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.

 

 

 

Holiday Travels Part II

As I sit down to write this post inside our home on a sunny Saturday morning, I am in a turtleneck, sweater, down jacket and scarf with a portable heater blowing directly on me.  Winter here has proven to be just as cold inside as outside since the Spanish homes do not have heat and are not built for cold (and  becoming less comfortable with climate change).  I am appreciating more than ever before how not having the relief of a warm, comfortable home in the winter time impacts our well-being.  It also gives me pause to think that so many people in the world live this way winter after winter.

Backpacking through northern Italy, in the cold over the holidays, was challenging but we did have heated Airbnb apartments in which to rest and relax.  What a concept, staying in different “homes,” as if they were our own,  rather than in hotels (which don’t accommodate families of five very well).  It makes all the difference for us and it’s fun to try on different home designs.

Italy’s reputation for amazing cuisine held up well with us.  You know a country has good food when you eat your first meal in a train station and exclaim “this is the best pizza ever!”  Well, this was where our journey began and ended; in the chain restaurant of Rossopomodoro in the Milan train station (we didn’t realize it was a chain until we ate New Year’s Eve dinner at the Rossopomodoro in Venice and then excitedly returned to the same place in the Milan train station on the way home).

After some nourishment in Milan, we jumped on a train and headed to Lucca on the northwest coast of Italy where we spent 6 nights and enjoyed Christmas.  Lucca is a charming old town surrounded by a big stone wall (which took 100 years to build) upon which you can recreate.  Inside the walls are winding, mostly-pedestrian streets, and 100 churches are scattered throughout.  I had pasta that melted in my mouth, the kids became addicted to spaghetti bolognese and George was in his element of endlessly exploring.  Our highlights were climbing church steeples (one with trees on top), riding a 5 person bicycle around the wall, and our half day trip to see the leaning tower of Pisa.  The tower was pretty awesome but even better was waiting for the train to return to Lucca when an Italian girl, also waiting, turned to George and asked his permission to give Quinton a kiss.  While Quinton sat on a bench looking down at his phone, barely aware of what was happening, George shrugged his shoulders and said, “sure!” and with that Quinton got a big smooch on his cheek leaving some bright red lipstick to show for it that matched the color of his face.

Following Lucca, we spent 2 nights in Florence.  Due to the shortness of our stay, we mostly strolled the city to admire the famous Ponte Vecchio bridge, the Duomo, and replicas of famous statues of naked men.  In fact, we decided that Italy is full of penises.  Between the statues, penis pasta for sale in all the stores and the name of our wifi network in Venice, we felt surrounded.  Ok, a slight tangent.  In Florence, we stayed in an apartment situated on the Piazza Santa Croce where Michelangelo and Danté are buried inside the Basilica.  We also took a cooking class and learned how to make pizza and gelato, which was great fun!

From Florence, we spent a fun 4 nights in Venice including New Years Eve.  Highlights include our family gondola ride, our island tour of Murano (glass blowing), Burano (colorful homes), and Torcello (oldest of the Venetian islands dating back to the 5th century), eating pizza covered with octopus, clams, mussels, and shrimp, and watching fireworks on New Years Eve on the waterfront by Piazza San Marco.  Finally, when George and I had a free moment on our own, we treated ourselves to a visit to Caffè Florian, the oldest cafe in the world.

Our final excursion took us up into the mountains for two days of skiing above the town of Brixon and with a spectacular view of the Dolomites.  Much to our surprise, we found ourselves in German country.  This part of Italy used to be part of Austria but after Italy won the war, the Italians claimed the land.  So it is Italy but inhabited by friendly Germans everywhere.  We managed to stay warm just enough to enjoy our skiing and eat lots of strudel (apple and vegetable) and yes, more spaghetti bolognese.  Davis found his “Hot Love” (vanilla ice cream with hot raspberry sauce) which he ordered frequently during our stay.

Now that we are back in Almuñécar, we are appreciating familiar surroundings, trying to remember to say gracias instead of grazie and working off our Italian bellies.

 

Holiday Travels Part I

Feliz año nueva!  As we start off the New Year here in Spain, we are hoping all our family members, friends and colleagues have enjoyed a pleasant and stress-free holiday season.  We LOVED receiving holiday cards from some of you!  Just as I had anticipated, I turned my back for a second and it was suddenly 2019 and Hadley is quick to remind us that we are almost half way through our year abroad.  The passage of time continues to amaze me and Eckhart Tolle is currently teaching me in his book, The Power of Now, to remove time from my mind in order to be fully present.  Now, that’s a challenge!

December was a busy month for the Brew Crew.  We started off with a trip to Barcelona to visit friends and see the sites via one night in Malaga to see the famous Christmas lights.  Our friends in Barcelona were fabulous tour guides as we visited La Sagrada Familia (the amazing cathedral designed by Gaudi and always reminded me of a sand drip castle), joined a guided tour of the old town, took a stroll along the beach, and learned how to make paella from a Spanish woman in her apartment.  Looking forward to a cultural experience, we showed up to her class of 12 people, all of whom were Americans.

