Thaly Zollinger - 2015 Program Participant

A street in the Latin Quarter of Madrid, Spain

This is a picture of a typical street in the latin quarter of Madrid named, La Latina.This area is known for its streets filled with tapa bars where locals spend their time getting tapas and drinks at any time of the day. La Latina also has plenty of authentic Spanish restaurants and markets; I especially enjoyed this area because it has a lot of history and it is very old and traditional. It's not common to find tourists here making it even more authentic.

Why did you decide to apply for an international program?

I had never been to Europe before I became an au pair in Madrid, but I thought this was a great, affordable way to travel and live abroad while truly immersing myself in the culture. Living with a host family exposed me to Spanish culture and my host parents were always willing to share their knowledge of Spanish history and politics with me. I also wanted to learn Spanish, and although I was speaking English with the kids, I spoke Spanish with the parents and the housekeeper. I was also able to take a Spanish Intensive course during the day, which I practiced a lot when exploring the city and having no choice but to speak in Spanish wherever I went.

Living in another country with a host family is possibly one of the best ways to immerse yourself in the culture and learn a new language while still enjoying the comfort of living in a home.

Why did you choose Smaller Earth?

I came across Smaller Earth after researching for gap year programs because I needed some guidance and ideas as to what I should do during my year off. Smaller Earth seemed safe and had many different gap year options.

I was most interested in the au pair option because I thought it was a great way to live abroad and immerse yourself in a new culture all while living in a home with a family, which would make the adjustment a little bit easier. Also, being an au pair can be a very affordable option if you stick to just using the money you receive from the families at the end of the week, and accommodation and meals are free so that really helps with expenses.

Not too long after entering my email for a follow-up, I was contacted by a Smaller Earth representative who talked on the phone with me for hours explaining what an au pair was and what the process of becoming an au pair would be like. She then got me in touch with two girls that were currently au pair's in Madrid. After emailing these girls back and forth for a couple of weeks and seeing how happy they were with their experience as well as Smaller Earth's services, I finally decided it was perfect for me!

What was your favorite part about Madrid?

Madrid is a walkable city where everyone is out on the streets going about their day that you might not want to get a metro pass. You can get anywhere you'd like in 10 minutes by foot from the center. It is such a beautiful city that even strolling around and enjoying your walk without a specific destination could be a great way to spend your day. The streets are old and colorful, lined with old pubs, cafe's, barber shops, and bakeries.

Though you may see people getting around the city on their mopeds, I loved walking around the city and that was probably one of my favorite things I did there. I would walk everywhere after class exploring new areas, book shops, cafes, and hidden parks. I knew Madrid so well that I would purposely get lost in the city and then find my way back home, all by foot. People were always out in the streets happily living their lives and filling their day with enjoyable activities. I made many observations from these walks about the people, the way they dress, and their daily activities.

What I really loved about Madrid is the history and culture that can be seen in the buildings and streets. It truly feels and looks like an authentic Spanish city and the people are nothing short of it. If you want to see a true Spanish city and live like a Spaniard, Madrid is the city to go to!

A book store in Malasaña, Madrid, Spain

This is a picture I took in Malasaña, the hipster district of Madrid. You can find everything you want here from book stores to underground concert venues. The streets are filled with street art and colorful shops. Malasaña is known for being popular amongst young people.

What made your experience as an au pair in Madrid unique?

I think what makes this program unique is that they really made sure every aspect of my experience was taken care of. The application process for both au pairs and host families ensured that they were committed, welcoming, and respectful of the guidelines of the program. They also required pictures on both ends, so that we could each get a feel for what the au pair/host family was like. My family and I felt confident when deciding to go through with this plan because we trusted Smaller Earth and were so pleased by the responses we got back from other au pairs that had gone through Smaller Earth.

How did local staff support you throughout your program?

Smaller Earth did a great job at following up on me, making sure I was doing alright with the adjustment, and checking that I was completely satisfied with my experience so far. I would get an email every month asking how I was doing and if I had any questions about the program. They connected me to the Smaller Earth branch in Madrid, who added me to the Facebook group and then sent me a list of au pairs all organized by zip codes in Madrid, so that I could meet up with people around me; this was so helpful and really made a huge impact on my experience since I was able to meet so many people!

What's one thing you wish you would have done differently?

I wish I stayed longer! I wish I practiced my Spanish even more because there really are few better cities to learn Spanish than Madrid. I know some people who did language exchanges at cafés with people who were trying to learn their native tongue. I think this is not only a really fun and effective way to practice another language, it is also such a great way to meet locals! I'm telling you guys, meeting locals is the best thing you could do. They are fun, friendly, and know the city better than you, making it an all around more authentic experience. Did I mention they are tons of fun?

View of Toledo, Spain

This picture was taken when some friends and I took a day trip out to Toledo. Toledo is the first capital of Spain and now a UNESCO world heritage site. It is a medieval city that consists of twisting, narrow, streets, ancient mosques, synagogues, and churches. Toledo is very common amongst tourists because of its immense history and significance in Spain.

Describe a day in the life of an au pair in Madrid.

