On Family

September 10, 2012 Comments Off on On Family

Yesterday, I joined my host family for a late afternoon lunch at their friends’ chalet. The seven of us–five Brits, one Dutchman, and myself–stood outside on the lawn, where we nursed Pimm’s cocktails. The other guests asked me about my travel plans and the upcoming presidential elections.

From where I stood, I could see a sloping mountainside dotted with dwellings and, further up, what looked like a ski resort.

Lunchtime began. We sat outside as the intense alpine sun beat down on us. We passed around trays of perfectly roasted vegetables, plates of barbecued chicken and lamb, and grain salad. (And because this is France, a cheese board was inevitable. And because most of the people in attendance were British expats, so was a “pudding,” in this case a cheesecake.) We drank too much wine.

Our topics of discussion ranged from the local tourism industry, fine wines, music festivals, and other significant music-related issues, such as the evolution of Prodigy and why George Michael waited so long to come out of the closet.

By the time we had coffee, the heat had become too much. We migrated to the shade of the nearby shed.

The children rode their bicycles, splashed around in the chalet’s well, and attempted several games of catch with the adults. A dog named Louie ran around, looking for anyone that might pet her.

My host family and I headed home once a few raindrops began to fell and the wind picked up.

At breakfast that morning, as I stood in the kitchen, making another cup of coffee, one of my hosts invited me to this gathering. I never expected this but graciously accepted the offer.

The most difficult aspect of a home stay is learning to differentiate your space and your host family’s space. It’s also vital to a successful volunteer experience. I never figured this out during my stint in Denmark. Which, in retrospect, is strange because I was involved in the daily dynamic. I had my own living space in the home. They had theirs: a door marked with a sign that said “private.” I always felt as though I was intruding whenever that door was closed. I only knocked if I really needed something.

In Sweden, my hosts were hardly ever present, with few exceptions. Volunteers looked after each other.

Here in France, I’m learning how to live with a family other than my own for the first time. I work primarily in the household, provide food (especially “puddings”) for the family, and occasionally look after the children. My host family, in return, invites me to meals, show me around the area, and include me in family activities. I’ve never felt more welcome in my travels, but I don’t misconstrue our relationship. I’m not a member of the family. I never will be. I’m just passing through.

No matter. That doesn’t mean that I can’t build a satisfying working relationship with them. I can still enjoy my time with them. And I am.

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