Picture a scene: You’re sitting in a small living room trying to watch a potentially interesting television show in Turkish, a language that you don’t know. Your viewing companion doesn’t know Turkish either but has the advantage of subtitles in her own language, Albanian. But she doesn’t speak English. The one Albanian-English speaker in the house is occupied with housework a few rooms over but is more than willing to translate the translated translation while continuing to fold laundry in the back room. The family’s golden lab, who is in the midst of a heavy shedding phase, has decided that you are the weakest link in the snack food chain and is sitting on (not at) your feet. His tongue is all drooly from a combination of treat anticipation and a non-working air-conditioner. The family toddler, not nearly as drooly as the lab but just as certain of your weakness, has targeted you for a babbling conversation that defies translation in any language yet clearly focuses on the gathering of your hair into some sort of fashion. She commences with the twisting. Somehow, amongst the various levels of communication being attempted a bit of the show’s plot is coming through, the dog is succeeding in getting more than just crumbs and the impromptu beauty makeover is resulting in a style never before seen.
On a success scale of one to ten, this evening’s activities were about a 9.5 for me. Only if I had been able to retain a few more of the treats for myself would the night have been perfect. Two weeks of living with my host family had brought us to a level of comfort with one another that allowed for silliness and confusion and chores and slobber to all blend into a wonderfully enjoyable night in.
It was an amazing stroke of luck that had led me to try a home-stay rather than a hotel or hostel for this adventure. I had initially been skeptical about the idea, but concerns for privacy or miscommunication were quickly replaced with regular home-cooked meals and friendship building. Grocery shopping, babysitting, a sweet 16 birthday, a relative’s wedding, gas station runs, lunch hour visits, neighborhood hair salons, normal everyday errands…the nuance added to these experiences by the family perspective was tremendous.
I fell in love with the day to day. I started recognizing neighbors. I learned shortcuts to the vegetable market. I played on the floor with the baby. I got advice on sausages. I played laser tag, and won! I took part in family parties. My shopping trips were frequent enough that I became familiar with which stores had the best tasting bread or the lowest price for olive oil. Each family member offered a unique perspective on the most appropriate walking route to take to the museum, how I should dress for the weather, where I could find an internet café, which butter would be better for me to try or which roads we could take to get to the seaside.
The home I stayed in was a particularly lively one. A small and modern apartment, its family consisted of momma and papa with four grown daughters. Esi, the eldest of the sisters, was visiting from abroad with her teenage son Amir. Suela, the next in line, owns and runs her own travel agency and was in the midst of ‘high season’ during my visit. Laura’s little girl Gracie delighted us all with her playful spirit and pixie-like mannerisms. Eva, the youngest sister, was newly engaged and in process of setting up her future home. Papa is a retired civil servant and educator with stories that span the decades from WW2 thru to the post-communist upheavals. Momma kept us fortified with a steady stream of victuals, whether we were hungry or not. Oh, and when not coating us all with his blond hair, Rigo the family dog kept our fingers clean and our eyes on the door.
Conversations were always spirited. Road trips were packed with excitement and humor. Even the ‘down times’ were full of bonding moments. Evenings brought everyone back to the house and conversations swirled as chores were completed, plans were made for tomorrow, opinions were offered on events of the day and we all jostled for the chair that sat opposite the air conditioner...when it worked, that is.
The final week of my stay, during the last installment of the Turkish tv drama, pretty much each of the household’s members took turns trying to fill me in on the story line, cramming in as many last-minute details as possible, making connections between the plot and local history, arguing about character motives while feeding scraps to Rigo and trying to keep Gracie away from the newly folded piles of laundry. Between the multiple layers of activities and conversations I started to feel homesick. I was only days away from being back in my own bed and surrounded by own family, but it wasn’t my home I was feeling a pull towards. I was already beginning to miss the sense of family and familiarity that I had been a growing part of during my Albanian journey.
Arranging a home-stay requires extra legwork during the trip planning process, and seeking out a suitable family is not the same as selecting a perfectly located hotel. Different characters and dynamics provide unique flavor to each experience. Yet, this is a major part of the beauty you get to experience when making the effort. Cookie cutter vacations are not possible when immersing yourself in a household. You cannot escape a personal connection with the community you are exploring. The resulting ache in your heart as you ride to the airport for your departure is one that you will not regret. It will inspire your future travels and will feed your soul as you relish in the kinship developed with people and places.