Being an Au Pair in Europe after had been one in the USA
Hey Everyone! Sorry It took me too long to write, but it took me quite sometime to put everything together but I finally got it!. And so today I will be boarding a very important subject. I've seen there is a lot of interest in coming as an Au pair to Europe after had been one in the USA, so I'm going to share with you EVERYTHING you have to know and take into consideration if you are planning to do so.
Note: I wrote this post based on MY experience, from what I've heard from friends, and also from girls who did the same and kindly shared their experience with me.
First, It is important for you to know my background: I started in 2011 as an Au Pair in Westchester NY, USA. I took care of two kids a 9 year old boy and an 8 year old girl. It was my FIRST time vising the USA and also my first time taking care of children professionally, I had a great experience and connection with the family since day one and so we decided to extent the contract for one more year, we had such a good relation that they supported me to study a second career and so I ended up staying with them 4 years, and 5 years and a half in total in NY.
After going back to Mexico (Cancun) and spent one year in Paris I took the decision to be an Au Pair in Amsterdam (Click here to read about the process). I took care of two kids a 4 year old boy and a 2 year old girl, and this past August I actually finished my year. Although this time it was NOT my first time in the country nor taking care of children professionally, It was NOT an easy adaptation process.
I would also like to point out that since I will be talking about my experience, I will be focusing on New York in The USA and Amsterdam in The Netherlands. But definitely you can use this as a guide to get a better idea on how life is in Europe and how it was for me in the USA.
So, Why was it so hard for me to adapt? Well, there are SO many differences between continents: culture, lifestyle, weather, food. As well as in Europe there are differences between countries, but as far as I can say Netherlands and Belgium are quite similar and Germany with Austria. Therefore there are key factors to take into consideration either to take the decision to go to Europe or to choose where in Europe you want to be an Au pair. But I would like to point out specially 3: your personality, your previous experience, and your motivation, expectations and goals.
Believe or not, our personality has a lot to do when choosing a country to live. I come from a "small" city in Mexico: San Luis Potosi, with a population of a little more than 800K people, yet the social circles are very small and close minded, everyone knows each other and everyone goes to the same place. Moving to the USA, specifically NY, opened my mind; and since the moment I arrived, I immediately felt I belonged there. It was a feeling of freedom, carelessness and unlimited options. Europe, well... Lets say somehow I felt like back in my small town!
Let's talk about NY. You are always on the move, with a tight work/social agenda, with a 24/7 economy where if you want something you get it, and being in one of the most expensive cities in the world and yet you can party, eat, attend concerts and movie premieres for free, and that became my lifestyle. I'm a very active and social person, I love to go out thus I usually sleep in, I rather spend my Sunday going for brunch, shopping or at an street fair, market or event rather than staying at home and resting for the upcoming week. Big cities, or NYC specifically, are not for everyone, but definitely they are for me!
Moving to Europe was the whole opposite. Europeans are well known for being relaxed, and having a "quality and healthy" lifestyle, which don't get me wrong, it is nice! but it just doesn't go with me. In Europe commercial hours are generally from 10 am to 6 pm, on Thursdays closing at 8 pm and Sunday closing mostly everything. In France for example was nuts for me to know banks open only 3 days a week on a schedule 9 to 12 pm and 1.30 to 3.30 pm or pharmacies are closed on Sunday, and I have many more examples but I will leave it for another post.
