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).
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.
“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.
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!
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.
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.
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!).
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!
As soon as I’d said the word, I clasped my hand over my mouth.
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?
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
The Spain of my pre-Sevilla had one leading protagonist (perhaps loverboy?) : Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra. Spain’s most famous author is best known for his chronicle of Spanish knighthood, Don Quijote, Man of La Mancha, and he penned the book while living in Valladolid over 400 years ago.
If you’ve ever studied Spanish, you’ve likely been force-fed the adventures of a wayward knight whose fantasies took over his perceptions of daily life. These days, my fantasies have been about getting out and exploring my new city and its surrondings.
So it seemed only fitting to make our first day trip from Madrid to Alcalá de Henares, the city in which Cervantes was born and to which his name is commonly associated to pay an early homage to his and contributions to the Spanish language and its literature. I’d visited Alcalá on a biting cold April afternoon in 2013; this time, the Novio and I chose a clear day in mid-July to escape the heat in La Capi.
My sense of direction is far sharper than my common sense, so my feet led us right into the historic center and to the Plaza de Cervantes. Ringed with benches and Spanish abuelos (Do I need to tell you that I fell in love with the city immediately?), it sidles up to the university, historic city and Calle Mayor, and is crowned by the former Santa María la Mayor church.
Alcalá is actually a town of 200,000, making it a city by Spain standards. But on a long weekend in the middle of summer, the city itself was about as dead as Cervantes – plazas and bars were empty and shops closed. And without a plan or interest in ducking into a museum, we did little else than stroll from plaza to bar to plaza.
The historic center itself is small and easily walkable, a pleasant cross between the squat, wood-laden buildings conserved from the 16th Century and a modern city with a cutting-edge educational institution.
The Universidad de Alcalá is considered to be one of the oldest universities in the world and became the first planned university city, earning it a UNESCO World Heritage nod. Taking a tour with a guide was the best way to learn about the long and fascinating history of the campus (and it’s under 5€ if you have a carnet joven!) and the role it still has in Spain’s educational system. Oh, and it’s pretty.
The Novio and I walked arm-in-arm through the winding streets of the city, stumbling upon sun-dappled plazas and retracing the footsteps of Cervantes, Caredenal Cisneros and other prominent Spanish figures. Alcalá was also the city in which the Catholic Kings conceded a meeting to Christopher Columbus and agreed to study his claim that the world was, indeed, not flat.
We sidled up to the bar at Bar Índalo, an institution known for its generous free tapas. Most bars give heaping plates of snacks to its student population, but we were más que comidos for less than 12€ and chose tapas rather than having something shoved in front of us. If there’s one thing that Madrid does better than Seville, it’s free bites with your drink (and vermouth. I am an old man when it comes to alcohol).
Visiting the city following a springtime trip to see the Manchego windmills that Don Quijote thought to be giants, the hallmarks of El Príncipe de los Genios were evident, from statues of the Man of La Mancha to bars hailing Sancho Panza, the voice of reason in Cervantes’s most famous title. It certainly gave me context to the man who wrote the Spanish novel I’ve yet to tackle (I’ve had a 400th Anniversary edition for nearly a dozen years).
If you go: Alcalá de Henares is a quick cercanías trip from Madrid – it will take you 40 minutes on the C2 or C7 line from Atocha – roundtrip is about 7,20€. Large city festivals include the Día Cervantino on September 9th and Día del Libro on April 23rd, the day marking both Cervantes and Shakespeare’s deaths.
Have you ever been to Alcalá de Henares or another UNESCO World Hertiage site in Spain? My university town is a UNESCO Literary City, and I’m kind of a book nerd, so please share below!
Just like on the day of her death, my phone started pinging with the news that the Duquesa de Alba’s beloved palace, Palacio de las Dueñas, would be converted into a public museum. Sleep still crusting my eyes from a Friday afternoon siesta, I search for a projected opening date, scrawled “PALACIO DUEÑAS TIX” on an open page of my agenda, and rolled back to sleep.
Several weeks later, under a post-Feria chill and dreary skies, I did a personal pilgrimage to honor Doña Cayetana de Alba, stopping at three of her favorite places – the brotherhood of Los Gitanos, Palacio de las Dueñas and Bar Dueñas.
