Exploring Eastern Spain

The East coast of Spain seems to be less popular than other parts of the country.  Rick Steves, for example, does not include much about the East coast in his travel books.  However, my friend, Melinda, and I got to explore a bit of this area last week as we rented a car and spent 4 days driving to Valencia and back.

Our first stop was Cabo de Gato, a national park on the southeast corner of Spain of which we got a mere taste (definitely need to go back) but saw some white flamencos in the distance.  We spent our first night in Cartegena, a small coastal city in the Region of Murcia.  The gem of this stop was the view from our Airbnb apartment which was a Roman theater right next door that had only been discovered and dug up in early 2000.  We couldn’t believe our luck (especially having reserved our apartment at the last minute)!  In fact, this city is an interesting mix of an upscale marina and office buildings with an old town of numerous construction sites and archeological digs.  We considered spending some late night hours at “La Escuela de Calor” (direct translation: “The School of Heat” with hard rock blasting from inside) but chickened out as our 40 something selves felt more called to our beds.  We did experience a hardcore coffee shop, though, and watched a military parade the next morning.

Our next stop was a half hour north to San Pedro del Pinatar for Las Charcas mud baths, the largest saltwater lake in Europe, with warm waters, high salinity and healing mud.  Even though it was a little chilly and windy while we were there, we managed to partially cover ourselves with mud before rinsing off and quickly lying in the sun to warm up.  After some tapas and a free Kahlua and cream shot (Spanish restaurants often gift their customers with a free after-meal drink), we hit the road for Valencia.

We merely scratched the surface of Valencia, touring the Silk Exchange, visiting the art museum and central market, walking the city’s fabulous city park and picnicking under a bridge during a downpour.  We also took a Paella cooking class since paella originated in Valencia, as food for the poor.  As most areas in Spain, Valencians make their paella with their own local delicacies which forced us to expand our food horizons.  I tasted my first rabbit and Melinda had her first snail.  In addition, I learned how to prepare and cook miniature artichokes!  Our class was lots of fun as we were the only Americans among Brits, Spaniards and Austrians.  Melinda engaged the Brits in a “what’s up with Brexit?/what’s up with Trump?” conversation while I had the pleasure of sitting next to one of the Austrians; a 20-something die hard skier who was a twin of Ed Sheeran.

After breakfast at our favorite Valencian coffee shop, We drove south again until we arrived in Granada.  Melinda was eager to see Granada so I toured her around Plaza Nueva and the outside of the Alhambra before we returned to Almuñécar that night.  The next day, I took Melinda to Malaga for her flight back to the States.  What a gift it was for me to be able to share our Spanish home with an American friend and explore new areas together.

“Obrigada”

We just completed our first European family road trip by car.  On April 14th, the first day of Semana Santa (Holy week leading up to Easter Sunday), we drove West across Andalucia (southern region of Spain) to Seville with George’s sister, Elise.  Before I continue, it’s important to note that Semana Santa is probably the biggest holiday in Spain and everyday there are religious processions, the first of which took place the day we arrived in Seville.  Seville is one of the epicenters of it all so you can imagine how our entry into the city and finding parking went.  Once we did though, we worked our way through the crowd amidst the first religious procession of the week only to land at our Airbnb which allowed us to stand on our balcony and watch the procession of the Virgin Mary go right on by.  George was giddy with excitement like a little kid.  “Can you believe that?”  was all we heard him say for hours and even days following.  The procession continued throughout the evening in our hood, forcing us to walk circles around old town for quite some time before we managed to intercept the Virgin Mary so that we could get back to our Airbnb.

Day two in Seville was short and sweet as we had my mother and my sister’s family to meet in southern Portugal.  About 3 hours later, we were settling into a beautiful little villa in the town of Carvoeiro in the Algarve region of Portugal (southern coast) and as it turned out, we were in for a surfing-themed vacation.  Portugal is one of the hot spots in the world for surfing so everywhere we looked, there were surf shops, surfing hotels and a surfing fest/competition on our last day.  The kids and their cousins even had a day of surf lessons and played in the waves in the town of Lagos.