Probably the most interesting aspect of Barcelona for us was learning about the Catalonian history, language and culture and their fight for independence from the rest of Spain.  Oh, and the fact that the Christmas markets were loaded with booths selling little figurines of famous people squatting with their pants down and pooping (including Theresa May and Donald Trump).  Apparently, the Catalans place one of these “poopers” in their nativity scenes at Christmas time to represent their appreciation for good soil to grow their crops.

We then returned to Almuñécar for the final two weeks of school before winter break.  On the last day of school, we threw on our backpacks and flew to Milan, the first stop on our two week tour of northern Italy and the beginning of a family holiday adventure (stand by for Holiday Travels Part II).

Bicultural?

It is December 1st and George and I are soaking in the Spanish life sitting at a cafe by the beach, listening to Barbara Streisand and Olivia Newton John in the background.  The passage of time continues to mystify me with Christmas and our four month marker right around the corner.  The task of remaining present feels more challenging as we are constantly reminded of the amount of time we have left here.

Following my mother and uncle’s visit, we celebrated Thanksgiving over paella at a nearby favorite spot and expressed our gratitudes.  I was surprised to hear the kids take the conversation more seriously than usual and make an effort to really reflect on what they notice and appreciate (including not having abusive parents).  Days later, my aunt and her friend came through town for three days to learn about where we are and what we are up to.  We made a repeat visit to Fragiliana but this time explored more deeply into the narrow streets of the pueblo blanco (white village) and had one of the best meals yet in Spain (Mediterranean food with an Indian twist).

The kids have all had their first basketball game.  We bussed over to La Herradura for Quinton’s game where his coed team (including one girl) played an all girls team.  Later in the week, we bussed in the opposite direction to Salobreña to watch a jamboree of sorts in which Hadley and Davis’ team played two basketball games and a soccer game.  We were the only parents to make the trip and we watched eagerly while enjoying the sunset over the Salobreña castle and the snow capped Sierra Nevada mountains with palm trees in the foreground.  Kids’ local sports teams are less competitive and the coaching is a bit elementary so while it can be frustrating at times, we are trying to embrace having a break from the more intensely competitive sports scene in America.

Our Spanish is slowly progressing and we are now in class with several northern Europeans.  The kids have also shown more development.  When I woke up Hadley the other morning to ask her a question, she suddenly bolted up, half asleep, and said “por qué,  por qué?” (why? why?).  To add to my schooling here, I have dived into painting classes and am having a blast experimenting with watercolors and a bit of oils, appreciating the ability to access my creativity for a change.  Annabel Keatley, a British woman who moved here 24 years ago, has been my inspiration and instructor (http://www.annabelkeatley.com).

We are also getting quite an education from our British friends on different uses of the English language.  Turns out, our languages differ more than we thought and we are often interrupting each other to clarify the meaning of certain words or phrases almost as much as when trying to converse in Spanish.  Learning phrases like “it drives me potty” (crazy), “bits and bobs” (this and that), and “higgledy piggledy” (all over the place), feels like we are studying two foreign languages at once.  In return, we have taught them the meaning of “hell in a handbasket” and a “buoy.”  We’ve also learned some interesting remedies such as sticking a garlic clove in the ear for treating an ear infection (George had a mild one).  We were cautioned not to stick it in too far which lead to lots of laughter about creative ways to get it out (like sticking a banana in the other ear and pushing it through), and what do ya’ know, George had to recruit me to dislodge the thing with tweezers.

Whether its learning about British phrases or Spanish grammar, adjusting to new meal times or being quietly cooped up in the afternoons for siesta, it’s an interesting balance between integrating into another culture and maintaining our own.  How much does one need to change how they live and behave in order to gain enough understanding about another culture?  Are we supposed to be fluent in Spanish by the end of our stay, eat dinner at 10pm every night and strive to be off schedule to consider this experience a success?  Is it ok if we watch some American movies, meet up with friends at McDonalds (the main hangout in town for kids ages 10-18) and cook the kids’ favorite mac n’ cheese every now and then?  Adjusting to change is hard work but at times, I have felt like we are not doing enough to “be Spanish” and the desire to deny my American identity has been strong, but is that really the goal?  We are American, afterall (whether we like it or not right now).  Perhaps it is alright to still be ourselves while appreciating and trying on various Spanish ways.

Even if we don’t become fluent or completely adopt a Spanish lifestyle, I know that our own cultural identity is becoming more clear, which is another benefit to this experience.  Our values of education and productivity contribute to who we are as well as our materialism and sexual hypervigilance.   The Spanish take “family time” to a new level by prioritizing it and slowing down enough to enjoy it.  This creates tension with our more familiar American value of fierce independence and our rapid fire pace of living.  We continue to wrestle with and explore these cultural paradoxes every day as we navigate through our understanding of who and where we are.

 

 

Starting to Feel More Like Home

I am happy to report that our wifi is fixed and much improved, George and I are slowly but surely recovering from some nasty head colds, and we have our first visitors from the United States!  My mother, uncle, and cousin have made the trip.  They met us in Madrid, where we spent the long weekend, and now they are here with us in Almuñécar.

