The honest ups and downs of living in a homestay

Unless you were abandoned as a child in a woodland area somewhere and were raised by wolves, you’ve likely lived with other human beings for your whole life. Living with others can be challenging – everyone has bad habits and, on the other side of the coin, habits of others that ticks them off. You’ve probably have been told by your mother, who likely used your full name to address you in a not-so-affectionate tone, to make your bed and clean your room. You’ve also probably entered your shared bathroom to find that one of your roommates left toothpaste stains in the sink again.

Living in a homestay is a unique experience. In some ways, you revert back to childhood levels of dependence. My host mom, Maritina, is like a second mother to me. She takes care of me when I’m sick, she scolds me when I do something that bothers her (“please Julia, do not use your computer on the bed! It will catch on fire and this entire apartment will burn down” whatever you say, mom), she makes me veggie-centric dinners and insists that I need not help her prepare the food… living with a host parent or family can be awesome but, like any living situation, it comes with some sacrifices. Many people cite living with a host parent as one of the best parts of their study abroad experience, but still more leave their abroad programs ready to return home to their real parents or to their own apartment. My experience with homestay living falls somewhere in the middle: it’s great to live with a native Argentine on one hand but I miss the independence I had at school and home on the other. Below I’ve listed honest pros and cons of homestay living.

PRO: (Some of) your meals are taken care of. If you aren’t accustomed to cooking for yourself, this will be a huge plus for you. My host mom is an amazing cook, and has provided meals for me that I can eat. Some students I’ve spoken to aren’t so lucky. For example, some friends of mine live with a host mother who fears the stove solely uses the microwave to cook meals. If your host mom does happen to be a good cook, like mine is, you’ll really look forward to dinnertime.

CON: You likely sacrifice a lot of independence. Your host parent will want to know where you are at all times and where you’re planning on going. My host mom checks my room every day to ensure that I’m keeping it tidy and organizes it if I’m not (perhaps I should list this as a pro???) Many host parents allow their host students to cook, but some, like mine, do not. This can be a huge adjustment if you are used to cooking most of your own meals like I am.

PRO: Your living quarters are likely a lot nicer than the resident hall you’d otherwise live in. Homestays in my program are situated in the nicest neighborhoods of the city and in some of the nicest apartment complexes. My program requires that hosts place us in our own rooms, so each student has their own living space. My host mom’s apartment is spacious and complete with a beautiful view of the city skyline and a balcony with a small garden.

CON: Language barriers can make communication difficult and can lead to unnecessary complications. My host mom probably asked me to do the same thing 8 times before I followed her instructions during the first week. Smiling and nodding in response to questions you can’t understand isn’t going to get you anywhere – asking for your host to repeat themselves more slowly can be uncomfortable at first, but it will help eliminate unnecessary consequences that result from poor communication.

PRO: You’ll be fully immersed in the language – just to turn the last con on its head. My host mom speaks less English than I do Spanish and loves to talk which has forced me to speak the language from the beginning. It’s hard to gauge my improvement day to day, but considering I did not know that “aprender” meant “to learn” and “entender” meant “to understand” when I arrived, I can discern that I’ve learned a lot and understand much more than I did when I arrived.

CON: Most hosts have strict visitor policies. This can make coordinating plans with friends difficult. It’s easy to be jealous of my friends abroad who live in apartment or dorm settings with new friends. Their living situations are more lax, and they’re constantly surrounded by those they take classes and go out with. There can be negatives associated with this living situation as well, no doubt.

PRO: You’ll be fully immersed in the culture. Not only are you being fed your host country’s native cuisine and speaking your host country’s language, you are living with a native. You will watch them interact with their friends and others, prepare their dishes and carry out their daily routines.

CON: Your friends could live on the opposite side of the city. Homestays are typically not concentrated on one block or even one neighborhood. In my case, I have friends that live 30 minutes south of me and friends that live 30 minutes north of me. Once you’ve learned your city’s taxi and bus system, this frustration is eased drastically.

