School’s out. The sun is in the sky, the music is blasting at full volume from your bedroom window, your exam notes are fluttering through the air as you toss them rebelliously into a nearby skip; you’re running home to pack your sunscreen, pack your red Primark bikini and get the hell out of England as fast as you can!
When you’ve just finished your A-levels, there is a part of you that yearns to ‘get out and go wild’. In the summer of 2010 after our A-levels, everyone had had their EasyJet flight tickets booked months in advance, all set up to let loose the moment exams were over, in seemingly irresistible and tantalisingly exotic locations such as Ios, Zante, Alicante, Magaluf and Cyprus.
I, on the other hand, spent my summer of 2010 driving a tractor on my grandparents’
farm in Norfolk. The sun was never quite as strong as, say, the powerful rays of the Mediterranean that I kept seeing evidence of every time I logged into my Facebook account. Dozens of photo albums clogged up my news feed, interspersed with my own pityingly simple status updates denoting ‘knitting at Granny’s – Britain’s Got Talent Final tonight!’ and ‘Just killed an annoying fly with my French dictionary – HA!’ (The latter was shockingly, my own fascinating anecdote). It seemed that every single one of my friends from school were on beaches abroad, looking perfect and tanned in their bikinis.
My friends returned bronzed, excitable and full of exciting and hilarious tales of their adventurous gallivanting. But within weeks, their tans faded. Their stories were no longer screamingly amusing. Their updates on Facebook had, incredibly, become more mundane than ever (my fly-assassination quip now looked like Status of the Year).
By the end of September, I was on the one-way flight to the Mediterranean that I had dreamed about all summer. My French dictionary was tucked under my arm (sans fly-remnants) and my life was contained into a suitcase weighing 20kg. My summer had been spent at home, but now, as my friends knuckled down to work at uni, my own adventures as an au pair were about to begin…
So, why had I chosen to take a gap year? Surely it’s the last thing you need when you
plan to get serious about studying at university. Not to mention the cost. However, gap years have become increasingly fashionable and popular in recent years – Princes Harry and William went globetrotting after a laborious stint in Eton, volunteering in Chile, playing polo in Sydney and aiding orphans in Africa. The infamous YouTube video of THAT gap year student, CHUNDERING all over west ‘Pe-raah’ and chortling about his nights ‘out on the lash’ in Tanzania has, amazingly, got 3,915,261 hits on YouTube. Is this because it strikes a chord of adventurousness that most of us are fascinated by? Peru? Burma? I need to look at a map…
Volunteering is a common choice amongst many gap-year students. My two close friends in halls at university are both post gap year students who volunteered for a cause abroad. “It was an amazing experience,” says Miriam Walrond, who worked in an orphanage in India. “You grow up so much and you will probably never get such an opportunity again. The culture shock is hard, but only at first – I felt like I was on a completely different planet and the food really wasn’t great!” As for having to have paid her own way, she insists it wasn’t an issue: “I would really recommend working beforehand to pay for it, as that in itself is such an experience.” I ask whether she achieved what she set out to accomplish. She simply says “Yes. I wanted to be changed, to see the world differently and I came back more mature and ready for university.”
Another friend of mine, who I happened to meet in France on my own year abroad, was a
post-university law student who wanted to do a bit of travelling everywhere. She spent six months in Cannes as an au pair, where we met. When I ask her, Mari Brennan tells me that she started her journey in Nepal, followed by India, then Cannes for six months before embarking on a trip around Peru, Bolivia and Argentina and finishing with a three week road trip around the US West Coast. “Very hedonistic!” she comments, but with a serious note adds, “[It was] transient but satisfying. A break from ‘real life’ but very eye-opening in terms of discovering new people, places and attitudes.”
