June 12, 2010

Viva Espana

For your information, I was the geek who sat front row center of your high school Spanish class. The one who had not just her hand but her entire arm straight up in the air after Senora's every question.  For those old enough to remember Mr. Kotter, I was the Horshack and the class was AP Spanish.  On any given day you could walk by the room, peer in and see me leaning so far over in my desk chair that it teetered on the brink of tipping over, my fingers straining skyward with an added frantic wiggle at the tips to alert Senora that I knew the conditional tense of ser and could use it in a sentence.  I annoyed my classmates to no end as I parroted the accents coached by my teachers,  "Carmen estaaaaah en el baño.  Me guuustaaah la sopa pero no puedo comer maaaaahs."  By the time I was a Senior my family had sponsored four different foreign exchange students, I was stealing the monthly copies of Hola magazine from our local public library and I had convinced myself that Prince Juan Carlos and I had a future together.  Good times alright...good times.

Although things didn't work out for good ole' PJC and me, I did manage to land myself a Spaniard.  Joaquin Jose Geist aka Joe, Joey, El Americano...he's all mine.  And together we have three kids, a dog, two cars, a clubhouse out back and a tree swing out front.  Life is pretty good, I must admit.  Yet we are cashing it all in.  Not for more but rather for it.  A chance at our wildest dream come true: a permanent move to Spain. 

The question inevitably comes up: Are you guys really moving to Spain? But why? Why Spain? Even my Spanish friends ask me this. And I'm left there scratching my head, trying to sum it all up in a sentence or two before the moment passes. Usually I just smile uncomfortably, shrug and give a lame, "Well, we just love it there," which is true but it's actually a lot more complicated than that. At least I'd like to think so. So I think I'll take a detour from my rant on cystic fibrosis and concentrate on putting this question to bed once and for all.  Here's the because in no particular order...

During the work week I see my children for less than three hours a day; 30 minutes of which they are strapped in to their Vests and doing treatment.  Talk about a captive audience.  I realize that some of this is my own doing since I leave for school when it's still dark out and am almost always the first teacher to arrive in the building.  I'm a morning person and I use the quiet that is an empty school building to my advantage...whether it's grading papers or lesson planning...all in the name of keeping work at work and not cutting into my family time at home.  I usually get home, barring any after school meetings, around 4pm.  This leaves me slightly more than 3, sometimes closer to 4 hours to reconnect over dinner, bath time, and treatment.  In spite of having summers, Thanksgiving, Christmas and Spring Break off, I've managed to miss most of my children's major milestones:  first steps, first words, first self inflicted haircut...I spend more time with other peoples children than I do my own and THAT really bothers me.

I'm the first to admit to being a working mom by necessity, not by choice.  I work because without my job we would have no health insurance, dental insurance, or life insurance.  I tried to go half time following Lola's birth and it killed us financially.  The cost of health insurance for our family devoured 85% of my meager paycheck that year.  It was shocking, to say the least.  Though the perks of my husband's self employed status are many, it is stressful to feel the weight of your family's medical well being upon your shoulders.  So many times I have shuddered at the thought of the current layoffs at school hitting us. Losing my benefits would be like losing a major limb.  I don't know if we would survive it.  And so I continue to work full time...not for bread and butter but for the safety net that is insurance.

