Aran’s youth exchange


Ever since I was a child, there have always been strangers staying in my family’s household. From foreign exchange students to world roaming cyclists, I have always felt most at home when other people are in it. As a result, I paid little attention when my parents explained to me, an 11-year old at the time, that they were joining an organization they had heard of called Servas. In fact, it was only 2 and a half years later that my younger self was given any reason to care at all. However, once Servas became relevant to my life, it quickly became very important. In September of 2014, my family embarked on a world tour in which Servas would play a large role.

As we travelled around the world, we were exposed to many different cultures, and for many of them there was at least one Servas family willing to take us in. This was an absolutely amazing experience as we were not only provided with friendly conversation and a place to stay, but also with otherwise hard-to-find insights into the lives and cultures of foreign peoples. One experience I will never forget is being in Jaipur, a major city in India, and staying with Raj, Hamsa and their daughter Adu. With them we shared traditional food from both of our cultures, and talked about politics and the world in general. Years prior, Raj had done a two-year bike trip around the world with his family joining him for a year.

It was also through Servas that I was able to meet Titouan. He is a French boy my age who came to stay with us in Toronto and to learn English for a month this past summer. Between a trip to a cottage in the Kawartha highlands and a tour of the eastern United States, we created a lot of memories together. If I had never come into contact with Servas, my life would be so much less rich. It is because of this that I heartily recommend Servas to any would be world travellers. Believe me, you won’t regret it

Renewing old Servas friendships in France

Carol and Jim of Ottawa include Servas friendships and stays during their recent trek through the Pyrenees.

During the summer/fall of 2017 we completed a trek on France’s GR 10 trail, a 950 km coast-to-coast route through the French Pyrenees. Because of the planning and logistical difficulties of staying with hosts along our way, we chose to limit our Servas travel to before and after our trek.

Before starting on France’s Atlantic coast, we wanted to play tourist for a couple of days in Bordeaux. We were unsuccessful in finding a host to stay with, but eagerly accepted a dinner invitation from Servas host Christianne. Along with her adult son, we had a very pleasant evening of lively conversation.

After our 10-week trek, we visited folks we already knew through Servas, and renewing those friendships was a perfect way to end our three-month stay in France! Our first stop was to see Carmenza and Louis, near Toulouse, who first visited us in Ottawa in 2011 and have diligently stayed in touch ever since. They showed us around their small town, took us to a very interesting aeronautical museum, and gave us a tour of Toulouse’s main sights. While no longer official hosts, they clearly continue to demonstrate the open and generous spirit of Servas.

From there we stayed a few days in the lovely walled city of Carcasonne before moving on to our next Servas rendezvous, near Avignon. Jim and I met Nöelle and Michel on our first-ever trip with Servas in June 2005. We immediately clicked with this down-to-earth, outdoorsy couple living near Chamonix with a stupendous view of Mont Blanc from their deck. They recommended hikes for us while they were working, and we hiked together during the weekend. We enjoyed them so much we invited them to visit us in Ottawa some day for a quintessentially Canadian canoe camping trip. That idea caught their imagination, and three years later they decided to give it a try. In the lovely fall foliage we took them on a three-day circuit in the Lac du Poisson Blanc area of Quebec where, unbeknownst to us, a storm had recently felled quite a few trees over the portage routes. Ever good-natured, Michel could be heard to exclaim “c’est sportif!” repeatedly as he pushed their canoe under and over the windfalls blocking our way. We also took them hiking in Frontenac Park, where we skinny dipped in a lovely Canadian shield lake. After an excellent week together we once again bid them adieu, assured that we would see them again.

Fortunately, Jim had business in Provence in March of 2010. Afterwards we met Nöelle and Michel at the nearby home of their daughter Sabine. She and her husband Fabrice are also Servas hosts and welcomed us warmly even though they had very recently added a baby to their family. We next saw them in 2012 – for only one night – during our first long-distance trek, on the GR 5 trail through the French Alps, which passed near their home. What a pleasure it was to reunite with our friends once again at Sabine and Fabrice’s house near Avignon in October of 2017! We so enjoyed seeing their new house, getting to know the school-aged child we last saw as a baby, sharing delicious meals, having a rousing ping-pong competition, and hiking together again. Nöelle and Michel are somewhat older than we are and have slowed down some from that first meeting 12 years ago – when we could barely keep up with them! – but are still hiking, biking, travelling and volunteering. They love talking about words and language and exchanging humourous idioms in both of our mother tongues. Every time we see them, we feel like we’ve never left.

