This week’s post comes from our ACCENT Madrid Study Center, where our staff conducted an interview with University of California student Evan Hertenstein. Evan, who is participating in UCEAP’s Contemporary Spain Program, chose to stay with a local host family in Madrid, hoping to gain a deeper appreciation of his own family’s cultural heritage. Continue reading
Upon returning from an overseas adventure, the question often comes up in conversation, “Would you do it all over again?” The question is usually answered with a resounding “YES!” The ACCENT San Francisco Center unanimously agrees that, given the chance to repeat our study abroad programs, we’d do it all again in a heartbeat. In this week’s blog post, each member of the team confesses what they’d do differently, or do again, if presented with the chance to return to the city where they studied abroad.
Ashley P. Spinelli, Program Development Manager, writes:
If I were back on my study abroad program right now, I would first eat an enormous bowl of tagliatelle al ragu from my favorite student restaurant in Bologna, Osteria dell’Orsa. After satisfying that craving, I would summon the courage to seek out more creative extracurriculars such as art, music, dance, or yoga early on in my study abroad experience.
I studied abroad on a full-immersion program in Bologna, Italy for an academic year, and although I had the academic preparation necessary for my coursework, I longed for an Italian-speaking community outside of the classroom that was not centered around my Italian roommates or American/Erasmus friends. It took me nearly a full year to work up the courage to seek out creative extracurriculars in Italian that my peers weren’t participating in.
I found I particularly missed the dance classes I had enjoyed as a student at the University of Minnesota. I spent months researching options and agonizing over whether I could think fast enough in Italian (I could), or if I would embarrass myself when I did not understand movement metaphors in another language (I would, but I’d also learn some tremendous vocabulary in the process) before I finally worked up the courage to sign up for a West African dance class. Inevitably, as the only non-native Italian speaker, I was not the star of the class. However, as a non-verbal form of communication, the dance class gave me the freedom to express myself with my Italian-speaking peers more freely. Combined with the opportunity to practice my language skills during class in a low-stress setting, this provided the perfect opportunity to make Italian friends with similar interests, stretch my vocabulary, and learn more about the the West African diaspora in Italy. Unfortunately, it was nearly the end of the program by the time I found this space. Having worked in the field, I’m now able to reflect on this experience and see the personal and academic learning opportunities that I could’ve experienced, had I pursued my interests earlier. At the time, I let my nerves get the best of me for most of the year, despite feeling desperate to expand outside of my community, do something creative, and get some exercise!
Allison Keith, Director of U.S. Operations, says:
What would I want if I was back on my study abroad program? I need think no further. For me, the very best part of my study abroad experience was living with my homestay family in Tours, France. I have always adored children, and being able to live with a single mother and her two young girls was absolutely wonderful. I have to give credit to Melanie and Sylvie, as they were really the best teachers of French! The amazing inhibitions of the young, who will tell you exactly what you are saying wrong and then easily tell you how to say it correctly! Granted, it was French at a certain level, but it allowed me to build a foundation and also confidence in speaking. I adored my six months living with the Bertrand family and would not want to change that for the world!
Chelsey Little, Contract Manager/Social Media Manager, writes:
If I were lucky enough to be back on my study abroad program in Florence with Stanford University right now, I would: 1) Avoid that walkway/bridge that just collapsed due to a sink hole because it’s right by where the Stanford center in Florence is now, and is the same route I took every day to get to school from the Santa Croce neighborhood—yikes! 2) Enjoy un caffé and the scene at Le Murate / Café Letteraio, a place I did not know about when I was abroad, but would have loved to frequent. 3) Learn how to cook from my Italian host mom. This never came up as an opportunity for me when I was abroad, probably because I never thought to ask, but as an adult, I love to make all sorts of Italian dishes (linguini, paperdelle, tagliatelle, gnocchi, pizza, risotto, tutti fatto a mano!) and it would have been amazing to have picked up a few pointers from a pro. 4) Plan a trip to a nearby hot springs. I’ve only recently (in the past few years) developed a fondness for hot springs, and I might not have been quite brave enough to venture out to one when I was in college, but at this point in my life, I’ve got the bug and I want to bask in any sulfuric body of water I can find. Sounds to me like I need to make a trip back to Italy ASAP!
