beginning of 2014 I embarked on a five month stint as an au pair in France.
Honestly, I wasn't sure what to expect, and I was kind of over it before I had
already started, but trying to think of a quicker, cheaper and easier way to
learn a language didn't quite crop up in my one lingual brain, so I hopped over
to France to learn a certain je ne sais quoi. When I first
told my family and friends I was planning to become an au pair I was met with
stares, question marks and awkward silences. I'm not the biggest fan of
children, especially rich children, so this seemed an interesting path for me
to take. But I knew moving to France would be the best way to learn French
quickly, and being an au pair seemed the easiest way to accomplish my goal.
So mid 2013 I signed myself up to www.aupairworld.com and I began my search. What seemed like a million and one searches later I found my family. I was quite particular in what I wanted, as I didn't want to settle for any old crap. I knew I didn't want young babies or toddlers, I didn't want a family who spoke English in the house, I didn't want to be out of pocket and I wanted a place to meet plenty of Frenchies my age. After many messages and Skype calls I realised it would be difficult to find a fully French speaking family, as so many families want their au pair to speak English to their children, or even everyone in the household. In the end I kind of settled. I got a French family, but with bilingual kids whom I had to speak English to. The family lived near Paris, no cleaning was involved, I had my own car, I would get paid €100 a week plus my French lessons and petrol and the two girls were 10 and 11 years old, therefore not needing my aid to feed and bathe them.
I thought speaking French to the parents would be enough and that having to speak English to the kids wouldn't be a big deal in my mission to learn French, however it wasn't as successful as I'd hoped. I don't want to go into too much detail about the whole five months and what I did day to day but basically my role was to drive the kids to school at 7:30am, pick them up at 5pm, and basically watch them until the parents got home from work, which ranged from 5pm-8pm. Sounds like an easy job for a few hours of work a day and a €100 cash in hand but oh no. The youngest girl was quite the nightmare, with screaming, crying and generally enough to make me want to throw her in the Seine. The parents were by no means pushovers, and they didn't let her get away with murder, but with the amount of au pairs these kids had had there was quite an uneven discipline system, which meant this girl thought she could run riot around anyone that wasn't her parent.
The main reason I'm writing how bad this kid was is a hope that other future au pairs can read this and know that they have to lay the law down on their first day! This is really tough as you don't know how much authority you have, and even if the parents want you to discipline their kids. Obvious rules of no hitting, no swearing etc go without saying but are you allowed to ban the kids from the TV if they act like little shits? My advice here is to go all out! It's better to lay your laws down and have the parents say, "take it down a notch" than for your kids to play hell. If anything, the parents will feel embarrassed that you're the one disciplining their brats, and not them, so they'll probably back you up.
However, every family is different. I'm not just talking about how to deal with the kids, but your general role and how you play a part in their day to day lives. During my time in France I of course met other au pairs and all of their roles ranged massively:
- One friend had to clean her house for at least three hours a day, and she was told it wasn't good enough, so she left after a month
- Another friend played the chef, the chauffer, the tutor and the au pair. She would spend all weekend cooking for her family, as their house was also a type of B&B/adventure weekend retreat
- A girl I knew was tortured by her kids. They used to hid her toothbrush then bring it back to her after they cleaned a drain with it
- Another friend looked after two young boys so had to spend all her time playing with Lego, much to her disappointment
This does sound like a few mixed experiences where some families sound like hell and some may want you to sign up in a second, but overall after everything I have said I would still do it again and I know a lot of other au pairs that would as well! Even though my French didn't improve as much as I would have hoped, mainly because the parents of my family kept speaking English to me... but I did pick up a hell of a lot and most of my time was spent in Paris with my friends, technically getting paid for it. It's a strange but wonderful experience and it gives you the opportunity to live in a place for a few hours of work a day, whilst learning a language. But just do your research! If you have time then search for the perfect family and ask them a million questions until you realise exactly what you want! I wish I'd picked a fully French speaking family, but I don't regret the location or the bonuses that my family provided me (car, lessons etc.) Also, make sure you Skype them as that first impression can tell you everything! Also, make sure you have a contract in case they try and make you work all day every day!