In our travels with Servas we have most often interacted with hosts in short bursts of time during which we’ve learned a great deal about each other’s lives and cultures. Even when we’ve never seen our hosts again we have considered that time extremely worthwhile. Servas has also facilitated long-lasting friendships for us, both abroad and at home… a delightful bonus.

Australian and Japanese conversations

Kent and Thom of Quadra Island, British Columbia, share their joy of valued time spent with Servas hosts, including day hosts.

[Thanks for mentioning day hosts; as a day host myself, I had the extreme pleasure of touring two retired teachers from Japan around the mountains and foothills of Alberta. Day or overnight – the value of Servas is in the communication! – Julie Cormack]

In early 2018, we travelled for five months in four Pacific Rim countries. As part of this trip, we stayed with three Servas host households in Australia–with Maggie and Ralph in Port Fairy in the state of Victoria; with Rose and Alastair in Adelaide; and with Karen and Mike near Manjimup in Western Australia. In each instance, the hosts’ generosity in the meals they shared with us and the considerable amount of visiting time they provided us in the midst of their busy lives was amazing and extremely gratifying. Whether it was touring us around their community or seated around their dining room table over an Australian red, rosé, or white, we spent hours exchanging perspectives on global issues and local customs. As well, we benefitted from the hosts’ suggestions of nearby, off-the-beaten-track attractions and activities for us to see and do–well beyond what the brochures from the tourist offices covered. We clicked so well with all three Servas households that each is giving thought to visiting us in Canada in the future, making for a true exchange and enabling us to return the hospitality.

We are sure that most travellers can recall similar positive experiences when staying with Servas hosts. One aspect of Servas travelling that may be more easily overlooked is how tremendously worthwhile a visit with a Servas day host can be. Although usually not having the ability to share their living space with travellers, a day host can be a delightful way to gain insight into the local community and culture. In Adelaide, we had a lovely two-hour coffee with Jack, a retired teacher who proved to be fascinating company as we compared Australian and Canadian union movements and politics and heard about the election monitoring that Jack has done in other countries.

In Tokyo, day-host Nobuaki spent most of a Sunday with us, taking us to two museums and a street where local artisans were selling their wares. The highlight of the day, however, was discovering that, for the past five years, Nobuaki has been studying and apprenticing in the traditional Japanese tea ceremony, and he performed this very deliberate and meaning-filled ritual for us–truly an honour as well as a treat! Nobuaki’s ability to speak some English permitted us to get past any language barrier and ask him many questions that came to mind about Japan’s rich and intriguing culture.

Local connections

Evelyn and Rod speak of their local Canadian experiences.

What a pleasure to explore our own country and create new Servas friends along the way. We recently returned from a visit in Ontario where we connected with two Servas hosts. We learned about Toronto from native Torontonians, and were surprised when we discovered a common Alberta connection. In southern Ontario we learned about musical theatre and the construction business. We shared travel stories and teacher stories. Our Ontario hosts were warm, welcoming and added that special dimension to our vacation that you just do not find in a sterile hotel room. We tell everyone about Servas, and have been pleased to be a part of this wonderful organization for almost 20 years.



Holy Land food trail

Andrée shares his culinary adventures and Seder experiences in the Holy Land, a very hospitable region.

