Countless classmates gush about lifelong bonds forged with their study-abroad host families. I certainly had an unforgettable experience sharing a small Spanish home with a stingy señora, eating her ketchup-covered pizza and dodging Maribel’s ridiculous rage.
Megan and I had been staying with Maribel for less than a week when we found the journal. It was on the shelf above our beds, a warning from a past lodger about how to survive a semester with our host.
“Maribel gets cranky if you don’t finish your plate.”
“Maribel uses a lot of olive oil. This is normal in Spain, but don’t let her see you wiping it off, and don’t mention it.”
“Don’t shower too early in the morning or too late at night — Maribel will restrict your hot water use.”
“Don’t let the door shut loudly if you come home late at night, Maribel is a light sleeper.”
“You have to ask Maribel to do laundry, she won’t always remember to do the sheets.”
At first we thought nothing of it. Maribel was just a character, a true Spanishseñora. Kooky, perhaps, but not sinister. I figured any road bumps in my host situation would just lend authenticity to my experience — what host isn’t without their quirks and idiosyncrasies? This was someone else’s home after all, and I was committed to being a respectful guest.
What I didn’t anticipate was the emotional toll of living in a hostile environment within the greater discomfort of living in a new country. That was the double-edged trap of living with Maribel: Her home was supposed to be our home, too — a respite from the outside, a place where we could be ourselves and speak Spanish without fear of judgment, and yet its function was the opposite. In Maribel’s apartment, we were foreigners, and unwelcome ones at that. Our home away from home, our little slice of Spanish authenticity with our very own Spanish señora ended up being the biggest barrier to cultural immersion.
* * *
I landed with Maribel the way lots of girls land with their Maribels. I paid good money up front to live with a host family in Spain. I was part of an exchange program that included weekend trips, tours and three meals a day from my host family. Megan and I were matched as roommates through our program’s online roommate survey. When I arrived in Madrid, I saw Megan standing in the cluster of American students waiting to be bussed to their program. Nearly six feet tall, she was the captain of her college’s basketball team and stood at least a full head above the petite, dark-haired Spaniards milling around the airport. On our bus ride to meet our host mother, our señora, we nervously chatted and fantasized about who would be waiting at the terminal to take us home.
Most students at my university study abroad during their junior year and have the time of their lives doing it. “The best semester of my life!” “It changed me.” “Inever want to go back home!”
Statistically, I am an outlier. I didn’t particularly want to study abroad. I liked my college classes, living in my college town, being surrounded by my college friends while working at my college newspaper. Being in school was already its own challenging adventure — was this really the time to pick up and leave?
A month or so before abroad applications were due, I met with my university’s study abroad office. I trekked to the basement of our student union and sat across from a young woman in funky glasses who patiently listened to me describe my indecisive feelings about leaving the country for six months. “Maybe,” I nervously suggested, “I would be better off somewhere in the U.K.?”
She frowned at that.
“Well,” I quickly backtracked, “I’ve also looked into Spain a little bit. But my Spanish is a little rusty and I don’t know much about it as a country.”
She lit up immediately. “Oh, but you should consider Spain! We really recommend students stepping out of their comfort zones, someplace where a foreign language is spoken. That usually provides the most rewarding situation for students.” She ruffled through her desk and handed me a thicket of brochures. Madrid, Barcelona, Sevilla, Valencia, Bilbao.
While she spoke, I noticed the posters of smiling American college students in exotic locations that lined the wall of the Study Abroad office. Maybe she’s right, I thought. I wouldn’t want to look back and wish I hadn’t played it safe.
Spain. I could do Spain. I had been pretty good at high-school Spanish. It’s supposed to be warm there, too. I envisioned my newly bilingual self at a dinner table, sidled up next to my host family, laughing at their jokes in Spanish while we drank wine and ate tapas. I could do that. I’d like that.
* * *
Maribel was in her late fifties, unmarried, lived alone, and had a job as atelefonista — a telephone operator. She occupied a small two-bedroom apartment in a large high-rise complex in a suburb twenty minutes from downtown Sevilla called Nervión, a neighborhood most famous for its impressive shopping mall and for housing Sevilla’s FC stadium.
When Megan and I arrived in Sevilla with the rest of our program, there was a crowd of two-dozen host families waiting at the bus terminal. Some were families with small children, others waved welcome signs and greeted their American guests with Spanish sweets.
