The host family experience
by Steven Jacobs
When you decide to study abroad, you have a lot of things to consider such as: how long you will be staying, which classes you want to take, and whether or not you should bring those cheetah-print slippers. Another important consideration is whether or not you want to live with a host family. Hopefully, my time living in Italy and France can help inform your decision on whether or not a similar experience is for you and how you would like to undertake such an adventure.
This semester here in Taormina, Sicily will unfortunately mark the third and final study abroad experience of my undergraduate career. Nine months of Florentine lampredotto, three months of Grenoblois walnuts, and four months of Sicilian arancini (as you can tell I really like food) have fundamentally changed who I am as a person and have left me with a few study-abroad nuggets of wisdom.
My Freshman Florence Experience through Marist College allowed me to live in an apartment building with two buddies. No one else but our prune-wrinkly hands were there to wash the dishes, no one else but our own two feet were there to walk us to the grocery store. We had to take absolute responsibility over every aspect of our daily life. Then I returned back to campus in Poughkeepsie, New York and dove into the ‘traditional college experience.’ Comparatively, there were plenty of advantages to studying back in the States: closer proximity to friends and family, campus life, going to sport games, participating in extra-curricular activities, etc. However, I felt a yearning for Europe once again.
I decided to stay with host families for the two following semesters. These seven collective months in comparison to the nine in Florence have shown me the myriad benefits of staying with a host family. My host mother here in Taormina, a warm and intriguing chatter-box, has improved my time here in more ways than I could have imagined. Our conversations on topics ranging from the political state of Italy to what we saw on the street that day have not only been fundamental to my development as an Italian speaker, but have also been extremely interesting. In case you too are considering embarking on a journey overseas, I would like to share some of the benefits of living with a host family with you that you can keep in mind while making this important decision.
You have a support system.
Studying in a foreign country can be stressful at times for a whole host of different reasons; the WiFi doesn’t quite reach the comfy side of your bed, the stores don’t carry your shampoo, you don’t speak the language, everyone is saying prego all the time and you have no idea what it means, you have a Permesso di Soggiorno appointment at 8:30am but can’t find the police station, you’re gluten-free but some how can’t escape the pizza, pasta, and bread so now you’ve got doughy knots twisting around your stomach. Situations like these are when living with a host family comes in handy. They are there to help you, be it with your quest for Blueberry Bliss Reparative Leave-In Conditioner or directions to the nearest post office. They are your new family, be it for a week, a month, or even a year! Additionally if you are having a bad day, you will have someone to come home to who will console you – much nicer than coming home to family sized pack of Ringos with no family.
You have a guaranteed local friend.
Forging friendships with the local residents of your host city is a sure-fire way of making your experience abroad more meaningful. Unfortunately, the ‘sandpit method,’ as I call it, of wobbling over to a potential playmate and giving them a toy shovel is not as easily applicable as an adult or college student. It takes a little more time, and in an inter-cultural context, some savoir-faire as well. Fortunately, the members of your host family will be your instant friends who can introduce you to their friends. Furthermore, if you get along particularly well, you may just be pals for life, and one day, who knows, you could end up hosting them!
You get to taste the local cuisine.
Pasta alla norma. Caponata. Sfincione. Spaghetti alle cozze. Anelleti al forno. Pasta con le sarde. Ricotta. Arancini. Each dish so mouthwateringly delicious while being so mind-bogglingly simple that they each deserve to be separated by a period. A comma would be far too dismissive and list-like, each dish is its own entity and must be enjoyed slowly, separately and in its entirety. Trying all of these classic recipes in a restaurant can be expensive, even in Sicily. And we haven’t even gotten to the desserts yet. Instead, your host family will surely prepare you some of these classic plates and better than the restaurant.
You save money.
Staying with a host family is significantly cheaper than staying in a private apartment or hotel. You are basically renting out a family’s extra bedroom and are not paying for unnecessary services and amenities that you will find in hotels. The home-cooked meals you eat are also much more affordable than eating out and probably will come with bigger portions as well. When you’re being hosted at an Italian person’s house and you ask for seconds, the cook will most likely be delighted that you like the food and that nothing will be going to waste. On the other hand, at a restaurant, if you ask for seconds they will happily bring you another dish as long as you fork over the cash for it.
You have a more authentic experience.
It goes without saying that living with locals, you will have a more authentic study abroad experience than if you were to live in a hotel or private apartment. You get to see how the people think, speak, act, listen to their crazy stories about how gas-guzzling automobiles used to clonk down the now pedestrian-only street Corso Umberto in Taormina, or learn interesting factoids like how there is an endemic lizard species called the Podarcis Sicula Medemi slinking around the stones of the Isola Bella, a beautiful island scarcely connected to the shore by a subtle isthmus. Your host family will also be able to tell you all of the best food spots, museums, parks, etc. Most importantly however, thanks mainly to those long dinner time conversations, you will begin to see the world through their lens, thus being opened up to an entirely new perspective. Not necessarily changing your beliefs, but even just listening to the opinions of others with an open mind will ultimately make you a more tolerant person. Mark Twain said it best: “travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”
You will improve your communication skills.
Communicating effectively is one of the most important ‘soft skills’ in today’s workplace. You may feel that you have mastered this art, but you certainly can not get any worse. Communicating with someone from another culture forces you to explain yourself more precisely because you are most likely going to encounter people who hold different beliefs than yourself. This is magnified when you are also speaking in a language that is not your own. Cross-cultural experiences like these will hone your explanatory and rhetorical abilities.
You have someone to practice your Italian with.
One of the main reasons you decided to study in Italy was most likely because you wanted to improve your Italian. In order to do so, engaging with a variety of native speakers in distinct settings is paramount. This will allow you to be exposed to different registers of speech, vocabulary, accents, tones of voice, and linguistic particularities. For this reason, only communicating within the classroom does not suffice if you really want to take your Italian to the next level. From my experience staying with two different host families and listening to that of my peers, host families are generally good listeners and will help you with any questions you may have. They are patient with you and encourage you to speak. This makes it basically impossible not to improve.
I hope that my perspective on the host family experience helped you decide whether or not it is something for you.
It may also interest you:
Taormina, Sicily is an ideal location to study abroad for a semester or yearlong program for the student who is interested in total immersion into the Italian culture and language. Host families extend learning during relaxed dinner conversations during the traditional Sicilian meals provided.
International internship programs in Taormina, Sicily provids a meaningful professional hands-on experience allowing students to build their knowledge of the global workplace, enhance intercultural skills and boost employment desirability. All internships programs are conducted in Italian.