Welcome to the Chockalife podcast. Hello Michelle, thank you for agreeing to chat today about working as a nanny and how you started.
So, let’s start with – I met you a little while ago and found out that you moved from Canada to work in Switzerland. Can you tell me how you came about deciding to do that and what tools you used?
Michelle: Ok – so I work in France – but I live really close to Switzerland, so it’s kind of both. I decided to do it over a year ago and I wanted to find a way to learn French – improve my French and to travel as well. I traveled in Europe a couple years ago just backpacking – and you kind of get a really good sense of the places that you visit – but you’re there for two days, maybe three and you don’t get to meet the people that actually live there and get to know people. So I kind of wanted to experience that – and I chose France based on the language and wanting to learn.
Then I looked at it as – how do I get paid to live over there – how do I stay long enough to get to know the place I’m going to be living in? For me as a young person – it was as an au pair – an opportunity that I started researching. Because I had friends who have done it in different countries all over the world. For me, that seemed like the best path to go forward.
Yeah – it’s kind of interesting that you say it’s such a difference when you travel – even if you have months to travel, say backpacking, and when you live and work in a place it’s just a completely different experience – don’t you think?
Michelle: Yeah – I backpacked for three months in Western Europe so we did spend weeks at a time in different countries but it’s so different (from living and working there). You can live with somebody for awhile in a city but you don’t really get to talk to people and you don’t get to know them and their customs until you really move to that country.
So, how did you go about finding out what websites to use – because you found this job through a website – but you said you found out interesting things about some of the websites out there (for au pairs) that weren’t so good.
Michelle: So I kind of started broadly by just googling all the different kinds of sites you can find since I didn’t really know one. I’ve had friends who’ve done au pairing and gone through different channels. Some people know people and some people just meet online. So I googled it and I had a few sites.
I started breaking them down by what kind of information they ask you for in your profile because some of them are very personal – they want your address and your telephone number and all that stuff before you can make a profile which makes sense…but for me I looked at them for a few days and wondered if I even wanted to put my information in because of everything that goes on online now…so I kind of narrowed it down to a couple sites and then I looked at the different services they had because almost all of them now have a free membership and a premium membership which is where you have to pay to use it. Frankly, I don’t think you need to pay to do it.
So I looked at what the free services offer. After I made a profile on two sites, I started looking at whether you’re able to message a family without paying and can they message you. So I looked at the sites from that perspective because there are a lot of ways that they try and make money off you. I haven’t met anyone who actually uses the premium services so I don’t think you ever need to. Maybe from families perspectives it’s easier cause on some sites you can’t message people directly from their profile – you need to favorite them and then they might see you and then they can message you. It totally depends on the site you’re going through. Sometimes it seems like a game you’re playing back and forth sending out favorites and likes (laughs)
Right, right – that could almost become like online dating then – at least it sounds like it.
Michelle: It does. That’s how I described it to anyone who asked me what process I used. I’d just say frankly it’s online dating (laughs) cause you make a profile and it’s kind of like Facebook but it’s not the same because you’re looking for something specific and you want these characteristics – and you want to know how many kids do they have – and what kind of sports do they do – where do they live – that’s a big question and some of the people write nothing on their profile. They’ll say – hi, we want a big sister for our kids and some people will write pages and pages.
And I would think that would be really telling – because if someone writes a lot they obviously are caring a little bit more about their kids and who they’re gonna have in their household.
Michelle: Yeah, and sometimes you can see on the sites the response rate and if they don’t write back to anyone they’ll have a zero response rate. For me then I’m probably not going to write to them because it’s not useful. You spend a lot of time like in online dating and you send a lot of emails. I spent weeks just filtering through people because you don’t want to pick the wrong one.
Right! It’s a huge commitment and a lot of trust that you’re putting into these people. So, I’m just curious once you do choose a family how does it work from there? And I think you gave me two sites which I’ll list later on in the blog post.
Michelle: So once you choose one then it’s your responsibility to take it offline so you can usually Skype – that’s what most people do – or you email or talk on the phone. In my case we Skyped and emailed – so a little bit of both. I had a lot of information to go on in the beginning. I would choose the finalists and then Skype them and narrow down whether you liked them.
I had two families I really considered. When I Skyped, I made a list of questions cause sometimes they don’t answer everything and if you’ve never done it – you have no idea what you want to ask so I thought about it before. They ask you a lot of questions too. The family I chose – their kids were there and the two parents and they were really friendly and upfront. Some families will just have one parent there to kind of give you a trial run. So it really depends on the situation. I had one woman who gave me a whole tour of her house on Skype just without knowing me – in the first five minutes she wandered around and showed me her house. So you get an interesting sense of the people.
Right (laughs) and that makes me think what kinds of questions do you think now – when you look back – should someone ask? What do you think is most important?
