It is February, which for many of us still feels like the middle of winter. Everyone is longing for sunshine and springtime and dreaming of the summer vacation. This month is the ideal time to start planning ahead and grab some good deals for your next holiday. A friend of mine asked me recently whether I could recommend somewhere to go as a young family. I remembered the resort we booked ourselves two years in a row on Tenerife and for good reason. As a mum of two active small boys I know what it’s like to be in need of a well deserved break, and this place ticked a lot of boxes. It has an outdoor soft play….and a spa!
We never ever thought we would enjoy an all-inclusive holiday, travel snobs as we are, but when we caved in one year, we booked again the next. And to the same resort, what were we like! Be Live Family Costa Los Gigantes, on Tenerife. The first time we went, we had a toddler and a baby in tow and we were quite frankly, exhausted! If you have ever traveled with small children, you know that you often wonder why on earth you even make the effort. To just stay in one place and not having to think about logistics, money, meals and laundry for a week was amazing.
It’s a big resort, with hundreds of rooms. The room we booked was a large family room with a lounge (sofa bed) and separate bedroom. The buffets were very good quality, and all fresh, despite having to serve hundreds of people and such a large hotel. It had something for everyone and enough choice for picky eater too. In between the mealtimes you were able to get snacks and drinks from the poolside bars as well as small meals, fruit and yogurts for hungry kids.
Other things it has are free wifi, a laundry service, a few shops and theatre (with some cheesy shows, but hey, the kids loved it). As in many resorts, there are also many daily activities, such as yoga, tennis and other fitness classes. And a high rope and zip wire for the older children.
eat, play, swim, nap, repeat
The swimming pools were great for all ages, including a nice bit for babies and the resort was big enough to go for a wander around. The main pool was a a bit lively at times with music and entertainers doing their bit, but there were plenty of other spots you could spend the day. There is a quiet pool on the other end for those wanting to enjoy a bit of zen.
At the resort, we just ended up doing the same boring round each day: breakfast, then down to the outdoor soft play area (where we often met other nice parents from various places around Europe – all in the same phase of life). Then we’d have a splash in the pool, go for lunch, have more pool time or just a nap, and then if we made it, dinner. It may sound like a nightmare for people with no kids, but for it was exactly what we needed!
I used to be a backpacking adventurer and we probably will be in the future, but in this phase of our life it was just bliss to be looked after and have a proper rest. I would recommend this place for any of you with children, and especially young children.
“Do you know how many times the Spanish eat per day?” I always ask tourists when I guide them around the city. “No? Five times.” “Five times?!” they answer standard in disbelief. Yep, and isn’t it wonderful? One of the great things about living in Spain is the food. And they take meal times very seriously.
I admire the Spanish for their sacred keeping of meal times. Ever got stared at in Spain while munching on a sandwich on the go? Exactly. Nobody does that. The amount of boxed ready made sandwiches full of additives I have eaten from Marks & Spencers in Scotland in my lifetime, is incredible. There I was at 1pm, queuing up to pay for my “meal deal”: a cold soggy sandwich from the fridge, a bottled drink and a bag of crisps or bar of chocolate. Eaten on a bench in the park, or more often back at my desk. Scoffed in about 10 minutes. Plastic waste in the bin. Every day.
Enjoy a beer with your almuerzo
So how do the Spanish do it? What are those sacred five Spanish meal times? They start with a small desayuno, a cup of coffee and a croissant or bit of toast for breakfast, mostly at home. For the kids some ‘galletas‘, thin biscuits dipped in a glass of milk. Then at 10.30 it gets more serious. Almuerzo. Terraces fill up, workers gather at the bar of a cafetaria. Bring it on. Tortilla, chorizo, ensalada rusa, bocadillos with cheese and jamon, ‘tostada con tomate’, croquetas…lots of dishes you can choose from mid morning, all freshly prepared on site. Fresh bread from the bakers. And hey, let’s just wash it all down with a glass of beer or wine. Yes, you read that right.
