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Thursday, 25 December 2014

How to Create the Perfect (Host) Family

Family is so important. The longer you are away, the more apparent it becomes, even though it should be a given. So in any case, if anybody had to ask me what the most nerve-wracking aspect of travelling alone to a foreign destination, working a foreign job and staying with foreign people is? Well of course it would be the home that I can call my own for the next eight weeks.

I do not consider myself a snobby woman with unjustifiably high expectations of my environment and the people I interact with. Obviously the better the situation, the happier that I am and the more that I can enjoy this experience, but I had wrapped my head around the fact that this time, my learning experience is the priority, and not luxury or decadence that everybody yearns for deep inside their heart. And most importantly, I prayed that my hosts would accept me and cherish me as a part of their family. It was the wish that needed to be granted and despite all the horror stories and tense host-visitor relationship recounts that I have heard, I did feel it was possible. I did not have any prior personal experience with anything like this, on either end of the spectrum, so all I could do was remind myself that as long as I don't act out of line, I should be, at the very least, welcomed.

As Caroline drove me to my new home the day after I had landed in Paris, I had no idea what direction we were going at all, adding to the overpowering anticipation of it all. I would be completely lying if I said I didn't know where the final destination was. And I am going to let nobody tell me the Google mapping their house beforehand is creepy, every single one of you reading would have done the exact same. And any sane person would never be able to erase the image of seeing that red arrow point on an island on the bloody Seine river, just downstream from the very meander bend that runs alongside the Eiffel Tower itself. No amount of money could get you a hotel of that location, but inevitably, so many things could go wrong. Appearances can be deceiving, like first impressions. But for the second time since arriving in France, they weren't at all.

I could not believe my eyes when we pulled up to the house after getting a bit lost and going around a triangle lighting display about three times. I could not decide whether to look dazed at the boats that floated on the Seine just a meter away from the car, or the house which is just so masterful and indisputably artistic. That construction of brick-mustard colour combination, broken up by gleaming glass windows was staring right at me as if it was a life sized sculpture in the Louvre itself. We waited about five minutes before my host mother, Hélène Beckerich, actually came outside, which in my mind seemed like twenty and then some. But it had officially begun. The recipe for the perfect host family comes into play.

What a host mother needs:
- A warming smile that makes you feel less alien and more at home (look for that crinkle around the eyes).
- A straight up offer to speak 'Franglais', which is any student's absolute dream if they ever want to LEARN a language and not PRETEND TO KNOW the language half the time.
- An equipped skill of giving a good house tour, so you know all the creepy little corners and the best movie spots for future reference.
- The ability to sit down with you within the first hour upon meeting, spending the next two chatting away as if life in New Zealand could be anything as interesting as in France.
- The skill to cook a stellar meal. The French way.

It is a blessing to have somebody so accommodating and caring, it would hardly seem possible that I am their first hostee. But to be honest, the various emails that were exchanged beforehand with Hélène were great indications of her character. That leaves two more scary figures to meet on the same day. As the day faded away and night crept in, there was no sign of their younger son Serge. While their older son Anatol only came home over the weekend, Serge would be the one helping me get to know my workplace and various staff members. We laughed about how he might be shy, not wanting to return home just yet to meet the intimidating Chinese girl from New Zealand wanting to learn French, basically the strangest thing he might see up to this point in his life. But if any of those feelings were true at all on his part, they were equally intense on my part too.

What a good host brother needs:
- A gentlemanly maturity to introduce himself, shake your hand, and say enchanté with genuine meaning.
- The ability to just sit down and do calculus right in front of you, as if you had been part of the family for a long time and it is nothing out of the ordinary.
- The attentiveness to teach you about the way school works in France, so you don't screw up on your first day.
- A humorous personality to crack jokes, even if it shows up slowly.
- Kick ass skills at foosball, but still gives you thirty million chances to beat him.

But as I had come to understand, it was my host father Pierre who was the mastermind behind all the art, all the aesthetics behind the beautiful placements around the house. Almost every piece chosen with purpose and handpicked, it was nothing less than amazing that these people had an eye for such bizarre and uncommon beauty which is not necessarily an easy thing to learn from a handbook.

What a good host father needs:
- A want to understand all your plans for the entire duration of your stay, just to make sure that you are organised and do not miss anything that Europe has to offer.
- The insider knowledge of Paris that may not be present in any tour guide.
- The patience to teach you various skills that may not be innately learnt, like tasting wine, choosing a knife to peel or cut things (as scary as that sounds) or identifying between real gems and grand ripoffs in flea markets.

And if anything, at least I know three things for sure, even after day one: It is no myth that the French can dine and cook well, they aren't uptight or scowly like everyone seems to think they are, and they can peel fruit like a ninja. 

Wednesday, 17 December 2014

First Impressions

First impressions are always important. Nobody knows that better than I do, and it's hard to remember that a person, an object or a place should not be judged based on any first glimpse. It means nothing to see something beautiful and just assume that it is perfect, or on the other hand, condemn something due to bad vibe. And I had such high hopes that everything in France would be incredible and perfect and extraordinary, which in my mind made no sense but in my heart, it was the only acceptable thing that could happen. Because from there, the first impression that I had of Paris, of France, of Europe forms the basis of everything that I explore and becomes the perhaps an indisputably important standard that I would compare all my future travels with.

