Saturday, July 2, 2011

The Next Phase

It has been just about a year since our family set out on our adventure to see more, do more and learn more. In that time, we traveled to Belize, Mexico, various regions in Spain, Italy and France (not to mention a few trips back and forth to the States) and Bill visited Amsterdam. We sold our 2 homes in Chicago and Oak Park, left everything and everyone that we knew and loved and, hand-in-hand, jumped off the cliff, having little idea what was ahead for us.

We have lived in almost primitive conditions in sweltering heat, survived a Dengue Fever scare, lovingly witnessed Bill's son marry the girl of his (and our) dreams, moved to a foreign country and became immigrants. We watched with awe as our children quickly learned to speak almost fluent Spanish (Bill and I have made some progress with our language as well), muddled our way through the Spanish public school system and learned about different cultures and ways of living. We met wonderful people from all over the world, and we saw and experienced amazing sites that opened our minds and expanded our perspectives. Our family has laughed, cried, struggled, laughed some more and survived. We have learned, expanded and grown - and we have done so because we were together.

Amidst all of this glory, however, we bid a painful farewell to my mom (Henry and Caroline's last surviving grandparent) in April and knew that our concept of "roots" had been forever altered. All four of us - and particularly Henry and Caroline - long for some structure and proximity to our family and friends. With that in mind, Bill and I have spent the past several months trying to figure out what that would look like for us - there are so many different ways to live.

In 12 days, we will again switch gears and return our family to the States. Our current plan is to explore Flagstaff, Arizona. From our research, Flagstaff seems to host many of the things that we value - climate, nature, beauty, health, education, affordability and, most importantly, closer proximity to family. Hopefully, it will work for us!

Bill, Henry, Caroline and I have spent many long hours discussing and deciding what we want our life to be; realizing along the way how fortunate we are that we have the opportunity to discuss and decide (a true gift!). Perhaps we will someday take what we have learned this year and use it to return to European life (Italy!), or perhaps we will find our peace and happiness elsewhere. Of course, we may never know if our current decision is the right one or not, but this past year has taught us (among many things) that if we are together in our focus, jumping off another cliff doesn't seem all that scary!

¡Adiós, España!

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Las Fallas, 2011

I am finding it a bit difficult to describe what has been happening in Valencia over the past couple of weeks, but that is because most of what I have seen, heard and experienced simply defies explanation. Las Fallas, the biggest festival in all of Europe (including Germany's Oktoberfest) ended yesterday, but not without leaving an awesome impression on this Familia Americana.

Falla Na Jordana
an anti - anti - smoking statement
Valencia is home to several hundred Falla Clubs (social clubs), disbursed throughout the city. Over the course of the year, each Falla Club spends hundreds of thousands of dollars and the span of the entire year designing and creating a giant - as in 3 or 4 stories tall - polystyrene and wooden sculpture to display in the street during Fallas. Clubs vie for the best falla artists to craft the biggest and best monument, which usually represents a satirical commentary (or two). During the weeks leading up to March 19th, these impressive monstrosities are displayed around the city (there are a few hundred in all). It is a very important competition between the clubs in which the monuments are judged and awarded monetary prizes.

Each club selects Falleras and Falleros to represent them throughout the festivities. There is a Fallera Mayor (like a queen) and a court of honor at each club, as well as a Fallera Infantíle (under 10) and an Infantíle Court. Then, a Fallera Mayor (and her court) and a Fallera Infantíle (and court) are chosen to represent Valencia. This was, by and large, my favorite thing to see. The level of costumery and poise displayed by the Falleras is unlike anything I have ever witnessed! On a "boys' night out," Bill met an off duty Fallera who told him that the material alone for each of her dresses cost 7000 Euros ($10,000) - and she had to have 4 dresses!!!

On the night of March 17th, and again on the night of March 18th, thousands of Falleras and Falleros begin a procession to the Plaza de la Virgen to present a floral offering to a giant sculpture of The Virgin Mary. Artistic designers assign each club a specific type and color of flower to bring. Fourteen artisans work to ceremoniously gather the presented flowers to create Mary's coat while the crowd looks on.