Michelle: Well it depends what they’ve listed on their profile. But if you haven’t talked about it you need to ask them a) how much they’re going to pay you – I know it sounds odd to really bring it up but you really have to otherwise you’re going to go for a few weeks and not know. I always ask the schedule – the typical work week – how many hours you’re going to be working because they have all the hours listed in the government (laws). They have a max for au pairs but to be honest it’s like 37 hours a week – or no, maybe 25 and that’s not even possible because parents work over 37 or 40 hours in most countries.
What do you mean exactly by that – it’s listed at 25?
Michelle: Each government will set a maximum of working hours per week for au pairs. You’re supposed to go by that but you should find out because a lot of times they’ll want more (the parents) and they need more. It makes sense because if they’re working more they need you to be there more. So you’ve got to find out is the pay going to be adjusted based on that or will you be paid extra for this or…you want to ask that kind of stuff.
I was always nervous about asking about the money and the additional stuff that you might need but you have to because otherwise you’re going to be strung along. Other questions I asked was about hobbies that they liked to do on the weekends because for me I was also looking for a family that was really close with each other and wanted to do things. I mean they don’t have to hang out every night – and I certainly don’t want to hang out with the family every night – but I want to be a part of the family. I wanted to find out what they do and if they have similar interests as me.
I’d also ask different things about the kids. You want to know if they have certain characteristics. If they’re healthy, if they do certain things every day. They’ll ask you a lot of questions too – almost all the same questions. Another thing to prepare if you’re Skyping with a family – they’ll almost always ask you why do you want to be an au pair? It’s kind of like going to a job interview and they ask you why do you want this job and you have to think about it in advance. You know why but you want to be eloquent when you’re talking and have an idea. Those are the things that I thought about.
Did they ask you if you’d had any experience with children before, and was that important, do you think?
Michelle: Yeah on most of the profiles or the websites they will ask you – and a lot of the families will ask as well. They’ll ask what kind of experience – was it babysitting, were you a nanny, are you a teacher – that kind of thing. Sometimes they ask for references so they might ask for previous people that you worked for. In my case, I had babysitting experience like a lot of people had but it was years ago. Probably five years ago. So all my contacts are people that I know from the past.
Luckily I didn’t have to give a reference for this family, it wasn’t like their priority, but I did have to give it to other people. So you have to think about that – someone to vouch for you. It depends on the family – some of them don’t care. If you’re a good person and you seem really personable, they don’t care. Some families really want to go by the book and check you out.
Did any ask for a legal background check?
Michelle: No, they didn’t ask but I’m sure some of them do. Some of them ask some crazy things.
Is France the only country you looked at because you wanted the language skills?
Michelle: I looked in the French part of Switzerland and I also looked in Belgium because they speak French there. I chose this area because it was the closest between France and Switzerland, partly because I love the mountain area. But I looked in all three and I talked to families in all three areas too.
You’re 25 years old right, so there are some age restrictions for different countries. What can you tell me about that?
Michelle: In France the age restriction is close to 30, I believe – I’m not one hundred percent – but in Switzerland it’s 25. You have to check. I was turning 25 and I hadn’t even applied to a family yet. So you have to kind of keep an eye on that. I had a friend who started in Switzerland right before her 25th birthday because you have to. Each country has different rules and frankly I think it’s because the au pair program is supposed to be a young person, that’s going to do things with the kids and be really active and I think that’s why they want them – and if you’re gonna live in a house specifically they might want someone younger who’s use to living with a family.
Did you have to get a work permit? How did you move to the country? Who pays for the move and how do you get the legal right to do this?
Michelle: It all depends on where you’re coming from – which country. Being from Canada, I had to get a visa. All the EU au pairs in France don’t have to get visas obviously, but I had to have one. So you can get one for a max (time) initially of one year and you apply for it a few months in advance. So you want to give yourself some time. For me, I gave myself probably five months. But at least you want to have three months because you never know how long it will take.
You have to fill out a lots of forms and the family starts it off in the country that they’re in at their local government office. They get paperwork and then they have to send that to you so you can go to your government office – the embassy for that country – and apply. I had to make an appointment in advance and fill out a lot of documentation. I needed a university or high school diploma, a lot of ID – copies of passport and all your different forms of ID. You needed an international drivers license – you needed a bunch of things. They ask you for a medical background check but then they didn’t use it in my case.
When you get your visa and arrive at customs within the first week I had to fill out more paperwork at the local office here. In France it’s very complicated (laughs) – they send you more papers through the mail and they make an appointment for you for a medical exam – so even if you had one at home they won’t accept it you have to go to their doctor. You get a chest x-ray and a medical exam, like a physical. They ask you questions about what you do at home and then they stamp your passport with a residency permit. You have to get that within three months of arriving here and if not, and you travel outside of France on vacation and then come back, they could give you problems because you don’t have official residency. You just have a visa and that’s not always good enough. It’s complicated. There are some things they send you your social security number and your health benefits but you have to apply for them immediately or you won’t get them.
So you get French health insurance by working there as a nanny?
