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Monday, 12 November 2018

#6 On Wishing You Were Bilingual, With Children

The conversation has moved on

So Son turned five the other day. The usual nostalgic whirlwind of photos popped up on Facebook and other apps, evoking memories of the experiences contained within these crazy first years: endless medical consultations, birth itself, joining a mums’ group, finding the right daycare, getting pregnant again and repeating it all. It’s a time of immense, irreversible change full of ups, downs and total unknowns. It's a time that's often navigated with best-guesses and stabs in the dark. It’s also a time most of us deal with in our native language.

Back in Sydney I admired my non-anglo mum-friends who had done all this in English; they were French, Peruvian, Brazilian and Polish. I wondered what that same time must have been like for them. Now I have a better idea. They were all more bilingual than I am now, but still.  

I’m only referring to my own lack of bilingualism, by the way. Well, mine and Husband’s. Don’t worry about the kids, they are fine. More than fine, actually: in one year our previously monolingual son has acquired more or less the same level of Spanish - dialect and all - as his local peers; Daughter arrived with almost zero words and now switches easily between the two languages like it’s a mere trifle to her.

And NB this is not mum-bragging, by the way: it’s what you’ll get if kids their age move countries, to a place where so little English is spoken that their entire day outside the house is spent in the local lingo. Learning through necessity, not curiosity, tots are unquestioning little sponges of language, quick to imitate and assimilate. Unlike we adults, that is, with our hopelessly rigid concept of language and our attempts to translate things word for word. I’m no linguistic professor but I can see it all happening.

It’s so brilliant and it’s also damning. It highlights how clunky and die-hard my own attempts are in comparison, and I’m an English teacher and language nerd who, I might add, has been learning Spanish on and off for some years. Some days I feel all smug because I think I can rattle off clever phrases in conversation. Then I repeat them to my Spanish teacher and she patiently points out the million mistakes I’ve made. Some days I feel like I could perhaps chat about politics, others I ask a shopkeeper or electrician a question then stand there, blinking like a goon, while they repeat something basic to me that I have clearly not understood. In conversations at the school gates I try to multi-task, listening while forming the perfect sentence in my head to interject with, only to realise that during that time the conversation has moved on so I keep schtum. And in English, most would argue I’m rarely lost for something to say. Maybe this is an improvement, since I’m also funnier, apparently- but no, wait. By this I mean I’m now just goofy and clumsy, the ‘ah, bless’ kind of funny that used to be Manuel in Fawlty Towers, the English Policeman in ‘Allo ‘Allo.


At least these interactions are good-natured, though. Most truly are, though some are not. Recently I had a strip torn off me by a surly restaurant manager, helpfully joined by an equally obnoxious chef (great!). Though I still could not tell you what eighty percent of their tirade was about I can remember clear as day feeling my face burn with shame as I was struck dumb in every sense of the word. Like a puppy being ranted at, you know you’re being made a tit of - the universal language of shouting / pointing is all clear - but you’ve no idea what you’ve done, much less how to respond. Better Spanish would have empowered me in that situation. Mark my words, though, I still fantasise about having a Pretty Woman moment one day, returning with such impressive Spanish word-smithery that those same individuals are reduced to rubble after mere syllables. Not my most positive motive for improvement, but a powerful one.

And let me be clear: this is not an attack on the people of Spain, a country where I’ve probably encountered more kindness than anywhere else. This exchange could have taken place anywhere and serves only to illustrate how powerful learning that place’s language is.

Or something like that, anyway. I envied my kids at that embarrassing point, and it won’t be the last time. I remember coming home that day and wanting to reassure myself that at least they were being empowered, so I asked Son what important words he’d learned that day. His response was a proud one: it was ‘bum,’ ‘willy’ and various things besides.

Forget word-smithery; that would have done fine. Next time I’ll enlist his help first.

Hasta luego for now,


Sunday, 22 July 2018

#5 On Bringing Your Kids up in Flamenco Culture

He can bust out a move upon demand 

#5 On Bringing Your Kids Up in Flamenco Culture

So with reluctance we have finally come to admit to the cold-light-of-day reality of actually moving somewhere versus watching slightly dated, airbrushed documentaries about it. And yet one thing in Granada never, ever loses its romantic-sepia charm. It’s not the visual beauty, though that certainly remains impressive. Nor is it the sunny weather or the wine.