The final design of Mary's coat is not revealed until the masterpiece unfolds. Once completed, the Plaza is transformed into one of the most amazingly beautiful and fragrant places I have ever seen - or smelled! Remaining flowers are used to create tapestries that adorn the Basilica and line the center of the Plaza.

For the Falleras who are granted the honor of making the presentation to Mary, it is a very moving and emotional experience. Many walk away in tears.

No story about Las Fallas would be complete without particular attention given to the final activities of the night of March 19th, La Crema (the burning). Not only does each Falla Club create a giant monument, but most also display a children's falla (infantíl). Around 10:00 p.m., the infantíls throughout the city are ceremoniously set on fire. Yes, the clubs burn their own outrageously expensive and time involved works of art every year! It is crazy.

Na Jordana infantíl burning

The biggest (and most anticipated) cremas begin shortly after midnight. We waited for what felt like hours in our primo location to witness the burning of the Na Jordana Falla (from above). There were dozens of bomberos (firefighters) on hand with their hoses to control the burn (in some cases, the fallas are only 10-20 meters from nearby buildings). The fronts of the surrounding buildings were draped in canvas tarps that were watered down to prevent burning. Teams of pyrotechnicians worked to encase the falla in ropes of fireworks that would create a chain reaction to ignite the fire. At around 1:15 a.m., we looked overhead to watch an explosion of brilliant fireworks and before we knew it, the falla was ablaze. Because we were so close, the heat was intense, but the display was amazing!

Na Jordana falla ablaze

To help the family get more into the spirit of the festival, Henry decided to design and build his own personal falla. His school had been focusing on music around the world, so he created a 60's jukebox out of cardboard. He had the vision and design, but needed Bill's help to execute the piece. After assembling the jukebox falla, the boys lined it with small firecrackers (Henry had been waiting all week to light firecrackers). After darkness fell last night, we all went out to a small area behind our flat (with Anthony and some of his friends who were visiting) and Bill set Henry's falla on fire. The burn was most impressive - perfectly engineered and beautifully designed!

This morning, the streets are clear, the air is quiet, the tourists are leaving and we are getting our city back. I swear - it's like it was all just a dream . . . a 14 day, 24/7, firecracker laden dream!

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Just Keep Swimming, Swimming, Swimming . . .

I am an emotional eater - plain and simple - and the last year and a half have been filled with tremendous emotional ups and downs for me. My mom was diagnosed with a terminal illness and has yo-yoed between remissions and relapses, we were trying to sell two houses in the worst real estate market since the Great Depression and my husband retired after a long and fruitful career in education. We are still trying to sell one of our properties, but we sold our home and we left our friends and family and moved to another country where we didn't know anyone and could not speak the language. Somewhere along the way, I lost my priority to take care of myself.

With the kids starting public school here in January, I had some time to get myself back into shape. The extra weight had made running more painful and less enjoyable than it used to be, so I decided to start swimming again. There is a city pool around the corner from our flat and I was able to get a membership for only 15 Euros a month (about $20). My only obstacle was that I didn't have a swimsuit here, so I would have to buy one (gulp).

As far as I can tell, swimsuit shopping is an activity universally loathed by most females. As a taller than average, now slightly overweight, middle aged mother of two, I am no different. Add to this the facts that the average spanish physique resembles that of a kewpie doll (thanks, Rodney) and that there is no universal sizing standard for clothing in Spain, and what you have is a seriously stressed out shopper!

On what was - in hindsight - probably not one of my emotionally strongest days (and therefore not the day I should have chosen to shop for a swimsuit), I swallowed my pride and headed to El Corte Inglés - the local department store with a decent sporting goods department. Having absolutely no idea what size suit I might fit into, I perused the racks and selected about 15 (yes, 15) suits of various sizes and styles to try on. I was determined to make at least one of them work. After trying on each and every painful choice, I settled on a suit that I thought would work. It was a swimming suit, not a bathing suit, so it wasn't supposed to look good - just feel good.

