Typically when studying abroad, the housing options are as follows: homestay, student dorms/residencies, or apartments.
I decided to live with a host family for the following reasons:
- Full language immersion
- Cheapest option offered by my program (meals and laundry were included)
- Best way to learn about the culture of another country, to get the “insider’s perspective”
So what was the experience like?
My host family
My host family was only one older woman, Maica (pronounced MY-kah), in her early 60s. Prior to arrival, all I knew about her was that she never married or had children, but that she was really sweet and treated all host students like her own children.
What living with her was like:
- She didn’t speak any English. This meant I was forced to practice Spanish, which I liked.
- She was easygoing. She didn’t care if we went out at night, as long as we told her if we would be eating dinner at home and/or if we would be late for dinner (so we could plan the meal accordingly). Being quiet if returning late was another important thing.
- She was very sweet. She took care of me when I was sick, she sewed the hole in my umbrella when she saw that it was was torn, and she helped me dial the operator when I was trying to make a collect call to the US. It really was like being taken care of by a family. Once she was yelling out to me from the window when she thought I’d left without my umbrella, haha.
- She was helpful. If I ever needed directions, she would pull out her detailed map of Barcelona, and would help me figure out what I needed. She told me about events going on in the city so that I could take full advantage of my stay. She would also correct our grammar so that we would be constantly improving our Spanish skills.
- She wa accommodating. Her motto was, “Nunca problemas!” (Never problems!) In the beginning, she constantly emphasized that if there was something we didn’t like, for example with our meals, or if we were experiencing any problems, that we could talk to her about it and resolve it immediately.
It isn’t typical to live in a house in Barcelona/Spain. It’s not like in the US where bigger is better. Housing generally is a LOT smaller, and apartments are the norm in cities.
Maica’s apartment was on the second floor (technically the “entresuelo” or “between floors”) on a main street. The elevator was tiny, only big enough for one person with a suitcase. The hallway inside was so narrow and dim, I was worried we would knock over something with our rolling luggage when we first arrived.
The apartment had six rooms: one bathroom, Maica’s room, two other bedrooms for host students, the kitchen, and the living room.
Everything was tiled, no carpet, which meant always wearing socks and slippers to avoid cold feet.
The two bedrooms were different in size. I got the larger room with the bigger bed, in exchange for less closet space. The room was only big enough to fit the bed, two small dressers (one on each side, think your freshman year nightmare closet in dorms but a little smaller) and a set of cabinets.
There was one metal shelf attached to the wall above where my head would be lying in bed. That was nice because it held a little lamp (good for reading in bed), and I was able to hang my dream catcher which was the only thing I’d brought to decorate with. SO the room was quite plain, which is understandable so students can put up what they want, but I didn’t think to bring photos.
The only other decoration was a poster hanging on the side of one dresser:
It was left behind by a previous student. I bought a magnet with this print at the Codorniu Winery (which it advertises) as a reminder.
The laundry room was connected to my room, so Maica never did laundry while I was asleep. We never went inside here since students aren’t allowed to do their own laundry, but I took a peek once. There was only space for the washer (no dryer, everything was dried in el aire libre) and a place to keep hangers – but not clothes. There was a large window that opened out to clotheslines.
The bathroom was a bit cramped: standard bathtub/shower, toilet, small counter and sink, and a bidet (the European standard). There was also a bucket and mop for cleaning, which was kept in the tub when nobody was showering. That meant having to take it out and put it back every time, which was a little annoying but not a big deal.
I didn’t spend time in the kitchen besides picking up my lunch, since host students aren’t allowed to use the kitchen without permission (I guess too many have broken things in the past). It was also narrow, really only the width of the refrigerator, but it was equipped with a large sink, many cabinets, an oven, a microwave, and a lot of counter space.
Sorry for repeating the words “small” and “little” so often, but it really was small. Not that I minded much. I like the idea of not being able to accumulate a lot of things because physically, there is no way to contain it. The apartment was also cozy with that “lived-in” feeling. Maica kept personal knickknacks around, some paintings from a previous student, things like that. It felt very personal.
As mentioned earlier, breakfast was simple and never-changing: cornflakes and soy milk. (I’m lactose intolerant.) We ate breakfast on our own; I usually ate around 9am or 9:30.
Initially I would come home to eat lunch, but then started to eat in plazas and people-watch, maybe grabbing a pastry if I was extra-hungry. I typically ate lunch between 1-2pm.
Lunch came in either of two forms: a bocadillo (sandwich) or fiambrera (lunch box, like Tupperware). I loooved the bocadillos, all day every day, I didn’t care and I never got tired of them. An example is: salami, lettuce, tomatoes. It sounds simple but they were INSANELY good. Maica would change up the meat each day so it was hard to predict what we would get. I was reminded of being a kid, excited to find out what lunch was for the day while opening up a brown paper bag.
The fiambreras were somewhat hit-or-miss with me, like I was taking a risk that I wouldn’t enjoy lunch as much as I could be, so most of the time I asked for a bocadillo. We also received one piece of fruit, mostly bananas but occasionally a pear or apple or tangerines, that I ate at the end as dessert.
I also supplemented my lunch with a few snacks: magdalenas (this translates to “fairy cake”, imagine a mini-muffin) or cookies, and a juice box.
We ate dinner around 9 or 9:30pm. It took some adjusting and I would be starving by the time we were out of Spanish class at 7:30, but my stomach became accustomed to the Spanish eating schedule. Dinner typically began with a sort of appetizer, like a salad, soup, pureed vegetables, or tortilla española. The main meal was always combined differently: rice, chicken, sauteed vegetables, beans, sometimes pasta, sausage, etc. Maica would like to keep us guessing if it was something we didn’t recognize. If we asked hesitantly, she would reply gleefully, “Tienes que probar!” (“You have to try!”) She liked to make up these different concoctions with her “wifi” which I understood to be some kind of special blender. Most of the time, it tasted fine and I didn’t question what was in it.
Overall I was really happy with the experience. I didn’t have to worry about laundry or tidying up my room or doing dishes. Although I was very aware that I was a guest and shouldn’t act too comfortable to not overstep boundaries, I didn’t feel awkward. While I understand that Maica’s role is done because she is PAID to host us, I feel she went above what her duty called for by taking an interest in our daily lives and getting to know us. She did a lot of things that she didn’t have to, acting more like a mother than a mere host. I would recommend a homestay to any students going abroad.