Student Spotlight: Xander Barbar on Living in an Irish Homestay

It’s a lovely Thursday afternoon in Edinburgh and I’ve just sat down for an interview with UCLA student Xander Barbar, a Global Studies major and Entrepreneurship minor who is interning at the Irish Parliament with UCEAP. Xander is currently living in an Irish homestay, and we’re here to gain some insight into his experience.

So I hear you’re a Harry Potter fan?

I’m a big Harry Potter fan. I read the books every summer. Well, I try. And I’ve been to see the play – twice actually. Once in England and once in New York.

Wow. You must be really stoked to be here in Edinburgh: the birthplace of Harry Potter. Alright, let’s begin!

It’s common for students to be initially apprehensive about living in a homestay. What were your thoughts on the idea before you arrived?

That’s so relevant to me actually, I think I was very apprehensive about it coming in. I had just come off another program where I lived in student accommodation. So going from being alone and completely self-sufficient to an environment that I would associate with pre-college (living with a family), it almost felt like I was going to move back home, except with strangers. I just feel like I didn’t really know what to expect. And it was the unknowing that was really scary. 

Describe your host family and their home. What was it like to meet them for the first time?

So I arrived in Dublin, and then I got shipped in a taxi to our home in the middle of Dalkey, which is a suburb of Dublin. And I turned up and there was my host mom, right there. I met her and she was so nice! I could not have asked for a better homestay. It’s amazing. I much prefer it to living in an apartment. I have a big room all to myself. Irish houses are a little bit different than American houses in that most of them are one level, or maybe bi-level. They’re not as stacked as a lot of American houses are in urban areas.

Anyway, there’s actually another student living with us, so it’s not just me. And I like that a lot because I get to walk with her in the morning to the train. Then there’s the mom, the dad, and one of the daughters, who lives there full time. The other daughter lives there two nights a week. We’re staying in the rooms where their other two children used to live before they moved out of the house. One advantage of Irish families is that they tend to be a little bit bigger, so they have more space to accommodate guests.

How did you feel when you first moved in? How long did it take for you to feel settled into your living situation?

I think initially my apprehension was: are they going to accept my lifestyle choices? Like coming in at 12 at night. Is that going to be okay or is that going to disturb people? Do I take showers that are too long? Because we have a shared bathroom. There are only 1.5 baths in the house for five people. Everything that you can imagine worrying about when you move to a new place, I had those feelings. But I think I was much more apprehensive about it that I needed to be. It works really well.

In terms of settling in, maybe about a week? It was really fast. A lot of the homestays in my program tend to be people who are very invested in their guests. So I don’t do any of my own laundry, which is a weird feeling because that hasn’t been the case for many years now. I don’t take out the trash, I don’t do the dishes, which is very weird. I’ve asked to do all of these things and they’re like no no no no. I walk the dog, but that’s it. So when I come home, I feel like I’m in a safe space and it’s very relaxing. Maybe not right now, but I definitely think that when I leave, I’m going to feel like a member of their family. They have a very inclusive vibe, and it makes me feel so much more like a part of the community in Ireland, which I love.

Describe your typical school day. How much time do you spend at your homestay on average?

I work in the parliament two and a half days a week, and I go to school one and a half days a week. Monday to Thursday, I’m pretty much out of the house from 8am to maybe 5 or 6, unless I stay out later. So I’m in the house for breakfast and then on most weekdays I’m home for dinner. The program provides those meals for us in the house, and they’re all cooked. It’s really bizarre just coming home and having things ready to be eaten. I feel like I’m living at my house. Good meals, too. We live in a little town, so in the evenings a lot of the different students from the homestays will get together. We also live near a lot of water and natural features, so from the homestays it’s really easy to hike.

Do you feel that you have gained a deeper understanding of Irish culture as a result of your living situation?

100%. It wouldn’t be possible for me to have the same experience without living in the homestay. A lot of Americans tend to stick together on study abroad programs, and this really forces us to be pushed out of our comfort zones. I have to do a lot more domestics tasks in an area where there’s not a lot of Americans present. So I learn a lot about what people’s views are on certain topics. I hear the really academic side from my professor, and then I also get to experience what normal people feel about the same thing.

Have you had to deal with any awkward situations at your homestay? How have you been able to handle them?

Okay — the dog. He’s a beagle. And he’s young. So he’s a lively dog and he’s super smart. I don’t know where he got it from, but he acts like a child. He can open any door in the house even if it’s locked. So he’s definitely walked in on me while I’m changing. I mean he could care less, but it’s just that if other people start walking by, it’s very weird. I’ve definitely had to let my comfort zone about being a more private person go down a little bit. Grin and bear it, and I think it will all be okay. It’s nothing that people haven’t dealt with before.

What is one thing you like about living with your host family? Tell a story or memory that comes to mind.

The best one is actually this past Sunday. My mom and I, when I was younger, used to watch this show in the U.S. called Dancing with the Stars. Ireland has their own version of Dancing with the Stars, and apparently my host family is really into it. It’s a family bonding activity for them. I had casually mentioned in one conversation that I was a fan of it, and then I came home after being with my friends on Sunday, and they had prepared popcorn and a bunch of snacks. We all got into our pajamas and watched the show. It was just us, sitting with the dog, and it made me think of when I was younger sharing those moments with my parents. It doesn’t have to be a big gesture, but knowing that I am an appreciated member of their family is really awesome.

You mentioned that you have experienced other living situations when you studied abroad in Japan recently. What has the homestay offered you that university accommodation could not?

The sense that I’m not completely in an unfamiliar place. In Japan, it was very much like living at a UC in that you have your own place, you’re generally responsible for finding your own food, and you don’t have access to the same amenities that you would in a home. So I think that the homestay offers you the chance to focus your learning curve on what’s outside of the home. You don’t have to think about the living day-to-day elements as much. In the house, it’s more of a communal effort. We all get together and talk about those kinds of things, and it doesn’t feel like a chore. So I’m able to really appreciate my experience more than I was in a different type of living situation. Maybe it’s a little less independent; that’s the one downside, but it’s well worth the sacrifice.

What advice would you give to future students who might be living in a homestay?

Definitely consider it! I think I was ready to dismiss any homestay program out of hand. I didn’t want to live with a strange family, I didn’t want to push myself, and I was a fully independent person. But taking the risk and choosing something like the homestay has been really rewarding. Don’t think about what you’re going to be giving up, think about what you can gain.

What is one thing that you love about living in Ireland in general?

I just love the walkability. 100%. I have basically decided that I can’t live in an area where I have to rely on a car. In the U.S. you have to somewhat worry about how you’re going to get home. Here, the public transportation and the short distance between things is so freeing. You can have a great time, you can stay out hiking or whatever, and you can get home and not have to worry. It just takes so much stress off of your mind. Ireland has been fantastic in that regard.

What is one of your favorite quotes that relates to your experience so far?

“You are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think.”

Winnie the Pooh