Ciara Kenny

The Irish Times forum by and for Irish citizens living overseas,

Au pairing as a test run for emigration

Working in Spain for the summer has given me a taste of what it might be like to emigrate when I finish my degree, writes Jane O’Faherty in Valencia.

Mon, Aug 20, 2012, 17:29

Working in Spain for the summer has given me a taste of what it might be like to emigrate when I finish my degree, writes Jane O’Faherty in Valencia.

Jane O'Fahertywith Aitana (4) and Aurora (7) at Albufera National Park

Even before the recession, I dreamt of working abroad. Maybe I would be a French correspondent living in a chic flat in Paris. Perhaps I would pass the Colloseum on my way to work each morning, or spend my lunch hour on a Mediterranean beach somewhere. For me, leaving Ireland would have been the opportunity of a lifetime.

Emigration is no longer an original or glamourous aspiration, but an ever-present and inevitable necessity.

I wanted to work for the summer, but couldn’t risk waiting at home for more shops to tell me they were not looking for anyone. It was with this in mind that I decided to apply for a job as an au pair.

Within ten hours of joining an au pair website, applications flooded in from families seeking someone to look after their children and teach them English. After two weeks, I decided on a family from Valencia in Spain, who had two little girls aged four and seven.

The job entailed five hours work per day, five days a week. It sounded easy on paper, but that didn’t make me any less nervous on the flight to Valencia.

The first week was interesting to say the least. In hindsight, it probably wasn’t the brightest idea to go to Spain with absolutely no Spanish. I could barely talk to the children, let alone teach them much English. The few words that they learned were “Stop that!” and “Care-fool!”, my usual phrases when the two girls were climbing the walls or jumping off the sofa.

Despite that, from the second week on I began to feel like a part of the family. The girls started speaking more English, and I, amazingly, learned more Spanish in seven weeks than I would have going to months of classes or studying online.

I was really surprised by how accommodating the host family was. They took me to parties and festivals (and even an education protest) whenever they had a chance. I thought I’d be something akin to a nineteenth century governess, someone who would have to leave the room once I had finished my work. Instead, I’m included in everything, from daily trips to the swimming pool to family trips to La Mancha and Madrid. I couldn’t have hoped for better.

Jane at the Museo de Bellas Artes in Valencia

The au pair experience is like a “test-run” for life abroad. It teaches you so much about other cultures, languages and living away from home. With fewer hours than jobs in hotels or restaurants, you can spend more time exploring, sightseeing and making new friends. According to the generic EU au pair contract, “cultural development” is crucial. Therefore, au pairs have more time to get to know their new home in a more intimate way, and learn how other countries compare to Ireland.

There have been times when I’ve been homesick. Before I left, I naively thought that I wouldn’t miss my home and my family. It wasn’t long before I was craving mashed potatoes and milk that wasn’t UHT. Sometimes I just needed someone I knew to sit down beside me and tell me that it would all “be grand”. Those feelings passed quickly though, and after living here for two months, I’ve learned to get over homesickness and throw myself into this new, if temporary, life. I’m glad I learned that before I go somewhere more permanent.

When people told me this trip would be “life-changing”, I laughed. I’d heard that cliché before. But I never knew how much I’d realise about myself; how habits and characteristics I’d never noticed before would emerge. I never saw myself as a teacher, but now it’s something I could consider.

Au pair work has also given me a more realistic idea of what it might be like to emigrate. I accept that living abroad may not be the answer to all my problems, but I definitely feel more comfortable knowing I can live through it if the time comes.

Jane (19) is from Wexford, and has just finished first year in Journalism and New Media in the University of Limerick.