Menu del dia, the best thing since sliced bread
A few hours later, somewhere between 2 and 3 o’clock in the afternoon it is time for lacomida. Lunch. Restaurants open, but shops close, and it is siesta time until about 5 for shop keepers and banks. Most office workers go back earlier. Yes, people do work in this country, believe it or not, a lot of people don’t finish work until 7 or 8 o’clock. And no, they don’t go to sleep during siesta. Maybe when you’re 80. People either go home to cook their lunch or meet with colleagues outside on the terrace of a restaurant. For three courses, usually. On week days you can eat a 3-course home cooked Menu del dia for around €10, which includes a starter, main course, coffee/dessert and a drink. Apparently a leftover from the time general Franco was in power, who in the sixties and seventies ruled that each restaurant should provide an affordable meal for people on work days. He may have been an awful dictator, but at least he got one thing right.
Carbs are for Comida
After a few more hours of work or school (kids also enjoy that 3-course meal at lunchtime! I drool when I read their menu each week…), it is time for number four on the list of Spanish meal times. This little meal, or rather snack, is still taken quite seriously, and happens at around 5pm when the schools are out. Merienda. “Quieres merender?” You often hear mothers ask their kids when they tumble out of the classroom, tired and hungry. No kid ever refuses, as merienda involves bread, biscuits, chocolate milk, fruit or other items children could practically live on. Most parents will just have a cup of coffee. And I suppose this bit of snacking is needed, because most kids are ferried off to football, piano or tennis lessons and they will have to sit it out until at least 9pm when the final meal of the day is served: lacena. Dinner. “Wow” the impressed tourists usually gasp by now, when I get to meal number five. But cena is not usually a very big meal. Not like our evening dinner. No plates full of pasta or otherwise carb heavy recipes. After all, you already have that 3-course meal in your belly, right? Exactly. And a tip from the tour guide: paella is never eaten at night. Remember that next time you visit Spain 😉
You either eat or you talk about eating
As I am learning more Spanish by the day I am starting to understand random conversations in the street between people. It is always about food. “We either talk about food, or we eat,” a Spanish mum from school explained to me with passion the other day, while were out for a walk in the hills. “The whole objective of going out somewhere is eating together. It is the most important thing. Got something to celebrate? You go out for a meal. Meeting up with friends? It has to be centered around a mealtime and finding a nice place to eat.” I asked her why Spanish people are not all morbidly obese with all that eating. “It’s not about the quantities”, she said, “I never have huge plate fulls, but I love eating. It’s about tasting different things and appreciating the flavours. And about the social aspect.” I remember being told by a Scottish colleague once years ago that “eatin’ is cheatin’“, when I suggested we should go for something to eat before hitting the bar. I never got into that pint drinking on an empty stomach habit. I love a beer, but give me some croquetas, por favor.
An all day activity and no one knows where the kids are
Needless to say that the Saturday morning hill walk was heavily interspersed with almuerzo (and cans of beer at 11am), followed by a leasurely lunch on the village square….and my new favourite thing: the ‘sobremesa‘, which basically means you all stay at the table after the meal, talk, laugh and keep bringing out drinks and snacks. For hours. The kids were playing somewhere, stole food off the table every so often and nobody really cared. Everyone had a great time. We went home at 6pm, all happy and tired.
I was wondering about what makes Spain such a pleasant and laid back country to live in. Ignore politics and bureaucracy, as these things will make you angry no matter how much vitamin D you’re soaking up, but Spanish people really know how to enjoy life. The climate helps for sure. Sunshine year round brings everybody out of their houses and together in the street. No staying indoors or in cars all day. Being outdoors, chatting and eating. Did I mention food? Spanish meal times take a bit of getting used to, your old schedule gets thrown out of the window. But it’s pleasant, as long as you go with it. “No pasa nada” is a great expression and used all the time in Spanish. “It’s OK”, relax, don’t take it all too seriously, here, have some olives.