Maribel was late. We waited for half an hour with our program directors at the bus terminal, our luggage forming a blockade around us. And then she arrived. She waved at us and crossed the parking lot at a half-jog while rambling Spanish apologies for her tardiness. Maribel was a petite woman with blonde curls that started about a centimeter after the black roots at the top of her head. She roughly embraced Megan and I while we quickly gathered our luggage to follow her home.
Maribel had a boyfriend, a plump, jovial mustachioed man named Diego. He found Megan and I very amusing, two Americanas choosing to live abroad for six months, away from their families, both of us tall and blue-eyed compared to the petite, dark-eyed Spanish youth.
Diego came over every Sunday, before and after church. When he rang the buzzer in the morning, Maribel would answer the door in her dressing gown and curlers and immediately deposit him into her tiny kitchen, where Megan and I would be eating breakfast.
After twenty minutes or so, Maribel would materialize in the hallway. She’d strut through the kitchen in her stylish church ensemble, aimlessly rearranging household objects or cleaning, perfume emanating from her like a department store. Megan and I would take the cue and begin fussing over her appearance — que rico, que bonita — which she would wave off with a scowl. Maribel was a religious woman, but we suspected the real reason she went to church was so she could wear her fur coat.
Her coat was sleek with ankle-length black wool, gleaming buttons and a rich sable collar. She would shrug her shoulders, nuzzle her cheek in the fur collar, pouting, and do an exaggerated shiver, “It’s so cold outside, no?”
It was usually 65 degrees and sunny.
* * *
The trouble started with the House Rules. When we first arrived at Maribel’s apartment, she led us through each room, speaking slowly so we could understand through her thick accent. It was clear that the grand tour had one purpose: to lay down the law. Megan and I were only allowed to utilize about one third of Maribel’s apartment. The living room was off limits (and with it the couch and television). The sunny balcony was off limits. The dining room was off limits. Having guests over was really off limits. At first, I was surprised someone who agreed to host two girls would restrict them from most of the apartment, but I wrote it off. Maybe she just liked her privacy.
By our second week, we learned that food was largely off limits as well. The oranges and apples that sat in the produce drawer were inventoried daily, as was the trashcan, so disposal of any kind was questioned with an intensity akin to committing espionage. Coffee was only allowed if Maribel brewed it, which she did, once a week. The remaining liquid would be kept for days on the counter, in the carafe, until depleted. I tried once to explain to Maribel that coffee doesn’t keep if it’s sitting out in an open container. She told me I was loca.
Every day after class I would walk into the apartment, and there she was: draped in blankets, splayed like a queen on the sofa, watching atelenovela in the forbidden living room. After a moment, I would shuffle into my bedroom, which stunk of the unwashed sheets of two girls living in close quarters.
Our first night in Sevilla, Megan and I dined in style, in the dining room with Diego. We feasted on tender roasted beef cheek, salad, crispy potatas bravas, fish, and lentils. We went to bed full and happy, groggy from the wine that had flowed liberally into our glasses and made our Spanish sound passable. That was the first and last time Maribel ate with us. It was also the last time we saw the inside of the dining room.
Maribel’s weeknight cooking was distinctive. One evening, she made us a pizza, which she covered in ketchup. Another night, we were treated to sliced frankfurters next to some boiled green beans, both doused with olive oil. Wednesdays brought us white bread with cheese (not grilled). And then for lunch on Fridays was the goopy white bean thing, with unidentified shards of meat swimming in translucent pink goo along with the swollen legumes and whole cloves of garlic. Sometimes we ate chicken drumsticks so drenched in olive oil that they slid out of my hands like soap in the shower. I was hungry most of the time. Dinner was served at ten p.m., which is the norm in Spain, but the combination of late eating and greasy food left my stomach and I unsettled, another obstacle barring me from acclimating to my new home.
I secretly began to buy my own groceries. Sometimes after school, I would walk straight from the Metro to El Corte Ingles, the large department store and supermarket in the fancy downtown mall where I would spend eight euros on imported Skippy. I kept my contraband in a plastic bag in the back of my wardrobe. I strongly suspect Maribel knew I was buying food, but let me go on with it with because it saved her money.
