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

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

Yes, I’m pregnant.

Yes, it’s the Novio’s.

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

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

Being pregnant in Spain

And then it happened.

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

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

I cried.

“You’re pregnant.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pregnancy Vocabulary in Spanish: Words to Know

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

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

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

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

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

Cartilla de Embarazada for Andalusia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

First Steps

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

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

Typical doctor visits when pregnant in Spain

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

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

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

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

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

Público or Privado?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maternity Leave in Spain

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

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

Pero bueno, how are you?

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

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

pregnancy at 11, 12 and 14 weeks

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

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

What’s ahead in Second Trimester

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

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

Having a baby in Spain appointments

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

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

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

Moving to Madrid: My first month in La Capi

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

“Gracias.” 

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

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

metro of Madrid

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

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

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

Gran Via Madrid

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

Hogar Dulce Hogar: Looking for a flat in Madrid

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

pamplona houses

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

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

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

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

Best Old Man Bars in Madrid

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

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

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

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

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

hospital care in Spain

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

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

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

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

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

A new job in a new sector

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

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

cat gaa sunshine and siestas

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

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

La Vida Madrileña

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

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

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

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

Madrid vs. Sevilla: the Ultimate Smackdown

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

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

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

seville guadalquivir river

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

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

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

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

And we’ll always have Sevilla, thankfully.

Moving to Madrid

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

Confession: I’m Nervous to Travel After the Paris Terror Attacks

After a late night trip to the bathroom, my hand fumbled across the nightstand looking for my watch. As my fingers crawled over a pack of Kleenex and the smooth, cold case of my laptop. I found my phone first, lit up with notifications from Instagram and Facebook.

There was one whatsapp from my mother:

“did u c travel alert? <3”

Being halfway across the world, my daily news intake usually comes as I’m eating lunch in Spain. I get the highlights from Facebook when I wake up – from sports to mass shootings to birth announcements – but often find that I’m behind when it comes to the heavy-hitting stuff back home because of the time difference. As 5pm news programs are rolling the opening credits, I’m typically sleeping. As the BBC reported that the US had issued a worldwide travel advisory, I had long since been asleep.

Confession_

When Paris nightclubs and restaurants were under attack on November 13th, 2015, I was dozing on the couch after dinner. The following morning, my entire newsfeed was burping up messages of disgust and horror and changing their profile pictures to shots of them at the Eiffel Tower during college study abroad

I studied journalism and have a piqued interest in developing news stories. Settling in that Saturday morning with a mug of tea and my laptop, the news stayed switched on for hours as I read hard and soft news related to the incident, including this haunting HuffPo piece on European mothers of ISIS.

But it took some time for it to sink in: I am a person living in Europe. I am a person living in Europe in a city that has been mentioned as a target for terror. I am a person living in Europe in a city that has been mentioned as a target who is traveling to city with known, active terror cells in three weeks.

The Colors of India - Lonely Planet Guidebook

Ten years ago, I was studying abroad in Valladolid when bombs rocked the London underground. A friend and I were in Barcelona long before travelers had smartphones or tablets, unable to reach our family but blissfully unaware of any real danger (meanwhile, our parents were manically trying to track us down). And Spain, at that time, was no stranger to terror – there were mass casualties the year before on the Cercanías commuter lines in Madrid. Our parents, once they finally reached us at a seedy hotel in El Raval, pleaded us to walk instead of ride the subway, and we did so with cans of San Miguel in our hands. Blissfully unaware of any danger.

Nothing hit home as closely as Paris has – not 9/11, not European terror, not the war in Iraq – at age 30. 

When I was a kid, I was fearless – riding my bike at top speed down hills, attempting dangerous gymnastics tricks, convinced I was made of rubber. As I’ve gotten older, however, fear creeps into my head every now and again (and I sincerely blame driver’s ed for this). I say a silent prayer to the Virgin of Loretto when a flight taxis and raises its nose into the sky, and I am constantly nervous for the Novio in his high-risk job. Anxiety nags at me, low in my stomach, whenever I sense that something could do horribly wrong.

Vintage Travel: in Wisconsin at age 6

Vintage Travel: in Wisconsin at age 6

But I have yet to let fear foil any plans, be it travel or otherwise. While my family wasn’t thrilled about me traveling to India with another female companion, I looked at it as an adventure, a “level up” sort of accomplishment as a traveler. Europe was child’s play to someone who had to have more passport pages affixed after six years of living abroad, and after getting stranded in Romania on NYE and traipsing through rural Morocco, I was in for a challenge anyway.

