The Joy of a Homestay
“Do you want sugar or milk?” It was a simple enough question, asked earnestly by Alessandro, my Italian homestay host. He had just welcomed me into his home and was making an espresso. While the answer in my head was a clear yes- I’d only ever taken my coffee white with sugar- I shook my head. I was scared of making a faux-pas, something that would out me as lacking continental sophistication. I suspected that needing sugar would give me away in my first five minutes of being in his home. I would quickly learn to love unadulterated espressos.
This was back in 2019. I was working for a Gotoco partner Lingue Senza Frontiere as an English tutor, and was staying in my first of two homestays. Looking back, it’s funny to think about the things that made me nervous. I was full of excitement to meet my new families and be immersed in Italian culture, but I still had my worries. Would they like me? Would there be two awkward weeks of silent evenings watching TV while I tried to make conversation from whatever Duolingo phrase I’d memorised that day? As it turns out, I had nothing to fear: the homestay turned out to be one of the best parts of my camp experience in Italy.
From that first espresso with Alessandro, it became clear that food and drink would become the foundation for the relationships with the families. Family dinners were central to our evenings- and they were never humble affairs. Our first family dinner, we had a starter, and then a pasta course. Alessandro offered more pasta to myself and my colleague, Paige. She finished another plate, satiated, forgetting that in Italy, pasta is a course, not a main … there were another two courses to go. Needless to say, it’s near impossible to go to bed hungry in an Italian household.
The dinners lasted for hours: starting mid-evening and ending as we headed to bed. Paige and I weren’t allowed to lift a finger, despite our insistence. The cultural stereotype that Italians ‘live to eat, not eat to live’ rang true. I often thought about how much it compared to my summer before, working abroad in a similar camp setting, sharing dorm room accommodation. My evenings with my colleagues, were spent in a bedroom catching up on Love Island together- which frankly could have happened anywhere in the world. I loved how much food became central to our experience together. I loved those hours sitting at the dining room table. It felt impossible to be lonely that summer.
In my second homestay, in Sestri Levante, the homestay Mums knew each other, which meant all four staff at the second summer camp enjoyed our time with our families together. Sestri’s coast is picturesque- something straight out of a film- and we spent every evening after work enjoying the sea. This was, undeniably, what they meant by the dolce vita. Clocking out at 4pm, getting some gelato, and feeling the warmth of the summer sun on our skin as we swam in the most beautiful of settings.
At this homestay, I became close to my homestay Mum, Isabella. Isabella had worked as an art restorer, and despite our language barrier, we managed to bond over our mutual love of art. Often, I think, people are nervous about navigating a language barrier- that interactions can only ever be at surface level as the basic phrases they can say. How many times can you ask how are you and how many pets do you have? Yet when I think of the time, armed only with a couple of weeks of language learning, all I think is about how much we all managed to laugh together. I even felt close to my homestay Nonna, who did not speak a word of English, but by the time I left after two weeks, there were tears in both our eyes as we hugged goodbye.
Heading into a stranger’s home, in a foreign country, is undoubtedly a daunting prospect. Yet- and I do risk sounding like a protagonist coming to a cheesy conclusion- if you go into a home with respect, an open mind and an open heart, you can find yourself having one of the most incredible experiences of hospitality. A homestay forces you to immerse yourself in the culture and gives you a unique understanding of a place: you eat authentically, you are taken off the tourist path, you begin to understand the little quirks of a culture that you wouldn’t see if you only engaged with locals in a hospitality setting. It’s an experience everyone should try at least once.
About the Author
Hi! My name is Chess, and I was part of the 2022 Year in Thailand programme. I love exploring- and writing!- about new cultures, with a particular interest in visual culture.