Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Five Reasons to Do a Homestay For a Weekend (+ Northern Ireland Trip Recap)

I recently visited Northern Ireland for the first time! I had a phenomenal weekend enjoying the natural wonders of the region, but what really made my trip special was the wonderful nonprofit HostUK, which matches exchange students studying in the UK with UK host families for a weekend. Thanks to this organization, I got to stay with a lovely family living just north of Belfast and spend a day traveling with them along the Antrim Coast. Here’s why I loved it, and why you should do a similar program if you get the chance.

1. Visit somewhere you never would have thought of


Hexagonal rock formations at Giant's Causeway National
Trust Site—myth says they were formed by a Northern
Irish giant fighting with a Scottish giant, leading to similar
rock structures on either side of the sea.
Without this program, I doubt I would have thought to visit Belfast on this study abroad trip, let alone my host family’s small suburb or the northern coast! As beautiful as it sounded, I would have written off the area’s natural wonders as being too far from the city and too inaccessible.

But since HostUK doesn’t ask you where you’d like to go (although they ask you how much money you’re willing to spend) Northern Ireland was chosen for me. And I couldn’t be happier that it was. I got to drive with my host family along the Antrim Coast Highway, a scenic driving route that follows the northern coast of the country, stopping at National Trust sites along the way. I got to see Giant’s Causeway, with its rock formations unlike anything I’d seen before, and Carrick-a-Rede, the famous rope bridge that crosses gemstone blue water that I couldn’t satisfactorily capture with my camera. Even my host family’s town was a beautiful escape from London, close enough to make a trip to Glenariff Forest Park before I flew home on Sunday.


2. Try authentic local food


People crossing the Carrick-a-Rede (from the Scottish Gaelic
"Carraig-a-Rade," meaning "The Rock in the Road") rope
bridge from the mainland to a small island
Not only was my host family kind enough to introduce me to the Ulster Fry (side note: potato bread? The most delicious thing in the world), but they also took me to Morelli’s, a local favorite that serves fantastic honeycomb ice cream. (They were shocked when I said I’d never tried it before—is it just me, or is it not much of a thing in the US?)


3. Learn about local culture from experts


Thanks to my host visit, I know more about political divides in Northern Ireland, UK currency, and the geographic subdivisions of my host family’s town, and more! I also got to speak with my hosts (one of whom is a maths teacher and a career counselor for students) about the UK uni application process and so much more.

Plus, I got to experience day-to-day local life. I hopped between Asian food supermarkets looking for spices and desserts with my host family’s son, who had just returned from studying in Japan. I went to my host family’s church on Sunday morning. These experiences are hugely different from what I’d do on a normal vacation, but when it comes to travel, different is good.


4. Put your culture in a new context


This picture in no way does the view justice, but thanks to
glacier movement, you can find panoramic valley views at
Glenariff Forest Park.
Whether you’re interacting with local students every day or (like me) taking classes with predominately other US exchange students, doing a homestay will allow you to share aspects of your culture in ways you might not have before. I was reminded how ridiculous US driving habits are when my host family expressed surprise at seeing so many southern Irish cars on the road. (“Dublin is a three hour drive from here!” they said. “That’s really not that far,” I responded.) We also talked about US politics and higher education, and we shared travel stories from our National Parks as we hiked through Northern Ireland's National Trust sites.


5. Make connections 


Ultimately, HostUK strives to connect people across cultures, and at least in my experience, it absolutely succeeded. I loved getting to know my host family as people and talking about our respective lives. Being invited to eat, travel, and stay with a near stranger forces you to get to know them more quickly than normal and connect in brand-new and fulfilling ways. It was an unusual experience for sure, but in the best possible way.
You can find out more about the program, apply for a visit (or to be a host!),
and support the organization here

If you’re an international student studying in the UK, I can’t recommend HostUK enough! The process is easy, and it’s free except for travel, tickets to any sites you visit, and a gift for your host family. 


Have you ever done a homestay (for a weekend or longer)? If you’re from the US, have you ever tried honeycomb ice cream? Let me know in the comments. 

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