What Every Expat in Spain Should Know: Nine Skills to Celebrate Nine Years in Iberia

For me, moving to Spain in September 2007 was a baby step into a life abroad. I had studied abroad here, aced all but one of my college Spanish courses and was open to the experience of living abroad in Sevilla and making it work, no matter how homesick I got for my family, English language TV and Cheez-its.

Baby steps. This would be easy.

Well, “this would be easy” was my mindset before I actually got here and realized I had no idea how to adult, let alone how to adult in another language and country where long lines, 902 numbers and being subject to the mood of whoever was attending you became a daily reality.

nine-skills

My first year in Spain was equal parts new discoveries and new headaches, learning the language and learning how to cope with, um, Spain in general. The second year was easier, logistics-wise, but I wrestled with whether or not I wanted to stay in Spain any longer or return to the US. The learning curve was still steep and continues to be as I propose new professional goals and look forward to becoming a mamá for the first time. Even as life in Spain gets easier, I sympathize with new expats who are mostly clueless. We are all @GuiriBS.

That was me one balmy September in 2007. While there are loads of small skills you learn after a bit of time (like that those clunky 2€ coins actually are worth something and how to walk right through a wall of unwanted piropos), but some are a bit more savvy and take time time to refine.

To celebrate my ninth Spaniversary of living in Spain, every expat should know these nine hacks:

How to convert to the Metric System

Ojú, 40 grados mañana.

Why even download a weather app when your husband is addicted to the telediario every afternoon at 3:25pm? I don’t know the exact temperature in 40 Celcius is in Farenheit… just really, really warm.

If you’re an American (or, for that matter, from Myanmar or Liberia) abroad, you’re probably clueless about how to convert the Metric System into the other measurement system. I’m still learning and perfecting my memory tricks (my math skills can’t divide and then add any faster than my phone apps), but here’s how I’ve learned:

The temprature. 10 degrees is cold, 30 degrees is uncomfortably hot, and 25 degrees is – Goldilocks style – juuuuust right. I usually remember that 25 degrees is a nice 77°.

Weight and Height. I have snowboarded since I was a kid, and the because the measurements come in centimeters, rather than feet and inches, I simply add 20 centimeters onto the snowboard’s length when asked for my height. As for weight? I oscillate between 60 and 62, and prefer that low number to my weight in pounds.

The problem? Electronics come in inches, called pulgadas. Or, maybe that’s not an issue for you.

Liquids. Still working on this one, especially when the gas prices read 1.02€ for diesel but filling up my car, Pequeño Monty, costs more than I spend on insurance, bike repairs and a metro pass, combined.

Speed and distance. I worked exactly ten miles away from Sevilla during my first years as a language assistant. While I sat on a bus and read, my coworker biked the 16 kilometers to the school. Now that I drive, 120 kilometers on the highway (the speed limit on freeways) means an hour, which has become my marker.

So I round numbers up and down a bit, ok?

How to buy European clothing sizes

Differences in length and height and width means that shopping became an adventure, too. And don’t forget that not all European sizes are different – Italy, the UK and the rest of Europe have slight differences, evident by several numbers on the size tag. My biggest complaint has been that most jeans are far too long for my shrimpy legs, which makes zero sense since Spanish women, on the whole, are shorter than me.

my flamenco dress 2014

Finding your sizes in Europe takes a great deal of trying on, discarding and ignoring the tags. What is a dress or pants size 8 in America could be a M and anywhere between a 38 and 42 in Spain (and that’s not taking length into account), whereas a shirt at Zara that’s a medium may need to be a large at Lefties – and they’re the same company.

En fin.

Shoes are an entirely different story – and an easier one! I wear a size 8 in the US, which is a clavado 39. My only problem is that I am useless in heels.

The only great equalizer in the Spanish fashion world is the traje de gitana. You are a size 40, trust me.

How to travel around Spain

I inherited my dad’s love of beer, healthy doses of adventure and his nose. He also passed along his intrinsic skill of budget travel, and even though I’ve moved out of the phase in my life where overnight buses and questionable hostel beds are acceptable, so long as they’re in the sake of traveling further, and I’ve seen a good chunk of Europe thanks to it.

Spain is full of cool things to see, do and experience, from tomato slinging festivals to jaw-dropping road trips to hidden beaches and charming small towns. Unless you have a car (and enough money to cover the liters of gas… see above), you’re got to stick to public transportation or ride shares.

Thankfully, traveling around Spain can be done on the cheap. To fully take advantage, check out Bla Bla Car for ride sharing (or share your trip – I took three others to Valencia for Fallas and had the gas paid for), sign up for budget airline newsletters for special offers and loyalty programs and buy your RENFE train tickets three months in advance or share a table of four.

You can also take advantage of long weekends – nearly one a month! – and local holidays to maximize your time to be desconectado. And don’t shrug off places that are a bit tougher to get to, as those are usually the places with encanto.

How to speak a bit of Spanish

When my parents first came to visit me over the Christmas holidays, they begged me to order food for them. I’d been pinching the euros of my measly paycheck by subsiding off of frozen pizzas and spaghetti and could barely recommend a nice place to eat, let alone dissect a menu. It was a lot of, “I think that’s fish” and, “It’s a pig part that you probably won’t like” to a family that eats with their eyes.

pulpo

That was the turning point for me – I told my new boyfriend that he’d have to start speaking to me in Spanish, and despite the frustrations and tears and utter confusion with andalú, I consider learning Spanish to be one of my proudest achievements.

There’s no need to be fluent after nine years, but I firmly believe that knowing Spanish makes life in Spain richer. It’s easier to interact with locals, particularly outside of cities, and there’s a wealth of cultural nuances that I’ve learned and come to love because of it.

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People often ask me how to learn Spanish, and I wish I had an easy answer. Mine was a healthy dose of not caring about making mistakes, talking to anyone who would listen, reading books and noting down new words and expressions and calming my nerves with a few cervecitas. You could also try signing up for classes – I liked my audited classes at Sevilla Habla a lot – or apps, and the Ultimate Spanish Practice and Review was my Bible for months, but nothing beats swapping stories with an abuelito at your corner bar.

How to do a reclamación

You haven’t really lived in Spain until you’ve logged an official complaint. You know all of those signs in restaurants, shops and pharmacies that say “Queda a la disposición un libro de reclamaciones” or something to that effect?

The first time I ever suggested using it was when I felt a friend had been treated poorly at a public hospital. The nurse who had effectively called her an irresponsible harlot was disciplined, and I soon found out that making a formal complaint is often synonymous with getting ‘er done. Bad service at a restaurant means I’ll refuse the offer of a free meal in favor of letting the boss know a waiter has been snide (as if never going back weren’t punishment enough),  and the Novio even once got 12€ from Bricomart after they sold him two faulty ceiling fans.

Cruzcampo Bar Sign

The best I’ve ever done is two in a span of 12 hours – the first over the phone when the energy company Iberdrola decided we had an emergency to fix at midnight and promptly began drilling when I was fast asleep, then the following morning at my health clinic for terrible service after being told here were no doctors in the month of August because babies weren’t born in August (I showed my TIE card as proof that, yes, babies come during the Pan-European vacation month, too).

But I don’t do it to prove a point or because I’m a demanding customer: when my family’s bags were lost last Christmas and ended up in Phoenix instead of Sevilla, I asked them to be sent to my house via courier. I was informed that Iberia didn’t have a courier to take them to my house, and the customer service rep urged me to fill out a reclamación form so that the company would realize the importance of the service. I fill out reclamaciones so that everyone else can benefit from better services.

How to deal with things back home

It’s now easier than ever to stay in touch with loved ones back home, despite the time difference, but what about all of the extras? The money matters, bills, sending packages and prescriptions? Though I’ve gradually let go of many of those things (just not Cheez-its), I can’t bring myself to uproot entirely, even at risk of FACTA sanctions and double taxation.

Spanish potato omelette

The USA seemed even further across the Atlantic than it does now. Thanks to online everything, I can move money or order English language books for cheap; when I came to Spain in 2007, I was barely toeing the line of calling myself a resident of Spain – I saw nine months as a brief foray into expat life, so I got a year’s prescription of my pills, pared down my shoes and sweaters and even traveled northern Europe without a jacket because, why waste valuable suitcase space? My biggest complaints in those early days was not being able to EuroHack or sometimes cope with a lack of American products.

And there were little things – an American style measuring cup, my deodorant and gym shoes that didn’t cost a week’s worth of private class hustle.

Nine years on, I only own a few American-bought appliances and clothing items, and I’ve found ways to just toe the line of American life. But more than that, I’ve had to take many of my “adult” things online, especially credit card payments, sending money abroad cheaply, banking and maintaining our savings accounts in an American bank. Make sure that you especially know how to keep your phone number, deal with money and credit card or mortgage payments, and take care of all of your issues at home.

