Shattered Expectations: From Culture Shock to Having a "Madre Española"

Shattered Expectations: From Culture Shock to Having a "Madre Española"


Eating paella with Esther, Maria, and her friend Christina

Before my trip to Spain, whenever I heard about culture shock I always thought that it was definitely something people experience—just not me. So when I found myself during my first night in Madrid tossing and turning in bed at 2 a.m., on the fourth story of an apartment with no air conditioning on a 90-degree day, translating every thought I had in English to Spanish, and wondering how I was going to get through three weeks of this, I think it's pretty safe to say that was culture shock.

By the end of my time in Spain, I'm not even sure I would recognize that girl tossing and turning in the middle of the night. Spain was not what I thought it was going to be: it was more. I thought that I didn't have a lot of expectations for my trip, but it became obvious that I did after the first couple of days when those expectations were shattered. Once I let go of those expectations, my trip became more than I could have hoped for.

The biggest thing that I came to realize was hard to communicate to my family and friends back home. I realized that while I did get to see most of Madrid, I wasn't there to be your typical American tourist. I was there to experience what it was like to actually live in Spain. I wasn't staying in hotels, living out of a suitcase, eating out at restaurants constantly and setting my own agenda for my day. I was living with a single mom, her daughter, and their three cats. Most days, we wouldn't see Esther, my host mom, until 10 p.m. when she got home from work. Sometimes Maria and I would go out, sometimes we wouldn't. We had to run errands, do chores, and help family members.

Exploring a river in the countryside outside Madrid with a group of Maria's friends

Most of my fondest memories are things that I would never have had as a tourist: making my host mom and sister pancakes; cuddling with Sishuka, our cat, while reading a book in the middle of a rainstorm; traveling by train and metro, laughing with Maria's friends as we sped out into the countryside for the day; late night dinners and talks with Esther after she came home; all of us singing along to Mamma Mia! as we watched it late at night; and countless other invaluable memories that I could never have gotten by touring on my own.

The trip wasn't easy. I was definitely ready to come home by the end, and I'm able to look back on it now with a lot more fondness and love than I had while I was there. For me, the part of the whole experience that made every hard moment worth it and something I wouldn't trade for any easier touring experience is my host mom and sister. I really feel like I have a family in Spain (I like to refer to Esther as "mi madre española"). I'm hoping they'll come visit me next year, but if not, I know that I will see them again and we'll laugh and remember all the moments we shared during the three weeks I was able to live with them.

​The city of Madrid from the top of a hill

-By Emily McLean