Though our time was limited, we managed to explore a few different towns, eat some amazing Mediterranean food, and relax together.  Little did we know, there was a diesel strike in the whole country while we were there.  George and my brother-in-law had to drive almost all the way back to Spain just to get fill up the cars.  Some of the highlights of the trip included the amazing limestone cliffs along the coast, practically playgrounds for climbing and crawling around,  beautiful seashells, watching experienced surfers in Sagres (the most southwestern point of Portugal), getting lost in the Portuguese pottery shop, and discovering the importance of sardines (Davis even tasted them…for a 50 cent euro), Algarve storks and cork trees in Portugal.  Some favorite dishes of the week were octopus salad, risotto with cod and spaghetti with clams.  I’m excited to have found another way to feed my kids fish without them knowing it!  The sound of the Portuguese language was new to most of us, almost resembling the sounds of Russian and Polish and we worked on our pronunciation all week of “thank you” in Portuguese which is “obrigado/a.”  They seem to use this word more frequently and for more purposes than I recall in any other language.  My mom, sister and I painted together and the kids played a mean game of Monopoly and lots of Hide and Seek.

Our final day together before family flew back to the States was bittersweet as we honored my late father on what would have been his 80th birthday.  He was a surfer while growing up in California, and we could not get over how we spontaneously landed our final night (his birthday) in a surfing hotel just opposite the surfing competition (this was our plan B after our originally scheduled Airbnb did not work out).  He must have been there with us in spirit!

After a difficult goodbye with our relatives , we concluded our road trip with a brief drive through Lisbon and then pretty much a straight shot back to Almuñécar, including a late dinner stop in Córdoba.  Exhaustion and grief engulfed us as the five of us tried to navigate our car through the charming, very narrow streets of old town Córdoba to find dinner, only centimeters away, at one point, from resembling a scene from Mission Impossible, getting stuck between the street walls.  A delicious Spanish meal and atmosphere at Bodegas Mezquita Cruz del Rastro gave us the energy we needed to complete our journey back to Almuñécar.

Our time with American friends and family these past couple of weeks has made the kids very homesick.  The ease with which they could converse, the comfort of being with those whom they know care for and love them and their envy of these friends and family’s ability to return to what they know and love are real humps to get over.  And now that we are back from our travels and visits, the challenge is finding more courage, once again, to interact with a less familiar community and step into a classroom where a less familiar language is spoken and values are shared.

Mid-Century Man

When April arrived, not only did it bring some showers but lots of visits with family and friends and occasions to celebrate!  George’s mother, Mumzer, and his two sisters, Elise and Joanie, and brother-in-law, Bill, all made the trek to Spain to spend a week with us and help us celebrate George’s 50th birthday.

The kids had great fun showing their grandmother and aunts and uncle around town.  We introduced them to churros (fried dough) and hiked with them to La Herradura (next town over).  I took Elise and Joanie to a painting class and yoga while George took Mumzer and Bill to Fragiliana and we all paid a visit to the biggest Roman aqueduct in town.  We celebrated George’s 50th with a superb meal and a very personalized Flamenco dancing performance followed by a surprise celebration with local friends at our favorite ice cream shop, Heladoria de Jorge!  And on his actual birthday, we had a tour of the Alhambra castle in Granada.  It was epic!

Mumzer and her team stayed in the house right next door to ours so we had lots of running back and forth and cooking in together, including a good old American barbeque on the available grill.  A long Monopoly competition took place (Hadley is determined but has yet to defeat her uncle Bill) and as always, there was lots of emotional processing together.  And on the day of their departure, there were tears shed but promises to return.

The day after George’s family left, our Seattle friends, Roger and Rebecca Jansson came through town for a visit with their two kids.  The sun came out for them and we tried to provide a similar albeit briefer tour, as we only had two days with them.  A tour of the castle and a long walk along the coast filled our time as well as several hours lounging and picnicing on the beach together while the kids had their first swim of the season in the Mediterranean (with wetsuits on).  It was really special for us to share our Spanish world with friends from home for the first time and we so appreciated their enthusiasm and supportive curiosity.

As our Seattle friends left for Granada, we hopped in the car for our spring break trip to Portugal.