2008 Elections

And, no matter what a Spaniard says, sending thank you notes or greeting cards never goes out of style (and I always have a stock!).  Plus, Madrid is a mecca of American everything – original version films, American brands and even a Five Guys and a Steak n’ Shake. Our British counterparts have Boots pharmacies and Dealz, a version of Pounds. Globalization isn’t always a bad thing, but when you’re majorly homesick…?

How to deal with red tape

Seville’s Plaza de España is the first place I lusted after in Sevilla. It’s regal and striking, particularly at sunset.

But at sunrise when you’re lining up for a residency card petition? The colonnades and the moat lose their sheen – believe me. Spaniards invented reed tape, and while I’m sure it doesn’t compare to Italy or the US, it’s a necessary headache as an expat in Spain, me temo. It’s inefficient and slow, prompting the famous line, las cosas del palacio van despacio. And if you’re non-EU, the process becomes even further clotted by translations, notarizations and multiple appointments.

By the time this video was passed around expat groups, I’d already formulated my extranjería hack skills and there were significant improvements in the way that many steps, such as an appointment system and online status checking, could be handled. But it’s not just the foreigner’s office that operates on its own scheduled – the Novio is a government worker and often has his paychecks come late, and let’s not forget the first time I applied for unemployment, when a worker was literally napping on her desk. Fear not, fellow guiris – even the locals are victims.

My tips: bring five photocopies of each, arrive after coffee and be extra friendly. I once made friends with a frowny face worker in the Hacienda office by asking about his Betis ashtray. Ever since I stopped rolling my eyes and learned to change my attitude (and bring a book), it’s been easier to deal with the lines, the wait times and the mechanical responses from the civil servants. And Plaza de España is now beautiful again.

ceramics at Plaza de España Seville Spain

But I still think that the autorización de regreso is a scam to earn 13€ while the extranjería takes its sweet time in issuing your residency card renewal.

How to cope when your friends leave

Back in the days when Spain was but a brief life interlude, I never turned down an invitation out for tapas or a drink, and found myself adding Facebook friends left and right – it was the adult equivalent of leaving your dorm room door open, after all. Even when homesickness threatened to have me retreat to my piso with a box of Magnum Minis, it was easy to give someone a toque and meet them at the corner bar for a coffee.

Feliz Ano Nuevo!!

The following year, the Novio was sent abroad to work for two months, right after we’d spent the whole summer apart. I nearly forgot the sound of his voice and was nervous that I’d plunge right back into the Magnum mini binge. So, I forced myself to make new friends, and to try and invert my time into friends who will be sticking around for the long-term. There’s always a cycle – people come and go, and this is a hallmark of expat life.

This doesn’t mean it’s easy.

spanish american girls at the feria de sevilla

Friends leaving is HARD, and my merry little band of guiri girlfriends in Seville went from six to three in the span of two months. Two friends that I made early on left the country – one for the US and the other for Indonesia – right when I was packing up for Madrid. And they’re not the only ones. My Sevilla dream team spans these nine years, from the one who adopted me as her wing woman and promptly introduced me to the Novio, to the one born in the wrong country whose musings on sevillano life, four years after leaving, reach straight to my heart. And who could forget the night we all bought matching underwear from a vending machine after rapping Eminem?

I miss those faces and our antics all the time, and I’m not sure I’ve completely superado this slice of expat life.

What helps me cope is knowing that every single one of them has made the decision that was best in that moment, and that Sevilla will always be ours.

How to grin and bear it

The successful marketing campaign, “Spain is different,” is oft repeated by Spaniards and guiris alike. It’s true – many things in Spain seem to function without any rhyme or reason, and I’m still taken aback by the clash of the vanguard and the antiquated often.

cat gaa at the feria de sevilla

Spain is, indeed, different, and not all places in Spain are created the same. Perhaps that’s why I love it so much, and why my visitors love it on the surface, too. For all of the headaches and eye rolls and “I HATE SPAIN” days, I feel challenged, mostly fulfilled and like I ended up in a country that has welcomed me with dos besos and a squeeze on the shoulders. I have learned to grin and bear it and love it, despite its faults and my desperation, at times.

Nine years ago this September, I got off a plane and stepped into a world where Spanish was my language weapon and every day presented a new desafío, from figuring out how to navigate a bus system to conquering the crippling bureaucratic maze to remembering why and for whom I came in the first place.

Who knows where we’ll be in a few years. With the first of likely several babies on the way and the Novio with ganas to have his own adventure abroad, I may not have many Spaniversaries left. But pase lo que pase, every September 13th is a special day for me when I remember how good Spain has been to me. And it extends far beyond the riqueza of the lifestyle – I sappily believe that this place has shaped me in a positive way. I’m excited to raise a family here and to continue being surprised by what Spain offers.

Spain wins the 2010 World Cup

And if the first nine years is any indication, my 30s is going to be a pretty awesome decade, too!

If you’ve lived abroad before, would you add anything to this list? Please share in the comments below!

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Ten Weird Things to Know About Teaching in Spain

As the school year winds down, I often think about how I ended up here. Not physically in Spain – after a summer drinking more Kalimocho than water, it was a given I’d be back – but how I turned down a radio news job in Chicago to come to Spain and be a slave to Cambridge exams, student reports and surly teenagers.

Must Know About Teaching in Spain

For someone who was set on being a journalist since age 11, it shocked everyone to hear me utter, “I actually like teaching.”

Having not gotten an education degree, I was thrown to wolves that looked an awful lot like bored fourteen-year-olds and told to teach past simple irregular verbs during my first week as a maestra. After eight years and the proper TESOL certificate to teach in Spain, I’ve taught a range of levels, from three-year-olds who refuse to take a pacifier out of their mouths to oncologists whose questions had me stumped. I’ve run day camps and language schools. I’ve handed out detentions and failing grades. And I’ve survived working in the Spanish public and private school system.

If I say one thing, let it be that teaching in Spain is a lesson in hilarity and it’s a lesson in learning to just let it go.

Cursive Numbers and Letters

“My name is Miss Cat” I stated to the 27 kiddos sitting in front of me, turning from writing in colored chalk on the blackboard. Most were picking their nose, leaning into the kid next to them or fiddling with something. “Can you read that?”

During my trial lesson at a school I’d later be employed at, I was not having much luck rousing up the kids, who were just back from recess on a hot September day. They were sluggish and not impressed, and I was beginning to panic that I wouldn’t be offered a job. Try planning a lesson for five-year-olds when you have no idea if they can even put on their jackets, let alone follow a lesson entirely in English.

I switched gears, and they seemed to liven up, and after a three-hour interview and another class, I was hired as the bilingual preschool teacher.

letrilandia

And before I learned the names of my 150 new alumnos, I was introduced to the characters of Letrilandia and given feedback from my practice class: Your penmanship is terrible.

I’d never claimed to have perfect handwriting, but it’s legible (and by that time, I had three years of being a language assistant and had directed a summer camp). As it turned out, Spanish children learn to write cursive before they learn to print, and that not writing according to their system had my students confused my lowercase letters – the Bs became Fs, the Ss were Rs.

Additionally, my task of teaching numbers to 100 meant I had to start crossing my 7s and giving my 1s a bit of flair. Calling on the age-old “If you can’t beat them, join them,” I found it was easier to change my old habits than try to change theirs.

There are five continents, not seven, and Columbus is the President of America

Yes, what you just read. The entirety of the Americas are considered one continent, and Antarctic is just one big lump of wasted space.

As for the Columbus thing, there’s an entire day dedicated to the Spanish race on October 12th, the day the Italian-born explorer reputedly landed in the Caribbean Islands. Working in a preschool for a very Spanish family, I was asked to dress up as a Native American (I opted for a sailor instead) and remind my students how Spain had done the world a service by “liberating” the natives during their numerous expeditions to the New World – all as the Spanish national hymn rung out for the whole morning.

Spanish holidays are varied – from Peace Day in elementary school to Day Against Domestic Violence for the older lot, so embrace them. But please teach them that Antartica isn’t wasted space because there are polar ice caps and adorable animals.

Lockers and Book bags

I came to teach in Spain right in the middle of the High School Musical craze. Apart from the folders emblazoned with Troy Bolton and endless questions about whether or not American high schools had glee clubs and pep rallies, I had students involve me in another plot: to convince the school’s director to install lockers.

Really, they had a point: high schoolers have a dozen different subjects, some of which they have just once or twice a week. Backpacks sagged and kids would often turn up without materials, having had no room for their PE notebook or forgetting to pack a protractor. Lockers would have absorbed some of the noise in passing periods and helped correct premature stooping.

I got the last laugh when I played an April Fool’s joke on them, proclaiming there would be lockers for all.

As for school supplies: pencils come without eraser (evoking the endlessly hilarious, “Can I borrow a rubber?” request), kids like to doodle on themselves with sharpies and white out, and paper has a size – the letter A followed by a number.

