Valentines ♡ An Antidote 

 

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Anoushka and I link hands to form a 💜

Valentines Day is nearly upon us. How does that make you feel… excited, indifferent, desperate, desperate to be indifferent?

I received my first Valentine’s card from a boy when I was fourteen. I met him when I was home for the weekend from boarding school and he was visiting us with his family. For some reason we had to go to the local shops together. I remember him being quite excitable about being with me, which as a slightly mean 14 year old, I found slightly vile. In his sweaty excitement, he took a lunge and tried to kiss me! Heaven forbid! Yuck! I managed to duck just in time behind a red letter box (the days of snail mail!) He must have found my indifference alluring as unfortunately on Valentine’s Day he sent me a card. I was sharing a dormitory with about six girls in an old fashioned, creaky, cranky English boarding school set in large, spooky grounds. I’m not sure why I refer to it as a school as it was more akin to a prison. We were watched over by unloving, brittle old matrons with enormous pointed bosoms who marched up and down the corridors to check we were in bed on time and not disobeying the many rules laid down for us. Above and beyond the formidable military atmosphere, it was the relentless tedium that I un-fondly remember.

The “Day Girls”- those lucky girls who actually lived at home – raced off at the end of each school day to their families, decent meals, hugs and comfy beds whilst us boarders stayed at school. It was in this heady atmosphere of teenage hormones and blistering boredom that I opened the aforementioned card. He had written his words of admiration on lilac paper and I do believe he must have poured a whole bottle of perfume on it.  I was horrified! I could hear my friends snigger but could also sense their watchful longing. When would they get one they wondered? I on the other hand hoped I would never get one again! Romance – Pah!

“I once had a rose named after me and I was very flattered. But I was not pleased to read the description.. no good in a bed, but fine up against a wall” Eleanor Roosevelt

As boarders in an all girls’ school, sightings of the opposite sex were rare and enough to get our hearts fluttering. The thought of romance and boyfriends started to permeate the hormone drenched atmosphere – nearly everyone wanted one or at least pretended they did.  By this time I had taken to secretly reading books by the notorious writer Harold Robbins (look him up! 70s filth!) and was being informed by the pill popping, sex addicted, drug and drink fuelled fantasy lives of his shady heroes and wild heroines (so much more raucous and exciting than Fifty Shades of Bore!) I have no idea how I came across those books in the sterile atmosphere of school or how I managed to hide them from “matron” but I must have been quite wily.

With all those lurid and decadent images racing through my mind, my very funny friend Jo and I decided to write a novel. We spent a whole month fighting over the first page, both determined to make our mark on it and equally determined to include some “naughty” scenes of our own- what were we thinking? We had absolutely no idea- we were just two completely naieve 14 year olds with only heresay to go on and our imagination as fuel! We finally gave up our burning desire to be literary heroines but not without the thought of romance brewing in our hearts.

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“The first man to compare the cheeks of a young woman to a rose was obviously a poet; the first to repeat it was possibly an idiot” Salvador Dali
My poor maths teacher took the brunt of this. He was one of only two men who taught at the school (brave, brave man!). I remember with shame (and I have to admit, some mirth) how he used to teach me and Jo (yes her again- definitely a trouble maker!) and my great friend Rozanne, an after school club entitled “Skills of the Darkroom.” We certainly had some skills to show him! He was a bit lacking in the looks department, was probably in his late 20s and was sweet and very shy. Each time he turned off the lights to process the image (which was at least 10 times a session) we took it in turns to pinch his bottom! The poor man! He never, ever mentioned it (and we did it every single week) whilst we giggled relentlessly.

Yes, I admit we were awful, but when you lock up loads of girls together, you have to expect some mischief!

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Now you might be able to tell from these stories that I wasn’t particularly romantic. On my journey through life, until I met Leo, young men did try and lure me with flowers and romance, one even hired a yellow rolls royce to take me out – but I wasn’t having any of it!

When I finally found Leo I was so relieved that he had no idea at all that he was supposed to display his affection like that. He gave me flowers if he saw some he liked but never on Valentines. The thought of us two going for a romantic dinner with candles surrounded by other couples being “Romantic” would just make us cringe. Even on our honeymoon we went out of our way to avoid the typical, exotic, far flung location with secluded beaches, private bungalows and nightly rose petals adorning our beds. Instead Leo chose Turkey (Air miles! He was so chuffed!) where we filled our days with action packed adventure – from mountain climbing and yoga to swimming and sight seeing.  We even joined a tour group who were very surprised we were with them – “Are you sure this is your honeymoon?” they kept asking “Really sure? Here with us?” “Yes” we laughed, “It’s perfect!” We then hired a car to race about the coast line, stopping to stay the night in little places we liked the look of. Yes, this was much more “my cup of tea”.

