don’t poke the bear!

lonely treeI am a bear. As soon as winter arrives, I crawl in my cave and hibernate, leaving the safety of my room only when I really have to be somewhere else. In my mind, winter associates with silence, cold, emptiness, loneliness and illness. All the worst months of my life have been during wintertime. So it’s no wonder I fell into that pattern even during my year abroad. Snow arrived and suddenly I didn’t want to leave my room or talk to people or blog or do pretty much anything that didn’t involve being curled up in a blanket, drinking tea and watching endless episodes of my current favourite series. Don’t disturb the bear during the hibernating period.

Brussels

As I was cooped up in my attic room, I began to realise that I had reached the breaking point in my au pair life. Every new job seems brilliant in the beginning, you’re eager to go in and tackle everything. At some point you realise that your amazing new job has plenty of flaws you didn’t see at first. I reached that point this year, taking care of Minnie who was ill pretty much all the time and as a result didn’t sleep well. An unslept Minnie meant my workdays changed from minor challenges and going to the playground to a constant battle with a child who was too exhausted to pay any attention to what I was saying or to even care that I was trying to talk to her. Complete mayhem and lots of screaming from a kid protesting against everything. And woah, can that girl scream! Brussels Falling face first onto my bed after an especially bad workday I began wondering how can some people do this for years. I don’t mean the parents, though I have utmost respect for people who raise their kids with patience and care. I mean the au pairs – they are living in the middle of someone else’s family, they are a part of everything that goes on, be it the kids’ illnesses or relationship trouble or family trips or… you get my drift. They are not a part of the family, but they take part. How can some people do it for years? Do they not get a longing for a family of their own, something where they are all-in instead of being with one foot inside a strange family and with the other foot in some weird mixture of their new  personal life in a strange country and the life still waiting in their home country?

dried plants

I’m very grateful for this opportunity and being able to experience a completely new way of life in a new country. Don’t get me wrong, I definitely don’t regret my decision to be an au pair. I just feel that this job has a due date and I’m rapidly moving towards it. I have learned a lot here and had loads of fun. Nevertheless, I can’t shrug this nagging feeling that this is not my family, I’m an outsider and my family is waiting elsewhere. No matter how welcoming the host parents are or how much the kids love you, these are not your people.

garden path

My au pair experience has taught me that I definitely don’t want kids in at least the next four years; I’m not willing to give up such a big chunk of my own personal life for the kids. But it has also made me realise that I really need my own family life now. I don’t mean moving back to my parents’ place, I’m now way past that point. I mean starting a new family. Just me and Matthijs. The kids can follow at some later point when we are both ready for that. I’m not. Not yet. I just want my own tiny family with the man I love and our own private home where we don’t depend on the whims of others.

snowdrops

So now I wait. I still have a bit more than three months left in Brussels and I plan to enjoy that time the best I can. After that it’s time to move back to Estonia, prepare for the university exams (I have decided to start with a master’s degree this autumn) and then get ready for moving once more. I’ll temporarily get back to my parents’ place for another month and a half until Matthijs gets to Tallinn with his belongings and we can start working on the apartment that will be our home for the next few years. I will finally have my own home. I will finally be able to live with Matthijs! By that point we’ll have had 2.5 years of being in a long-distance relationship. About time to put an end to that and start living in the same country. And the same town. And the same apartment. In our own home! I’m so excited!

snowdrops(The photos in this post were taken at the beginning of February. I really thought winter was going to end then – the snow was gone, the snowdrops were showing their beautiful white blooms… but no. There were two more periods of snow after that and we’re facing another one this weekend. Whoever told me Belgium was a warm country with a short winter was lying! Still not as bad as Estonia, but I don’t care. I was promised 15-20°C for March!)

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autumn leaves and the military museum

Autumn has arrived. It has always been one of my favourite seasons. Everything is colourful, I get to wear an array of pretty tights and sweaters and scarves and hats… though to be honest, I wear most of these during summertime as well. Hooray for chilly Estonian summers! Anyway, autumn has conquered Brussels. I was rather miserable for a week when it rained nearly constantly, so I found myself hoping every day when I had to pick the older kid up from kindergarten that those dark clouds would have mercy on me and stop raining for that hour.

Most of the time the clouds were merciful and allowed me to do the kindergarten trip safely. There was one time though where I ended up thoroughly soaked. The kids didn’t have much of a problem, Mickey was sitting in the pram and Minnie was on the pram stand, so I had to push both of them uphill for the entire way. I was soaked with rain and sweat by the time we reached home and my cheeks had morphed into tomatoes. Hey, at least I got a free workout!

