Just over a year ago, I was driving down a French road in a tiny tiffany blue fiat with trees meeting each other over the road to form an arch. I was driving to Pau with my aunt who happens to live in Toulouse. We passed the university and headed downtown where the winter carnival was still set up with a grande roue (ferris wheel), petting zoo, and little village of Christmas shops.
After an hour of exploring my new home, we drove just a few blocks up to my new house. The house was on the corner. It was a charming white house with large blue shutters over the windows. Out came Elisabeth, my new host mom, with big curly hair, a kind smile, and the most adorable embroidered jacked. She made us a cup of tea and only slightly teased me about bringing two suitcases.
Shortly after my aunt left and Elisabeth told me to go settle in. My room was up a spiral staircase and had a desk, cute bedspread, and small closet. I unpacked and then joined Elisabeth and Jean-Marc for dinner at 8.
Both Elisabeth and Jean-Marc were so very understanding about how nervous I was to speak French. They had just experienced the death of a close friend, their children had just left after Christmas, and one of their previous students they hosted arrived the same day I did to visit, yet they handled the situation in a way that made me feel not only welcome but at home.
Over the four months I spent with Jean-Marc and Elisabeth we talked about everything under the sun. Elisabeth showed me her garden and took me to the market with them on Saturday mornings. Jean-Marc took me to his office and to the local movie theater. They invited me to come with them to plays, dinner parties at their friend’s houses, and encouraged me to invite my friends over.
One Saturday morning, Jean-Marc woke me up and told me to get ready, they were taking me to the Guggenheim in Bilbao. We got in the car and drove two hours to the museum. There was a David Hockney exhibit and we took pictures and talked about our shared love of modern art. The day was perfect, complete with tapas for dinner.
My host family experience was different than many of my friends’. I got an amazing couple who integrated me into their life. They wanted to learn about me and I wanted to learn about them. They made it easy for me to continue being open minded. They pushed me to step outside of my comfort zone. They pushed me to speak French as much as possible but didn’t fault me for calling my mom and best friends to speak English every day.
I learned so much about French culture, food, and life from choosing to live with a host family. You can live in a dorm anywhere and you might make more friends living in the dorms but I learned so very much about not only France but myself through living with my host family.
Each of my friends in my cohort had a different host family experience, some lived downtown, others out by the université, and some wished they had chosen the freedom of a dorm.
The best advice I can give when you are deciding whether or not to choose a host family experience comes from my personal experience. I loved living with my host parents. They added this sense of home. They helped me navigate living in a new country and encouraged me to constantly put myself out there. Know yourself and what you need, when choosing a housing option. For me the risk of getting a host family that wasn’t a good fit far outweighed the benefit of the cultural experience, but that’s not true for everyone. If you want to meet other international students and are more comfortable living on your own a dorm could be a good fit for you.
Ultimately, going abroad is about pushing yourself out of your comfort zone. Pau taught me to live life outside of where if feel most at home, to enjoy being in the adventure zone.
Emma Epperly is alumni of the Pau program, Spring 2018. She studied Journalism at Washington State University and is now a reporter for the Spokesman Review in Spokane, WA.