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.