Living Abroad with Young Children: One Family’s Pilgrimage to Spain

I thought I was an experienced world traveler having spent time living and working in Europe. But when my Spanish teacher husband first broached the idea of taking a six-month sabbatical in Spain with our three young children, I had a moment of panic.

Knowing how difficult it was just to keep my head above water with 5-year-old twins and a 3-year-old in my own town, I knew that living in a foreign country could be really stressful and complicated – or really unforgettable and educational! “What a wonderful opportunity,” my friends exclaimed. My mother seemed to be the only one who understood the trepidation I had in pursuing this adventure declaring, “It’s going to be a lot of work!” So trying not to give in to my own natural panicky instincts, I began to prepare for this pilgrimage to Spain…

The first item of business was deciding where to live. We both had a fascination for Santiago de Compostela, the destination of one of Europe’s most important medieval pilgrimage routes, the Way of St. James. I probably had the lofty idea that I would be making my way down the old pilgrimage road with children in tow. Located in Galicia in the northwest corner of Spain, I looked up the climate data in my dad’s worn out encyclopedia and found that the region experiences about 100 days of yearly rainfall. This was not my fantasy of living in sunny Spain, and my husband, who loves rain, reluctantly agreed to shift our focus to another city.

By chance we discovered the city of Salamanca, a city of 180,000 which is located two hours northwest of Madrid in the region of Castile and Leon. Site of one of the oldest universities in Europe, this vibrant university town has a magnificent central plaza, the Plaza Mayor, and numerous churches, monuments and historical sites such as the first century Roman bridge crossing Salamanca’s Tormes River and the Museum of Art Nouveau and Art Déco located nearby. With plenty of parks, plazas and walking paths, Salamanca was both family-friendly and culturally rich – a perfect combination.

Our contact with a Spanish language school proved fruitful, as we were able to rent one of the student apartments, located on the second story of a tall apartment building on the bustling ring road, the former site of the old Roman wall.

Apartment living is part of the Spanish lifestyle. This apartment had tile floors, a small washing machine, and a large living/dining area with a balcony. But the kitchen was a postage stamp and so was the refrigerator. I had to remind myself of the European custom of daily shopping at the local tiendas, bakeries and produce stalls, so there would be no need for a large refrigerator.

Fortunately our apartment was also located next door to a bakery so the smell of baking bread and pastries came wafting upwards through our open windows. Cafe/tapas bars were nearby, where I imagined I would spend my morning drinking café con leche and reading the newspaper after sending the kids to school.

We soon discovered a school across the busy street from our apartment. Spanish public schools offer three years of Escuela Infantil and then children enter the primary grades. That meant our son, who was 3 at the time, could go to school with his 5-year-old sisters. Although the children spoke a little Spanish before they arrived, it was rather a shock to be submersed in a classroom where only Spanish was spoken, and they faced their “ordeal” rather stoically without too much complaining.

At school the children had a difficult time making friends due to the language barrier. During recess, a few children would run by and shout “eenglish, eenglish”! But it was our son Nolan who finally made a friend, a darling little red head who discovered him as they were lining up in the morning. She took him under her wing, grabbing his hand and chatting to him in Spanish. She looked after him for the rest of the school year, and the girls made friends with her too, communicating as best they could. We soon met her parents and became friends as well. One little girl’s gesture made a wonderful impact on our children’s school experience.

Adjustments to the eating schedule and food were more cultural challenges. Lunch, the main meal, does not occur until 3 p.m. and dinner doesn’t start until 9 or 10 p.m. I had to have a hearty lunch prepared for the children right after school got out at 2. And of course they still wanted to have milk and peanut butter, which were difficult to find in Spain. The Spanish now sterilize their milk so it does not have to be refrigerated, and the kids did not like the taste. We looked for fresh milk and found it a few long blocks away, packaged in plastic bags, while we had to trek across the city to buy peanut butter at another store. Otherwise the children adapted fairly well to the Spanish food, such as jamon (ham), tortilla espanola (omelette), fried potatoes, and shellfish.

