Guest Post: Life as an au pair in Spain
Harriet Barter is studying Spanish and Italian at the University of Exeter (the same degree that I did at Exeter – a very wise choice!) and she has just spent 5 weeks au pairing with a family in Logroño, northen Spain. She recounts what life as an au pair is like and the many fiestas she experienced!
As a language student, spending time abroad during the lengthy university summer holidays seems somewhat of an expectation, not something I’m complaining about. Who wouldn’t want to spend an extended break somewhere new, foreign, and let’s face it, probably with better weather than the average British summer? And if that weren’t enough you’re also CV enhancing (always a good one!), improving your language skills and broadening your cultural horizons. Sounds great… but how?
This is what I was faced with when what I like to call ‘the au pairing bug’ swept its way around my fellow language students, as every day I was hearing of somebody else who had created an online au pair profile or who had been conversing with a foreign family making arrangements for a summer placement. Spending a month or more in a foreign household, taking responsibility for someone else’s children sounded like an invaluable, yet at the same time terrifying, experience that I wasn’t sure I was really up for. Well, after much persuasion and reassurance from fellow soon-to-be au pairs, the next thing I knew I was sitting alone on a plane to Bilbao with a return ticket not dated until 5 weeks later and a stomach full of butterflies! Of course it was only natural to be nervous, and having been communicating with the Spanish family via email and Skype for a couple of months I wasn’t going in completely blind. To calm the nerves I resorted to something I’ve heard quite a few people say and have since made my ‘self reassurance motto’; you only regret the chances you didn’t take, so I just threw myself head first into the deep end as an au pair in Spain.
To give you an idea of my first ‘working week’ in Logroño, (never heard of it? Me neither!) after helping the girls with their English and generally occupying them until the early afternoon, I was welcomed with open arms into the Spanish ‘fiesta season’. If you know anything at all about the Spanish culture you’ll be sure to know two things;
- Family is hugely important to the Spanish – any excuse for a family gathering and everyone comes together: cousins, uncles, aunts, grandparents, second cousins, dogs…the lot!
- Nobody goes hungry. Ever. They told me that food is the way they celebrate and if anything half decent happens, out comes the endless amounts of food and drink. Although the whole experience was fantastic, one area which inevitably suffered was my waistline – it’s very hard to not eat when the parents are insisting that the children always clear their plates.
After a day of looking after the girls, on one of my first Spanish evenings I found myself in a small neighbouring town where I was welcomed literally with open arms and kisses into their huge family and into one of their numerous fiestas, with endless music, dancing, food and drink – and all on a Monday evening! The fact they all had to work the next day didn’t seem to be an issue as the festivities carried on into the early hours of the morning.
So after telling you what an average summer Monday night fiesta consists of, imagine the party they put on for a wedding. Well, I say ‘wedding’, it was actually a golden wedding anniversary (50 years) where the couple renewed their vows in a small church service, and then guess what….fiesta! Starting at around 12.30pm, there were tables lined with plates of food, only to be followed by a huge meal about an hour later, all cooked and served by the members of the family. They worked so efficiently making 40 plates all the same and distributing them along the lengthy tables. Feeling a little useless in the very small and very hot kitchen I became the camarera, collecting the plates of food from the kitchen and taking them out to the tables. Following the meal which lasted at least 2 hours, the drinks began to flow and the music and dancing came into full swing. Being a very musical family, a couple of the tíos brought out their instruments, such as a trumpet and a saxophone (and the little helper on the end chiming the triangle!) and traditional songs and dances started, everyone except me knowing the words and the dances and singing their hearts out (some better than others). Observing this scene from the sidelines I was not left alone for long, as soon enough I found myself dragged into the centre of the circle and passed around to dance with everyone individually.
