Living with a Host Family

I have now been studying in Alicante, Spain for a month. During this month, I have completed classes, gone on numerous trips around Europe and Spain, and learned a lot of new things. Perhaps the most interesting experience I have had, however, is simply living with a host mother. Now that the awkwardness of living with a complete stranger has passed, I have been thoroughly enjoying the experience.

My host mother’s name is Cristina. She was born and raised in Alicante, Spain. Her first language is Spanish and her second language is French; she does not speak a word of english, making it somewhat difficult to communicate sometimes.

Although sometimes it can be difficult to communicate my exact thoughts to her, my Spanish language skills have drastically increased and things are getting a lot easier. We eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner together, so I am being forced to speak a lot of Spanish in order to maintain fluent conversations.

I have found that I learn much more quickly and effectively here than I do in classes in the United States. I believe this is because I actually need to use it here and rather than filling out worksheets or taking quizzes, I am breaking a language barrier one day at a time.

In addition to my increased language skills, I am getting to experience authentic Spanish cuisine on a regular basis. Cristina is a wonderful cook, and she cooks for both of us everyday. She solely cooks Spanish foods that she would eat on a regular basis which is really nice, plus it is saving me a lot of money.

Staying with a host mom has really allowed me to immerse myself in the culture of Alicante much more rapidly than some of my peers who are staying in apartments with other American students. Although it can be awkward and confusing at times I am loving everything about the experience and would recommend it to anyone who has the opportunity in the future.



A Word About Homestays

So, let’s set the scene.

You’re a sophomore (maybe a junior by credits, don’t get cocky). You’re about to study abroad. You notice a lot of the coolest places (*cough* Spain *cough*) require or highly suggest a homestay. You wish you had someone to give you advice about the dirty details of the homestay life. You stumble across this blog.

Or, scenario B: you’re a future employer stalking me on Google. You stumble across this blog.

So, either way, here you are, reading my advice about homestays. Homestays are tricky to write about because everyone has such a unique experience. So, I would like to disclaim that my observations and experiences may not hold true for every place, family, program, etc.

To begin, I would like to touch on the type of people who sign up to host a student. The first type of homestay is a family that wants to provide a room to a student in order to supplement their income. As Spain is having tough economic times, this is a very common scenario. The next type of homestay is someone elderly and/or alone, usually a woman, who would like some company. This situation can be weird because you almost feel obligated to spend time with your host family. The last type of homestay includes a family with kids. In this type of homestay, the family sometimes would like you to practice English with their kids.

The three scenarios for homestays are just generalizations, naturally. Sometimes, the host family can be a combination of the different types described above. For example, my host mom Maria* is a combination of the first and second situation. However, sometimes homestays can be nothing like what I described. For example, my friend’s family requested to be a homestay because their cousin hosts students as well.

After realizing the different types of families, the best advice I could give is to fill out the homestay request form as detailed as possible. A lot of other applicants do not take the time to do this. Therefore, if you are more specific you will likely get things you request. For example, I wrote down a specific neighborhood on the form. You could request a specific walking distance from school. Some of the surfers on my program asked to be closer to the beach (however, this did pose a longer commute to school and metros don’t run super late every night of the weekend!). A lot of people request families with kids.

I requested to be near the Guggenheim, a central location in Bilbao.
I requested to be near the Guggenheim Museum, a central location in Bilbao, Spain.

Another important part of the homestay request form is the roommate section. I said I did not care if I had roommate and I was assigned a single. At first I was excited to have a single, because roommates sound like the epitome of freshman year. I soon realized there were pros and cons to living in a homestay alone. For example, it might have been easier to have a friend to work through the language barrier with. It also could have been nice to have a friend to go out with, because it is always safer to walk home with someone. However, living alone helped me be independent from the group and I also got to practice more Spanish! You should consider these things before filling out the form because it really shapes the homestay experience.

Finally, once you are abroad and living in a homestay, remember that it is going to be weird. Maria treats me like a child a lot, as if I have not been living on my own for a while now. For example, after my return from Morocco, my host mom had reorganized my whole closet. All of my sandals are now missing. The same thing happened to my swimsuit top in September. If my bed isn’t made perfectly, she will remake it. She does my laundry, cleans my dishes, and has even blow dried my hair. And I kind of feel helpless because I never had the courage to tell her these things bothered me and that I am a capable adult. I also was not really sure how to say all of these things in Spanish. If I had been honest with Maria, I would have saved a lot of time harboring anger toward her. However, if you are only going to be honest with your host family about one thing, let it be the food. Otherwise, they will cook you the same crappy dish they think you like (think: pigs’ feet).

In the end, I had a lot of trouble getting along with my host mom. But do I regret it? Not really. If I had lived with friends, I would not have practiced Spanish every day. I would have wasted time cooking and cleaning that I could have used exploring. In the end, it is one thing to live alongside a while culture abroad, but my homestay let me live within the Spanish culture.

