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?

Five of Spain’s Most Bike Friendly Cities

While many visitors to Spain like to see the sites on their own two feet, moverse on two wheels is becoming ever more popular and tourism grows.

From city-wide cycling lanes to innovative and unlimited rental systems like donkey.bike, Spain is following the example of other European cities like Copenhagen and Amsterdam when it comes to making cities bike friendly, and cycle tours are cropping up as quickly as tapas bars, it seems.

Bike Tour El Arenal Sevilla

Issues such as sustainability, pollution and health have become heavy-hitters that swing in the favor of biking – and that doesn’t even cover the weather or leisure factors. In fact, the sector grew 8,2% in 2o15 and an estimated 10% of Spaniards use a bike daily (source: Asociación de Marcas y Bicicletas de España).

Cities around the country are listening, but you don’t have to be local to take advantage of the ‘pedelea‘:

Barcelona

Even if Ada Colau is all for a touristic ban, you can’t deny that Barcelona is a city rife for cyclistic touring. The local Ajuntament is launching a larger network of bike paths that will take cyclists from one reach of the city to another, scheduled to debut over the course of 2017.

Barcelona bike lane map

source

And in a city as large and (almost) flat as la Ciudad Condal, bicycle hire in Barcelona is the way to go; imagine cruising past the waterfront or down Las Ramblas on a bike!

Seville

When my friends Brian and Matt came to visit me in Seville, the city had just launched its bike-share system, one of the first in Spain. My college buddies spent their days riding from dock to dock, drinking beers in between in the January sunshine.
Bike Tour Sevilla Patio de las Banderas

During the nine years I lived in Seville, my main mode of transportation became bike(s) as I made use of the miles of paved bike lanes that crisscross the city, connecting nearly every neighborhood better than public transportation does. And it made me feel extra European!

What sets Seville apart is that its bike lanes are off the street, meaning that it’s safer for cyclists. And because of the weather, you can bike year-round.

If only Madrid would invest a bit more in their infrastructure so this abuelita can stop yelling, “ESTO NO ES UN CARRIL BICI” on my frigid walk to work.

Valencia

When I went to Valencia for Las Fallas last March, it wasn’t the fireworks and burning effigies – it was how many people were still circulating around the city by bike, despite throngs of tourists and raging street party (look for a post soon – it was a ton of fun and worth the burst ear drums!).

Testing out new wings. How do you like them?

A photo posted by Donkey Republic (@donkey_republic) on

Thanks to a push from the local government to make the Mediterranean city safer for bikes, as well as a coastline and the dried bed of the Turia – now turned into a huge park – Valencia (and its 120 kilometers of bike path) is quickly becoming one of Spain’s best urban areas for cycling.

Málaga

An up-and-coming tourist destination in a country full of red-letter cities, Málaga, its coastal counterparts and the surrounding mountain communities have invested in cyclists. And given the higher number of holiday makers and the city’s strong push for infrastructure, culture and gastronomy, bike-friendly laws will likely grow.

Bike Tour Barrio Santa Cruz Sevilla

If you rent a bike, you can use the city’s nearly 100 kilometers of bike lanes to take you from just about Pedragalejo past famed Playa de la Malagueta, to the city center and as far west as the Diputación de Málaga.

Zaragoza

One of Spain’s largest cities, the capital of Aragón has been giving ciclistas priority throughout most of its urban center for years – and it’s relatively flat, despite the region’s fame for mountains and outdoor activities.

What’s more, the town hall website has numerous resources for cycling fans, including the best routes for both urban treks (including how long it will take you and any bike shops en route) and for those looking for more of a challenge further afield.

Seville Bike City

As tourism in Spain surges, many other cities – particularly in the Basque Country and in touristic destinations like the Costas – are expanding their infrastructure to promote safe cycling for locals and visitors alike. A word to the wise: remember that, as a vehicle under penal law, you are subject to the same laws as a driver. This means no cycling after knocking back six botellínes or riding through a stoplight when no one is coming. Helmets aren’t required but strongly recommended.

Spain's Most

These days, the only sightseeing I’m doing is to the doctor’s office or pharmacy, but my legs are aching to be back on my cruiser, Feliciano. That is, once I’ve bought a bike seat for Microcín!

Have you ever rented a bike in Spain or done a cycling tour? I’d love to hear about it!

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

I stood in front of the mirror, belly bowing out like a gorilla’s, totally naked. I had a cotton pad in one hand and a bottle of rubbing alcohol in the other.

Was it really necessary to prepare my nipples for breastfeeding this way? I shuddered and consulted Google. No, no it is not.

As my belly swelled, so did the unwanted advice. “Why don’t you schedule a C-Section?” “Oooh, seven kilos? You should be seeing a dietician.” “Working out is bad for you when you’re pregnant.” “Put rubbing alcohol on your nipples, lest they get bloody and gross when you nurse.”

And to boot, I kicked off my last stretch of pregnancy seeing a movie about a mother who dies of cancer when her son is 12 years old. SERIOUSLY. I was not prepared for that one.

the-guiri-guide-to

Summer abruptly left, turning Madrid into a damp, lonely, grey city. My belly was blossoming, rendering most of my winter clothes useless – including all of my winter jackets. I had a problem with maternity clothes, refusing to buy anything until week 32, save a winter wedding dress.

Just a word to the wise mamá: pregnancy tights are a gift from God. Add that to the list of tonterías that I let slide during my pregnancy – do not fear maternity clothes, ladies!

Once I’d passed 28 weeks and was officially into third trimester, my pregnancy changed. I became a little more stalwart about getting out and doing all the things “you can’t do when you have a little one,” about researching baby gear, about drafting my birth plan.

This is when the clash of cultures became apparent, more so than not wanting to know the baby’s gender until week 20. Other expectant mothers were appalled to hear that I was heavily considering an unmedicated birth, or that I didn’t want to shower my child with a million fancy outfits porque sí. I had to remind people that I did not have an illness – just a little extra mass – when they treated me too delicately or reemed me for shoving one more mini croissant into my piehole on a work outing.

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

So, third trimester. In which I discovered how much amazing maternity tights are, in which I cried quite a bit, and in which I did my best to ignore everyone’s advice but my doctors’.

