Returning to Spain–Day 6–Feeling at home

Many people who we’ve talked to say they could never do a house exchange–they can’t picture handing their keys over to someone else. For us, though, the arrangement has been great. Our year-long exchange four years ago went very smoothly. There were definitley a few hiccups getting used to a new apartment and car and a few things broke on both ends. For example, our dryer back in California broke halfway through the year and we had to replace it. On the Madrid end, a few things broke in the apartment and we had to fix them. Overall though, we both respected each others’ belongings and took good care of things.

Today I’m especially grateful for the exchange deal. If we hadn’t done this second exchange we probably would have had to stay in the city center since there are no hotels in this neighborhood. Although the center is more exciting and has a lot more charm, if we hadn’t stayed here we wouldn’t have been able to see our friends so easily. Today, for instance, we had lunch at a bar next to the old neighborhood school our kids attended. We went there because the bar is owned by the parents of one of kid’s friends. However, once we told a few other friends about our lunch plans, they decided to drop by too. It felt like a big party. Lunch is the big meal of the day so we people were relaxed and happy to spend a few hours with us. 

When we were here four years ago, the kids’ school was our social network. Since we weren’t working here, it was the place we made friends. It was intimidating at first. Imagine walking onto the playground of a school with 1,000 kids kindergarten through high school, everyone speaking another language. I was nervous about making conversation and interacting. Little by little we met people, however, and I realized I could make friends. People were very friendly and welcoming. Our kids were instant stars. Everyone wanted to meet the new Americans and practice their English. From day 1, they had no lack of attention–in fact maybe too much–but that’s another story.

Today we returned to the school and saw both the kids’ teachers and the principal. They all remembered us fondly and showered us with attention. Probably to this day we are the only Americans who’ve ever enrolled in the school, although there is one American teacher here. Our timing is great. School is ending tomorrow and our kids have been invited to the year-end party. The school looked quite festive today, with decorations in the main lobby for graduation, and everyone in a cheerful mood. 

I don’t want to give the impression that attending school in another country is easy. Both our kids, especially our older one, who had more demanding classes, struggled for the first few months. They only knew basic Spanish, so sitting in a class all day long (9 to 5) listening to Spanish was a challenge. There is a lot of focus on grades here and they use a 10-point system. After every exam kids would compare their scores. A 9 was a good score. Somehow, Miguel, our oldest, got caught up in the scoring, and felt pressure to get 9s and 10s and he was so frustrated being behind with the language. I met with every one of his teachers to come up with a plan that would work for him. For example, his science teacher let him write answers to his exam questions in English. He and I worked for hours every night the first few months and he hated the fact that his mom had to help him. Eventually though, by about December or January, he didn’t need my help anymore and was doing great. He finished the year with all 9s and 10s.

If seeing old friends and teachers weren’t enough for today, we also had a visit to the post office. That doesn’t sound too exciting, but when you have a box half the size of a refrigerator, you don’t know what will happen. As I mentioned in an earlier blog post, we bought two very cool chairs here four years ago but never managed to mail them home. In our short time here this trip, we managed to box them up and figure out that the Spanish postal service would be the cheapest option to mail them. As luck would have it, they both fit in one box stacked on top of each other and the box was only 4″ shy of the maximum size permitted for overseas mail. We carried the box into the office with some trepidation. Would the post office take this large box? Did we understand the size limits correctly? As it turned out, our dimensions were fine but they couldn’t get the box to fit on their countertop scale. For a moment it looked like we would have to go to another post office very far away with a bigger scale. Luckily one enterprising postal worker realized she could position the box a different way on the scale to make it fit. Viola!–our box fit and all was well! We filled out all the necessary forms and wrote “fragile” on each side. Just to be sure, we asked the postal worker if they had any stickers that said fragile. “Stickers with that word don’t exist,” she said to us in Spanish. At first we thought she meant that in Spanish there is another way of saying fragile. We asked her what she meant. It turned out she simply meant there are no fragile stickers–everything you mail is at your own risk! They take no responsibility, she explained. Sure, some workers will be careful and other’s won’t. We had to laugh. Yes, the post office is the same everywhere!

