By Sue Lavene
One of the best ways to become really familiar with a country is through its people. To make your trip even more fulfilling and to broaden your experience, one way to expand on that might be to stay with a local family wherever you will be based. If you are taking language, cooking or dance classes or just want to travel around a particular city using that city as your hub, you might want to consider staying with a local host family instead of at a Bed & Breakfast, hotel or hostel, at least for part of your trip.
When people travel abroad, even though they expect things to be different from the way things are at home, I don't feel that we always know what exactly WILL be different, especially in terms of those subtle differences in culture and the realities of everyday living. We bring with us certain attitudes, beliefs and expectations that sometimes get in our way of having a positive experience and we do ourselves a disservice.
I've had several opportunities so far to stay with host families during my travels abroad. For me, they were all very positive experiences; however, as different as there are people, so are these experiences.
So, I would like to discuss what to expect of a homestay experience as well as how to better prepare yourself, if that's the type of lodging option you choose for your trip. Here are some things to think about to get you started:
Realistic Expectations: This set of beliefs is probably one of the most important guidelines to be pondered because of its impact on the outcome of a person''s trip as well as being a challenging one to change. It can either make or ruin one's time in a country. Since your expectations are ripened over time, it is often times very difficult to change them but not impossible as long as you are open to it. Do yourself a favor: Make a commitment to expand your inner world in attempt to balance your expectations.
Meals: This is a difficult and often frustrating subject for travelers, especially those from the US since we (myself included) typically are accustomed to preparing and eating such large portions at home. Go to any restaurant at home and you're likely to have lots of leftover food for another meal or two or perhaps, you eat the whole platter.
Not necessarily the case abroad. In fact, our clients often report coming away from a meal still hungry. The reality of the meal situation is that some host families try to accommodate their guests by feeding them like they are accustomed in larger portions; however, other families serve meals as they would eat themselves, sparingly and more healthfully in terms of quantity ingested.
Family Interaction: What I have found most frustrating for our clients in this category is that the more extroverted ones crave lots of family interaction while some of our more reserved clients enjoy having their own space in which to explore alone. Neither scenario is better. It just is what it is. Some host families are more outgoing, enjoying spending the time with their guests, often inviting them out for a bite or along on a family outing. However, the reality is that not all families are as enthusiastic about having guests or are more reserved themselves, preferring more time alone with their own family.
For those of us who enjoy having alone time in between our activities and mealtimes, a private room provides just that, the ability to come and go respectfully, with your own set of house keys. We have our own space in which to relax and renew without interruption. There are host families for this type of student. On the other hand, for those clients who enjoy interacting as much as possible with their hosts, sharing the main areas of the house with them, there are other host families who are more friendly and outgoing.
When deciding to stay with a host family, it's really important for you to list your choices for a type of host family, stating whether you would like family interaction or a quiet, peaceful environment.
Family Demographics: As different as there are people, there are that many family types out there. You can be assigned to a typical host family with mother, father and children, a widow without children, a single mother with small children, a couple without children or with children who live elsewhere, etc. As you can see, there are lots of varieties of families. So, if you would prefer a particular type of experience, you should make sure to ask for it.
Although this type of lodging definitely has many benefits in terms of what you can get out of it, it is not for everybody. Unless you purposefully set out to experience it, there's little you can do to know in advance whether you will like it. Sometimes you just have to take a leap of faith and hope for the best. However, before you decide to venture out, you might want to prepare yourself mentally as much as you can for what can potentially be the experience of a lifetime.