We emigrated at the start of 2018 from Scotland to Spain. A big transition in many ways. The climate, the language, the settling in, the school searching, the paperwork. It is a lot to tackle when you first set foot in your new foreign country. An eternal holiday? Yeah right. Someone mentioned to me the other day: the first year of moving here? Forget it, it’s a write off, don’t try and get anything done for yourself. I wish I had heard this when we first landed. Being energetic but impatient and keen to get everything and everyone organised within 5 minutes, I was exhausted by the end of year one. A learning curve.
Moving house is always stressful, especially when you have young children who have to adjust and settle into their new environment and potentially a new school. It takes time for everyone to be happy and calm. Moving to Valencia, Spain is of course a whole different ball game. Not only do you leave friends and family behind, you are dealing with a completely new culture. The sunshine made us happy, but the language barrier was huge when we arrived and we felt very unsettled – and still often do after now 20 months of living here. For the children this was no different.
A bumpy ride on the Spanish school roller coaster
The school search in Valencia was stressful. After we had made our decision on one school, it turned out it was full. We had already moved into the right postcode area, but alas – in the end there were no spaces. We were handed two spots in a local Catholic ‘concertado’ (semi-private) school nearby and we just had to accept. I remember feeling very anxious about it at the time, making last minute visits to highly expensive private schools because I wanted the best for my children and thought I was ruining their lives. In the end, after being put off by monthly fees, the traditional school atmosphere and too many Porsches parked outside, my husband and I opted for the local concertado and hoped for the best.
Our youngest went to the 4-year old infantil class (Spanish nursery has three stages – for 3, 4 and 5 year olds) and our 6-year old to 1st year of Spanish primary school. They enrolled in March and while the little one adjusted fairly quickly after a few weeks of tears and meltdowns, the big boy cried till summer. The school wasn’t bad, the teachers were lovely and trying their best, it was just too overwhelming for him. Nobody spoke any English. Imagine needing to go to the bathroom and being unable to ask for directions. Exactly. He was lost, lonely and scared. And Spanish school days are long: from 9am to 5pm. Being the only foreign child, he was also a celebrity and he soon got annoyed with all the unwanted attention. He sat timidly next to the teacher at every break time, overlooking the gigantic typical Spanish concrete playground, where the boys play football and the girls stand on the sideline. The classroom was chaotic, as not only my son was new, his teacher was a maternity cover and didn’t have a clue either. It is fair to say, my son picked up some Spanish and worked a lot on his life skills, but did not do any school work between March and the end of June. Followed by 2.5 months of summer vacation.
I thought I had left the rat race
Our eldest got a space in our school of choice in September last year and thank god, he liked it. His little brother joined him the following school year after we had been tackling two different schools for a full school year, about 2 kilometres away from each other, but with similar drop off and pickup times. Every morning and afternoon we were stuck in rush hour, trying to deliver and collect them on time, at two different locations and nowhere to park. It was like being in the rat race all over again.
Fast forward, Autumn 2019. My now 7-year old is repeating the second year of primary – a careful decision made by us after advice from his teacher – and I am so grateful we have done this. Sure, I felt it was all our fault when we had to consider it, because we ‘dragged’ him to Spain and ‘dumped’ him into the Spanish education system with zero Spanish. But it wasn’t just because of the language, being the youngest pupil in his class he was always going to be more immature and potentially behind in Spanish, but also in other subjects. He is much happier now.
From anxiety ticks to the dust settling
Up to then he was demonstrating signs of anxiety (constant need for reassurance, strange OCD type ticks, being annoyed about his clothes, labels, and having a persistant cough), which were clearly caused by stress, as during the summer holidays they disappeared. My youngest, having been fully immersed in Spanish from the start, is taking like a fish to water in his new school. He is learning to read and write just like his Spanish classmates. The dust has settled. At last.
I was so impatient that first year after moving to Valencia. I always want to have everything sorted in no time, rather than breathe and observe. Roll up the sleeves and get going. I suppose it was somehow due to the irrational feeling of being judged from afar by friends and family. “Will they make it? What will they be doing? Have they found work yet?” This pressure, whether true or just in my head, forced me to do too many things in a short amount of time. I set myself up as self employed, frantically looked for work, networked like mad, was anxious about building a social life from scratch and I even joined a new band so I could continue singing. God forbid I would take a break. I had to create the perfect life and prove I could do it all. But seeing the kids struggle, my husband trying to find his feet (he hated me for putting so much pressure on myself and the family), having to deal with stuff in a foreign language, it was no wonder that just before we reached our one year milestone of living in Valencia – I collapsed.
