Sometimes people ask “Did you like Spain? Should we go there?” and it’s always so hard to answer. It’s hard to separate the experiences we had there from the country itself. And just because we like something doesn’t mean you will. But we still get the question so as our last blog post from this experience in Spain I will attempt to answer it. This is very specific to our family, this isn’t something you’ll find on Trip Advisor. Loyal readers know that this blog is pretty much the opposite of Trip Advisor!
LOGIC: One of the things I said shortly after we arrived is that Spain has it’s act together. Maybe other countries in Europe won’t totally agree with that but coming from Mexico, it seems like it’s doing pretty well. The roads are well maintained, the trains are fast and on time, the bus system works and has room for it’s passengers, people are not darting across the road, there are not so many stray dogs, machines take credit cards and things like SIM cards and phone plans work the way they are supposed to. Most of the time.
WEATHER: We liked the weather… until it got cold. We lived on the Costa del Sol – The Sun Coast -and indeed it rarely rained. But when the sun went down around 6:30pm every night, it got pretty chilly (of course, we’re talking mid 50s here so nothing arctic). And Spain’s houses are designed to stay cool, even when it’s cool outside. So we definitely needed the heat for the last month or so, and Dan wore long pants and a coat outside. For Dan, this is pretty much Armageddon. To the extent he didn’t appreciate the new wardrobe, I REALLY appreciated the lack of humidity. Such a nice respite from Panama and Mexico. My hair looks better here too. I’ve learned that I don’t like humidity. No es bueno.
OUR CASA: We had a great apartment at a really good price. It had room for all of us, a very lovely balcony, a good kitchen and lightning-fast, stable internet. Boy did we love that internet. Good internet helps keep family arguments to a minimum. A little extra space helps us all stay sane.
ACTIVITIES: There was a lot of things to do. Whether it was in the city or in the smaller towns in Southern Spain, there was never any shortage of things to see, visit or do. We loved the history, the castles, the many bull rings, the mountains, the beaches and the lovely towns all nearby. We had to leave with an undone list of “things to do”. That makes me sad, but not as sad as having nothing to do.
PLAZAS: Spain has their act together with outdoor areas. There were so many plazas smack in the middle of a city that were closed to traffic. Every town had a street, or two or an entire area closed to traffic where pedestrians could meander at will. However, if you were to stay in a hotel in one of these areas you better be prepared. It was impossible to find and you better pack light because you are dragging that suitcase to the end of the world. Every town on the beach had a long, well maintained promenade and if the town didn’t have a beach they would put a promenade next to a river or a canyon. This was charming and we loved it. The girls had scooters and had plenty of places to use them.
TOURISM: Unlike Panama, Spain knows how to do tourism. They had tourist centers, lots of guides ready to take you on a tour (and take your money), lots of information online about places you were going, they had placards and museums and interpretive centers at all the interesting places. And most of the time it was in English and Spanish. As a tourist you were welcomed. However, if you tried to do stuff that Spanish people were doing and tried to find info on it in English, well, that’s another story. We tried so hard to find a live music Christmas concert and it just never happened. So tourists who go off the beaten track don’t fare so well I guess.
GLUTEN FREE FOODS: They had a LOT of gluten free options at restaurants and in stores. I was soo happy! The food in general was varied and you could find just about anything you wanted. Haley can tell you more about food in Spain here and you’ve already heard about all the ham. The pizza place across from our apartment had gluten free pizza. McDonald’s had a gluten free bun. Did you read that?? I had a Big Mac with a gluten free bun!!! I was so happy. The kids have never heard me request McDonald’s before.
FRIENDS: We met lovely people. We always do, and it always makes such a difference. Homeschooling isn’t really allowed in Spain so we didn’t meet any Spaniards but we met a few travelling families and a few British families who are living in Spain but flying under the radar regarding school. We hope to meet up again with some of them in some other country.
DIVERSITY: Spain is so… European. I know this sounds strange but coming from Panama and Mexico it seems so weird. In those countries you are either from that country or you are not and it’s fairly obvious to all which applies to you. But here there is such a mix of people. At the animal shelter where we volunteered we heard more Dutch than English or Spanish. There are entire grocery stores that are from Germany and have mostly German food. You meet people who clearly speak Spanish as a second language but you don’t know their first language. It’s just such a mix of cultures it’s kind of strange. It’s like we we’re majoring in Europe with a Spain minor. And we had a double-minor with England. There are so many Brits here you can’t help but learn about British culture too. Invariably when we met Brits we would swap political stories: Brexit and Trump. Each of us were so curious about the other one’s politics.
