Host Families and the End of Chapter One

July 30, 2015 - Burlington, Vermont, United States

And I'm home! The past six weeks have been so intense and amazing that it's hard to believe I'm done, back in the U.S. and having slept in my own bed. And yet again I'm surprised by how quickly you fit back into your old routine, how it seems strange for only such a short amount of time. I was so glad to see everyone, my parents, my brother, my cat, my neighbors, and even some of my friends when I went to a Very Merry Theatre performance the Friday I got back!

I left you all right before writing about my experience in a host family, the part of the trip that many people in the group were most looking forward to. We were in pairs (except for Patrick, but he was right across the hall from two other guys), and I was with Lola. When I found out who I was with I was very excited because I knew that Lola would be the best possible study partner, and that she would hold me to speaking Arabic and encourage me to learn as much as I could. Our family lives in an apartment close to Qasid, our language school, so we were the last to get picked up by the bus every morning.

On a side note, I had not mentioned the name of the school before now because we were still studying there. However, Qasid Arabic Institute is one of the best Arabic language schools in the Middle East, and I would encourage everyone to look it up and recommend it if you get the chance. Its name, Qasid, was chosen because it refers to both “a way that is direct and smooth”, which describes its teaching methods, and “an individual who strives forward with a direct, specific intention”, which describes the students it attracts. I have never had such wonderful teachers, such great support, and such interesting extracurricular options (it organize weekend trips to locations such as the Dead Sea and Petra) as I had there. It was one of the best parts of my experience in Jordan!

After we got back to Amman from Wadi Rum on July 19th (the last day I wrote about in my previous entry), we went back to the apartments. We only had a few hours to change out of our sweaty clothes in Madison's apartment, and bring all our suitcases downstairs. Our host mother, Manal, came to pick Lola and me up at the apartments in her car. When we got to their apartment, I was surprised by how beautiful it was. It was decorated very tastefully with lots of flowers, fruits, and cute little knickknacks, and was bigger than I was expecting too. There was a living room, kitchen, dining room, two bathrooms, three bedrooms (someone had clearly given up their room for us so that was very nice), and even a balcony! We spent a little while unpacking and then went out to meet the family.

Our mother, Manal, worked part-time at a school. She told us immediately to call her Mama, or Mama Manal. :) Our sister Rana was 27, and she was a flight attendant so her English was excellent. Although Lola and I both wished we had been forced to speak Arabic, Rana was wonderfully nice and welcoming so that more than made up for it. Our other sister, Rosanna, was 15, and in school; she liked to play soccer at the park right across the street, and she was quite shy. Finally, there was a little black-and-white fluffy cat named Oreo, who was only five months old and even crazier than Twilight! She spent most of her time running around and biting everything she could see but she was also very sweet.

Every morning, Mama made us breakfast, which was amazing because we had to eat by 7 and normally most Jordanians wake up much later than that. It was pita bread, labaneh (yogurt), olive oil, zaatar (a strong, salty mix of spices, including thyme, to put on pita with oil or yogurt), scrambled eggs, and sometimes tomato wedges or a type of crumby sweet nougat as well. There was always extremely hot sweet Lipton tea, and a difficulty every morning was managing to drink it before the bus came! Most mornings I went to school with a burned tongue. At school, we got to see the rest of the group, but it was so strange not to see them all the time. Lola and I were especially isolated because neither of us have iPhones, so we weren't in the group chat everyone else was in, and we spent the least time on the bus.

After school we sometimes did activities with the NLSI-Y group, before going back to our host families. For example, we went to Carrefour (the supermarket right next to Qasid) one day, and also went to the Jordan Museum. This museum opened recently and is the best museum in the country. It displays Jordan's past, present, and future through nine major themes. There were lots of artifacts, as well as dioramas which I loved, and some interactive exhibits, including one where you could discover your name in several ancient languages. This museum was my choice for my final Ikteshaf project. This time, we were not allowed notes, and had to speak for 3-5 minutes in Arabic about our topic. That was a little stressful, but I worked hard on it in the evenings all week, and it went well in the end.

