I have not written a word about my study abroad experience in Barcelona in 1986. The homestay from hell is the primary reason I do not have fond memories.
Gloria, my homestay mother, was cheap and stingy. We left the table hungry and on Sunday nights she pureed the week’s leftovers, bones too, and heated the soup for our dinner. Randy, my American housemate, never said a word. I gagged and refused to eat it.
When she entertained, Gloria told us to stay in our rooms. Our bedrooms were not heated and it was winter. She served lavish Italian meals for her friends and family in the heated living room.
I was nineteen years old and living in the largest city of my life. I had chosen Barcelona; in fact I had fought for it. My college adviser tried to dissuade me. I would not learn Spanish because everyone spoke Catalonian. He could not have foretold my homestay nightmare.
We knew when Gloria received the monthly pension to house and feed us because she would return home with a tacky garment two sizes too small for her. A putty-colored leather jacket she bought comes to mind.
Like the picaresque characters in my favorite literature class at the University of Barcelona, I lived by my wits to feed myself and to escape Gloria’s disapproval. Unlike my picaresque counterparts I had a weekly allowance; I learned to stretch it in order to spend as much time away from my homestay as possible.
After two months (I was there for a semester) I met a group of international students who shared an apartment in El Raval. These English, Catalonian, and South American friends invited me into their kitchen where we prepared simple meals to eat on the rooftop terrace. Later we would dance on the terrace or head to another student apartment to party. On weekends we went to Sitges, a nearby beach resort. I was living the movie, L’Auberge Espagnole, before it was made.
I have always related to the protagonist of Laforet’s novel, Andrea. She moved from Las Canarias to Barcelona in postwar Spain to study at the university. She was nineteen. Andrea lived with relatives who were too absorbed with their own problems to give her the support she needed. It is a dark, almost Gothic, tale of loneliness. Andrea gets by; she is another picaresque character with whom I identified.
In my present homestay I tell Maria del Valle about Gloria La Bruja from 1986 Barcelona. Maria del Valle asks the simple question, Why did you not change homestays? Why did you not speak up? I do remember writing a scathing evaluation of the homestay. I do not know why I did not speak up sooner.