From the Archives: Homestay in Northern England / by Heather

From October 2008: Appleby, England

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As part of my study abroad program, I was given the opportunity to stay with a host family in Northern England for a weekend. I stayed with a couple, Tina and Paul, who live in the quaint little town of Appleby. Along with me, five other girls from the program also stayed in Tina and Paul’s house….which is an amazing hosting feat, in my opinion. But they lived in an old, huge house (where Beatrix Potter, author of Peter Rabbit used to stay occasionally) on top of a hill that overlooked the town and part of a river, so we all fit more than comfortably in their home. Much to my delight and surprise, we even all got our own room.

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Tina and Paul were wonderful host parents and kept us entertained and fed….and oh, did they feed us well. Tina would stay home all day and cook magnificent English meals for us and then insist that we eat more and more at each meal. Now the amount of food six girls can put away is no small matter.  But Tina always had more than enough food and it was all we could do to crawl up the stairs to bed with our stuffed bellies at maximum capacity. Actually, I take that back…after dinner, we would sit in the parlour and eat biscuits and cookies she brought us….ha.

When we did actually get to bed, preparing to go to sleep was a bit of an ordeal. I’m not sure if because the house was so big, it was too expensive to heat, or whether Tina and Paul enjoyed sub zero temperatures, but their home was freezing. The first night I crawled into bed, the room and sheets were so cold that I kept all my clothes on, including my scarf, and I was still shivering all night long. The next night I wised up, and before bed, I sat on the floor with my hair dryer and just blasted myself with hot air for a good ten minutes. Then I would turn my dryer onto the sheets and blow dry them for a while. It turned out to be quite effective and my hair dryer became my new best friend. The temperature of the house was rather amusing, though, as the six of us would be sitting at the breakfast table, bundled up like we were ready to explore the Arctic Circle while Tina and Paul wondered why their American children were so weird.

My favorite experience with my home stay was when Paul took us into the town of Appleby and we would get to wander through its tiny entirety and observe the locals. The first day we went into town, Paul and the six of us were walking down the street when we came across what I thought was a homeless man sitting on a bench. He was scruffy and a little dirty looking, with a cap pulled over his shaggy gray and black hair. His clothes were unkempt and he was slouched back into the bench, smoking a cigarette. On his left hand was a tattoo of a sparrow. To my surprise, Paul walked right up to him and greeted him as a friend. He turned to us, and as he had been, introduced us by exclaiming “look at my Americans!” He would then go in a circle and instead of using names, would introduce us by what state we came from (if he couldn’t remember, he would just throw a random state out there). Paul’s scruffy friend seemed pleased to meet us and as Paul walked off, started talking about how he didn’t mind Americans, but it was the fucking French that he really hated. Damn French….he muttered about them for a second then asked us why Frenchmen grew mustaches. Sensing the joke, I asked why, and he responded that it was so that they could look more like their mothers. Hahaha. I liked him.

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Later that night, after dinner, Paul showed us a silent video that had been taken when he and Tina first started dating (she was 18, he was 19). They are now both in their sixties, and to see them so young, flying a kite together was just so adorable and precious. It reinforced the idea in my head to try to take more videos in this time in my life. I am such a photography enthusiast, but there is something special in being able to look back at an actual moving memory.

The next day, Paul gave us another little tour of the town and we happened across a woman in her yard who knew Paul and they started chatting. He showed off ‘his Americans’ and she was delighted to meet us and invited us all in. Her house was one of several little cottages that surrounded a beautiful courtyard sprinkled with colourful flowers. She then insisted that we meet her mother and knocked on one of the adjacent cottage doors and ushered all us inside. The girls and I were wondering how on earth we got ourselves inside a strange house, meeting a random woman’s mother, but before we knew it, a little old lady named Maggie was cooing and marveling over us.

The woman (whose name I have regrettably forgotten) had all of us, Paul and Maggie included, come out the courtyard so we could enjoy the unusual lovely weather. She stopped to duck inside of her own house and when she emerged, a man accompanied her. I didn’t recognize him at first, but then I saw a tattoo of a sparrow on his left hand and realized he was the French-hating ‘homeless’ man. I later learned that his name was Hugh, but everyone called him Ug. Today, he was still wearing a cap and also a big leather jacket with a black shirt imprinted with the name of a heavy metal band. As we all talked in the courtyard, Ug’s dark and messy shape was such a contrast to the manicured and bright flowers, that I liked him even more.

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We got to talking (he again mentioned his disdain for the French, as well as a few other nationalities) and got on the subject of the British way of flipping someone off. As opposed to the American middle finger, Britons convey the same message with a backwards peace sign (the two first fingers held up). Earlier in the year, a friend of mine had serendipitously recounted the original story of that sign. Apparently when the English and French were fighting in the Hundred Years War, the French would cut off those two fingers (necessary for shooting arrows) of archers they took as prisoners. From then on, English archers still fighting would flash those two fingers at the French to show them that they could shoot arrows and do some damage. So anyway, Ug asked me if I knew where the sign came from, and not expecting me to know, started to continue on. But I intervened and said that it was from the English archers in war. Oh my god, you could have knocked Ug over with a feather. He could not believe that I actually knew where that came from and even called the other English adults over to tell them what I had said. He said that he had never met an American who knew that, and even many English people aren’t aware of the sign’s origin. I was very happy that I could impress Ug and that my stock of useless trivia came in handy. 

I really enjoyed chatting with Paul, Maggie, Ug, and the woman who initially greeted us. They were so comfortable and cozy in their little community and the ties between them were remarkable to observe. I also was amused by the woman’s little dog that she had let into the courtyard to play in the grass. This dog was the fattest Pekingese I have ever seen and he was named Humphrey. He didn’t really play in the grass, more like sat in it for a while, then fell down and looked dead for a bit. Then he would waddle from one side of the yard to the other, before collapsing again.

Being able to observe the very heart and soul of a small community in England was such a valuable and unique experience for me and I am very glad I was given that opportunity. During the stay, we also got to visit the Lake District and go rowing (mostly in circles) and go hiking by a waterfall. Tina and Paul invited me back to visit them anytime, as I will be in the country for a year, and I hope I will get a chance to take them up on their offer.

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