By College Tourist; Author: Sarah Dougherty, University of Alabama
Living with a host family was by far the best decision I could've made during my study abroad this spring
When I was homesick, my host mom comforted me with Cola Cao (Spanish hot chocolate.) It was fun to share funny moments about my host family with my friends and compare each of our families. If I was overwhelmed, I could go home to our apartment and feel like I belonged.
When I started at The University of Alabama, I was certain of two things: I wanted to study abroad in a Spanish-speaking country, and I wanted to live with a host family. Why? Because in my mind, studying abroad is a go-big or go-home situation. If you aren't diving into the culture every chance you get, why are you there? I knew that if I lived in an apartment with all Americans that we would speak English, cook American food, and set up our own little "American College Campus"-type destination.
While everyone has different goals and expectations of what they want their Study Abroad experience to be, I knew I wanted to experience the culture and work on my Spanish. I got the chance to accomplish both of those things, but also gained something more important: a family in a home away from home.
If you're considering studying abroad, I'd really encourage you to have a host family. It ended up being the best way for me to gain a sense of "normalcy," and feel like I was part of something. I had people to tell about my day, who took me to the Farmacía when I was sick, and who reminded me to grab my lunch before traveling. I learned so much about their habits and customs, and witnessed the Spanish focus on the Family first-hand. My host mom even lent me a Flamenco dress to wear to La Fería!
My host family even included me on their family vacation to the beach over the Easter Holiday week- something they weren't obligated to at all! It felt so nice to be introduced to and included with their extended family.
Getting paired with a homestay:
Connecting with a Host Family was very easy for me! As a part of API's Sevilla program, you get the option of living in a Residencia (a big house that hosts 12-20 students,) or in a Homestay. It was the same cost and same amenities: 3 meals a day/7 days a week, laundry, cleaning, wifi, etc., and then you filled out a preference form to help the Sevilla office staff pair you as best they can with one of their families. You can also choose whether or not you want your own room or if you'd be okay with sharing one with another API student. I set my preference as flexible, and ended up in my own room with my own bathroom, about 12 minutes from school and the center of town (pretty lucky, huh?). API was great for me because if you weren't comfortable with your family, location, or food, you could work with them to address and fix the situation, or move out if necessary, so had I needed an adjustment, I knew it would be okay. The API staff and homestay families truly are excited to have you and share their lives with you!
The best tips I got from my school and friends who've been there about preparing to live in a homestay revolved around respect:
Bring a keepsake from your town for them.
They're opening their home to you; the least you can do is bring them something to serve as a token of your hometown and appreciation. I brought them a Moravian Star and chocolate from a local store, and they loved learning about their significance and where I came from; it was a great conversation starter on my first night! It's a small gesture but it shows that you are open to their culture and sharing your experiences with them.
Bring house shoes.
A little random, but Spaniards like to keep things clean and rarely go barefoot in their homes. Bringing a little pair of sandals or slippers shows that you're understanding and respecting their customs from the get-go.
Keep your room clean.
Host families don't snoop through your belongings, but they do clean the house about once a week. Show them that you acknowledge that you are a guest and are respectful of their space and furniture; it's the least you can do!
I had a great family experience and learned a lot about the family-focused culture of Spain. There are many differences, and it was nice to be a part of their family life and learn about their traditions. I'm definitely going to take some of their practices (like consistent family meals) and incorporate them into my routines as well.
Here are some of my biggest tips for settling into Spanish (or any country's) family life:
Communicate with them. It's really important to talk to them, because A) it helps with learning the language, B) it'll help you get to know them, and C) it'll help you be on the same page with them. It's also a safety aid, too--let them know where you're travelling, when, and give them an easy way to contact you (usually e-mail because of wifi.) The more you fill them in on your schedule, classes, how your day was, etc., the closer you'll get to them.
Be honest if you don't like the food. I had a (now) laughably horrible night the first time my host mom, Isabel, made something I didn't like. I truthfully have never seen any creature that looks like the one she made, but I put it in my mouth and physically could not bring myself to swallow it. I panicked, tucked it into my cheek, and hoped I could figure out a way to make dinner fast-forward. Luckily, my host sister, Isa, picked up my vibe and we were able to re-group the meal. This was the first time I'd disliked something, but Isa told me that if I don't tell Isabel I don't like something, she'll start to think I'm lying about liking all of her food. And food is a HUGE part of Spanish culture. From then on, I wasn't hesitant in expressing opinions. There were only one or two situations after that, but I was able to say "I would prefer more/less _____ of this in the future," or something polite. Also, they notice what you eat, so if you really like something, tell them so they can pack it in your lunch more often, etc.
Spend time with them. Whether it's watching the news with them, going to the supermarket, or tagging along on family holidays, try to save time to chat with them and show that you are making an effort. Spaniards are all about forming relationships, and your presence is the best way to show that you're interested in and care about them.
Get to know their family. Though our apartment was only my semi-elderly host mom, Isabel, and her grown daughter, Isa, I was able to get to know Isabel's son and his wife and kids. I spent Easter with them and they brought me to the beach on their spring break trip for a day! It was so fun to be included and interesting to see their family dynamics and be part of their family meals.
Be patient. You won't always understand them. They won't always understand you. You might get sick of tortilla (though now I miss it like crazy). You might not like their favorite TV shows; whatever. But you will adjust! You'll figure out the plot, you'll figure out the accent and your language skills will improve. It truly does get better in time! You just have to be patient and again, make an effort.
Remember that it isn't your house. While it's important to feel like a member of the family and feel at home, it's equally important to remember that you are a guest as well. Keep your room picked up, help with dishes, and ask how to use something if you don't know (it'll help you avoid breaking something!) It's also okay to ask about people in photos, or special things in the glass case--chances are, they'll enjoy telling you and helping you. It might be a reminder that you haven't known them forever, but will help strengthen your relationship strong.
Enjoy them. You only get to live there for a certain amount of time. You'll have some ups and downs, hardest conversations than some, but you'll get the chance to bond with them. Isabel was the sassiest, most caring 73-year-old mom I could've hoped for. I loved our post-siesta chats and cheesy reality TV time. It's crazy to think that I don't know when I'll see them next... but I know when I return to Sevilla, I'll have Isabel and Isa to bring back all the memories and welcome me home with open arms.
Living with a host family can be challenging, and some people have better matches than others. There are ups and downs, but I'm convinced that nothing is warmer than coming home to a loving family in a new place. My family truly helped make Sevilla "home." They helped me when I was quiet, sad, or struggling to tell a story about my day, and they entertained me when we were all feeling chatty or excited about something going on. As far as my semester went, I can't imagine what it would've been like without them. I look forward to their emails and hope to one day visit them again, sooner rather than later.
If you're thinking about studying abroad, look into homestay options and ways you can experience culture in an immersive way... You won't regret it.
Read more student travel stories at The College Tourist