It’s the music. Specifically, the flamenco music.

You see, in various TV programmes about this area it usually takes about two seconds from the opening credits before you hear the moody strum of one of those Spanish guitar chords; you know the ones I mean. And having initially remarked upon the cheesiness of such strumming, we were taken aback when actually in Granada at how real and serious all that music is. And I don't just mean in the obvious tourist hangouts, where you see smiling musicians and dancers doing their thing then passing a cap around for donations. The darkest strain of the sound haunts from the strangest corners, performed invisibly; it drifts up alleyways, echoes behind doorways and occasionally, when you walk past a large hall whose windows are far too high to peer in, you hear the click-bam-bam of dancers’ shoes being worked with dedication on a hard floor.

It's fitting that the owners of these noises are so mysterious. Though there are happier strains of flamenco, at its heart it's the music of various persecuted people from long ago: Arabs and gypsies, namely, and its moody steps were confined to cave-buildings (yes, those still exist) and behind locked doors. It's best danced by those who have lived life and felt pain and in this way it's more like the blues. Given this comparison it’s also not surprising that many of the most respected dancers - females especially - are older and worldlier in a way that upends many Western preferences for the younger woman.  If ladies sing jazz and dance ballet, it's women who sing the blues and it is most definitely women who dance flamenco.

Its magic is not lost on little girls, though. Or little boys, for that matter. They too can be seen dancing it at every festival and alongside every street performer. My own Son is capable of busting out a move when asked, my Daughter often given to twirling around and stamping in her bath towel, going 'I flamenco’. Neither of them has ever had a lesson. That they somehow instinctively know how to do it, after only nine months of living here, reflects just how deep a part of this culture it is. Imagine how that is for local kids.

Actually, imagining is not necessary if you catch such kids doing this first hand. At a local Christmas show, flamenco typically occupied much of the stage time and in one particular bit, the adult dancers parted to the side to allow the the spotlight to fall on a little girl. Sure enough, within seconds she was doing her footwork and swishing her skirt with an attitude far beyond her five or six years. The joyful applause soared and I joined it, in that way you do when a kid does something entertainingly precocious. 'Bless', I thought, 'she's trying her hardest to do what comes more naturally to us adults. Just give her time.’

And how wrong I was. Dancing flamenco definitely requires experience, but simply being an adult does not qualify you as being experienced. This I discovered in my first few classes for Flamenco Beginners. For one, the music is not in the common 4-time tempo most westerners are familiar with and that takes some of its own un-learning, at least during each lesson. Also, as you might imagine, the footwork is bloody hard and I realised from day one just how much that little girl had already outdone me. And the professionals whose feet seem to flutter out those same steps like a hummingbird's wings? I can't even.

That said, the steps are actually logical and just require (lots of) practice and eventual speeding up. The truly baffling bit, entirely different again from the foot movements, is the arms and hands. Probably the only bit of the dance that suits the word 'pretty’, my attempts are anything but. Requiring elegant wrist-twisting combined with a gentle curling or fanning of the fingers, my version looks more like either the twiddling fingers of a cartoon villain just about to pinch some loot or, if the arms both do sideways movement, like I am doing the hula. Either is about as unpretty as it gets. Hey-ho.

But so is the magic of flamenco once again restored: its untouchable charm lies in how deceptively difficult even the ‘simplest’ of the performers’ moves are. This brings us back, of course, to the little girl for whose dancing I now have a huge respect. And one day, I hope I'm saying this about my own daughter too.

Un saludo!


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Thursday, 7 June 2018

#4 On Enforced Relaxation With Children in Spain

#4 On Enforced Relaxation With Children in Spain

Don’t they know how important my time is?

Anyone who knows me will know that I am constantly in overdrive. Overplanning, underestimating and running late are just part of my DNA. And it's not that I don't care. Both things stress me out and yet, on one hand, I take stock and think how ridiculous it is that someone in their late thirties still does a light, slightly sweaty jog to make appointments on time; on the other I curse my own idiocy for thinking that bringing kids into the mix could ever have helped this situation. Duh.