Born to an aristocratic family in Madrid before the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, María del Rosario Cayetana Fitz-James Stuart (and that’s just the short version of her 26 names) lived her life in constant fear of being alone, bounced between London and the Spanish capital. Despite being gifted in arts and horsemanship and considered one of Span’s most beautiful young women, she only truly felt fulfilled when she was visiting her Tía Sol in Andalucía, according to her autobigraphy Yo, Cayetana.
And it was here at Palacio de las Dueñas, a 15th Century state home situated in the heart of Seville, where she’d marry her third husband, live out the happiest of her days surrounded by art and bubbling fountains, and where she’d return to die.
I began first at her final resting place, the Templo de Nuestro Padre Jesús de la Salud y Nuestra Señora de las Angustias Coronadas (locals call it Los Gitanos for the religious brotherhood that does it penitence during the Madrugá). In a humble tomb decorated with dried flowers rests the hermandad’s gran anfitriona, a large marble plaque marking her final wish to be buried near the altar. Cayetana was a people’s princess of sorts, and her devotion to the brotherhood and fervent faith was as as strong as her love of horses, bullfighting and flamenco.
I wandered the backstreets of a neighborhood I don’t know very well, close to Los Jardínes del Valle, to kill time. Cayetana was often seen out walking, not afraid to be hounded by paparazzi or approached by sevillanos. The only time I ever saw her, she was chattering away in a horse carriage at the fairgrounds, as if she were just another well-to-do sevillana (or at least one of those who took out a loan to guardar aperiencias and pay for the new traje de gitana).
Through marriages and kingdoms uniting over six centuries, the Casa de Alba became one of the most prominent aristocratic families in Spain. By the time Cayetana was born in 1926, the family had amassed over a dozen properties, countless works of art and handicrafts and a name that made anyone either roll their eyes at their immense wealth or sigh in wonder.
Palacio de las Dueñas, named for a monastery that once stood on the grounds, was a place I had to visit before leaving Seville. When my friend Claudia lived next door, I’d often crane my neck over her fourth-floor balcony to see into the palace walls. Orange trees and tiles rooftops covered the patios and living quarters, and that quick glimpse of her dandelion hair at the Feria was all I’d get until she died in late 2014 and I, along with thousands of others, attended her closed-casket wake.
Even though I’d arrived a quarter hour early, the guard let me in, and I had a few moments in the inviting courtyard to breathe in the dew on the naranjo trees. The ivy- and bougainvillea-covered façade was perhaps the most inviting part of the property, a landmark that’s seen dignitaries, foreign movie stars and the glamoratti sleep in its many bedrooms.
The 1,900 square meter property has long been closed to the public, save special events. And even with that much space, once the 11am entrance time hit, I was constantly being bumped into by old ladies or screeched at to move by the same old ladies. I lingered, letting them pass through to the inner gardens while I, like Cayetana, sought refuge in the stables (my mother would be proud).
Considering horses and bullfighting to be two of her greatest passions, the Duquesa kept horses on her property and owned several carriages – not to mention the dozen or so private farms that belonged to her before she divvied them up preceding her third marriage.
The humble stable opens up into a small, dense garden lined with tiled benches, pockmarked with fountains and reminiscent of other famous residents of Dueñas.
Antonio Machado, poeta celebré of Andalucía, was born in the palace when it was still a corral de vecinos, immoralized in ‘Autorretrato de Campos de Castilla’:
Mi infancia son recuerdos de un patio de Sevilla
y un huerto claro donde madura el limonero[…]
Framed by Arabic lattice work etched in marble, arches lead from the private garden into the main living quarters, themselves surrounding a breezy interior patio decked out with sculptures, tapestries and paintings. More than money in the bank, the Casa de Alba’s legacy lies in its numerous land holdings and priceless art collection, protected by the Fundación Casa de Alba.
The tour leads guests through half a dozen rooms on the ground floor, a glimpse into how the Duquesa lived and a taste of her greatest aficiones evident in the decoration and her personal items. Betis flags, sketches, Spanish history books and old Fiestas de Primavera posters seemed to cover every inch of wall, statues scattered throughout great halls.
The most curious item? A white zuchetto, enclosed in a glass case near the altar where Cayetana wed her third husband.
Like Cayetana, I know that Seville is a city that gets under your skin – it’s one of the hardest goodbyes I’ve ever had – and Dueñas celebrates her eccentricity and the beauty and cultural tradition of the city. Like Sevilla, the house is timeless and at its most beautiful in the springtime.
