10 Cool Things to do in Seville as a Solo Traveler

Things have been quiet on Sunshine and Siestas since the pandemic began. In the last six months, we have experienced milestones – Millán is walking! Enrique is fully potty trained (nighttime, too!)! We moved to a foreign country! Yes, really – we’re living in Lyon, France until the end of the year.

Chico tells me he misses Sevilla. I do, too – it seems like just as soon as I moved back, we were making plans to leave. When Paulina reached out to me for a guest post, I was happy to relive the days where Sevilla felt very much mine, exploring its every rinconcito.

TIPS FOR SOLO TRAVELERS IN SEVILLE

The Andalusian capital, Seville, is a remarkable city for traveling solo in Spain. Filled with beautiful architecture, museums and vibrant streets, it’s a great destination to wander and enjoy in your own company.

Here are the best things to do in Seville in 3 days as a solo traveler:

Take a tapas tour

tapas at mercado de san miguel

Seville has an array of incredible experiences to offer to its solo travelers and tapas tour is one of them. Embark on a gastronomic journey across the best tapas bars in town to savor delicious Andalusian food.

The guided tours give the perfect opportunity to meet new people, enjoy tapas paired with a glass of wine. This tour promises a quintessential Seville experience and every solo traveler must go for it.

Enjoy a Flamenco show

The making of a flamenco guitar

Flamenco is an enchanting art form that brings together singing, dancing, and guitar playing. It’s the pride of southern Spain, and Seville has some amazing venues where you can witness a remarkable Flamenco performance. The shows are held throughout the city in numerous bars, tablaos, theatres and even museums.

As a solo traveler, the best way to enjoy it is in an intimate setup where you can sit close to the stage. This gives you a chance to get hooked to the brilliant expressions of the talented performers. It’s an experience that should not be missed on your visit to Seville

Stay in a cool hostel

A typical dorm room in hostels. This one is Grand Luxe in Seville.

A typical dorm room in hostels. This one is Grand Luxe in Seville.

With numerous choices available in Seville, zeroing in on a place to stay is an interesting task. As a solo traveler, it’s time to switch your search from the best boutique hotels in Seville to the best hostels. It can be your best bet as prices are reasonable and hostels have a fun vibe.

Hostels encourage socialization by hosting amazing dinner events, walking tours, pub crawls and much more. Staying in a hostel is the perfect way to make new friends, party hard and enjoy an unforgettable experience. Further, Seville will not disappoint you even if you are a backpacker who prefers a quiet hostel setting.

Get lost in Santa Cruz neighborhood

Barrio Santa Cruz Sevilla

Step into the fascinating history of Seville by wandering in the narrow streets of Santa Cruz. From magnificent palaces, churches to plazas, there is a lot be explored in this splendid neighborhood. This popular tourist destination was Seville’s old Jewish quarter and you will stumble upon several architectural marvels here.

Every part of this neighborhood has a story to tell about the 3 influential cultures that once existed in Andalusia. Santa Cruz is the perfect destination in Seville to get lost and take the joy of solo travel to the next level. Some of the best family hotels in Seville are also located in this neighborhood.

Explore Plaza de España

ceramics at Plaza de España Seville Spain

Plaza de España is known to offer a visual feast to visitors with its incredible architecture. It was built in 1929 and is located in the gorgeous Maria Luisa Park. This renowned destination has been featured in many movies including Star Wars and Lawrence of Arabia.

You can spend the day by strolling along the plaza, taking a boat ride and admiring the beauty of this marvelous location. The only companions you need to take to Plaza de España are your camera and your selfie stick.

The tiled alcoves representing the provinces of Spain is a favorite spot among visitors for photography. Besides, it has amazing fountains, bridges, and canals that create the perfect backdrop for beautiful pictures.

Visit the Cathedral and climb the Giralda tower

Rooftop tour of the cathedral

The centuries-old Seville cathedral is an emblematic landmark of the city and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s the world’s largest Gothic church and is famous for its stunning architecture. Solo travelers love this place as they can take their time to pay attention to the meticulously designed interiors.

The cathedral’s bell tower, La Giralda, is 104-meter-high and you can reach the top by ascending the 35 ramps. The awe-inspiring sight of the city from the top makes your climb worthwhile.

Visit food markets

food offerings at mercado lonja del barranco sevilla

The delightful dining scene in Seville is a result of the fresh ingredients used in its cuisines. You can get your hands on the fresh produce by visiting the local food markets. You can find everything from fruits, vegetables, meat, fish to even spices at these markets.

You will find myriad delicious options of what to eat in Seville at these lively food markets.
It’s a great choice if you are wondering where to eat in Seville as a solo traveler.

Visit Las Setas de Sevilla

desde las setas copy

Photo by Seville Traveller

Las Setas de Sevilla, shaped like mushrooms, is one of the largest wooden structures in the world. This contemporary building attracts visitors with its quirky design.

Las Setas has three levels that house a museum, a restaurant, a market and a public plaza. The highlight of the building is its terrace from where you can enjoy fantastic views of the city.

Visit the museums of Seville

pabellon de navegacion sevilla

Seville is home to many museums that lets you witness the incredible art, culture and history of Spain. The museums boast splendid collections of everything from antiques, paintings, archaeological exhibits, traditional garments to contemporary art.

Museum of fine arts, Flamenco museum, Andalusian museum of contemporary art are the most popular museums in the city. Make the most of your solo trip by visiting the museums and enjoy an enriching experience.

Visit Triana, my neighborhood!

Puente de Triana Seville

Located on the west bank of River Guadalquivir, Triana is considered as one of the best neighborhoods in Seville. This vibrant district is famous for its charming streets, markets, ceramics and Flamenco.

