Monday, September 15, 2014

Spanish Day Care

I've been wanting to write about our experience with Spanish day care since Roman began last September but I feared the post would be too long (I have too many opinions on the subject apparently!) and also because I had no image to go along with the post since Roman's school is strictly, but understandably, no photos. But now that he's been there a year--today was his first day back after a two month vacation--I've decided to just get on with it. Prepare yourselves for a long read. :)

Before I get into talking about our experience, I should probably provide a little info on the day care system here. First, there are both private and public day cares or guarderias as they're called in Spanish. The public day cares are subsidized by the government and have a very good reputation. Because of this, the spots are limited and highly coveted and entrance is not guaranteed. Private day cares tend to be more expensive and they can vary widely in quality. But the private ones can be attractive options for parents who work a lot since the schools stay open later, they don't have as many public holidays where the school is closed, and the summer and winter breaks are not as long. We also know people who decide to put their child in private day care because they want their child to be spoken to in English rather than in Catalan which is what children would learn in a public guarderia. You may also go the private route if your child doesn't get a spot in a public school or you missed the enrollment period.

On the other hand, public day care is very attractive to many parents not only because it's very good but also because it's cheaper. I have to mention that Spanish day care isn't even as cheap as public day cares in other parts of Europe BUT while it isn't cheap, it is affordable. Our son attends a public school and we pay something like 300 euro a month, (almost $400) for full time care with meals included. This is nothing compared to what friends of mine back in the States pay. We have friends in Miami who pay $1000 a month for one child and the parent has to provide the meals.

The affordability of Roman's school is amazing obviously, but we're not just happy with his school because of how affordable it is. We also love it because it has exceeded our expectations in so many ways. The teachers are excellent, the meals are prepared on site and are served in courses (I will devote a separate post to the food since this post is already getting too long) and the kids are exposed to all sorts of things that they might not be at home including music,dance, and art. There's no TV watching, no computer time, no screens at all. It's just semi-structured play interspersed with mealtimes and naps.

We especially appreciate the emphasis on doing things independently and picking up after themselves. In the classrooms, there are little chairs and tables, tiny sinks and potties, and each toddler has a designated spot where they hang their washcloths, jackets and schoolbag. Schoolbags must be of the drawstring variety so that the little one can open and close it himself which they wouldn't be able to do with a zippered bag. The school requires the littles to wear bibs with elastic bands rather than bibs with snaps so that the children can pull the bib on and off by themselves at mealtime. They are also expected to put their empty plate on the lunch cart when they're done eating and then wash their hands and mouths at the sink.

From our perspective, day care has been a wonderful experience for both us and for Roman. His school is a safe place for him to run and climb and explore and make a mess which he can't do in our home (or he can but with less abandon). Also he learns from the other kids and imitates them. Sometimes this is bad (like when he learned to hit) and sometimes it's good (like when he learned how to feed himself). For our part, we've been impressed by how much he's grown up and how much of this is due to school. We have a tendency to do everything for Roman because it's easier, faster and cleaner. But in school, he's taught to do things by himself like taking off his shoes and wiping his tray clean after eating. It's actually been a big help for us to copy the routine he has in school because I think Roman is more at ease when he knows exactly what to expect and that the routine is the same everywhere. Furthermore, I think it's been important that he spends time away from us so that he learns not to take us for granted and for us, the same applies. I've found that we all appreciate each other much more when we're not together all the time.

Finally, I've noticed that since Roman began at his school, the Professor and I feel much more integrated into society than before. We meet up with his classmates and their parents at the local park, we learn about Catalan traditions and holidays and we discover the ways that parenting is similar in the U.S. and the ways it's different. In summary, it's been a learning experience for all of us, but one that we're very happy to have had.

I leave you with a shot I surreptitiously took in his school of Roman in the birthday crown that he and his classmates decorated. He looks a bit pouty here because he doesn't like wearing things on his head, but he actually had a really good day that day. I'm sure he won't remember it in a few years, but this was a place where he was happy.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Surviving the summer in the city (sans A/C)

When we first moved here a few years ago and began our apartment hunt, it never occurred to us to ask the agent showing us our apartment whether it had air conditioning or not.  This was for several reasons, 1) it was around 35 degrees Fahrenheit outside so A/C was the last thing on our minds 2) we had no idea how hot and humid Barcelona gets in the summer and 3) the Professor and I are from Miami where air conditioning is as prolific as palm trees and flip flops. 