At the end of our busy day we had one more special meal with a young woman who tutored the kids while they were here. Aida was a fantastic tutor and made a big difference in our lives. We were lucky to find her. Our first attempt at finding a tutor went terribly. We went to a tutoring center next door to the school, thinking that would be convenient. The kids went once and had such a terrible experience that they refused to go back. Then, one of the teachers at the school suggested Aida. She had graduated from the school several years before and was now giving private Spanish lessons. The kids liked her from the first moment they met her and the school allowed her to use one of their rooms for tutoring. She primarily helped them with Spanish, since the school had no resources to do that. It was a great arrangement. 

Now as I write this it’s 2 am and the city is finally quiet. I still haven’t adjusted to the time here. But once I fall asleep, I sleep well. I feel at home–like I’ve never left. 

Returning to Spain–Day 5–Food adventures!

Spainards really know how to enjoy themselves. Today we went with friends to the famous Rastro flea market in the morning and then for lunch we went to not just one restaurant but three! Evidently each had something different to offer. It was a hot day and our first stop was to get some cold drinks on the terrace of a cafe. Peter and I order cervazas con limon, a mixture of beer and lemonade, which was very refreshing. Para picar (to taste), our group shared an order of sliced jamon and fried calamaris. While we were still finishing at that spot our friend Manu walked over to another cafe a few blocks away that serves tapas tipicas and secured us a spot in the cool air conditioned bar. We joined him and had more drinks and two plates of huevos estrelladas–fried eggs on top of potato chips, chorizo and gazpacho–quite a combination. Plus we had a salad of tuna and tomatoes. Finally we walked past the Royal Palace and found a cafe with a terrace overlooking the city. I had a horchata, a drink made with almonds, sugar and water. Miguel had the most interesting dessert, a lemon sorbet served inside of a scooped out lemon. The scooped out lemon was frozen and sat on top of a glass of hot water, the water helping to soften the sorbet inside. We were so tired from all our food we had to take a siesta, of course!

The Rastro was just as we remembered. It is a huge flea market spread out over many city blocks. You can find everything from new and old clothing to typewriters, LPs, comic books and just about anything else you can think of. It takes place every Sunday in an old neighborhood called La Latina. We learned four years ago that rastro means “trail.” In this case it was the trail of blood of butchered animals. Many years ago butchers worked in this neighbhorhood and blood would run down the main street. There aren’t any butchers these days but they’ve been replaced by pickpockets. We were told to be careful not to carry anything in our pockets and watch our purses. Unfortunately I have experience with this topic. Four years ago not far from this spot my wallet was taken from my purse by some stealthy ladron. I lost some cash, my California driver’s licence and all my credit cards. I made a report at the nearest police station and just in the short time while I was there five other people came in to report robberies! Then I had the hassle of having to cancel all my cards. I couldn’t get another driver’s license for a year, until I returned to California. Sadly, though the rate of street violence is pretty low here, this type of robbery happens all the time. Even today we saw a man running down the street yelling “ladron.”

Back at our apartment after our many lunch stops, we turned up the AC a bit and enjoyed a nice siesta. Somehow the hours flew by and it was already 9:30, time for a light snack, so we ventured out to the neighborhood bar that serves raciones, large platters of tapas. About a third of the raciones were things we recognized and like (such as ham and shrimp), a third were things we don’t like (like octopus and pig’s ears) and a third were things we didn’t reognize at all. Feeling a little brave, we ordered one racion we knew (patatas bravas–potatoes with red sauce) and one that we didn’t know but was suggested by the waiter–torreznos. It turned out that torreznos are basically pork rinds. They were terrible–chewy, super salty and fatty. Most of the plate went untouched. Sometimes you are lucky, sometimes not. 

Our Spanish is coming back poco a poco, little by little. Four years ago we reached a pretty good level of fluency by the end of the year. We have retained much of that but it’s still difficult to convey more complicated thoughts. I find myself often wanting to say certain things but pausing and choosing another topic because I don’t know how to express it. Fortunately all our friends here are very gracious and often finish sentences for us! I also find that words are only half of communication. How you say things and your actions and body language speak volumes. Thus, despite the language barrier we have a very sweet relationship with many people here. We can see they have been geniunely excited to see us again after four years. There is almost nothing quite as satisfying as rekindling friendships with people across the globe. You realize that people everyone are really very similar and that there is much more good in the world than watching the news might led you to believe. 

