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. 

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