We traveled to Madrid by train from Malaga and had some time to spare in Malaga before departing.  What started out as a fun exploration of old town Malaga turned into a stressful morning of comforting and supporting Quinton after he realized he left his camera bag (with three different camera gadgets) on the city bus.  He practically collapsed on the street when it occurred to him and Davis burst into tears of empathy.  I was sure we would never get it back.  Hadley immediately went into crisis management mode and came up with the idea of looking at our bus ticket to identify the bus number.  And as Quinton tried to get a hold of himself, we turned a corner and found a bus information booth.  Within an hour, the same bus driver handed Quinton the camera bag and we were all breathing again.  Nothing like a giant leap in blood pressure to create a moment of family bonding.

The two hour train ride to Madrid was rapido and passed endless rolling hills of olive trees, looking more like a forested region than intentional orchards.  George was a master at guiding us through the streets of Madrid in sunny, clear but chilly weather. We toured the city on a double decker bus, visited the royal palace, strolled through Madrid’s own version of Central Park and learned much about the food culture of this huge city.  An enchanting book about Spanish food and culture, Grape Olive Pig, by Matt Goulding provided me with inspiration and intrigue during our visit.  One example is a well known market, Mercado de San Miguel, which is filled with booths of exquisite food choices, many tapas-like, and with very little elbow room.  But instead of everyone carrying their shopping bags, they were all walking around with a glass of red wine.  Hadley and I enjoyed little sliders of fresh mozzarella, smoked salmon, arugula, tomato and balsamic while Davis and my cousin shared some paella, including black paella made with squid ink, and George chose to try Madrid’s infamous fried calamari bocadillo (sandwich).   Hadley was on a macaron cookie hunt all weekend and we had to hit the Chocolateria San Ginés, a critical stop for chocolate lovers.  And of course, there are meat stores everywhere!  One of the most fascinating tidbits of knowledge that I gained is how pigs are fattened up in their final months with nothing but acorns!

As exciting as Madrid is, we were all happy to return to our little Almuñécar on the coast and have never felt more reassured of our choice of location to live.  The kids now go everywhere on their own and they know almost every narrow path through the maze of old town.  Since we have returned, however, I have taken our guests to Granada for a day and yesterday, we drove up towards the mountains to a charming little town called Frigiliana where we had lunch and enjoyed a beautiful view of the valley with the sea beyond.

I am also glad to report there is a noticeable shift in the kids’ adjustments.  Davis had his first fútbol match and gave us plenty of opportunities to cheer with pride.  Hadley braved school and a field trip on her own while Davis stayed home sick (yes, that’s a big deal) and Quinton is more often returning from school now glowing with pride from the Spanish conversations he is able to have more and more with friends and teachers.  I’m now the one asking the kids for help in translating Spanish words-a good sign.

Familiarity is now a part of our lives here and reflecting on the process that got us to this point is always interesting to me.  Going from overwhelming unfamiliarity and endless unknowns to feeling oriented with some predictability and even a routine is a gradual process involving brain connectivity and emotional trust and patience but it is inevitable with time.  The more we can experience this process, the more resilient we become in a world of constant change and adjustments.

 

 

 

Hadley’s Thoughts from the Battlefield: Being on Both Sides

I thought about this blog during school while I was sitting in my chair listening to the teacher go on and on about something in Spanish that I did not understand. I was thinking, “this is called the Brew Crew Abroad travel blog but my mom is the only one posting on it. That does not sound right.” Then as we were walking home from school I thought, “I should post about my thoughts and how I am doing!” It took me a couple of weeks to figure out what I should talk about. But then I was texting my friend and we were talking about what I miss the most and casual things like that. Suddenly I just could not stop typing and texting about what I really missed and thought and I realized I have a lot to say!

Sometimes I think about the past in Seattle and I think about going to a restaurant and ordering food…so…so…easily. And then I think about the life I’m currently living and I’m like “did I really have a life so easy, and I did not even notice?” Here I have become more  quiet due to not being able to understand or talk much. Here I’m a shy girl trying to fit in and make friends.  It’s harder.

Another thing I realized is that everyone in Spain wears English brands of clothing and shoes and they talk about Justin Bieber. Everyone has been taking English since preschool. When I told them I was from the United States, they erupted with WOW’S and OMG! Everyone wanted to get to know me. But to be honest the second thing they asked me was “have you ever met Donald Trump?” I was suddenly like… Okay, this is how it’s gonna be.

In America, fewer people wear Spanish brands or talk about Spain or Spanish song artists. My mom said that’s because America is one of the most powerful, and biggest countries in the world.  It makes it sound like America is the best option, but to be honest I don’t know if that’s true. Every country has something to offer. In fact some people have some negative opinions about America. Maybe that’s why the mopeds get louder here when they zoom by us.

In the end, you can’t understand how different life can be until you have experienced it differently. It feels like being on the other side of a battlefield.

-Hadley

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