I am happy to say I think my 14 year old self would definitely approve of the woman I’ve become. So if you have kids (nieces/ nephews/ God kids), take a good look at them now (especially teenagers) as they are already showing you clear signs of exactly who they are going to be!

 

 

“Flushed Away”- Trials, Tribulations and Toilets in Chicago 

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You’ve got to keep looking up! Millennium Mile, Chicago
Are you worried about life? Do you think it’s all going belly up and/or down the tubes? Are you looking for help and a clear answer amidst the unfolding chaos? Yes? Well you won’t find one here BUT you will find some stories that might just  make you feel better about your own life, even if it is at my expense!

So it started like this; here we were staying in a fancy big house for our opening number in Chicago. I’d like to say that we were happy and cheery and embracing change but that would be a huge false positive and my current mood embraces honesty. So we were moaning, homesick and having adjustment issues. In desperation, Leo decided to fly in my sister Gemma and her son George to help us settle in. She has a soothing and gentle personality and laughs joyfully at ridiculous things, which is deeply infectious- so yes, her presence was an immediate and very gratefully received tonic.

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Cloud Gate, Chicago
Chicago, through her eyes, sparkled and shone and we all felt hopeful again. We took ourselves off to the lake, swam, frolicked on the beaches, hired bikes and ate in the elegant Lincoln Park cafe near the famous Chicago zoo. We spent hours in the incredible Art Institute, admired the sculptures in Millenium Park and wandered around our neighbourhood feeling happy and jolly.

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Striking architecture in downtown Chicago
We noted how smiley and friendly the people of Chicago were and our spirits lifted. We could make something of this time here! It was ok. Then they left and we fell into doom and despair. When would we see them again? We didn’t  know and our hearts bleeted like lost lambs looking for safety.

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Art inspection time at the Chicago Art Institute
A few sullen days later, I heard a huge shout from the scarily stylish sitting room in our air B and B house. “Mummy” screamed Anoushka “there’s water pouring through the ceiling” I ran in and there it was pouring all over the yellow velvet chairs. We dragged them to one side and found a bucket, but not before it had throughly soaked me.

I sprinted up the stairs to find the dastardly culprit, imagining it was an overflowing sink but to my horror it was the toilet-yes toilet! It poured all over my feet and wooshed and flowed like a tsunami over the floor and down the expensive polished wooden stairs, heading for the sitting room rugs with a horrid determination. I felt my insides flip over with fear and mild disgust. I found a plunger and whacked it up and down in the toilet like Superwoman (it’s remarkable the strength you have when in “fight or flight mode!) and thankfully the water resided.

I inspected the damage and saw a large crack beginning to appear on the sitting room ceiling. I would have to call the owners. I felt sick. I mustered up the courage and got on with it and was surprised by their very relaxed response.  Leo’s work were paying a very large amount of cash to them each week so I presumed that accounted for it! I managed to clear up the house and the ceiling didn’t cave in – we had had a lucky escape!

A few months later, when we had moved into a more permanent rental, I was woken up on a Saturday morning at 6am by enormous shrieks and shouts. I came flying out of bed in my nightdress, hair squashed to my head, glasses left beside the bed so the world was slightly out of focus and found my feet drenched as I ran up the recently cleaned, carpeted stairs.

There was my husband looking seriously stressed by the small ground floor bathroom and there was that water yet again pouring out of another toilet. Even without my glasses I could see he was wearing a frantic expression. “Plunge that thing down it!” I shouted “What thing?” I pushed past and grabbed the toilet brush “This!” I screamed, whilst bashing it up and down inside the toilet bowl. “Oh no!” I cried “What?” shouted Leo “the brush has got stuck!” There was nothing I could do – I plunged my arm down into the bowl to retrieve it. This was too awful. I handed the brush to my husband -“You do it!” I shouted again, this time adding a string of colourful expletives (well wouldn’t you? I hadn’t even had a cup of tea and my feet were soaked in wee!) He took charge (hooray!) and with enough pummelling the water finally retreated- the battle was won!

