Sunday, September 28, 2014

Public School in Spain

Our kids are in Colegio Fernandez Moratin public school in Madrid, Spain.  Silas is in Infantil 5-year-old class, and Maeve is in 3rd grade of primary school.  They're in the same school, different buildings.  We're happy with the school, other parents in the school definitely feel like it's a good school, and the kids seem happy to go in the morning and are totally exhausted when they come home in the afternoon.  So all's well.  But, there are just a few differences that we're discovering...

  1. Parents are not invited in the school.  There is a secure fence around the school property and it stays locked and parents must be buzzed in.  Before and after school, there's a huge mass of parents waiting for the janitor to open the gate to come in to drop off or pick up their kids.  In addition, on the primary school gate, the school recently put up the following sign:
    This sign says, "Once the first week of school is finished, the students are prepared to get in the line themselves.  The parents can look at them from outside the fence.  Thanks.  The director."
  2. September and June are half-days (9-1).  The rest of the school year is full days, 9-12:30, 2:20-4pm.  Given the 2-hour lunch break, full days are actually only 1 more hour of instruction a day.
  3. The lunchroom is full of meat.  The school secretary told me the kids are not able to eat lunch in school because there are no provisions for vegetarians.  I have also talked to the head of the cafeteria, who said it was okay with her if the school office okayed it, but that the kids have to bring their food warm in Thermoses.  Lunch is the big meal of the day, and there is an assumption that the kids would need a complete, warm meal. I now need to go talk to the school director to see if she'll allow the kids to stay.  This is an issue because we're moving to full days and (1) I want the kids to be able to play with others after lunch and (2) it takes 15 minutes home and then 15 minutes back to school so we won't really have time to eat and then even rest.  If we could get a rest, it would be worth it to go back home.  We'll see what happens...
  4. There is almost no communication with the families.  We know Maeve's schedule because she wrote it down.  We know her content because she brings home her books to copy down her homework and we see what she's working on.  We would have no idea for Silas (no schedule, no information about his specialists (English, art etc), no information about content), except that we looked at his textbooks before he took them in.  He met his English teacher for the first time last week.  He has recess every day.  The teacher did tell me that they have one period each day when the kids do work at their desks (copying, coloring etc).  Silas apparently doesn't think this is much fun. Silas likes that the teacher ends each day with a story about Aris, a rainbow-colored hair character that is the central character of their integrated skills curriculum.
  5. The curriculum depends on the textbooks, which teachers follow directly, and correlates to the national standards.  It is incredibly rote in Primary school.  The teachers seem to do more interaction in Infantil.
  6. Handwriting is a big deal.  Silas is learning cursive.  Maeve should start every page with the date in red ink and a header in blue ink before starting to copy/answer, either in ink or pencil.  This was discussed, I kid you not, for over 5 minutes out of a 1 hour meeting with the teacher and the parents the 3rd week of school.  The discussion of having started to use pens at the beginning of 3rd grade, a radical idea, took up another 5 minutes of the meeting.
  7. Parents and teachers here really care that their kids do well in school and learn - exactly what we're used to!

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Now I understand churros

I finally understand churros.  I've eaten them a few times before, and always with disappointing results:  they're just dry, oily dough sticks.

Then, we visited Chocalateria San Ginés, the most famous churreria (churro shop) in Madrid.  It's plastered with photos of celebrities who have eaten there, such as the king of Spain, actors, sports stars, and politicians.  We had to sit inside, at the last available table, since the dozens outside were all full.

The churros were terrific.  They had been deep-fried at high heat, so that the oil had not permeated them.  They were still piping-hot.  (The shop has very high turnover, and it serves nothing but churros and chocolate.)  We also ordered a cup of chocolate, eating the churros the traditional way by dipping them in the chocolate drink, which was neither sweet nor bitter.  The chocolate is served in cup, but it's more like a sauce:  it is almost as viscous as pudding and it really sticks to the churros.

This experience with churros reminds me of when I first understood plain yogurt, in Greece at Karren Levis and Greg Kerman's wedding.  I had eaten tremendous amounts of yogurt in the US, but always with berries or other flavoring so that the yogurt was really a vector for the other flavors.  I didn't like plain yogurt, which struck me as both bland and sour.  Though I usually bought a cheap store brand, this applied to better prepackaged yogurts as well.

Then, while we were in Greece, I tried plain Greek yogurt.  It was a revelation and seemed to me a completely different food that only happened to share a name with what I had been eating in the United States.  It is traditionally eaten with honey drizzled over the top, but it doesn't need much.

Since then, I eat Greek yogurt from the supermarket (so fatty, it can't be called a health food), and it's not the same but it's still good.  And I even appreciate regular plain supermarket yogurt more, since I see what it is a dim echo of -- though I do not eat it by choice.  Mostly, though, we make our own yogurt from Greek yogurt cultures.

We will definitely go back to San Ginés.  I might even try churros again in the US.  But probably not.

