Posted by: travelerbyday | May 4, 2009

the Host Family: some thoughts

In my house in France, I have a Host Mom who washes my sheets and towels. She feeds me dinner every night, asks me questions to help me practice my French, and invites me to watch her favorite soap opera in the evenings.  I also have a Host Dad who is generally quieter, grins and asks if I’m doing well when he sees me, and from time to time proffers information about interesting hikes in the mountains surrounding our neighborhood.

Having lived with this older couple for the past eight months, I have become very comfortable in their home, learning how to properly set the table (in France, a feat not so minor as one might think), training myself to sleep through the noise of Host Dad wheeling his moped past my room and out the door to work, remembering to do my laundry after certain hours to economise on water bills.

So why is it that I can’t bring myself to ask the simplest question, “Pass the water?” at the dinner table?  Why do I read with the overhead light on instead of asking Host Mom to change the bum lightbulb in my table lamp?

My program director gave the students some advice before we met our host families.  She explained that the first one or two weeks of living with a new family are very important, because it is during this time that one establishes rules, boundaries, and relationships.

I have found this to be true: a month into my stay, Host Dad mentioned to a guest at dinner that I “love fruit, always choose fruit,” – Good to know, I thought, he’s noticed my presence.

Fortunately (and not), once the two week grace period of adjustment is up, routine sets in, habits are formed, change in comportment is reserved for situations involving misplaced keys or admissions of newfound végétarisme.  This explains my difficulty in asking for the carafe at mealtimes.  When I first came to France, I couldn’t ask for water for several reasons, the most important being that I didn’t know the mot juste and didn’t want to be a loud American, nervously stuttering and rudely gesturing to indicate my thirst; now, it’s established that I’ll keep mum even when I want something: “You have to serve it to her, remember.” (Thanks for getting my back, Host Mom.)

This difficulty of mine stems from a bigger problem, defining the host family.  Are we talking party host?  Nuclear family?  And where does the labeling end?  Do I refer to the woman seated across from me as my host grandmother?  Is she petting my host dog?  Do I have to call it my host bus on the way to my host café in my host country?

Eight months in, I’m still in the process of defining all of the terms and boundaries for myself, but I’m certain that they’re different for other students because of the vast diversity of host families.  Example:  A guy in my program lives with a host family consisting of one 27-year-old dude.  A friend studying in Morocco lives with a Muslim woman mourning her recently-lost husband.  Personally,  I can’t be Facebook friends with one of my six host siblings because he is a monk living in a monastery with limited Internet access.

It’s situations like these that make our homestays memorable and interesting.  If nothing else, they give us excellent storytelling-fodder for bonding with locals or other members of our program.  So for your education abroad plat principal (allow me this last food reference, I’m in France), may I recommend the Host Family?

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