Taking the Dalf at 50 – Living with a Host Family

Over the last two decades I’ve done a number of homestays while taking language courses in various countries. Situations can vary greatly and it’s a risk that many language learners, especially older learners, avoid. I’ve found most living conditions to be at least tolerable and interesting, and when you happen on a good situation it can greatly add to the in-country language learning experience.

In Montpellier I lived with an elderly woman in a small apartment about 10 minutes by tram from the center of town. Most afternoons I would walk back home – about 40 minutes. My host “mother’” was a pretty good cook and made an effort to prepare nice and varied meals that we shared. Often we watched the news or a game show she liked which would frequently spark a conversation. When the weather was nice we would have dinner on the small apartment balcony.

The apartment had two bedrooms that she rented out to students. I had the master bedroom with a large TV and queen-sized bed. The other room had two twin beds. During the two months I spent with her there was another student in the house about half the time. We all shared the same bathroom – the toilet was in a separate small room – without any real conflict.

Below is a letter I wrote to a friend during my stay.

May 31, 2015

This has been a hard trip and I still have four weeks to go – three weeks of classes and then the exam. I don’t think I have ever been so tired, although this weekend I’m starting to feel better, like I’ve emerged from a dense fog.

What I wanted to tell you about is the woman I’m living with. She is one of the most stern, sad, racist people I’ve ever met. Certainly under other circumstances I would have never bothered to spend more than one evening with her, but since I liked the rest of my situation here – the room and so forth – I decided to stick it out. Over the last five weeks I’ve listened to her stories and gotten to know her. While I really haven’t changed my opinion of her, she is all those things I mentioned above, somehow she has become a real person to me and not just a nasty old woman.

She actually has led a fascinating life and tells very candid stories. She grew up in North Africa, Iran and then moved with her family to Chile where she married a man 25 years older than her to escape her parents. She did not get along with her mother, partly because her father named her after his mistress. She had two children in Chile. In the late 60s or early 70s her family had to move back to France because of the political difficulties in Chile. In France she fell in love with her doctor, her first real love, who became her lover and eventually her husband. She had one more child with the second husband, a girl, but he beat her and she left him after a couple of years.

She loves to laugh and tell stories about her adventures. Her big blue eyes light up when she remembers the past. Her current life is rather sad as she spends most of her time watching TV. She was once a great beauty, I imagine, but has put on a lot of weight. At 69 she has two bad knees and can’t walk more than a few blocks.

In the beginning of my stay here she would scold me for various things, making too much noise in the middle of the night when I went to the bathroom for instance. However, ever since I helped her with her computer – she really doesn’t know much of anything – my status has greatly improved and she is quite pleasant with me.

She still says the most awful things, especially when watching the news. Once during a documentary we were watching she compared the gorillas to the African guides remarking on how they resembled each other. She hates the current president, Hollande, and loves Sarkozy. She is very afraid of Muslims and thinks that mankind will destroy the earth in the very near future resulting in something out of “Mad Max”. I really only tolerate all this because it’s in French and therefore doesn’t sting as much as it would in English. It’s funny, I understand French but it doesn’t have the same emotional impact it would in English.

I have been rethinking how we choose to interact with people and how we can create a more tolerant world. Certainly her views on many issues are unacceptable, but if we distance ourselves from people who see the world so drastically differently from us, how can we possibly hope to change their opinion? I certainly don’t think I can change her mind on anything in my short visit here, but she has definitely changed my mind on how I might better tolerate people I don’t agree with. I see her now as a multifaceted person and not just a hateful bigot. I’ve even grown to like her in a way and find that the experience has been amazingly enlightening.

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