Lost and Found in Spain: Susan Solomont talks her book about being an ambassador’s wife abroad

Serendipity. A random occurrence of events that happens casually or unexpectedly.

Not that my run-ins with Spanish bureaucrats have been serendipitous, but as I looked back on 12 years of Spain through rosy colored glasses (or just a Cruzcampo haze), I realize that so many of the relationships and milestones of my Spain life have been a series of coincidences. From my hearing casually about the auxiliar de conversación job to meeting the woman who would introduce me to the Novio (who happened to live around the corner from family back in Chicago) to how we named Millán.

I recently met with Susan Solomont, a former diplomat to the American mission in Spain, for coffee and a chat on a rainy morning in Seville. Her literary agent had put us in contact months before, but between our schedules and the time difference, a well-timed email meant that we could meet the following week during the Solomont’s annual trip to Spain instead of connecting over Skype. Serendipitous, indeed.

beautiful old door in Europe

In many ways, her husband’s appointment as ambassador to Spain under Obama was just that – a happy coincidence and the chance to serve her country’s diplomatic mission abroad. Spain and the US have long enjoyed a positive relationship, so despite the frantic preparations to arrive at Calle Serrano, 75 and all of the minutiae of being a diplomat’s wife, Susan’s journey was, like mine, full of small but bountiful coincidences.

My reporter’s notebook – a relic of the days when I planned to be a journalist and had a heavy interest in Washington – stayed shut as we filled an hour with conversation that carelessly flitted between topics – touching on politics (got that right out of the way), sharing our favorite places in Spain and musing about raising children to be kind and forward-thinking.

In her book, Lost and Found in Spain – Adventures of an Ambassador’s Wife (you can nab it on AmazonBarnes and Noble or Indie Bound), Susan starts off with an anecdote before delving into an aspect of Spanish identity, from cultural to religious to historical. In many ways, Susan’s inception of the news she’d be headed to Spain, her apprehensions over the move and settling into her new life mirror my own, just revved up on Cola Cao Turbo. I felt moved by the shared experience and wanting to learn more about life in Barrio Salamanca – just a few blocks from my house but somehow worlds away.

Susan Solomont headshot

Susan graciously answered my questions via email so that she could enjoy snuggling Millán and tell me about her own children while I sipped my fourth coffee of the morning over our chat.

Can you speak about how your letters to loved ones back home evolved into a book?

When I lived in Spain I wrote a series of letters I called Holas. They started as personal letters to keep in touch with my 13 closest friends. They started to go viral, and I started writing more about our life as diplomats. They were more informative than personal and they ended up reaching over 3000 people.

Leon Square Spain

A literary agent friend who received them encouraged me to put them into a book. She said to me, “A book of letters is not a book. You need a beginning, a middle, an end. Tell a story”.

It took me two years to write the book and two years to find a publisher. These things take time and finally, in 2018, the book came out.

Your transition to Spain was not a smooth one, despite training and assistance from the Department of State. Looking back, what could you have done to prepare yourself for the post?

The transition to Spain had its highs and lows. I was not able to bring my professional work to Spain and instead had to work hard to forge my own identity – hence the “Lost” part of the title. Plus I was away from family and friends and my community. The “Found” part – I found my role, my voice, my place in the Embassy community and Spanish community.

Our Department of State (DOS) is changing [sic and] can find roles for spouses and partners. Perhaps now I could have brought my professional work with me, but in retrospect, I’m glad I didn’t.

No doubt, an ambassador’s job takes you to many interesting places across Spain for various functions, several of which you detail in your book – I particularly liked the story of Jerez del Marquesados. What was your favorite? And is there somewhere you didn’t get to that you wish you could have visited?

view of Trujillo, Extremadura

I’m often asked what is my favorite place in Spain. Impossible to answer, I love so many places. We traveled everywhere in the country. It is so special that I know each region and have visited. I do have a particular fondness for Extremadura and its countryside. I also love Mallorca. The color of the water, the beauty of the Tramuntana countryside.

One day I will return to walk part of the Camino.

An ambassador’s life or his wife’s seems glamorous. What were your days actually like?

Our days were very busy. People assume this is a job where you are socializing all the time. Yes, we were constantly meeting people, but it’s not fancy teas and dinner parties. The work was political, economic and cultural. We also were there for Americans living abroad and traveling. We worked long and hard days advancing the agenda of the US [in Spain], sharing cultural values and strengthening the bilateral relationship.

Holidays can be both memorable and difficult times for those of us in Spain. I celebrate July 4th, Halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmas in my house, which my husband and his family willingly take part in. How has your view on American culture changed since your assignment?

When we lived in Spain we celebrated all American holidays and also celebrated Jewish holidays both with our Jewish friends in Spain as well as non-Jewish friends. Our July 4th celebration was very special. We served hot dogs and hamburgers, had an American rock n’ roll band, danced the night away and celebrated the US’s birthday.

american products thanksgiving

Halloween- I used to host a doggy Halloween party where embassy staff would dress their dogs up and come play on the lawn. Our Marine Unit had a Halloween party as well.

And Christmas- we had the most fantastic tree, decorated in Spanish and American flags.

There are many Spanish stereotypes flirting around Spain and the Spanish lifestyle – I’m guilty, having lived in the land of toros and tapas! Are there any that you found utterly false, or even alarmingly true?

bullfighting in Seville Spain

YES— we wanted people to know that siestas, bullfights and flamenco are not the norms. Spain is a modern democracy that works hard. Perhaps on a weekend someone might take a siesta. Or perhaps there are people who go to the bullfights but not everyone likes them. And the same for flamenco.

Spain and the US enjoy a strong relationship, and each sees the power and mutual benefit in these relations. Were you met with any hostility as part of yours and Alan’s mission while in Madrid?

Not at all. We were embraced by Madrid and all of Spain. People would stop me on the street and say, “I love your country, I love President Obama”.

Have you been back to Spain since 2013? What is your first stop in Madrid?

metro of Madrid

We come back at least once a year. We always spend time in Madrid. We get very busy seeing old friends and eating and drinking too much. We always need a vacation after our time here.

I had to glance at my watch to keep a well child check up, but Susan’s second coffee date of the morning arrived shortly before I had to duck out. Juan and I have always had a case of six degrees of separation – we have about a dozen people in common – but on that rainy, midweek morning, finally gave one another dos besos. Another serendipitous moment (appease me, please).

Chance led both Susan and I to Spain, and despite our moments of both feeling lost, we found ourselves – and, funnily enough, one another – through its people, culture and food and wine.

Susan Solomont titles

Susan and her agent graciously provided me with a PDF copy of Lost and Found in Spain, but all opinions expressed here are my own and were not contingent upon meeting Susan. I enjoyed its lighthearted tone – it does read like a long form letter in many sections – and its reflections on Spanish life and culture through an American lens. You can find more about the book and her companion’s children’s book, Stella the Ambassadog (adorable!), on her author webpage.

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Parenting in Spain: the differences between raising children in Spain and the USA

The 48 hours I spent in the hospital post-birth were a bit of a blur. Between doctors and nurses coming in and out, trying to figure out breastfeeding and the cycle of 20 minutes of dozing before I was interrupted by doctors or a hungry child, it wasn’t until I was back home and fumbling through the first few days and dozens of dirty diapers that the habits of Spanish parents – and just how different they were to my own upbringing – shook my baby-lagged brain.

Fast fashion: my mom sewed all of my clothes growing up

Fast fashion: my mom sewed all of my clothes growing up

I grew up without technology and in an American family in a large suburb of Chicago during the 1990s. Most of my childhood was shaped by the adults who had grown up in the 50s and 60s, and my mother stayed home with her two daughters until I, the elder, was seven years old. Summer camp, sports leagues and a part-time job in high school color my memories of growing up American, and they are also coloring the way I view child-rearing in Spain as I expect my second and push through the terrible twos of my somewhat terrible Spanish son.

The differences between parenting in Spain and parenting in the US are stark, and it begins with the fact that Spaniards tend to begin their families later. When I got married right as I turned 30, many of my friends back home were already parents or expecting; I was the first of my group of American girlfriends in Spain to have a baby, and many of my Spanish friends – including those older than me – have not made a foray into parenthood.

I'm a cool mom: taking my kid to a goat roasting festival in Quirós, Asturias

I’m a cool mom: taking my kid to a goat roasting festival in Quirós, Asturias

At home, I rule the roost and tread water between a full-time job, a toddler, a child on the way and a husband completing a master’s. It all feel imperfect yet under control, even if my American parenting ways sometimes clash with age-old Spanish upbringing habits – particularly with the older generation.

Ear piercing

When my husband and I found out we were expecting a boy, I breathed a sigh of relief: I would not have to make excuses for choosing to not pierce anyone’s ears. Most Spanish families pierce baby girls’s ears while they are a few weeks old or even at the hospital before being released. This is mostly due to the fact that the baby will not remember the pain, but it also aids in distinguishing boys from girls. I grew up playing sports and did not pierce my ears until my junior Prom, and at my mother’s insistence.

