Optional Preferences

I took a month-long intensive Spanish class in Madrid, along with many other students from the U.S. The housing agency asked each of us to fill out a form: name, passport number, allergies, Spanish fluency, emergency contacts, and so on.

It would have been easy to treat this form like all the rest of the paperwork. Skim, signature, send it back. Why should I waste any emotional effort on this routine process?

I made that mistake before and paid for it all summer with the worst roommate ever.

So I paused when I reached the bottom. I allowed myself a long think at the optional box for “any other comments or preferences”. Instead of succumbing to my initial impulse and leaving it blank, I decided that “I would prefer a room to myself as close as possible to the city center please!”

Best decision of my life. I was placed directly in the thick of things, between the royal palace and Plaza del Sol, near the market as well as the city’s most famous churros con chocolate. The chess club was very close. I could walk to class.

My host mother was sublime. A lovely flower shop owner and painter, with a beautiful apartment and cute cat (literally named “Gato”). She showed me around town, cooked like no other, bought me a very thoughtful birthday gift, and introduced me to her friend Javier who ran a nearby sports bar (drinks on the house).

When classes started, I learned that not everyone was so lucky. In fact, nobody was. I don’t think any of them filled out that optional preferences box.

“We’re in the middle of nowhere. The shower water stays cold. We came here on the bus…and it took more than an hour.”

“I live with an old woman who hates me because I can’t speak perfect Spanish. She has a strict curfew and smells like cabbage. That’s all she serves for dinner too!”

“My host family is always fighting for no reason. Like, literally screaming. They also fight with these rude French students living in the other room. And all of them complain to me about everyone else!”

When I chose an advisor in college, I sought the inside scoop from the academic administrator. When I pick a primary care doctor off a list, I make a point to call the secretary and ask for her recommendation. When I get flu shots, I ask for a pediatric nurse because they’re the best at making it painless.

Assert your optional preferences. It pays off big.

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