In addition to positive au pair experiences, sometimes I like to feature negative experiences as well. Sadly when I was an au pair I knew a lots of girls who were mistreated by their host families- it's more common than you might think.
So today we're hearing from Scottish au pair Karina. Karina, who au paired in Venice, decided to leave her host family after having severe communication problems with her host mother.
Karina's Venice au pair story is a reminder that it's really, really important to know your rights as an au pair– some families will try to take advantage of you and it's crucial to know what you legally deserve.
Country of origin: Scotland, UK
Age at time of au pairing: 24
Location: Venice, Italy
Length of stay: 2.5 months
Welcome, Karina! So how did you find your family in Venice? A website, through friends, etc.?
Hello, thanks for having me. After doing lots of research online I registered online with Almondbury and AuPairWorld, and I found I had the most luck with AuPairWorld. Since I was only looking for a summer job Aupairworld suited my needs better, as Almondbury was more long-term.
After talking to several families I had narrowed my choices down to two families, one in a Swiss resort town in the Alps where there were doctor parents with 3 children and the other one was a single lawyer mother in Venice with twin 3 year olds. I decided to go with the Venice family because I had spent some time in Italy previously, and thought it was a good opportunity to improve my Italian – in hindsight I wonder if I should have gone with the Swiss family.
What did you think of Venice 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 (the family were waiting at home for me) so it was a challenge buying the water boat (vaperetto) ticket and then trying to find the address but the entire time I felt as if I was walking around a movie set. You really have to see it to believe it!
What kind of visa were you on?
Luckily due to my British passport I am an EU citizen so I didn’t have any visa requirements.
What was your relationship with the family like? Did you notice problems from the beginning?
The first surprise was that during telephone and email interviews with the mother she told me that she was teaching the children English and that we would be able to communicate with each other. Well when I arrived they could literally only count to 5 in English. The mother's English was okay, but I felt a bit taken aback. It meant I had to speed-learn Italian phrases and commands.
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 kids, a boy and a girl, and they seemed to like me. Three is a tough age, and they were constantly trying to push boundaries but somehow through mixed English and Italian they were listening to me and we managed to get along well.
Did you live with the family or did you have your own apartment?
The family lived in a top floor two bedroom apartment with a lovely long balcony outside, and the mother and children slept in her bedroom and I had the children’s bedroom next door to theirs. My room was small with two twin beds, there were cupboards but they were full of the twins' clothes so I had to lay my clothes out on the second bed and treat that as my wardrobe.
I didn’t realise, but Venice gets VERY hot over summer (38 degrees Celcius, or 100 degrees Fahrenheit is the norm) and there was no air conditioning so 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? Did you cook for the family?
As we lived three blocks away from the beach I would take the children at 8 a.m. to the beach, where the mother had rented a cabana with 6 other families over the summer to use. Once at the cabana I would change the children into their swimming clothes and apply sunscreen which as you can expect took some time! Then I would speed-change into my swimsuit and we would either spend the morning playing in the sand, or in the shallows of the water.
Once or twice the kids tried to run away and they seemed to enjoy going up to strangers and talking to them, sometimes even trying to hold hands with them and walk away. This is when I really struggled with the language barrier because I couldn’t explain to them that they need to be cautious talking to strangers, and that they needed to listen to me when I called after them.
At around 11:30 I would take the kids to the communal showers and dress them again, and we would walk home for lunch. I would cook them lunch (pasta usually) and sit down with them while they ate and then it was my favorite time of day… nap time! I would settle them down to sleep in my room (pushing the clothes off the bed) and all three of us would sleep for a couple of hours.
After nap time we would either go to the park or the beach, until half 5 when we would walk back and wait for mamma to come back from work. By that time I was so exhausted I usually just stayed in my room until after dinner, either writing or reading (no wifi or TV in the house).
It was only when I was back in the UK that I looked up the EU Regulations for au pairs and saw 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. I would say my biggest regret is not knowing my rights and blindly going into it.
My wages worked out to 1.25 euros an hour, whereas the babysitting wage in Italy can be extortionate – sometimes 15 euros an hour so you can see why having an au pair in Italy is an economical route to take.
How did you entertain/educate the children?
I tried to talk to the children in English and Italian and the kids were picking up the occasional English phrase, I also made them say please and thank you when receiving any treats which they had never said before.
The children enjoyed it when I played a “monster” and chased them in the beach and tickled them, and we played the odd game with toys. I really wish I could have spoken Italian better because I had so many ideas in my mind about playing wild imaginary games, I just couldn’t convey them.
I enjoyed the quiet times when they would sit on my lap and we would read a book together, and I would get them to point out animals or objects and try and teach them the English words for them.
Meal times were a struggle, often the girl wouldn’t eat and the boy would throw his food and everything was a game to them. There were definitely times when I felt completely out of my depth, I can remember one time it was a Saturday (my day off) and 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 having a freak out about it screaming and crying, all while other families looked on.
While I tried to deal with this I was calling and calling the mother and she didn’t answer, and when she eventually did answer and come 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 and completely felt helpless.
Did you take Italian classes while you were in Venice?
No, the mother said they were too expensive. Google translate became my savior.
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.
How did you spend your free time?
Id usually spend my evenings going on long walks down the beach to the less touristy places, or meeting up with au pair friends for gelato. I had weekends off so I tried to explore as much as possible with my vaporetto pass and visited neighboring islands.
How did you make friends? Were there many expats/fellow au pairs?
Luckily I found a Facebook group called “Au Pair in Italy” and posted a comment asking if there were any other girls in Venice, turns out there was a few! We formed a strong friendship group of 4 and then at weekends au pairs from further afield would join us for dinners out or weekends to Verona.
I found myself watching families on the beach and trying to guess if they were an au pair or not, once or twice I bumped into fellow au pairs which was nice.
What was the dating scene like in Venice?
Unfortunately I had a boyfriend back home at the time so I didn’t get to see. Men were extremely forward though, one night a guy who took a fancy to one of my au pair friends handed us all red roses and bought us Prosecco in an attempt to woo her which was fun. The way the culture is there, it would be very easy to go and pick up someone if you wished.
When did you decide it was time to leave the family? And how did you leave?
There’s a bit of a story to what happened, my time was cut short by three weeks due to a rather disastrous holiday due to miscommunication. After a long drive up to the Dolomite mountains with the mother, children and grandparents we arrived at this little apartment and after I hauled all the luggage into the house I discovered that I was expected to share a bedroom with the mother and twins for two weeks.
Again, by EU law this is highly wrong as an au pair has a right to have their own bedroom with a lock (something I didn’t even have back in Venice). This, coupled with the fact that after weeks of promising a “holiday” in the mountains only to discover I was actually going to work extra since there was no escape from the family left me feeling dejected and trapped.
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.
I was so shocked I didn’t retaliate, and they watched me pack my bags and I was literally stranded in this village in the mountains with only 50 euros to my name. After a teary phone call to my mum who thankfully was able to book me a hotel room in Verona I waited for a few hours and got a train to Verona, then 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 communicated 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.
Overall would you recommend working in Venice?
Absolutely, Venice is such a wonderful place to explore in and there’s always something to do. Since it is so small you get to know it really well and after a while you feel like a local. However if you are sensitive to the sun and heat I would not recommend going between July and August as these months really are unbearable with the heat.