Formality in Spain vs France

Growing up, the biggest and only problem I had in communicating with people is that I was shy. When it came to talking to people, I would simply address adults as Mr., Mrs., or Ms. and anyone who was a teenager or younger was addressed by their first name or nickname. Now that I am considered an adult, life has gotten to be more complicated. There is some confusion as to how to address others. Do I address other adults my age as Mr. or Mrs. or do I just say their name? Usually a tap on the shoulder or addressing the person by looking at them when speaking to them works. This is where I view other languages as more logical than English. In languages like Korean, Japanese, Spanish, and French, there are different levels of formality. However, those levels of formality do not always transfer culturally.

In class in the United States, I always referred to my language teachers formally, using the “usted” form in Spanish and the “vous” form in French. I view my professors or teachers are people who are older and wiser; people that I respect. Therefore, I used a higher form when speaking to them. My classmates, on the other hand, frequently used the informal way of speaking to someone to talk to my professors. Surprisingly, the professor would not correct them. It could be because we are studying a new language and they are more focused on if we get the grammar right. On the flip side, I have also had professors that have asked me to address them by their first name.

My experience abroad has been different, at least in the French classroom. I have seen the formal way, or “vous” always used between teachers and students even though the students may be way younger than the teacher. It surprised me that a teacher would refer to one student directly in a formal manner.

Although Spanish is a romance language like French, I was surprised to see that Spain did things quite differently from France. One cultural aspect that I had a hard time getting used to during my time in Madrid was addressing those above me informally. My host mother, who was in her 70s, asked me to address her like a friend. The staff at the agency and my professors all asked me to address them informally when speaking to them. Being raised in a culture where I had to be formal to everyone who was older than myself or in an authoritative position, I found it hard to address anyone as something other than formal.

My observations are solely based on my experiences when I went abroad. I hear that in Latin America, the situation is different from that of Spain. Has anyone else ever had this experience? If you have experienced anything similar to what I did, or even very different, please leave a comment below! I would love to hear about your experiences!

Is It Free?

Someone once said, “The best things in life are free.” Now, when they said that, they probably were not referring to food samples in Sam’s Club or breadsticks in Olive Garden. Unlimited refills on the bread basket or tap water are things we take for granted in the United States. You do not always get that luxury outside of the country. One thing that I learned during my travels, as opposed to before my journey, was that what is free in the States might not be in Europe.

Tap water and refills. I have gotten frustrated at times when it came to ordering tap water at a restaurant. Sometimes, when I would order tap water, the waiter or waitress would tell me that they did not have it. Of course they have tap water. If they have a faucet then they have to have tap water (especially if the water is drinkable in the city that you are visiting). Sometimes you will run into a situation where a restaurant just wants your money and will make you pay for bottled water because “that is all they have”. Also, it is not as common to order a fountain drink and get free refills. Every time I have ordered soda, it came in a small bottle. Refills were added to the bill.

Bread. When a restaurant puts bread on your table without you ordering it, do not pick it up and eat it right away. It does not cost a lot of extra money, but you will find that an extra charge was added to your bill. If a bread basket is put on your table and one person grabs one of the rolls but no one else does, you will still get charged. Not all places in Europe do this. I mostly experienced it in Spain. My friends and I learned to ask before diving into the bread. However, in Italy my roommate and I got weird looks from our waitress when we asked if the bread on our table was free. If you want to avoid the extra charge, make sure to ask your server about the bread. This is not Red Lobster or Texas Roadhouse.

Samples. I remember going shopping with my family in Sam’s Club on a given Sunday afternoon after church. In the food section of the store, there would be vendors lined up in front of each aisle with various samples of food, drinks, and snacks. I remember trying the samples as a kid and even getting filled up on them after tasting them all. I did not see much of this in Europe. I actually did not even see a Sam’s Club equivalent over in Spain and France. I think there were about two occasions where I tried samples. One was in a grocery store and the other was in a store that sold touristy merchandise of Nantes.

Whether you are just visiting Europe or staying for a significant length of time, it is important to remember that Europe is not the United States. There may not be a huge culture shock, but you cannot expect everything to be like it is back home.

