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If at all possible try to save a certain amount of money so that you won't be financially dependent on the family if things don't work out. Bear in mind that you might not be paid for the first fortnight or month, so you will need some money to tide you over, preferably in Euros or US dollars as appropriate. The rest should be in travellers' cheques, which can be purchased from any bank and most building societies. Be sure to keep the serial numbers of the cheques separate from the cheques in case they are stolen. A credit card can also be a handy asset when you are abroad, unless you are given to improvidence.
As the day of departure draws closer, you will need to sort out your wardrobe and select clothes that will be compatible with the climate you are going to. For hot countries take at least one pair of comfortable leather sandals or rubber flip-flops which will allow your feet to breathe. Natural fibre clothes, especially cotton, are much better in hot climates than synthetics for the same reason. Some light-weight, long-sleeved clothes would not go amiss to protect you from sunburn and insect bites. Remember too that in some countries standards of modesty are different from what you may be used to, so you should be prepared to abide by the laws and customs of your host country.
For cold climates pack thermal underwear, two pairs of gloves or mittens which can be worn together and a woolly hat. A lined coat and non-slip boots are also a must. If you don't already own suitable clothing, it is probably better to wait until you arrive, so you can buy things as you need them and won't have to lug them around with you.
Try not to overload yourself, since by the end of your contract you will have accumulated as much again. It will probably be a while before you establish a social life, so concentrate mainly on your working necessities. You can always get things sent out later by post, if your family and friends are obliging. Some nannies are happy to live in jeans, shorts and T-shirts, but you will have to adapt this according to your preference and that of your employers. Whatever you decide, try to look neat and presentable at all times.
In addition to local maps and a dictionary, you might want to take a fat paperback to keep you company in your own language while you're finding your feet. If cooking will be among your duties, a copy of a basic cookery book could be invaluable. Avoid taking electrical appliances to countries whose systems differ from Britain's. Although most of Europe is on 220 volts alternating at 50 cycles per second as in Britain, the plugs are not compatible. The Standard North American voltage supply is 110, so Americans will have to buy a transformer as well as a plug adaptor if they decide to take a hair-dryer or some other appliance. These can be more easily found in Britain than in the US. You might also want to pack a few small items of sentimental value which will help make your new room more familiar and homely. It is a good idea to buy each of the children a small gift to present to them upon arrival. These needn't be expensive; small souvenirs of your home town might suffice, and help to win them over initially. In due course they will also be interested in seeing photos of your family and friends.
Except in the case of highly prized professional nannies, you must pay for your own travel costs. Very occasionally a family will pay for your fare home if you have completed a one-year contract. There are exceptions, for example the programmes which place au pairs in the USA in which your flight is organised for you and paid for by the family. In a few cases, your placement agency may be able to offer advice on travel, but mostly you will have to sort out your own arrangements. You should shop around for the best bargain, remembering that it is preferable to pay extra for a confirmed reservation on the outward journey. Since the family may offer to meet you at the airport, last minute bargains and standby fares are not ideal. It is always better to have an open return ticket, so that you will feel more in control of the situation. Also, certain countries require a return or onward ticket as a condition of entry. To cover the contingencies of wanting to cut short or to extend your term of employment, it is not advisable to book a return date which cannot be altered without incurring great expense. Check the travel section of the country chapters for ideas and a rough guide to ticket prices.
Discount travel agents advertise in London weeklies like TNT and Time Out, as well as in the travel pages of newspapers like the Independent. Phone a few outfits and pick the best price. Those with access to the internet should start by checking relevant websites.
If you have already met the family at an interview, arriving should not be too traumatic since you will know roughly what to expect. However most au pairs and some mother's helps will be meeting the family for the first time at the airport or station in which case they should have detailed instructions about where to meet and how to recognise the family.
It is important to consider your appearance when you arrive. Nobody expects you to look like a model from Vogue but try to make an effort. Choose reasonably smart but comfortable clothes that won't look too crumpled after a journey. A subtle spray of perfume should make you feel fresher, especially if you have had to sleep in your clothes. Knowing you look as good as possible will promote a positive image and help boost your confidence.
BREAKING THE ICE
Don't assume that the task of breaking the ice is solely the family's responsibility. People's personalities and cultural traits vary enormously and your new family may feel even more awkward and shy than you do. To overcome your own shyness, focus your attention on the children, especially if you don't feel at home with the language. No one will expect you to be a great conversationalist, but some attempts at general small talk (e.g. questions about their country) will not go amiss. You may want to draw some comparisons with your own country, without of course implying criticism of theirs. If the children are withdrawn at first, they will soon start to respond if you pay them enough attention.
