A Memoir of Homestay in Madrid

Cheryl Li explores another culture in Madrid through her homestay experience.

The second I landed in Madrid, I started to understand what the international students were going through when they first came to Shanghai. I’ve never been to Europe; I know a total amount of two people here; I’ve learned about ten Spanish words on Duolingo. Everything started to become real when I saw the Spanish names of the stores alongside the street. But I failed to understand what I was feeling because I was just busy dealing with everything in front of me instead of feeling it. The upside is, I can tell myself now that I was excited.

My fantasy about living in a homestay in Madrid was living in one of those building that has cute little terraces decorated with flowers and facing the alley paved with stones. And I would stand on the terrace on a sunny day, possibility spot some cute guy(or girl, or literally anything beautiful that goes with the setting) on the terrace across the street, have a brief eye contact and smile at each other. End of the story. Unfortunately, my homestay is located at one of the main street in Madrid and it’s on the first floor. But it didn’t really matter anymore when I saw the cute apartment decorated with about forty paintings and various exotic collections, and more importantly, my own bedroom with a double bed and extra pillows and a bathroom all to myself with a whole closet of fresh towels.

I only have a Señora in the host family, and she speaks just as much English as I speak Spanish. So the first day can be summarized with a bunch of “hola”, “sí” and “no”.

…..and the same continued for the entire first week.


It is nice to have someone take care of you finally after you have been away from home for over a year. I was tired of eating at the cafeteria, or cooking for  myself, or ordering food online. I would eat anything as long as someone put it in front of me at dinner time, and that’s what I got. Everyday at 8pm(a relatively early dinner time for Spaniards who have dinner at 9 or 10pm for no reason), I would have a three-course meal in front of me. They are home-cooked, delicious and different everyday for about the first two weeks. The best part is, when I pretend to help clean up and wash dishes after dinner out of politeness, she would stop me even from putting the dishes in the sink. Let alone having someone clean your room weekly, fold all the clothes I threw on the chair, and do my laundry. It is the spoiling I’ve miss since I was ten years old.

My Spanish was going slowly and I remember one of my classmates was making fun of me because I didn’t know what “jámon” meant, until one night I had a conversation with my host mom about museums and arts, and was completely left in shock about how I managed to have that conversation. Since then, I started to have the courage to say my address to the cab driver instead of just showing him the address on my phone. An exceptional skill I have developed over the time I’m in Spain, especially through communicating with my host mom, is that I can pretend (and to an extent actually believe) that I understand everything she’s saying and I pay full attention to the conversation and enjoy it, even though I might only understand 20% of it. But I guess that’s how your brain works: you just need to throw it in a learning environment, and it will do the rest of the work for you.


My host mom is what makes this homestay experience really precious. I haven’t asked her about her marital status or age as I don’t want to accidentally be offensive with my trash Spanish. But I would say she is about 50-60 and is currently single. And she has a cuter and younger personality than a lot of people of our age, including myself. She has a lot of admirers, of course. Even with my Spanish, I can tell she is playing the game well. She would ask me why I don’t go have fun when I try to not go out just to be polite; she would take me out to dinner and we will light up a candle, lying on a couch and watch some Spanish dating show; she would go out herself until 3 in the morning; she would ask me why I’m not bringing boys back whenever I go out for anything besides school; she would make all kinds of silly sounds just to help me learn Spanish; she would complain about her weight and worked out everyday… Sometimes I am really jealous of the state she is in: works as a music teacher, watches a lot of documentaries and concerts, goes to all kinds of art events and has just enough money to have fun and be happy. I would look at her and tell myself: that’s where I wanna be at when I’m retiring.


I think I will forever remember what I feel doing homestay in Madrid: walking to school from home with European sun shining on me, seeing flower blossoms reaching out from the yard — this must be what a European kid from a middle class family feels like growing up.

This article was written by Cheryl Li. Please send an email to managing@oncenturyavenue.com to get in touch.
Photo Credit: Cheryl Li

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