First of all, WTF is a homestay?
A homestay, or host family, is an accommodation option where you opt to live with a family for the sake of linguistic and cultural immersion. At least, that’s the fancy definition.
When I was first deciding to study abroad in Paris as a college sophomore, I had my mind set on getting the craziest, most immersive experience, and to me that meant choosing a homestay. The thrill of living with strangers excited me, the thought of having trouble asking basic, and necessary questions put a smile on my face; I love a good challenge. But of course, that was how I felt before actually getting there.
It’s inevitable that you’ll feel weird coming into not only one stranger, but multiple strangers’ lives to coexist with them in their home. You’re in a foreign country where you feel completely alone, you want to be antisocial but are now forced to communicate with the same family on a daily basis. Am I the only one that feels awkward when I wake up in the morning and have to break the morning breath silence? Even with a best friend? Ask Damon, I’m pretty awkward before 10AM.
And yeah, you lack the Spanish to explain that you don’t really like eating coconut because it tastes like hair, so you force yourself to eat it for dessert everyday anyways to avoid offending anyone. It’s not a pretty process, but at the end of your stay with a host family, you’ll have learned more about culture and language and human beings in general, than you would have in any classroom setting.
Beyond the obvious language benefits, you’ll leave with the most outrageous memories like stumbling home tipsy in the middle of the night avoiding your host granny, or like having to do aerobics in the shower because they don’t believe in shower curtains, or even like becoming best friends with your fellow study abroader roommate who lived on the bunk above you; all things that have happened to me.
But the thing about homestays is that you rarely get any information about the family you’re about to live with. A tiny picture and a one sentence bio ain’t gonna cut it. So lucky for me, I’ve found out what this experience would be like four different times.
2012 – Paris, France: Living with Lala
Seeing this baby for the first time
Somewhere in the 15th arrondissement, I walked up to a residential building with three massive bags (barely) in hand, and an overly eager outlook for my four-month homestay experience. Damnit, at first glance, this was exactly the opposite of what I was hoping for. Where’s my wired veranda? Where’s the Parisian architecture I had day-dreamed about? This was a bland, gray and clunky building sitting in an ocean of construction and scaffolding, all conveniently blocking the view of the Seine; it’s like New York was telling me “b*tch, now I know you didn’t think you could escape me.” in her usual thugish tone.
Maybe my actual host family would make things better, I thought. PSH, no. Much like the building, my expectations were completely shot when I met the fam. Lala, my host mom, was a seemingly comforting (at first) Morrocan mother with two kids; aged 6 and 13. But a few weeks in, we started noticing she would cook us the same things for dinner, had a stressed and stank attitude when speaking with us, and started doing such outrageous things, I had to document it with a custom hashtag on Twitter, #LivingWithLala.
Highlights that I didn’t cover in my angry Twitter rants included:
+ Blowing out the fuse of the entire apartment building when I tried to blow dry my hair and getting yelled at for thirty minutes in French.
+ Having an embarrassing, but funny moment of saying, “j’ai mal au cul…” trying to say that my neck, or cou hurt at the dinner table. Meanwhile, I’m saying my booty hurt.
+ Becoming good friends with my Texan roommate who also survived the wrath of Lala. Three years later and we still keep in touch.
Cheesing way too hard with my Texan roommate, Sidney
I could go on and on about Lala but the point is, she took care of business… but just a tad bit too much. I learned quickly that I would need more of the hands-off homestay approach to be fully happy.
2013 – Quito, Ecuador: Our Abuelita Yolanda
It was the summer of 2013 and Damon and I were off on a three month Latin America trip to learn Spanish in three different countries; each with a different accomodation option. The first location, Mexico, was a ballin’ apartment where we each had our own rooms, and despite spiky springs in our mattresses and lizards and ants running rampant in the kitchen, we were living the dream.
Then we headed to Ecuador meet our new host family at the airport. There were nerves because honestly, the crumpled up Poloroid they sent of a granny was not enough to gauge if this would be a home run, or a run home.
Our Ecuadorian family
15 minutes later and we were still aimlessly walking around the Quito international airport scanning the crowds for our grandma, and nothing. Then we’re approached by a 20-something guy and a woman in a pantsuit; too legit. We meet Fercho (nickname for Fernando) and Nathalie, our abuelita Yolanda’s daughter and grandson who came to pick us up.
