In order to know what it was like to spend almost five months sharing an apartment with a woman who makes a living taking care of foreign twentysomethings a semester at a time, you need to know a little about my host mom, Pilar.
Like a lot of the madres that worked with my program, Pilar is a single woman in her seventies. She lives alone in her apartment–apart from, you know, all the students and everything–and divides her time between grocery shopping and watching TV.1 She doesn’t take a siesta as a rule, but I often caught her sleeping on the couch in her customary post-comida robe as I headed off to class.
Of course, every host mom is different. For instance, while the majority of host mothers in my program are single because they are widows, Pilar is single because she is divorced. And she blows the other host mothers away with her cooking.2 Pilar used to own three restaurants with her husband, and though they had since sold them by the time I lived with her, she always had something amazing waiting for me when I came home for a meal.3 And she always provided me with a hearty bocadillo to eat before I left on a trip.4 Pilar also spent more time with me than the other host mothers did with their kids, from what I heard. Though she always stayed up later than me–those TV shows are really compelling–she always woke up before me, and sat and chatted with me at every meal. While other kids were grabbing something from the fridge or going out to eat, Pilar and I were having a heart to heart over cocido madrileño.
In my program, no matter who our host mother (or family) was, there were certain distinguishing features of living with them that defined our lives in Madrid. First and foremost, living with a host family took away most of the pressure that comes with living in a new city alone. They took care of all of our meals and laundry–as well as the costs associated with them. They were personal guides to all things Madrid: which metro line to take to get to the museum, which cities are the best to visit on a day trip, which candies you need to try while you’re there. And while they were a often a constant presence in the home, they were all fairly liberal with letting us come and go–and stay gone–as we pleased. Oh, and we always had to wear shoes in the house–it’s a Spain thing.
Of course, things weren’t always perfect between Pilar and I. She is, as far as Spanish politics are concerned, very conservative. That means she can claim she hates Trump and say she thinks cross-dressing is ridiculous in the nearly the same breath. When the infamous anti-trans bus was driving through Madrid and many were calling for it to be taken off the streets, she argued that everyone would be up in arms if they did the same to a pro-trans bus. Considering that the news was on during every meal, this could get pretty tiring by the time 9 p.m. dinner rolled around. For the beginning of the semester, my Spanish wasn’t good enough to do more than give a pained smile and nod and hope she would move on or hope that her adult son (who stayed with us for a few weeks) would step in with a counterargument that I could nod along to. By the end, I reminded myself that my actual father was at least as conservative and we’d been fine for 21 years–and besides, I would be moving out soon.
That is perhaps the strangest thing about living with a host family–the obvious impermanence of it all. Not only do you know that your time together is limited to the semester, but you also know chances are you will never return to their country again.5 So when Pilar told me about her mother’s Alzheimer’s, or her plans to paint the hallway this summer and I shared memories from high school or told her about my brother’s semester in Florence, I sometimes got the melancholy feeling that it was pointless. I worried since before I ever got on the plane from Logan to Madrid-Barajas about how sad it would be when we would have to say goodbye.
And it was sad, yes. My eyes started welling me up as Pilar pulled me into our last hug goodbye. But then she was on the phone talking to her sister about their mother’s health and I was out the door to catch the train to the airport. We cared for each other deeply, but briefly. And that, more than keeping shoes on, more than putting clothes in the designated laundry bag, more than reminding your host mother when you won’t be home for dinner, is the real agreement between a host family and child: to have an impermanent, but vitally important, relationship while you share one roof.
1 Her favorites are Pasapalabra, a game show where people talked way too fast for me to understand until my second to last week, and Sé Quién Eres, a new murder drama with excellent videography.
2 Sorry to the other host mothers, but it’s the truth.
3 To be fair, I’m biased toward Pilar when it comes to her previous marriage, but I’m convinced she was the talent in their restaurant business.
definitely a defining thing in my abroad experience!
4 And I mean hearty–they were at least a foot long.
5 I mean, one can hope. But out of the ~25 people that come to Madrid every semester–out of all the kids that have stayed with Pilar over her 20 years hosting–there’s no way more than a very small percentage ever return to Europe, let alone Madrid and their host family’s apartment.