Sitting in a stranger’s kitchen, listening to a television-newscaster speak rapid-fire Spanish, eating pineapples from a can: this is how my student teaching experience in Spain began.
I had just gotten off a seven-hour plane ride, completely jet-lagged,and I had interrupted my new family’s morning flow (which we all know is a big no no). Oh, and I should mention that I didn’t speak Spanish and they didn’t speak English (save their 20-year-old son, who wasn’t often home).
I was in Spain for one month, teaching World History in English in a 9th grade classroom. The husband and wife who were my new host parents showed me around the house and left me in my room all day to unpack and acclimate. I was astounded by their implicit trust in me. A stranger was going to be living with them for four weeks and, honestly, we knew absolutely nothing about each other.
I still commend the ease with which they opened their home to me. I had to learn how to open myself to them and had to figure out how to survive living in a home that wasn’t my own.
Now, reflecting on my time in Spain, I’ve learned a few things along the way I wish I had known at the start…
When you stay with a host family, you are purposefully inserting yourself into other people’s lives, whether it be a family or a single person, so accept that fact and try to adapt.
Some hosts, like mine, may want to do everything with you as a way of helping you acclimate. Every time I walked out of my room, my host mother or father would be there asking me questions in Spanish that I couldn’t understand, no matter how hard I tried. And usually, I just wanted a glass of water. But others may just leave you alone to do your own thing. It completely depends on who your hosts are.
Just remember to keep everything in perspective. My family was trying to make me feel welcome as best they knew how. Remember to take living with a family as a cultural learning experience.
Give them a glimpse into your life.
It was my study abroad director who suggested I bring pictures of my family members to share with my new “family,” and it was a great idea. I wanted to tell them about my family back home if they were interested in listening.I’m not the hardened New Yorker that I’m sure they’ve seen in movies. I even brought a few of my favorite foods to share, such as tea and gluten free pasta. Of course, there was Hershey’s chocolate too, because who doesn’t love to receive foreign chocolate? Needless to say, their son was most excited about the candy, especially for the peanut butter filled M&Ms (the pot of gold at the end of the European chocolate rainbow).
Bring snacks you love, pieces of home, and photos of loved ones. If your hosts want to hear about your life, you’ll have a great topic for dinner conversation, even if it is painfully slow and in a broken foreign language.Have a quick chat …
Do you like spending time alone with your door closed? Do you want to practice the native language more? Do you sometimes prefer to cook and eat by yourself? To avoid offending your host family, make sure to let them know about your habits as this will avoid any unexpected misinterpretations.
These are all questions you might not be able to answer until a few days of living with your family, learning their routine, and seeing what you are comfortable with. If you know the language this conversation will be a lot easier but, chances are, even if you use a translator, your family will understand because they want you to be comfortable.
I wrote my host family a letter, which I had my host brother translate sentence by sentence. I simply said that while I truly appreciated their helpful actions, I also enjoyed some time to myself to be quiet and not hear Spanish, so sometimes my door would be closed. This eased a lot of underlying tension quickly because I didn’t feel guilty about closing my door and they understood why I went on solo weekend trips and took quiet evenings to myself.
Try not to tip-toe, but remember respect.
In most cases, you are paying to stay in their home and use any household objects that were agreed upon prior to or at the time of your arrival. You are allowed to live in their home, so if that means you need to cook dinner or want to do your work in the living room as opposed to your tiny room, go for it! You are allowed to be there (again, unless specifically stated by your family) so just be yourself and live your life with respectful parameters. You do not have to live the life of your family and do not expect to seamlessly integrate into their life because again, you are your own person with your own perceptions and schedule, and that is okay! Just always keep in the back of your mind, respect and appreciation are key.
Staying in your room is okay … just not all the time.
While it may seem tempting to stay in the bubble that is your bedroom whenever you are home, force yourself to get out a bit as well, and get to know the area you live in.
I stayed in a small town about 45 minutes north of Madrid, so I went for runs around the town and surrounding farmland, passing the same shepherd and his flock of sheep every day. I spent many afternoons at a local café sipping my favorite drink (orange Fanta), and working on teaching assignments. I even attended evening mass at a local church a few times. These activities will be different for everyone, but they will force you out into the world in ways that are comfortable for you. It’s all about taking baby steps.
Enjoy the first-hand knowledge!
There may not be a time when you are living abroad with a host family again, so take advantage of it!
You may not be as comfortable living with others as you would be if you were in an apartment or your college dorm room, but your hosts can be great resources. They know the best places to eat, which grocery store sells the best fruit, safe places to go walking or running, good weekend trip destinations, many, many recipes, and the list goes on and on.
I learned so much about the town I was staying in — how to take the bus into the city center, what foods were most traditional to the region, and how to cook a real Spanish tortilla. My host family even bought a bottle of wine for me to take back home to New York because they knew it was an excellent Spanish brand.
How do you decide if a homestay is the appropriate type of environment for you?
A homestay is completely unique to each situation and is different in every country and city. For some, living in a homestay is a welcoming and wonderful experience. For others, it takes a huge adjustment and a lot of work to feel comfortable. It also depends on how long you will be living with the family.
In my case, living with a host family for an extended period of time was not for me.
But there were positives that came from staying with my host family including language advances and a support system when I needed it. Plus, I now always have a house to return to if I ever find myself in Spain again!