 

 

Brain Workouts

Gosh, the time periods between my blog posts are getting longer and I am missing writing.  Life here is starting to feel a little more like home with increasing commitments, not enough time in the days along with constantly helping the kids navigate rewarding and challenging experiences.

Back in February, we made a special trip to Austria where we met George’s British college roommate and went skiing.  For anyone who desires to ski in Europe, we can tell you exactly where to go!  Arlberg is a region of the Austrian alps, which consists of 8  Austrian villages all linked by lifts and slopes and surrounded by glorious, vast, endless mountains, enabling one to ski in one direction for many miles in a day and then bus back.  We ate lunch in a different village each day and had some of the best meals I have ever had, especially when skiing.  The wait staff everywhere wore their traditional Austrian garb, lederhosen and all, and one restaurant even had a slide that you slid down to the bathrooms!

It snowed like a blizzard our first day out, which was the first snowfall they had had since Christmas (how lucky were we).  Hadley fell on the ice and injured her wrist before we even touched the slopes but after confirming no breaks, George’s roommate took us on a great adventure down and around the mountains and despite not being able to see 5 feet in front of us, we knew we were surrounded by magnificent peaks.  We hit some challenging runs with the kids (perhaps not the best parenting moments) but we all managed to get down in one piece and feel some pride from our accomplishments.  No one wanted to leave but our wallets would not allow us to stay even one more day and once again, it was actually very pleasant to return to the sun and the sea.

The month of March included celebrations for Quinton’s 14th birthday (he got to ski all day in the Sierra Nevadas with his class), the championship game for Hadley and Davis’s basketball team and taking a papermaking class with Hadley and Davis.  We also took a day trip to Granada to apply for our Familia Numeroso.  This is an identification card that families with 3 or more children can apply for, which offers discounts in Spain for  purchases such as travel and provides us points to get into preferred schools.  We had to bring lots of official documentation with us which brought on a bit of PTSD from our visa application process.  Minutes before our number was called to approach the counter, I said to George, “now, don’t freak out if we have forgotten something,” knowing how hard it is for him when we are missing even one document, which is very common with Spanish bureaucracy, only to realize seconds later that I had actually left my entire wallet, including my Spanish ID, an hour away at home!  Needless to say, George and I had to make a second trip to Granada that same week.

Our international community is growing which has been exciting and we are using our Spanish with a bit more ease while there continues to be plenty of days when we just can’t get the right words to come out of our mouths.  And as always, our new relationships here are forcing us to step out of our comfort zones, which turns out to be great for our brain development!  A recent BBC article explains how the best friends for our brains are the ones who are different from us.  Spending time with others who are different can strengthen our creative thinking because diverse relationships force our brain to work harder at processing.  “Diversity gives our brain a powerful workout,” says Julie Van de Vyver and Richard Crisp of Durham University in “Crossing Divides: The Friends Who are Good for your Brain,”  and our kids are learning how making friends all over the world can be a good workout.  This is taking time, however, for them to grasp.  They have expressed concern that investing in friendships here will just make it harder to leave, and of course, they can’t imagine quite yet being able to call up a friend abroad when they are forty years old and traveling to their country on a business trip.  But George’s relationship with his British college roommate, which has sustained many years and many thousands of miles, has been a valuable model for a great investment as well as a good workout.

It’s not just the strangers we encounter or new friends who challenge us, but our own spouse and children do as well when we are all navigating a new experience together but processing it very differently from each other.  In a parenting podcast that  I listened to the other day, the narrator pointed out that the purpose of marriage and relationships is not happiness and bliss but transformation;  they change us and force us to grow.  The joys and challenges of our daily lives here are doing just that and although some of our interactions and conversations can be really difficult, especially in our new surroundings, there are glimmers of growth that come out of them.

 

 

 

A Day in the Life of Davis

BEEP, BEEP, BEEP, BEEP, BEEP. I wake up to Hadley’s alarm every morning. I am in the top bunk of our bunk bed, hoping and praying that Hadley will wake up and turn off the alarm. She doesn’t! My mom walks in and turns it off for us. I get up at around 7:00 to 8:00 because school starts at 9:00. I brush my teeth, get dressed and go downstairs for breakfast. The usual, eggs and hot coco.