Vocabulary

You think you know it all, but you have no idea. Even with a stack of pregnancy books and interrogations to mommy friends, I found out that I was clueless about the baby vocabulary that mattered closer to the due date.

cesárea: Cesarean section, or C-section. Not the most beautiful word to start with, but an important word. The rate of C-section births is scary high in Spain (a reported 25% in 2015!!) and something that concerned me when deciding where to give birth. For this reason, I listened to my doctors and made it clear that I’d prefer not to have one unless it was the only medical option.

clases de preparación del parto: prenatal classes. If you’re in the public or private system, these midwife-led classes will prepare you for the birth and what happens beyond that. In Madrid, there were seven consecutive weeks of classes, which began around week 29 or 30; in Seville, I am told there are five weeks of classes.

contracciones: contractions. This one is easy, and Braxton Hicks are known by the same in Spanish (Brastohn Hiss). What I didn’t know was that I’d have them as early as 32 weeks!

andalusian-wedding

epidural / parto medicado: epidural / medicated birth. Maybe it’s a cultural thing, but medicated births are quite normal in Spain, and I caused a scandal in class by announcing I wanted to go it 100% natural. Women are now beginning to ask for a walking epidural, usually referred to as “el walking.”

lactancia: nursing or breast feeding. While I haven’t tried this on for size yet, the general consensus is that Spain is lacking in lactation experts.

madre primeriza: first-time mother. After asking if it’s a girl or boy, most people will ask if it’s you’re first. The masculine form is padre primerizo (though I’ve found that no one pays much attention to the Novio these days, pobrecito).

monitores: heart rate monitors.  From your eight month, you may be asked to get hooked up to these machines that register both your baby’s heart rate and whether or not you’re having contractions. Eat just before so that your baby will be active and bring a book – I once was hooked up for an hour because the midwife got pulled into a surgery!

paritorio: labor and delivery room. Not ones to overcomplicate terms, this is the brutish word used to describe the room where you do active labor after you’ve fully dilated. Many hospitals in Madrid now have paritorios with more than just the potro (see below) and will allow you to give birth in positions that favor gravity, such as laying on your side or on all fours.

parto: birth. Though this singular moment has so many different names (such as one that literally means to give light), this word actually refers to the moment your baby is born. Pujos is the pushing phase.

plan de parto: birth plan. Midwives these days will push for you to plan your perfect birth, knowing that there’s a chance that you may have to alter it. And many hospitals are opting for a patient-priority birth.

potro: birthing bed. You know how you see women in films with their legs up in stirrups and sweating as they push the baby out? This particular, adjustable bed is known as a potro. Fun fact? It’s also the word for foal and pommel horse or vault (speaking as a former gymnast!).

romper aguas: to have your water break. Little did I know that this is a part of the birthing process when you’re dialating, and not that holy-crap-here-it-comes moment you see in movies.

suelo pélvico: pelvic floor. This is a buzz word these days as doctors now coach women on how to Kegel their way to strong pelvic floors. This is essentially the hammock that holds all of your innards, in.

annaprimavera-8769

Maternity photos by Anna Primavera

tapón mucoso: mucous plug. A former coworker told me that this was an indicator that you could go into labor at any time. This is the sticky goo that protects the placenta, located high up in the vagina.

Unidad de Cuidados Intensivos (UCI) Neonatal: Neonatal ER. When I quizzed other mommy friends on where to give birth, they told me that it was 100% important to choose a hospital with a neonatal ER just in case. I was delighted that even the small, private hospitals I was considering had them!

But new words are not even the half of it – my friend Susana asked me what of her daughters’ baby items I might want. Makuto? Capazo? Trona? I had to look up all of the baby gear-related terms so that I’d allow her to gift us a diaper bag (makuto is super Andalusian, they’re called pañaleras in most other parts), a carrier and a high chair.

The one word I prefer in Spanish over English? The portabebé, or one of those baby dangler things. Not the Michael Jackson sort, but the harness you wear so that you can carry your child to the market for bread rather than pull out the stroller (and it apparently favors their hip development. The more you know).

Third Trimester Exams and Doctor Visits

I soon found my agenda filled with exams, tests, weigh-ins and prenatal classes – sometimes as many as three per week (and I’m low-risk and healthy). It seemed like I was going to the doctor every other day, between public and private, Madrid and Sevilla.

At my third trimester scan just shy of 32 weeks, the routine was the same: small talk, cold goo on my belly, measuring the femur, and a baby acting like someone had rudely intervened in the little space he had. This exam was quite quick – maybe 10 minutes between pulling down my tights and rubbing the jelly off my growing stomach – but because Micro was within his margins and alive and kicking, there was little to be done. My due date was moved up by two days to January 1st, meaning this baby came to be during a party and may very well be coming into the world on one, too.

Apart from the scan, your doctor will have you do another blood and urine analysis to, again, rule out things like toxoplasmosis, gestational diabetes and any infections as you enter the recta final of your pregnancy. This typically happens from 32 weeks, and, depending on your situation, may continue to happen each week or every other.

I also got a flu shot (vacuna contra la gripe) around 31 weeks, as pregnant women are considered a high-risk group. This will likely be your case if you’re heavily pregnant during the winter months. I hadn’t had a flu shot since I was a child, but it was quick and with my absolute muñeco of a nurse – and he even allowed me to be seen early as a prize for arriving 10 minutes before my scheduled appointment!

Between 28 and 38 weeks, you will have to go for the tosferina, or whooping cough, shot. From 28 weeks, your baby absorbs any medicine you put into your system through the placenta, as it has thinned significantly to adapt to your growing child. For this reason, your whopping cough shot happens so late in your pregnancy. I had to again see my nurse for this shot, which was asked for by my gynecologist; your GP can also write an order to have it done. Be forewarned: I had dead arm for two days due to the dosage, though no other symptoms.

Tosferina is a bacterial infection that can be fatal in recently born babies, so it’s important to buck up and get the shot.

Though it’s falling out of favor, I got the monitores test performed at 37 weeks. My belly was hooked up to a fetal heart rate monitor for about 30 minutes, capturing the heart rate of the baby as he rested and when he was active. This exam was repeated at 39 weeks, at 40 weeks and after I’d been induced.

My doctor also tested me for the Group B Strep virus, streptococo, at 37 weeks by sticking a swab up my rear end – I was NOT counting on that, but this is to determine that you do not have an infection that could be passed on to your baby through the birth canal.

