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. Coyoacán 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, Coyoacán 

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 Coyoacán 

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. 

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

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.