Lunchtime and Snack Time

When I taught preschool, my favorite time of the day was recreo, or recess. My zany babies could run and play while I sat on a bench getting Vitamin D, and they’d hand me their half eaten sandwiches, bananas and cookies.

Midmorning snacks are far more common than eating lunch at public schools – in fact, my students were shocked when I told them that a part of my daily chores was making a brown bag lunch. Instead, students have a 30-minute recess that happens midmorning. Expect common areas of the school to be littered with wrappers and juice boxes.

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Teaching as a conversation assistant meant that I could break out of school and have a coffee down the street with other teachers, and now that I work in the evenings, I avoid shopping between 11 and noon, lest I have to claw my way to the Polvillo for bread when teens from the school next door are ordering bocadillos.

If you’re placed in a private or concertado school, your students will sometimes stay for lunch in the mess hall, called a comedor. Run from the puré de garbanzos and the palitos de merluza!

Gossip

Walking into a newly assigned baccalaureate class after a schedule switch, I quickly introduced myself and began a lesson. I could hear the students snickering and immediately felt my butt to see if I’d sat in a batido or something at recess.

One girl, probably named Mari Algo, raised her hand but blurted something out in Spanish before I could even call on her. I gave her my best side eye for interrupting and told her that if she needed something, it would have to come in English.

“Yes, erm, who is [Novio’s name]? Valle say us you are a boyfriend.”

Valle, my effervescent coworker and part-time spirit animal, just smiled and shrugged. On one morning commute, I’d confided in her that I’d met a guy I was interested in, and she mentioned it to her students. I took it in stride (hola, my name is Cat, and I have a blog!).

You know how lice is a thing in elementary schools in school, an almost rite of passage in primaria? Liken that to gossip in Spanish schools – once it starts, it’s hard to stop. If you want something to be private, it’s best not to mention it around the brasero on a cold day.

On a First Name Basis and You May Touch the Children

Speaking of Valle, I was also shocked to find that teacher-student relationships are a lot more relaxed than they are back in the US. I was called by my first name and asked personal questions about my age/sex/location. Students wanted to know if I’d buy them beer. I once ran into one partying who was hysterical, and I took her back to my house to settle down and dry out for a few hours.

Oh, and then there’s the end-of-year dinners where students drink the Spanish equivalent of Boone’s Farm, all under the watchful eye of their teachers from senior year. I had to embrace it and have a drink with my graduating seniors at a disco because, hey, drinking age is 18. Never mind that I was only a few years older than them!

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Working in an elementary school, I was once told the children found me to be cold and uncaring. I was wiping their boogers and reminding kids that the Reyes Magos were watching their bad behavior (which included hiding my winter jacket in a toy box overnight) – I was certainly caring.

In Spain, it’s totally fine for teachers to hug and touch students, and many are close with older students outside of school. Some have followed me on twitter and like to message me about what last week’s homework was. My response is always the same: get off of twitter and do your homework, lazy!

On Wednesdays, We Wear Track Suits

I was appalled to learn that my high schoolers only got two hours of gym class a week. They seemed to have more pep in their step when those special days rolled around (though I could usually smell them before they entered class. Teens and PE and Spring in Southern Spain is a torture worse than my allergy to olive blossoms). Plus, they came to school with a special uniform.

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Gone were the sheer shirts and the booty shorts – it was chandal day, a public service announcement that my teens who had been chowing down on Doritos at recess were going to be running a few laps around the playground.

Working in a private elementary school, my kids called it Tracksuit Day, or ¡toca chandal! I loved chandal day because they admittedly smelled better (their parents gave them tiny packs of cologne for their school bags because, pijos) and I didn’t have to re-tie 25 ties and dust off 25 tiny blazers.

ABCs and B1-B2-C1 (and Trinity-Cambridge-TOEFL)

Spain has what’s called ‘titulitis’, or a problem with requiring documents to prove anything. Can you drive a car? PROVE IT. Can you pick up a letter at the post office from your grandma? PROVE IT. And when it comes to speaking English, only a stamped letter from an official language assessment will suffice.

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The Spanish government requires all university students to present a minimum B1 level of English to even get the paper copy of their degree (ach-titulitis!). If you’re totally new to teaching, the system of level assessments and certificates is confusing, especially one against another. What does a Trinity Level 7 correspond to in Cambridge? What does CPE stand for? Try being in charge of academic development at a school and explaining that to parents whose first defense will be, “I don’t know, I studied French.”

Yeah.

The Takeaway – School’s Out for Summer

I often think back to my first days of teaching. I had a newly minted TEFL degree, teaching genes apparently in my blood and no idea what to do in front of 30 teenagers who’d rather copy Justin Bieber lyrics off of the blackboard (yeah, that’s how long I’ve been at it!).

I always swore I’d never be a teacher after watching my mom scramble on Sunday nights or having to manually put in all of her grades into a gradebook. The boss I had when I was an auxiliar once told me that I had vocación: I had what it takes to be a teacher. After nine school years, probably 2500 students and a million eye rolls later, I think she’s right.

Teaching in Spain is rewarding, frustrating and hilarious all rolled into one job with pretty amazing vacation time.

Want the skinny on teaching in Iberia and tips on how to land and get situated in Spain? I co-penned a comprehensive e-book in 2016 on how to move to Spain and set up as a teaching assistant or ESL teacher.

book pages preview

Read more about it here or purchase it for 10€ through eJunkie! 

More on teaching in Spain: How to Apply to the Language Assistant Program | Paying Teaching Programs in Spain | What it’s Like to be a Language Assistant

An Asturias Road Trip: Exploring Spain’s Northern Coast

As soon as we’d pulled off the A-8 and onto the N-632, my brain kicked into gear: I’d been here before. This very same roundabout, where we’d dodged cars as we lost the trail of yellow arrows at daybreak on the second day of the Camino del Santiago del Norte.

Sí, Sí,” I shrieked. “I know this roundabout! Then we had to cross the highway and a beagle followed us to the little beach -”

“Cat, I’m driving. Shut your pico and tell me where I have to turn,” the Novio said, straight faced and without taking his eyes off of the road, whose grade nosed dangerously down the steep N-634 that runs parallel to the northern coast of Spain.

Camino de Santiago in Muros de Nalón yellow arrow

There are two ways to see the very best of Asturias: by foot and by car. The little mountain villages and pristine beaches are out often of the reach of the rickety old FEVE trains and buses, so retracing my steps on the Camino de Santiago del Norte was an absolute treat.

Deciding to spend a long weekend in Asturias was easy – not only is it our favorite part of Spain, but the Novio and I were celebrating our birthdays, our first wedding anniversary and my pregnancy reaching 20 healthy weeks (the gender reveal was a birthday gift to us both!). What wasn’t easy were the logistics: being a long weekend in August, trains were booked or prohibitively expensive, and both of our cars were standing guard outside of our house in Seville.

We’d need a rental car if we expected to do anything.

I will fully confess that I’d never actually booked a car myself! Always in charge of itineraries and lodging, I’d traversed India, planned a trip to Marrakesh and spent six years in Spain without needing to get behind the wheel. I didn’t even know what rental car companies operated in Madrid, let alone in which areas of the city, so I used EasyTerra to score a cheap compact from nearby Nuevos Ministerios. The service compared the nearby agencies, like Sixt or Enterprise, leaving only the lodging and itinerary (also my job on this trip).

Visit Lastres Asturias

My last trip to Asturias, I’d walked from Avilés to Figueras and across the Río Eo into Galicia, the Bay of Biscay always accompanying me to the left. Three years to the day after we’d arrived in Santiago, we picked up an Opel Meriva and began the trip north.

AP-6 to AP-66 to Oviedo

Glancing at the rearview mirror just past 2:30pm, I saw a snake of cars converting the AP-6 highway into a summer traffic jam. After rejoicing in the lack of people in Madrid for the first half of the month, it seems we’d found them all.

It isn’t a #roadtrip in #Spain till you’ve eaten your bocadillo, am I right?! With @easyterra

A photo posted by Cat (@sunshinesiestas) on

As soon as we’d past the M-50 ring road and the traffic eased up, we stopped for a bocadillo at a roadside bar. All epic road trips in Spain feature a simple sandwich on a dusty road, after all. The Guadarrama mountains melted into the arid plains of Castilla – where I’d studied abroad – before we caught the AP-66 at Benavente.

An hour later, we’d exhausted all radio stations but Radio María, but the music went off, the windows went down and the Picos de Europa rose before us, signaling our passage into Asturias.

A-8 to Faedo

As soon as we’d diverted past the capital of Oviedo and gotten on the A-8, I was flooded with memories of blisters, long walks and conch shells. I began remembering small details of our 200-mile hike, from memorable meals to cat naps in the shade of a picnic table.

We turned off the highway at exit 431, and my eyes grew wide.

