1. Eat what’s put on your plate
It’s funny how much of a difference it makes when my real mom said this to me and my host mom didn’t.
Growing up, I was a picky eater. No fish, not a lot of green vegetables, no steak. There was always extra fat on my pork. If there was that vegetable pasta with green, red, and white pasta, I’d never eat the colored ones—or, at least until my parents tied a handkerchief around my eyes and gave me a taste test where I guessed wrong every time.
I’ll admit, that when I grew up and actually tried the foods I didn’t like the look or smell of when I was a kid (and even some of the foods I didn’t like the taste of also), I saw—and tasted—what a brat I had been. I love fish now, eat a little bit more green vegetables, and I still don’t eat steak but I’ve found that hasn’t really been an issue for me as a college student.
To my parents’ chagrin, this light bulb moment happened right around the time I moved six hours away. So all of those years of working around my eating habits (or not and then having to deal with me complaining during dinner) were wasted … like the food I would refuse to eat off of my plate. Sorry guys, my bad.
I think it was one-half maturation and one-half of a newfound “I’m in a new place, I should try this” mentality that I adopted during the drive down to Philadelphia. And I packed up that belief system and took it with me to Paris, and more specifically my host family’s house in Paris.
The first dinner with my host family was an easy one: roast chicken, potatoes, shredded carrots, lettuce, cheese and bread, ice cream. Later I’d have to peel the heads off of shrimp and eat this weird dish of sautéed onions in a cream sauce and finish the last piece of steak that my host mom couldn’t eat but didn’t want to save or throw out.
When the British couch-surfers made breakfast one day and plunked a plate of beans, mushrooms in a butter sauce, sausage, and a blanched tomato FOR BREAKFAST, I ate it all and didn’t once think about pancakes or eggs or, you know, normal breakfast foods.
I’m not being forced to eat all this. If anything, I feel guilty about not eating something, even if there are people at the table who don’t take a scoop of something. And from what I’ve heard from other kids in my program, this is kind of a universal truth when it comes to living with a host family.
2. Don’t be afraid to look like an idiot
Definitely the weirdest example of this was when my host mom brought whole shrimp home and taught me how to peel a shrimp and take it’s head off. I never really ate shrimp when I grew up and then once I started eating it in college, I never actually prepared it. So I wasn’t really ready for the sight of the shrimp with their little beady eyes and everything staring up at me from underneath the plastic packaging they came in. I have to admit, she helped me take off the heads of the first couple shrimps, and it wasn’t until after we finished the preparation that I figured out the French translation of “Off with their heads!”, but we had a couple laughs at my expense and it was a good meal.
Another was when I had Chinese food with my host family. It wasn’t takeout Chinese food, and I’m pretty sure it was one of those premade things you can get in grocery stores and heat up when you get home. But it was still a shock because it was fried and not good for you and I couldn’t believe my health-conscious host parents were serving this.
And then I got another big surprise when, in addition to the fried circles, cylinders, and triangles of unidentifiable meat, my host mom also placed a bowl of fresh mint leaves and a bowl of romaine lettuce leaves on the table. And then there was a little dish of oil—maybe sesame seed oil?—on my plate as well.
As always, they insisted that I serve myself first. So I took my fried ball, cylinder, and triangle and put it on my plate while I stealthily snuck peeks at my host dad, who had literally taken a branch of mint leaves and put it on his plate, and my host mom, who grabbed a couple leaves of lettuce with her hands. Hmmmm….
I copycatted obviously, and I thought I’d be able to do the same and take my cues from them on how to eat this meal. And I watched as my host mom took off a couple mint leaves, laid them on one lettuce leave, and then put a fried cylinder thing on the lettuce and rolled it up in a big weird actual-food rollup and dipped it in the oil. I tried to do the same, but my awkwardness and hesitation must have shown because my host mom asked, “Do you do it like this in the States?”
Um, no. Not ever.
But I have to say, it was actually pretty good. The mint somehow drew out the flavor from the fried stuff (is it obvious I’ve been lazy and started watching The Food Network on Hulu and Netflix—like come on, who DOES that?) and well, any meal where I can make myself feel good about eating lettuce is a good meal, even though it was the equivalent of eating lettuce on a burger or something.
Plus, I’ve found that if I have no idea how to eat something, it gets the conversation going. And most of the time I’m more scared of having enough to say/knowing enough to say at the dinner table that being weirded out by the food kind of takes second place.
3. Do not give edible gifts
So one of the many emails you can expect from your study abroad program is about how to act with your host family, and this includes bringing a gift that represents your hometown.
My hometown has more pizza parlors than any other type of restaurant in the tiny town. There is no local standout meal that screams, “MEDFIELD, MASSACHUSETTS!” and just because I hate my hometown like the superstitious but jaded cliché that I am, I wouldn’t want to bring that with me to my new French life. So I was in a pickle. You could even say I was in quite the jam.
My friend Lily, who comes from the Hanover, Pennsylvania that makes Hanover Pretzels, did not struggle like I did. I don’t remember if she brought pretzels over, but I know for sure she brought Old Bay seasoning. It’s a Baltimore-area spice used for crabcakes and French fries like Chickie & Pete’s (a Philly thing). Cheap, non-perishable, and unique. Lucky girl.
I finally ended up picking salt-water taffy. It’s definitely not a Medfield-thing, and it’s not even a Massachusetts-thing even though I bought the candy during a weekend trip to Cape Cod (FYI, it took me a while to figure out how to say where I was without saying Down The Cape, which is totally a Massachusetts thing). But—fun fact!—salt water taffy is only made on the Atlantic seaboard and I knew there wasn’t even a French word for it because salt water taffy does not exist in France, so I thought I all clear. I even bought the sampler box that I used to beg my dad to buy at the big sweets shop in Falmouth, Ben and Bill’s Chocolate Emporium.
