Returning home from our weekend trip to Normandy, I stepped into the dark rain-streaked streets of Belleville. I had been feeling anxious to the thought of re-entering the bustling, cobbled maze of Paris after a refreshing few days taking in the blustery, autumnal countryside of northern France. But as soon as I started up the stairs of my apartment building, taking in the many smells of the different inhabitants’ dinners and feeling the now familiar curve of our door handle, the anxiety retreated. My host family greeted me with warm enthusiasm and we spent the next two hours bantering easily over the dinner table. I felt that comforting and relieving sense of Returning, coming back to a home of sorts.
This is just one example of the gift of living with a host family in Paris. Through APA, most of us chose to be placed with a family as opposed to moving into a foyer, or student apartment. Throughout the 20 different arrondissements and surrounding neighborhoods of the banlieue, we were placed all over the city in families of all shapes and sizes.
I live in the 19th arrondissement, right off the rue Belleville. Our apartment is on the 4th etage which, in US terms, is the fifth floor. After over a month, taking the stairs three at a time on the way up and barreling down them has become just another part of my commute and I’m sure that I’m building up my calf muscles so the trekk twice a day is worth it.
The apartment itself is tout petit with two floors. The first is comprised of a kitchen where we also wash our clothing and store our coats, and one other room divided by sliding glass doors that make up the living and dining rooms. The second floor has three small bedrooms, and washroom and bathroom with a shower, all of whose doors open to the same three-foot-by-three-foot landing. I have my own room with a window that overlooks the rooftops of my neighborhood.
Without going into detail about how APA picks the host families, I will say that I felt like my needs and wishes were incredibly accommodated. I was placed in a host family that is have Senegalese, half French. Having spent a year in Senegal, it has been an amazing opportunity to learn about and engage with Senegal in a completely different way. The host father is Senegalese, from Dakar, and we will often and casually through Wolof words into our conversations and spend at least half of a time together reminiscing about life in Senegal. The host father’s name is Ibrahima and he works for TV5, one of the furthest reaching french TV channels in the world. My host mother, Mireille, is a social worker and was born and raised in Paris. Though sharing a love for Senegal in her own way, she is my number-one guide to navigating the French family life and to interpreting all the strange and unfamiliar nuances of the Parisian culture. They have two sons, one of which studies in Berlin and the other, Jean-Seben, who is finishing up his last year of high school. He is my right-hand man when it comes to learning how to speak french more casually, such as slang and “sayings”, as well as staying up to date on the world of french rap.
I have now lived with a few host families in the past few years and can say with certainty that it is the very best way to be introduced to a different culture, especially if there is a difference in language. We speak french constantly at home and it is a great way to practice casual conversational french. In addition to linguistic advantages, it has been so helpful to have a few people to be able to ask questions and get advise from whenever I need it. Sometimes my questions lead to long discussion or challenging arguments and sometimes the advise given is unsolicited and meant to challenge my way of thinking or acting. These can be hard moments. But learning to navigate the home life makes me more prepared to navigate the bigger world beyond the walls of our cozy apartment.