When words fail and you fall to pieces
I have been a singer in a band for more than twenty years and never have I walked off stage during a gig. It was December, ten months after we moved, when I had a panic attack in the middle of a concert. Both my parents, my sister, husband and children were visiting Valencia, and were watching me. The people who mean most to me in life and love me unconditionally. I lost my lines, blood rushed to my head, I felt I was going to faint, I wanted to dig a hole and disappear. I walked off stage and cried in the bathroom of the venue, comforted by my sister. The mean machine had finally broken down. Smoke coming from the bonnet. I managed to pull myself together and finish the performance, but hell, was it awful. I do remember singing my autobiographic song ‘Nothing’s gonna bring her down‘ from the bottom of my heart with tears in my eyes that night, but feeling so loved by all of my family right there supporting me.
The first year of living in Spain with children is a write off. It is true. Forget about continuing life as you knew it. In our case, having a young family and no 9-to-5 jobs to go to, we literally jumped in the deep end. You need time to figure it all out. To be with your children, to guard their only safe place they know right now: the family. We were totally out of balance. I ran myself to the ground, carrying it all, and expecting my family to run at the same pace, and “just get on with it”. I couldn’t see straight, it was all a blur. But while I pretended I had it all under control, I was slowly losing grip. I guess sometimes you need to fall on your face to finally see what’s going on. I didn’t come to Valencia to feel stressed out, but then I did.
I reached out to a psychologist for the first time in my life at the start of this year and it was so good to talk. To release. To be heard. I went on an all women yoga retreat, which was pure bliss. I promised myself not to be so hard on myself, to practice self-care. I kept a journal, set intentions. Things shifted. Positive things happened since this Summer, including the school changes. We also moved into a different house which we all love. Most of all, I have accepted that I don’t have to do a million things at once and I don’t have to please anyone. I am getting better at setting boundaries for myself and expressing my own needs, something very hard for a person who has always taken pride in being strong. It is OK to be vulnerable. Creating more time and space in my weekly schedule allows me to breathe and observe. Something I should have done much earlier. But hey, nobody is perfect. Onwards and upwards. Little, by little. Poco a poco.
How is your day going? I am feeling a bit overwhelmed today. Trying to get my head around becoming self employed in Spain but the bureaucracy is really daunting, as expected! Being self employed in the UK is a breeze compared to here. A tax return in English is one thing to get your head around…but in Spanish? And that four times a year, with VAT and very detailed book keeping plus big fines if you make a mistake or are a day late! Eeeek! I really feel I don’t want to do it anymore. Anxiety is kicking in.
I have not felt like this for years, thought I had left all that insecurity behind by now. I mean, I’ll be 40 next year. But no. Everything feels very wobbly all of a sudden. My steady foundation has turned into jelly and I am trying to find my feet. I guess we all go through these phases in life. You feel pretty safe and secure for a while, in control even, you think you know who you are. Got life sussed. Then BAM, you get presented with a brand new set of challenges that make you question all your values and what you stand for. It can even reveal sides of yourself you never knew you had. Anxiety for example. It is confrontational to say the least. It spices things up in life, yes, but it is tiring and emotional. Oh, and did I mention the language barrier? All part of the roller-coaster of moving countries.
Leaving the comfort zone
I remember how I felt 13 years ago, on the brink of emigrating first time around. I had not yet moved to Scotland, but I had flown across from the Netherlands for my very first job interview in English ever, which I was not quite fluent in yet. It went SO bad that I wanted to dug a great big hole right there. I was very nervous, struggled with the language and felt so small, embarrassed and stupid. Out of my comfort zone in front of three people asking difficult questions. I remember afterwards I cried and thought, stuff that, I am just going to work in that cafe over there serving tea and cake! I am not good enough for these types of jobs, way too scary. Of course, a few months later, another job came up and I got it. I was so proud of myself for biting the bullet and putting myself through it again. Another daunting interview. I still feel how happy I was when they called me to say I was hired.
