First Holidays Abroad: Three Kings

As mentioned previously, Three Kings Day (aka Dia de los Reyes) closes out the holiday season on January 6th. Traditionally it was more the center of gift-giving, though this year we did most of our gifts on Christmas.

The Cake

A common part of Three Kings Day is the king cake. This is a bready pastry, often halved and filled with cream. A little king figure is hidden within, and whoever finds it has to buy the cake next year. 2020 king cake’s on Cora y’all!

Tasty treats
Tasty treats
My ticket to not buying the cake next year!
My ticket to not buying the cake next year!

The Parade

In Barcelona January 5th is a major city celebration, with the Kings arriving in the harbor, then making their way through town to a parade in the evening. Overnight they then bring the presents to kids (except in our house, where Mom and Day buy the presents, and the kids know well and true who to thank!)

While we didn’t catch the Kings earlier in the day, we made it to the evening parade. We got there uncharacteristically early, and even so the kids had to wend their way through the crowd to perch at the front where they could actually see. I’m not sure that Amber got that good of a view, but fortunately the spectacle was large, loud, and often tall.

Creepy tall puppet-like characters? Check.
Check, check
Choreographed routines on many of the floats
One of the kings. I don't know which.
One of the kings. I don’t know which.

There was a ton of music and dancing as well. Quite the spectacle!

The parade apparently ended with huge amounts of candy being thrown from the final floats. I say apparently because we’d already slipped off a little before that when the kids declared they were done. The dense pack of people was a little much on their hungry tummies.

The Pho

In solid Clark fashion, we used the outing to try a restaurant we’d had an eye on–a Vietnamese place. We’d visited a few others in search of decent pho and fallen short. But at last Bun Bo Vietnam filled our bellies with the noodley goodness we craved.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m thoroughly enjoying Spanish food, but pho ranks near the top for the kids. Often back in Portland the kids would ask to go out, and their top choices were either McDonalds (eek) or pho. So finding somewhere to replace that soup-shaped hole in our hearts was a critical moment.

Overall these first holidays in Spain were a success. We found ways to keep our most important traditions, while trying new things on for size. I’m looking forward to the even deeper chances this next year will bring!

First Holidays Abroad: Chrismas

Since we arrived fully in Barcelona at the start of October, we chose not to return to the United States for Christmas. It was a good choice for us, as nobody was near ready to travel again so sooner after our extended visa-cation.

November in Barcelona was rainy, but December dried up. It was about as cold as the winter has gotten–plenty of days down around 7C/45F, but with the sun out, still comfortable enough for wandering to parks and fighting with the children about wearing a jacket. The cooler weather also excused us to spend a lot of the holiday time finishing up the Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (one of the best video games I’ve ever played) as a family (I drive, everyone else plays copilot, which is getting harder and harder as the kids get more able to play games themselves).

Traditions

Travel lets you see the world through a different lens. I find that holidays provide a particularly sharp opportunity to re-examine what’s “normal.”

In Spain a key difference around Christmas is that they have not one, but two gift giving days. In times past, Christmas was more likely to be a religious and family holiday, with gift giving centered instead around Three Kings Day, on January 6th (more on that in a later post!)

We debated heavily whether to open presents on Christmas or Three Kings. In the end, we went with Christmas simply to maximize the kids time-off from school that they could use their new things. (We kept a fairly strict one-thing-you-want, one-thing-you-need, one-thing-to-read policy given our small space… we only failed it on the reading material 😂) The idea of keeping Christmas more family focused, with another time to give presents, though, was intriguing.

We invited a family from the kids’ school over on the evening of Christmas Eve. Back in the States our friends Faith and Aaron throw a yearly Christmas Eve party that we try not to miss, and while this was far smaller in scale, we took inspiration from them in having the cured meats, good cheeses, and sot suppe (Norwegian Sweet Soup).

The Tree

As November wound down, we bought what I still consider the perfect Christmas tree:


We ended end up getting a more traditional artificial tree as well, but this more eloquently expresses my feelings about life in Barcelona.

Tió de Nadal

Catalonia is home to a truly unique Christmas tradition. I’d noticed on a work trip to Barcelona the year before that there were lots of little logs with smiley faces painted on them, especially in the Christmas markets. At the time I thought no more about it, not realizing the rich tradition of Tió de Nadal, aka Caga Tió.

Image result for caga tio image

If you have a moment, one of the clearest explanations of this for English speakers comes from Viggo Mortensen:

For those not inclined to video (or wikipedia) the short story is: families bring home these smiling logs, the kids feed them for the whole month–think a cross between an advent calendar and leaving cookies out for Santa–and then, after all this loving care…. they beat the log with a stick, singing a song that literally says, ahem, “poop log!” so it gives them presents. No kidding, at our Thanksgiving dinner we were discussing this tradition, and the entire table burst out with the song in unison.

