On a November night in Rome, I gave my dad a tight hug and turned away so he wouldn’t see the tears forming in my eyes.
I know he was doing the same as I crawled into a red Fiat next to two little Japanese-Italian children saying their goodbyes. Then we drove away on the cobblestone streets out of Italy’s capital to a world that was completely new and foreign to me.
I was going to be an Au Pair in Italy for three months.
For those that don’t know: simply put, an Au Pair is a person who travels abroad to stay with a host family helping to take care of their children. In return, they get free room and board, a small amount of pocket money and a chance to travel and learn about other cultures.
They can stay as little as two weeks, but some stay up to two years. For me, it was a way to free myself from my small town and see the world on my own, along with avoiding the pressure to go to college right after high school.
My very first solo trip at 18 years old. It had its ups and downs, so I’m going to give you the whole cupcake: nuts and frosting included.
I stayed with a family of four: An Italian mother, Japanese father, a four year old boy and two year old girl. I’ll be honest with you, the little boy was a tyrant brat, the girl was a sweetheart, and the parents had two different ideas on how they wanted their family life to be. There are so many stories and lessons I learned about what I’d want my family to be like in the future if I had one.
They lived right outside of Orvieto (Or-vyĕ’-tō), which is almost smack centre in the middle of Italy. It is one of the most well preserved Medieval towns in that country. A very beautiful town, with residents talking on the cobblestone streets, old buildings, and underground tunnels beneath the city.
It was built on the top of a flat summit, a thousand feet high above the valley. At the base of the summit, is Orvieto Scalo, the newer, modern part of the town, where the train station is located.
The first thing I had to master was the art of communication. The mum had lived in London for six months working as a waitress and the father had lived in an English community for 1 month after taking a two week English course. Other than that, their knowledge was very limited and I learned to speak slowly in simple terms for them to understand me.
After an unfortunate experience with a language class because the teacher didn’t speak any English, I ended up learning online and from my host family. The kids were very easy to learn from. They spoke the same words repeatedly and slowly and I was able to communicate and understand them quite well within a few weeks.
It was very helpful, especially for discipline, which the little boy lacked very much. My host parents allowed me to discipline him and backed me up, even though I think they sometimes questioned my technique. Within one month, teachers were calling their parents, telling of his change in behaviour and that he was unrecognisable and they enjoyed having him.
The boy and I actually became very close and he was my little partner. He was an intelligent, clever kid and I wish I had more time to spend with him. As with his sister. She loved hearing my sing and read books to her and she also loved eating.
She was always asking, Che fai? Which meant What are you doing? I always responded to her in English, and even though she did not understand, she would smile at me, her eyes twinkling, happy that I acknowledged her.
The father was always away on business trips and the mother worked a few days a week. The kids would go to school every weekday, so every morning, I would complete my Au Pair duties, which included cleaning the kitchen, doing any laundry, and tidying the kids’ rooms.
If I wanted to, I could bake snacks for the kids when they came home. Then I had the rest of that time to myself. Sometimes, I would take the bus to Orvieto and go shopping and/or exploring. When the kids came home, I played with them and kept an eye on them until dinner time.
After dinner there was more play or activity time until bedtime, and that was what the majority of my days were like. Sometimes we went grocery shopping with the mother, or we would take a family trip to another city.
On the weekends I would take the train and go visit places in Italy by myself. I’ve visited Rome, Florence, Pompeii, Pisa, Verona, Venice, Civita di Bagnoregio, Assisi, Naples, Capalbio, Orbetello, and Monte Argentario, and several other small towns and old castles. I learned to travel by train and navigate through the big cities.
I joined an Au Pair Group on Facebook and met up with three other Au Pair girls that were in Italy and became good friends with all of them. We would meet up and visit cities together and sometimes have sleepovers. Two of the girls were from Germany and France.
It was a lot of fun asking one another about each other’s country and learning the cultures too. The other girl was from America, close to my home ground and it was nice to have another American to talk to.
I spent Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s away from my family, which was very difficult for me at times. My host family had wanted to experience the American holiday of Thanksgiving because they had only seen it on TV. I made them a turkey dinner and they invited a friend to eat.
When we all sat around the table for me to say a Thanksgiving prayer, all I could think of was my family and how I missed having them because this was always an important holiday for us. Halfway through the prayer, I started crying. When I finished, the table was silent, but the little boy took my hand and smiled at me.
A couple of months later, my host mum told me that I had brought the American atmosphere into their house and she now understood why Americans celebrated Thanksgiving.
I could go on and on and tell you stories about my adventures and experiences! Traveling to Italy not only allowed me to explore the country, but also explore myself. Not only did I learn about the Italian culture, but I learned to see Americans from Italian eyes.
Not only did I learn how to be a parent, but I also learned about what kind of person I am and what I could be. As a typically reserved introvert, I had to learn to open up and step past my comfort zones, and relax while doing so. Italy is not a good place for you if you don’t want to open yourself up, and I soon realised that there is so much more to this world than just what you see.
You need to go and open unknown doors to see it, but it doesn’t help if you don’t open your own doors.
I totally recommend being an Au Pair.
Whether you get fantastic or horrifying experiences, there’s a lesson in each one, and a tale to tell later. Step out of your comfort zone and know your limits. Observe your surroundings and be smart in your decisions. Meet new people and treasure them forever in your memories.
To this day, I am still in contact with my host family and the friends I made abroad. If you are young and want to travel, and still have fears, I believe Au Pairing is a great way to start out.
You will have nuts and frostings, but in the end, you are going to learn things about yourself and the world, that you can do what you will with that knowledge. And when you are old and grey or on your death bed, you will also get to look back and say: ‘I did that’ instead of: ‘I wish I’d done that’.
Have you ever been an Au Pair?