Tanyshia Stevens, Programs Assistant, says:
If I were back in Paris, the very first thing I would do is hunt down a döner kebab! It’s been four years since I studied abroad and I still crave them, almost daily. It’s the perfect meal—delicious slow roasted meat sandwiched between perfectly toasted bread, with a large helping of frites (or french fries, as we call them). For less than €5, it’s the perfect grab-and-go meal.
I would then take a walk through Paris and find a nice park or bench so I could sit and enjoy the sun. During my time abroad, I was always very hesitant to get out and explore by myself. Now that I have some experience traveling, if I could go back to Paris now, I’d do a lot more exploring alone.
Anna Tapfer, Programs Coordinator, says:
If I was back on my study abroad program, I’d be spending more time out and about in Munich, taking the train to surrounding Bavarian towns (eating tons of pretzels and döner kebab along the way), and taking advantage of low-cost flights to see other countries. I did a good amount of traveling during a generous two-and-a-half-month semester break, but would try to spend more time going to countries and cities I had never been to before, even cities within Germany.
Sara Assadi-Nik, Assistant Programs Coordinator, writes:
If I was back in Paris on my study abroad program, I would make more of an effort to travel outside of the city. I was so enamored with Paris itself that I only took a few short trips outside of the city. Certainly exotic locations like Morocco, Croatia, and Hungary beckon. Knowing now that the opportunities to travel to these locations only become more troublesome in post-collegiate life, I would have taken advantage of the fact that I was in close proximity to such fascinating parts of the world.
Additionally, I would make an effort to spend more time in the city’s older neighborhoods, particularly in the little-known corners of the city. Between our campus in the 16th arrondisement, my apartment in the 19th, and a close friend’s apartment in the 4th, neighborhood haunts were quickly established, favorite locales visited time and time again, and aside from a rainy adventure to the Belleville neighborhood to eat my first bowl of authentic Vietnamese Pho, I can’t remember many times I ventured into arrondisements like the 10th, 12th, 13th, and 20th. Certainly I missed much of “authentic” Paris and eschewed many stunning locales because of metro rides that were seemingly too long to bear. Of particular interest to me now would be the flea markets like Marché aux Puces de Paris/St.-Ouen and Puces de Vanves, located in neighborhoods further afield than I would have ventured at the time.
Jani McEuen, Programs Coordinator, says:
If I was back on my study abroad program, I would make more of an effort to interact with local Londoners. Almost everything I did while in London was with my fellow University of California students, or entirely on my own, and I feel that I really missed out on something valuable by not making connections with any locals. I made friends on my study abroad program…with other Californians. I experienced London culture…as a solo foreign observer. It’s not always an easy task for an introverted gal to strike up random conversations with strangers, but if I was back there now, I would try harder. And I encourage every student who is currently studying abroad to strike up those conversations; ask someone in that restaurant what they ordered, ask someone in that pub which football team they’re cheering for, ask someone in that museum what they think of that painting, ask someone in that park what they love about the city in which they live. It’s thrilling to experience a new place and to see it through your own eyes, but one of the greatest gifts that study abroad can give is the ability to see the world through someone else’s.