Relieved to have made a choice that would enable me to begin my road back to fitness, I walked to the checkout counter practicing my Spanish along the way. When it was my turn, I smiled and handed the suit to the sales clerk. She looked me in the eyes and said something that I now know was probably along the lines of, "Te das cuenta que se trata de una traje de maternidad?" At the time, though, what I heard was, "Blah knsnfda kashfjsabf fjsabhfjdsb fjashfjhb sjfkjsbd?" I again smiled. "Un momento," she said, as she walked to the other side of the counter to 'confer' with one of her colleagues.

Upon returning, the clerk repeated her spanish phrase. This time, though, she added her own sign language to aid in my comprehension. She held my carefully selected (and adequately fit) swimsuit up to her body and made a sweeping gesture under the belly to indicate that it was, in fact, a ma-ter-ni-ty suit! My crimson face literally burned as she and the four or five other nearby customers and clerks giggled at my mistake. Being . . . well . . . NOT pregnant, I was horrified.

Pretending to have just accidentally grabbed the wrong suit, I walked toward the sales rack where the swimsuits hung as if I was going to make the correct selection. I approached the rack, hung up the suit, called Bill and made a b-line for the escalator. I have a feeling that I should have taken the stairs.

BTW, for obvious reasons, no photo will accompany this post :)

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Catching Up to Carry On

So much has happened since my last blog entry that I have been at a loss for where to begin. We returned to Chicago for three weeks in December to celebrate Christmas with my family, and things did not exactly go as planned. A few days after arriving there, my mom was hospitalized with several very serious infections and her situation became precarious. She spent the remainder of our trip time in the hospital and was not released until after we returned to Valencia. One of the hardest things for Mom was being away from her children on Christmas Day. Ordinarily, the Maroney Christmas - in all of it's overwhelming glory - is celebrated in Naperville at Kathy and Gary's. However, this year's circumstances called for a break from tradition and a change of plans. Just about everyone (except for Eddie & April, Mary's husband, Jim, & their 2 girls, Matt & Jackie and Meghan) made it to the hospital to surprise Mom with a casual Christmas gathering in the Loyola cafeteria. She was delighted (and the cafeteria employees didn't even seem to mind)!

Coming back to Spain was especially difficult this time. Leaving Chicago without the knowledge of what would happen with my mom was hard enough in August, but now it felt much scarier. However, Bill and I had already decided that Henry and Caroline should be enrolled in public school here and we needed to return to Valencia to ensure a smooth transition for them. They are in school now and are doing very well - we are just so proud of them. In only a month, they are speaking Spanish and are functioning pretty independently. Caroline is pleased to be learning cursive handwriting, and Henry was especially proud of the fact that he, "Actually had a verbal argument with another kid - and didn't need an adult's help!" Daily homework assignments are pushing us all to learn the language faster.

Since we've been back, my mom has been in and out of the hospital - as has my brother, Eddie - so trying to stay focused on what needs to be done here has become a challenge. However, on a much happier note, Matt and Jackie arrived on Friday for a 16 day visit. Tomorrow, we all head to Barcelona for a couple of much anticipated days. Matt and Jackie will head to Venice from Barcelona and will be back here on Wednesday for a few more days before they go home. Perhaps they feel differently, but I think their visit could not have come at a better time!

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Tourists No More

We are now at the point where we no longer feel like tourists, but more like the immigrants that we have become. We have a lease on an apartment, we opened a Spanish bank account, purchased local cell phones and we now own transportation vehicles (bicycles). Our Spanish lessons are beginning to make sense, we are making new friends and we have enrolled the kids in a local school (to begin when we return from Chicago in January). Oh, and we bought our first piece of furniture - a small, used dresser for the kids' room.

