I trained the flashlight on my iPhone toward my handiwork – maneuvering my lunch into napkins, wrapping those napkins into a plastic bag as the sauce was dripping out and slipping the package into my backpack.
I did this quickly and quietly – fearful my host mom’s housekeeper or my host sister would hear me. I could picture what would happen if someone happened upon this kitchen adventure.
Pilli, the 60-something housekeeper, no doubt would have admonished me, “I’m going to tell Marisol (the host mom) that you’re not eating! Why don’t you eat this food, it’s good and other kids are starving.” Pilli has as much empathy for picky American eaters as I have for her five-day old chicken.
In Spain, food is an experience. I get made fun of if I take my breakfast to go or eat lunch between classes. Food is to be consumed at a sit down meal in the company of others, my family tells me. It is also to be eaten in large quantities, hence Pilli’s constant hovering to make sure I’m eating enough. The first few weeks I found this a curious phenomenon because my host mom doesn’t eat a lot for fear of being “engorda.” I’ve learned to stop questioning Spanish cultural norms and go with the flow.
Pilli watches over me when I eat, making sure I am eating and reporting back to my host mom on how much I ate or did not eat that day. At dinner, Marisol and I joke that Pilli speaks about my eating like a proud new mother of her baby. “She ate some chicken today, how amazing,” she tells Marisol.
My Spanish family is protective and challenging, constantly pushing and pulling in different directions. They implore me to watch Spanish news with them and read Spanish books so as to practice my language abilities. My host mom texts my host sister and me lists of activities and bars we are instructed to venture to together.
But living in Spain has required a different adjustment than I expected – back to living with a family. They love hearing about my day and my activities. They expect me home at certain times. When I come back Sunday nights from traveling, they are waiting up in the kitchen, no matter how late my flight is, to ask questions. It’s exhausting and often overwhelming. Sometimes I wander around the streets of my neighborhood thinking or writing, building up the nerve to go back home and face questions from my inquisitive family.
College taught me how to rely on myself and how to spend time alone. Spain challenges me to do the opposite. Time alone is a luxury with my family, and I relish walks to school or plane flights alone with my thoughts.
Even with the constant practice of Spanish and human contact in my home, I’m lonely when I cannot fully express the way I feel. Often I know the words in Spanish I need to use to express myself, but the use of a second language to explain emotional states feels like a screen over how I feel. The longer I stay here, the more I am able to think in Spanish and so use it to express myself. Translating an emotion from English to Spanish forces me to simplify it so as to be able to explain it better. I am also hesitant to disappoint my host mom by telling her I had a bad day or that I miss my real parents. She is kind and empathetic, but also expectant that every day will be an incredible journey.
My proudest moment in Spain so far was when my host mom started describing me as funny. “I’ve finally learned how to express my personality in another language,” I thought to myself. There’s a big difference between being able to express oneself and being able to fully portray one’s personality in a foreign language. I was making headway in my Spanish speaking abilities.
I hear myself justifying my choices in coming here and validating the experience I’m having, even as I write something no one’s eyes have yet to see. Host families can be exhausting. Mine loves having long dinners in which we argue about everything from American politics to what the correct name is for the meat we’re eating. Well, they’re eating it. I, on the other hand, am thinking about how I can maneuver the mystery meat into a napkin and later pass it on to a homeless man on the street.
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