Host Families (the bad, and the really good)

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I thought about joining the Peace Corps for about three years before beginning my application, and one of the things that I got hung up on was the thought of living with a host family for over two years. I’m not sure quite why, but I think my hesitance came out of the fact that I don’t want to live with my own parents for two years at this point in my life, let alone with someone else’s family. (Sorry, Mom and Dad.) I envisioned a lot of negatives, too – having to eat food I didn’t like, lack of privacy, having to listen every day to a language I didn’t understand and being regarded as sort of a weirdo by my family. This last is of course an issue I’ve been dealing with my whole life, so nothing new there.

I needn’t have worried, because Macedonia – up through my training group – didn’t place volunteers with families for the whole two years, just for the three-month training period. (Starting with the fifteenth group of volunteers, some will be placed with families for their term of service. I think this is awesome! You’ll learn why shortly.) A lot of my fears about host family life were borne out during training; there were some days when I couldn’t bear facing my family, and unfortunately the other trainees in my community felt the same way, which meant I rarely had people visiting me at home.

I didn’t blog much during training, and I think it’s good that I didn’t write a lot about my host family experience then. It improved slightly towards the end, and now that it’s a couple months behind me it’s easier to judge the unpleasant aspects of it, and how I could have changed my behavior to better deal with my family. I did change for my last few weeks, actually, and from that learned a lot about how I should have acted from my first day of homestay. (Sidebar: I’m on my fourth day of the flu and although this is my first real recovery day, I’ve still got shockingly poor reflexes. I knocked over my third glass of water for the day, probably my eighth of the past four. It’s like I’m six years old again.)

Also, this is a story with a happy ending.

So, most of my nightmares of what living with a host family might be like turned out to be true. I felt more like a showcase than part of the family, heard a little too often about how much money they were getting from Peace Corps, got one real meal a day and showered once every four or five days because there would be widespread panic every time I threatened to use five minutes of hot water. My father tended to get angry when I didn’t understand what he said, rolling eyes, really encouraging stuff. For a while I hid out because I didn’t always feel capable of facing him, but at the end of training decided to take advantage of a captive family and work on my language skills. I got to know them better and to appreciate them more, and while I still had some issues with them, things did improve towards the end.

For two months I had a kind of rough introduction to the host family experience, and was relieved to be moving on to site, where I’d be living on my own, and would never again have to answer to a family about where I was going, why I wanted to shower, why my Macedonian was so bad (because I live with Albanians?), and never again have to listen to a lecture on the benefits of, well, being like my host father.

I didn’t know then that I would be moving into a family compound in Debar and living with a fifteen-member family: two brothers, their mother, their wives, and their combined nine children. (There are actually ten, but one lives in Canada with her husband.) I probably would have been a little more scared to move to site if I knew what I was heading into.

My family here is not a host family, but my landlord’s family; but after a week here, I thought of them as more of my family than my host family during training. I know that in some countries volunteers live in a sort of family compound with their host families, so my situation here is not that different from their permanent homestay set-up; it is a lot different from my homestay during training, because I have my own home and a lot more privacy than I did before. But any time I want I can head over to their house for coffee, lunch or dinner, and most days I do spend a few hours there. My family owns a butcher shop in town and sometimes slaughters cows next to my house (nearly every day during the summer, they told me) and, as my father said, I must really like them if their line of work doesn’t get to me.

I’m, you know, a vegetarian.

Turns out that people are the same everywhere, and some people are just good people, while others might want to get to know you because you’re the American. I started to realize my family here really liked me when they kept urging me to come over for meals, despite not getting any money for feeding me. From a strictly economic standpoint, it makes no sense for them to be feeding me; they’d be making more money if they left me to my own devices over here when it comes to cooking. But that’s not all of it – it’s that, after a few weeks of trying to get me to eat meat, they began to tell me when they’d be cooking a meal without meat, sometimes days in advance. When they make pita, they conserve enough from the meat-free pan that I could eat for a couple days (or one lunch, I’m getting pretty good at eating here). They made pizza a couple weeks ago, and made me my own pizza without meat. For whatever reason, these people really care about me, and I feel the same way about them. I also feel unbelievably lucky that I went from a homestay experience that wasn’t always positive to living with what has to be the greatest host family ever.

Because I’ve been sick and haven’t had a whole lot else to do, I talked to my dad a lot over the past few days about why I like it here so much, and it comes down to my family. Without my family I would be going to work and occasional coffees, but I wouldn’t have anyone to come home to. When I was in Skopje for a whopping nine hours last week, dying to come home, it was because I wanted to be back with my family. And while I don’t want to think about maybe not accomplishing anything during my two years here (seriously, I’ve got to accomplish something), even if I don’t, I know it will have been a worthwhile experience because of my family.

A lot of volunteers in Macedonia are placed in cities, and I think part of the reason for this is the old rule against placing volunteers with families for the whole two years of their service. It can be hard to find housing for a volunteer in a small community. I wrote earlier that I think it’s good to place volunteers with families, and I’ve written a lot about how I wouldn’t want to be in a city. It’s because I’m pretty sure that without my family, I wouldn’t feel like I had a real base here. I’d come home after work and watch TV shows or read novels all day, and I wouldn’t work as hard on the language. It’s also been an amazing cultural lesson – in Philadelphia, I didn’t know the name of a single neighbor in my apartment building; they didn’t talk to me, and I didn’t talk to them. In Macedonia, on my first day in Debar, I was already a part of this giant family, no questions asked, before any of us got around to asking each others names.

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