Returning to Spain–Day 4–La ley de Murphy, American stores and bulls

6/21–It’s 1:15 am and we’ve just said goodbye to friends Paloma and Manu after another late-night Spanish-style dinner. Tonight we went to our favorite restaurant here, which, ironically, isn’t even Spanish–they serve Italian food. Sadly though, four years later the staff has totally changed, including the manager we liked so much, Pablo, who was from Uruguay but had trained in restaurants around the world. The food is still good, but not the same outstandinng quality as before. Oh well, the experience will live on in our memories. 

We still didn’t make it to the city center today. Our time was spent running errands. First we went to the packaging store (it was open this time) and got a box for our two chairs. That was a pretty easy process. Next we had to go to the local shopping center to buy new clothes for Peter. His suitcase still hadn’t shown up after three days and he was getting pretty tired of wearing the same clothes. So we went to a store called Carrefour that is much like an American Target, with stylish, economical clothes, and we bought him a whole new wardrobe, plus a new suitcase. It’s funny but the first time I went to Carrefour four years ago I was so disappointed. It felt so American–big, modern, impersonal. In my mind Europe still operated only small family-run business in quaint little shops. Going to Carrefour felt like I could be shopping anywhere in the world. This time around, though, I knew what I was getting and was actually thankful for the convenience of a store that had all we needed in one place for a good price. It’s funny how your perspective changes. I also remember feeling disappointed four years ago on realizing that many people in Spain now shop at large grocery stores, much like our Safeways. I thought people here still went to a separate butcher, baker, fruit store, fish market, etc. While that can be the case for some people here, large America-style stores are everywhere. 

Back at home after our shopping excursion we finally got a call from the airlines. They had found Peter’s suitcase and would deliver it tomorrow! La ley de Murphy! Murphy’s law. (They really do say “La ley de Murphy” here!) Now Peter will have the most extensive wardrobe of any of us, thanks to a claim with Iberia Airlines. We’ll keep the new clothes but give the suitcase to a friend. When we told our friend about the suitcase it reminded Peter of our English expression, “Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth.” It turns out that the Spanish have the same expression: “A caballo regalado, no le mires el diente.” We never really understood where this saying came from but our friend explained that when you buy a horse you should look at its teeth to determine if it’s healthy or not. Thus, when you are receiving a gift, you shouldn’t look too closely and should just be grateful for whatever you get.

We invited our friends back to our house for some American chocolate chip cookies, which they loved, and we picked up Miguel, who had gone out with his friends. It turned out they had gone to the local “Burger” (Burger King) to hang out. Many friends from his old class came by to say hello. Some he remembered; others not. Four years is a long time in the life of a young person. 

One thing that hasn’t changed here is the summer bullfights on TV. We flipped on the TV today and were mesmerized (for a while, until it got bloody) by a bullfight. Despite the violence, there is a certain grace to the way the matador swings his colorful cape and dances around the bull. At one point the matador was tossed up into the air and crashed to the ground. He got up right away and continued pursuing the bull. It’s true that bullfighting is controversial here in Spain and has even been prohibited in Barcelona. However, there are still many afficionados. The most famous event, the San Fermines running of the bulls in Pamplona, will be taking place during our last days here in Spain and we are thinking about going. Our friend Joaquin, who owns the house where we are staying, said this would be a big mistake. It’s crowded, people are drunk, many are sleeping and peeing in the streets, etc. It’s much better to watch on TV, he said. Probably for us it would be like someone going to Times Square for New Year’s Eve. It’s crowded and uncomfortable. Why not watch it on TV? Still, there’s a certain thrill in being part of these national events. At the very least, it makes for a good story. How many people can say they’ve been to the San Fermines? Vamos a ver…we have a few weeks to decide for sure.  

Return to Spain–Day 3–mucho papeleo!

