Why taking a gap year is the best decision you can make
August 15th, 2014, 2:40 pm — the day that changed everything. I got off the plane trembling, from nerves and joy. I could see the Mediterranean Sea and the villas of Nice outside the window of the airport as I grabbed my luggage, and knew: I had made it. I had finally moved to France. As I walked out of the terminal, there they stood, my host parents with the little girl who has taught me so much more than I thought was capable from a four-year-old. They had invited me on vacation with them in Nice before they would take me to what would become my new home, Paris.
My senior year of high school, I wanted to take a year off before deciding on a college. I wanted a degree in journalism but did not know how and where. My parents were against the idea, thinking I was too young, and believing that moving abroad would delay or even completely stop my pursuit for a degree. So I put myself to work: I went to community college for a year while working two jobs, but I felt like there was something missing and there was something more out there for me. I was jealous of all my friends off at college, living away from home and going to classes that were interesting to them.
Then, one March night, my mom looked over at me from the driver’s seat and told me that I should move to France. She believed that I had shown her that I was truly ready (saving money and studying). She had also talked to her sister, who had reminded her what it had been like my age. Both of them had moved from Madrid, Spain to the U.S. to learn English and pursue their studies as well in their early twenties. With the approval from my mother, began this adventure I do not regret.
We began to look up ways in which I could move abroad. Au pairing seemed to be the easiest. Being an au pair is a job in which a family chooses a young woman (or sometimes man) to move in with them and take care of the kids. They pay for housing, food, phone, transportation, and sometimes language classes. Moving abroad and having housing and food paid plus making money? It seemed ideal. I began speaking to an agency which paired me with a family. Once that was all complete, I could buy my ticket and officially tell people I was moving abroad. The last thing I expected was the backlash I would receive.
Colleagues and friends thought I was crazy. One of my managers at work told me, “I am worried for you. You are too young, only 19. Who is going to take care of you? What about all the men that are going to pursue you?” (I could not help but think, if I were a male, it would be “man, all the girls are going to be chasing you! Have fun!”) It was riveting to hear what people would tell me. “You are just going to move abroad and marry someone, have kids, and never get your degree.” No one understood… I was DOING this for my degree. To learn a third language (having grown up speaking both English and Spanish), engross myself in another culture and simply see the world. Sure, I would delay my studies, but in the end, it would help.
Being an au pair looks perfect on paper, but the job itself is one of the hardest I have ever had in my life. The life of someone else’s kid is in your hands! In some situations (including mine), the kids are at the age where they mimic everything they see and hear, and sometimes their actions are blamed on you because you are supposed to be their mentor and language teacher. Most of the families come from money and expect an au pair to meet their cultural expectations… Think about a typical cultural exchange program, but ten times more strict, because kids are looking up to you. Some things may go against your personal beliefs about how kids should be treated, punished, and rewarded but against all odds, you MUST listen to what the family expects from you.
I got lucky to live separately from my family, giving me the space to enter and leave when I wish. My apartment is at the base of one of my favorite neighborhoods, Montmartre. Its small “rues” (streets) and buildings upon buildings are truly what I thought Paris was going to be like. I have friends that live with their host families or in the same building, limiting their outings a little bit (not a total wasted/party year like some people believe it is like). For many who live with their host families, it is an awkward transition, since most au pairs are in their mid-twenties. They have to get used to different house rules, language and setting.
I have learned so much from how this job has tested me. I have had to get my social security, bank account and Wi-Fi all set up by myself in a foreign language. I’ve been taking French courses to help me advance with the little I knew when I first arrived. The little girl I take care of and I get along really well. She’s very energetic and sometimes stretches my patience, something which, before coming to France, I had little of (thanks to her, I know have an abundance of it). She has reminded me what it is like to see the world from the eyes of a four year old again, with innocence and imagination.
Sometimes I feel like I have learned more French from her than my courses. We will be walking down the street, I will hear a new word and ask her to explain it to me and she does just that. The family and I have a very, true French dinner every Sunday night to talk about how the week has been, catch up, and exchange cultural differences. Through the hardships of all this, I have decided to stay here another year with the same family, and I have spoken about au pairing my way through college here in France. All I know is that my year abroad has led me toward the direction I want to go to gain my degree.
My mom once told me that she believed that sometimes I felt like I could run from myself by moving to a new city. I would reply with, “No, I am running towards myself.”
Now that I am in Paris, the people who told me I was crazy tell me they are envious. In the past six months that I have lived abroad, I have visited four countries that do not include France. I can carry a conversation and read books in a foreign language that sounds beautiful to my ears. I have met so many women of all ages who have become my close friends in such a short period of time. I have never felt more secure about who I am, my body, or what I want to do with my life.
No matter what age you are, taking a year off is looked down upon. I have friends from the ages of 18-30 who have chosen to take a year off to do au pairing. They all say the same thing: Initially, their friends and family believed they were crazy. True, the lifestyle of an au pair looks easy, but learning a language is difficult, and becomes stressful when you can understand everything but can’t communicate completely. And, you’re broke half of the time saving up for another trip (which are like little treats to yourself saying, “I have come this far”) or wondering if you can go to that famous café you once saw in a movie. Taking a year off is not a vacation, but a year of discovering who you are and how you can handle challenges. While it may not work for everyone, it definitely works for me.
Veronica Lavil was raised on the road but currently gets to call the great city of Paris home. When she’s not busy working or studying the French language, she is typically exploring the gourmet, coffee shops and bar scenes of Paris, reading, writing, taking a walk or planning her next voyage. You can follow more of Veronica’s adventures on Twitter or at her personal blog.