Wednesday, 12 June 2013

Au pairing: the final chapters

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 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.

Wednesday, 13 February 2013

Thoughts on the au pairing experience (thus far).

Last week saw my halfway point here in Weimar- six months down, six to go. Although I believe that I still haven't quite worked out exactly how I feel about the whole experience, I have come to the conclusion that my time au pairing has been simultaneously one of the hardest and most rewarding periods of my life.

One of the main difficulties I have faced in this job has been that of living with my employers, and I am still wondering why the possibility of problems arising from this didn't occur to me when I was considering becoming an au pair in the first place. The basis of au pairing is that the au pair is treated like one of the family (luckily I can say that my host family has treated me very well and have really made an effort to integrate me into their lives), however unfortunately the same liberties are not granted to the au pair themselves and I still feel as if I am living with my bosses and have to alter my behaviour accordingly. I am not sure whether my host parents know the real me, and to live with two adults in this way creates a somewhat strange environment.

An issue stemming from this is that I have no real equal within the house, which is ironic given that the job title 'au pair' implies equality. In my first few weeks here I spent a lot of time trying to work out where I belong in this house, and sadly I have come to the conclusion that I will always be something of an exception. These people are already a complete family and when spending time with all five of them I feel not only slightly surplus to requirements, but also that I am intruding into their lives. I often have to remind myself that it was in fact out of my host parents' free will that they decided to employ me as an au pair, as I cannot help the feeling that it must not be easy for them either to have a relative stranger living in their house.

Au pairing is not a regular 9-5 job: you live in your workplace and therefore are more or less 'on duty' at all hours of the day. Certain things that you may have taken for granted previously are off-limits when living with a host family. Want to loaf about in front of the telly for half an hour after getting back from somewhere? Can't do that. Are you hung over after a Friday night out and want to shut yourself in your room for the day? Saturday might be your day off, but your host parents won't be pleased if you do that. Fancy cooking your favourite meal? Well you can't, it's spicy and the kids won't eat it. As an adult used to having a large degree of freedom, it can feel very trapping to have to adapt completely to another family's lifestyle and values.

However as I said earlier, au pairing has also been a very positive experience for me. The last six months have passed by incredibly quickly for me and I know that this is because I have been busy for the majority of my time here, either with my host family or with my ever-expanding circle of friends here in Germany. I have been lucky with my host family- the problems I have listed stem more from the basic concept of au pairing rather than any specific problems I have with the people I live with. I know that the challenges I have faced here have been good for me, and I feel as if over my time here I have somehow become a different person- if not better, then at least more self-sufficient. And lastly my command of the German language has also greatly improved, which was my reason for coming here and is one of the reasons why I have full intentions of sticking it out for the whole year here.

Roll on the second half. Expect a full-time update in another six months.

Thursday, 31 May 2012

On being 'cut off'

Upon switching my laptop on this morning I discovered, to my annoyance, that the internet wasn't working on my computer, and then, to my horror, that not only was it not working on my iPod touch either, but also that my only known method of fixing it- turning the router off and then on again- wasn't solving the problem. I then decided to go downstairs and make myself some cereal whilst moping in front of my other great love, the TV. This morning however, this usually infallible source of entertainment seemed to be also temporarily out of order, with all of the usual daytime favourites (Jeremy Kyle, Location Location Location et al.) being replaced by a text box saying how Virgin Media apologises for this temporary inconvenience and would I please phone 150 from my Virgin Media landline should the problem persist. This revelation deals a somewhat deeper blow that that of the internet's malfuction- you come to expect that the fickle internet is going to leave you hanging on the odd occasion, but the television is a faithful friend always expected to be there, and when it isn't, you're left feeling bereft and slightly guilty, wondering whether maybe you've in some way offended Mr HD-ready Sharpanasony and this is his way of getting one over on you.

I'm sure you all know the strange 'cut off' feeling when situations like these arise. First comes the stare of blank disbelief at the computer screen- maybe it's a mistake? Maybe if I try diagnosing and repairing the problem one more time..? Then comes the popping to the loo to allow some time to elapse before you can check the computer/telly once again to see whether the internet/programmes have come back. (This step is invariably a fruitless endeavour; you will realise after doing it that you were a fool for thinking that it would be that easy.) After that follows the feeling of being wronged and the biting desire to let the world know of this great injustice that someone has decided to wreak upon you and your cohabitants. However not long after comes the realisation that your usual channels for moaning about problems like this- Facebook, Twitter etc.- are, for the moment, unavailable to you, and although you might muse upon sending someone a text to share with them your pain, you will probably decide that texts of this nature sound trite and whingy and are probably best avoided for the meantime. I speak, of course, from the perspective of somebody with a five-year-old phone with no touchscreen, no apps and no internet. For those of you who are happy to foot a £76/week bill for an iPhone or some other shiny little mugger-magnet, the problem of No Internet is obviously alleviated somewhat, but please cast your minds back to the days of yesteryear when you too could have fallen victim to the curse of Windows found a problem that cannot be repaired automatically, contact your ISP for help. Lastly comes hopelessness and the resignation to the fact that it is quite possible that you will never again have a working internet connection and that you are from here on in bound to a life of boredom and technological failure.