The kids by this time were standing watching us in bewildered bemusement. “Go back to bed!” I shouted at them too. It was a very shouty morning. “Where are you going?” Leo asked “I am going right back to bed myself. You can sort this out! That was the most disgusting start to my day ever!”

We recounted the story to our lovely upstairs neighbours “But” noted Andrew, a Pilot and all round brilliant and practical human with great cooking and gardening skills “Why didn’t you just turn off the valve?” Yes dear friends, next to the toilet was a little tap and if turned, the water stopped. Well you live and learn!

About six months later (yes, there’s more) just before we were due to move into our new and just decorated house,  I noticed that water was pouring through the bathroom ceiling. I rushed upstairs and knew immediately that it was the devilish toilet but this time I was too quick for it –  I reached down, turned off the valve and defeated it! Under advice we replaced all the malicious toilets, thereby averting any future potential catastrophes – what a relief.

The moral of this story is that sometimes life throws a pile of filth your way (in our case, literally!) but once it’s faced and washed away, things start to look a lot brighter. I’ve learnt from experience that there is normally a silver lining in most situations and if in doubt – laugh it out!

That first weekend in Chicago… 

Botanical Gardens, Chicago

We arrived in the USA and for the time being, we were here to stay. Were we ready for this? No. Did we know what to expect; have any friends, family or ties – No. Yet here we were; every step we took would be a step towards creating  our new life. It was a daunting and interesting position to be in.  Suddenly we were in a city where people had no preconceptions about us. We could, if we wanted to, literally reinvent ourselves. I wasn’t quite ready for that but I did find myself wondering if there were outdated parts of myself I could eliminate and if fresh parts might emerge in their place.

With those thoughts pinging through my mind we arrived at our air B and B house, where we would be staying for the next six weeks. It was super slick and fancy. The walk in wardrobe was packed with colour coded shirts, post it notes with tiny instructions for us were affixed to every cupboard, a heated toilet seat graced the master bathroom (yuck! Who wants a hot bottom?) plus there were seven television sets scattered around the house including one in aforesaid bathroom… maybe TV watching whilst having a hot bottom was all the rage in Chicago? As if that wasn’t enough to worry me, downstairs in the beautifully decorated reception area were four elegant, orange velvet chairs nestled under a horrifyingly expensive looking chandelier. 

Now, we happen to have two very lively kids who quite like a spot of indoor ball throwing (when I’m not looking) plus occasional sofa gymnastics, so I felt mildly nauseous as I pre-empted all the potential disasters just waiting to happen, but my tummy cried out for food, which was a welcome distraction, so off we trotted, Skyla in tow, to find some.

The first thing I noticed was that Chicago was so hot and steamy it felt tropical 🌴, which really surprised me. We were staying in Bucktown, a trendy area bustling with life, people and activity. There were upmarket boutiques, vintage stores, record shops, guitar shops and enough bars, restaurants and cafes to keep us busy for years. It was heaving with strong young couples in fitness gear, some of them racing along with their prams (don’t those kids ever feel dizzy?), bearded hipsters (beards of all shapes and sizes from neat and trimmed to animal like long bushes!) tattooed ladies (I’ve never seen so many tattoos -ever!) and dog walkers – basically just my cup of tea! 

Gavin with his luxurious beard, at Goorin Brothers hat store

A friendly soul guided us to Big Star, the hippest Mexican restaurant in town, packed with humans of all ages, blaring rock music and super cool staff. It was here we ate our first Chicago meal, Skyla sitting comfortably by our feet.

That weekend we explored the neighbourhood, finding ourselves in a street festival, Chicago style. There was great live music, international food and various stands selling everything from clothes, organic toiletries and home made candles to cheeses and bric a brac. Chicago really comes alive in the summer and now I’m experiencing their beautiful but brutal winter, I can see why! Once the sun shines, the restaurants and cafes fling open their doors and dining al fresco becomes the norm. It was this Chicago that greeted us on those first days and looking back, I’m so relieved it was as we had, what you might call, a “soft landing.” 

Buzz cafe, serving the best coffee in Bucktown

We would spend August acclimatising to our new world before Leo started work and the kids started school. That month (and the ones after) were to prove challenging, in what had already been a challenging year, yet I remained resolutely hopeful and sometimes just a glimmer of hope is all you need.

