What It’s Like to Grow up in a Hostel

On our recent trip to Brazil, my friends and I stayed at the Villa Française hostel in Salvador da Bahia, which is run by two French ex-pats, Stephanie and Nathalie. Seeing Stephanie’s 13-year-old daughter Emilie assist with daily hostel chores made me wonder about what it is like to grow up in a hostel and so I decided to interview her.

After repeated vacations in Brazil before 2007 at the Villa Française, and after her divorce, Stephanie fell in love with the country. When the French guest house was up for sale, she bought it together with her friend Nathalie, because she thought it was the right time to make her dream of a hospitality business come true. Stephanie’s children, Emilie and her brother Alexis, followed her mother.

In September 2007, still in France, 6-year-old Emilie did not have an easy start in elementary school: She was very quiet and had difficulties learning how to read and write. Her mother feared that the upcoming move to Brazil would give Emilie even more trouble because she did not speak a word of Portuguese. Three months later, the family moved to Brazil and Stephanie’s fears became true: Not only was Emilie bullied at school for not speaking Portuguese, and then, after learning some words, speaking with a French accent, but also for the still-existing stereotype of French people’s lack of hygiene.

A few weeks in, Stephanie was called to the principal’s office because Emilie bit and beat her bullies. Her daughter was no longer the shy, calm girl that she had been in France.

As soon as Emilie learned Portuguese, she started telling her mom about her school days in French, but ended in Portuguese because it was easier for her. The more Emilie could speak, the more she assimilated and soon, Capoeira, the beach, and Carnaval became an important part of her life.

When she is not at school or the beach, walking the dogs or reading, Emilie helps her mother with welcoming guests to the hostel, cleaning dishes, and sometimes assisting the maids with cleaning rooms or doing laundry. When I asked her if she would rather live in a “normal” household than a hostel, Emilie shakes her head. “Non,” she says confidently in French. She explains that she loves being around national and international guests and conversing with them.

Because she interacts with a lot of adults, Stephanie says that Emilie has their attitude rather than a child’s. Meeting all different kinds of people has made Emilie very sensitive of their actions; thus, she notices certain behavior, i.e. people’s lack of respect towards her due to her age. Furthermore, Emilie’s maturity shines through when she talks about how much she dislikes kids being on their phones constantly. She would prefer them to keep eye contact while listening to a conversation. Adults are more likely to do so, she says.

Because the hostel is only closed for 4 days during Christmas, Stephanie and Nathalie barely get free time that would allow them to travel. Emilie, however, visits her father and the rest of her family yearly during her summer vacation in December and January. She claims she doesn’t really miss her family in Europe too much because she is used to barely seeing them. However, she enjoys her time with them, because they are always curious about her life in Brazil, and she loves telling them about it.

When I asked her which guests she prefers, she names the Portuguese and French speakers, simply because it is easy for her to communicate with them. For three years, Emilie has also been studying English at school, which she is eager to learn since she plans on visiting England and the US. She knows phrases such as “Don’t put paper in the toilet” or “no smoking,” but otherwise prefers to communicate with hostel guests in French or Portuguese because she knows these languages better.

Emilie and her mom jokingly tell me that she wants to be a singer when she grows up. But then, she gets more serious and says she sees herself in a job requiring a lot of interaction with all kinds of people. She could imagine working in a hostel, but never owning one, because she recognizes Stephanie’s and Nathalie’s difficulties with it and their rare free time.

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