In 2009 my 19 –year-old-self was sitting on a train train to Munich Airport. It went over a bridge, putting my hometown Salzburg in a beautiful view. I remember looking out of the train’s window, watching the town, where I basically spent all my life disappearing and thinking “ This is the last time I will see this for a year”. It seemed such an incredible long time, so long I couldn’t even imagine the time stretch. I had cried when my parents and my best friend dropped me off at the train station and I took a deep breath, wiping off the tears and concentrating on the adventure that was lying ahead of me: 12 months, Au Pair in Connecticut, USA, just 1 hour from New York, the city I had dreamed about since I was 10 years old. I was terribly scared of what was expecting me and I had no idea if I could cope with the challenges, but I was determined to somehow make it and at the same time hungry for the experience.
Now, that I look back I want to laugh at myself for all my naivety and all the irrational fears and worries occupying my mind. But at the same time the big difference that this year made for me still freaks me out. I wanted to go on a gap year after school since I was 15 but I didn’t want to do Au Pair under any circumstances. During my final year I had to realise that other options were either too complicated, too dangerous (for my taste at least), too expensive or for a shorter period of time, I had planned on. Au Pair was the only long-term option that would take me to the US, but it required a commitment of 12 months, which scared be both because of the long time away from home and also because I wanted to start university after my gap year and I didn’t know if I could go through the applications process fast enough to leave before fall in order to be back for university the next year. My parents were against it, because they thought it would put me off a smooth path into higher education and I was worried about having a bad experience being an Au Pair.
I don’t know how I ended up to make the decision for it but in August 2009 I was on the train with two suitcases stuffed with things I packed in Mission Impossible: wardrobe a year away from home.
The tears I cried on the train were not the only ones during this year and sometimes getting on a plane and going home earlier than planned seemed very tempting. In the beginning I was extremely tired from speaking and thinking in English all the time. Meeting so many other Au Pairs from all over the world was completely overwhelming for me and the transition from school into a 45 hour working week and taking on the responsibility for two little children seemed too much for me. I didn’t feel at home with my Host family and no one was there to help me sort things out.
New York was not all glamour-y like in the movies, it was loud, dirty and stressful but somehow I fell in love with it after a few days anyway. Sitting around crying or leaving was not really an option and I realised quickly that if I wanted to things to work I would have to become much more “american” and “love my life, or change it”. I learned to not give up and stand up for myself and take on responsibility.
After three months I moved to another family, which was exactly this: a family. But I also moved away from friends I had made and had to start all over again in some respects. On the bright side I also moved a lot closer to New York, into a suburb, north of New York City and just 30 minutes from Times Square.
Things were still not easy but I had gained a lot of experience at my previous family and it was now easier to cope with difficulties. I enjoyed spending time with my kids, 2 boys, very much but I also took classes at an American College in Sociology and Creative Writing, which kept me busy almost all of my leisure time, except for the weekends, which were entirely devoted to the city. I was lucky enough to meet many interesting people and made friends with people from all over the world in my local area as well as in the city, which became my second home quite quickly. After 6 months and halfway through my gap Year, things began to change. I had adapted to my life here and became attached to it. Every time I walked past the building blocks in Greenwich Village or in Williamsburg I imaged myself living here. Event though I missed my family and friends from home terribly I didn’t want to think about leaving.
Most of the money I earned went into travels across the US. After I visited Washington DC and Boston I went across the country on my first self-booked and organised flight to the Westcoast, where I spent an amazing week in LA, Las Vegas, San Francisco, Death Valley and the breath-taking Grand Canyon. I also went to Miami in Spring to escape the chilly days in New York only to fly in La Guardia Airport a week later, past the skyscrapers and falling in love even more with this exciting city. Others would probably call it an obsession: in not even a year I had been 5 times to the Metropolitan Museum, 3 times to the MoMa and 2 times to the PS1 among other museums I visited. I got to know most parts of Manhatten and made it to all five Boroughs several times. I literally walked miles in Manhatten, extended my Vintage hunting skills and learned how to order fancy coffees with “ A tall, Café Latteee with Non-Fat milk and Vanilla Syrup”. I got into the habit of walking fast, always looking as if I was in a hurry and then suddenly being totally relaxed when tourists asked for the way. I used every minute to do something, adapted a truly open attitude to different nationalities, skin colours and sexual orientations. Most importantly my gap year taught me to be grateful for the opportunities life gave to me. I became an avid New York magazine and Time Out New York reader and until today I still check out Jamie’s sex advice on Time Out New York online. Even New Yorkers admitted that I knew their city surprisingly well.
Once the days got warmer time started to fly by. Some of my fellow Au Pairs had already left to go back home but for some it became apparent that they would stay in the US. I had been thrilled by the american university system, which seemed to fit my diverse interests so much better than the European options but after a few Campus tours, I had to realise that the tuitions fees were simply out of my reach. After a beautiful spring and early summer I made my final trip in the US to Chicago, which turned out to be one of my best vacations ever. My last ten days in New York were overshadowed by my departure and when I picked up my heavy suitcases in a winter coat in the middle of August (I was wearing 4 layers to take my shopping crop back home) I felt empty and sad to leave all this behind.
I started studying in Vienna, Austria but I could never settle in properly. Things had stayed the same at home but I had changed and couldn’t go back to my “Pre-NY-Self”. I missed New York’s hustle-bustle, the international community, the positive attitude towards life in the US. I had hoped that my Gap year would help me decide, which path I would take for my future education but it has opened up more option and made it even harder to decide. For some of us “returnees” the way back home was harder than coming to the US. Going through their facebook profiles today reveals that the “international bug” has taken over almost all of them: V. still lives in New York and is doing a Master’s degree in Psychology, H. managed to get into Harvard, R. went back to Sweden but started saving up for 6 months Work and Travel Australia right away and C. left her home Colombia for Madrid to study Film.
In winter I decided that I wasn’t done with living abroad yet, applied to university in London, which tuition’s fees were easier to manage and packed my suitcases again in fall. I watched exactly the same picture of Salzburg when I travelled to Munich Airport this fall but this time I didn’t cry and my 3 years BA Journalism degree seemed a rather short period of time to me. I don’t know where my life will take me at this point. London seemed to be the right decision and I feel happy to be back at the pulse of the world. I would have never even thought about studying in London if I had not gone to New York. The experiences, knowledge and skills that I acquired during my Gap year have helped me and enriched my life so much. My gap year has massively pushed me towards being the person I wanted to become and changed my life.