The choice to live with a family abroad can be a very risky experience. Prior to going abroad, I had heard some horror stories. People had to change houses, they hated the food their family prepared, the home was in an unsafe area, etc. Since I knew Michigan students that had already vouched for my program, I trusted them to choose great families. Even still, I wanted the perfect abroad experience. I wanted to charm my family, easily assimilate, and have them be an important constituent in my life. I clearly had a lot of expectations.
My first night in Italy I stayed at a hotel with my program. I definitely appreciated this because if I had met my family immediately, I wouldn’t have made the best impression. I was hungry, tired, and filled with nerves. On the cab ride into Ferrara, my driver only spoke Italian. He was quite chatty, but thankfully the conversation ended up on the topic of soccer, the theme of my most recent Italian class. I realize that I would have to do a little warming up before meeting my family. I couldn’t possibly talk to them about soccer for 4 months.
When we woke up in the hotel the following morning our program took us on a tour of the city. We were guided through the cathedral and the castle, learning all about Ferrara’s extensive history. Around 6 we returned to the office of our program to retrieve our suitcases and meet our families. As I was gathering bags, I was caught off guard when I realized that mine was the first to walk in. My host-sister Francesca and my host-mother Anna arrived in their fashionable fur coats, smiling and shaking my hand.
My house was a beautiful red home enclosed by gates. The outside had an overgrown garden and was hand crafted with colorful stones. I was accosted by our dog Maia, and once inside I met my younger sister Claudia. I handed them their presents, a cutting board in the shape of New York State for Anna and New York charm bracelets for the girls, and we began our journey together.
Fortunately, I could not have asked for a more loving and warm family. The Panagia’s had been hosting American students every semester for nearly 5 years, so they were very well experienced welcoming foreigners into their home. Ironically enough they were originally from Napoli and had moved to Ferrara 10 years prior. Together Anna and I called my mother and grandmother in New York, who spoke to her in dialect. Anna cooked me traditional Napoletano food that my grandmother always made. Anna was special because she considered being a host mother as her job. It was not something she did in the evenings after she returned home from work, rather she considered it to be her calling. While she spoke no English, she loved American students and felt that they were all polite and gracious. I could hardly do my homework at the kitchen table because we would have long conversations together. I would sip the soluble coffee she bought me; she would drag her cigarette while boiling water. One evening she even showed me her wedding photos, bringing down a suitcase that contained a book the width of the Bible, filled with traditional wedding poses of her and Gianluca. She was an extraordinary mother and an exceptionally kind person. When my parents came to visit, we took the three of them to dinner at their favorite pizzeria, owned by a former Napoli citizen.
I would recommend a home-stay to anyone who was open to it. When choosing to live with a family, one has to be very flexible and accommodating. You must be overly polite and courteous, thoughtful and neat. Although this aspect can be a bit exhausting, it’s definitely worth the home cooked pasta and warm household you return to every evening.