Many people want to come to France. Unfortunately for Americans and other non-EUers, without a job already lined up (which are difficult to come by), a French passport (or other EU country), a French husband, or a lot of money ready to blow on an extended non-working holiday, your options are rather limited.
- Teaching Assistantship. Check it out. Pros: it's a real job that doesn't involve children. Cons: the application deadline for 2011-12 is closed, and you don't get to pick your city. If you have your heart set on Paris, you may be disappointed, but if I had it to do over I might have picked a city on the south coast, French riviera, because goodness it's beautiful there.
- And of course, au pairing. (Maybe I should include #3, tricking a French man into marrying you, but until you meet French men, think carefully about this option).
I will include a disclaimer here: despite how nice the family will seem, how lovely they swear their children are, how much the last au pair convinces you that everything is just sunshine and rainbows: it's not. Yes, there are good parts, and this has certainly been one of my most rewarding and exciting experiences, but also the hardest, in many many ways (as I'm sure those regular readers know quite well). You will experience culture shock (in ways you didn't even think possible. Like, pink toilet paper. Really, France?), homesickness, loneliness, brokeness (is that a word?), isolation, add all that to taking care of someone else's children which is always challenging even in your own country, and you are guaranteed to have some "what the hell was I thinking, get me on a plane back home NOW" moments. But, we all love a challenge, don't we? So without further ado...
Step 1: To use an agency or not?
Some people will tell you to use an agency; I don't know anyone who has actually done this. They will charge you a fee, and yes they will help match you and help you with your visa, but this process is really easier than it looks. Save the money, you'll need it. There are 2 websites that seem to be most commonly used: aupairworld.net and greataupair.com. Personally I had more success with the former, but I know one or two people who used GA with good results. Think of it like online dating. You set up a profile, the families set up a profile, and it gives you matches based on your preference. It is free to sign up, most families pay a fee to be able to see your contact info and get in touch with you. If they don't, you don't want them anyway, they are obviously not on the ball. If, however, you still insist on hiring someone to do all this for you, I'd be happy to do your searching for a minimal fee...
Step 2: Finding your family.
There are a few things to look for on the profile of the family, things you wouldn't think about unless you've been there.
- Location, location location: Just outside the city or near the city probably means about 30 minutes away or more. Yes, Paris has a great train system, but it is not open all night, and many families will object to you coming home too late anyway. They may say they are from Paris in the headline, but google map the place they say they are from. Unless they are within the Peripherique (that road that runs around Paris), they are not actually IN Paris.
- Accommodations: it is a requirement that au pairs in France have their own rooms. If the family says you must share a room with the children, RUN AWAY. If you live in a home with the family (most common in the suburbs) you may have to share bathrooms and showers as well. Many families have an adjoined au pair "wing" which is like a mini-apartment within their house, or a "guest house" on their property you may stay in. This is a very good deal. In the city, it is fairly common for the family to have a separate studio apartment because of a lack of space. Note: "small studio" probably means "smaller than you've ever seen a person who's not homeless living in in America." It will be tiny by your standards. Do not assume that this apartment will have a toilet, shower, kitchen, or anything other than a bed unless it is expressly mentioned. Also don't assume there will be an elevator to your 5th floor apartment (hint hint). Ask about these things.
- Schedule/responsibilities: ask for a specific schedule during a typical day (from both the family and the previous au pair, if possible). Do the kids come home for lunch? If so, you'll probably be working afternoons. Do you have responsibilities in the house while the kids are at school? What are your Wednesdays like (French children typically don't have school, or get out early on Wednesdays)? Do you have weekends free? What about children's vacations from school? Babysitting? Do you need to drive? (in Paris, hopefully this will not be required of you. If it is, God bless you.) How much cooking and cleaning will you be expected to do outside of your responsibilities with the children? Will you care for pets? Will you be asked to wait tables for dinner parties and not be paid extra for such tasks? (No, seriously. It could happen.) Ask for details, and ask for them in writing. Save these emails.
- Language courses: if you are American, you will need to enroll in French courses to satisfy your immigration requirements. And you will likely have to pay for these yourself (although there are the occasional families who offer to cover this). They tell you you have to take 10 hours a week the whole year; no one will come after you if you only sign up for 12 weeks at 8 hours a week (my school even gave me documentation of year-long 10 hours a week enrollment, even though I wasn't, for immigration purposes). Go to class, try to learn. It will make life easier. Also, if you want to renew your visa for a second year, you may need to provide proof that you stuck with the class the whole year (which I didn't). So keep that in mind if you think you may like to stay. Bonus: signing up for the class allows you to get the Imagine R metro pass for students, which is half the price of the normal monthly Navigo. Hint: many language schools offer Au Pair programs, that are generally cheaper and more flexible than normal courses.
- Pay: in summary, you probably won't get a lot. The government minimum for au pairs is 300 euro a month. Many pay more. The au pair work week is legally set at 30 hours a week. If you will work more, ask for more pay. Especially if you live away from the family, you should expect more to cover things that would otherwise be provided for you such as food, transportation, etc. In a live out option, ask for a minimum of 400, some I know get 500, and one girl I knew got 400 PLUS up to 200 reimbursed for her groceries (they counted receipts at the end of the month). Pay is always negotiable. Find out what you will be expected to pay for (internet in your apartment, some of your food, transportation, etc) and factor that in to the amount you ask for.
- Do both parents work? Seems weird, I know, but if they do, find out exactly what time they usually get home, and hold them to it. Also, keep in mind that you will be the primary care giver on Wednesdays, vacations, sick days, etc. As spoiled and needy as I think it has made my kids to have a stay-at-home mom AND and au pair, when the kids are sick, I don't work more. I don't work all day Wednesday. I have school vacations off for travel. Each situation has pros and cons.
Other tips: As an American, a family who had previously had an American au pair was helpful because they were familiar with visa requirements and all the bureaucracy that goes along with it. And don't feel rushed. Take your time. Don't accept the first offer you get; explore your options and see if there's a better option out there.
Well, I think this has gotten long enough for now, and believe it or not, I do occasionally have a life with friends and need to go take advantage of that. Next time: things to do once you've found your family to help prepare for your time abroad (get excited), and how much is this REALLY gonna cost you?