Even though I hoped to have a non-medicated birth, my doctor sent me to get an anti-stress test with the anesthesiologist to determine if I could have an epidural and which dosage I could handle. This consisted of blowing into a plastic tube a few times while hooked up to wires and answering a dozen questions about past surgeries and family health history. My doctor asked for this around 37 weeks, in case I went into labor earlier than 40 weeks (I didn’t).

Finally, I had the weekly prenatal classes plus one last check-up with each doctor and the midwife to get copies of my records to take to Sevilla. From week 30, it was a visit a week… y lo que me caerá!

Pre-labor classes and the Novio as a father-to-be

Getting to 28 weeks was a wake up call. Shit! I could go into labor in a few weeks! Shit! I don’t know where I want to have the baby or what kind of birth I want! Shit! We only have one of those fancy baby carriers and some onesies! The anxiety that had disappeared during the first two-thirds of my pregnany had come back, as did the tears. Any time I thought about giving birth, I got a weepy.

I was anxious to start my clases de preparación del parto, the free prenatal classes provided by my social security coverage. Due to the number of women in my medical center with a similar case of BABIES, I couldn’t begin the classes until I was at 32 weeks, in early November. The Comunidad de Madrid offers seven consecutive sessions that cover everything from how to prepare for labor and donate your stem cells to nursing and caring for your baby in its first days. I dragged the Novio along so that I wouldn’t have to re-explain the stage of labor or why I would randomly start lactating soon.

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Maternity photos by Anna Primavera

I have to say – he’s been a great sport. Apart from doing the heavy lifting around the house, he has been active in discussions and asking questions about how to best help me prepare, mentally and physically. Whereas most of the dads-to-be in the class are mum (one even passed out when we talked about the perineal massage technique), my matrona says he’s been comic relief for the shell-shocked male crowd.

As the due date gets closer, I’ve noticed that he’s more reflective and even looks at me differently. We talk about the baby non-stop when it’s just the two of us, and my belly is the focal point of every mirada and snuggle. There are more questions about my comfort and how I was feeling with each day – and concern if I call him rather than sending a quick whatsapp.

But that brings me to another point: sex during pregnancy. When you’re trying to get pregnant, it all flies, and I found myself fulfilled and lusted after. Almost immediately after finding out I was pregnant, his libido dropped and I found myself achy. Everything hurt – my boobs and my belly especially – making sex painful and less enjoyable. Some women find their sex drives skyrocketing: my rocket stayed on Earth.

Just as a forewarning.

The nesting period, or el síndrome del nido

I was so excited to find out that many of my friends were pregnant at the same time, especially a sorority sister who was due on the same date. The last time I emailed Fish, I asked her how she was feeling. She and her husband are waiting to find out the gender, and she gushed about setting up a nursery.

Many of these women are in the US and not in Spain, meaning there was a huge disconnect between the milestones and emotions we were all feeling. Things that are typical in America – a baby shower, planning and decorating a nursery and counting on the help and experience of friends and family – were foreign to me, and most of the mommy advice I got was from women whose daughters were of childbearing age, as well (exhibit A: the hydrogen peroxide nipple treatment).

De hecho, I was pregnancy outed to my aunts at my sister’s wedding when my mom’s best friend asked, “After the lovely bridal shower we threw Catherine, how will we give her a baby shower from Spain?!” I was initially iffy about having a baby shower, especially considering that most of my closest friends are down in Seville and we only have so much space in our rental apartment. But the girls down south pulled through and threw Micro and me a lovely baby shower at my home in Triana.

baby-shower-for-enrique

When H came to visit in early November, she was shocked at how much baby clothing I had accumulated from other mommies looking to clean out their collections. And this was, of course, in addition to the lists I’d been emailed about necessities for Baby’s first six months. So she listened when I said that I didn’t want to make a registry full of chismes that I’d likely not use: instead, they pooled together to get us a car seat and high chair.

Because I stayed in Madrid until week 37, I didn’t have a full nesting period (unless, of course, you count the hours I spent in bed just resting and my nights in with take out and Law and Order: SVU, or the maniacal cleaning I did a week before leaving La Capi). What the Novio and I thought would be a child’s room in our house in Sevilla will be a room we rent on AirBnB, so I didn’t have to worry about decorating a nursery and placing Micro’s teeny socks and gifted onesies in a drawer. My nesting, once I arrived to Sevilla, became deep cleaning the cabinets, meal prep and moving our personal items to a locked closet – and, admittedly, ironing all of Micro’s sheets before tucking them into a crib. I LOATHE ironing.

And then there was the question of doing maternity photos versus newborn photos or just leaving it. I’ve been fascinated by how my body has changed and adapted, and I wanted to remember it. You know that motherhood glow before the baby is born and the eye bags start? I took full advantage and asked my acquaintance Katriina, a Finnish photographer who normally does professional head shots for her company, Anna Primavera, to do the honors. We got a beautiful autumn morning in Casa del Campo while I was still feeling fit and feminine.

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Maternity Photos by Anna Primavera

I have been making lists and checking them twice as Micro’s due date looms. This is mostly stocking up on baby necessities, and there’s far more to it than I ever imagined. My mother-in-law is perhaps the most prepared; apart from having raised three children over the span of two decades, she’s knit adorable sweaters, bought us a ton of gear and helped calmed my nerves as she patiently spells out all of the items we’ll need. My problem is the lack of vocabulary. How do you say nappy cream? And up to how many kilos or centimeters are these diapers good for? Apart from Dodot and Chicco, what are other baby-friendly brands?

I am the proverbial fish out of water; in fact, you’d probably see my fish culo in a frying pan in Castilla by now.

Tying up the loose ends: Matenity leave, reading materials and choosing a hospital

Call it being a recovering journalist, but as the nerves set in, so did the need to spend time reading and researching. I began first with hospitals in Madrid in case Micro decided to show up before December 10th, the date that my 10 days of vacation began. Truthfully, my employer and my immediate boss was supportive of my decision to disclose my pregnancy before signing a contract.

For general pregnancy, I read the Healthy Pregnancy Book by Dr. William and Mrs. Sears, a midwife and OB-GYN couple who have nine children of their own. The book is written from the perspective of seasoned grandparents, and it breaks down your pregnancy by month, including post-delivery care for both mom and baby. I sometimes rolled my eyes at the little quips added by the unborn child such as, “Mama! Please rest up for the symphony of birth!” but found the book non-invasive and calming.

The book came suggested as a bundle with The Guide to Pregnancy, Childbirth and the Newborn, by a whole slew of doctors. While it was helpful, over half the book was about things that could go wrong in delivery. I appreciated the science-y aspect of it, but didn’t like flipping through to find a whole lot of bad things.

