Following the article for Au Pair World we’ve had a few people get in touch who want to know specifically about what it’s like to be an au pair in Italy. Especially when Italian is not a language you may have broached before.
Believe us the extent of our Italian was ‘ciao’, ‘pasta’ and ‘pizza’ – or the vocabulary level of a Teenage Ninja Mutant Turtle.
Our Italian host family are now very much like famiglia to us now. See, learning!
Even though going into this seemed risky, it’s a summer we will never forget, and Henry can now call himself a bona fide farmer.
Here are the realities of au pairing in a country like Italy and why you should go for it!
Family Comes First
The classic Italian mother mollycoddles her children and is a lean, mean cooking machine. It’s true in our experience, Italy is a matriarchal society and mamma knows best. Learn to respect this. Italians are warm people who will welcome you into their family if they like you and if you show them you are friendly too. If you can’t laugh, be motherly to the kids you’re charged with looking after and not talkative they will think something is up.
We ate every meal together, even on days off and although parents are protective of the children, they won’t mind if a kid has been naughty and you need to discipline them. Firm but loving and warm was our approach and it earned us a spot in the extended family, hopefully forever more.
Learn the Lingo
Our host family lived in a rural part of Umbria, the heart of Italy. It meant that not many people spoke English. We had to learn fast, a crash course in Italian. We had language apps on our phones which we used for an hour a day, but full immersion was how we got to where we are now – pigeon Italian.
Talking with the family every day, we exchanged Italian for English (vice versa) and the kids learned as we went along and even taught us words and phrases. One word you will need is ‘basta’ which means ‘stop’ not to be confused with ‘pasta’ at the lunch table.
Patience Is A Virtue
This is something we must broach with care. The first thing anyone with experience said when we told them we were au pairing in Italy was – ‘oh Italian kids are spoilt and a nightmare’.
While yes this is true, somehow the adults are all super laid back and lovely individuals, meanwhile the kids in Italy are not used to hearing no and are spoiled by their families. We did witness this, although our family were a bit more on the side of not just giving the kids whatever they ask for.
This culture does make it hard to feel you can discipline kids and it is something to think about before you take on the job. We’re very patient, we’ve had care and hospitality experience, we’re a bit older and still found it frustrating at times.
We also learned from other au pairs we met that their families were not as polite or accommodating as ours. Our advice is you will always have a probationary period in the first week or so. Set the ground rules with the parents straight away, have a meeting after a week and see where you all stand. If you feel like you have no support, then leave.
Don’t forget that this is a cultural exchange! Take time to learn the language, ask questions about life in Italy, go on trips on your days off and cook ALL the food, ever. It was such a delight living in Umbria, we had our own vegetable garden, vineyards close by, we cooked lunch for us and the kids every day and we cooked British dishes some evenings. The kids were in love with Scottish tablet (sugar junkies) and our homemade Yorkshire puddings!
We took the farm van on day trips around the region, visiting Perugia, Assisi, Arezzo, Citta di Castello (our local town), Lago Trasimeno and Florence. There was always a party to organise as our family were wonderful hosts and living on Agri-turismo it meant that there were always tourists on the farm and truffle schools stopping by.
Even if you live in a city, we don’t think you can live in Italy and not fall in love with its culture and its people.
Give Up The 9-5 Mentality
We’ve covered the fact that family comes first when you’re living and working with an Italian family. Another point is that you can forget working a normal shift pattern.
You’ll normally be paid pocket money, with accommodation and food thrown into the deal. This does not mean that you’ll get an easy ride. Mornings (if you’re working in the summer) will be early starts. Preparing breakfast, getting dressed, doing a bit of housework, homework help and playing/activities/English lessons, then its lunch and napping and more playing.
Often it was the case the kids needed babysitting at night too, or help was needed if one parent was away and dinners were always together. If you’re au pairing during a school term it might not be quite as intense but it’s important to remember that the job will be unusual hours and their life is to some extent your life.
The rewards you get back in return, living with and working for a family in Italy is far beyond what we expected. It will be a place we go back to every year we can, and we hope our host family can one day make it to Scotland!
If you’re looking for more general advice on what being an au pair means and practical tips such as where to find host families, check out this article.