Fast forward three summers and here we are, sitting around the house in our unmentionables with a fan on high pointed right at us. And I'm telling you, it's still not enough. The Professor and I have practically turned complaining about the heat into a hobby--we do it all the time! ¨Ugh, my shirt is sticking to my back¨, ¨My hair is so frizzy!¨ ¨Is that the highest the fan goes?¨ 

You might think our behavior and complaining is a little extravagant since Barcelona is hardly any hotter than Miami. It's just that as native Miamians, we've never been exposed to the heat before. This sounds so strange to people from here and probably it will to you too. People here are always amused and bewildered by our whining, ¨But isn't Miami hot year round?¨ they ask.  Yes, it is. And that's why every single place you go has central air conditioning and it's on all the time. Also we don't have to walk anywhere in Miami. We go from our air conditioned house, to our air conditioned car, to our air conditioned destination. As a matter of fact, in the summer months, when it's especially hot and humid outside, many places turn the air conditioning so low you need to bring a sweater with you. So even though the Professor and I have been living in a tropically hot place almost our whole lives, we have been accustomed to living in Scandinavian temperatures. 

That's why we were thrown for a loop when we discovered that in Spain, it's not that common to have air conditioning and what's more, people don't really mind. It's been explained to us that most apartments are too old to have central air-conditioning and since it only gets hot for three months of the year (during one of which everyone's gone for vacation anyway), it's not really that necessary. Also, it's expensive. I remember a few years ago when we stayed at a hotel in Valencia, the hotel management informed me that they don't turn on the air conditioning in the rooms until July. When I complained that it was already tremendously hot even in late April, they advised me to open the windows. 

We've also discovered that apart from these practical considerations, there's another, unspoken reason why people don't have A/C: they're suspicious of it. Many Spaniards, indeed many Europeans we've encountered, think that A/C is bad for you; it'll make you sick. I remember that when Roman was born, smack in the middle of a scorching hot summer, anytime we went to a restaurant they would seat us as far from the air conditioning as possible, fearing that the cold air would be too much for a wee baby. But since then, we've also seen adults, who assuredly have heartier immune systems, trying to avoid sitting or standing in front of any cold air source. 

But there's something else too. People here accept the heat, sometimes even embrace it, because it's fleeting. In a few months, the leaves will turn brown and the temperatures will dip down. In Miami, we don't embrace the heat because we always have it. We take it for granted. We live in the summer exactly as we do in the winter--wearing socks, sleeping under blankets and with the A/C blasting. It's not only wasteful from a conservation standpoint, it's also a rejection of nature. As my friend said, ¨It's summer. It's supposed to be hot.¨

Since I've realized this (and it took me some time to accept it), I've made more of an effort to enjoy the season while it's still here. We eat lots of cold salads for lunch, keep our windows open all day trying to tempt in a breeze, and make daily trips to the ice cream vendor on our street. We also try to spend as much time outside as we can where it's actually cooler than upstairs in our apartment. But we still bought a portable air conditioning unit. It's big and bulky and only cools the area immediately around it, but we love it dearly. 

(Photo: The Sartorialist

Thursday, September 4, 2014

A Barcelona home with 'federal' style

This place is pretty dreamy, right? But what's 'federal' about it? Well if you live in Barcelona, you've probably been to or at least heard of Federal Café, a great spot to meet friends for brunch while enjoying a relaxed and stylish ambience. Apparently the owners of this establishment, Australian expats, have carried that same ambience over into their home in the Barrio Gótico region of Barcelona.

Here are some more pictures:

It is very rare that I see a place where I feel that I could live happily without changing a single detail, but this is one of those instances. I love the way the living room flows seamlessly into the patio as though it were all one space and the way the woven baskets add some texture to the dining room. Unique and pretty. The owners could even put some flowers in those during the springtime and I think it'd look even better.  

What do you guys think? If you'd like to see more pictures, visit Nuevo Estilo where this house was featured. 

P.S. If you're new in town and looking for a good interior design magazine, I'd recommend Nuevo Estilo. It doesn't compare with Living Etc (in my opinion, nothing does) but it always features homes with great modern style. Plus! They have a mini version of the magazine which is less than 2 Euro in case you're just looking for a quick jolt of inspiration. 

