The first thing I saw when I logged onto Au Pair World was an idyllic image of a rosy-cheeked Italian toddler with wide, auburn eyes. With cake batter smeared all over his face, he smiled blissfully at his English au pair who he was making cupcakes with. This image was accompanied by a personal statement written by Johanna, a girl from London who lived in Madrid for six months during her gap year and had a ‘life changing’ experience living with an ‘amazing’ Spanish couple and their two young children. For many prospective au-pairs, this image epitomises what they think their experience will be like: spending time with cute children in some picturesque foreign land, involving them in activities like singing, arts and crafts and baking cakes while teaching them English. The reality for many au-pairs however is a far cry from this, involving more bottles of bleach and first aid kits than bowls of cake batter.
Such naive expectations were what I had in mind as I embarked on my trip to Florence, weighed down by a suitcase, the weight of which almost matched my own body weight, crammed with old DVDs, dog eared books and once loved board games. I was determined to make a good first impression and was willing to bribe the kids with toys and sweets if I had to. This was Italy after all.
The family I would au-pair for lived on the outskirts of Florence in a traditional Tuscan villa with dark green shutters and warm, terracotta tiles and had a back garden which boasted sweeping, panoramic views of the Tuscan countryside as well as a rich vegetable garden. A swimming pool was thrown in for good measure. Such surroundings made the relatively nice student apartment I had just moved out of in Cork look like the ascetic surroundings of a monk devoted to a life of poverty.
With warm embraces and shy hellos I was welcomed enthusiastically by Teresa, Carolina, Giovanni and Cosimo, the bambini of the house, who were aged between four and ten. At the dinner table I conversed in a mixture of Italian and English with the kids, their parents and la nonna, their grandmother who lived on the top level of the house. Over an elaborate dinner with ravioli as a starter and roast chicken and vegetables as the main- which was nonchalantly passed off as normal Tuesday evening fare- I spoke to the children about school, their hobbies and the like. At the end of the meal, a bowl brimming with shiny, burgundy cherries was placed on the centre of the table. They had just been picked from the cherry tree in the garden, the second youngest told me as she bit into its juicy flesh. Of course they were. Exhausted, but relieved, I went to bed that night looking forward to the next few months I would be spending with my new Italian family.
Naturally they would be nowhere near as idyllic as my first night there. The reality of the sheer chaos that comes with having four children abruptly snapped me out of the leisurely holiday mode I had subconsciously adopted on my first evening. The school routine was in full swing the following morning with packed lunches, tennis gear and music equipment to be organized as well as the pressure to teach the children as much English as possible. This meant that I was always kept on my toes.
I soon got into a routine of going to Italian classes in the centre of Florence in the morning then spending the afternoons and evenings with the children. My day started off early with a short train journey into Florence amid the morning bustle of Armani clad, Ray Ban-bespectacled young professionals. In crisp suits and pristine pencil skirts they downed their caffe macchiate in single gulps with that antithetical juxtaposition of bored indifference and unflinching flawlessness typical to their race. In my Penneys jeans and Jansport rucksack all I could do was observe. I almost got the impression that they could do a 5k fun run through a muddy field and they would still cross the finish line unsullied and guileless, without as much as a fleck of dirt on their uncreased trouser suit.
The language school I attended was located in the heart of the city where my fellow classmates included a smiley Swedish retiree who owned a villa in Arezzo and had silvery white hair she wore past her shoulders, a Korean nun who wanted to brush up on her Italian grammar and workers of various nationalities who just wanted to perfect their skills in the language. The person I had most in common with however was Aurelia, a girl from Oxford who was also working as an au-pair. After class we would get cappuccinos together and she would introduce me to her other au-pair friends or else we’d go for walks through Renaissance piazzas and cobbled side streets, taking in the sheer extent of the wealth of art and history that surrounded us.
As time went on, I grew accustomed to my beautiful Tuscan surroundings of marble churches, rolling hills and slender cypress trees. After a few weeks I had finally stopped taking photos of Il Duomo every time I passed it and, to the relief of my waist, had ceased from ordering scoops of gelato each time I passed a gelateria.
In the afternoon I would catch the regional train to get back in time for lunch. Upon opening the front door I would be hit by the glorious, earthy mélange of cooking smells seeping out from beneath the kitchen door: the savoury aroma of fried garlic mingling with the mellow hues of locally produced olive oil, punctuated by the sweetness of rich ruby tomatoes or whatever other vegetable nonna had picked from the garden and thrown into the sauce. We always had pasta for lunch. I don’t think a single day passed in those three months where I didn’t consume pasta in some shape, colour or sauce. Pasta is to the Italians as the potato was to the Irish thirty odd years ago- an omnipresent staple, versatile, cheap, comforting, familiar. Nonna’s cooking encompassed the very essence of Italian cooking: it was straightforward, simple and used very few ingredients but used the very best of ingredients. That’s what differentiates authentic Italian cuisine from Luigi’s Italian takeaway down the road- they have the climate to produce the finest crops that provide the richest depth of flavour. We don’t.
