Welcome to the beautiful St John’s University campus at Oakdale, NY. The college campus is quiet and tucked away on Long Island, about 90 minutes out of New York City, and is used by Cultural Care 11 months of the year as their training school for Au Pairs from all over the world.
I arrived with the 5 other Australian au pairs on Monday morning at 1:30am, and we were the first here, bar one Mexican girl who arrived a few hours before us. We are staying in a dorm called La Salle, which is on the second floor of the University’s Graduate Program building. The dorm sleeps about 50 Au Pairs, and Caitlin, the school director, lives in the building. La Salle is a great dorm, and because of its small size, it has an intimate family-like feel. There are about 15 dorm rooms, each sleeping 3 or 4 au pairs in a mixture of single beds and bunk beds, and these circle a central common room.
It is the end of the first full day here, and the common room in La Salle is occupied by about 25 au pairs from all over the world. Some are watching TV, chatting in a mixture English and their native languages, and most nurse laptop computers while they chat to their families on facebook or check their emails.
Let me tell you, the training school is no holiday or walk in the park. You fly here, not always by the most direct route, and spend up to 32 hours flying and in transit. Depending on when you arrive, you have anywhere between 2 and 32 hours to get settled before the classes start.
The classes at the CCAP School are government regulated – you have to complete a specific number of classroom hours to receive your “diploma”, which you need to go on to join your host family at the end of the week. Coming into the school I thought the classes would be boring – as well as being a native English speaker, I’ve been a nanny bordering on 4 years, and when it comes to the basics of childcare, child development and childhood illnesses, I pretty much know most things.
So I was surprised when I came out of the 8 hours of classes today laughing and telling people that I had a great day. I must say that the ‘good time’ wasn’t related to the curriculum, which covered childhood illnesses and disease prevention, healthy eating and ‘The Au Pair as a Role Model’, but the amazing people in my class. The classes are sorted by the area you will be living in, and as such, my class is a mixture of girls and guys (out of 249 au pairs at the training school this weekend 10 are male) going to Massachusetts, Rhode Island and New Hampshire. Our teacher, the wonderful Mirel, is a bundle of fun. She’s an older lady with more energy than your average elementary school student (haha) and laughed and joked with us, but also explained when what we were talking about was a serious topic.
It’s a bit hard being an English speaking au pair – everybody else has their own “secret language”, and although the teachers and staff encourage the students to speak in English, obviously most au pairs are more comfortable conversing between themselves in their native language, so sometimes you feel a little left out. I thought because of this (and also because at only 6 Australian au pairs here this week, we are definitely in the minority) that it would be hard to make friends, but it’s been great. Miren mixed us up into groups with a mixture of nationalities, and I spent the day laughing and joking with my new Mexican, German, Swedish and Danish friends! We learnt about diseases and illnesses common in childhood, and I learnt about Lyme disease which we don’t really have in Australia. I was able to share my knowledge with the others about how Conjunctivitis (more commonly known in the USA as “Pink Eye”) can be spread in an infant with a cold, after a recent experience in a job in Australia, and more than anything, we had fun laughing and joking.
Mirel told us all about ‘hacking’, and I was amused at her descriptions of how someone can hack you through your ‘email number’ – just the thought of a woman in her 60’s telling a bunch of technology savvy generation y-ers about hacking makes me laugh. She also left us in hysterics a couple of times when she couldn’t explain something, and told us that she’d google it. Not sure why this was funny, but it just was!
I learnt that in some parts of Mexico where the letters ‘ch’ actually make a ‘sh’ sound, the pronunciation of the word “cheating” sounds very similar to the normal English pronunciation of a rather rude word (use your imagination!) used to describe having a bowel motion (also known as a BM here in the USA, something else I learnt today, haha!). This provided a lot of comical moments in the classroom, and still continues to in the dorms.
I rediscovered the annoying, disruptive 12-year old that I was at Intermediate school when I am bored and not challenged in a classroom situation, and have vowed to myself that I will try harder tomorrow to not be the class clown every second of the day.
Mirel is rather proficient in a number of languages, at least enough to teach and translate the important words (like ‘liver’ (‘liber’) and ‘glandular fever’ (‘pfeifferisches drusenfieber’) in German, and a number of other languages. Apparently, however, according to the German au pairs, when she speaks German she sounds more like a Russian. Haha.
We played a funny game where our teams were named after infectious diseases, and the rules were unfair – she wouldn’t necessarily call on the person who put their hand up first to answer the question, and when our team was obviously winning, she stopped calling on us all together, until she had been through all the other tables and nobody else knew the answer, meanwhile we are all waving 2 arms in the air each and making various grunting, squealing and whining noises, almost like a sty full of noisy piglets.
We started some arts and crafts projects as examples of what we could do with our host kids, and I discovered that at 19 years old, the desire to let PVA glue dry on your hands (after making a paper mache piñata) and peel it off like skin is still existent. I made a pin wheel and folded paper envelopes like I did as an 11-year-old.
I can’t say I really learnt much from the curriculum that I didn’t already know. What I did learn today, however, is that it is possible to cross language and cultural boundaries, and forge friendships and relationships with people you never imagined yourself to be friends with in another setting. That even though you may miss your special people at home, that it is still possible to joke around, enjoy yourself and laugh until you nearly cry.
We may only be at the Cultural Care Au Pair school campus here on Long Island for 4 or 5 days, but for me it will always have a place in my heart for the lifelong friendships that I know are in the process of being formed.
Much love and Pfeifferisches Drűsenfieber (also known as the ‘kissing disease’)
(PS. A big thank you must go out to my new friends Rena and Hugo, who without them, today would have been quite boring!)