After we got back from school or an activity, we would usually eat lunch. Meals in Jordan are generally later than in the U.S., so lunch might be around 3:00 and dinner around 10:00 or 11:00. Killian and Marilyn's family usually ate after midnight! In our family, whenever we were hungry there was plenty of food, and Mama's cooking was delicious. One day for lunch we had manakeesh, which is hot naan with fresh salty cheese or zaatar on top, and is so good! We ate with Rana and her friend that day, because her friend was over to study for a flight attendant exam they had to take. Another day for dinner Mama made noodles, a tomato and onion sauce, and french fries. The sauce and the noodles were served in two separate bowls, and Lola and I weren't sure what to do. I decided to pour the sauce on top of the noodles, and when Rana and Mama came back in they thought it was hilarious! Apparently that was not how you eat it! It worked fine for me, though, and at least it was a source of amusement!

On one of our first nights with our family, Mama told us that she was going to visit a friend, and offered to take us with her. The friend lived about half an hour away, and apparently was originally from Saudi Arabia like our family. The two families were friends in Saudi Arabia, moved separately to Amman, and then reconnected. While we were at the friend's apartment, Lola and I watched Mama and the other woman playing a game with a cloth board that looked a little like Sorry. We also talked to the woman's American host daughter in Arabic, and found out that she was in the same program as Abby Massell! Later in the evening we went to visit Abby's host family, after we found out that Abby's host mom is Mama's friend's sister (or something like that). Abby was extremely surprised when I showed up on her doorstep, and went around to her whole host family telling them how crazy it was that I was from her high school! Lola and I talked with Abby and her roommate for about half an hour and it was really nice.

There were also a few interesting cultural experiences that I wasn't expecting. One day, Mama asked us if we could clean our room. I wasn't really sure what she meant, but of course we were willing, and she brought us a bucket, two rags, and a squeegee. With a combination of Arabic and hand gestures, she explained what we should do, and left us to it. Together Lola and I made the bed, piled all our possessions on it, wiped all the surfaces with a rag, poured water on the floor and mopped it using the squeegee covered with a rag, then finally swept all the water out of the room, down the hallway, and down the drain in the bathroom. It was completely unlike the way I usually clean my bedroom, but so simple and effective that I've suggested to my family that we clean our kitchen this way! It will be a little more difficult without the ingenious drain in the floor, though.

Another interesting cultural experience was the venue across the street from our family's apartment. About once every two days, there was a wedding there, complete with loud music, dancing in the street, and fireworks. The side of the building was even lit up in alternating colors. We got to see traditional Syrian dancing once, as well as just the many varieties of Jordanian weddings. It was a regular evening entertainment, and bonding time with Mama and Rana as we all sat on the balcony and discussed the goings-on.

One of the most challenging things about our host family was language, but not in the way that I was expecting. As I mentioned, Rana spoke extremely good English, and Mama was able to get by. This meant that it was very hard for them to make the effort to speak to us in Arabic, especially since they didn't really understand initially how important it was to us. We tried to ask them, in Arabic, to stop speaking English, but we couldn't get our point across, and eventually had to ask Madison to call them for us. After Mama understood the problem, though, it went much better, since she started doing her absolute best to help us practice. For our last week in Jordan, Lola and I took a personal language pledge to speak only Arabic while we were in the apartment, even though that wasn't a component of the program at all (we tried at first to do it all the time, but since no one else in the program was doing it, it was too difficult and cut into the already short time we could spend with everyone). It was hard, especially since we made a special effort to keep chatting with each other the way we would have in English, but it definitely made a huge difference to the Arabic we learned.

Once we were making an effort to speak in their language, some of the slight awkwardness we'd been struggling with in our family lessened. That first evening that Mama came home speaking Arabic, Lola and I got to make dinner with Rana. She set Lola to cutting tomatoes, and me to peeling potatoes. That was funny because we so rarely peel vegetables at home that I was all out of practice, so Rana thought I'd never cooked before in my life! She told me to take a picture of our meal when it was done, as my first cooking triumph. :) We made a stew of zucchini, tomatoes, and onions in tomato sauce and olive oil, with pita bread, homemade french fries, and lemonade. It was delicious, but I think that had more to do with Rana than us!

All too soon, we were wrapping up our academics at Qasid, and we were faced with our last quiz and our final exam. The last chapter we'd done was one of the hardest, and the final quiz was very difficult, but somehow we all pulled through, with the help of some intense studying of grammar. Arabic grammar is very sensible, but that didn't make some of the rules any less hard to memorize! On Tuesday of our last week was our final exam. It was a three-hour ordeal covering more than 100 hours of class time (we had 120 by the end of the program, counting class in colloquial Arabic), including grammar, vocabulary, listening, writing, and reading. Fortunately we had all studied hard, and it wasn't even as difficult in the end as any of us feared.