Nothing says Christmas to me like a smiling log pooping presents!

First Holidays Abroad: Thanksgiving

As an American, the holiday season kicks off in the fourth week of November with Thanksgiving. This is not a holiday in Spain, but we bucked the trend and celebrated anyway. And what better way to enjoy the holiday than by introducing our traditions to coworkers!

The weeks before involved a lot of research into what was available in country, and what we’d have to improvise around. Turkey (pavo en español) was the biggest difficulty. It wasn’t hard to find parts–a leg here, a breast there–but the whole bird was almost unheard of. But a few days before Amber found a reasonable sized one at Boqueria Market.

Using that paella pan for it’s intended purpose 😅

Most everything else was available–vegetables, potatoes, breads. But what about the cranberry sauce?! Taste of America to the rescue! This specialty store is uniquely American. The scent of high-fructose corn sugar slaps you across the face on entering, as more than half the store is sugary cereals and candy. But they had the goods a week before the big day. I heard they ran out closer to the holiday 😰. This allowed Amber to introduce the wonders of American cranberry sauce to our friends amidst gales of laughter.

We invited the team I’ve been working with at New Relic BCN. Among those who made it were an American couple, an Irishman, and a ton of Spaniards. I was pleasantly surprised by everyone’s enthusiasm leading up to the event. It turns out, American Thanksgiving is commonly seen in movies and pop culture but faintly mysterious beyond that. What is this pumpkin pie? What does stuffing taste like, or is it called dressing? This proved an excellent chance to lift the veil on this American tradition.

Who doesn’t use their paella pan to roast pumpkins?

We also pushed the max capacity of our flat for a sit-down meal. There were about 16 people, every scrap of table space filled with boisterous conversation, good Spanish wine and charcuterie, galician treats, and American classics.

The holidays have definitely made us more acutely aware of the normal connections with family that we’re missing out on during this grand adventure. But in the end, sharing this tradition with our new friends was absolutely something to be thankful for.

Escuela en España

Among the biggest unknowns in coming to Barcelona was the kids’ schooling. They’ve been in Spanish immersion at César Chávez School in Portland since kindergarten. In fact, an original seed for the idea of moving was the chance for the kids to immerse in their second language.

But thinking about what a great opportunity that foreign school is much simpler than actually making it happen!

Early Research

After we got serious in thinking about the move, I contacted coworkers with school-aged children. They helped with the names of several schools that we read up on and emailed.

These all proved dead-ends for one reason or another. A few had multiple-year-long waitlists that didn’t fit our couple-of-months schedule. Others communication snarled, either on language or process barriers. It wasn’t clear to us who we should be talking to, and school websites gave few answers.

Options

We discovered basically three major types of schools to consider, though: public, concertados (semi-private though state funded), and fully private. Private schools dropped off the list when we saw the prices (honestly little loss since several were in English, and we weren’t making this move for our kids to go to school in English!)

This brought us to the central issue with public schools that, to be frank, we didn’t realize at first. Public schools in Barcelona are taught in Catalan, the regional language of Catalonia (one of several co-official languages in Spain.) We heard that concertados taught more Spanish, which initially drew our interest as a simpler transition for the kids.

In the end, though, it proved difficult to locate any solid information from outside the country. Once we arrived, we found that we’d have to decide where we were living, then apply to schools… so picking neighborhoods around a special school on a tight timeline just wasn’t going to work.

We ended up going with public school, and we’ve been happy with the choice.

Process

With the help of coworkers, we learned the first step was a city-level registration called empadronamiento. This effectively says “Hey, I live here!” and is somewhat like US census or voting registration. We got this done during the week before we returned to the US for visas. This let us finally schedule an appointment with the central school administration the morning our flight left.

At that meeting we provided a list of desired schools. The list was solely based on our location in Poblenou, spiraling outward. We gave them contact information, including phone and email. The person assisting us spoke only a little English, but she told us our assignment would be texted to us. Unfortunately, since we were headed out of the country our new pre-paid Spanish phone numbers (whole other story there) wouldn’t work internationally, so we asked for an email. She seemed to understand, and I don’t know whether she didn’t or the message just got lost along the way. Either way, complete silence from the Barcelona school system our entire 5 weeks back in the states. We didn’t reach out directly until we were back in country–already a couple weeks after school had started.

With the help of Google Translate, I found a web page to submit questions. A couple days passed, and this message landed in my inbox:

Benvolguda família, 

Ens informen des de l’Oficina que ja heu rebut resposta a la vostra petició. 

Cordialment

For those who don’t speak Catalan, this translates to: “We inform from the Office that you have already received a response to your request.” Um, if you’ve already responded, why don’t I know where my kids are going to school yet?!

After trying over phone to get the answers, my manager Franco graciously dashed over to the administration office on a sunny afternoon to serve as a translator for me. Within few minutes we had a name at last… the kids would be attending Escola les Acàcies.