Megan Neureuter, Associate Director of U.S. Operations, writes:
If I was back on my study abroad program, I’d like to say that I wouldn’t do anything more or less than I did before. This is the case, for the most part, until I get to language. What I’d do differently today is choose to be daring—I would use the language I was learning and try it out everywhere I went. It’s my nature to be cautious and to avoid putting myself out there more than necessary, but I realize as I have become older that there can be downsides to that; at times, breaking out of our nature is more rewarding than any other accomplishment. Today, I would walk into the Parisian stores and stumble with my rudimentary French, but use it anyway. I would try to have actual conversations with my host family, rather than simple hellos and goodbyes. I would make mistakes and probably laugh a lot—it would be hard but it would be worth it and my confidence would skyrocket—and that’s what learning a language (and even a new culture) is all about. It’s about immersing yourself and learning that, although the world is big and scary, making that small attempt at being a part of something different can be so satisfying. In the end though, my Parisian experience was extraordinary and honestly, I wouldn’t change a thing. Hindsight is easy and today I can see that I’m different now from who I was then; maybe I’ve become more daring or maybe I’m just able to identify my idiosyncrasies better—I’m not sure. But I do know, without a doubt, that if I was there today, I’d walk into a bakery and say, “Une baguette demi s’il vous plaît!” and savor it, relishing the fact that I’m in a city as special and wondrous as Paris.
Jessica Knittle, Contract and Administrative Assistant, writes:
Although I eagerly anticipate someday returning to the cobblestone streets of Galway’s bustling Eyre Square—to walk through the campus, past Irish storefronts, over the River Corrib, and around the beautiful green cathedral—given the chance to repeat my study abroad program, I’d first stop at the megalithic Lough Crew passage tombs. Only now do I understand what an amazing opportunity I’d been given, to have a glimpse of Ireland’s extensive history during my study abroad trip.
Many of the excursions we went on required short hikes, often ascending upward, to arrive at our destinations. The reward was always worth the effort. At the summit of the passage tombs, the giant mound of grass and small boulders provides a breathtaking view of County Meath—a fantastic spectacle of green, interrupted only by grazing sheep and miles of short stone fences. Sporadic boulders dot the clover-covered hill in random areas, marking ancient grave-sites. If I were back in Ireland, I would tattoo more scenes like this onto my memory. The Irish landscape is unlike anything else; the shades of green brighter and more awe-inspiring than any photograph.
During the autumn and spring equinoxes, light shines into the passage of the Lough Crew tomb, illuminating Neolithic symbols on the stone walls inside. Perhaps what inspires me to return is a longing to better understand the people who carved them. Did these people lay in the blanket of clovers as I did, appreciating the rare sight of a blue sky above them? What did they believe of these equinoxes, deemed significant by their alignment with the tomb’s entryway? If I had the chance to return to Ireland, I’d listen better; I’d look for more answers. After 5,000 years, the meaning of the symbols carved into the stone is still unclear…the history in the hills beckons me back.~ACCENT San Franscisco
This is the third and final post in a three-part series in which ACCENT Paris Programs Assistant Scott Rothwell interviews current students studying abroad in Paris regarding their thoughts and feelings about Parisian cuisine. Click back through our archives for “Food For Thought – Part 1 ” and “Food for Thought – Part 2.”
My final attempt to delve into the American psyche for their thoughts on food in Paris led me to interview San Diego State University student Taylor Zerby.
SCOTT: Before coming to France was the culture around food in the country a reason why you chose to come here, out of all places?
TAYLOR: I did inform myself a lot before coming about what the traditions were around food here. I wanted to have some sort of expectations when coming here, so I did expect the stereotypes, like bred and cheese, but did not expect there to be such a passion and importance around actual cooking. Especially being in a homestay, it’s pretty evident how important it is within the culture.
SCOTT: Does your typical dinner in your homestay differ from the traditions you have back home?
TAYLOR: Yes, absolutely. We tend to keep family dinners for special occasions, like Thanksgiving, or when we go to a restaurant, for example. However here at my homestay, even if I am making my own food, I almost find it necessary to sit at the dinner table with the host family!
SCOTT: Was it a bit nerve-racking to sit down at the first dinner?
TAYLOR: Yes, I was so nervous before the first dinner, but it all went so well! The food was really good which made it an experience, but the family really motivated the conversation and asked questions, which helped me feel at ease, so we had loads to talk about! I had also helped her pick out the ingredients for the dinner earlier so that might have helped break the ice, in a way.
SCOTT: Do you think that when you leave Paris, you will consider the food here to be a part of the experience you will take back home with you?