Public transportation in some countries/cities isn't 24/7 either, in some cases there is a "night service" which is more EXPENSIVE and takes LONGER! Although a lot of Au Pairs specially in the Netherlands ride a bike, not me. And last but not least, I could not kept on with the lifestyle I had in NY. In the US you get a weekly stipend of 195.75 usd vs Europe, Netherlands in my case, were it was 82 euros (90 usd) per week. I constantly say that if I felt poor in NY well in Amsterdam, I was broke!. Each country in Europe has a different Au Pair salary, there are countries that pay more than others but then you would have to evaluate your expenses. In the Netherlands for example there are not as many free things as in the USA, no nightclub promoters, no happy hours, no free museum days, no free festivals, no free events and usually you even have to pay to use the toilet. Transportation is super expensive, and going out for drinks or dinner can be around 20-30 euros. I would definitely advise to bring your savings. the Weather is another issue, I thought after NY I could handle any kind of weather, the difference is that in NY you can feel the four seasons, climate change might have made some last longer, but in the Netherlands even though there are seasons 80% of the year would be gray, rainy and cold with the exception of beautiful spring flowers in April and the chance to wear sandals in July/August.
So, if you are a more relaxed person, you are willing to ride a bike, you like nature, you like a slow placed and healthy lifestyle then Europe is a good match for you, if you are a city girl as me, you might find trouble adapting. Even living in a capital, as it is Paris or Amsterdam, I found it hard to adapt and feel comfortable. However if you make me choose I would prefer Paris over Amsterdam but I also want to remind you I was not an Au Pair in Paris, so I also believe the different circumstances (specially money) definitely helped to make Paris a better experience. (What I was doing in Paris? Go here to read the story).
I thought having experienced the European life and the Au pair life before would make my experience in Amsterdam as an Au Pair a successful one but I really had no idea how different it would be. Maybe if you had a bad experience in the US might be that in Europe you have a better one, but be aware that if you had a good experience in the past there's always the chance it wont be the same.
My American host family became part of my life and we were really functioning as a family. I did not see my job as a job I saw it more as helping the household I was living in. We never counted hours, which I honestly don't think ever exceed more than 30 hours a week. I never had trouble with payment, vacations, curfew, food, communication etc. I had my own car, my room with bathroom, tv and own entrance, I had a credit card I could use for grocery shopping, gas and kids expenses, I had always toiletries and I was very welcomed at family parties, holiday celebrations and any other family activity which I always joined gladly with its exceptions that the family always understood. In conclusion, I had a very positive experience of what the Au pair program should be. I was expecting nothing but the same in Amsterdam, unfortunately the family I chose was not the perfect match after all, and unfortunately the reason I could not identify this previously was culture.
One of the biggest differences I encounter with my Dutch host family was food, culturally Dutch people eat very plain and simple food in small portions. The basic Dutch diet consists of cheese, milk and bread. The family I was with also tried to be as healthy as possible eating no red meat and white meat only twice a week, no salt and no sugar. When I interviewed with the family I asked what they eat and have in the fridge, they replied "regular stuff" but I never considered our definition of "regular stuff" could be not the same!.
Dutch people are also very reserved and private, I couldn't invite friends to the house not to sleep over nor to have a coffee or lunch with me. As the social butterfly I am, this was very difficult because you know as an Au Pair a "cheap plan" is always getting together at someone's place and watch movies, play a game or just hang out. This also made it a little bit difficult to organize play dates, if it was not with someone they know. Dutch people care about their money, and they want to see it worth, if the contract said 30 hours a week, they would be 30 hours then no more, no less. I must say there were times I was dismissed early but it was mostly because the kids were being difficult or because it was just 15-20 mins, but It is the first time I have to work while the parents are home. I'm used to parents wanting to have time with their kids or no needing me while they were at home, here I felt they needed to "use" me those 30 hours. Fortunately, the Au Pair program in the Netherlands is strictly regulated by the government and I can personally say that the agencies care about the Au pairs, so I can also promise you wont be exploited (unless you let it happen, please don't). Also each country has different legal working hours, some like Austria require as little as 20 hours per week, but something to consider is having a lot of free time with a very low payment leaves no room to make a lot of things.
In terms of feeling part of the family and a cultural exchange, with my Dutch host family I always felt like the help. I could feel somehow that division line, that it just make the whole experience of living together awkward. One common thing that I've heard between Au Pairs around Europe is that families rather have you out of the house in your free time, and I've heard horror stories than even on holidays or vacations they do NOT want the Au Pair there.