Triana is home to the iconic Castle of San Jorge and the Church of Santa Ana. This neighborhood is undoubtedly a backpacker’s delight and best explored on foot.

About the author:

Paulina-travel-blog-visit-southern-spainPaulina has lived more than five years in Spain and fell in love with Seville. Maybe because of the delicious food? Or the stunning architecture? Or the great weather all year round? Probably it’s a mix of all! She is a writer about her favorite places in Andalucia at visitsouthernspain.com

 

COVID-19 in Seville: Scenes from a lockdown lifted

Fifty days.

Fifty days in my home, stealing quick trips to the garbage bins and the supermarket. Fifty days balancing a full-time job and two kids, plus a husband I am not used to seeing all the time. Fifty days with an excuse for baking cookies, sleeping in past 6 am and watching the boys’ clothes grow too small or too short for them.

Ever felt like a tiger in a cage? So did nearly 47 million people living in Spain. Confined to our homes under the strictest lockdown measures in Europe, May 2nd meant an hour of freedom outside the confines of our walls, from watching the world from a window or balcony.

Life in Spain under lockdown

At 9:09 pm, the boys both sound asleep and the Novio splayed on the couch watching CSI (ugh, again), I slip on shoes and a light jacket.

“¿Te vas?”

Sí, voy.

My camera and I need to walk further than the nearest plaza or supermarket. I close the door silently behind me and head east. I need to see the Puente de Triana, the golden bath over the Giralda as the sun sets behind me.

Signs in Spanish regarding garbage disposal in the times

I don’t feel the same solidarity as others – I live in a house next to an empty house. There are no music concerts or comunidad-wide bingo games. We can steal glances at the neighbors, mostly elderly, who rarely venture from their homes but to clap for healthcare workers at 8pm. Even as I write this, I have only just run into someone I know today. We had a cervecita planned when the spring came.

In these fifty days, springtime in Sevilla – fleeting in even the best years – has given way to the start of a blistering summer. Within a few weeks, we won’t leave the house until after 9, when the day finally cools at the edge of night.

Hasta el 40 de mayo… you can’t leave your house. But when you do, so will everyone else.

Rainbow posters saying todo irá bien in Spain during COVID

The Novio had taken care of most grocery runs and going to work occasionally as an essential worker. I’d been content to watch Enrique run around the patio in circles while baby Millán tries to escape his playpen, the sun on my face.

At 1 pm, we have a beer in El Bar de Mi Casa. I hadn’t ventured more than 300 meters from my house, much less to my favorite cervecería, mandated closed since March 14th.

Closed until the virus passes

My route to daycare normall takes me here, to the heart of Triana’s commercial district. Past bakeries, bars, small shops. Tonight, frayed signs, hastily printed out and with vague messaging about reopening, flutter as people go by, on bikes or scooters.

The most jarring? I’m staying home. Closed until the virus passes.

Closed storefronts in Seville, Spain

I’ve felt quarantined for months, to be honest. Giving birth during the hottest months of a punishing summer. Single parenting during the week. Get up-work from home-take care of the boys-work from home-take boys to park-bedtime routine-sleep. Four days straight. Home became my new normal way before COVID-19. I lived for brief trips out for groceries or necessities. A drink on my own while the baby napped in his strolled or I could run out without either one.

Those little moments were mine. A coffee at Pedro’s on the way back from work, running into Raúl at Aldi every Monday morning. I don’t miss people so much as I miss my rituals (sorry guys).

Spanish flags with a black ribbon

I’d like to say that I walk sin rumbo. But Triana has been my home in Spain for six years – I know where she hides her secrets. And I knew San Jacinto would be packed with people.

Balconies in Seville, Spain during COVID pandemic

As the sky turns a cotton candy pink – a telltale sign of the beginning of summer and its end, much like the end of total lockdown and the beginning of de-escalation – I turn north. Zig-zagging through the narrow alleyways near Las Golondrinas, I turn on Calle Alfarería.

A couple strolls together in Seville, Spain after lockdown measures eased

This street, once home to the ceramics factories that give it its name, is now pocked with new housing developments. Most respect the stucco facades and wrought iron balconies. But the modern housing units that connect Alfarería and Castilla seems…odd. Here? I skip down it anyway.

Spit out on Calle Castilla, which snakes along the western bank of the Guadalquivir, I hear things. Bike bells. Neighbors laughing and calling out to one another. Church bells. My days have been anything but silent, but I have missed white noise.

Cesta Solidaria - take what you need but leave what you can

I’m struck at how crowded the street is – I shouldn’t be. Sevillanos live in the street, treating the bar or the tapas joint downstairs as their newspaper, their living room, their inner circle.

Plus, a famous couple lives here and the previous week’s Feria de Abril – celebrated on balconies rather than the fairgrounds – meant the street is still tangled in bunting and the remnants of tattered paper lanterns. Nos puedes quitar la Feria, pero nunca la alegría. Amid so much death and uncertainty, the spirit of the locals is as strong as ever.

Calle Castilla in the neighborhood of Triana with Torre Andalucía in the background

There is nothing so sad as a tattered farollillo, and the sight of one on the Callejón de la Inquisición pinged me in the side, the sadness for a springtime, lost. I haven’t had a primavera sevillana since 2016, and it shows.

A paper lantern on the ground

Celebrating the Feria de Abril in confinement

There’s a man loitering next to the Callejón. I ask if he’s waiting for someone to pass, and he points to his dog, a grisly German Shepherd, while flicking the butt of his cigarette to the cobblestone. He’s been able to go out with his pet since the beginning, so it’s apparent he’s not buzzing with elation like I am.

Callejón in Seville, Spain

Sunset was is at exactly 9:25, and the Paseo de la O is bathed in the yellow light of the streetlamps. He llegado.

