7 things I’ve learnt from homestays and language exchanges

It’s easy to stay at a hotel when you travel.

But it’s way more interesting to stay in a homestay, get to know some local people and even get them to help you learn their language.

7 lessons from homestays around the world

Over the years I’ve had a bunch of homestay experiences, mostly in Russia and Germany, and hosted some students here in Perth too. I can unequivocally say they were all really interesting experiences and way better than just being a typical tourist. And here’s just a sample of some of the things these homestays and language exchanges taught me.

1. Speaking a language is really hard (but fun!)

The first time I was in a homestay situation, I was 14 years old and in a small town named Waldbröl in what was then still West Germany. I had been learning German for quite a few years at school but I still had only a pretty rudimentary knowledge of it and goodness me: it really was SO hard to speak it. I still remember that first meal with my host family, I felt utterly unable to say anything and wondered what I was going to do for the next month in Germany.

Decades later, I’m reasonably fluent in German, but I will never forget learning that lesson and I definitely took it with me when I was teaching English, giving me plenty of reason to empathise with my students.

2. You get proper local food at a homestay

No situation reminds me better of this “real food” situation than the few days my mum and I spent living with a lovely lady named Valentina in St Petersburg, Russia. She was the master of serving up proper Russian food for each meal we spent with her and not even giving us the same thing twice.

Breakfast at Homestay in Moscow Russia

My mum about to sit down to breakfast at our homestay in Moscow

3. Hearing really amazing stories is common

Not just hearing but living through them, in some cases. I was extraordinarily lucky to be staying in Berlin with a host family in the first week of October 1990 – a family who took me to the Brandenburg Gate at midnight on the 2nd October, to celebrate with other Berliners when East and West Germany were finally reunited. In this family, my host father was from the west and my host mother from the east, so it was an especially significant moment for them. For me, it was life changing to be present at such a historical moment, something I will certainly never forget.

German reunification 1990 at Brandenburg Gate in Berlin

I got to witness German reunification at Brandenburg Gate in Berlin while staying in a homestay in 1990 …

4. You learn more about cultural differences

By being allowed into someone’s home, you learn things about a culture that you just wouldn’t learn by staying in a hotel or by going on a tour or any other usual tourist activity.

In Vladivostok, my very first homestay experience in Russia, I recognised a simple but very significant difference when we first stepped in. We were lucky (or sensible!) enough to visit Vladivostok in summer, but in the entrance hallway to the apartment we stayed in, there was a series of racks of the most enormously thick fur coats I had ever seen, thicker and warmer than I would ever have imagined existed. Our host explained that there were times in winter when the temperatures often fell to minus 20 C (-4F) and that the pipes would freeze and electricity would fail with regularity. Put it this way: I don’t intend to visit Vladivostok in winter, ever!

5. Loving animals is a universal touchpoint

On my first trip to Russia – without my Russian-speaking mother – I had learnt a few phrases and figured out the Cyrillic alphabet but I was really not very capable. I stayed in some homestays where the hosts didn’t speak much English, and I remember being at a place in Listvyanka, near Lake Baikal, with a host whose English was about as minimal as my Russian. But they had a cat, a gorgeous kitten in fact, and we bonded over laughing at this cat’s antics.

Cat outside our Listvyanka homestay in Russia

The cat outside our Listvyanka homestay in Russia, near Lake Baikal

In Berlin as a teenager, I shared my bedroom with Felix the cat – and he made me feel right at home, since I was missing my own cat back home.

6. Homestay hosts give you great tips

Getting tips from the locals is something I always recommend when you travel, but if you are actually staying with the locals and they get to know you better, then their tips are even more appropriate.

Laima Bistro off Nevsky Prospekt in St Petersburg Russia

Lunchtime at the Laima Bistro in St Petersburg – a great tip from our homestay host

Valentina, our lovely host in St Petersburg when I visited with my mother, had lots of great information for us, but the one we never forget is her recommendation to eat lunch at the Laima Bistro just off Nevsky Prospekt. So delicious, and with the most amazing garlic rye bread we have ever tasted, and we not only ate there for lunch most of our days in St Petersburg but also took takeaway bread home to make the joy last longer. Thank you Valentina!

7. You can make lifetime connections

As one example: thanks to the wonders of modern social media, I’m still connected to my host sister from my homestay stint in Berlin back in 1990. She came out to stay with my family in Perth the following year, and we stayed in touch for quite some time before we both moved around and lost track of each other, but now we follow each other’s lives on Facebook and it’s great to have that connection.

Using Lingoo to organise your homestay or exchange

Recently the good people at Lingoo got in touch with me to let me know about the various homestays and exchanges their site offers, and after looking at what they offer and reading up on the experiences of people who’ve used them, I definitely wanted to share their site. Through their site, you can book various kinds of exchanges and homestays, both for adults and children or even whole families, and they even have homestays where you can stay with someone qualified to teach you their language. (I know my mum reads this so here’s a message for her: you should look at the German ones and go spend a few weeks immersed in German there!) A lot of their exchanges are across Europe with some further afield.

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