Escola les Acàcies

We had to register with the school itself and meet with teachers, so another week passed before the kids actually started. But just knowing where was a massive relief.

So What’s It Like?

I was a bit nervous before our first visit. After all this build-up, all the effort, the long waits, the packing, the goodbyes, what sort of place would I be sending my kids each weekday? A wave of relief hit me as we walked in and found… a school. Sure, the signs were in another language (except science, which is taught in English apparently), but the artwork, the classrooms, the shouts of children at play, it was all warmly familiar.

Acàcies was on the lower half of our geographically prioritized list. Luckily, this being Barcelona, attending the fifth school on your list instead of the first means walking ten minutes instead of five.

Another concern going in was longer school days. Where in the US the kids went from 8-2:30 (roughly), school here went 9-4:30. That’s almost 9-5, you know, job hours. The later start was nice, but we wondered how the kids would cope.

A number of factors turned out to make this a non-issue. First and foremost is a two hour break in the middle of the day. Many kids go home for lunch, then return to school after the lunch break. Cora and Asher stay at school where there’s food and non-classroom activities available. In the US the kids had 30 minutes for getting lunch, eating, and playing. Spain almost across the board proves an easier, more relaxed pace. Fewer subjects are crammed in each day, and there’s more space for the kids to be kids. They even have swimming once a week, a major highlight for my water-loving children.

Another surprise shouldn’t have been–food. Lunches are cooked at the school, and the kids have consistently remarked about the quality of the food. It’s not unusual for Cora to pipe up with “Wasn’t that soup great today Ash?” to vigorous agreement. From kids who I normally struggle to pry three consecutive words from about their days, their enthusiasm for the food is pretty stunning. (Don’t get me wrong, a few menus have gone flat. Apparently there’s some “egg with ketchup” dish (as yet unidentified) that both kids agree “isn’t their favorite.”)

Starting several weeks after school officially began, the kids both entered with minor celebrity status. Cora loved this. I recall her asking, “Why didn’t you tell me that I’d make so many friends so fast?” This is hilarious given we’d been pointing out exactly this for months as she worried about the move. She can hardly take an elevator ride without forming a new friendship with someone. Asher struggled more with the attention–he just wanted to be left alone. Eventually, though, he figured how to strike up games of tag and everything in the seven-year-old set smoothed out.

Language

Cora gets special Catalan classes (apparently provided for non-native speakers in third grade or higher.) Both are coming along with the language in bits and pieces. Honestly the first year I expect will be mostly about re-wiring their brains, yet again, to speak Catalan.

Language isn’t just a hurdle for the kids. School communication is all in Catalan. Amber and I are frequently copy-pasting into Google Translate and pouring over the cryptic results. Translation for Spanish is pretty good, but Catalan elicits from Google the sort of nonsense that automated translation is humorously known for. A Halloween announcement ended with something along the lines of “IT WILL BE A NIGHT OF PIE” when there was no pie involved as far as I could tell from either the message or the event. I’m still waiting for my pie.

Language also interferes with us engaging in the school community. Our recent life at César Chávez was so deeply hooked into the school, but now we can’t yet communicate with 95% of the families. We’ve found a few folks with English to help us along and develop friendships with, but we’re realizing now how long the road of language acquisition will be.

All in all, finally getting school started for the kids has brought a sense of rhythm and routine that we were desperately needing on the ultra-extended summer of 2018. Although it isn’t easy for any of us, it’s good, it’s growing us, and it’s on its way to being home.

How the Clarks Finally Got Their Spanish Visas

Per the plan, on the last day of August we flew back to the United States from our newly established life in Spain. At the Spanish Consulate in San Fransisco, we had to apply–in person with the whole family–for my work visa.

Not So Quick

Leaving months behind schedule to take an additional international trip for paperwork purposes isn’t quite complicated enough, though. So we layered on a bit more before leaving.

Spain has a registration process called empadronamiento. It’s done with the city and most resembles a census/voter registration in the States. Importantly this lets you do things like register your children for school. We got our padron during our final week in Spain before heading back to the States. This in turn landed us at the school administration offices the morning of our 4pm flight. Combine that with missing a critical piece of paperwork (birth certificates… cue the foreshadowing), and let’s say it wasn’t the most stress free departure we’ve ever made. But we left Spain with assurances that we’d be informed of our children’s school assignment soon. Tick that box off!

First Stop, San Fransisco

We flew into Oakland where our friend Megan surprised us at the airport. She had been working weeks down in the Bay Area and flying back to Portland on weekends. This weekend, though, she chose to hang out with us instead. Megan took care of our kids regularly when they were little, so it was a huge treat to spend the long Labor Day weekend with her around San Fransisco.

Family pho time
Family pho time

The following Tuesday was the big day: our appointment at the Spanish Consulate. We’d gathered, copied, checked, and rechecked the papers a dozen times. Honestly, I was pretty nervous. While I felt certain we’d get the process complete eventually, I really didn’t want anything avoidable to get fouled up.

