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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vocabulary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Maternity photos by Anna Primavera

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

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

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

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

Third Trimester Exams and Doctor Visits

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Maternity photos by Anna Primavera

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

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

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

Just as a forewarning.

The nesting period, or el síndrome del nido

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Maternity Photos by Anna Primavera

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Pesky Thing About New Mom Advice

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

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

“Becoming a mother does not.”

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

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

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

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

Reflecting on Change, Motherhood and Swelling

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

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Maternity photos by Anna Primavera

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Guiri Guide to Pregnancy in Spain

What Every Expat in Spain Should Know: Nine Skills to Celebrate Nine Years in Iberia

For me, moving to Spain in September 2007 was a baby step into a life abroad. I had studied abroad here, aced all but one of my college Spanish courses and was open to the experience of living abroad in Sevilla and making it work, no matter how homesick I got for my family, English language TV and Cheez-its.

Baby steps. This would be easy.

Well, “this would be easy” was my mindset before I actually got here and realized I had no idea how to adult, let alone how to adult in another language and country where long lines, 902 numbers and being subject to the mood of whoever was attending you became a daily reality.

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My first year in Spain was equal parts new discoveries and new headaches, learning the language and learning how to cope with, um, Spain in general. The second year was easier, logistics-wise, but I wrestled with whether or not I wanted to stay in Spain any longer or return to the US. The learning curve was still steep and continues to be as I propose new professional goals and look forward to becoming a mamá for the first time. Even as life in Spain gets easier, I sympathize with new expats who are mostly clueless. We are all @GuiriBS.

That was me one balmy September in 2007. While there are loads of small skills you learn after a bit of time (like that those clunky 2€ coins actually are worth something and how to walk right through a wall of unwanted piropos), but some are a bit more savvy and take time time to refine.

To celebrate my ninth Spaniversary of living in Spain, every expat should know these nine hacks:

How to convert to the Metric System

Ojú, 40 grados mañana.

Why even download a weather app when your husband is addicted to the telediario every afternoon at 3:25pm? I don’t know the exact temperature in 40 Celcius is in Farenheit… just really, really warm.

If you’re an American (or, for that matter, from Myanmar or Liberia) abroad, you’re probably clueless about how to convert the Metric System into the other measurement system. I’m still learning and perfecting my memory tricks (my math skills can’t divide and then add any faster than my phone apps), but here’s how I’ve learned:

The temprature. 10 degrees is cold, 30 degrees is uncomfortably hot, and 25 degrees is – Goldilocks style – juuuuust right. I usually remember that 25 degrees is a nice 77°.

Weight and Height. I have snowboarded since I was a kid, and the because the measurements come in centimeters, rather than feet and inches, I simply add 20 centimeters onto the snowboard’s length when asked for my height. As for weight? I oscillate between 60 and 62, and prefer that low number to my weight in pounds.

The problem? Electronics come in inches, called pulgadas. Or, maybe that’s not an issue for you.

Liquids. Still working on this one, especially when the gas prices read 1.02€ for diesel but filling up my car, Pequeño Monty, costs more than I spend on insurance, bike repairs and a metro pass, combined.

Speed and distance. I worked exactly ten miles away from Sevilla during my first years as a language assistant. While I sat on a bus and read, my coworker biked the 16 kilometers to the school. Now that I drive, 120 kilometers on the highway (the speed limit on freeways) means an hour, which has become my marker.

So I round numbers up and down a bit, ok?

How to buy European clothing sizes

Differences in length and height and width means that shopping became an adventure, too. And don’t forget that not all European sizes are different – Italy, the UK and the rest of Europe have slight differences, evident by several numbers on the size tag. My biggest complaint has been that most jeans are far too long for my shrimpy legs, which makes zero sense since Spanish women, on the whole, are shorter than me.

my flamenco dress 2014

Finding your sizes in Europe takes a great deal of trying on, discarding and ignoring the tags. What is a dress or pants size 8 in America could be a M and anywhere between a 38 and 42 in Spain (and that’s not taking length into account), whereas a shirt at Zara that’s a medium may need to be a large at Lefties – and they’re the same company.

En fin.