Socializing is a very important ritual in Spanish society. The Spanish are very polite and always greet each other with buenos dias. People take a paseo (walk) everyday throughout the city. Tapas bars are also places where people of all ages gather to chat, have a coffee con leche or a glass of wine, eat tapas (little snacks) and watch either soccer or bullfighting. The children were curious about bullfighting and the custom of the running of the bulls, which we all accepted as part of Spanish life.

Living in Spain with three young children was a lot of work but well worth all our efforts. Although the children were very young, they still have vivid memories of our time there. And while we never did make the walk along the Way of St. James, our experiences have prepared us for new pilgrimages – either along the Way or somewhere new.

Darla Greb Mazariegos
About Darla Mazariegos

Writer Darla Greb Mazariegos is a mother of three and part of the North State Parent staff.

Comments

  1. Thank you for this wonderful story! I can so relate to a lot of it having returned last year from a year in Granada, Spain with my family! I miss it a lot and try to return as often as is possible when you live in Australia. I still write my blog about our time there: http://ouryearinspain.com/
    And love to help other families organise their own experiences in Spain!

  2. What a wonderful blog to come across. We are a family of 4, with two young children 7 and 5. My husband is taking a 6 month work sabbatical to the Netherlands next fall. Would you have any resources for elementary school, transportation, accommodation etc? Also, what do you suggest we do with our home and vehicles in North America? Did you hire a house sitter or rent or sell the home? Thanks for any suggestions.

  3. Hi Darla,

    I am writing as I am looking to do pretty much what you did. We are a family of 4 (my wife and two kids – 6 and 4 years old). I am a French professor on sabbatical and would like to go to Salamanca to lear some Spanish, do some work and travel a bit. I like the size of the town, although have never been there. I would like to find a place to live. This would be for next year in January. Do you have the Language school contact ? Any information/advice etc. that you could provide would be FANTASTIC ! Many thanks. I have included my website at the University of Lethbridge, Alberta, Canada.

    Thanks !

    Sincerely,

    Steve

    • Darla Greb Mazariegos Darla Greb Mazariegos says:

      Hi Steve,
      The name of the language school is Mester. http://www.mester.com. It’s located in the center of town and has great facilities. I didn’t take classes but the people I know who studied there seemed very happy.

      Best of luck in your travels!
      Darla

      • Thanks Darla, I just wrote them. I have been looking at the coast, but am afraid to find too many Brits.

        Thanks again,

        Steve

      • Steve Urquhart says:

        Hi Darla,
        Sorry to bother you. Do you remember the name of the school that you had your kids in ? Thanks so much.

        Steve

  4. Megan Beardsley says:

    Darla,

    We may have a chance to live in Spain for a year with our daughters (who will be 11 and 9). We have some flexibility with location, and want to find a place where they will be comfortable (including schools with at least some English-speaking staff since their Spanish is pretty limited), but that are not overrun with internationals. I’ve heard good things about Salamanca, but haven’t been able to find much on the web about living there with children.
    Any web sites, contacts or other resources you would suggest? Additional advice?

    Gracias!
    Megan Beardsley
    Ann Arbor, MI

    • Darla Greb Mazariegos Darla Greb Mazariegos says:

      Hi Megan,
      How wonderful that you have this opportunity to live in Spain! Since we lived there back in 2005, there was not a lot of information to find either. Our main contact was a Spanish language school in Salamanca and they set us up in one of their student apartments. I really wished there was more language learning support at the school. However, the school did not have any other non-Spanish speakers so the teachers just did the best they could in helping our children. I found a book about traveling abroad with children but I gave it away after we returned and don’t remember the title. Perhaps if you go to amazon, you can search the topic. Sorry I couldn’t be more helpful. Have a safe and fun trip!
      All the best,
      Darla

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