TAYLOR: Yes for sure! An example can be the Steak Tartare, which doesn’t tend be very popular back in the U.S. and is almost taboo. You could almost say that the experience here has sort of changed my view on what I eat, like carbohydrates, for example, which I tend to normally stay away from back at home; here it’s hard to keep your hands off the bread!
SCOTT: If you had to give a short description about your initial impression of food here since you have arrived, what would it be?
TAYLOR: Unnerving, yet delicious!
Très Bien! We encourage all of the students studying abroad with our ACCENT partners to explore the local cuisine wherever you go. It is indeed a wonderful way to engage with the culture, wonderful and delicious! Bon appétit!
~Scott Rothwell, ACCENT Paris
This week’s post is a Student Feature from one of our Massachusetts Institute of Technology students, Kira Street. As a vegetarian studying abroad in Madrid, Kira has worked hard to find delicious options that will satisfy both her taste buds and her quest to experience Spanish culture. Read on for her mouth-watering recommendations!
As a human being, I love to eat. My parents often tease my little brother and I because we both remember places we’ve been based on what we’ve eaten. For example, the thing that I remember the most from our weekend trip to Martha’s Vineyard is the amazing Belgian waffles we had at the bed and breakfast hotel. I remember Hawaii by its fish tacos and fresh pineapple juice, and I remember Cambridge, MA by its large amount of amazing Indian restaurants (Indian food is my favorite because of its variety in tastes and vegetarian options).
Spain is no different for me. I’m studying abroad in Madrid for five months, so I definitely want to visit local cafés, fancy restaurants, and typical chains. So far, I’ve visited quite a few different places and have since repeatedly visited my favorites, but I’m looking forward to finding more. Therefore, here follows a list of my favorite restaurants in Madrid (in no particular order), and hopefully I can add to this list soon!
I’m a huge fan of Chipotle, Boloco, and Qdoba (in that order) and as I was settling in to Madrid, I started feeling a bit homesick for a familiar burrito. It’s my first time abroad and it seemed rather daunting to me that I’d be studying abroad in Madrid for five months. It’s my first time truly away from my family for a long period of time, my first time in a vastly unfamiliar location with an unfamiliar language and family, so it’s obvious that I would get homesick pretty quickly. Thankfully, I also got over it pretty quickly, and I like to think that Tierra had a small part to play. I found it via a quick Google search and discovered two branches close to where I live. Tierra is basically exactly like Chipotle, down to the ingredients and the price. So now I know where to go whenever I have a craving for tex-mex, or just a really large burrito.
The first week here, ACCENT and an MIT faculty member had lunch with all of us MIT students studying abroad at El Aliño. We ordered from the Menú del Dia, a meal where you choose your first and second course, dessert, and drink all for a fixed price. We had a great time socializing and getting our first taste of Spanish cuisine. I ordered Patatas Pajas con Huevos Revueltos (essentially really thinly cut fried potatoes with scrambled eggs) for my first plate and Bacalao con Pisto (cod with a very yummy tomato, eggplant, and potato dish) for my second plate, and cheesecake for my dessert. I loved the meal so much that I ordered it again when I took my family there when they visited. I highly recommend this restaurant if you have family coming and want to have a nice long lunch or dinner. It’s reasonably priced with delicious food and a cozy atmosphere.
I’ve only had one thing here, a Nutella crepe, but it was enough for me to love it to pieces. I came here with my family when they visited me and we shared the crepe and each got some tea. Juicy Avenue is a corner cafe of sorts where you sit on mini-couches and sip on smoothies, or eat a waffle or crepe. The atmosphere is perfect for any young adult who wants to hang out for a bit over a smoothie or waffle.
Since I love to read while I eat, I try to find and experience as many cafes as I can. Panaria just so happens to be right across the street from my homestay and it’s a cafe that I frequently go to. I usually order a Vegetal de Atún (essentially a tuna fish sandwich), which comes with potato chips, and sometimes I order dessert. So far I’ve had their Bizcocho (a light sponge cake with a slight lemony flavor), a mini-Napolitana (a small croissant filled with chocolate), and a slice of cheesecake. The cafe is very cozy and home-like, perfect for chatting with friends or relaxing for a bit with a good book.