(Photo credits:  Sandie)

Monday, September 22, 2014

Party schedule

We were delighted that a boy in Silas's class had a birthday party last weekend, giving us a chance to socialize with the other parents.  We had already met a few during drop-off and pick-up at the school.  By contrast, it has been harder to get to know the families of Maeve's classmates, since the third-graders are more independent and the families don't hang around the kids as much.  Also, those families have been together for six years, since the kids were 3 years old.

Suppose that you were throwing a birthday party for a 5-year-old.  When would you make it end?  7pm?  7:30pm?  8pm?  That's when Silas couldn't take it any more, but when Maeve and I left at 8:30 we were among the first to leave and other families were still enjoying it.  The party had started at 5:30.

The previous night I had been at a conference in Cádiz, and I left the banquet at 1am when it was still going strong, with the entertainment having started after midnight.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

How to rent a short-term (less than one year) furnished apartment in Madrid

After you have done something for the first time, you are full of ideas and regret about how it should actually be done.  So, I can share with you advice about renting a furnished apartment in Madrid for less than one year.

We wanted an apartment by the beginning of September, so we started looking in June.  That was far too early, because many apartments don't go on the market until they are ready to be occupied.  In fact, some apartment-searching websites have a tickbox that asks whether you plan to take possession in less than 7 days or more than 7 days.  We contacted a number of landlords nonetheless, with specifics about the location (it had to be within walking distance of the public school we had chosen for Maeve and Silas), size (we wanted enough space to host guests), and dates (4 months).

Quite a few of the landlords were uninterested in renting for less than one year, and quite a few never responded at all.  But some did, and three rental agencies were very positive, pointing out their large stock of rentals that fit our needs, explicitly saying that a short-term rental is no problem, and telling us to contact them once we were on the ground in Madrid.  One individual landlord did the same.  (Renting sight unseen doesn't seem to happen.)

After we arrived in Madrid, we contacted the three rental agencies.  Every agency told us that they couldn't help us because a rental contract of less than a year is impossible.  We visited the apartment that was being rented by the individual who, upon hearing we were looking for a short-term rental, said that would be impossible -- even though our contact email had been quite explicit.

So we switched gears.

  • We stopped in rental agencies that we walked past on the street, saying we wanted a 6-month rental.  Although most said they could not help us, one of them did show us a large (1400+ square feet), pricey (as much as the rent for our furnished home in Seattle that is double that size and has a yard), unfurnished apartment in a perfect location, immediately across the street from the school.  We started scheming about just how little IKEA furniture we could get away with purchasing.
  • We were staying in a tiny apartment that we had rented for a week via AirBnB.  The landlord offered to extend it through the end of the year, but it was too cramped and was also a bit further from the school than we preferred.
  • We went further afield from the main websites that everyone uses and recommends; Cat spent many hours poring over listings on obscure websites.  We found an apartment that sounded fantastic, but someone else contacted the landlord just before we did and rented it for the first month.  We thought about piecing together two rentals, but we were not eager to move, which would stress us more and prevent us from feeling settled.  We found three places that were a 30-40 minute metro ride from school, but we had heard negative things about that lifestyle (less opportunity to interact with other families from the school, less sleep) from other expats who had tried it.
  • Many people had recommended AirBnB, but there was not much stock in the residential area where we wanted to live.  More seriously, most of the listings were already rented for at least a few days or weeks during the rest of the year -- we couldn't find one that wouldn't force us to move.  In retrospect, arranging an AirBnB rental well in advance would have been the best approach.
  • By this time, we were feeling extraordinarily stressed and were scoping out bridges that looked promising to sleep under.  But then things started to look up.  The first place we had seen (from the individual landlord) said they would consider a 6-month rental.  (We knew the landlord had shown it to some other people whom they preferred, but it must not have worked out.)  It had a weird layout but would have been acceptable.  The agency that showed us the empty apartment had pointed out that even if you sign a 1-year contract, a recent law guarantees that you get your deposit back if you give 1 month of notice and have been in the apartment for 6 months.  So we were searching for a 6-month rental with the expectation of losing the last month of rent.  We continued to be upfront about our plans rather than saying we wanted a 1-year rental, because that was the honest thing to do.
  • Best of all, one of the original three rental agencies called us with a possibility.  They showed us a furnished apartment of 1250 square feet that was located a 10-minute walk from the school, and we took it on the spot.

It wasn't quite that easy, of course, and it involved 4 visits to the rental agency for various steps of the process such as signing two phases of agreements and paying two types of deposits, fees, and first month's rent (6 months of rent upfront in all).  For the big payment, I went to a local branch our bank to withdraw cash.  (I had set up an account immediately after our the first day in Madrid, at a branch near IMDEA, with significant help from IMDEA who had already provided the bank copies of my passport, national identification number, and other information.)

The bank wouldn't give me the money -- you have to give notification a day in advance if you want to withdraw more than $800.  But the bank closes at 2:00 and we had made our decision at 2:30 the previous day.  I said I needed it for an apartment and looked grim.  The bank said they would call my branch to get permission to use part of my branch's daily cash allowance.  This didn't really make sense to me since the bills were going to have to come out of their own safe.  But I settled down to wait because I had been warned this would happen.  My branch didn't answer their phone nor respond to a fax.  I had opened my account at a building with a single a room about 12 feet square, and one employee, on the university campus; maybe that was all my branch consisted of?  My branch wouldn't take money from me when I opened the account, either, which I guess makes sense since students don't have any money anyway.  I had wired money from my US account as soon as the account was open.

