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.’”

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

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? 

Tapas Tuesday: Roscón de Reyes, or the Spanish Twist on King’s Cake

The Epiphany is one of my most beloved Spanish Christmas traditions. Not only does it extend my holidays by a few days, but the Cabalgata parade means that candy literally rains down the streets of San Jacinto. Spanish children await their gifts from three wise men who travel on camels, distributing gifts (or coal) much like the Magi did when they traveled to see the Messiah. Santa Claus is making waves in Spain, but Gaspar, Melchor and Baltazar are three of the most recognizable faces for a Spanish child.

Apart from collecting hard candies that will serve as bribes for my students until June, people also gobble up the Roscón de Reyes, a sweet cake filled with cream or truffle fluff that’s traditionally served during the afternoon of January 6th.

Roscon de Reyes

What it is: A panettone-like cake made from flour, sugar, eggs, butter, milk and yeast, plus a few spices. Sliced open in the middle, the cake also has cream in the middle and is decorated with sugar-dipped fruits and sliced almonds. It’s essentially the first cousin of a King’s Cake, traditionally eaten in New Orleans on Fat Tuesday.

Where it’s from: Roscón – and its variants – have long been served in Spain on the Epiphany. The tradition actually began in Rome, when cakes commemorating the Three Wise Men’s search for Christ were served first to the poor and then divvied up for soldiers on the 12th night after Christmas. He who found the lima bean within the cake was exempt from work that day.

Nowadays, the person who finds a small plastic baby is the King or Queen of the afternoon, whereas the unlucky recipient of the bean must often pay for the cake the following year!

Goes great with: Coffee – it helps cut down on all the sugar you just consumed.

Where to find it in Seville: Roscón is one of those dishes that you’re better off buying – without a Thermomix, it’s pretty laborious! Head to any confitería and reserve one (I prefer Filella and Lola in Triana), or even pick one up in a supermarket if you’re in a pinch – a cake for 8 people will run you about 20€.

bakeshop

The Three Kings have a completely new significance for me – my son was born on January 4th and received a visit from Gaspar, Melchor and Balthasar before leaving the hospital. In fact, we were released from the hospital on the Epiphany, only to be told that the Cabalgata was passing right in front of the hospital. My first food at home after his birth was Roscón, and the small toy tiger my fatherin-in-law bit into that night will forever be treasured.

If you like the Three Kings Cake, try some other convent sweets like Huesos de Santos, Yemas de San Lorenzo or Roscas de Vino.

Have you ever tried Roscón de Reyes?

My Favorite Spanish Christmas Traditions

Christmas in Seville means the adherence to age-old traditions. Sure, there’s bound to be an overplayed commercial depicting Santa or a lottery announcement that has you break down and run to your nearest Lotería stand (looking at you, Faustino in the mannequin factory) but sevillanos stick to their beloved pastimes.

When you’ve worked in retail, you learn to hate, LOATHE, Christmas. May your days be merry and bright? Un carajo, may your days be filled with frazzled shoppers and annoying Christmas tunes.

Christmas in Spain

I officially recognize that I’m a Scrooge, but Seville is extra special during the holidays, and my feelings about the holidays have changed since moving here. In fact, I find myself missing all of those traditions I used to despise. I miss having a real Christmas tree and going to pick it out with my family, then moan when I have to set it up according to Nancy’s standards. I miss taking the train into Chicago to have lunch at the Walnut Room, even if there are lines and my mother whines that Macy’s is NOT Marshall Field’s and we can NEVER shop there any other day of the year. I almost, almost miss shoveling snow.

But, it’s the most wonderful time of the year! No need to be sad when there are chestnuts roasting on an open fire on every street corner.

You can forget about the 12 days of Christmas – to spark holiday sales and spending, Corte Inglés passed out their toy catalogue long before the official start to the holidays. Even though many would say the Immaculate Conception day on December 8th is the official start to the holidays, Christmas lights are officially on during the first weekend in December.

