You have just gotten into your housing in Madrid. It is 3 pm, you are so tired, need a shower, feels like you have run a marathon – this is called jet lag and is an integral part of international travel. After plopping your suitcase on your single twin bed, you head to the bathroom. Here is where the story diverges depending on what housing you have chosen.
Possible scenario if you chose to live with a homestay family: the senora of the house has followed you at every step including into the bathroom. She realizes you wish to take a shower and advises that 3 pm is no time to take a shower in Spain – this is lunch time and then perhaps a quick siesta. She walks you back to your room and begins to help you unpack, showing you where your socks should go, your jeans, shoes and so on. She then herds you into the kitchen and begins to explain the menu for that week, and how important it is to let her know if you cannot make it home for the mid-day meal each day. The food, even though it feels like midnight to you and you are not hungry, is delicious and hot.Possible scenario if you chose to live in a shared apartment: there are no towels. There is no hot water because, as you read in your orientation packet, one needs to turn on the gas “bomba” first. You don’t know where the “bomba” is. The toilet looks well, not dirty, but quite used. As you stand there attempting to make your jet lagged brain work, a room-mate knocks on the door needing to use the bathroom. Lucky break, as she can explain everything to you.
The biggest part of the decision where to live while abroad depends upon you: your lifestyle, past travel experience, language level, personality and expectations of your international program and time abroad. For example, shared apartments tend to be more beaten up than a homestay, since program participants are coming and going every two to three months, or however long their program duration is. In a homestay there are home-y things like plants, rugs, even pets, because people actually live there long term. This might not matter to you at all.So, which is the better option? Define “better”.
Another example: in a homestay situation there is usually a set time to eat. In a shared apartment, you will do your own shopping and your own cooking, so eating times become a non-issue. This may be a really big deal, to you.
Another difference: in a shared apartment it is highly likely that the common language used will be English. Not so in a family homestay, logically. Likewise, in an apartment, there is usually someone around who will want to do touristy things with you, like visit museums and parks, not to mention going out at night – they may not be your best friend, but they are there, and usually willing to explore, too. In a homestay, even if there are children that are your age still living there, chances are they have their own lives / plans / friends. And what about a “curfew”? The perception is accurate that when living with a family, there probably will be one, even if not outright defined. So if you think you will be rolling in at 6 am, be ready for the senora to clank around the kitchen and living room two hours later so you are good and sure to hear her.
Generally speaking, when given a choice (some programs do not offer a choice), about 70% of candidates elect to live in a shared apartment.* The 30% that live, happily, with a homestay family are either 1) younger, and looking for a bit more dependence and structure, or 2) fluent or close to fluent in the language, and have travelled or been to the country before so having to go out and connect with others outside the housing is not a problem. Does this mean that if you choose to live in a shared apartment you will not have as deep a cultural immersion? That your language acquisition will suffer? That you will be ridiculously sleep deprived? No to the first two points, and yes, typically, to the final point. Some tips to make sure you return home with the global perspective and cultural acumen one should have after living abroad, regardless of whether you choose a shared apartment or a family homestay:
- Sign up for a local class in anything, extreme Frisbee, dance, cooking, guitar, a riding club…anything that gets you out in the streets, using the metro or buses, once or twice a week away from your housing and program routine.
- Join a local gym
- Create a routine with a local – making dessert every Friday night for a neighbor, or watching
- Spanish movies every Wednesday night with someone you may have met at one of your classes or at the gym
- Sounds really old fashioned, but find the nearest library. There are always one-off things to do, locally, posted at libraries plus ongoing weekly or monthly events held there
So, to live in a shared apartment or a homestay during the internship or study abroad program you are planning is an easy decision to make once you can define your “better”. Decide and then move on; your new city, another language, a slew of people you would never otherwise meet, not to mention experiences you would never otherwise have…all this awaits you.
*Source: Adelante Abroad internal assessment data, 2012.
Kimberly Haber is Director of Programs at Adelante Abroad, LLC, and has lived in both shared apartments and with families during many trips abroad. She doesn’t take it personally anymore when a senora, or house mom, rifles thru her belongings in the name of “cleaning up” her room. Nor does she mind the sand all over the floor, everywhere, in a shared apartment. She has finally mastered the art of the foreign washing machine, a personal goal for years.