By Miranda Hall
We lived on the third floor of a small apartment building with 8 other residents. Our door had the same yellow and purple picture frame hanging over the peephole, as from Monica’s apartment in Friends. Seeing that picture frame, I remember, was one of my first feelings of comfort in this completely new, overwhelming setting. In our living room lived Frederico, a life-sized papier-mache man, that my host mom made; her art decorated the entire apartment. We would joke that he was my host father because we both had red hair. My bedroom was decorated with baby pictures of her daughter and posters of New York City, another small source of comfort I found immediately. I had an amazing view of the street we lived on, Calle Feria, where I would people-watch all the passersby and check how long the line was at the bakery down the street. I was also able to see the tip of La Giralda, the famous cathedral in the old city, on a clear day. We were lucky to live in an apartment building with terrace space on the roof, where we grew fresh herbs and a flower garden. We enjoyed many a meal with friends and neighbors up there. This was my home for four months with my host mother, Mercedes.
I studied abroad in Sevilla, Spain with CIEE. It was a language immersive program, so the second I landed, my life was in Spanish. My host family was just Mercedes, and occasionally her daughter who came to visit, but it was more than I could have ever asked for. Mercedes didn’t speak any English, and my Spanish was a little rusty, especially when I first arrived, which was to be expected. It was a real adjustment when I couldn’t rely on anyone to help me communicate. Sometimes whole conversations would just be me using a roundabout way and aggressive hand motions to describe a single word. But: it worked. We lived along the Guadalquivir River, which I couldn’t pronounce for the longest time, so, Mercedes would say it for me slowly, and we practice saying it together. It was small, but important things like these, that helped establish our relationship.
Mercedes didn’t like to cook much, so on late nights, we would heat up a frozen pizza and quickly throw some lettuce and sliced tomatoes together to make a salad. This was another source of comfort I found in an unexpected way. Other nights I was tasked with making a meal, like Mercedes's favorite: tuna empanadas with hard-boiled eggs. Food was another adjustment, but not in a good or bad sense, it was just another learning point. Not only did I get to try new foods, but I also got to see how they were prepared (with lots of saffron and paprika). Living with Mercedes was more than just a host parent-to-student relationship. She incorporated me into her life in the best ways. We would get lunch together and go on walks along the river. She gave me recommendations for places to go and books to read and food to try. I got to meet her friends and family. She gave me her bus pass, so I had free public transportation. And she would text me every morning and tell me to enjoy my day and send me selfies when I was away for weekends. We still keep in touch, and she continues to send the occasional selfie.
Whenever I am asked about my study abroad experience, living with Mercedes is always the first thing I bring up. There was so much I would have missed out on if I didn’t live with my host mom. I know that each host family is different, and everyone is going to experience it in different ways. My goal in writing all of this is to give an example of all the wonderful possibilities of choosing to live with a host family; not to mention all the perks of living with a host, like free meals. I’m also trying to, hopefully, ease any anxieties about living with a foreign set of parents. In many ways, it was very reassuring to have a parental figure to come home to each day. Again, I always had meal ready for me, I didn’t have to pay for laundry or groceries, and there was someone I could always rely on who was knew the city and the language. But in another sense, it’s not always productive to think of them as parents, because that comes with a whole different set of connotations. I know that it can be very anxiety-ridden to think of host parents as your own set of parents, so I would honestly advise avoiding this. My relationship with Mercedes was completely different from the one I have with my own parents. This is not to say that there wasn’t the same level of mutual respect and care, but there was an air of understanding that she wasn’t there to be my parent, rather a guardian and friend. Host parents are there to help you with your transition to living in a new place, not inhibit any experiences you might have. They understand they are not your parents. They are there as a pillar of support and a source of guidance. There isn’t one word to describe the relationship you cultivate with your hosts, maybe it does feel parental, maybe they are more akin to a cool aunt, older sibling, or close friend. There is no one way to describe host parents. Anyway you think of it though, it is really important to remember that the relationship you have with them is completely dependent on the effort you choose to put in. Take that as you will, but host families can offer so much more than food and housing, I could not recommend it enough.