Hugs at the street festival!

Featured here: 

The Chicago Botanical Gardens

This really is a place of wonder and immense beauty for all the family. You can stay there all day and it has a great restaurant serving healthy food. If the weather is good you can eat on the terrace overlooking the gardens. http://www.chicagobotanic.org

Goorin Brothers Hat Shop, Bucktown 

This is the best hat shop in Chicago. They host regular parties here, with food, live music and a great atmosphere. Their staff are well informed, interesting and great to talk to. It’s really worth a visit. http://www.goorin.com

Big Star

Fun, trendy Mexican restaurant with a large terrace that’s open for as long as the sun shines. This place is packed day in day out and always has a lively atmosphere. Dogs welcome! http://www.bigstarchicago.com

Buzz Killer Espresso 

Buzz has the friendliest young staff, great cappuccinos, fresh pastries and is dog friendly – heaven when it’s a brisk -15 degrees Celsius outside and you need a quick warm up whilst out walking your dog! 

Next up… Trials and Tricky Tribulations in Chicago…

A Perfect Evening in Madrid 

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Gran Via , Madrid at sunset
The day had arrived, the evening was beckoning- it was finally time to get ready for my first night out with the Madrid ladies. What should I wear? A dress? Heels? Oh my goodness – decisions, decisions, decisions! You might think that these decisions are trivial (yes, they are!) but this was the equivalent of a first date or a job interview, this was my first night out with five potential friends. When you are friendless in a new a city and your only company for three months (apart from your kids) has been your dog and shopping trolley (my husband was always travelling), this definitely felt like a big step. So, what was i to do? Would a glamorous dress speak volumes about my desperation to be liked – probably – I opted instead for nice pants, a pretty sheer blouse and some stiletto shoes – elegant but with a youthful touch.  Mabel (my new friend) arrived to pick me up impeccably dressed in a cool jumpsuit, multi strapped high sandals adorning her feet and driving a vintage jaguar with a remix of “Tainted Love” by Soft Cell on the stereo. I stepped in and off we sped to the city centre picking up her various glamorous friends along the way.

Our first stop was an old fashioned spanish bar where we sat for a few tapas and wine. I surreptitiously checked my watch – the time was now around 9 pm and this wasn’t even the restaurant for dinner – these girls must have real stamina. I needed to pace myself, I had to get in touch with my inner Viking and drag her reserves of strength to the surface, there would be no yawning tonight, no racing home like Cinderella at the stroke of midnight – no, tonight I would be full steam ahead

Vibrant, beautiful Madrid
At the table I casually revealed a few personal anecdotes (I’ve had a pretty colourful life so I have quite a library to draw from) and these piqued their interest. I needed to make a good impression, the point being to be interesting but not too interesting. Too interesting can also be seen as just plain weird (anyone going on a first date, please take note!) and that is just plain off putting! Well, by this time I had got through my first hour and now it was time to move to our dinner destination, an unassuming Cuban restaurant a block away.

By the time we ordered food it was 10pm (Madrid does not have the same social schedules as any city anywhere else!) and there were now six of us in our very international group – two Spaniards, a Cuban, an Icelandic, a Belgian and me, the Brit. Out came the plates of food but i can’t be certain what they tasted like as they were accompanied by a steady stream of mojitos. A Cuban band then took to the stage, tables got pushed back, loads more people arrived and everyone started dancing. It was all so alive! The mojitos kept coming as did my anecdotes, which were taking on a slightly bluer hue! My husband started sending me texts “Pace yourself” “Don’t let them know who you really are!’,  “Let them get to know you slowly” “Oh dear” was my response “too late for that!’ as my new friends laughed  at my latest joke!

Friendship is the best medicine!
“Let’s go dancing!’ exclaimed Mabel “I know a club!’ A club? an actual nightclub? I hadn’t been to one of those for about a decade! Grown up (rather dull) drinking clubs maybe, but a proper dancing club – no way! We jumped in taxis and off we went.

Now the club was the sort of establishment that i hadn’t graced since the late 80s and had probably hoped never to grace again. It was a very mixed crowd, pretty uncool (who cares!) BUT, there was a dance floor, we were a lively group and we were ready for fun. I didn’t know if I would ever get this opportunity again so I decided to embrace it whole heartedly.