*name has been changed

Buying Guide: Host Family Gifts

If you are going abroad and will live with a host family before, you should know that it is nice to bring gifts to whomever you plan to stay with. However, this rule can also be extended to whomever is going to be helping you a lot when you are abroad. For example, I had what is called a Danish Visiting Family, which was a family that
helped me a lot when I was abroad, and I would hang out with them and cook meals with them at least once a week, but I did not live with them. Even if you are just going to live with a roommate or two, it is polite to bring them a gift.
If you are having any trouble figuring out gifts to bring, here are some ideas:

  • Celestial Seasonings tea gift basket (this is what I brought my visiting family, but since Celestial Seasonings is become accessible in so many places, make sure that you are not going somewhere where it is easy to buy. Denver or Boulder tote bags (or tote bags from wherever you live) BBQ sauce (at least in Denmark, everyone seemed to think that BBQ just meant grilling and nobody had any concept of BBQ sauce, so when my parents came to visit I had them bring some BBQ sauce to give to my visiting family)celestial seasonings
  • Baseball caps or sports jerseys from wherever you are fromrockies jersey
  • Food mixes. For whatever reason a lot of people from other countries seem intrigued by all of our brownie mixes and pancake mixes (or perhaps are just interested in the convenience of it). Other food mixes like mixes for bean soup or anything like that would also make good gifts—especially if they are locally made.
  • Chocolate. Especially if you can get chocolate or candy from a local factory.You can rarely go wrong with getting chocolate, but just make sure that it is wrapped up well so that nothing melts in your suitcase!hammonds candy
  • Locally made soaps or perfumes. This gift is of course better for women.
  • Native American crafts or jewelry.
  • Any other food item that is special to where you live such as salt water taffy if you are from the coast.
  • Any other non food item such as clothing or jewelry or decorations that is somehow representative of where you are from also makes a good gift.

And always bring photos of yourself, your family, your friends, and where you live (including postcards)! It is nice to be able to show your family where you live!

*Blogger’s note: Think ahead- you may be placed with a family with small children, grandparents, extended family members, and people not listed on your housing assignment. Bring a few extra little items just in case. Postcards are easy, cheap, and a great way to share a bit of your home with your host family!

-Rosa Calabrese, DU Study Abroad Peer Advisor

Homestay Etiquette

Many of you go abroad to gain independence and escape the safety bubble of your community and university. Friends, family and familiar scenery is replaced with strange smells, food, people and a family that you may or may not be able to communicate with. All of this is exciting, driving you to do and experience more.

All that being said, I’m sure you first time homestayers are a bit apprehensive about the prospects of living under the roof of parental surrogates and how that will influence your extracurricular activities. Rest assured, your homestay families are not there to keep you prisoner. They are there for guidance and support and might even welcome the idea of you taking in the night life.

However, in order to ensure that your nocturnal activities do not create an unhealthy relationship between you and your host family, there are four rules I recommend you follow.

  1. Enter quietly: A night on the town leaves one tired and sometimes confused. In addition, how is one supposed to navigate the intricate system of locks and gates in the middle of the night? Make sure to hone your skills during daylight hours so as not to become a nuisance to your family should you enter the house before sunrise.
  2. Tell your family where you are going: No longer are the days when you gave limited information to your parents in an attempt at damage control from something you did or will do. Your host families will be genuinely interested in what is happening with young people in their country, not to mention your safety. Be honest, let them know where you are going and doing, they might even let you know of some good places to go.
  3. Whatever you do, don’t raid the fridge: Many are partial to a late night snack after spending the night dancing, chatting and mingling with all the new and interesting people. If this is the case, make sure to take a snack with you or eat before you come home. Banging around dishes in the kitchen in the middle of the night is sure to wake up even the deepest of sleepers. Besides, who wants to be the one that eats that special cultural dish that your family was saving for a later date?
  4. Don’t invite friends over to spend the night without prior approval: Two can cause more trouble than one. Bringing others back to your homestay without prior approval is a sure way to do something that your family might not approve of.

If you follow these four rules, I guarantee there will be no ill will between you and your homestay family. The next lesson will be what to say to your homestay family when you come home at 2 am to find a giant rat drinking out of the dog bowl. True story.

–  Pablo Hester, DUSA Peer Advisor

The Best Part of Study Abroad? My Host Family!

I knew I wanted to study and live abroad in Italy since the first time I traveled there during high school.  I chose a full year program, hoping to improve my language skills and really experience the culture outside of the American study abroad bubble.  The best choice I made throughout this entire process was the decision to stay with a host family for the entirety of my trip. I was extremely excited up until the point I actually arrived on my host’s doorstep, lugging four suitcases behind me and trying to stay awake through my hideous jet lag. Prior to my departure I was told that I would be living with a single woman in a tiny apartment who may or may not have one or two cats…and that was the extent of what I knew.  I stood on the doorstep for a few more moments, repeating over and over again in my head what I would say in Italian as soon as she opened the door. 

The entire experience turned out to be much stranger and better then I could have imagined. It was just me and my host mom, and we did live in a tiny, vintage roman apartment with a fountain in the courtyard, and the one or two cats turned into a sweet canine named Tatto who arrived every weekend to stay with us along with my host mother’s boyfriend.  Coming home every night to a warm meal and someone to listen to all my daily triumphs and struggles was incredibly helpful in dealing with homesickness and the stress that sometimes came with trying to interact daily in a language I wasn’t fluent in.  She would even speak to me in her broken English sometimes, incoherently, to try and make me feel better on especially rough days.   I was able to spend the holidays with her family, learn invaluable secrets to cooking authentic roman food, and gain insight from her stories on life, love, and everything in between.

Of course there were a few awkward moments in the beginning, stemming from trying to act natural and normal while learning to live in a complete stranger’s house. I’ll never forget the time her boyfriend accidentally walked in on me in the bathroom, or when I completely melted a spatula on the stove and I had to tell her what happened. Sometimes even the little things were exemplified into embarrassment, but the feeling slowly drifted as we both learned how to live with each other.  My host family experience was the best aspect of my entire year abroad, and I will always remember it fondly.

Jillian Neilson, OIE Peer Advisor