I love learning and I love teaching, especially in the kitchen. My trip to Israel has completely fulfilled these needs. We were so fortunate to be welcomed by such open-hearted, generous, willing to share great Servas hosts. My interest in travelling to Israel was peaked when I started cooking with the Ottolenghi-Tamimi cookbooks years ago, discovering spices such as za’atar and baharat. Mediterranean cuisine had just expanded exponentially!
First stop at the Helena restaurant in Caesarea. Mediterranean sea view and fish for lunch.
Forward to April 2017, Easter, Passover and a lot more was going to unfold. Our first night allowed me to learn how to cook eggplants with tahini sauce, guacamole with avocados, the Israeli tomato and cucumber salad with za’atar, and a pasta dish with zucchini, basil, and garlic. Freshness on a plate! Of course, the olives are omnipresent too. The next day, our hosts made sure we discovered authentic Arabian breakfast at Said in Acre (Akko). They brought us some warm hummus, tahini, olives, pickled cucumbers, tomatoes, pita, and onion quarters used to scoop the hummus. Food discovery alert! Supper: a local fish bought at the Acre market and prepared with our host back in Haifa was served with tahini sauce with lemon, garlic and parsley.My discoveries continued through various cultural, geographic, and religious backgrounds of Jewish, Palestinian, north of Africa, Spanish, eastern Europe and more.Our next host arranged for us to attend a Shabbat dinner – our first ever! Again, here it was a splendid feast, and to our astonishment they do it every Friday night! Imagine a table filled with roasted vegetables, tahini sauce, tomato and cucumber salad, cabbage salad, more salads, salmon, olives, and a vegan dessert made with cashews and raw chocolate!We also had the privilege to visit the Afikim kibbutz, tour a state-of-the-art dairy facility and join in for lunch in the cafeteria. But first, our host invited us for coffee and freshly marinated cucumbers; delightful!Before lunch, the Afikim cafeteria chef took us for a quick tour of his kitchen where they prepare 6,000 meals a day!! Tables are set with tablecloths to make you feel at home. The food here represents influences from eastern Europe.

Exploring the Golan Heights allowed us to discover Druze cuisine in Majdal e-Shams. Here too, the chef gave us a tour of his kitchen and kept sending more tasters for us to discover. He was explaining that the kibbeh are always made by hand by the ladies of the family.

The next morning, in Rosh Pina, we were treated to a Mediterranean breakfast with a spectacular view; tuna spread, marinated fish, two goat cheeses, four fresh cheeses, olives, tapenade and of course, fresh bread, right out of the oven!

On the road to Jerusalem, we stopped in Umm el Fahm where, after exploring narrow and very steep streets, we were fortunate to have a cook make a falafel in front of us, and gave have us the opportunity to taste a little bit of everything he was making. He even give us some cumin to make our own falafels back home.

We arrived in Jerusalem on a Saturday afternoon, very excited to walk to Mahane Yehuda and go exploring the market even though it’s closed during Sabbath. We ended up discovering a unique restaurant: Menza, on Betsal’el. Here we ate delicious beef cheeks “bourguignonne” and a hamburger with a local red wine.

Our first Kosher for Pesach (Passover) breakfast wass another food alert discovery: shakshouka, a dish of eggs poached in a sauce of tomatoes, chili peppers, and onions, often spiced with cumin.

Our Christian friends took us under their wing to celebrate Palm Sunday in the old city. Quite the experience for our Canadian space “bubble”! So many people! Our friend knows the city inside out and took us through back alleys. We had a quick tour of the “wine and cheese restaurant” kitchen at Notre Dame of Jerusalem Center and had a bite to eat. Food discovery alert: a fantastic herb goat cheese!

Miraculously, a plate of tabbouleh and kibbeh appeard, offered by the chef! On this tour, we are discovering Jerusalem (Israeli/Palestinian) hospitality and generosity. Since it is artichoke season, we went back to Menza to eat a fish kebab with roasted artichokes.

While having a coffee at the Mahane Yehuda market we saw people eating a delicious-looking pastry with meat and cheese and ask them where they got it. “Around the corner, to the left and left again.” When we finally arrived, they were closed for Passover. Another quest began – as we got to taste a number of fruit pastes or fruit leathers that we had never tasted before! So many nut varieties, olives, spices; and imagine, 250 merchants, calling to attract you to their stalls! A very lively market!

We took a free tour of the old city with Sandeman’s Tours that ends with yet another food discovery alert: bagel, za’atar, and olive oil….the best za’atar I have ever tasted! Why is it so good? This becomes the new quest. We stop at a restaurant to enjoy another Arabic lunch with hummus, falafel, and salad.