And so it is with kids, and I know I am not alone here (please tell me I'm not). Flapping about, trying to get out of the door in the morning with T-minus-ten seconds before we have to leave (see this post for earlier comment on this), unable to locate Son's left shoe whilst also trying to brush his teeth so hurriedly I risk making his gums bleed and he keeps going  ‘ow'. Daughter, when we dare to try and put her cardi on, screeches, twists and runs away, knocking the pee-filled-potty so hard it splashes, then she disappears behind the sofa. When we try and coax her out like a frightened kitten, she laughs maniacally at us and our stupid, stressed-out faces. Once finally out of the door, we plough down the street with the pram, tutting and moaning at Son each time he obliviously stops to point at ants or try to pick weedy flowers.

And then I once again take stock. I am grumpy and exasperated or at the very least I am pink and a bit sweaty. I am most probably being short with the kids who don't understand Time or why it matters. It is my fault we are running late. At their best, they are just being kids and at their worst they sense mine and Husband's stress and treat it like a comedy show. Either way this rushing is just not working. What is more, the more time we spend here, the more we realise it is not just the kids who look bemusedly at us, at these times.

To elaborate: being in a rush with kids may be stupid; being in a rush with kids in Spain is just pointless. There is a convenience store called Coviran here, a bit like our dear Spar franchise in the UK. In this one local Coviran, the lady who runs it sashays around in the same nonchalant manner no matter how busy it is. She usually has a lit cigarette resting nearby, which she will finish, if she so chooses, even if you are waiting at the till. And don't get me wrong, locals complain about her  - or at least her fags - as much as anyone; the issue is that she just doesn't give a monkeys.

I have a grudging respect for this woman. She sees your hurry yet does not let your problem become hers. Another such situation is on one bus route which needs to share the same ancient, cobbled road as a million pedestrians, most of whom oblivious tourists taking photos, and often the bus needs to slow down to a near-halt as these people reluctantly drift out of its way. I feel my natural reflex to tut and tense begin to take over, even if I don't have an appointment to keep since - newsflash - it appears I just do not like being held up. Don't people know how important my time is?

The driver, on the other hand,  never beeps. He never so much as sighs. He just chills and trundles the bus along because he realises something important: if you don't like this pace of life, then don't be here. And back to the kids: if you are going to stress about being late, either organise yourself better or just go Spanish, as my kids are happily doing, and chill the hell out. Otherwise, you are just bumming people out, my friend.

Because this makes me realise another thing: inflicting your panicked hurry on someone else, especially someone not inclined to hurry, has a huge self-importance about it. You're like the guy driving up everyone's ass on the motorway to get somewhere 40 seconds sooner. And once I admit this, albeit grudgingly, to myself, a couple of epiphanies happen. Firstly, if you haven't got 40 seconds’ margin for error in your plans, your timing needs some serious work.

Second epiphany: Son recently had a last-minute birthday party to attend and while we'd grabbed a present, we had no wrapping paper. Ducking into a newsagent's near the party to request some, the young guy behind the counter smiled and beckoned me to pass him the presents so he could wrap them for me. The result: over the next five minutes or so, various other customers traipsed in, some held waiting by his so-dedicated gift-wrapping, some served quicker, but nobody complaining. Once finally finished, he passed the gifts to me with a smile. As he saw me fishing around for my wallet, this turned to a bewildered look and he flicked his hand with cheery dismissiveness- ‘no pasa nada’. Literally: 'nothing happens'/ nothing bad will come of this.’ In English terms: don't worry about it.

Don't worry about it? But worrying is my trademark. It's what defines me. I love being on-edge and flustered. Everyone around me loves it, too.

Or maybe it's time to really go to town on that 'when in Rome’ cliche and be a more zen me.

I'll let you know how I get on.


Tuesday, 22 May 2018

Here's Looking At You in Spain, Baby #3: On The Attitude to Children in Spain

#3 On The Attitude to Children in Spain

More VIP treatment than we get

It takes a village to raise a child, it has very often been said. In Spain, I’d argue it takes a city. A country, even.

And just what on earth am I on about? Well, actually it is the way people treat children here, especially little children, and how everyone sees raising children with a sense of community that is so different to the world I am used to. And I’m not just talking about having playdates and being nice to your friends’ kids, or at least those kids with whom you are on first-name-terms, because here it is something bigger. It is the way people approach strangers’ kids, those they do not know - or owe - from Adam. It reveals a pretty different outlook, to say the least.