Sigh.

Our appointment was at 9 in the morning, so we hustled out of the hotel and caught a cab to the Spanish Consulate. It’s an unassuming, relatively missable building if you don’t spot the flags flying over the door. We settled into the waiting room until our names were called. Leaving the waiting room we hit the first big snag: no picture-capable electronics were allowed through. Phones and iPads all had to be stowed. We had promised the kids that the presumably long wait at the consulate guaranteed plenty of electronics time. In an instant that option evaporated. The kids viewed this, understandably, as The Greatest Injustice in the History of the World.

Sigh.

We proceeded to the window with our massive stack of papers. The woman working with us didn’t seem to want all the papers at once, so we passed them through a tiny slot as required. A computer screen mere inches away from the slot made it awkward getting the papers through.

One set of the papers, FBI clearances, she held up unhappily. “What’s this?” I had taken the pages apart when making the copies our lawyers had highly recommended we make. Apparently the clasp holding the sheets together was important. You-invalidated-the-document-by-removing-that type of important.

Eek.

The woman continued typing, taking papers, saying little, while I quietly melted. Here we were, two months and an extra international flight late for this appointment. Our lovely new home seemed to drift further away because of… copies? Amber says my eyes took on a flat, despairing look in that moment.

At long last, her attention returned from the computer to us. “So, you’ll need to have the FBI clearance re-apostilled,” (a process for certifying foreign documents) “but the birth and marriage certificates were issued more than 3 months ago. They aren’t valid either.”

And my despair turned to anger at the lawyers who apparently hadn’t checked our documents’ validity prior to the appointment.

“Oh, your company’s contact information isn’t fill out. You’ll need to add that.” Because cell phones weren’t allowed inside, I ended up having to leave, look up my employer’s phone number and address in Spain, write it down, then rejoin the line back in the consulate to hand it in.

Grrrr.

Northward

While we waited for a rental car to head north in, I sat in surprisingly warm sunshine scouring the internet for the fastest way to get certificates reissued. The FBI papers I’d ruined weren’t too old, so I assumed we’d just have apostille them again. But the birth and marriage certificates needed a full reissue.

This wouldn’t have been a problem from Portland–you can just walk into the county office and be done in an hour or so. But we wouldn’t be reaching Portland for days. We’d be stopping in North Bend on the Oregon Coast to see Amber’s parents, then dropping into Albany to see my parents and my brother with his family. All told, we were most of a week from being physically in Portland.

Blessings arrived, though, as a totally legit website you can order documents from if you know the right numbers (key among them a credit card with plenty of spare room haha). I jammed the numbers in on my phone, fuming as I fumbled at the too-small buttons typing in SSN after SSN into clumsy webforms. I threw money at every expedite option they presented and was assured of more status “in a couple business days.”

We drove out of town over the Golden Gate Bridge, brilliantly happy to be leaving San Fransisco and wondering how these delays might impact our departure date on September 23rd.

Later SF--Golden Gate Bridge
Later SF

Waiting

Status web pages are a miracle of modern technology… but only when the status occasionally changes. When eventually I read the fine print, I realized the final status this website would provide basically boiled down to “We mailed it to the government.”

We visited with Amber’s folks, then headed toward my family with no sign yet of reissued certificates. Reaching Albany, we were only an hour and a half from Portland, so Amber drove north to just get physical copies. It was a good thing she did, because the online order took a couple more days, which would have entailed further delays.

I’d been in touch with the lawyers about getting documents reprocessed. It involved a complicated back and forth between translation and notarizing. At the last moment they refused to redo the existing FBI clearance (even though the consulate had said we could), so we threw wads of cash at that problem to make it go away.

At long last everything was winging its way, we presumed, to the consulate.

We spent a solid week in Portland, hanging out in some dear friends’ basement and catching up with as many others as we could that we’d missed on our earlier departure. Funny thing, nearly twenty years in a city, you can stack up enough connections it’s tough to say all the goodbyes efficiently.

The delays gave us enough space to visit Amber’s family in Montana. While we were up there it became clear we weren’t going to make our departure. At last we concluded we’d do something I’ve never done before–we simply didn’t show up for a flight. Rebooking options were expensive enough that with the lack of a firm date, it just didn’t make sense to try and guess any more.

At Last

I’d asked the lawyers status numerous times, but through bits and pieces I finally understood that they weren’t actually hearing from the consulate either (what are we paying them for?) They were just looking up the status of our application… on a web page.

Baa-dum-bump.

We’d returned from Montana to Portland, then back again to Albany with my family. While it was a gift to get those extra days with family all along this path, by this point we were antsy to be done but unsure how much longer it would take. Would it be the next week? Two weeks? Would we know before the visa approval to plan any travel? Meanwhile September ran its course, school started in Spain (without our children there… or any word yet on which school they would attend).