And India was rewarding on so many levels. I decided to travel less, but to more far-flung places before settling down with a family. But thanks to a new house and a wedding, I’ve been grounded and holed up in Spain. 

Choosing a solo trip to Copenhagen over a long weekend was something I considered being on the right airline website with the right amount of airline miles. It seemed like it’s been ages since I went anywhere outside of the US or Spain, and my feet were seriously itchy to use a free flight on Vueling. Málaga to Copenhagen and back cost me less than three nights at a hostel in the center of the Danish capital, so flights were booked without batting an eye in mid-September, along with a flight to Sicily

On my second solo trip to Croatia

On my second solo trip to Croatia

Life next year is still unpredictable between work and possible relocation. But as I saw it, it would perhaps be the last solo trip I took for a long time.

Following the Paris attacks, I didn’t think Denmark, often dubbed ‘Happiest Nation in the World,’ posed much of a threat. Still I located the American Embassy, copying down contact information into my phone and my notebook to be on the safe side, and I asked the Consular Agent here in Seville if he’d heard of any threats in Denmark. Negative. I went back to finding low-cost activities and places to try reindeer meat and proudly announced I’d take the train to nearby Mälmo, Sweden and find an IKEA.

As a week turned into 10 days, news that threats in Brussels had shut down the city’s museums and public transportation didn’t rattle me. But waking up at 4:32am to a travel alert issued by the US took me aback. Yes, it’s vague and doesn’t pinpoint any cities or countries or even news of a rumored attack, so why was I suddenly reconsidering a trip? Is it silly of me to worry that a Christmas market could end up as a target? Or that many ISIS sympathizers have been raised in Denmark? Am I safer in Spain than in the US or in Copenhagen?

I began reading an English language newspaper straight out of Copenhagen, The Local. Like it’s counterpart in Spain, news relevant to expat and travelers spatters across the pages and, buried under news about footballers and an imminent cold front, there were a few isolated articles related to terror, and only one spoke of an incident. It seems the happiest people on Earth are more about accepting potential radicals and using a soft method to wean them off of their jihad-fueled conviction.

So, I’ll go.

I’ll admit that I’m nervous, the same way I sometimes get nervous in Chicago because of gun violence. I feel safe in Seville, but who’s to say that something couldn’t happen here? Or who’s to say that I won’t be the victim of a gun crime in America? Or fall out of bed tomorrow and hit my head on the same nightstand where my phone had been blitzkrieged with safety messages 24 hours earlier?

We live in weird times, and I’m more convinced that just about every country, race and religion is having an identity crisis.  

My brand-new passport has 52 free pages in it. When I woke up at 4:52am, I couldn’t fall back asleep and began punching out this post, perhaps as a way to sort through my feelings. Six hours later, I am 98% sure I’ll be on a plane come December, albeit with the anxiety rumbling low in my stomach. Could just be my stomach asking for reindeer meat and a Carlsberg, though.

American travelers seriously concerned about threats should copy down information about their home country’s consulate or embassy abroad and enroll in the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program with the US Department of State. While it’s certainly important to be aware of where you’re headed and what the risks are, only you can ultimately decide whether or not you go. And I’m in the former camp – go, but proceed with caution.

In the midst of global terror attacks, are you still planning to travel, or stay home? Am I silly for feeling nerves?

When Living Abroad Starts Feeling Like Living in America

I could have easily been in a neighborhood pub back home in Chicago. Armed with two guiri friends and a stomach that hadn’t eaten all day, I ordered a cheeseburger meal, piled on the ketchup and sat down on a couch, directly under drapes of spider webs. It was Halloween, and one my friends mentioned that – gasp! – another American friend of ours had had trick-or-treaters the night before in her pueblo.

De verdad? Since when does the oh-so-racio Seville feel just like America?

When

Slowly, Americana has been permeating into a city as Spanish as the tortilla. At first, I embraced the introduction of peanut butter onto supermarket shelves (and willingly forked over 7€ for it) and made special trips to Madrid for international cuisine. Eight years on, I’m feeling like I’m in a parallel universe sometimes as craft beer, Netflix and my favorite holiday are becoming mainstream, albeit jabbered on about in Spanish.

I’ve long been the guiri who drags her heels when it comes to embracing my culture while living in another. I famously chastised my friends for shopping at the American food store and have yet to set foot in Costco. I do not regularly catch baseball or American football games in bars, nor could I tell you the best place to watch one. Yes, I cook Thanksgiving for my in-laws with American products and dress up for Halloween, but those moments were always reserved for special parties with my compatriots. What I love about living in Spain really boils down to the fact that I love living in Spain.