In one way, this can mean a ‘shared’ approach to discipline. The other day, a couple of friends and I were sat in a plaza where our kids were playing with some loose stones on the ground. Typically, wine+occupied children meant a marvellous sense of relaxation for us. But it was short lived. Suddenly, the atmos was punctured by an old lady’s head appearing from a nearby doorway, whereupon she commenced scolding the children (and, indirectly, us parents) for removing the stones from her doorway. After the initial deep shame you still (yes, still) feel from being told off by an elder, we quietly admitted that not only was it fair enough, but that this old lady had some guts. She neither feared our response nor that of our kids, she’d said her piece then left it at that. She was badass.

But this approach is not just about chastising kids, unabashed. Do not mistake this for a culture where kids are pests and that they should be seen and not heard, because it’s really not the case. What there is here is an overriding affection for little children, other people’s children as much as anyone’s own, and the same fearlessness in showing them that affection. In the supermarket, on the street, on the bus, people of all ages stop in their tracks when they see any random toddler, and they coo and smile at them. They make physical contact with them. Elderly people do it the most of all, often ruffling my son’s hair, chattering away to my daughter and patting her hand, especially if she seems upset. For primary teachers, it's totally normal to cuddle their students all the time which is so different from what my own teacher training taught me.

Kids are practically VIPs here in so many social settings. In a tapas restaurant the other day, the waiter bent down to my children's level, took both their hands and whisked them off behind the bar. They chortled with delight and re-emerged moments later with a chocolate treat each. In another plaza one day, a smiling old man picked up my daughter and started dancing around with her to the flamenco music, while his friends tried to show her how to do the proper hand movements. All was done in plain sight of, and close proximity to, us the parents, which I'm sure helped it to feel so un-weird. Neither the waiter, nor the old man, had ummed or ahhed, they’d just gone and done it which clearly highlighted how normal it all was. And yes, when we first arrived here I would be struck by how different this was to what I was used to. My US, Canadian and Aussie friends have basically said the same. But we also agree that it's hard not to be taken in by the warmth of it all here, by the reminder that kids remain the greatest leveller among people.

Perhaps a bigger difference is with child accidents. If your kid falls over here, someone will rush to pick them up and cuddle them first, then try to decipher who and where the parent is. I have now found myself doing it without a second thought where once I might have hesitated. Again, in the culture I grew up in- and which my kids were initially born into - it just wouldn't be so normal to rush and cuddle a kid you didn’t know. Or, more, accurately, whose parents you didn't know. Your instinct would be to feel concerned that the child was upset, of course, but you'd locate the parent first so they could take over with the physical bit. You'd thereby alleviate yourself of any of the weird or suspicious looks people might give you because warm or physical engagement with someone else's kids is reserved strictly for close friends, family and officially-employed childminders. And those of our parents’ generation assure us it was not always like this, with such a fear about strangers’ intentions towards our kids. Even though our culture has always been more standoffish, they argue, it is a growing, media-fed paranoia that is now to blame. Whatever the source of the fear (and I suspect it to be a mixture of the two) the outcome is the same: what happens is that, as with most things, the more self-conscious you are made to feel about your own behaviour, the more critical it makes you of others’, which in turn makes them more self-conscious...and so the cycle is perpetuated. A paranoid-judgy cycle which seems to exist a lot less here.

And look, I'm not saying that child-related crimes never happen, or that you should never trust your instincts when you feel that your kids are in real danger. I'm also not advocating being totally naive around something our parents never had to deal with: over-sharing info about our kids on the internet (and this is coming from me, by the way, who used to share way more than I do now). But neither are Spanish people saying any of these things. And yes, crime statistics can be unreliable because they depend on how many crimes actually get reported at all, but even so the stats do not suggest that Spain is an unsafe place to be a little kid. They in fact suggest the opposite.

And don't get me wrong, it's hard to undo thirty-odd years of what I've become used to. That old British reserve and awkward stiff-upper-lip will probably always be a part of me, too. It's also a part of some of my favourite comedy and literature, to which I fully intend to expose my kids. But if we stick to our plan and stay here for the long term, it'll be interesting to see how those two turn out as a hybrid of the two cultures, especially in their approach to children. In reality, I suspect it'll just be another one in a number of ways in which we'll be embarrassingly old and out of touch.