“Todas las primaveras
una nueva tonada
y niñas que, por mayo,
se hacen mujeres”
-Antonio Machado, “Sevilla y otros poemas”
Seville has several beautiful casa-palacios open to the public – Casa Pilatos or Casa de la Condesa de Lebrija being standouts – but Palacio Las Dueñas seems to capture recent history in a way that the former miss.
After passing through the grand vestibule, I paused in the Jardin de Santa Justa and looked at my watch. It was nearing 12:30, the perfect hour to hop across the street to Bar Las Dueñas, a humble tapas bar where Cayetana would have her daily cervecita. I toasted silently to Cayetana’s memory, her legacy and the sevillano sun beginning to break through the clouds.
If you go: Rumor has it that the reason the palace has been opened to the public is strictly financial: the Duquesa’s heir couldn’t pay the taxes it. Regardless, it’s a fine example of sevillano architecture and a museum to one of the city’s most prominent figures in recent history.
Dueñas is open to the public for self-guided tours for a price of 8€, closing only on Christmas Day, New Year’s Day and the Epiphany. Summer hours stretch from 10am until 8pm; the palace closes in the winter at 6pm. You can nab tickets at the gate (note that there’s a limited number available, and tickets have an hourly entrance time) or on ticketea.
I opted for the audio guide, which cost 2€ after the entrance fee. The guide not only gave me a solid understanding of the Alba family’s legacy, which stretches back four centuries, but also pointed out architectural and aesthetic details. This house has museum status, so spring for it!
Querida Sevilla mía,
You know that age-old, “It’s not you, it’s me”? Well, it’s not me. Eres tú. We’ve reached the end of a nine-year relationship, one marked with uncertainty at the beginning, with as much elation as frustration in the years since we became intimate. And más pronto que tarde, I knew we’d end up here.
Te estoy dejando.
My friend Stacy maintains that the first Spaniard you fall for is never the one you stay with – it’s always the second. If Spanish lovers were cities, you’d be my second great love, my second Spaniard. Two years before we got to know each other, Valladolid entered my life. Stately and daunting, but a romance that was always a little off. Castilla y León’s capital never did it for me, a bit too cold and a bit too stand-offish to be anything long-term. Neither the castles nor the robust red wine could woo me, but it was a foray into what it meant to truly love a city.
You and I met on a sweltering July day in 2005, your characteristic heat baking midday as I dragged a suitcase towards Calle Gravina. Back then, the Alameda was all albero, you could drive down Constitution and around the roundabout at Puerta Jerez and there was a noticeable lack of skyscrapers, gastrobars and coffee houses. On the surface, you were beautiful, but I pined for Valladolid, not entirely convinced you were boyfriend material.
Two years later, we were thrust together again. Still sore from being flat-out rejected by Granada, I set out to try and get to know you on a Sunday evening in late September when everything was shuttered. Walking down Pagés del Coro, I craned my neck to watch the swallows dip between the balconies and around the spire of La Estrella chapel.
Swallows, golondrinas, always return to where they’re from. Even at that moment, exhausted from two weeks traveling and unsure about starting my job the next morning at IES Heliche, I knew I had returned to where I was to be from. In those tender first steps in our relationship, I was smitten. I would soon fall deeply in love with you.
But today, nine years later, I ripped the band aid off, and HARD. I just up and left it seems, without time for long goodbyes at all of the places I’ve come to haunt in these years together, to the hundreds of caras I’ve come to know in the barrio. No ugly cries, just a few tears pricking my eyes as I locked up my house, rolled one suitcase to the bus stop and headed towards Santa Justa and, later, Madrid.
Like I said, it’s you, not me.
I guess you could say I saw this coming, like that little ball that sits low in your stomach when you know life is going to darte un giro in a big, big way. I needed that giro because you’d simply gotten to easy. I can understand even the oldest abuelo buried deep into one of your old man bars, can no longer get lost in your tangle of streets. You are a comfortable lover, warm and welcoming, familiar and comforting.
But I’m not one to be estancada, stagnant, comfortable. Walking down La Castellana in March, the ball in my stomach dissipated as I skipped from a job interview back towards Atocha. The trees were bare, but the sky was the same bright blue that always welcomes me in Seville. As they say, de Madrid al cielo. Madrid was calling.