Finally, a friend recommended a Spanish language book on breastfeeding called Un Regalo Para Toda la Vida by Carlos González. Despite the challenge of reading in Spanish about something medical (who knew the boob had so many parts?!), the book gave me a lot of insight about the natural process of breastfeeding. Everything I’d ever heard from other moms is that most hospitals lack nurses specialized in breast-feeding, and the number of women who go straight to bottle feeding is quite high in Spain. This book has been, so far, the clearest and also a big cheerleader.

I also relied on an English-language prenatal class video to complement my classes in Spanish.

Even though women have been getting pregnant, giving birth and raising children for millennia, doing my own research was paramount, and it helped me to feel more prepared and empowered. Chances are I will forget everything once I’ve arrived to the sala de dilatación, of course.

Next on the list to sort out was my maternity leave. I spoke with the HR director at my new job once I’d passed my probationary period, and she explained the process of registering the birth and taking off my 16 weeks of paid leave. I had nine vacation days to use up, plus two weeks of university holiday, so I was able to travel back to Seville to rest and nest when the baby was just reaching full term. More about fourth trimester – social security payments, new mom benefits and the libro de familia in my forthcoming fourth trimester post.

It won’t come as a surprise when I say that we’ve decided to have the baby in Seville. The benefits for me were enormous: my own space and comfort, having family nearby and a car just in case. I narrowed down my list of hospitals to one public and two private and asked my mother-in-law to join me in seeing each one.

In the end, the private hospital right down the road from my house won out. Part of it had to do with the pristine facilities and the care and attention I received from the staff, but part of it was also because of culture clash. My parents and sister will be joining us for Christmas, and I didn’t think they’d cope well with me sharing a room in the public hospital or having different doctors carouseling in and out while I dilate with every other woman in Sevilla.

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And, por mis narices, Enrique will be born trianero.

The Pesky Thing About New Mom Advice

I asked the girl in the monitores with me how far along she was. “Just about 38 weeks,” she said as he partner took a picture of her. She looked uncomfortable as she was being hooked up to the machines. “You?”

Her due date was four days before mine, but she went on and on about how much having a baby during the holidays was an inconvenience for her and her family, so she’d be getting induced at the end of the week. The matron shook his head and whispered to me, “Christmas and New Year’s happen every single year.

“Becoming a mother does not.”

More than ever, I have been entertaining A LOT of advice. Some of it’s been helpful and welcome – take a new mom in Madrid showing me how to feed before confessing she needed to pay for an expert to help her out – but most of it has been unsolicited, unwanted and sometimes even hurtful.

I am someone who takes things to heart (even negative comments on my blog from strangers), so rather than nagging the Novio with my aches and pains, I’ve been venting about side remarks and the mess of advice that’s cluttering my brain. “But women have been mothers forever,” the Novio says. “You’ll figure it out, and you can always call my mother.”

I really wish I had a good way to deflect the negativity or find a holistic, mindful way to cope. But usually I smile and nod then roll my eyes, then ask my midwife. I am not keeping calm about it all, and I often end up flustered. Fine, touch my belly, Rando Abuela in the Súper, but don’t tell me I haven’t gained enough weight or that my shoes are inappropriate or that I should have waited another month to get pregnant so that I don’t give birth on Reyes.

You and your no-sex-no-excercise-no-spicy-food-sleep-only-boca-abajo-te-lo-digo-yo-que-soy-madre-eh! advice can ir a tomar por you-know-where.

Reflecting on Change, Motherhood and Swelling

I’m finishing this post and setting it to schedule on December 20th, two weeks before my due date. I’d like to unplug, to meditate and to sleep all afternoon, but that’s not me. I’ll be maniacally cleaning and preparing for Micro and savoring the last few days where I am my own boss.

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Maternity photos by Anna Primavera

Part of me is a tad remorseful that this stage of my life is coming to a close. My pregnancy has been a beautiful string of changes, of reshifting my priorities, of milestones – and one that I’ll remember forever. Even when I feel the flicker of jealousy that I can’t have a glass of wine or that I’ll have to turn down a trip, I know I’ll have a far greater reward in the near future.

Being this pregnant and waiting on my baby’s arrival is not like ticking off days until the Feria de Abril, a trip home to Chicago or even the minutes until work’s over. There is no D-Day on a delivery. When I had a bit of bleeding following a pelvic exam at the end of week 36, I said to the Novio, “What if we become parents tomorrow?” even though I didn’t believe it myself.

Despite the, “you must be so excited to meet your little boy!”s and the, “Pff, pregnancy has to be tough,”s, I often find my hand on my belly as he kicks and squirms and feel pangs of sadness that he won’t soon be with me at all times, wedged up between my ribcage and my pelvis. He’s safe inside, and I’m content knowing my body is helping him grow and develop. I’m misty eyed as I write this, knowing that it’s nearly at an end.

And this goes beyond the sleep I’ll loose or the sore nipples or the fact that I’ll likely be signing off from Sunshine and Siestas for a while: I know this is the beginning of the end with Enrique. From his first breath, he’s one day closer to not needing me in the same way anymore. Yes, there’s time, and yes, children always find a way to need their mother, but time is so, so fleeting.

Am I prepared for all of this? Yes and no. Am I excited? Like never before. When all of those women became mothers and said they had never felt unconditional love – I get it. This amazing thing we’ve done carries a great responsibility and an even greater reward. I can’t wait to see Enrique begin walking (or, if he’s anything like me, running), find things he’s passionate about, fall in love, travel for the first time. There’s no telling what he can do, but I want to be with him every single step.

Vente, Microcín – we are so very excited to meet you.

Read my pregnancy story through first trimester and second trimester by clicking on the photos below.  

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The Guiri Guide to Pregnancy in Spain

What’s in a Name? A Primer on Spanish Names

“When we have kids, promise you’ll let me name all of the boys.”

I don’t remember where or in what context the Novio asked me this favor, but I shrugged – and then mentally shuddered. We were only a few months into our relationship and I was probably thinking about where we should have dinner, not children. After all, I was 22, temporarily teaching English in Spain and Gambrinus would not be a proper name for a peque.

