Today we’re kicking off my new series Au Pair Horror Stories by hearing from Scottish au pair, Karina. Karina, 24, decided to leave her host family in Venice after only 2.5 months.
Karina’s story is a reminder that it’s important to know your rights as an au pair. As Karina’s experience shows, some families will try to take advantage of you, and it’s crucial to know what you legally deserve.
How did you find your family in Venice?
After doing lots of research, I registered online with Almondbury and AuPairWorld. After browsing families, I decided to choose an Italian family living in Venice. The mother was a single mother and lawyer with twin 3-year-olds, a boy and a girl.
What did you think of the family when you first arrived?
Arriving in Venice was like a dream come true, I had to make my way from the Airport to Venice alone, as the family were waiting at home for me.
The family situation was less dreamy. The mother was a busy lawyer and was out of the house from 8 a.m.- 6 p.m. so I only saw her in the evenings. I managed to build up a good relationship with the twins and they seemed to like me. But three is a tough age, and they were constantly trying to push boundaries.
What was your relationship with the family like? When did you start to notice problems?
The first surprise was that the mother had told me that the children knew English. Well, when I arrived they could only count to 5 in English. The mother’s English was okay, but I felt a bit taken aback. Her dishonesty meant I had to speed-learn Italian phrases and commands.
Did you live with the family?
Yes. My room was small with two twin beds. I didn’t realise, but Venice gets VERY hot over summer (100 degrees Fahrenheit is the norm) and there was no air conditioning. I asked for a little fan which became my best friend over my stay there. There was a bathroom down the hall which we shared.
What duties did you have?
Looking back, I worked way too much and was grossly underpaid. EU regulations for au pairs say that legally au pairs are only allowed to work for 5 hours a day, and I had the children for 10.
Since the mother was a lawyer she obviously knew this and even didn’t put down any hours in the contract so I couldn’t pull her up about it. My biggest regret is not knowing my rights and blindly going into it.
My wages worked out to be 1.25 euros an hour. The babysitting wages in Italy can be extortionate – up to 15 euros an hour. So you can see why having an au pair in Italy is an economical route to take.
What was your biggest struggle with the kids?
Mealtimes were a struggle, as the girl wouldn’t eat and the boy would throw his food. Everything was a game to them.
Once, only my only day off, I had to take the twins to the park while the mother got her car fixed. The children weren’t listening to me and almost out of protest the boy soiled himself, and the girl was screaming and crying, all while other families looked on.
I called and called the mother but she didn’t answer. When she finally got to the park, she was angry I had thrown the boy’s soiled underwear in the bin, because apparently I could have scraped it off and washed the underwear. Even with vast babysitting experience, I’d never dealt with those circumstances. I felt completely helpless.
Were there any cultural barriers you noticed?
Some. For example, being British I love tea and struggled to find some decent tea. Also, the mother tried to tell me to stop showering every day because it wasted water. Considering it was extremely hot I politely declined her request.
When did you decide it was time to leave the family?
My time was cut short by three weeks due to a rather disastrous holiday. After a long drive up to the Dolomite mountains with the mother, children, and grandparents we arrived at a little apartment. It was then I discovered that I was expected to share a bedroom with the mother and twins for two weeks.
By EU law this is highly illegal, as an au pair has a right to have their own bedroom with a lock (something I didn’t even have back in Venice).
I tried to stick it out, but after two nights there was a heated conversation with the mother and grandmother both shouting at me and eventually, the mother told me to leave, all in front of the children.
And you decided to go?
I was so shocked I didn’t retaliate, and they watched me pack my bags. I was literally stranded in a mountain village with only 50 euros to my name. After a teary phone call to my mum, my mum was thankfully able to book me a hotel room in Verona. After a night’s sleep, I was able to go to an au pair friend’s house in Venice and then I paid 300 euros to get the next flight back to the UK.
The mother wouldn’t let me collect the rest of my belongings from the house (she trusted me enough to look after her children for 10 hours a day but not to spend the rest of the holiday back alone in the apartment in Venice) so I had to argue with her via email to get her to post my things back to me. The whole thing was an ordeal but I learnt a lot from it about knowing your rights and standing up for yourself.
If you could go back and change anything, what would you do differently?
Firstly, I would not have gone in blind without knowing what rights au pairs have. After all the research I did about finding the right family and what’s expected of an au pair this part of it completely blindsided me.
Also, I would have tried to communicate more with the mother. Even if the language barrier is tough it is vital to both be on the same page which we evidently weren’t. I would have been more firm about having time off, and about asking her to tell the children not to talk to strangers or run off.
I would not recommend going to a family who don’t speak good English, have wifi/tv or have air conditioning. All of these factors left me feeling extremely homesick at times.
Once I got back to the UK I didn’t want to give up on the Italian dream so I found a much more suitable family in Milan who I stayed with and became so close to that I have been back to visit 4 times, and the family will be visiting Scotland this summer as well. If you match with a bad family don’t give up hope, just be more picky about the next family you go to and there will be a happy ending.
Also, I cannot stress how important it is to have a supportive network of fellow au pairs, there is a great group on FB called “Desperate Au Pairs” where you can post your problems/stories and other au pairs can try to assist you. Sadly I only found out about this once I had left.
Thank you so much, Karina, for sharing your story! Does anyone else have an au pair horror story? (I hope not!)