I’ll finish off the list with a wonderful restaurant whose name is pretty self-explanatory. I went here with a friend who is also vegetarian, since we’re both essentially trying to find places with good vegetarian food, and this one delivered, big time. We started off with salads, hers had guacamole and mine had toasted goat cheese and caramelized onions (we each tried a bite of the other’s), and both were absolutely delicious. I honestly had not realized how much I loved goat cheese until then. My main course was couscous with tomatoes, zucchini, eggplant, and olives; the flavors all meshed beautifully together. It was quite an experience. For dessert, we both had an apricot bizcocho, and just as the waiter said, it was muy rico. The restaurant is in a small space, so we had to wait about 20 minutes to get a seat, but the wait was definitely worth it. They also apparently have a salad bar that you can peruse if you’re ordering from the menu, so perhaps I’ll get that next time.
Of course, I’ve visited so many more restaurants than this, including a vegan restaurant, some other cafes, and cafeterias. For example, Wok to Walk is an amazing stir-fry restaurant in Puerta del Sol where they make your stir-fry fresh and to-order. There’s also a myriad of chocolaterias where you can order churros con chocolate, and I fully recommend going out for some. In my humble opinion, Chocolateria San Gines is one of the best (and oldest) places for churros, and it’s open 24/7/365. I’ve had midnight churros before, and I have no regrets.
There are also several places that I want to visit, hopefully sometime in the near future. These include The Sushi Shop, any kind of falafel place, a few other cafes (like Rodilla), and a handful of creperies. But we’ll see where my taste buds take me next. Until then, ¡ciao!
~Kira Street, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Spring 2015 – ACCENT Madrid
This is the second of a three-part series in which ACCENT Paris Programs Assistant Scott Rothwell interviews current students studying abroad in Paris regarding their thoughts and feelings about Parisian cuisine. To read “Food For Thought – Part 1,” click here.
In my quest to find out more about the American student perspective on Parisian cuisine, I next interviewed American University student, Caroline Sell.
SCOTT: Before arriving in Paris, did you have any expectations regarding the food and the culture surrounding food here?
CAROLINE: I knew that the people cared a lot about food here, whether it was in a restaurant or simply cooking a dish back at home. It is important and part of their daily life and culture. This was definitely confirmed when I got to my homestay and sat down for my first meal.
SCOTT: Having lived in France before and returned to the United States, before your return to the country for your second stay here, was there anything in particular related to food that you were looking forward to rediscovering or reliving?
CAROLINE: I think the most important aspect of it all is the time that is spent at the table; that doesn’t happen as much back home. People back home tend to do so on weekends, or even only on Sundays, when they have their “family meal.” However, here especially, it is almost every night all around the same dinner table. Which is something I really appreciate and enjoy because it gives you the opportunity to sit down all together at least once a day, almost like a typical family would, regardless of it being a homestay. That is really how I think the experience differs from back home.
SCOTT: Would you consider the food that is served on your plate here drastically different from back home?
CAROLINE: Absolutely, especially being a student, there is a huge difference! It is so much better here; people here tend to take time to cook and think about what goes into the meal, in comparison to throwing something in the oven or microwave as a student typically would!
SCOTT: Is there a particular dish or type of food that you personally have to have during your stay here in Paris?
CAROLINE: Yes, definitely the pastries, I’m such a desert person! Everything from croissants to the Pain au Chocolat was a must for me as it is what I see as being typically French. I have been to the boulangerie about four times in the past three days in my search for my favorite one!
SCOTT: Would you consider the food here to be a major part of your experience as a student studying abroad in France?
CAROLINE: I was talking to my parents about it the other day, having been in London prior to my arrival in Paris, how much interest, time, and money I have spent discovering foods here. I normally tend to spend more time on visiting and discovering places or monuments. But I think that food is a great way to immerse yourself in a country’s culture and I look forward to continue doing so in Paris!
