I arrived in Sevilla, Spain tired, disoriented, and very excited after almost 24 hours of traveling. But I had come prepared: I had read carefully and repeatedly the instructions my program had sent me about what to expect and what to bring. I had my Swiss Army knife, walkman, passport, hot-water bottle, laptop computer, guide book, and a large supply of contact lens solution. I was all ready for my semester abroad.
I was somewhat apprehensive about meeting my seora, the Spanish woman, possibly with a family attached, with whom I would live for the next five months. The instructions from the program included lots of advice about getting along with the seoras. "Don't expect to become a member of the family," they warned. "Don't take long showers." "Always call if you are going to be late for a meal."
The program may have been wrong about some things (I haven't even opened the hot-water bottle), but living with a Spanish family has been one of the most interesting adjustments I've had to make here. After living in a dorm in the US, living with a family at first felt like a regression to childhood. The seora made my bed, did my laundry, and served my meals.
After wandering around a strange city all day, it was almost a relief to have someone tell me to clean my room, and then do it for me, clucking over me the whole time. It felt good to have someone worrying about me. But it also felt rude to be sitting at the table like a lump while the seora served me espinaca con garbanzos (spinach with chick peas) or croquetas (fish or meat fried in batter) - until I remembered that she is being paid to take care of me. Al fin y al cabo - when it all comes down to it - it is a business relationship, not that different from the dining-hall workers at Harvard.
And yet it is very different. I'm not a part of the family, but I'm not just a stranger who happens to be staying there, like a guest in a hotel, either. The family - the seora, her husband, and their two twentysomething daughters - go about their business but they always pause to say hello and ask how I am. Their rapid Spanish flows over me without a break, but if I ask they are always ready to explain what they're talking about - why they don't turn on the lights in the kitchen (electricity is expensive here), or why the television commentators are wearing gold ribbons pinned to their lapels (in protest against the European Union's position on olive tree quotas).
I was worried that living with a family would curtail my independence. And there were some concessions. I am only allowed to bring girls to visit, and only when the seora is in the apartment.
But accepting the different lifestyle has helped me learn a lot about Spanish culture. Most Spanish students live with their parents, often until they are about 30. And I have picked up a lot of the subtleties of daily interaction from observing the seora and her daughters - that they say buenos dias in the morning and hola all day long, that they always eat fruit last, for dessert.
And I do have a lot of independence. I have my own key to the apartment, and I can come and go whenever I like. In fact, the seora encouraged me to enjoy the Sevillian nightlife. But she did try to warn me about staying out too late. "You can do what you want, it's up to you, but ..." Sigh. "I worry."
I think she's starting to have more confidence in me, though, since I've been responsible about getting home at a reasonable hour. She even lets me pour my own water now. Maybe I'm growing up.
* Malka A. Older, a junior at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., is studying in Spain where she hopes to improve her Spanish, learn to dance Sevillanas, and maybe even be allowed to help with the cooking.