When I was about to move in with a Spanish homestay for two weeks straight, I was a little nervous. I had been an au pair in Austria the year before and I knew from my own personal experience as well as the experiences of friends that host families can really make or break an experience. You’re entering someone’s home as a foreigner. It’s easy for there to be awkward moments, miscommunication, and drama. Luckily, I was one of the lucky ones who had a superb experience.
I chose the immersion program for CIEE because I really needed something/someone to force me to learn Spanish, where I didn't have the option of being lazy. The two weeks of intensive courses plus the aspect of living with a native Spanish speaker was the push I needed.
My roommate was going to be Lauren, another girl from CIEE who I hadn’t really talked to much during the orientation aside from at breakfast one morning when we discovered we were in the same homestay. When Lauren and I walked into our small shared bedroom in the homestay, it was decorated in Spongebob bedding. Excited, I exclaimed “oh my god, I love Spongebob!” and then hesitantly, “... do you?” Lauren replied “Yes, of course!” and from then on, I knew we would be pals.
Throughout our stay there, we both had a similar mindset of “excited and eager to explore but also totally comfortable doing absolutely nothing and relaxing.” We did everything together from day trips to hiking to trying different restaurants, but also would often hang out in the room on our laptops in comfortable silence. We both have the same childlike sense of humor and go-with-the-flow attitude. Lauren is still my best friend here in Madrid.
When Lauren and I were walking through the doors of our hotel to head to the homestay, the coordinator told us there was a switch with our host moms, and we would actually be staying with another woman named Isabel. Luckily, Isabel lived basically right across the street from the hotel. We pushed our suitcases up the sidewalk for a few minutes and we were there!
Isabel is a mixture of a caring mother, fun aunt, chatty sister, and guardian angel. It was just us and her for all of the days except two. Her son Sergio was on vacation with his dad for those weeks. When we first arrived in her home, she was very surprised that we didn’t eat meat (but we did eat fish). She said it would be difficult, because she eats a lot of meat (classic Spaniard), which made us a little uneasy. However, she never failed to get super creative with meals. Isabel is a fabulous cook and always had an amazing meal prepared for us when we arrived home, exhausted and hungry from our three-hour intensive Spanish classes in the evening.
Isabel was also hilariously fun for a 50-something mom. A few times she went out partying and didn’t return until the middle of the night. She would talk to us in rapid Spanish about boys and relationships and we would nod and smile, not yet knowing enough Spanish (and also being too awkward) to respond.
One day, Lauren and I decided to skip Spanish class because we were so exhausted physically and mentally. (Summer time heat in Madrid really drains you). We went and got food instead and we had agreed that when we returned we would pretend we had been in class. Isabel had prepared us an absolute feast of bread and pasta and salad and empanadas. Not wanting to be rude, we scarfed it down quickly, shoving it into our already-full stomachs. We felt like we were going to explode, but we couldn’t have Isabel know that we had skipped our studies to eat. Isabel is smart, though. As we were heading to our room to go to bed, she asked us suspiciously if we went to class. We got flustered and tried to talk our way out of it in broken Spanish. She stopped us, saying “no pasa nada, chicas!” embodying all of her cool, funny Isabel-ness with a simple wave of her hand. “No voy a decir nada!”
The time with my host family flew by. While I was ready to have my own space and routine at the end, I was quite sad to leave Isabel and Lauren. Isabel still messages us with information on things to do in Madrid (a list of museums’ free hours, tickets to amusement parks, coupons to restaurants, etc.). She’s even asked us to tutor her son in English. We honestly had no problems with our host family, but some others did. When staying with a host family, just remember to clean up your messes, not make too much noise late at night, and have open communication. Be aware and respectful of your host family. Do your dishes, turn off the lights when you leave a room, don’t watch TV too loudly at night. Problems can arise regardless of how hard you try, but do the best you can. It’s hard to adjust to life in a new home with a new family, but whether or not you come out of the experience with a new best friend, you’ll definitely come out of it with some good stories.