I Lived with a Spanish Host Family That Didn’t Speak English.. And I Loved It! (My Study Abroad Experience)

Pictures from the beautiful town of Alcalá de Henares

Pictures from the beautiful town of Alcalá de Henares

I’ve always thought of myself as being adventurous, but in reality, I find myself playing it safe more often than not. So when the opportunity presented itself to live in Spain for a month while also learning more Spanish, I was compelled to take it.

Although most study abroad programs offer on-campus or off-campus housing living options, this program had only one option: staying with a host family. At this time I was very unaware of the fact that my host family would not speak English.

After filling out paperwork, getting letters of recommendation, and running around like crazy, I was notified that I was accepted into my study abroad program and started the planning process. Under my program every student traveled to Spain alone, so off I went to take my first solo trip to Europe.

Of course, I didn’t sleep on the plane mostly due to my excitement and nervousness so jet lag was hitting me hard immediately after landing. About an hour later two professors loaded a large group of us onto a bus headed to Alcalá de Henares.

I was glued to my window the entire bus ride. I was expecting to see romantic streets filled with monuments and classic European architecture. But I was surprised to find that the view was similar to driving through New York.

Funny enough though, I still found myself being amazed at the simplest of things like the European license plates that I had only seen on tv and the miles of graffiti which screamed: “I was here”. Less than an hour later, we arrived at the Universidad de Alcalá and were immediately surrounded by our host families.

Now, this is where sh*t gets super real. Without giving us time to even get to know each other, one by one we were briefly introduced to our host families and then off we went to our new homes. When my name was finally called I was introduced to my family, who by the way did not answer any of my attempts to contact them while I was at home *rolls eyes*. I did a silent prayer that they were normal and walked over and was introduced to an older couple named Antonia and Julio.

My Host Family, Antonia and Julio

My Host Family, Antonia and Julio

The first thing I noticed about them was their huge smiles, and the feeling that despite having just met me less than 30 seconds ago, they were genuinely happy to see me. They instantly started talking to me speedily in Spanish asking what I half understood as questions. During the car ride to their house, I learned very quickly that they did not speak English and they learned just as quickly that I did not speak fluent Spanish.

I was initially overwhelmed as my Spanish experience at this time only included taking three years of classes in high school and one semester in college. I also want to take this time to state that American Public School’s SUCK at teaching foreign languages. Thankfully, my host mom had downloaded the Google Translate app prior to me arriving, which helped us communicate with each other. But more about that later.

I was then introduced to my new home for the next 30 days, a small but homely three bedroom, one bath apartment. Since my host family was older, it would be just the three of us. After a quick tour, I took a well needed and well-deserved nap. My host mom then woke me up for lunch (all meals were included in my study abroad program and were to be provided by my host family.) which was a plate of arroz con pollo or rice and chicken.

One of my first meals in Spain, complete with a Spanish tortilla.

One of my first meals in Spain, complete with a Spanish tortilla.

“So this is the moment of truth” I thought silently. I’d been a vegetarian for about three months at this time and had been going back and forth with myself about whether or not I wanted to eat meat while in Spain. At that moment though, I was more worried about offending my host family because I didn’t eat their food, so I just ate it and chicken tasted just as good as I remembered.

The next morning I had an orientation at my University and my host mom offered to walk with me so she could show me which way to take once classes started. At the orientation, I finally got to meet some of the other students who came from Arizona, Georgia, Pennsylvania, Oklahoma and more.

Some of us hadn't even heard of the city where the other was from. It was crazy to me that the desire to travel and experience a different culture had brought such a diverse group of people together. We also got a tour of the campus (which looks like it belongs in a museum) and had two quick information sessions which informed us on Spanish culture and the town of Alcalá de Henares.

