As a university modern foreign languages student, you’ve always got to keep on top of your game. So when I struggled one morning in German class back in 2007 to tell my tutor what I had done at the weekend, I realised it was time to give my German a boost, and I already knew exactly what to do.
In 2006, my last year of sixth form college, one of my classmates had recommended au pairing to me as a way to improve your foreign language and get to know another culture. I wanted to get my French up to scratch before going to uni and was really impressed when my friend told me about her adventures as an au pair in Spain, and her Spanish was absolutely brilliant. However, I wasn’t the most outgoing of people and had never really stayed away from home before so at first the idea of staying with a strange family hundreds of miles from home terrified me. But over the following few months I thought it over and decided I had nothing to lose. I really enjoyed my two-month stay with a wonderful family in Bordeaux, France, and it really was amazing how much my French improved. In fact, it was so good that my university made me take the French course for second year students instead of the first year course – what a great result!
So this time I started the search for a suitable German family on AuPairWorld. I wanted the kids to be a little bit older than the 2 and 3 year olds that I had had in France, as I interact better with older children. I didn’t have any particular region in mind – as long as they spoke German there, that was good enough for me. And I really did want to speak a lot of German, so I wrote this very clearly on my page, since there are a lot of families who would like you to speak exclusively in English with the kids. After a week or so I had already found a nice sounding family from Rotenburg an der Fulda, which is situated right in the middle of Germany and to be blunt about it in the middle of nowhere. The nearest city, Kassel, is one hour away, and Frankfurt an hour and a half. But this didn’t put me off – I lived in the countryside for a number of years when I was younger so I was sure I would cope, and anyway, I’m not so interested in lots of nightlife and discos and things.
I was going to stay there for two months and look after two girls aged 7 and 11. I spoke to my family on the phone and emailed them several times before my departure. And when July finally came along and I saw them standing in the arrivals area at Hannover airport, I was very nervous, but also relieved that the whole family was smiling and seemed like nice people. In fact, the 7 year old girl slipped my hand straight into mine and started talking nineteen to the dozen – a great contrast from my experience in France where the little girl didn’t speak to me for the first week! The 11 year old seemed very pleased to see me too, although she let me know straight away, “I’m too old for a babysitter – you’re just here for my little sister.” I felt like Maria von Trapp in the film “The Sound of Music” as I replied, “Ok then, we’ll just be good friends.” I had a hard time understanding everybody at first – real German is so different to classroom German! – but within a week I tuned in to everybody’s voices and could understand them very well. I soon learnt all the important words needed for looking after children, and also simple words like “Messer, Gabel, Löffel” (knife, fork, spoon), which I don’t think I had ever learnt at school.
The family lived in a big pale blue painted house, which I thought was beautiful. In the garden was a pale blue painted summer house, which was to become my bedroom for the next two months. They had decorated and furnished it especially for my arrival, and when I saw the German chocolate on the bedside table, I knew I would feel right at home there. Five minutes’ walk down the street was the station if I wanted to take a weekend trip to Frankfurt. Be warned – trains aren’t cheap in Germany! If you are staying for a year, I would recommend buying a Bahncard, which will give you either 25 or 50 % off ticket prices.
The family gave me a bike so that I could get around easily, and there were a lot of very flat cycle paths that went through the fields and along the river Fulda. The first time I walked into Rotenburg an der Fulda town centre was on the second day, when we went to open my bank account. It was like a medieval storybook town – coloured houses with timber framing and cobbled streets – absolutely stunning. I had only seen the huge cities of Cologne and Berlin before, so this was really something new. There were lots of “Eiscafes” – ice cream parlours run by Italians, where I ended up spending many an afternoon, and putting on several kilos!
German bakeries are fantastic too. They sell so many different sweet pastries and types of bread. I liked the cheese covered pretzels the best. The parents told me that they would stay at home for the first two weeks, so that we had a chance to all get used to each other. Then there would be three weeks of looking after the kids on my own, followed by three weeks of going to collect the 7 year old from school, making her lunch, and playing with her until the mother came home in the afternoon.
The first week was great. I really enjoyed playing with the kids (yes, both of them – my sweet 11 year old seemed to have forgotten the fact that she didn’t want a babysitter). We made up an imaginary game where I was a very badly behaved little boy called Friedrich and the girls were my big sisters. They ended up taking me to hospital and amputating every single part of my body. But the imaginary hospital unfortunately turned into reality – at the end of the week I had bad back pain and was diagnosed with a kidney infection, which meant a five day hospital stay.
Not a great start at all, but the hospital was extremely clean and my roommate was very friendly. Luckily I had a European Health Insurance card, which is recommended to everybody travelling within the EU – it means that you are entitled to free healthcare during your trip. During my stay I also became very close to my host mother. She came to visit me twice a day, despite the hour long round trip, and we opened up to each other a lot – it was the start of a wonderful friendship that we have had for the past three years and that I hope we will never lose.
After my unexpected stay in the hospital it was nearly time for me to care for the children on my own. They came to wake me every morning as soon as they were up this could be anything from 7.30 to 10.00. My 7-year-old was very bossy and told me every day, “Right, Alice, it’s now 7.30 and my Mum says you’ve got to work for 6 hours every day, and that means playing with me. So now we’re going to play until half past one, okay?” When half way through the morning I would suggest taking a walk, she would say, “Ok then, but that’s not playing. So if it takes an hour, that means you have to play with me for an extra hour in the afternoon.”
Despite her little moments and the almost continuous arguments with her sister, we did have a good time playing together, doing art projects, baking cakes and making pizza from scratch, putting on plays for the parents, and making mud pies in the garden. When the kids went back to school, I had a lot of time to myself as my host mother came home early from work. I used this time to go out exploring the near by towns with my next door neighbour Christiane. At the weekends I usually did activities with the family; going with them to see their friends or on trips to see the water displays at the Herkules monument in Kassel, the Wartburg castle in Thueringen, and the beautiful historic Bavarian towns of Rothenburg ob der Tauber and Dinkelsbuehl.
My au pair experience was over far too soon – I would have stayed for a year with this amazing family if I could, but it was time to go back to uni and impress my German teachers. It was amazing how much my German had improved in just two months. I would definitely recommend the au pair experience; not just to language students, but to anybody. My au pair experiences have made me get out there and meet wonderful people, see different cultures, and practise my foreign languages. I have stayed in contact with my German family and go to visit them once or twice a year. Don’t be shy – go for it, you’ve got nothing to lose!