C’est Magnifique! Visit us again at accentblogs.com for the final post in the “Food for Thought” series on May 18, 2015 and check out our ACCENT Paris Facebook page for more information on food-related events and more happening out and about in Paris!
~Scott Rothwell, ACCENT Paris
I grew up in a small town, the youngest of five children. I was the fifth to do many things, but I was the first to study abroad. My journey began when I befriended a girl whose mother insisted each of her children study abroad. As a teenager looking to escape Catholic high school, France was the perfect alternative. It would be beautiful, exciting, and most importantly, different.
I made it my mission to study abroad. I had two years of high school French under my belt and years of training in ballet, so as far as I was concerned, I was ready. After overcoming the reluctance of my parents and finding a program that would take young students, I departed for Lille, France. It was only the night before my departure that I realized I was completely terrified.
Eight years later, I became equally nervous for my return. Would I be able to communicate? Would I get along with my host family? Would I recognize the city? Irrational fears, maybe, but I seemed to have come full-circle.
I was only visiting for three days, but the first two days I couldn’t quite grasp the difference I felt. My host parents’ house was the same; the smell and warmth were instantly familiar. The weather and the greenery that mark northern France were unchanged. With the exception of a few storefronts, Lille was the same as I had left it eight years prior.
Then I realized something, returning to the scene of my 16 year old life at 24: clearly it was I who had changed the most, not the city. Studying abroad was an incredible time for exploration and learning, for discovery and independence. My life began in California, but studying abroad propelled me infinitely. I returned to find my second home, a place with fond memories that holds the first chapter of my young adult life.
~Sarah Fowler, ACCENT San Francisco
This is the first of a three-part series in which ACCENT Paris Programs Assistant Scott Rothwell interviews current students studying abroad in Paris regarding their thoughts and feelings about Parisian cuisine.
Welcome to France, a nation that has given to the world both the word cuisine and the taste of haute cuisine. Food in France is much more than just meat and drink, it is central to the meaning of life here. Never before have we cared so much about food. It preoccupies our popular culture, our fantasies, and even our moralizing. With our top chefs as celebrities and the finest restaurants as places of pilgrimage, we have made food the stuff of secular seeking and transcendence, finding heaven in a mouthful.
Every country has its own culinary specialties that reveal its identity and culture. Great chefs see themselves as artists who wield flavors, textures, and ingredients to create their own works of art. It must be understood that in France, eating is more than just a ritual or necessity, but a daily tradition that gathers friends, family and, at times, strangers, around a table.
Considering the particular pleasures surrounding the dining experience in France, I was interested to discover what some of our students’ initial thoughts were on their experience with food here in Paris, the capital of France and its food culture.
To find out more, I interviewed students from the University of Southern California, from American University in Washington, and finally from San Diego State University. In the interviews that follow, you’ll get a glimpse of their personal enounters with Parisian cuisine in the first few weeks of their study abroad experience living in a homestay.
My first interview was with University of Southern California student, Ashley Yang.
SCOTT: Before coming to France, were there any particular dishes that you had your mind set on tasting?
ASHLEY: I don’t think I actually set my mind on anything in particular, but in a way, I did come here with an open mind, ready for new experiences. I knew before coming to France that the country had its regional differences, along with its own specialties, so I was ready to try these as long as it was nothing out of this world.
SCOTT: In the little time you have been here, have you tried anything that has particularly marked you?
ASHLEY: Being in a host family, I do eat everything that is put on the table by my “Madame.” I think everything that I’ve been served has been normal for the moment, however the other day we ate a duck casserole, which was in a way surprising. Coming from the U.S., the only form of duck that I had eaten was pekin duck and so I wouldn’t say I didn’t enjoy it, but it was definitely an experience for me to discover such a dish.
SCOTT: So your homestay family has obviously made you try some original dishes, but are there any customs or traditions that you have noticed that are different from those you have with your family back home?