Michelle: It’s the French social security – it’s kind of like what citizens would have. I haven’t had to use it yet so I can’t tell you too much about it (laughs) – what it covers. But I heard today that it covers the basic, minimum stuff and you still have to pay extra on top with whatever you’re doing. But then I also checked travel insurance because I thought that would be a really smart idea cause I traveled before and I found it really useful. It’s not that expensive if you’re young to get travel insurance. I think I paid about $400 all year. So that means if I travel anywhere else outside of France I feel safer, I know that I have that too.
Because you’re Canadian, I thought your Canadian health insurance would transfer overseas but you got the travel insurance anyway?
Michelle: You can’t use your Canadian insurance here. If you’re traveling more than a couple weeks you need extra insurance. You have to tell health Canada that you’re leaving if you’re gone for so many months – I think it’s six months in a year – if you don’t write and tell them you’re traveling then they can cancel your insurance there so when you go back you have to do all this paperwork. It’s a lot of planning.
So this isn’t something you can do on the spur of the moment. It does take a little planning and paperwork.
Michelle: Well it depends on the country. I had friends who came from other EU countries and they came within a month. But if you’re coming from far away and you’re not coming from the EU then you need to plan. You can still do it in a couple months but you’ll be really scrambling, I think.
So do you know French?
Michelle: I do. I had a basic knowledge when I came here – semi-conversational. Because I work in Canada in English and French, sometimes. But I was never really comfortable using it there. Now I’m learning. Part of the visa that I forgot to mention is you have to take classes (in French). So the government wants to see that you’re taking a class to actively learn the language because the point of au pairing in a way is to do a cultural exchange.
Really! So you have to take language classes – that’s interesting.
So then your family has to allow you the time for that, I would think.
Michelle: Yeah, so the law in France just changed last year. You used to have to take it in Geneva if you live close and that means you can take it at night and go on your own time. But now, they’re saying that all au pairs have to take French class in France which kind of makes sense but for me, I have to go to my French class in the middle of the day three times a week so the family really has to make time. If you’re looking after the kids, the whole point is that you’re there during the day but then you have to go to this class – so it is a bit tricky.
So how do they (the French) monitor that – or do they? Or is it an honesty issue?
Michelle: They ask for the paperwork when you register in Canada for your visa. They have to see that you’ve paid the first semester or sometimes they ask for both semesters. You have to show that you’ve actively subscribed to the class.
Do you know any other au pairs in other countries? Is it similar anywhere else in the EU?
Michelle: Yeah, I know au pairs in Switzerland and they have to take classes. I don’t think they have to go to a specific school. In my case, I do. I know they have to show that they’re taking a class. I think it really depends on the country. I was happy to take a class. Another thing about the classes is that when you’re applying and meeting families you need to ask them who’s paying for the class? Am I paying for it or are you paying for it? Because in Switzerland, for example, they have to pay for your class. In France, they don’t have to pay for it. So it’s something you have to check out.
Right. So do you have a year contract / a year visa? How does that work?
Michelle: It’s a contract first and it’s also a year visa. You can extend the visa up to six months. You can technically be here a year and a half as an au pair in the same country.
I see. Are you happy that you did this? You’ve been there how long now?
Michelle: Three months. Yeah, I’m happy now. Definitely learning French. This is totally different from the work I was doing before at home. I wasn’t working with kids. I was working in an office with adults and every day is a little different here and I kind of like that, it’s a really nice change. I don’t think I could do it forever. I definitely know one year and a bit I think I’ll be ready to return back to something else. But it’s a really good experience and I’m learning a lot. I’m learning a lot about patience (laughs). And I learned to drive standards, so that was kind of exciting.
Michelle: and scary – driving in France is insane (laughs).
Yeah! It is crazy. Do you get weekends off? Do you travel with them? Do you travel a lot on your own?
Michelle: I have weekends off. Most people do unless they ask you specifically or they’ve made an arrangement with you. I have every other Wednesday off – that’s specific to this family. No, I don’t really travel that much. I haven’t done that yet. I’m certainly always included in events and things that go on here in the house so I don’t feel left out.
Sometimes I want to travel on my own too and so I take days and do my own thing. Au pair’s get vacation. I think it’s a minimum of two weeks that they have to give you in France but you can negotiate more because two weeks isn’t very much. So I have four weeks vacation with this family. It’s good.
That’s fantastic. So anything else you might do differently? Last bits of advice you would give someone who is thinking of doing this?
Michelle: I would say just don’t hesitate to ask a lot of questions in the beginning because I was always at home debating should I write that, should I email that – because once you choose them they could still say no. I was always thinking – I’m not sure if I should ask that question – maybe it’s too forward (laughs) but I would just ask your questions because you’re going to live with them, so you want to know and you want to be direct. You should think of it as a good thing and exciting. I’m always a nervous traveler but it’s a worthwhile experience.
That’s great! Well, thank you so much for chatting today and I wish you the best of luck with your position and all your travel there in France.
Michelle: Thank you.