CASSIDY OLSEN- On occasion, I’ll be speaking to my friends in Madrid or Skyping with my boyfriend back in the States and find myself referring to Manuela, my host mother in Madrid, as “my mom.” “Oh, my mom loves this show,” I’ll say. “My mom painted all the artwork in my house. My mom’s a wonderful artist.” “Really?” my friends will ask, confused as to why they didn’t already know that Nancy from New Jersey has a way with still life. “Sorry, I mean my host mom,” I’ll explain, and everything will be clear. Although the tendency might just be a lazy shorthand I’ve adapted after some time living in Spain, I think it also gestures to the organic familial relationships developed from my inorganic placement in a homestay. I wouldn’t call my own mother Nancy, so why should my host mother be “Manuela” and nothing else?
This process doesn’t come easy: it feels completely strange to be dropped in an apartment in a foreign city and told to treat two kind retirees as your second parents. As wonderful of a job as the program does with matching you with a family that suits your needs and personality (as you should theirs), nothing can prepare you for that first night in your homestay. I arrived at my host family’s second floor apartment in Lavapiés with Manuela and her husband Antonio, who had picked me up in their car from the hotel where I was staying with the program. With my Spanish that had barely seen the outside of a classroom, I struggled to express my gratitude for their hospitality. I feebly handed over some small gifts from my home state while their chihuahua, Sansa, glared at me from the corner of their living room like she would murder me when she had the chance.
Despite some awkward fumbling and nervous laughter throughout those first interactions, when I finally settled into my room and unpacked my luggage, I breathed a sigh of relief. I was there, I was okay, and it wasn’t going to be so bad. Everyone has different emotions before their study abroad experience, but mine was mostly anxiety. To be greeted so openly by Manuela and Antonio and told that my Spanish was good, I must be tired, I could stay in or go out that evening, was all the start of feeling genuinely comfortable in my homestay and treating them like an actual (if artificial) set of second parents.
Getting to know my host family, as both a unit and as individuals, has been a highlight of my first month in Spain. Manuela is a retired painter who has lived in Madrid her entire adult life; Antonio, a retired plumber. Their home is decorated with Manuela’s artwork and photos of late family members. They have immense love for their adult daughter, Reyes, and their 2-year old chihuahua Sansa, with whom I have an on-again off-again friendship. When they’re not in Madrid, they’re in their pueblo in a rural part of Spain, where they buy the wonderful bread they occasionally serve at dinner.
Manuela speaks often of the chicas she has hosted in the past, and there are many. Occasionally she will show me their photos on Facebook and tell me about what they’re doing now. It can feel intimidating, as though I have to live up to all of the happy, outgoing, and studious girls who have lived with them before me, but it’s clear she cares for them each deeply in their own way and has no interest in judging me against them. She loves being a host parent and showing students like myself some kindness while they try to navigate a big new place like Madrid. I’m thankful for her each day I’m here, and hope my real mother won’t be too hurt that I’m calling someone else “mom.”