Last week was my busiest one here so far. I had Monday off (so I had an extended weekend that I spent in The Netherlands with Matthijs, hooray for some couple time!), but I was working all other days. On the weekend, FrenchDad and EstMum left for a little weekend trip and I was alone with the kids. It wasn’t as bad as I had feared it would be, the kids behaved surprisingly well. I did not appreciate the 7am wake-up-call from them on Sunday morning, but I could deal with it. In any way, it was more pleasant than was was to come that day: breakfast didn’t seem to agree with Mickey and he ended up vomiting. On everything. Twice. Even after my jacket got washed, it still smells like puke. Maybe after the next wash it will be okay again. My laptop seems to be non-smelly again though, that’s good.

I made the most of the free time I had on some random mornings/evenings last week, getting out of the house as much as possible. One morning I decided to visit The Royal Museum of the Armed Forces and Military History. The Dutch and French names aren’t much shorter: Koninklijk Museum van het Leger en de Krijgsgeschiedenis / Musée royal de l’Armée et d’Histoire militaire. Anyway, the museum was in the park you can see on the two photos above and the entrance was free. The latter was the main reason why I decided to visit that particular museum as I was running out of money.

The first areas of the museum were very interesting to me. Old uniforms, swords, funky-looking helmets… what’s there not to like? I mostly walked around just looking at things, since the exhibition notes were mainly in French/Dutch and the English texts were short, if they were even there. I was in no mood for brain-twisters, so I decided to be happy with just looking and no reading.

The museum looked too cluttered to me. It seemed to devalue every piece on show, because there were too many things to look at and you couldn’t really devote your attention to one outstanding piece. It was a huge collection of everything and anything army-related, but instead of feeling like a comprehensive showcase, it just resembled a messy warehouse of random items.

Some things were showcased a bit better than others, like this tricycle that belonged to King Leopold II. One of the most fascinating parts of the museum for me happened to be a bit further away though. I loved the display of old helmets. Most of them look a bit ridiculous now, but I guess they were stylish in their own time.

I enjoyed the areas of the museum that were dedicated to older times. I can’t stand guns and rockets and bombs etc, they seem cowardly and brutal to me. A good old swordfight feels more courageous and noble, it’s an honest face-to-face fight. Unless you stab someone from behind, of course. Taking what I just wrote into account, you can probably see why I didn’t enjoy the areas with newer war machines as much. Wars with swords and bows were in the distant past, but guns and tanks are too fresh and raw even for me, though I haven’t personally experienced war.

This gas mask reminded me of Sharon, my friend from Israel. She once told me that her earliest memory was being in a bomb shelter with her family, everyone wearing gas masks. This is no distant past, this is the first memory of a young woman from Israel. So this display was too close and scary for me.

There were also some actual big tanks on display, but I chose to take a photo of this small colourful machine. Even though I tried to get a photo of a big tank (it’s just outside this picture), I couldn’t bring myself to do it, besides it happened to be too big to properly fit in the frame. Having no personal experience with tanks, that display still managed to make me feel so anxious that I pretty much fled that room in hopes of finding a display that seems a bit more safe.

While wandering around between airplanes, I kept wondering how could some people stand in front of a tank to protect their country when I couldn’t even bear standing next to an unmanned and out of use war machine. Even my own father took part in a human chain protecting Tallinn’s TV tower when Soviet powers threatened it with tanks. I already had huge respect for my dad, but after seeing an actual tank with my own eyes, I respect his bravery even more.

I didn’t stay in the museum for long after reaching the areas dedicated to modern wars. It was all making me a bit too anxious, giving me vivid mental images of what war was and is like. So after just a short hour in the museum I fled, deciding to explore the town a bit more instead. As always, I returned from my expedition with a new photo of a graffiti in Brussels:

a small update and photos from Leuven

(Manneken Pis with a costume. He keeps getting new ones every once in a while.)

Hello! It’s been quiet in this blog for a few weeks, the work schedule is more busy now and when I have spent most of the day with the kids, I am usually a bit too tired in the evening to write a proper blog post. I’m still happy with my job though, even if I have 10-11h workdays every now and then. It’s a lot more satisfying job than anything else I’ve done before. I can actually make a change with what I do: teach the kids new things and allow the parents some time for themselves (something they haven’t had much in the past three or so years).

