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Living with a Host Family in Madrid

Blowing out birthday candles in Madrid home with children
Jaime and Maria, at the homestay in Madrid, helping me blow out my birthday candles.

In the seven weeks living with a host family in Europe, there were only three days that I felt homesick: the day leading up to my birthday, the day of my birthday, and the day after my birthday. My birthday fell smack in the middle of my trip, and I never realized how much I would miss my family and friends back home, with whom I had spent my previous 22 birthdays. However, the homesickness dissipated the second I returned from my weekend trip in Amsterdam back to my host family's house in Madrid, where I was greeted with hugs from the children I tutored throughout the week, a cake for me that they helped their mom make, and two beautiful bracelets they gave me as a present. It was in that moment that I felt more at home while abroad than at any other time, and completely forgot about being homesick at all.

I had always felt the itch to travel, but for some reason  the stars were never aligned to get the chance to study abroad while in college. Hours upon hours were spent trying to find the perfect program, but the search bore no fruit. I wanted to get experience in a different country, but did not really know what to actually do while there. With so many different options available, how to pick the right one?

Everyone has different interests, and the program I ultimately selected was right up my alley. InterExchange offers a program which allows for living with a host family in Madrid, Spain, teaching their children English as a Language Assistant for three hours a day, five days a week, in exchange for room and board. One great additional perk is that during off hours you are free to travel to see anything anywhere in Europe! It seemed like the program offered the perfect balance of freedom, working, and immersion into another culture.

Getting Started

Once I discovered InterExchange, I made sure to find out any and all information about the program. Obviously, you do not want to spend all your time and money on a program that is not worth it and waste away a wonderful opportunity of a lifetime. I made sure to speak with the director of the program after reading about my options online. I would recommend anyone going away to utilize the internet and program websites as much as possible before departing. I explored their website, wrote down any questions I had for the program director, and made sure to discuss those issues with her personally as well as writing down her answers so I knew exactly what I was getting myself into.

Here is a list of what the highlights offered by the program that most caught my attention--features that some might not take into consideration:

  • Accident and medical insurance—you never know what can happen to you.
  • A local affiliate organization which could be contacted in case there were any concerns or in the event of any emergencies.
  • In this case there was no need for a visa as the maximum length of the program is three months. A visa in Spain is required for a stay for a period longer than 90 days.
  • There was no need to be fluent in the native language of the country before arriving, though my Spanish has definitely improved since the trip.
  • A place to stay and eat while I was in the country for a low fee ($695). Some programs require that you volunteer for more than 8 hours a day and charge you thousands of dollars.

Making Friends

Another major concern (and arguably the greatest concern) about going abroad alone related to the fear of getting lonely. I was going half way across the world to explore a country I had never been to previously, and definitely did not want to do everything alone. I made sure to ask the organization before I left regarding getting in touch with others involved in the same program and they sent me a contact list via email of all the other participants. Having such a contact list was extremely helpful as it offered a sense of relaxation knowing that there were others in the same boat. I wound up emailing a few people before leaving for Spain, and spoke on the phone with one of the young women for two hours. We even booked weekend trips around Europe before we departed. While it was a big risk to make such plans, we both got the feeling that we would get along,  and I now consider her one of my best friends! I also met a several other young women participating in the same program from all over the United States and Europe. It was because of these young women that there was no great fears about traveling and staying in hostels all over Europe. I traveled to Valencia, Sevilla, Barcelona, Granada, Italy, Amsterdam and the Canary Islands…something I could have never done alone. Currently, I am talking with two of my newfound friends from the states about coming to visit my house in New York this summer!

Three of my closest friends (Mary, Me, Rachel, Kirstin) were met through the program on a weekend trip to Barcelona.