My barrio is one of lore – inhabited by sailors and gypsies, haunted by flamenco chords. When I lived in Madrid, my neighborhoods was just that – a jumble of apartments and parking places and old man bars and city. Forever and ever, amén.

An empty alleyway in Seville, Spain during day 50 of confinement

Triana is chaotic. Wild. Familiar. Foreign.

And breathtaking.

Capilla del Carmen and the Puente de Triana of Seville, Spain

The jasmine and jacaranda have bloomed while we were locked away. Wildlife has returned to all part of Spain, and Triana’s river looked clearer than ever. I breath in the deep scent of the flowers, the damp of the river, the clean air that is not tinged with old oil in the fryer.

The jasmine blooms next to the Guadalquivir River in Seville, Spain

I take just as long to cover 150 meters as I do a kilometer, in awe of the bridge, the beauty, the barrio and the smell of a city, waking up.

We are on our way. This will be over. For all of the grief I’ve felt over the last seven weeks, I feel a small seed in my stomach – hope? Bliss? Hunger?

Puente de Triana at nightfall

I am not alone on the Guadalquivir banks, of course, but I may as well be. Gone are the fisherman on the thin stretch of gravel, the tables that spill out of restaurants on Calle Betis. There are no teenagers draped over the steps of the Faro de Triana, limbs linked as they stare downstream towards the Torre de Triana.

Sevilla skyline on a clear summer night

For once, I felt that the city belongs solely to me.

Residents of Seville, Spain can now go for walks or individual exercise after enduring 50 days of strict lockdown

Circling back, I bypass the bridge in favor of the street. The bars here are stacked one on top of another on a normal day, and the patrons, too. Eerily quiet on a Monday night, though the next morning would see businesses beginning to open their rejas halfway as employees worked to disinfect in the hopes of opening on May 11th.

But, briefly, there was just a city and its people and nothing more. Honestly, did we ever need anything more?

Triana, Seville under lockdown

It felt like the first night I ever spent in Triana – a silent Sunday evening when I found everything was closed at twilight and everyone was hunkered down in their home, waiting for Monday. The swallows circled overhead, black torpedoes against a fading sky.

I wish I had something prolific to say about being home for so long and finally rediscovering the world outside of my doorstep. But truthfully, I go to bed every night thankful that I have survived kids, dust bunnies and trying to manage my sanity, my household and my job. That we are safe and healthy. That I have not run out of books or food or patience (or, um, allergy meds).

Seville isn’t itself – but it’s for the better. When I left Seville the first time, I felt heartbroken and hopeful, all at once. My friend Juani had recently moved back from Chile and said it best: you have to leave Sevilla to truly love it.

And, maybe, you have to leave it but then return and have it forbidden. Either way, I can taste the Cruzcampo at La Grande, hear the bellowing of neighbors in the plaza.

Five Things You Didn’t Know About Filing Your Taxes as an Expat in Spain

If life abroad weren’t complicated enough, filing taxes from abroad becomes even more complicated. As he drove me to the airport in 2007 for a year in Spain, my dad casually mentioned that I’d need to fax my first paycheck so that he could get a handle on my tax situation as soon as possible. “You’ll lose your passport otherwise.”

I scoffed, but eventually heard horror stories of people held at customs for not defaulting their student loans or not filing their taxes. Back before we had smartphones, I scanned and made copies of all of my bank statements just in case Uncle Sam came calling. Every April 15th, I gloated over all the zeros on my tax returns.

European Euros money

Then came love, marriage and the baby carriage, and I entered the murky world of filing taxes in Spain as an employee, dutifully filing in both countries.

A dozen years on, my interest in protecting my assets while understanding tax laws for my little American passport-totting Spanish children had me looking to the experts for more information about how and when to report my earnings abroad, as well as how to generate a positive return. It turns out that I had little idea about the intricacies of basic filing knowhow, which I’m sharing here as five things most expats don’t know about filing their US taxes from Spain:

Deadlines – April 15th is just another date on a calendar for expats filing taxes abroad

When you’re living abroad, you suddenly have double the dates to remember – holidays at home and abroad, your next trip stateside, and when to file your taxes in both countries.

This proved to be especially important for me as an American living and working in Spain. The Spanish declaración de la renta is not due until June 30th but cannot be filed until April 1st; in order to file my American taxes, I had to first file my Spanish claims and receive my return to send to an American accountant. April 15th – the American deadline – is thus too precipitated, but the common knowledge is that Americans residing abroad have a two-month grace period until June 15th, so long as you have filed for the extension prior to April 15th.

Five Weird Things You'll Find in Your Spanish Apartment

You can file for a later deadline, provided you do it prior to April 15th. Below are the important dates to remember when filing your US taxes from abroad:

Previous year tax return: October 15th

FBAR: October 15th

Even if you arrive to a zero balance on your tax return, you are required to fill out an FBAR if your worldwide assets total more than $10,000 or their local equivalent across any account bearing your name – even if just for one day. For instance, I began filing an FBAR in 2014 when I bought a house, as the amount I transferred in from the US was over the threshold.

Child tax credits: having a case of the babies can pay off on your taxes

I was well aware that the Spanish government offered what they called a cheque bebé, or a tax rebate on children up to age three. I chose to get the monthly 100€ check as a lump sum on my Spanish returns, as well as take advantage of the Comunidad de Madrid’s 90€ monthly rebate for working mothers.

When I found out I also qualified for a refund in the US under a recent tax reform called the Child Tax Credit, I was thrilled to know that the money I was paying out of pocket for childcare would be returned.

cute baby in a hat

There are two types of child tax credits: the Child Tax Credit and the Dependent Care Credit. I was able to file for the former, which qualifies for a reduction of $2000 per child, provided the child is under 16, has an American social security number or Individual Taxpayer Identification Number and is an American citizen. Because I did not earn enough to be taxed in the US via my Spanish income, my child tax credit came in the form of a refund – finally someone paid me a “salary” for my second shift job!

