This post will be a little different as it is not about traveling, and rather it is about my time spent as an au pair with two different families in Spain! My first family was in Galicia, which is in the Northwest part of Spain, right on the Atlantic Ocean. No really, right on the water.
Everyday I would go for a walk or run along the waterfront. So beautiful.
I spent 4 weeks there with a lovely family with three kids. Twin girls who were 10 years old and a boy who was 16 years old.
My next family was just north of Barcelona in a town called Vilassar de Dalt. Lucky for me, there was a direct bus to downtown Barcelona that was just 35 minutes, making it easy to head in to meet friends. The house here was also near the coast, although the Mediterranean this time.
Can’t complain, this was waiting for me after a 2 mile run from my house!
I spent 5 weeks with this family, which consisted of one girl who was 6 years old, one girl who was 8 years old, and one boy who was 12 years old. This family loves to ski so almost every weekend we went to their ski cabin in France! Such a fun time!
I had such amazing experiences with both families, but life is definitely different in Spain then it is in the States! I wanted to write about some of the fun/funny/strange differences 🙂 (Also just want to preface this with the fact that this is just my observations from living with two different families. In no way am I saying these observations are applicable to a greater population.)
This is an obvious one but it is such a big one that I thought I would still mention it. Here’s roughly the eating schedule in Spain:
I definitely struggled with eating lunch and dinner so much later than what I’m used to. My stomach would often grumble around 12:30 and 7:30, so I would grab a piece of fruit or some crackers to tide me over.
Another difference when it comes to eating is that lunch in Spain is the big meal of the day, whereas in the States dinner is more often the important meal. In fact, in the middle of the day, often people stop working and go home to eat lunch with the whole family. There is a pause in the work day for 2-3 hours to eat lunch in your home. Lunch is the heavier meal with more meat and sides, and often 2-3 courses. Dinner in Spain tends to be lighter. My first family actually only ate sandwiches for dinner. Every night. Like they had the same thing every single night for dinner. After the first week, I started to make my own spinach salad instead of eating a sandwich everyday.
Speaking of eating, they have some weird food habits. Although for them, they thought some of the things I do is weird too! One example is that the grandma of one of the families would always give the kids milk as part of their snack in the afternoon, which of course isn’t weird at all until you consider the fact that she would put sugar in it. And it wasn’t non-fat milk, it was WHOLE MILK. I repeat, SUGAR IN WHOLE MILK. For me that seems crazy as whole milk already so sweet and fatty, but I’m sure it is tasty.
Another example is surrounding cereal. The kids in my second family would eat their cereal either dry, as in without milk, or with hot milk, but never with cold milk. When they saw me put the milk on my cereal right out of the fridge their jaws dropped. I was so confused as I had never seen another way to eat cereal. I mean, cereal without milk I understand because it is sort of like a trail mix/snack thing, but hot milk in your Cheerios seems weird to me. Sometimes they would even put their hot Cola-Cao (which is like a powder chocolate milk mix) on their cereal. To me, it seemed strange, although I’m not knocking it because I’m sure it would be good.
Another new one for me was one of the dad’s loved his toast with olive oil and sugar. At first I was suspicious but after trying it, I really liked it.
The mom of one family would make fresh squeezed orange juice and add some lemon and honey to it before heating it in the microwave for when one of the kids was sick. Sounds strange to me, hot orange juice, but after trying it, I absolutely love it. It is super soothing for a sore throat.
As for things the families often found weird about my eating, one was my love of peanut butter and how I put it on everything. Cereal, apples, bananas, carrots, toast, ice cream, you name it. Peanut butter is not very common in Spain, so most of the kids hadn’t even tried it before, but after trying it, all but one loved it! I even gave the twins from my first family a jar of peanut butter each for their 10th birthday, which I happened to be around for while I was staying with them. Also on a peanut butter note… I made PB&J’s for the kids and they took it for school as a snack. They loved it!!
They thought it was weird that I put butter on untoasted bread. They always dip their bread in the sauce of whatever dish they were serving or in olive oil.
They thought it was weird that I put salt on everything from salads and soups, to meats. (America is wayyyyy addicted to salt)
One night my second family made beef and as a side dish they made apple puree (or apple sauce), but it was hot. At first I thought this was strange, but, once again, it ended up being tasty!