No matter how tired you are when you first arrive, spend a little time socialising with the family before going off to your room. You will probably be given a tour of the house and be offered some refreshment. It would be unusual if you were expected to do any work on your first day but show your willingness to help even if you are very jet-lagged and ready to fall into bed. Families nearly always expect you to eat your first meal with them so you can get to know each other better. You should always offer to help clear the dishes before you take your leave for the night.
Providing you're not too exhausted, it's a good idea to unpack as soon as possible. A bare and unfamiliar room can be depressing to wake up to, so try to get it organised before you go to bed.
YOUR FIRST DAY
Your main objective on the first day is to gain some idea of the family's routine and try to slot yourself into it as smoothly as possible. Don't attempt to reorganise anything at this point, even if you think it would be beneficial to the family. You need to find your feet before adopting such responsibilities.
Here is a list of tasks to which you might give priority in the first few days:
Make sure your new family knows the name, address and telephone number of your next of kin.
* Make a list of all the emergency telephone numbers and keep it handy.
* Locate the first-aid box, fuse-box, etc.
* Learn how to operate household appliances.
* Ask for a set of keys to the house. Find out where spare ones are kept, in case you find yourself locked out.
* Take note of any house rules.
* Establish when you can expect to be paid and how much you will have to pay in deductions (if applicable).
* Sort out which chores are to be allocated to you. You might find it useful to draw up some sort of rota for house duties so you can organise them and fit them in each week.
* Ask when your first day off will be, so you can plan accordingly, and have something to look forward to.
In the beginning, the children may well have difficulty adjusting to you, and you will have to work quite hard to earn their trust and co-operation. This can be especially difficult because you have so many other practical problems to deal with, as well as adjustment worries of your own. The first few weeks are vital, however, in building a relationship with your charges since this could set the tone for the duration of your stay. Therefore you want to make sure that things get off to a good start.
One of the best things you can do is to be flexible and adapt as well as you can to the established routine. It will help the children feel more secure if you are consistent and continue the daily patterns they are used to. Obviously no one should expect you to be a clone of the previous live-in helper or the mother, but try not to impress your personality too forcefully at first.
If the children are being generally difficult, try to avoid confrontations as much as possible by making it fun for them to co-operate instead. For example, if they are deliberately dawdling over getting dressed in the mornings, try starting a race to see who finishes first, and reward the winner with a treat after breakfast. You could also pretend to be dependent on them. Make them feel important by saying how much you need their help to show you where everything is. Ask them to take you to school because you're frightened of getting lost (which may, indeed, be no exaggeration).
Should they be particularly nervous of new-comers and create a fuss every time you go near them, remember that they are not being deliberately bad-tempered but are probably feeling insecure. Try to be tolerant and don't force the issue. Subtly involve them in play by doing anything that will attract their attention. Perhaps you could start by making something out of modelling clay or Lego and as they become increasingly interested they will probably want to try it themselves. Before you know it, they'll be joining in and you'll be on your way to building a friendship as well as a Lego castle. It might take a lot of patience, but you will probably be rewarded for it eventually.
One of the hardest things you'll have to cope with in your first week is culture shock. This is bound to strike whenever anyone drastically changes his or her lifestyle and encounters unfamiliar attitudes, customs and even food. In some cases you may be faced with the truth of certain stereotypes, such as Spaniards are lax about punctuality or Germans obsessive about cleanliness. In other cases you may find the stereotypes upended (e.g. a punctilious Spaniard, a slapdash German, a stand-offish American) and this can be even more disconcerting. If you're lucky the family will make allowances for your culture shock, though ultimately it is you who must do the adapting. If you are having real difficulties adapting to one aspect of your new life, it is better to mention it (tactfully of course) than to let it fester. It is hard enough to pick up signals of distress in your own culture, let alone across cultural barriers, so you should not expect your new employers to be mind-readers. Besides they will probably respect you for being forthright, even if they cannot immediately alter whatever is worrying you. You might even discover that some of their strange ways are actually better than what you are used to. The more you know about the family ahead of time, the easier it will be to cope with the shock of your new situation (and vice versa). If you are a vegetarian, a compulsive jogger or a transcendental meditator, it might be best to inform the family before you arrive and discover their attitude. In the vast majority of cases you will be given your own room, though there may be some pressure on you not to retire to it very often nor to close the door. Small children cannot be expected to understand your need for privacy especially if in their culture there is a stronger emphasis on the extended family and communal living.