(Photos: Nuevo Estilo)

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Scenes from the Festa Major de Sants

It's widely acknowledged here in Barcelona that the summer festival in Gracia that I wrote about last time, is the one for the big crowds and the tourists. But the summer festival that's for the locals is the one in my own neighborhood of Sants. When we moved to this neighborhood, we had no idea that it had a certain reputation and we knew nothing of its history. We later learned that this was a former industrial hub in the city and that families who live here have lived here for generations meaning that there's a strong community spirit here. Today, our neighborhood has also gotten a reputation for being home to many young hippies, plenty hipsters (artisanal beers at Homo Sibaris anyone?) and fervent political activists (yep, this was the neighborhood where the rioting took place a few months ago over the demolition of an occupied city building). All of this is very interesting to know of course (or it is for me anyway), but let's move on to the festival and the street decorations, shall we?

Here are some scenes from the Fiesta de Sants:

First up, a medieval themed street in Carrer Alcolea de d'alt complete with swords and shields, darts, and a castle. These made up flags with dragons made me feel like I was in Game of Thrones or something. 

A tribute to Barcelona's beloved architect, Antoni Gaudí, with a mini version of Parc Guëll on Carrer Vallespir.  You can't see it very well, but that's actually water coming out of the iguana's mouth. Clever, eh?

I told you our neighborhood was political. So why not a satirically themed Communist North Korea street on Carrer Alcolea baix? It was funny and mildly disturbing at the same time. 

More from the communist street. There was a tank, this fighter plane, a checkpoint and fake propaganda pinned up here and there 

In our day and age, the designers of the themed streets fully expect people to post to social networking sites so they created a 'selfie' backdrop here. I hate that that word's been adopted into the Spanish language. The English one too actually. 

Carrer Roses was decorated with a comic book theme. Specifically, the long running Spanish comic 13, Rue del Percebe. It was so well done! I instantly went home and looked this comic up because, not being from here originally, I'd never heard of it. Here's a close up of one  of the boxes:

 I loved finding the mini details like the picture hung on the wall, the sconce, and the flowers on the balcony. 

There's so much more to the festivities than the street decorations. There are concerts, dancing, water balloon fights, paint fights, puppet shows, face painting, balloon animals, and more. It's a lively but noisy time to be in the city. Sometimes the festivities go on until the wee hours and the Professor and I complain to each other about the noise of the crowds and the loud, dated music (the YMCA AGAIN?! What year is this?!) But really it's a lot of fun. 
 And it's also a great opportunity to buy yummy fried foods and food on a stick. 

And dance around with your squealing, happy baby to disco music under strings of lights.

So that's what we've been up to lately. Here's what we did last week in case you missed it. 

Monday, August 25, 2014

Scenes from the Festa Major de Gracia

As I've written before, summers in Barcelona can be a bit of a bummer. But the hot and boring days are interrupted every August with the arrival of the neighborhood festivals known as the festes majors. These are enormous block parties organized and carried out by several districts in Barcelona. The festivals distinguish themselves from the average street fair by having elaborate, sometimes totally over the top decorations always within a certain theme. So one neighborhood can be decked out in Super Mario Brothers decorations and another can feature African safari or something. When I say decorations, I don't just mean paper streamers and balloons like at a child's birthday party. I'm talking about enormous structures, made of plastic, wood, often paper maché, and tons of recycled products. These are decorations that the various committees of every neighborhood spend all year working on from one festa major to another. These decorations bring people from all over the city to a specific neighborhood to marvel at the ingenuity of the creators while listening to live music, drinking some beer, and hanging out with their families and friends. Last week, we headed over to the neighborhood of Gracia, which many locals think has the best festa major, to check out this year´s decorations. The themes ranged from Willy Wonka to zombies.

Here are some more we liked: 

This was the Bollywood themed street. Looks fun, right? I loved the vibrant colors. In addition to the lanterns and the jewel toned sashes everywhere, there was a Taj Mahal-like entrance and pictures of famous Bollywood stars (I'm assuming they're famous anyway, I'm not an authority on the subject) and ....

this paper maché elephant! He was set up on the other end of the Bollywood street bidding you farewell. It was huge! The decorators really went all out here, I'd say. There's a contest for best decorated street and this one came in second place.

This Amazon themed street won first prize in the contest. It was decorated with birds, a crocodile which you can see on the right side and tons of fake foliage made of recycled plastic products like water bottles. The best part was that as you exited, water misted down at you which most kids got a huge kick out of-except for Roman who got freaked out. 

These origami cranes were from another street decorated entirely in a Japanese theme. There were paper lanterns, geisha, and samurai swords. The Professor joked that if it only had a sushi station, it would have won his vote. 