Renting a car in Spain

“I’ve been here! I know right where we are!” Guiding the Novio around the roundabout by way of the spraypainted arrows, I was almost delighted to find that the next roundabout was under construction, just as it had been three years earlier. I could feel my calves tighten as the narrow road climbed downwards, past road signs announcing the Camino’s crossing over the highway and remembered our descent towards La Concha de Artedo.

At the bottom of the hill, we entered onto a mountain road that climbed out of a thick forest to hug curves around rolling, green hills dotted with hamlets and dairy cows.

Soon after, my mobile signal was lost. It wouldn’t be back for most of the weekend.

Faedo to Oviñana

La Casona del Faedo said it was in Cudillero, the technicolor fishing village I’d visited on my first afternoon of the Camino. It was an inexpensive, so we booked without realizing that it was in Faedo, a miniscule farming village in the Consejo, or district of Cudillero. But the air was crisp and the farmhouse was quiet, save the far off tinkling of cow bells.

Low phone coverage in Asturias

Ángel showed us to our room in the 130-year-old stone stucture, having recently reopened the family home after more than a decade in Lanzarote. He hailed from Pola do Siero, just like my mother-in-law. The internet signal didn’t reach our room – and neither did the 4G – so we passed time asking him for recommendations for food and sites.

Dusk fell over the valley, and we were back to the winding CU-4 towards the A-8. In Oviñana, we drove narrow roads to Sidrería el Reguerín. There was no place to sit on the patio, so we sidled up to the bar and had a bottle of cider uncorked before I could even ask for a free chair. The culín de sirdina was tart and cut straight through the acidity of the octopus salad set before us.

This is one of those places that has a set menu, but it’s always better to order whatever is written on the chalkboard.

Tabla de Quesos Asturian Cheese Plate

Downing another swig of cider and perking his nostrils, the Novio dove right into Asturian cuisine, ordering an immense cheese platter with quince pastes that disappeared within minutes. I’d have been satisfied, but no sooner had I run my finger along the knife to eat the last few crumbles of cabrales, a dish of fried zucchini stuffed with crab meat came out. The murmur of dinners grew louder as cider glasses were slammed on the wooden bar in rapid-fire fashion.

I took the wheel this time, nervously driving back towards Faedo on the hilly, unlit road.

Faedo to Muros de Nalón

Agustina wiped her hands on her apron as she walked out of the kitchen. “Can I interest you in some of my freshly baked cakes?” We gladly obliged as Ángel poured the Novio a coffee from an aging copper pot and followed it with fresh milk from across the valley. Agustina had been up early making a cinnamon coffee cake and pestiños – a honey soaked, fried pastry.

The Novio inquired about where to get the best smoked sausages and fava beans as Ángel nervously checked his watch. “You should hurry and get to Muros de Nalón. They’ve got a weekly market on Saturdays with just about everything.

A quick gulp of coffee later, and we’d jumped into the rental car and zoomed down the mountain, windows open all the way and the Novio’s hair, normally weighed down with hair gel, gently flapped in the wind.

Quesos Asturianos

Muros had been one of the first towns I passed through on the Camino, upon leaving Avilés and walking in a few circles around Piedras Blancas. We’d rewarded ourselves with a beer before the last ascent into El Pito, where we’d splurged on a nice pensión. The car came to a halt just under one of the blue and yellow tiles marking the path into the center of town and the market.

More than food stalls, we found clothing stands, used books and more people milling about the bars than the small market. While the Novio checked out the long coils of chorizo and morcilla, my nose drew me to the baked goods, where I bought a loaf of bollo preñao: sweet chorizo, strips of fatty pork shoulder and a few boiled eggs baked into warm bread.

Lunch was solved for 5,50€.

The Novio’s stock included six or eight links of both morcilla and chorizo to make fabada, a hearty bean stew. He downed a few culines of cider before we pointed the car down the hill towards Cudillero.

Muros to Cudillero

colorful Cudillero Asturias

Our first night on the Camino included a stop in Cudillero, dubbed as one of Spain’s most beautiful villages. Tucked into a natural bay and protected by rock formations, the sleepy town bubbles over during the high season. And interestingly enough, the town is said to have been founded by Vikings who sought a safe port in its natural breakaways, leading to a local dialect, Pixueto.

In late July, 2013, our legs had been too tired after 26 kilometers to do much else but have a taxi pick us up in El Pito and take us right to the port and its cool, pebble-streaked waters and central cider bars. Three years later, the Novio and I climbed the stairs leading away from the village center to the carefully stacked houses and sidewalks that tumble from the cliffs.

Things to do in Cudillero

Cudillero was just as quaint and colorful as I’d remembered it, though so overrun with tourists that I felt overwhelmed and uncomfortable. Just a simple look over his sunglasses was all the Novio needed to say for us to retreat to somewhere a bit quieter.

Cudillero to Soto de Luiña

“Which way to the Pilgrim’s Inn?” asked the peregrino, eyes, squinting in the hot afternoon sun. His face was streaked with sweat and a bit of dirt, evoking memories of ending up, at 1pm, in much the same state. I pointed up the road, indicating that he make a right just after passing the church, where he’d find a bed for cheap in an old converted hospital.

Camino de Santiago mementos

The Novio put out his cigarette into a conch shell ashtray as we watched a few more scattered pilgrims arrive to the bar we were sitting in front of, dip in for a cold drink and continue on to a nap. The bar was the first in Soto de Luiña – and based on the fact that it had run out of food by 2pm, it was likely the most popular.

We’d walked steadily along the A-632 that morning, dodging cars and cyclists on our way to Ballota and its virgin beaches. The Novio bought a bottle of beer and a bag of chips and instructed me to wiggle into my bathing suit while we drove towards the nearest beach.

Soto de Luiña to Playa del Silencio

I’d often heard that Playa del Silencio was one of Asturias’s best, given that it was inaccessible if you didn’t arrive on your own two feet or in a sailboat. Cradled by a sheet rock cliff and a thick forest, the nearest “village” is several miles away, and there are no chiringuitos or even a lifeguard stand.

Playa del Silencia from above

The car park led us to believe that the place was crawling with beach goers, but most we met on the way were heading back from the beach. The gravel path led down to nearly 350 stone steps that were narrow enough that onlyone person cold pass comfortably through.

My nice leather sandals crunched uneasily over the smooth stones that made up the beach. Even with the 513 meter stretch of beach full of people, there was… silence. Save the breeze whipping past mey ears and the ocean lapping at the rocks, it was eerily silent.

Playa del Silencio

We passed the bollo preñao between us, contemplating the next 20 weeks and what would come after. I treated our weekend as a babymoon of sorts, a few fleeting days when it would just be the two of us, when we could called the baby “Micro” and when my belly just looked like a little bit of bloat. I plucked my straw hat from my bag and rested it gently over my face, succumbing to yet another afternoon snooze – savoring every one of them I’d get before the baby arrives.

Playa del Silencio to Luarca to Puerto de Vega

Washing the salt off of my body, I heard the Novio downstairs speaking with Ángel as his beer glass clinked against the wooden picnic table that we’d come to claim as our own. Not only was it a long weekend, but it was when many villages in Asturias celebrated their local festivals, making for a madhouse in villages that didn’t have the infrastructure for so many cars, tourists and hungry bellies.

fishing villages in Asturias

We decided to try for Luarca anyway, another large fishing town where Hayley and I had spent a night. I remember finding it devoid of much life – it was grey (the water in the bay included) with most of the town shuttered up, despite being called the Pueblo Blanco de la Costa Verde. But in fiestas, it might just prove to be a bit more lively, and local favorite El Barómetro told us they had space at the bar for two.

We drove in circles around the large port and up to the picturesque cemetery looking for parking, but it was futile – we were onto the next village, Puerto de Vega, as soon as we’d determined that even the vados had been taken. Puerto de Vega was decidedly sleepier, but for Casa Paco. We nabbed the last unreserved table in the dining room, a chill chasing us in from the port, where a few white and red fishing boats bobbed up and down with the wake. The octopus was tender, the cachopo – a pork loin wrapped in cheese and ham before being deep fried – as long as my forearm.

Seagull on wood planks

That night in Faedo, I didn’t last five minutes in bed (with covers on!) before I fell asleep to the lull of the diners in the bar below, waking up the following morning to crickets and cowbells as the fresh dew still lingered on blades of grass.

Faedo to Grado

We skipped the pestiños in favor of fresh cheese bought from the neighbor and crushed tomato on bread that Augustina pulled out of the oven with heavy mitts. Unsatisfied with yesterday’s yield of products, the Novio had already spoken to her about the market in Grado. Due to its position in a flat, fertile valley, the consejo is rich in gastronomic tradition, particularly cheeses under the D.O. L’Pitu and beans.

Purple flowers in Asturias

The roads were foggy and damp that morning as the car slid down the valley into Villafria. Ángel gave us instructions as only a born and bred asturiano could do, full of local words I couldn’t grasp, waving hands and landmarks.

