La tour Eiffel’s elegant frame decorates walls and bedside tables of hopeful Parisians all over the world. This tall overbearing symbol of Paris has come to represent a fantasy thousands of people aspire to, which explains why France remains one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world.
However, for some, simply traveling to Paris won’t quite satisfy the French craving. Instead, becoming an au pair may seem like the perfect solution.
Yes, the experience will be unimaginably rewarding, but don’t plan on a perfect, fantasy-fulfilling trip either. The most difficult aspect of living in Paris is remembering you’re living in an actual place, not some idealized figment glittering in magazines and movies. There are both harsh and beautiful realities of Paris – of living in a place imbued with grace and effervescent culture.
Alors voilà, based on my personal experience, I give you the pros and cons of au pairing in Paris. Bonne chance!
“But you’re in Paris” – the guilt
Unlike smaller, more obscure cities, Paris can instill an overbearing sense of guilt upon its expats. Guaranteed, nearly everyone you meet will gush over your good fortune. “You get to live in Paris?” They’ll say. “You’re so lucky!” Living in Paris can be a wonderful opportunity, but life is life no matter where you live, and the fleeting moments of anxiety, or loneliness, or simple blues that scatter our everyday lives exist in Paris just as they do everywhere else. But here, in this white and golden city, when everyone is describing your perfect life, it’s possible to feel ashamed of your own sadness. Avoid their opinions and you’ll be golden.
Children make up words no matter where they are
True story. You may think your vocabulary is expanding. You may believe you’ve become nearly bilangue, and perhaps even be proud of your newly acquired French skills. And then you’ll repeat one of the words your precious au pair child uttered at bath time the other night. People will stare. They will cock perfectly arched eyebrows in vague concern – and then you’ll realize: fambeau is not a real word.
The term ‘manny’ exists for a reason
Anglophiles have created the word ‘manny’ to account for the sparse male nannies scattered throughout the country. Similarly, in Paris, you’ll be fortunate to encounter one, let alone two men in the au pair program. Results: young women drooling over the only options. You have been warned.
Speaking of mannies – let’s discuss your love life, or rather, lack thereof.
Excusez-moi? Isn’t Paris the most romantic city in the world? That’s honestly part of the problem. You may fall in love, you may not, and it will have nothing to do with the surrounding grandeur and romance of Paris. Unfortunately, Paris has garnered a set of expectations it cannot possibly meet, so hopeful romantics leave disillusioned year after year – not because it’s impossible to find love, but simply because Paris is a real place with real people and real problems, where romance may surround you, but love is just elusive as ever.
Nearly every Paris expat cringes in horror at the very mention of French bureaucracy. If you’re an American, you’ll face significantly more challenges moving forward in the au pair process than your British counterparts. No matter your citizenship though, becoming an au pair requires novels of paperwork, and an extremely high attention to detail. For example, you cannot set up your bank account until you receive an address, which may take up to a month, and you cannot submit your official government paperwork until you have your bank account RIB (le Relevé d’Identité Bancaire). The first few months in Paris may require a mad dash to secure every last detail of your living arrangements, but most people survive with just a smattering of scratches and bruises.
Becoming apart of your French family’s life will be a memorable experience. Whether it’s incredibly awful or incredibly wonderful depends both on attitude and chemistry, some of which you cannot control. One of my friends found himself in an unfortunate situation in which the mother didn’t return home until 2 or 3 in the morning, and since most Paris au pairs actually live outside of the family’s apartment, he couldn’t simply go to sleep if she decided to work late – and he was never paid overtime. Other au pairs traveled with their families on holiday, or were invited to parties and functions, only to realize once they arrived that the family actually expected them to work the entire time. Yes, you’re there to work, but expectations need to be made clear on both ends, and the lack of communication can prove detrimental to many au pair relationships.
Enough of the negative. Why should you be an au pair in Paris? Let me count the ways.
Given la ville lumière’s close proximity to the rest of continental Europe, as well as the London Chunnel, Paris is perfectly situated to explore much of Europe. If your bank account doesn’t deplore your daily baguette purchases and expensive rent too much, hop on trains and planes to explore the rugged cliffs of Cornwall, or winding, vibrant streets of Barcelona.
Your job will never be this personal again
Being an au pair puts you in a highly unique position. You become the child’s primary caretaker, and shoulder the responsibility for his/her general well being, with duties oftentimes including cooking and bathing, depending on the child’s age. You’ll know which medication the child needs, what she eats, which socks she simply must wear to bed, and the names of her closest friends. Although some awkwardness cannot be avoided, you’ll be deeply apart of these people’s lives, and nothing quite compares to that experience.
Oui, I believe the tiny chambre de bonne you will most likely inhabit is more of a pro to living in Paris than a con. No, you may not have a lot of space. And yes, if you’re like me, your hot plate may short-circuit your power, and the window incapable of closing may make feisty pigeons think they’re cool enough to fly into your bedroom/office/kitchen. However, at the end of the day, your tiny space will improve your space management skills.
Bilingual evenings – and multi-cultural nights
Even if the children make up words – which they probably will – you will undoubtedly improve your French. Your days will pass in a haze of making dinner and, sometimes, changing diapers, but over time, you’ll realize your accent sounds less obtrusive, your sentences less awkward, and you’ll be able to celebrate the small victories of correctly conjugating irregular verbs – or even learning each form of future progressive. After a whole day of French immersion, you can sample the fascinating nighttime scene of Paris, where people of mingling cultures and languages pour over each other. Even if you don’t become fluent in another tongue, you will at least pick up a phrase here or there, and be exposed to vastly different cultural mindsets.
The clichés become reality
Although flawed and wrought with nearly unmanageable complexity, la ville lumière has retained an image of splendor and beauty for a reason. People fawn over the effortless Parisian elegance because it remains impossible to replicate. For a short while, you’ll live in a world of Monet and Van Gogh, Sartre and Hugo – of culture and life and vestiges of these infamous characters dripping across monuments around the city. And still, to this day, the very notion of a pain aux amandes makes my mouth water. Meandering walks through the Marais, fresh bouquets of tulips on the cusp of spring (the lovely ones you can’t quite afford), the sound of a softly-accented French couple nearby – the actualization of these many clichés will all remain imprinted in your mind for days and months and years after you leave. Paris is Paris – and the unimaginable beauty may break your heart, and it may put you back together, but it will all be lovely.
Why would you want to be an au pair in Paris? I’d love to hear your thoughts!
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Alex is a traveling writer, ardent reader, and perpetual expat who has lived in Bordeaux, London, and Paris, and currently resides under the shadow of Edinburgh Castle. She kissed a stingray for good luck once and so far it seems to be working. To follow this book-lover’s adventures, check out her blog, Bon Voyage Mon Chéri, or follow along on her Instagram at BonVoyageAlex.