Often when you choose to study abroad there are lots of other choices that go with it, and one that can impact your experience dramatically is where you choose to live. I could have been in a dorm or apartment with other American or international students, or in a dorm with Native students, but I chose to live with a host family.
The prospect of living with a host family can be daunting. Is it going to be awkward? What if they don’t speak English? What if they don’t like you? How will I meet people my age? To ease some of your nerves, I thought I’d share the experience of my first night (and morning) in Copenhagen.
After 2 days of packing, 8 hours on planes, and a stopover in Oslo, I arrived in Copenhagen, and waited in a hotel lobby to meet my new family.
I was a bit nervous. It occurred to me that I had slept only around 3 of the last 24 hours, and that the last time I showered was more than 3000 miles ago. But I braced myself and tried to make a good impression.
The whole family was there to greet me with hugs and smiles. My new family was made up of my host mom and dad, and my two host sisters, 11 and 13 (a dog and two rabbits complete the family). In the car on the way home, my host sisters were urgently curious to know if I liked dogs, and then if I liked Justin Beiber.
We arrived at my new home at around 1:30 PM. They had set up a room for me attached to the house, with a bed, carpet, cabinets, and my own bathroom. After dropping my suitcases in my room I sat at the kitchen table and ate Danish pastries. My host dad assured me that even though I was tired and jetlagged, they would keep me entertained until at least 8:00.
Around 3:00, the doorbell rang. My host family had arranged for me to meet the other host students staying in my neighborhood, so we could commute together later if we wanted too. This was a great relief, and eased some of my fears about meeting people and also about taking the train to class every day.
For dinner, in my honor, we had spaghetti and meatballs, a meal I eat in America a lot. I’m not sure my host sisters liked it very much, but it was great comfort for me. My host family lights candles all over the house around dinner time, forming a cozy atmosphere – a concept very important to Danish people. My host parents kept me talking until 8:30 and then I was finally permitted to sleep.
My host sisters are adopted, and the day after I arrived marked the anniversary of the day they brought my oldest host sister home. My host family celebrates it with a present and a song, like a birthday, so I woke up very early to sing to my host sister. Here I was, a complete stranger, getting up at 5:00 in the morning to wake up a 13-year-old with a song. It really resonated with me, and helped me see that I was truly welcome, wholly and generously, into my Danish family.
I know that living with a host family seems scary, but trust me, by the end of your stay they will be like a real family. Remember that they volunteered to host a student, and are very excited to meet you.
My personal recommendation is to definitely stay with a host family if you have the option. Just like a real family, respect and kindness make for the most fulfilling relationships. But the little extra work involved in meeting and living with your host family opens up innumerable doors to cross-cultural experiences and lifelong friendships.