The other credit is for those who wish to claim up to $600 per child for childcare costs for dependents under the age of 12 when one or both parents work or are eligible to work.

Ojo – if you have filed for the Foreign Earned Income Exclusion , you will not qualify for these exclusions.

FATCA: This is the reason why your foreign bank asks you for a W-9

Oh, the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act. No sooner had I signed the dotted line on a mortgage, my assets at my Netherlands-based bank were frozen. Imagine me, IKEA boxes piled onto a cart, having two debit cards and a credit card denied when I’d just been paid my finiquito and my monthly wages.

Parisian bistros

Enacted in 2014 and enforced heavily throughout the world, this IRS-imposed financial bullying is meant to catch those with offshore accounts but ends up hurting expats with its reporting. All Americans wishing to bank abroad are typically asked to provide both a W-9 form and a copy of their residency status to open and operate a bank account; when the law came into effect, I was politely asked to sign a W-8BEN, despite the DO NOT SIGN IF YOU ARE A US CITIZEN OR GREEN CARD HOLDER warning across the top.

Anyone know any Spaniards named Catherine Gaa? No?

Despite following my bank’s instructions, my accounts were frozen for two weeks, meaning my mortgage, life insurance and other important bills went unpaid – even my blog went offline when I was truant on my hosting fees.

FATCA can be problematic when trying to bank or own a business abroad, as the IRS has to know about it. Your bank is probably getting bullied into giving you the W9 and demanding to see your local residency card, anyway. In turn, they report your full name, birthdate, US social security number and bank balance to the US authorities.

Cuenca cathedral

Word to the wise: if you’re marrying a foreign national, bring up FATCA and taxes in the US like you would the question of having children or not. It may impact how you bank together.

Double taxation and Foreign Earned Income Exclusion: do I make enough money abroad to file?

While we’re on FACTA… the reason the whole mess came to be was because of a bunch of rich people using tax paradises to not pay on their worldwide earnings, something that the US requires you to report no matter where you live or where you earn your money (or euros or yen). It traps us little guys who earn normal salaries abroad and pay taxes on those earnings.

While the US has tax treaties with more than 6 countries, these agreements are really meant to not tax foreign nationals living and working in the US from being taxed in both countries. In other words: if you have a US passport and earn money, you should file. If you are, say, Spanish and work in the US, you wouldn’t have to file in Spain because of these treaties.

If you’re earning less than $100,000 worldwide, chances are you won’t owe the IRS any money. You can file for something called the Foreign Earned Income Exclusion in this case, or even the Foreign Tax Credit, which deducts $1 for every dollar you have already paid in taxes in another country. This is where filing for an extension in order to pay taxes in your country of residence comes in handy; you can then apply for the Foreign Tax Credit via Form 116.

Back filing and getting up to tax compliancy

Most expats know that they are legally obligated to file taxes every year, but the common belief is that if you don’t earn money in the US, you won’t have to pay any money to Uncle Sam.

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A friend of mine brought up a great point recently during a US consulate town hall: if I know I owe nothing to the IRS, why do I have to pay someone to do my taxes? When you compare the price of back filing your taxes through the IRS’s streamlined procedure to the $50,000 start price for not complying with FATCA, it makes sense to bite the financial bullet. What’s more, the IRS can find you since you let your bank report to them.

In order to become compliant via the streamlined process, you must:

  • File your last three federal tax returns
  • File your last six FBARs, if applicable
  • Pay any taxes due
  • Self-certify that your previous failure to file was non-willful

What companies can file my taxes for me? Can I use Turbotax if I live abroad?

Anyone else wish they would have learned about filing taxes when they had their first job? Or in high school? Or at any point in their lives?

When I was slinging sandwiches at age 15 at a local deli, I never imagined I’d end up living abroad. My dad dutifully tallied my $6.25 hourly wage before April 15th, and we celebrated with 29 cent hamburgers at MCDonald’s for dinner. Taxes are fun! I’d say as I chowed down at the dinner table.

HA.

You can absolutely use Turbotax or your parents’ accountant, but as we began to earn money from renting our home and then bled money into childcare, I realized I needed someone who was specialized in tax law in both Spain and the US. The Novio does a great job on our declaración de la renta in Spain, reading up on new laws and saving receipts of everything from school uniforms to a new corkscrew for our rental property – but he is as useless as I am on American taxes.

cat gaa sunshine and siestas

Bright!Tax was exactly what I needed as money matters got murky last tax season.

An honest review of Bright!Tax  from an American abroad

Katelynn, a qualified American CPA working for Bright!Tax, got in touch with me immediately to schedule a call and talk through my household situation. While filing taxes when it was just me was a cinch, marrying a person with a different passport and entering a 30-year mortgage and lifelong parentage with him complicated things. Katelynn’s humor and understanding of both Spanish tax law basics and the language allowed her to figure out exactly where we were spending our euros and how that may benefit me in my US return.

Taxes for Americans in Spain

What’s more, the communication was immediate yet not drawn out – she meant business in the best sense of the word, keeping deadlines in both countries in mind. After each call, a follow-up email with my action tasks was sent, allowing me to keep tabs on the documentation I would need to provide for my situation. As I was also preparing for a move and a baby, I appreciated that I didn’t have to chase someone else down.

Rather than sending all of my personal and financial information via email, Bright!Tax uses an interface with double authentication that allows you to fill out corresponding fields and upload your documents directly to their server. It was quick and simple to understand, and I didn’t have to worry about my information getting out to the interwebs or about GDPR, the European data protection laws (my new vendetta after FATCA).

