By Maria Allon
How do I apply for a student metro card? Will my new colleagues be patient with me (and my rusty Spanish skills)? Where will I live? These were just a handful of the many anxieties and uncertainties I had before beginning my semester in Spain. I thought I had already tackled the hard part by living 7+ hours away from home in Montreal. Little did I realise that my time in Spain would be the most challenging and yet the most rewarding part of my experience living overseas.
The beauty of being in freezing cold Canada whilst my friends were sunning it up in Europe was that I got all the insider gossip on how to flat hunt in Spain. Most people just ‘wing it’, for their first couple of weeks, booking an Airbnb and beginning the search for a spare room in a shared flat. I hated the thought of turning up and feeling stranded in the middle of Spain’s capital and, as somebody who only started learning Spanish in my first year at university, I knew that I would benefit much more from living with native speakers and avoiding the infamous Erasmus houses.
After a bit of frantic searching over Christmas, I came across a small homestay exchange company that matches native English speakers with Spanish families all around the country. It was through this company that I met mi familia española: Rosario, my wonderful host from Mar del Plata, Argentina, and her two daughters, based just north of Madrid.
It wasn’t necessarily the smoothest of starts. The day I was meant to fly out and meet my new family I spent 5 hours in standstill traffic en route to the airport and missed my flight. The girls took some time getting used to having a stranger not only living in their home but speaking to them in a language that was alien to them. Though, as time went on, I found myself slotting into a routine that felt natural, speaking modified Spanglish whilst making Play-Doh animals with the youngest, playing ‘camping’ with the oldest in the hallway, and trying (and failing!) to convince the girls to eat their dinner, vegetables and all. I truly became part of the family.
It was very bittersweet ending my semester and saying goodbye to Ro and her niñas. When I first arrived, the girls were reluctant to speak with me in English. By the time I left, the eldest was reading her English schoolbooks to me before bedtime and the youngest, aged three, had learnt to count to 15! It wasn’t just their confidence that improved during the experience; the trust Rosario put in me to do the school pick up and evening routine three nights a week was daunting at first, but by June it became an absolute doddle.
Everybody says that living with a family and teaching English or au pairing for them is one of the best ways to immerse yourself in a language and culture. I didn’t realise just how true this was until I took the plunge and did it for myself! I didn’t just end my year abroad having improved my Spanish; I gained a new family that I know I will stay in contact with for years to come.