So here I am 13 years later in Spain and I feel exactly the same. Happy but anxious. Excited but lost. Scared. Throwing up the barriers. I want to give up, not put myself through the complicated mill of freelance life in a foreign country. I want to hide under a large sun umbrella hoping it’ll all go away.
Monsters in my head
I am creating great big monsters in my head and keep thinking:”What if I screw up, what if I don’t know what to do, what if I don’t earn enough and can’t pay the monthly fees? What if I fail?” I need to remind myself I am not the first one who has done this and that there is help out there. There is no failing, only trying. But right now I just want somebody to hire me to serve tea and cake. Por favor?
It’s all happening. We are moving to Spain. But what a month it’s been. The thought of a glass of wine on the other end, enjoying the warm spring sunshine, is what’s keeping me going just now. The movers have been a few days ago. A great big artic lorry parked outside, loading in my house contents. Everything is on its way to Valencia and we’re sitting on camping chairs in an empty house, scrambling for cutlery and cups. Food is now kept in our baltic utility room as even the fridge freezer is gone. Our goodbye party next weekend will be a blast, with so much dance floor space!
What to bring when you move to Spain?
We decluttered a lot beforehand, but still we managed to fill around 50 boxes and load a almost all of our furniture. The idea of going with just a suitcase full of clothes did sound very appealing and quite liberating, but at the end of the day, you need something to sleep on and sit on and you’d only be buying stuff again over there. And hey, I did want to bring my vintage sideboards! Grant of Buckiewere great, offering us part load to keep it affordable, as international removals can get up to 5 figure sums which is not what we wanted.
How to rent an apartment in Valencia?
Luckily we have an address. I know a lot of expats arrive in Valencia having to rent an Airbnbfor a month before finding something more permanent. It made me feel a bit nervous not knowing where we’d be living as a family, and not knowing where our furniture and belongings would have to be stored. Back in November we had already done a recce trip to visit some schools, but in January my husband went back on his own to look for accommodation. There a few helpful websites to find homes for sale or rent in Spain, such as idealista and fotocasa.
hiring a relocation assistant when moving to spain
We decided to rent first, because we don’t know the city and surrounding areas yet so buying would be too much of a gamble if perhaps a year down the line you felt you didn’t like the neighbourhood. Still, finding a rental house in Valencia proofed trickier than we expected, with houses being snapped up quickly. We made the very wise decision to hire a brilliant relocation assistant called Linda from Moving to Valencia, who is a true wizard and geared my husband up with 17 properties to view in two days, doing all the Spanish communication with estate agents and landlords in the background.
Husband himself lost the will to live after two days and 400km driving from one house to the next. We kept on missing out on the ones we liked and disliking others. We managed to secure a townhouse in the suburbs very last-minute, literally hours before he flew back. Unfurnished, thankfully, and within walking distance of schools and tram stop into town. Oh, and with a roof terrace! See that blue sky?
Meanwhile back home…
In the meantime life back home in Kemnay was not particularly stress-free, with builders coming in having to do a few repairs before we could put the house up for sale. Our two cats were now advertised on a cat adoption website (it broke my heart), but still no suitable homes were found and time was running out.
And then my youngest son, almost 4, broke his elbow in a local soft play. Yup, great timing. He jumped like a superhero down one of the cushioned slides and landed badly on his arm. Elbow fracture. He needed surgery the next day and now walks around with three pins in his arm and a big gold sprayed cast (his big brother was well impressed). He will need surgery again once we are in Spain unless we fly back for it. I suppose it’s one way to quickly start finding our way around the Spanish healthcare system!
But here we are. Just over a week to go until we are moving to Spain. I am sitting on a camping chair, laptop on a camping table. It feels weird leaving this house behind. The garden we spent so many hours in, planting, shaping and building, the house itself, remodeled, redecorated, modernised, made into something beautiful and totally our own. I had my babies here. My youngest son was even born at home, right here in the living room. Such a lovely street, great neighbours. Nice walks in the countryside, right on our doorstep. So many memories. Ten years of our lives. It’ll soon become someone else’s home. I know they will love it.
