The elevator doors closed on my mom’s tears and I felt relieved; though I knew she was still sobbing on the other side. The metallic clean-cut on the invisible cord between us gave place to the start of my student life in France, thousands of km away from home on the other side of the Atlantic. I was going to a country I’d never been to before, staying with people I didn’t know (members of a distant family I’d never met). Yet none of this really mattered: I was going to meet Autumn, Winter and Spring; learn from a new culture and live my independence! Dad took me to the airport. There were no warnings or solemnity. Just this piece of advice: “Enjoy it as much as you can”.
Alexandra said the exact same words to me when I asked her about being an Au-pair in Norway. I met Alex through a friend. We got to know each other as she came to babysit my daughter Sophie. She is from Peru and arrived to Norway a year ago. From the moment we met, she stroke me as a kind, outgoing girl who had her priorities in the right place and was determined to squeeze the Norwegian experience to the last drop. On a fall afternoon, as we sat around tea and plantain chips, she took me through her journey.
AU-PAIR WORKING CONDITIONS & BUDGET
To be an au-pair in Norway you must be between 18 and 30 years old, without children. An agency in your home country will partner with one in Norway to make all administrative arrangements including virtual interviews with the host family, contract, residence permit, etc. Here are the main conditions of an Au-pair contract (full list: UDI):
- 25-30 work hours per week
- 25 days of paid holidays per year
- Social security
- The host family pays for:
- Food and accommodation
- 5 000 NOK per month as “pocket-money” (Note that this is taxable income!)
- Norwegian courses for up to 7 500 NOK per year
- Return ticket to your home country
The contract lasts for as much as 2 years. It can be with the same family the whole time or you can change if needed be. The agency is there to help and protect you.
What Alex likes…
In Alex’s opinion, there is a good balance between work and pay. On her first year she worked with a single mom and her son. 50% of Alex’s time was spent with the kid and 50% on light house work. She started her second year this summer with a new family, where she takes care of 3 children. This takes 70% of her time and the remaining 30% is dedicated to keeping the house in order. Conditions, according to Alex, are favourable and flexible. You have enough time to attend language courses, make friends, get to know the city and travel.
…and what she likes less.
The fact that the host family pays for the most expensive components of your stay is great. However, having to pay tax on your pocket-money doesn’t seem “fair” to Alex. The chunk that goes to the government is significant: 1 200 – 1 500 NOK (Almost 30%! based on current regulations). Other than free-time expenses, your pocket-money is meant to cover other basics that the family is not responsible for: a mobile phone contract (say about 200 NOK/month), public transportation (620 NOK for a monthly card in central Oslo) and personal hygiene items. In a country that is already expensive enough, the budget you are left with after tax and other basics is quite low. You won’t be saving much, that’s for sure. This, however, does not stop Alex from going out. Positive and resourceful as she is, she claims to always find fun things to do in Oslo without spending lots of money. (Find tips on my Links for Expats page)
Considering the previous facts, it does not help that you are not allowed to work with anyone else other than your host family. That is, with a formal contract. Keep reading for Alex’s tips on how to plump your budget.
Lastly, you should think carefully about what you want to do once your contract is over. Renewal of an au-pair contract is not possible (at least not in Norway). Your options for staying are limited to:
- Student visa (Cost: 90 000 NOK). You need to apply and be admitted in one of these establishments:
- University (requires at least 1 year of university prior to your application)
- International Bible College (requires a high-school degree)
- Work visa: applying for a job in the same line of work you were in at home could be fruitful. Many au-pairs have been nurses in their home country and apply successfully for jobs in that field in Norway.
LIFE WITH “THE FAMILY”
Alex’s 1st year was spent with a single mom and her 6-year-old son. This little boy was already very independent, so most of Alex’s time was spent on house chores (light work). The relationship with this family was closer, mainly because they were only 2 people and logistics were less constraining.
On her second year, Alex moved with a bigger family. With 3 kids, logistics change and spending time with them takes most of her time. She tells me things have to be more structured, and so it feels more like “a job”. She also “owns” her space more than before, having an independent entrance to her room. This definitely contributes to her privacy, something Alex believes should be delimited from the start. When you live where you work, the line between work-life and personal-life is very thin. It’s easy (and tempting) to do “a little extra”. While it’s ok to be flexible, it’s important to establish boundaries so that both you and the family know what to expect from each other, says Alex.
In both households she was included for trips, meals and family activities. Of course you will feel a bit awkward at the beginning, mostly because of the language barrier. You sit there, at the dinner table, not daring to take more of that yummy dish because it’s 2-3 people away. It’s hard, but this goes away quickly once everybody gets to know each other better. Remember your host family feels weird too! Especially if you are their first au-pair. The important thing is that everyone is willing to cooperate.
Alex recommends not to be put-off by Norwegian’s directness. In a way, it’s good that things are stated clearly: 1/ because it gives you the opportunity to express yourself with the same clarity; 2/ because there is less room for interpretation. For some, this tone can be a bit intimidating. Rest assured, it’s not meant to come out that way, at least not in Alex’s experience. I have experienced “Scandinavian directness” at work and it used to put me off, especially because my culture taught me to turn around the bush a few times before getting to the point. It’s my way of being “polite”. Here, on the other hand, they like getting to the point asap. Nothing personal 🙂
Before Norway, Alex lived in Holland. She learned to master biking and rainy weather (and biking in rainy weather). Temperatures were milder, but the experience enabled her to transition from warm-predominating weather in Peru to the seasons in Norway. I’m not surprised that Alex is not intimidated by cold weather: “A warm winter jacket and a solid pair of shoes will get you through the coldest temperatures.” Alex got her winter gear here, and so did I. Materials are adapted and durable and there are good sales before the season starts.