CAFES: So many cafes! It was shocking how many cafes there were. They were everywhere. At the park, at the gas station, and everywhere along the beach. You were never short on places to get coffee. That also meant that you were never short on…
BATHROOMS: For the most part we found great bathrooms with toilet paper, purse hooks, soap and hand drying stations. The only crappy part was that at malls they tended to be very far away from things and there were not many of them. So you clearly need to plan ahead. You could be deep in the grocery store and if you have to go it’ll take about 10 minutes out of your day just to get there.
COPS: We never once saw a cop pulling someone over for speeding. They have radar enforced speed limits so perhaps that’s how they do it but in general they seem to be more interested in fighting crime instead of speed traps or checking your tourist visa. This is a welcome change. The joke in Mexico was “Dan, stop speeding. My Spanish isn’t good enough to bail you out of Mexican jail.” but here that doesn’t seem to be a problem. And if you ever do come in contact with a cop, I hear that they do not do bribes here. So that was helpful to me. I’m not above paying the bribe but I do not like a country where I don’t know how to interact with the police. I would like an international hand signal indicating “I will take your bribe.” I like clarity.
COFFEE: Yeah, you could have predicted this but there was no shortage of good coffee. There is even a guide for how to order coffee, it’s so personalized. If you needed coffee at any time of day or night it’s there for you. The only downside (crappy) is that their cups are so small. I’m talking TINY. They have never heard of a Starbucks Venti. For one cup of my normal coffee I had to order 3 cafe con leches. And I usually drink 2 normal sized mugs in the morning. I’ll take 6 cups of coffee to go, please!
MAPS: The driving here was a challenge, but not in the same way that it was a challenge in Panama or Mexico. They drive courteously and safely (compared to what we are used to) but the road layout is crazy. The signs are very confusing and the cities are laid out willy nilly. Many times you can see the store you want to go to but you cannot GET to it in any logical way. Google Maps can get you close to your destination but not all the way there. It seems to get confused in the last 1/4 mile. Or it wants you to turn where you cannot turn. Or it takes you deep into an increasingly narrow area that turns into a pedestrian-only market. Oops!
PARKING: Many stores have NO parking. I’m honestly not sure where they think you are going to park. When they do have parking, the spots are built for tiny cars and they are straight and not slanted. So most cars here have a large scrape along their back wheel well where someone next to them were trying to back out of the spot and side swiped them. It happened to our second rental car. We parked at a park and when we came back, big swipe on the rear passenger side quarter panel. It’s just crazy. Why NOT make parking spots slanted? It’s not rocket science, folks. Getting in and out requires a lot of backing up and then going forward, inching into and out of your spot and oh, the pillars. So. Many. Pillars. Every parking garage is filled with pillars. Most are scratched up. Car scratches are almost expected. Or, if you don’t want to chance it, you just park at an angle and take up two spaces. It seems like the thing to do.
RETAIL: We have a family joke that Spain does not want to take our money. The store hours are crazy. Open at 9am or 10am, close at 2pm, open again at 5pm, then close at 8pm. Oh, and closed on Sundays. And so many holidays! It felt really hard to be productive around all the closing times. And even when they’re open, there aren’t many options to choose from. Want less expensive clothes? There is only one store in one mall for that and everyone shops there. So it’s an exercise in patience and fortitude. They simply do not have an entrepreneurial spirit here. It seems as though making money is secondary to everything and anything else. We’ve never worked so hard as when we were trying to buy SIM cards for our phones on our way to Portugal.
HOURS: Restaurants were the opposite of the closing times. Evidently when the stores are closed, everyone is in the restaurants. But that also means some of them don’t open for dinner until 8pm. Once we went to a restaurant near our house at 7pm and we were the only customers. The doors were barely open, we were so early. We had to just smile… “We are Americans!”. There were times when we’d find a restaurant review on Trip Advisor and set off to go there for dinner but they were…. wait for it… closed. Of course. Because Spain does not want our money. Is it a wonder that they have one of the highest unemployment rates in Europe?