Belenes

One of the first Christmas presents I ever received was a handcrafted dollhouse that my grandfather made. I spent hours changing around the design of the rooms, more interested in the aesthetic than actually playing with the family of dolls that came with it.

Where we Americans have Santa’s village, the Spaniards have belénes, or miniature versions of that Little Town O’ Bethlehem. But there’s more than the inn and the stable – church parishes, shops and even schools set up elaborate recreations of what Bethlehem, known as Belén in Spanish, looked liked. It’s common to see livestock, markets and even running water or mechanical figurines.

The biggest belénes in Seville are in the cathedral, San Salvador, the Fundación Cajasol in Plaza San Francisco and even at the Corte Inglés. Just look for the signs that say “Nacimiento” or “Belen” and you’re bound to find one. If you want to set up one of your own, there’s an annual market in Seville that sells handcrafted adobe houses, miniature wicker baskets to tiny produce and every figurine imaginable in the Plaza del Triunfo, adjacent to the cathedral.

Christmas Lights

Even though the days get shorter, the sheer amount of Christmas lights that light Seville’s plazas and main shopping streets seem to simulate the sunny winter days that we’re having this year.

Most neighborhoods will have their own displays up in the evenings along main thoroughfares. Expect your light bill to be less if you live near one of these streets – lights stay up until the Epiphany on January 6th and turn on as early as 6pm. It’s worth grabbing a cone of castañas and wandering around the center of town.

Christmas dinners

It’s also quite common for companies to invite their employees to an enormous Chirstmas dinner, followed by copas and often dancing. When I worked at the private school, we’d travel to a finca or salon de celebraciones and have a private catering. The same goes as in America – what happens at work parties…

Most bars and restaurants put out special Christmas deals, which are stocked with loads of options and unlimited alcohol, to entice companies to book at their locales. I usually do dinner with my girlfriends as a way to see one another before the busy holiday season. Many of us are off to travel, so it’s the best moment to dress up, have a cocktail and enjoy the ambience in the center of town.

Open bars on Christmas day

It wouldn’t be Christmas without the booze, so after the midnight mass, called Misa del Gallo, most Spaniards head to the bar to wait out their seafood and lamb lunches. As strange as it sounds, Christmas Day is not as big of a holiday as Christmas Eve or even New Year’s Eve, when Spaniards stay at home with their closest family members.

On my first and every subsequent Spanish Christmas, I can be found drinking beers at La Grande midday. Because, really, sevillanos are a social bunch, and holidays are meant to be shared with friends. My mother was appalled when I suggested having lunch at a restaurant on Christmas Day this year!

…and those I don’t like

Spanish Christmas carols, called villancicos, are TERRIBLE, though I always giggle over the ridiculous lyrics, like about how the Virgin Mary brushes her hair near a river after giving birth and the fish keep drinking water because they’re happy to see the Savior).

There’s always the huge influx of crowds in the center, which makes it difficult to move around and run simple errands (think, American post office lines to order a coffee).

And, of course, there’s the question of Spanish Christmas sweets – lard cookies and sweet anise liquor.

Perhaps the best Christmas tradition that I’ve stumbled upon since moving to Spain is that my parents want to travel. We’ve done away with the tree and instead spend our respective vacations traveling. We’ve drank glühwein at Christmas markets, skiied in Colorado and even stolen grilled cheese sandwiches in Ireland!

How do you celebrate Christmas near you? Do you like Spanish navidades?

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, to find my friend’s place via portable wifi in Spain. 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?

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.

lost child

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.

baby-names-in-spain

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!

Five Reasons Why Andalucía is the Place to Be in May

Andalucía in springtime is perhaps the closest I can get to nirvana. Yes, the azahar flowers met an untimely death in April and my allergies are rampant, but even the short bursts of rain seem more poetic and more welcome now, because I’ll soon be slurping down snails or sneaking in a beer before work. The sky is blue and the temperature is perfect; the beaches are uncrowded and tourists have yet to choke city centers and my favorite tapas bars.

Even with flight deals to foreign destinations, staying close to home in Andalucía is my first choice when it comes to weekend plans and city breaks. From ferias to romerías, my social calendar is already packed with ideas!

