"Becoming part of a foreign family can be an amazing experience," says Anne Rougier who heads up the French-based au au pair firm Oliver Twist Work & Study.
"Our au pair program has been increasingly popular. It’s always a good way to discover a new country, learn another language and it costs almost nothing," she adds.
Rougier places applicants, aged from 18 to 26. People can opt for a summer placement of two or three months or stay for the entire school year.
Prospective au pairs pay a €300 ($400) agency fee and the French organization works with Spanish intermediaries to place candidates with families. Ticket costs are the au pair’s responsibility.
"Our au pairs get at least one and a half day off per week and receive a minimum of €60 ($80) pocket money a week," explains Rougier, adding that the firm provides on the ground support to au pairs.
But she also warns the work can be tough. Au pairs are required to work a minimum of 25 hours per week and expected to do household chores.
"Sometimes candidates don't realize how demanding caring for children and working 30-35 hours per week can be," she explains.
Teaching their native language to the kids can also be part of the au pairs’ job. "Over the past years, an increasing number of Spanish family have been asking for an English-speaking au pair, who will be able to talk to the kids in English," admits Rougier.
"This might lead to disappointment if the au pair was hoping to improve in Spanish."
For au pair’s themselves, the experience can be a mixed one.
Marion, a 19-year-old from France quit university in September, got in touch with a host family directly via the internet and became an au pair in Spain. She has just returned home after 10 months in Madrid.
After getting in touch over Skype, Marion moved in with a family of five including a two-year-old baby. She was asked to speak French to the five and seven-year-old girls.
"They immediately made me feel really comfortable," she says. “I really wanted to go to Spain and learn the language. I needed some time off my studies to figure out what I wanted to do."
Zephyr, a 20-year-old who is currently doing a summer placement in Madrid with a British au pair agency had similar motivations. "My parents wanted me to work over summer and I needed to improve my Spanish. I love looking after kids, I have a little sister and several younger cousins."
After completing several forms and a Skype interview, the agency put him in touch with a family interested in his profile. His weak Spanish level wasn't a problem, and the parents wanted a male au pair because they have two sons.
"The parents don’t speak English but the six-year old boy goes to an international school," says Zephyr. "I teach him English every morning".
Starting at 9am, his role mainly involves looking after the kids while both parents are at work. The nanny takes care of the cleaning and cooking tasks. He receives €100 a week.
Zephyr is currently doing a summer au pair placement in Madrid
Au pairs’ timetable can truly vary from one family to the other, as Marion worked from 6.30am to 10pm. Her tasks included preparing breakfast for the kids, taking them to school and several activities, playing with them and putting them to bed.
After walking the dog and cleaning the kitchen, her day was finally over.
"The work was tough, I didn't expect that much," Marion admits.
She still enjoyed some free-time at weekends.
"From October to June, I took Spanish classes in a small language school where 90 percent of the students were au pairs. It was also a good way to meet people."
Marion would also tag along every time her family left the capital. "We went on holidays four times, including trips to San Sebastian and the Sierra Nevada. But I had to work non-stop."
Zephyr and his host family will also be leaving Madrid this weekend for their holiday house in the country. He will then have another three weeks left in Madrid. "Up to now everything’s been fine, I hope it will continue this way."
His agency hasn't organized for him to meet up with any other Spain-based au pairs yet, but he was lucky to meet an au pair living next door.
Marion is now back in France and feels she has gained a lot from the experience. "It hasn't always been easy. The mum focused on small details, the kids wouldn't always listen to me. But I’ve handled the pressure and responsibility – I've learnt a lot."
She received €60 per week, while most of her au pair friends agreed that they were underpaid.
"We are young, many of us had no supervising organization. Some families took advantage of it."
In September, she will go back to university to study languages and probably work in tourism in the future. "My Spanish has really improved. I don’t want to lose it now."
"I also know I’ll keep in touch with the family. You create strong links by living ten months together."