A little over a month before I left for Brazil, I found out I might be able to stay with a host family in Caxias do Sul. I wanted to know more details before I committed—the rent, the location, any ground rules, etc.—so I told Maria Valésia, our advisor in Caxias, that I’d be happy to learn more about the opportunity. I thought I was being tactful, but I should’ve known that tact doesn’t always translate. It took two weeks for Maria Valésia to respond to my email. “I’m sending a message from your host family,” she wrote. “I’m sure you’ll love them.”
Maria Valésia’s email included a message from Elaine, my host mom: “I am 52 and I’m studying photography and I’m from São Paulo… I live in Caxias for 20 years and I’m, extroverted. I like people, poetry, Art, Music, good wine, and chat with friends.” Maria Valésia’s email was also addressed to Barbara, another ETA in Caxias do Sul. We’d be staying with Elaine together.
I’ll admit that I was nervous at first—nine months is a long time to agree to live with a near-complete stranger—but now that I’m here, I feel so lucky to have a little surrogate family.
Elaine is a great host mom. She’s supportive and patient and incredibly generous, and she has a sly sense of humor that makes her a lot of fun to talk to. We routinely chat for hours each day—during meals, on walks, while hanging out and watching TV—and she has never been anything but encouraging as Barbara and I attempt to speak Portuguese.
This includes my first conversation with Elaine over Facebook, in which I proudly used what little Portuguese I knew to ask her about the cat I’d seen in the photos on her profile:
ME: Hi, Elaine! Do you have a cat?!
ELAINE: Hello Adam… not anymore. My cat died. I do not have any animals
Barbara, too, has turned out to be a great housemate. We’re at the same level in Portuguese (so we both have to struggle and learn), and having an extra set of ears makes everyday interactions so much easier. I also feel like we complement each other nicely—Barbara is outgoing, happy to use exaggerated charades to get her point across, whereas I’m calmer and focus on nailing down random vocab and grammar. We both get the benefit of each other’s learning styles, and even Elaine has remarked that it’s a good balance.
I also have two host sisters, although I haven’t seen them much. Giovana is 23 and currently studying law in Porto Alegre. Bruna is 25 and attending the Universidade de Caxias do Sul to become a doctor. More importantly, Bruna told me that she her friends enjoy board games, so it looks like my strategy of bringing Settlers of Catan to make friends will pay off.
In addition to the language benefits (and the cultural guidance, and the local recommendations, and advice about areas to stay away from), living with a host family has already created some pretty incredible opportunities.
For example, last Sunday, Bruna’s boyfriend (Maikel) invited us for churrasco up on his parents’ farm. We drove about twenty minutes out of Caxias on the highway, and then maybe another ten on some precariously steep gravel roads. There, nestled into the countryside, was this little oasis of home-grown food and rustic charm.
Driving through the gates was like entering a Better Homes and Gardens magazine. Fruit trees dotted the yard, and the biggest expanse of lush grass had been cordoned off to form a small volleyball court. Meanwhile, Maikel’s dad, Irineu, was turning skewers of beef that had been raised and butchered on the farm. I asked him how he learned how to prepare churrasco—he said he’s been doing it since he was a boy.
I’m afraid that my enjoyment of that afternoon is going to be lost in the bland hyperbole of whatever words I use to try to describe it. But suffice it to say, it was a really special meal, easily my favorite in Brazil, and I was so grateful that Irineu and his wife, Celoni, invited us to share in it.
It seems that commercially, the farm is mainly an orchard, so in addition to all the home-grown beef, we also got to enjoy just-picked pears and persimmons as well as fresh honeycomb from the bees that Irineu and Celoni keep. To work this all off, we played a few rounds of volleyball, and then Irineu led us on a walk through the orchards and pastures to see the view from the edge of his property:
I’m acutely aware that this is an experience I wouldn’t have had if I weren’t placed with a host family. And that’s been the theme of my first couple weeks here, really. Every day, I’m thankful that I’m surrounded by people who are excited to share their homes and culture with me, even if just for a few months.
When it comes to making a home in a new place, it helps to have family.