Shoes are an entirely different story – and an easier one! I wear a size 8 in the US, which is a clavado 39. My only problem is that I am useless in heels.

The only great equalizer in the Spanish fashion world is the traje de gitana. You are a size 40, trust me.

How to travel around Spain

I inherited my dad’s love of beer, healthy doses of adventure and his nose. He also passed along his intrinsic skill of budget travel, and even though I’ve moved out of the phase in my life where overnight buses and questionable hostel beds are acceptable, so long as they’re in the sake of traveling further, and I’ve seen a good chunk of Europe thanks to it.

Spain is full of cool things to see, do and experience, from tomato slinging festivals to jaw-dropping road trips to hidden beaches and charming small towns. Unless you have a car (and enough money to cover the liters of gas… see above), you’re got to stick to public transportation or ride shares.

Thankfully, traveling around Spain can be done on the cheap. To fully take advantage, check out Bla Bla Car for ride sharing (or share your trip – I took three others to Valencia for Fallas and had the gas paid for), sign up for budget airline newsletters for special offers and loyalty programs and buy your RENFE train tickets three months in advance or share a table of four.

You can also take advantage of long weekends – nearly one a month! – and local holidays to maximize your time to be desconectado. And don’t shrug off places that are a bit tougher to get to, as those are usually the places with encanto.

How to speak a bit of Spanish

When my parents first came to visit me over the Christmas holidays, they begged me to order food for them. I’d been pinching the euros of my measly paycheck by subsiding off of frozen pizzas and spaghetti and could barely recommend a nice place to eat, let alone dissect a menu. It was a lot of, “I think that’s fish” and, “It’s a pig part that you probably won’t like” to a family that eats with their eyes.

pulpo

That was the turning point for me – I told my new boyfriend that he’d have to start speaking to me in Spanish, and despite the frustrations and tears and utter confusion with andalú, I consider learning Spanish to be one of my proudest achievements.

There’s no need to be fluent after nine years, but I firmly believe that knowing Spanish makes life in Spain richer. It’s easier to interact with locals, particularly outside of cities, and there’s a wealth of cultural nuances that I’ve learned and come to love because of it.

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People often ask me how to learn Spanish, and I wish I had an easy answer. Mine was a healthy dose of not caring about making mistakes, talking to anyone who would listen, reading books and noting down new words and expressions and calming my nerves with a few cervecitas. You could also try signing up for classes – I liked my audited classes at Sevilla Habla a lot – or apps, and the Ultimate Spanish Practice and Review was my Bible for months, but nothing beats swapping stories with an abuelito at your corner bar.

How to do a reclamación

You haven’t really lived in Spain until you’ve logged an official complaint. You know all of those signs in restaurants, shops and pharmacies that say “Queda a la disposición un libro de reclamaciones” or something to that effect?

The first time I ever suggested using it was when I felt a friend had been treated poorly at a public hospital. The nurse who had effectively called her an irresponsible harlot was disciplined, and I soon found out that making a formal complaint is often synonymous with getting ‘er done. Bad service at a restaurant means I’ll refuse the offer of a free meal in favor of letting the boss know a waiter has been snide (as if never going back weren’t punishment enough),  and the Novio even once got 12€ from Bricomart after they sold him two faulty ceiling fans.

Cruzcampo Bar Sign

The best I’ve ever done is two in a span of 12 hours – the first over the phone when the energy company Iberdrola decided we had an emergency to fix at midnight and promptly began drilling when I was fast asleep, then the following morning at my health clinic for terrible service after being told here were no doctors in the month of August because babies weren’t born in August (I showed my TIE card as proof that, yes, babies come during the Pan-European vacation month, too).

But I don’t do it to prove a point or because I’m a demanding customer: when my family’s bags were lost last Christmas and ended up in Phoenix instead of Sevilla, I asked them to be sent to my house via courier. I was informed that Iberia didn’t have a courier to take them to my house, and the customer service rep urged me to fill out a reclamación form so that the company would realize the importance of the service. I fill out reclamaciones so that everyone else can benefit from better services.