Birds are very popular as pets because in small apartments in Barcelona, not much else fits. Dogs and cats are popular as well, but I noticed some interesting things about these pets. The most obvious and interesting one for me was that the German Shepard at my first house was not allowed inside the house. As in, it was kept outside 100% of the time. For me this is so strange! Even when there were thunderstorms and even when it was cold, he was kept outside. It also meant interactions with the dog were minimal as the only time spent with dog was when we left the house or were arriving. I think the whole month I was there they took him on 2 walks. The whole thing made me sad because my dogs are such an important part of my daily life. Whether I am walking them, or snuggling with them, I spend a significant amount of time with them. Also they fed him whatever human food we didn’t finish including bones or chocolate, which made me uncomfortable because depending on the type, they both are dangerous for a dog. But alas, different customs I guess. Also, there are a significant number of stray dogs and cats in both places I lived, although less stray dogs in my second town. I know this does happen in the US as well, but where I live I rarely see a stray dog and most cats I see are just outside cats, rather than stray cats.
Both families would take off their shoes as soon as they enter their house and put on zapatillas. They never were barefoot or walked around with shoes on. When I told them at my house, everyone either wore their “outside shoes” or were barefoot they were shocked. I always forget to put on my zapatillas so sometimes I would just be wearing my socks and the mom of my first mom would say that I would get sick without wearing my zapatillas. I figured in my head that if for the first 22 years of my life I managed without zapatillas then I would manage to not get sick the month I was there- and I was right- but as often as I could I would try to remember to wear my zapatillas.
It was clearly quite important to both families that the house was always clean. And obviously that’s not a bad or unique thing, but it felt more important than what I have seen in my experiences in the States. I mean, my family has someone who cleans the house every week or every other week, so I can appreciate having a clean home. But one of my families had someone come EVERY. SINGLE. DAY. to clean the entire home. This seemed a bit excessive to me. The other family had me vacuum and dust every single day. I didn’t mind doing it, of course, but it just seemed again a bit excessive. Another difference that I think might affect this behavior is that I’ve noticed a lack of carpets in Spain. Homes here tend to have a few rugs here and there, but in general it’s all hard floors, whether it is hardwood or concrete. This means dust and dirt is more visible and gets onto your feet more, as opposed the carpet which sort of ends up absorbing the dust and dirt. My house is certainly a higher percentage carpet than it is hardwood.
I don’t know if this is applicable generally to Spain or if I just got two families that don’t participate in this, but in my 9 weeks total with Spanish families there was not one playdate. The only time a kid came over to one of the houses was a birthday party for the twins in my first family. I asked the families about this and their replies were similar: Time away from school and work is for family time. Interesting right? This is so different to my experience growing up where almost every day I had some sort of playdate where I was going to someone’s house or someone was coming to mine. Not only was it great for the kids, it allowed parents some extra time to get stuff done. I never really met any of the friends of the 6 kids I au paired for. Sort of strange to me.
With my two families, it seemed vacations were for the entire family or no one. For example, when I told my first family that growing up sometimes my parents took a weekend away just the two of us or that in the past 7 years, vacations are spent with some combination of the family (as in sometimes my sister isn’t there, or sometimes my dad misses it), they again were shocked. To them, vacation is for the whole family. They don’t want to spend time with one family member missing. Between the playdates and vacations, my takeaway is that the family unit is very strong in Spain. They value spending time as a full unit and don’t want anyone outside the family a part of it. It’s not time for friends or other groups- just family. In my experience, once my sister and I were a little older, we almost always brought friends on vacation with us, or we went with family friends, so again just a slightly different way of doing things.
On the theme of family, extended family seemed to be much more involved in the daily life compared to my experiences growing up. Both families had one set of grandparents living about a 5-minute walk away. Often part of the daily routine was having a snack at the grandparent’s house before Grandpa would take some of the kids to an extracurricular such as track and field or music class. They pitched in to help with the grandkids on a daily/weekly basis. In my experience growing up, while I definitely saw my grandparents a decent amount because luckily they lived in the next town over, they weren’t part of the daily routine. Obviously, if my parents needed help in a pinch, my grandparents would help out, but like I said, they weren’t part of the daily routine. In fact, the mom of my second family had grown up in downtown Barcelona, but once married she moved out to the town they live in currently. Her parents, who had lived in Barcelona their entire lives, followed her and bought a house a five-minute walk away to be closer to their daughter and future grandkids.
Anyway, these are just some of my thoughts and observations after living in Spain for just 9 weeks. Like I said at the beginning, I’m not saying these observations are applicable to all of Spain, just what I noticed after living with two families! Hope you enjoyed reading this!