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–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!

A home of one’s own

Two years ago I embarked on a year-long house exchange with a total stranger halfway around the world—well, almost a total stranger. We met online through a house exchange web site in December of 2009, set up a Skype call to talk live the next week, and then I flew out to Madrid in March 2010 for a few days to see the apartment. The apartment was impressive. It had been recently renovated and was updated with the latest in European style…all sleek surfaces, lots of glass, stainless steel appliances and modern paint treatments on the walls. On top of that the second floor had a wrap-around patio with a view of downtown Madrid. It seemed like a good trade for our traditional Berkeley bungalow.

Living in someone else’s house took some time to get used to. The first week I felt like I was a guest intruding on someone’s private space….sleeping in their bed, using their fancy bathroom, and attempting to cook with their ultramodern European appliances–with little success. By the second week, though, I had settled in quite well and very soon became comfortable with the surroundings. I worked up the nerve to examine the book collection, pulling out a few to read, the CD collection and take a peek at the liquor cabinet. I noticed a stack of family photos on an upstairs shelf but I never cracked those open the whole year. That felt too intrusive. They (and we) had put away our personal photos along with our clothes and a few other valuables.

After my initial settling in, the smallest of things became my focus, much to my surprise. It wasn’t the style of the house, so different from mine, that drew my attention—in fact that was a thrill. It was that fact that there were no wastebaskets in any of the bathrooms. How do you live with that? They did have a maid that came every day, but still, where do you put garbage for even a few hours. And in the kids’ bedrooms there were no bedside reading lights. This was a necessity. Granted, their kids were younger than ours, but our kids have the habit of reading before going to sleep. Their whole nighttime ritual would be thrown off. Other small things bothered me. Where were the small knickknacks that one buys on vacation and places on a kitchen window sill? I knew they hadn’t put these away in storage because I hadn’t seen them when I visited the first time. And the kitchen was sorely lacking in many ways. Despite the high-tech touchscreen stove that beeped and lit up (and which took us no less than two weeks to understand), there was no measuring cup or measuring spoons. How can you cook without these things? I later learned that for one thing, Spainards don’t bake at home and for another thing they cook much more by feel. So I guess that explained that.

Needless to say, I became very familiar with the local ferreteria (hardware store) across the street. I bought tiny trash cans for the bathrooms, bedside reading lamps for the kids, measuring spoons and cups and a few other kitchen necessities. Unfortunately the ferreterria was always closed for the siesta so I became quite adept at visiting the store before 1 and after 4.

Knicknacks were a problem easily solved. Since we traveled much during the year, we amassed a large collection of small souvenirs and placed them on bookshelves and windowsills. I especially liked a particular long postcard of a medieval townscape and strung that along the living room shelf. Above all, those things, which cost next to nothing, made me feel at home.

My biggest addition to the house during the year was a Picasso poster I bought in Barcelona. It is a painting of a window looking out at the sea. I put that poster up in the stylish kitchen nook and it comforted me. You see, Madrid is landlocked. We had a wonderful view from the apartment of the downtown area, including the Royal Palace. But there was no sea, the only water in the city a pathetic little river that trickles around the old town. I missed the sea, the large expanse of water, the wind and the fog. I’ve only lived in three places other than Madrid in my life and they all were next to water. Some days walking around Madrid I felt like I was trapped in a gargantuan metropolis dry and cracking from lack of water. So my Picasso picture comforted me. I could look at it every time I ate my American cereal for breakfast or tried some new Spanish confection in my superfashionable kitchen.

At the end of the year it was time to pack up all our belongings we had accumulated. Ridiculously, I packed every trinket, every brochure from every excursion and even the small plastic toys the children had purchased. I knew I would throw much of it away but it seemed like a big part of me by then. The house looked sterile again once our bags were packed. I did leave the trash cans and reading lights of course. I wonder if they kept those things. As far as the measuring spoons I gave those plus my collection of Betty Crocker baking mixes to a friend who likes American baking.

When I arrived back at my Berkeley house I was initially surprised to see how cluttered it looked. I wondered how our house exchange family had lived with my knickknacks. I actually disliked the look of it and wondered if I should streamline things. I went to an open house one Sunday not long after returning and feel in love with the house– a brand new modern place free of clutter and with sleek, modern countertops and furniture. For a time I thought maybe I should change my style. Maybe I had grown to like the pared-down style afterall. I made a few changes to my own house. I rummaged around and threw a lot away, especially the junkier souvenirs from the trip. My family is still a little upset about some of the stuff I got rid of.

Now, another year later, my house looks pretty much the same as when I left for Spain. I have my knickknacks and I’ve even added more stuff, like an old pew I found at a rummage sale. I like to sit in the pew and watch neighbors walking by. I can’t see the sea from my house but I feel the fog rolling in and I know that I’m home.