But overall, enjoy it and if you're doing it to learn a language then get stuck in! And last but not least, don't take any shit from these kids, you're older, probably bigger and you don't have to live with them forever.
In early 2014 James and I took an 11 day trip across the Baltics and Poland. We ventured from Tallinn (Estonia) to Riga (Latvia) and to Vilnius (Lithuania) before getting to Poland. Three countries which surprised me with their beauty, and three countries I think you should visit! Here are ten reasons why...
1. Beer – maybe the only reason you should visit? There are great local beers within the Baltics and they are crazy cheap! Think €1 to €2 for a pint. What more could you want? Get booking a trip now!
2. Naughty Squirrel Backpackers – one of the best hostels I’ve stayed in. I can’t exactly think why but I really liked this hostel. It’s right in the centre of Riga with incredibly friendly staff always offering a hand to help. There’s a bar right next to reception offering a great little atmosphere and nothing too intense.
3. Everyone speaks English – as much as I hate this fact, because I believe English speakers should attempt to learn another language and not expect everyone to understand what we’re saying, been able to understand everything does travelling the Baltics that much easier.
4. Black Balsam – a type of spirit/drink in Latvia that apparently is great for curing colds so I was told. This is a kind of herby drink which tastes like nothing I’ve tasted before but it certainly cleared my sinuses. Pretty strong and available at most bars in Riga.
5. Buses – the buses I took between the Baltics (Tallinn-Riga-Vilnius) were about €20 for four-hour trips with Wi-Fi. Sounds a bit of an odd reason to visit the Baltics but you could book these buses online and they were plenty of them. Plus free Wi-Fi. On a bus. Is that even available in the UK?
6. Walking tours – in countries such as the Baltics, but also similar in Eastern European countries, walking tours are common and they are free! Granted, you are pretty much obliged to tip but it’s worth it. I don’t think free walking tours are as common or available at all, in the more expensive European cities such as Paris, Berlin or London. Locals always run these tours, they’re also full of other backpackers and they’re never dull. The locals take you to the actually interesting places in each city rather than what you might get from an older, paid tour.
7. Liberation – in 1991 the ‘Baltic Way took place which involved approximately two million people joining hands to form a human chain to show liberation from the Soviet Union. I find this a great part of history to learn about and it’s very apparent in the culture of these countries. Also, as these countries were liberated quite recently, you can see still some Soviet Union architecture in the capitals, which is also really interesting and different to any other European country I have visited.
8. Food – again, just like the beer, CHEAP! Dig right into the local dishes; you’ll be pleasantly surprised! And much to my joy and surprise, there was a hell of a lot of vegetarian options that were nearly all labelled separately on the menus. Try some dumplings, beetroot, pancakes and cabbage. Yep that’s right, cabbage.
9. St Petersburg – even though I didn’t voyage on this trip, you can get day trips from Tallinn to St Petersburg without needing to get a Russian visa.
10. Last and most importantly, these places won’t break the bank. Apart from the beer and food I have mentioned, everything is really reasonable. I paid around €10 for decent hostels and taxis are affordable enough to take a fair few. Overall, my advice is to go the Baltics, the capitals are beautiful, the people are friendly and it’s an awesome place to experience.
No matter what time of year
it is, I still think it’s important to have some kind of travel aims for the
year. At the start of the year I made a paper list of what I wanted to achieve
this year, and now I thought I would share it with the world. Or whoever reads
At the moment I’m an au pair just outside of Paris, France. My plan is to stay here until August at the earliest, but who knows what could change.
1. Visit the Pompidou Centre, Paris
2. Go to three new countries
3. Scout out the Paris vintage shops
4. Learn French
5. Make French friends
6. Go to the Champagne Region, Reims in France
7. Visit Monaco
8. Go to Oktoberfest
9. Visit all of the Chanel shops in Paris
10. Watch a French film in a French cinema and understand it
11. Do some form of skiing or snowboarding, or at least book a trip for next year
12. Go out of Europe
While you’re here check out my 2013 travel resolutions to see what I managed to tick off.
