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.