Cue the hate comments: I didn’t really sign up for an American life when I moved to Seville. And in all fairness, I’m letting it happen.

Spanish potato omelette

The line between life abroad and life as I knew it before 22 is blurrier than ever. I conduct a large part of my day in English, have English-speaking friends and watch TV in English. I just picked up a Spanish book for the first time in three years. I consume news in English via my smartphone and had to recently ask the Novio the name of the new mayor in town. 

I knew I needed to make a change when the Novio suggested we get Netflix as a wedding present to ourselves. Wait, you mean I can watch a show on a big screen with no need to let the show buffer for ten minutes? And in my native language? The fun of the TDT system, which allowed shows to be aired in their original language instead of dubbing. Ni de coña – I will binge watch my American television shows on my laptop. Wouldn’t that 8€ a month be better spent on something else?

While Spain is definitely not America when it comes to lines at the bank, reliable service or a way around 902 toll numbers, I find my adult life becoming more on par with that which my friends are living in the US. I got more than a fair dosage of Americanism this year, spending more than four months of fifteen in the US. Going home is a treat – Target, Portillo’s and endless hours of snuggling with our family dog – but it’s lost a lot of its sheen now that Seville has Americanized itself, be it for tourists or for sevillanos

But at what price? Gone are the decades-old ultramarinos that once peddled canned goods – they’ve made way for trendy bars and clothing chains. While I admit that the Setas – a harsh contrast from the turn-of-the-century buildings that ring Plaza de la Encarnación – have grown on me, they caused a lot of backlash and an entire neighborhood to address itself. Do I really need a fancy coffee bar to do work at, or a gym with the latest in training classes?

Reflections of Study Abroad in Spain

As my world becomes more globalized, I find myself seeking the Spain I fell in love with when I studied abroad in Valladolid and the Seville that existed in 2007. We’re talking pre-Crisis, pre-smartphones and pre-instagram filters, and one where a Frapuccino every now and then helped me combat my homesickness. The Spain that was challenging, new and often frustrating. The Spain in which I relished long siestas, late nights and a voracious desire to learn new slang and new rincones of a new place.

But… how do I get back there? The Sevilla I discovered at age 22 is barely recognizable. Do I love it? Do I deal with it? I mostly stick around Triana, which stills feels as barrio and as authentic as it did when I took up residence on Calle Numancia in 2007.

This sort of rant seems to be a November thing, when rain has me cooped up outside instead of indulging in day drinking and mentally preparing myself to de-feather and de-gut a turkey. Maybe I’m in a slump. Maybe I’m comfortable. Maybe I’m lazy. Or maybe it’s just the fact that Spain doesn’t present the same day-to-day victories as it once did. 

One thing I know for certain is that I’m looking forward to jumping back into the Spanish manera de ser once the Novio arrives back home this week. I can’t wait to head to San Nicolás, sans computer, and search for castañas, to sleep without an alarm and to remember why and how Spain became mi cosa.

Do you ever feel like you’re no longer living abroad? Any pointers to get me back on track?

Let’s Have a Little Talk About Spanish Toilets

The smell hits me like a pata de jamón to the head: a cocktail of bathroom disinfectant, spilled hand soap, ancient pipes and bleach. And that’s only if the person before me hasn’t bothered to flush.

Verdad verdadera: if you drink liquids, you have to pee. If you drink beer, you have to pee twice as much. And if you drink beer in Spain, you have to pee in a filthy, poorly lit bathroom that likely doesn’t have toilet paper (and if it does, you’d better steal what’s left of the roll and stash that contraband in your purse).

In the eight years I’ve lived in Spain, I’ve not been able to get over Spanish bathrooms.I’d do a silent fist pump when I’d find a few scraps of toilet paper, or a toilet seat, or even hand soap (also known as the váter Holy Trifecta) in a public bathroom.

But váter, you and I have to have a talk.

Let's Talk About Bathrooms in Spain

It was on a sweltering July night at an old man bar in my neighborhood that I actually considered shuffling three blocks back to house to use our facilities. But I’d had several vermouths, so I handed the Novio my purse and scuttled to the unisex bathroom.

