As soon as I arrived to the Aix-en-Provence TGV station and saw the adorable elderly couple holding a piece of notebook paper with my name scribbled on it, I knew choosing a homestay was the best decision I could’ve made.
While I sat on the train, I was riddled with anxiety. I had no idea what to expect. And after weeks of staying in hostels and riding trains, I was exhausted and dirty. But the train rolled to a stop and I lugged my 70L pack onto my back. Once I found my French family, I was immediately embraced in bisous’s and hugs even though I probably smelled like a petting zoo. They ushered me to their flat, which was only a short walk from the university and downtown Aix.
Mireille and Robert, my French “parents,” are elderly and retired. They are also the sweetest, most caring people I’ve ever met. My room is homey and even includes a personal balcony overlooking Mount Sainte-Victoire. Knowing I was vegan, Mireille constantly stocks the fridge with fresh foods. And to top it all off, Mireille is an amazing cook.
But perhaps the most important factor in my homestay arrangement is that my French family doesn’t speak a syllable of English. I have been forced to use all the French I’ve learned over the past 6 years. And every day I’m surprised by how much I improve. Perhaps the greatest moment was when Mireille told the instructors that my French was very good and I should look into the honors program.
I followed her advice and after speaking to a few professors was placed in the honors French course. It was like a dream. Here I was, in southern France, surrounded by the lulls of the most beautiful language amidst a backdrop of the second oldest city in France. Every night, I come home to a freshly cooked meal. The gym is only a ten-minute walk from my flat. Each morning, Mireille is up and making breakfast for me. With two working parents, I rarely ever had a homemade meal so it was a culture shock receiving so much care and attention. I almost feel guilty at times but Mireille seems happy to be a perfect “mom.”
Each night, I sit in the living room. Robert watches TV in his striped boxer shorts and white tank top, which matches the color of his thinning hair. Mireille sits at the table, speaking loudly to family on the phone or going through emails, occasionally asking questions about the TV program that she is not paying attention to.
“Qu’est-ce que c’est,” she shouts from the table.
I try to explain the plot, which has become too intense for me to explain fully, especially in French. But she nods as though she understands and goes back to her laptop. And I sit there, admiring the French that surrounds me, enjoying the sounds of Mireille’s words as they flow into the telephone, as the TV spews lyrical Nutella commercials. I am completely immersed in the language and the culture. But I am more than just surrounded by it. I am part of it. Every time I respond to Mireille’s questions or talk about politics with Robert, I realize that I am no longer learning vocabulary from a textbook or watching a video on the French lifestyle. I am a part of their lives and a part of their culture.