Some quick background on the history of Alcalá for those who are interested. Once inhabited by the Romans and the Moors, Alcalá is historically known as being a city in which people of multiple ethnicities and religions lived together in harmony. Alcalá is also known for being the birthplace of the famous writer Miguel de Cervantes who is the author of Don Quixote. Due to its rich history, Alcalá has been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

A picture of the Universidad de Alcalá

A picture of the Universidad de Alcalá

Unfortunately, the two classes I had been scheduled to take had been canceled due to me being the only one registered for both (just my luck, right). So I had been assigned my own personal Spanish professor that I would meet with solo for two hours every Monday-Thursday. My professor spoke amazing English and had lived in Manhattan for a few months but was a native Spaniard.

Throughout my classes, I listened to Spanish music and had to interpret it, read Spanish brochures and maps, and even watched the Spanish version of The Office. My most memorable class day was when my professor decided to put my Spanish skills to the test by having me buy my textbook and communicate only in Spanish with the bookstore owner. That day I embarrassed myself and butchered the Spanish language, but I also broke my fear of speaking Spanish in public.

A typical day for me in Spain consisted of me eating breakfast (which was really just two pieces of toast), going to class for two hours then meeting up with some friends and exploring the area near the school, walking back home, eating lunch, doing homework or facetiming someone from back home, eating dinner and then watching Netflix until I went to sleep.

During my four weeks in Spain, I also took three trips to places outside of Alcallá to Toledo, Barcelona, and Paris (more info on these trips coming soon!). I also went to Madrid multiple times as it was only a 40-minute train ride away and did so much there including museums, eating at the best taco restaurant I have ever been to in my life, seeing landmarks, and wandering around alone.

During my last week in Spain, my amazing host family allowed my sister to come and stay with us for a few days before and after our weekend trip to Paris. Despite my sister not knowing more than two words in Spanish, my host mom still managed to make her feel at home. Which shows that although we may live in different places, have different cultures, and speak different languages, kindness is universal.

Now there were also some major challenges that I experienced while in Spain, the most pressing being the language barrier. However, Google Translate really helped to limit that as well as having a very patient host family that didn’t mind repeating themselves multiple times, and speaking slowly so that I could understand them.

The heat during the summer in Spain is insane with temperatures sitting ‘comfortably’ at 90 plus degrees the entire month that I was there. My host family didn’t have air conditioning which was unbearable at times, but my ceiling fan, an open window and constantly having a cold water bottle on me wherever I went really held me down.

One of the best meals my host mom made for me!

One of the best meals my host mom made for me!

The issue of not loving everything my host mom cooked for me also came up a few times most memorably when she made me a dish which involved tuna fish and cold pasta in a creamy sauce. Thankfully though she was very adamant on me letting her know if I didn’t like something and she would simply make me something else.

I also experienced homesickness and feelings of not fitting in because I didn’t speak the language but I figured that those are normal side effects of living in a foreign country and I quickly got over them as my time in Spain continued. I also got lost all the time in Spain. Whether it be trying to remember how to get to school, meeting a friend at the train station, or my favorite getting lost and walking through a sketchy neighborhood alone. But my terrible sense of direction and I eventually got it together.

Although I did make friends while I was in Spain I had technically traveled there alone. And I felt this sometimes more than other times, especially when my new friends had to study for finals and midterms and couldn’t come to explore Madrid with me. Throughout my entire trip, I never let this get in the way of experiencing as much as I could and I traveled alone on several different occasions.

Overall staying with a host family was a great experience that I hope to have again in my future travels. My host family accepted me into their home as family from the first moment they met me. They helped make the transition of living in a foreign country that much easier. And even today months after my experience, I still feel as though I have a second family in Spain.

My study abroad experience gave me a huge hunger to travel and experience other cultures. It opened my mind and my stomach to trying new things, and also gave me the confidence and need to continue my journey to being fluent in Spanish while at home. I recommend that everyone try to study abroad while in college and if you aren’t able to, to try using websites such as HomeAway, Airbnb or other Couchsurfing websites.

Have questions about studying abroad? Or have you participated in a study abroad program? Tell me more about your experience below!