6/20-If there’s one thing I learned from my year in Spain it’s not to expect to accomplish too much in any one day. This was a hard lesson to learn as an American; it’s in my blood to expect things to work smoothly and quickly. Here, though, relationships are valued more than getting things done. Thus, many businesses close for the siesta, meals are longer and more leisurely, and day-to-day tasks take a little longer. 

Our family learned this lesson soon after we came as we tried to obtain our one-year residence cards. In order to live in Spain legally for more than three months, we were required to obtain residence cards. In the months leading up to our departure we filled out countless forms, got notarized copies of birth and marriage certificates, and got proof of our bank accounts and jobs. This all culminated in an official interview with the Spanish embassy in San Francisco. We did so much paperwork in California that we thought that once we arrived in Spain it would be a simple matter of visiting a government office in Madrid and completing the process. If it were only that simple. As it turned out we had to visit seven separate offices around Madrid in order to receive our cards. We arrived in July and finally got the cards in October! As they say here, there is much papeleo (paperwork). Throughout our year we had more experiences like this when we went to the post office, tried to pay a traffic fine or attempted to upgrade our internet service.

I kept all this in mind today as we planned our day. We put only one item on the agenda: find a way to ship two chairs we purchased four years ago back to the U.S. The chairs are simple wooden cafe-style chairs covered with maps of Spain. They are unique momentos of our time here. Four years ago we ran out of time to figure out how to ship them but this time we decided make the effort. One difference that helps us now is the growth of the internet. There is more information online. In the morning we were able to surf several web sites to research the costs of sending things to the U.S. and we discovered that FedEx and other international companies charged a premium, several hundered dollars for packages our size. It would cost as much to ship the chairs as we spent to buy them. We decided to go to the local post office and ask there. Maybe shipping them by slow boat would be cheaper. Of course, first we had to get to the post office. That sounds like a simple task but when you are in a big city and the roads are like a maze, some one-way, some dead-end, it’s a challenge even to find the local post office. Luckily we had walked there several times four years ago. This time we took the car and after a few attempts winding through the narrow streets, we made it there. We discovered, as expected, that the post office was a lot cheaper (and slower) than FedEx, and fortunately our chairs were under the maximum weight limit of 20 kilos. Next on the agenda was to find a big box in which to ship the chairs. Peter had found a packaging store not far from our house and we found it without much difficulty, thanks to the GPS in our car. The only problem was that the store was all boarded up. We called their number and got good news–the company still existed–the problem was that they had moved locations to a few miles away and they were closed for another hour due to the siesta. We could wait for an hour or just come back tomorrow. We decided to come back tomorrow–but I wasn’t disappointed. I felt like we had accomplished a lot for the day. 

By this time it was 5 o’clock, the ideal time to pass by our kids’ old school and look for old friends. School here begins at 9, breaks for two hours for lunch, and then continues until 5. We got lucky and found one of the teachers, Vanessa, exiting the school at 5. She was so surprised and excited to see us! We agreed to come back Monday with the kids. Next door to the school is a bar/cafe which is owned by the parents of one of our son’s friends, Pedro. We strolled over to the bar and found Pedro there, helping his parents at the bar, just like he was doing four years ago. He was also pleasantly surprised to see us and asked us to come back Monday with the boys.  

Our day ended with a typical Spanish dinner that started at 10:30 and ended at 12:30. Our exchange family brought wonderful Rioja wine, a special rosemary cheese, high-quality jamon serrano and a roscon, a bread and cheese sandwich that you heat in the oven. We supplied tortilla chips and guacamole, olives and salad. We ate on their large terrace overlooking the city. Even at 12:30 it was still pleasant enough to sit outside, something that would never happen in our foggy climate of San Francisco. Since it was Friday, people were still playing in the park below us when we packed up our dishes and headed inside. 

It’s strange to me that after two days we still haven’t made it to the old city center of Madrid. This is the only area that most Americans ever see. There are so many beautiful things there–the Parque Retiro, the Prado museum, the Plaza Mayor…I’m eager to visit the sights again but friends are definitely the priority on this return trip. 

Returning to Spain–Day 2–Los amigos!