PRO: To end this list on a positive note, your host parent will care for you when you’re sick, sad, or just missing home. Having such a person there for you at all times is extremely comforting and crucial to the adjustment period. There were several times during the first month when I felt miserable, like I just wanted to go home or hole myself in my room for the remaining few months of my stay in Argentina. Maritina always sensed my sadness and would convince me not to be upset, to get up and do something and turn what I was perceiving as a negative experience into a positive one. I wouldn’t have been able to navigate the mostly Spanish-speaking hospital and gotten myself the proper medication and antibiotics to cure my sickness without her assistance. Living with a host has been vital to my adjustment period in this foreign place.

Living in a homestay can be great. It can also be frustrating and exhausting. It can provide a dichotomous amalgamation of great comfort and immense challenges. Overall, it is a blending of positives and negatives and a unique element of the study abroad experience.

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Tip of the day: sign up for the free stuff!

One of the many benefits of studying abroad in Buenos Aires is having a study abroad program which acts as a resource for students. My program, IES, has been a tremendous resource for me in so many ways (they rejected my application to write for their blog, so I’m not even being paid to say this). It’s obvious that they care about their students and get to know each of them on an individual level. They’ve provided support through the good and bad times. When I was sick and in and out of the hospital they always offered to send someone with me and checked in on me after my visit and every time afterward. They perform the role of both a moral support to students unfamiliar with a foreign land and a source for fun events and experiences. IES offers several free or discounted events for students to take part in on the weekends. Some of my best memories yet have been made through these experiences. Below are three of the can’t-miss experiences I shared with my IES program!

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Walking tour of San Telmo – San Telmo is a barrio in Buenos Aires known for quirky street art, historical architecture, and its weekly feria which runs from 10 AM to 5 PM on Sundays. Our walking tour of San Telmo began with a tour of Casa Rosada – the Pink House – which serves as the hub of nation’s government and of the adjoining museum. We then passed through the market where vendors were selling everything from apples covered with candy coating and popcorn to leather goods to decorative Argentine license plates. The feria is definitely somewhere I plan to return – there were so many vendors that it was easy to become overwhelmed.

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Tango show and dinner in Puerto Madero – This one is a bit of a cheat because it wasn’t free, but it was offered through my study abroad program at an incredible discount. The show was at Madero Tango in Puerto Madero. Puerto Madero is a portion of the city situation on the port – as the name would imply – and is host to some of the most expensive restaurants and stunning waterside views. My classmates and I were fed three courses – an appetizer, a main dish and a dessert – all of which were exquisite and hands down the best food I’ve eaten since arriving in Buenos Aires. Though it was difficult for me to understand the dialogue throughout the performance with my limited Spanish, I was able to discern that the show was following the history of the tango as it progressed in time from a gritty street dance associated with the lower class to a loved expression of art that permeated all layers of Argentine culture. It didn’t matter much that I couldn’t understand what the actors were saying – their bodies did most of the talking. I have a newfound respect for tango dancers and admiration for this dynamic art form.

Fuerza Bruta – There’s little I can tell you about this amazing show without ruining the hour and a half long sequence of surprises that it is but I will tell you that it is absolutely worth seeing, especially if you can see it for free! I came in with very few expectations and left confused, impressed and a little wet (you’ll understand if you go).

If your study abroad in Buenos Aires with a program that does not offer free or discounted programs, I still highly recommend all three of the above experiences. If your program does offer free and discounted programs SIGN UP! I cannot stress this enough – if you are like the average study abroad student, you will only have this experience once so take full advantage of it!

Keep an eye out for a second installment of this post as I plan on attending more of these events in the near future!

Please note that none of the pictures used in this, or any post are my property and were found on Google Images. 