I am fully aware of how trivial this problem sounds. If I had had a working television whilst experiencing it, I would probably have switched on to an advert campaigning for Oxfam or Save The Children and realised the full extent to which I was getting caught up in 'first world problems', probably causing me to shut up, not write this blog and instead ponder for a while on how lucky I am that I have a roof over my head and food to eat. But for reasons mentioned above, I had no telly and so never saw any such advert, thus making this a bit of a moot point.

So let's go back to the original problem. Bored student, no internet, no television. What does one do? Tidy up? Let's not be too drastic here. After sitting on my bed and staring out of the window for a few moments, I noticed my small pile of unread books which had been accumulating over the course of the year on my little Ikea shelves. Among these lay Why does E=mc²? by Brian Cox and Jeff Forshaw, a donation from my dad which I think, from looking at the £1.49 pencilled into the front cover, was once a donation to a charity shop. Maybe not a good sign then? Maybe nobody wants this book. But I reminded myself that really I had nothing much else to do and that I may as well take this opportunity to immerse myself in something with a little more intellectual value than cat videos on YouTube, and so sat down and read for a bit.

I read for quite a while actually, and found the book to not only be very interesting, but also far more satisfying as a form of entertainment than mindlessly wandering around the same websites again and again. I felt a sense of liberation that I haven't really felt for a long time, and I started to realise how much time I actually waste on the internet or watching telly and how much of a destructive thing it can be to be constantly 'connected'. Rapidly updating sites such as Facebook are, I think, at the root of the problem, as it can be so easy to develop a kind of psychological dependency on them to the point where one constantly has a Facebook tab open in order to check back every five minutes to receive tasty nuggets of information telling us that Emma really enjoyed her trip to Nando's or that Dan is about to paint his bathroom.

Sadly I am up there with the worst of them when it comes to internet addiction. As soon as we realised that the connection was back, I headed up to my room, turned my computer back on and went straight onto everyone's favourite blue-and-white social networking site, excitedly checking through my news feed like a hungry dog to see what scandalous pieces of breaking news I'd missed during my internet blackout. As per usual, there were none.

Maybe I am on the way to learning how to embrace being 'cut off' as an opportunity to actually do something or learn something. However I know that, for the moment at least, cutting myself off voluntarily is something that I don't quite have the willpower to do. More YouTube cat videos for me then.

Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Happy birthday Danny

Today would've been my little dog Danny's eleventh birthday. He died last September and although it pained me to see him getting old, I still miss him so much. He was such a special boy, so intelligent and sensitive and really was the best first dog I could've wished for. I have so many treasured memories of the things we did together: holidays, training, shows- even just the times spent lazing around the house or in the garden were special.

In August, a few weeks before the last time I saw Dan (he was put to sleep whilst I was on a language course in France), we went down on the train to Battersea Park in London to act as models in a photoshoot for Orange. Danny was impeccably behaved and even though he suffered a bit with the heat, he seemed to enjoy the day too, especially as one of his favourite things in the world used to be travelling on the Tube. I was so proud of my boy that day!

Here are a few photos from the day which my lovely friend Kaye sent me to cheer me up after Danny's passing:

© Anthony Upton 2011

© Anthony Upton 2011

© Anthony Upton 2011

Goodnight Danny, my little star in the sky. I hope you're having a nice birthday- wherever you are!

Tuesday, 27 March 2012

To-do lists

Writing to-do lists is not a tactic I usually go for; so far in life my general method has been to blindly bumble through the times when a lot of stuff needs to get done and hope for the best, usually followed by having to deal with some kind of unfortunate consequence of my actions (or non-actions). However there is a first time for everything and right now I think I want to try to be an organised person, someone who in the past I would have envied, probably sneered at and dismissed as the kind of person I would never become.

I am coming to the end of my university life (boo!) and this means one thing in particular: exams. I have gone through uni just expecting that a 2:1 grade would somehow fall in my lap- unfortunately fourth year has been a bit of a wake-up call for me and I've come to realise that if I want to achieve this most sought-after of grades, I need to actually work for it. I have yet to start revision properly and before I do so, I have decided to set myself a to-do list, partly to make sure that I don't miss anything out and partly to put off actually starting revision properly.

You can't not feel summery when you have orange toenails!

But the weather this week seems to have taken an enormous turn for the better and the glorious sunshine is making the thought of staying inside revising quite an unpleasant one. Therefore I have made myself a to-do list for today which involves the least amount of 'work' possible:

  • Take library books back to library (and put off paying the fine- again)
  • Buy washing powder
  • Do washing
  • Sit outside and read book whilst supervising the clothes as they dry on the rack (this is definitely necessary)
  • Fix sunglasses
  • Write revision to-do list
  • Read something in French and something in German
  • Make beef stew and dumplings- yum
  • Watch rubbish telly this evening

In the words of Coldplay- I will try to fix you

What a packed schedule! If my uni tutors could see this I'm sure they'd agree that there's no way I have time to start proper revision today. In typically British fashion, I blame the weather. Maybe tomorrow..

Saturday, 24 March 2012


Today I had a fish finger sandwich and carrot cake for lunch and now I feel full.