When we were at the school the other day, I couldn't help but remember my days teaching in Berwyn, Illinois - a majority minority school district (at that time, the population was about 60% hispanic). The majority of our students came from Spanish speaking households, but VERY few of the faculty spoke beyond basic high school Spanish (myself included). When a Spanish speaking parent finally got up the nerve to come to the school to deal with an issue involving their child, it was a mad scramble to find someone in the building who was able to communicate with them. Often, someone from the custodial staff was asked to handle the translation. It was shameful. (Luckily, the Superintendent at the time (my brilliant husband) set out on a mission to change the balance and made it the district's goal to begin hiring teachers and staff who were not only competent educators, but also bilingual). That was 14 years ago, and I understand that the district has since made immense strides in putting together a highly effective Spanish speaking staff who is able to meet the needs of it's diverse population. Still, though, being the immigrant parent of an immigrant child and unable to speak the native language is both frightening and humbling.

The advantage we have as English speaking immigrants is that our language seems to be highly valued outside of the States, as most of the European countries make it a priority to prepare their citizens to function in the increasingly global market, and including English in the school curriculum is the norm. Here, students begin receiving daily English instruction in preschool and, often, a third language is later added. In fact, the man who teaches the class that Henry will be in is French, teaching in Spanish and able to speak English - pretty cool. The woman who teaches English at the school was the person who answered our questions and showed us around, and she was lovely - very warm and friendly. She is someone with whom we will no doubt be in close contact over the coming months. In all, the visit to the school was a very positive experience (despite some big differences between schools in Spain versus schools in the U.S.).

Before we came to Spain, we were told by various sources that our life here would be very difficult if we did not speak Spanish because the Spaniards refuse to speak to Americans in English. This could not be further from the experiences that we have had here! Even in a city like Valencia, where culture and historical pride are prolific, the locals have met us with warmth, kindness and a willingness to communicate. It has not been a matter of resentment toward us as Americans that has hindered our efforts, but rather a certain sense of humility and lack of confidence in their own English speaking abilities. Once people see that we are trying to speak to them in their native tongue, and that we don't expect that they will speak English to us, their defenses let down and a dialogue (of sorts) begins. Often, their worst English is far better than our best Spanish, and we are able to meet somewhere in the middle. It is very manageable!

We are in the midst of preparing for our first trip back to the States in a few days and so much has changed since we first arrived in Spain almost three months ago. Originally, we thought we would still be traveling throughout Spain, exploring and 'adverturing.' However, we happened upon a true gem in Valencia, and we feel very much at home. We are very excited to get back to Chicago to see our family and friends and to relive many of our Christmas traditions with the kids. Being away from everyone that we love has been both a blessing and a curse - but definitely more of a curse. Our main goal while in Chicago is to fit in as much time as possible with loved ones (especially my mom).

Besides visiting with friends and family, we seem to have a long list of activities to fit into a short window of time. It will be nice to see snow and winter once again (mostly because we know we will only have to endure its brutality for three short weeks). We need to get to Marshall Field's State Street store (yes, I know it's Macy's now) to see Santa, we'll need to make a stop at Christkindlmarket, and we want to ice skate at Millenium Park. We want to go sledding if there is enough snow, we are taking the kids to 'Wicked' on Christmas Eve, and we cannot overlook the multiple favorite restaurants that must be visited. It will be a blissfully exhausting trip, and it surprises me - more than anyone - to admit that we will be visiting Chicago and returning home to Valencia in January!

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Baby Steps

Though I have been away from the blog for awhile, it is not without good reason . . . I AM TIRED! In addition to starting our Spanish instruction this week, Victoria invited me to her Pilates class (taught by a Dutch woman who speaks English, but teaches completely in Spanish), and I am hooked. We are still trying to navigate our way in this intricate city and are trying to get out to explore as much as possible, but we still continue to get lost almost daily. Very simple tasks - like opening a bank account and figuring out how to change the language delivery system on the ATM machine from Spanish to English - seem like monumental triumphs for us!