10 New Words I Learned in Spain

If you are looking to travel to Spain or simply just want to boost your Spanish vocabulary, then this is the post for you! I spent a semester in Madrid and learned new words during my stay. Some of these words are used in other Latin American countries; some are just specific to Spain. I did not know any of these words, having mainly studied Latin American Spanish in school and at home. There is not a big difference between Latin American Spanish and Spanish from Spain. Like different dialects of English, you can still understand each other even if you use different words. Someone may poke fun at you for it occasionally but in the end, there will not be a language barrier. Here are some words I picked up while in Spain:

aseos – Toilets/bathroom. You may have learned the word servicios or the phrase “Dónde está el baño?” You can use any of these but if you ate too many churros and are about to burst, look for a sign that says aseos. This is a useful one to know when you really gotta go!

coche – This was a word I learned in high school but I thought I would throw in anyway. I have used the word carro to talk about a car. In Spain, that is used for talking about a baby carriage whereas in Latin America, it is the opposite. I would recommend using the word coche because I have gotten weird looks from people who thought I was asking for motion sickness medication to travel in a baby stroller.

echar una foto/hacer una foto – I have always used the phrase tomar una foto to talk about taking pictures but I know some people in Latin America also say sacar una foto. However, in Spain they use the phrases echar una foto or hacer una foto.

nevera – I tend to lean towards using Latin American words in Spanish as they are closer to English (ex. refrigeradora). This is the word for refrigerator in some Latin American countries as well as in Spain. My host mom used this word often.

echar de menos – Want to tell someone back home that you miss them in Spanish? This is a phrase people learn in high school as well as the less commonly used (in Spain) counterpart: extrañar.

vale – This word is an affirmation usually used to say “ok” when someone tells you something.

guay – ¡Qué guay! “Cool!” You may find yourself using this one a lot.

deberes – Tarea or known in English as “homework.” I have heard that it is used in some Latin American countries as well.

planta – This one confused me during my first couple of days in Spain. While it is used to refer to a plant in English, in Spain, it also means the floor of a building. Because I did not know this at first, I was a little lost when I thought people were telling me that my classroom was on the third plant.

Even though you may be used to doing or saying things a certain way, it is always best to adapt to the culture you are in if you really want to get along. When in Rome…

6 Things You Should Know Before Going Abroad

You will grow up. You will have to become independent in more ways than you would have thought when you went away to college for the first time. It means learning the life skills you were never taught in school such as reading a map, learning how to interact with people who live a culture completely different from yours, and handling stressful last-minute situations like when you almost miss your bus back home or your flight to a weekend trip.

You are in someone else’s territory, literally. Think of being invited on vacation with someone and their family or staying over someone else’s house. Adjustments will have to be made when you change up your routine. The programs I did in Spain and France were only with American students. Some students had a harder time adjusting to being in a different country than others. You are not in the United States. Some places do have a Starbucks on every corner. Some places don’t have a Starbucks at all. It may not sound like a big problem, but I have met people who had a hard time adjusting to Spain and France because they compared it to the United States. They would get frustrated over the small coffee cup sizes or the fact the waiters didn’t constantly check up on you. They said they missed the United States and wished they were home. You will be with many people who are used to living a life that is different from yours. You can’t change them. You will have to adjust to how they are living. Knowing that and applying that will help you truly enjoy yourself.

Consider saving an old smartphone and bringing it. Some people will recommend to buy a pay-as-you-go phone abroad. I brought my current phone with me and bought a SIM card because I knew I was going to be careful with it. If you don’t want to run the risk of losing your phone or having it stolen, you should save your old smartphone and bring it with you. That way, you will be able to have the luxury of having a smartphone without buying a phone. You will also become a master at finding wifi.

You may not always get along with your host family. I already wrote a post on my homestay experiences, so I won’t go into detail on this one. However, before going abroad I had read about many people who got along with their family so much that they are continuing to stay in contact with them even after returning home. As much as you may hear that, that will not always be the case. Even so, it is still a great experience that I believe anyone who is studying abroad should look into.

Not all stereotypes are true. Do not pay attention to everything you read online. I like to be as best prepared as I can be before getting myself into a situation. Before going overseas, I researched everything from students’ experiences to what they packed to how safe Spain and France are. Even though every student’s experiences will be unique, I heard many of the same stereotypes: Europeans only wear dark colors, they don’t wear shorts, they don’t wear sneakers, the French are cold, etc. Not all of this is true. If you would like to see a different perspective based on my personal experiences, you can read my other posts.

It may not be what you think; it may be more. You hear everyone say that you will see new places, meet new people, and better your language skills, but you do not really hear about the person’s expectations. I have met Americans who were disappointed by their abroad experience because it wasn’t all they thought it would be. Other American students were thrilled because it exceeded their expectations. The best thing you can do is try not to go somewhere new with expectations of the place or the people. People will tell you their thoughts on the place or the people based on their experiences. You won’t have the same experiences. Ultimately, study abroad is what you make it, so make it count.

