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!