Bring it.


Tuesday, 1 May 2018

#2 Here's Looking At You in Spain, Baby: On Settling Into Life in Spain with Young Children: The Early Days

#2 On Settling Into Life in Spain with Young Children: The Early Days

I was the needy one

So, if you remember last time, sh**t had got real. And how. It’s been six months now since the start of this adventure, and a journey of life-changing extremes. To explain: for those of you who have ever considered moving to a holiday destination - by which I mean not just holidaying in one - it can be ironically To say the least. On good days, the aching beauty of the place you have chosen shimmers before you and congratulates you on your choice; on bad ones it taunts you like a gorgeous person way out of one's league. For every dull, life-admin task you have to get done (see below), this beauty cruelly mocks you with every bored glimpse you take at it from a window, with every sigh you emit in every long, long queue.

That has been some of the reality, anyway. For the first  week or two, this had not sunk in yet and we were most definitely in holiday mode.

On our first evening, you may recall how we wove up the valley early evening, past a sepia landscape whose browns and yellows became more of a peachy blush with the increasing pinkness of the sky (the last bit I just added but stay with me here). And I've mentioned it before but I'll do it again, since the Alhambra really must be seen to be believed. It has a crisp austerity to its form, all squares, right angles and tooth-like battlements, which make for quite a contrast with the bushy hillside where it sits, looming down over the city in silent reproach. Son and Daughter were not immune to its charms.

‘Look! The Al-ah-hambra!’ Son shouted.
‘Mehhhh-a-ham-brala’ Daughter mused.

And although we had lived in Australia for six years and were no strangers to heat, there still felt something exotic about the hot, thick wind blowing at us, the warmth that radiated off every hard surface. Down cobbled lanes we sauntered until we realised how late it had got (in Australia the sun sets at 8pm latest) and that we'd better bloody feed the children. This we did in a bustling square where the kids chased cats around while we drank wine and ate morcilla. How thinly we disguised our smugness while holidaymakers we got talking to gasped ‘you're moving here?’ and gave us theatrically envious looks. God it was all so great.

And so passed the first week or so. Then reality set in. We had to sign Son up to school, find care for Daughter and do painfully dull things like setting up bank accounts. And all this with the joyous handicaps of minimal Spanish and a family set of passports that had got stolen on our first night, never to be seen again (really don't ask). But, as you do, we somehow cobbled together some crappy semblance of organisation between us with the help of some new friends on the ground. And believe everything you hear about insane bureaucracy in bits of Europe. Signing Son up for school consisted of getting lots of documents stamped in a big hall then standing in a very long, very stagnant queue in a beautiful marbly corridor, the sun beating in on me, for three hours. I typically had underestimated how long it would be until I next ate and stood there feeling more faint and hollow-bodied as the time passed. People in front of me were yelling, shrugging and tutting and every so often an adminny-looking lady would pop her head out of the office door we were stood by to shout Something Important at the queue. Various people responded exasperatedly, some walked away and I just carried on standing there like a dumbass. My very helpful friend (thank Christ for her) informed me that we may as well stick it out, then just as I had nearly given up all hope, a letter suddenly got thrust in my hand and I was informed that even though it was nearly two o’clock Son could start school that day if we wanted him to.

Obvs we thought we would allow him some transition-time, so we plumped for the next morning. And how weird it felt, that he would not just be starting school - proper school - for the first time ever, he would be doing it in a place he'd never been to before, speaking a language he didn't yet speak. The advice I'd been given while researching our move, all those light-years ago?

‘Throw them in and don't tell them they can't do it.’

What this means for a parent? They'll probably be fine; it is your fretting and flapping that will upset them.

