Erika JohnsonThe one thing I miss most when traveling for long intervals is a sense of home. Believe me, the freedom that travel brings is glorious, but at times I crave a bit of familiarity and belonging. So, how do you find the right balance of comfort and curiosity in a foreign country? By living in someone else’s home.

While traveling through France for a year, I created numerous families and homes along the way. Each one was different but all provided me with equal doses of adventure and stability; oh, and copious home-cooked meals. On my journeys, I found that homestays brought a richness and authenticity that I would have never experienced had I stayed in hotels or even hostels. There is no better way to learn about people than by living in their home and sitting at their dinner table sharing food, stories and laughter.

Living in the countryside near Agen, I am the only child of an older, single woman. I arrive in February just in time for duck season. In my first week we drive over an hour to the small town of Gimont to line up early at the famous Marche au Gras, which literally translates to “fat market”. At 10:30AM sharp the bell dings and it’s off to the races. Buyers flood into the large hall, crowding around long white tables lined with plucked ducks and geese. They examine the birds with a discerning eye and question the vendors vigorously. After only about half an hour, the birds have all been sold and the hall is cleared out as if nothing had happened.

“Believe me, the freedom that travel brings is glorious, but at times I crave a bit of familiarity and belonging.

Back at the farm we gather in the kitchen of the 18th century stone farmhouse and get to work on our duck creations: pate, civet, rillettes, confit, and foie gras. Outside frost is gathering on the grass and ice is forming on the duck pond, but inside the warm kitchen we sit down by the fire to a dinner of duck breast and buttery polenta. Yum.

On Homestays: Living with Foreign Families

In the Aveyron region, my five siblings, all from different countries, and I stay in a giant stone house together. Our mom is a lovely French woman and a hippy from way back. She shows us around the small but productive kitchen garden and teaches us to make homemade yogurt. After our daily chores, we jump in mom’s car to explore the surrounding villages. We find gems like Bozoul with its houses built 500 meters atop limestone cliffs and the Dourdou River below running brown from the high iron content in the soil. Conques lies in a quiet, forested gorge of the Dourdou River. Its winding cobblestone lanes and beautiful homes with a pink hue leave us swooning. And Belcastel, with its stunning stone homes and streets, is built right into the steep bank of the Aveyron River. After a good day of exploration we gather round the fire playing music, writing songs, and sharing the personal stories that brought us all together in this house.

On Homestays: Living with Foreign FamiliesI take singing lessons in French with my Scottish parents in the Minervois region. The teacher comes to their house each week, and we gather round the beautiful grand piano to practice our tunes. My parents are obsessed with classical music. In fact, the only non-classical CD they have in the entire house is Stevie Wonder’s Definitive Collection. As we sing the winding, tree-lined Canal du Midi flows gently by outside the window. From my bedroom I can almost see Spain on the horizon, and vineyards stretch in every direction for miles. In the late afternoon we ride bicycles along the canal, visiting the small towns along the way and sampling homemade ice cream made with goats’ milk. It is late October, so the region is mostly void of tourists and the plane trees along the canal have turned a deep orange. Back at the house we all make dinner together in the warmth of the wood stove. Tonight, we turn Stevie up loud and dance around the kitchen island singing, using empty wine bottles as our microphones.

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Words and photos: Erika Hildegard Johnson

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