Ready for the next chapter
But I am excited for the next chapter. Excited for the unknown. Even though I know there will be plenty of challenges once we are there, from registering ourselves everywhere (hola, Spanish bureaucracy!), getting our kids into school and making them feel settled, finding our way around, building a new network of friends, learning to speak decent Spanish! And the cats? They’re coming! Even though we initially felt they belong in Scotland, with access to the wild, they will probably enjoy spending their retirement stretched out on our sun deck. I am relieved and happy they are coming, now we have made the decision, as they are part of our family after all and now we will all be together. They will be following us in March, overland in a fully kitted out pet transport van. I hope they’ll be sending us their road trip selfies!
This summer my family and I did a house exchange with a lovely family in the city of Valencia, Spain. It was the second time we swapped our house for the holiday and we love this concept. It’s personal, you get free accommodation (and pet-care!), insider information and you get to live in a real neighbourhood for a few weeks, rather than a hotel. We even swapped cars. It’s not for everyone (if you are particularly sensitive about your house or people sleeping in your bed!) and it does require a deep-clean beforehand, but I would thoroughly recommend it. It’s great fun.
Valencia seems to be a city of many layers. At first sight, it’s just like any other big city: lots of high-rise buildings, busy traffic and not an awful lot of beauty about it when you first arrive on the outskirts of town. It is after all Spain’s third largest city and has just under one million inhabitants. But when you dive into it and stroll around – or rent a bike – you discover a wonderful, laid-back, colourful place full of art, parks, cafe culture and last but not least…the beaches. Did we love it? Oh yes, we did.
The Ciutat Vella, including Barrio del Carmen, is the old town. Now as any old town this one too has plenty of little streets, old buildings, cathedrals and historic squares, but what makes Valencia different is the street art. What? Graffiti and historic buildings? No way! Yup. And it looks pretty good. Definitely a big hit with my 5-year old who loves drawing (why are they allowed to draw on walls, mummy? Erm…).
Now I would use all of my own photos in this blog, but unfortunately my dear husband left our camera on the plane to Madrid. Ouch. Fingers crossed we’ll get it back. In the meantime, you’ll get my iPhone shots and some beautiful images I found around the net.
Ciutat de les Arts i les Ciencies
The City of Arts and Sciences is a world in itself. This impressive part of Valencia, whether or not you end up actually going inside any of the buildings, is worth visiting. It consists of the Oceanographic (Europe’s largest sea aquarium), The Science Museum, the Palau des Arts and the Hemispheric. Plenty to keep you occupied. More info here: www.cac.es
Rerouting the river Turia and turning the old riverbed into a 9km long park must be one of the best decisions ever made by city planners. What an asset to have for the people of Valencia. Full of play parks, fountains, cultural events, free outdoor gym equipment and cycle and footpaths. We rented bikes from Valencia Bikes (although there are many rental places everywhere) which kept us entertained all day and was great to move around quickly from A to B with the kids. Valencia is super kid-friendly by the way. Mini play areas next to the cafe terrace, why doesn’t anyone else think of that as standard?
One of the great things about Valencia is the proximity to the beach. Different from what most people think when they hear the words ‘beach’ and ‘Spain’ in one sentence, the ones in Valencia are nothing like the package holiday type. We experienced some fantastic beaches, quiet and more lively, but never overcrowded or lined by tacky bars and souvenir shops. A breath of fresh air. You can easily reach them by public transport, bike or car.
So how did the Valencian family get on who came to stay in our house in Aberdeenshire? They had a fantastic time too. Glad to be getting away from the Spanish August heat (it was VERY hot and humid at times – no wonder most of the city had escaped), they enjoyed the Scottish fresh air, being outdoors, climbing hills, watching seals on the beach, visiting castles and whisky distilleries. They even saw the queen at the highland games. A win-win for us all.