The best part? I was able to get a refund equivalent to a month’s pay via the Child Tax Credit and the depreciation for renting our home in Seville. My dad had worked out how to make my return equivalent to zero year after year, but having insider knowledge of new tax laws meant a payout and direct deposit into my American savings account

I have already reached out to Bright!Tax about my 2019 filing, which will include the FBAR and the FATCA forms, this year. If you mention my blog or my name, you can get $50 off your filing – and if you need to take advantage of the streamlined process, every little bit helps!

February means my place of work will be sending me a list of my deductions for 2019, and the Spanish government will be paying me another 600€ for contributing another member to society (and someone who will pay pensions in the future), so it’s time to get cracking on my taxes once again. As they say – nothing in life is certain but death and taxes – and the cervecita I’ll have when I’m filed and compliant in both countries.

Full disclosure: Katelynn prepared my taxes free of charge for 2018 in exchange for my post. I can’t speak more highly of the whole process – and I keep it real.

Lost and Found in Spain: Susan Solomont talks her book about being an ambassador’s wife abroad

Serendipity. A random occurrence of events that happens casually or unexpectedly.

Not that my run-ins with Spanish bureaucrats have been serendipitous, but as I looked back on 12 years of Spain through rosy colored glasses (or just a Cruzcampo haze), I realize that so many of the relationships and milestones of my Spain life have been a series of coincidences. From my hearing casually about the auxiliar de conversación job to meeting the woman who would introduce me to the Novio (who happened to live around the corner from family back in Chicago) to how we named Millán.

I recently met with Susan Solomont, a former diplomat to the American mission in Spain, for coffee and a chat on a rainy morning in Seville. Her literary agent had put us in contact months before, but between our schedules and the time difference, a well-timed email meant that we could meet the following week during the Solomont’s annual trip to Spain instead of connecting over Skype. Serendipitous, indeed.

beautiful old door in Europe

In many ways, her husband’s appointment as ambassador to Spain under Obama was just that – a happy coincidence and the chance to serve her country’s diplomatic mission abroad. Spain and the US have long enjoyed a positive relationship, so despite the frantic preparations to arrive at Calle Serrano, 75 and all of the minutiae of being a diplomat’s wife, Susan’s journey was, like mine, full of small but bountiful coincidences.

My reporter’s notebook – a relic of the days when I planned to be a journalist and had a heavy interest in Washington – stayed shut as we filled an hour with conversation that carelessly flitted between topics – touching on politics (got that right out of the way), sharing our favorite places in Spain and musing about raising children to be kind and forward-thinking.

In her book, Lost and Found in Spain – Adventures of an Ambassador’s Wife (you can nab it on AmazonBarnes and Noble or Indie Bound), Susan starts off with an anecdote before delving into an aspect of Spanish identity, from cultural to religious to historical. In many ways, Susan’s inception of the news she’d be headed to Spain, her apprehensions over the move and settling into her new life mirror my own, just revved up on Cola Cao Turbo. I felt moved by the shared experience and wanting to learn more about life in Barrio Salamanca – just a few blocks from my house but somehow worlds away.

Susan Solomont headshot

Susan graciously answered my questions via email so that she could enjoy snuggling Millán and tell me about her own children while I sipped my fourth coffee of the morning over our chat.

Can you speak about how your letters to loved ones back home evolved into a book?

When I lived in Spain I wrote a series of letters I called Holas. They started as personal letters to keep in touch with my 13 closest friends. They started to go viral, and I started writing more about our life as diplomats. They were more informative than personal and they ended up reaching over 3000 people.

Leon Square Spain

A literary agent friend who received them encouraged me to put them into a book. She said to me, “A book of letters is not a book. You need a beginning, a middle, an end. Tell a story”.

It took me two years to write the book and two years to find a publisher. These things take time and finally, in 2018, the book came out.

Your transition to Spain was not a smooth one, despite training and assistance from the Department of State. Looking back, what could you have done to prepare yourself for the post?

The transition to Spain had its highs and lows. I was not able to bring my professional work to Spain and instead had to work hard to forge my own identity – hence the “Lost” part of the title. Plus I was away from family and friends and my community. The “Found” part – I found my role, my voice, my place in the Embassy community and Spanish community.

Our Department of State (DOS) is changing [sic and] can find roles for spouses and partners. Perhaps now I could have brought my professional work with me, but in retrospect, I’m glad I didn’t.

No doubt, an ambassador’s job takes you to many interesting places across Spain for various functions, several of which you detail in your book – I particularly liked the story of Jerez del Marquesados. What was your favorite? And is there somewhere you didn’t get to that you wish you could have visited?

view of Trujillo, Extremadura

I’m often asked what is my favorite place in Spain. Impossible to answer, I love so many places. We traveled everywhere in the country. It is so special that I know each region and have visited. I do have a particular fondness for Extremadura and its countryside. I also love Mallorca. The color of the water, the beauty of the Tramuntana countryside.

One day I will return to walk part of the Camino.

An ambassador’s life or his wife’s seems glamorous. What were your days actually like?

Our days were very busy. People assume this is a job where you are socializing all the time. Yes, we were constantly meeting people, but it’s not fancy teas and dinner parties. The work was political, economic and cultural. We also were there for Americans living abroad and traveling. We worked long and hard days advancing the agenda of the US [in Spain], sharing cultural values and strengthening the bilateral relationship.

Holidays can be both memorable and difficult times for those of us in Spain. I celebrate July 4th, Halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmas in my house, which my husband and his family willingly take part in. How has your view on American culture changed since your assignment?