Enter socialized medicine Spain is a democratic monarchy.  And in Spain, everyone is entitled to health care.  Free health care, that is.  Are there long lines for waiting?  Yep.  That is, if you're going in for a tummy tuck or a twisted ankle.  But for the major stuff, you will be just fine.  You won't die from waiting in line in the E.R. if you're having a heart attack.  You won't have to wait your turn to give birth either.  And best of all, chronic conditions, such as CF, are treated as priority.  CF patients are seen at accredited care centers routinely every two months.  This is actually more often than the kids are seen here in the States.   Also, because there is no FDA to contend with, Europe is seeing some pretty quick turnarounds for agressive drug therapies aimed at cystic fibrosis.  While the kids do not (yet) have a health regimen that includes any of the hard core drugs, we would like to be positioned to receive them if the need arises.  Remember your last trip to the pharmacy?  How much did you end up paying?  Was your copay enough to handle it?  Some of my CF mama friends are spending more than $10,000 a year on drugs to keep their kids up to snuff.  One gal pal met her full year's deductible at her first pick up at the pharmacy for that plan year.  What gives?  Why so expensive?  Is the mass marketing by pharmaceutical companies really improving the quality of meds by that much?  I think not.  In Spain, it is illegal for pharmaceutical companies to advertise. You enter a pharmacy over there and you won't find hourly employees peddling chips and salsa, Hallmark greeting cards or nail polish in 65 different colors.  What you will find is a pharmacist and drugs.  That's it.   The Spanish government subsidizes prescription medicine by 75% and negotiates a cap on what pharmaceutical companies can charge.  The consumer reaps the benefit by only having to come out of pocket for 25% of the cost of the drug.  And of course, once you put something in a plain white box and "market" it with it's scientific name, you just saved about 300%. 

Finally, and arguably just as important, is that a move to Spain will afford me something that I've been aching to do for the last 4 years:  retire.  I have sacrificed a major portion of the past four years, chained to a job so that we would have good healthcare for our family. As we head to Spain, we do so knowing that we will be afforded the aforementioned benefits because my husband is a Spanish citizen and heath care for citizens and their immediate family is much more than just a come hither perk.  It is a right.  I'll be able to stay at home with the kids and Joe will finally be able to get back to his travel schedule and grow his business to where it should be instead of changing diapers and thawing out breast milk while simultaneously taking client calls for more tile.   Aaah, the beauty of Internet commerce in all of its glory.   


My husband was born and raised much of his life in Spain. His father, an American pilot for TWA, spoke to him exclusively in English.  His mother, a flamboyant, dark-haired gypsy from Andalucia, raised him speaking purely Spanish.  It was a strange mix, those two made.  Nearly a dozen years later and I still have vivid memories of that first Thanksgiving with my future in laws.  Neither his mother nor his father were fluent in their second language  - can you imagine?  "Please pass the pavo, amor."  "A toast to our invitada, chin-chin!" Dinner was a smorgasbord of Spanglish and to this day I still don't know how those two managed to stay married as long as they did.  Maybe their success lied in the fact that they often did NOT understand one another.  Whatever the case may have been, it worked.  And they had the bilingual offspring to prove it. 

Joe, my husband, is a rare example of a perfectly balanced bilingual.  The linguistic gift given him by his parents is simply incomprehensible.  He can small-talk, argue, inform, debate, convince, convict and pray just as easily in Spanish as he can in English.  He turns on the Spanish as fast as you or I would flip on a light switch.  It never ceases to amaze me and yes, I'm very, very jealous of it.  To speak two languages at a level equivalent to that of a native speaker is rare, very, very rare. 

With the birth of our firstborn, the plan was for Joe to handle the Spanish and I the English.  Fairly straightforward, this approach would ensure that our little guy got off to a rock solid bilingual start.  The United Nations convened in our living room and so began the journey towards bilingualism.  I posted conversation topics on the kitchen calendar so that I could be sure to chat about the same daily stuff in English;  what he did, what he saw, what he ate, colors, numbers, younameit...we even insisted that the pulmonologist, a Latino, speak Spanish during our CF clinic visits.  Believe me, all bases were more than covered.  But there was one problem.  At every turn, Charlie responded appropriately in English.  In short, he refused to speak Spanish.  I hypothesize that our son was astute enough to realize that Spanish was the minority language between his parents.  Second fiddle, second class, not up to snuff...we failed in terms of modeling its use between ourselves.  Somehow, some way, Charlie decided that if Mamá and Papá weren't gonna step to the plate to speak it that neither was he.  And so a civil war of sorts began right at the kitchen bar stools and continues to wage on some four years later.  A typical passive/aggressive battle sounds like this:

Joe Oye, nen.  ¿Qué te apetece para desayunar hoy?
CharlieUhm.  I dunno.  How about pancakes!?
Joe:  No, no quedan.  ¿Qué tal si te hago una tortilla francesa de jamon y queso?
Charlie:  No.  I want pancakes.  Omelettes are gross.
JoePues pancakes no hay.  A ver si te puedo poner unas Galletas Maria con un vaso de leche manchada.  Y si te lo comes todo, un pan tostado con mantequilla y azucar.
Charlie:  Okay, but only if you put extra sugar sprinkles on the toast.

If it weren't so darned frustrating, it would be laughable.  The fact that our son understands absolutely everything but refuses to articulate anything is maddening.  Ask him a question and he'll answer it...in English.  Talk about him and he'll correct you...in English.  It's enough to drive you to drink, that's for sure.

Enter Spain.  Try as we have to get the bilingual thing to happen in our household, it just hasn't taken root.  Neither one of us feels comfortable waiting out the next 8 years until the public school system will offer mediocre Spanish classes from a gringo teacher who spent a semester abroad during college some 25 years ago. We're jumping ship in the name of bilingualism.  Friends, cousins, aunties, uncles, school, TV, movies...it will ALL be in Spanish.  Charlie will have no choice but to speak it, breathe it, eat it, drink it... LIVE IT.  And who knows, maybe he'll be closer to us because of it, not in spite of it. 


Next year will mark my tenth year as an ESL teacher.  I don't normally like to discuss my views on education because more often than not, I end up offending someone.  So if you may be one of those people, now would be a good time to do a rapid scroll to number 4 or buckle up and hold on tight because you're in for a bumpy ride.

Basically, I don't want my kids going to school here in America.  While I have managed to remain union free, keep most of the gang related stuff out of my classroom and come up with some pretty fun lesson plans that capitalize on the technology that kids are using today, I have seen more than enough of my fair share of just plain bad teaching and that scares the hell out of me.  A school district that rewards teachers based on longevity is neither my idea of progressive nor rigorous, the two buzzwords we hear most often these days.  I know more teachers who whip out the same tired, coffee-stained lesson plans year after year than not.  I have met and worked with dozens of high school students who are promoted to the next grade level while still unable to read a fourth grade level narrative, sign their name in cursive, identify a verb in the present tense let alone write a complete sentence with one in it.  Yet these are the students who will graduate with the same diploma as the valedictorian of their high school class; the one who took four AP classes, worked two part time jobs, ran track and got a full ride to UC Berkley.  I have a HUGE problem with that.  HUGE.

It's different across the pond.  In Spanish schools, the stakes are high for everyone, not just the GT kids.  And the students know it.  Following each grade level is a final exam.  Pass the test and you are promoted.  Fail the test and you don't move on with your peers.  Period.  There is a universal curriculum approved of and enforced by the Spanish Ministry of Education.  Ninth grade in Spain is the same across the board, whether you're in Badajoz or Barcelona.  You can expect not one but at least two foreign languages because English class is a given.  The second one is up to you to decide upon.  An End of the School Year Field Trip is to see the Strait at Gibraltar or the Guggenheim in Bilbao, not a free for all at Adventureland or the zoo.  Selectivity exams are held to see not only if you qualify to get into college but if you are fit to study your career choice.  It's tough.  It's stressful.  It's selective.  And I'm okay with that.


Ask and my husband will say that his fondest memories of growing up in Spain are his summers on the Alicantine beach, sailing up and down the coastline on his catamaran~cruising for hot swedish chicks, I'm sure.  He's recounted the same nautical adventures dozens of times and though the stories are entertaining, his face does not light up quite the same way as it does when he talks about the antics of his Titos.  I often wonder if he realizes the impact that growing up surrounded by such close family had on his development.  I really do wonder...