Gaining Weight Abroad

It’s inevitable.

I gained about 11 pounds between September, when I arrived in Spain, and May, when I left France. Ironically enough, I have already lost some of the abroad weight since coming back to the United States. Most of my weight gain happened in Spain with all the gelato, churros con chocolate, napolitanas, and maxi Milka chocolate bars.  I did not do a lot of working out there since I did not plan on joining a gym.  I did do a lot of walking but it was not enough compared to the amount of desserts and food I had been eating. While I was in France, I was able to better maintain my weight by controlling the amount of pastries and crêpes I ate and doing lots of walking, as well as weekly Zumba classes.

Pastries bigger than my huge Samsung Galaxy S5 phone.

The funny thing about Europe is that Europeans like to make fun of how big American food portions are, as well as how sugary everything is.  I have found from my experience in Spain and France that they eat pastries and cakes that are just as sugary.  The French do not eat pastries all the time, but a study abroad student’s logic is: Well…I don’t know when I’ll get the chance to eat this again; gotta enjoy everything while I can!  I think that could be a reason why Europeans say they gain a lot of weight in the United States. There is a stereotype that we only eat fast food. This is not true.  Myself, my family, and other Americans I know eat healthy meals that include more fruits and vegetables than we were served over in Europe.  Not to mention, when we go to a restaurant in the United States, we have the option to pack our meal if we don’t finish it.  This is an option I rarely had in Europe.

My travels all over Europe have caused me to want to try many desserts.  When I am at home, I tend to pace myself more when it comes to sweets.  But who wouldn’t want to try all of that?

In Spain, a decent amount of weight gain came from the huge lunches my host mom would prepare and make my roommate and I eat.

Lunch in Spain is a big deal.  It is their biggest meal of the day and at times I thought they ate a lot more than Americans are stereotyped for eating.  My host mom would make a main dish and bread, then we would have a second course that consisted of meat and salad, and then we could have a fruit for dessert if we wanted to.  The hard part about trying to eat healthy is that you cannot put all your courses on the same plate and even them out.  Different courses had to go on different plates.  My host mom would misunderstand me when I tried explaining that I wanted to save room for the second course when I didn’t end up putting a lot of food on my plate during the first course.  To not have to go through the same thing in France, I told my host parents right away about what happened in Spain and that I don’t eat much.  It was funny when a French person would see how much I ate and remarked how little it was, being American and not fitting the stereotype.

One thing that surprised me after my semester abroad was my preference for Spanish food over French food, which I have heard is one of the best types of food in the world.  I was also surprised by the fact that there were some American restaurants and foods that I missed while I was away.

My Homestay Experiences

As the old saying goes: You don’t choose your family. Just like many situations in life, you do not get to choose what happens to you. You can only choose what you will do when you are thrown in those situations. In the case of studying abroad, if you decide to do a homestay, you don’t get to choose your family either. I had heard many positive things about staying with a host family. For one thing, it boosts your language ability. It should also give you more of an authentic cultural experience. You are living under someone else’s roof, so it gives you less liberty to try to keep living the way you did back in the States, or any other country.

I had heard from people and read many things online about how students loved their homestays, how their host families would take them places, and they would share great memories together. At the end of the semester, they said they would stay in contact with their family for years to come. On the other hand, I have also heard homestay horror stories. I have experienced living with two host families: the first one being in Madrid, Spain and the second one being in Nantes, France. Both were unique and overall positive experiences, but definitely not the experience that I had started off with in this paragraph.


I lived with a woman in her 70s and an American roommate. My host mom was a very sweet woman. Our program allowed us to have a homemade lunch with her every day. The three of us would sit around the table and watch the news, while eating and talking about our day. Sometimes my roommate and I would be trying to have a conversation with her and she would respond, “¡Mira!” (Look!) while pointing to the television, totally tuning the conversation out. There was no language barrier between us and her, which was great! However, there were times where we would tell her one thing, and she would respond by saying something completely unrelated, but I think the TV being on played a role in that.