Living With a Host Family

The thought of living with a family from a completely different country, speaking a completely different language, at first was very scary. The more I thought about it though, the more the idea became appealing. Having a host family is a great option when living in a different country because not only does it provide you a place to call home during your time abroad, but it offers you some true insight into the local culture. I was able to compare the daily routine of my new family in Spain to my own family back home in the states—and this turned out to be fascinating. In addition, I was able to eat authentic Spanish food every day, something I could never do if I had chosen to rent an apartment or live out of my suitcase hostel after hostel. I can tell you with certainty that the best "Tortilla de Patata" and "Pisto" (classic Spanish dishes) I enjoyed were consumed in my host family's kitchen (although I am sure some of my friends from the program would argue that the food was even better in their respective homes!).

It is important, however, to contact the family before departing to make sure you will be a good fit for each other. Do not be afraid to ask as many questions as you wish, and ask them to question you as well. All the families in this program are required to be at least semi-fluent in English, so I made sure to ask them with a variety of questions including what things I should pack (toiletries, towels, clothes to wear), if they had any pets, what my teaching schedule would be, and what type of transportation I would use to get around Madrid. I also asked the organization if the family had had any previous language assistants. My family happened to just have had someone live with them a couple months previously, so I contacted her and got the inside scoop about the family. When she told me that this family was very relaxed, friendly, and welcoming, it put my nerves more at ease.

Finally, make sure you find out how old the children in the home are. I happen to love younger children, so it was exciting to find out that I would be living with a 7-year-old boy (Jaime), a 5-year-old girl (Maria), and a 2-year-old girl (Claudia). A friend in the same program preferred older children and definitely would have had a difficult time adjusting to living in my chosen home.

Day to Day Life

After realizing that I would be teaching for only 15 hours a week, the next thought was, "what am I going to do during the week when I'm not teaching?" When speaking with a friend about this concern he simply said to me, "look, the worst that can happen is that you don't meet anyone from your program, and you spend your days venturing to different cafes in Madrid, drinking coffee, and reading a good book…that sounds like a pretty good worst scenario." He was right. I was lucky enough to meet people every day, doing simple things like going shopping and out to eat in Sol (the heart of Madrid), visiting museums, and a personal favorite, sitting in Retiro Park reading books and renting row boats on beautiful sunny days. There were days however that I did not meet up with anyone and just spent time near my host family's home at a local café. Some of my fondest memories of Madrid are those days spent alone while collecting my thoughts and being thankful for getting the chance to spend time in Europe.

Rowing Boats in Retiro Park, Madrid
Rowing Boats in Retiro Park.

Then there are the Intercambio groups, which are a great way to meet people in your area who are also looking to learn a language and make new friends. I only went to one and wish more time had been set aside to go back because it is incredible how much you can learn interacting with people from different cultures. The informal meet ups are usually held at local bars or bookstores holding an "Intercambio night." You can research for them online by typing into your search engine "Intercambio Groups in Madrid" or wherever you are located in Spain.

Saying Goodbye

Of course when it was time to head home, the weather in Madrid was beyond beautiful every day and I was even more attached to Jaime, Maria, and Claudia than I ever imagined. Saying goodbye to them was tough…they asked me to tuck them into bed the night before leaving, which made my eyes swell with tears and want to curl right up next to them. Add into the mix saying goodbye to all the friends I made while abroad, and those last few days were extremely bittersweet.

While I was very happy to come home to see my family and friends, I wish there had remained a few more weeks to enjoy the remarkable city of Madrid and explore more of Europe. The best part about coming home, however, is telling everyone about your exciting stories and experiences in order to make them jealous of you!

For More Info

I hope that I have provided you with some information that can help you make an informed decision about traveling abroad. I will forever be extremely jealous of anyone getting ready to embark on the journey of a lifetime, no matter what type of program or destination you choose. Here are some websites that can provide you with a variety of options for going abroad:

Kristen Fonte is from Long Island, NY. She graduated from the University of Delaware in May 2011 with a Bachelors of Science in Human Services and plans on starting my Master's in Occupational Therapy at SUNY Downstate in June 2012. During her year off, she took the prerequisite classes for her graduate program, worked as a waitress and Zumba Instructor, and took her 7-week trip to Spain.

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