Even still, Enrique was a lovely baby who did not wear just baby blue, and many older women in the neighborhood mistook him for a lovely niña. I was always too tired to argue and just said a quick gracias to the nosy abuelas at the pharmacy.

Babies must be weighed at the same time every week

As Enrique grew, I became obsessed with knowing how much weight he had gained. It became a fun guessing game with my mother-in-law, who would take the bus to my home every Wednesday afternoon to weight him at the nearby pharmacy.

Can I visit La Granja with a stroller?

“Remember,” she said after a doctor’s appointment, “what he’s wearing and this time of the day, as you should always bring him into the pharmacy at the same time on the same day of the week and in the same clothing. That way, you get the most accurate reading.”

Imagine the horror when Enrique pooped shortly before the 5:30 pm weigh in one afternoon, or how much we laughed when he gained more than half a kilo in one week during a growth spurt.

Perfumes and perfect outfits

Babies are adorable and sleepy and smell good, they say.

They also spit up on themselves, poop constantly and get weird baby pimples as they fatten up. No matter – babies in Spain wear perfume and outfits that clasp, snap and buckle, both of which I find outrageous. I opted for buying newborn clothes that were soft, durable and well-priced. Enrique had a few beautiful pieces sewn and embroidered for him by family members, which I saved for special occasions and outings. Most of the time, he was in a zip-up pajamas in the cooler months and onesies that snapped at the crotch in the summer.

My mother-in-law dotes on my son and pleaded to buy a number of big-ticket items despite having a number of hand-me-downs. She was especially proud to buy him his first pair of shoes when he began to stand, but I was surprised when two came in the box. One pair were lovely brown boots to dress up a look, whereas the others were what we Midwestern Americans call gym shoes. “Well, because you don’t dress him like the other mothers. He’s ‘sporty.’”

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While there was absolutely no malice, she was right: I didn’t dress my child like the rest of the mothers (and I didn’t always dress myself up to leave the house, either – gasp!). I found the clasps and snaps a hinderance during a blowout caca, and considered his comfort over being adorable.

Thankfully, all of the baby perfumes were re-gifted as soon as we discovered Enrique is prone to dermatitis. A baby who pooped himself still smells like poop, even masked by a thick veil of Tous perfume for newborns (and who spends that much money on a baby perfume?!).

Breastfeeding, solid foods and when kids eat

I breastfed Enrique exclusively until he was four months old, something I felt pressured to do. It was time-consuming and he had reflux, but on the flip side I could do it anywhere (out to lunch! At the movies! On an airplane!) without scrambling to find a microwave or shelling out money for formula. We moved on to cereal at four months and were advised to start solids at six.

Enrique is a pretty good eater, but I was shocked when the pediatrician suggested his first lean meat come fro her barnyard friend, the horse, and that he should try kiwi at six – which landed him in the ER with a rash. In the US, we typically start on mushed veggies and certainly do not eat horse (my mother was silently weeping when I mentioned this to her).

Don't let this picture fool you - Enrique ate everything from charcuterie to tiramisu to caccio e pepe on our Rome trip

Don’t let this picture fool you – Enrique ate everything from charcuterie to tiramisu to caccio e pepe on our Rome trip

Kike’s favorite foods now are mostly kid friendly: fish sticks, yogurt and hot dogs. But he’ll also eat a full cocido marileño, is capable of eating an entire tapa of marinated olives and asks for bocadillos de foie for a snack. O sea, español when it comes to eating.

Bedtime and schedules

Spanish children go to bed extremely late. My friends – even the Americans – gasp when I tell them that my bedtime was 7:30 p.m. until I was 8, after which I could read until 8pm but that lights out was to be adhered to – no matter how late it got dark in the summer.

In casually mentioning that my kiddo is usually in bed by 9pm, I am met with bewildered looks. But when does he eat?! Around 7:30 or 8pm, right after his bath. Don’t you lay with him until he falls asleep? Nope, we have a bedtime routine after which I say, “Now Mommy is going to have dinner.” Enrique was not a good crib sleeper, but he leaves me to have some adult time in the evening.

Likely talking grandma into not having a nap

My biggest thing is that my son’s designated nap time at daycare is right in the middle of the day, which is when we’d ideally like to be outside on cooler days or taking friends up on plans for meals. I am moderately strict on the weekends with both nap times and bedtimes, even when there are some tears (even from my friends when I tell them the time won’t work for me).

We also let him sleep late on the weekends. There is nothing better than me waking up on my own at 8am and having a cup of coffee and mindlessly scrolling through social media before I have to start the trudge through changing diapers and clothes and fighting against the TV. Speaking of…

Having the TV on all the time

This is as Spanish to me as a tortilla – Spanish households seem to have the TV on at every moment of the day, and my kiddo asks for Pocoyo as soon as he’s lucid in the morning. I try not to use no TV as a punishment and encourage him to play with his toys or color before he’s pushing the remote buttons and mine.

Family roles and relying on grandparents more

When I was a child, we lived five hours away from both sets of grandparents, so my earliest memories of being at home are with my mother. When she comes, 100% of her energy is focused on my son, and he knows Grandma speaks English, and Abuela speaks Spanish. I have only gotten a babysitter once, and that babysitter was a family member who traded a Saturday night out for Netflix and a pizza.

Dueling grandpas

Dueling grandpas

Grandparents are very involved in Spain, particularly because both parents tend to work in major urban areas. It’s common to see grandparents pushing strollers, at the pediatrician and hanging out at the park. Some of my friends’ children do not even go to daycare but spend all day with their abuelos.

More than two years in and expecting my second, I feel like I have struck a balance. A Spanish friend of mine once said, you either raise a child “a la alemana,” or according to a strict schedule, or “a la gitana” or with the kiddo in charge.

Not a politically correct way to call it, but I am trying to raise Enrique and Millan “a la sevillamericana” – a hybrid of American and Spanish ideals and parenting habits. This all goes out the window when we’re in casa de los abuelos: his Spanish grandparents let him stay up until he is falling over, force feed him chocolate and homemade pudding and allow the TV to babysit. Still, I appreciate the closeness they’ve developed with Enrique and their desire to be involved or let this frazzled mom go have a haircut in relative peace.

Advice for being an expat parent abroad

Being a parent is a hard job, no matter how you slice it. It takes patience, humbling and some commiserating. Add to that cultural and often linguistic barriers, and you’ll find that the highs are extremely high, and the lows can feel crushing.

I often ask other expat parents in Spain for their advice and ideas for exploiting the fact that my children will grow up as not only bilingual but bicultural – and likely without noticing the difference between the two.

Baby's first glimpse of the ocean

Perhaps the hardest part for me is doing so with my parents so far away, and knowing that their experience raising two kids in the 90s was way different than the issues and challenges I’ll face in the new millennium. It’s a frequent topic of discussion when we have our weekly chats: “You know, Catherine, things were just so different!”

Seek out other parents – both expats and locals – to help you navigate and lend a hand if you need childcare. A friend of mine came to visit Seville with her husband and two girls, and I loved watching them while my friends had dinner out for once. She’s been inspirational and helpful in seeing what’s coming and having the shared experience as an American mother raising children in Spain.

Remember that your child needs the fundamentals first – food, shelter and your love and attention. The rest will figure itself out. If you lead by example and encourage your child, he will learn (even if that means a watch down the toilet, having the kid with a dirty school uniform because you forgot to run a load of laundry or a house littered with toys and crumbs).

Christmas in the US

Don’t compare yourself to what everyone else is doing. There is no handbook to parenting, and especially a handbook to parenting abroad. They say in Spanish, cada niño es un mundo, and it’s true: each child is different, and so is every family. You will do the best you can if you believe in the work you’re doing. And you will mess up, so get over that fast.

I’m 30 weeks pregnant with another little boy (have you missed me on the blog?) and preparing for a second isn’t so much about researching car seats and ironing onesies – it’s about making peace with the fact that chaos is coming, that there will be four of us, that my body will turn back into a milking cow, a pillow and a punching bag. Now, who has advice for not losing my shit when I’m nursing one and scolding the other?

Strange parenting habits in Spain

Have you noticed any other odd parenting habits in Spain or the country where you live? 

How to stay in Spain legally as an American and other frequently asked questions to a US expat in Spain

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I have lived in Spain for eleven years – we are now in the double digits. The only things I’ve stuck to for longer have been gymnastics (12 years) and driving a car (17 years). As September comes and goes each year, the nostalgia kicks in as I remember lugging two overstuffed suitcases from Chicago to Madrid to Granada to Triana. What a long, strange, tapa-filled journey it’s been.

As I approached my ten year Spaniversary, I had planned to write a tongue-in-cheek look at some of the things that make me scratch my head about Spain, weaving in the acclamation process that took a good, darn year. But, parenthood and a busy work schedule meant that that post is still in drafts (I’ll get there by my 20th Spaniversary, promise).

Despite slagging blog and social media activity, I somehow still have page views, followers of my ho-hum #momlife and emails from readers and people who find me organically through Google. Don’t let the out of office message fool you – I love reading them and I appreciate them.

