At First, I Was Nervous About Being Assigned a Home Stay
Ringing the doorbell on my rainy first day in Buenos Aires, I was terrified to meet my host mom. We’d exchanged one email each, and from her minimal response to my cheery introduction and extensive questions, I thought she was going to be terrible, cold, and unfriendly.
My fear and distrust came from an unpleasant experience I had with a host family when I worked as an au pair one summer in Spain. I felt uncomfortable with the dynamics in my host family and had no space to myself. Ultimately, I moved out, which was extremely tense and awkward. As a consequence, the idea of studying abroad with a home stay made me incredibly nervous, because I had learned the hard way how an uncomfortable living situation can color one’s experience. However, by the end of the semester I was grateful that IFSA requires a home stay in Buenos Aires, because it proved to be wonderful.
That being said, in the beginning I was quite unsure of the whole situation. The first week that I lived with Marta, a sprightly older woman living alone, was intensely awkward. I was looking at every interaction through a lens of fear. I noticed quickly that Marta was a no-nonsense, minimalist kind of person; she wasn’t into processing feelings. This was disappointing, as I’d hoped I would be able to talk openly with her. However, it turned out patience was all it took. Gradually over the course of the semester I did open up to her, and she reciprocated. She has a gritty exterior, but it didn’t take long to realize that underneath was the sweetest, warmest heart.
In the End I Came to Love it
Ultimately, the relationship Marta and I built slowly over the semester is the relationship I will most treasure from my experience abroad. Her calm, honest, no-nonsense demeanor eventually felt nurturing and supportive for me. She was kind and generous in a low-key, humble way. All the little things she did- washing my sheets and making my bed crisply every Sunday, cooking desserts she knew I liked and always coaxing me to eat seconds, and generally just being there when I needed to ask for advice- meant so much to me.
Marta gave me so much freedom and trust. She was not overprotective, as I’d feared; she set no curfew for me. In fact, some Saturday nights she came home from seeing friends later than I did, at around 2 a.m.! When I discovered she had a bathtub and a fixed rate for electricity, I was so excited. Baths are super grounding and always calm me down when I am feeling stressed. Marta wholeheartedly supported my habit, never judging me. Before dinner she’d sometimes say: “Lili, ¿es la hora para un baño de inmersión?”
How IFSA Helped
Part of what made this home stay experience, in contrast to my au pair experience, so excellent was the way IFSA sets up the host family relationship. You fill out a questionnaire with living preferences so they can find a good match. The families are all screened by program staff in person to ensure some basic things (example: are they comfortable hosting a queer student?). Many families have hosted students in the past and received good reviews.
Finally, IFSA has a set of guidelines for the host families and students: house agreements that set clear, thoughtful boundaries, and also lay the foundation for a strong relationship of trust to build. These guidelines include things like cleaning, having friends over (you can, but you have to ask first), and meals. The meal arrangement is that host families provide breakfast and dinner, and during dinner you’re expected to eat together. I’d start and end every day with Marta, and go out for lunch. This set a nice routine to my day. I loved our dinners: the ritual of setting the table, Marta’s delicious cooking, and the many laughs we shared. I treasured these dinners so much that even when my aunt came to visit for a week in the city, I insisted on spending a couple of those nights eating dinner with Marta.
It was incredible to talk to her about politics, history, and her life during these dinner conversations. As someone who’d lived through many of the events I was learning about in the complicated history of Buenos Aires, Marta gave me a deep personal perspective, teaching me things I couldn’t have learned in a classroom.
What Happens if it’s Not a Match?
I got lucky in my home stay experience, and I think IFSA does everything they can to make it a wonderful one. Still, though, sometimes it doesn’t work out. My best friend in the program had a tough time with her host family, and felt very uncomfortable. Thankfully, IFSA has a smooth and quick procedure for switching families if necessary, and all the staff my friend talked to were supportive. They wanted her to be happy and comfortable. With the help of IFSA, my friend was placed with another family. I accompanied her through the moving process, so I saw how her new host mom ran out to the street to wrap her in a hug and exclaimed, “My new daughter!” Needless to say, my friend was much happier in this new living situation. Her host mom even welcomed me into their family too, and I often hung out there. I wish I’d had a program like IFSA to help me navigating moving out of my au pair host family’s house.
If you are nervous about living in a home stay like I was, try to be as open to it as possible. As my relationship with Marta showed me, wonderful things can happen. For me, a home stay ended up being a much richer experience than I believe a dorm would have been.
Lily Gordon is a junior Comparative Literature major at Williams College in Massachusetts. She studied abroad with the IFSA Argentine Universities Program in Buenos Aires, Argentina in fall 2018.