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 I wasn’t quite ready for that but I did find myself wondering if there were outdated parts of myself I could eliminate and if fresh parts might emerge in their place.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 ūüĆī, 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…

Chicago Calling! 

Cantabria, Spain

So here we are in a blog about Chicago and yet here I am telling stories about Madrid! It’s definitely time to pack up this part of the story and shift countries, but just before I do, let’s just neatly close this European chapter of my life….

Four months into our stay in Madrid and life was beginning to go well; we had all made friends and somehow I could make myself understood in my odd pigeon Spanish with accompanying wild gestures and vivid facial manoeuvres. Leo bought himself a fancy car and his new man mobile seemed to improve his happiness levels by at least 90 percent. Meanwhile, mine were increased by all things botanical- namely our gorgeous garden bursting with colour from the red roses clambering up the walls and the striking green ivy worn proudly by our house to the fresh rosemary and mint growing in abundance around our pool- yes pool! It may have been small but it provided enormous amounts of pleasure to the kids, who threw themselves with joy into its refreshing waters each sweltering day after school.

Our tiny but delightful pool

Friends and family were starting to visit from London and did I mention that the food was great- I mean mouth wateringly, ¬†exceptionally, extraordinarily delicious. Eating was almost a spiritual experience! So all in all things were looking up and that’s the moment that Leo got the call from his Chicago based clients, inviting him to join their team and take off for yet a(nother) new life. ¬†It was an offer he couldn’t refuse but it meant uprooting ourselves all over again. ¬†How many new lives can one have in a year, I asked myself. I thought one was quite enough but now we had to tell the kids, who had finally started to settle after months of tears and drama. It certainly wasn’t a conversation I was looking forward to.

“No!” they shouted in unison, followed by more shouts and tears of disbelief. This was definely going to take some serious persuasion on my part. These kids were not happy, no, not happy at all. “We can’t move again! We’ve got friends! We like school!” Their anguish made my heart hurt.

We were heading to the land of dreams, myths and legends. This was the country where you could reinvent yourself, start from scratch and carve out a whole new life, yet here were we, a middle aged couple with two kids and a small dog – did we really have the stamina to pursue the “American dream?”

Leo could see we needed some encouragement so decided a virtual tour of Chicago would awaken our yearning to move there. We squeezed around him as he charged up the computer to show us Chicago in all its glory. “Look” he cried enthusiastically “there’s Chicago freezing. Can you see how cold it gets. Oh wait -here are photos of Chicago snowing- just look at that – can you see how deep it gets? Oh wait- here’s some of Chicago with really terrible Arctic winters. Do you know, last year they had to ¬†close down the schools as it was so cold.” We all looked at the screen then looked at him. Was this supposed to inspire us? ¬†Really? I hate being cold and have avoided ski trips passionately throughout my life. I’m what you could call a temperate girl – I like being luke warm and this was definitely not luke warm weather. “Look at this site” he cried with vigour, undeterred by our lacklustre responses, “it’s dedicated to showing you how many layers to wear in Chicago winters so you don’t get hypothermia! They even have balaclavas! Do you know that your eyeballs can freeze when it gets really cold?” Leo laughed – yes laughed, in a slightly frenzied way as he dispensed this information like an unsavoury tonic.

“What’s summer like?” I asked desperation gently bubbling up and threatening to break the surface, “It’s great! It’s so hot! Really hot and humid but pretty short! You’ve basically got eight months a year of winter!” Now, I’m not sure about you but this tactic wasn’t working for me. “Leo, for goodness sake, show me something positive!” I was probably a touch shrieky by this point. “Look Abigail, they have loads of beaches and the people are really nice. It might just be the friendliest big city in the States and I won’t get another chance like this- ever. We have to do this.” “Oh” I replied, at a loss for words. ¬†And that, dear readers, is how we ended up moving to Chicago.

Next up… those first chaotic weeks… ¬†

A Perfect Evening in Madrid 

image.jpeg
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!

Madrid and the Art of Eating 

When I look back to our short but sweet time in Madrid, my most ardent memories involve food. There is no doubt about it, Madrid is food heaven. It was (for the most part) exceptional. The idea of a sad, soggy sandwich, filled with unpalatable rubbery cheese, stuffed unceremoniously into one’s mouth whilst seated at a desk,  was unheard of in Spain.  Lunches were a time to stop, down tools and fill your tummy with healthy delight. Even the cheap little corner cafes with plastic tables and strip lighting, served three course meals that tickled your taste buds and brought pleasure to your belly. I was amazed by their commitment to proper eating.  The Spanish know how to eat. They know how to take pleasure in food.