If Megan or I were going to miss a meal, we would have to notify her 24 hours in advance so that she wouldn’t unnecessarily pack us a lunch or cook us dinner. This meant that my Spanish fantasies of long nights eating tapas and drinking with new friends went largely unrealized. I would often find myself hanging out in downtown Sevilla at a bar after class, enjoying myself, drinking Spanish tinto, only to realize I had to be home for dinner. More than a few times I found myself alone on the train, buzz quickly fading, knowing I was returning to the suburbs for a dinner of fried ham and microwaved French fries.
* * *
One night, Megan and I were both in bed. We heard a knock on our door, and without waiting for a response, Maribel burst into our room. I glanced at Megan. She looked alarmed. It went unsaid that we had to proceed cautiously.
Maribel flipped on the lights, and stood imperiously in our doorway with a disgusted look on her face. She had curlers in her hair, and was wearing her nighttime bathrobe and slippers.
“Girls! What are you doing in your beds on a Wednesday night!”
We both mumbled in our broken Spanish. It was cold, we were exhausted, still a bit jet-lagged, and had early class. We were trying to relax. This only seemed to work her up even more.
“You Americans, you study too much! You are too smart! Spanish students, they don’t care about their grades. They’re lazy, they don’t study. Girls, you must take advantage!”
We tried to say something in our defense, only for her to fly out of our room. We could hear Maribel in the kitchen, rustling around for something. Megan and I exchanged panicked glances. Maribel appeared back at our door, curlers askew, carrying a bottle of caramel vodka, and three shot glasses.
I wanted to take the shot to please Maribel. I thought maybe it would make her warmer towards me, like an inside joke, a conspiratorial act of goodwill. Maybe shooting vodka with her was the first step in a bonding experience that might lead to an invitation to join her on the living room couch to watch TV, like my friends from school did with their host families.
But as I watched Maribel standing in our doorway, clutching the vodka, looking at us wildly, I imagined the cloying taste of artificial caramel-flavored booze sliding down my throat, eventually landing my near-empty stomach with a punch, and cringed. I knew no silly gesture — alcohol or not — could change how I felt in Maribel’s home.
Maybe I should have taken the shot. But I didn’t, and things got worse from there.
* * *
By our third month with Maribel, full days would go by with virtually no contact. She left our plated lunches and dinners in the fridge, and only knocked on our door to collect our laundry. Megan and I had been tiptoeing around the apartment for weeks, doing our best not to disturb Maribel’s order of things.
The tension came to a head one weekday in March. I had a phone interview scheduled that afternoon for a summer internship back in the U.S. which I told Maribel about a few days in advance. She told me not to worry.
The moment I answered my phone for the interview, the doorbell rang, in came Diego and a few of her girlfriends. Julio Iglesias boomed from the living room stereo. I attempted to make it through the interview, but midway through, I could still barely hear the other line. In a panic, I covered my phone with my hand, fled to the kitchen and mouthed to Megan: Will you ask her to turn it down? My interview! Megan nodded in response, and I went back into our room. The music played on, and I conducted the rest of the call with one hand pressed tightly over my free ear.
It wasn’t until I was wrapping up the interview that I heard Maribel yelling in Spanish from the kitchen.
“You ungrateful little girl!”
I emerged from my bedroom to see Maribel towering over Megan as she sat at the small table in the kitchen, her homework spread over the Formica table along with a half-drunk glass of orange juice. Megan had one hand shielding her face. She was pale.
Megan addressed me in English. “I was just telling her you’re doing an interview—” Maribel cut her off.
“No! No! You, May-gan, go to your room! NO ENGLISH! You are not allowed to talk to each other, no more! NO MORE! ” Maribel grabbed Megan by the shoulder, marched her roughly to our room, and shut the door. Maribel rounded back on me. I stood in the hallway between the kitchen and our room, unsure of what to do.
“What’s wrong?” I asked. “What’s—”
“You.” She glared at me, her eyes wild. “Come here, now.”
My legs shuffled my body into the kitchen. Maribel stood inches from me, her face reddening by the second. I trained my eyes on the orange juice glass. There were ChapStick marks where Megan’s mouth had been.
“Look at me!” She leaned toward me, and I took a step backwards, bumping into the fridge. I was cornered.
“You think you can tell me what to do? In my house? Spoiled Americanas! What is wrong with you? What is wrong with you, eh?” She put her hands on both of my shoulders, and clutched them. I could smell the caramel vodka on her breath. I tried to shrug her off, but she pressed me against the fridge. I could feel the photos of her former students held up by magnets digging into my back.
