In the months leading up to my departure for Toulouse, my mom and friends told me that speaking French everyday with my host family would be the best way to improve my language skills. I was a little nervous about my homestay experience--I had never lived with a family I had never met before, and now I would be doing this for over three months--but really, I was so excited to be going to Toulouse that if we had any differences, I thought, I would be enjoying myself too much on my trip to notice.
Soon enough, I received an email from my host family in which each of its five members introduced and included pictures of themselves. They seemed like warm people, and though I wondered how I would find time to myself with five other people in the house, I was pleased to begin to imagine my life in Toulouse. We had a short email exchange afterward which made me feel even more prepared for my adventure.
But just weeks before my flight, CIEE emailed me to tell me that this family had had an emergency and could no longer host me. I was assigned a new family, with a mother and father and two adult-age kids who only sometimes came home on the weekends. We exchanged pleasantries through email, but that was all--there were no photos, and I knew almost nothing about them.
Meeting my host father for the first time in the Toulouse airport, essential questions I had not thought of before came to me all at once: Would he be disappointed if I wasn’t what he was expecting in an American student? What if we simply did not get along? But after months of online courses, I was thrilled to finally be speaking French in person, and, in my conversation with him, I was relieved to find he was quite affable.
Early on, I could see that my host family was more traditional. My host mother did all of the cooking, while my host father spent most of his free time watching the news. I learned that my host father is a royalist, which means he is in the small minority of French people who prefer kings to democratically elected presidents. He is disbelieving of the pandemic; I would often see him in the crowded streets, insouciant, without a mask. I pushed back gently in our conversations about politics, and they were always civil. Although I know his ideas can have consequences, he is warm, and we became friends. I was always glad to watch a soccer game together or have him help me with my French homework.
My host mother, on the other hand, was more difficult for me to understand. At dinner, she would seethe about certain immigrants,“profiteurs,” who in her view came to France only to collect government aid. This was unsettling. But I sympathized with her; she even did the dishes after cooking dinner, always declining my offers to help. We rarely exchanged more than a few words each day, hers usually having to do with some vague dissatisfaction with me. She seemed unhappy.
One night at dinner, my host mother and father were arguing. Suddenly, my host mother threw a wooden cutting board at my host father, whom I was sitting next to. The cutting board smashed into his wine glass which shattered all over the table. For a moment I was shocked, but my host father wasn’t too bothered and my host mother laughed. A few days later, when I told Isabelle, the directrice of the CIEE Toulouse program, what had happened, she told me without hesitation that I needed to move.
On the ride over to my new host family’s house, I tried to think about the lessons I had learned from my last experience. I was tired. My previous host family learned on that same day that I would be moving, and they were surprised and disappointed. It was difficult and sad for me to have to leave so suddenly, though I knew it was right. Fortunately, my new host family, a middle-aged couple, are good people, and adjusting has been easy.
I've learned that one cannot entirely antiipate life with a given host family. Although my situation is certainly not the norm, it is necessary to recognize if you feel uncomfortable, and then reach out to people.
Even despite the compications with my host family, I have had a truly lovely time in Toulouse and I feel so fortunate to be here.