(Disclaimer blah blah, Backpack Bug is not affiliated
or sponsored by any of the companies/websites below, this is our opinion only. As
much as I’d like these companies to pay me to write about them, unfortunately this
is not the case…)
At the moment I’m living in France and attempting to learn the language. I have the freedom in my life to be able to leave a place at the drop of a hat and move to another country. Hence why I now live in France, because I want to be able to speak fluent in French. However, been in France has taught me it will take much more than just living here to improve my language, so here are some ways you can improve without having to pack up your life and leave your country.
1. Skype Exchange – Skype exchange is probably the most effective way to improve your language if you aren’t surrounded by it every day. At the moment I use the website www.conversationexchange.com where I search for native French speakers from France who want to learn English. You can chat via Skype, email or even face-to-face. I tend to type chat on Skype the most, as it still does take a lot of confidence to call someone up, but the people you speak to are aware of your language ability, and no doubt they will make mistakes in English so you just have to go for it! I tend to chat half and half when I speak to someone. So we chat for 30 minutes in French, then 30 minutes in English. I also really encourage people to correct my typing and my speech, otherwise it’s pointless. Some people feel too rude to correct you, so make sure you tell them to please correct you. If you aim to chat to someone at least twice a week on Skype, your language will improve massively as your ears are adjusting to a native way of speaking and you have to think on your feet.
2. AnkiDroid Flashcards – I write down any French word I learn, but to actually remember all of the words is the main task. At first I had paper flashcards but they piled up quickly and when I saw a pile of 200+ cards I’d easily put them off. Therefore I downloaded the app ‘AnkiDroid flashcards’ on my mobile. You add flashcards to the app then you rate how easy they were to remember, so if a word was tough it would ask me it again in 10 minutes, but if it was really easy it would ask me the word again in a month’s time. I now have 600+ words and phrases on my app but I’m only ever looking at my flashcards for a maximum of 10 minutes a day. It’s a great way to refresh your memory and keep you up to date with what you know.
3. Lang-8 – www.lang-8.com is a site where natives correct your written language. I write a kind of journal most days, just saying what I did the previous day, and then native French speakers correct my grammar and phrases. The more you correct other peoples work, the more your work will be corrected.
4. Podcasts – I listen to ‘Learn French By Podcast’ which is completely free on iTunes. Even though you have to pay for the lesson script, I choose not to. The podcasts go through typical scenarios you may experience, for example, hiring a car abroad, going to the doctors etc. etc. The podcasts are usually 10-15 minutes and they help me put a lot of verbs in context. I also listen to another French podcast which teaches me a lot of idioms in French. This is a bit too difficult, but it’s still taught me a lot.
5. Couchsurfing – Overall, as much as you know a dictionary of vocab, or you can recite every verb ending in past tense, it’s all kind of pointless unless you can put it into spoken context. Therefore, one of the best ways to learn a language is to just talk with natives. Couchsurfing is a great way to meet other people in your area, and probably a good way to find out if any other nationalities are nearby. I use the site a hell of a lot in France to meet French people my age who want to go for a drink. A lot of the time I don’t have a clue what anyone is saying, but my language has definitely improved just by meeting some Frenchies for a coffee or a glass of wine. Also, so far everyone I have met has been extremely patient and so nice with me, so don’t think you’ll annoy people with your poor language ability, if anything they’ll be happy to help.
Want to tick one of the world’s most militarized societies off your list of places to go? Then you’ve come to the right place. During December of last year I was lucky enough to take a day trip to North Korea through a tour group I’d found in the South Korean capital of Seoul. I’ve wanted to go to North Korea ever since I saw the death of Kim Jong-Il on the BBC in 2011. The atmosphere and general leadership of this country fascinates me, and reminds me greatly of George Orwell’s 1984, which I also love. So as soon as I got some free time when I lived in Japan, I thought it a great opportunity to visit South Korea and take a trip to the bewildering North.