Contemplating a hike in Cazalla de la Sierra. Photo credit: Monica Wolyneic.

I always think, “I can should turn this question into a blog post.” But rather than eleven separate posts, I did a non-scientific study of what you guys emailed and Facebook messaged me about to celebrate 11 years of Spanish red tape and all that comes with it, and I’ve honed down my long-winded emails so that you’re not overwhelmed with word count or information.

Have more questions? Throw ’em in the comments!

How can I legally stay in Spain as an American?

Apart from emails about my favorite places to eat in Seville, I get several emails each week about how to work in Spain and how to legally stay in Spain. Many of you are language assistants or veterans of study abroad in Spain.

I get it. Spain got under my skin, too.

When I was considering making Spain a long-term thing, I looked into just about everything.

Guess what y’all: you have it way easier than I did in 2010.

playa de las catedrales galicia beach

I knew about the loopholes for getting an Irish passport (my dad was not listed on the Foreign Birth Registry, so that was out). There was a difficult-to-attain freelancer visa that I would have had to hustle to get – and I was still on blogger.com. I could get married, but that seemed like an awkward conversation to a Spanish boyfriend who proudly proclaimed he’d never get married (about that…).

I found out that I essentially had three options, apart from the whole ring thing: I could try to find a contract and let my card lapse to modify my status from irregular to a one-year work and residency permit, known as arraigo social; I could start working for a company under the table and rat them out under arraigo laboral, or I could continue on a student visa, obtained through a Master’s program I’d been admitted to, and start earning years towards residency as a civil partner. Modificación and cuenta propia were not buzzwords, nor were they paths to residency in Spain at that time.

So, I set out to try and find a job contract. I spend hours crafting cover letters, hand writing addresses of schools and language academies and licking stamps. Every 10 or 12, I’d reward myself with Arrested Development. I waited for the job offers to roll in but… they did not. In Spain, working legally is a bit of a catch-22: you need a work permit to get a job, and you need a job to get a work permit.

Very Spainful to spend a summer stressing out over staying legal, making money and not having to crawl back to America, tail between your legs.

bedroom almohalla 51 sleep

Dreaming of being legal in Spain

In all fairness, I was up against a lot: the arraigo social was a long-shot because teaching contracts tend to be only for nine-ten months. I’d also been out of the Schengen Zone for longer than the allotted time (120 days in three years) and had passport stamps to prove it. I couldn’t denunciar the Spanish government for legally employing me, either. Feeling overwhelmed and in desperate need of 20 minutes in an air-conditioned office, I headed to the U.S. Consulate in Seville (which, by the way, does not do residency or visa consultations for Americans in Spain), and the then-consular agent told me to renew my student visa como fuera.

Thankfully, I’d applied to do a Master’s in Spanish and had an acceptance letter and enrollment certificate. I deferred my enrollment for financial hardship but it had bought me a bit of time to not let my residency card lapse. I’d discover later that you can apply for a TIE card renewal up to 90 days after its expiration, but I was in survival mode (and I seriously doubt that Exteriores even had a website at that time).

paperwork

If my house ever catches fire, my mountains of extrajería paperwork means that it will burn fast.

An overnight bus trip later, I stood in line at the Foreigner’s Office in Madrid, only to be told I’d need an appointment. I plead my case, blaming it on the university taking its sweet time to send my documents and the lack of available appointments, and they told me to come back that following Friday. Back to Seville on the six hour overnight bus I went, returning three days later and having registered my padrón certificate with my brother-in-law.

When it was my turn at the eleventh hour, literally at 4pm the day before my residency card expired, I lied through my teeth and said I was going to begin a master’s program. I remember her making some snide remark about sevillanos. As soon as I had the stamp on my EX-00, I long-distance dialed my mom in the US and told her she could transfer all the money, used as proof of financial solvency for my renewal, back out of my bank account.

As all of this was happening, I attended an American Women’s Club tapas welcome party for new members, as I was considering joining anyway. The woman I sat next to casually mentioned something called pareja de hecho. Doing this would make me the de facto executor of the Novio’s will, and would make him my de-facto owner and keeper. I wasn’t cool with that explanation from the funcionario, but I rolled with it because it gave me residency permission, and I could work legally for 20 hours on my student visa.

walking tours in Spain

Spanish bureaucracy is no cake walk

And so began the wild goose paperwork chase around Andalucía (including a brief pit stop in Fuengirola, Málaga).

You know the rest – a change in the stable partner laws while our paperwork was processing allowed me to work legally and build years towards permanent residency. But apart from that, it changed my mindset from taking Spain and my life here on a year-by-year basis, and it was a clear sign from the Novio that we were in this for more than just the language goof ups and someone to have a cheeky midday beer with.

So what is pareja de hecho?

Cat+EnriqueEngagement065

Pareja de hecho meant no long distance relationship for the Novio and me.

The closest equivalent to pareja de hecho in the US would be a civil union; in fact, people seeking fiancé visas to the United States usually have undergone the PdH process. Simply put, you have nearly all of the benefits of being married, but without the financial implications (in Spain, anyhow) or the ring.

Pareja de hecho allows the non-EU partner to work and reside legally in Spain, have access to state healthcare and move about the EU without a passport. It’s assumed that your partner will not be your “keeper” but proving financial solvency is an element when you later apply for your residency card, and your finances will stay separate unless you choose otherwise.

Pareja de hecho is also called pareja estable or uniones de hecho.

I want to do pareja de hecho. How can I apply for pareja de hecho / pareja estable?

Want to legalize your love? Pareja de hecho is one way to stay in Spain legally as a non-EU citizen.

But ojo: paperwork and eligibility for pareja de hecho differs from one autonomous community to another. Some, like Andalucía or Navarra, will allow the non-EU partner to be on a student visa or even apply with just a passport, whereas Castilla y León will not. Galicia wins the living-in-sin game, as interested parties must have lived together on a registered padrón municipal for two years or more. Both sets of islands will only let Spanish citizens, and not other Europeans, apply.

a-veces-la-locura-spanish-words

Sometimes, crazy is the only way to survive (in Spain)

To qualify, both members of the party generally have to be 18 or older, not related and able to enter into a legal partnership on your own free will. From there, requirements vary by the community – and sometimes even the province – in which you’re applying. Your local government will have resources about documentation and application process. And don’t forget that once you have your certificate in hand, you’ll still have to apply for your shiny new residency card (tarjeta comunitaria)!

In hindsight, pareja de hecho was probably the easiest bureaucratic matter I’ve had to deal with in Spain – I’m serious. And if you don’t believe me, I co-wrote an eBook about it (use LEGALLOVE5 for a 5€ discount in COMO’s online shop!)!

All’s fair in love and bureaucracy, right?

How did you get into teaching abroad? Do I need to have a TEFL or CELTA to teach in Spain?

I proudly marched off the plane in July 2005 after a summer abroad and announced I’d be moving back to Europe after graduation. My parents even encouraged me to do a year or two abroad.

Ha. Ha. Ha.

Senior year, after the obligatory flippy cup game and textbook buying, I visited the Office of Study Abroad on my campus to ask how to move abroad after graduation; one of the peer mentors told me about the Spanish government’s North American Language and Culture Assistant program, which would allow me to teach 12 hours a week in a public school in exchange for 631,06€ a month, private healthcare and a student visa. I was offered a position in Andalucía two weeks before graduation.

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I needed a TEFL certificate to teach at an English academy

The auxiliar program was a positive experience for me, and I found that I was actually pretty good at teaching phrasal verbs and producing gap fills. My coordinator gave me free reign in the classroom, so at the end of my three years, I felt ready to make teaching my career, even going as far as applying for a Master’s in Secondary and Bilingual Education.

Remember all of those hand-written envelopes? I got a few bites, but the work papers was always the snag. When my pareja de hecho lawyer called to tell me I could get a Spanish social security number, I marched right over to the social security office and later that week, caught that damn overnight bus to pick up my residency card. I had a standing job offer and started work as Seño Miss Cat the following week.

Great methodology, fun songs and likeable characters.

When I left the private school – I was overworked and underpaid, and I didn’t have enough time for blogging and freelancing – I jumped into the English academy world. Having heard horror stories about payment and contract issues, I was wary but needed a way to work while completing a master’s program, so I figured the part-time schedule and academic year to academic year commitment was doable. I was offered the Director of Studies position midway through the year and stayed on until our move to Madrid.

When I get asked whether or not a TEFL or CELTA is necessary, I always give the same advice: if you want to work for a reputable academy, you should have a certificate. Not only does this make you more attractive to an employer, but it gives you footing if it’s your first time in front of a classroom. I agree that experience is the best teacher but Spain is the land of titulítis.

Vintage Travel: in Wisconsin at age 6

Is a CELTA or TEFL preferred to teach in Spain? While TEFL certificates are king in Asia and South America, many language schools in Spain will require a CELTA (Certificate of English Language Teaching to Adults). There’s good reason for this: the CELTA prepares you to teach the Cambridge Language Exams, which is a language level test that most academies offer.

