The Guiri Guide to Having a Baby in Spain: Fourth Trimester

It’s just before 4am and my body wakes me up slowly. The baby, in his Pack n’ Play next to my bed, is stirring, too. Like clockwork, he’s still doing comfort feedings once a night, snuggling into my armpit as I lift up my pajama top. The light on my Kindle is soft enough to help guide him to my nipple, his eyes still pinched shut. I feel a familiar tug and a squeaky sucking noise, and flinch as my milk comes in.

One feed down, six more to go today.

Nine months. It’s been nine whole, life-changing, tiring, fast-paced months. He’s been on the outside just as long as he was on the inside, a baby milestone that we mothers hold dear.

My closest friend congratulated me on keeping the baby alive . “Keeping a baby alive?” I replied, “That’s the easy part!” It’s everything else that’s been trying.

The first 100 days

They say that babies need three more months of gestation to be completely ready for the outside world. And us new mothers? We need those three months to ease (um, or not) into the immense responsibility of caring for someone else. I didn’t feel like myself for those three whole months. It took a new pair of jeans, an awkward first sexual encounter and my child being an actual person for me to feel the fog lift after nearly 100 full days with Enrique in our lives.

The first six weeks – “La Cuarentena”

I was thankful and overwhelmed to have my family with me for the first week of Enrique’s life. They kept me hydrated and fed, gathered my lactation pillow when the baby needed food and helped me to learn the new parent ropes. I hadn’t changed a diaper since I was 12 – two decades in the past – and didn’t know how to bathe a baby with his umbilical cord still attached.

My dad, sidelined with a lingering ankle injury, and I challenged one another to walk one block further every morning while my mom stayed with the sleeping baby, knitting a blanket. I learned how to breastfeed in the streets without feeling weird about it. We took him for his first exams and check ups.

He was healthy; I was besides myself.

Almost immediately, the gray hairs and the bags under my eyes cropped up. My hormones were all over the place, resulting in crying until I fell asleep on several occasions. The Novio’s job wouldn’t allow him to take his 30 paid days of paternal leave because of an assignment, so I spent long hours at home with the baby, struggling to get him out of the house so that I could clear my head or run out for another bag of coffee or maternity underpants (I was sad to give those up, I have to say). Forced to learn how to do things with one hand with a newborn in the other, I reverted to the most primal instincts: eating, sleeping, brushing my teeth and whatsapping.

There was a day when my tupperware of puchero was heated up and then cooled off and then heated again so many times that I didn’t eat it until nearly 8pm. By then, it was all mush. Another day, I counted ten granola bar wrappers on the coffee table and realized that I wasn’t taking care of myself.

I wouldn’t have been able to survive the first month as a mommy without my mother-in-law, who came to stay with me every night. She’d cook a meal for me, bring me whatever I asked for (including hemorrhoids cream, eep) and even took care of the baby at night so that I could sleep some. We became quite close in those 40 days.

^^^

I returned to Madrid when Enrique was six weeks old, relieved to be in a smaller house where I could leave the baby in his crib while running to the bathroom. He was getting bigger and stronger, and I was eager to explore Madrid and make the most of my 16 weeks with the Little Man.

I had an appointment with my matrona a few days after arriving to Madrid. She had me fill out a survey that was supposed to determine my risk for postpartum depression. The questions were misleading, like, “I feel confident I know what I’m doing.” Sometimes? “I want to spend all of my time with my baby.” It’s nice to have a five minute shower without the baby hanging off of me? She didn’t classify me as at-risk, but I felt overwhelmed just by the questions. Freaking Mommy Culture.

I did my best to find other mommy friends and attend the free sessions at my health clinic on baby first aid and baby massage. But I felt judged, like my parenting skills were nowhere near the rest of the mommies who didn’t need to breastfeed their babies until they konked out.

One weekend, while my mother-in-law was in town, we walked to the Corte Inglés for baby gear (que conste: I spent more time at the Nuevos Ministeros Corte Inglés than anywhere else during my maternity leave, and they have a great sala de lactación). I saw someone with a baby about the age of mine who looked well-rested, perfectly coiffed and didn’t have a single spit up stain or booger on her neatly pressed blouse.

“You know her mother is doing everything for her, right?” my mother-in-law whispered as she motioned for me to take over the stroller again. “Te toca.”

^^^

My cousin – the mother of four girls under age five – asked me at a family party, “Aren’t you just loving it?”

My answer was as brave and truthful as I could muster: “Most of the time.”

The first three months

I made the realization that I was not a fan of the baby phase. Much like I hated teaching preschool, once I came through the fog of the first 90 days and could admit that newborns were not my thing, I immediately felt better.

Enrique turned three months on American soil, already having earned his wings on a cross-Atlantic flight. Apart from a higher-than-usual poop frequency and the awkwardness of passing through security with a carry-on, diaper bag, stroller, baby carrier and the baby himself, I was relieved to have someone else to hold the nugget while I was home. I relished in walking the dog and the baby together every morning and helping him learn to roll over and strengthen his neck muscles. I felt comfortable breastfeeding (even if no one else wanted to see it because, America) and was catching up on sleep.

After buying a new pair of jeans (I dropped the baby weight way too quickly due to nursing) and finally being intimate with my husband, I felt 95% like myself again.

During these few months at home, I did my best to play with the baby, to be attentive to him and to return to a semi-normal life. I could put him in his hammock without tears so as to wash the dishes or take a shower while singing to him. Breastfeeding no longer felt like a chore – the baby hopped on and off the boob without getting distracted. As we got to know one another better, I settled into a routine.

Albeit, a routine that still involved pumping once or twice a day and a lot of bad TV.

The first eight months

As we teeter on the edge of nine months, I’m amazed at how much Enrique has grown and learned. By all accounts, he’s a happy, healthy baby with a penchant for ripping paper, putting everything in his mouth and rolling over 17 times before falling asleep. He’s got six teeth, is nearing 9 kilos and loves to babble. Every day, there’s something new to learn and see, and I’m often left wondering where these nine months have disappeared to.

When he’s asleep or leaves me with a few minutes of peace, I sometimes forget how much life has changed. Or that I had a life before him.

One of the things I’m finding the hardest to come to terms with is the lack of time. I’ve always managed my free time well, setting goals and accomplishing them while staying active and still sleeping eight hours a night. Since having a baby, it takes me six weeks to draft a blog post, three hours to shower and get dressed and about one minute to feel frustrated about it. It’s impossible to micromanage with a baby.

Case in point: I began writing this blog post before the baby was three months old. I have written and rewritten it in my head countless times while busing a baby to daycare, while rocking him to sleep, while trying to rock myself to sleep after a late night feeding.

Yes, I’ve gotten distracted with freelance projects, with trips to Sevilla, with returning to work. Those babies who sleep for hours on end? Mine is not one of them. In fact, the pediatrician told me to put him in a forward-facing stroller when he was six weeks old. So much for binge-watching all of Game of Thrones so I’d have SOMETHING to talk about with friends.

