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!

Madrid – those first weeks

So here we were, a family of four plus our little dog Skyla, embarking on our new life in Madrid. I will admit right now that I didn’t speak Spanish. My kids were quite good but not bilingual whilst my husband Leo, being a Mexican educated in England and having lived all over the world, was perfectly bilingual and perfectly adaptable.

Leo can slot right in anywhere with everyone, like Cinderella’s foot into the glass slipper – “Your husband, he is just like my nephew!” people exclaimed excitedly wherever we travelled. “What a great husband you have! Just like a member of my own family!” Yes, Leo was the universal son. And me, what sort of response did I get? This story will give you an idea – when Leo first took me to Mexico, we stayed in  Playa Del Carmen. We were having breakfast when I called over to the waiter, “Excuse me please, would it be possible to have a cup of tea?” “I’m sorry” the waiter replied, “I don’t speak German.” German? What? When did I start speaking German? My husband repeated the question, again in English, “Ah, a tea, you want a cup of tea, why didn’t you tell me?” I couldn’t believe it. How did that happen? It made us laugh but summed up my situation- I’m misunderstood the world over! How on earth was I going to get by in Madrid?

I had hoped that the Spanish would speak English, just like they do at those coastal resorts full of Brits but no, in Madrid they do not. They speak Spanish, as they should. Wishful thinking wasn’t going to get me anywhere!

So there was Leo, with his perfect spanish and adaptable ways, going off to work happily and there was me, with no Spanish and less adaptable ways, left to set up our new life.  All the normal things you take for granted were suddenly achingly difficult. School, shopping, calling for a taxi (that was hellish – would it turn up on time, on the right day even) navigating my way around the city –  it was like climbing a mountain. Spontaneous chat left my life abruptly, to be replaced with weird one minute dialogues and lots of wild arm gestures.

One instance brought the perils of my poor language skills acutely into focus. I had to ask a shop assistant for a replacement toilet seat. I was sure I was using the right words in the right place and I combined them with lots of gestures to make it clearer. She looked at me uncertainly, so I made the gestures more explicit. Her face moved from concern to alarm and I found her hastily guiding me to the bathroom, believing she was averting a brewing disaster!

Yes, not knowing the language of the country you have chosen to live in can prove to be not just difficult, but also humiliating! The kids teased me endlessly, laughing at my accent and incompetence – “Mummy, your Spanish is the same as a toddler!” Thanks kids.

My son, realising the situation was dire and that his mother boss was no longer in control, became our spokesperson. He chatted with taxi drivers, asked for directions and basically took charge – he was not yet eight!  My daughter, aged 9, became my calm confidente and navigator and even my dog seemed to sense the new hierarchy and took to steering me in the right direction. Suddenly I was taking a back seat in my own life – suddenly I was being guided by my dependants! The world had just turned upside down – would it ever be the same again?

 

Pic: Street scene, Chueca, Madrid

Madrid -The Story begins

After three days of travelling by car from London to Spain, we finally arrived at our destination. There was Madrid on the horizon; it was time to open the first page in the opening chapter of our new life.

As we pulled up in front of the air b and b, Xavier, my seven year old, leant out of the window, “Look Mummy, Sex is easy!” he shouted in his booming voice. “What Xavier? Why are you shouting that?” I shouted back to him, “It’s there Mummy, on that sign, the one right next to our apartment! Why does it say that Mummy?” Yes, why indeed. Well there it was in big, bold letters – a sex toy shop, with a huge photograph of a lady sucking suggestively on cherries to illustrate the point. 

Oh no, I thought, why on earth had the owner of the property told us that this was a fun but family friendly area? Her idea of family friendly and mine were obviously quite different! The sex shop just happened to be next to a night club, advertised with a large poster of a bare chested oily man with his hand placed down his underpants. I was beginning to worry but I pushed it aside and thought positive, happy thoughts to cover my brewing inner screams.

After unloading our huge amounts of luggage, we all stepped out to explore the neighbourhood. Right next door was a fruit and vegetable shop, which was a relief, and opposite a shop run by a Chinese family who sold everything you could possibly need in any event whatsoever, and never closed – so that was good too. Just a bit further up the street were some shoe stores and boutiques and then there, nestled between them, was an S & M Dungeon. Yes, dungeon and just in case it wasn’t clear enough, there was a list posted on the door of “services provided” and “special rooms”. This would have been fine if it was in Spanish, but no, there it was, in English. As I pushed my children fast past the door, I noticed the “Leather Club” on the opposite side of the road. “What’s a leather club Mummy?” asked Anoushka, “A club where people go who like cows” I answered – well, you have to get creative in these situations! I turned to Leo, “I thought you said that Madrid was conservative!” I was trying not to screech, “It is! I’ve never been to this area before!” he answered, slightly screechy himself.

Yes, here we were, our first day in Madrid and we were living in the “red light” district, right in the thriving, bustling centre of it. What do you do in a situation like this? Well, you embrace it, that’s what you do. 

It turns out that this little hub was Chueca, the trendiest and hippest part of Madrid and actually, apart from these small, seedy establishments, it was a great area, packed to the brim with coffee shops, cafes, boutiques and bars and cool, stylish people. It certainly wasn’t a family area, but we weren’t going to be there long so we decided to make the most of it. It’s not everyday you get to live next door to a nightclub with a very tall transvestite as a host.  This was all part of the colour of life. These stories would become the pages in our family’s history.