When we lived in Spain we celebrated all American holidays and also celebrated Jewish holidays both with our Jewish friends in Spain as well as non-Jewish friends. Our July 4th celebration was very special. We served hot dogs and hamburgers, had an American rock n’ roll band, danced the night away and celebrated the US’s birthday.

american products thanksgiving

Halloween- I used to host a doggy Halloween party where embassy staff would dress their dogs up and come play on the lawn. Our Marine Unit had a Halloween party as well.

And Christmas- we had the most fantastic tree, decorated in Spanish and American flags.

There are many Spanish stereotypes flirting around Spain and the Spanish lifestyle – I’m guilty, having lived in the land of toros and tapas! Are there any that you found utterly false, or even alarmingly true?

bullfighting in Seville Spain

YES— we wanted people to know that siestas, bullfights and flamenco are not the norms. Spain is a modern democracy that works hard. Perhaps on a weekend someone might take a siesta. Or perhaps there are people who go to the bullfights but not everyone likes them. And the same for flamenco.

Spain and the US enjoy a strong relationship, and each sees the power and mutual benefit in these relations. Were you met with any hostility as part of yours and Alan’s mission while in Madrid?

Not at all. We were embraced by Madrid and all of Spain. People would stop me on the street and say, “I love your country, I love President Obama”.

Have you been back to Spain since 2013? What is your first stop in Madrid?

metro of Madrid

We come back at least once a year. We always spend time in Madrid. We get very busy seeing old friends and eating and drinking too much. We always need a vacation after our time here.

I had to glance at my watch to keep a well child check up, but Susan’s second coffee date of the morning arrived shortly before I had to duck out. Juan and I have always had a case of six degrees of separation – we have about a dozen people in common – but on that rainy, midweek morning, finally gave one another dos besos. Another serendipitous moment (appease me, please).

Chance led both Susan and I to Spain, and despite our moments of both feeling lost, we found ourselves – and, funnily enough, one another – through its people, culture and food and wine.

Susan Solomont titles

Susan and her agent graciously provided me with a PDF copy of Lost and Found in Spain, but all opinions expressed here are my own and were not contingent upon meeting Susan. I enjoyed its lighthearted tone – it does read like a long form letter in many sections – and its reflections on Spanish life and culture through an American lens. You can find more about the book and her companion’s children’s book, Stella the Ambassadog (adorable!), on her author webpage.

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Lavender fields in Spain: the Brihuega Festival de la Lavanda and what you need to know

You don’t need to travel from Madrid to Provence to see lavender fields in bloom this summer.

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Brihuega, a blip of a village in the Guadalajara province, has come to produce close to 10% of the world’s lavender. My parents had a few scattered plants in the backyard of my childhood home, and, along with lightening bugs and scrapes on my knees, the lavender bloom was the true sign of summer. During a rare weekend without my kiddo or the Novio, I stumbled across the Festival de la Lavanda, a touristic initiative in Brihuega to celebrate the town’s most famous resident.

Open road, the scent of lavender hanging over a village and a muggy afternoon ahead of us, Danny, Inma and I headed northwest on the A-2 motorway shortly before lunchtime. “¡Ponte algo blanco!” Inma urged, reminding me that the soft purple would pop more if I wore something white or light-colored. The two-lane highway was crammed with cars descending into a town of barely 2400, and the bars were much the same. In a province where fields are often tinged yellow by the sun and heat at this time of the summer, the lavender fields shone a vibrant violet.

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Lavender is huge business in this little town – half of the shops are dedicated to selling products made with the flower, from cosmetics to lavender-infused cakes to handkerchiefs embroidered in violet. Although Brihuega has only been producing for around three decades, the festival has gained national and international attention in Spain – in fact, it has only been celebrated for seven years!

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The story goes that the village and the pedanías surrounding it relied heavily on the Real Fábrica de Paños, or a linens producing facility, for work and commerce. When production was reduced, farmers in the area began to look for different business avenues to help keep Brihuega from becoming a ghost town. Andrés Corral reputedly went to France and, upon discovering that his hometown’s agricultural conditions were ideal for cultivating and harvesting lavender, began to plant.

To date, there are around 1000 hectares of lavender in Brihuega and Villaviciosa, and Spanish haute fashion house Loewe derives many of its perfumes from Brihuega’s aroma. Who ever said the Spanish weren’t innovative or took risks?

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While in town, there isn’t much to see but the winding, narrow streets open up to small, cozy plazas. Since the bars were packed with other tourists, we ate most of our lunch a base de tapas – snacking on the morsels bars give you with your drink order. Apart from the lush Jardines de la Antigua Fábrica de Paños and old city ramparts, you can visit a smattering of old churches and convents, as well as the city history museum.

Post-coffee and souvenir hunting, the lavender fields were waiting. The sun was still high enough when we left that we beat most of the crowds and were able to park just a few feet off of the fields, which rolled over knolls with exposed earth, each hump bursting with violet blossoms. I went to Provence as a 16-year-old on the tail end of the lavender season, but this time, I was intoxicated by the smell and the stark way the color popped against the sky and the soil.

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When is the Brihuega Lavendar Festival?

The typical bloom time lavender is in the summer, from late June through July. This, of course, depends largely on the climate during the spring, but it’s safe to assume that the booms are at their fullest around the second and third week of July.

The 2019 Festival de la Lavanda in Brihuega will be celebrated the weekend of July 19th with a series of outdoor concerts (you get seated among the rows of plants!), guided tours and street decorating contests. You can purchase concert tickets on the official website as well as reserve a spot on the guided tours for 4€.

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How to visit the lavender fields in Brihuega

The best time of day to see Brihuega’s acres of lavender crop is around sunset, though this is the busiest time. There are designated parking areas if you travel by car, and the tourism office offers limited spots on chartered buses for 4€ during weekends in July at 7pm and 8:30 pm, just as the light wanes.