So, toma, you get short vignettes (that’s all I can manage before he wakes up and wants to eat/play/burp!):

On Breastfeeding

On one of the baby’s first outings, my mom, the Novio and I went to have breakfast before taking him for the heel prick test. The baby was four days old, and the January sun was already bright. We’d succeeded in getting four people out of the house on time, but panic struck as soon as we sat at Pedro’s bar.

DIOS, the baby is YELLOW!” I cried, then cried tears. “I’m not feeding him, I suck at parenting!”

Granted, I’d slept about four hours and was mentally exhausted to boot, but seeing a jaundiced baby was not the way to celebrate cutting our getting-out-the-door time from three hours to two.

I’d struggled to breastfeed in the hospital, resorting to pumping to stimulate my production and having an awkward moment with my father-in-law where he massaged my breasts. My poor puritan father couldn’t be in the same room with me when I fed his first grandchild. And, now, my child was yellow as a banana.

^^^

Menos mal that women are speaking up about how difficult breastfeeding can be. Between stressing about the baby gaining weight and latching correctly, then being literally en tetas all day, I felt like a cow. It was an endless cycle of, Eat-Burp-Sleep and repeat every 90 minutes. Any time I’d finally get him down and out of my arms, it would be the question of what to do first: pee or eat.

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I was hellbent on breastfeeding exclusively for six months, which often lead to head-butting with the Novio when he wanted to start the baby on solids or he suggested I give the baby formula. When Enrique was around 12 weeks old I finally cracked and bought a bottle of formula as back up, even though my instincts told me he didn’t need it. Again, damn Mommy Culture for telling me that breastfeeding is the ONLY way to go, and that even considering formula was a mortal mommy sin.

I attended a few Liga La Leche meetings, which I highly recommend. If for nothing else, for moral support and for a few hours out.

^^^

I love being able to breastfeed my baby, but I HATE pumping. I hear the flat sucking sound of my expensive pump that is too small for my boob size and shudder. I struggle to not spill the pumped milk when transferring it from bottle to storage bag and have on more than one occasion cried over spilt milk.

^^^

When we took Enrique for his four month check up, I was told that he was slightly underweight and would have to start on cereal in his bottles. I was devastated. Once again, my confidence took a hit as I cursed my body for not responding to what I conceived as natural. Everyone reminded me that a fed is best, but all of the god damned Mommy Wisdom pointed to my failure to feed him myself.

Two months later, we started him on solids, leading to less diapers to change but more constipation.

^^^

Enrique breastfed until last week, mere days before his ninth cumplemes. We stuck with it, despite my being topless for a large part of the day when all of the lactation experts suggested I feed on demand. I have only had blocked ducts when I returned to work and no bleeding or cracked nipples – just a few nibbles from his new teeth. I feel fortunate that it’s gone well and that we’ve found a rhythm, especially when I know many women who were unable to breastfeed.

The destete always had an end date, as I travel for work in he Fall. In many ways, I’m relieved that he’s a good eater and will take bottle, spoon, hunk or anything waved in front of his face. I’ll miss the way he caresses my face and boob when he stares up at me, and feel that all of those hours with him in my arms have helped forge a bond. He still gets pangs of mamitis whenever I arrive home from work, often stopping what he’s doing and whining until I pick him up.

But I’m ready to move on and watch him learn to eat on his own. Maybe that’s just part of motherhood, the constantly letting go.

On Returning to Work Post-Maternity Leave

Before I could really enjoy maternity leave and bonding with the baby, I had homework: I needed to find a childcare option. Unlike all those well-kept Spanish mamás who can rely on their mothers, we had no choice but to pay for someone else to watch our baby sleep and occasionally give him a bottle or change a diaper.

Truthfully, finding a guardería felt a lot like rushing a sorority to me.

We were given a permanent spot in my first choice guardería, just one block away from my job, for July. But that left May, June and a handful of days in April to cover. Desperate, I dressed us up nicely and went from daycare to daycare, trying to impress people I’d speak to for three minutes, acutely aware that there was a baby quota, and that quota was low.

Just like legacies have a pass into Alpha Beta Baby, so, too, do brothers and sisters. I finally wizened up and checked prices and availability so that I could dedicate more time to eating my way around my neighborhood bakeries rather than pushing a baby carriage for anything other than leisure.

Looking for daycare in Spain was a test of my patience. My favorites? “We make only organic food!” Yes, and charge me three times as much what I could make at home myself. “We’re bilingual!” So is my household. “We have the cheque bebé!” What difference does it make when you’re charging me those 90€ more in organic food and estimulación de inglés?

Ugh.

When I finally found a place that had an opening (they may have broken a few laws to make an extra 400€), I truthfully wasn’t impressed. There was no plan escolar and the place smelled like baby (did I mention I hate the smell of diaper cream and Nenuco?). But I promised myself that my time at home would be the baby’s main source of stimulation and cariño and signed him up.

^^^

My vuelta al trabajo date got closer with every sleep, with every bag of breastmilk stashed in the freezer. While my other pregnant friends had worked out a few extra months at home, I looked forward to going back to work. I like the professional part of my life, and the truth is that I couldn’t watch any more reruns of The Big Bang Theory.

You know it’s bad when you can sing all of the commercial jingles.

On the day that I left Enrique at the daycare for the first time, there were a few tears. These tears were easily quelled with a coffee and piece of cake, and a very understanding boss. If it comes to anything, it was my years as a teacher and knowing that the employees were trained to at least not leave an infant unattended on a high surface. I only called the guarde midday for a week for a progress report (and to make sure he’d pooed).

But, I have the friendliest baby who breaks into a smile whenever he sees someone new. You have no idea how much it hurts when you go to pick up your spawn and he cries as soon as they hand him off to you.

^^^

My days now are long. Alarmingly long. A friend vacationing in California once asked why I was awake at 6:30am on a Thursday. Easy – it takes me exactly 80 minutes to wake up and get us out the door. When I return home, there’s baby food to prepare, said baby to play with, chores to keep up with once he is asleep.

But as someone who likes crossing things off my list, I make it work. And it makes nights and weekends even more fun. Though Mondays are even more monday with an adorable little family, I admit.

On First-time Parenting

I used to boast about how well my baby could hang – he’d fall asleep in the jaleo of a cervecería as if he were being rocked in someone’s arms. Then one fine day, we discovered that Enrique was colicky. Now, there are two types of colic in Spanish: one in which the baby cries uncontrollably for no apparent reason, and the other where a baby can’t easily digest breastmilk and cries and screams for several hours in the evening. This eventually tapers off at three months, but it seriously tested our patience.

Qué le pasa?” The Novio would ask me, and I’d run down the list. Is he hot or cold? No. Is there a tag scratching against his skin? Unlikely. Is he tired? Perhaps. If all else failed, out came the food source.

Then there was the time we forgot sunscreen in the car and had to coat his face in diaper cream. Or when we’d leave the house only to return because of an explosive poop episode the minute we’d order a beer. And one of my favorites was when he wouldn’t calm down to sleep, so I walked him in the rain to a bar where I could dip in for a hot drink. As soon as he heard the Semana Santa music, he closed his eyes and stay asleep for well over an hour.