How to deal with things back home

It’s now easier than ever to stay in touch with loved ones back home, despite the time difference, but what about all of the extras? The money matters, bills, sending packages and prescriptions? Though I’ve gradually let go of many of those things (just not Cheez-its), I can’t bring myself to uproot entirely, even at risk of FACTA sanctions and double taxation.

Spanish potato omelette

The USA seemed even further across the Atlantic than it does now. Thanks to online everything, I can move money or order English language books for cheap; when I came to Spain in 2007, I was barely toeing the line of calling myself a resident of Spain – I saw nine months as a brief foray into expat life, so I got a year’s prescription of my pills, pared down my shoes and sweaters and even traveled northern Europe without a jacket because, why waste valuable suitcase space? My biggest complaints in those early days was not being able to EuroHack or sometimes cope with a lack of American products.

And there were little things – an American style measuring cup, my deodorant and gym shoes that didn’t cost a week’s worth of private class hustle.

Nine years on, I only own a few American-bought appliances and clothing items, and I’ve found ways to just toe the line of American life. But more than that, I’ve had to take many of my “adult” things online, especially credit card payments, sending money abroad cheaply, banking and maintaining our savings accounts in an American bank. Make sure that you especially know how to keep your phone number, deal with money and credit card or mortgage payments, and take care of all of your issues at home.

2008 Elections

And, no matter what a Spaniard says, sending thank you notes or greeting cards never goes out of style (and I always have a stock!).  Plus, Madrid is a mecca of American everything – original version films, American brands and even a Five Guys and a Steak n’ Shake. Our British counterparts have Boots pharmacies and Dealz, a version of Pounds. Globalization isn’t always a bad thing, but when you’re majorly homesick…?

How to deal with red tape

Seville’s Plaza de España is the first place I lusted after in Sevilla. It’s regal and striking, particularly at sunset.

But at sunrise when you’re lining up for a residency card petition? The colonnades and the moat lose their sheen – believe me. Spaniards invented reed tape, and while I’m sure it doesn’t compare to Italy or the US, it’s a necessary headache as an expat in Spain, me temo. It’s inefficient and slow, prompting the famous line, las cosas del palacio van despacio. And if you’re non-EU, the process becomes even further clotted by translations, notarizations and multiple appointments.

By the time this video was passed around expat groups, I’d already formulated my extranjería hack skills and there were significant improvements in the way that many steps, such as an appointment system and online status checking, could be handled. But it’s not just the foreigner’s office that operates on its own scheduled – the Novio is a government worker and often has his paychecks come late, and let’s not forget the first time I applied for unemployment, when a worker was literally napping on her desk. Fear not, fellow guiris – even the locals are victims.

My tips: bring five photocopies of each, arrive after coffee and be extra friendly. I once made friends with a frowny face worker in the Hacienda office by asking about his Betis ashtray. Ever since I stopped rolling my eyes and learned to change my attitude (and bring a book), it’s been easier to deal with the lines, the wait times and the mechanical responses from the civil servants. And Plaza de España is now beautiful again.

ceramics at Plaza de España Seville Spain

But I still think that the autorización de regreso is a scam to earn 13€ while the extranjería takes its sweet time in issuing your residency card renewal.

How to cope when your friends leave

Back in the days when Spain was but a brief life interlude, I never turned down an invitation out for tapas or a drink, and found myself adding Facebook friends left and right – it was the adult equivalent of leaving your dorm room door open, after all. Even when homesickness threatened to have me retreat to my piso with a box of Magnum Minis, it was easy to give someone a toque and meet them at the corner bar for a coffee.

Feliz Ano Nuevo!!

The following year, the Novio was sent abroad to work for two months, right after we’d spent the whole summer apart. I nearly forgot the sound of his voice and was nervous that I’d plunge right back into the Magnum mini binge. So, I forced myself to make new friends, and to try and invert my time into friends who will be sticking around for the long-term. There’s always a cycle – people come and go, and this is a hallmark of expat life.

