It is now almost three weeks after the fact, so I have had ample time to reflect upon it, and I think I can honestly say that the most rewarding experience I have had thus far in the UK was ironically not in Scotland, but in Cumbria, a English geographical region more commonly known as the Lake District. I am speaking of course about my weekend with my host family. The homestay weekend is a required part of my IFSA-Butler program, and I am so grateful that it was.
I have had a few homestay experiences in the past when I was in elementary school and in the Colorado Children’s Chorale, a professional touring choir. I stayed with host families throughout Colorado, Wyoming, Florida, and even for a time in Italy as we made our performance rounds. These visits were always so much fun for me, meeting local people and being treated like a king, graciously being served plate after plate of food accompanied by a “You are too skinny!”. Not to say my own mother never fed me, but I have been given the gift of a fast metabolism and a large stomach, a gift and talent I am more than willing to put to use when the time arises.
Needless to say, when I learned that we would be given a host family despite living in dorms throughout the semester I was very excited. I think it is the best of both worlds in terms of study abroad because it allows you to have that invaluable experience of actually “living” in the area, but in the dorm you also get a taste of what students and student life abroad is like. I had originally assumed that our host families were Scottish and lived in or around the Glasgow area, however I soon learned at orientation that was not the case.
For all of the Scottish programs that Butler sponsors the students spend their weekend in Cumbria, a border area in the north of England. They do this for a few reasons, namely, to expose us to a different area as well as give us somewhat of a cultural comparison. There is by no means any hostility between the Scottish and English, however there are definite marked cultural differences between the two, and Butler wants to give us the opportunity to see that, indirectly giving us a better appreciation of the unique Scottish culture. Sort of an ironic, around the back approach to understanding that Scotland truly is a country and culture all its own, but I suppose it works!
So the Friday after we had finished orientation we headed off to the Lake District to meet our host families. Not going to lie, it was slightly unnerving when Deirdra, Ruth, and Katherine, our Butler guides and guardian angels for the past few days, boarded all of us up onto a bus by ourselves and sent us off on our way. We had only a vague idea of where exactly we were going and names on a piece of paper, but I suppose that only enhanced the excitement all the more. I had intended to stay awake the entire ride and enjoy the beautiful scenery passing by, but unfortunately my sleep kryptonite happens to be car/bus rides, so I quickly fell asleep and woke up about and hour and a half later.
We soon arrived in Penrith, one of the larger towns in the region, and were greeted by our eagerly awaiting families. I was paired up with two girls in the group, Erika from Atlanta and Janna from my home state of Colorado. After a few seconds of searching and name swapping we found our homestay mother, Elena Fraser, and began the difficult task of loading our luggage into her small BMW sedan. Luckily Erika only had a small backpack, having moved into her dorm in Edinburgh that morning, but Janna and I both had all of our luggage because we would be heading off to Glasgow at the end of the weekend, so it was a bit like a game of Tetris to get everything stowed away. Once all our luggage was securely stored in the “boot” (trunk) we headed off to the house.
We left Penrith and drove for about half an hour through progressively smaller towns until we arrived in Ormside, a little village of about 20 or so houses.
We drove all the way to the end of the one-lane curvy country road and came to one of the coolest and most unique houses I had ever seen. After unloading the car and depositing our luggage in our rooms we received a tour of the magnificent home we would be staying in the next couple of nights. We learned from Elena that part of their house had been built in the 12th century! The remainder having been added on in about the 16th century. Elena and her husband Julian had been living in the house for over 40 years and had put in a lot of work to turn it into a wonderful living space. Elena, as well as being a teacher, was an interior designer and walking into their house felt like walking back in time. It was all decorated in a very Victorian (I think…?) fashion and was absolutely gorgeous.
- Julian and Elena’s House
- View of the house from the backyard. The 3-story portion to the left was the part built in the 12th century. The rest of the house was added on in the early 17th century.
- Dining Room- The paintings in here were fit for a museum.
- The Study
- Kitchen- Elena hard at work cooking us dinner.
- Living Room- Where we spent most of our time sitting and chatting.
- My Room- The girls shared a room across the hall but I was lucky enough to have one all to myself.
Now, of course I did not start snapping these pictures right away when I got there, but rather I waited until we had gotten to know Elena and Julian a little better so as not to be too stereotypical of a rude American tourist.
After touring the house we went outside to their “Alice in Wonderland-esque” backyard for some tea and biscuits. We sat in their lovely garden and got to know each other better, and while Elena cooked dinner we joined Julian for a cut-throat game of croquet. Julian was far and away the most superior player, but I, being the gentleman that I am, let the two girls win and took a humble fourth place. Julian then showed us his garden and some of his hedge sculpting work.