There are no facilities, so be sure to bring water and a fan if it’s hot. There are also swarms of bees, in case you’re allergic. Uh, and sandals are not the way to go because you’ll be jumping over the bushes and walking on uneven terrain.

Getting to Brihuega, Spain

It’s easiest to reach Brihuega via car – the pueblo is about 90 kilometers northwest of Madrid. From the A-2, take exit 73 and follow signs towards the village or the other town attraction, Mad Max’s miniature museum. This will also allow you to visit the lavender fields at your own pace.

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If you’re coming from Madrid or Zaragoza, connections through Guadalajara offer regular bus service to Brihuega through Autocares Samar. You can find hours and prices on the village’s tourism page. The village is surrounded by over a dozen lavender fields (over a thousand hectacres of the beauties!) but also sunflower fields you should stop off at, if you have the time.

Summertime is rife with festivals in Spain, ranging from traditional to bizarre to well-known fètes, like La Tomatina or Los San Fermínes.

Brihuega Lavender Festival

What are your favorite small town festivals in Spain? Share them with me in the comments!

Parenting in Spain: the differences between raising children in Spain and the USA

The 48 hours I spent in the hospital post-birth were a bit of a blur. Between doctors and nurses coming in and out, trying to figure out breastfeeding and the cycle of 20 minutes of dozing before I was interrupted by doctors or a hungry child, it wasn’t until I was back home and fumbling through the first few days and dozens of dirty diapers that the habits of Spanish parents – and just how different they were to my own upbringing – shook my baby-lagged brain.

Fast fashion: my mom sewed all of my clothes growing up

Fast fashion: my mom sewed all of my clothes growing up

I grew up without technology and in an American family in a large suburb of Chicago during the 1990s. Most of my childhood was shaped by the adults who had grown up in the 50s and 60s, and my mother stayed home with her two daughters until I, the elder, was seven years old. Summer camp, sports leagues and a part-time job in high school color my memories of growing up American, and they are also coloring the way I view child-rearing in Spain as I expect my second and push through the terrible twos of my somewhat terrible Spanish son.

The differences between parenting in Spain and parenting in the US are stark, and it begins with the fact that Spaniards tend to begin their families later. When I got married right as I turned 30, many of my friends back home were already parents or expecting; I was the first of my group of American girlfriends in Spain to have a baby, and many of my Spanish friends – including those older than me – have not made a foray into parenthood.

I'm a cool mom: taking my kid to a goat roasting festival in Quirós, Asturias

I’m a cool mom: taking my kid to a goat roasting festival in Quirós, Asturias

At home, I rule the roost and tread water between a full-time job, a toddler, a child on the way and a husband completing a master’s. It all feel imperfect yet under control, even if my American parenting ways sometimes clash with age-old Spanish upbringing habits – particularly with the older generation.

Ear piercing

When my husband and I found out we were expecting a boy, I breathed a sigh of relief: I would not have to make excuses for choosing to not pierce anyone’s ears. Most Spanish families pierce baby girls’s ears while they are a few weeks old or even at the hospital before being released. This is mostly due to the fact that the baby will not remember the pain, but it also aids in distinguishing boys from girls. I grew up playing sports and did not pierce my ears until my junior Prom, and at my mother’s insistence.

Even still, Enrique was a lovely baby who did not wear just baby blue, and many older women in the neighborhood mistook him for a lovely niña. I was always too tired to argue and just said a quick gracias to the nosy abuelas at the pharmacy.

Babies must be weighed at the same time every week

As Enrique grew, I became obsessed with knowing how much weight he had gained. It became a fun guessing game with my mother-in-law, who would take the bus to my home every Wednesday afternoon to weight him at the nearby pharmacy.

Can I visit La Granja with a stroller?

“Remember,” she said after a doctor’s appointment, “what he’s wearing and this time of the day, as you should always bring him into the pharmacy at the same time on the same day of the week and in the same clothing. That way, you get the most accurate reading.”

Imagine the horror when Enrique pooped shortly before the 5:30 pm weigh in one afternoon, or how much we laughed when he gained more than half a kilo in one week during a growth spurt.

Perfumes and perfect outfits

Babies are adorable and sleepy and smell good, they say.

They also spit up on themselves, poop constantly and get weird baby pimples as they fatten up. No matter – babies in Spain wear perfume and outfits that clasp, snap and buckle, both of which I find outrageous. I opted for buying newborn clothes that were soft, durable and well-priced. Enrique had a few beautiful pieces sewn and embroidered for him by family members, which I saved for special occasions and outings. Most of the time, he was in a zip-up pajamas in the cooler months and onesies that snapped at the crotch in the summer.

My mother-in-law dotes on my son and pleaded to buy a number of big-ticket items despite having a number of hand-me-downs. She was especially proud to buy him his first pair of shoes when he began to stand, but I was surprised when two came in the box. One pair were lovely brown boots to dress up a look, whereas the others were what we Midwestern Americans call gym shoes. “Well, because you don’t dress him like the other mothers. He’s ‘sporty.’”

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While there was absolutely no malice, she was right: I didn’t dress my child like the rest of the mothers (and I didn’t always dress myself up to leave the house, either – gasp!). I found the clasps and snaps a hinderance during a blowout caca, and considered his comfort over being adorable.

Thankfully, all of the baby perfumes were re-gifted as soon as we discovered Enrique is prone to dermatitis. A baby who pooped himself still smells like poop, even masked by a thick veil of Tous perfume for newborns (and who spends that much money on a baby perfume?!).

Breastfeeding, solid foods and when kids eat

I breastfed Enrique exclusively until he was four months old, something I felt pressured to do. It was time-consuming and he had reflux, but on the flip side I could do it anywhere (out to lunch! At the movies! On an airplane!) without scrambling to find a microwave or shelling out money for formula. We moved on to cereal at four months and were advised to start solids at six.

