Living with a host family is an extremely unique experience that I would recommend to anyone. Somehow, I’ve been lucky enough to have three wonderful families through my times studying abroad and teaching in Costa Rica and Spain. If I’m willing and excited to live in a stranger’s home three different times, I clearly am a huge supporter and somewhat of an expert on the topic. But I understand why some people might be turned off to the idea: what if you don’t click with the family? How will it restrict your freedom? So for anyone toying with the idea of being an “adopted” member of a Spanish household, here’s my honest take on the positives and negatives of living with a host family.
An authentic look into the culture:
Nothing will give you a better look into the Spanish culture than living right smack in the middle of it. Living, breathing and being engaged with your host family every day helps you notice, catch on to and mimic customs distinct to Spain. One of my favorite things is to watch the news because not only am I attuning my ear to rapid-fire Spanish, but I’m also learning about what’s going on in the country. So don’t be surprised the next time “Madre Mia!” slips from you mouth.
-Relaxed practice with the language:
Everyone is insecure about speaking a foreign language, especially with native speakers. Every time before I enter a bakery or shop, I’m practicing in my head what I want to say so I don’t feel like a fumbling foreigner. But all of the pressure slips away when you’re sitting around the dinner table with your host family. The conversation is relaxed and easygoing. Plus, they’re learning English too, so there’s a level of empathy there.
-Built in support system:
New school. New city. New life. It can all be very overwhelming in the beginning. Going home and talking to your host mom about your day is really comforting because you know you have someone in your corner. Another plus is that they’re experts on the city. So if you don’t know how to use the public bus system, they’ve got your back. This is also a time when you’ll be exploring the world and learning so much about yourself. Having people to talk to about your trips and share those experiences with creates such a unique bond that soon you’ll be thinking of them as a second family.
-Free and homemade food:
For all of the other non-chefs out there (anyone else thankful for microwaves besides me?), this is a HUGE perk. The meals here are fresher than in the U.S. Not only are you eating healthier, but you’re getting an inside look into one of Spain’s most critical parts of its culture: food.
-Less alone time:
With your family at home, you have family obligations. Here, those same feelings tend to creep in. One big cultural difference between here and the U.S is that Spanish families tend to spend a lot of time together (and they enjoy it. Shocking!). You may feel guilty for chilling in your room and taking time for yourself. After all, they’ve volunteered to let you live there for free. It’s a hard feeling to shake and has been something I’ve struggled with all semester. My advice is to try and make an effort to be present with your host family every day, but also respect when you need to recharge. It’s a delicate balance that you’ll figure out day by day.
One of the greatest things about leaving home at 18 in the U.S. is the independence. Whether you start college or work, you’re completely on your own-and it’s amazing. No one is asking where you are or when you’ll be coming home. But with a host family, it’s different. Shooting them texts about your plans, going with them on family outings and keeping them up to date on your travel itinerary are all things you’ll fall back into. As a 22-year-old college graduate who thrived off of those independent college days, it’s an adjustment to revert back to constantly keeping in touch with my “parents.”
-Adjusting your lifestyle:
It’s a no brainer that with a new country comes a different way of life. Being open minded is the easiest way to adapt to Spanish customs. For example: your eating pattern. Spaniards will have a late lunch around 3 p.m. and then not eat dinner until around 10 p.m. In the beginning, snack up between these meals and eventually your stomach will become accustomed to late meal times. *Tip: wear stretchy pants! Most meals will include multiple courses. Spanish mothers are extremely concerned with how much food you eat, so you will feel pressured to stuff your face. Secondly, smaller cities take a siesta time in the middle of the afternoon, meaning that businesses close from about 2 p.m. until 4:30 p.m. There have been multiple times where I’ve forgotten this and wasted an entire afternoon trying to run errands when everything is closed.
Lastly, experience the social and nightlife. Spaniards put a lot of importance on enjoying time with friends. So it’s typical to see most people out after 10 p.m. eating tapas and bar hopping until 5 a.m. (my host parents do this on the regular!). As an American, I’m used to eating earlier, going into any business at any time and staying out until 2 a.m. at the latest, so it definitely takes some time to physically and mentally keep up with the Spanish lifestyle. While some customs might feel unnatural to you at first, it’s a really cool experience to embrace a culture different than your own.