This doesn’t mean it’s easy.

spanish american girls at the feria de sevilla

Friends leaving is HARD, and my merry little band of guiri girlfriends in Seville went from six to three in the span of two months. Two friends that I made early on left the country – one for the US and the other for Indonesia – right when I was packing up for Madrid. And they’re not the only ones. My Sevilla dream team spans these nine years, from the one who adopted me as her wing woman and promptly introduced me to the Novio, to the one born in the wrong country whose musings on sevillano life, four years after leaving, reach straight to my heart. And who could forget the night we all bought matching underwear from a vending machine after rapping Eminem?

I miss those faces and our antics all the time, and I’m not sure I’ve completely superado this slice of expat life.

What helps me cope is knowing that every single one of them has made the decision that was best in that moment, and that Sevilla will always be ours.

How to grin and bear it

The successful marketing campaign, “Spain is different,” is oft repeated by Spaniards and guiris alike. It’s true – many things in Spain seem to function without any rhyme or reason, and I’m still taken aback by the clash of the vanguard and the antiquated often.

cat gaa at the feria de sevilla

Spain is, indeed, different, and not all places in Spain are created the same. Perhaps that’s why I love it so much, and why my visitors love it on the surface, too. For all of the headaches and eye rolls and “I HATE SPAIN” days, I feel challenged, mostly fulfilled and like I ended up in a country that has welcomed me with dos besos and a squeeze on the shoulders. I have learned to grin and bear it and love it, despite its faults and my desperation, at times.

Nine years ago this September, I got off a plane and stepped into a world where Spanish was my language weapon and every day presented a new desafío, from figuring out how to navigate a bus system to conquering the crippling bureaucratic maze to remembering why and for whom I came in the first place.

Who knows where we’ll be in a few years. With the first of likely several babies on the way and the Novio with ganas to have his own adventure abroad, I may not have many Spaniversaries left. But pase lo que pase, every September 13th is a special day for me when I remember how good Spain has been to me. And it extends far beyond the riqueza of the lifestyle – I sappily believe that this place has shaped me in a positive way. I’m excited to raise a family here and to continue being surprised by what Spain offers.

Spain wins the 2010 World Cup

And if the first nine years is any indication, my 30s is going to be a pretty awesome decade, too!

If you’ve lived abroad before, would you add anything to this list? Please share in the comments below!

I’ve included my affiliate link for Transferwise, a safe way to send money from abroad, in my post. I get a small commission if you use it, but I wouldn’t link it if I didn’t use it and love it myself! The money I earn from this blog helps maintain the site, and I appreciate your collaboration!

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

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

Yes, I’m pregnant.

Yes, it’s the Novio’s.

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

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

Being pregnant in Spain

And then it happened.

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

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

I cried.

“You’re pregnant.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pregnancy Vocabulary in Spanish: Words to Know

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

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

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

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

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

Cartilla de Embarazada for Andalusia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

First Steps

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

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

Typical doctor visits when pregnant in Spain

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

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

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

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

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

Público or Privado?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maternity Leave in Spain

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

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

Any recommendations for English-speaking doctors in Seville?

Feeling confident in my Spanish and fully knowing the restraints of Spanish red tape, I was satisfied in the public system. That said, I asked several guiri moms for their recommendations for doctors and doulas who spoke English in town:

Doctor: Dr. Guillermo Espinosa at Millenium Clinics in La Buhaíra, a Sanitas clinic who often sees Americans and other English-speaking patients.

Doula / breastfeeding expert: Eugenia Nigro, a Dutch woman who has practiced in several countries and now calls Sevilla home. She does a number of prenatal classes, as well, and can be reached by email at ginanigro@gmail.com.

I have not personally used these professionals, but it could be a good place to start.

Pero bueno, how are you?

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

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

pregnancy at 11, 12 and 14 weeks

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

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

What’s ahead in Second Trimester

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

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

Having a baby in Spain appointments

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

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

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

Please read about the second 14 weeks of my pregnancy on my post A Guiri Guide to Pregnancy in Spain: Second Trimester!

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

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

30 things

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

Relationship Life

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

where am I going

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

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

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

[Chrystl wedding photo]

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

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

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

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

luna cumple dos

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

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

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

Asturian Countryside

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

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

Best friends at my wedding

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

Life Life

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

dressed in a dirndl at oktoberfest

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

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

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

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

American Flag in Times Square

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

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

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

new house

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

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

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

Revuelto de Abril

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

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

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

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

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

What have you learned in your 20s?

