Nearly a year ago, I was finishing my final stretch of college.
Like most college seniors, I intensely studied all day in the library and all night in my apartment.
I lived off coffee and the satisfaction of acing every test that came my way.
I spent most days dreaming about every possible option for traveling after graduation, and spent most nights having too much fun with my friends.
For the record, I still graduated with a good GPA. I’m confident with my degree.
But that didn’t stop me from counting down the days until I was obligation-free and able to explore the world outside of the bubble I lived in.
After an intelligent Google search entitled "How to travel to another country without paying a lot,” I promptly rejected suggestions for hitchhiking and delved further into the idea of being an au pair.
Just one month later, I had secured a position with a family and had my one-way ticket to Florence, Italy booked for the summer after graduation.
For those of you who don’t know, an au pair is defined as “a young foreign person, typically a woman, who helps with housework and childcare in exchange for food, a room and some pocket money.”
In realistic terms, I get paid to be a nanny in Italy.
Every au pair I know has different responsibilities, but I generally play with the kids after school, help with homework and clean up after them until dinnertime.
Pretty simple, right?
Well, yes. The job comes with a free bedroom and home-cooked meals.
Money also isn’t uncomfortably tight when pocket money (for me, €100 a week) is handed over.
In fact, I often catch myself looking around the massive property, wondering how the hell I ended up living in a multimillion-dollar villa in Florence.
As I walk through the gardens and through the gated entrance, it’s hard not to giggle a little bit as I realize that just two months ago, I was living across the street from a frat house.
To my friends, this experience sounds like a dream.
Who couldn’t be happy living an all-expenses-paid, Italian life?
But the reality of moving to another country sets in as soon as you get off the airplane, jump in a stranger's car, drive through unknown roads and show up at a new place you will now call work (and home) for quite a while.
As an au pair, you live where you work.
This type of traveling comes with perks and downfalls, reminding us that living in another country is not an extended vacation. It's building a new and temporary life far away from home.
You don’t know who you’re going to live with.
I thought successfully living with nine roommates in one college house meant I could handle living with anyone.
That is, until I moved in with a foreign family I met on the Internet.
There’s a good chance you will clash with the people you live with. That’s just life.
The reality of this job, though, is you can't compromise.
You must change your ways to fit your family's lifestyle.
It's somewhat of a shock in the beginning, as the way people operate in the privacy of their own homes is quite terrifying at times.
This is especially true if you’re set in your own independent ways.
"Cultural immersion” is what I was looking for when I traveled here. But it takes on a whole new meaning when your bedroom is centered in the middle of a house consisting of a family yelling in another language.
You are on your own.
My third week here, I left the first family I was staying with.
They were the only people I knew in a city halfway around the world.
The following week, my bag was stolen, leaving me without an ID, money, transportation and the keys to my new house. I had no way to use my phone.
Two weeks after that, my mom’s package containing emergency cash arrived for me, but without any cash.
The fantasy of ultimate independence quickly vanished on that long walk home in the rain, without directions or a dollar to my name.
Taking absolute responsibility for yourself and knowing you’re the only person you have at the moment forces you to dig deep to maintain sanity.
It’s times like these that will make you realize your mom’s hugs are severely underrated.
There’s something to be said about separating work and personal life.
With this job, the two are a package deal.
Leaving dirty dishes on the kitchen table, wearing old pajamas around the house and coming home after a few too many glasses of wine aren't really options if they're all connected to your job (especially a job involving kids).
I wake up in my boss’s home.
I eat dinner with my boss’s children.
My boss owns my bedroom.
If I mess up a lot, I don’t just lose my job: I lose my home, income, job and primary source of security in a foreign country.
Needless to say, the pressure is always on.
You are a worker, not a member of the family.
Yes, sometimes au pair families welcome foreign girls into the family simply for a cultural experience. In fact, they often state this when they’re looking for candidates.
From my experience, though, this rarely pans out.
It’s a nice thought, but when money is thrown in the mix and work hours aren’t set by contract, there is a lot of wiggle room.
Schedules will change. Needs will change.
Unlike in a regular job, if you’re asked to change your personal schedule as an au pair, saying “no” doesn’t quite become an option. You have come here to work.
While you may have come to travel and experience a new life, the sad truth is, having a live-in nanny is convenient for a family.
You’re really just a number.
Generally, if a family has enough money to have an au pair, it has enough money to have many au pairs.
If you're the 12th girl in a long line of prior nannies, it won't give you a place in the family. It will just give you a temporary placeholder until your visa expires.
This becomes a platonic relationship of work because the inevitable end of you returning home is on its way.
The kids see you as temporary. (I had to tell the kids my name was not “Nanny.”)
The parents know there will be many more after you.
I get paid while I learn a new language, culture and lifestyle.
This job isn’t all bad. From a big picture perspective, this job is still worth the overall experience.
It is one of the few ways to live an authentic, multicultural life in another country for a long period of time.
Communicating with kids, understanding norms and realizing how the country operates are essentially all parts of my job.
I learn Italian from the kids’ cartoons, the home-cooked meals I make based off recipes passed down in the family are incredible and I wake up every morning with a perfect cup of Italian coffee.
Being an au pair gives you the option of complete immersion if you are willing to approach everything with flexibility.
This is about as authentic as it can get if you’re looking to experience another culture.
Taking trains to breathtaking places replaces weekend bar hopping.
This is by far the best perk of being an au pair. With weekends off, you get to explore the gorgeous country you’re living in.
I’ve made friends with other au pairs from all over the world, as well as with locals who have shown me around.
Each weekend feels more like a mini vacation, and can be cheaply spent with friends in hostels.
I’ve visited eight parts of Italy and three countries within just three months, without spending much more than I’ve been paid.
A breath of fresh air and renewed wanderlust fills me up every time I get on the train because I am experiencing a country as a 21-year-old, rather than as a nanny.
For me, au pairing is a type of travel.
The limitations are present, but the accessibility to surrounding areas is incredible, making this a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.