When we are done with breakfast, Hadley and I walk down the narrow passageways passed the barking dogs and the small hobbit door, though the plaza and to our school. When I get to school, Hadley and I go into separate classes. I speak only Spanish for the next five hours. I sit next to all of my friends Lorena, Elias, Jaoquin, and Victor.

At recess we have a schedule: on Mondays we play badminton, on Tuesday we play basketball, on Wednesdays, dodgeball and Thursdays, soccer. On Fridays it changes every week.  

My favorite subject in class is math because the numbers are all the same in English and Spanish. But there are some differences such as division, which is done pretty much upside down and backwards.  Or maybe we do it upside down and backwards. 

At 2:00pm, the end of the school day, Hadley and I walk home from school.  On Mondays and Wednesdays we go to Basketball practice and on Tuesdays and Thursdays I go to soccer practice. On Fridays I have soccer games and basketball games are kind of  random, but they are usually on Thursdays or Fridays. Soccer is so popular here that when we have a basketball game, our team also has to play soccer.

Then it’s time for dinner. In Spain everybody eats dinner much later; some even eat around 10:00pm. My favorite place to go for dinner is “Ana Maria.” They have hamburgers, paella, salad and really nice workers. We will usually have dinner at home unless it is a special night. Sometimes for breakfast we go out to eat churros and chocolate. Churros are basically sticks of fried dough that you dip into hot chocolate and they are really good!

My day is very different than in Seattle. I really miss my days in Seattle but it’s also really fun here in Spain.

Lost in Translation

Amazingly, we have reached our 6th month here in Spain and as George pointed out in his Facebook post, the day has come when our kids have officially surpassed us in their Spanish skills as they are now translating for us and correcting our pronunciation.  In fact, most days I hear “Mom, nobody says it that way!”  Not only do I have my language corrected regularly but I am also quickly learning the correct Spanish social cues from my American children.  How awesome!  The differences in language never cease to amaze me though.  We recently learned in Spanish class how the Spanish version for “they lived happily ever after” is translated as “they happily ate partridge.”  So much history and culture ties into language that not everything can be directly translated which is fascinating to me.

Progressions seem to be taking place in other areas of our lives here as well.  A significant change that has recently taken place is Quinton’s school.  Unfortunately, he was not learning enough at the Spanish secondary school.  In fact, he was left to his own devices in some classes if he didn’t understand enough and the teacher didn’t understand him.  His mood was going downhill and he was becoming more reclusive, so we visited the international school and within days, he was enrolled.  George and I are both sad that the Spanish school didn’t work out as we had hoped for him but the international school has high standards, caring teachers, and the majority of students are still Spanish and the cost is a tiny fraction of what private school costs in the US.  Quinton’s mood quickly shifted and he seems more motivated around learning.  We are crossing our fingers!  Meanwhile, Hadley and Davis are having more and more positive experiences at their Spanish school, working hard at their studies and feeling more courageous to talk in Spanish to their peers and teachers which is a great relief.

On the sports side of life, Davis was recently invited to play on the more competitive soccer team.  This requires much bureaucracy to make him official, especially as an American, but the coaches are encouraging us to go through the process and Davis is quite excited.  Both Hadley and Davis’ basketball team was undefeated so they were recently presented with medals.  Unfortunately, only two other players were there to receive the medals, along with Hadley and Davis, and this occurred after playing two soccer games.  Cross training at its best!   In addition, the schools selected certain students to participate in an athletic event.  Both Hadley and Davis were selected from their school and Hadley finished first in both her individual running event as well as the girls’ relay event, running around the track in the local stadium.  Apparently, she is a runner!  Now if we can only get her to run some more.

We left the coast last weekend and headed for the snowy mountains where we skied for a day in the Sierra Nevadas.  The crowds were crazy but we managed to find and ski on the more remote parts of the mountain so we didn’t have to wait in lift lines.  The biggest difference was the absence of trees as we were at an elevation of about 11,000 feet.  We felt quite at home though, driving back in bumper to bumper traffic, as we have often experienced leaving Crystal Mountain in Washington State.

