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The pros and cons of being an au pair in Switzerland

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The pros and cons of being an au pair in Switzerland
Call this a 'family hike'? Au pair Tessa Mouat in action in Switzerland.
20:42 CET+01:00
What's it really like working for a Swiss family as an au pair? The UK's Tessa Mouat talks about mastering the triple-kiss greeting, kids who may or may not be saying rude words and the Swiss idea of a 'family-friendly hike'.

Nervous beginnings

My path to Switzerland began with me making an online profile on a site dedicated to connecting au pairs with families looking for them –Great Au Pair (though since coming to Switzerland I have discovered most other people made profiles on a site called Au Pair World).

Too terrified to make the first move and contact a family, I just left my profile there on the site. Then a family from Switzerland messaged me, a contract was sent by them to England and signed by me, and suddenly I was set to depart for a country I knew little of beyond neutrality, chocolate and fondue.

But what is it really like being an au pair in Switzerland? While I still feel like I have a lot to discover about this intriguing country, I've compiled some initial thoughts on the pros and cons of the role.

Pro: breathtaking scenery

Switzerland's beauty is everywhere. It's hard for me to hate mornings here in the hills of the canton of Vaud when I wake up with a view of the Mont Blanc, and Geneva's Jet d'Eau fountain reduced to a speck in the distance.

Lake Geneva with Mont Blanc in the background. Photo: AFP

Con: bilingual children

One of the reasons I'm here is to help improve the children's English, and while I'm learning French myself, I'm merely a beginner. This means they take every opportunity they can to talk together in French, scheming and insulting each other whilst I think they've just said a bad word but I can't be sure. At the same time, things can get lost in translation and communication can sometimes be hard.

Pro: different culture

You might not think that there are a lot of cultural differences between European countries such as the UK and Switzerland, but if you look closely you'll find minute things that differ between the two. 

I still find myself exclaiming “Three kisses!” after the obligatory 'La Bise' when I greet people and bid them farewell.

The other day I was shocked when two boys in tracksuits stopped their football game to say "Bonjour" to me. It seems like everyone here is so open and warm, you can be greeted like an old friend when coming across complete strangers on a hike.

Con: sporty host families

I had dreams of being more active and fit as an au pair in Switzerland and so I happily agreed to my first hike with my host family. I thought, “How hard can it be? It's only walking!”

That was until about five seconds in when I started hyperventilating from the effort of the first grassy slope. The children ran freely as if some force of counter gravity was pulling them up, and the host parents, encumbered with all sorts of gear, cheered me along.

Tessa during her explorations of Switzerland.

The Swiss are at one with nature, they master their mountains, hiking, skiing and climbing them as if they are rides at their own version of a theme park. Apparently the hike they took me on was 'family friendly'.

Pro: safety

I was horror-struck when I first saw so many people hitchhiking on the roads of Switzerland in the middle of the night. Devoid of the usual backpacks and practical gear, these were ordinary people on their way home from work or out to meet friends. 

 

My host parents explained how this wasn't an unusual sight – that Switzerland on the whole is very safe and hitch-hiking is seen as a legitimate way to get around [at least where we are]. Having walked home myself in the dark now many times, I can attest to a feeling of safety that I can't say I have felt in any other country.

Con: isolation

As an au pair, I am a lone stay-at-home worker, which means things can get a bit quiet sometimes. My host family also live in the mountains so the isolation is more intense, especially since most people can't speak English here. I've made a lot of au pair friends, but I feel like I'm missing out on making Swiss friends because of the language barrier and the nature of my work.

And while I have a lot of free time in this role, I have to be careful with the amount of money I spend as a lot of the work we do is paid by salary-in-kind – that is, accommodation and food, payment towards language classes etc.

Au pairs are given a 'pocket money' payment every month which comes in at around 700 Swiss francs (€615) once extra babysitting duties are calculated in.

Pro: the food

Fondue and chocolate –is there any greater pleasure in life are there than these two culinary delights? I can't imagine life without rösti [Switzerland's very own answer to hash browns] or the smell of smooth chocolate in every flavour imaginable.

Con: four national languages

The family I'm staying with pay for half the cost of a chosen activity and I'm currently attempting to learn French.I still find myself squirming at the thought of having to put this into practice when faced with buying a bus ticket or buying something in a shop.

This is mostly due to the fact that 90 percent of the bus drivers in my village find my accent hilarious and feel the need to imitate me, just to let me know how ridiculous my English lilt sounds.

A sign in German, Italian and Romansh in the canton of Graubünden. Photo: Philip Newton

Switzerland has four different national languages (German, French, Italian and Romansh), making me even more nervous about travelling to the parts where I can't speak a word of the language. Add to this the confusion that often can arise in areas where some people will talk to you in French and some will greet you in German! It's incredibly confusing and often has me sticking to the areas I know.

Pro: lots of activities

If you want to do something, most likely you can do it in Switzerland. You can climb, hike, ski, go paragliding, sledge, swim – the options are endless. There's also the aforementioned beautiful scenery in which you can do it, making whatever you do a truly unique experience.

As an au pair, I currently work a four-day week, so I have three days at the weekend to explore. I know that this, however, isn't true for a lot of other au pairs who might have a five-day week with more breaks in-between.

I am contracted to work 28 hours a week, with 30 being the maximum for au pairs in Switzerland –which means I can fit my language classes and other activities in during the day when the children are at school and once the household chores have been done.

I also have five weeks of holiday over the course of a year, but when these holidays occur isn't up to me as they need to be scheduled around the school holidays.

Con: weather

I don't actually like snow. I know, I know – ridiculous that I chose the mountains of Switzerland in which to become an au pair. I've had fun making snowmen with the children and throwing snowballs with them, but I can't but help but wish for it to melt just a bit faster, for the summer months to return so I can once again swim in the lake. Of course, the winter sun in recent weeks has been great.

My time as an au pair so far has been an adventure and for now Switzerland is my home, its peaks and descents mine to explore, just as the Swiss do. I've got a whole year to attempt to speak one of its four national languages and to try to take as many pictures as possible to remind me of just what a shining gem this country is.

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