6/18–Our first full day in Espana! Our sleep schedules are definitely mixed up. After our full day of travel, Thomas went to bed last night at 6 pm and woke up at 5 am. The rest of us were too excited to sleep so we didn’t get to bed until past 1 am and got up at 1 pm! I can’t remember the last time I slept so much. I woke up refreshed and ready to experience Madrid.

The big highlight today was seeing old friends. We had lunch with our friends Paloma and Manu and their three kids. We were supposed to meet at 1 but due to our sleep we didn’t meet them until 3. For them, that is only a slightly late lunch. Lunch here doesn’t begin until 1 at the earliest and is usually the biggest meal of the day. We all had the menu del dia, which consists of a primer (first) plate, a segundo (second) and a postre (dessert). I had a delicious risotto, chicken and watermelon for dessert. And of course we all had a Spanish beer. 

Paloma and Manu are just the same. So warm and friendly. I was impressed by their focus. Unlike many Americans I know (including me), they never checked their phones or their schedules but were fully immersed in our conversation. We talked about many things. It seems the economy here is still bad. The unemployment rate is nearly 25 percent. Many families at the private school (where we both had kids enrolled and where we met them) have had to pull their kids out of the school and send them to the public school. Manu and Paloma’s computer software business, which was slowing down four years ago, has not yet picked up. Maybe as a sign of the times, a new mayor was elected in Madrid just last week, and she is on the edge of being a communist.

After a 2-plus hour lunch, we strolled up the street to visit another family who we met through our kids four years ago. They also have three kids. In both cases the kids looked so different but the parents look just the same. We are still jovenes (young), we joked. Although it was 5 in the afternoon the parents were already home from work. Their workday is something Americans would envy. It starts early–at 8 am–but ends by 3. But Javier and Angeles are both government workers; not everyone enjoys this kind of schedule.    

As we both have kids nearing or in college, we talked a lot about the costs of college. The costs here are amazingly low. If you attend a public university in your “zone,” it is free. (I think we understood this correctly.) If you attend another public university outside your zone it is about $2,000 a year. The most exclusive private schools are at the most $20,000 a year. We couldn’t help but be jealous as we anticipate sending our son to college in a year at double or triple the cost. Another difference is that most college students here continue to live with their family until after college is over. So their 20-year-old daughter is still living at home.

After a nice visit, we went home to rest for a while and then joined Javier and Angeles and their kids for dinner at 9:30. Summertime dinners are bit magical here as it’s still quite light out at 9 or 10 and it’s always warm enough to sit outside. We ate on the terrace of the local pizzeria and ordered a pizza Spanish-style–with chorizo. Both here and at the lunch place our hosts knew plenty of people passing by. Although we are in a big city, this little neighborhood is like a small town. It’s not fancy and lacks the charm of the old parts of the city (everything here was built in the ’50s and ’60s as the city expanded), but the people are quite down-to-earth and gregarious.

Yesterday we discovered a great surprise–the chairs we bought at the famous Rastro flea market are still in our apartment! The chairs are simple wooden cafe-style chairs covered with colorful maps of Spain and then coated with shellac. We never got organized enough before to figure out a way to ship our chairs back home so we left them in the apartment. Fortunately our exchange family kept them and now we can make an attempt to find out a way to get them home.

Probably one of the biggest changes we’ve noticed from four years ago has to do with technology. At that time people were just starting to use smartphones. Now they are ubiquitous. Here in España, companies charge for texts so everyone uses an app called whatsapp to send texts. In general the same kinds of things are popular here as in the U.S., Facebook and Twitter for adults and Snapchat and Instagram for kids.

Tomorrow our only agenda is sending the chairs, a process that may be quite involved here. Our luck may be that we arrive at the shipping company during siesta time. We may also see some teachers at our kids’ old school and then have dinner with our exchange family. They promise to bring good wine–cheers to la vida española!

Returning to Spain–4 years later

It’s not often in life you get to go backwards and relive a certain moment in time. Usually when you are done with one phase, like living in a certain apartment or house, you are done and move on and never return. This week marks a special week for our family because we do get to relive (at least partially) an experience we had four years ago. Today we returned to the house in Madrid where we did a house exchange with another family. They have moved out of their house for a week so we can stay in it. We’ll do the same for them when they come to California later this summer. Needless to say, being back in the same place four years later is a bit surreal.