From what I could see, the Spanish philosophy is to work to live, as opposed to live for work and this coloured everything. At Leo’s work, menus were set before him each lunch time along with a napkin and silver cutlery- so fancy- he couldn’t believe his luck!  The fact is, you just can’t rush a Spaniard at mealtime (don’t even try!) Even the removals men we hired to deliver our furniture  stopped for a TWO HOUR lunch and somehow they got all their work done! They were slightly slower but my goodness, they were so much happier!  I began to wonder how I had ever eaten all those sandwiches from Pret a Manger. My taste buds really needed an upgrade! Actually my whole life ethos needed an upgrade!

Even our local park cafe had proper menus, an impressive wine list, well turned out waiters and good, tasty food. It was a marvel. We became regular weekend visitors, sitting at their courtyard tables surrounded by large, happy, noisy Spanish families taking their time to eat on a Sunday. Yes food and the pleasure of eating became a proper past time.

Looking back to my life in England, I realised that I had really started to entrench myself into a middle years mindset. Dinner out at 8pm, tucked into bed before midnight- it was all rather lack lustre.  I envied my London friends who had the energy to stay out after midnight- I just couldn’t be bothered. It was with this mouldy mindset that I started going out in Madrid. Now in Madrid, if you decide to dine out at 8pm, your dining companions will either be young families with toddlers or octogenarians (possibly older!)  We asked around and everyone told us that we had to start our night no earlier than 9pm and even that was mildly geriatric. So we slowly but surely began to adapt to the Madrid way. Really we had no choice and do you know what, it was so good for the soul! It felt instantly youthening. Slippers be dammed! My middle years needed a great big injection of life and here it was.

The concept of time was changing…. the kids went to bed later and later, our days became longer, we all relaxed and meals became mini events. I can tell you that those six months we lived in Madrid liberated my soul, changed my view of time and made me look at age in a whole new light! My middle years would now be my mid -life awakening! It was time to get out my dancing shoes…and that is just what I did…

 

My favourite food courts in Madrid

1. Mercado de San Miguel www.mercadodesanmiguel.es

This place is amazing! It’s a large food hall stuffed with delicious tapas, sweet treats and drinks. We brought all of our visitors here. It’s worth going before the rush hour of lunch as it gets crowded. Don’t expect a seat – this is a standing place but it’s worth it. The food is delicious and it’s fun and the venue is great looking.

2. Mercado San Anton

www.mercadosananton.com

This food market is in the trendy part of Madrid. It’s calm and gorgeous, with delicious food to eat on site and also to buy. There’s a cool rooftop bar there that’s great to go to for a pre dinner aperitif!

Beautifully displayed satsumas, Mercado San Anton, Madrid
3. Platea

http://www.plateamadrid.com

This amazing venue is a former cinema in Plaza Colon. It’s gorgeous to look at, has a stage for entertainment and has great tapas and wine. It is really worth visiting.

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.

 

 

 

 

Mexico City! 

This week Chicago Stories is in Mexico City; a thriving, bubbling, vibrant metropolis of super saturated colour and chaos alongside pretty pockets of tranquility. 

 
I have been visiting Mexico with my Mexican husband for twenty years and I still love it. I’m always amazed by the sheer enormity of the city, with it’s three tier super highways coursing like a pulsing artery through it’s centre and a population of over 9 million (21 million if you include greater Mexico City!) 

Even as the city grows, I’m still struck by the warmth, civility and courtesy of the people. I am greeted by strangers with a “Buenos Dias” and no one ever frowns at my kids, even when they are being noisy or wild “Don’t worry” they say smiling  “They are just kids, it’s normal.” Their enchanting smiles are genuine, not frightening grimaces masking grievance and distaste! Teenagers here make eye contact – and not just to scowl. I think this might be because there is no distinction between adults and kids. Kids are everywhere- in the supermarkets way after bedtime (that’s UK bedtime, so around 7pm!) in all the restaurants and at all family gatherings – right up to the very end. Everywhere  you look you see a kid and that kid seems to be happy! Of course my kids love it and so do I! Which frazzled mother wouldn’t?