Who are you? Street art in Seville, Spain

Nine years later, we’d been married for eight months when I found out I was pregnant with our first child. As the Novio shouted, “We’re screwed!” and I immediately regretted the beers I’d drunk the night before (I deep-down suspected being preñada while having dinner with a friend), he pointed at me and reminded me of the promise to let him name the varones.

Admittedly, the only time I’d felt inclined to pick out baby names was when I had a grade-school crush on Jakob Dylan and vowed that my child would have musical prowess and blue eyes. And when you’re expecting a child whose parents do not share a language or culture, it was almost better that we’d divided the task. But naming a child is a big job. As the gender reveal date hurtled towards us, I had a lot of thinking to do.

Middle names and last names in Spain

The only people who call me by my full name, Catherine Mary, are my mother and the Novio’s youngest brother. Oh, and the doctors who look blankly at the list of names and peep a, “Mah-reeee?” before I stand up and correct them, or the letters addressed to “SRTA. MARY” as if it were my first surname.

I often have to explain to people over the phone that I have one surname, Gaa, and two first names. In Spain, most have one name and two surnames. If I were Spanish, my first surname would be my father’s first and the second would be my mother’s first. This means I would share surnames with my siblings, but not my parents.

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So, imagine my mother is named María Gracia González de la Fuente and my father is Ricardo Hidalgo Barros. So, I’d probably be Mari Catherine Hidalgo González. Because I decided to keep my last name when the Novio and I got married, our child(ren) will have a Spanish surname first, followed by my hard-to-pronounce, very odd and very Central European surname. Vaya.

And then there’s the question of compound names: Jose María (male), María José (female), Juan José, Luis Miguel, and so on. These are considered full first names, not a first and a middle.

The Novio was very firm: no compound names, and no middle names. And with a last name like mine, it’s highly unlikely that someone will share a name with Micro during his lifetime (and that only one name will be sternly shouted when I have to get cross).

Family ties and the name game

Paco regaled me with his favorite idioms in English as I tried to gauge his level of English during our first class. “My tailor is rich!” he repeated a few times before asking me for a moment to skim the sports section as I picked at my nails. I asked him about the basics, hearing drilled answers about his job and summer vacation rattled off until I asked him if he had children.

“My wife, she is Rosa. We have got two childrens, no, no! Two chiiiiildren, aha! They are Javi and Rosa.” I glanced at he business card he’d given me. Paco’s name is really Francisco Javier, as is his son’s, and his wife and daughter share a name. Two Franciscos and two Rosas sharing 65 square meters. Typical Spanish.

This is a common practice in Spain, which came in handy when I’d meet the parents of my students for the first time. If I’d neglected to look at the school records, I assumed the child shared a name with a parent; more than half of the time, I would be right. Perhaps more so than in the USA, children are named for close family.

I made it clear to my parents, Nancy and Don, that we wouldn’t be naming our children after them. After all, Nancy is the name of a knockoff Barbie that had her heyday in the 70s and 80s in Spain, and Donald is Mickey Mouses’s duckbilled pal. It’s bad enough to have a weird last name.

Both the Novio and I were named for family members; in fact, my mother tried to petition to change her name to Catherine Mary, after her maternal grandmother. My grandmother Agnes wouldn’t even entertain the idea, so the name for her firstborn daughter was picked out before my mom could even drive a car.

The Novio shares a name with his father, grandfather and great-grandfather. My own grandparents are Jack, Donald, Marguerite and Agnes; the Novio’s, Alquilino, María del Robledo and Elundina. My father has a Jr. after his name, and we have four John Robert Nicholases on my mom’s side.  Many of the Novio’s cousins were named for family members or a combination of them. O sea, it wasn’t until I began thinking of what to name my own child that I noticed all of the patterns in baby naming in our families.

If we had a boy, there would be no discussion about names. Punto, pelota.

How do you solve a problem like María?

The English department of I.E.S. Heliche consisted of six women and a lone male, Miguel; Charo, Nieves, Valle, Asunción joined Ángeles and Silvia. While I admit that my Spanish wasn’t very good when I first moved to Spain, I gathered that their names were Rosary, Snows, Valley, Assumption, Angels… and Silvia.

Virgen de la Estrella

The majority of them were in their early 40s, meaning they’d been born during the Franco era in which women were required to have their name proceeded by María de, Mary of Something. Our Lady of Whatever. Most women of a certain age have a religious name or biblical allusion, so you rarely heard a Jessica or Jennifer in a small town like Olivares. I soon began to connect the names I heard with their religious names: Pili comes from María del Pilar, the patron saint of Zaragoza, Maribel was the juxtaposition of María Isabel.

Many women drop María in favor of their second name, or they blend them.

Of Saints and Sinners

I had a very concerned parent at the door on the morning of September 13th, half apologizing and half worried that her daughter would act up that day. The result wasn’t a fever or a poor night’s sleep: I had neglected to recognize a little girl’s Saint Day.

In a place like Sevilla, religion runs deep, and María wouldn’t let me forget that as she pouted her way through even P.E. class, directing her six-year-old rabia straight at me as she played dodgeball.

Should I have been born sevillana on my same date of birth, there is a good chance I’d have been called Reyes. August 15th is not only a national holiday, but the observed feast of the Assumption, known as Día de los Reyes. Many Spaniards are named for the saint on the day they were born, such as my former coworker who was born on St. Joseph’s Day and thus called María José (if you’re curious, here’s the Catholic church’s Santoral so you can check out your birthday); others for a patron saint of their parents’ village. And then there’s the question of naming a child after a petition or promise one makes to the church.

One of the Novio’s coworkers has a strange name due to a promise his mother, who had trouble conceiving, made the the nuns she asked to pray for her. They tied a string around her stomach, which she was told not to take off until she was pregnant. She promised that, should she have a daughter, she would call her María de la Cinta; when M was born, his full name became M de la Cinta.

st james at the santiago cathedral

Some names are particularly regional or local; it’s common to hear shouts of Diego! in the main square of San Nicolás del Puerto, where the saint was born in year 1400. Eulalia, a teenaged martyr in Luisitania, is popular for baby girls in Mérida, and Jordi, the patron saint of Catalonia, is amongst the most popular name for boys, year after year (there are 67,000 of them!).

In 2012, the Instituto Nacional de Estadística released a database of the most popular names and surnames by province. Much like in the US, age-old names are making a resurgence: Nearly half a million children were born in 2015, and María and Daniel amongst the most popular.

