2013

January. Nearly hitting the six-month mark of au pairing, boredom and frustration really starting to kick in. Have a quick trip back to England and realise that Germany feels as much a home to me as the country where I grew up.

February. Went with my host family to the grandparents’ house for a week, again another test of my patience. Travelled to Berlin and stayed there on my own for four nights. Broke into an abandoned radio tower on the outskirts of the city with a Mexican girl from my hostel room who I’d just met that day- one of the most memorable experiences of my life. Went to my first Deftones gig.

March. Studied a three-week intensive German course at the uni and had great fun pretending to be a student again. Started to really feel ‘included’ in the Weimar social circle- went to a lot of awesome parties. Broke up with my boyfriend of four years over Skype.

April. Started seeing a different guy; drank a lot of red wine and played a lot of guitar. Still trying to emulate the seemingly carefree lives of my student friends with varying degrees of success. Started to realise that entire weekends would go by without spending any time with my host family.

May. Host parents went away for five days to Switzerland: I invited aforementioned new guy to the house without their permission. A wine glass got broken and I nearly got sacked. Things ended between new guy and I, which was remedied by spending long hours in the park with my friends drinking and singing. Gave a talk on London at the uni and my host family came along. Started half-heartedly looking for jobs in Germany.

June. The end point of my time au pairing was starting to draw nearer; I wrestled with excitement at the prospect of freedom again versus the stresses of ‘what do I do next?’ Stumbled across a job advert for a language school nearby, went to the interview and got the job. A new door opens.

July. Had a very pleasant last couple of weeks of au pairing, then moved out to my friends’ place as a temporary measure. Started to feel somewhat lost due to a lack of structure in my life. Summer came; warmth and relaxation ensued. Started teaching my first private groups and fell in love with my new job.

August. Moved into a friend’s old room in her flat and had the place to myself for weeks at a time. Another guy came onto the scene. Every weekend was spent watching the sun rise after spending the night at some party or other. Started supplementing my teaching work by working at Subway and two weeks after starting was managing the shop on my own.

September. Was told that I wasn’t able to stay in the flat where I was; daunted by the prospect of househunting at the busiest time of the year. Had a break-up out of the blue on the same evening that my best friend returned from a month in her home country. Left Subway due to it being far too stressful for the €5/hour I was earning.

October. Went for a birthday weekend in Berlin with my best friend and made two awesome new friends who introduced us to its underground punk scene. Was interviewed and chosen out of twenty people to join the lovely flat where I now live. Developed a habit of sleeping over at my best friend’s place multiple times a week. Started teaching at external business clients- great for my self-esteem and a lot of fun.

November. A month defined by money troubles; ate a lot of bread and jam to cut food costs. Rejoiced when my first ‘proper’ payday came. Contact with host family slowly breaking down. Real family (minus brother) visited Weimar and I was proud to show them round my adoptive hometown. Received lovely feedback from my students.

December. Applied for a job translating for the student body for this state of Germany and got it. Made new friendships and strengthened a few existing ones. Got given some very sweet Christmas presents from my students and friends. Went back to England for a week and gorged myself on unhealthy food. Had a surprise greeting from my friends at the station upon my arrival back in Weimar.

My left hand, decorated with henna by my awesome Pakistani friend Iraj. I never want this to come off.

My left hand, decorated with henna by my awesome Pakistani friend Iraj. I never want this to come off.

Fog

They say that foggy nights are eerie and spooky, but late last night I went walking in the fog and I felt it to be neither. Rather it was a pleasant experience; the world is somewhat softer when the air between the cold solid objects is saturated with tiny almost-visible droplets of water vapour. Light takes on a liquid property and streetlamps are turned into things of beauty, attracting a creamy haze which bluntens their normally piercing brightness. Trees slice into shadows and lend geometry to empty spaces. Walking into an unfilled void of fog, with its soft tangibility cushioning the gaps between yourself and the world, gives you the rare pleasure of feeling alone without the biting weight of loneliness. Empty streets and sleeping buildings lose their power to intimidate and instead become connected to you through open spaces, reaching out to you with humid warmth and damp acoustics. The effect of fog on one’s mind is the opposite of that which it has upon the air: it allows one to think and feel with clarity.

Hi Becca! I've been au pairing in Heidelberg for three months now and I am really thinking about staying longer than my visa allows, which is until August. How exactly did you go about getting a new work visa and finding out all the requirements and stuff? I'm so stressed about it and I don't even know where to begin :( Any advice would be so appreciated!

Hey. :) Firstly that’s awesome that you’ve decided you want to stay in Germany! Are you thinking of continuing as an au pair or do you want to do something else? Unfortunately I can’t really be of much help regarding the visa situation though as I am an EU citizen so I can just work here no problem. Best of luck sorting all that stuff out though and with au pairing!