I get instant feedback for things I do and there is no office gossip. Usually the biggest conflict of the day is “I DON’T WANT to sleep!” or “I DON’T WANT to wash my hands!” That I can handle. Also, I have found that the “I’m going to count to three!” method works if nothing else does. I have never had to say “three!” so far, because the problem is already solved by the time I reach “two!”. And if I don’t have to make the kids wash their hands or stop throwing things around, I’m just having fun with them and taking them to the playground or painting with them or building blanket forts or reading books or learning letters… Basically I’m doing what I did with my sisters when I was a kid myself and I’m getting paid for it. Success! (I do have some nasty bruises from climbing after Mickey on the playground though.)

Since it’s not a proper blog post without photos, I’ll show some that I took in Leuven. I can’t write about the town since I only saw it for a few hours when I went to the Saturday market with FrenchDad, Minnie and Mickey. I don’t know much about the buildings or the life in Leuven, so I will just show a few photos for now and write a proper blog post when I have managed to have a proper day trip there. For now I can only say that it’s a lovely Flemish town a short car-ride east from Brussels.
I’ll try to find some time soon to edit my photos from last weekend’s trip to France. Coming up: a fancy French palace and nasty French toilets!

welcome to the family

Brussels. It’s my third day here and I like it so far. The main thing is that I got a really warm welcome from my host family. FrenchDad and EstMum (because EstonianMum would be a too long nickname and just mum and dad are reserved for my own parents) even brought out the champagne in the evening when kids were in bed. A proper welcome! The kids seemed to like me from the very beginning as well and they keep calling “tädi-tädi-tädi!” or “tädi Terje!” (auntie Terje) when I’m in another room. Since I do not want to mention the kids’ real names here and they both seem to really like Disney characters, I’ll just call them Mickey and Minnie.

Minnie is three years old, she loves climbing on everything and listening to Adele. The latter can change soon if she finds new music to love, but her climbing addiction is likely to stay with her for life. Mickey is two years younger than Minnie, he loves playing with the vacuum cleaner and drooling on everything. Tomorrow I’ll have to stay home alone with them both for the first time, hopefully everything will work out fine. I already spent a few hours with Mickey yesterday and he only cried for mummy for a few minutes, after that he showed me the doll dishes and pretended to eat from them.

Minnie is super-active. I will probably get my daily needed physical activity just from picking her up from the kindergarten, she runs and climbs and keeping up with her is a challenge when I have Mickey with me. Fortunately Minnie has learned pretty well that she is not allowed to cross the street on her own, otherwise this would get dangerous. Talking to the kids is easy, I can just use my own mother tongue. The most French they use when talking to me is usually just small random words like “d’accord!” or “encore!”.

I’m living in the family house, so commuting to work takes about 30 seconds. The time can be shortened once I learn to climb the steep attic stairs without fearing for my life. The entire attic floor is one big room and that’s my domain. It’s still rather empty, but today someone is supposed to come over to see whether they can install heating here (and if not, an electric radiator will be bought) and on Saturday we’ll go to Ikea to pick up some essentials like a desk / table, garbage bin and a chest for my blanket and pillows so I could morph the bed into a couch for the day.

I now also own a Belgian number, so if anyone feels the need to have it, give me a shout. I have no idea how expensive texts will be, but at least I can talk an hour for free every month. And for those who are curious what my room looks like, I took a sneak peek photo of the most cosy-looking corner. Of course it will look a lot better once I have more furniture and perhaps a carpet or two.

Hopes & Fears

I was taught to use the “hopes and fears” method years ago when I started going to European Youth Parliament events. Since then, it has been a very much used method for me and it really is useful for processing things you want to think through before doing. Since I jumped into this au pair opportunity head-first, I didn’t have much time to think of all the details that have now jumped in my head. As with the previous list, this one can get additions when I think of new things and I’ll take a new look at it at the end of my au pair year to see whether I managed to fulfill my hopes and turn the fears into positive experiences.

I hope I will be able to communicate freely in French. This is especially important when dealing with the kindergarten  – I will be taking the older kid there and back home and if there is any information to give to the parents, it’s pretty likely it will go via me. Not much use if I can only come up with nodding and saying “oui-oui!” and not remember anything later.

I hope I will have enough time and money to travel outside Brussels at least once a month. This year isn’t only about gaining experience with looking after kids and raising them in the best way possible. It’s also about new experiences outside my job and I plan to do as much as possible. If you look at the pile of bought and borrowed books at the beginning of this post, you can see a few travel books I borrowed from the library to mark down interesting places in towns I’d like to visit. This is only the beginning, the library shelves are full and my bag wasn’t able to take much more.

I hope I will have a very positive relationship with my Brussels family. This is what can make or break that job for me. Half of the family is employing me and the other half I have to take care of every week. This really is the key to having an amazing year, so I’ll do my best to get to know them properly and have a blast.

