One of the paradoxically worst things about being now three months into the study abroad experience is realizing how much you’ve actually settled into your homestay. You realize that the relationship you’ve cultivated bit by bit with your hosts is both a product of those three months, but also because of those three months, coming to a close all too soon. So, this is my little ode to my time thus far with Catherine and Thierry and our little apartment in the 16th.
When I first came to live on Rue de Boulainvilliers, I saw living with a French family as another stressor in my already intense French existence. As someone with a close family and a compulsive need to be not just tolerated but liked, I brought a lot of strange preconceptions to the table about what my relationship to my host family would be (this is actually a really great pun because I eat dinner with my hosts three times a week and mealtimes are really important, but whatever, moving on).
At first, when things were new and it felt like I was coming home to a stranger’s house every day, retrospectively, I think I acted sort of bizarrely. I was very concerned about how much time I spent in my room—too much? too little?—and how to navigate the space of the apartment. I even experimented with the full range of door ajar-ness and learned how a few inches can really contribute to the welcome factor.
When leaving the sanctuary of my room, I can only describe my behavior as raccoon-ish. It was kind of like I was this garbage animal who felt on some level it wasn’t supposed to be in the house and so I sort of sped-walked everywhere in order to avoid interaction, because making small talk in your non-native language is rough. Quick little pleasantries turn into these long, drawn out moments where your hosts are watching you take an inordinately large amount of time to struggle through the phrase, “hi, how’s your day going?” By that point it’s just weird and you scuttle back to your room in shame.
However, I’m happy to say we’ve gotten past those moments and my hosts’ perception of me has gone from constantly lightly concerned to pleasantly bemused.
One of our finer moments together was when my hosts, as well as our two other boarders, Eve and Alix, threw me a little fête for my 21st birthday. Thierry had gone to the trouble to make a three-course meal of my choosing: mushroom crème soup to start, apple-braised rabbit for the entrée (I was feeling adventurous) and a glazed chocolate torte for dessert, complete with candles. The dinner was lovely and the conversation—about how I still say the word “like” in English while speaking in French—was a nice reminder that we had progressed to a point where light mocking was acceptable. However, the best part of the evening came when Catherine handed me a paper Channel bag and declared that it was present time. Inside, I found “Charles,” a stuffed version of my dog, Charlie, who I talk about incessantly. It was so kind that they even got me a gift to begin with, but the fact that they had chosen something so spot-on definitely helped my little compulsive need to be liked complex.
Then, last weekend, we took a little family road trip to the Chateau of Chantilly. Early in the morning, the five of us piled into Thierry and Catherine’s old, oddly square-shaped Toyota, where Catherine regaled us with stories of her estranged, senator father and all the weird things she had found in his apartment after his death (this was connected to the car because she had happened to find 10,000 euro in a drawer in said apartment and bought the Toyota).
Chantilly itself, about 70 minutes north of Paris, was stunning. According to Catherine, a former history teacher who acted as our self-appointed tour guide, the chateau was from the Louis the XIV era but had been destroyed during the revolution of 1789 and was later refurbished in the 19th century. Touring the chateau, I’m not exactly sure what other visitors thought of our little group, Catherine leading the way and firing off questions like: “Now who can tell me four indicators of the Louis XIV’s royal status in this portrait?” (we were not allowed to move on until we identified all four). The rest of the afternoon we explored the gardens and enjoyed a picnic of bread, cheese, sausage and various vegetables, which could have only been improved by the presence of Doritos, also maybe fried chicken.
We finished off the day at the Musée du Cheval, which is a combo horse museum/stable because Chantilly also happens to be the horse capital of France. First we watched a short exhibition, where trainers took their horses through a variety of paces and slightly weird tricks (see photo). Then, what was meant to be a quick visit to the adjoining stables turned into a half hour long “let’s see what it takes to get that horse to look at me” session, which went relatively well. While Catherine and Thierry were occupied making a video for their grandkids, Maceo and Alma, Eve and Alix and I attempted to surmount the issue of the posted “Do not touch the horses” signs. Three dignified 20-somethings making various whistling and clicking sounds at horses that were not all that interested in us yielded slim results. One or two horses made eye contact and Rodrigue sneezed on me.
If I could offer up one more anecdote to give you an idea of what an average night is like chez Catherine and Thierry, it would have to be one of our recent family dinners. Whereas it’s Thierry’s responsibility to plan the menu de cuisine for our dinners, Catherine likes to plan what can only be described as the conversational menu. It’s a bit like having an in-class essay in AP Lit; Catherine gives us the prompt a few days beforehand and by the night of the dinner, we’re expected to have something prepared to contribute. Topics in the past have included: if you were to rule the world for a day what would you do (in three brief points), what is the morality of being honest and is it necessary to always be honest, and do you consider people who have not been traditionally educated through the university system to be lesser than those who have. Catherine does not mess around. Our prompt for the other night was to think of a work of art and to be prepared to create it in fruit form for dessert. In contrast to our other topics of discussion this may be construed as “trivial” or “lighthearted” or dare I say, “amusing.” Nope. The five of us finished dinner and for a period of probably around 15 minutes worked in a frenzied silence. Reference pictures were pulled off of shelves, disgruntled sounds were made and brows were furrowed as we chopped mangoes, blueberries, dragon fruit, etc. and crafted our tableaux on our plates. I kid you not, at the end of the 15 minutes, each of us had to stand up and present our work, immediately followed by a quick picture session.
Opting for a classic, I attempted a recreation of “Woman with Parasol” by Monet. Thierry drew inspiration from Giuseppe Arcimboldo and Eve opted for a more free form, modern approach. After the presentations and pictures, we all tucked into our art/dessert, except for Thierry, who was just too proud of his handiwork to eat it.
If you would of asked me how I felt about my homestay in the first few weeks I lived there, I probably would have said something polite about how good the food was, but not much else. Now, I’m pretty sure I’d invite Catherine and Thierry to my wedding should that ever happen and I’m going to miss the little “Coucou Rachelle” that I have grown accustomed to waking up to every morning. I lucked out big time being put with this hilarious, incredible family and I’m excited to enjoy what time we have left together (ok no one is dying and I’m actually going to spend an extra month with them so it’s fine, not sad).