Then magically, the moment arrived. An email in Amber’s inbox told us our visas were approved! (Sidenote: my email address was written incorrectly as jasmclark; glad Amber was on the list too!)

Approved!

It was a Tuesday, and the consulate asked for our itinerary. Having missed our original flight, we didn’t have one. But hastily buying plane tickets for Friday evening fixed that problem. This gave us enough time to reach San Fransisco, pick up papers from the Consulate, and fly!

Driving saved some money and most importantly afforded us the chance to visit the Jelly Belly Factory in Fairfield, CA as we left the country. If there’s a more fitting send-off from the States than a candy factory, I don’t know what it is.

Don't be jelly of the Jelly Belly
Don’t be jelly of the Jelly Belly

So. Much. Sugar.
So. Much. Sugar.

Picking up the visas didn’t have a specific appointment time, so we showed up to the consulate pretty early. We gave our names and IDs, waited, expecting some a process. There were fingerprint scanners in back we’d never used, and this time we’d prepared the kids for the lack of electronics.

The guy at the front double-checked that our drivers’ licenses looked like us, smiled at our kids, and gave us our passports with the visas pasted in the back. After all the waiting, the two weeks additional delay, getting the visas took about ten minutes.

Visas in hand, we drove our rental van to the airport, hopped a plane (no premium this time on short notice) and at long last were on our way home.

Heat

As lifelong Oregonians, weather was among the larger changes we expected moving to Barcelona. But we didn’t expect to land in the middle of a heat wave.

We arrived during July 2018, with record temperatures popping up all over Europe. Many of my coworkers confirmed–this was abnormally hot, even by their standards. In Barcelona this meant every day exceeded 90F/32C, often by quite a bit. Oregon summers hit those heights; in fact, during those first weeks, Portland often had a higher max temperature. But that comparison excludes a crucial factor: humidity. Nestled on the lovely Mediterranean Sea, Barcelona’s humidity hung anywhere from 75-90% day in and day out, remorseless and thick. You could practically swim in that air, though not a swim that would refresh you.

Our first two weeks were in a hostel where, thankfully the room and common areas had some air conditioning. The hallways between were left as a broiling challenge, though, the moment you left your door. The front lobby was extra chilly, and I was often willing to run errands if they afforded the chance to pass through that frigid air.

Space in the shared fridge was tiny, but we sacrificed a chunk to a big jug of cool water since the taps provided little relief on their own. We would often treat ourselves by ducking out to the big grocery store 10 minutes walk away for a bag of ice. Hurrying home, we’d paint the pavement with sweat and melt-off from the ice almost the whole way. Once back, we’d stuff every water bottle we owned with what remained frozen and rejoice.

A key tactic for dealing with heat is simple avoidance–don’t go out unless you have to. Unfortunately in those early weeks that wasn’t an option. We had to explore neighborhoods, visit flats, and purchase necessities from stores often long distances from Poblenou. These activities rarely happened in the early morning, so it wasn’t uncommon to set out on a mission in the heat of the day. Needless to say, our energy for completing all those tasks wasn’t what it could have been in a cooler period.

There’s a particular feel to that humid air, a speed with which your shirt starts sticking and your forehead moistens. I haven’t felt anything like it since Mali, and there at least rain every couple of days broke the humidity a bit. I started commuting to the office while the heat persisted, and descending into the Metro proved particularly stifling. Each step you could feel the heat climb a degree, while the air closed around you like an unwelcomely warm blanket. Blessedly, the subway cars had air conditioning, a small relief to anticipate, quickly chilling all that sweat you’d accumulated on the walk and wait to the station.

The beach (which we’ll discuss more later) also provided respite. The water was perfect for swimming on these blazing days, just cold enough with no threat of frozen limbs as on the Oregon coast. We trekked out to the beaches every few days, risking sunburns to bob in the soothing water.

Our flat also has two air conditioners, which proved perfect for keeping things under control. We’ve continued cooling water and introduced a Brita filter in the process. There’s always a refreshing drink to be had in the fridge.

And worst come to worst, if you’re willing to break away for a couple minutes down the rambla, there’s always gelato to soothe your fevered head.

PS. Hilariously, since we’ve returned to the US for a month to finish our visas, Amber has found herself freezing all the time. Admittedly, San Fransisco was a bit cooler than Portland, but I didn’t expect that the tables would turn in just six weeks. I’m ready to return and see what October in Barcelona looks like.

PPS.

Touring the Flat

At long last it’s arrived… the (photo) tour of the flat!

Location, Location, Location

As mentioned a few times before, we’re in El Poblenou, a neighborhood in the eastern part of Barcelona. I’ve been told that it means “new village” and in the not too distant past was an industrial zone. You can see evidence of that in many of the buildings around. More recently it’s been revitalized, though, with an influx of residences and young tech businesses settling there.