North Korean tours are quite widely available from South Korea, so there is a lot of choice available to you. Before I went on my trip I did my research on the best tour company to go with as I’d heard you have to book a few days in advance, and only been in South Korea for 3 days, I had limited time. Along with the limited time to book such trips, there are also different options on where you should visit so let me break it down for you:
DMZ (Korean Demilitarized Zone) - the DMZ is a strip of land between North and South Korea on both sides of the border. It runs all across the North-South Korea border and is about 4km wide, and I believe it is one of the most heavily militarized borders in the world. Any trip should take you to this section, which is only done by a proper tour company, with a pre-booked tour and a valid passport.
It’s the sections that are visited in the DMZ which make the difference between a good and a great tour:
The 3rd Infiltration Tunnel (also connected to the DMZ Theatre and the Exhibition Hall) - North Korea dug several tunnels to get to the South ever since the end of the Korean War. So far a noticeable four tunnels have been found by South Korea, and they’ve decided to open up their end of the third tunnel to the public. At the end of the day this is just an empty tunnel which you can walk down to a certain point but it is very interesting and the surroundings of the tunnel entrance highlight a lot about the North-South divide. Most tours will visit this tunnel and the neighbouring museum which shows some great documentaries and facts. A must see on the tour.
Dorasan Train Station – there used to be an accessible train station going South Korea to Pyongyang, North Korea, but North Korea decided to stop any access, so now lies an empty, super clean train station. A bit dull to visit as there isn’t actually a great deal to see, so I’d say it isn’t the end of the world if your tour doesn’t go here (but it probably will do).
Dora Observatory – I thought that the Dora Observatory was a key part of the trip. Your tour will take you up to a lookout point, where you will first get a talk from a South Korean army officer (in fluent English) detailing what exactly you can see at the lookout. You can't take pictures past a certain point at the observatory, so I can't show you what lies over the wall, but basically you can peak into North Korea and its closest town to the South Korean border. This town seems like any town with flats and tower blocks, but not all is what it seems. The town is apparently deserted, and the windows of these tower blocks are painted on because North Korean can’t afford to put floors or any other facilities in these buildings. For a more in-depth view you can pay a few pennies for the lookout point binoculars, which gives you a better image into this empty world. A comical part of this trip was the South Korean tour guide asking if we’d seen any North Koreas in the town, as if we were on some kind of safari looking out for a zebra or something.
JSA (Joint Security Area) at Panmunjeom and Camp Bonifas – this is the most important part of the tour and some tours don’t include it so make sure you book JSA, as otherwise the trip is kind of pointless in my opinion. Within this trip you go to Camp Bonifas, the JSA freedom house, the Conference room and the bridge of no return and point of Ax murder.
Camp Bonifas is a U.S army camp and I believe their job is to work with the South Korean army to make sure North Korea behave. Your tour bus will stop here and you will receive a talk from the U.S officers, then they lead you on their tour bus through their camp then into the JSA. At the JSA you can see North Korea and some North Korean guards. You are then allowed to go into a conference room which allows you to step over into the North Korean border. Inside the rooms and surroundings you’ll see some South Korean soldiers who look fierce, and who don’t move all day. Also, they can kill you with one hit I heard so don’t act like an idiot when you’re there. Along with this trip the U.S officers will show you the bridge of no return which used to be an access point between North and South Korea, and also where the incident of the Ax murder happened. The officers will also take you to another lookout point which is an equally important part of the trip.
Overall this trip was incredible and I’d highly recommend anyone to take it. As I said, there are many companies offering these tours, but without the JSA part, I’d argue they are kind of pointless. Also, many tours will only let you book once you’re in Seoul, so I used Koridoor tours as I was able to book online and secure my place before I left Japan, because you need a good 3-4 days to securely book your ticket. My tour was about £70 which included all transport to the DMZ and lunch included. You need a valid passport and that’s about it.
Can you recommend any other tour companies or any other different parts of the trip? If so, just let us know!