I don’t really miss teaching as I thought I would, but mostly because I really like what I’m doing now. I do, however, miss my two-month vacation!

What do you do for a living? How did you get into university admissions?

After nine years in the classroom, a Facebook post changed my career rumbo. An American university in Spain was looking for an admissions counselor. I read the job description: people skills, basic computer skills, work permission in Spain. I could handle that. I wrote a fun cover letter, added a picture of myself on the school’s U.S. campus and sent off an email to HR and the Director of Admissions – less than a month later, I had an offer.

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A clue to the institution I work for – from one oddball mascot to the next!

Working for an American-style company (it’s an S.A., which is why I got paid maternity leave and am in the Spanish social security system) is a serious dream. My role includes representing the university in recruitment events in my geographic zone, reading applications, counseling students on visas, and overseeing recruitment and marketing for our graduate programs. It’s a fun challenge, and I’m still in education – and I am using my journalism chops at long last. Like many elements of my life in Spain, patience and perhaps some karma helped tremendously.

Want to get into international student admissions? You should be personable, able to work independently and keep up with trends in enrollment, higher education and whatever social media a teenager would be into. You should also be willing to answer very, very mundane questions. Working for a small, niche school has its challenges, so every enrolled student feels like a win – especially when you met that student at a college fair, set up a campus visit, helped them choose classes, and given them a hug at orientation.

As schools begin to look abroad (Fall 2019’s cohort was born the same year as 9-11, eh, meaning less kids to go around), many universities are amping up recruitment efforts abroad. Even in Spain, think beyond study abroad!

What is your favorite post on your blog?

Sometimes when I hit publish, I am excited to see how my readers react. Most times, I’m like, “cool, cross that off my todoist app” because of the amount of work that goes into a post. Editing photos, choosing the right words and kinda caring about SEO. I can mull for days over how to frame a post – often choosing to wait a year so that it’s timely.

Asking me to choose my favorite post depends on what I have a craving for reading.

doris shoes

From itchy feet to firmly planted in Spain

Perhaps one of the posts I find myself going back and reading the most is The Guiri Complex (Or, why I Can’t Have it All). Pounded out on a keyboard shortly after an American food store opened in the same storefront where I’d bought a flamenco dress, I was wrestling with more than just an overpriced box of Cheerios and whether or not I wanted it: it was a moment where I was torn between the life I had built in Sevilla, and the life I thought I could have in the U.S.

Curious: do you guys have any posts you particularly like? I’d love to hear them!

What is the Novio’s real name?

I recently met up for a beer (well, like a dozen) with Joy of @joyofmadrid. As soon as we’d sat down, she said, “I’m so glad we can skip over the basics because we already know one another.”

..and the other one. Believe it or not, Kike is Madrileño! But still Bético.

Ah, youth. This was eight years ago.

I’m not exactly a public figure, but I realize that people know who I am, what I do and where I like to have a caña. But my husband is an extremely private person and someone who is not into social media, internet cookies (or regular cookies, actually) or sharing his personal life. I can respect that, and for this reason he shall remain nameless.

And, no, I did not move here for the Novio. But he’s part of the reason I stayed.

Will you ever return to the U.S.?

Great question. While I don’t want to close the door to returning to live in the land of cooking with butter, I don’t see it happening. Where would the Novio get his hueso salao for puchero? How could I ever go back to not having health insurance? It’s not impossible, but I think it’s unlikely.

It's trite, but Chicago really is my kind of town.

Still my favorite place in the world.

Truthfully, moving to the US freaks me out – the staggering cost of living on meager savings, starting a job search from abroad, letting go of my Spanish lifestyle. The dream would be an American salary in Spain, but everyone makes sacrifices, right?

Cruzcampo is not one of those sacrifices.

If you didn’t live in Seville, where would you live? Where should I live?

te quiero sevilla

I always said that if I didn’t live in Seville, I’d live in Madrid. And now that the Spanish capital is “home,” I’d choose Seville again. It truly is la ciudad de mi arma, even with its faults (and that reminds me – I really love my break up post).

When I announced via Facebook that I’d be leaving Seville for Madrid, one commenter warned me of how soulless Madrid felt to her. My friend Lindsay, who has lived in both cities put it best (and I love her for it): Cat can find her people and her home anywhere.

Visit Lastres Asturias

But if I must choose – I really love Asturias and could see myself up north with a bouganvilla-covered house in a little fishing village near where the Novio summered. Send rebujito if this ever happens.

What are your tips for making friends abroad?

spanish american girls at the feria de sevilla

Currently in Sevilla, Denver, San Francisco, New York, Madrid, Sevilla and Jakarta, but forever in Calle Bombita

Saying that the friends I made in Spain are half of my Spanish world would be an understatement. There’s an affinity that we have, as Americans, that extends beyond our shared language and culture. My group and I have left home for Spain – sometimes for the adventure, sometimes for a novio. Most of them had studied abroad in Sevilla (everyone in the photo but me, in fact!) and most of us arrived in 2007.

Had I not met the women I call my Spain Dream Team, there’s a fairly large probability that I wouldn’t have stuck around. The Novio often traveled for work abroad for long stretches of time, so I wizened up and found a group of women about my age who planned on Spain long-term. Little by little, my small circle of sevillamericanas has grown (but not without a few hard bajas).

Remember how your parents told you to leave your dorm room door open during your first week of college? I did that, too, but figuratively. I never turned down an invitation, but in an age where social media was as creeperific, I spent a lot of time at home with a box of Magnum bars.

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I solemnly swear that we are up to no good.

When you’re looking to meet friends abroad, consider what you’re already into doing – there are meet ups for everything from hiking with kids to knitting. If there’s a local expat group, go to an outing or two, or at least tap into their resources. Of those pictured above, most of us met be being introduced by someone else – ask for introductions and don’t think it’s weird (we’re literally all in the same situation, or have been!). Don’t be afraid to invite people for a coffee – I used to drag my German roommate to a cuchitre bar on our street to practice Spanish, and a cook at one of the tapas bars near my house and I kept in touch (and he opened a new bar recently!).

Advice on when friends move? In the picture of us dressed in trajes de gitana – one of my favorites – only three of us are still in Spain, but we’ve seen one another at least once in the last two years. A part of me dies when one of my friends announces that she’s moving away from Spain and I have ZERO advice other than whatsapp.

Do you have any advice for someone moving to Spain?

After my first year in Spain, I returned to my summer job at an outlet mall in suburbia. Tasked with folding rows of chinos and steaming dress shirts at Banana Republic, I struck up a conversation with an American who had just returned from 17 years in Galicia. As I found her sizes and zipped up dresses, she reminded me, “Spain will change you. No vuelvas just yet.” Seventeen years seemed like an awful long time to be away from my family, my language and my culture, but I assured her I’d stay another year.

Dreamy.

I’ve never forgotten that milestone. By the time I’ve been here 17 years, I will have probably had another kid, maybe moved again and who knows what else. If someone had told me that I’d fall for a Spaniard when abroad, I would have believed them. Had someone told me I’d live my adult life here? I wouldn’t.

I’m often asked what I’d do differently. Truthfully, not too much. Maybe I would have tried harder on this blog, or tried harder to make more professional connections earlier. Maybe I would have saved more money. I probably would have paid a little more money for an apartment with air-con because, damn, Sevilla is hot. But in the grand scheme of things, I’m pleased with how things have gone – even those hours, sitting in the dark eating Magnum bars when I had no friends.

mercado de san miguel madrid

My advice? Remember that it’s not your home country, so nothing will be the same. Spanish customer service is pitiful, traffic is just as bad as in the US but with crappy radio. Life is life in Spain, but as they say: Spain is different. Not a good different of bad different, necessarily.

Just different – and fun, challenging, enriching and delicious. Here’s to 11 more!

Any other burning  questions for a long-term expat in Spain?

This post contains links to my residency blog, COMO Consulting Spain, including links to our online shop. Have a click on any of the links to learn more about how to move to and work in Spain. We were recently hacked, so every click makes a world of difference (and we put a humorous spin on Spanish red tape!).

Guiri 101: A Guide to the -erías

Lisa’s skype call was full of nervous questions about what to pack and how to arrive alive to Sevilla. I’d be about to take the DELE when her train arrived, leaving her with a few hours to wander around town and grab something to eat, per a detailed list of suggestions. She quizzed me on names of places she might need to stop before our rendezvous: estación de autobuses, aseo, farmacia

Her last question: “If I want to have a beer, do I just look for a beerería?” She wasn’t too far off, doing some linguistic gymnastics as I reminded her of the word for beer and finally forming the word for bar: ser-vay-suh-ree-ya. Cervecería.

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One of the biggest learning curves for people moving to Spain is knowing where to shop and what you can find there. That there’s a more convenient place to buy stamps than the post office, or that you’re better off picking up pens and pencils at a copy shop. There’s a specific store for undergarments (pick up a spare zipper or some ribbon while you’re there, too), another sells only fish and sea creatures, and a cafetería is a good place to stop if you want more than just coffee.

