple hundred dollars in cash. It was early September—a one-way trip—and I’d packed light.
“I’ll run out of money; I’ll have a nervous breakdown and be back before November”, I thought, and pulled my parka back out of my suitcase.
If you’re young and dumb (under 26) you can become an au pair in Germany. If you don’t mind that the potential for exploitation is really high and the entire au pair scheme is a weird, paternalist way of prepping (mostly) young women for a life of housework and child-rearing rather than preparing them for the workforce, then it’s a pretty okay way to get far away for a long while.
Here’s the set-up: Did you know that Germany has a special visa just for au pairs? I found a family who wanted me to be their au pair the same way I found my ex-girlfriend: I made a profile on a website, uploaded two photos, and offered to Skype. Then, I moved in.
You get a special stamp in your passport that says you’re going to take care of some kids. In return, the parents are going to provide you with housing, health insurance, money for public transit (or keys to their car), language courses, and some pocket money. The same stamp forbids you from working over a certain number of hours per week or doing “heavy” housework, which is genuinely sweet, until you try whispering “but… that… isn’t in my contract” for the first time when you’re asked to comb the lice, one by one, out of Brunhilde’s pigtails.
I planned on staying out of the U.S. and avoiding for as long as possible the fact that I was 24, had no marketable skills (critical thinking! correctly formatting citations! problematizing!), and was only qualified to do the same job I’d been doing since I was 12. I wanted to go back to school, but I wasn’t going to get funding for a Ph.D. and wasn’t about to take an $80,000 loan out for an M.A. So, I threw some seasonally inappropriate clothes in a bag and got on a flight that connected through Dusseldorf. That was four years ago.
This is what I learned during my first week as an au pair: Rents in Berlin are (still) affordable. The health insurance is magic (limited dental, but still). The public universities are state-subsidized and (nearly) free: if I wanted to go get my master’s, my new host mother explained, I could go do that. All I had to do was learn German—really learn it—classes were in German. All I had to do in order to learn German was stay.
I was an au pair for sixteen months. The first six months, I went to intensive German lessons every morning from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.The courses cost 100 euros a month, which my host family paid for. I, as promised, kept their children alive and happy, and speaking English. I helped get them ready for school in the morning, and I worked after my lessons were done from 3 p.m. until bedtime.
I moved into a new German language class each month, and started taking classes two or three times a week after six months of non-stop everyday der, die, das. I was having basic conversations by the fourth month (I could talk about myself without interruption and answer basic questions as long as they were repeated at least three times). I was reading Harry Potter und der Stein der Weisen by the eighth.
The au pair life ranged from completely fine (afternoons on the playground) and sometimes very good (on December 6th the Christmas Man visits all the good German little children and their au pairs in the night and fills their cleanest shoes with nuts and chocolates), to crying silently on the toilet and getting treated for stomach ulcers. “What did you say you do for work again?” the gastroenterologist asked after the second gastroscopy.
I left my first host family after five months and was placed with a new family, where I didn’t have to comb lice out of anyone’s hair, and things improved. I played a lot of Jenga and read a lot of books to the older children and sang to their baby. When the baby got a little older and started full-day pre-school, I cried, because I had gotten attached.
After a year I started watching the nightly news in German; I took a two-week vacation and went to the Black Forest to work for a cheesemaker who spoke no English. I sold slices of stinky Bergkäse off of their porch and learned the German words for phrases like ‘to vacuum pack’.
After being an au pair, it was possible to transition briefly to a new kind of visa, one for people who want to be students at German universities, but who have to pass a language exam first and aren’t quite there yet. It was three or four months of, “Am I really doing this? Why am I doing this?” I took a three-week prep class to prepare for the big, bad language exam, but I spent most of my free time studying at the library, reading newspapers and photocopying old exams to work through. When I wasn’t studying, I babysat.
And here I am now, finishing up my master’s degree in Gender Studies (not that German captains of industry are racing out into the street to find overeducated feminists with which to staff their offices). I’m still probably never getting a job. But I spent two years joyously reading and learning and fighting with classmates about ideas. By the time my program began, my German was good enough that it didn’t matter what language I was arguing about feminist theory in. Half of my courses ended up being in English anyway. By the time I am finished, this romp through the German higher education system will have cost me just over one thousand euros in tuition.
One. Thousand. As in, less than 5% of the festering pile of student loan debt from my B.A. Why would I want to leave America for Germany, people ask, and I explain how much it would have cost to pursue a graduate degree at home; how I like walking home from the U-bahn at night knowing exactly how restrictive the gun laws are here; how nice it is to know that I’m not going to get a bill in the mail a year and a half after going to the gynecologist that one time for $1,400.
In the past, Germany has been less than friendly to the international graduates of their universities, but things are changing. There’s a new visa program in place for foreign graduates of German universities (sometimes it feels like leap-frogging from visa to visa, trying to cross a very big pond and I’m somewhere in the middle right now), where we can stay and look for a job for another 18 months, and eventually achieve long-term residency. It’s a way for graduates to give back to Germany (and the taxpayers, more than one grumpy Berliner has reminded me) and a way for Germany to offer us a shot at establishing a more permanent life and career here.
It isn’t for everyone. Being here, I miss big things like my family, and stupid, little things like cider doughnuts and people who think my jokes are funny. I can’t shake the feeling that I’m doing absolutely nothing to make my own country a better place. But, if you’re stuck and thinking about taking off, now’s the time. Rents are going up, foreign enrollment at the universities is booming. Come! Just bring a parka.
Marne Litfin has studied, au paired, loved, and lived in Berlin since 2010. You can contact her here.
Photo: Till Krech