We’re a block off the Rambla del Poblenou. Ramblas in Spain are streets blocked off largely for walking traffic. Most are home to restaurants and shops, benches for resting, shade trees. Rambla del Poblenou is no exception.

Here’s the basic layout for those who like reading plans:

Layout of the flat
Layout of the flat

Entering In (entrada)

Our flat begins with a modest entry hall. Along with hooks already there, we’ve added storage for our somewhat outsized collection of shoes. That’s been super effective at keeping the entrance tidy.

From this entryway the space splits, which works well for dividing the ~90 square meters (970 square feet) into a couple different zones.

Make sure you have your keys when you leave!

Kitchen (cocina)

Left from the entryway is the kitchen. As anyone who knows us can testify, the kitchen is the heart of the Clark household, so this was of particular interest in our search for a flat.

One of our biggest worries was transitioning to a smaller space. Fortunately, the flat proved totally workable. This was aided by our past year renting a much smaller place in Portland.

From kitchen doorway
From kitchen doorway

Past the dishwasher you can see the utility room, home of our hot water heater and our soon-to-be washing machine.

Main counters
Main counters

Our kitchen features a dishwasher, a reasonably sized fridge, and a gas stovetop. The only thing we’ve really missed is a microwave, which we’ll fix soon.

The window overlooks the Rambla. Not a great view, but we can often hear music and muted crowd noises drifting up as we do dishes or cook. So lovely.

Living Room (comedor)

If you turned right in the entryway instead of left, you’d end up in the main living space. This long room includes both a seating and dining area. Notice how bright it is, even on an overcast day with the single light in the room turned off.

Seating in the living room
Seating in the living room

Dining in style
Dining in style (and ready to go!)

The white cabinet by the table holds our dishes, a valuable way to save cabinets in the kitchen.

Bedrooms

From the living area a hallway runs back to the bathrooms (2!) and bedrooms (4!) I’ll admit to skepticism about fitting all that in only 90 square meters at first, but the layout is key to it working (and it does!)

Master bed
Master bedroom (Hab 4)

Our bed is a Brimnes from IKEA, and it flips up to reveal a HUGE amount of storage underneath it. This has proven perfect for all our not currently-in-use luggage. Eight bags is not much to fit your life into, but our small flat isn’t much to fit all those empty bags in without the help this bed brings.

Master closest
Master closest

The master closet has built-ins which are nice if a little shallow to use. We’re planning to get end tables but haven’t yet.

Each kid has their own room for the first time in a few years. Cora’s came with a bunkbed set that can be folded up against the wall. We built her a small wardrobe from IKEA and she’s in love with having her own space.

Cora in her room
Cora in her room (Hab 2)

Bunk beds folded up
Bunk beds folded up

Asher got the unfurnished bedroom. At his request he got a loft bed. This provided room for a desk–the only one in the flat actually. Each kid also has had a decorating budget, and Asher spent his on plants.  He wanted to make a jungle for “his boys” to fly around in.  Three dragons, a giant snake, and a teddy bear comprise his little family of which he is the daddy.

Welcome to the jungle
Welcome to the jungle (Hab 1)

Asher's desk under the loft
Asher’s desk under the loft

Bathrooms

It’s the first time in our adult life that Amber and I have had two bathrooms. Excitement!

The main bathroom is decent sized. Not much storage–just a bit under the sink–but full-sized shower and bath. There’s even an as-yet-unused bidet (fancy!) Note your knees can hit the door if it’s opened when you’re seated.

Main bathroom
Main bathroom

The second bathroom is much smaller, but still has a shower. Just having a second toilet is totally life-changing. Note your knees hit the paper holder, which then hits the door.  🙂  Also, I bonked my elbows on the walls the one time I tried that shower, but the additional option is fantastic.

Smaller bathroom
Smaller bathroom

Hanging Out

A feature we haven’t used much with the summer heat is the back balcony. The view isn’t scenic–just a blank wall on another building–but it’ll be a nice escape during more moderate weather. It also provides a place to hang dry laundry, since we likely won’t have an electric dryer.

Join us on the terrace
Join us on the terrace

Oh, on the topic of weather, did I mention that we have AC? When it’s too hot to hang on the porch, it’s just right inside.

One More Thing

The detail oriented among you might notice I mentioned four bedrooms but only showed three. Well, we even have a guest room!

Guest room
Guest room (Hab 3)

Doesn’t look like much, but that bed extends to a queen. If you happen to be near Barcelona, give us a call. We’d love to have guests!

Festa Major de Gràcia

A week or two ago several coworkers asked me the same question.

“Are you going to the Festa Major?”

“Huh, what’s that?”

When multiple people are checking you know about something happening in your new city, it definitely gets your attention.

