Travel connects us with the world, both physically and emotionally. We take pictures of ourselves with the city’s iconic landmarks, to serve as a gateway into memories of the past. The sights, the smells, the experiences – all come rushing back like a flood. And hopefully among those experiences are interactions with locals. I view traveling as the ultimate lesson in empathy, an opportunity to meet and learn from people all over the world.
As an au pair in the Netherlands, the task of meeting people was made incredibly easy for me. Travel Active, the Dutch au pair agency working in cooperation with InterExchange, provides a list of other au pairs in the Netherlands upon arrival. They also host activities throughout the country, giving au pairs the chance to meet and socialize. Through these media, I met a handful of girls that I’m sure I will remain in contact with for the rest of my life.
Beyond the connections offered by the cooperating agency, there are numerous ways to meet people while traveling abroad. I find it actually easier to make new friends abroad than back home, because nearly everybody in the international community is searching for ways to establish meaningful connections. Websites like meetup.com, couchsurfing.com, and various Facebook groups were instrumental in connecting me with people from all over the world. The InterExchange Working Abroad grant improved my opportunity to travel with these new friends, thereby strengthening those relationships. I was able to take full advantage of being in Europe – I traveled all around the Netherlands and also visited Germany, Belgium, France, and Spain.
I won’t lie – it’s fun to have friends from faraway places like South Africa and China. But the implications of those friendships run deeper than the mere opportunity for future travels. My global knowledge is constantly expanding because of the friends I’ve made. I’m more invested in the current events of these nations because I have such strong personal ties. Just as I would be more attentive to news of a natural disaster in my home state of California, I now have the same knee-jerk reaction to news from Brazil and Spain.
I feel more connected with humanity, thanks to my personal network growing wider and stronger. The nature of being an au pair lends itself to cultural immersion. Many dream of this type of travel, living with a family abroad for an extended period of time. I learned about the intricacies and details of the culture, and celebrated numerous Dutch holidays with my adopted family.
Being responsible for three young children and household cleaning is no easy task, but it definitely provides a wealth of relevant experience for the future. In terms of developing time management, flexibility, and decision-making skills, being an au pair is the perfect job. I feel more confident interacting with people from different backgrounds, which will help me immensely when I begin a career working with urban refugees.
I expected to transform into this “world citizen.” I often wished for a more ambiguous appearance, to blend into various countries as if I belong everywhere. Now, that quality is less important to me. I can better appreciate the differences among people of different nationalities and cultures, because that is what makes each of us unique. And I have found that those differences are minimal, compared to the vast number of similarities we share.
It is a privilege to meet people from around the world. If given the opportunity to travel, take it. Use every means available to expand your horizons and have the adventure of a lifetime.
by Julie N.