– “But what about darkness?” I asked.
– Ah, against darkness I have 2 remedies, she said: 1. Go out, 2.with friends.
A busy schedule and good company will not only keep you warm. They will give your mind something else to focus on while waiting for the bus at 10 below zero. Some people are more private, of course, and Alex admits she does like being on her own and savouring her independence. At the same time, she strives to keep a balance between alone-time and friends-time because even if you don’t think you need it, seeing other people does preserve your sanity and good spirits. Friend’s stories make us feel better, especially when they are in the same situation as us.
Never stop recruiting friends! Be open, one friend can bring 10 more and so your circle expands. Here are some sources that helped Alex:
- The au-pair agency organizes meetings
- Look for chats and forums online where au-pairs in your area share opinions and tips
- Some websites offer language exchange. Example: www.italki.com
- Enrolling in norwegian courses will help you meet people outside the au-pair sphere
- Many people from the international community attend services in English and Spanish at different churches in Oslo . Find them here: http://www.visitoslo.com/en/oslo/practical-information/religious-community/
“Usually you will eat your meals with the family. Norwegian food is not very sophisticated or spicy. It is meant to be quick and easy, nothing complicated. If I miss some foods or flavours, I either get it through the mail from my family back home or make it myself with friends providing that I find the ingredients. I have found many familiar foods at a good price in Grønland (neighborhood in Oslo)”. A good tip if you have the blues or an impossible craving 🙂
If you travel around Europe, especially to bigger cities like Madrid or Paris, you will probably find more variety than in Oslo. Make sure you have extra space on your suitcase to bring back your favourite foods, not just fashion statements! 😉
TIPS FOR AU-PAIRS IN NORWAY – WHAT ALEX RECOMMENDS:
Plan ahead, paperwork takes time. You will need to follow-up on your local agency to make sure your file moves on. The demand is big!
- Stay in the city
This makes it easier to go out, because things are closer. It will also be easier for others to come to you and thereby increasing the opportunities to meet more people. Not to mention: public transportation is cheaper if you live within the city limits. (Oslo = Zone 1). If you like nature, stillness and privacy, you will definitely enjoy the outskirts.
- 100% Norwegian
You might have the possibility to choose a family where one of the parents is of the same culture as you. It is tempting to choose this alternative because it makes your arrival and stay a bit easier. However, Alex is not one to choose or recommend the easy way out. She picked a fully Norwegian family because only this way could she “live” the culture and the language, not to mention adapt much quicker. “As a minimum, you will improve your english, which is already fantastic!” Alex says.
- Set the boundaries
Just like you respect “family time” your time should also be respected. It’s up to you to protect your space, your time and what you do with it outside of work. It goes without saying, but it’s not as “natural” as it seems and every family is different. Set the boundaries of your private life.
- Be yourself
Show yourself as you are, if you don’t like something, say it. If you are enthusiastic and like to share your traditions with your family, act from the heart. Keep your social antennas up as well, and try to sense the atmosphere. Use your gut-feeling. Even though you are part of a household, Alex recommends you keep a “professional mentality”. After all you are at work, in exchange for a cultural experience 🙂
- Give it time
You need to get to know your family and they need to get to know you. Even if meals and family activities can be intimidating or embarrassing, they offer great opportunities to know each other and establish a connection. Things might seem “distant” at the start but little by little you become a part of the group. It also goes for the family: they should be patient with au-pairs, especially if they come from outside of Europe and are not used to the weather and the culture. Families: Ask more! Some families don’t want to be “invasive” but showing interest is always welcome. Good & regular communication will contribute to a strong relationship and an agreeable coexistence.
- What if…you don’t like it?
You don’t feel comfortable in spite of your efforts? Talk about it. First with your family. They might not realize what you are going through. They are your employer but can also be of great support and guidance. If after a while you decide it doesn’t work for you (it happens!), the agency will be there for you and a change of family is always possible.
- Make extra money
To increase your budget, you can do babysitting or cleaning on the side. That’s how Alex makes some extra money for travelling. I recommend her to my friends whenever I can. As a babysitter you can expect to earn between 100 – 120 NOK per hour. If it’s at night and parents come back so late that public transportation is no longer an option they will either drive you home or pay a taxi for you.
- Have fun
Do what you like best and look for new things to like! Skiing is not for all, especially as a start. Other activities can be a fun transition. For example: sledging! Every season has its typical activities, but you can also mix a bit in between. Picnics are fun in the snow on a sunny day! 🙂 I didn’t grow up with the How-to-enjoy-snow-and-cold manual in my subconscious so I strongly recommend asking “the locals” about what they do to enjoy each season. My advice? Learn by doing. Follow, observe and make your pick!
At the beginning of any new adventure, you need the right mix of enthusiasm and fear, geared by the willingness to enjoy yourself. After all, like Alex said “You did not come this far to lock yourself up”. Open up and take in as much as you can! This is definitely an opportunity to grow. Each day will take you out of your comfort zone and as painful as that is, keep in mind you will INEVITABLY master the situation after a while. Do not give up until you’re there, I believe you will meet another You once you reach that top.
My 5th grade teacher told me once that if you want to write straight on a black board, you have to fixate a point at the other end. Life is your blackboard. Choose your goal and keep your eyes on it. Whatever your path brings, it will be right 🙂