There is a stereotype that Spanish host mothers make their students eat a lot of food. This stereotype, in my case, was true. We got huge meals for lunch, since lunch is their biggest meal of the day. I tried to make sure I got a little bit of everything without eating to the point of feeling sick. My host mom would always tell me to eat more and insisted that I could do it even when I said that I could not. I loved her cooking but this would be my biggest complaint about living there. She was a very caring person and that probably tied into her making sure my roommate and I were eating enough. I remember for my birthday, she bought me a gift, a cake, and even had me try champagne! She did not have to do any of that but she did it anyway. I will never forget that.



My experience in France was a little bit different. I lived with a couple in their 60s. They had kids who were all grown up and had families of their own, so it was just the three of us in the house, except for when any of the children and grandchildren came to visit. According to my program’s contract, we got to have dinner together five times a week, and they stuck to that rule.

I was content with my living situation and found that I got along well with my host parents, but there were definitely some cultural differences, one of them being that they were not used to living with an introvert. I could be out all day because of classes and spending time with friends but when I came home at 7:30 or 8:00 on a weekday for dinner, I was pretty much done with my day. As a host parent, I understand that it is their job to encourage students to go out and experience the culture and place that they are living in. However, this “encouragement” felt more like a pressure at times. They would constantly be asking me about what I was going to do. They would talk about how their previous host students were out until 3 a.m. going clubbing. They would ask me about my weekend plans on Tuesday. If I did not already know what I was going to be doing, which I never usually had anything planned out that far ahead of time, they would be surprised. There was one time where I was really sick and instead of telling me to rest, they wanted me to go out. I really wanted to get to know my host family more, but I did not get to spend much time with them, because they were always pressuring me to be out of the house.

I got to know my friends’ host families well because they were eager to get to know their host students’ friends. I was offered meals at their house. I was encouraged to stay the night. I had also heard about my friends getting extra meals at their house even though it was not in the contract. One thing that the contract did do was encourage host families to have their student invite friends over and to take their student places with them. I did not think anything of it until I realized that all my friends were having these experiences that I was lacking. It did not bother me much in the beginning, because I was just happy to be with a host family that seemed nice. It started to bother me more when it seemed like they wanted me out of the house all the time.

I feel this is important to note if you would ever consider doing a homestay: understand your host family has a life and family as well. This may mean or include their need to watch grandchildren or have the entire family visit during holidays or at any point during your stay. This will mean a definite change in your routine, as the bathrooms are not available as often and your soap and toothpaste may go missing.

One thing that is so important when studying overseas, especially if you are from the U.S., is to be aware that you are not in the U.S. anymore. Do not expect the country to be just like your country. Do not expect the culture to be the same, the people to be the same, and the same chain restaurants to be everywhere. You have to adapt to where you are going, not the other way around. Based on my experiences, I think living with a host family is such a cool opportunity that you should take advantage of if you get the chance. It may be different from the independence you are used to, but it is so worth it.

Safety in Madrid

Bad things happen in life. They can happen whether you’re looking for trouble or even if you’re just sitting on your couch watching TV. Sometimes certain situations can be avoided but other times they’re inevitable. Some of my family and friends had expressed to me their fear for me going abroad. I’ve heard quite a few times that the world is unsafe and that there are crazy people. While that is true, especially in certain parts of the world more than others, I was going to be studying in Madrid, Spain. I hadn’t heard anything on the news recently about it but being the overly cautious person I am, I did my research and I did it well. I may have even over-researched.

Everything I had read online said that Madrid was a generally safe city. The only crime I kept seeing mentioned was pickpocketing. I read blog posts that said how bad it was and that there would even be groups of pickpockets working together that would try to distract you while their buddy steals your wallet. Some websites said that the pickpockets would even follow you from afar and even wait until you crossed the street to get you. This worried me, so I went online and ordered an anti-theft purse, which has worked out wonderfully! I would totally recommend getting one if you’re traveling. However, I want to add that in the three and a half months I was there, I was not pickpocketed and I was safe.

My biggest advice is what you’ll read anywhere online: be alert; use your head. Try not to look like a tourist. Look like you know where you’re going, even if you don’t. If you really don’t know where you’re going then ask someone. Most people will be glad to help you and as I’ve said, I’ve ran into a decent amount of people who will give directions in English.

I felt safe living in the city and getting around on my own. I walked home alone at night but I didn’t do things I wouldn’t have done back in the U.S., for example, walk on streets that aren’t busy. I was careful anywhere I had gone in Spain and anywhere else I have been to in Europe and I was okay. I can’t speak for everyone and all of Europe but these have been my personal experiences. Sometimes, bad things can happen that can’t always be helped but I don’t think that should stop anyone from going abroad, especially to Madrid.