We’re still so new to this and don’t ever think we’ll stop learning how to handle an infant, a toddler or a teenager. Most days, we can laugh at ourselves (though this usually involved having had a decent night’s sleep), and I think we’re holding it together all right.

Well, until I cry from accumulated sueño and because I really, really want a cookie.

On Mommy Culture

One of my longest sevillana friends came to visit a few weeks ago, and we spent a warm afternoon over dobles in Plaza Olavide with the babe. I asked her to regale me with stories of dating in the Big Apple, what it was like to have an American salary and about her last vacation; she asked me how I was holding it all together.

Nothing like hanging with your abroad besties to realize just how different your life has become.

Perhaps one of the hardest things to come to grip with has been the cross-cultural mixed signals and the extreme judgement. Maybe it’s all in my head, but it can be difficult to navigate what I know to be true about child-bearing from my own American upbringing, and what Spanish abuelitas say. Our pediatrician is Venezuelan and suggested that the baby’s first lean meat come from a horse; she was later under fire when she told us to give the baby kiwi, sparking a rash and a trip to the ER.

When I check my phone while out on a walk, I feel like I’m betraying my baby. Or when I drop him off at daycare. And when I ask my husband to feed him to I can wash vomit out of my hair, I wonder if I’m being selfish. Can other mothers sense this? Do we have a sixth sense when it comes to who is doing their job and who isn’t? Hell, I even felt bad watching Gilmore Girls while feeding the baby on my maternity leave. Aren’t I supposed to give my undivided attention to him at all times, and not to Lorelai and Rory?

My mother stayed home with my sister and me, returning to her job as a teacher when I was in second grade. I am thankful that she made that choice, but I know I wouldn’t be happy wearing just one hat.

Perhaps it’s the influence of social media that’s got me all huffed and puffed. That we judge one another with all of the postureo and the need for attention and the need to share all. The day care’s director assures us that we are both doting parents who give off an air of peace and tranquility towards the baby. If he only knew how exhausting he can be…

On Motherhood and What Comes Next

As I settle into motherhood and continue to be amazed – by how much the baby learns, by the seismic way in which he has changed our lives and our relationship with one another, by the sheer exhaustion that consumes my week. Truthfully, it took me time to get a grip on how much I adore the little beast I created and nurtured while I have slowly let go of my past life.

For a long time, I wondered if I wasn’t meant to be a mother, despite my deep desire to have children since I was a child myself. All of those women who gushed about how complete they felt, how their child was the best thing that ever happened to them – I didn’t feel it. Motherhood and the abundance of feelings and love slowly permeated into every aspect of my life as Enrique gets bigger and comes into his personality.

And I’m not afraid to admit that I miss my old life, pre-baby. Or that I miss being pregnant. Or that I want at least one more.

Being a parent is one of the most emotional things I have ever experienced (and this coming from someone who wears her heart on her sleeve). I feel abundance and I feel complete scarcity. I’m both hopped up and run down. My baby can be a burden one minute and my source of joy in another. My hormones have subsided – for the moment, anyhow – but  can’t even begin to fathom how they may change as we watch this tiny human learn to walk, talk and probably become a huge asshole.

I wish I had advice for other first time mothers, especially us guiris who live in Spain. You’re subject to extreme morriña for your family and home country, as well as the exhiliration of raising a baby abroad. You’ll warp your language and find your native tongue comes out when cooing at your little creation. You’ll scoff at the unsolicited advice from abuelitas but feel relieved when they tell you how to combat diaper rash. As with anything unknown, you won’t know what you feel until that phase of your life has, regrettably, passed.

For now, I’m trying to be myself as I change and adapt to being Enrique’s mommy.

^^^

At my six month check-up with my gyno in Madrid, He of the Amazing Mutton Chops, I asked a very simple question as soon as the wand went back in: “There’s no one else in there, verdad?”

No, hija, your womb is all clear.

Well, for another year or two until we decide it’s time for Enrique to be a big brother.

The Guire Guide to Pregnancy and Childbirth

I’d love to hear your feedback – and thank you all, sincerely, for the well wishes and the outpouring of love for the Babyman. To those of you who have visited, sent gifts, trekked out to my parents’s house in the suburbs – thank you. It helps knowing that, despite all of the changes, I have great people to rely on and an Army of Titos!

You can read about my experience as a pregnant foreigner in Spain and about labor and delivery in earlier posts.

The Guiri Guide to Pregnancy in Spain

the-guiri-guide-tothe-guiri-guide-to

Photo Post: A Perfect Day in Tapia de Casariego, Asturias

When we returned to Western Asturias, where we took our babymoon, we had two things clear: we’d stay at Agustina and Angel’s guest house, la Casona del Faedo, and we’d let the baby mark our rhythms. Enrique would turn six months old during our sojourn, and as such, was on the verge of starting solids. He’d already earned his wings and had become a proven road warrior, so we were confident that he could handle a few nights of sleeping in a new place.

Tapia de Casariego Asturias

If it were up to Enrique, he’d wake up at 8am sharp. Wake up slowly, blinking in the morning sun that streams in, accompanied a damp breeze. A horse bellows in the distance as he balls his hands into fists and stretches them down towards his feet.

While the Novio refueled with a coffee and prepared a day bag, I fed the baby with one of Agustina’s cakes in hand, my back pressed up against a 19th Century headboard. The morning had dawned chilly but bright, the promise of a perfect day. Agustina wrapped up a few spongy squares of cake and pressed plums into our hands for the road.

Tapia de Casariego was within reach when I did the Camino de Santiago in 2013. Everyone raved about its picturesque port and laid-back surf town vibe. Just like that July day four years prior, the weather would have been perfect for a diversion back up to the coast instead of dipping down to A Caridad; four Julys later, I had convinced the Novio to spend a morning before taking the baby to Playa de las Catedrales during low tide that evening.

Camino de Santiago signage in Tapia de Casariego

The familiar yellow shell met us as soon as we’d parked the car and steered ourselves into the main square. A sea breeze lifted off the peninsula and swept through the sleepy center of a town that thrives on fishing, agriculture and tourism. There was little more than the requisite church, one which channeled Tenerife’s temples, and a few shops, still shuttered in the early morning.

We wound around the steep streets of the fisherman’s barrio, a mismatch of humble homes that fans out over an isthmus, stopping to have a beer right at noon next to the small port.

view of Tapia de Casariego

The port of Tapia de Casariego

Yep, it’s as picturesque as they say.

Rather than the packed ports at Luarca and Cudillero, Tapia’s humble puerto boasted less boats and of those there, not one screamed luxury or even a fresh coat of paint.

I have come to realize that I need a body of water to feel calm and full. Being from the landlocked Midwest, even a river will do. But a bustling little port with cheap beers and sunshine? Sold. One hundred times sold.

Tapia de Casariego

beer on a sunny day

Most of Asturias’s festivals fall in July around the Virgen del Carmen feast day on July 13th, and Tapia treated us to a small parade, complete with a doll-sized Virgen Mary that would eventually be floated out to sea. The drums and bagpipes called Enrique’s attention, and he squirmed in my arms, grinning.

