Make Your 'Host City' Your Home (Why and How)
As you prepare to jet off for your study abroad semester I’m sure you’ve got a bucket list a mile-long and that likely includes visiting cities and towns in all sorts of places outside your ‘host city.’ I know that I personally had all these big plans about famous cities around Europe I wanted to ‘check off my list’ while studying in Alicante. In fact, the proximity and availability of so many cool destinations was one of the reasons I chose Spain in the first place. Still, I have to warn you—don’t waste your study abroad experience traveling every weekend!
That’s right, I said it—I genuinely do feel like it’s a waste of the unique experience that studying abroad allows you to make a home out a foreign country if you’re going to spend every possible day off to escape it. Of course, it might feel like this is your ‘one opportunity’ to see the world but I’m gonna venture a guess and say it’s not. I mean, I was the first one to say studying abroad was my ‘one and only opportunity’...but I’ve now lived in foreign countries for a total of five years of my life so I was definitely wrong and you probably are too.
Still not quite convinced of the value of sticking around your ‘host city’? Let me outline why it’s so important to make a home for yourself while studying abroad:
1.) You chose your ‘host city’ for a reason! If you’re like most of us who have studied abroad, you probably went home from a study abroad fair one day with a bag full of brochures, sifted through countless different program options online, and/or spent hours discussing the possibilities with your study abroad advisor. It’s normal to put a lot of effort into choosing the best destination to fit your personality and needs, but keep this in mind when you start planning out your travels and remember that, at one point, you actually wanted to be in your city more than anywhere else. There was a reason for that!
2.) You’re going to crave a sense of home: We’ve talked about the different stages of culture shock and how at the beginning everything feels like sunshine and roses and so you may not think about this right away. However, there’s likely going to come a point in your study abroad experience that you’re really going to start missing home and craving the ‘normalness’ of life. This hits hard when you’re living in a foreign country and culture either way, but it’s even more difficult if you find you’ve got NO sense of belonging in your ‘host city’ and NO ONE there you’ve invested in enough.
3.) Really understanding a culture takes investment: I’m not saying it’s easy to adjust to every ‘host city,’ host family, or live-abroad situation and sometimes you will find it’s not the perfect fit for you. However, I think more often than not, doubts about this are a result of students not actually giving their ‘host city’ a fair shot. If you’re not actually around to make Spanish friends, have conversations with your Spanish host family, or even experience a single Spanish holiday, how much are you really getting out of studying in Spain? If you want to be able to go home and talk about the ‘real Spain’ and how it’s changed you completely (and mean it!) then you’re going to have to do some settling in which will likely involve sticking around for awhile...and getting uncomfortable.
4.) You have to get comfortable being uncomfortable: One of our favorite bloggers/podcasters, Lauryn Evarts, says this all the time and it’s more important than many of us realize. Most everything worthwhile is not easy or comfortable at the start. You might feel out of place at your host family’s Sunday meals but, trust me, those are the kinds of memories you’re going to look back on as your ‘real life’ while studying abroad. Besides, you’re likely to feel a bit uncomfortable at the start but this will fade away with time if you see it through. On the contrary if you’re only ever in town for three Sunday meals over the entire semester, well, no one’s ever actually going to get to know you and you’ll probably continue feeling uncomfortable right up until the end.
5.) This experience is part of your ‘real life’: So many people look at a study abroad semester as something out of the ordinary and an opportunity to blow off ‘real life’ things. We could get into a whole existential discussion about what ‘real life’ is but at this point I want to simply point out that no matter how you choose to approach your study abroad experience your ‘real life’ needs will creep up. Most of us need time to ourselves to rejuvenate and replenish our energies. I’ve met very few people who can sustain a lifestyle in which they travel for months straight without setting up some system of creating a ‘home’ and balance for themselves. You’re totally free to figure out what that balance looks like for you ‘on the road’ if settling into one place is truly not what you’re after. Nonetheless, for most, setting up a physical ‘home base’ is crucial to mental, emotional, and even physical health.