Sevilla, you’ve been more than good to me, giving me just about everything I’ve ever needed. You’re easy on the eyes, fiery and passionate, deeply sensual and surprising. You’ve shown me the Spain I always wanted to find, even between castles and tintos de Ribera del Duero and my first impression of Spain. You’ve reignited my love for culture, for making strangers my friends, for morning beers and for living in the moment. You changed me for the better.
And you will always be that second great love, te lo prometo. Triana will always be my home.
But you’ve just gotten too small. My dreams and ambitions are too big for your pueblo feel, as much as I’ve come to love it. Your aesthetic beauty continues to enchant me as I ride my bike past the cathedral at twilight or I leave extranjería and am not even mad that my least favorite place in Seville is also one of my favorites. Your manjares are no match for the sleek pubs and international food in Madrid, which I know I’ll grow tired of.
I admit that it was difficult to reach your core, to understand the way you are and learn to appreciate those nuances. At the beginning, it was all new and fun and boisterous, the out-loud way that you live each day, those directionless afternoons and long, raucous nights. Lunches that stretch into breakfast. Balmy evenings, Cruzcampo in hand. Festival after procession after traffic jam. Unforgettable sunsets. Unannounced rain showers. Biting cold and scalding heat. You are a city of extremes and mood swings, for sure, but you’re at your best that way. You are as passionate as they say you are.
Still, there were frustrations with the language, that lazy way that you “forget” letters and entire syllables. Frustrations with getting around and untangling the back alleys of your deepest barrios. Frustrations navigating the choque between our two cultures and figuring out a way to make it work for nearly a decade. There was a lot of give and take, that’s for sure.
And that’s not to say you haven’t changed for the better in these nine years together.
You’re more guiri-friendly, easier to get around and constantly coming up with ways to reinvent yourself without losing what makes you, tú. Even when I rolled by eyes at the Setas, I found the best views from its waffle-like towers. You always find a way to stay true to yourself, even if that means having to take the long way home when the streets are choked with a procession or if I call the Ayuntamiento and they send my call from office to office without ever getting through to an actual human.
But those same things that I once loved have become annoyances as we’ve gotten more comfortable with one another. Some of it is trivial, lo sé, but in the bigger scheme of things, we need time apart. Room to breathe, to try new things. I can’t get everything I need from you right now, Seville, y ya está. I know the decision was quick and may have its repercussions, but it’s what I have to do right now if we ever want a chance again.
Madrid presents so many new possibilities. I scoffed at the idea of living there and opening myself up to loving it, but it will never be you. In fact, I think it will be like Valladolid, a tough nut to crack and one whose true character I may never know the way that I know you.
I’ll look for you in the bares de viejos, in a sevillano passing by wearing a Betis t-shirt, in the way that the Madrid gatos will laugh at my accent or look puzzled when I ask for a copistería or a cervecita. You’ll probably follow me around, to be honest. You were never one to let go lightly.
This morning, as I drove over the San Telmo bridge towards Triana, the swallows returned. It was already a warm July morning, maybe even eleven years to the day since I first felt the breeze over the Guadalquivir. Eres un amor para toda la vida, Sevilla. Maybe in three or five years’ time, we’ll find ourselves back together, a bit more mature and ready for a new stage in our relationship. You’ll have changed, I have no doubt, and so will I.
But if the golondrinas are any indication, volveré. It’s the natural course.
Con todo mi cariño,
Wondering about my absence the past two months? I’ve been back and forth on the AVE, making trips to Madrid for job interviews, spending time alone with Sevilla and even squeezed in a ten-day trip to the US for my sister’s wedding. On July 3rd, 2016 – coincidentally the same day I applied for my visa for Spain in 2007 – the Novio and I officially moved to Madrid. I’ll start a job in a few weeks as an admissions counselor at a prestigious American university with a campus in the heart of La Capi. Adiós, teaching – never thought I’d see the day!!
Will I like Madrid? I’m positive I will. Will I love it? Not in the same way that I love Seville, but the Novio and I have big plans for the next few years, and Seville was simply too small for our career ambitions. I’m not entirely sure how the scope of Sunshine and Siestas, a blog that has largely been about Andalucía, will change, but you can count on my voice coming through!
I’m curious to hear your reactions to the news, which I’ve managed to keep surprisingly quiet! Not even sure I believe it myself!