The space was hardly larger than a broom closet (in fact, it probably once was), and my toes rested right next to the door when I closed it. I was wearing sandals, so the bottoms of my feet became soaked in who knows what. As I squatted, my butt hit the wet pipe attached to the flush, and I struggled to find the light switch in the dark. The pipes creaked as I attempted to flush a running toilet, so I gave up entirely, ran my hands under the faucet obsessively and ordered another vermouth (though grain alcohol to kill any germs might have been a better option).

I won’t call out any names here, but as a rule of thumb, if it’s a brightly-lit cervecería frequented by old men, you shouldn’t expect anything special. A step up might be a restaurant frequented by the same old men. I won’t even get into the toilets at discos – particularly the outdoor terraces in the summer. I mean, even the Parador de Zafra, a luxury hotel owned by the Spanish government, has a problem keeping toilets stocked with toilet paper!

Not all hope is lost – any place that caters to tourists or business travelers has a better shot at possessing the Váter Trifecta. But Andalucía seems to be the worst when it comes to bathrooms. A friend of mine runs food tours and trained her Seville guides to always bring a small pack of tissues for tour guests, lest they be forced to drip dry.

What are toilets like in Spain

My buttload of gripes has grown as I’ve gotten older. I mean, I went to a large Midwestern University where Saturday morning tailgating meant either sneaking into a stranger’s house on Melrose Court, or finding an alternative solution. But a civilized country deserves a civilized sort of outhouse.

First off, women’s restrooms in Spain tend to double as storage closets for empty beverage bottles, stacking crates and even cleaning supplies (so where the cojones do they keep the toilet paper?!). On more than one occasion, I’ve had to crawl over a pile of crap just to get to the toilet.

I’ve made it abundantly clear that toilet paper is noticeably absent in a high percentage of bathrooms. If you’re a lady, whenever you feel the urge, you either have to rummage around in your purse for kleenex, discreetly ask a friend, or grab a wad of napkins from a table. But Spanish napkins aren’t designed to do anything more than mop up wax, so you’re better off not even trying with them. Note to self: add Kleenex packets to my shopping list.

But don’t throw tissue (or waxy napkins, or really anything non-liquid) into the toilet bowl, because you will cause stress on already overworked pipes and clog the toilet. I once made that mistake and couldn’t show my face in that bar for two months – TWO months! But don’t worry, there will be a NO TIRAR PAPELES AL WC sign affixed somewhere in the room just in case you forget. “We won’t replace the toilet paper for months because we don’t want you to accidentally throw it in the bowl” seems to be every old man bar’s mantra.

bathroom soap in Spain

Soap and paper towels have no place in a  Spanish bathroom either, so even washing your hands can be futile. Alternatives are your jeans, your jacket, or simply walking out of the toilet with wet hands, people moving away from you as if you were covered in blood or leprosy sores. Makes you want to wipe your hands on the bartender’s jeans instead.

And let’s talk briefly about you can only use bathrooms if you’ve had a consumición at the bar? I’ve had to resort to slamming a beer and beelining to the bathroom or ordering a scalding café con leche and have it sit waiting for me as I squatted over yet another shitty (pardon the pun) latrine. Even the holes in the ground in China and Turkey seem more sanitary than the “marvels of modern plumbing” in Iberia.

My first vision of Spain was from a bus that pulled into my study abroad city, Valladolid. I pulled the Iberia blanket off of my head and groggily stared out the window as we stopped at a stoplight. A young mother was holding her child at arm’s length as the little girl let out a steady stream of pis. On the street. In plain daylight. Consumption at a bar be damned, this kid is peeing on a tree.

Pues nada.

This post is a little NSFW, yes, but a constant topic when I’m with my guiri friends. Have any other bathroom gripes to add?

30 Things I’m Glad to Have Done Before Turning 30, part 2

Did you miss the first 16? You can find them here – from things I’m glad I learned to indispensable travel experiences along with career decisions.

30 things

My 20s brought me endless fun experiences and friendships, and my 30th birthday was the marriage of what I realized I needed in my life gong forward into my fourth decade: my family, festivals, a few beers.

Relationship Life

17.  Become Close to My Parents – My dad paid my sister and I a wonderful compliment this summer when he said that we were always a lot of fun, but even better to be around as adults. Margaret and I share a lot of interests with our parents – skiing and beer with our dad, shopping and eating out with our mom – and Margaret and her fiancé recently moved back to Chicago. The eye rolls I paid them as a teen are now hugs and the clink of beer glasses.

Additionally, I’m close to the Novio’s parents and younger brothers and count on them like I do on my family. Having a support system in two countries is an absolute privilege. 