Typically denoted by a clue in the word (hence ‘cerveza’) followed by the -ería, here’s a Guiri Guide to the -erías you can find in Spain:

Food & Drink

The –erías are rife when it comes to wining and dining in Spain, and nearly every class of food is followed by the suffix.

Bocatería: Sandwich shop.

This is a general term for anything made with two slabs of a viena, though Spanish sandwiches and subs tend to be severely lacking in ingredients. You can usually get food to go with a drink or some chips.

Cafetería: Cafeteria.

La pallaresa Bakery

This place has just about everything – you can have a coffee or a cold one, a sandwich or a sweet. Cafeterías are a happy mix between bar and coffee shop, and they’re a good go to if your tripa rumbles between lunch and dinner. Have your cake and eat it, too, which is perfectly acceptable here.

Carnicería: Butcher shop.

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Take a number and wait until you’re called to get any sort of beef or pork cut. Your butcher might also have less common meats, like horse or rabbit, and expect to find tripe, cow tongue and pig feet. For good measure, of course. In Madrid, these places are usually called casquerías.

Many carnicerías will also package meat for freezing, or can clean the cut for you.

Cervecería: Beer bar.

Vermouth Bar Madrid

Perhaps my most frequent stop outside of the grocery store, the cervecería (or beerería, as Lisa says) serves beer, wine and soft drinks, and usually a limited menu. Think stark white walls, stainless steel countertop and plenty of abuelitos. What sets these establishments apart from another bar is that the bares in Spain tend to have larger menu options.

Churrería: Churros stand.

Just smell that hot oil frying, and you’ll know you’re in the right place. Many bars also sell churros, particularly for snack time and weekend breakfasts, or even fried potato chips.

best churros in Seville

Freiduría: Fried fish joint.

Noticing a trend with fried food? Freidurías will throw anything breaded – namely fish and croquettes – into hot oil and serve it up in a paper cone for you. As one of Seville’s food staples, pecaito frito is fast food that doesn’t make you feel as guilty. Plus, it’s practically requisite to eat fried fish on the first night of Feria and Fridays during Lent.

Note that freidurias are closed on Monday, as no fresh fish comes into the markets.

Frutería: Green grocer’s / fruit stand.

You’ll find all of your fruits and vegetables here, along with nuts, soup mixes and a pumpkin for carving at Halloween. Here you can look but don’t touch – the greengrocer will usually handle the goods for you.

Fruit stands at the Mercado de Triana food market

Fruits and vegetables are seasonal in Spain, so don’t look for strawberries in August or watermelons in February. More exotic fruits like mangos and avocadoes can usually be found at market stalls.

Heladería: Ice cream parlor.

Heladeria Verdu

If you’ve ever been to Spain in the summer, you’ve probably frequented an heladería. Many will serve more than cones and sundaes, with offerings ranging from pastries to mixed drinks. Because a G&T tastes better with dulce de leche ice cream.

Panadería: Bakery.

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A meal in Spain wouldn’t be a meal without copious amounts of bread, and panaderías seem as ubiquitous as ATMs. My go-to local bakeries also serve as mini-marts and offer pastries, snacks, sandwiches and even cold beer.

Pescadería: Fishmonger’s.

For the catch of the day, look no further. You can buy fish and shellfish and have them cleaned or chopped in any way you like. Like the freiduría, the pescadería is always closed on Mondays, meaning the market is a ghost town at the beginning of the week, and offerings – as well as prices – will change daily.

Pollería: Poultry shop.

If your butcher doesn’t sell fowl, a pollería will, along with eggs, turkey and duck – I get my Thanksgiving turkey from José in the mercado and he’ll even pull out those last few stubborn feathers and its innards. Alternately, the chicken shop may be a roasted chicken distributor, too, AKA your Sunday night cooking solved.

Repostería: Pastry shop.

Manu Jara Dulceria Sevilla

If you see a line out the door around January 5th, chances are you’re staring down a repostería, or a fancy pastry shop. While I’m not keen on Spanish sweets, all of the abuelitas congregate here to buy cakes and sweets, though it’s different from a cafetería in that it usually doesn’t have room to snarf the pastel with a coffee or anisette.

De Compras

Copistería / Papelería: Copy shop / paper goods store.

I remember a crisis of not having enough pens to write down my observations of Seville, post-study abroad, in a travel journal. It was my first time in Seville and I’d run out of ink, so I went to the sure-fire place to find them: the Corte Inglés. A simple pack of three Bics put me back 3,50€, or the price of a beer and tapa around the corner.

Copy shop in Spain copisteria papeleria

Copisterías are commonplace, and they do more than print, scan and fax: you can find any school supply you can think of, buy political and geographical maps of Spain and the EU and go insane over the sheer amount of colors and sizes of plastic wallets the peddle. Nope? Just me? Imagine it like an all-ages Kinkos.

Papelerías are much the same, just with no fancy copy machines. What they lack in inkjet they make up for in beautiful journals, fancy wrapping paper and a rainbow of highlighter colors.

Ferretería: Hardware store.
Hardware store Spain

My best friend back home is part of a hardware store dynasty, and I’d often frequent with my handyman father. Spanish ferreterías are a bit backwards because there are lots of small items, many will ask you to place an order and they will find it for you. This is the place to get keys cut, buy tools and even find that old-lady carrito you’ve been eyeing. Some ferreterías are specialized in cookware, others in making plaques and signs, and even others sell kitchen goods.

Leroy Merlin is my new drug.

Florestería: Florist.

It may be easier to pick up a few spare carnations from the peddlers on the street or the venta ambulante, but florists still exist. Just don’t expect to buy satchels of seeds here – floristerías are strictly for flower arrangements and decorative bits and bobs.

Librería: Bookshop.

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Don’t fall victim to this false friend – a librería is a place to buy novels and books…and the random book bag, bookmark or greeting card. You’ll find them clustered near schools and they generally have all of the required reading textbooks for private schools on hand.

Lencería: Lingerie shop.

Before you get your panties in a bundle (ha!), remember that lencerías sell a bit more than undergarments. General hoisery is a hot commodity come Autumn, and I’ve also picked up sewing items like thread and buttons here, along with yarn for crochet. Just be sure to push past the old ladies who wouldn’t be caught dead buying their stockings in Calzedonia (they also sell push-up leggings there, DIOS SANTO!)

Peluquería: Salon.

Much like their American counterparts, salons in Spain are a haven for gossip and hairspray. I can’t say enough about Top Image in Seville, where I entrust my locks and secrets to Loli – yes, I plan my visits to Seville around her openings. If you’re looking for a beauty parlor that has a larger array of services, try a spa o gabinete de belleza. A beauty cabinet. Men head to a barbería (as in the Barber of Seville, of course!) or peluquería de hombres.

Perfumería: Drugstore.

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The first time my Spanish roommate sent me out to the grocery store alone, she told me to pick up all of the cleaning products, detergent and toilet paper at the perfumería around the corner from our apartment. Once I fought my way past the fragrances and makeup, all of the cleaning products on the market were stuffed into shelves, from toilet bowl cleaner to air fresheners.

But I accidentally bought myself conditioner instead of shampoo. Those were rough, greasy times. I find that supermarket prices are more appealing, and there are only so many little abuelas I can fend off on any given morning.

Semillería: Nursery.

Maybe it’s just because there’s one on my block, but this is the sort of nursery where you can buy seed satchels and…snacks? Most of the rest of society go to a vivero. And, for the record, I’m still a little wary of wandering into the semillería.

Tintorería: Dry Clearners.

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Not to be confused with lavandería, or laundromat, tintorerías are far more common in Spain than a coin-operated bank of washers and dryers. Check those tags from Zara – there’s a lot more delicate material and non-washables on sale, and Spanish washing machines are notorious for tearing apart clothing!

Zapatería: Shoe store.

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Most of my disposable income went to shoe shopping when I first moved to Spain. I was doing a great deal of walking around town and quickly wore out the soles on all of the ballerina flats I bought. Be aware that European shoes have different number sizes than in the US, which leads to a whole lot of confusion and squished toes on your first few trials.

The non -erías

Ok, so I lied – not all shops and eateries end with -ería. Several other important shops and stops exist, though many with not-so-clear perameters as to what they sell.

Farmacia: Pharmacy.

Denoted by a green cross, farmacias sell strictly prescription and nonprescription drugs. Well, until you add reading glasses, walkers, diapers and pacifiers. Clients tend to be loyal to their local pharmacy, so products may vary according to location. Do keep in mind that should a pharmacy not have what you need, you can have it ordered for next day service, and there are 24-hour pharmacies in every large urban center.

Tobacos / Estanco: Tobacco shop.

My roommate once asked me if I wouldn’t mind picking up an application form for a university scholarship while she was sick. I marched over to the university, stood in line at the purser’s window and ask for the solicitud, only to be told it could be procured at the tobacco stand across the street.

….ok.