We were so fortunate to be invited by Jerusalem Servas hosts to our first Seder dinner to celebrate Pesach (Passover). What a discovery on the cultural, historical, religious, and food side! An evening full of emotions and new acquaintances. We learned so much: matzah, four glasses of red wine, dip your finger ten times in the wine, hard boiled eggs, gefilte fish, matzo ball soup, roast chicken, potato casserole, and carrots, as well as a bitter herb symbolizing the bitterness and harshness of slavery the Hebrews endured in Egypt; it was horseradish! We also saw the tradition of the Seder plate: chicken bone, egg, bitter herbs, vegetables, and a sweet paste called haroset. Another delicious feast! Another wonderful way to understand a different culture and the importance of remembering where you come from and passing this message onto the children!

The next day was mostly spent visiting Notre Dame of Jerusalem Center for its culinary school (hospitality and tourism program). Between the chef instructor and my Jerusalem friend, I learned much about freshness of the ingredients, different herbs grown in Israel, a few recipes and tastings, ending with a lovely lunch at the restaurant managed by students. They served us a seafood appetizer on puffed pastry, a beef tenderloin main course with a mushroom duxelle sauce and a delicious cheese cake for dessert! What a treat.

Our friend also showed us where to get the best falafel sandwich in the Old City souk where they made it right in front of us!

We learned about spices, pastries, eggs cooked in ashes and enjoyed the freshest bagels, so different from ours.

A well-deserved coffee at the Austrian hospice felt like a peaceful retreat right in the middle of the Old City.

We had dinner in Bethlehem, in a huge tent. About ten plates appeared on our table even before the main course arrived including: hummus, olives, pickled cucumbers, salads, fattoush, various fresh cheeses, labneh, deep fried halloumi, chicken and lamb kebabs covered with a large, thin pita bread, three balls of dry cheese on another salad! Yet another feast!

Our friend’s son took us deep into the bowels of the Old City to an old souk to learn about knafeh, a cheese pastry soaked in sweet, sugar-based syrup. Delicious, fresh and sweet! Made in front of you and served with a glass of black tea. What more can you ask?

During our visit to the Dead Sea, we learn more about tea; it is served as a welcome, to warm you up or calm you down, or for breakfast or before dinner. Basically tea for every occasion! We ate another food discovery alert: a matzo chocolate pie.

Another local family, arranged with our first Servas host, invited us to tour Ein Kerem where we enjoyed a nice walk, we tasted some raw almonds (green from the tree – eew, sour), and had a delicious restaurant lunch with Arabic salads, kebabs, eggplants, tahini, and cheeses. They made us discover another za’atar, bagels and even some cookies with sesame seeds (almost like florentines). The next discovery was an almond cookie that was kosher for Passover, a melt-in-your-mouth type cookie and a must have! A few days later, we had supper to conclude Pesach with mostly vegetarian dishes: eggplant with tahini, many salads, a fish dish. Another feast!

A few recommendations from our Canadian friends who lived in Jerusalem sent us to the American colony where we shared a delicious dish of warm hummus with spiced lamb sprinkled with pine nuts.

Our last day in Jerusalem took us to the Armenian tavern where we had the Armenian variations on shishlik, kebab, and Jerusalem mixed grill in the form of lamb kebab served with rice and a mixed plate of basturma (dried spiced meat), sausages, kibbeh, labneh, and sautéed vegetables. Overall delicious with good service.

Walking in Jaffa is a mixed bag of graffiti, old and new architecture, industrial areas, old cafes and new restaurants such as Tash & Tasha, a Georgian restaurant where soon after ordering, hummus, various condiments and cheese katchapouri appeared on our table. The meat katchapouri was a tasty discovery. Overall fantastic experience.

We had to dine at Claro in Tel Aviv because of our Israeli chef’s friend’s recommendation. This farm-to-table restaurant menu changes daily based on supply. The impressive wide open kitchen is surrounded by a wide bar. That day we ate crusted fish made in the traditional French salt-crusted dishes and executed to perfection. Definitely a highlight we shared with our Canadian friends leaving in the city.

What we have found from our wonderful experience is that Israel’s culinary scene extends its roots to and draws its nourishment from so many cultural, religious, and historical aspects that are worth exploring in great depth. And when everybody says they have the best hummus or that they invented it, they may in fact be right!