I used to have this fairy tale image of Europe in my head. Everyone is wealthy and fashion forward and they welcome bright-eyed American youths into their homes and hearts with generous abandon. Fortunately, my first time staying with a host family pretty much dispelled this fantasy.
I was staying in Puglia, Italy while taking classes at the local university. I felt like I’d won the host family lottery! Francesca and Quintino lived in a penthouse apartment with marble flooring throughout, a wrap around balcony overflowing with well-tended potted plants, thick Persian rugs in every room, and a wrought iron spiral staircase leading up to the master suite – which I can only assume was equally lavish as I never saw it. Oh, and I almost forgot to mention: an honest-to-God live-in maid.
Leave It for the Maid
Now, I know that there are families in America that have maids and nannies and other household staff. I’m not from one of those families. So for me, this was a unique and often unsettling experience. Marianella, the maid, did pretty much everything in the house and it was constantly catching me off guard. Before class, I would leave my bed unmade and my nightclothes on the floor before rushing out the door. That afternoon, I’d find that the room spotless. Marianella had made the bed, folded my dirty laundry, and probably vacuumed or dusted for all I know. She also washed all of my laundry (and subsequently hung it out to dry on the balcony for all the world to see my knickers), prepared my lunches, and cooked dinner for the whole family.
Dinner at Downton
My first night in Lecce, I was exhausted and went straight to bed. But the second night, well, that was a different story entirely. We were seated in the family dining room which, unlike the formal dining room, felt cozy and normal. Casual, even. Apparently for Dr. Quintino and his family, a casual meal is a four course affair eaten on hand-painted ceramic. That probably isn’t too out of the ordinary for an Italian family. The formal lay out of a soup bowl and two plates, three different forks, two knives, a dessert spoon and a soup spoon, as well as two glasses… Well, all of that might be a little more than normal.
None of that prepared me for the Downton Abbey-esque dining experience that ensued. Marianella brought in platter after platter of delicious food, course by course, bringing each platter around the table so that we, the petite bourgeoisie, could serve ourselves. I later found out she was eating alone in the kitchen. We finished it all off with a dessert of fresh fruit, eaten with a fork and knife (which was very difficult and confusing for me). All we were missing was a tiny bell to ring between courses to remind the staff downstairs they were keeping us waiting.
How the Other Half Lives
It only took one lunch with my friend Abby’s host family to realize that this is not the norm in Italy. Antoinetta and Osvaldo didn’t own any Persian rugs and instead of marble flooring, they had two fat and sassy cats that left their hair all over. But their tiny apartment felt more like a home than Francesca and Quintino’s cold, marble clad penthouse. Antoinetta’s small, brightly tiled kitchen didn’t have a maid. Instead, Abby and I were given various tasks to do and together we prepared a simple but delicious lunch that I honestly still daydream about: a huge bowl of pasta with a side salad of arugula, fennel, and green olives.
In the end, though, it really had nothing to do with the maid or the big house. More and more I struggled with the feeling that my host family didn’t really want to get to know me. I was a guest in their house, I wasn’t a guest in their home. Four weeks later when we all left Lecce, it was Antoinetta who wrapped me in a bear hug. Francesca and Quintino were not there for the tearful goodbyes, or actually any goodbyes. The maid dropped me off at the train station.
A Host Family that Feels like Family
Of course, I’m grateful for the lovely home that I stayed in. I mean, my bedroom had a balcony with a view; that’s hard to beat! But I’m still slightly wistful for the experience that my friends had. Most of my friends stayed in touch with their host families but I didn’t get that cozy feeling of belongingness. If I were to do it again, I would trade the marble floors, fancy plateware, and the Dowager Countess for a warm, friendly family that makes me feel like one of their own.