Emblazoned in crimson and gold with a large T announcing them, tobacco shops – usually called estancos – sell packs and cartons of cigarettes, pipes, loose-leaf tobacco, lighters and sometimes even shishas (hashtag Spain is different). But it’s also a shop I frequent to buy stamps and envelopes without the long line at the Oficina de Correos, and they also have copies of rental contracts, declaraciones jurídicas and other forms needed for everyday Spanish bureaucracy.

Oficina de Correos: Post Office.

Every address in Spain is assigned to a post office, and Correos is the national mail service, owned and operate by the Estado. For whatever reason, your assigned office is never the closest one, and no matter when you go, there’s always a line worse than waiting to see the belén on Christmas Eve.

Mail service is only the tip of the iceberg here: you can also register to vote, pay traffic fines and utility bills or send money by wire. Just take a number and wedge yourself between the other 100 people there any given morning.

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Supermercado: Supermarket.

Though the older generation still prefers buying at their market and small shops (this abuelita included), supermarkets are one-stop shopping. Imagine the shock and awe when you walk into an American superamarket for the first time in 10 months after having somehow subsided on whatever was packed into a two-aisle ‘supermercado’ in your neighborhood.

I was so spoiled living next to an Alcampo for four years, but have come to relish buying from the market a few blocks away.

Alimentación / Bazar: Mini-mart.

There’s really no way to describe these sorts of shops. Sometimes they have food, sometimes they don’t. Many sell cheap home furnishings, clothes or household items. Cold beer is usually a feature in them all, and even the lady at my alimentación has taken to calling me gorda for my addiction to the green Doritos. These shops are usually open on Sundays, too, so if you realize the fridge is empty and the súpers closed, there’s always the alimentación.

Ultramarinos: Canned goods shop.

Somods Bulcher Candy Shop

How I wish supermarkets hadn’t given these age-old shops a run for their money (as in, livelihood for skyrocketing rent costs). Ultramarinos sold the gamut of dry goods, from legumes to tins of conservas like fish or vegetables. They were usually narrow and stocked from floor to ceiling with merchandise. There’s still one on Calle Arfe in the Arenal district and another near the Setas on Puente y Pellón, but I feel that their days are contados

Kiosko: Newspaper kiosk

One of very few words in Spanish that begin with K, these pop-up booths sell newspapers and magazines. Check near touristic sites in major cities if you’re looking for international press or in a Corte Inglés.

Olé tú if you find one of the kiosks that sells candy and cans of pop instead of reading materials. Have small change handy.

Tienda de ropa / regalos / mascotas / deportes: Shop.

Any shop specialized in a certain kind of merchandise can be characterized as a tienda de something. If you’re confused about any of the -erías above, tienda can subsitute whatever you’re looking for.

Agencia de viajes / inmobiliaria / seguros: Agency.

Storefronts that offer a service are typically categorized as an agencia, or agency. Just as banks and bars are easy to trip over, so too are vacation, real estate and insurance agencies.

Locutorio: Internet Café.

grand luxe hostel seville common room 1

When I studied abroad in 2005, Blackberries weren’t on the market nor did Skype exist. We’d check our newly created Facebook accounts on shared computers and call our parents with – shock! gasp! – real phones in little plywood booths. Though they’re not as commonplace as they were a decade ago, locutorios have fax and printer capabilities if you’re in a bind.

OJO!

Opening Hours

If you’re outside of  a major city, don’t count on anything being open on a Sunday and midday closures are also typical. Most small shops and businesses will be open from about 9am until 2pm and reopen from 5pm to 8pm. Fridays and Saturday hours are shortened.

An exception is anything food-related: an alimentación is open at seemingly all hours, and panaderías will open Sunday mornings. And if all else fails, bars are usually open daily at normal eating times. Do note that many bars and restaurants close midday, so you’re better off having a pastry to tide you over.

grocery shopping in Spain

False friends

Not all -erías are created the same: just as you would blush from saying you were pregnant rather than embarrassed, a few false friends exist. If you need money, don’t ask for monería, as this is an adjective for something cute. Go to a banco or cajero automático instead. And a factoría is not always a brick-and-mortar factory but can be used in a metaphorical sense.

Looking for some of my favorites around Seville? Check out my Seville Superlatives list or let me know about your tried and true! And now that you’re a better shopper than the abuelitas in Triana, why not assemble a Cesta de Navidad for your family?

The Guiri Guide to Having a Baby in Spain: Fourth Trimester

It’s just before 4am and my body wakes me up slowly. The baby, in his Pack n’ Play next to my bed, is stirring, too. Like clockwork, he’s still doing comfort feedings once a night, snuggling into my armpit as I lift up my pajama top. The light on my Kindle is soft enough to help guide him to my nipple, his eyes still pinched shut. I feel a familiar tug and a squeaky sucking noise, and flinch as my milk comes in.

One feed down, six more to go today.

cute baby in a hat

Nine months. It’s been nine whole, life-changing, tiring, fast-paced months. He’s been on the outside just as long as he was on the inside, a baby milestone that we mothers hold dear.

My closest friend congratulated me on keeping the baby alive . “Keeping a baby alive?” I replied, “That’s the easy part!” It’s everything else that’s been trying.

The first 100 days

They say that babies need three more months of gestation to be completely ready for the outside world. And us new mothers? We need those three months to ease (um, or not) into the immense responsibility of caring for someone else. I didn’t feel like myself for those three whole months. It took a new pair of jeans, an awkward first sexual encounter and my child being an actual person for me to feel the fog lift after nearly 100 full days with Enrique in our lives.

The first six weeks – “La Cuarentena”

I was thankful and overwhelmed to have my family with me for the first week of Enrique’s life. They kept me hydrated and fed, gathered my lactation pillow when the baby needed food and helped me to learn the new parent ropes. I hadn’t changed a diaper since I was 12 – two decades in the past – and didn’t know how to bathe a baby with his umbilical cord still attached.

My dad, sidelined with a lingering ankle injury, and I challenged one another to walk one block further every morning while my mom stayed with the sleeping baby, knitting a blanket. I learned how to breastfeed in the streets without feeling weird about it. We took him for his first exams and check ups.

He was healthy; I was besides myself.

new mom in Spain

’s job wouldn’t allow him to take his 30 paid days of paternal leave because of an assignment, so I spent long hours at home with the baby, struggling to get him out of the house so that I could clear my head or run out for another bag of coffee or maternity underpants (I was sad to give those up, I have to say). Forced to learn how to do things with one hand with a newborn in the other, I reverted to the most primal instincts: eating, sleeping, brushing my teeth and whatsapping.

There was a day when my tupperware of puchero was heated up and then cooled off and then heated again so many times that I didn’t eat it until nearly 8pm. By then, it was all mush. Another day, I counted ten granola bar wrappers on the coffee table and realized that I wasn’t taking care of myself.

I wouldn’t have been able to survive the first month as a mommy without my mother-in-law, who came to stay with me every night. She’d cook a meal for me, bring me whatever I asked for (including hemorrhoids cream, eep) and even took care of the baby at night so that I could sleep some. We became quite close in those 40 days.

^^^

I returned to Madrid when Enrique was six weeks old, relieved to be in a smaller house where I could leave the baby in his crib while running to the bathroom. He was getting bigger and stronger, and I was eager to explore Madrid and make the most of my 16 weeks with the Little Man.

I had an appointment with my matrona a few days after arriving to Madrid. She had me fill out a survey that was supposed to determine my risk for postpartum depression. The questions were misleading, like, “I feel confident I know what I’m doing.” Sometimes? “I want to spend all of my time with my baby.” It’s nice to have a five minute shower without the baby hanging off of me? She didn’t classify me as at-risk, but I felt overwhelmed just by the questions. Freaking Mommy Culture.

ill love you forever book

I did my best to find other mommy friends and attend the free sessions at my health clinic on baby first aid and baby massage. But I felt judged, like my parenting skills were nowhere near the rest of the mommies who didn’t need to breastfeed their babies until they konked out.

One weekend, while my mother-in-law was in town, we walked to the Corte Inglés for baby gear (que conste: I spent more time at the Nuevos Ministeros Corte Inglés than anywhere else during my maternity leave, and they have a great sala de lactación). I saw someone with a baby about the age of mine who looked well-rested, perfectly coiffed and didn’t have a single spit up stain or booger on her neatly pressed blouse.

“You know her mother is doing everything for her, right?” my mother-in-law whispered as she motioned for me to take over the stroller again. “Te toca.”

^^^

My cousin – the mother of four girls under age five – asked me at a family party, “Aren’t you just loving it?”

My answer was as brave and truthful as I could muster: “Most of the time.”

The first three months

I made the realization that I was not a fan of the baby phase. Much like I hated teaching preschool, once I came through the fog of the first 90 days and could admit that newborns were not my thing, I immediately felt better.