I hope I will be able to see Matthijs more often than now. …so anything more often than once a month would already be a very welcome improvement. The only negative side is that it will be more difficult to have longer trips together, but at least we should be able to see each other most weekends.

I fear that my lack of grammar knowledge and practise in actually speaking in French will hold me back from communicating. I have already taken the first step to turn this fear into something positive. Taking another look at the photo, you may notice a book + CD set from the Teach Yourself series. I have already learned Dutch for 1,5 years with a Dutch book from that series and I will be revising and learning French with my newly purchased book from now on. (In addition, I hope to take French lessons in Brussels as well, at least a conversation course.)

I fear I will find being an au pair too difficult. Ah, the fear of failure, my old friend. I have experience with kids, but not as a paid occupation. If I don’t know something, I google it or turn to the library. This time I picked the latter – the book pile also contains four different books that teach adults to encourage creativity in kids, how to help kids handle their feelings and gain confidence, Q&A with a pediatrician and Q&A with a child psychiatrist. I’ll return those soon and get some new ones. Of course I don’t take everything in those books as rules to live by, but they do offer some food for thought and prepare me mentally for many things I might encounter as an au pair.

I fear that there will be unresolvable conflicts between me and the Brussels parents. I have met the family already and so far it looks like we’re on the same page. There can always be miscommunications and misunderstandings though and then everything depends on how good we all are at talking things through and coming to an acceptable agreement. I know some people who have switched families because they just didn’t “click”, so even though I already like the family, there is always the possibility of things changing. I will do my best to resolve all problems as soon as they appear so there wouldn’t be lasting misunderstandings between us.

I fear I will run out of money long before next payday. Living abroad, lots of delicious quality chocolate around, tempting nearby locations for trips… plenty of things that would lure money out of my wallet while living there. I will try to make this fear disappear by keeping a close eye on my expenses and having a calm (read: inexpensive) weekend with walks in the park and reading books (or cuddling up with Matthijs and watching Doctor Who) after a weekend with intense trips outside Brussels.

I fear I will get homesick. This one is pretty much a given – despite all my travels I have never been away from home / my family for longer than a few weeks at a time. This will be my first longer separation from a familiar environment, friends and family. I will try to reduce homesickness by blogging, skyping and hopefully flying home two-three times during that year. Also, I’ll try to persuade friends and family to visit me whenever possible – that way I can be a tour guide as well, showing them around in Brussels and nearby towns which I should know pretty well by the time first visitors would appear.

Why an au pair? And why in Belgium?

Why be an au pair in Belgium? I’ve been asked that a few times already. First, people usually try being an au pair after graduating from high school if they don’t know what to do next / just want to see the world. Second, most Estonians would probably pick some place like the USA, the UK… or any country that offers enough sun for a lifetime in one year.

I’m 22, just got my BA in politics and could be looking for an office job where I could use that education or go and get a Master’s degree in international relations or EU studies or… you get my drift. Why on earth would I be an au pair then? The answer is fairly simple. Even though I’ve travelled quite a lot already, it’s not enough for me; I’ve been wanting to live abroad for at least a year for as long as I can remember. This is the time to finally do that.

For years I thought I’d go to England. I have always loved England and London is the city of my dreams. Then something changed. I fell in love with a Dutchman and suddenly I found I wouldn’t be against moving to The Netherlands. There were a few obstacles though – I had no money for moving and we were both still studying, so just packing everything up and going to a different country was not the most sensible option.

This June I discovered something. I was done with university, I had no idea what I wanted to do next (Master’s degree? In what? What job? In which country???), my eyes were not taking my current office job very well and I felt like I needed a break from everything. I had already had half a week where I could barely see anything with one eye and the other one hurt like mad as well, so I knew I had to make a change. I went through all job offers and put up a profile on an au pair website and the first results came from the aur pair site.

Within 1.5 weeks from the moment I had started searching for a new job, I had an agreement with a lovely Estonian-French family in Brussels and could quit the office job. Being an au pair seemed like the furthest thing from archiving invoices. It seemed perfect. I have always loved children and gotten along well with them, so changing from computers to two lovely small kids… was there even a question?

Of course, one factor in picking that particular family (besides the fact they seemed the best fit from everyone who had contacted me so far) was that Brussels is only a 3h train ride away from Nijmegen. What about Nijmegen? Well, it’s a lovely Dutch town near the German border… and my lovely Dutchman Matthijs happens to live there. We have been flying back&forth between the Netherlands and Estonia for more than 15 months, so being closer to him was such a lovely bonus to everything else. No more asking in January whether he would be able to see me at the end of June or planning the New Year’s meet-up in the middle of the summer. Just jump on a train and go.