We somehow arrived without getting lost (though we had to screenshot the way on our phones due to lack of a mobile signal).

Food stands at the Grado market

Known locally as Grau, the entire town shuts its central streets for the massive weekly market, and shops stay open, closing instead on odd days. We fought our way through crowds and vendors hocking socks, fake watches and clothing to the Plaza General Ponte, where the traditional market has run every Sunday since 1258. I went to check the free samples on cheeses while the Novio proudly announced that the chori-morci he’d bought the day before were fresher.

We tagged team the whastapps, making the rounds to ask which family wanted fabes or fabines for winter stews. A kilo of good quality fava beans in Madrid was nearly twice as expensive at 20€/kilo: prices in Seville could be up to 10€ more! We walked back to the car with arms laden with cheeses, pig shoulder and beans, stopping briefly at a sidrería for a refreshment.

Weekly market of Grado

Our late start meant we’d finished shopping right about lunch time. Agustina had suggested the hearty menu at Casa Pepe el Bueno which, at 17€ per person per menú del día (on a weekend!), was more than we’d paid for a meal all weekend. The low-ceilinged restaurant was as stuffy as it was packed with people. For a starter, we both chose fabada, served in an enormous silver bowl, meaning two plates each.

“Now Micro knows what a true fabada is,” the Novio mused, pushing back his chair as his cider-drenched hake was set down before him.

the Novio in his element

I was able to make room for dessert as I felt the first small rumblings of our child – a quarter Asturian anyway – deep in my belly. That, or a satisfied stomach.

Grado to Playa de Concha de Artedo

The road back from  Grado was far bumpier – I nearly scratched the car on the narrow road behind Pepe el Bueno, stalled twice due to the car’s sensitive gears and was kindly asked to just navigate us back to Faedo. We made it as far as Pravia before losing signal and relying on our instincts to guide us.

An hour later and after risking bottoming out on an old cattle route, I collapsed into bed as clouds rolled over the valley, heavy with rain.

Asturias driving

Slipping on my bathing suit – still a bit damp from my dip the day before – we made one last beach stop at La Concha de Artedo. I’d been but a kilometer from this beach on our second morning of the Camino, and smiled remembering a beagle that followed us from the restaurant at the top of the hill all the way down to the next arrow.

It was chilly but the time I’d found a dry rock to rest my bag, but the Novio was already darting between rocks, looking for baby andarica crabs that had been washed in with the tide. The pools were warm and shallow, hiding the creatures under rocks full of bígaros and clams.

Concha de Artedo beach Asturias

Due to a goof up in our room, Ángel and Agustina had offered to invite us to dinner at the casona, free of charge. Being one of two restaurants in Faedo – the other was a vegan music bar, quite modern for a town whose population hadn’t topped 150 in half a century – she cooked nightly for more than just guests. As dusk fell, the Novio and the propietario shared a few culines of cider and we chowed down creamy croquetas stuffed with local chunks of chorizo and pito al chilindrón, a simple chicken dish in which a whole chicken is cooked and stewed in a vegetable paste.

Mi mujer tiene mucha mano en la cocina,” Ángel would later claim as we thanked them for the phenomenal meal. Indeed, Agustina was a kitchen whiz.

That night, the wind ripped opened our heavy wooden shutters. Lightning pounded the valley, and as I lazily pulled the windows shut and locked them, I couldn’t help but think that there’s no wonder the animal products up here taste better – it rains so much!

Faedo to Lastres

Bueno, hoy es tu día,” the Novio stated, taking a long drag off of his cigarette as Ángel set a glass of fresh juice in front of me. “What’s on the itinerary? It was my 31st birthday, and I wanted to do what any other 31-year-old-woman would want to do: Go to a dinosaur museum.

Chispa the dog

I patted Chispa on the head once more and thanked Ángel and Agustina for their hospitality. Checking the route before we’d be left without internet once more, we rolled down the Meriva’s windows and slipped back down the mountain.

Passing through Colunga before reaching the Museo del Jurásico de Asturias, we gobbled down the rest of our bollo preñao in the parking lot. Being a national holiday, the museum was teeming with kids. I nudged the Novio in the ribs, knowing full well that we’d be skipping the bars for kid-friendly activities in a few short years.

The northern coast of Asturias was once home to a number of sauropods during the Jurassic period, and the Las Griegas beach has uncovered a number of bones and the largest dinosaur footprint to date. Forming part of the Costa de los Dinosaurios, the museum is one of Asturias’s top tourist attractions.

For someone whose favorite college course was based on the prehistoric beasts, I was a bit skeptical due to the number of reproductions (I am a purist, oops), but to have free election over what to do that day, I enjoyed pointing out the different features of dinosaurs and goofing off in the reproductions park.

Panoramic view of Lastres Asturias

Lastres was just around the bend of the AS-257, another quaint village perched on a cliffside. The stone houses reminded me more of the southern coast of France than the northern coast of Spain, with its red roofs and bougainvillea spilling out of window pots.

Though we’d eaten everything on our list – from cheese to fabada to bollo preñao – the Novo hadn’t had vígaros. As a kid vacationing near Lastres, he’d pick the shiny black mollusks off of rocks and dig out the worm with his fingers rather than using a straight pin.

fresh vigaros in Asturias

A waitress spread an old, faded tablecloth at one of the beachside restaurants once we’d descended the stone stairs to the small port. As a summer baby, I was clear about lunch – freshly caught seafood. Time stopped for an hour despite the ancient clock tower ringing every quarter hour. As the restaurant where we sat on stools fishing the vígaros out of their shells filled as the lunchtime hour creeped slowly up, we ordered a plate of razor clams, piping hot with a hint of parsley and lemon, and squid in black rice.

I’d have a birthday pastry at some obscure rest stop a few hours later, the Novio promised.

Lastres to Madrid

clock tower of Lastres Asturias

Tempting fate, we decided to return to Madrid a bit earlier than planned, checking the traffic report on RNE every hour. Once again, we had the Picos behind us in the rearview mirror after an hour, then the Castillian plains before ascending Guadarrama and entering back into the capital.

Perhaps on my next trip to Asturias – Micro in tow – we’ll focus on the oriental part of the region. The Lagos de Covadonga, the tiny mountain villages tucked into crags and providing sweeping views of Bay of Biscay, the artsy cities of Llanes and Ribadasella. Or perhaps he’ll eat cheese at el Reguerín and hunt for crabs with his father at Concha de Artedo.

Colorful Asturias Spain

It’s easy enough to explore Asturias by bus or train, I suppose, but half the fun are the tight turns, the stoping for cows and the sleepy little hamlets where vecinos wave you down to try and sell you their fresh milk or butter. Save walking along the coast, it’s the only way to go.

EasyTerra Car Rental, a Netherlands-based rental agency that compares well-known suppliers in more than 7,000 loctions worldwide, graciously picked up our tab. We paid for gas and navigated tractors trails and tight mountain curves ourselves – so all of the opinions expressed here are my own. That said, their website is user-friendly and their prices are the cheapest we found!

Have you ever driven or walked through Asturias? What places would you recommend?

Three Incredible Experiences to Have on Tenerife

 I’m writing this article from my new flat in the middle of Madrid. It’s stuffy in here and I’m restless (not to mention pale, and suffering a major case of the summer blues). I scroll through the promotions tab of my email and see there are plenty of places in Europe I could be going. Of course, there’s also the option to venture back down towards the South.
Playa Jardin Puerto Cruz Tenerife

I have earned exactly 1.5 vacation days at my new gig, and it all gets me thinking of my 2014 jaunt to Tenerife, which was a real surprise. I expected to see loads of beaches all packed with sunbathers, but we found beaches that had black sand and were empty but for a few locals casting lines into a mirrored bay. We also found pristine coastlines and fresh, inventive food. It was an island holiday that felt decidedly Spanish.

I’ll admit that my friend– an island convert who lives and breathes salt water and blue skies–had planned most of the trip ahead of my time there. Flying into Tenerife Norte and starting in the capital of Santa Cruz, we ringed our way around the northern half of the bowling pin shaped island in three days.

Climb Teide

Towering over Tenerife is the active volcano Teide, which also marks Spain’s highest point. Like the Giralda in Seville, it’s never quite out of view. From the bowels of the island we drove steadily upwards towards its peak, the cities melting into plush forests and finally, a Martian-like landscape as we entered into the Parque Nacional del Teide, which is only 50 minutes from popular resorts in the South of Tenerife like Costa Adeje.

Teide collage

Stretching over 3,700 meters above sea level, Teide is a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its significance not only in the formation of the island, but its flora, fauna, landscapes and its bizarre mythology, which makes it similar to Etna or Vesuvius. The ancient Guanches believed that Teide held up the sky, and from the slender top (if you make it that far with the sulfur smell), you can see across to La Gomera and Gran Canaria. Just remember to dress in layers –  the hike up is hot, but it’s freezing once you reach the peak!

