As I prepared for my career break and considered the different things I would do along the way, staying in a home stay was high on my list. Everything I read indicated that homestays would be a great way to connect with locals and immerse myself in a different culture – exactly what I was hoping to do on my travels.
I imagined a homestay as being a true cultural exchange.
I did my first homestay almost right off the bat, just two weeks into my journey through the former Soviet Union. It was part of a volunteer program that had me living with a family in St. Petersburg, Russia and tutoring the children in English. Unfortunately, the situation was a huge disappointment. Not only were the living conditions not as had been represented to me, the family didn’t even seem to want me there. The children had no interest in being tutored and during the entire four weeks I was there, no one in the family asked me a single thing about myself or opened up anything to me about their lives. I just felt like I was in the way.
My next homestay was part of the same volunteer program, this time living with a couple in Moscow. Overall, it was an improvement, but still not ideal. Living with an unmarried couple younger than me created an interesting dynamic and, as they were both working professionals, they had little time left over to spend with me.
Several months later, I took the plunge again, living with an elderly woman in Kiev while I took language classes. That was pretty much a disaster, with the woman just yelling at me in Russian every chance she got. I lasted two weeks.
Finally, I arrived in Armenia last month to volunteer again and try another homestay.
The fourth time must be the charm, right?
And it was – I lived with a couple about my parents’ age who went out of their way to make me comfortable and patiently practice Russian with me. Their son (who didn’t live with them) spoke fluent English and checked up on me weekly. I even introduced them to my parents back in Minnesota via Skype. I was sad to say goodbye to Stella and Martin when I left after five weeks.
After such a mixed experience with doing homestays, there are a few things I wish I had considered beforehand:
♦ I assumed that all homestay hosts are motivated by the “right” reasons – a desire to share their culture with foreigners and an inclination to learn about others. However, it became apparent to me that in reality some may just be motivated by the money they earn for being a host.
♦ I never really thought about balancing the atmosphere of a homestay with my desire for independence. In Kiev, my host always asked a lot of questions about where I was going or where I had been and she tended to watch over me as I was coming and going. I had to ask to use the washing machine and I couldn’t use the kitchen until after she had finished her meal. In Armenia, I sometimes felt like I was living with my parents again – something I haven’t done since I was 18. While I had a key to Stella and Martin’s place and they insisted I could come and go as I pleased, the homestay rules technically provided a curfew of midnight. Sure, I shirked this on occasion but I felt horribly guilty doing so.
♦ I wish I had thought more about the potential location of my homestays and pushed for more information before my arrival. Only my homestay in Kiev was centrally located. When I arrived in St. Petersburg, I discovered I was staying about an hour and a half outside of the city center, in an area that doesn’t even show up on maps of the city. Similarly, in Moscow, I was on the outskirts, about an hour out of the center, and in Yerevan, my homestay was in the hills north of the city center, a 30-40 minute ride into town by marshrutka (shared taxi). In each case, I received limited information from my hosts about how to get around and the groups that organized the homestays didn’t even provide a map for me in advance. I would have felt much more comfortable right off the bat if I had that basic information before I arrived.
In the end, while my experiences tended toward the negative rather than positive, I can’t say I wouldn’t recommend trying a homestay during your career break. Do your homework ahead of time, ask a lot of questions and think very seriously about your own personality and whether you will truly be comfortable living with a family for a week or two or longer.
Katie Aune is in the middle of a career break, in which she is spending a year traveling and volunteering in all 15 countries of the former Soviet Union. She is a former attorney, event planner and fundraiser who recently joined Meet, Plan, Go! as managing editor. You can follow her adventures at Katie Going Global.