Remember Paco? I taught him out of his office for two years immediately after giving his son, Javi, class at home. Javi had coyly told me about a girl he was interested in, and Paco slapped his palms on the table to echo the news – though far more excitedly – that Javi was finally dating. “Guess her name, Cat! It is so typical in Seville.” I tried the three most common: Macarena, Esperanza and Rocío.

I not only named his girlfriend, but her two younger sisters.

Micro’s due date is January 1st, so we could have considered Jesús or Manuel. Not on our shortlist, though.

The guiri conundrum: language versus culture 

As if I didn’t have a million names spinning around my head already, we have the language issue: I am incapable of pronouncing the Novio’s name correctly and call him by his nickname. Rodrigo was out of the picture for the difficulty with the Rs. And if I can’t pronounce them, his American grandparents wouldn’t be able to, either.

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Many of the female names that are popular today have English equivalents: Laura, Paula, Emma, Sofia, Julia. I like them in Spanish but not in English, or vice-versa. Paula in English becomes pauw-luh and Emma pronounced in Spanish sounds like you get your mouth stuck between syllables. Of my guiri friends who live in Spain and have had babies in the last few months, only a handful of them have chosen non-Spanish names; of those, the Anglo names are easy to pronounce with Spanish vowels.

What we’re naming our son

I’d been assigned any girl’s names, despite feeling like I was carrying a boy from the beginning. My mom quizzed me on which names I liked before asking the equivalent in English. “So, you’re saying that I could have a granddaughter named after the town where Jesus was born?”

Point taken, Nancy.

I casually thought about girl names. I like Belén, Martina, Carolina and Laia, but tried not to get my heart set on any one name until we found out the gender. I’d long known that a first-born male would have the same name as his father (and the three that came before him), and that Santiago and Diego were close seconds as the patrons of Spain and the Novio’s village, respectfully.

Baby Shower in Spain

As I’ve found in my eight months of being pregnant in Spain, there’s no waiting to find out the gender of your baby. In fact, I’ve met just one woman who wanted to be surprised, and mostly because her Irish partner preferred waiting. I was a bit crestfallen when the Novio expressed that he’d wanted to know right away, as I genuinely believe this could have been one of the last happy surprises we’d ever get. But knowing we were having a boy made the naming process easier.

When the obstetrician pointed out the baby’s extra extremity, I breathed a sigh of relief as I pronounced his name aloud for the first time. The fifth in a long line of men who had been farmers and soldiers. And I could forget about female names until perhaps the next one came around.

We’re only five weeks or so away from getting a first glance of Enrique, who will be born in Triana between Christmas and Reyes. I often imagine who he’ll look more like, what we’ll teach him and how he’ll change us – giving him a name before he’s born has made his presence far more real to us.

What people name their children in Spain

What do you think about Spanish naming trends? I’m curious to hear the common names where you live!

Ten quick tips to saving money in Spain without even trying

As soon as I’d bought a house, my friends began making plans to travel to Spain. How could you beat a personal, bilingual tour guide who had crisscrossed the Iberian peninsula, a free place to stay and one of Europe’s best budget destinations?

You can’t: I pride myself on being a great tour guide, especially to Seville.

The Bridge in Ronda

Every so often, I get an influx of emails about how to travel Spain on a shoestring, or how to make euros stretch further, or even hidden gems that won’t break the bank. Long passed are my days of cheap hostels (looking at you, Santiago de Compostela) and overnight bus rides for the sake of saving 15 euros. Even keeping in mind a few quick tips can save you loads.

Saving on food

The mere fact that the Spanish mealtime is slightly later than a US or UK, with a heavy lunch eaten any time between 1.00 and 4.00 pm, means saving money on evening meals. Dinner tends to be lighter fare, in that sense, and it’s easy to grab a tapa than actually sit down to a meal.

If you happen to be visiting the south, they’re particularly generous with the tapas (well, in most places outside of Sevilla – though you can find free munchies if you look). These little dishes are cheaper to begin with, and if you order a beer or drink you’ll get a sizable plate of food with each one. Even when the Novio and I head out for a few beers before dinner, I find that I snack on enough free aperitivos – typically canned seafood, potato chips or banderillas at our favorite bar – to skip dinner and head straight to a yoghurt or piece of fruit.

tapas at casa Lucio Barcelona

Look for a menú del día if you’re out exploring. These three-course, choose-your-own meals were pioneered when Spain experienced a touristic boom in the 1970’s and resorts fed their works as part of their salaries. Nowadays, you can get a full meal and dessert (plus bread and a drink!) for a reasonable price of 7-12€.

And there’s nothing that beats a crunchy bocadillo. This sandwich as long as your forearm will only cost you a few euros and is perhaps the most Spanish lunch ever. They’re also great for long bus or train rides.

Saving on monuments and touristic sites

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Culture is a serious thing in Spain, and large concessions are made to offer it to the masses. Street festivals abound, there’s often live music in bars and plazas, and there is no shortage of cultural offerings by way of casa-palacios, museums or monuments, no matter where you travel.

If you’re under 31 and residing in Europe, you can grab a carnet joven or European Youth Card for under 10€ , allowing you savings on more than just museums – included is transportation, hostels and even courses.

In a country chock-full of museums, there is often free entry to many – including some of the most famous. Take Madrid, for instance: Entry to the Prado is free between 6.00 pm and 8.00 pm Mondays to Saturdays; on Mondays, and Wednesdays to Saturdays, admission into the Reina Sofía is free between 7.00 pm and 9.00 pm, and on Sundays from 1.30 pm to 7.00 pm. The Sorolla is free on Saturday mornings.

In Alicante, you can enjoy free entry to the Museum of the City of Alicante, housed in a 17th century baroque house and home to more than 800 pieces to art. And in Seville, each museum has a free day, often Tuesdays. It’s worth stopping by the tourism office to find out or ask about discount tickets.

ceramics at Plaza de España Seville Spain

Parks and seafronts are a stellar way to see open air art and Spanish culture, and definitely merit a stroll. Madrid’s most well-known park is the Buen Retiro. It costs nothing to stroll around the park’s elegant gardens, where you’ll see patrons rowing on the Retiro Park lake, a favored activity in the park, and are also likely to see a musician or two strumming away on a guitar, providing some free entertainment. You’ve also got traces of the 1929 Iberoamerican Expo in Seville’s María Luisa park, crowned by the Plaza de España, and Santiago’s Alameda park is a lush green lung amongst the sandstone buildings.

