It had been exactly 2 years since I had boarded my bus to Vilnius, Lithuania and left my host family behind in Riga, filled with the memories of my adventures and time spent with them. Before arriving in Latvia for the first time in 2015 I was honestly not looking forward to having a host family. I had grown accustomed to a tenacious independence in my first year at West Virginia University. My schedule was fixed, my stubborn perception of adulthood was cemented, and I had convinced myself to gather as much emotional distance away from my host family as possible. This lasted less than 2 days. Gita, Odriya, and Orist welcomed me to Latvia with such compassion and support that I attempted to avoid. My first night, my host Mother, Gita, was working late and was not able to greet me right away. The kids, Odriya and Orist, did their best to entertain me as most kids of age 11 and 14 do by showing me their favorite YouTube videos. I found comfort in their simplicity and approachability.
The next morning, I woke to the smell of fresh eggs and blini (pancakes) lingering in the air and calling me to the kitchen. It was here where I realized that Gita, my host mother who always remained with a vibrant smile on her face, did not speak English. While you might think that it is quite problematic, I embraced the circumstances pretty well if you ask me. Relying on my, at the time juvenile, Russian Language skills accompanied with my above average charades capabilities, we had a pleasant first interaction for which I will never forget. As the weeks went on, every day I felt eager to come home from class and experience the love and compassion that I had never expected. I taught Odriya and Orest how to throw a football and they taught me the value of being a positive exemplar of culture in the lives of others. Gita and I often had tea together, as she assisted me with my homework and spoke with such candor about the history of Latvia and life in the Soviet Union. I gained so much from these intuitive discussions, which arguably solidified my interests in the region, and served as my reason to return. On my last day, they escorted me to the bus stop even though I had persisted that it wasn’t needed. They looked at me as if I had gone crazy. Over the weeks I had experienced life with them, and it had been quite the life indeed. I felt as if I had been there my whole life in my short 4 weeks staying there.
Once I arrived in Riga roughly 3 weeks ago, I immediately sent Odriya a message from the airport, it wasn’t 20 minutes before I received a reply of “When will we meet?” My hectic work schedule and the office’s location away from the city center prevented me from immediately going for a visit. Finally, one evening I had my chance and informed them of my free evening in Old Town. We had decided to get ice cream somewhere in the city. I instructed Odriya to choose her favorite ice cream place in the city for our gathering, and she replied: “McDonald’s it is”. She had not changed much after all. We met and Gita ran into my arms like a horse charging into battle, giving me the warmest and most tender of hugs. The children, well I guess “teenagers” now, followed suit. Gita then pulled from her purse a black sleeping mask, for which I had been searching for since I had left in order to evade the long sun-filled nights in the Baltic. After all this time she had kept it for me. “I knew you would come back, and it would be here for you,” she said laughing.
We purchased our ice cream and went to the neighboring park for a stroll. We relived the memories of my visit two years ago as we walked through the tumultuous crowds feeding the birds along the canal. My Russian had drastically improved since Gita and I had first met. We held a pleasant conversation (no charades this time), with Odriya and Orest (who don’t speak Russian) chiming in to translate Latvian occasionally or add in their thoughts on a particular memory. I had informed them of my bike escapades in the city, and they had reflected on the time I had nearly lost my eyebrows to the flames of a charcoal grill I had claimed to know how to light. In this way, we also spoke about our current dreams, and the dreams we once had sought. I felt like I had never left them, speaking to them as I had spoken two years ago. They walked me back to the bus stop before making plans to travel to the countryside in the beginning of July for a relaxing hiatus. I assured them that this time I would not be responsible for the charcoal grill. We chuckled. And like all conclusions to our conversations, Gita told me she loved me, as a mother would tell her own child.
Looking back at my experiences with my host family, I was wrong for first forming a stubborn divide. Going to Latvia in 2015 I put up a barrier to shade me from experiencing what I missed the most: the love of my family. I learned that a host family can reciprocate just as much love as your own can show. My tip: a host family is your way of truly assimilating into a culture. You must embrace your caretakers and learn from them as you are learning in your own classrooms. They are valuable resources for your education abroad and who knows, they may change the scope of your life through their kindness. Gita, Odriya, and Orest showed me that love and compassion reach beyond borders and beyond culture. I am glad to have them present in my life still today. Another update is due for our further visits. Who knew coming full circle could be this thrilling?