Keeping in Touch with the Spanish Speaking World (or, my ode to my second language)

I popped Pereza’s 2005 breakout disc, “Animales” into Pequeño Monty’s antiquated CR player as soon as I’d rolled down the windows. As a study abroad student, I’d listed to “Princesas” more times than I could count, on each play slowly deciphering the song.

After eight years in Spain, I’ve finally memorized and can understand all 10 songs. For the girl who whined about having to learn Spanish instead of French, I can say for the umpeenth time that Mother Knows Best – My name is Cat, y soy una hispanófila.

staying in touch

400 million Facebook friends

It’s more than just the 400 million hispanoparlantes – when you start speaking the language fluently it’s like a whole new galaxy opens up. I cannot only talk to what feels like a billion new people but I have access to many great Spanish movies, understand Spanish music in a completely new way and have had the opportunity to immerse myself into a very rich Spanish culture (hola, daily naps and delicious food!). More than anything, I’ve made countless new friends all over the world, which is why I rely apps like NobelApp to be able to make cheap international calls.

Staying in touch ten years ago when I studied abroad meant standing in line at a locurtorio – now I just need to have my mobile phone on me!

Immersing in the Spanish Linguistic Culture

In my experience, Spanish speakers are quite proud of their linguistic heritage, and because a fairly large number doesn’t know English at a highly functional level, I’ve been able to learn to hold my own in a second language (in addition to having the need for English keep me employed!).

texting in Spain

I’m constantly amazed by new words, their use and mostly their origin. Did you know that the Spanish word for lizard (lagarto) gave way to the word alligator in English culture? Thankfully, the Novio is a linguistic wiz who never tires of explaining!

Keeping in touch through NobelApp

In these eight years in Seville (and counting!), I have made Spanish-speaking friends from all over the world – from my Erasmus friends to the amigos from Peru, Chile, Argentina, Uruguay and Mexico. Luckily through cheap international calls by NobelCom I manage to keep in touch with most of them, calling them on their celulares anytime I like without stressing over the cost  – and they can do that through the same app to call me in Europe.

I love talking to my friends in Central and South America and asking them about their life and current events – especially because the Spanish-speaking world encompasses so much more than Spain.

friends from South America

I also get the chance to talk regularly with my friends in the US through mobile apps and social media, making me feel like El Charco isn’t so big.

El Mundo es un Pañuelo

Do you think it’s hard to adapt to the warm Spanish sun, the easy-going lifestyle or the amazing food and good wine? Sí – I haven’t had any problems, but I often miss the comforts of home (mainly in the form of an all-beef hot dog and a shih tzu named Moxie.

I feel so fortunate that technology has advanced so much and that we have things like WiFi, 3G and VoIP and that we can call overseas for just a few cents. Nowadays, you don’t even have to rely on a solid Internet connection. All you need is a Nobelcom calling card and you can basically call anyone in the world from any landline or mobile phone by using a special access number and your dedicated PIN.

“Princesas” is still my favorite song on the album – in fact, it was the first song played at my wedding! As I spend more time in Spain, it’s nearly impossible to separate my vida española from the American one, but it’s fun to share in all of my expat circles around the world!

How do you stay in touch with your loved ones when abroad?

30 Things I’m Glad to Have Done Before Turning 30, Part 1

Turning 16 was a big deal. So was turning 18, then 21 and even 25. But 30?

A week before reaching my fourth decade, I got married to someone I’ve been with for nearly a quarter of my life. My actual birthday went by quietly – a happy hour with a dozen friends, the Chicago Air and Water Show, my great aunt’s 90th birthday. Is this the sound of growing up?

NYC

Before my 25th birthday (one that, admitedly, always sounded scarier than 30), I made a list of three things I wanted to accomplish before that milestone. But then I realized that my brain and my lifestyle weren’t ready for those things quite yet. I can safely say that my 20s were wild, unstable and apparently meant for setting up the rest of my life.

Turning 30 in August felt like the start of a new chapter, marcado by a small celebration and a shedding of a young woman with big dreams and ambition. And questionable fashion choices.