And don’t skimp on a free walking tour just because you’re that off-the-beaten-track kind of traveler. I often take a free tour to get some cultural and historical context and a lay of the land, spending only a tip for a guide. I’m usually available for the price of a menú del día, by the way.

Saving on transportation

One of the biggest benefits of Spain travel is how easy it can be to get from punto a punto: Spain’s public transportation infrastructure works, is relatively on time and is not expensive. Given that I now travel for work, I’ve been shocked at how much a high-speed, less comfortable train costs between Paris and Brussels, and how a short taxi ride in Switzerland can break my budget (bonjour, sandwiches for a week!).

Buses are without a doubt the cheapest way to travel between cities, but you can also try the popular rideshare, Bla Bla Car. You can search routes and find a driver that suits your timetable, and you pay a fraction of the cost. I’ve hitched rides to Valladolid or Madrid and have also driven in my own car.

Touristic Train Minas de Riotinto

If you choose to go by Spain’s phenomenal train system, book round-trip where possible, as this can save you 30%, and purchasing at least 60 days before means cheaper fare. You can also book a four-person table on the high-speed trains or find a group looking for extra travelers and save hugely. Search Tarifa Mesa AVE on Facebook or Movelia for secondhand tickets.

Within a city, walking is definitely the best (and cheapest!) way to get around in most cases, but check out 10-ride passes or unlimited travel cards for 1, 3 or 5 days – the local tourism office can help orient you on your options and how to purchase tickets or passes.

When my parents last came to visit, my sister remarked that it was their cheapest Eurotrip ever. Apart from having my house, my kitchen and my car at their disposition, we took saving seriously but also kept these simple trips in mind and planned our excursions to Mérida and Lisbon around them. Saving money on travel in Spain is intrinsic when you follow a few tips – save those euros for a great meal or show instead!

saving-money

Have you had any great travel discounts while in Spain? This list is in no way exhaustive, so please share below!

God Bless America?: Reflections on my Third Elections Abroad

The world is having a serious identity crisis.

To say that 2016 has been a weird year is to echo the sentiments of…just about everyone. And it goes far beyond the celebrity deaths, the Cubs winning the World Series and me getting pregnant.

You know that phrase, when pigs fly? As much as I’d love for patas de jamón to be raining from the heavens, there has been more bad juju this years than in the last decade. Race riots, gun violence and the refugee crisis have reached a fever pitch. Everyone is offended by everything. Spain finally voted in a government.

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And to me, the 2016 Election cycle signals the end of the democratic process as I’d been brought up to believe in. Thinking back to Mrs. Entwistle’s seventh grade social studies class – one in which we recited state capitals and the presidents from Washington to Clinton – seems like it was a century ago, not two decades.

And think about it: 100 years ago, American women still couldn’t vote.

There are decries of the electoral college, of unbiased reporting. And sitting in my living room in the northern part of Madrid, listening to Disney music as a coping mechanism since I can’t have a beer or two for my nerves, I’m still shellshocked by the last few weeks and months.

I voted from abroad. I donated to campaign issues that were important to me. I faxed in ballots for people, taking away from my workload because, hell, these kids were excited to vote for the very first time. Did we sit on our hands? Push a broken system? Stick our fingers in our ears when two people screeched at each other on television?

What in the actual hell happened? More importantly, what does it mean going forward?

A voting history of a Democrat abroad

I voted for the first time in 2004, even registering in a swing state because my home state is always – for better or worse – left-leaning. John Kerry passed by my campus for a speech, bringing along Iowa Golden Boy Ashton Kutcher and actor Ron Livingston to stump for him. I got caught up in election fever, not even bothering to read into the platforms of those up for reelection in the state in which I’d decided to attend college. I even went as far as registering as a Democrat, much to the dismay of my crimson-hearted parents.

Kerry lost by half of a percentage point and, with it, his seven electoral votes, but I proudly donned my I VOTED sticker that chilly November morning. AND I made it to class on time.

In 2008, I was the English teacher who had brought a map of the US with me, fished out of the Target $1 bins. That Tuesday afternoon, I diligently filled in the number of electoral votes each state had to throw at a candidate and put together a collection of markers, crayons and colored pencils so that my other expat friends could color in the states as election boards turned in official results. There were close to 50 of us packed into the top bar at the Merchant until nearly 5am.

2008 Elections

We celebrated over nachos and Budweiser beers until I had the pleasure of coloring my state blue with a Crayola marker that was nearly dry. The next morning, I received hugs from my coworkers as if I myself were Barack Obama. It was memorable, to say the least (and I still made it to class on time).

It was then when I heard the phrase that would resonate with me eight years later, “Cuando Estados Unidos estornuda, todo el mundo se resfria.” When America sneezes, the whole world catch a cold. I felt the optimism and a new era hurtling in from across the Atlantic.

Four years later, in 2012, a head cold and working evenings had me sidelined for election party antics, but I woke up at 6am to news of an Obama reelection. Between my Master’s and a new job, I had hastily shot off a vote without looking deeply into the issues, letting political party lines determine my vote. It didn’t feel as great as 2008, but I felt that my views had representation in all areas of government. Checks and Balances for the win.

But 2016. 2016 is different.

I’m in my 30s, no longer the 19-year-old swayed by celebrities and the rhetoric. Someone who has her values defined and tested. Someone who will be bringing a child into the world in the aftermath of an election that can only be described as long, ugly and exhausting. And, frankly, someone who would prefer being pregnant for an entire election cycle. All 600 days of it. And grossly pregnant.

Over the summer, the Pew Research Center survey found that about six in 10 of us were “exhausted” by the elections – which technically began with Marco Rubio announcing his candidacy in March 2015. Sheryl Crow petitioned for a shorter cycle. I lived through, in that time, two presidential elections in Spain – a country which only allows campaigning for two weeks leading up to the election.

I fully expected to feel relief on November 8th, relief that the mud racking and slandering and name-calling was over. Instead, I woke up anxious and looked for ways to distract myself at work, refusing to open news alerts and keeping my phone in my bag or face down on my desk, an arm’s reach away.

On being an American abroad

It’s an odd thing being overseas when big things are happening in your country. You feel one-part ambassador to the messed up things that are splattered across foreign news, defending the actions of a country that is far from homogenous. Like you have to right the wrongs, to make explanations for every policy, law and scandal. That one person can represent a greater good and not what Hollywood or Washington or the media portray. That, even though Spaniards are outspoken about their opinions, I could explain the historical and sociological roots of America’s political system and why a representative democracy is, ultimately, about people having the power.

