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...
2. BILINGUALISM OR BUST
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?
Charlie: Uhm. 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.
Joe: Pues 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.
3. AN EDUCATION FIT FOR THE BIRDS
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.
4. BLOOD IS THICKER THAN WATER
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.
5. HOME SWEET HOME
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.