This past year, I taught English as an assistant in Mayenne, France for a year. During the summer before my arrival, the school offered different options for housing in the acceptance letter materials. One option was to stay in the school-owned dormitory, taking meals in the dining hall, a freebie. This setup sounded appealing, since I would have extra spending money for travel or souvenirs. Little did I know, living in a dormitory would be lonely on the weekends and during vacations. Fortunately, I had other options. A couple weeks later, my contact person from the high school sent me an offer to stay in a host family. I chose to stay with this family for my time in France.
For 300 euros a month, I rented an individual room (chambre individuelle) on the top floor of a large home (a maison bourgeoise), sharing the bathroom and water closet with the other inhabitants of the house. I took all my meals in the home, except for a few at the school. That left me with some spending money for personal items and travel across France and Europe.
In my living situation, I found that 300 euros was more than a deal. It became a great cultural exchange with people who soon became dear friends. My hosts spoke not a word of English. They enjoyed learning new words in English, but the primary language spoken in the house was French. I enjoyed using and perfecting my spoken French with my hosts. The family was delighted to gently critique my accent whenever I made mistakes.
The family taught me a lot of things about the French, including their spirit of hospitality. I felt a genuine and heartfelt reception into their household from the moment I stepped into the door. My host family was able to provide me with friendly surroundings and helped me integrate into the community in Mayenne, literally almost as soon as I got there. A couple days after I arrived, my host mother took me to the Conservatoire a few miles down the road to sign me up for the local orchestra. That first Saturday, I met the director of the orchestras in Mayenne, who gladly offered me admission as a violinist. On Sunday, my host mother arranged a ride for me to church with someone she knew. She even wanted to eventually arrange my ride to choir rehearsals on Monday evenings. But I was able to manage that on my own through networking with my orchestra colleagues. In many ways, I credit my host family for making things happen for me.
My hosts treated me as a member of their family, even giving responsibilities and things to do around the house. They took care of things that would be otherwise difficult or impossible such as transportation to places and trips around the area. Both my host mother and father gave me practical advice on traveling around France and offered encouragement through my difficult days at school. In addition to cooking consistently delicious and sometimes extravagant meals, my host mother would do my laundry on a regular basis. This family clearly went “above and beyond” to help me as I lived on my own in France for 7 months, and I was grateful for their kindness and warmness.
Living with a family in Mayenne had both its advantages and disadvantages. On the one hand, living in a host family situation was great for cultural exchange and coping with homesickness of being far away from home. On the other, it could be a challenge to live with a host family day in and day out. Even though I was a tenant or pensionnaire in a host family setting, I still had to act as if I were a long-term guest in the house. That meant that I had to respect meal times and let my host family know when I would come home each evening. I had to make sure that I wouldn’t inconvenience my family when traveling. It became a task of maintaining a good relationship with my hosts since they were treating me well. In addition, there were challenging situations I had to face. Many times, my host family would have guests over, and the family would throw elaborate parties. While it could be fun and enjoyable to be part of these occasions, it was often awkward to talk to people I had never seen before, in French.
In any case, I found that living in a host family was a good situation. But I think it takes a person who is culturally sensitive and aware to fully appreciate this kind of living experience. Certainly, not every host family will be the same, but the prospective tenant has to adhere to certain restrictions in the host family setting. You have to give up speaking English, except to your family in the States, and you have to follow the spoken (and unspoken) rules of your hosts. In the end, though, it can be a worthwhile and meaningful experience.