When the Professor and I walked into this street, which was called, simply, 'W', we were a bit bewildered as to what the 'W' referred to. There were odd, fantastical decorations all around. We were thinking, Dr. Who for a bit before we saw this chocolate fountain. Then we had a joint a-ha moment- Willly Wonka!

This picture cracks me up a bit. Roman obviously doesn't know how to do a carnival cutout so he was shrieking and squirming as the Professor tried to hold him up and stick his face more or less in the hole. The whole time, I'm calling to him to look at the camera and smile as a line forms behind me. Parents can be pretty crazy, I reflected later. 

So that was our weekend at the Gracia festival. Stay tuned this week for pictures from the Festa Major de Sants, my neighborhood!

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Travel tip: Bring back food!

Okay, this is not actually a tip that is intended to make your vacation easier or facilitate your travel in any way. It's a tip to help you souvenir shop because I, for one, used to find that one of the most stressful parts of traveling. Of course it's not up there with delayed flights, communication barriers, or toddler melt downs in train stations. But when I first started traveling, I would walk around a new city trying to keep my eye out for things that would make interesting, thoughtful but relatively inexpensive gifts; it was like Christmas shopping in a foreign country-argh!

So a few years ago, I picked up a tip from my sister, an inveterate traveler herself: go to the supermarket for your souvenirs. Basically, this idea is rooted in the fact that many people love foods from different countries because they're a novelty and because these foods are either not available or prohibitively expensive in other countries. As a bonus for the traveler, these gifts will be cheaper than something you buy in a souvenir shop and it will be more convenient because chances are at some point during your trip, you will visit a supermarket.

Think about the possibilities! You could bring back a hard to find liquor, unusual desserts (like red bean cakes which I've received from China), or Lay's potato chips with jamón serrano flavoring (from Spain, of course!)

For my part, I have brought back homemade turrón (a typical Christmastime sweet here in Spain), bags of Juan Valdez coffee from Colombia, and recently from my trip to France, Bonne Maman jams in unique flavors like chestnut and rhubarb.

Of course, there are some limitations as to what you can bring back to your home country so make sure you check first (for American readers, here's a link to the TSA foods page). But this is so much better than the usual stuff people bring back from their travels (another refrigerator magnet? groan), at least in my opinion.

What do you guys think? Do you bring back food? If so, what from where?

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Scenes from French Catalonia: Perpignan, Collioure, & Ceret

Over the weekend, the Professor, the little one and I returned from a short but delightful vacation to French Catalonia. This is the region of France closest to Spain just on the other side of the Pyrenees; an area which, although technically a part of France, still identifies culturally as Catalan. (If you want to read more about the simultaneous existence of the French and Catalan cultures, I found this article fascinating). We took the high speed train from Barcelona to Perpignan where we stayed but we made day trips to the seaside town of Collioure and to a tiny, artistic town nestled at the foot of the Pyrenees, Ceret.

Before I share our pictures and the details of our stay, I have to mention that this trip came about in a totally backwards way. Normally when planning a trip, you first decide where you want to go, then you look for your accommodations, then you determine your means of travel. When I started planning this trip, I started looking for accommodations first without giving much importance to where we would visit. I knew I didn't want to travel too far from Barcelona (two hours on the train max) but there are just so many scenic towns around here (I'm not trying to brag. Seriously!). I considered somewhere on the Costa Brava and looked at many places in Southern France. I was scouring Airbnb for hours every day looking for an appropriate place. I wanted to stay in an apartment that was itself child friendly and in a family friendly city which basically just meant that the city had plenty of parks, supermarkets in walking distance and plenty to do. I finally discovered this place for rent in Perpignan and it was perfect for us. I wouldn't say that Perpignan is a must-see tourist attraction though it does attract many tourists especially at this time of year. It's a decent size city so it has many restaurants, cafes, nightlife, and high quality shopping but still with a village feel. It also has a major train station (Salvador Dalí reportedly called it the 'center of the world') and it offers coach bus service to many of the surrounding villages for only 1 Euro. For us, it was the perfect destination!

Here are some scenes from our trip:

(Update: Found the photo of the canal! Here we are!)

This is the city center in Perpignan all decked out for the music festival which is every Thursday night throughout the month of August and some of July. On the left is a lovely canal that runs through the city. I thought we got a picture of it but apparently not.

This is one of the main tourist attractions in Perpignan, Le Castillet but we only saw it from the outside. When we travel, we rarely do the touristy stuff unless it's something major that we haven't seen before. We normally just prefer to explore a city the way the natives would. Nevertheless, I thought the castle was quite pretty at nighttime. 

