Homestay vs. Apartment vs. Residence Hall
To anyone contemplating the homestay vs. apartment vs. residence hall question:
Once I decided to go to Madrid through Middlebury Schools in Spain, the next big, looming question was where on earth in Spain's beautiful capital I should live. Thanks to friends who had shared their study abroad experiences with me, I knew that finding good housing was an often-overlooked piece of that puzzle that would end up being very important in my upcoming experience abroad. Considering that Middlebury's programs are known to promote independence and that I wouldn't be living with my program-mates, I knew that finding the right place to live would be crucial in helping me gain the most out of my time in Spain. But I was torn.
Should I live in a homestay, where I would have a family to welcome me and speak Spanish with me, but where I'd run the risk of living a little far out of town or not being around people my own age?
Should I live in an apartment, where I could try to find Spanish roommates and have more agency in my decision of where to live, but run the risk of less than ideal roommates or not being able to speak a lot of Spanish?
Or should I live in a residencia, a privately-owned, non-school affiliated residence hall, where I would be around people my age and have meals provided, but run the risk of living amongst international students and not having a "Spanish" experience?
I decided on a charming residence hall, Covarrubias that was a 10-minute walk from Middlebury's academic center. The residencia was in the heart of Chamberí, right next to a metro stop, and surrounded by numerous great shops and restaurants. Living there ended up being one of the best parts of my entire experience in Madrid.
It was a small residence hall with around 20 Spanish university students, and I was one of only two Americans. Everyone knew each other well as they'd lived together for a while. Every day, we would gather around the dining table to eat lunch and dinner together, and during those many meals, I really enjoyed getting to know the students. On top of that, there was always something going on in the residencia. When I arrived, they took me around the city. I got to practice my Spanish and help them with their English. We discussed Spanish and American politics and we watched the national news, they took me to the best restaurants and bars, and we watched a multitude of American movies dubbed in Spanish. I was even able to introduce some of them to my friends from the Middlebury program. Through them, I gained a better understanding of how young people live in Madrid. Stepping into their shoes for a few months made the whole experience so much richer and more exciting.
The funny thing is, however, that it did not start that way. There was no official welcome when I arrived, as I might have had with a host family. The students were friendly, but I initially had a hard time understanding the lightning-speed Spanish coming out of their mouths (and that's when they weren't speaking in Basque, one of Spain's regional languages, which was completely lost on me). The food and my roommate's snoring also took some time to get used to. Despite having lived in another western European city, Paris, for half of my life, I was still faced with many challenges when I moved to Madrid. Studying abroad will guarantee some tough moments, no matter how prepared one is, but just beyond those hurdles, you may run into something wonderful. Once I got used to the quick Spanish, got to know the people in the residencia, and bought some earplugs, everything improved rapidly and I couldn't have been happier with my choice to live in a residence hall.
As you're considering where you want to live when you study abroad, here are some questions to ask yourself.
- How much independence do you really want? Living in a homestay will typically mean you'll have a family to help you become acclimated to the new environment, to speak the foreign language with you, and to cook for you, which can be wonderful and comforting when you're in a completely new place. Being in an apartment or residence hall means you'll have the opportunity to be proactive when it comes to getting to know the new city and finding people to practice speaking with. You may find that your roommates/residence hall mates become your close friends, and you may want to look elsewhere.
- How important is location to you? Do you want to live in the center of the city or are you happy living further away? Are you okay with spending a lot of time commuting? The type of residence you choose to live in might dictate how close you are to the city's center, to your university, and to the other students in the program. In Madrid, homestays tended to be a little bit farther from the city's center (though not always). Choosing an apartment or a residence hall allowed for more options close to our academic center and to the city center.
- How do you plan to organize your meals? Do you like cooking? Do you plan to eat at a lot of restaurants? Would you prefer to learn about your country/city's culinary scene through the eyes of a local and have a host family cook for you?
- When thinking about how you'll spend your time, you'll probably choose to spend a lot of time with friends from your program, but who will you want to spend time with after you see them at school? Do you like to have a lot of time to yourself? How important is it to be around locals who are your age? Will you be taking classes at a local university?
Studying abroad is going to be a wonderful way to learn more about yourself when you're in all kinds of new situations. If you're able to think ahead just a little about how you can make your experience the best it can be when choosing things like housing, you'll be ahead of the game. The truth is, there is no answer that's perfect for everyone. There may not even be a perfect answer for you. Once you make your (now informed!) decision, you'll be headed in the right direction, and then it's all about making the best of it.