I found a dancing partner in my new friend Helena and off we went, moving and shaking our stuff. Some bits shook rather more than they used to, my body was not quite as fit (dancing is exhausting!) but enthusiasm and an extreme mojito driven sugar surge took care of that!  The other club attendees looked rather drunk and wobbly as they danced in a purposeless way (one must always have a purpose!) but our purpose was clear – we wanted fun and we were having it and nothing would stand in our way – not even the rather lifeless songs the Dj was playing. I took the situation into my own hands and forced him to play some livelier tunes  (by this time the inner Viking had really taken hold) and it injected some well needed life into the dance floor’s amblers (they really needed some direction!). As to us, well we danced, we pranced, we laughed and we danced some more and then it was time to bid farewell.

I was finally dropped at my house at 4am. Leo came down to the door to look at me. “Abigail, it’s 4am! It’s so late! What were you doing?” “Dancing and having fun!” I called back and then wobbled off to bed, finally emerging at 4pm the next day, exhausted but exhilarated. Friends! Dancing! A new life! Nothing could hold me back and this was just the beginning!

Finally…Friends!

This new life in Madrid had a big friendship sized hole in it. Once the novelty of living abroad had worn off (around one week!) reality set in like cement and it sounded something like this, “Mummy, we don’t have any weekend friends” ” Mummy, weekends are so boring now” “Mummy, do you actually have any friends here? Will you ever have friends?  Will we ever have friends?” Unfortunately answers were in short supply as I felt the same way. That friendship hole needed filling and fast but it was proving quite hard. Where do you start without the language? I suppose it would have been sensible to join one of those “British women abroad- Let’s unite, wave the flag and empower each other!” style clubs, but I’ve never been good at being sensible and joining groups has never suited me – or the group for that matter. I really hoped new friendships would emerge organically. After a few months my hope was stretched as thin as a pair of nylon stockings with holes in them.

My only companions durintg those first months in Madrid
At the school gates I attempted to make small talk with the mothers. It was so small I reclassified it to teeny. Within three minutes they would look at me with pity in their eyes and then continue conversing in Spanish, while I stood there feeling rather foolish. I pretended to be nonchalant. I took up looking at my new iPhone a lot (does twenty times a minute count as a lot?) and pretended to be “busy.” I called my sister, so the mothers could see that I had real humans who wanted to interact with me and I wasn’t a sad and lonely drifter. She answered (about ten times a week!), which was a relief as she hates the phone. The phone became my life line. When I couldn’t call the UK for a few days I felt completely abandoned, although weirdly I could still make calls to my husband. Poor man – I called him ranting and railing. He took to travelling and coming home late.

I was pining so much for home, my friends and my family, that my heart actually hurt. I hadn’t felt this isolated for years and it was unpleasant. It was just me and the dog. My smiles became bigger to mask my tears, although not too big as that would highlight my desperation and make me look like someone to avoid. I needed to keep my new needy character under control and under wraps. I wasn’t sure where brave and courageous Abigail had gone but I prayed she hadn’t abandoned me completely.  I had to see this process in a positive light – it was a metamorphosis and eventually I would emerge refreshed and renewed, like a butterfly breaking free of it’s cocoon. Well one can dream…

By this stage we had moved out of the centre of Madrid and were now living in a beautiful home in the suburbs. It was spacious, gorgeous and had a little pool in the garden with fresh basil and rosemary growing around it and red roses climbing  the walls. The house was idyllic, which did cheer us up.

Each morning, after dropping the kids to school, Skyla and I walked down to the local village high street where I found a perfect restaurant to sit with a cup of cafe con leche whilst enjoying the warmth (from a sad distance) of socialising humans. After about ten visits the owners (it was a family affair) began to talk to me. Two lovely sisters, who didn’t speak English but were hugely kind and warm and their five languages speaking, charming brother- thank god one of those languages was English! This became my morning safe haven. Now we just needed those weekend friends.

My table at El Nuevo Zaguan, Aravaca, Madrid
I discovered the mothers in my son’s class had a what’s app group, where they shared jokes (some looked quite rude!), party plans and homework. Unfortunately it was all in Spanish. That, plus loitering alone at the school gates at pick up, made me feel like an unwatered wallflower, quietly wilting on the side lines.
I was feeling helpless, wishing we could pack up and return to London, when a flurry of activity appeared on my phone. I was struggling to understand it and then a message appeared  -“Do you know what’s going on?” It read. “Do you need help?” It was Mabel, the Spanish mother I had met about a month before. “I have no idea what’s going on !” I responded, relieved yet desperate. “I do need help!”  She decided to take this lost English lady under her wing – I was someone who obviously needed steering in the right direction – she would be my fairy godmother, my guardian angel!