Each major neighborhood in Barcelona has a yearly festival. These often last for days with decoration in the streets, food, music, all the things you’d expect from a festival in Spain. This week was the one for Gràcia, a relatively central neighborhood we’d considered living in until we found our flat in Poblenou.

My ladies walking at Festa de Gràcia
My ladies walking at Festa de Gràcia

Festa Major de Gràcia is one of the larger events and lasts a whole week. We didn’t make it out until the last day. From what we hear about the crowds earlier, it’s probably just as well!

Different streets decorated to themes and competed with each other. Some were mostly art displays, others host to large neighbor dinners or elevated musical stages. Talking with a coworker the day after he said, “Lots of those streets are kind of weird.” As a Portlander, I mostly just felt at home.

Unisheep
Not baaaaaad Unisheep!

We wandered out around 8:30 as dusk closed in. Life in Spain runs as late as you’ve heard. Festivities were just starting throughout Gràcia. We toured several streets, had a baby gelato cones (so itty bitty!), and then found our way to pizza and pasta for dinner before more streets.

One had a video game theme 🤖🎮👾

Another got Cora especially excited… Miyazaki movies!

🎼Totoro, To-toro
🎼Totoro, To-toro

Porco Rosso
Porco Rosso

Howl's Moving Castle
Howl’s Moving Castle

Near the close of the evening we heard noise and commotion up ahead. A scent of burning wafted through the air, and we turned a corner to find this.

Not bad Barcelona, not bad at all!

Flattening Barcelona

While I’ve traveled many places before, I’ve never had to figure out how to rent a place to live.

Research

The first step began months ago. Since almost the moment we decided to relocate, Amber started cruising real estate sites for Barcelona. In particular, she spent hours on idealista. Coworkers confirmed that as a top site on the topic, and as time approached Amber favorited dozens of flats to consider.

During our first weeks in country we took the next step of exploring neighborhoods. That confirmed our initial list of target areas: Gràcia, Poblenou, or Eixample. Each had different things to recommend it. Gràcia had narrow streets and old-world charm. Poblenou had relative quiet within walking distance of beaches. Eixample had the bustling urban heart of the city.

Next we finalized our need vs want list. We wanted three or four bedrooms so the kids each got their own space, and ideally we could support visitors (hint hint, come visit!) Multiple bathrooms, outdoor space, pool (?!), washing machine, laundry all fell on the nice to haves.

The biggest change to reckon with, though, was our very American notions of space. Obviously we were downsizing… but how much? We got pretty good at translating meters squared into square feet, and with some uncertainty capped the lower bound of our search at 90 m2 (about 970 ft2). This left us feeling by turns absurdly American and nervous at the transition we might find ourselves making.

Visiting

Idealista lets you contact the flat owners straight from the website, so we shot off messages to a handful of our favorites. Here we encountered the difficulty of Spain in high season… much of the country is on holiday for weeks at a time during July and August. I’m convinced that a different time of year we might have heard from more of them, but we ended up getting four bites.

This revealed a big difference between renting in the US and Barcelona. Everything on idealista ran through real estate agencies. Back home I would have expected to directly contact apartment owners, or at least someone whoever managed the place. Instead, every time we were talking to a real estate agent. Apparently with effort you can avoid this–and the agency fees that come along, which are more than a month’s rent!–but with our timelines and inexperience, we just rolled with the agents.

We ended up seeing three places near Eixample and Gracia, and one in El Poblenou. The flats in Eixample were largely along Avinguda Diagonal, a large busy street, but all were surprisingly quiet behind closed doors and windows. These were close to my work, and two of the three had excellent space and layout. The parks nearby were lovely, and Amber loved the architecture nearby.

Despite all this, the flat in El Poblenou drew us continually back. It’s highlight feature was unique, and unlikely to show up for us wherever we move in the future–Mediterranean surf and sand just a short walk away. It’s also a quieter neighborhood, with a nice little Rambla full of shops and restaurants. Just the vibe we were after.

Rambla del Poblenou
Rambla del Poblenou

Signing

Having chosen the place, we visited a real estate office to sign papers that we intended to rent through their agency. At this point we paid the agency fee, although the agreement clearly stated if the rental didn’t happen it would be refunded. At this point after two weeks in a single hostel room with the kids, my attitude toward shelling out money to get into a place was roughly like this:

That commitment in place, our agent contacted another agent (really) representing the owners. Between them, they sorted out the details. The only mild hiccup was a type of insurance the owners wanted which our work status presented some issues for. After a little negotiating we found a way to settle that to everyone’s satisfaction.

A few days later, we had yet another round of signing at a different real estate office. Although the stack of papers was nowhere near the mountain of paperwork for buying a house, I did feel déjà vu signing page after page. Beyond the contract, we even signed pictures of the various meters with the understanding we could confirm the values once we moved in.

Papers signed, the keys were ours!

The keys are ours!
The keys are ours!