Every day was pretty different from the next. I usually woke up at 9 a.m. to exercise and eat before class at 11:30 a.m. It was a really nice walk to class from where I was living, so I would leave at 11 a.m. to make it by 11:30 a.m. Class was two hours long, but it was in the center of the city so we would usually get tapas or go to a cafe around there and sit there for hours in the sun. I didn't have to pick up my girls from school until 5:30 p.m., so I usually had some extra time to enjoy the city after class.

From 5:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. I would bring the girls home by foot and make them a snack while they did their homework. As soon as one of them had time, I would do a thirty minute English lesson, where I would go over basic English and grammar rules by looking over lyrics to their favorite American songs, a magazine, or even an episode of Lizzie McGuire! At 8:30 p.m. I would make sure they were all seated for dinner and I would serve them whatever my host mom prepared beforehand. I would usually stay after hours and eat dinner with them just because they were such sweethearts and I really truly loved being around them. They were eight,11, and 12, and the coolest little kids I have ever met. To this day we are still in touch!

Every week I would have to babysit the girls for one or two nights, but it was always either a Tuesday or a Wednesday night. This is part of an au pair's duties and is agreed upon before signing the contract with the host family. It was always fun being with the girls and we would usually watch an American TV show or movie to help them practice their English or we would play a game. They always gave me respect and I never had any problems putting them to bed around 9:30 p.m.

On week days that I didn't have to babysit, I would usually go out with friends of mine to a restaurant and then to the bars. There were also a ton of events going on for international students every night of the week so there were always many options! People usually started eating at 10 p.m. or 11 p.m., going to the bars around midnight, and then to the clubs around 2 a.m. until it closed, at 6 a.m.!

During the weekend my host family would go to their house in the mountains, therefore I didn't have to work (most au pairs don't work on the weekend), so I would either go on a weekend long trip somewhere, take a day trip with friends somewhere outside of Madrid, or I would just spend the weekend exploring the city some more!

There really is so much to do in Madrid, it is impossible to be bored.

Picnic at El Retiro, Madrid, Spain

This is a photo taken at an international picnic in the park, El Retiro in Madrid. I found out about this picnic from a girl I barely knew who is now one of my really good friends. The person who organized this picnic had everyone bring a traditional plate from their home country. A couple of the people I met here are now some of my best friends and traveled around Spain with me just a few weeks later!

What did you enjoy doing on your free time most?

Sometimes when it was a really nice day, my friends from class and I would go to the park, El Retiro, and have a picnic along with every Madrileño in the city! My favorite museum, Sofia Reina, was very close to the park so I would always go there afterward. We also loved the "hipster" district of Madrid called Malasaña. It's full of colorful streets, cafés, thrift stores, street art, independent stores, street performers, etc. If I could live in Madrid, I would live there! When the girls from my class and I had some money in our pockets, we were sure to be found shopping around Malasaña.

Lastly, the food markets in Madrid are something you can not miss out on! These markets have artisan street food (and tapas of course), so you just choose something small and then go to next stand. The markets are usually really large with multiple floors, cool decor, and always a rooftop view.

What type of accommodation did you have? What did you like best about it?

I lived in a decently sized bedroom with more than enough closet space, a comfy bed, windows, and a desk. The room was decorated with posters and art, and the sheets, pillows, and blankets were colorful and soft! I really felt like I was at home when living there, and I think that is what I liked best! The kitchen was always fully stacked and they had no problem with me eating the food that they bought. Dinner was always delicious and I learned so much about Spanish food from cooking with my host mom. They didn't mind it if I watched television, but I almost never did since I was too busy exploring Madrid in my free time! I really loved how they were able make me feel like I was at my home, even though I was thousands of miles away from it.

Now that you're home, how has your time abroad impacted your life?

This program abroad has impacted my life in more ways than one. To make this short, my experience in Madrid has opened up my eyes to a world outside of my little bubble back home and has completely changed my views and perspective on life in so many ways. I have learned so much about a new culture and lifestyle that I would've never had such close contact with if it wasn't for this experience.

Through my travels, I have been able discover new passions and interests of mine. I have made friends from all over the world and made memories that will last me a lifetime. I have a family in Madrid that I could honestly say feels like a real family to me. Madrid has a special place in my heart and I feel homesick just writing about it because I miss it so much! This experience has taught me how to be independent and look after myself. It has also made me realize that I get to choose what path I will take in life and by no means does that mean choosing the same path that everyone else decides to take.

Do what makes YOU happy, and be smart about it.

Smaller Earth did a great job at making sure that everything ran smoothly and that the host family I stayed with were good people and would treat me like I was one of their own children. I met many au pairs during my time abroad and they did not nearly have as many positive responses to their experience as the au pairs I met through Smaller Earth. Their complaints were usually of their host family and contract disagreements. Fair contracts that both parties agree on is SO important and will completely affect your experience. Smaller Earth makes sure that the contract is settled before any arrangements are made and that it is fair for both parties. They also make sure that the host family lives in a safe area and that you have easy access to public transportation.

I really have to thank Smaller Earth for being so mindful and preventing any issues from happening while I was abroad! It was very noticeable how much effort they put into their services and it was always greatly appreciated.