Melanzane alla parmagiana, spaghetti and mussels, risotto with porcini mushrooms, roast lamb with rosemary and polenta, ravioli with gorgonzola, caponata and crusty bread… I was surprised Ryanair didn’t charge me for extra weight on the return flight home. When I first arrived, I was baffled by the amount of time that was put aside for the sheer laying of the table: a new tablecloth was taken out and smoothed over the table’s surface, the water jugs were filled, the wine bottle topped up from the tap in the basement, salads, oils, vinegars and cheeses of various assortment were dotted around the table’s perimeter. Dinner was never a mere means of getting energy or nutrients or something to do while you watched the evening news, it was an institution, an excuse to sit down as a group and chat, discuss and enjoy eachothers’ company, to talk about more food.
It was also around this time that my relationship with red wine began. Barely a week past no longer being branded as a fresher, the only alcohol I was conditioned to either came in a can of Bulmers’ or was muted by the sharp taste of concentrated orange juice. I initially examined the bottle of Chianti with scepticism, politely replying with a “no, grazie”, whenever it was offered to me, untrusting of its’ murky liquid and robust smell. But curiosity eventually got the better of me and I soon began to try it in the smallest of sips. Lo and behold, it didn’t actually taste like vinegar and its rich, citrusy notes went well with most things I was eating. Within a few weeks I would be drinking it on a daily basis. If the seventy odd year old nonna drank it twice a day- once at lunch and then at dinner- and she was still going strong, surely it couldn’t be that bad.
As an au-pair I wasn’t Chianti-guzzling, spaghetti-slobbering and exploring Florentine side streets all of the time. Up to this point I’ve made au-pairing sound more Thomas Cook than Maria Montessori. Sometimes it was very challenging. The hardest thing about it was that I never felt that any of my free time was actually free. Because I lived in the same place as where I essentially worked, I couldn’t clock out, go home and relax. If I were supposed to be finished with my duties at 5pm and I sat outside reading a book and one of the children came up to me with a football asking to play, I couldn’t turn around and tell her that no, sorry, I couldn’t play as I wasn’t rostered for this time. And because my accommodation and meals were provided for, my earnings were paltry at most. For someone who is used to earning minimum wage at least, such trifling pocket money can come as a nasty drawback, especially if you live in as fashion conscious a city as Florence, replete with enticing, trendy high street stores that you simply can’t afford to go into. While it was annoying to be so poor all the time, in hindsight it was a brilliant investment of my time. I was immersed in an Italian speaking familial environment which dramatically improved my conversation skills and gave me a confidence in the language no language course could ever do.
Aside from the sheer poverty and lack of freedom, it was such a worthwhile experience. The children I was minding were so creative and talented and were happy to engage with my games and activities. I was also surprised by the amount of Italian that I learned from them. Children by nature aren’t afraid to be honest, which meant that they would always correct me if I made mistakes- which I did plenty of times- whereas Italians my own age or older wouldn’t be as eager to do the same. My host parents were really kind too and I’ve since gone back to visit them. I should emphasise, however, that I was very lucky with the lovely, accommodating family I lived with. Not everyone has such pleasant experiences.
I knew a girl who went to au-pair in Germany for a summer, only to discover on arrival that the child she had to mind was severely disabled and needed constant supervision and assistance. One girl I know ended up in the rural heart of Austria which stopped seeming so idyllic once she realised she was a two hour journey away from the nearest bus stop, not to mind city. She didn’t last a month. Another friend of mine who travelled to Barcelona to au-pair was greeted with a mop and a bucket on arrival. It turned out the mother was looking for a cleaner, not an au-pair. Many other girls I know ended up going back home earlier than planned or were just unsatisfied with their experience overall. The reality is that choosing a host family does involve a bit of luck, but if you really make an effort to get to know the family before you go out there by organising regular skype calls and messaging them often, you can get some idea of what they’re like as people and what their lifestyle entails.
Au-pairing remains one of the simultaneously hardest yet rewarding things I’ve ever done. My memories from that time veer from lathering sun cream on a writhing, reluctant four year old to watching the sun set atop a Florentine hillside on the grounds of a medieval monastery. It was a constant yo-yo of emotions going from one extreme to the next. One moment I was leisurely swimming in the sea. Moments later I would be propelled into a psychosis-inducing, hair-pulling episode of running around trying to mind four children at a beach, wondering how anyone would voluntarily choose to ever have offspring. Would I do it again? Never. After living as a carefree student in Germany for a year, I don’t think I could stand being confined by the needs and constraints of a family. I would absolutely recommend it though, especially if you’re young and want to improve a foreign language. Just make sure that you actually like children- that’s one factor a lot of au-pairs actually forget to take into account.