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Lessons from My Spanish Host Mom

By: Callie Schaden |

I arrived in Valencia, Spain on a Tuesday morning after three flights and 18 hours of travel. I was tired, disoriented, and loaded right onto a tour bus that took my roommate and I to meet our host mom. A short woman, probably just over five foot, smiled up at us with eyes sparkling through a pair of red-framed glasses. She had short, salt-and-pepper hair and wore a red coat that hung to her mid-thighs. I could have sworn she said something about hugging us, but my brain was fuzzy with jetlag and culture shock and all I could do was laugh and nod. My 50-pound suitcase and I tried to keep up on busy city sidewalks and a public bus. My host mom—Mariángeles—was saying something to me about a card but that was the only word I picked up on… tarjeta. My roommate, meanwhile, was talking a million miles a minute in broken Spanish, five steps ahead of me on everything—the culture, the language, the relationship, the bonding. I felt like I was slipping further and further back into a tunnel whose walls passed me in a brilliant Spanish blur.

Lunch, the afternoon, and the following dinner passed largely the same. My roommate and host mom talked, I tried desperately to keep up, and a sinkhole of potential failure threatened to swallow me whole. The next morning Mariángeles went with us to the university. When we walked in the door she said to the director, Ella tiene que hablar más, “she has to talk more”—that sentence I understood. I was completely mortified that this woman I’d only just met was calling me out in a language I hardly knew to a room full of people who could understand her, while all I could do was stand there helplessly. It was only the second day and I felt justified in my lack of conversation because I was completely overwhelmed, but what I didn’t know was that she was teaching me one of the biggest lessons I would learn during my time in Valencia, Spain.

Callie Schaden, “Mediterranean Sunrise”, 2022

Lesson One: Take Risks

I am generally not a risk taker. Now I know that traveling alone to a foreign country to live with a woman I’d never met for three months begs to differ with that statement, but the truth is that I was only going because it was the most practical way to finish my Spanish major and still graduate on time. That being said, I had no desire to “hablar más” because I was completely petrified of making mistakes. Part of that is my perfectionist personality, and part of that is quite honestly my fear of looking like I don’t know what I’m doing. But the truth is, I did not know what I was doing, and that was the whole reason I desperately needed to take Mariángeles’ advice.

The following weeks I learned that making mistakes was not only inevitable, but also important. In fact, I think important is kind of an understatement. Many of the language mistakes I made during my time in Valencia were crucial to my learning and understanding. For example: Early on in the semester I was repeatedly describing something to my professor using the phrase se miran, which I was convinced meant “they look like”. I was admittedly embarrassed to find out that I was repeatedly saying “they look at” in a way that made my sentence mean “The statues look at each other like historical figures”, rather than the “The statues look like historical figures” that I was going for. Despite the momentary embarrassment I felt when my professor bluntly corrected me, this mistake opened up a world of new phrases for me. (You don’t realize how often you use the phrase “looks like” until you’ve been corrected for saying it the wrong way in a different language.)

Mariángeles continued to encourage me to speak even if my grammar was horrendous and I had to stumble through a slew of verb tenses before coming to the one that made sense, and gradually, she helped me build a solid basis from which I continued to grow. My roommates and I were not allowed to get frustrated and give up on a sentence. If we did, she would say No, no. Dime otra vez. “No, no. Tell me again.” And slowly, and sometimes painfully, we would try again and she would listen carefully and patiently. I did indeed need to talk more, and I needed to risk making mistakes in order learn. And—added bonus—the more I practiced speaking, the less I was worried about sounding perfect and the more my language skills were able to develop through that practice. As much as I hate taking risks, I have to admit that the majority of my language growth only happened when I was outside of my comfort zone.

Callie Schaden, “Planting Garlic”, 2022

Lesson Two: Slow Down

Mariángeles was always very concerned that we have time to sit and enjoy our meals. My roommates and I had a flight to catch one day, but arriving at the airport early still took a backseat to having a pleasant, relaxed lunch. Eating on the way to the airport was not an option when we had a perfectly good table to sit around. The sitting I could comply with, but the relaxing was nearly a foreign concept. Hand in hand with my lack of risk-taking, I am also a planner. I like to follow a strict schedule, intentionally overestimated with planned margin for errors, so the thought of stopping to enjoy a nice meal right before boarding a flight made me feel the opposite of relaxed. But there I was around the table, forced to slow down. At the time I didn’t register that I was learning a lesson (let me reiterate to you the lack of relaxation that was hitting me as I chowed down my sandwich), but I quickly found that I needed to not only learn, but embrace this idea in order to take full advantage of my semester in Spain.

Don’t get me wrong, I had a great time in Valencia. I traded an Ohio winter for warm spring temperatures and the Mediterranean just a mile and a half from my apartment. We sat on our terraza in the sun and drank homemade, fresh-squeezed orange juice whenever we wanted to. I was learning new things and a new language in the most interactive, exciting way possible. But there was still a constant countdown in the back of my mind. 3 months from now I’ll be able to understand conversations on the street. In two weeks it’ll be spring break. Six weeks from today I’ll be home. About halfway through the semester I realized I was so focused on the future that I was forgetting to live in and enjoy the present.

“Slowing down” the rest of the semester looked like expanding my focus a little bit. It was difficult for me to choose not to be directed solely by my end goal of completing the semester, but I found that shifting my gaze to more immediate things helped me live much more in the present. I walked home in the rain (mostly) unbothered by my wet clothes because I knew everyday I was getting closer and closer to walking that route one last time. I put away the studying I felt so stressed about to drink tea with Mariángeles and my roommates every afternoon. Little things held more value, like planting garlic on the terraza, standing in the kitchen while Mariángeles made dinner, and walking an hour to watch the sunrise on the beach even though I wanted to sleep in. In other words—I took in every minute with more intentionality and I truly believe that I experienced my semester to the fullest because I learned to slow down.

Mariángeles, my spunky, 70-year-old Spanish host mom did a lot for me during my time in Valencia. Among other important things like keeping me housed and well-fed, she pushed me to take risks and encouraged me to slow down. I learned better and enjoyed more fully thanks to these two lessons—which I might add, are not only excellent pieces of study abroad advice, but also excellent pieces of advice for life in general.

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Callie Schaden is currently an English and Spanish student at Cedarville University. She grew up in a small town in Ohio and has expanded her horizons in El Salvador and Valencia, Spain, two places which have given her a love for the Spanish language and a desire to continue learning outside of her native tongue.

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