Enrique turned three months on American soil, already having earned his wings on a cross-Atlantic flight. Apart from a higher-than-usual poop frequency and the awkwardness of passing through security with a carry-on, diaper bag, stroller, baby carrier and the baby himself, I was relieved to have someone else to hold the nugget while I was home. I relished in walking the dog and the baby together every morning and helping him learn to roll over and strengthen his neck muscles. I felt comfortable breastfeeding (even if no one else wanted to see it because, America) and was catching up on sleep.

little dude big roar

After buying a new pair of jeans (I dropped the baby weight way too quickly due to nursing) and finally being intimate with my husband, I felt 95% like myself again.

During these few months at home, I did my best to play with the baby, to be attentive to him and to return to a semi-normal life. I could put him in his hammock without tears so as to wash the dishes or take a shower while singing to him. Breastfeeding no longer felt like a chore – the baby hopped on and off the boob without getting distracted. As we got to know one another better, I settled into a routine.

Albeit, a routine that still involved pumping once or twice a day and a lot of bad TV.

The first eight months

As we teeter on the edge of nine months, I’m amazed at how much Enrique has grown and learned. By all accounts, he’s a happy, healthy baby with a penchant for ripping paper, putting everything in his mouth and rolling over 17 times before falling asleep. He’s got six teeth, is nearing 9 kilos and loves to babble. Every day, there’s something new to learn and see, and I’m often left wondering where these nine months have disappeared to.

When he’s asleep or leaves me with a few minutes of peace, I sometimes forget how much life has changed. Or that I had a life before him.

Playa de las Catedrales

One of the things I’m finding the hardest to come to terms with is the lack of time. I’ve always managed my free time well, setting goals and accomplishing them while staying active and still sleeping eight hours a night. Since having a baby, it takes me six weeks to draft a blog post, three hours to shower and get dressed and about one minute to feel frustrated about it. It’s impossible to micromanage with a baby.

Case in point: I began writing this blog post before the baby was three months old. I have written and rewritten it in my head countless times while busing a baby to daycare, while rocking him to sleep, while trying to rock myself to sleep after a late night feeding.

Yes, I’ve gotten distracted with freelance projects, with trips to Sevilla, with returning to work. Those babies who sleep for hours on end? Mine is not one of them. In fact, the pediatrician told me to put him in a forward-facing stroller when he was six weeks old. So much for binge-watching all of Game of Thrones so I’d have SOMETHING to talk about with friends.

So, toma, you get short vignettes (that’s all I can manage before he wakes up and wants to eat/play/burp!):

On Breastfeeding

On one of the baby’s first outings, my mom, the Novio and I went to have breakfast before taking him for the heel prick test. The baby was four days old, and the January sun was already bright. We’d succeeded in getting four people out of the house on time, but panic struck as soon as we sat at Pedro’s bar.

hungry baby

DIOS, the baby is YELLOW!” I cried, then cried tears. “I’m not feeding him, I suck at parenting!”

Granted, I’d slept about four hours and was mentally exhausted to boot, but seeing a jaundiced baby was not the way to celebrate cutting our getting-out-the-door time from three hours to two.

I’d struggled to breastfeed in the hospital, resorting to pumping to stimulate my production and having an awkward moment with my father-in-law where he massaged my breasts. My poor puritan father couldn’t be in the same room with me when I fed his first grandchild. And, now, my child was yellow as a banana.

^^^

Menos mal that women are speaking up about how difficult breastfeeding can be. Between stressing about the baby gaining weight and latching correctly, then being literally en tetas all day, I felt like a cow. It was an endless cycle of, Eat-Burp-Sleep and repeat every 90 minutes. Any time I’d finally get him down and out of my arms, it would be the question of what to do first: pee or eat.

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I was hellbent on breastfeeding exclusively for six months, which often lead to head-butting with the Novio when he wanted to start the baby on solids or he suggested I give the baby formula. When Enrique was around 12 weeks old I finally cracked and bought a bottle of formula as back up, even though my instincts told me he didn’t need it. Again, damn Mommy Culture for telling me that breastfeeding is the ONLY way to go, and that even considering formula was a mortal mommy sin.

I attended a few Liga La Leche meetings, which I highly recommend. If for nothing else, for moral support and for a few hours out.

^^^

I love being able to breastfeed my baby, but I HATE pumping. I hear the flat sucking sound of my expensive pump that is too small for my boob size and shudder. I struggle to not spill the pumped milk when transferring it from bottle to storage bag and have on more than one occasion cried over spilt milk.

^^^

When we took Enrique for his four month check up, I was told that he was slightly underweight and would have to start on cereal in his bottles. I was devastated. Once again, my confidence took a hit as I cursed my body for not responding to what I conceived as natural. Everyone reminded me that a fed is best, but all of the god damned Mommy Wisdom pointed to my failure to feed him myself.

Two months later, we started him on solids, leading to less diapers to change but more constipation.

^^^

Enrique breastfed until last week, mere days before his ninth cumplemes. We stuck with it, despite my being topless for a large part of the day when all of the lactation experts suggested I feed on demand. I have only had blocked ducts when I returned to work and no bleeding or cracked nipples – just a few nibbles from his new teeth. I feel fortunate that it’s gone well and that we’ve found a rhythm, especially when I know many women who were unable to breastfeed.

baby tummy time

The destete always had an end date, as I travel for work in he Fall. In many ways, I’m relieved that he’s a good eater and will take bottle, spoon, hunk or anything waved in front of his face. I’ll miss the way he caresses my face and boob when he stares up at me, and feel that all of those hours with him in my arms have helped forge a bond. He still gets pangs of mamitis whenever I arrive home from work, often stopping what he’s doing and whining until I pick him up.

But I’m ready to move on and watch him learn to eat on his own. Maybe that’s just part of motherhood, the constantly letting go.

On Returning to Work Post-Maternity Leave

Before I could really enjoy maternity leave and bonding with the baby, I had homework: I needed to find a childcare option. Unlike all those well-kept Spanish mamás who can rely on their mothers, we had no choice but to pay for someone else to watch our baby sleep and occasionally give him a bottle or change a diaper.

Truthfully, finding a guardería felt a lot like rushing a sorority to me.

We were given a permanent spot in my first choice guardería, just one block away from my job, for July. But that left May, June and a handful of days in April to cover. Desperate, I dressed us up nicely and went from daycare to daycare, trying to impress people I’d speak to for three minutes, acutely aware that there was a baby quota, and that quota was low.

Just like legacies have a pass into Alpha Beta Baby, so, too, do brothers and sisters. I finally wizened up and checked prices and availability so that I could dedicate more time to eating my way around my neighborhood bakeries rather than pushing a baby carriage for anything other than leisure.

Baby's first glimpse of the ocean

Looking for daycare in Spain was a test of my patience. My favorites? “We make only organic food!” Yes, and charge me three times as much what I could make at home myself. “We’re bilingual!” So is my household. “We have the cheque bebé!” What difference does it make when you’re charging me those 90€ more in organic food and estimulación de inglés?

Ugh.

When I finally found a place that had an opening (they may have broken a few laws to make an extra 400€), I truthfully wasn’t impressed. There was no plan escolar and the place smelled like baby (did I mention I hate the smell of diaper cream and Nenuco?). But I promised myself that my time at home would be the baby’s main source of stimulation and cariño and signed him up.

^^^

My vuelta al trabajo date got closer with every sleep, with every bag of breastmilk stashed in the freezer. While my other pregnant friends had worked out a few extra months at home, I looked forward to going back to work. I like the professional part of my life, and the truth is that I couldn’t watch any more reruns of The Big Bang Theory.

You know it’s bad when you can sing all of the commercial jingles.

On the day that I left Enrique at the daycare for the first time, there were a few tears. These tears were easily quelled with a coffee and piece of cake, and a very understanding boss. If it comes to anything, it was my years as a teacher and knowing that the employees were trained to at least not leave an infant unattended on a high surface. I only called the guarde midday for a week for a progress report (and to make sure he’d pooed).

But, I have the friendliest baby who breaks into a smile whenever he sees someone new. You have no idea how much it hurts when you go to pick up your spawn and he cries as soon as they hand him off to you.

^^^

My days now are long. Alarmingly long. A friend vacationing in California once asked why I was awake at 6:30am on a Thursday. Easy – it takes me exactly 80 minutes to wake up and get us out the door. When I return home, there’s baby food to prepare, said baby to play with, chores to keep up with once he is asleep.

But as someone who likes crossing things off my list, I make it work. And it makes nights and weekends even more fun. Though Mondays are even more monday with an adorable little family, I admit.

On First-time Parenting

I used to boast about how well my baby could hang – he’d fall asleep in the jaleo of a cervecería as if he were being rocked in someone’s arms. Then one fine day, we discovered that Enrique was colicky. Now, there are two types of colic in Spanish: one in which the baby cries uncontrollably for no apparent reason, and the other where a baby can’t easily digest breastmilk and cries and screams for several hours in the evening. This eventually tapers off at three months, but it seriously tested our patience.

Qué le pasa?” The Novio would ask me, and I’d run down the list. Is he hot or cold? No. Is there a tag scratching against his skin? Unlikely. Is he tired? Perhaps. If all else failed, out came the food source.