To visit Teide properly, you’ll need to first secure a permit online for free. When you arrive, book a cable car up from the car park (27€), then access the foot trails to the top of the peak.

Eat at a Guachinche

Eating locally produced, tradition-stepped meals for me is usually the highlight of my trips. After we climbed Teide and were sufficiently hungry, we rolled the car down the steep western face of the volcano and into La Orotava and a guachinchie, or family-run vineyard that serves food. It’s a concept as tinerfeño as Teide itself.

This is not the type of restaurant with a large menu, but the more the type of place where you eat whatever they prepare you. The produce comes from the garden out the front, and your table has a faded plastic table cloth. You don’t leave until your stomach is full.

Tenerife Road Trip - Guachinche Eats

Julie asked what was on the menu for the day, as there is not a fixed set of dishes in a guachinche, but she didn’t need to – she just ordered one of each. What we got was a garbazná, long coils of spicy chistorra grilled over an open flame, fresh cheese, a lightly charred steak and eggs with potatoes. Nothing fancy, nothing expensive and nothing from a supermarket. Even the wine we drank was produced on the family’s small vineyard that tumbled down the hill towards the Atlantic.

Explore San Cristobal de la Laguna

Reminiscent of the Canaries’ colonial days, the town of La Laguna also borders one of its modern marvels – Tenerife North Airport. But cradled between Teide’s foothills and the sea, the brightly colored pastel buildings seemed to have broken off from some Caribbean outpost and floated to the western coast of Africa.

Tenerife Road Trip San Cristobal de la Laguna

I can’t say we did much more than stumble along side streets, pick up some fruit in the market on the northern side of town and bathe in the late March sun. There were multiple bottles of Tropical beer split between us, as well as wedge potatoes with spicy, earthy mojo picón sauce.

My next vacation is a month off – and it’s for work, technically – but knowing that the islands or some other destination is just a quick jaunt away has my face turned to the sun before the summer melts away into fall.

Have you ever been to the northern side of Tenerife? What would you recommend doing?

A Guiri Guide to Having a Baby in Spain: 1st Trimester

Well, if there were ever a cat in the proverbial bag, it’s gotten out of the bag and run around the block.

Yes, I’m pregnant.

Yes, it’s the Novio’s.

Yes, I’m exhausted and have a little half moon of a bump. I am also thrilled. And that’s why I’ve been MIA from this blog, social media and my favorite cervecerías for the last several weeks.

Having a baby in Spain was something that my mind had been programmed since the Novio and I got serious. We’d talked about offspring quite early on in our relationship, bought a house with said offspring in mind, and began conditioning our minds to nights nursing babies instead of beers (oh, and I bought a pregnancy book, which thoroughly scared the Novio).

Being pregnant in Spain

And then it happened.

On a Friday night in May, I was fresh off of a train from two interviews in Madrid. I’d been too nervous to eat, so I sat in a friend’s car snarfing down a pizza I’d begged the Novio to order me before a concert. I was drained, which I chalked up to the 5am wake up, the dizzying cost of breakfast in Madrid (4.80€ for a coffee and slice of tortilla!) and two intense interviews.

“You drive terribly in heels,” he said with a mouth laced with beer.

I cried.

“You’re pregnant.”

Qué nooooo,” I responded, knowing full well that I was late but a bit in denial about the whole thing. I was interviewing for jobs in Madrid! I was making summer plans! I was about to drink the Western Chicago suburbs out of craft beer! And I had no other symptoms.

The following day, I took out the trash and headed to the pharmacy, constantly checking behind my back to see if any of my maruja friends from the barrio was in line.

Uhh, dispone de prueba de embarazo?” I asked the pharmacist, not knowing if I’d be able to get a pregnancy test there or if I’d have to head to the Corte Inglés, the Plan B for anything you can’t find at another store. She handed me a box, which I stuffed at the bottom of my bag.

At home, the Novio urged me to take the exam before he began making lunch. Knowing that the HcG horomone – the horomone that surges in pregnant women and determines the outcome of a pregnancy test – is highest in the morning, I chose to wait until the following day, Mother’s Day in the US.

When the two crimson lines appeared the Sunday, post-churros, on the stick, my mind was sent into a tailspin. Crap! I drank a ton of rebujito at the Feria de Jerez the weekend before! How many weeks along am I? Is everything developing ok? How am I going to keep this from my mother when I call her this afternoon?!

I emerged from the bathroom, and the Novio read my face. “Lo hemos conseguido!

Pregnancy Vocabulary in Spanish: Words to Know

Much like when I got my driver’s license in Spain, being pregnant has come with a slew of news words to learn.

Aborto natural / forzoso – Miscarriage / Abortion. A word that’s also sounded a bit fuerte to me, Spanish uses the same word for pregnancy termination, whether or not it’s natural or by choice. An abortion can be performed in Spain up to 14 weeks; abortions performed due to high risk to mother or baby or deformations can be administered up to 22 weeks. If this is a consideration for you, check this Q&As page in Spanish, or ask your healthcare provider.

Ácido Fólico – Folic Acid. Long considered a must during pregnancy, folic acid helps your baby’s spinal cord form properly and you’ll notice it grows your nails and hair, too. I was advised to start taking folic acid a month or two before planning on being pregnant and to continue all the way through the pregnancy. My prescription is written by my public doctors (many private doctors cannot issue them) and are nearly fully subsidized by the government.

Analisís de sangre / orina – Blood / urine analysis. Get used to needles, cups and doctors. If you have a normal pregnancy, you won’t have to do too many, but the first trimester is rife with testing. Tests will likely be ordered by your tocólogo and/or gynecologist.

Cartilla de Embarazada – Pregnancy Information pamphlet. This document will include information about the mother: her age, her health, any previous pregnancies and medications taken. The same will go for the father (just no previous pregnancies). This information will be filled out by the matrona on your first visit, and your obstetrician will fill in information regarding your subsequent appointments, such as medication prescribed. You should bring this pamphlet with you to all visits.

Cartilla de Embarazada for Andalusia

Cribado – Genetic testing done at 12 and 20 weeks. Stemming from the verb cribar, which means to narrow down, a cribado is a blood and urine exam performed to rule out genetic anomalies, such as Down Syndrome and Edwards Syndrome, plus confirm your blood group. This test is extremely important if you’re over 35. Your results, at least in Andalucía, will be mailed to your home address. If results are positive, you’ll undergo more testing. If it’s negative, do yourself a favor and DO NOT Google what your baby likely doesn’t have.

Ecografía – Sonogram or Ultrasound. These will be vaginal until about week 12, after which the baby will be large enough to detect through an abdominal sonogram. Expect to have 3-4 of these in a normal, non-risk pregnancy.

Embarazo de Riesgo – High-Risk Pregnancy. Women in Spain are considered high-risk pregnancies if they are over 35 years old, have a history of multiple miscarriages, are carrying multiples or have certain medical conditions, such as diabetes. These pregnancies often have more doctor’s visits and testing, though it is all covered under the social security scheme if you’re going that route.

Fecha del Parto – Due Date. This will be 40 weeks after the first day of your last missed period, meaning conception usually happens two weeks after (full disclosure: we’re pretty sure baby Micro came to be during the Feria. Any surprise there?). Note that trimester (trimestre) and weeks (semanas) are important buzzwords, and that your baby’s gestational age is considered week+day, such as 11+4. Many of my pregnant or mom friends also call it, salir de cuentas.

Grupo Sanguíno – Blood Type. I have yet to figure mine out, but this is a good time to do so.

Matrona – Midwife. Though you won’t see a midwife too often in the first trimester, you should ask your GP for an appointment with her so that she can fill out your cartilla del embarazada. She will also measure your weight and blood pressure on each visit, then note it done for your records, plus conduct your pre-birthing classes. This person will be assigned to you if you are in the Social Security Regimen, though you can choose to see a private midwife if your insurance covers it, or you pay out-of-pocket.

Tocólogo/a – Obstetrician. This doctor will lead you through the medical side of your pregnancy, from sonograms to the actual delivery if you so request. This person will be assigned to you if you are in the Social Security Regimen, though you can choose to see a private midwife if your insurance covers it, or you pay out-of-pocket (I chose to change to a friend’s mother in the same building with my public health insurance, and she makes the appointments for me. I feel comfortable asking her questions when I have doubts, and this has made a huge difference in keeping me calm!). This word is extremely Andalusian, from what I can tell.

Toxoplasmosis – This may be way Spain-specific, but toxoplasmosis is a big, big deal: this parasitic disease can spread through toxoplasmos found in raw or undercooked meat, poorly washed fruits and vegetables or even cat feces. I’ve long let go of a rare steak and sushi, but jamón can also be dangerous for your unborn child. Some may say it’s a crime to eat embutidos, cured meats, that have been previously frozen to kill potential toxins, but it’s one way to savor your bocadillo de salchichón!