Spanish Cowboy under Old Glory. Scottsdale, AZ.

There’s been so much backlash about colonialism and a 240-year-old piece of parchment that begins with “We The People…” but I fundamentally believe that our Founding Fathers wrote a document flexible enough to weather social change, an increasingly global world and demographics.

I work for an American university in Spain, so I don’t feel alienated in my views or living this experience alone – and this university is international, drawing 65 nations to a campus of 800 students. I was impressed watching students debate in the cafeteria and coming in exasperated that their absentee ballots never arrived and could-you-please-please-fax-this-so-my-vote-gets-counted?!

Speaking about my love of country – even with Spain as a flamboyant lover – was something I enjoyed doing for the first eight years of my expat life. And it’s a country that instilled values like hard work, acceptance and the beauty of diversity in me. It never felt like a chore nor would I have ever categorized my words as hollow. I am critical of the United States despite recognizing the privilege I was born into – not just by possessing a blue passport, but by being educated, white and from a family who supports me.

But this year, yeah. I am at a total loss for words and saddened for so many groups of minorities. The whole world has gone bonkers, and the ripples and cracks are deepening.

The Aftermath: That’s what you get for waking up in Trump’s America

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I will begin by saying that, even though I’m a registered Democrat, I have a lot of Republican values. My parents have never voted Democrat, too young to fully understand Kennedy’s Camelot and those who were taught to prescribe to my grandmother’s words, “My money is my money.” My mother confessed that she was morally struggling over voting for Trump – something I chalked up to her coming around and seeing that party lines can become blurred when you factor in more than experience and policy.

Still, when my absentee ballot arrived, I took the time to research candidates. I voted Democrat for president and Congress, but also filled in a few red bubbles for local and state elections. I felt more confident in my choices this time around and encouraged people to vote despite the age-old excuses of, “my vote doesn’t matter” or “I hate them both.”

When I went to bed just shy of 5am, Spain time, I’d been at an enormous election party since 11pm. It was almost like watching a European football match in a bar – lots of beers, cheering and jeering and floods of blue. Everyone was on my side for once, and I didn’t feel like my team was the underdog. I didn’t get nervous when the early reports put Trump ahead of Hillary and I watched as Florida flipped flopped more than Trump switched parties in the last 12 years.

But at 4am, things were looking grim, so I said goodbye to my friends, refreshed the NYT one more time just in case the world had collapsed and grabbed a taxi. I wanted to do the same as I did for Game 7 of the World Series – use a rain delay (or a few hours of sleep) to reset and let my team get its shit together.

Nearly 12 hours have passed since an Tang-stained bomb got dropped. I had planned to sleep until my body woke up, but at 9am, I bolted upright (oops, don’t tell my midwife) and called for the Novio. His face said it all, despite the fevered whispering that it actually might happen that we exchanged leading up to November 8th.

I passed through the Seven Stages of Grief pretty quickly, and once I’d denounced the actions of my countrymen (I mean, these exit polls are pretty eye-opening), I erased most of this draft and got to writing again.

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This election was more than about breaking the glass ceiling – it was about voting with head and heart for what I believe in. I put aside scandal and morality to look at the cold, hard facts.

It’s tragic that we have to fear for our friends and neighbors, or to fear our neighbors, or post suicide hotline numbers (but kudos to those of you who recognized that this could start an epidemic). It’s tragic that people can’t afford healthcare or that our education level is sliding as college tuition hikes make it impossible for people to have access to degrees. It’s tragic that democracy is crumbling because there is so much more bubbling beneath the surface.

There’s a disconnect between parties and the People, and this is blatantly honest from the eyes of someone who has been abroad for nearly a decade. When I came here, we didn’t think it could get worse than W. He now seems like the harmless village idiot in just a little over his head.

Time will tell what The Donald brings to the table, or if it’s Mike Pence doing all of the heavy lifting. I’m reminding myself between deep nasal breaths that checks and balances exist, as does a party identity. Maybe we can all just hope for a sitting duck? He’ll quack loudly, but probably just swim around in circles, nipping other ducks just to be cheeky. Ducks aren’t violent, right?

But here’s my biggest issue, now that I’ve gotten past the 279 votes my party didn’t win: I am shaking my head and wagging my finger at all of those people who say they’re fleeing to Canada or Europe or staying abroad. Now is not the time to put our tails between our legs and concede because the country is divided, and that fracture is deepening. My hope is that activism takes root, that people do their homework when it comes to issues and policies, that you write to the people you have representing you in Washington. There’s a reason we have a representative democracy – you have to show up.

We have four years, but just two until midterm elections and this vicious cycle begins again for 2020. I’m not giving up hope or prosperity because I believe in the country I call home and the values I hope to teach my child.

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My son is scheduled to come into this world on January 1st, 2017. I’m crossing my fingers that he doesn’t make his debut in 2016, a year marred by head scratching moments and an outwardly struggle to figure out who we are and what we stand for.

I know he will come to me one day and ask, “Mommy, who was president when I was born?”

I want to confidently say that he was born while Obama was in the Oval, when people could love who they wanted, be who they wanted and say what they wanted. I want to raise him to believe in himself and the good of others, but to also question morality and social wrongs.

I want him to be a good person, plain and simple. To use the right words instead of hateful speech. To not bully or belittle someone, but instead offer an ear or a hand or a hug.

Maybe I’m just naïve, but I want to believe people are good but sometimes just stubborn, misinformed and insist upon holding grudges. I want to believe that we, as a people, will hold one another accountable to pick up the pieces and trudge on forward, hand in hand. I want to believe that this is the beginning of positive change.

If you’re wondering how to help the environment, minorities or women, check out the Jezebel list of places and organizations to donate.
US Elections Abroad

I have to say, this post has been drafted, deleted and rewritten countless times since November 1st. Then I did it all over again on November 9th. It was a blessing and a curse to have the day after the US Elections off of work, and I’m still processing what happened – both in the last 600 days and the last 240 years to get here. I don’t get political on my blog, but I will say that I have yet to defriend anyone for voting differently. Second Amendment be damned – information and activism are the only weapons we need.

If you’re going to comment, be my guest. Call it being polite or just realizing that there is enough room in the world for everyone’s views. I will not allow attacks on others who join the conversation. Keep it nice and respectful, please.

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