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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.