For me, this was never a question. I've dreamed of staying with a host family in France since I was little, and it was my sole condition for choosing a study abroad program. Cecile, my host mom, believes there must have been a telepathic connection, reaching across the Atlantic, between her and I, because all she wanted was to host an American student.
As my life with this family draws to a close, I'm realizing that I'll no longer wake up to the sound of Cecile's heels tick-tacking on the hard-wood floors as she rushes to get the kids ready for school, or come home to the the smell of quiche or ratatouille or salmon. I'll miss religiously watching the meteo while Alexandre, my host brother, digs in the toy chest and loads his Nerf guns, preparing for our nightly battle. I'll miss my family's teasing for my inability to pronounce the French "r," and I'll miss sitting in the garden while Frimousse, my host cat, plays with my keyboard as I watch tiny black ants climb the banana tree.
I really cannot stress enough how special it is to be able to live with a host family. It is honestly a once-in-a-lifetime chance to learn exactly how a the people of a different country live, and to experience the culture and the language first-hand, much more so than those who live in apartments or independent housing. Living with this family, my French has improved more than any classroom could make possible. Apartment living can lead to what my family likes to call the American bubble: you live with other American students, speak English at all times except for during classes, and use French only in shops and the occasional bar. But when living with a family that speaks only French, you are absolutely forced to speak French at all times. Through conversations with my family, videos that Alex loves to show me, meeting my host mom's friends, and watching the news every night, I've begun to pick up familial and commonly-used phrases, expressions, slang, and idioms. My French has transformed, so much so that my thoughts constantly shift between French and English. I pray that my dreams will continue to play out in French after I leave.
Of course, there is no guarantee that a family will be welcoming, caring, and simply lovely. Before I came, I was beyond nervous. I stumbled off the Navette bus from the Aix-Marseille TGV, jet-lagged and dazed, and was thrust into a bise before I could even say bonjour. That night was such a blur as Cecile took me to a champagne and sushi party, the one where I ate my weight in sushi and met at least thirty women whose faces I can't recall.
On my second day in Aix, my alarm clock didn't work. When I remembered where I was, I checked the time on watch and fell out of my bed as I scrambled for the light, only to smash my head against the low attic ceiling. I threw on the first set of clothes I could find, ran downstairs in a house I barely remembered from the night before, burst into the kitchen, and managed to spit out an out-of-breath "bonsoir." At 9:00 a.m. in the morning.
My host mom just smiled, tossed me in her car, and drove me to my first CEA meeting. I made it on time.
Throughout the semester, Cecile has never ceased to always be here for me. Just last week, I turned 21, and my birthday ended up being a bit of a flop. My plans backfired, and a friend who was supposed to meet me in Marseille missed his train. I went to talk to Cecile and just broke down, upset and disappointed. She held my hands and calmed me down, cheered me up, and made me laugh. And when I came home that night, she, Camille, and Alexandre were waiting with pizza, an American movie, and the most beautiful birthday cake. In fact, she made two cakes because the first one fell.
It's honestly impossible to explain what this experience has meant to me, and no number of "merci's" will ever allow me to express my gratitude. I am truly blessed to have been able to live in this home and welcomed into this family.
The night before last we were making crepes, and Cecile and her mother (my host grandmother) sat and chatted for some time afterwards, just sharing our thoughts on the time we've spent together. My host mom laughed, and told me that Alexandre asked if she could make me stay, and I felt a twinge in my heart. She explained that I am a part of their family now.
I wish I could stay, Alexandre, more than anything.
It breaks my heart to leave. But it's not goodbye, it's au revoir. I'll be back soon.
Lindsay Bayne is the Spring 2014 CEA MOJO in Aix-en-Provence, France. She is a junior at the University of Pittsburgh.
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