It's different here. 

The nearest cousins we have for Charlie, Lola and Henry are over 1,400 miles away and we see them once a year, if we're lucky.  To our Spanish family, the distance is the equivalent to a long haul over to Siberia.  They cannot fathom being that far removed from family.  In a country where you often find yourself in the same classroom as your cousin Eduardo, and you can stop at an auntie's house for a merienda on the way home from school, American distances are just plain inexplicable.  To be fair, we do have one grandparent in town, my mom.  She's close with the kids but we don't see her nearly as often as one would assume in fact a once a week or every other week visit is a lot and that's just not right in my book...especially when ours are the only grandkids she has.  

We've been shuttling back and forth across the pond for almost ten years now. Our relationship with Joe's cousins remains tight.  I can't think of one of his cousins who doesn't have at least one child close to the same age as our own children and the same can be said for his childhood buddies, many of whom still live within a stone's throw of his childhood home.  It's exciting to think of the memories yet to be made amongst this brood.  The sooner we can get over there and set up house, the better in my book.  I hate to think of yet another Christmas to go by where our children will not be visited by the three wisemen (Titos?) on Epiphany or pelting Papa Noel (Joe?) with oranges as he makes a surprise guest appearance on Christmas Eve.

This past Easter was bittersweet for us.  As we watched the kids open their Easter baskets, I cringed as the giant chocolate bunny uncloaked himself.  Later that evening, Joe and I would sit amidst the glow of the internet and watch the Easter processions through the candlelit cobblestone streets of Spain.  Entire towns were gathered at the main plaza to pay tribute to the Virgin Mary and of course Jesus Christ.  I thought about how I had robbed my children of this experience by not being there already.  Here I am, in middle America, going to the Mall, running everywhere at a million miles an hour in my car, yet seeing and doing nothing.  How many days do I feel like that hamster running to nowhere on her wheel and then doing it all again the next day?  Maybe a move to Spain will not be any different, but I'm willing to at least give it a shot, that's for sure.


For as long as I can remember, Spain has felt like home.  We've been there so many, many times that I know the streets well, the vendors better and the best bets for speedy parking.  Hell, I even have my own hair dresser there.  For me, Spain is not a foreign country at all.  I am confident and comfortable there.  I don't feel like an outsider in the least, in fact I have felt lonelier and less a part of things on cross country visits right here in the States more than I've ever felt in Spain. 

Having lived abroad in Spain back in the early 90's, I fully expect that the honeymoon period that comes with expatriate life abroad will wane...especially as the demands of Joe's business grow and he is forced to travel more.  But I'm up for the adventure and have somewhat of an idea of what awaits me so I think it'll all work out...doesn't it always?  That, and this is just one of those moments in my life where if I don't follow through, I will forever regret it.  I don't want to live my life like that; looking back 5 or 10 years from now and wishing we had gone for it.  True to myself, we're jumping in head first, all at once...no such thing as testing the waters with the big toe...nope, we're locking hands and jumping in together...all five of us.

So while it may be true when they say that the grass is inevitably greener on the other side, this I already know.  Afterall, I am not so naive as to think that life in a foreign country will not come without its fair share of pitfalls but that my friends is an entirely different blog.


  1. So fortunate. Such a beautiful life you have and will continue to have in Spain. Looks like the cards are in your favor! I hope that we'll keep in touch, I love our wordscrpaer, facebook messages and your comments and input, I have to get skype!!! My long lost friend......in Spain! Can't wait to see the pictures, hear the stories. Life is yours, grab it by the balls and hang on tight, you are going for a beautiful ride! Wishing you absolutely nothing but the best!

    Viva Espana!



  2. Kelly, I loved this blog post. I share your views on health care, education and familial ties. I admire you for many things and one of them is following your dreams with this move to Spain. We don't get to talk much even though you are only a couple of doors down but you and your family will surely be missed. I hope we can still keep up with you via blogging and FB.

    You are one awesome lady!


