I’ve waited on purpose until the end of January to write this final blog post. It’s been five weeks since I left Nantes, France…that’s five weeks since the best semester of my life!
I’ve thought hard and long about tips I’d give to someone doing a study abroad program with a homestay. Honestly, the host family experience was one of the highlights of my semester in France. Because I’d already had experience with a homestay in France during high school, I thought my experience in Nantes would be the same or at least very similar. I couldn’t have been more wrong! I wouldn’t say my last experience was bad or worse than my most recent one, but maybe the difference has to do with the fact that I got very close with my host family in Nantes. So these tips are meant to be a guide for how to have a successful homestay experience from the perspective of a student.
Set Boundaries. This is very important because joining a host family almost feels like going back to high school. We’ve already left for college where we’re more or less independent…there aren’t parents micromanaging your everyday life from when or what you eat to when you have to be home by. One thing to note is: No host family is the same as another. Everyone has different experiences, which means that everyone has different rules. Someone might have very strict host parents with organized schedules, while others might have host parents who don’t have any rules. For one of my friends, they had a curfew of 11:00 p.m. while my parents let me go to clubs until 6 a.m. on a school night! Asking your host parents about their rules is an important early step to have success throughout your stay. I selected “part of the family” on my host family application, so there was also an expectation of doing activities with the family. So while, some weekends, I asked to stay back for homework or health reasons, I probably did more with my host family than some of the other students in my program.
Communication. This is one of those things which is very obvious but sometimes difficult to practice when you’re already busy thinking about a million other things. My host family had two group chats on WhatsApp which helped with much of the daily communication we had throughout my study abroad. Sometimes I’d use Instagram DM’s to ask my host brother questions like: “When are we eating dinner?” or “What is the cleaning lady’s name?” But for most of the important notifications, I’d defer to talking to my host parents during or after eating dinner…even if doing so was more difficult. Talking in person always seemed to relay expectations a lot more clearly. For example, every Thursday night after dinner, I’d let my host parents know that I’d be going out to the karaoke bar for drinks with my friends. At first, saying that I’d be out drinking seems like something weird to say to your host parents, but they definitely understand because drinking is a big part of the French culture. Anyways, it’s important for them to know when and where you’re going to avoid the hassle of them worrying about your safety or whatnot. Another important piece of information to communicate is whether you are going to miss dinner one night. While this might take some time to get used to again (because we’re so used to having your own schedule in college), informing your host parents at least a couple hours before dinner about missing or having to be late to dinner is a respectful practice to pick up when living with a host family.
Get Close with your Host Family! It’s very easy to only want to hang out with your new friends from study abroad, but a big part of the experience should be spending quality time with your host family. This ranges from everyday activities like eating dinner with your host family for at least 3 of the 5 nights during the week to accepting weekend invitations to go out with the family. For me, some of my best experiences were because I accepted my host family’s invitations to pass the weekend at the beach house or go to an amusement park with them. At first, spending extra time with you host family can feel awkward…like sometimes you might feel like a leech or a parasite (I definitely had this thought a couple of times), but remembering that they want you to be a part of their family helps with the adjustment. Not only do you get closer with your host family and start building real long-lasting connections with every member of the family, you also see a huge improvement in your language ability and understanding of their culture by spending mor time with them. This all seems very obvious, but it’s too easy to forget to set our host family as a priority in your study abroad experience. From the beginning, one of my goals was to try and become as much of a part of the family as possible. I asked my host mom early on if I could cook some nights for the family. At first, she was reluctant because the French value traditional family roles significantly more than Americans do, but after she let me run the kitchen for a couple of nights, cooking for the family became part of my contribution to get to know them on a more personal level. My host sister would help me prepare the food, and if I was lucky, she would teach me how to make French desserts like chocolate truffles or some other delicacy. With my host dad, I learned that he was a huge cineophile, so my very first week with them, we watched a new movie together almost every night (even though he would sleep through half of the movie). My host brother and I bonded over technology, partly because both of us are thinking about careers in information systems. We watched the Facebook’s Meta video together and talked about the next level of virtual reality after dinner many times. I also learned about his TikTok page which he made during my first week in France, so I challenged him to try and get 10,000 followers before I finished my program…and guess what? He hit over 10,000 followers my last week with them! I also was able to help him monetize his TikTok account because some of the instructions were in English, which was a very exciting bonding experience. Anyways, simply being present is the best way to learn about your host family and find ways to connect with them.
After the program ended, I stayed at my host family’s house after they’d already left for vacation in Panama…I guess you could say we’d built a strong sense of trust for them to allow me to stay alone in their house after only having known me for 4-5 months. Before they left, we shared a traditional French Christmas dinner, exchanged gifts, and left each other with final thoughts. My host mom seemed genuinely sad to have to say goodbye. I cannot begin to count how many times she repeated how “the house would seem empty without me” during dinner. Leaving my host family’s house on my last day in Nantes was a sad experience. I know I’m going to come back one day and see my host family again, but until then they will remain one of my best memories from my study abroad experience.
Going back to the U.S. was bound to be different, even shocking, but while everything feels oddly familiar about the American way of life, there are some things which seem rather foreign. Hearing English everywhere and having the ability to understand every passing conversation feels like an intrusive superpower. School is hard again…now that there’s nightly homework (which didn’t really exist in France). All I can say is: “À bientôt!”
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<p>My name is Micah Doctolero and I'm studying in Nantes, France during the Fall 2021 semester. I'm a first-generation college student studying French and Management Information Systems (MIS) at Santa Clara University. Exploring the outdoors, whether the beach or the mountains is one of my favorite pastimes back home in California. I'm a 20-year old with a knack for discovering new places and meeting new people!</p>