Less than a year ago, while sitting in a gymnasium and staring at the last question of my final Physics exam, I realised something… besides not having a clue as to how I should attempt the question, I also didn’t have a sliver of a clue as to what I really wanted to do with my life. All my life I had been part of a society in which everyone I knew lived somewhat of the same life – the “South African Suburban Dream” if you will. I was tired of the bubble I lived in and, looking back, I definitely did not recognise all the things I took for granted. Expanding my horizons was a sure remedy. Therefore, I made an unexpected decision.
I would au pair in Europe.
It made perfect sense at the time: I love art, history, travel and experiencing different cultures and Europe is filled to the brim with all of the above. Even better, I would get a glimpse into the diverse ways of life I could choose to adopt in the future.
So there I was, a few months later, at Schiphol Airport, after a gruelling matric year, a lot of help from The Au Pair agency, with apparently the least baggage Lize had seen in a while (Tip #1: A single day is most definitely not the recommended time to pack for a year abroad) and a 12-hour flight. I was excited, nervous and overwhelmed, but I knew I made the right choice. I was also really, really cold. It never occurred to me while stepping on a plane in 30℃ South African air to keep a coat with me. They say regrets are illuminations that come too late. I was definitely well aware that the 9℃ Dutch air was not home…yet.
I arrived at Lize’s. After some administrative things and lunch, we set out to practice our cycling. (I have to admit that the last time I rode a bike up until then was over 2 years ago and on that particular occasion, I crashed into a big, thorny Aloe.) I stood in front of the saddle and hoisted myself up onto the seat – only to move a meter before tipping sideways and almost scratching someone’s car. That was only the first of multiple falls due to my lack of cycling skills.
Soon I arrived at my host family and on my first day alone with my host kids, two-year-old twins. I decided to take them to the park. (Obviously a great choice for the new caretaker of two toddlers, who is a stranger to them and doesn’t speak their language.) The moment we reached the park, the boy realised that his parents weren’t with us and started crying and then screaming like someone was being murdered. The screams echoed off of the apartment buildings around the park and I rushed to calm him down before someone reported me for child abuse. Meanwhile, the girl seized the opportunity and made a break for it … in the opposite direction of home. I made a split-second decision. I put the wailing child on the ground and sprinted after the runaway. I caught her just before she stepped onto the road and scooped her up. By the time we reached her brother, a concerned looking lady came out of a nearby building and headed straight for us. My heart sank. Here it comes. She asked if he was okay and I assured her that we were all okay and that I am their new au pair. She gave me a pitiful smile and wished me luck with a wave goodbye. Thanks, lady. I’ll need that in the coming weeks.
By the first week, my rose-coloured glasses had shattered and the feeling of being completely overwhelmed would stick around for about two more months.
Au pairing is no joke.
After my first challenging work week, I woke up with a new determination. Despite the rainy weather, I put on my new winter coat, grabbed an umbrella and set out to explore the nearest shopping centre. My host parents assured me that it is a 15-minute walk at most and that I would be indoors before the weather got too bad – even though it was already quite stormy outside. They obviously didn’t take into account that my phone’s internet connectivity wasn’t up to scratch yet and that I was at that stage a very much unprepared individual. Consequently, a slightly wet 15-minute walk turned into 40 minutes of frantically walking up and down the main road in hurricane-like wind and pelting rain. Soon the wind got the better of my umbrella and I surrendered to the elements. I asked some friendly people at a flower shop where I might find the shopping centre. They told me to “ take a right at the Domino’s”, so I headed back the way I came. No Domino’s. By then, I was soaked to the bone. I asked around some more. Same answer. Another 20 minutes of helplessly wandering around. (You might ask why I didn’t just call my host parents to pick me up, but I was foolishly – or maybe rightly – determined to look after myself.) Eventually, I saw a middle-aged couple coming my way. I swallowed my pride once again and asked for help. Finally, my luck seemed to kick in. They were also on their way to the shopping centre and invited me to tag along. That concluded my first challenge in adulting and a taste of Dutch weather.
New Year’s Eve and a week off awaited me after spending the traditional first and second Christmas celebrations at the families of my host parents. At 20:00 on 31 December I took the train and met up with a group of au pair girls in Rotterdam. We settled ourselves on some steps overlooking Erasmusbrug and waited for the firework display to start. After the breathtaking show, we started walking towards a club to dance the time away until the trains started running again in the morning hours. But Tara forgot her scarf on the steps. She turns back to get it. Before I could tell our group to wait, they had already vanished into the crowd. We had just lost our group… and our only direct access to Google Maps. (Yes, both our phones’ internet connections were STILL not up to scratch!)
