Probably the most frequently asked questions revolve around host families. Where am I going to stay? What is it going to be like living with another family (of a different culture)? Will it be safe? Will I be fed? How do I get to school? All of these questions run through the mind of almost every study abroad student who is going to live with a host family. So, because all of the Americans in my program just had Thanksgiving dinner with our host families, I am going to provide a little insight into my experience, and the experience of some others, of living with another family in a different country.
First, my host mom is exceptional. And I say this not because I need to give a good impression of host families (because I intend to fully tell the truth), but because it is true. I am extremely fortunate to have received her as my “mère française.” She has been a host mother for American students since 2001, so her knowledge on how American students behave culturally is relatively extensive. She also has American friends (she doesn’t speak English though) and stays in touch with her first study abroad student on a regular basis. Oh! Not to mention my host mom is an extraordinary cook. She makes dinner each night (which consists of a main dish, salad, cheese, and fruit/dessert). Sometimes we will eat ratatouille, a beautiful omelet or quiche, baked tomatoes bathed in olive oil with herbes de Provence and eggs, or she will bake a beautiful piece of meat with potatoes and herbes de Provence. It is remarkable. Lastly, she is an extremely kind woman and has a giant heart (and a heavy southern French accent). To the French, her voice and mannerisms have been touched by “sunshine” because she lives in the south. So there’s the brief summary of my host mom.
Now, I have to be honest and say it hasn’t been particularly easy adapting to the new ways to live. The culture is different, and, with any new culture, there will always be small problems. For example I don’t actually live within the city limits of Aix and have to take the bus to school every day. It takes me 40 minutes to get there (including the 15-minute walk), and, well… too bad for me if the bus drivers decide not to drive that day. Also, I have no freedom with my laundry. If I need to wash something I have to wait until the next Monday to have it cleaned (and sometimes that doesn’t happen). This is hard because I have just about a week’s worth of clothing and one pair of workout clothes. And, the last thing I will mention: we didn’t have hot water for two weeks. I had to heat hot water on the stove to take an “extravagant sponge bath” (my nickname for it) because the hot water heater was broken. For two weeks. This was the hardest cultural difference for me to handle because I knew it would have been fixed within days in the United States. But, one has to realize that living in a different country can be hard at times. It’s different. And I’m here to learn those differences. The hot water heater may have been broken for two weeks, but I eat fresh/delicious food, can go to beautiful markets and can see castles that are a thousand years old if I would like. So, I’m really thankful for my host mom because she is so kind and has done nothing but help and support me through everything.
Nest question: are all the host families like this? No. Some Americans live with a single woman/mother, single man, a couple, or a family. One of the Americans lives with a family of four, and the two daughters are both over twenty. Some people live in an apartment or a house. Some people live five minutes away from school by foot, and others live 40 minutes away and have to take a bus. It just depends. Not every family is the same, and it is the same way in the United States. This program is nice because they find, interview and educate the prospective host families on how to host an American student. Now, that being said, one of the girls in our program had a terrible time with her host mom. She lost a ton of weight and cried often. So, a terrible host family experience can and does exist. After living with an amazing host mom and observing this poor girl crying at school, I have a little advice: choose a program with people who are willing to work with the student and change his/her host family if necessary. Having a host family is an essential and important part of studying/living abroad. If the host family is terrible, the whole study abroad experience will be ruined.
There’s my little tidbit for today!