Spending only a weekend at my Scottish homestay was not nearly enough time.
The two days we spent with our host family in Cumbria were jam packed with all the touristy things—day tripping around the beautiful Lake District, climbing hills (by car, thank goodness) to see the rolling green spread out before us, visiting the Beatrix Potter attractions and drinking amazing hot chocolate. We spent a lot of time in the car, gazing out the windows as the hills (and the sheep) rolled by. Honestly, I can’t imagine a better way to get a look of northern England than just hopping in a car and going; we saw so much that way. All of the little villages and the bigger towns, the tourist traps and the farms. And of course, the sheep! Along the way I began to notice a number of differences in my homestay family’s life compared to mine.
1. The roads are all unique
In the U.S., I never really felt like the roads around the country told any stories. The highway near O’Hare National Airport in Chicago is much the same as the one outside Logan National Airport in Boston. I suppose my stomach is a lot happier driving on the straight, flat roads of Wisconsin than traversing the hills and curves in New England and, admittedly, driving through Texas can get rather boring. But generally you know where you are, as if the roads have been copy/pasted across the country. This homestay was my first taste of driving in the U.K. and I have to say, I was probably overly interested in the lines and signs along the roads.
After we passed out of Edinburgh, I noticed there were fewer road signs compared to just outside of Chicago, where great green overhead banners point out the various suburbs you can choose to drive toward. Here, though, I barely saw any, except for the occasional speed limit signs. I did notice, however, that the lines on the pavement were brighter, cleaner and more plentiful than what I was used to.
I saw white arrows drawn on the surface but couldn’t for the life of me figure out what they meant. They were just short, curved arrows that would sometimes border the dotted lines down the center. I grew increasingly curious. It was one of the first questions I asked Sue, my host mother. It was an everyday, common thing: the arrows let the driver know that a no passing zone is approaching. I’d gotten used to driving on the left side of the road and only occasionally am I thrown off by the location of the steering wheel these days, but the lines on the road were new to me. It was an interesting way to start my homestay, where it was all about these little things that I would be learning.
2. Farm life is a whole new world
There is something so welcoming about being in a home rather than a dorm, even if it’s not your own home. It’s always comfortable and warm. And when I say home, what I really mean is farmhouse. Our host family runs a dairy farm in Cumbria so, naturally, they live on the farm.
For the four of us from IFSA-Butler, this was a rather novel experience. We were, perhaps, a little too excited. We startled a poor calf with our exclamations and cooing; she lowed and leaped right over her stall into her neighbor’s, who was quite confused at the intrusion. This second young cow tried to run away, squeezing through the bars of its gate, but got stuck halfway through. Now, this part quite startled the four of us, so we dashed away, calling for help, and dragged the oldest son, Michael (14) into the barn to rescue the little cow. Michael assured us that it was no big deal, the cow wasn’t hurt and this certainly wasn’t the first time such a thing had happened. But I’m pretty sure I heard him chuckle at our distress.
And when Lila, one of the other IFSA-Butler students, and I asked if we could watch our host father, Stephen, do the milking Sunday morning, everyone in the family looked confused. It’s filthy, they warned us. It’s cold and so early. But for Lila and I, milking cows was not an opportunity that came around frequently. So we pulled on the borrowed jackets and wellies and made sure our phones were within easy reach, much to the dismay of Isobelle, the youngest daughter (9). She simply did not understand the appeal of taking a selfie with a cow while covered in muck.
3. A Different Kind of Cultural Divide
Our interest in taking cow selfies represents a cultural divide, definitely, but not between U.S. and Scottish culture. Had we visited a farm in the U.S., the four of us would have embarrassed ourselves just as much. None of us grew up on a farm so that way of life is something we’ve never experienced. Honestly, I think that was the biggest difference between our homestay family and us as visiting students.
They’ve been hosting students for 10 years now, so our host mother Sue has quite the wealth of information. It was interesting to hear her opinion on study abroad students and the cultural differences. She was kind enough to let me interview her (i.e. she didn’t protest that much when I cornered her in the kitchen after dinner with my tablet and too-long list of questions). She mostly feels the same as I do—the biggest difference between us is the farm, not the country.
“I doubt that Stephen and I will ever get to the States,” Sue told me. “So having the students here, comparing this to their home life, helps us experience a new place. Cause I know we’ll probably never get over there and I like learning about different places. And it gives us the opportunity to do that.” Just as she and her family are giving us an inside look at English family life, we give them an inside look at the life of American students. I think we discovered the same things about each other. As Sue put it, “it’s really nice to come across people who are, for want of a better word, normal.”
Sue described the U.K. as “a much more dense version of the U.S.”; in both places you have farmers and university students, the rich and the poor, the show offs and the clowns and the curious and the kids who need to be shuffled off to football practice. Here there’s “just less of a population to be shouted about.”
4. Their kids get a very different education
We’re both here to learn and Sue says knowing this “has helped me help my kids through their decision making.”
The biggest difference this English housewife noted was with the education system. “In this country, our young people mature much sooner and I think that’s probably a negative thing for us. The education process and the expectations on our kids to know where they want to go. Whereas you guys are just expected to stay in that focus on education and at the end of that to focus on making a decision after. Whereas our kids are supposed to make a decision before they’ve learned anything and can say oh, actually I’d like to do this.” But, we’re both here to learn and Sue says knowing this “has helped me help my kids through their decision making.”
According to Sue, “It’s nice to have students who are interested in us rather just the scenery … [They] ask questions about what we do on the farm and what the kids’ schools are like and have a general interest in how we live our life.” While I don’t know if she had all the selfies in mind, I hope our desire to help milk the cows counts for something.
I can’t help but wonder if I would notice any other culture clashes had we been there longer. All in all, a single weekend is not enough to fully see a different way of life, but it’s certainly a start. Thank you Sue, Stephen, Megan, Michael, Isobelle and Alfie, for taking four strangers into your home, giving us a tour of your county and sharing your farm. It was an incredible experience!