In August 2016 I packed my life into two suitcases and travelled to a country I had never even visited to live for a year with a family of strangers as their au pair. Why did I do it? Read on and see…
‘I always knew that I wanted to travel’ is quite possibly the most overdone and clichéd phrase in the history of travel. Since the dawn of time, caveman (and perhaps even dinosaurs), were using this phrase to justify moving from one cave to another. It’s a ridiculous thing to say in any kind of travel discussion and yet, like many clichés, it is very, very true.
I had, as a child and teenager, been extremely lucky when it came to travel. Although we weren’t rich, my parents prioritised holidays over many other things and thanks to some lucky connections (thank you relatives in Austria and Spain) and a bargain hunter of a Dad I had seen some pretty amazing things by the time I moved away to university. So many of my best childhood memories come from beaches in Cornwall, or walks along the Seine, or long drives around Lake Garda. I am also lucky, though maybe I didn’t always appreciate it at the time, that my parents travelled not only to where they did but the way they did. On our family trips it was never about the most expensive hotel, or the flashiest experiences – it was about going to cheap local restaurants and desperately trying to translate the menu before the waitress returned, it was about doing all of the tourist attractions but then going off-book and doing completely random things too, it was about choosing carefully which things were worth the money and which were cash-sucking tourist traps. I am grateful to my parents for teaching me to be both adventurous and frugal.
After I started my primary education degree, travel went out of the window for a few years. I hadn’t quite realised that flying the nest also meant an end to family holidays and so for three years I sat glumly in 3 hour lectures while receiving a constant stream of photos from Bruges and Amsterdam and Cologne. For me, holidays during university took a sharp u-turn from long sightseeing walks, local cuisine and culture. It was all about the alcohol. On English soil, I am absolutely not a party girl but something about the hot weather, the sea air and the €1 shots make the whole thing seem far more enticing. I was an 18 year old in Magaluf, a 19 year old in Zante, a 20 year old in Malia and a 21 year old feeling suddenly far too old to be drinking cheap schnapps and dancing on the bar for free drinks. I needed a travel change. This was motivation number 1 for doing a gap year.
Motivation number 2 was that being a primary school teacher wasn’t going exactly to plan. Everyone thinks of teaching as an easy 9-3 job with far too many holidays, where teachers are paid to play with children all day. WRONG. I knew going into my degree that it wasn’t going to be easy, but for the first 2 years I felt confident that this was what I wanted to do with my life. I passed placements with top marks, I aced assignments and I had something of a social life. It was all going suspiciously well. Enter third year. Most students know that third year is the equivalent of trying to outrun an avalanche with lead weights tied to your shoes, and by my final semester I was about 30 feet under the metaphorical snow. My first placement of third year could have been used as the inspiration for a sitcom. On my second day, a group of six 11 year olds were taken out to the courtyard to make a bird box for a woodwork project. Seven minutes into the project, one child had jabbed another in the forehead with a power drill and the project was subsequently cancelled. Oops. But whatever, it is not a marked placement, it doesn’t affect my final grade and it led to some very funny anecdotes (like the boy who casually dropped his trousers and ‘did his business’ in the middle of the floor in the girls bathroom). I walked out of that placement thinking ‘it’s okay, the next one will be better’. And at first it seemed to be true. The school was beautiful, the children were well-behaved, the teachers were kind and friendly and I was on placement with a really good friend of mine. Once again, it’s all going suspiciously well. By week 5 of my 7 week placement things are… not going so well. I am getting up at 5am to start my hour and a half commute and by the time I am finished my marking and planning its 10pm. I am crying in the shower because I can’t decide whether to wash my hair or finish cutting out my resources. My lesson plans are 4 and a half pages long for a one hour class because my mentor keeps insisting on more detail and I am not getting paid a penny for working 60 hour weeks. My friend is gliding through placement with all the grace of Mother Theresa and I am drowning. The avalanche has caught up with me. I am done. Through blood, sweat and a hell of a lot of tears I actually made it through that placement with an ‘outstanding’ grade and a first class degree. I walked out of school on the last day of placement feeling like I could float off the pavement and up into the clouds. The metaphorical snow had melted. And I said to myself ‘I never want to do that again in my fucking life’.
That night, I applied to move to America.
Au pairing was a logical choice for me at this point. I wanted to work with kids but I would rather take a long walk through hot coals than spend another year marking books and writing lesson plans and carrying out standardised tests. Being an au pair had suddenly become Plan A. And it was the best, bravest, most ridiculous Plan A I could ever have decided on.