Banda de Gaitas Tapia de Casariego

Regional dress in Asturias

Traveling with a baby is…different.

Gone are the lie ins and leisurely lunches; the lack of planning, non-existent.

But the beauty lies in the little moments, in his discovery of a new place, a new flavor, a new feeling. We took Enrique down to the Entreplayas beach, littered with treasures of the low tide. Stripping off his cloth shoes, he gingerly set his toes in the damp sand, squealing with toothless delight.

I slipped off my sandals, resting them on a rock beside the baby’s, and rolled up my jeans. As the cold water rushed in, he curled his toes and shuddered before breaking out into his laugh.
the beach at Tapia de Casariego

Baby's first glimpse of the ocean

Following the Novio’s cousin’s spot-on recommendations for food, we made a reservation at La Terraza, a long-standing cider house in the heart of the village. Being just a few kilometers from the River Eo, which separates Asturias and Galicia, we had the pleasure of a menu that included both – and we went full-on Galicia with raxo, pulpo a la feira and a salad drizzled with escabeche.

Asturian food menu

where to eat seafood in Tapia Asturias
Delicious food at La Terraza Tapia de Casariego

And, as always, no faltó la cidrina, the Asturias habit we can’t seem to break. Enrique snoozed in his stroller, obviously to our cider-fueled laughter and clinking glasses.

Even though the day was only halfway over, it was the broche de oro on baby’s first trip.

Have you ever been to Western Asturias? We’re planning on making it our thing and would love tips! Be sure to check out La Casona del Faedo near Cudillero and my tips for an Asturias roadtrip!

The Guiri Guide to Having a Baby in Spain: Labor and Delivery

From the looks of it, I haven’t had a baby. My belly has long since deflated and I’m walking upright again. My face isn’t swollen, the byproduct of cookies and a growing baby in my belly. I am a mother, though if I’m not totting around a diaper bag or pushing a stole like a bat out of hell, you’d hardly know I have an eight-month-old baby.

But I am changed in so many ways, from the muscle tone to the thinned out hair. Entering the +child phase of my life has been nothing short of eye-opening. Earth shattering (in the best sense). Like I’ve never been any different from the way I am now.

And it all began with his llegada a este mundo

Enrique: a (brief) birth story

“Ohú hija, qué placenta más vieja.”

I closed my legs as Eduarda snapped off her latex gloves and motioned for me to pull my leggings back up. The Novio stood, arms folder across his broad chest, stoic in the examination room. The monitors showed that Baby Man was healthy and I was having painless, mini contractions, but the grave look in Eduarda’s eyes told me that the optimism that the matrona had was not what she’d seen.

It was January 3rd, 2017 – my due date.

Her pink pen scribbled something in my patient chart, then moved furiously to a prescription pad. She avoided my glance and again looked at the Novio. “Tomorrow, this baby is coming out. Report at 8:30am: you’ll be induced at 9, sharp.”

The Novio took the prescription and gathered up my materials, painstakingly organized in a green plastic folder. I sat, dumbfounded, sweating and like someone had taken a big stick right to my placenta. Induced? After the healthiest, loveliest pregnancy?

cat-gaa-in-triana

That afternoon, I sent my family out of my house so that I could rest and come to terms with being provocada. The baby hadn’t gained any weight in the previous week and my placenta was beginning to calcify (they don’t tell you about that in prenatal classes). I tried everything that afternoon to enter into labor – half a bottle of Tabasco, long walks, a warm bath, two tetrabricks of pineapple juice.

At 10pm, I restructured my birth plan, reminding myself that my meditation for a perfect birth was always overshadowed by the advice of a medical professional. My half-packed hospital bag wouldn’t get left behind in the rush to the hospital, nor would I break waters doing some mundane task, like grocery shopping or having a Cola Cao with my girlfriends. Enrique would be born with medical intervention and on a day that a doctor planned, not him.

The following morning, the Novio made me a big breakfast and cracked open another brick of pineapple juice. I ate in silence, forcing myself to chew when my nerves seemed to be pushing the food back out. When you’re induced, you can’t eat in the event that you need an emergency C-Section. But it’s not like I had the appetite anyway.

The 350m walk to the hospital felt like a death march. Once checked into my room, María, the matrona on duty, came in to take me to the monitors. Like the day before, the fetal heartbeat was strong and I was having small contractions, but they’d need to give me medicine to ripen my cervix. An hour later, I was back in my room, bouncing on a medicine ball while reading “Homage to Catalonia” and sipping pineapple juice boxes (seriously – I haven’t drank any zumo de piña since). The contractions were closer together and getting stronger, but after two hours, Eduarda broke my waters.

Giving birth in Spain and the hospital rooms

While my contractions continued to progress, I convinced myself that I was strong enough to not have an epidural. Didn’t they say you wouldn’t be able to talk, just concentrate on riding the wave of pain? The Novio sat, glued to the chair, eyes wide in terror every time I’d squat in front of the bed, white-knuckling the plastic footboard and sucking in air. “Te ayudo?” was all he could muster as I gave him a deranged smile and assured him I could do it.

Later that afternoon, when Orson Welles was on the front lines and my heartburn tasted like pineapple, Eduarda gave me a reverse compliment: You look good. Demasiada buena, too good. I stood up and gathered my slippers, a bottle of water and my courage: I’d need an epidural because I was getting pitocín, the drug equivalent of oxytocin. So much for a non-medicated birth.

To spare you all the details, here’s the cliff notes version: monitors, epidural, nausea and extreme cold (resulting in three blankets), drop in fetal heart rate, more epidural, nine pushes, a terrified father, Krissler maneuver, vacuum, stitches. The Novio nearly missed the birth when he went to make a few phone calls to our families and likely chain smoke – I, to this day think he had it worse than me that day (but I definitely had it worse the two weeks following). Enrique was born vaginally at 9:05 pm after 12 hours in labor.

As the stupor began to dissipate, I asked the questions: What color are his eyes? They’re shut. Does he have all his fingers and toes? All here. “It is a boy, right?” Yes, twigs and berries identified.

And my favorite: “Did I say anything mean to you to deal with the pain?” No.

When Enrique V was placed on my bare chest a half hour after delivery, I honestly didn’t feel anything but relief that delivery was over and that he was out and passed his Apgar exam. I didn’t feel a rush of feel-good hormones and instant bonding as I stressed over whether or not the baby was actually mine and still stupefied that I was now a mother and a whole new stage of my life had only just begun.

bocadillo de jamon

After 30 minutes of monitoring us both, I was wheeled into my room to recover and finally have two uninterrupted hours of skin-to-skin time. Lying facing the ceiling and the dizzying, harsh lights, I was almost relieved when the pediatrician came in to take the baby for tests and immunizations because I was ravenous and exhausted. The bocadillo de jamón that the Novio brought me was a gift from the Gods.

The Eighth Month

I spent the last four weeks of my first pregnancy in Seville.

