A German Au Pair in America

The Au Pair Experience

For many young people, the question pops up at the latest when their exams are looming: What am I going to do after school? Young German Nicole Hampel reports on her decision to work as an au pair in the USA.
by Petra Schönhöfer

Anyone who wants to take a trip across the Pond can’t be afraid of getting their feet wet. This could be Nicole Hampel’s advice to all those young people who don’t yet know in which direction they want to go after school. The young woman from Lengenfeld near Landsberg am Lech in Upper Bavaria was faced with this same situation herself in 2011. “I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do after my A Levels. I was toying with the idea of taking a year out to live life a little and learn more about myself.”

Friends had often told her about an au pair agency near her hometown that arranged placements for young Germans with host families in New Zealand, Australia and the USA. She was quite taken by the idea of living and working abroad with a family and living everyday life as the locals do. “Australia would have been exciting, but for me it was out of the question because of all the poisonous animals”, smiles Nicole, now 22. “New Zealand is also a fascinating country, but in the end I went for the USA, because it offers the best conditions for foreign au pairs, like health insurance.” And so it was.

The first step towards working as an au pair in America was a written application to the agency. The form gives all applicants the opportunity to state where they would like to be placed, following which corresponding host families likewise registered at the agency are informed. But Nicole decided not to state a preference. “I wanted to see where life would take me.” It led her straight to host parents in a small town in Westchester County, about half an hour by train from the metropolis that is New York City.

A series of emails and Skype chats it was clear after that Nicole and her host family had clicked; now nothing stood in her way. “I can still remember saying goodbye to my family at the airport like it was yesterday”, says Nicole. “It was my first long-haul flight, and I was so excited I couldn’t sleep.”

She arrived in Manhattan on a rainy evening. This was where the orientation week was to take place, during which all future au pairs learn the most important things about their host country. “My first impression of the city was overwhelming”, recalls Nicole. “When I went outside again after dinner I didn’t dare walk further than a block for fear of getting lost.” Today Nicole is able to laugh at her initial uncertainty, for she has come to know New York like the back of her hand. “But back then I was a little girl coming from the village to the big city.”

After the orientation week, during which she met a lot of interesting people and learned a great deal, the moment she had been waiting for arrived: Nicole finally met her host family, with whom she would live and work for 21 months. Naturally she was particularly excited to meet the children, five-year-old Johan and eight-year-old Mila. One of her main tasks would be to look after them. She was well prepared in this respect. For years Nicole had taught children’s courses and worked with young people at her figure skating club and had also worked as a babysitter and completed work experience at a play school. Getting the kids dressed, making their breakfast and driving them to school was second nature for Nicole. She helped out with the washing and the shopping, helped the children with their homework and the cooking, which they all ate together in the evening.

Yet not everything always runs smoothly when your host family is also your employer. Working as an au pair is not like taking a year out, it is a job, with the scope and duties stated in writing as though in a contract. But that was no problem for Nicole. “I got on great with my host family and felt like a real member of the family in no time at all,” she enthuses. So it was virtually a matter of course that she would spend the holiday with her family in the Hamptons in the first year. “And I was always out in my free time. I met up with friends in the city in the evening, to go shopping, cook together or just for a chat. I also went on several short breaks, including to Boston, Washington, Philadelphia and Niagara Falls.”

Thus gradually Nicole got to know a country that only a short while before had been completely foreign to her. Comparisons with her native Germany were only inevitable. “The food is the first thing. Although we didn’t have typical American food in my household, because my host father came from Ghana and my host mother from India.” She was particularly surprised at Americans’ open-mindedness. “I had actually thought that I was an open-minded person. But compared to Americans, Germans suddenly seemed very insular to me.” Initially she herself resolutely stretched out her hand to avoid the ubiquitous hug of greeting. Such closeness, directness, indeed “superficiality” made Nicole uncomfortable. “I was called the ‘friend from Germany’ even by people I had just met five minutes before.”

But gradually Nicole came to like this easy-going attitude. “People are generally friendlier and more helpful than in Germany, which makes for a pleasant atmosphere.” Even in Manhattan, where everyone rushes along on their daily business, Nicole thinks there is a “relaxed rush.” “I knew I would miss that when I came back to Germany.”

And did she miss home in America? “To be honest I wasn’t that homesick”, admits Nicole. “I was very busy right from the start with my duties and focussed on settling into life in the USA.” And although she fell “madly in love with New York”, as she says, she didn’t really have much trouble settling back into life in Germany after almost two years. “I got straight back into job interviews and job hunting,” says Nicole, who is soon to start training to become a paediatric nurse in Munich. “And although some good friends say I haven’t changed at all, I feel much more independent thanks to my time as an au pair. I learned a great deal during this time. There were several occasions where I had to stand on my own two feet, without being able to ask my mum or my best friend for advice.” This experience has made her more mature, says Nicole. A development, she thinks, you can even see in the photos from these two years.

She doesn’t regret a single day of it and would wholeheartedly recommend working as an au pair abroad to other young people. “You get to know another culture, as well as yourself. And even if something doesn’t go according to plan, I can always say: I gave it a shot.”

by Petra Schönhöfer