What my kids are missing for living “abroad”

The other day, a friend asked me a question that took me a while to answer: “Why haven’t you returned to Spain?”

It’s not like I don’t think about it. I actually think about it a whole lot more than I like to admit. But I needed some time to come up with a reason that was convincing enough.

Not that I needed to convince her. Who I needed to convince was myself.

When I came to this country, I came with the intention of staying a couple of years, getting an MA, and then returning to Europe. A string of things made me stay. First, I wanted to pursue a PhD. Then, since we had the chance to obtain green cards, we decided that it was worth waiting a bit longer. After all, we had plenty of time ahead of us to fulfill my original plan of moving countries every three years and experience the world. Later, the PhD was left on permanent hiatus for the benefit of baby number one. Mortgages, more babies, jobs… You get the picture. It was pure inertia. And meanwhile, 14 years had gone by.

Pobes. Not so little L playing cards with my aunt. Pobes. Not so little L playing cards with my aunt.

On year 9, moving anywhere suddenly became increasingly harder. Now I had a child with a disability, who was fitted with medical equipment, and at that, the kind that costs a fortune only proportional to the frequency at which repairs are needed. As much as access to healthcare in this country has to improve, in our case it covers most of his expenses. So moving anywhere else would mean losing a good part of that safety net, and having to put together from scratch a medical/therapy team made of ten different people. My head spins at the mere thought of it.

So here I am, kind of stuck, not exactly happy, but surely grateful, surviving, going by, always counting the months until the next visit home. At least I love the city I live in. I have a job I like. Good friends become family at my Thanksgiving table. I can’t really complain, right?

But then, I hear my mom tell my kids over Skype that she is very sad that I took them so far away. “¡Mira que mamá llevaros tan lejos!”. Which makes me smile every single time I hear it. Mind you, they were all born here.

And on the same day, I take them to Home Depot for a kids workshop, in the hopes that they will at least learn how to hold a hammer. And while I take away nails that come too close to mouths, and prevent screwdriver-turned-into-lightsaber battles, it hits me. If we lived in Spain they wouldn’t need a workshop. They would tinker in my dad’s “cabaña”, his glorified, full of every tool you can think of and then some that he has put together, shed, where he sculpts wood and keeps illusion alive. They would have been taught how to make things by their apa, even with me hovering around complaining about safety or some other idiocy.

My dad, making toys for a very attentive audience. My dad, making toys for a very attentive audience.

If we lived in Spain, as my dad likes to remind me every year while he laughs at me, I wouldn’t pay to pick up apples on someone else’s orchard. We just would go for lunch and pick them from our own, along with the vegetables that I overpay for at farmer’s markets here.

And those are just two of the many things they are missing. They have never lived el Día de todos los Santos, All Saints, a holiday that fascinated me as a child, as it mixed a solemn visit to the colorful cemetery with huesos de santo, sweets that resemble bones. Or Semana Santa, the Spanish Easter, that has nothing to do with bunnies or eggs, and all with incense, religion, and visits to the coast. Or Carnaval, our version of Mardi Gras, a few days in which all will be forgiven, when we wear costumes and party as if it was July in the middle of the winter.

They are missing every single Sunday at ama‘s, with all the food, the after lunch adult arguments while the kids sneak out, and the terrible Sunday afternoon TV, that, whether you like it or not, will be on. And their other grandma spoiling them (and our dentist bill) rotten with candy.

They are missing time with their cousins, with friends, and with that, playing in the street, just slightly supervised by beer drinking parents who sit in the patio of a cafe with friends.

They are missing on a sense of community and belonging that I have never gotten here, maybe because I am a foreigner. People will raise to the circumstances and help each other in this country, but they keep to themselves. They don’t really get to know each other. It is not better or worse, it is just different. One of the first recommendations I got upon my arrival was to never talk about “politics, sex or religion” on the table. I laughed. Hard. Because a good portion of the conversations in Spain will talk about all three, sometimes even in the same sentence. The other good portion will be about soccer, and even then, politics, religion and sex will often be part of it too. Arguing, in the best sense of the word, should be the national sport.

They are missing on time with us, as in Spain the legal minimum of vacation time (excluding holidays, and there are a good bunch of them), is 30 natural days, the coveted four weeks that in this country you only acquire after many years in the workforce. Many companies still close for the whole month of August. Down time, in general, is treasured there, and often used to enjoy the company of friends and family. We don’t feel a constant need to be productive.

The same can be said for many other European countries. Which takes me back to the original question. Why haven’t I returned? I guess that the true answer is that I don’t have the guts. I am a coward. I am taking a comfortable, if always incomplete, life over the possibility of not liking what I have spent fourteen years idealizing. I make it up by raising bicultural kids and spending as much time as I possibly can back home, and convincing myself that that is enough.

The truth? It is not.

Vitoria-Gasteiz Vitoria-Gasteiz

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