More frequent were the doctor visits: there was a general check up and blood test at 37 weeks, a stress test the following and a further check up at week 39. Eduarda examined my cervix at each. I was hopeful that I’d already begun dilating but she clucked at me and told me that long walks and gravity would help the baby coax himself out. Still feeling resilient and not terribly uncomfortable, I wanted to relish in my last few moments of a life that would always be “my past life.”

So, I got my haircut, made use of my bathtub and painstakingly folded the tiny onesies and knit sweaters.

little-boy-baby-clothes-on-a-clothesline

Because we’re in a rental in Madrid, I couldn’t truly nest until we arrived. Every afternoon, I’d take stock of everything I was missing for thee baby and order it from Amazon before passing out cold on the couch. I put together my breast pump and cleaned the pram where the baby would sleep. I tried to imagine his face, how his skin would feel against mine, what I’d do when he slept 18 hours a day. This would, inevitably, end in tears as I thought of the beautiful pregnancy and the way the Novio and I had bonded over taking the next step in our relationship by becoming parents.

For the most part, I felt prepared for the birth. I had watched videos while strengthening my pelvic floor. I gently told my mother that, if push came to shove, I’d prefer to have my mother-in-law with me in the delivery room because of the language barrier. It was everything that came after the birth that made me the most nervous.

The night before my induction, I couldn’t sleep. I scribbled notes on the birth plan in a flurry of arrows and asterisks, took another bath and tried to fight my restlessness. It seemed insane to think that, in all likelihood, I would meet my baby face-to-face (or rather, mouth to boob), within 24 hours. I willed him to burst into the world on his own so that I could labor at home and still be able to snack, but 7am on Wednesday, January 4th came without as much as a hard kick from the baby to tell me he was ready.

^^^^

Our time in the hospital after Enrique’s birth was a literal blur – I was afraid to walk too far on my own, the baby kept us on a sleep schedule of about 15 minutes every few hours, and I struggled to breastfeed between visits and pills and rest. My body felt like it wasn’t my own anymore, as I couldn’t control my legs or sit up without help from a nurse. Everything was a series of firsts – from first shower to first visitors to first realizations that I’d never be the same again, not mentally or physically.

in the hospital in Spain with a newborn

At first, I had asked for total privacy. This meant no phone calls or visits. In Spain, everyone you know, from family to coworkers, come by to see the newborn. Unsure of how I would feel, I was not interested anyone see me all puffy and broken, and I remember the look of terror and extreme exhaustion on a friend’s face when we went to visit her and her second child. Had I been at a public hospital, I would have shared a room and likely been privy to people visiting at all hours, as hospitals in Spain rarely keep strict visiting hours.

The hospital was fantastic at checking in on me and making sure I’d peed, and the matronas and nurses kept my suegro – who tried to milk me – at arm’s length. I felt that more care and attention was given to me over the baby, truthfully, though they showed me how to swaddle, bathe and feed him.

^^^^

Two days later, on Día de los Reyes, we were given the alta to go home. I had checked out in the morning after a bowel movement and a uterine massage (that was more painful than birth without much more than an aspirin in my system); the little guy was seen a few hours later by the attending pediatrician, but not the requisite 48 hours that a hospital keeps. Because it was a holiday, I would have had to wait until the following morning around 9am to be given the OK to take our little bundle of tears home if I had chosen a public hospital.

The Novio had been at home cleaning and resting while my family kept me company, but when I called him, he couldn’t come immediately: the Cabalgata was passing through. Sevilla. We returned home to a house full of people and a large roscón de reyes. I ate as if I hadn’t consumed anything since that bocadillo de jamón, gulping down water between bites. My suegro got the small toy, a plastic Tigger, and immediately gifted it to his first grandchild.

The Novio let his family and mine take care of me and Baby Enrique post-delivery while he took care of the paperwork to register the baby’s birth, update our libro de familia and get an appointment for his DNI and Spanish passport. While I fluttered between confidence and desperation as I was convinced that the baby had caught a cold or wasn’t eating, he bused himself between government buildings. Not even a newborn can escape the wrath of Spanish red tape.

^^^

Processed with VSCO with t1 preset

In retrospect, the first few weeks were the calm before the storm. I had plenty of help and hands to hold the baby so I could shower, stay fed and get some sleep every once in a while. The overwhelming feels, emotional highs and the breakdowns would come later, once the baby became colcicky and the Novio had to go back to work.

At my lowest, I consisted on granola bars.

But I made it. I look at my baby sleeping in my arms and sometimes struggle that we’d ever been without him. They told us in prenatal class that we’d forget all about the pain of childbirth as soon as we saw and held out babies. It’s true that after I healed and began to get a handle on everything motherhood, I forgot that it was hard to walk for a month and that breastfeeding hurt.

In those rare moments when I don’t have a baby stroller or a diaper bag on me, I wonder if other people can tell I’m a mother, or if those other frazzled mommies think that they envy me because I’m not totting kids around. My body has morphed back into its old self and my baby bump is long gone.

I certainly feel different inwardly though not so much outwardly, but find myself pace quickening as I leave work and head home for my boys.

6

I’ve spilled all of the details about my transition into motherhood in a forthcoming post – from breatsfeeding to Mommy culture to something I’m not afraid to confess, even though it’s not the popular opinion. I have plenty more posts about Spain coming up, too! That is, once I put the baby down and don’t have him crawling all over me.

The Tongue-in-Cheek Guide for Surviving a Sevillano Summer

Something odd happens in Seville in late spring. As the temperatures being to rise into the 30s and 40s, there’s a shift in activity. Streets clear, parking becomes available, and midday siestas are the norm.

Welcome to Summer in Seville – a No Man’s Land of sloth, extreme heat and an abandon of local habits.

summertime

When I recently spent my holidays at “home” in Seville, people called me crazy. “A pasar frío, no?” was usually met with eye rolls. But I actually love the summer in Seville and its oddities (and daycare is burning a large, large hole in our pockets), so it was an easy vacation destination. Who can pass up a free place to stay and free childcare?

Seville isn’t a coastal city, despite being in beach-packed Andalucía. The city sits on the Guadalquivir River in a fertile valley of the same name, making it a greenhouse with its own weather phenomenon, called the bochorno. This means grey skies, unbearable heat and enough humidity to make my usual nub of mousse unnecessary (upside?).

Though I used to run for the hills of rainy Galicia or back to Chicago, I’ve spent several summers in Seville and have lived to tell the tale. My trips are tried and true to my sass:

sunset in seville

Firstly, do as the sevillanos do and hibernate. Morning markets buzz with patrons until about 11am. From that hour, as the sun reaches its peak in the sky, the streets are a virtual ghost town. You might see a lone person slinking along in the shadow of a building, but generally speaking, people stay at home during the day.