Learn Life

1.   Learned a Second Language (and tried a third)- Maybe a third of this list is the product of learning to speak Spanish. In eighth grade, my grades qualified me for either an hour of French or Spanish a day. I said francais, Nancy demanded español.

As it turns out, I am pretty good at speaking Spanish – my teachers in high school convinced me to take the AP Test for college credit, and I minored in Spanish before taking an immersion course in Valladolid.

Studying at the UVA in Valladolid

You know the rest of the story, amigos.

And I got to learn French after all. I took a year of Elementary French in college and dabbled in private lessons in Seville one year.

2.   Attempted to Learn a New Skill – When Cait convinced me to join her Tuesday and Thursday night for flamenco class, I reluctantly bought the zapatos de clavos and showed up at Latidos. I was in a job I hated, the Novio was on an overseas mission, and I lived far from my friends. I looked like a fool with every punto and golpe as a particularly sweltering June rolled on, but I was happy to try something different – no matter how short-lived. 

Flamenco show in Seville

Some time this decade, I’d like to relearn how to sew, brush up on my photography skills and maybe even learn to fly a plane.

3. & 4.   Done a Master’s, and do it in Spanish – On my short list of things to accomplish between college and turning 25 were three things: become fluent in Spanish, move abroad for one year and complete a master’s program.

I was accepted to study Public Relations 2.0 at the Universidad Autónoma de Barcelona at age 26 but didn’t actual begin classwork until after my 27th birthday, and then spent endless nights designing communication campaigns and dealing with whatsapps while teaching a full timetable. It was worth it, and I’m glad I waited.

Clase 34 Master's in Spanish

To date, it remains one of my biggest accomplishments, especially when the jurado congratulated me on my creativity and my Spanish skills. Now if only I could find a job that paid more than cacahuetes!

5.   Learned to Drive Stick Shift – My father has worked on classic cars for as long as I can remember, but I could do little else than squish in the front seat with my sister. Learning to drive stick and break myself from automatic driving after 12 years was a challenge, but I’m ultimately glad I did it. No more worrying about tickets or paying more for a rental!

Photo on 4-4-13 at 12.28 PM

I failed my first American driving license at age 16, so this feels like retribution against the nasty lady who flunked me after telling me I was a great driver. And my dad finally let me drive his car.

Job Life

6.    Been a Boss – Being a boss is hard work. Like, really hard. I had my first taste of it at age 18 when I managed a Qdoba and still had friends at the end of the summer, but stakes are higher as you grow older.

Spanish summer camp

I’ve run summer camps for four years and am starting a third year directing a language school. I’ve made as many friends as enemies in the business, but have learned the value of a hard day’s work, of being assertive and of being confident enough to put my ideas into space. Plus, I don’t feel lost in the fold.

I was recently speaking with a sub-director of a large language school who told me, “Mejor ser cabeza de ratón que cola de león.”

7.    Become Confident Enough to Speak in Public – My high school required every sophomore to take a course in communication studies, where we learned to prepare and give speeches.

My first, on airline industry issues, resulted in an A in research and a D in delivery.

27725_846092167499_14800038_47030994_7996004_n

As an overachiever, I couldn’t stomach a nearly failing grade (everything under 85% as failing for me then), so Comm Studies became my favorite class. I took public speaking courses throughout college before deciding to give teaching a shot. In both English and Spanish, I have no qualms standing in front of someone (or many someones!) and giving a speech or interview. Though I do fumble over the phone…

After all, it takes cojones to stand up in front of a bunch of surly teachers and try to teach them something.

8.    Had a Job in Retail, and One in Customer Service – Always the kid with a million interests, I’ve done everything from work in a deli to donate plasma to call alumni for money to make a buck. From every one of these experiences, I’ve learned a new skill or two, but working with people has by far been the most beneficial.

9 & 10.    Become Financially Independent (and Learned How to Budget) – I was having a beer with a friend who once lived in Spain and has since become a legal aide lawyer. She said, “Don’t you remember all the disposable income we used to have when we were auxiliares?” 

Ugh, those were the days, but money stressed me out way too much because it all went to plane tickets and tapas!