And it was this same sampler box, now slightly-dented after being transported in a backpack from Falmouth, Massachusetts to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and then to Paris, France, that I proudly presented to my host family after the dinner we ate on the first night.
“This is only found on the East Coast and there isn’t a word for it, so I guess it’s just les bonbons,” I said. “In English, this is ‘salt-water taffy.’”
“Oh, that’s nice,” my host mom said.
She smiled at me and gingerly picked a candy from the box. It was a mint one.
She had no way of knowing by the black and white striped wax paper packaging, but at the time I felt bad that her first sampling of salt-water taffy was with such a yucky flavor. Now I feel the opposite. It was the least candy-tasting of all of the flavors she could have gone with. I shudder to think of what would have happened if she picked blue raspberry.
Turns out my host family limits their processed sugar intake, which means sugar-free, fat-free vanilla yogurt for dessert. The only time they had non-yougurt dessert was the first dinner with me when we ate chocolate ice cream popsicles, so I’m thinking that’s because it was somewhat of a special occasion. But God bless them, they at least kept the box out on the kitchen counter for a week before throwing out the candy. I never saw anyone eat the candy, but I also never saw anyone tossing the box in the garbage.
And Lily? Her mom asked if she could put the Old Bay seasoning on salads. From what I can tell, she hasn’t tried it on a salad or anything else in the three months Lily’s lived with her. So I guess that doesn’t make Lily a lucky girl after all.
Bottom line: don’t chance buying food for your host family because if they don’t like it or they don’t get it, you have to live with it for the rest of the semester whether they toss it or not.
4. Keep food in your room (seriously)
To be honest, this started because there aren’t shelves of food in the kitchen and my host family is super organic and health-conscious so of course there isn’t going to be a place to put my cookies.
But I kept it going when I realized that my host family liked entertaining and there would be times where I’d come home from school or get out of the shower only to hear extra voices upstairs. And of course, no matter whether I was really dressed or not, I wouldn’t want to go upstairs and be like “Hey guys,” while they were eating or drinking or talking. I’m not going to make my dinner and then sit on the couch while everyone else is eating at the dinner table or—even worse—make my dinner and then sit down at the dinner table with everyone.
So now I usually make sure I have a box of cereal or some nonperishable fruit or something in my room just in case. And then sometimes, yeah, I’ll keep Pringles or chocolate bars in my room for the cravings I could get while I sit in my makeshift bomb shelter for hours. I hide it all in my suitcase so the parents can’t see it when they go into their bedroom across the hall and the maid can’t find it when she cleans my room.
And who am I kidding, I partly keep the food in my room for the days where I’m too lazy to go upstairs or I’m too antisocial and don’t want to get out of bed and leave one of the only places I feel like I can have to myself and be myself in this foreign country.
I felt really guilty about this hoarding. I still do. I wasn’t even sure if I was going to write about this. It’s like keeping the food you eat for a midnight craving two feet from your bed so you don’t have to walk all the way to the kitchen during your craving.
But from what I’ve heard, this is pretty common with people in my program. I remember it was the second week of my homestay and I was confessing that I kept food in my room like I was talking to a priest and my friend Olu was like, “Yeah, I totally have a croissant drawer.”
So there you go. Make sure you have a cereal/chocolate/Pringles part of your suitcase or a croissant drawer when you stay with a host family, I guess.
5. Saran-wrap your thoughts about food preservation
Remember that show Cribs on MTV when a celebrity would walk a camera crew through his/her mansion? My favorite part was when he/she would open the fridge and I got a little peek into his or her life. Don’t worry, this feeling of awe and curiosity translates to regular people too. The first night, I couldn’t wait to see what the fridge looked like in my new house (sad but true).
But I was kind of overwhelmed when my host mom opened the fridge and told me I got a shelf and a drawer. SCORE! That’s a lot more than what some of my friends got.
Once I saw that there were three different types of butter in the fridge, I knew that this magical box of coldness would provide endless wonder for me during the semester. And it did.
The biggest thing for me is that my host family never saran-wraps anything. They don’t put leftovers in Tupperware containers either. If there’s leftover pasta, the bowl it was served in is plopped onto a shelf and there’s nothing covering the noodles from the cold air. Same goes for meats, cheeses, vegetables, puddings, everything.
I was really unprepared for that, and I think that’s why I’m so floored by this revelation. I was used to the saran-wrap/aluminum foil/freezer paper way of covering up the leftover food that you put in plastic containers, so it never even occurred to me that someone could choose not to do that.
I can get the no-Tupperware, since it could be a waste of a clean container or something. But I’m sorry, I just can’t get over the no-saran-wrap. Sometimes the meat or vegetables start stinking up the fridge and there’s nothing I can do about it!
I haven’t even found saran-wrap in the kitchen. Believe me, I’ve searched high and low for it. I know it exists in France, because I specifically went and looked for it at the grocery store the day after I found stinky blue cheese on a plate in the fridge.
I just don’t know why my host family doesn’t have it and/or doesn’t use it. And you know, I had to adapt and not use saran-wrap either when I put away a half-eaten bowl of salad or soup or whatever. I dealt with it but I still felt weird putting the bowl away and then being reminded of it every time I went to the fridge until it was time to finish whatever I had started.
Maybe I’ll buy it for them as a Christmas/going-away present. NOT.