 

I couldn’t imagine not having a close relationship with my parents. They know every single thing happening with my life, and I see a lot of them in me (and a lot of my Dad in the Novio!). I look forward to long school breaks knowing that they’ll mean beers and hugs and often a plane ticket to explore.

18.  Said No When Necessary – When I took psychology in high school, Mr. Fitts correctly called me an ESFP at the end of our first week. I’m impulsive, a pleaser and terribly sensitive. And I have a problem with conflict.

Early on into my Spain foray, I found that foreigners are very easily taken advantage of. Learning to say no – and sometimes enter into conflict or disappoint people – has been a tough pill to swallow, but I am one person, and while I can do a lot, I can’t do everything. Those Nos have negated jobs with low pay, gypsy offerings near the cathedral and even poor treatment in my relationships.

19.  Been Broken Up With – Boyfriends were not on my mind at all in college. I was having far more fun meeting people, dating and studying to stop for a relationship. The one person I could have seen a future with in college and I went back and forth for years. It was always a question of timing and commitment, and when he told me to back off, I was devastated. 

I recently found my journal when cleaning out my childhood bedroom and had to laugh at myself for the sweeping fantasies of love and life.

where am I going

This guy and I salvaged our relationship to become wonderful, honest (and he reads this blog!), but in the end, we’re both glad it didn’t work out. I learned what I really needed out of a significant other, and the Novio came into my life a few months later. Finding a partner goes beyond attraction and mutual love – I needed someone who fit into my life and plans just as much as I needed to feel nurtured and encouraged by that person.

2o.  Waited to Be Married (and Be Confident in My Choice) – The Novio and I met when I was barely 22, and he was 28. Right away, the fact that he had a job and had bought a house appealed to me, and though the first years proved rocky between language and age differences, we made it through.

After nearly seven years together and four living under the same roof, he simply said, “Let’s plan a wedding.” There was no grand gesture, no ring and no doubt in my mind – I probably smiled, nodded and hopped right on Pinterest while he took a nap.

[Chrystl wedding photo]

It’s odd, in a way, to know that I have friends who are separating and divorcing. Some feel remorseful, and other feel powered. As someone who can be fickle and who often second guesses even grocery store purchases, I couldn’t tread lightly with choosing a partner. I didn’t feel ready to actually be married until we’d decided on the house and I’d said, sí, quiero, to more than just the Novio – I’d said yes to Spain, to a life abroad, and to making decisions with more than just me involved.

The day of our wedding, my usual nerves were absent. 

21.  Waited to Have Kids – I was recently carrying around a friend’s 7-month-old baby, a blubbering and inquisitive little girl who I’ve taken to. After getting married, I started feeling a lot more pressure to have kids. With María in my arms, I wanted to have one.

And then I went home, had a two-hour post-nap nap and realized I wouldn’t have been able to have that nap with kids.

luna cumple dos

While they’re likely not too far off, I’m relieved to have waited until turning 30 and doing the other things on this list. I’m taking a few more trips and preparing myself mentally and physically to become a mother, and I can’t wait to teach our kids to be fearless, confident and bilingual.

22. Learned How to Say Sorry and When to Forgive – Typical Leo: loves attention and has a quick temper. I get stressed out really easily and bark at anyone close enough. I consider it one of my greatest character flaws, though I am also the first to sheepishly admit my wrongdoing.

I am also incapable of holding a grudge – forgive and forget was ingrained into me when I was very young, and they’re words I live by.

Asturian Countryside

Sometimes the hardest part of growing up has been learning to let go of people who do hold grudges. I can’t deal with passive-aggressiveness, but thankfully read people well enough to know that they’re not interested in a friendship with me. My friend pool is large, but the inner circle has a select few. I’m a communicator and need people to communicate with me.

23.  Stayed Close to Elementary School and High School Friends – I have to admit that I get selfish when my friends start to move away from Chicago. When I go back home for Christmas or the summer, I want to have everyone I love from high school there for barbecues and beers. At my bachelorette party, an Uber driver asked how we all know each other. My youngest friendship was a ripe old 15!

Best friends at my wedding

Thanks to Facebook and whatsapp, I feel close to my family and friends, and an endless stream of visitors has come to see my sunshine and siestas lifestyle. When choosing my bridesmaids, I had no issues – my sister and my two closest friends from Wheaton Warrenville South and the UIowa. A vast majority our wedding invites were people we’d known for more than a decade, and many longer than I’d been in Spain.

