Planning to spend the summer studying in Spain? Are you going to live with a home-stay? You are in for a rewarding experience. Being a home-stay veteran, I can tell you it will be an experience like no other. I learned Spanish in Spain several times, and lived with six Spanish home-stays during those times. From day one, you feel as if you are living as a local. Not only can you practise the language, but you are living someone who knows the city or town that you are studying in, which can save you precious time. But before you get too excited, I want to share with you somethings about home-stays that are often overlooked.
When you think of living with a Spanish family or home-stay, you may think it is like living with any ordinary family. This is not the case in Spain. A Spanish family maybe a family with one or two children. The rest and the most common are divorced/widowed middle-aged women who live in an apartment. They agree to host international students to make extra money, have some companionship and/or are interested in other cultures. Because of the economic situation in Spain, many people take on international students for extra money, since it is difficult to get a regular job.
Depending on where in Spain you are living, most Spanish families live reasonably close to the school/university that you will be attending. I’m talking about 10 – 15 minute walk or 5 minutes by public transport. If you are going to be in Madrid or Barcelona, this will be different. You will likely have to take the metro to get to school, which can take up to 40 minutes each way. Unfortunately, some families in these cities are located in the suburbs since housing is cheaper in these parts. In any case, your family will be very close to supermarkets, restaurants, bars, etc. The nice thing about Spain is everything is so close to your home, so you don’t have to drive at all! But be forewarned: it is most likely that your family will live in an apartment. Most Europeans live in apartments.
So here are a few things you can expect from a home-stay:
- access to the apartment: you will be given your own set of keys and so you can come and go as you wish. And don’t worry about coming home late. In Spain, people stay out until the wee hours of the morning on weekends and Spanish families know that you will be too.
- meals. Depending on the agreement, you will get what is called half-board (breakfast and dinner) or full-board (all three meals). I personally recommend half-board because you will likely want to go out to lunch with your classmates. It sucks when you have to race home in order to get that extra meal you paid for.
- your own room. You won’t have to share it with someone else. Depending on the family, you will either have an en-suite bathroom, or have to share the bathroom with everyone else. Just assume you’ll have to share it until you meet the family, so you don’t get disappointed.
- linens and towels, which will be changed for you once a week.
- laundry. Your family will do your laundry once a week only. Water and electricity is very expensive in Spain, so don’t expect laundry service every two days. Some families may not do the laundry, in which case they will show you how to use the washing machine and then you do the laundry yourself. Again, you’ll only be allowed to do it once a week.
- opportunity to practise Spanish. The best way to practise is with a native speaker. I personally prefer this than speaking Spanish with another foreign student.
- house mates. Don’t assume you will be the only student in the house, especially in the summer. You will likely have one or two other students living with the same host family. Spanish apartment have up to four bedrooms, so there is plenty of room for every one. If there is another student that speaks your language, it is up to you if you want to speak it or speak Spanish. Your host family will not be offended if you choose to speak your native tongue with that student.
What not to expect from a Spanish family:
- meeting you at the airport/train station. Understand this right now. The family will be waiting for you at home, but they will not actually come to airport or train station to meet you. Most families do not own a car, and will assume that you will be making your own way to their home. If you want someone to meet you at the airport, your school can arrange someone to pick you up and take you to your home-stay for a fee.
- including you in their social life. Are you expecting them to invite you out to dinner? Think they will invite you to hang out with their friends? Think again. Families assume that you will be going out every night with your own friends, so they won’t be including you in their own affairs. Do not take this personally, it’s just the way it is done. In fact, most students would rather hang out with other international students anyway.
- allowing you to bring friends over. Your school usually tells you this in advance and the norm is you can’t have friends over. Respect this. Anyways, most people in Spain don’t invite friends over to their homes; they go out to cafes or restaurants. So the old saying, when in Rome, do as.
- spectacular meals. Although you get meals, do not expect them to be the kind that you might find in five-star hotels or restaurants. Some home-stays are good cooks, while others have the cooking skills of a college freshman. Accept this. Generally, meals are hit-or-miss with home-stays. If you have dietary needs, let your school know this as far in advanced as possible. Another thing about meals is that dinner is served at 9 or 10 at night – The Spanish eat late.
- attending to your every need. You’re not staying at the Hilton! While families want to make your stay as pleasant as possible, you have to remember that they have their own lives and are often very busy. So don’t treat them like they are your personal butler.
- Knowledge of your own language. The majority of Spaniards don’t speak English, and if they do it’s just the basics. Some families might speak other languages like Portuguese, Italian or French since they are similar to Spanish. Families assume you want to practise speaking Spanish. If you want to speak your own language or your level is very low, you’d be better off sharing an apartment with other foreign students or living in a residence.
One other thing to know about families is that many of them have their own set of rules. When you first arrive, ask them what rules/norms they have about their home. They will appreciate this and you immediately get off to a great start. They will see that you are considerate, and may even be flexible with some of the rules.
So I hope this helps because I sure wish I had known all this when I first stayed with a family. I hope that you will have the same wonderful experience that I had.