The drive up Quito’s mountain was enough to give me the thrill of my life, like I borderline fainted at the elevation. While we’re in the car, I was putting my Spanish to werk asking all kinds of questions about where we would live, but they just kept cracking sarcastic jokes and making fun of us for the spiky mattress we had withstood for a month. We arrived in what seemed like the highest peak of the world; El Batan, a wealthy neighborhood in Quito. The door opened and out comes the most ADORABLE tiny, and gracefully aged lady, our abuela Yolanda. She grabs our faces like any grandma would after seeing their grandchildren for the first time in a while and says, “bien venido chicos!” Right after walking in, we met Señor Edison, Yolanda’s other half who was a retired pilot, equally as welcoming to the strangers coming into his home.
Cooking Platanos with Yolanda
Mid-conversation with Señor Edison during our daily gourmet breakfast
If that wasn’t heart warming enough, she took us around her beautiful house and show us our penthouse suite; a massive room with two full size beds, 180º windows overlooking Pinchincha mountain, (a dormant volcano), with a private wrap around porch. Was this real though? Definitely an upgrade from the Mexican lizards.
View from our ballin’ balcony
Damon, in love with life in our master suite
That wasn’t even the best part either. The same weekend we arrived, another roommate from Germany came through to join our party. His name was Nico, or the German version of Leonardo Dicaprio.
Nights spent at Yolanda’s house were some of the funniest in my life. Between smiling at how adorable our grandparents were while cooking dinner with us, going out with Nico in the bumpin’ night life scene and getting home to whisper in the kitchen while guzzling down water, or if it was the language barrier while trying to explain what a YouTuber was to Yolanda, she’d say, “que bárbaro” or, how barbaric, we were always rolling on the floor.
Two years later, and we’ve been able to meet up with our old roomie Nico in Germany to relive the memories.
Meeting up with Nico in Berlin
As far as the family goes, we constantly think about going back to Quito, like we said we would, to give our abuelita and abuelito a huge hug.
2013 – Santo Domingo De Heredia, Costa Rica: Isabelle from Hell
Then Damon and I both lived with a woman named Isabelle who at first seemed like the ultimate host mom, but turned into the ultimate money hungry fraud, while we were hungry for anything other than papaya and rice and beans.
Arriving, not knowing what to expect
The fraud in action
Not even exaggerating, we were eating papaya with rice and beans every day, despite both of us thinking her papayas tasted like soap.As if the same meal every day wasn’t bad enough, she would put our food out on the dining room table and run into where her family actually ate, in the living room next to us, just to avoid having to interact. To top off the bad-factor, the homestay was an hour away by foot from any sort of grocery store, so we would have to stock up on Costa Rican yogurt and granola to make it through.
And as time went on, we started seeing right through her crazy looking smile as she claimed to love having international students live with her. She was a grade-A homestay scam artist. It got so bad that we complained to our program and were set up with an apartment the next week.
I swear, we didn’t even know her two daughters who lived in the house with us
Of course, before we left, she made sure to have a photoshoot of her “friendly family” to keep having more students come stay with her to keep taking their money. If this happens to you, don’t settle for paying way too much money to be treated like a stray dog looking for a little rice and beans.
2015 – Marmirolo, Italy: Good Karma with Carmen
Most recently, I took a language trip to finally grasp Italian and met my Zia Carmen, who was the perfect non-Italian Italian. She wasn’t conservative, had tattoos, and didn’t give a crap about what people thought about her; all reasons why I loved her. Beyond that, her family took such good care of me without getting anything in return other than occasional English practice for their 7-year-old son.
Carmen and I, poolside chillin’
Every day, they would make sure I was getting some cultural fix like teaching me how to make pizza, describing how salami or polenta is made, or taking me to eat ostrich at a local fair. I would go out at night to different bars and clubs with Jonatan, their 21 year old son and with my crappy Italian managed to become friends with his friends. They also introduced me to the best beer, wine, and chocolate I’ve ever tasted, like, Gianduja… what is that about!?
They became such a family to me that even when I had a crazy anxiety attack in the middle of the night, they made sure to call an ambulance, and then laughed with me in the morning at how ridiculous the whole situation was; something only real family members would do.
In short, even if you do come face to face with a Lala or an Isabelle from hell, dipping into the homestay pool is still worth adding to your travel stories. I’m two for two with both good and bad experiences, and the “bad” hasn’t stopped my hustle yet! Comment below if you’ve experienced a homestay with a brief snippet on if it was a home run or a run home!