And this is so true. Son bowled on into school the next morning, skipping along the lanes with his new backpack bouncing and when we got to the gates, he ran on in without even looking back. You know who felt the most anxious, the most in need of reassurance? Yep, me. And for some time this pang of neediness would come back every now and again when I least expected it. I would finish a perfectly pleasant coffee with some new-found friends and I would, upon my walk back home, suddenly feel out of my depth and alone. I would feel homesick and lost and I would picture Son sat at his little desk in the classroom, doing his best to be brave, smile, and just get on, in Spanish, with all the busy tasks schoolkids get on with. His bravery made me miss him and want to just turn around, storm into his school and rip him out of his class so that I could just have him all to myself and hold him tight so he would comfort me. Then upon reflection the Less Dickish Me (yes, there is one, thank God) realised how utterly unhelpful for anyone that move would be. It was bloody tempting, though.

And how, six months in, are we now doing? Well, despite another move of house, another switch of jobs and so many other things, we are finding our feet. But to be totally content wouldn't make for much good blog-writing so fortunately there's still plenty of material there. Basically, until we are rich and flawlessly bilingual there will be more material than I can shake a stick at.

So hang on in there, people, and until next time…

Hasta luego.


Monday, 16 April 2018

Here's Looking at You in Spain, Baby, #1 The Big Move, or 'On Moving to Spain With Little Children'

A horrible, stressful exit

So, well, sorry I've been away for a bit. Pretty much a year, admittedly. As the title of this post might suggest, though, we've had a bit going on; so much so that I am starting a whole new section of this blog devoted to this big new life we seem to have got ourselves into.

What has this life involved? Many things, too many to fit in one post. Which is good, since I'm going to, you know, need stuff to fill other posts. But just to illustrate: it involved an exit that had been considered for some time yet which stil became a frenzied, flapping stress-fest in the last few days (how is this the story of my life?), a cross-continental journey and an eventual landing of one Boeing 727 on some hot Spanish tarmac. From there, the adventure to Granada, Andalucia, was about to begin, and how exciting it felt flicking through all the Google Images in my head: the mighty, earth-red Alhambra Palace looming down over the city, the crumbling white houses all packed into the Albaicin hillside opposite. Two years of waiting to see all this for real was about to end in two hours of car journey.

But enough of the travel writing for now. It's now time to explain how and why we came to be here at all. Time to backtrack to the time of austerity which had preceded it.

So last time we spoke I was telling you all about dealing with solitude as a mum. While I would argue that there is something universal about that experience, it was definitely exacerbated and prolonged by life in sunny, costly Sydney: I had wanted to return to work, to re-skill after having Daughter, not just to have adult chat but to chat even with people who (gasp) didn't have children. But we were stumped at the first hurdle. Daycare for a second child cost more than I would be earning the days she was in there. Still, OK, we decided, for my sanity we could perhaps justify running at a loss (you get the idea how ready I was to be back at work- who, pre-babies, would do most work for free). And yet, just in case I was getting cocky, up rocked the second hurdle: the famous daycare Catch-22. I couldn't take work unless daycare was secured, and I couldn't secure daycare (including paying a whopping deposit, etc) until I had work to justify the cost. And then the picture just unfolded itself, day by day, before our eyes. We had:

  • No relatives close by for quick-filler help with the kids (hello England, many thousands of miles away)
  • Extortionate rent to pay on a leaky, ‘characterful’ old terraced house (hello Sydney's real estate bubble)
  • Been harbouring a desire to return to Europe before too long
  • Been dreaming, and fantasising, at length, about a life in beautiful Spain (I'll explain more about this choice later).

And at the end of yet other skint winter's day in Sydney, another experience of getting adrenaline rush at the Aldi till in case the card got declined, Husband and I sat down and as he so beautifully put it,

‘We could just f**k off now, you know. Like, really soon.’

So that was that. And before we knew it we were Googling and emailing our little socks off, not just dreamily perusing real-estate websites but contacting people who would actually fix us up with somewhere, not a perfect-somewhere but a start. And that, for now, was enough.

The rest became a blur of contract-signing, leaving-dos, packing and a horrible, stressful exit from our house where we'd so tragically underestimated how many shipping boxes we'd need that we ended up chucking decent stuff out on the street, GIVING our overpriced Dyson hoover to our next-door neighbours, having the airport transfer woman twitching uneasily as we were running so late, my brother madly helping us to pack the kids, our stuff and our lives into the grumbling minibus.

But none of it mattered. We were finally doing it. Shit had just got real.

More next blog on what actually happens when one moves to Spain...with children in tow, obvs…

See you then!


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