Culture shock

I’ve always been fascinated by the distinct quirks that define a culture. How better do you define culture, anyway, besides a combination of “quirks” that define a group or society? Perhaps that definition boils it down too much – culture is far deeper than a set of “quirks.” It’s a collective history, a timeline of achievements, a set of beliefs and ideals and conceptions of the world. In short, it’s difficult to define in words. I believe culture is something better understood when it is felt and experienced than when it is explained.

I’ve lived in the Boston area for all 20 of my years, so leaving Massachusetts for four months was – is – a huge venture for me. Until a month ago, the T was the only public transportation I knew, I comfortably used the word “wicked” in conversation without having it pointed out, and Dunkin Donuts iced coffee continuously flowed through my veins year-round. I was accustomed to terrible drivers and epidemic road rage, proud liberalism, sports fanaticism, extreme weather, a general lack of the letter “r” and fast-paced living. The same things that shocked others about the culture were so far ingrained in me. Up until this point, I had never been the outsider. Being the outsider presents a dichotomy of emotions: it’s isolating but exhilarating. As hard as I try to pronounce my double L’s as J’s or greet someone with a kiss on the cheek instead of the customary business-school-student handshake, I will never be a porteña.

I’ve compiled a list of culture shocks that most non-Argentinian visitors can expect when visiting Buenos Aires:

  • I’ll start with the most obvious one – the language. As Americans, we’re accustomed to visiting foreign countries and reading menus written in English, getting directions from English-speakers, and generally getting by with little to no knowledge of the language. Argentinians don’t make it as easy on us! I would estimate that around half of the population can speak English to some degree. It’s extremely important to practice the language before going to Buenos Aires. It will only enrich your experience further and ease your integration into the culture. That being said, sometimes pointing and nodding are my most effective means of communication. Even once you do perfect the language (or get as close to perfect as you possibly can) there are still idiosyncrasies that distinguish Argentine Spanish from, say, Mexican Spanish or Spanish Spanish. For example: it’s not “tú” it’s “vos” and it’s not “calle” pronounced “ca-yay” it’s “calle” pronounced “ca-jay.” And it’s “ciao” not “adios.”
  • The role of religion in society. As you probably know, the pope is an Argentine. Some of the most beautiful historical buildings in Argentina are churches. Every time my bus passes a church in the morning, nearly half of the people on the bus bless themselves in the sign of the cross. But if you ask an Argentine, they’ll say “yes, the pope is one of our own, yes there are many beautiful churches, yes we bless ourselves when we pass said churches but we aren’t really that religious.” I’m still not entirely sure what this means, but I’ve heard the sentiment repeated several times.
  • The style. And by “the style” I am mostly referring to platform shoes. Women wear platform shoes for any occasion and understandably – they’re the perfect marriage of comfort and style. Who needs heels when you can walked a few inches taller without balancing your heels on toothpicks?
  • The pace of life.  I’m from the notoriously fast-paced, constantly stressed out east coast where 5 minutes early is on time and on time is late so this one was a biggie for me. Everyone takes their sweet time. It’s honestly nice but if I carry the habit of walking slowly back with me to the states, I run a serious risk of being pushed down on the dirty Boston sidewalk.
  • The driving. I would like to buy the next person who claims that Massachusetts drivers are the worst in the world a one-way ticket to Buenos Aires. Traffic lights here merely offer suggestions, pedestrian signs and crosswalks are simply road decorations and I have witnessed many a bus driver open the doors to allow someone to exit the bus as it is still moving.
  • The lateness of everything. My host mom makes us dinner around 7:30 and this is considered early by Argentina’s standards. Because most porteños don’t begin partying until 2 in the morning, dinner can be served as late is 11 o’clock or midnight. Bedtime on a typical weekend can sometimes stretch to sunrise.
  • The food. Buenos Aires is a big metropolitan city, so you’ll be able to find whatever you want here from empanadas to pizza to Middle Eastern cuisine. Most sushi is rolled with cheese and your slice of pizza will likely come with olives whether you want it to or not. Water is an extra charge and will likely come with bubbles unless you ask for “agua sin gas” and you’ll often find yourself faced with a “cubierto” or cover charge when you get your bill. Pie and cookies are perfectly acceptable breakfast foods. Oh, and the most heartbreaking food culture shock of all: it’s very rare for Argentinians to finish the gratuitous bread given before a meal. It’s considered bad taste to eat all of the bread and it is a sign of high class not to eat it. It’s not uncommon to see an untouched bread basket on a table once patrons have left. (</3)
  • The cost of things. Food is relatively cheap but clothes are crazy expensive. An average pair of jeans or shoes can sell for $2000 pesos (roughly 130 USD), easy. It’s easy to justify spending a couple hundred pesos for lunch every day, but those costs add up quickly so it’s important to be cautious with spending.
  • Telos, in general. Just look it up. Argentinians live with their parents well into their late 20s and early 30s so they gotta do what they gotta do somewhere.
  • Pet culture. People in Buenos Aires love their dogs. You will often pass dog walkers walking 5-15 dogs on the street. Most dogs walk unleashed, even through the most heavily-trafficked parts of the city.
  • Protests. When Argentinians seek change, they make their presence and objectives known through expressive demonstration. These demonstrations are often loud and well-organized and can hold up traffic in the city for hours. During my first week, I watched from the window of my school as elementary school teachers gathered to demand a raise. At first these protests are shocking, but it soon becomes evident that they are simply a part of life in the city.
  • The layout of the city. Argentinians value their green spaces and clean streets – a few elements U.S. cities notoriously lack. Parks can be found throughout the sprawling city and are adorned with rose gardens, extensive bike paths, beautiful lakes and countless sculptures and statues (literally countless… please someone explain to me why there are so many statues in this city). Parks provide the perfect means to escape the bustle of city life if such an escape is wanted.

