I asked my friend from Northwestern the other day if I could stay with her in Montpellier while I visited. She’d been at the University there for more than three weeks but when I asked her, she mentioned that she had to ask Rene, who I assumed was her roommate, before she knew for sure. At that point, it didn’t look good. Everyone at Northwestern has a roommate horror story and I figured it was one of those but nope, it was a homestay.
Though bias is probable (full disclosure: I grew up an only child and recently moved to a one bedroom apartment because I didn’t like living with other people), living and eating with strangers who are your new family for a bit is supremely awkward.
Last week, I spent three days in Gloucester, a small pier town best known for being the hometown of J.K. Rowling and where some of that Harry Potter movie was filmed. I stayed with a nice woman named Pam and her tattoo-covered husband who she insisted was dumb after a fall but could do Sudoku puzzles like a fiend, a German exchange student who hated everything, her foster child who is 23-years-old and obsessed with his motorcycle and her two German Shepherds who were loving, needy and sent off my allergies. After realizing I was allergic, she offered to keep the dogs outside but looking at the fur covered throws on the couch, interior of her Honda CRV and the tables and tables full of German Shepherd statuettes, I felt too guilty, popped some pills and sucked it up.
She lovingly made me and my fellow homestay student sandwiches every morning of our three day visit that were filled with the standard cheese and lettuce (but also butter) and stayed up for us when we went to the pub for a pint. One evening while watching British soap operas (with shockingly low production values), my t-shirt rode up an inch from the top of my jeans. Pam jokingly pinched my love handle and I covered myself up with pillows for the rest of the night.
If the opening lines of Anna Karenina and the Royal Tenenbaums have taught humankind nothing, it’s that most families are really bizarre. You put up with the Christmas sweaters. You have to because of blood. Ugly sweaters are your own tradition because of your upbringing. Perhaps it’s different when you’re in a place for more than just a few days and the oddity of a group of people is allowed to rub off on you, but homestay did not teach me about another culture. And eating sandwiches with pats of butter? No, I did not do that either.
Pam has been taking in homestay students for more than 12 years and has a guest book out of an inch and a half binder. She flipped through and would tell us about them: a Japanese boy was very sweet and sent her an orchid statuette because she grew them, a group of Belgian boys were “little shits,” etc. And I wondered what she’d tell people after I’d left. After boarding the bus (known as coaches in the UK), a girl who stayed with Pam’s best friend let us know my title. I was the girl who didn’t like being touched. I guess neither of us could get used to the other.