After 45 minutes of waiting (and answering questions about why there were both German and Spanish residence visas in my passport), the bank relented and just gave me the money.  I was a bit nervous carrying it all and walked to the rental agency's bank where I had to deposit it.  I took a shortcut over the railroad tracks where there was a lot of graffiti and no one to be seen other than a pair of shady-looking immigrants who accosted me.  But nothing came of it, I got the money deposited, and later in the day we spent almost an hour trying to decipher the Spanish legalese on our lease before taking possession of the apartment.

We had chosen a neighborhood with good transit connections to the university on whose campus I will work.  Together with our desire for a furnished apartment, that meant that we were really in the market for a student apartment.  I don't know whether this complicated our search or made it easier.  I do know that our search would have been much easier if we had relaxed our location requirements, but the kids were already accepted into the school.  In the end, we signed a lease within about a week (an extraordinarily stressful week, but a week nonetheless).

Our apartment had a few quirks when we moved in, such as shattered glass in the living room, a generous icing of grease on every surface in the kitchen (Really, on the bottom of the shelves of a lower-level cabinet with closed doors?  How did the previous renters even manage that?), bedroom shutters that were stuck shut, very slow drainage in the bathroom, and so forth.  The previous renters had also left most of the light sockets empty -- 15 light bulbs were missing.  (Are light bulbs a popular item for theft?)  But we resolved most of these issues with a week of elbow grease (we washed every surface in the apartment and every item in the kitchen), harassment of the management company, and purchases.  I had expected us to say, "It may be a dump, but it's our dump," but it doesn't feel like a dump at all, we enjoy living there, and we are looking forward to visits from our families and friends.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Madrid Rio

Madrid Rio
September 20, 2014

Today we bought bikes (will be cheaper for Mike's commute in the long run, and we'll use them) from a used bike shop.  We came home via the new park on the Manzanares River.  In the last decade, the ring highway was put underground and there is now a great park for about 8 K on the river.  We live at the N end and will definitely enjoy eventually biking all of it with the kids.  We biked about 5 K home from the bike shop today, stopping at several awesome playgrounds along the way.

The first two photos are from earlier this week when I took the kids out to the river and they did a ropes course playground.
Madrid Rio

The photos below are from today, from our ride back from the bike shop, about 6 k or less in total.  Mike and my bikes weren't ready yet, so we walked/ran while the kids biked.  The first playground is made up of swings on the underside of a bridge.  Mike was pushing the kids so high they were swinging 8 feet or more in the air.

This is from the jabali (wild pig) playground, a little farther on. 

At Puente del Rey, which is a new pedestrian connector between Principe Pio (the neighborhood where we live) and Casa del Campo (a huge city park), there was a family sports day.  Silas spent a long time learning how to kick a soccer ball.  All the boys here play soccer and Silas has never played, so it was great practice for him.

Monday, September 08, 2014

Adjusting to the Spanish schedule

Last weekend we went out to dinner for the first time in Madrid.  We went to Yerbabuena, a restaurant that I had enjoyed on a previous trip.

First, we went for a paseo (a walk about town), which is what the Spaniards do.  The streets that are relatively deserted during the hot hours of the day teem with people at night.  Maeve enjoyed walking to the bus at 10pm when things were really starting to hop (though many people won't go out until midnight).

Amazingly, during our early evening paseo we ran into Manuel Carro -- my host at IMDEA -- and his family at one of the tiny playgrounds that are ubiquitous throughout Madrid; both of our families had chosen to stop there.  He lives outside town and says he only comes into the city center once every month or so, in this case for a museum exhibit.  He and the IMDEA staff have been invaluable in helping me navigate the bureaucracy of living and working in Spain.

Our family was were the first patrons in the restaurant at 8:00 when it opened.  When left at 9:45, the line of people waiting was told it would be 1.5 to 2 hours before they would be served.  We got home around 10:15 and that night was the latest that we have ever put the children to bed.

Spaniards generally have dinner at 10pm or so, though when Cat lived here in high school her host family ate extremely early, around 8:30pm or 9pm, because they had a 5-year-old child.

We are still working to adjust to the later hours, both in terms of sleep and in terms of timing our meals.  Lunchtime is 2-4pm, and most stores and businesses are closed then.  Many children are at home from school for two hours in the early afternoon as well.  Our kids can't quite manage between meals, and we are still calibrating how much snack, and when, will leave them willing to eat the next meal.  We will probably have Silas return to napping, which he had dropped 6 weeks ago when we left home, so that he can go to bed after 9pm and still be awake by 8am and at school by 9am.  The rest of the family has also delayed their bedtimes by several hours.  Unfortunately, I continue to wake at 6am and that will have to stop.