I’ve found that some people are more lax about what they’re consuming than others – always speak to a medical professional and make the choice yourself. Toxoplasmosis can be scary and require further testing and even treatment, so chow down at your own risk!

First Steps

Once we’d told my mother-in-law (and, yes, she promptly began crocheting bonnets and booties), I made an appointment right away with my GP, which is the gateway to any other specialist. She didn’t do much more than congratulate me and ask how I was feeling before scheduling an appointment with the matrona for the following week. I had also called a friend’s mom personally, who would eventually become my tocóloga in Seville.

An important document you’ll receive is known in Andalucía as a cartilla de embarazada, or a small pamphlet that your doctor will record your stats, your treatment and your ultrasound results, plus all dates. Later, you can write down your birth plan here.

Typical doctor visits when pregnant in Spain

The matrona took down all pertinent information regarding both mine and the Novio’s health history, checked my blood pressure as well as height and weight and talked to us about having a healthy pregnancy. These doctors become more important as you develop a birth plan and begin to take birthing classes, though we haven’t had to see her since.

I’ve been fortunate to have a close seguimiento throughout my entire pregnancy. I have been able to squeeze in appointments before Dr. Sánchez is actually on duty and have her call me when other women cancel. In the two months since we found out the news, I have gotten four ultrasounds in the public health system, all of which have been no cost to me. Additionally, the medicine prescribed to me – folic acid, progesterone and baby aspirin – has been mostly subsidized by my public health insurance – a month’s worth of the aforementioned meds have cost me less than 5€.

Two important tests that you’ll do during your first trimester are blood and urine tests around 10 weeks to determine a few things: your blood type, your risk for genetic diseases such as Down Syndrome, and infections. You’ll also be told if you’re at risk for anemia, gestational diabetes or toxoplasmosis and get a check up of your general health. I was able to do both at the same time (be sure to go en ayunas, or without eating or drinking, for at least 12 hours, and bring a snack for after your blood gets drawn) and got the results mailed right to my house two weeks later.

The cribado can be a little scary – it’s when your mind begins to wonder if anything is potentially wrong – and it requires you to sign a waiver. You can refuse to take it, of course, and any other treatment offered to you by the state. Be sure to take the documentation given to you by the tocólogo, which is both the order for the test and the release form, which you must sign before the tests can be administered.

The best advice I’ve gotten from all four doctors I’ve seen? Keep living your life as you normally would. Don’t overeat, listen to your body when it needs rest and cut out alcohol, drugs and cigarettes. And surprisingly, the ganas to have a beer have been next to none since right before I found out I was going to be a mom.

Público or Privado?

Spain has two healthcare schemes: public and private. If you are working for someone else, you are automatically in the social security, or public, scheme. If you are autónoma, self-employed, you can go public, as well; if you’re not working you would be considered private and thus pay for your insurance, co-pays and medication. Check to see if the baby’s other parent has access to healthcare for you and the baby, as some partnerships can share this right.

Public healthcare is open to anyone working or who has worked in Spain (such as a retired person). Clinics and hospitals are denoted as public and usually subject to regional law, called leyes autonómicas. You would be assigned a general practitioner, or a médico de cabecera, in the clinic or ambulatorio closest to your residence, who will then pass you along to the matrona and tocólogo.

I chose to go both routes, as I have both public and private insurance. Truthfully, I prefer the public route because it’s very wham, bam, thank you ma’am – I go at my assigned time, am seen by the doctor with no frills, and they schedule my subsequent appointments for me. The public doctors can also administer prescriptions and women who have high-risk pregnancies often prefer the public system because of the close eye they keep on pregnancies.

When I saw the private doctor, I felt out of place. There was a higher degree of modesty, which actually made me feel uncomfortable, though the equipment was more high-tech and the tests were more thorough. And because I had my cartilla with me, the doctor could give me a second opinion about the treatments I’d received (and spoke highly of my public doctor!).

Some women prefer to get recommendations from other mothers and pay out of pocket. As you can imagine, those who are at the top of their field are more costly. Most private hospitals and clinics can help you choose a provider. The Facebook group Mums in Seville has been great for searching for recommendations, used baby goods and general questions about raising a baby as a guiri in Spain.

Note that private insurance may require what’s called a periodo de carencia (usually 9-12 months) before you can have a pregnancy covered for free or a reduced cost. This means that you must have been paying your plan for a duration of time, stipulated by the company, before you can have free access to maternity specialists. I’ve had Caser’s Activa Plan for three years, so I qualified for free check-ups and most non-invasive procedures are covered. Plus, they have doctors in every neighborhood, so I can walk to appointments!

Maternity Leave in Spain

If you’re cuenta ajena, praise the social system – you’ll get 16 weeks of maternity leave with 100% of your salary paid by your employer at the time this article was published. As someone procedente de the USA, I am sure I’ll be forever thankful to have that time at home to adjust to my new role and bond with my newborn.

Be sure to double-check local and sector labor laws (type convenio + your sector + your province into Google for a PDF document. For example, “Convenio Enseñanza Privada No Reglada Sevilla”).

Pero bueno, how are you?

Fantastic, actually. Before I could see Micro’s tiny arms and legs, I could hardly believe that I was growing a tiny human. Coming up with excuses for going home early or not drinking has been a fun challenge, and telling our family and friends has been emotional. I was able to tell my mom, dad and girlfriends back home in person.

My only symptoms are a few larger body parts (namely my breasts and butt) and becoming tired at an earlier hour, but I’ve had no nausea or mad aversions to food (miss you, pescaíto frito). Truthfully, these 20 weeks have been eye-opening and have left me with a lot of emotions as I am not only swallowing the changes in my body but also how this baby is going to change our lives. To say the Novio and our families are excited is a gross understatement. Oh, and I moved to Madrid just before starting second trimester.

pregnancy at 11, 12 and 14 weeks

And s/he’s been doing some cool things – a long-haul flight, trips to the beach and festivals in Andalucía, sleeping a TON and witness to a few heavy metal concerts before those tiny earbuds could be damaged. I’ve been able to work and work out normally, though I’m a bit more conscious of what I’m eating, the pace at which I’m living and what my body is telling me. As my father said, “I’m sure you’re healthier than ever if you’re eating a Mediterranean diet.” The legumes, fish and lean meats have been in my carrito and I’m craving fruit juice, salmorejo and spicy foods. I can sleep on a dime (or doze off on the floor or on public transportation). I stopped running, even if just to not wait for a stoplight.

Without getting too Mommy on you all, I’m finding it incredible that my body is made for this and that it knows what to do. Some days I’ll drink gallons of water and other days I crave salty food. I can be up all night or sleep for 12 hours straight. My pace of life has definitely slowed down a bit, but in a good way. Micro hasn’t stopped me, surprisingly!

What’s ahead in Second Trimester

First off, we find out if Micro will be a gitana or a chulapo! Typically, the gender can be revealed as early as 14 weeks, but I wanted to wait until the Novio and I could go to a sonogram together. I believe he’ll be in disbelief, despite my growing belly, until he sees the little one on the screen move around and we find out if it will share a name with him or not.

Pro tip: People in Spain don’t seem to understand why you’d wait to find out the gender, so if you don’t want to know, tell your doctors immediately and remind them again at every subsequent visit. I could have found out far earlier, but I’m enjoying the wait! In fact, by the time I push publish, I’ll be at 20+2 and will know if the baby is a boy or girl (My feeling is that it’s a boy!).

Having a baby in Spain appointments

I’m teetering right in the middle of my pregnancy and between two medical systems and beginning to think about what comes around week 40 – delivery and bringing home a baby to our teeny flat with no elevator. I’m thinking about public v. private in Madrid, where I might have the baby and how I want the birthing experience to be. Nancy and I focus our Skype calls on babies and the topic always sneaks up – my jet set group of friends in Madrid were legitimately shocked when I relayed a list of no-no foods to them.

But it’s been fun and I’m loving the extra sleep. And pastries. I am also loving the extra pastries.

What do you think about the big news? Any lingering questions, moms-to-be, or advice to give? Please note that I was a healthy, 30-year-old woman with no family history or previous pregnancies and low risk factors across the board. This post is meant to be orientative and speak about my experience. I appreciate those of you who have mentioned other treatments depending on your situation and pregnancy. Always, ALWAYS consult your doctor or midwife, ask questions and get informed!

Moving to Madrid: My first month in La Capi

As soon as I’d said the word, I clasped my hand over my mouth.

“Gracias.” 

Not an aspirated graciaaaaaaahhhhh, the final syllable lingering like an afterthought. A full pronounced grah-cee-us. With an S at the end.

The man handed my to-go cup of coffee and wished me a nice day, and I walked away, wide-eyed and concerned about how quickly I’d dropped my andalú. What was next, calling people maja or – worse – asking for a caña?

metro of Madrid

It’s already been a month since my abrupt adiós to Sevilla and moved to Madrid. I dropped into life in La Capital like I’d walked its streets forever, like I knew where all of the old man bars were to be found, like I could close my eyes when stepping off the Metro and still make a transfer correctly.