At school pick up, needy no mates finally had someone to talk to.  Mabel introduced me to “the gang” – a gorgeous group of her friends, some of whom spoke perfect English. “Do any of you like going out and drinking wine?” I asked them after about a week- “Because I’m desperate for a girl’s night out and equally desperate for a large glass of wine.” They laughed and a plan was hatched.

Within two weeks I would be going for my first girls’ night out in Madrid!. What would it be like I wondered. What should i wear? Would they like me? Would I like them?  Maybe, just maybe, they would fill that large friendship hole. My excitement began to brew…

Top Pic: Casa de Campo Park, where I spent many hours walking Skyla in quiet contemplation.

 

 

 

 

Muddle and Melodrama in Madrid!

In the first month of our new life in Madrid, my mother in law came to stay from Mexico. At this point we were squashed into a cramped air B and B and Teresa, who is a very decent person, accepted that she would be sleeping on the sofa. She is in her 70s so I was pretty impressed by her resilience! Leo and I had our own teeny room with a teeny bed – you couldn’t move or you fell out, whilst the kids squeezed into a short, skinny bunk bed. Skyla, who has her own bed, was determined to sleep in my mother in law’s and she was equally determined to get her out! Yes, it wasn’t a perfect set up but we muddled through. 

One freezing January morning, as we got ready for school, I put on the kettle for our morning tea and the heating for our cold bones, when suddenly, we found ourselves in total darkness! What? Teresa was in the shower – “Abigail, help, help!” she called out rather helplessly, “I can’t see! What’s happened to the lights?” Oh my god, I actually like my mother in law and needed her alive! I rushed about searching for a torch so I could navigate my way to the electricity panel, wherever that might be? Amazingly I found it and got all the lights back on without blowing us all up. Well done me! We then had to decide between heat and tea. Tea won.

Five more black outs later, I called the landlady, expecting instant help but instead got a lack lustre, “I just don’t know what’s going on. I can’t do anything.” I began to believe this was her canny ploy to control our electricity usage but there was nothing we could do. At least the radio Leo had installed worked! Each morning we sat shivering, listening to BBC Radio 2, eating our buttered toast and warming our tummies with hot tea.

Moving country was beginning to prove harder than we had imagined. I thought back to those last days in London, remembering the enthusiastic good byes “How lucky you all are, what an adventure! I wish we could do it too! You’ll love it!” or “Oh, don’t worry about the kids, kids are so adaptable. They’ll fit in straightaway!” The fact is, adventures feel adventurous because they are damn hard work! When do you ever get a protagonist in an adventure story who just sits back and has a good time? No, he/she has to climb mountains, fight demons, face challenges, shout at a boss – you get the idea. So yes, we were definitely having an adventure and this was the chapter entitled “Drama, Tears, Crisis!” As to the kids being adaptable, well maybe some are but mine certainly were not! Actually, nor were we! I could talk the talk of adventure and I had got us this far but could I walk the walk?

The first week of school the kids raced off excitedly to make new friends. By the second week reality was pounding at our door, “I don’t want to go to school Mummy!” (Anoushka) “I hate it! I don’t want to make new friends!” (Xavier). Teresa and I attempted to console them but they were having none of it. “Why are we here Mummy?” “Why did you make us leave London!” “We will never like it here!” The guilt was settling on my soul like a layer of lead and it did not feel good. I was no better myself. Once I had got them through the school gates, I would join Teresa for a coffee, a moan and a weep. “Oh Teresa, I miss my friends, I want to go home. I can’t speak Spanish!” She tried to make me feel better but only time heals and we are an impatient family.

Teresa had to return to Mexico, Leo was off working across the world and it was now just me and the kids. My daily ritual was to sit in the local cafe, Skyla at my feet, a cafe con leche in one hand and my iphone in the other, posting sad messages underneath pictures of my beverage, to instagram. Thank god my friends (including new IG ones!) sent me words of encouragement. “You can do it Abigail!’ they wrote! “Don’t give up yet! We believe in you!” Their support made all the difference.