Dutch culture as I already mentioned is simpler in every way. They don't take celebrations or holidays to the next level as Americans, and actually its not like there are so many (Kings day is a big one tho). The gifting and greeting card culture isn't big either. I didn't get a Christmas, Birthday or even a Leaving bonus, I also didn't receive any feedback nor motivation which was obviously discouraging. I don't want to lie saying that all families are the same, but it's just something to keep in mind.
MOTIVATION, EXPECTATIONS AND GOALS
When I first arrived to the US I had NO expectations, I was there just for a new experience. And it turned out I stayed longer than I planned and to be one of the best experiences I've ever had. I had an instant click with the family, I really felt home, I never felt home sick, I survived the cold winters covered by snow, I worked with different families and children. On the other hand, I had visited The Netherlands before (my boyfriend is Dutch, read here our story) and I had LIVED in Europe before, so my expectations for my year in Amsterdam, were HIGH. Unfortunately sometimes high expectations, lead to disappointment.
I was expecting to travel, to find festivals and cool events to go, to have a great relationship with the family, to feel home, to go out and be around Amsterdam all the time. My wallet couldn't handle much of this, so it became a little frustrating not being able to afford the things I wanted or that things didn't come out as I expected. But in the same way I also had a MOTIVATION and specific set GOALS. My biggest motivation was my boyfriend, and being able to cut the distance and see each other every week. And my goals were to learned dutch and immerse in dutch culture! Since after all, It will end up being part of my journey.
So my last recommendation is that you come with specific goals and if there are times where you feel like quitting just remember your motivation, what brought you there. Either if its traveling, studying, staying, making friends, or finding love Europe is full of opportunities.
If your goal is to travel, I would recommend planning and saving since day one. Ask your potential family if they travel and if they expect you to come with them. Choose a popular city that has an airport and bus/train station. Plan ahead the places you would like to visit, count and mark the holidays and vacations you have and try to book everything ahead of time to get the cheapest fares.
If your goal is to study either a language or something else, find out in advance potential documents, transcripts, translations or requirements you might need. Find a host family that offers you a fixed schedule, a city with the best options of schools/universities, that is well communicated and accessible, and look for institutions that offer free courses or workshops. Europe has lowest rates in education and is in the highest rankings of quality. Netherlands is a bit of a exception since they don't give a visa for studying a language and degrees are expensive (similar rates as in the USA) but always doable if you have the money or sponsor.
If you would like to stay, unlike the USA, in Europe are more possibilities of extending your time. Visas can be a pain in the ass, but specially if you are under 26 you have a lot of doors open. Set your goals and as soon as your adventure in Europe begins, move and educate yourself about the possibilities to stay as a student, as an Au pair in another country, volunteering, with a work and holiday, with a partner, or maybe even with a work or freelancer visa. This would be definitely the biggest benefit out of deciding to be an Au Pair in Europe.
And if you would only like to have fun and live the experience, please come with NO expectations and let life surprise you! Choose a city that captures your attention, don't go by the one that pays the most or the one with the less working hours, Read about your countries of choice and choose the one that intrigues you, the one you are willing to learn the language, try its food, immerse in the culture.
Last but not least, I would also say stick to what you know. If you took care in the USA of babies, take care of babies in Europe. If you worked with stay at home parents and you didn't like it, don't do it again. It won't be different and if you already handle it doesn't mean you have to still deal with it. Based on your previous experience you know what you can accept and what not. Choosing a family wisely is key no matter where in the world, so on my next post I will be sharing the mistakes I made when choosing my Dutch host family, so you learn from them and have an idea on what to be aware of, at the time of choosing the right family.
Thanks again for reading! Hope it was helpful. As always comments are very welcomed as well as questions or doubts that I did not covered here feel free to contact me via the comments, email or social media.
Until next time!
-Norma Salas 💕