That first night we found a perfect restaurant only two minutes from our apartment. Skyla lay down by my feet and we feasted happily on delicious paella. Sipping on white wine, I sat back, watched my family with quiet pride and took a deep breath – we will be ok, I thought, we can do this; and here began our great big adventure.

Pic: Xavier leaning against a tree, Chueca, Madrid

The Road Trip – London to Madrid

So here we were in the car, driving to Madrid from London to open a new chapter in our lives, car packed to the hilt with as many belongings as we could stuff into it, kids squished into the back between the computer, dog on my lap and the audio books of David Walliams playing on the stereo (his children’s books are really funny).  Each time the story stopped the kids would start bickering, shouting, fighting, pinching, squealing, screaming and generally being the sort of passengers that if they were fee paying, you would pull over and leave on the pavement.

We had had the good sense to decide to break the trip up into manageable instalments. Basically that meant that we stopped in France and Northern Spain along the way, which meant we could rest our weary bodies, walk the dog, stretch our legs and go for a meal and the parents could drink a very large alcoholic beverage (or was it two?) and rest our ears.

In Northern France we spent the night in Rouens in a wonderful hotel and I have to say that I did feel terribly liberated and adventurous!  I rather admired us! Here we were, free, roaming across Europe, only the clothes on our backs and the luggage in our cars, no house, no ties, no beds, no fixed address, just the future beckoning before us – well, you get the picture, I was getting carried away with the romance of it all!

We wandered around the pretty town looking for a place to eat that would take us and our dog Skyla. I was a bit worried they wouldn’t let her in, but no, in France you can take a dog anywhere – I even saw some in McDonalds! The French love their dogs, I mean really, really love them and even for me, who is quite obsessed with her dog, it seemed a little extreme, but I wasn’t complaining, it meant Skyla could go everywhere with us, even to dinner!

We woke up to a beautiful breakfast, French style, our plates filled to the brim with crusty bread and mouth watering freshly baked croissants. The children drank thick, strong hot chocolate in bowls whilst I enjoyed my own tea, brought from England, complementing the perfection (I take my own tea wherever I travel – I’m English- one must!) What a good start I thought, this was definitely a good omen.

We then squeezed back into the car and a number of hours, shouts and David Walliams stories later, we arrived in San Sebastian in Northern Spain. Now, I have to say, San Sebastian is gorgeous. We found a restaurant in the town square and again, Skyla was welcomed without fuss. It was tiny, scruffy and empty, yet we feasted like Kings, eating and eating tapas after tapas, each delicious mouthful competing with the next. This was a sign. We were on the right path, spiritually speaking, we were doing the right thing. I just knew it!

Pic: Our hotel in Rouens, Northern France

Becoming an expat… how it all began

Moving country is not something to be taken lightly. First up, if as me you are a parent, you need to convince the offspring that moving house and country and leaving friends, family and familiarity is a really good idea. I can tell you from experience that this is not easy. It takes an awful lot of cajoling, faith and some excessive amounts of optimism. 

Our first move to Madrid took us two years to plan – yes – two years! It took us all a long time to decide that it was a good idea to break free of London and you know what pushed us, finally, to just say yes – the “Beckham Tax!” Yes, that tax incentive for England’s favourite footballer when Real Madrid were luring him to Spain, is now set in place for all future British expats. This meant that my husband would be on a really low tax bracket for the first six years, so we could actually start to save (who saves in London?) and have, we hoped, a pretty good life. On top of that, Madrid is infinitely cheaper than London and infinitely warmer. You can drive to the beach, the people like kids and the food is delicious!

Actually leaving our lives behind was harder than I thought it would be. The tears when my son Xavier (aged 7 at the time) left his tiny school, hugging each teacher tightly in turn, made my heart hurt. I have to say that it actually felt like torture during those last goodbyes and I did wonder what we were doing.

I decided we should drive to Spain instead of flying. I thought the children would realise how close we were to London if they could physically see how many miles we travelled and how easy it would be to just drive back. I was also worried about my little dog and how she would handle the plane. The idea of a road trip felt exciting and adventurous, rather than just another anonymous two hour plane ride.

As we had no fixed address yet for Madrid,  we found ourselves an air b and b. It looked reasonable but the owner, who was very charming, convinced us that we would be better suited to her other apartment, which was more “arty” and in a “livelier” part of town. Good idea, we thought, it will make our transition more fun until we found a permanent home. 

On the day of departure my father helped my husband load up the car with as many belongings as we could get into it and on top of it. We wouldn’t get our stuff for another two months so we squeezed it all in, – in went the computer, the music system, the dog’s bed, the dog, the kids (only just, it was a very tight squeeze), the clothes (for all weather, just in case), my special pillow, coats, hats, a kettle, tea (of course!) even the roller skates – it all got squeezed and squashed into the car. I really did wonder if it would just sink and give up on the way but off it then trundled, us all packed in like peas in a pod, our hearts a mix of anticipation, anxiety and sorrow. 

These were our first steps to an unwritten future, destination known, destiny unknown.

Pic: Xavier stares out to sea in Northern Spain.