My accidental cold war with my Spanish host mom

Spain is an incredible country. Its past is rich and intertwined with Jewish, Muslim and Christian culture. If you know anything about Spanish history, you know that it was a multicultural land full of various identities and a multitude of languages up until 1492 when it was all conquered and consolidated by the Reyes Católicos.

Fast forward to the bloody Spanish Civil War of 1936. Spain was under an intellectually repressive and religiously homogenous dictatorship from then on until 1975, led by the fascist Francisco Franco. During this period, Spain was racked by famine and poverty. The idea of a middle class didn’t appear until the 1960’s, but even then if you look at photos from rural areas during that decade, you’d think you were peeking into the 1880’s.

While the Civil War ended around 80 years ago, the democracy is only about 40 years old. This is where the political and historical coincide today, because many Spaniards remember the dictadura.

There were about 200,000 deaths during the “White Terror,” a deliberate act to eliminate all who opposed the coup. Socialists, Communists, Protestants, Atheists, intellectuals like Frederico García Lorca, LGBTQ+ folks, and regional nationalists were among those murdered or “disappeared.” And many of these victims were buried in mass unidentified graves that are still being discovered and excavated today. The Franco era was full of censorship and cultural repression (if you’re a film buff definitely check out banned films such as Muerte de un ciclista), and while many Spaniards today hold painful memories from it, others still vocally support Francoist ideals.

See, Spain isn’t like modern Germany where Nazi iconography is prohibited. It’s acceptable to talk about Franco in a favorable light, and during nationalist rallies it’s common to see the flag of the dictatorship.

When I moved to Madrid, I was placed in a homestay. I decided to do this because, with my program, a homestay guaranteed me my own bedroom. I was pretty lucky because my host mom lived in a big apartment in the Chamberí/Malasaña central area of Madrid, while other host families were located outside of the city.

Pilar is a nice woman. She tries her best. But we had significantly different personality types, and pretty different opinions in general. She grew up upper class, her father was a general under Franco, and she had his medals proudly framed on the wall, Guerra Civil 1936 and all.

So I thought I understood what I was getting into. I told myself I’d do my best not to judge her too harshly, after all she’s used to hosting foreigners so she must be relatively open-minded and flexible, right?

Wrong.

Disclaimer: YES, I know I’m going to come off as an entitled whiny privileged American girl. This was not my intention. My apologies.

(Scroll to end for petty screenshots/documentation of my PAIN)

I’m vegetarian and while she knew this upon my arrival, she didn’t fully understand that I don’t eat anything derived from meat, such as broth. One time she made bone broth which resembled dishwater with a sad floating piece of onion in it, and which tasted quite literally like nothing. My roommate Brianna, another American exchange student who was also vegetarian but ate chicken, told me what I had tasted (because yeah, I tasted a spoonful and promptly decided I didn’t want grey soup-water for dinner), so I tried to explain to Pilar that bone broth wasn’t something I ate. “Pero no tiene carne??? Es que eres muy complicada, no?” I told her time and time again, eggs and cheese are fine, just no chicken, fish or red meat porfa!

Now my first complaint was her cooking. She wasn’t very skilled, even if she thought she was. She only made “traditional” Spanish dishes, of which to be honest, I’m not a fan. She only ever talked about how great Spain was and how it’s the best country and it has the best food, and how all of the students she hosts love Spain more than their home countries. I could never get a word in, much less criticize anything about Spain.

But she would constantly cook me steamed vegetables, devoid of any flavor, without even a pinch of salt, pepper or garlic. No spices. Nunca. I found my diet to be rather poor during my stay, with it consisting mainly of overcooked carrots, unseasoned eggs, potatoes, and plain rice. I kept getting sick and Pilar blamed this on my vegetarianism and the fact that I wasn’t religious.

Ah yes, religion. Naturally I wasn’t surprised to find Jesus and Mary pictures all over the apartment in every room, but I didn’t expect her to shove her beliefs down my throat. She would do it in a way in which it was difficult to disagree with her, ending her phrases with “…, no?” like, “you don’t agree with that, right?”

I have an anxiety disorder (I’m on meds, it’s all good). But if I’m sick I always get anxiety attacks, and it’s tough to handle, especially when abroad in a foreign country. She witnessed this a few times and while she tried her best to be sympathetic, she’d usually end with “claro, es porque no eres creyente, debes venir a misa conmigo algún día, ya verás!” I tried to explain to the best of my ability that I just simply didn’t believe in higher powers and certainly didn’t believe in or care about Jesus. She’d say, “Ya pero, no puedes vivir sin creer en algo! No es posible, eso no es la vida!” I mean, to her, life was truly about being spiritual and following a religion, I get it. And that doesn’t affect me. But she would go out of her way to preach to me about why I was wrong and it always had to do with her beliefs versus mine.