While we were studying for the exam, we were also working on our final project. This was a video, which had to be at least 15 minutes long (since all of us were working together) and include all of the grammar we'd learned and as much of the vocabulary as possible. We did an extremely dramatic and fairly silly soap opera about a struggling ukulele artist (Killian) with an unsupportive mother (Lola) who sought help from the ukulele master (Patrick) to beat her competitor (me) in an important audition with an extremely successful studio (headed by Dawson). We called it “Ya salaam”, which is one of the most dramatic expressions we learned, and can be used in almost any situation (it's similar to “oh my gosh!”). Although the video wasn't exactly polished, our teachers thought it was hilarious and it was a great success.

And then it was time for goodbyes. First was to our host family: we gave gifts while sitting on the balcony the night before; mine were maple candies and photos of Vermont. Mama also kept photos of Lola and me to put in her family album, which was very sweet. In the morning, we took lots of photos with Rana and said goodbye to her, Mama, and Oreo. They told us that they would miss us, they wished we could have stayed longer, and that if we were ever back in Amman we should just give them a call and they'd welcome us back. We dragged all our luggage down and took the bus to school for the last time. At the beginning of class, we showed our final video, and then Ustatha Umayma brought some chocolates to share, and made us tea. She even made another pot of tea and brought it to the other NSLI-Y class as well! Then both our teachers mysteriously left the classroom for about ten minutes. When they came back, we found out that they'd made us a cake, and written on it “Ya salaam! Antu tuga3!”, which was of course the joke from our video and then another class joke, a slang expression meaning “you're all great”. We all ate the cake together, and then Killian started crying, quickly followed by Ustatha Umayma and Lola, and we spent the last few minutes hugging each other and saying the saddest goodbye I've ever said to teachers. They just kept saying that we were the best class they'd ever had, and we told them they were the best teachers, and it was absolutely true. Finally we managed to make ourselves leave, and went down to the second floor for the graduation ceremony. We received our diplomas, and the school's musician played us several lovely traditional farewell songs. It was a nice ending, and then we went down the stairs for the last time and out to the waiting bus.

We spent the afternoon at the apartments, packing any final items and getting henna patterns done on our hands, which was really fun. The women (family friends of Nadia's) that came in to do it were extremely interesting, and one of them even spoke French! Late in the evening it was time to leave for the airport, and we had to say goodbye to Nadia. That was also very tearful, and I was just amazed again at how wonderful an assistant and friend she was to all of us and how lucky we were to have met her. We flew to Frankfurt, then to D.C., and then we had to split up. Dawson, Aikum, and Yasa were staying in a hotel in D.C. for a flight that left the next day, Lola was meeting family, and Patrick and Madison were staying in the city. All of the rest of us had connecting flights. That was the worst goodbye of all, with half the group crying and nobody really knowing what to do. Finally one of the airport employees told us we really had to keep moving, since we were blocking the way, and the six of us that were left went on to our connections. When we got to baggage claim, Killian and Lukas's bags were nowhere to be found, and I found out that my flight had been canceled and now I was on an earlier one going through Chicago. Lihau, a NSLI-Y representative, told me that I couldn't wait for the bags to be found or I would miss my flight. After a difficult goodbye with Lena, Killian, Kenny, and Marilyn, I finally went on alone.

The line for a security check was so hopelessly long that ended up extremely pressed for time, and if I'd waited any longer or the gate had been any farther away I would have missed my flight. As it was, the plane doors closed about two minutes after I sat down, and then I was on my way to Chicago! The flight was uneventful, and after a couple hours' layover and a short flight to Burlington, I was finally home! My parents and brother met me at the airport, and even though I was already missing Jordan and our NSLI-Y group, I was so glad to be back.


Cleaning our Room
Lola's Arabic Review Puzzle
Our Last Bus Ride
Nighttime View from our Balcony


August 13, 2015
Wow!!!! So glad to have you home again - albeit briefly - but so grateful that you had this amazing opportunity and made the most of it. What a wonderful adventure and I can't believe how much you all learned.
Susan Bowden:
August 14, 2015
Enjoyed reading about your experiences Beckie! Welcome home and keep us posted along the way as you continue your gap year travels! Ashlyn has had a great experience in Medellin as well. You two will have lots to talk about! Thanks for sharing and love to your family!❤️
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