First (and last) impressions of a French host mother

J Severson

“Justin, tu vas aller avec Madame Naudeau.” There, in front of me, stood a woman no taller than my shoulders, probably in her 70s, salt-and-pepper hair, olive rectangle-frame glasses. I was confronted with what was now my reality for four months, and I thought, what did I get myself into?!
When I originally received my host family assignment, maybe three weeks prior, it merely stated, “Family Naudeau: widow with no children.” My heart sank.
I had already been in contact with a few of the other students from around the U.S. who would be attending the IES Nantes, France, program with me. They were all excited while describing their host family assignments. Most families included sons or daughters around our age and middle-aged parents.
Living with a family with sons or daughters our age would be a great way to have casual interaction and to meet other people. It would also be good to have someone who could give a tour of the city, the sixth largest in France, highlighting things that would be of interest to our age group. What was I going to have in common with an old woman?
I decided then that I needed to keep an open mind no matter what. I had worked so hard for this amazing opportunity, and I wasn’t going to let myself contaminate it with negative thinking, especially before I even got there.
Easier said than done. Now that I was confronted with the situation, I didn’t have much time to dwell on it. Mme Naudeau scurried out the door, expecting me to follow. I said goodbye to Mme Rouchet, the IES Nantes program associate director who had just introduced us, and hurried after my new host (grand)mother.
As I caught up to her on the four flights of spiral stone stairs that lead down from the IES Center to the street level, I realized that she had been rapidly speaking French to me the whole time, not noticing that I wasn’t there. Do I interrupt? Wait, how do I interrupt? How do I tell her I hadn’t been following her? What verb would that be? Would I use the past tense or the imperfect? Oh God, she’s still talking! I need to pay attention!
I gathered my two upright suitcases at the bottom of the stairs and followed her out of the building. We stopped in front of what I thought to be just a mere suggestion of a car. It was a tiny white Renault, which was probably older than me. I thought there was no way it was going to fit my two suitcases, her, and me.
Once wedged in, she revved the engine, much to my horror, and asked, “Es-tu prˆt?” I just smiled and nodded; the first of many times over the next month or so that I would pretend to understand what she was asking me.
She zoomed out of the parking space and whirled around the corner into traffic. I had never been more terrified riding in a car. She weaved in and out of traffic and sped around the foreign circular intersections, me clutching my laptop bag for dear life.
We made it to her five-story apartment building and took a tiny elevator to my new home on the top floor and shared the first of many delicious home-cooked meals. I quickly learned that Mme Naudeau was an excellent cook, for which I was very grateful.
I soon learned many things to be grateful for about Mme Naudeau. For instance, she is a pro at hosting foreign students – she had hosted over thirty before me. She knew that not letting me consult the dictionary would force me to use circumlocution for unknown vocabulary. She knew that the best cure for a case of homesickness is a bowl of ice cream; that it was good to know where I would be going for the evening but always emphasized I could stay out as late as I wanted; that I could call her if I needed help, no matter what time of night.
Mme Naudeau taught me so much for the four great months I lived with her, especially the valuable concept that was difficult to embrace even though I had vowed to follow it: Keep an open mind.