I rushed after Tara in an attempt to not lose her too. We made our way towards the general direction we thought the girls went in and opted to ask for directions. (Tip #2: I don’t recommend asking for directions on New Year’s Eve since intoxicated Dutch people are very friendly, but not very comprehensible.) Turns out we went in the opposite direction we were supposed to go in. We wandered through the crowded streets and eventually, Tara saw a McDonalds. Maybe it had free wifi! We made our way inside. It had free wifi… but it didn’t work. Tara sat down on the only available seat, the floor, in utter hopelessness. She popped a cookie in her mouth. A security guard approached us. We weren’t allowed to eat the food on the premises that we hadn’t bought at McDonald’s. It made sense I guess, but it still sucked big time for us. Couldn’t we just catch a break?
Then we did. Somewhere near the McDonalds, I checked for wifi and miraculously found one that worked! Google Maps got us to our friends in less than 5 minutes and the rest was smooth sailing… until we had to wait at the train station for an hour and a half. At least I had pizza for breakfast.
January arrived and many more funny situations showed up during the coming months. But more on that later.
Meanwhile, I learned the tricks of the trade when it came to cycling and using public transport and saw Amsterdam for the first time. What a sight it was! A mix of old and new, cultures and people – a city in its own league. My camera was working overtime on the weekends as I visited various Dutch cities and fell in love with the architecture and art.
I was right – my perspective was growing at a rapid pace.
By the end of my second month, I had already visited three Belgium cities: Antwerpen, Brugge and Brussels. The travel bug bit hard.
Early January, my cousin, who was au pairing in Belgium, called me up. She was positively bursting at the idea of meeting up and I was just as excited to see her and to experience Belgium for myself. On Thursday night, I got off the train in Tilburg and after a small directional struggle, barely made it to my bus in time. After an hour of reading, I decided to check how close I was to my final bus stop. I looked at my phone and annoyingly enough, it shut down. Okay, no problem, it does that sometimes. Stay calm. I turned it back on and discovered, to my horror, that my phone was completely wiped – all my contacts and apps were gone. Minor crises, not gonna lie. What the heck was I going to do if my cousin didn’t pick me up at the bus stop? I would be a young woman standing alone in the dark at 22:30 in a strange country with no one to call and nowhere to go. Catastrophic.
Luckily, that wasn’t the case. My cousin knew which bus I was taking and waited for me even though she couldn’t reach me. Utter relief surged through me while I hugged her. The next morning I got my host parents numbers from Lize and let them know what happened. Otherwise, our plan was back on track. We visited Antwerpen on a miserable winter day, but the architecture and my amazement at the sheer massiveness of the city totally made up for it.
One night, I went out in The Hague with my Dutch boyfriend, Daan, and some of his friends. Naturally, we cycled. We played pool and went to the Grote Markt where we spent the rest of the night at their regular bar. At around midnight we decided to head back home. While Daan was getting on his bicycle, I checked my coat pockets and purse for my bike keys. Nothing. Oh no. I checked again. Nope. Daan kept his cool. I didn’t. (Tip #3: Don’t lose your bicycle key… or house key, especially not late at night or after multiple places in a city.) We went back to the places we had been and found nothing. All the while I kept checking my pockets and purse. Eventually, we gave up. Poor Daan had to lift me on the back of his bicycle at 01:00 in the morning all the way to Voorburg. It surely wasn’t a comfortable ride for me either, since his bike doesn’t have a cushion on the back. Oh, and I couldn’t get into my house, because, you know, all my keys are on the same keychain.
The next morning, a very apologetic and anxious me got the spare key from my host parents and we set off to rescue my pink bicycle, while I once again sat on the bouncing metal of Daan’s bike. We arrived at the alley we left it in (luckily it was still there!) and removed the stray Redbull can and soggy serviette from the front basket. We stopped at a plant shop on the way home. And guess what I found while searching for my spare key in my purse. Yes, there it was… my original key, in my purse all along. I wasn’t so pleased with myself, to put it lightly. (Tip #3: Attach a clip to your keyring so you can clip it onto a certain piece of your purse or bag.)
A few weeks later, I woke up feeling impulsive and booked a last-minute bus trip to Liechtenstein and Austria… alone. The decision, now that I think about it, seems quite risky. Nonetheless, I got on the bus in Utrecht at 22:00 and sat reading my book for a while. Suddenly I heard a group of female voices coming from the seats in front of me speaking a very nostalgic language – Afrikaans. Soon another group of Afrikaans voices boarded the bus. I joined the group in front. The girls were very nice and also very surprised that I came on the trip without any friends. Between conversation, someone mentioned going out in The Hague and I asked where they all came from. Turns out, I met a group of South African au pairs, who all lived in Voorburg, within a 5km radius of me. Looks like my luck was really kicking in!
Soon I started hearing and reading the words ‘COVID 19’ and ‘pandemic’ all the more frequently on the news. From there on my anecdotes stop for a while, but they will start up again in the coming months. Until then, I can still laugh at all my previous mishaps.
Hopefully, my luck sticks around for the second half of the year.