European Euros money

As someone with an entrepreneurial spirit, I’ve always found creative ways to make it until the end of the month, but buying a house last year really threw something else into the mix. A year after again fretting over money, I’ve learned how to budget and kept my impulse buys at bay (it’s been 18 months since I have traveled anywhere outside Spain or the USA!). I guess it’s the adult thing to do, even though cervecitas have a way of racking up.

11.  Started a Business – Having a 9-to-5 is not enough for me. When I first moved to Spain, I began working for a company that was in its baby stages and felt the excitement of forging out on your own. While I didn’t stay in the company very long, I’ve happily supported their venture.

como logo

Sunshine and Siestas in itself is a business of sorts, but most of my energy in the past few years has been focused on COMO Consulting Spain, a residency consultation bureau. It’s terrifying to think about becoming an autónoma and having a variable income each month, but there’s no other way to make money in Spain.

Travel Life

12.   Walked the Camino de Santiago – One of most memorable moments in Spain was finishing the Camino de Santiago and laying eyes on the Praza do Obradoiro as if I’d never seen it before. After 325 kilometers and endless plates of food to keep my body fueled, the old lemaThe Camino always provides – rang true.

camino de santiago road sign

I learned more about my body, my mental grit and the importance of silence and reflection in those two weeks than I had in all of my life. Hayley and I met some amazing people and saw Spain from the ground up. There’s something really special in having nothing to do but strap on your boots and keep putting one foot in front of the other.

13.   Traveled Alone – I was bummed when Jenna bailed on me in Croatia. We were supposed to spend five days along the Dalmatian Coast, but her last-minute plans had her canceling her flight just days before we were scheduled to take off. 

I went anyway, after a short foray into solo travel in Italy earlier that year. 

cat on dubrovnik city walls

Traveling alone quickly became one of my favorite ways to disconnect, to travel on my own accord and to do and see what I felt like. Too many times I felt that I’d ticked places off of a list just to not miss out on anything, felt obligated to only talk to my travel partners. Croatia felt like a safe and accessible destination to do that, and I spent five days reading lazily with my feet in the sand and meeting couples who invited me to pizza or local Couchsurfers who showed me around town.

If you only travel once in you lifetime, do it solo.

14.   Traveled to 30+ countries – When my uncle turned 70, he recounted tales of living abroad as a career soldier. I resolved to travel as often and as far as I could, having booked a trip through for European countries that summer. My goal was 25 before 25.

At my wedding, he confessed that he’d grossly exaggerated (something I’d come to know in the last 15 years) when he called himself responsible for my wanderlust and consequent marriage. 

China 5: Harbin pre-Universiade

Hungary was number 25, and as we pulled into the bus station at dawn on a March morning, I felt very little emotion. Yes, I’d been up all night on a bus, but I felt like it wasn’t enough. I’m on a mission to see at least 50 in my lifetime (currently at 32) and feel like this world is only getting bigger.

15.   Visited my Ancestor’s Home Countries – When I found out about the bountiful long weekends in my auxiliar schedule, I began booking flights and draining my savings. Within five months of arriving in Spain, I’d been to Ireland, Scotland and Germany, visiting places where my family once lived.

Hopped up on Hops in Ireland

As a third generation American, I’m about as guiri as they get, but as a traveler and expat myself, it took on a whole new meaning to touch down in the very places my family had come from. I loved and connected to Ireland so much that I’ve visited four times!

16.   Traveled to Places like Morocco and India as a Woman – Once I’d conquered Europe, I had an overwhelming need to visit places a little more far-flung. RyanAir opened a route to Marrakesh in 2010, and a SkyScanner promo had me in India for half the cost of returning to the US. Those trips were taxing on me in many ways, but as a confident woman, I felt that I needed to do them before settling down.

Learning in India - the Jama Masjid

Travel has certainly broadened my horizons and given me perspective on social and civil issues in a new way. As I close this decade out, I know that I’ll literally be hitting the breaks as we talk family, finances and what comes next (please, cry. I know – I’m the worst). Thirty-two countries and four continents isn’t terrible, though!

Next week I’ll disclose 17 – 30.

What have been your biggest lessons or accomplishments in your life?

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