'A stress-free job'

There has been a bit of discussion recently on one of the Facebook au pair groups that I am a member of regarding others’ views of au pairing and whether it should be considered a job or rather as a cultural exchange. The topic was brought up by a girl complaining about how nobody really understands the pressure and responsibility one has to face as an au pair, and I could completely empathise with her as, even now, it irritates me when I feel as if people do not completely grasp how difficult life was for me during this year.

One thing that was at times quite frustrating during my time as an au pair was that I didn’t really know any other people in my position and as such had nobody to share my annoyances and anxieties with when things got difficult with my host family. I do not wish to alienate those of you reading this who have not experienced life as an au pair, but it is absolutely one of those things which, unless you have done it yourself, you cannot fully understand the stresses and complexities of.

I once explained the basics of my role as an au pair to someone I met at a party and his response was ‘oh nice, a stress-free job’. This wasn’t the first time I had been met with such an opinion regarding au pairing, neither will it (I expect) be the last. But as much as this lack of understanding on others’ behalf annoys me sometimes, I cannot blame people for thinking in this way- I will admit that, from the outside looking in, being an au pair can seem like a fairly idyllic lifestyle. And consequently, when indignantly trying to make clear to people that living with two adults and their three kids was not some kind of blissful fairytale, I often felt as if I was risking appearing like a complaintative so-and-so who should learn to appreciate how good they really have it.

Au pairing is, in my opinion, the ultimate immersive experience; it can be so intense that it is often difficult to believe that anybody else could be feeling the same way that you do, something which is not helped when faced with people who dismiss your job (coming back to the first paragraph, I do believe that yes, au pairing is indeed a job) with such labels as ‘easy’, ‘comfortable’ or ‘sweet’. However in my experience at least, there is unfortunately not a lot that can be done to counteract this, and the best remedy for such situations is just to smile sweetly, suggest that they might like to try doing a similarly cosy lovely cultural exchange and, if all else fails, rant to other au pairs online (which, I can tell you, is a great way of alleviating those inevitable frustrations).

Epilogue

I don’t think that what happened after my year of au pairing is too uncommon- the story of the person who travels to a new country, initially intending to stay there only for a short period, and who over time falls in love with the place and decides not to leave, sounds like a bit of a cliché. But even with all the difficulties which accompanied the time I spent living with my host family and all of the challenges which come with living abroad, it still became very clear to me after spending a certain amount of time in Weimar that I would not at all be ready to leave this place after just one year.

One of the great things about staying nearby to my host family is that I managed to largely avoid what is for many people the most difficult aspect of au pairing: saying goodbye to the kids. That is however not to say that leaving the house was easy.

I babysat my host kids the night after I left and the tears I cried whilst hunched on the floor in the corner of the kitchen after tucking them into bed and singing them their favourite songs were only comparable to those I experienced when I lost Danny (the dog in my icon) nearly two years ago. I will admit that living with those three little live wires was not always the easiest thing to do, but living away from them has made me realise what fantastic children they are and how lucky I was to have been able to share my life with them for a year.

I still spend time with my host family when their busy lives and mine allow for a small mutual window of free time, but it makes me sad that I’m no longer as important a feature in their lives as I used to be. Coming back to their flat still feels like coming home, I still have a good relationship with my host parents and it makes me really happy to know that even now I have a little adoptive family watching out for me in Weimar.

I modelled for my American friend last week to help him with one of his projects for the uni. The photoshoot was so much fun and I learnt a lot about studio lighting (in German) in the process. Having artist friends is really awesome!

I modelled for my American friend last week to help him with one of his projects for the uni. The photoshoot was so much fun and I learnt a lot about studio lighting (in German) in the process. Having artist friends is really awesome!

CeleBRACHE Festival in Erfurt on Saturday. Wish we’d been able to stay for longer there, had a really nice atmosphere.

CeleBRACHE Festival in Erfurt on Saturday. Wish we’d been able to stay for longer there, had a really nice atmosphere.

On language and self-expression

One thing I am not proud to admit about myself is that, more often than not, I am incredibly hesitant to make conversation with others in German. After spending a year here I still feel myself constantly fighting a nagging sense of insecurity whenever I am in the position where I have to talk to others in my second language, and I cannot help a certain feeling of disappointment when comparing myself to others around me who seem to have no inhibitions regarding expressing themselves in their non-native languages.

