Finding comfort abroad with my host mother

By MANAVI MONGIA | September 26, 2019

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COURTESY OF MANAVI MONGIA In her study abroad program, Mongia’s grandmotherly host, Annie, helps her feel right at home.

In the first few weeks that I have been abroad, one of the most important things I’ve learned is that the freshman plague transcends collegiate boundaries. 

Somehow, thousands of miles away from Homewood, I have fallen victim to the same symptoms that I’m sure many of you are experiencing: a burning throat, a casual inability to breathe and a dwindling desire to persist.

Nonetheless, here in Paris, my dear host mother, Annie, has done a tremendous job in helping to restore my spirits. Annie, whose small size belies her energy, is a sprightly woman in her seventies, and she has made me feel as at home as possible. Just like my parents, she often requests my help with technology (re: burst photos on her iPhone), and she insists on feeding me well past my heart’s content. 

Returning to live under the control of a parental figure might seem counterintuitive, especially since many of us have taken the freedom of college and run with it. Yet Annie has gifted me with a sense of footing that I would surely otherwise lack in a new country. At dinner, she listens earnestly as I recount my day, and if I mention anything that was slightly stressful, she assures me that “tout s’arrangera” — everything will work out. 

A few hours later, she calls me over to offer me a piece of chocolate from a box that is somehow always full. Then she bids me good night, and like the rest of us, spends a few hours watching TV before actually going to sleep. Annie reminds me to take this experience one day at a time, and her kindhearted nature makes this semester in Paris feel much less daunting.

In addition to chocolate, Annie provides me with the unabashed ability to speak French without the fear of utterly embarrassing myself. Of course, before you go abroad, you expect that you’ll miss your friends, your bed and maybe your family, but one thing I didn’t realize is how much I would miss the English language. Without a doubt, most people in Paris will speak English to you as soon as they hear a hint of hesitation or an accent.

However, since I came abroad to “challenge myself,” “be in an immersive environment” and “have life-changing experiences,” I refuse to surrender when my French is met with English. I do miss speaking and listening without having to put too much thought into those actions. I find myself excessively preparing for how to say “pardonne” before I am about to get off the train, as if those two syllables might give away the fact that I am a lowly American.

Perhaps my crowning achievement this week was in one of my first classes at a Paris university, when a professor apparently made a joke, as was evidenced by all the students laughing. Naturally, I laughed as well. When a fellow international student asked what the professor had said, I admitted I actually had no idea. Sometimes you just have to fake it until you make it... back to the sanctuary that is Annie’s home.

It is an odd phenomenon feeling so clumsy with a language in a place where it comes naturally to most other people. While such a sentiment is certainly common, it is not something that I personally had experienced to this extent before. I have become jealous of four-year-old French kids who have this great power to speak fluently. Of course, the same applies to each of us and our native languages.

I also wonder how I come across when I speak in French, where my capacity for expression is much more limited. My English personality is so different from my French personality, but hopefully one day those two can work things out. This is all to say that I now fully understand my parents’ immigrant experience. Just kidding. 

In all seriousness, in my position, I am lucky to say that it is a fun and frustrating challenge to speak and be surrounded by French. On days where I get by without anyone questioning my French skills, I feel triumphant. On days where I am less successful, I know I have Annie and a chocolate square waiting for me at home. 

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