During my time in France I remember many a time when, surfing Facebook, I would occasionally stumble across beautiful photos of stunning scenery, all featuring a familiar redhead. Rowan Ellwood, a friend from home, went the furthest afield. She hopped on a one-way flight to New Zealand with a suitcase and a CV, deciding she’d find work there. She defines her life there as “Free and happy. Each experience is a person’s own, and to ‘big it up’ is daft. All those point-at-Lonely-Planet-take-a-photo moments can’t nearly compare to what happened in between – those bits are the important times I will take most from.” When I ask how she survived financially there is nonchalance in the tone in which she states “Everything was alright. If a group were going for a day at a beach, you just asked to hop in the car when they mentioned a spare seat.”
Which brings me back to my own gap year. I knew from the start what I wanted to do, where I wanted to go and what I wanted to achieve. I wanted to live in the south of France near Nice, become fluent in French and be an au pair. For me, it was not chiefly a ‘break’ or holiday, but a goal that would lead me further to succeeding in my course at university – French with Linguistic Studies. Through an au pair and nanny agency, I found a family in Antibes, France, right on the Mediterranean coast and ten kilometres from the glitzy, celebrity-infested Cannes. I looked after two-year old twin boys and their newborn brother for ten months, teaching English and potty-training them (amongst other delights). Some people thought I was mental for volunteering to do this. My life as an au pair, with all the demands that babies and children present as it is, was further challenged by the constant prerequisite to communicate in another language from Day One. It was a challenge that I had set for myself, and one that I enjoyed immensely, but to say that the year was not an uphill climb would be wrong.
So, did this compromise any of the ‘fun stuff’ that others got up to on their gap years? Not in the slightest. As my fellow au pair, Emily Brown explained: “[We] went travelling around the Côte d’Azur: including Paris, Monaco and Northern Italy whenever possible.” And all on the meagre budget of 80 euros per week! This was the standard wage of an au pair; the standard wage which I also survived on (somehow managing to save enough for a ski trip in the Alps and a holiday in Corsica – not too shabby).
However, Emily’s experience as an au pair was not quite as rosy as my own. When asked about the negative sides to her year abroad, she answers “Living on such a small budget and being tied down by responsibilities. It won’t always be sunshine and happiness – there will be tough days where you miss home or have a bad day at work.” In spite this, Emily insists that her year in France was “the most enriching experience and best thing I’ve ever done”. In response to my question about whether there are friends she will keep in contact with, she quips enthusiastically: “I met some of the most amazing people of my life there! I met loads of amazing friends, one of whom has already come and visited me in Wales.” (Namely, myself. I feel a warm surge
of love here!)
At the end of the year, I arrived back in Cardiff where it rained all weekend. I was still glowing from the post-holiday endorphins that had charged me all year. Within weeks though, my enviable St Tropez pallor had faded. My screamingly amusing tales and anecdotes soon lost interest amongst my friends. My status updates on Facebook ceased altogether – what could possibly be interesting about rainy Manchester in comparison to the glitzy beaches of Cannes and Monte-Carlo?
In the weeks and months that followed, my mind was tossing over all the things that had happened over the year, trying to compress it all into one compact sentence that defined exactly how I was feeling. It wasn’t Facebook-status sort of information, but there was one memory that was set in my mind and wouldn’t go away. It was the morning of my last day, when I left my empty, bare-walled bedroom and went into the kitchen for breakfast. The sun was scorching in the sky and the twins were out on the terrace where the breakfast table was. On the table was a scribbled drawing with their names on it and a parcel containing a silver keychain that had a photo of all three faces in it – a gift, their mother informed me, that I could put on my keys at university that next year to remember them by. She turned to the twins and reminded them that it was “Rachel’s last morning in France”. Before I knew it, each of them had wrapped their arms around my legs like koala bears and both grinned adoringly at me, as if to say “We’re not going to let you leave easily”.
This lovely memory, amidst all the other fantastic and incredible moments I spent there, sums up my gap year experience as an au pair. I would recommend it to anybody; especially as I managed to have the time of my life on a total budget of 3,200 euros – less than half of my university budget now!