We are making some headway in our ability to shop in the local markets, but we are never completely sure what we will get when we place our orders. More often than not, when we order food in a restaurant, we are served something totally different than what we thought we were ordering. It is because of this that we are learning to embrace the restaurants that serve a Menu del Día (a set lunch menu, usually about 8-10 Euros). Since we don't know what most of the food is anyway, we don't have to waste time pretending to interpret the menu and we are usually served the best of the restaurant's offerings for that day - it's a great system.

Speaking of restaurants presenting communication issues for us, on Monday we took a day trip up into the mountains to Teruel. It was a chilly, windy day so we spent the majority of our time in cafes and restaurants waiting for our train back to Valencia. We stopped for lunch at a wonderful little restaurant off the plaza. As we were leaving, Caroline needed to use the restroom and asked me to join her. Luckily, the place was pretty crowded so I agreed to go with her (we have been working on letting her go alone if the restroom is within sight). As we tried to leave the restroom, we noticed that the doorknob was broken off the door and we had no way to get out! UGH! Because of the crowd, my door pounding could not be heard and I had to use my cell phone to call Bill, who was waiting outside with Henry.

As Caroline began to panic inside with me, Bill tried frantically to tell the restaurant manager that his wife and daughter were stuck in the bathroom (under stress, it is pretty difficult to recall what you have learned about speaking a foreign language!). We could hear them yelling outside the door - which only increased Caroline's anxiety - as they tried to figure out a way to get the door opened. In what I can only imagine as desperation, the manager decided to kick the door open to get us out, so he had to try to communicate to Bill that he would need to phone me to tell us to stand clear of the door. Fortunately, there was just enough room to move away from the door (most of the public Spanish restrooms are TINY), and after a few strikes, the splintered door came flying in. The manager was extremely apologetic and we left amidst stares and murmurs from the remaining patrons (¡Qué triste americanas!). Such DRAMA!

I can't believe how flippant I was about picking up and moving to a foreign country - where we knew no one, didn't speak the language and knew nothing about the culture and customs. I think we made a bigger deal out of moving from the suburbs to downtown Chicago than we did about coming to Spain! There have been a few days - when the language seems completely jumbled and it feels like someone has moved all of the streets around on us - that I have felt defeated and overwhelmed, but those days are rare. That being said, though, I am very proud of the strides we have made and the efforts we will continue to make. Aside from the obvious benefits of growth and education we are all experiencing, the mental exhaustion is helping me sleep very soundly at night, and that's a wonderful thing!

Monday, November 1, 2010

Spanish Halloween and All Souls' day

Halloween, as we knew it in The States, is celebrated on a much smaller scale in Valencia. In fact, we weren't even sure if there would be any festivities to participate in. According to Anthony and Victoria, the 'day' is more of a 'night,' and instead of kids and candy, it involves adults and alcohol and stupidity. Henry and Caroline, however, were not very satisfied with this description and were determined to don some sort of costumery - even if they were the only people in town to do so! Bill and I have wonderful memories of Halloweens past with our kids, so we were more than willing to assist them in their endeavor. Selections at the local megastore were slim, but the kids managed to grab a couple of things to piece together some costumes that let them feel in the spirit of the day.

Luckily, on the morning of the 30th, Anthony called to invite us to accompany them to a kids' Halloween party with some of their friends - mostly Americans and Australians. Needless to say, Henry and Caroline were thrilled! Most of the other kids were in the 3-5 year age range, but our kids didn't seem to mind. It was bittersweet for me to watch Henry transition from being one of the little kids at the party to being 'the big kid' (a role he enthusiastically welcomed). Fortunately, one of the American dads had some pumpkins for the older kids to carve, so everyone was happy and entertained. It was an early evening, as trick-or-treating has not really taken hold in Spain yet (thank goodness).

The real holiday here is All Souls' Day (November 1). It was a gorgeous day and we spent it at an amazing park with Anthony, Victoria, Isabella and Antonio, as well as one of the families that we met last night. The park was packed full of Spanish families since most business were closed in observance of the holiday.