Baby in my arms

Then there was the time we forgot sunscreen in the car and had to coat his face in diaper cream. Or when we’d leave the house only to return because of an explosive poop episode the minute we’d order a beer. And one of my favorites was when he wouldn’t calm down to sleep, so I walked him in the rain to a bar where I could dip in for a hot drink. As soon as he heard the Semana Santa music, he closed his eyes and stay asleep for well over an hour.

We’re still so new to this and don’t ever think we’ll stop learning how to handle an infant, a toddler or a teenager. Most days, we can laugh at ourselves (though this usually involved having had a decent night’s sleep), and I think we’re holding it together all right.

Well, until I cry from accumulated sueño and because I really, really want a cookie.

On Mommy Culture

One of my longest sevillana friends came to visit a few weeks ago, and we spent a warm afternoon over dobles in Plaza Olavide with the babe. I asked her to regale me with stories of dating in the Big Apple, what it was like to have an American salary and about her last vacation; she asked me how I was holding it all together.

Nothing like hanging with your abroad besties to realize just how different your life has become.

Perhaps one of the hardest things to come to grip with has been the cross-cultural mixed signals and the extreme judgement. Maybe it’s all in my head, but it can be difficult to navigate what I know to be true about child-bearing from my own American upbringing, and what Spanish abuelitas say. Our pediatrician is Venezuelan and suggested that the baby’s first lean meat come from a horse; she was later under fire when she told us to give the baby kiwi, sparking a rash and a trip to the ER.

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When I check my phone while out on a walk, I feel like I’m betraying my baby. Or when I drop him off at daycare. And when I ask my husband to feed him to I can wash vomit out of my hair, I wonder if I’m being selfish. Can other mothers sense this? Do we have a sixth sense when it comes to who is doing their job and who isn’t? Hell, I even felt bad watching Gilmore Girls while feeding the baby on my maternity leave. Aren’t I supposed to give my undivided attention to him at all times, and not to Lorelai and Rory?

My mother stayed home with my sister and me, returning to her job as a teacher when I was in second grade. I am thankful that she made that choice, but I know I wouldn’t be happy wearing just one hat.

Perhaps it’s the influence of social media that’s got me all huffed and puffed. That we judge one another with all of the postureo and the need for attention and the need to share all. The day care’s director assures us that we are both doting parents who give off an air of peace and tranquility towards the baby. If he only knew how exhausting he can be…

On Motherhood and What Comes Next

As I settle into motherhood and continue to be amazed – by how much the baby learns, by the seismic way in which he has changed our lives and our relationship with one another, by the sheer exhaustion that consumes my week. Truthfully, it took me time to get a grip on how much I adore the little beast I created and nurtured while I have slowly let go of my past life.

For a long time, I wondered if I wasn’t meant to be a mother, despite my deep desire to have children since I was a child myself. All of those women who gushed about how complete they felt, how their child was the best thing that ever happened to them – I didn’t feel it. Motherhood and the abundance of feelings and love slowly permeated into every aspect of my life as Enrique gets bigger and comes into his personality.

And I’m not afraid to admit that I miss my old life, pre-baby. Or that I miss being pregnant. Or that I want at least one more.

Being a parent is one of the most emotional things I have ever experienced (and this coming from someone who wears her heart on her sleeve). I feel abundance and I feel complete scarcity. I’m both hopped up and run down. My baby can be a burden one minute and my source of joy in another. My hormones have subsided – for the moment, anyhow – but  can’t even begin to fathom how they may change as we watch this tiny human learn to walk, talk and probably become a huge asshole.

I wish I had advice for other first time mothers, especially us guiris who live in Spain. You’re subject to extreme morriña for your family and home country, as well as the exhiliration of raising a baby abroad. You’ll warp your language and find your native tongue comes out when cooing at your little creation. You’ll scoff at the unsolicited advice from abuelitas but feel relieved when they tell you how to combat diaper rash. As with anything unknown, you won’t know what you feel until that phase of your life has, regrettably, passed.

For now, I’m trying to be myself as I change and adapt to being Enrique’s mommy.

^^^

At my six month check-up with my gyno in Madrid, He of the Amazing Mutton Chops, I asked a very simple question as soon as the wand went back in: “There’s no one else in there, verdad?”

No, hija, your womb is all clear.

Well, for another year or two until we decide it’s time for Enrique to be a big brother.

The Guire Guide to Pregnancy and Childbirth

I’d love to hear your feedback – and thank you all, sincerely, for the well wishes and the outpouring of love for the Babyman. To those of you who have visited, sent gifts, trekked out to my parents’s house in the suburbs – thank you. It helps knowing that, despite all of the changes, I have great people to rely on and an Army of Titos!

You can read about my experience as a pregnant foreigner in Spain and about labor and delivery in earlier posts. In Barcelona and considering a hypobirth or doula services? Liana van Zyl offers English-language services in Barcelona. I have personally not used her but would encourage you to contact her about pre- and post-natal care!

The Guiri Guide to Pregnancy in Spain

the-guiri-guide-tothe-guiri-guide-to

The Tongue-in-Cheek Guide for Surviving a Sevillano Summer

Something odd happens in Seville in late spring. As the temperatures being to rise into the 30s and 40s, there’s a shift in activity. Streets clear, parking becomes available, and midday siestas are the norm.

Welcome to Summer in Seville – a No Man’s Land of sloth, extreme heat and an abandon of local habits.

summertime

When I recently spent my holidays at “home” in Seville, people called me crazy. “A pasar frío, no?” was usually met with eye rolls. But I actually love the summer in Seville and its oddities (and daycare is burning a large, large hole in our pockets), so it was an easy vacation destination. Who can pass up a free place to stay and free childcare?

Seville isn’t a coastal city, despite being in beach-packed Andalucía. The city sits on the Guadalquivir River in a fertile valley of the same name, making it a greenhouse with its own weather phenomenon, called the bochorno. This means grey skies, unbearable heat and enough humidity to make my usual nub of mousse unnecessary (upside?).

Though I used to run for the hills of rainy Galicia or back to Chicago, I’ve spent several summers in Seville and have lived to tell the tale. My trips are tried and true to my sass:

sunset in seville

Firstly, do as the sevillanos do and hibernate. Morning markets buzz with patrons until about 11am. From that hour, as the sun reaches its peak in the sky, the streets are a virtual ghost town. You might see a lone person slinking along in the shadow of a building, but generally speaking, people stay at home during the day.

Many older homes in the center of town do not have air conditioning (this is not true of hotels or rental apartments, so take advantage of that low thermostat!), but instead have a typical Spanish invention called the persiana. These heavy plastic window blinds help block out light and heat and – by some sort of witchery – also seem to induce sleep. Embrace the siesta culture and take a midday snooze, especially because the streets become lively again after 9pm, when people descend on the cervecerías and spend the night at Seville’s best terrazas, or an outdoor disco.

cocktails at roof sevilla

And if you still can’t sleep, take the 1970s approach to A/C – visit the Corte Inglés department store or see a movie. In fact, local lore suggests the change in temperature from the street to the store and back again causes colds.

Additionally, you can change your diet up a bit. Summertime means you can pack away your pressure cooker and forget about the hearty cuchareo that characterizes winter stews. Any local will tell you that a glass of cold Cruzcampo beer will stave off hunger during the hottest hours of the day, and many choose to adapt their diets to cool foods – gazpacho, salads, granizados – a slushy fruit juice made with ice – and seafoods.

cruzcampo beer bottles

And beer. Loads of beer. My favorite cervecerías during the hot months never let me down: Cervecería La Grande if I’m near home, and La Fresquita if I find myself in the center.

Sevillanos can be a curious bunch, often spending money on things we deem important that others may find frivolous. But some of the best money spent during the veranito sevillano is taking out a pool membership, called an abono. During our trip, all of our afternoons were spent at the pool, alternating who took the baby to the kiddy pool and who got a few moments in the adult pool, where the water covered more than just our ankles.

Terraces and pools have popped up in the last decade: check out Ocean Club or the public pools in Sevilla, or make like my amigas and just waltz into one of the rooftop hotels, like EME, and pretend like you’ve rented the suite.

almohalla 51 pool terrace

And don’t think summer is limited to the calendar – whenever you think the temps are finally returning to normal, you’ll get the resurgence of Verano de San Miguel in late September. Your summer clothes won’t get packed away until mid October’s first rain.

Our summer holidays this year included a repeat trip to Asturias to show off Baby Enrique before taking the AVE to Inferno. Lots of naps, half the day in the pool and free childcare. But, somehow, it feels good to be home and taking advantage of those hot summer nights for bachelorette parties, a baby up past his bed time and even a blissful, baby-free litrona shared on our terrace.

A sticky, legs-plastered-to-cheap-plastic-lawn-chair-yet-baby-free-litrona, that is!

Summer in Seville

We’ll be back this weekend, camped out in front of the A/C and wishing anywhere but La Grande was open!

Have you ever spent the summer in Seville? How did you cope?

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