ASHLEY: I think the fact that the family always insists on having dessert personally makes a big difference to the meal. In the U.S., we would typically have cake or ice cream, but here I have had fruit or homemade applesauce. You could say that there’s a lot more fresh and homemade food, which makes the dinner table a different experience than back home.
SCOTT: Finally, would you say that the tradition and culture around food in this country has almost become a part of the experience you will take back with you?
ASHLEY: Like I said, also insisting on having dessert at every meal means that we are sitting down for at least an hour every night around a table. I definitely think so, yes, having to sit down every night and have dinner with the host family really allows there to be a proper interaction with the family and this allows you to discover their rituals and culture.
Hungry for more? Follow our ACCENT Paris Facebook page to get updates on the next ACCENT Blogs post in the “Food for Thought” series scheduled for March 30, 2015!
~Scott Rothwell, ACCENT Paris
They make you and they break you, mothers. In my life, many maternal figures have come and gone and I’ve learned many things from each of them, but the lesson I’ve come to treasure the most came out of one late-night post-dinner conversation with my Italian host mother in Florence, Italy when I was a junior studying abroad.
We were sitting there together in her beautiful little kitchen, all covered in blue. The table we sat at was blue, the sink faucets and piping by the stove were blue, the tile on the walls, all blue. The coolest and warmest blue you’d ever seen. I loved that kitchen. Sitting there by myself at the start of each day, I would eat my biscotti con nutella and help myself to homemade espresso courtesy of their Nespresso machine they graciously allowed me to use, and the morning light would filter in and spill onto their terracotta-tiled floor. I’d look out the window onto the rooftops of other Florentine homes and think, “This is what life should be.”
In the evenings, the kitchen changed in color; it burned orange with low lamplight, warmed by the oven and stove where my host mother labored lightly to share with me the delicacies of her Italian heritage. We would sit together, my host mother and father, with their dog, a doting Irish setter, at our feet, and I’d stumble through recounting the details of my day in broken Italian. They would listen patiently, repeat themselves a thousand times so I could understand, and laugh and rejoice with me as the exchange grew easier and easier each time. After dinner, my host father would carefully peel and slice fruit for my host mother and me to eat, a light desert. The meal would end and we’d all retire for the night to rest and prepare ourselves for another day.
This evening though, my host father was out of town so it was just my host mother and I winding down dinner together. We got to talking about our respective families, the way you often do when having an intimate conversation with a relative stranger. She told me about her first husband and their two children, a daughter and son, and their lives together as the years progressed and the family’s relationships and dynamics changed. She told me what it was like to be a mother at such a juncture in one’s life, when the person you thought you’d love forever turns out to be the one you have to leave behind, how difficult it can be to stay focused on your children, the people who need you more than anything in the world.
She asked me about my family. I told her about my parents and my many siblings. She marveled at the size of our family, the number of children my mother had to rear, two boys and three girls. I told her that things had not been easy growing up, that my parents were not well off and not very good at supporting each other as the various roadblocks of life sprung up and divided their hearts from one another. She said that must have been very difficult for my mother, having the world on her shoulders with no one by her side to help bear the weight. Listening to her outsider’s perspective on what for me had been a fairly tumultuous upbringing, seeing how she honed in on my mother’s challenge as the nucleus of all the pain and struggles my family went through, I realized what my mother had faced. I had been angry with her for some time for what I had come to think of as neglect, but in that moment, I realized that my mother was a person, just like any other, with wants and needs of her own, dreams of her own that were never realized because she had to be a mother. She had to put us first because that is what mothers do.
I cried in bed that night, thinking about my mother and missing her. I found a gratitude for her that I didn’t think I would find for a very long time. My host mother helped me find that.
I don’t have any photos of my host mother and I don’t keep in touch, though I do think of her often. I remember the warmth of her smile as she gave me the words I needed to hear. I remember the strength of her hands as she took mine in hers and told me, “Madri, facciamo il meglio che possiamo.” My mother, my mothers, have done the best they possibly can. They have all made me who I am. And for that, I can only ever be grateful.
~Chelsey Little, ACCENT San Francisco, Social Media Coordinator