“No. No, you stay here. You listen. Tell me. Tell me why you think you can tell me what to do in my house? This isn’t your house, little girl, it’s mine. Remember that.” All my Spanish seemed to have left my body. Maribel didn’t have any English, so I remained silent.
“No Spanish? Eh? You haven’t learned anything here, you ungrateful girl. Leave! Go!”
Somehow I ended up in our bedroom. Megan was on her bed, crying. I sat on my own bed.
“What just happened?” I asked her.
Megan stared back at me, her blue eyes hardened. “I don’t know. But we are getting the fuck out of here.”
* * *
Megan and I moved out of Maribel’s apartment on the warmest spring day of the year. We took the Metro to Nervión for the last time, and trekked from the train to the apartment with our coats in our arms, our cheeks flushed from the sun.
We slunk into the foyer like intruders. The marble floor still hadn’t thawed from the winter, and the place felt chilled. Was she home? We surveyed our bedroom for our possessions. Megan and I had joked on the train, half-worried that she would have trashed our room now that she knew we were moving out and had arranged to live with a different host family. We were certain she was going to punish us in some way before we parted. Maribel was not the forgiving type but we still needed one thing from her. She was the only one who knew where our suitcases were stashed.
As I inspected our room, I was surprised by how thoroughly we had invaded the tiny space. Our clothes were everywhere: spilling out of the cubbies that lined the wall, smashed together in the closet, jammed in the dresser by my bed, stuffed into the boxes underneath my cot.
Without our clothes, it would be easy for Maribel to erase evidence of our presence. There would be no pictures of Megan and I smiling on her refrigerator, we had written no cautionary tales in the student journal. We hadn’t even placed tacks on our home states on her giant map of the United States.
We heard a creak from the hallway and froze. There was a knock on our door. A knock! Usually she just charged in. Megan opened the door and there stood Maribel in her dressing gown and slippers. Her eyes looked small and her skin seemed to droop. She wore no makeup and her hair hung limp and uncurled. Her stance looked elderly, exhausted. She occupied less space than before. Without looking at us, she motioned toward the front door. Megan and I looked at each other as we walked into the hallway. Was she going to speak?
Maribel led us to the elevator, slotted a key into one of the numbers, and the three of us rose to the top floor in silence. The doors opened to a winding staircase. Maribel led us up the stairs and we emerged on the roof. We could see downtown Sevilla through the forest of Nervión high-rises. A web of laundry lines crossed the asphalt expanse of the roof. The sun beat down on us and I began to sweat.
Maribel led us through the drying t-shirts and sheets and to the other side of the roof where there was a small shed. She opened the door with one of her keys, and a wave of heat unfurled out of the small room, hitting us in the face. Megan and I retrieved our bags and rolled them across the roof, through the fresh laundry that was swaying in the wind while Maribel trailed behind us.
* * *
Megan and I didn’t tell many of our fellow students about our housing switch, and soon the scandal of our move subsided as we finally fell into a pleasant routine in our new home. For the subsequent months with my new host family, I felt a strange blankness when I thought about Maribel. I couldn’t conjure the same fear and bitterness I had felt so acutely when I was under her roof. We had escaped, I thought, and that was the end of that. Now it was just a story to tell. It was like I left my resentment for her back at the apartment in Nervion.
Three months later, I was nestled in a middle seat on a plane bound for New York from Madrid. As I fought against the sleeping pills that were already pressing my eyelids shut, I thought about Maribel. I wondered if she ever thought about us after we left, if her resentment faded after our departure, or if it lived on within the apartment. Had we ended her career as a host mother? Somehow I didn’t think so.
Waiting for takeoff, I chomped on a Spanish tea biscuit, the same brand that Maribel kept in her apartment. Maribel would leave a few biscuits out for us in the morning, but we consumed them so rapidly and with such gusto that eventually she starting putting out whole sleeves for us, teasing us about our American appetites. Before our flights back to the U.S., Megan and I went to the market and loaded up on the biscuits, both of us agreeing that those cookies were the best thing to have ever come out of Maribel’s kitchen.
I brushed the tea biscuit crumbs off the airplane blanket and wondered how I would describe my study abroad experience in casual conversation once I returned home. Would I mention Maribel? The move? Or would I just skate over the details and stick to pleasantries I knew people wanted to hear? It was the best semester of my life! It changed me. I thought back to those glossy brochures I leafed through in the Study Abroad offices back in the fall, and I laughed.