CLOTHING: Shopping for clothes was a challenge. They seem to know no other style other than skinny jeans and beige sweaters. And there are SO MANY makeup and perfume counters. In general, it was hard to find many casual clothes that were comfortable or flattering. They had a lot of retail areas but the selection seemed so limited. I’ve never worked so hard to buy things only to not buy anything. One day I even had Daniel’s encouragement to buy stuff and I couldn’t find anything to buy! The things we did buy seemed to fall apart after the first washing. Well, except for the Levi jeans we bought for Haley. But they were 120 euro so they really should outlast the apocalypse.
BUREAUCRACY: We have heard this from many but didn’t experience it ourselves too often, but Spain can be very bureaucratic. They like paperwork for the sake of paperwork. Indeed we had a number of restrictions on our rental car that seemed so arbitrary. We had to turn it in after renting it for 6 weeks and get a new one. We could not put more than 2000 KM on it. We could not take it to Portugal. We could not extend the rental or add me to the contract outside of the hours of 9 – 1 pm or it would cost 20 euro. We had to do all our business in person, nothing could be done over the phone. And, after we turned it in they continued to charge us for things that we were not aware of. So it was really random and there were a lot of rules that made it quite complicated.
ROUNDABOUTS: Roundabouts are another aspect of driving that get their own bullet point. They are everywhere. For the love of God just let us make a left turn with a light! I know they are designed to keep traffic moving but sometimes when you are in the middle of nowhere and there’s no chance there will ever ever be a traffic jam, it just seems like unnecessary car-sickness. The kids learned quickly not to allow water bottles to roll around in the back seat. It annoys the driver big-time.
GROCERY BAGS: My nemesis. Evidently all throughout Europe they have a rule that you have to pay for grocery bags. This encourages people to bring their own and it certainly did me. So I would carry them in the car but promptly forget them there. Or I’d put them in my purse but then change to another purse and forget them in the other one. Or I’d have them in my purse but the purse gets way too heavy so then I get cranky. Oh, and you have to bag your own items. Where is my little man Carlos that loved me at the grocery store in Mexico? He would bag it all and carry it to my car almost before I finished paying. Then he would inquire about my family and wish me a good day. Oh dear Carlos, I miss you.
GROCERY CARTS: Along with the shopping bag topic are the grocery carts. You have to put in a coin to unlock it in order to use it. And if you find it within 10 feet of the entrance of the store you are LUCKY. Usually the carts are way out where you park your car. And because they put their big grocery stores inside the malls, your car is pretty far away. Yes, inside the mall with no outside entrance. You have to go THROUGH the mall to get to it! Honestly, it’s pretty crazy and I hated going to the grocery store, it was always so exhausting.
BOTTLED WATER: In Spain they say you can drink the water but locals don’t. So when you go to a restaurant and order water they usually bring it in a fancy glass bottle. Well, I appreciate the lack of plastic but the price… 0h the price! It was like 2.50 euro per bottle. And with three of us drinking water (a LOT of water) and having a love of salt, we would go through 4 bottles just in one dinner. And the diet coke was the same. They do not have fountain drinks here. The only place we found them was at an American restaurant. So Dan orders his diet coke which comes in a miniature bottle, and through the course of dinner he orders 3-4 more. That really drove up the price of dinner. Red Robin and your unlimited refills, we miss you.
PRICES: Speaking of money, well, we aren’t in Mexico anymore! The prices here were definitely not our favorite. Going to a burger place for dinner then to the movies would set us back almost 100 euro for a family of 4. In Mexico it was about half that cost. Restaurants in general are rather pricey. A steak dinner for Daniel and I was typically about 100 euro if we ordered an appy. Even McDonald’s, the old stand-by, get-er-done kind of meal was over 25 euro for the family.
LONELINESS: There were plenty of activities to do and places to explore but in the area where we lived there just were not a lot of people to meet. We didn’t make any friends who were Spaniards and we didn’t meet any Americans either. The apartment was more of a vacation rental and there were no other kids nearby, and the ladies at my Pilates class were mostly British expats and weren’t too interested in getting to know anyone new. So it was a bit lonely, especially for Zoe and I who have a higher need for frequent social time.
So there’s really no way to answer the question if we liked it with a simple yes or no. Well, Dan will say NO, but I still have a nostalgic connection to Spain and I always will. We had wonderful experiences, we met some lovely people, we made some great memories and we learned a lot. You really can’t ask for more. It will not make it to our “let’s-have-a-home-base-there” list (nothing has made that list other than Gilbert, AZ) but we do plan to return to Northern Spain to explore that area as well. We will be sure to bring our own grocery bags.