Upon meeting Caroline, a woman who would help me do anything to make my journey feel easier and safer and more enjoyable, my previous concerns and doubts dissolved away. It was amazing how another person's warmth and influence can act almost like a switch, numbing all the senses so that you can just live in the moment without any fears or insecurities. Arriving straight from the airport to the suburban town of Meudon, our discussions grew less and less vivid as I started to marvel at the strange environment around me. Bare trees stretching high up into the sky, all lined up the "rue" as if standing guard against the chilling air outside. All I saw were row upon rows of paths with little cobbled edges, glazed with a layer of soft wet frost to show that despite the heat inside the car, the outside was a completely different yet beautiful scene. Perhaps it was not the Paris I was expecting: Quiet, calm, almost peaceful with an eerie edge as brown, darkened leaves lay on the hard ground.

I learnt quickly that my first night would not be spent with my host family, but at Caroline's house and I cannot express just how completely satisfied and fulfilled I felt to finally settle into a very homely French maison, be that it is only for one night. There is nothing that can compare to this strange combination of ethereal and autumnal beauty that stood right before me, it was unlike any structure I had ever seen. "Villa Mathilde" is absolutely magnificent and spellbinding and it will be a house with an exterior that I will perhaps never forget. Despite the fact that New Zealand would have fallen fast asleep by this time, I was more awake than ever, running on adrenaline and simply the thrill of having bizarre experience in the loneliest way if you had to think of it like that. The warm house, the Christmas decorations and the beautiful tree right next to the fireplace was enough for me to really comprehend that I am not only in one of the best locations in the world, but at the best time as well.

The cold didn't stop me from rushing outside to take pictures after a not-so-French meal of spaghetti and an English tea filling the house with a warm earthy smell. Already within the first two hours of arriving in France, I could not simply sit down and rest like any proper person should after such a long journey. I walked, breathing out misty smoke as my warm breath hit the cool air around me, with nobody by my side but the biggest playground around me waiting to be explored. The architecture of the houses that I passed by made me stop in my tracks, and I can honestly say it took me an unreasonably long time to walk around and back because I just could not tear myself away. There is nothing quite like it, nothing that I had ever seen before anyway. With each step, I thought to myself over and over: This isn't meant to happen yet. I was not destined to come here till much later, when I can appreciate the clear skies with my warm coffee, a pinch of vanilla added by a special Monsieur who I knew well from buying hot drinks from his cafe every day for the past year. Or when I am sitting on the bench with my husband, arm in arm in a tight embrace to keep out the frigid air trying to force between us as we listen to the distant train grind to a halt. Or even when I am adjusting the overwhelmingly large scarves around the tiny necks of my young children with their little breaths moving in a white haze before dissolving into transparency. I am smart enough to know it was not a dream but I was living it right then and there.

Yes it seems incredibly predictable, how could I not enjoy Paris. But I have seen nothing yet and already I am just yearning for more, with an honest declaration that my first sights of suburban Paris is almost nothing like I predicted but everything that I had hoped for. 

Thursday, 11 December 2014

What to expect when you're expecting France‏

As I am sitting on one of the largest planes in the world, heading to the city of my dreams, it honestly throws me how difficult this is to answer. I would predict that most words which come to mind for many people would be excitement and anticipation for the thrill of experiencing an opportunity so special at such a young age. But there is just something about making such a bold move, to place yourself in such an unfamiliar and slightly uncomfortable situation to thrive on your own that unnerves me greatly. I guess it is a feeling that you can only truly understand if you have experienced it before. While I'm sure the joys of soon being immersed in the French culture will come, there is undoubtedly a very awkward balance of positivity versus negativity that weighs on my shoulders.  

In my mind, the whole emotional process of expecting France was completely defined and predictable, and so far, it hasn't really deviated from the plan. First, you find out that there is such an opportunity, and your heart skips a beat with the possibility of being a movie-like character, travelling to the destination that she thought would not come until much later at the fresh and new age of eighteen. Then, filling out the application brings a wider and wider smile to your face because with every letter you write on the page, the certainty of going becomes greater and greater. Nearly every moment leading up to the week before departure, you cannot stop thinking about it and internally grinning like a maniac or writing about it every day in your diary. Up till this point, it is written in every book and in every journal that you will ever read about travelling by yourself in a new country. 

Then the doubts creep in upon the realisation that it is so close, mere days away. Endless insecurities that push you further and further into moments where you are lost in your mind, confused and dazed from what this all means and most importantly what it will contribute to your life. Am I fluent enough in the language? Will I be alienated because of etiquette and behavioural differences? If I need any help, who could possibly guide me when all I am is an insignificant young girl browsing around the streets of one of the most prestigious cities in the world? And on departure day, you absolutely need assurances that you have made right choice, swaying back and forth between fear and relief. It isn't until you reach the departure point where you look back at your family, holding back those inevitable tears that you discover how truly petrifying and frightening this independent experience is.

And of course, then you get to France, have one hell of a time, and never want to come back to New Zealand, but that remains to be seen. All I can describe is that sheer terror of conquering this journey on my own that makes me breathe five times faster and makes my blood run ten times quicker as I turned the corner and realised I really had to do this by myself, perhaps for the first time in my life. I do think that this fear where there is nobody to really depend on will stay with me this entire journey. It makes me laugh sometimes that I'm scared of home sickness more than the plane going down (as I write this on an airplane) but I've always known it was something that needed to be conquered and this was the exact opportunity to force myself to do it. 

Does it make it any easier? No. But will it worth it? I can't say for sure at this point, but there are a million clues that point towards yes in every possible way that I look.