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Davis, California

Sunday, April 14, 2024

Column: Host mothers

In Belgium, my housing options were to live with students in an apartment or to live with a host family. I chose the host family.

My friends back at home said I was crazy. As a study abroad student, wouldn’t I want to prance around the city, party all the time and live without rules? Maybe to a certain degree, but I figured that learning the local language and culture would be far more beneficial to my life than the ability to freely chug vodka with a bunch of other Americans.

I don’t regret the decision at all. I live with a lovely host mother, her two daughters and a precious dog. I live in a gorgeous house in a charming residential neighborhood, walking distance to everything I could possibly need. I’m served breakfast and dinner, accompanied by French conversation.

It’s a pretty ideal life. I’m learning tons about this bizarre country and I feel freer than when I’m living with my parents back in the States.

But three weeks into my stay, I received a lecture from my host mom. She said I was partying too often, not sleeping enough, not studying enough, and that if I were her daughter, my behavior would not be tolerated.

I was shocked. What prompted this?

The night before, I went out with a few friends to grab drinks. It was a mellow evening of conversing with other expatriates, and it ended around midnight.

The only problem is that I wasn’t out with my roommate, and it’s not recommended for a young lady in any big city to take public transportation alone late at night. This meant I could either hop on the last metro by myself or spend 15 euros on a taxi. In order to avoid both of these less than ideal situations, I have taken a liking to crashing on a friend’s couch every so often.

It’s not a big deal. I’m asleep by 2 a.m. and I take a bus back home in the morning. As an American college student, this sounds like a normal night.

This is where my Belgian host mom and I don’t see eye to eye. To her, returning at 9 a.m. after sleeping at a friend’s house is akin to being out clubbing until morning.

In other words, every Tuesday morning that I’ve walked into the house and sat down for breakfast, she must have thought I was insane. When I tell her that I merely slept at a friend’s house, she doesn’t seem to believe me.

I have a theory about all of this, and it stems from America’s drinking age.

In Belgium, the beer drinking age is 16. I’ve been approached in bars by 17-year-olds. It’s weird. Kids start going out to bars and discos when they’re 15, since bartenders rarely ask for identification. It’s weird.

Thus, Belgian teenagers are used to hanging out in public spaces. They meet for a drink in a pub or a cafe. They buy beers from a nearby store and lounge in a park. It’s the culture. Why hang out in someone’s house when you could be somewhere … well … cooler?

In the States, there are no public spaces to hang out in. Yes, we could meet at a coffee shop. We could meet in a park. But let’s face it: alcohol makes a place of residence far more appealing. As 15-year-olds, we Americans flock to homes to eat our parents’ food and watch movies. The “bad” teens flock to homes to steal from their parents’ alcohol cabinets.

Everything takes place in private spaces. Our friends become families. Our friends’ families become families. We send a text message five minutes before we arrive as warning. We start arriving completely unannounced. We come over for dinner unannounced. We have impromptu sleepovers. Why not? We have nowhere else to go.

And at UC Davis, this mentality is only heightened with our parentless dorms, apartments and houses.

But most Belgian students in Brussels still live with their families. Big cities are expensive and living alone isn’t ingrained into “the college experience” like it is in the States. A group of 20-year-old students aren’t going to hang around someone’s parents’ house drinking beer and watching “Adventure Time” until they fall asleep. No, they’re going to go out and dance until 6 a.m. and take the morning metro home!

I have not received another lecture from my host mom, but I’ve also toned down the weeknight outings. Part of studying abroad is trying to live like a local, so I’m doing more normal Belgian things. My Monday nights consist of watching “The Mentalist” dubbed in French with the family, and I save the 6 a.m. metro rides for Saturday.

JANELLE BITKER recommends you live with a host family – you can party with Americans in America. Don’t buy it? Send concerns to jlbitker@ucdavis.edu.


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