We knew we were really heading back to Spain before we even arrived. The Iberian ticket counter at LAX had about 10 people staffing it but only one actually checking in passengers. Typical Spanish efficiency. After a lengthy wait, we were off to our 9-hour flight. The flight was uneventful except that when we arrived we discovered one of our bags hadn’t made it. More efficiency at work! We happened to run into another Berkeley family we know on the flight and they also lost luggage. We’ll be lucky to get it tomorrow between siesta time and closing time.

On the plus side, the Spanish are extremely hospitable and just like before, our exchange family graciously picked us up from the airport in their large SUV. Driving from Barajas Airport to the house, on the other side of the city, we saw things looked very much the same. We circled the M-40 highway and saw the dry brown fields, like California, on one side, and the industrial buildings lining the edge of the city on the other. We passed Playa de Madrid, a large public swimming pool where we spent some time four years ago to get relief from the intense summer heat. We also noted that the city had finally finished a public park in front of our old building and had somehow managed to evict the squatters who had erected temporary houses there. The neighborhood is a nice middle-class area on the city Metro line with lots of parks, restaurants and stores so the squatters definitely did not fit in. What is still around is the graffiti, lots of it. But this seems to be standard in large European cities. 

Back in our old building our exchange family gave us a quick tour and explanation of the myriad keys, applicances and car. When we arrived four years ago we were completely overwhelmed by the systems of the house. At the time the family had just completed a remodel of their apartment and every appliance was a sleek European high-tech model with many buttons (such as a touchscreen-controlled stove), plus there was a security system (which we don’t have), a system for entering and exiting the garage (we just park in our driveway), and a radiant heating/cooling system controlled via a touchpad (we don’t even have an air conditioner in California). We spent about 45 minutes learning the ins and outs of the house. This time the lessons were quicker and hopefully everything will come back. I successfully turned on the stovetop the first time today whereas last time I had to practice for about a week! Last time we also learned that Spanish construction isn’t that great. Just in the first few months of our stay the heater went out, the upstairs shower leaked and some tiles cracked. By the end of our year we just laughed when something went wrong. It seemed apropos today when an overhead pipe in the garage suddenly started spurting water right over their car. Who knows what kind of water was in that pipe. In any case, our exchange family said “no pasa nada,” they know the building superintendent personally so it will get fixed. 

The most important item we were looking for on our arrival was the jamon serrano. Many Spanish families buy a whole leg of jamon and slowly carve off thin pieces nightly for small tapas. We went through two whole legs while we were here for the year and it’s a delicacy that is only available in the U.S. for a very steep price ($1,000 or more), so we were eager for our fix. Fortunately our exchange family anticipated our desires and had a jamon leg waiting for us!

After getting settled in at the apartment, the exchange family left to go to their family’s apartment and although it was only 6:30 our boys promptly fell asleep. It had been a long day with little sleep. Peter and I decided to venture out and take a stroll around the neighbhorhood. Much to our surprise given the economic crisis here, we spotted three new stores, a gorgeous meat market (lined with jamon legs), a fresh fish market, and a stationary store. Sadly, one favorite restaurant had closed. Lots of Spanish families were strolling around and many were enjoying cañas (beers) and tapas at sidewalk cafes. This is one of my favorite parts of Madrid–the street life. My hypothesis is that people socialize more in bars and cafes because they live in small apartments and want to get out. Or perhaps it’s because the weather is warm, even at night (so unlike Berkeley). Whatever the case, there’s always a lively street scene in the evenings, with all ages, from toddlers to teens to grandparents enjoying life together. Peter and I enjoyed some of our favorites tapas, patatas bravas (fried potatoes with a tomato sauce) and croquetas (little fried footballs filled with cheese) as we watched a toddler learning to walk and a variety of dogs come and go. 

As the day ends, I listen to the quiet hum of the apartment building–the sound of the elevator going up and down, a TV in a distant apartment, and the neighbor’s cuckoo clock. Although it’s after 12 there is much life still going on here. We are really back in España!