Our aterrizaje in Madrid can only be described as a soft one, one in which there was just a quick bounce, and we had landed.

It had been so long since I’d left a place that I call home and jumped into the unknown – I’ve lived in Sevilla longer simultaneously than any other place (and I moved four times before age 12, so I’m used to being the new kid in class). But, Madrid wasn’t really the unknown. The Novio has tons of family in Madrid, and a week after we arrived, all 10 of the primos were crowded around a table, sharing a meal of pasta and endless embutidos. And I already knew the transportation system, had battled extranjería and didn’t trip over every other word in Spanish.

Gran Via Madrid

My biggest battles, so far, have been adjusting to some language differences (who calls a loaf of bread a pistola?! The madrileños do!) and training my body to get up early and work in the mornings. Between getting settled and starting a new job, I’ve become a creature of the barrio, barely leaving my little bubble in Chamberí.

Hogar Dulce Hogar: Looking for a flat in Madrid

Our first order of business was finding a place to live. Madrid, in case you didn’t know, is large. Like, huge. And every district has smaller pockets of neighborhood, or locals will refer to them as by their nearest metro line. “Qué tal en Metro Cuzco?” I don’t know, how is it?

pamplona houses

So, we began narrowing down the neighborhoods and set a firm price since we’ve decided to not rent our place in Seville just yet. Chamberí was the top pick for areas, and our budget would stretch just far enough for two bedrooms and around 50 square meter of living quarters. After living for six years in a house with the Novio, I was used to space and modern appliances. Plus, nearly every place we saw on Idealista was for students only (with mommy and daddy’s aval bancario) or meant going through an agency and paying extra fees and tax. But I was optimistic, even in the dead of summer.

I became an Idealista junkie, browsing on my phone every time I picked up free wi-fi or waited to cross the street at a stoplight. I called up agents and people offering up places meeting our criteria from 9am until well after siesta time, using the time between tours to take note of the nearest market or churrería.

Every hole-in-the-wall student apartment we saw had something off about it. Too small, too dark, wall-to-wall with Cuéntame-Cómo-Pasó kitchen tiles and heavy wooden furniture. It had been nine years since I’d looked for a place to live in Spain, and nothing seemed “just right.” And this, from someone who wrote an ebook about moving to Spain.

The fifth place we saw is owned by a man named Jesús, sevillano by birth but very much madrileño from many years in the capital city. The place didn’t tick off all of the boxes, but it would work nicely (and no Cuéntame-era tiles to scrub!), particularly for walking to work and saving more than 50€ in a monthly transportation pass.

Best Old Man Bars in Madrid

The area of Chamberí we live in – Rios Rosas – is within 30 minutes walking of Tribunal, right up the street from Nuevos Ministerios and seven stops from Sol while being well-connected on three metro lines. Better yet? It’s quiet yet lively, and the proximity to Old Man Bars is killer.

The Novio has even toyed around the idea of writing a blog about the quality of the Old Man Bars around here.

Baby Steps and an Introduction to the Comunidad de Madrid’s Health System

Jesús handed us the keys and we killed a few cockroaches as we moved in. We settled in, walking around the neighborhood and stopping to eat our way through free munchies at all of the Old Man Bars we discovered. The Novio got us empadronados the following day, and then it was up to me to get us registered at our nearest ambulatorio.

I have seen the error of my ways, people: I can never, ever complain about the Sistema Andaluz de Salud. It was extremely easy to change my records from Andalucía to the Comunidad de Madrid and ask for a new health card, which arrived to my mailbox in three weeks. Everyone was pleasant and signed me up for a doctor and nurse they assured me were great resources for foreigners, and they weren’t wrong. Plus, you don’t have to go through your GP to get an appointment with specialists.

hospital care in Spain

I left smugly, thinking that my move to Madrid would be even easier and called to make an appointment with the lady doctor.

No, no le podemos atender en este centro.” I winced over the phone and asked why not. The woman on the other end curtly told me that they would call me whenever an appointment was available. I explained my situation and the urgency, but she wouldn’t budge. It seemed I was caught in some bureaucratic no-man’s-land, privy to a funcionario who may have been sensitive to my case, or maybe not.

When I did get an appointment, the doctor sent me for a routine blood test at a hospital near my new job. I agreed, thinking I could head in a little early so as not to miss my third day on the job. I waited for over TWO hours and, having not eaten, dug into my granola bar before even having the nurse applied pressure on the stab mark. The sugar put a spring in my step as I showed up for work an hour late, and I secretly missed all of the old ladies in my clinic back in Seville who would say, “Oh, I’m not sick, I’m just wasting time by waiting in line to see the doctor. Haven’t got anywhere to be.”

And when I asked my centro de salud for a follow-up for the results? I was told there are no specialists during the entire month of August, so I’ve been sent to the other side of the city three weeks later.

En fin, I’m learning as I go and being that person on Facebook groups.

A new job in a new sector

The biggest reason we moved to Madrid in the first place was for professional reasons. As much as I loved teaching English in Spain, I couldn’t see myself doing it forever because of the lack of mobility. I was director of studies, and I couldn’t aspire to much more.

As a child who ran before she walked, slowing down to a trot is never something I’ve been good at.

cat gaa sunshine and siestas

I’m nearly a month into a new position as an admissions counselor at an American university with a free-standing campus in Madrid. Myself a product of the system and an experienced teacher in Spain, I can easily point out the benefits of a liberal arts education, a student life office and a multicultural campus – just in my office, it’s normal to hear French and Arabic in addition to English and Spanish. And it’s making me nostalgic for my own co-ed years at the University of Iowa.

More than anything, I’m happy to feel the mental and pshyical exhaustion at the end of the day. The learning curve at my job has been the steepest, between acronyms and academic policies and learning the names of everyone on campus. But I’m feeling fulfilled and that the job is a great blend of skills for me – I’ve got one foot in the education field while the other in the PR and communications camp.

La Vida Madrileña

Pero cómo es que tienes planes? my cousin Irene asked when I turned down her invitation to go to the pool one afternoon when the A/C and reruns of Big Bang Theory were no longer appealing. Part of landing in Madrid was being able to reconnect with friends I haven’t seen in some time, have them show me their city instead of the other way around, and meet so many people who I’ve only ever been connected to through social media.

When I’m asked how Madrid is, I can only reply that, it’s muy bien with a raised eyebrow.

More than anything, it’s been the small adjustments. I was reminded by two neighbors that it’s a fineable offense to take out your garbage in the morning, and that the bins for plastic only come on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. That drinks and breakfast are more expensive, despite my salary staying the same as it was in Seville. That you can get coffee to go or head to the market at 8pm for groceries. I’ve eaten Belgian, Korean and killer Mexican food – and my excuse has always been that I don’t have an over.

I often feel like I’m in Chicago, just conducting my business in Spanish.

Madrid vs. Sevilla: the Ultimate Smackdown

Do I miss Seville? Te-la. Like, me duele en el alma. Walking over the Triana bridge to meet friends last weekend, the Novio and I took stock on the past month. Are we happy in Madrid? I’d say so. We’re together, like our neighborhood and are enjoying our jobs. Madrid has everything that Seville didn’t have for us.

But it’s not Seville, nor could it ever aspire to be Seville.

I have been wondering if people who live in Madrid could ever make as easy of a transition from the capital to Seville. It’s a city where you can’t sit down to most restaurants unless you’re in the hora franja, or 1-5 or 8-midnight. Where there’s only one pharmacy open on Sunday per neighborhood and not a single supermarket. It’s smaller, public transportation is almost mystifying and the whole pace of life is… different. And don’t expect free tapas with your caña.

seville guadalquivir river

But Seville is easy to fall in love with on first glance and romantic in a way that the Metro de Madrid and the long avenues could never be. We’re not so stuck in our neighborhoods and often crisscross the city for tapas or concert venues. We stop for a beer with friends because time moves at a different speed, and that beer is far cheaper, anyway.

On my last trip, I was exhausted by the time my train rolled into Santa Justa just past 11pm. The contrast of sweltering air after two hours on a refrigerated train car was strangely welcoming, and I perked up as I told the taxi driver to take me to a bar where friends were waiting. Esto, sí. This is home to me.

Ana asked me how things were going, grazing my knee every chance she got, just in case I wasn’t really there. When I told her that things were flowing and jiving, she just replied, “Tía, you could make a home anywhere.” It’s the truth.

We don’t know how long we’ll be here, but three years is the minimum. We could stay a lot longer – or maybe try going abroad for a few years. Pase lo que pase, I wanted to live in a big city once in my life, and Madrid feels manageable and willing to let me get to know it.

And we’ll always have Sevilla, thankfully.

Moving to Madrid

Have you ever moved to a new, bigger city? What were your steps to coping and coming out alive? I’d love to hear your take in the comments!

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