I was always “too” nervous to live with a host family. I’ve lived abroad many times before, and the opportunity certainly arose on more than one occasion. However, it always felt a bit scary. Stepping into someone else’s home, with their own customs, traditions, and daily life felt so intimidating. As a vegetarian, I also worried that I would never be able to have a “true” host family experience because so many of the places I love visiting and studying have a cuisine that is very much based on meat! However, I have been so amazed by my experience so far, and I’m kicking myself that I waited 27 years to have this wonderful opportunity.
I’ll admit, the first day when I arrived in Serbia was intense. After a whirlwind 36 hours in Washington, DC, at orientation, I boarded my flight for Belgrade (via Zurich). Twenty-four hours later when I landed, after sleeping a total of 45 minutes during my travels, I admittedly felt out of sorts, to say the least. After being picked up by the local American Councils staff (which was amazing after years of navigating my way in every new city and country by myself!), the local staff member Sanja told me my host mom had “a lot planned for the day.” Cue panic. I also had to speak Serbian after a month break from the time my class ended for the academic year and my arrival in Serbia. When I arrived at my host family’s apartment, I was so nervous. But my exhaustion was probably stronger than any anxiety I had, and luckily my host mom sensed that and said (in Serbian! Go me for understanding!) “you look tired. Do you have a plan for today? You should rest.” I closed the door to my room and absolutely freaked out. It’s funny what no sleep does to your brain. I texted my friends and my mother and thought “WHAT DID I DO WHY DO I DO THIS I WANT TO GO HOME BUT I LOVE BEING IN THE BALKANS SO I THINK IT WILL ALL WORK OUT I JUST NEED SLEEP AND ONCE I GET THAT THINGS WILL FEEL BETTER.” I think that was how my brain was working at that moment.
My host mom took me for a walk and then I settled into bed and I was right, I did feel better the next day. I did not wonder why I made the decision to be here—I was too busy heading to the market with my host mom, practicing my Serbian with her, going on a walking tour of the city, and getting to explore a place I visited for just 2 days six years earlier but now get to call home for 2 months!
My host family has been a highlight of the 3+ weeks I’ve been here. I have friends who are studying the language here as well, but through other programs, and I can see how much my Serbian is progressing just with the opportunity to always speak with my host mom. Breakfast isn’t just breakfast—it’s a practice session for all the food vocabulary. Lunch at a restaurant isn’t just a meal—it’s a 3 hour class where your host parents are eager to help you speak and practice words until you get it Just Right. My host mom is amazing—she is kind, warm, open-minded, and so very dedicated to making my experience here wonderful. In language class I call here “moja Srpska Majka” = my Serbian mother. She has truly become my Serbian mom, and I am lucky enough that after the program ends, when my Američka Majka (American Mom) comes, she and I will stay with my host family and she will get to see a piece of the life I’ve been living this summer.
By: Katy Swartz
Program: Balkan Language Initiative
Term: Summer 2019