When I first came to the city all those years ago I sat down in an empty carriage on a train and a woman proceeded to sit down next to me. I was aghast- the whole carriage was free- why on earth did she want to sit with me? If someone did that in London I would probably move but this was Mexico – people just don’t seem to have the same sense of personal space or privacy that the British do. Imagine if they did make a fuss – it would be chaos. 

This lack of privacy was highlighted at the house of my in-laws, where no door, not even the bathroom, has a lock. This can lead to all sorts of chaos and an awful lot of shouts from me, “Out! Get out!” I screech as usually one or more family member stands and stares at me in horror while I’m standing there in my birthday suit. I’ve thought of putting up an “In Use ” sign and have even lodged a chair against the door, but to no avail- if I’ve decided to use the bathroom it’s guaranteed that at least four people will want to get into it at the same time. For me, the bathroom is a place of sanctuary where I escape from chores and hide out; it’s where I go for moments of quiet introspection and personal inspection “Ooooh look, nothing’s fallen off yet!”  In Mexico City languishing in the shower is now a thing of terror. I throw my clothes on as fast as I can, with one foot propped awkwardly against the door, and then race out! 

Many families in Mexico are enormous. After meeting twenty of Leo’s cousins and at least six aunts and uncles I lost count!  Unlike many British families I know, these families like to get together and not just at Christmas! For some it’s every single weekend! You might be reading this and thinking this would be your worst nightmare, but there’s a plus side – if you’ve just had kids there are loads of built in babysitters and if you are old, you will never be lonely. 

Now I’ve shared with you a few of my observations about Mexico City, I’ll share a few of my favourite places too.

1. Coyoac√°n and San Angel- These delightful areas sit adjacent to each other and feel like villages, with their cobbled streets, multi coloured colonial buildings, pretty squares, old churches and elegant courtyards.  Here you find uniformed accordion players, balloon sellers, cafes, bars, lovely terraces to sit on and while away the hours and the best ice cream parlours ever! On a Sunday the square is full of families, romantic couples and dressed up dogs! Yes, dogs in colourful co-ordinated outfits (some include hats!) are now all the rage, parading the squares with their proud owners.

 Pic: A pretty church in San Angel

 Pic: Mango seller, Coyoac√°n 

2. Frida Kahlo’s house – I adore this house turned museum. If you are remotely interested in her art, it’s a must see. It is as it was when she lived there and I particularly love her kitchen with all its bright ceramic bowls and her tiny bed surrounded by her art, easels and paints. It’s almost as if she never left…

3. Diego Rivera’s Murals in Palacio Nacional.  You can’t really come to Mexico and not look at these magnificant murals, depicting the history of the Mexican people, from their pre Hispanic origins to the 20th century.  These are epic, dramatic and vivid works of art. It’s really worth getting a guide to explain them and bring them to life. 

4. Polanco – this is a chic and wealthy hot spot of Mexico City. We like to go as a family to one of the many restaurants here for Sunday lunch. It’s full of glamourous ladies with swishing, luscious hair and high heels, large family groups and slick men. Sunday is a family day (Mexican style) so all the grandparents and kids are also out in force. This is a great area to people watch and get a sense of the dynamics of city life amongst the urban elite. 

  
Pic: Bright pops of colour in Coyoac√°n 

5. Colonia Roma – the hip part of the city, full of great restaurants located in beautiful Art Deco buildings with gorgeous terraces and peaceful courtyards. It has a charming air of faded grandeur, which I love.  

 
Pic: A beautifully presented margarita in Colonia Roma

6. Bazar Del Sabado, San Angel

 

This bazaar is open every Saturday morning. It’s heaving with people, cafes and boutiques. There is a beautiful indoor market with a  central courtyard housing a lovely breakfast and lunch venue. There is temptation on every corner and enough colour to feast your eyes on for a year. 

Tradition nestles calmly alongside modernity in this city of huge dichotomy. Everywhere you look there is evidence of massive wealth as well as desperate, extreme poverty, with some barely scraping out an existence. At some points you feel like you’ve stepped back 50 years (sometimes many more) and at other moments, sitting in a swanky restaurant and eating the most elegant food, surrounded by achingly sophisticated people, you could be in any major capital of the world. It’s this constant contrast that I find so fascinating in this magnificent megalopolis.

Footnote: Mexico City is heaving with cultural sites, museums, street markets and great architecture. My recommendations are just a tiny drop in a vast ocean of activity!

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.