So, hopefully at least one of these points has struck a chord with you and you’re now interested in making your ‘host city’ your home. But what does that mean? And how does one actually do it!? As always, everyone is different and so the path to creating your home will be personal and unique. However, these tangible suggestions are a good place to get started—especially if you were planning on doing a lot of traveling and think this ‘home thing’ will be challenging.
1.) Set aside one weekend a month that is completely off-limits to travel: My personal choice when studying abroad was to only TRAVEL one weekend a month but that’s a bit extreme to many people, so start with the inverse if you’d prefer. No matter what plans get suggested to you or incredibly cheap flights become available don’t budge on this promise (unless you have another free weekend to ‘switch it out for’). Think of this not as a limitation on your spending or any other form of deprivation but instead as a commitment to yourself and your well-being.
2.) Consult locals about what celebrations you should not miss: Spain has TONS of holidays and you could look at each one as a long weekend for added travel time OR you could take advantage of this opportunity to stick around and experience the culture at a special time of year. Of course, some of the most traditional and interesting celebrations happen during Semana Santa which is likely the longest break you’ll get and therefore most optimal time for you to travel, but perhaps consider spending the first or last weekend in your ‘host city’ or using this week to some domestic travels and experience how the different cities and towns in Spain celebrate Easter. Speak with locals at the beginning of your time here to find out about your city’s most important holidays in order to avoid finding out late and already having other plans.
3.) Invest in your host family and local friendships: It’s not uncommon to spend the majority of your time while studying abroad surrounded by other foreigners, but it is a pity. This can become especially hard if all of your other study abroad friends are jetting off each weekend, either leaving you alone or pressuring you to travel, too. In order to avoid these issues, make a genuine effort to spend time with your host family (or Spanish roommates) and pursue real friendships with local people. We’ve talked about how to make friends with Spaniards in this video and article (but long story short—go the extra mile, it will be worth it!).
4.) Do your ‘real life things’: Sometimes falling out of ‘real life’ isn’t an intentional choice but actually a sad side effect of inaction. Before you even leave home, start to take stock of what it is in your life that makes you feel settled. Is it the fact that you belong to a local gym? That you know your way around the supermarket? That you volunteer? That you’re a member of a faith community? That you have a pet? Not all of these things can be easily implanted in a new city but they’re all worth the effort of seeking out. If you don’t know where to get started, be sure to ask your program advisors, they’re likely to have some great suggestions and/or connections!
5.) If all else fails, try Couchsurfing: I put this as a ‘last resort’ not because it’s bad community to be a part of—in fact, I’ve found multiple people I now call family through the platform, read more here!—but it can be a slippery slope. While you’re likely to find some really awesome local people, it’s also easy to get caught in the habit of just connecting with other foreigners which may not actually help you create a sense of home. Still, events and personal meet-ups you can arrange with other members are likely to get you out discovering and appreciating your ‘host city’ more and more everyday.
For me, finding home in the different Spanish cities I’ve lived was one of the most important things I ever did. I have to admit, though, I did wonder if there was something wrong with me for wanting to spend weekends at home when all my friends were checking off dozens of other countries during their study abroad semester. I did feel a twinge of FOMO and wonder if I was going about it all wrong. If you’re feeling the same way and need some support, feel free to reach out! We all need different things in life but when studying abroad it can be especially hard to remember that as we generally have a concept of how this time ‘should’ be and (especially when we see so many people around us living out that ‘should’) it gets hard to go against the grain.
I hope you find a sense of home here in Spain and if we can be a part of forming your community, let us know!
P.S. Have I mentioned how Spaniards seem to walk everywhere!? It was initially a surprising habit for me, but now I fully embrace it and thank my long wanders for a newfound sense of home here in Granada. At least for me, nothing says ‘home’ like knowing countless routes and your own secret shortcuts to anywhere you want to go. (And getting lost on the way there is fun too!)