Many older homes in the center of town do not have air conditioning (this is not true of hotels or rental apartments, so take advantage of that low thermostat!), but instead have a typical Spanish invention called the persiana. These heavy plastic window blinds help block out light and heat and – by some sort of witchery – also seem to induce sleep. Embrace the siesta culture and take a midday snooze, especially because the streets become lively again after 9pm, when people descend on the cervecerías and spend the night at Seville’s best terrazas, or an outdoor disco.

cocktails at roof sevilla

And if you still can’t sleep, take the 1970s approach to A/C – visit the Corte Inglés department store or see a movie. In fact, local lore suggests the change in temperature from the street to the store and back again causes colds.

Additionally, you can change your diet up a bit. Summertime means you can pack away your pressure cooker and forget about the hearty cuchareo that characterizes winter stews. Any local will tell you that a glass of cold Cruzcampo beer will stave off hunger during the hottest hours of the day, and many choose to adapt their diets to cool foods – gazpacho, salads, granizados – a slushy fruit juice made with ice – and seafoods.

cruzcampo beer bottles

And beer. Loads of beer. My favorite cervecerías during the hot months never let me down: Cervecería La Grande if I’m near home, and La Fresquita if I find myself in the center.

Sevillanos can be a curious bunch, often spending money on things we deem important that others may find frivolous. But some of the best money spent during the veranito sevillano is taking out a pool membership, called an abono. During our trip, all of our afternoons were spent at the pool, alternating who took the baby to the kiddy pool and who got a few moments in the adult pool, where the water covered more than just our ankles.

Terraces and pools have popped up in the last decade: check out Ocean Club or the public pools in Sevilla, or make like my amigas and just waltz into one of the rooftop hotels, like EME, and pretend like you’ve rented the suite.

almohalla 51 pool terrace

And don’t think summer is limited to the calendar – whenever you think the temps are finally returning to normal, you’ll get the resurgence of Verano de San Miguel in late September. Your summer clothes won’t get packed away until mid October’s first rain.

Our summer holidays this year included a repeat trip to Asturias to show off Baby Enrique before taking the AVE to Inferno. Lots of naps, half the day in the pool and free childcare. But, somehow, it feels good to be home and taking advantage of those hot summer nights for bachelorette parties, a baby up past his bed time and even a blissful, baby-free litrona shared on our terrace.

A sticky, legs-plastered-to-cheap-plastic-lawn-chair-yet-baby-free-litrona, that is!

Summer in Seville

We’ll be back this weekend, camped out in front of the A/C and wishing anywhere but La Grande was open!

Have you ever spent the summer in Seville? How did you cope?

Photo Post: the Towns of Úbeda and Baeza

For whatever reason, the province of Jaén has always piqued my interest – and has always intimidated me. I considered it No Man’s Land because of my extreme allergy to olive blossoms, too far from Seville to merit a day or even an overnight.

And with a move to Madrid looming, I would find the province even further away, despite being geographically closer to the capital than Sevilla.

But I’m the now or never kind.

a window to Úbeda Spain

After blowing out my eardrums attending Las Fallas in Valencia before chasing Don Quijote’s windmills (and chasing them down with a glass of wine in Valdepeñas), I decided to stop for a night in the UNESCO World Heritage towns of Úbeda and Baeza to avoid the Holy Week processions in Seville.

The pueblos gemelos of Úbeda and Baeza are nestled into rolling olive groves and noted for their Renaissance architecture, and they’d been on my Spain wish list for years. I called the Novio to tell him not to expect me until Tuesday evening, as I was adding two more pit stops to my trip.

Nearby Úbeda gets a lot of the attention, but Baeza is superbly conserved, boasts a strategic position over the fertile Guadalquivir valley and has an astonishingly high number of intellectual former inhabitants – including poet Antonion Machado – thanks to its university and Guardia Civil academy. But it was the cheap, last-minute hotel deal that got me.

Plaza de la Constitucion Baeza

Sin rumbo, I set off from the hotel towards the city center, itself a labrinyth surrounding the cathedral, old university and the ruins of an impenetrable fortress. Machado himself called it the Salamanca andaluza for its appearance and intellect.

The wind howled through the tangle of streets and my eyes watered from the stinging chill and the olive trees growing heavy with blossoms. Baeza was a town that I’d normally describe as the Spanish type of sleepy, a town in permanent suspended activity.

Streets in Baeza, Spain

But being Semana Santa, I arrived mid-afternoon to a town too excited to sleep a siesta. La Misericordia – Baeza’s answer to Seville’s somber Madrugá processions – would step off that night from the school where hijo predilecto andaluz Machado once taught French grammar. This small city once housed a booming textile industry and takes pride in its Italian Renaissance architecture.

wide shot Baeza cathedral

It felt like I had the village to myself, everyone squirreled away around their braseros (nosy me peeked into ground floor windows) or preparing floats for the Holy Week processions. Even a group walking tour I ran into in the charming Plaza del Pópulo was sadly thin. I wandered around the entire historic center and past its most emblematic buildings, haunting and silent sentries.

Fuente de los Leones, Baeza Spain

view of Baeza from Ubeda

Plaza del Populo Baeza
Plaza de Santa Maria Baeza

My phone nearly dead and a chill in the air, I treated myself to a long rest before heading back out at twilight. Plaza de la Constitution’s colonnades hid intimate tapas bars with low lights and the smell of olive oil wafting out of them. The lights glinted off of religious medals, worn by the faithful who would no doubt be elbowing me through the narrow streets to see La Misericordia.

As I was mopping up the last bit of oil with a piece of bread, the restaurant suddenly thinned out. I threw some money onto the bar and rushed outside. Across the plaza and up a small hill was the university’s heavy wooden doors. Darkness had fallen, but the golden light spilling out from windows proved that Lunes Santo was the big night for baezanos.

Holy Week in Baeza, Spain

Nazarenos Baeza

Paso de pasos during Seville’s Holy Week, but there’s something intimate and primitive about processions in smaller cities. They tend to be more somber, as if carrying the images of Christ’s last days is for the more fervent, that it’s less about spectacle and more about spirit. Indeed, Baeza and Úbeda’s adherence to Catholic tradition isn’t as grandiose as Seville or Valladolid’s, but I saw passion as I watched the nazarenos shuffle by under heavy black capirotes.

La Misercordia procession in Baeza

Holy Week traditions in Baeza Jaen

As they snaked through the Casco Antiguo and followed the trail of the old city walls, I hunkered towards my hotel, catching glimpse of the procession and literally fell into my bed.

Semana Santa en Baeza

A thick fog covering the ribbon of road between the sister cities the following morning, I steered Pequeño Monty toward Úbeda. This is where fellow blogger Trevor Huxham lived as an auxiliar de conversación for a year, and he was quick to fire off a food recommendation: churros at Cafetería Anpa. The cold was permeating, so I treated myself to a thick mug of chocolate and a ración of churros. You know, a good old stick-to-your-bones sort of breakfast.

Fog still sat over the Lomo de Úbeda as I wandered towards the city center, and for 9am on a Tuesday, even quieter than Baeza. The cobblestone sloped downwards towards the sandstone monuments that scored it its UNESCO designation, all locked up and shuttered up as if warding off the chill in the air. I pulled my jacket around me tighter, realizing that I’d not dressed properly for the cold morning.

