The Other Woman: A Personal Reflection on Spain’s Economic Crisis
As a part of our linguistic and cultural immersion in Spain, my fellow abroad students and I are placed with families in Madrid that we hope to God we’ll connect with because, like it or not, we’ll be living in their house for the next four months of our lives. So, needless to say, we all were perhaps the tiniest bit terrified as we piled our luggage into our respective taxis and waved goodbye to the rest of our group.
My first interaction with my host family went according to plan, almost. My host mother María, blonde, perky, and warm, welcomed me with a hug and immediately began the grand tour of my new home.
“This is the kitchen, this is your bedroom, this is the bathroom you’ll be sharing with the other student who lives here...” What?
Jet-lagged and totally culture shocked, I tried to process the logic behind her statement. The other student? Who could the other student be? As I racked my brain for the missing puzzle piece, I recalled that the director of my program had mentioned that my host mother had a daughter in her twenties. A-ha! This had to be a classic instance of me misinterpreting basic information, compliments of my language barrier. Case closed.
“Oh, your daughter?” I asked, just to be sure. My host mother laughed.
“No, my daughter’s living in the North, silly!” she replied, not missing a beat. “This is Tayla. She’s here for the semester from Dubai. Come on, I’ll make you dinner.”
I quickly assessed the situation. The good news was that my Spanish ability hadn’t failed me after all. The less-good news was that there was a random English-speaking student living in my new home. My program’s director had been very specific about this matter. Host families were paid to take us in as their only students to ensure complete cultural and linguistic immersion. Other students were not allowed to be living in our houses. Which begged the question: how did my new friend from Dubai fit into the picture?
I followed the natural path that any student should take when placed in an uncomfortable situation in a foreign country: I consulted Facebook. Someone on my program had started a thread asking about everyone’s families, and I quickly skimmed the responses for valuable tidbits.
True to form, Facebook delivered the exact information I had been searching for. One…two…three other people were living in houses with other foreign students. But what could that mean? Why would so many host families intentionally break our program’s rules?
To my delight, my first dinner with María offered more answers than I could have hoped for. As I tried not to fall asleep in my pumpkin soup, I remembered my manners and managed to inquire as to what she did for a living.
María began to explain that she had worked in the art world for twenty years, selling others’ art in galleries and on the streets. But as Spain’s economy spiraled downwards, the country’s attitude toward art shifted dramatically. People began to regard art as a luxury, something far too decadent for the middle class. And as the public’s attitude toward art began to change, galleries began to close. Without a market for art, María found herself without work.
And as she searched for a way to make ends meet, María found that a new market had emerged—the market of international students. For María, a mother of two now-grown children who was struggling to earn enough to sustain her livelihood, I was her silver bullet. Oh, and Tayla was too, apparently.
The following day, a friend on my program shared a similar story. Her host mother had worked as a flight attendant for a Spanish airline before hosting students. One morning, she woke up, got dressed, and headed to the airport for work. But when she arrived, she found all of her fellow flight attendants in tears. Confused, she inquired about what was the matter and learned that her airline had declared bankruptcy that morning. They were all out of work.
And, just like María, my friend’s host mother had turned to hosting international students, both to fill her now empty days and to pay her mounting bills every month.
Upset by the overwhelming number of people living with other students, our program’s director offered anyone living with another student the option to trade families. She expressed her confusion and frustration about the situation, saying that she had never experienced anything like this before.
Ultimately, my friend and I were the only members of our program who decided to remain in our current living situations, despite the presence of another student. Perhaps it was because we empathized with our host mothers’ situations, perhaps it was because we had connected with our host mothers, or perhaps because we were more easygoing, apathetic, or just plain lazy than any of our other classmates
But regardless of Tayla’s presence in my household, I have had no trouble getting close with María and using her as a resource to round out my immersion experience. And when I find myself getting ready for a night on the town and thinking that I have nothing to wear, it certainly doesn’t hurt to have another college-aged girl living right next door.