April 4, 2013
“You’ve gotten fatter!” my Spanish host mother said to me one day recently after dinner. “When you first got here, your legs were so skinny. But this is better; you look more like a woman now!”
In the U.S., it is unheard of to tell someone that they have gained weight, much less do so as a compliment. While I just laughed it off and thanked her, I know that not everyone may have been able to do the same. But it didn’t really bother me because for one thing, I was skeptical of whether she was just imagining it (I was wearing leggings that day). Maybe she just wanted to compliment herself for having fed me well for the past two months (she likes to talk about what a good cook she is). More importantly, I had been warned of the frank honesty and different values I might encounter with my host family, so I was not caught completely off-guard.
To take a step back, for the past three months I have been studying abroad in Madrid, Spain with Hamilton’s own program, the Hamilton Academic Year in Spain (HCAYS). Students accepted to the program are placed in homestays with Spanish families and take classes at Hamilton’s own academic center, signing a pledge to only speak Spanish while abroad.
After recently declaring a Spanish major, I decided to come to Spain with HCAYS this spring semester to explore a new country, work on my language skills and escape a brutal central New York winter. Never having visited the country before, I naively expected an experience somewhat akin to that portrayed in the Woody Allen movie Vicky Cristina Barcelona: constant strolling down picturesque cobblestone streets with romantic Spanish guitar music playing in the background. While I have encountered both of these things on a few occasions, my experience has been different. Conversations with my host mother and other Spaniards have made it clear to me that while the place has its movie moments, it is much more complex than Hollywood has portrayed it.
Anyone who has not been living under a rock for the past few years is probably aware of the current Eurozone crisis. That said, living in one of the countries most affected by it has given me a whole new perspective on the issue. Soon after I arrived, my host mother explained to me that she wanted to donate her body to science when she died, but that the public university she had contacted had told her they lacked the funding to accept her request. I could tell that this saddened her, as did news of recently unemployed family members and friends.
I have had to slightly adjust my living habits based on a different set of values. I take shorter showers and am more aware of how much electricity I use. While these are habits I should probably have been practicing while in the United States, I have at times found it hard to change the way I live. One day I got into an argument with my host mother about using two different lights while studying in our living room. As I have become very conscious of saving electricity, I almost found it rude that she had asked me to turn one of them off. The next morning, when she broke down to me about her expensive electricity bills and money struggles, I left for school disconcerted. While I sympathized with her, her openness had shocked me. At the moment I was overwhelmed with my own stress, exhausted after staying up late preparing for an interview, and this only added onto that stress.
While living in a homestay has in some instances been an emotional strain, the inside look it has given me to life in Spain has been invaluable. I know that one woman cannot be held as an example for a country’s whole population, but I have heard similar stories from other friends about their homestays about money-consciousness. That aside, there are many people here who are doing just fine economically, exemplified by the two ten-year-olds wearing Barbour jackets whom I sat next to on the Metro today, or the lujo that many public figures such as the country’s ex-treasurer, Luis Barcenas, engage in. Living with a Spanish family has exposed me to new mindsets, values and ways of living. I have learned that my host mother is not afraid to tell me exactly what she is thinking, and that people within different cultures can have different ideas about beauty as well as consumption. This learning outside of the classroom is one of the things that I value the most from my study abroad experience. As I enter my last month here and get ready to leave, I only hope that I can continue to learn as much as I have thus far.