I have been told by my German friends that my command of the language is in fact relatively good- a few people have told me recently that I have no distinguishable foreign accent when I speak and that my grammar is also largely very accurate. Even though I know that they tell me these things with the best of intentions, their encouragement seems to have the opposite effect on me and I do often feel under pressure to keep up these expectations that I tell myself people have of my German skills.

Somebody a while ago told me one of his views on the subject of speaking a foreign language which really stuck with me: that when talking to someone in a language which is native to them but not to you, you are not in fact risking your dignity or making yourself seem stupid by making mistakes, but instead showing humility and respect by allowing yourself to be vulnerable to that person and trusting them to be patient with you. One of my greatest fears when I speak German is that of making mistakes and sounding like an idiot, and to a great extent I think it is pride which stands in my way of letting my guard down and talking as freely as I would like.

I believe that one factor contributing to this pride which hinders me so much is that when speaking my mother tongue I place a lot of importance on my use of language, with ‘eloquence’ being one personal characteristic which I very much aspire to have. In German I have to simply have to accept the fact that I will not always be able to express myself in an elegant manner, something which leaves me feeling slightly stressed and frustrated that I am unable to show all of myself and what I can give.

However I am slowly coming to the realisation that I don’t have to, or rather simply cannot, wait until the day that my German becomes perfect in order to communicate with people without worrying about it to the extent to which I currently do. By spending a lot of time around people who are constantly speaking languages other than their mother tongue, I am noticing more and more how they are able to express themselves in a mature and intelligent way despite the occasional grammatical mistake or clumsily constructed sentence, and this gives me the confidence to at least attempt to cast aside my inhibitions and simply enjoy the fact that I am using a language which I have learnt through my own efforts.

Language learning is such a complicated and fascinating process, and I feel as if this issue is one of the last hurdles which I will have to overcome if I want to achieve fluency in German, which I would like to believe wouldn’t be totally out of my reach sometime relatively soon.

Au pairing: issues that can arise

In little over two weeks my au pairing contract will be finished, and my remaining time with this family feels like the stirring stages of waking up from a very strange dream. Increasingly I have the feeling that, had I known beforehand how challenging this experience would be, I would have had second thoughts about jumping into it quite so blindly. However that does not mean to say that I regret spending almost a year as an au pair. I have changed hugely as a person, met incredible people from all over the world and had huge amounts of fun during my time spent so far in Weimar.

I maintain (see my last post) that one of the fundamental flaws of au pairing is that it is unnatural for a twenty-something university graduate used to living on their own to then go back to family life and have to adjust their lifestyle and, to a certain extent, their attitude and morals, to that of a group of strangers. Before becoming an au pair, I had not lived with my own family long-term for nearly four years and was accustomed to being able to dictate how and when I did things in my daily life. Living with a host family means that you always bear a certain amount of responsibility towards them, which can become exhausting after a while. When I am with my host parents, I cannot be the same person that I am when I am with my friends- I always have to be careful not to say the wrong thing or make a joke that they don’t see the funny side of.

Straddling the boundary between employee and family member has been one of the hardest things for me to overcome about being an au pair and after a few months in this job I came to accept that I would never feel completely comfortable living like this. In a way, always living out of my comfort zone is one of the things which has changed me the most from this year, and looking back I think it has done me a huge amount of good, but it does mean that at ‘home’ (I still hesitate to call this house that word) I exist in a permanent state of never quite relaxing.

My host parents have told me that I appear unwilling to totally integrate myself into their lives and that I seem more concerned with my own; my response to this would be (‘would be’ because I cannot tell them how I really feel- I live in their house, they pay my wages) that it would be abnormal for someone at my stage of life to feel any differently. I feel as if I have relinquished my status as an independent adult in becoming an au pair and I crave the freedom which my friends take for granted. I am not lazy in my work and I always try hard to please these people, but I sometimes feel suffocated by my living situation and need to distance myself from it, which is something my host parents seem not to always understand.

One of the things which I think appeals to potential au pairs is the comfort of family life. However living with a family means that you are exposed to all aspects of these people’s personalities, and they in turn see every side of you, whether you would like them to or not. Families work on the basis of unconditional love and acceptance of the fact that mistakes are made, bad days are had and that nobody can be perfect all of the time. I am not saying that my host parents expect me to be some kind of flawless superhuman, but I am aware of the fact that their forgiveness of things I may do wrong will only stretch so far because, when it comes down to it, I am not a member of their family. Living with my employers and their three children is, at times, a struggle for me, and the distinction between work and home is something which I desperately miss.

This sounds like I have had a negative experience this year, which is worlds away from the truth. I have had a lot of good times spent with my host family and the children especially, but the living situation of an au pair is a strange one and now my time here is drawing to a close I am able to think about it more objectively and I wanted to put my thoughts into words.