More and more of my time has been devoted to painting, I have found a fantastic yoga class and our international community here is slowly growing.  We have recently connected with folks from Sweden and Ireland in addition to more Brits and Spaniards.  We also had coffee recently with another couple from Seattle who is moving permanently to Almuñécar, reminding ourselves, once again, how it’s such a small world.  This perspective has helped shift my beliefs about community.  In the past, I have always thought that I needed to live near my closest friends and feared that if I moved away or spent time away, I would lose them or my surrounding community would have to substitute or match friendships from afar.  I now have much more trust in the reliability and sustainability of my community at large.  I feel just as devoted to and close to my Seattle and American friends, despite not seeing them in person or talking as often, and I feel more confident that my community is my community wherever I decide to live in the world.  And as the kids continue to miss their friends and family members back in the US, we are trying to instill the same confidence in them.

 

Parenting Abroad

We often hear about people “studying abroad” or “working abroad” and I think that “parenting abroad” deserves academic credit and a spot on someone’s resume just like the first two.  It definitely belongs in the category of life experiences that people choose to pursue for extreme personal challenge.

Those of us who are parents of adolescents are well aware of the challenges we face with our kids even in the comfort of our own home, culture and country.  Navigating their social environment and developing their personal identity become their primary goals in life.  They are no longer only seeking our approval, as their parents, but the approval of their peers as well.  Although the details of my memory are vague, I do remember the somatic experiences quite well; the discomforts of insecurity, the hormonal and emotional waves, the feelings of devastation when my self-esteem was shaken.

Living in Spain and adding a peer group that speaks a different language, wears different clothes, and holds different values has given my kids an additional social layer to navigate.  The differences between themselves and their Spanish peers create some confusion for them in their already challenging path of identity development.  They struggle on a daily basis with whether to try to be more like their Spanish peers or follow their own cultural instinct and sometimes, it does not feel worth the effort to try to understand a different language and learn new free time activities in order to try to fit in so they opt out and resort to spending time at home.   They have a natural desire to want to be noticed, to draw interest, be included and fit in and yet, at the same time, they do not want to draw too much attention or to stand out.  As Quinton mentioned recently, “it’s annoying when one minute I feel invisible and a complete outsider and the next, I feel like the center of attention and kids are high fiving me in the hall and calling me by name whom I have never seen or talked to before… there is no happy medium.”

This leads me to the parenting role; the role that requires parents to find the perfect balance (if there was one) between pushing our kids to step out of their comfort zones and supporting and comforting them.  George and I feel like we are on a constant learning curve for the following:  encouraging our children to keep in touch with American friends while not interfere with building new friendships here, challenging them to try new experiences without over-filling their schedule (as being less busy was one of our goals here), allowing them to keep up with technology trends, valued by their generation, while not allowing screen time to help them escape, supplementing school work to keep them caught up academically without over-emphasizing school work (as learning Spanish is our primary goal here), holding them accountable to school and sport commitments while also acknowledging some of the struggles with cultural differences that make it difficult to learn, and stretching them to engage more socially and actively in their free time while also giving them down time of their choosing after a 6 hour day of  being stretched linguistically and socially.  And knowing that each decision we make, to work towards this balance, will have an impact on their growing sense of identity.

In addition to finding this “perfect” balance, we are navigating an emotional roller coaster on a daily basis.  One day is “the best day ever!” and the very next “couldn’t be worse.”  There is always a new challenge to be explored be it the teachers’ style which is very different from the US or overhearing the Spanish kids talk about you when they don’t think you understand them.  George and I often have a pep talk with each other to prepare ourselves to absorb whatever energy might come through the door and to be fluid and flexible with their moods and needs.

No matter how much we insist on our kids stretching themselves more socially and interpersonally, we have to remember that it is always easier for us, as well, to spend time with expat, English-speaking friends or to relax in the comfort of our Spanish home.  It takes a thorough effort to put ourselves out there and start Spanish conversations with neighbors and acquaintances and trust that we are not going to burden them with our fumbling language skills or limited cultural knowledge.  We have also learned that one year is not long enough to achieve the level of comfort and confidence that we aspire to having here.  I now understand the many people who told us that after one year, we will just start to feel like we are adjusting.  I also am trying to trust, what others have said, that we will see and hear the impact of this experience on our kids and their sense of identity, not now and not when we first return to the US but in the years to come.