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.