Having been a bit apprehensive beforehand not wanting to be the lonesome English girl sitting in the corner whilst they all had their family party, it turned out to be fantastic and there was no point at all where I felt I didn’t fit in, in fact it was quite the opposite; everyone wanted to talk to me and ask about England and also share with me their personal English experiences (mostly in London but a few had ventured into other areas too!).
Having attended various different Spanish fiestas and a wedding, I then experienced a Spanish birthday…mine! The five weeks I spent in Spain covered my birthday and like I said, any excuse for a celebration. The day consisted of homemade banners from the children, presents, lots of cake and wine, and a stay in Torrecilla – a small neighbouring town in the mountains. The night before we’d spent the evening at the grandparents’ house with a few of the family and when the clock hit midnight they all burst into song with the Spanish version of ‘Happy Birthday’ and it was kisses all round, with cries of “¡aaah bonita, felicitaciones!”
Despite the parties, being an au pair you do have ‘working hours’, as in the hours you are expected to entertain and look after the children, and these hours can vary from family to family depending on the work schedules of the parents. Unlike in Britain where the summer weather is never dramatic enough to warrant any change, the Spanish working timetable is altered in the summer months for many workers so as they do not have to work through the intense afternoon heat. For example in the winter a worker’s hours may be 8am – 5pm, but in the summer this can change to 6am/7am – 1pm/2pm due to the weather. Therefore au pairing in the summer basically means, depending on the work of the parents, you may only have to work until early afternoon. So in theory after around 3pm I was free to do whatever I liked. Two weeks into my stay a friend of mine also came out to au pair for a family in the same town – a welcome English break from the inundation of Spanish – and we were able to explore the area a bit more. “It’s impossible to get lost in Logroño,” they told us… well we managed to achieve the impossible, even with a map!
One place we found was the Calle del Laurel, famous in La Rioja for its pinchos (tapas type snacks served in bars, very typical to northern Spain). Seeing it in the day you’d think it was an empty little side street with not a lot to see, but come back at around nine o’clock in the evening and it couldn’t be more different; the previously deserted street overflows with people dipping in and out of the bars that line the Calle del Laurel. We were shown how each bar has its own ‘pincho’ that it serves, and instead of heading to one bar to eat, you make your way in and out of all of the bars, having a drink and something different to eat in each. The street isn’t very wide and therefore does not provide anywhere near enough space for the number of people who descend on it in the evenings. After weaving in and out of the masses of people and pushing our way into the bars we were told to keep our eyes peeled for anyone who looks like they’re finishing and to claim their spot as soon as they leave. Although very hot and busy, the vast numbers of people gave the street a lively atmosphere and created a real buzz.
One aspect my friend and I found difficult to adapt to was the time at which the Spanish eat. The evening meal is usually served at around 10pm or later, so being used to eating around 7pm at home this took some getting used to. One evening we didn’t start eating until quarter past midnight, no joke! And after a day out on my birthday, lunch was served at 5.30pm. Not something us English are used to!
With regards to helping the children with their English, I was lucky as the girls were very keen to learn and to improve, often being the ones to start up a conversation in English. One of their favourite activities was scripting and acting out every day situations such as being in a shop or a restaurant in English, learning them, and then performing them to their parents. (Their workbooks from school were barely even half completed too so they too provided us with some good activities when I ran out of ideas!) I found it very easy to help them but having spoken to a few friends this is not always the case as some children aren’t as enthusiastic; it definitely depends on their attitude towards learning English.
So a huge thanks to those who persuaded me into becoming an au pair as I was able to spend the summer abroad experiencing a completely different culture, meeting new people and improving my Spanish. After all you can read all the books you want but the only real way to master a language is to go to the country and immerse yourself in it. Super scary, I know! But then again – life begins at the end of your comfort zone.
You can find Harriet on Twitter: @harrietbarter, on Instagram: harrietbarter, and via email: firstname.lastname@example.org, if you have further questions. If you’re thinking about au pairing for a summer, you also might like my blog post on my experience au pairing in Italy.