Moving In

The owners weren’t present as they live in Germany, but their father, a friendly man named Antonio, joined for the signing. Afterward, he took us to the flat and showed us the place in more detail. He gave us a great tour of the various systems–locks, windows, AC, bunk beds–with the knowledge of someone who had really been around the place. He even introduced us to Dino’s Gelato just a block down the Rambla. Danger!

After Antonio left, the day presented one more task… moving in as best we could. Eight maximized checked bags and four sizable carry-ons were still stowed at the hostel. The kids’ room had a bunk bed, but Amber and I had nowhere to sleep. While we’d have liked nothing better than to just stay put for the night, instead we journeyed out, drawn to that place we’d spend so much time over the coming weeks: IKEA.

We purchased a queen mattress and a rather large pile of other items with which to start our new home. It was almost 10PM when we got out, with nary a taxi to be seen. I honestly doubt most taxis could have accommodated all our stuff. Fortunately, at the front of IKEA there are almost always unbranded vans with men hanging around, ready to help you haul. That evening there was only one, and he didn’t have room for the whole family. We finally got a taxi, and the family headed home while I set off for the hostel after loading everything from IKEA into the back.

The night was hot, continuing the smothering heatwave that we’d run smack into when we landed in Barcelona. The van didn’t have AC, and I sat with sweat pouring down me as we wove through the darkened night toward the hostel.

Our friends at the front desk at Twentytú graciously helped to ferry the gargantuan mass of luggage to the van. This saved time, and calmed my paranoid (?) concerns about the van suddenly vanishing with all our worldly possessions while I was inside locating that one last bag.

Another broiling hop in the van, and then we shuttled all the stuff into the entryway of the build. Hilariously, the driver mirrored my nerves, but about everyone else around us as we unloaded.

By the time I hoisted the entire world upstairs, my clothes were soaked through, and I was ready to collapse. We sliced open the plastic wrapping on the mattress, flopped it on the floor, took a quick cold shower, and then collapsed into a deep, contented sleep.

(Wondering what the flat’s like? Don’t worry… a tour will be forthcoming soon!)

A Simple Shopping Trip

Last week I started back to work at New Relic’s Barcelona office. Located downtown in an area call L’Eixample, I’ve been transiting (mostly Metro) between there and our flat in El Poblenou (more details forthcoming!)

On Thursday Amber sent a list of nine things, and asked if I’d grab them from the store on my way home. A bus ran from near the office, past a major shopping center I was familiar with within talking distance of our flat. Easy!

Since I only had a laptop bag, I snagged an unused paper bag from the lunchroom, patting myself on the back for my forethought to avoid buying a new bag at the store (cue ominous music).

Outside, not only was the bus line nearby, it was literally steps from the door. This whole urban living thing was really coming together.

Shopping rubbed off a little of that shine, though, as I worked down Amber’s list. First off, shopping in an unfamiliar, large grocery store is always grounds for some mild frustration. Compounding that, Spanish groceries aren’t arranged quite like the “standard” layout in the US. The differences are subtle, but real. For instance, the baking soda (bicarbonato de sodio) was with spices, but the the baking powder (pulvo de hornear) hid out with the boxed cakes eight aisles away. Ibuprofen isn’t even available at grocery stores, only at separate pharmacies. I did manage to find peanut butter, a nice touch given how often I’ve heard that held up as a strictly American thing.

Packing the paper bag full, I headed into the kilometer walk home. About a third of the way there, a familiar sensation began, missing since my arrival in Spain. Was that drizzle? The sky did hang low and cloudy, but I’m from Oregon. A little rain doesn’t scare me.

Cue the downpour.

I wasn’t about to let this spoil my outing, though. Worst off I’d end up wet, but if it stopped afterward it might even cool things down. But as my clothes soaked through, drips turned to small streams from my hair, and a thick fog smeared over my glasses, I noticed a problem.

The front corners of the paper bag were softening from the rain.

I clutched the groceries closer, craning uselessly to shield them. Picking up my pace, I was certain I could make it down the rambla and home before things got dire.

Wrong.

The bag disintegrated all at once. Half of my groceries flew from my arms like angry magnets, scattering on the pavement. Glass shattered. With my left eye flaring (yeah for detached retinas!) and fog over my glasses, I could hardly see the extent of the damage. As I clutched the remains of my groceries, I didn’t even notice for a moment that the bag of flour had burst open. My entire right leg was plastered wet and caked in white.

  

A kind stranger saw my predicament and said in relatively clear English, “That’s not going to work.” Um, yeah, agreed. He immediately offered to run and grab a bag, though. Almost on his heels, someone else offered me a large reusable bag. I thanked them profusely as I tucked what remained into the bag. Flour and broken egg smeared everything.

With the surviving items finally safe, I picked up the broken glass I could, gripping them in the soaked shreds of my brilliant paper bag, and tucked the lot in the nearest trash can before scurrying the rest of the way home.

Shopping… easy as pie!