One afternoon my roommates Brianna, Gabe, and I, were seated at her foldout table eating lunch, watching the news on her tiny television in the kitchen. A story about euthanasia, or physician-assisted suicide, came up. Again she goes, “Oh how awful. That shouldn’t be allowed, don’t you agree that’s horrible???” So I tell her the truth, “Actually I do agree with this, I believe it’s your right to go with dignity and avoid suffering associated with a degenerative disease, blablabla” and she gets FURIOUS. “What?? NO! Only GOD decides when we die! JESUS DIED on the CROSS for all of us to live, I can’t believe you think anyone should just end their life like that, MY OWN MOTHER had Alzheimer’s and she was SO MISERABLE and wanted to die everyday but I never let her, do you think we should just allow people to go to the doctors to die like that anytime they’re depressed or sad??”

Sigh. I calmly explained that I was not pro-suicide, having lost my best friend only a year prior to just that. I just believed that someone who is suffering that much and who is going to die anyway should have that option. I’ve seen suffering, my paternal grandpa and grandma died of Parkinson’s and cancer respectively, and if they had wanted to I believe they should have had that right. But she didn’t understand this. I even told her that Jesus and God and all that didn’t matter to me, so her excuse truly held no weight to me. But I realized the inverse was true as well.

I believe I’m an open-minded person. But deep down I have my own prejudices. Nobody wants to be called close-minded or bigoted. I never called Pilar any of those things. And I mean it when I tell you I truly tried to understand her side of things and explain to her how I felt and why, but I was always shut down. I spoke to my student coordinator, an amazing woman from Argentina named Bárbara, about my concerns and she was very empathetic, reminding me that not everyone in Spain shares her views or has that kind of personality. She offered to place me in a different homestay but I declined. I wanted to stick it out, challenge myself, and just live with it.

And I did. I stayed with Pilar. But it wasn’t that fun, after a while it was exhausting. Any time I needed to tell her something, I had to think about how she would criticize me or tell me I was wrong. I had to anticipate it, in order to prepare for it. By the end of the semester, it was clear she just didn’t like me and there was nothing I could do to change that. She had made up her mind about me the second I arrived, and there was no room for character development. When I first saw my little bedroom, she explained how the curtains didn’t open because the last girl broke them somehow. She showed me how to pull the curtains a bit to let some light in. So I did that, I was always careful with them, but at one point she came in and noticed they had come partly undone at the top, where the plastic mechanism sat in the window frame. She blamed me for it of course, and I reminded her that she had told me herself initially that they were already broken from the last person. She started to shout and called me a liar, and accused me of calling her a liar. It hurt.

Her favorite phrase to say was “está prohibidísimo!” If speaking about Pedro Sanchez, “Es un sinvergüenza!” One time she rambled about how radical Islamists were responsible for the Notre Dame Cathedral catching fire in Paris because “the Spanish secret police found out, but you won’t hear that on the news.” (???) She was one quirky gal.

On my last night before my flight out of Madrid, my mom booked me a hotel room outside of the airport. She anticipated my readiness to get out of Pilar’s house, plus it would be easier than waking up early the next morning and having to call a cab and be stressed about my flight. Pilar took this as an insult of course. She called my mom strange for booking me a room. I couldn’t wait to get out of there.

When I left and said goodbye, she had this fake niceness to her which I had witnessed before, like when Bárbara led some teachers from a foreign school to see Pilar’s apartment to show what the homestays were like. “Los estudiantes siempre están muy a gusto aquí, claro, nunca quieren irse!” She’d boast. She told me to keep in touch. I didn’t. She told me to visit next time I was in Madrid. I probably won’t.

It was really difficult for me to come to terms with the fact that I didn’t get along well with Pilar, because I really wanted to. I wanted to learn more about her and her past, about her family, about her upbringing, but I never had the chance. I was fixated on taking our relationship day by day, and each day being disappointed yet again, trying everything I could to make her like me, only for it to fail.

At the end of the day, I had an amazing time in Madrid. Nothing will change that. Pilar was just one part of my semester there, and I dream of going back to Spain, and hopefully living there for a time. She didn’t actually ruin anything for me. I know she believed she did a good job of looking after me, feeding me, and helping me out when I was sick, for that I’m grateful.

But we aren’t friends and we never will be. I can live with that.

PLEASE comment your host family horror stories below ❤

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