  3. Well written post, Pickle. I see the benefits for many of the opinions you articulated.

    Is the education system in Spain equipped to accommodate a chronically ill child if (heaven forbid) they were to get too sick to attend school? I'm curious because I remember my sister and I having home schooling arranged for us when we out indefinitely.

    I love your writing. Your blog is one of my favorites. So witty and honest.:-)

    Peaceful Things.

  4. First things first: Fiesta at the Geists! We look forward to and hope that family and friends will want to come visit. There will always be room for company at our place.

    The summer we spent in Spain prior to kids was wonderful. It wasn't that we did anything spectacular~just daily life, a trial run of sorts. I found that the internet really made the distance between Iowa and the Mediterranean seem a lot more manageable and this was BEFORE Skype.

    Josh, I have contacted the Federacion Espanola de la Fibrosis Quistica, the equivalent of our CFF, for more information regarding your question. Just in a quick Google search, I found that home schooling IS an option but I'd like to get more details. Good question, dude - one that I had not thought to ask. Thanks for that! Also,your positive comments about my blog made me feel really special.

  5. Wow, good for you! What an adventure. Blessings on your journey - can't wait to hear more.

    I have a little neighbor boy (5), his parents only speak German in the home. He will NOT speak a word but understands it fluently. His mom even took him to Germany last summer for over 2 months and put him in daycare there. He would not speak a word of German to anyone. He only spoke to one English speaking child. Kids can be so stubborn :)

    (loved your opinions on school system ;))

  6. Hi there. I hope you don't mind someone doing a little blog-hopping and stumbling onto your post, 'cause that's exactly what I've done here. I promise I won't cyber-stalk you. ;-)

    Anyhoo, I just read this post and realized how similar our lives are. I spent a semester in college living in London, went back the following summer, met an English boy with an accent I couldn't refused, married him, and 10 years later we're here in Holland with our two kids....and I HEAR YOU on the stubbornly-only-speaking-one-language child!

    Although I'm a SAHM, we sent our son at least once a week to daycare, then playgroup from the age of 9 months to 4 years, and they were all Dutch-only speaking (I also spoke some Dutch to him at home, although I'm far from fluent). We also only had him watch child-TV in Dutch. When he learned to speak....only English came out. Even when spoken to in Dutch. Exactly like your pancake story. It wasn't until he was in full-time school that the wall was finally broken. Eindelijk! ('finally')

    Ok, I've rambled enough and I'm sure you're anything but interested. I just enjoyed reading your blog and felt nosy enough to snoop my way in. Feel free to come visit my page, or to tell your neighbors about the crazy ex-pat freaking you out with her scary gibberish. I'll never know.

    I hope all your dreams come true with life on this side of the pond. As an American who transplanted herself to this side of the pond over a decade ago, I whole-heartedly agree with you on all the benefits of a European life. May you relish in the adventure!

  7. Wow. You highlight a lot of the reasons why I decided to move to Spain. With a baby on the way, socialized medicine means a lot more to me than it used to. I don't think I could go back to that now, not as I watch my family struggle from afar, not sure if they should let the bank take their home or cancel their medical insurance. No way.

  8. The grass is always greener, but there are some perks here in Spain. As a Canadian, I expect to walk into a hospital without flashing my wallet, but I can see how it would be a HUGE draw coming from the states.

    My husband is a public school teacher. In fact, a Vice Principal, or Jefe de Estudios as they call it. He is at school 30 hours a week tops, with no home work. 2 days a week he is home by noon. A teacher's salary won't make you rich, but it won't in the states either. Having him home with us every afternoon is worth every penny.

    Kids are welcome everywhere, anytime here. Baby sitters don't exist. You pack up Gramma, newborns, cousins, anyone you can find and go wherever it may be. How did we get so grumpy about kids in North America?

    Don't get me started about the benefits of bilingualism and the richness of culture. I learn something new every. single. day.

    So, in short, come on over!