Those are just a few of the many differences I’ve observed during my month in Buenos Aires. Going in with little expectations and understanding of the culture set me up for lots of surprises. Though it is fun to dive headfirst into an experience, preparation is key to long stays away from home and can help smooth the adjustment period.

Please note that none of the pictures used in this, or any post are my property and were found on Google Images. 

I’m starting a blog

It’s been one month plus two days since I arrived in Buenos Aires. Before leaving the face-numbing cold in Boston this February, I did not know what to expect from this journey. I knew these things for certain: I would leave the only place I have ever lived for the longest time I had ever left, I did not know anyone in this new country and I likely did not know enough Spanish to get by on Spanish alone. Nonetheless, I was thrilled to be leaving the cold and the certainty of my life and thrust myself into what would undoubtedly be an adventure, for better or worse. Though I knew there was little way to prepare myself for such a change, I was ready to make the dive.

I would be lying if I’ve said it’s been smooth sailing from the beginning. I spent the first month sick with God-knows-what and was prescribed a strict diet which mostly consisted of rice cakes and bananas. I am not lying when I tell you that I ate, on average, 10 rice cakes a day. I learned through the process that a large percentage of my happiness is derived from food and that I should likely seek additional sources of joy. Sometime within the first few weeks, I took the bus in the wrong direction and ended up at a shady stop wedged between abandoned buildings, train tracks and rubble and had to rely on my minimal Spanish and the honesty of strangers to get me where I needed to be. Most recently, I misplaced my phone last evening which resulted in the creation of this blog, which will now fill the time I would typically spend idly browsing my social media apps. Living under the supervision of a host parent is a major shift from the independence of apartment living I am used to at school. Despite a few setbacks and life adjustments, I’ve enjoyed my time here and I feel like I’m learning a lot about the city, about myself and about a culture I knew very little about before immersing myself in it. It’s an exciting but trying time to be me. For now, this blog will be a compilation of my thoughts and feelings about studying, learning and living abroad in Buenos Aires. Like I have been in this initial post, I will be honest. I’ll share my experience as it is without avoiding the negatives and emphasizing the positives. Welcome to my rambles!