This is part 2 of my writing assignment. In Part 1, I interviewed Bart about how he looks back on his transformative gap years now, thirty years later. In this profile, I am in conversation with another inspiring traveler, Maria, who was our first au pair. I wrote about our visit to Maria in Denmark before, here. She shared how difficult it was to come back home, after many years of world travel. I’m so grateful she was brave enough to share her story, as I think that many world travelers, myself included, can relate and learn a lot from her experience.
In 2007, Maria from Denmark traveled to the USA, to be an au pair. An au pair is a live-in childcare provider, who is visiting from overseas. About 14,000 foreigners come to the US each year to work as au pairs, traveling on visas to promote educational and cultural exchange. Au pairs provide 45 hours of child-care-related work, are treated as a member of the family, and complete some educational credits. Many countries in Europe have au pair programs too.
In the case of Maria, she had finished high school and needed a break from studying. “I wanted to see the world and I had nothing to tie me down. My mom worked at a daycare, and I always loved to work with kids so being an au pair seemed like a logical choice,” she said. She took care of a three-year-old girl and a nine-month-old boy in California and was somewhat overwhelmed by the responsibilities, “I was very young, only nineteen years old. The kids were also very small, and I took care of them all by myself.”
Maria learned a lot during her stay in the USA. “I built up my self-esteem. Before, I was the kind of person who stood behind others, invisible. But during my au pair year, I learned how to stand alone. I was alone in the US, without my family, and without my friends,” Maria said.
After her au pair year, Maria went back to Denmark, but she was not done traveling. She read about Pattaya Orphanage in Thailand and decided to volunteer there. A year after returning from the United States she had saved enough money to make her dream come true. “I volunteered in the baby room. I was feeding the babies, changing diapers, making them sleep and playing with them. Thailand was a very different experience than the USA. In America, there was the au pair agency, a host family, and other au pairs. In Thailand, I was on my own. I arranged the whole thing by myself.”
Even after Thailand, Maria was not ready to go back to school. “I had a friend, Kasper. We had always talked about traveling together. When I got home from Thailand, we sat down and arranged a trip to Australia and New Zealand together. That trip was all about enjoyment. We were planning to work, and we got working visa’s, but we never used them. We were having too much fun, and I guess we were lazy.”
Maria ended her Australia and New Zealand trip with another three months volunteering at the Pattaya Orphanage, after which it was time to go home to Denmark. “I ran out of money. Australia was very expensive, especially because we didn’t work. Also, I felt that I had to go to school. I wanted to learn something. That had always been the plan,” she said.
But it wasn’t easy to pick up her old life in Denmark. In fact, Maria became depressed. She said, “The first few weeks were very exciting, but it was so hard going from an everyday adventurer to everyday boring life. I felt that I had changed so much, but that home hadn’t changed at all. It took me way down. I was so mad. After all my travels I had become the person I wanted to be. All that was torn into pieces. I didn’t believe that I could do anything. I didn’t have the courage even to start studying. I was missing the travel so much. I was stuck in the past.”
“I felt bad for a few years. Eventually, I went to see a therapist, and that helped a lot. I started to study Media Graphic Design at Aarhus Tech, and I left my job at the daycare for BubbleMedia, a web design agency. That also helped. We have an expression in Denmark, “to put your ‘yes hat’ on”. I started to say yes to anything that came my way. By saying yes to things, I went on new adventures, met new people and got new experiences while at home.”
Maria joined Rotaract, an international youth organization affiliated with the Rotary Club. She reacted to a post on the Rotaract Facebook page to chaperone a group of forty-two youngsters on a three-week tour through Europe. She also said ‘yes’ to helping the Danish organization supporting Pattaya Orphanage. This Fall she will go to Croatia on a sailing trip with Rotaract, she recently joined a kayak club, and she has applied to interview au pair candidates for the agency that sent her to the United States.
Maria concluded, “I still want to do a lot more traveling. I want to see everything, and I also want to live in other places. But you have to look at your travels as great memories and experiences that helped you grown. You have to be grateful for it. And when you are home, you have to try to make that a new experience too. Just go on small adventures and say “yes” to things. Even if you don’t think that you can do it.”