Having a host family is a great experience, but it can understandably be a cause of some pre-abroad anxiety. Here are some tips for handling and making the most of your host family experience:

– Tell your host mother if there are certain foods you don’t like, as you don’t want them to be giving you a banana every morning with your breakfast if you hate bananas. For that matter, tell them if there are certain foods you really like as well, though don’t be too demanding. Having a host family is a time to observe how a real family in that country lives, and eating the same breakfast as you do every day in America isn’t really the point of studying abroad. That being said, if you have preferences, don’t be afraid to voice them.

– Try to keep your room neat. For example, I hate making my bed and rarely do more than pull up the covers in America, but I made my bed every morning while I was in Madrid, and every morning it was painful to do so. If your room is messy, it makes you look kind of disrespectful and ungrateful to them for letting you stay in their home (yes, they’re getting paid, but most people wouldn’t do it if they didn’t also like hosting students).

– Don’t be alarmed if your thongs are hanging on the clothesline outside next to your host dad’s underwear. Actually, don’t be alarmed that your host mother is washing your thongs for you. I wasn’t allowed to do my own laundry in my host family’s apartment, and most students aren’t. In addition, most people in Europe don’t own clothes dryers. You’ll feel awkward about it, but they’ve most likely hosted many students before, so they’ve probably seen it all before.

– Say goodnight to them, or say goodbye to them when you’re leaving the house. It’s just polite.

– Be respectful of them. That means don’t shower after everyone’s gone to bed, don’t take ridiculously long showers, don’t stomp around the house, don’t play your music too loud, etc. At the same time, it is your house too, for the time being, so you don’t need to sit in your room in silence all the time, staring at the wall. This brings me to my next point…

– Try to get to know your host family and be a part of the family! Spend time with them instead of in your room on Skype 24/7 – whether talking to them or watching the Simpsons dubbed in Spanish on tv, it’s all worth your time. I went to my 12 year old host sister’s basketball game, for example, and I was really happy I did. (As a side note, 12 year old Spanish girls are vicious on the basketball court… basketball was literally a tackle sport.)

– Remember that your host family is there to help you! Once in a while I asked my host mother to read papers for me and correct my grammar. Another time, I got strep throat and was pretty sick with a high fever, and didn’t think to tell my host mother. When she found out (by this point I was pretty sick), she was mad at me because I hadn’t told her, and I really should have. She made me get back in bed and went out and bought me soup and strawberries and things like that, and forced me to eat when I didn’t want to. She also took the time during her work day to check in on me a couple of times each day I was home sick. I’d have been really overwhelmed without her, and it goes to show you that host families really do care about the students they host.

I’m really grateful that I got the opportunity to have a host family, and I recommend it to anyone whose program offers it. Not only did it help me to improve my Spanish, but I was exposed to a lot of things that I wouldn’t have learned about otherwise. Yes, it was kind of awkward at times, but it was definitely one of the best things about my program.