Our homestay – June 12-14 2015
It is not always an easy thing to go to a stranger’s place and stay there for a couple of days, especially when you barely know that person. It must be even harder for the host, who knows only bare facts about his new guests and somehow has to make them feel at home. I feel that this is when the real contact with the host culture begins, when we step out of the relative shelter of the student accommodation in which most of our days in Montana have been spent, to venture forth, literally as it were, into the unknown. The secure comfort zone we usually find in our multiple alien-ness as twenty strangers in a strange land is no longer there: there’s just you, your SUSI colleague and your host family. As interaction starts to take place, some glimmers of understanding of each other begin to develop, which one hopes would eventually lead to more authentic and sincere experiences of each other’s cultures.
As the day ends, I look back upon the (so brief!) time that I and my friend Kanisius have spent with our host family, only to shake my head in wonder at the way we can just enter someone’s life and be part of it when we did not know each other before. This is a relatively new experience for me: coming from a culture where people are often introduced to you in terms of links and relationships with people you already know, going into a stranger’s house can be quite daunting. I guess this is also something that varies across cultures and personalities. However, both Kanisius and I were really excited about this novel experience, even though we did not really know what to expect, as we had only met one of our hosts briefly before.
Micah, our main host, came to fetch us at Pantzer Hall at 1700. Since he did not live far, we walked with him to his house, which he shares with roommates Scott, Colin, Kate and Danny. Oh, and Pierre the cat and Tyson the dog! This was already an interesting household, as it would not be a family as such but a group of friends living together. Micah invited us to one of his friend’s potluck dinner at the park, where various friends met together and brought a dish or dessert to share. That was a relaxing moment, where we sat in the grass and enjoyed our meals while talking to new people. We ended up having an informal but intense football (soccer) match that had me breathless but feeling really alive. Somehow, this simple game was enough to break down my inherent reserve and shyness and to “suspend” my foreign identity.
Back to Micah’s home, we were introduced to the other members of the household, who heartily welcomed us. It was interesting to note over the two days how these young people, who were all different in one way or the other and who had distinct personalities and interests, could cohabit peaceably and make the household a real family. Chatting to some of the members of the household led to some of them playing on their music instruments and this impromptu session was really enjoyable.
The next day, Micah took us to the Farmer’s Market as he had decided to invite some friends for an “International” potluck dinner at his place, mostly to welcome us to his house. Kanisius and I also offered to help out, and after having a hearty breakfast of tamales in the market, we also bought some vegetables and greens to use in the evening. Micah also told us about a small plot of land he had obtained from the town community garden and it was interesting to note how he and some of his friends maintained their plots assiduously. We decided at that point that we would go there later on in the day to have a look.
Together with Micah, Kanisius and I went to the Rattlesnake Recreation Area, where we hiked for about two hours. The scenery was breathtaking and we really enjoyed the quiet atmosphere in the woods.
Following that, we went to his plot of land where we assisted Micah with planting and watering some of the plants he had brought with him. That too was an enriching experience as I like gardening as well, and it brought back some good memories of my own family yard where we grow a number of plants and vegetables. What are a couple of dirty hands compared to the satisfaction of setting a plant or seedling into the earth and watching it grow day by day?
Given that we had some time left, Micah proposed to take us to visit the Temple of a Thousand Buddhas. As with the hiking, I was struck by the many interests of our host. He was not trying to go out of his way to provide extraordinary experiences, but was rather sharing some of his own interests with us. He had at some point volunteered to help out in the making of the Buddhas and so had a personal connection with the place he was taking us to visit. The trip out of town also provided interesting insights into the uniqueness of Missoula compared to other localities. The temple itself was amazing, and we sat in serene contemplation as the gentle breeze fluttered the prayer flags. It was eerie to see a Buddhist shrine in the midst of the mountains of Montana, yet it seemed to fit with the atmosphere.
We returned home and started helping out in the making of the potluck dinner. Everyone in the house had decided to contribute something, from Kate’s freshly caught fish to Colin’s Paella to our salad, which we prepared with beetroot, carrots and spring onions. We appreciated that we were not treated as exceptional guests but rather as members of the household. We participated in the washing up, cutting and preparation of the vegetables and other food items, all the while chatting with our new friends. When the other guests arrived, with their own food, we sat down together and ate and talked.
We were invited to comment and share upon various aspects pertaining to our native cultures, such as geographical location, climate, language, food and so on, which we readily did. One of the hosts, Colin, spoke Portuguese, and he often would use it to talk to Kanisius. Once again, we appreciated being in such relaxed and accepting company.
The next day we woke up to a great breakfast prepared by Micah. The prevailing mood was relaxed and laid-back, so we sat and chatted. I took up a book and read in the yard, trying to soak up the morning sun. Later on, we were treated to an interesting lunch and enjoyed tasting food items and vegetables that we had not tasted before. This was followed by some informal discussion on politics with some of our new friends. I was very much impressed by the depth of knowledge of our friends. Interestingly, many of the aspects they touched upon, especially ecology, not only addressed issues that they were personally interested in but also were, in some way, linked to the topics that we had been exposed to during the last two weeks. It thus allowed me to discuss a bit more in depth with our friends and to get their view (as Missoulans) of the legal system and local and state government.
The day would have ended quietly but when Micah told us he was going to do some more gardening in the afternoon, I and Kanisius proposed to accompany him and help out. Once again, we had a great time in the community garden and felt pleased that we were able to give a hand, even if it has been for just an hour or two.
It is always awkward and difficult to say good bye, especially to people you have been closely associated with for some time. There was an emotional moment when Kanisius presented some of the native scarves, which had been woven by his mother, to our hosts. I, for my part, wanted them to have an idea of what my country looked like, and left them some postcards and keyrings. We finally said our goodbyes and returned to Pantzer, with mixed feelings. We have, during our homestay, been fascinated by the maturity and independence of our hosts, their various interests, their ability to discuss seriously at one moment, and then to joke around together, the next moment. Their sense of camaraderie and cooperation, despite being from different parts of America, is exemplary and showed us that you do not always have to remain in your comfort zone but rather should seek new experiences and be confident to meet and talk to new people. This homestay also, very importantly, allowed me to get to know Kanisius, my SUSI colleague, more closely, as we had not been much in contact before. All in all, one can only express gratitude, tinged with wonder, at being received in such a gracious way and we can only but thank our hosts (and our SUSI organizers) for making this weekend an unforgettable slice of life.