Moving the family to Barcelona

Moving the family to Barcelona

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Writer and mother Kathryn Rhett describes moving her family from small-town USA to northern Spain's unique city.

Know any Spanish?
As my husband and I and our three children prepared to move to Barcelona, it seemed that every friend, acquaintance, and paediatrician asked the same question, and the answer was no.

We didn’t know any Spanish, and we just laughed wryly at the more advanced question: Know any Catalan? During a sabbatical from college teaching, we decided to try one last family adventure before our daughter went off to college, and while we still had the energy for a head-spinning trip.  

Sagrada Familia - a famous icon in Barcelona.

We loved Barcelona when we visited for a week in 2002: there were two American-accredited international schools to choose from, it was on the Mediterranean, and the architecture was fantastic. While we owned the Rosetta Stone language programme, somehow, between preparing the house for renters, farming out the pets, wrapping up work matters, and fixing everything that broke just before we left, we didn’t even start learning Spanish. We used iGoogle to translate apartment rental ads, and to compose our email queries.

Unable to afford the advance trip that is indeed the smart way to proceed, we spread out a huge city map on my office floor and stuck Post-Its on potential apartment addresses, wondering how each neighborhood felt and calculating school commute times.

Figuring out a viable daily existence felt more urgent than learning Spanish. Or should it be Catalan? Predictably, we stumbled around with dictionaries and phrasebooks, lapsing unhelpfully into French.

News that Barcelona has beaches went down well with my five-year-old.Well, if we can just throw money at the problem…
The problem was that our three kids were not exactly thrilled about the move. Anyone you talk to, and most books one consults (such as "The Family Sabbatical" handbook), wisely counsel that it’s easier to relocate with younger children. We told our five-year-old that Barcelona had beaches and toy stores, as we discovered on, and he nodded sagely, figuring he could handle the situation.

As far as our 12-year-old son and 16-year-old daughter were concerned, however, we were arbitrarily ruining their lives, taking them away from beloved kittens, field hockey, chicken tenders and best friends. Worse, as our daughter concluded after scanning our budget plan, we weren’t exactly rich.

So, if we could just throw money at the problem, in the way of loads of new clothes and Swatches and Legos and the lovely rental home in Sant Cugat with a large yard that we viewed online, then maybe they could ease into life in Barcelona with their horrible parents. But we were paid in dollars, whose value plunged by the day as we planned the trip. Work colleagues thought we were crazy. We thought so, too, as we read rental ads and willed ourselves not to compare the prices with our monthly mortgage in small-town America.

Moving to Barcelona
We rented a tiny apartment in the Gothic quarter. For the first three weeks, it was the five of us plus our daughter’s boyfriend on the couch in the living/dining/office/kitchen/laundry room. I adjusted by thinking of the apartment as a sailboat, everything needing to be stowed cleverly. Surrounded by expensive shops, we were thrilled to find a store on Laietana called ‘Very Cheap,’ we were happy to take advantage of summer sales, and we took pleasure in every good deal, from the price of train tickets to Sitges (a reasonable EUR 26 for five of us), to a pretty hibiscus plant for EUR 3.60.

Know the city by travelling around.
City life
As much as we needed to adjust to living in a new country, we needed to adjust to living in a city, in the hot and crowded month of August. The river of people on the Portal de l’Angel felt overwhelming at first. We figured out the metro and bus, riding frequently so that it would become familiar by the time school started. Walking to buy groceries, we found the closest markets and bought a rolling shopping bag.

We visited the city park for grass, bicycling, and the zoo (which has a great playground). We needed to think of the city as our yard, and conceive of living more of life in public, out and about. My husband and I tried to balance our efforts between setting up the household and getting to know Barcelona: we bought a printer, set up an internet router and Skype, and we visited the Chocolate Museum, the Egyptian Museum, the Cathedral and the port.

Our children were homesick, and I came to label our remedies, depending on the outcome, as either good appeasement or bad appeasement. An American movie at Yelmo Icaria cineplex followed by familiar food at Flaherty’s Irish Pub, for instance, comforted our older son, but also reminded him too keenly of what he lost by leaving home. Good appeasements included used books in English from Hibernian Books, a chess set, cool school supplies from Raima, and TV shows downloaded via iTunes.

Skype calls enhanced with a new webcam caused more sadness than joy. Distracting activities helped, of course, from swimming to being chased around the cathedral by fire-breathing dragons during the annual festa of the Barri Gotic.

And finally school started. Sure it was a new school, and the kids were nervous and cranky, but school is ultimately purposeful and familiar, and they started to make friends.

My husband and I can finally get some work done. This being Barcelona, and not the United States where we eat at our desks while answering emails, we can also — I mean we really should, trying to fit in and learn — go out to lunch. Translating the menu del dia is an excellent way to learn Spanish, and Catalan.

Kathryn Rhett is a freelance writer and the author of Near Breathing: A Memoir of a Difficult Birth (Emerging Writers in Creative Nonfiction). She teaches nonfiction writing at Gettysburg College and the MFA program at Queens University of Charlotte, in the United States. This article has been reprinted with permission of Kids in Barcelona on November 2008.


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3 Comments To This Article

  • Nicky posted:

    on 19th November 2008, 15:14:07 - Reply

    Reading Kathryn's article I was amused but felt heartfelt sympathy for her kids and a little outrage. I was relocated to another city within the same country when I was 12 and that was tough enough! Was it worth it for Kathryn and her husband to put their kids through the heartache? [Edited by moderator] I have known many cases of teenagers who have had huge difficulties successfully settling in a new country. And in many cases the child goes back "home". Relocating to another country can be a devastating experience for young people going through a particularly sensitive time in their development and can result in serious psychological stress even leading to eating disorders and other emotional issues. I wouldn't say you should never do it, but you must be prepared to give your children extra time and support while they adapt and cope with the loss of their previous life. Kathryn talks about her children's grief. As their mother, I wonder how she justified her and her husband's decision? Nicky Psychologist
  • Gene Venable posted:

    on 19th November 2008, 13:51:08 - Reply

    This was an interesting article, but there wasn't enough information about money, like about how much the first apartment cost, etc. The school is taught in English? One nice thing about Barcelona and Spain in general is that high-speed dsl is available all over the place, so that's not a problem. When I lived in Barcelona for five months, I found an apartment for rent on the iAgoura web site with ease -- in fact, I chose Barcelona because there were many rentals there, after I moved from Moscow.
    It would be nice to know about the bureaucratic restrictions on Americans moving to Barcelona, but that was beyond the scope of this article, I guess. I had a difficult time staying there for five months, because the limit is usually three for Americans staying temporarily.

  • Michelle posted:

    on 19th November 2008, 11:46:52 - Reply northern Spain's unique city??? Oh God!!! Is this supposed to mean Barcelona? Since when it is in the NORTH? Got a map, anyone?