One of the things I was anticipating the most during my travels was the opportunity to do homestays – living with local families, learning about their culture and sharing a little of my own. Unfortunately, they haven’t quite gone as well as I hoped.
The latest chapter? Living with a seventy-year old woman named Alevtyna in Kiev while I took Russian language classes. My language school, Echo Eastern Europe, arranged the homestay which, based on its website, I expected to be with a “carefully selected, friendly and open-minded family.”
I arrived around 8:30 a.m. on a Saturday morning, having taken the overnight train from Minsk to Kiev. Unlike my homestays in St. Petersburg and Moscow, this one was in the heart of central Kiev, just blocks from a Metro stop.
After lugging my bags of four flights of stairs, a tiny blond woman with a squeaky voice and wrinkled skin welcomed me with a flourish of Russian. Understanding just a fraction, I took off my shoes and followed her to my room in the small apartment, where I dropped my bags. I was pleased to see a large double bed, desk and large closet.
However, she seemed reluctant to show me the kitchen, even though the director of the school assured me I would have access to cook meals for myself since none were included. And she didn’t show me the living room at all, which was apparently off-limits altogether.
Later that afternoon, Alevtyna sat me down and provided me with a stern lecture (entirely in very rapid Russian) about how dangerous Kiev is – she went on and on about all of the criminals and homeless people and emphasized over and over how I should not talk to anyone outside of her apartment. I didn’t bother protesting or arguing.
The next day, when I couldn’t access Alevtyna’s wi-fi, she insisted my computer was broken and forced me to visit a computer repair shop across the street. Then she got angry with me when I told her that the repairman told me my computer was fine and that there must be a problem with her router.
Things continued to go downhill from there.
During my two weeks living with Alevtyna, a clear pattern emerged: she talked and talked and talked and talked at me in Russian, almost none of which I understood. The more I protested that I did not understand, the angrier she became, even grabbing my arm at one point as she tried to yell a Russian word loudly enough at me to make me understand it.
In another conversation, she spent five minutes trying to get me to figure out the word for “ice” but then stormed out of the room before she told me why we were talking about ice in the first place. Nearly the same dialogue repeated the next day about the word for “post-it note.”
I pretty much felt like she was yelling at me every time we interacted and tried to avoid her as much as possible, leaving quietly as early as I could and not returning until as late as possible when hopefully she would already be asleep. At the same time, I tried to look at all of her quirks as worthy of some good stories down the road.
Like the fact that I came out of my room one evening to find her walking around the apartment stark naked aside from her underwear.
And that I frequently came home around 6:00 or 7:00 in the evening to find Alevtyna already in bed, but would then awake at 3:00 a.m. to the sound of her running the blender in the kitchen.
And the fact that she stole a plastic bag out of my closet and used up the rest of my laundry detergent. I think she was also using my shampoo.
To say it was not the friendly, welcoming environment I anticipated would be an understatement.
I might have thought it was just me (I am the common denominator in these bad homestays after all) except that when I mentioned the situation to my Russian teacher during class, she gave a knowing laugh. As I pressed further, it turns out that almost every student who has lived with Alevtyna has had a bad experience. We ended up joking about getting all of us together to form a support group!
The sad thing is, I really enjoyed my Russian classes. I thought that I learned and progressed more than I did in the two weeks I studied in St. Petersburg and I really liked my teacher, Olga. If it wasn’t for the homestay with Alevtyna, I probably would have stayed longer.
I am not done with homestays yet – I will be starting another one next week in Armenia, where I will be volunteering for a month. I am crossing my fingers that one finally turns out okay!