Eventually the kids got their first invitation to a party and parents were invited too! It was at an ice skating rink. Leo and I got our hired ice skates on and powered about feeling rather daring, whilst the Spanish parents chatted at the side lines. One Spanish mother lent me her gloves, took a good look at me and after my turns on the rink said, “Abigail, I can take you out. I have time. I can show you Madrid.” I realised that here was a potential friend, a possible life line in this new reality of mine. Finally here was hope and her name was Mabel.

Pic: Skyla looking rather cosy and mildly guilty on Teresa’s blankets. 

Confused in the City

On the fifth day of our new life in Madrid, I went to pick up my children from their school in the suburbs. Off I went by train, along with my little dog Skyla. We were smiled at by passing strangers and my heart filled with joy. Life was good I thought, the Spanish are lovely and they even accept dogs on the train –  just like London! I collected the children and we headed back to the station.  “No, no perro!” The conductor shouted forcefully, pointing at our dog. What? No one had stopped me before. Was he mistaken? We pretended we couldn’t hear him and tried again but the conductor was adamant – we had to leave!

I was concerned but reasoned that a bus would definitely take us. The driver pulled up, saw us and shook his head, “No, no perro!” I implored him in my limited spanish but he drove swiftly off. I will admit that I was beginning to feel some anxiety when two rather cool looking policeman pulled up on their motorbikes. Xavier was dispatched to ask for their help (his Spanish was improving by the minute!) and taking pity on us, they approached another bus driver, but to no avail, rules are rules and they could not be broken!

Our options were thinning fast. We tried hailing a cab, then another, then another –  all had the same response- “No perro!” My worry barometer was creeping up to a new level entitled “freak out time!” but I controlled myself and moved it down to “Let’s call Leo!”. Yes, I thought, he can help us. I called him but got no response, then sent 20 text messages – still silence. So there we were, stuck – two little kids (ages 7 and 9)  our little dog (aged 2 and a half) and me (old enough to know better).

Well, we could either cry, or we could walk to our destination (the English love walking) so that is what we decided to do! Now, to walk, you need a route, but unfortunately it was at that moment I found out that my phone map wouldn’t work. Things weren’t looking good. Xavier, who had now been elevated to Group Captain, was put in charge of asking directions but each time he tried, we were greeted with incredulity (the English – crazy people!) and directed to the station, “No, no metro – el perro” he would tell them, pointing to the dog. “Ah” they responded, continuing to point to the station. One thing was certain- part of our walk would be along the motorway!

Off we trekked, me singing at the top of my lungs (I thought it would cheer our spirits) Xavier joining in loudly and Anoushka prodding me in the sides, attempting to stop me. “It’s so noisy here Anoushka, no one will hear me!’ I shouted over to her, sounding like a jolly Sergeant in World War Two, leading us all to battle. “But Mummy, your singing is terrible, it’s not making me feel any better at all!” she cried, still trying to make me stop, her little elbows feeling sharper and sharper as she dug me in the ribs.

If I show fear, I thought, the kids will panic, so I hid the fear away and on we went. After two hours of motorway marching, which was relatively unpleasant and not something I would recommend, we ended up on a main road and found a cafe. We dragged our tired legs in and tucked into tortilla (the spanish omelette kind) and bread. I washed it down with a small beer for fortification. “It’s ok” I told the kids, “this is all part of our great big adventure.” They did not look at all convinced.

We continued our journey but by now it was getting dark and my mind began to whir – what was I doing? I could feel the panic bubbling up inside me. If only Leo would answer his phone!

We found ourselves in a run down part of town, full of stray cats, when Xavier stopped a sweet looking old lady to ask for directions. Her horrified response encouraged me to try Leo again, and this time he picked up! At that moment a taxi pulled up and beckoned us in. Oh my goodness, the relief – here was a driver who was happy to have Skyla in his car. It was a miracle!

At 8.30 pm we arrived back home. The kids fell into bed, absolutely exhausted. The next day I received a call from the school “Your children are very tired today, is it really true that you took them for a motorway walk for four hours?” “Yes, unfortunately it is” I responded. “Well, try not to do that again please.” “Rest assured” I replied “I will definitely never, ever do that again!”

Footnote: Madrid has no guns or gangs, has a very low crime rate and feels very safe!

Pic: Segovia, Spain – sadly this was not on our walk!