The jewel in Úbeda’s well-earned crown is Plaza Vázquez de Molina, flanked by half a dozen buildings built in the Italian Rennaissance style: the Sacra Capilla del Salvador, the Capilla de Santa María de los Alcázares and the Palacio de las Cadenas are perhaps the most famous.

Capilla del Salvador Baeza Spain

Lion statue Ubeda Spain

Ubeda cathedral

Parador Baeza

Santa Maria de los Reales Alcazares Úbeda

I wandered into the nearby Parador for a coffee and to warm up a bit, but instead was met with sniffles, sneezes and itchy eyes. As I feared, my allergies betrayed me in Jaén. Úbeda merits far more than an hour I spent with my nose in a Kleenex – if not for the architecture than for the historical privilege brindado to this beautiful place.

Like Machado’s exile from Spain during the Civil War and his absolute heartbreak over the Republic, I got in my car and found myself suddenly questioning our move to Madrid. Andalucía is, for me, home. The rolling olive groves fanned out from Jaén through Málaga and on towards Sevilla gave me some comfort on the three hour trip, and now – 16 months after this little jaunt – it’s a view I miss when driving through Madrid’s urban sprawl.

In fact, it washes me in relief when the high speed train passes through Despeñaperros and spits you out in the Jaén province.

Late, corazón…no todo se ha tragado la tierra.

beautiful old door in Europe

If you go:

Stay: I got a great deal – especially considering the holidays – at Hotel Juanito. A bit antiquated but very much comfortable, this hotel is one of the village’s mainstays and boasts a great restaurant (this is an affiliate link via Agoda – you’ll get a great deal at no extra cost to you!). Avenida Alcalde Puche Pardo, 57, Baeza

Eat: If you can’t get into Juanito’s famous restaurant and the dishes made with the resto’s own brand of Extra Virgen Olive Oil, Baeza boasts plenty of tapas bars in the center of town. I ate at Taberna El Pájaro, where traditional Andalusian cuisine gets a bit of an upgrade without the price hike – and their olives are seriously delicious. Paseo Portales Tundidores, 5

If you’re in Úbeda for breakfast, do not, pero DO NOT miss the thick chocolate and crispy churros at ANPA. Corredura San Fernando, 33.

BAEZA AND ÚBEDA

Do: In Baeza, climb the torreón at the Puerta de Baeza for views (and cheesy medieval stuff) after wandering around. In Úbeda, you can’t miss the Plaza Vázquez de Molina – and do get into the buildings if you can. Had I more time, I would have taken a guided walking tour.

Have you ever been to the Jaén province?

A First-Timers Guide to Las Fallas

At nearly 6 am, small firecrackers still fizzled on the streets. I’d been awake for an entire day, driving from one end of Spain to the other before plugging my fingers in my ears every three minutes. This is Las Fallas, the Valencian festival celebrating Saint Joseph by burning a whole bunch of paper-mâiché effigies.

Fireworks and charangas? Well, color me hortera and show me the way!

Las Fallas Ninots Flamenco Dancer

I’ve used my Semana Santa holidays to explore the Balkans and India and had planned to walk part of the Camino up to Mérida in 2016. But when Valencia’s biggest festival falls during your vacation time and you have a friend offering up a couch, you curb your walking plans in favor of pyromania.

After a six hour trip from Seville, I parked my car at the end of the metro line in Torrent and hopped onto the train. Emily, a college friend, had recently moved to Valencia and into the trendy, central neighborhood of Ruzafa.

Beautiful ninots in Valencia

Almost as soon as I’d surfaced the street with a duffel bag slung over my shoulder and a pillow stuffed under my arm, I was met with smoke. Smoke from kids lighting firecrackers in the street at their feet, smoke from the stands frying up churros and buñuelos. The streets of Cádiz, Sueca and Cuba had become an all-out festival chocked with food stands peddling stuffed jacket potatoes and corn, people carrying cans of beer and ninots, two-story high effigies that would meet their fiery deaths during the Cremà.

It took me nearly 30 minutes to traverse the narrow streets that had been shut down, save foot traffic. The ninots – the valencià word for puppet – towered overhead, depicting current events, celebrities and political figures, as well as nods to Valencian culture. Traditionally, each pocket of a neighborhood has a special sort of brotherhood, much like Seville’s religious hermandades, called a casal. Each casal pools together money, time and resources to conceive and construct a ninot and then display it on a street corner in the days leading up to March 19th, the feast of St. Joseph.

what is las fallas like

Valencia has 750 casales with 200,000 members – about one-quarter of the city’s population. That made for a lot of ninots to see (pick up a map of the most popular from the tourism office or look for city patrons on the main thoroughfares and in booths.

Emily’s flat on the eighth floor near the market was close enough to the action but far enough that I could relax for a short time. I’d arrived just after the Mascletà, a daily barrage of noise emanating from the city’s main square. Em and I hadn’t seen each other since we graduated, but we fell into a rhythm, gabbing our way out the door and into the street to gawk at the ninots, cans of beers in hand.

Ruzafa is not only the city’s hipster paradise, home to a dizzying amount of trendy eateries and bars, but a hotspot (pun intended) during Fallas. Every Haussmann-style street corner had a ninot stacked up to three stories and fanciful lights, arbor-style, surrounding them. Even in the middle of the day, young people stumbled around, throwing fizzlers into their wake. It was hazy, despite the overcast afternoon.

Are there fireworks at Las Fallas

Crossing Gran Vía de Colón, we ran right into the L’Ofrena des Flors. One of the Novio’s coworker’s wife is a natural valenciana and gushed about this part of Falles in which falleros don traditional costumes and bring bundles of flowers to a towering Virgen de los Desamparados sitting in Plaza de la Virgen. Behind the barricades, I craned my neck and stood on my tiptoes to watch the casales pass by, arms full of daisies and sunflowers.

Women falleras take their garb seriously – like southern Spain’s traje de gitana, quality dresses are handmade, unique and costly. Come to think of it, dressing for Las Fallas was more like the Feria de Abril than I could have imagined. Consisting of a hooped skirt and bodice, they are typically made of pure silk and embroidered. Once you add the lace shawl and apron, shoes, jewelry and hair do, you’ve practically bought a wedding dress.

Fallera Women in Las Fallas

child fallera

typical costume in valencia

And it doesn’t end there – each casal elects a fallera mayor, who plays the part of hostess and attends to a court d’honor. This means food and fresh flowers for twelve people, much like entertaining in a caseta – and just about as costly.

Night was falling as L’Ofrena ended. Firecrackers sizzled under our feet as we looked for a tapas bar with room to squeeze into. It was drizzling and the center of town was packed with revelers. Dessert was a classic farton, a spongy cake made from sugar, milk, flour and eggs.

Valencia city center

The night’s main attraction was surprisingly not pyrotechnics. Emily’s friends took us to an outlying neighborhood, Benimcalet, for a charanga. I confess: I have a soft spot for cheesy brass bands and Spanish wedding music. A small square was packed with people swaying back and forth to a rock band, and the old man bar anchoring the plaza served up cheap cubatas whose alcohol content was barely balanced out by soft drinks. By this point in time, I’d been up for 18 hours, and we danced and drank until the sun began to peek through the trees at 6am. I collapsed onto the couch, fully clothed.

