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. 

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.