Enrique is a pretty good eater, but I was shocked when the pediatrician suggested his first lean meat come fro her barnyard friend, the horse, and that he should try kiwi at six – which landed him in the ER with a rash. In the US, we typically start on mushed veggies and certainly do not eat horse (my mother was silently weeping when I mentioned this to her).

Don't let this picture fool you - Enrique ate everything from charcuterie to tiramisu to caccio e pepe on our Rome trip

Don’t let this picture fool you – Enrique ate everything from charcuterie to tiramisu to caccio e pepe on our Rome trip

Kike’s favorite foods now are mostly kid friendly: fish sticks, yogurt and hot dogs. But he’ll also eat a full cocido marileño, is capable of eating an entire tapa of marinated olives and asks for bocadillos de foie for a snack. O sea, español when it comes to eating.

Bedtime and schedules

Spanish children go to bed extremely late. My friends – even the Americans – gasp when I tell them that my bedtime was 7:30 p.m. until I was 8, after which I could read until 8pm but that lights out was to be adhered to – no matter how late it got dark in the summer.

In casually mentioning that my kiddo is usually in bed by 9pm, I am met with bewildered looks. But when does he eat?! Around 7:30 or 8pm, right after his bath. Don’t you lay with him until he falls asleep? Nope, we have a bedtime routine after which I say, “Now Mommy is going to have dinner.” Enrique was not a good crib sleeper, but he leaves me to have some adult time in the evening.

Likely talking grandma into not having a nap

My biggest thing is that my son’s designated nap time at daycare is right in the middle of the day, which is when we’d ideally like to be outside on cooler days or taking friends up on plans for meals. I am moderately strict on the weekends with both nap times and bedtimes, even when there are some tears (even from my friends when I tell them the time won’t work for me).

We also let him sleep late on the weekends. There is nothing better than me waking up on my own at 8am and having a cup of coffee and mindlessly scrolling through social media before I have to start the trudge through changing diapers and clothes and fighting against the TV. Speaking of…

Having the TV on all the time

This is as Spanish to me as a tortilla – Spanish households seem to have the TV on at every moment of the day, and my kiddo asks for Pocoyo as soon as he’s lucid in the morning. I try not to use no TV as a punishment and encourage him to play with his toys or color before he’s pushing the remote buttons and mine.

Family roles and relying on grandparents more

When I was a child, we lived five hours away from both sets of grandparents, so my earliest memories of being at home are with my mother. When she comes, 100% of her energy is focused on my son, and he knows Grandma speaks English, and Abuela speaks Spanish. I have only gotten a babysitter once, and that babysitter was a family member who traded a Saturday night out for Netflix and a pizza.

Dueling grandpas

Dueling grandpas

Grandparents are very involved in Spain, particularly because both parents tend to work in major urban areas. It’s common to see grandparents pushing strollers, at the pediatrician and hanging out at the park. Some of my friends’ children do not even go to daycare but spend all day with their abuelos.

More than two years in and expecting my second, I feel like I have struck a balance. A Spanish friend of mine once said, you either raise a child “a la alemana,” or according to a strict schedule, or “a la gitana” or with the kiddo in charge.

Not a politically correct way to call it, but I am trying to raise Enrique and Millan “a la sevillamericana” – a hybrid of American and Spanish ideals and parenting habits. This all goes out the window when we’re in casa de los abuelos: his Spanish grandparents let him stay up until he is falling over, force feed him chocolate and homemade pudding and allow the TV to babysit. Still, I appreciate the closeness they’ve developed with Enrique and their desire to be involved or let this frazzled mom go have a haircut in relative peace.

Advice for being an expat parent abroad

Being a parent is a hard job, no matter how you slice it. It takes patience, humbling and some commiserating. Add to that cultural and often linguistic barriers, and you’ll find that the highs are extremely high, and the lows can feel crushing.

I often ask other expat parents in Spain for their advice and ideas for exploiting the fact that my children will grow up as not only bilingual but bicultural – and likely without noticing the difference between the two.

Baby's first glimpse of the ocean

Perhaps the hardest part for me is doing so with my parents so far away, and knowing that their experience raising two kids in the 90s was way different than the issues and challenges I’ll face in the new millennium. It’s a frequent topic of discussion when we have our weekly chats: “You know, Catherine, things were just so different!”

Seek out other parents – both expats and locals – to help you navigate and lend a hand if you need childcare. A friend of mine came to visit Seville with her husband and two girls, and I loved watching them while my friends had dinner out for once. She’s been inspirational and helpful in seeing what’s coming and having the shared experience as an American mother raising children in Spain.

Remember that your child needs the fundamentals first – food, shelter and your love and attention. The rest will figure itself out. If you lead by example and encourage your child, he will learn (even if that means a watch down the toilet, having the kid with a dirty school uniform because you forgot to run a load of laundry or a house littered with toys and crumbs).

Christmas in the US

Don’t compare yourself to what everyone else is doing. There is no handbook to parenting, and especially a handbook to parenting abroad. They say in Spanish, cada niño es un mundo, and it’s true: each child is different, and so is every family. You will do the best you can if you believe in the work you’re doing. And you will mess up, so get over that fast.

I’m 30 weeks pregnant with another little boy (have you missed me on the blog?) and preparing for a second isn’t so much about researching car seats and ironing onesies – it’s about making peace with the fact that chaos is coming, that there will be four of us, that my body will turn back into a milking cow, a pillow and a punching bag. Now, who has advice for not losing my shit when I’m nursing one and scolding the other?

Strange parenting habits in Spain

Have you noticed any other odd parenting habits in Spain or the country where you live? 

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