- Backyard with the croquet court in the distance.
- Julian’s garden with a whole manner of fruits, vegetables and flowers. You can see some of his birds and animals on top of the hedge in the distance. Not bad for a guy with no formal hedge sculpting training!
After our vigorous competition we sat down to a wonderful meal of pork and fresh potatoes and green beans. With full bellies we then went to the family room and relaxed, discussing a whole manner of topics. We learned that Elena and Julian had 3 children, 2 boys and a girl, as well as 4 grandchildren whom they are lucky enough to see relatively often as they live only a few hours away. Before retirement, as well as being a farmer, Julian was a land surveyor and also served as sort of a county mayor for many years, so he knew quite a bit about the surrounding area, its history and its inhabitants. We spoke also about all the places we had traveled to in the past and we learned that despite having just returned from a trip to Egypt, the Frasers had never managed to make it over to the US!
Erika and Janna had both brought a few simple gifts for them to give an idea of where we were from. Since I had not thought to bring something Coloradan and Janna was from Colorado as well, I sort of hopped on her gift with her. She gave them some chocolates and postcards of the famed Rocky Mountains and they were truly fascinated by the grandeur of them, being accustomed to the much smaller mountains of the British Isles. Erika brought some Oreo’s and amazingly they had never heard of or tried them before. They thought they were “absolutely delightful” and it was so funny to see how they treated them as almost a delicacy, serving them to us again the next day at tea on a beautiful china dish.
It was getting late and we had a long day of travel, so we went to bed to rest up for the day ahead. We awoke early the next morning to a breakfast of fresh eggs from their chickens, toast and porridge. Elena and a few of the other host mothers had arranged for all of us to get together and spend a day exploring some of the surrounding area, so after breakfast we piled into the car and headed off to the center of the Lake District to meet some other Butler students for a short hike to a waterfall, a cruise on a lake, and a visit to some local ruins.
- Driving into the Lake District
- Beautiful scenery of the Lake District
- Aer of Forth Waterfall in the Lake District
- Rowing on the lake- Safety First!
- Castle ruins near Penrith
- Entrance to old fortress ruins
- Fortress Ruins
When we finally returned after our day of sightseeing, we met a surprise guest at the house. That day while Julian was out mowing the lawn, an elderly man came down the road and said that he used to live in their house when he was a child. They had gotten to talking and Julian invited him in to tea and for a look around the house just as we arrived. We joined them in the living room and listened to all of his stories of the old days when he had lived there and how much the house and area had changed over the years. It gave me a very interesting perspective on the progress of time and how far the world has come in the past half a century and it was a conversation I won’t soon forget.
After the gentleman had left we enjoyed some tea and I had a wonderful one-on-one conversation with Julian about the history of England, the relationship between England and Scotland, as well as the relationship between the UK and US. It was so interesting to get a first hand perspective of the other side of things and to get an idea of how the rest of the world sees America. I won’t get in depth about the politics of what we discussed so as not to offend anyone reading, but it was also a enlightening conversation that I am very grateful to have had.
After another wonderful meal of roast hen, Julian took us out to see an old church right by their house and to show us their land and cattle. At the church we learned a very interesting fact that just a few years before Elena and Julian had moved into their house, in the cemetary of the church, a local dug up an ancient golden bowl. As it turns out, it was one of the oldest and largest pieces of Saxon metal work ever to be found in Britain and was worth over 10 million pounds and now resides in a museum in London. Talk about real life history right at your doorstep!
- Church by the Fraser’s House
- Plaque inside church commemorating the finding of the Ormside Bowl.
- The Fraser’s farmland and cattle.
Warming up from our evening stroll we enjoyed more English tea and then appropriately enough watched “Notting Hill” on TV. Soon after, we said goodnight and set our alarms to ensure that Janna and I wouldn’t miss our bus to Glasgow and Erika her train back to Edinburgh.
We woke up early the next morning and packed up and said our goodbyes, exchanging e-mail addresses. Although we only had a few short days to spend with the Frasers, we got to know each other quite well and their kindness and generosity has left a lasting impact upon me. It was an incredibly rewarding experience and I think I appreciated it much more than any of my previous homestays because I am much more mature and able to converse on a deeper level. I learned so much from Julian and Elena in such a short amount of time and wish that it wasn’t so limited. I hope to stay in touch and will definitely never forget my weekend in the little village of Ormside.
- Julian, Elena, and Myself