Life Life

24.  Partied all Night and at Different Festivals – I’m never one to turn down small town fêtes or music festivals, and I’ve been to some of the greatest celebrations in Europe. Downing steins in Munich at Oktoberfest, sleeping on the ground during Santiago’s patron saint festival and slinging tomatoes at the Tomatina. I can’t say no to something fun and new, and I’m ready to curl up with a book and a glass of Ribera on a Saturday every now and then. My party girl days are over.

dressed in a dirndl at oktoberfest

25.  Grown to Love Beer – seriously! – The first time I got drunk was on four Mike’s Hard Lemonades my senior year of high school. I was terrified of being buzzed and passed right into the blackout phase, and vowed never to drink again.

Then I went to college in the middle of a cornfield and was introduced to flippy cup, tailgating and cheap cases of Natty Light, and I reluctantly began to drink beer. 

In Europe, and particularly in Spain, beer culture is imminent – I feel that without a Cruzcampo, I’d not have experienced an integral part of this country. My language skills were strengthened when the Novio and I courted at local cervecerías and I made friends at Plaza Salvador with a fresca in hand. I would have been appalled if you’d told me at 22 that I’d drink beer with my main meals, but when in Sevilla…

26.  Voted – Speaking of Iowa, I was finally of legal age to vote during the 2004 straw polls. As a swing state, Iowa is a political hotbed, and I saw candidates stumped by celebrities, both from Wahsington and from Hollywood. I changed my voter registration to Iowa, knowing that a liberal vote in Illinois would count for very little.

American Flag in Times Square

Even from abroad, I vote in the only political election I’m allowed – the federal election. They say that when the US sneezes, the rest of the world catches a cold, and I wholeheartedly find that to be true. I may be one of 300 million, but I believe in the democratic process and the ideals of my country. It takes 20 minutes to register and the flick of a pencil to vote, so I shake my head at people who abstain because “Oh, I don’t really like anyone this year.” This isn’t Homecoming Court, so do your duty as an American living in a free country and vote.

End rant. Until next fall. And, yes, you can all come live with me if you’re dissatisfied (but only if you voted).

27.  Bought a House – It took me a year as a homeowner to realize how smart it was to invest in a property. I’ve had my moment where I literally thought of the popular Spanish refrain – tirar la casa por la ventana – as I struggled to curb spending habits. It’s been a while since I’ve hopped a plane to a different country, and I haven’t bought a new flamenco dress in a few years.

new house

But I have a place rooting me to Seville. A beautiful house with an enormous terrace in my favorite rinconcín of the city. I’m not throwing money into the bottomless pit that is rent and am buying functional pieces that are ours forever. I may miss my indulgences, but a Saturday at home with a bottle of wine and the Novio is a pretty good alternative (ugh, did I just say that?!).

28.  Moved Abroad – Much of all of this wouldn’t have been possible or wouldn’t have been the same if I hadn’t worked up the nerve to get on a Spain-bound plane in 2007. I have long stopped wondering about the what ifs – the decisions I’ve taken in the last decade have led me to this point, and there’s no turning back.

Moving abroad in my 20s meant letting go of a few of the dreams I’d had – living in Chicago, standing up in all of my friends’ weddings and having a job in radio. Even that second goal seems gratuitous, as I had to scrap my brain for an third goal. The older I get, the more I realize that my goals were always further on the horizon, away from the US and my comfort zone and my native language. While I never feel entirely at home in either country, creating a life overseas has been my proudest accomplishment.

Revuelto de Abril

I’m more confident, more independent and more wise after eight years in Spain. Just please don’t ask me how to be an adult in America – I know nothing about 401k, Obamacare or anything else “mature.”

29. Found Myself Content to Move Past the Last Decade – I’m the youngest of my group of friends, which was the worst when they all got driver’s licenses and could get into campus bars. All of them mourned the death of my 20s, saying “Welcome to the Club.”

Wait, you jerks told me that when I turned 22, so what’s different now?

I’m happy with how my 20s panned out – loads of new faces, foods, countries and experiences. And there are loads of other things I could add to this list – have a pet to learn about taking care of a living thing, joining a sorority to learn leadership in college, and working hard to go to the college I’d always to go to. Call it being satisfied or exhausted, but it’s time to be a grown up and move on.

My 30s are still a gigantic question mark to me. Where am I going professionally? Personally? I’m terrified. I feel far more vulnerable to mistakes and wrong turns. Maybe 30 will be a kick in the pants, but everyone says that the best is yet to come. I’m ready.

What have you learned in your 20s?

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