Perpignan has quite a few good restaurants that serve a mix of French, Catalan and Spanish food. We can eat tapas anytime we want in Barcelona, so we chose to eat at places that did mostly French food. Roman was especially thrilled that all the brasseries we visited served his favorite dish--pommes frites (french fries). 

Snails! There was a farmer's market in the Place de la Republique every morning and we'd frequently stop by some of the vendor's stalls to buy fruit and just ogle vegetables really. We weren't brave enough to order any snails but they serve these in Spain too so we have time to warm to the idea. Have you tried them? What do you think? 

We always make a point whenever we travel to find local parks for Roman to play. It's an opportunity for us to have some downtime and for him to run and explore and interact with other children. In Perpignan, as in other parts of France we've visited to date, you can find such pretty ones! This one is in a square called Bir Hakeim a little outside the downtown area. It's obviously a great place to go if you have kids but even if you don't, it's quite a large park with trails, fountains, and plenty of grass so it'd be perfect for a picnic under a shady tree. 

I feel it's compulsory whenever in France to ride a carousel because you can always find one in a park or a plaza. This one is in the Place de la Republique and as you can see Roman was enchanted. He rode it twice and would have loved a third go round but we dragged him away. He didn't go quietly as you might have guessed. 

Front row seats! This was the night of the music festival and there were musicians, acrobats, and dancers all over town. We particularly liked this group, whose music I'm not even sure how to describe. You can check them out if you like: Les Brank'Ignobles. 

Outside the Cathedral of St. Jean, there is a marble fountain and because of its circular shape, Roman wanted to run around it a few hundred times. But at least he stopped to pose for this picture. He's getting much better at holding still for the camera and has even learned how to say 'cheese'. 

This was day two in Collioure. Apparently this place is not as much of a secret as I thought! There were as many tourists as there were pebbles on the beach. As we walked down the narrow streets, we were literally elbowing our way through. You can see the attraction though, right? The water was so blue and clear and the setting is just beautiful with this magnificent castle on one side and an old church on the other. 

The port was so charming and colorful. We loved the brightly painted boats. 

A shot of me and my little darling at the water's edge. On the one hand, the beach in Collioure is perfect for little ones because it's very shallow and the waves are small and gentle. But on the other hand, the ocean floor and the beach are covered in scorching hot pebbles and that can make it hard for little feet. Roman, for one, was not a big fan. He's just a Barcelona baby who's used to the sand. P.S. I have the craziest tan, I know. I was hoping my back would get some sun to match my shoulders but alas...

We didn't manage to find a single park or playground in Collioure and that was tough on Roman because he couldn't play on the beach since the rocks were too hot and too hard on his feet. So we found this little plaza for him to burn off some energy and he excitedly ran around for over half an hour while the Professor dutifully followed him. 

On to Ceret! I have to say, this town was my favorite one by far. It's so charming and quaint and undiscovered. There weren't throngs of tourists, because really, there's not that much to see. The city boasts one art museum (but it's a good one) and has neither a train station nor an airport. The only way to get here is to drive or take a bus. This makes it feel like a secret, special place and for us, it was. 

Ceret was a hub for many artists, most notably Picasso whose name can be seen in many parts of the city from squares to cafes. As you walk about, you can see why so many artists came here. It's so beautiful you just have to stop and paint it like this man above. 

 I loved this charming little detail on the corner of the building.

Throughout our trip, it was strange to hear French being spoken all around us but yet we saw such strong Catalan pride. This picture was taken of a house in Ceret that had decorative tiles all proclaiming this sentiment. In clockwise order they read, 'I am Catalan,' 'This is a Catalan home', 'Here lives a supporter of the Lille Metropole' (a football team), and 'Here lives a supporter of the Catalan dragons' (a rugby team).  

All around the city center, there were leafy trees which shaded us from the summer sun but also made the light so much softer. I loved the way this building mirrors the graceful curves of the trees in front of it and they even match in color.

Speaking of matching colors, I thought this little house with its matching door and flowers was so cute. Throughout the city, there were brightly painted shutters, doors and even lampposts. As we were walking around town, the Professor and I  couldn't help but debate which color we would paint our front door if we ever moved here. I said fuchsia or aqua but the Professor plumped for bright green. 

Lastly, I leave you with a shot of the little one on the train on the way home. Roman's favorite part of the journey no doubt. 

So that was our mini-vacation! What about you guys? Go anywhere fun?