Things to do in Andalusia in May

While I’m busy preparing for my sister’s wedding in the US along with the crazed end-of-term tasks, please grab a cervecita and enjoy some of these festivals for me this month!

Jerez de la Frontera: La Feria del Caballo

May kicks off with La Feria del Caballo, a smaller more welcoming version of my local Feria de Sevilla in little sister city Jerez de la Frontera. A city renowned for its sherry production and Andalusian horses, the festivities revolve around just those things. Head to the recinto ferial on the north end of town to dance Sevillanas and gawk at horse carriages, glass of fino in hand.

Feria de Jerez

And no need to wear a traje de gitana, chicas – this feria is way more laid-back!

2016 dates: April 30 to May 6

Córdoba: Cruces de Mayo, Festival de los Patios, Feria de Córdoba

Seville’s big month is April, but May is totally Córdoba’s time to shine. While it may not be as grandiose as its westerly neighbor, the Ciudad Califa has THREE festivals of national touristic interest.

calleja de las flores córdoba

Cruces de Mayo, which typically takes place during the first weekend of the month, sees large flower crosses set up in city plazas as offerings (and, rumor has it, there are small bars selling food and drink). Next up is the Patios Festival, where locals open their homes and gardens to the public, their walls and wells draped in beautiful flowers. If your wallet hasn’t burned a hole in your pocket during your stay in Andalusia yet, the cordobés version of a feria closes out the month.

2016 dates: Cruces is April 28 to May 2, after which the Patios are open daily until May 15th. The Feria will be held from the 21st and 28th of the month.

Málaga: Noche en Blanco

Málaga is an up-and-coming touristic epicenter, and the city has responded by offering 20% more activities, openings and gatherings for their annual White Night. Fashioned after its American counterparts, the museums, galleries, expositions and tours here will operate until 2am.

You can see the full program here.

2016 dates: May 14th from 8pm until 2am.

Huelva: La Romería de El Rocío

My first trip to El Rocío – a mere hour’s bus ride from Seville – was one for the books. Straight out of the American Wild West, I was surrounded by people from all over Spain who were devoted to an effigy found near the marshes of Doñana National Park. From parades to enormous corrales housing groups of hermandades, this is certainly quite an event!

IMG_4805

I call her the lushy Virgin Mary, as her party on Pentecost Sunday is also characterized by hedonism. After the long walk to the Aldea from various parts of Spain, the statue “jumps” over the altar and is passed around town on the shoulders of her followers. The best part of the Salta de la Reja is that it happens at a different time every year, meaning Sunday night reaches fever pitch proportions.

2016 dates: the carrozas leave their respective hermandades on various days leading up to Pentecost Sunday, which is May 15th this year.

Granada and Almería: Moros y Cristianos

This long-standing festival, reenacting the Christian Reconquest of Spain during the 8th to 15th centuries, isn’t limited to Andalucía – many locals in southwest and south central Spain have their own version of the event. Imagine full-scale battles, costumes and an enormous medieval fair (meat on a stick!). And given that Andalucía – Granada specifically – was the last stronghold of the Moors, the region takes pride in their rendition.

2016 dates: Dates vary by municipality, but count on late May or June; check local websites.

come and drink

As for Seville? It’s still recovering from Semana Santa and Feria! I’ve been drinking in the temperate weather, the sunny bike rides to work and the longer evening light. Well, that and draining my wallet on gas and bocadillos.

Even if you’re visiting Andalusia on an all-inclusive holiday or cruise, make time to experience these visitor-friendly festivals – they will give you an insight into Andalusian culture and tradition in the wonderful region I now call home.

Curious about events taking place in other parts of Spain? Madrid’s local festival, San Isidro, is marked by bullfights and events around the city, and Girona is famous for its Temps de Flors. Devour Spain covers the ins and outs of San Isidro, and Jess’s photos of the flower festival are gorgeous! And my apologies: I should have pushed publish on this article two weeks ago – oops! 

What’s your favorite springtime festival in Spain?

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