A ripple of fireworks – the mascletà – rang through Ruzafa the next afternoon at 2pm. I was groggy, a product of both the deadly gin tonics from the night before and the crackle and pop from the rifles. I could already see smoke rising from the Plaza del Ayuntamiento.

I pulled on my boots and gulped down the coffee Em had made for me.Emily had already done her homework for the evening and had mapped out a route to see some of the city’s best ninots and lights displays before they’d meet their fiery end that evening. We spent the better part of the afternoon ducking out of the rain between visiting the city’s best ninots.

Tourists at Las Fallas Valencia

valencia festival las fallas

ninots las fallas mermaids

Popular lore says that the festival began as a way to burn off excess firewood on the spring equinox, eventually coinciding with the Feast of Saint Joseph, the carpenter. A typical piece of furniture burnt was the parot, a structure from which candles were hung. Over time, the primitive parots morphed into the effigies we see today, from rag dolls to elaborate, whimsical art pieces.

Like the chirigotas of the Cádiz Carnavales,  the majority of the ninots poke fun at politics and current events. We saw quite a few Rita Barberás, the former mayor of Valencia who was indicted for fraud in 2016, as well as ponytailed Pablo Iglesias, Belén Esteban and the King.

The rain meant we spent time drinking vermouths in Ruzafa’s trendy bars and watching the light shows on Calle Cuba. More than half a million colored bulbs glitter every hour after dusk, more than making up for the cancelled Cavalcada del Foc, a fireworks parade from Porta da Mar down Gran Via de Colón.

Light shows at Las Fallas

For hours, we powered walked, hand-in-hand, all over the center of the city, pushing past crowds and peeking into casales. The marquees were stocked end to end with tables and folded chairs, and scraps of food remained, untouched, in the centers. Falleras strolled in and out, often followed by a video crew.

As it neared 10pm, we were faced with a choice: nab a spot in the Plaza del Ayuntamiento to see the city’s falla be burnt at the very end of the night, or catch a falla infantil and one of the neighborhood fallas. We were at Convento de Jerusalén, just in front of the Estació de Nord.

the ambience of las fallas

This casal is part of the Secció Especial, amongst the most prestigious in the city (if you’re in Valencia before the Plantà on March 15th, you can visit all of the ninots and vote which two to save. They’re at the City of Arts and Sciences, and the expo is 3€ for adults and 1,50€ for children).

Just before 10pm, the casal’s fallera mayor and her pint-sized counterpart stood in front of the smaller, satire-free ninot. This close, you could see the fireworks-laden base that made up the whimsical, storybook creation. At 10 o’clock, the fallera infantil was introduced to the local media. She had a long string in her hand and tears in her eyes as a band made up of trumpets, drums and dolçaina – a reed instrument – struck up. She tugged on the rope, sending off a pinwheel of firecrackers that would eventually spark the effigy – something out of a bedtime story – in flames.

children's falla in valencia

I fingered the earplugs in my jacket pocket, not sure if they’d do me much good against the deafening sound of firecrackers being lit across the city. My face burned from the intensity of the flames and the black smoke rising from every corner in Valencia, turning my camel-colored jacket a dingy grey. The small-scale puppet burned quickly, fizzling out with the help of a firehose in less than 10 minutes.

We rushed through the throngs of people back to Ruzafa. The streets had been difficult to traverse during the daytime, but the proximity to the main attraction – La Cremà – meant that we were pushing through crowds staking out a prime viewing spot. We’d wanted to see one of the Secció Especial ninots, but couldn’t push through all of the people quickly enough. Ducking onto a side street, we got a front row view to one of the neighborhood fallas, a wizard holding a key with a devil on the side. No one seemed to know the significance.

political irony at las fallas

Emily snaked her way through the masses to a street vendor and got some snacks and a couple of cans of beer. Like Semana Santa, there was a degree of waiting around during Las Fallas.

Just before midnight, half a dozen firemen placed their helmets on their heads and stood poised to put out flames, lest they get out of control. The metal gates surrounding the sculpture were pushed back, leading festivalgoers to be crammed into doorways and even scrawl their way up light posts. I saw kids with firecrackers in their hands, ready to toss them at the open flames.

I glanced at my watch. At promptly midnight, the murmur reached a fever pitch and the firemen grabbed their hoses. I couldn’t see over the shoulders of the revelers in front of me, but heat rose from the bottom of my boots and up my legs. One of my greatest fears is dying in a fire (…and jellyfish), but stepping back from the flames was not an option. I had arms tangled in mine, elbows next to my ears and even a child underfoot!

Festivals in Valencia Las Fallas

Ninots burning in Valencia

The Cremà in Valencia

As quickly as it had gone up in flames, the statue burnt to the ground, a mass of smoldering ashes in mere minutes.

We tried to get close to the Plaza del Ayuntamiento to catch the city’s gargantuan falla, which is burned after all others have met their fiery demise. From the front of the train station, we only caught a sliver of the multi-story statue of a faceless man’s blaze of glory.

I found it disappointing that every single ninot was set ablaze at exactly the same time. I likened it to having to choose a bunk on the first day of summer camp – you never really knew it if was the best one, if your friends were nearby, or if you’d be stuck next to the kid who talked in his sleep.

ninots in valencia

The whooping and hollering in the streets lasted until the following day’s mascletà. My head was swampy, a mixture of warm beers and smoke inhalation. I’d spend another day with Emily traipsing around the Jardines del Turia before stopping by the Quixotic windmills in Castilla-La Mancha and the UNESCO World Heritage cities of Úbeda and Baeza.

Like the Tomatina, Las Fallas was a festival I was glad to see once, but it didn’t spark (sorry, I am the worst) enough interest in me to go back another year. It felt like waiting in a long line only to be slightly disappointed when you had something shiny and new in your hand.

Perhaps we didn’t do it right. Perhaps the rain hampered the festivities. Perhaps I just didn’t feel the true emotion, my senses dulled after a long car ride and the inability to shake the damp. And as someone whose favorite holiday is the 4th of July, even Valencia’s fireworks and fanfare weren’t enough to move it to my top-of-mind when it came to Spanish festivals. It was a lot of fun, laced with beers and laughter and smoke.

a first timer's guide to

If you go: Las Fallas is one of Spain’s coolest festivals and happens during the first three weeks of March, culminating with the Cremà on March 19th. Book ahead and consider staying in Ruzafa or L’Eixample, where you’ll be within walking distance of public transportation and all of the major casales. Also bring cash – lots of street vendors won’t accept cards. You can find an official 2017 schedule here as well as a map to all of the city’s ninots.

Valencia is a city I love more and more with each trip. Check out their crazy ice cream flavors, the UNESCO lauded Lonja de la Seda and the famous tomato slinging festival, La Tomatina.

Have you ever been to Las Fallas or Valencia?

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