What’s in a Name? A Primer on Spanish Names

“When we have kids, promise you’ll let me name all of the boys.”

I don’t remember where or in what context the Novio asked me this favor, but I shrugged – and then mentally shuddered. We were only a few months into our relationship and I was probably thinking about where we should have dinner, not children. After all, I was 22, temporarily teaching English in Spain and Gambrinus would not be a proper name for a peque.

Who are you? Street art in Seville, Spain

Nine years later, we’d been married for eight months when I found out I was pregnant with our first child. As the Novio shouted, “We’re screwed!” and I immediately regretted the beers I’d drunk the night before (I deep-down suspected being preñada while having dinner with a friend), he pointed at me and reminded me of the promise to let him name the varones.

Admittedly, the only time I’d felt inclined to pick out baby names was when I had a grade-school crush on Jakob Dylan and vowed that my child would have musical prowess and blue eyes. And when you’re expecting a child whose parents do not share a language or culture, it was almost better that we’d divided the task. But naming a child is a big job. As the gender reveal date hurtled towards us, I had a lot of thinking to do.

Middle names and last names in Spain

The only people who call me by my full name, Catherine Mary, are my mother and the Novio’s youngest brother. Oh, and the doctors who look blankly at the list of names and peep a, “Mah-reeee?” before I stand up and correct them, or the letters addressed to “SRTA. MARY” as if it were my first surname.

I often have to explain to people over the phone that I have one surname, Gaa, and two first names. In Spain, most have one name and two surnames. If I were Spanish, my first surname would be my father’s first and the second would be my mother’s first. This means I would share surnames with my siblings, but not my parents.

lost child

So, imagine my mother is named María Gracia González de la Fuente and my father is Ricardo Hidalgo Barros. So, I’d probably be Mari Catherine Hidalgo González. Because I decided to keep my last name when the Novio and I got married, our child(ren) will have a Spanish surname first, followed by my hard-to-pronounce, very odd and very Central European surname. Vaya.

And then there’s the question of compound names: Jose María (male), María José (female), Juan José, Luis Miguel, and so on. These are considered full first names, not a first and a middle.

The Novio was very firm: no compound names, and no middle names. And with a last name like mine, it’s highly unlikely that someone will share a name with Micro during his lifetime (and that only one name will be sternly shouted when I have to get cross).

Family ties and the name game

Paco regaled me with his favorite idioms in English as I tried to gauge his level of English during our first class. “My tailor is rich!” he repeated a few times before asking me for a moment to skim the sports section as I picked at my nails. I asked him about the basics, hearing drilled answers about his job and summer vacation rattled off until I asked him if he had children.

“My wife, she is Rosa. We have got two childrens, no, no! Two chiiiiildren, aha! They are Javi and Rosa.” I glanced at he business card he’d given me. Paco’s name is really Francisco Javier, as is his son’s, and his wife and daughter share a name. Two Franciscos and two Rosas sharing 65 square meters. Typical Spanish.

This is a common practice in Spain, which came in handy when I’d meet the parents of my students for the first time. If I’d neglected to look at the school records, I assumed the child shared a name with a parent; more than half of the time, I would be right. Perhaps more so than in the USA, children are named for close family.

I made it clear to my parents, Nancy and Don, that we wouldn’t be naming our children after them. After all, Nancy is the name of a knockoff Barbie that had her heyday in the 70s and 80s in Spain, and Donald is Mickey Mouses’s duckbilled pal. It’s bad enough to have a weird last name.

Both the Novio and I were named for family members; in fact, my mother tried to petition to change her name to Catherine Mary, after her maternal grandmother. My grandmother Agnes wouldn’t even entertain the idea, so the name for her firstborn daughter was picked out before my mom could even drive a car.

The Novio shares a name with his father, grandfather and great-grandfather. My own grandparents are Jack, Donald, Marguerite and Agnes; the Novio’s, Alquilino, María del Robledo and Elundina. My father has a Jr. after his name, and we have four John Robert Nicholases on my mom’s side.  Many of the Novio’s cousins were named for family members or a combination of them. O sea, it wasn’t until I began thinking of what to name my own child that I noticed all of the patterns in baby naming in our families.

If we had a boy, there would be no discussion about names. Punto, pelota.

How do you solve a problem like María?

The English department of I.E.S. Heliche consisted of six women and a lone male, Miguel; Charo, Nieves, Valle, Asunción joined Ángeles and Silvia. While I admit that my Spanish wasn’t very good when I first moved to Spain, I gathered that their names were Rosary, Snows, Valley, Assumption, Angels… and Silvia.

Virgen de la Estrella

The majority of them were in their early 40s, meaning they’d been born during the Franco era in which women were required to have their name proceeded by María de, Mary of Something. Our Lady of Whatever. Most women of a certain age have a religious name or biblical allusion, so you rarely heard a Jessica or Jennifer in a small town like Olivares. I soon began to connect the names I heard with their religious names: Pili comes from María del Pilar, the patron saint of Zaragoza, Maribel was the juxtaposition of María Isabel.

Many women drop María in favor of their second name, or they blend them.

Of Saints and Sinners

I had a very concerned parent at the door on the morning of September 13th, half apologizing and half worried that her daughter would act up that day. The result wasn’t a fever or a poor night’s sleep: I had neglected to recognize a little girl’s Saint Day.

In a place like Sevilla, religion runs deep, and María wouldn’t let me forget that as she pouted her way through even P.E. class, directing her six-year-old rabia straight at me as she played dodgeball.

Should I have been born sevillana on my same date of birth, there is a good chance I’d have been called Reyes. August 15th is not only a national holiday, but the observed feast of the Assumption, known as Día de los Reyes. Many Spaniards are named for the saint on the day they were born, such as my former coworker who was born on St. Joseph’s Day and thus called María José (if you’re curious, here’s the Catholic church’s Santoral so you can check out your birthday); others for a patron saint of their parents’ village. And then there’s the question of naming a child after a petition or promise one makes to the church.

One of the Novio’s coworkers has a strange name due to a promise his mother, who had trouble conceiving, made the the nuns she asked to pray for her. They tied a string around her stomach, which she was told not to take off until she was pregnant. She promised that, should she have a daughter, she would call her María de la Cinta; when M was born, his full name became M de la Cinta.

st james at the santiago cathedral

Some names are particularly regional or local; it’s common to hear shouts of Diego! in the main square of San Nicolás del Puerto, where the saint was born in year 1400. Eulalia, a teenaged martyr in Luisitania, is popular for baby girls in Mérida, and Jordi, the patron saint of Catalonia, is amongst the most popular name for boys, year after year (there are 67,000 of them!).

In 2012, the Instituto Nacional de Estadística released a database of the most popular names and surnames by province. Much like in the US, age-old names are making a resurgence: Nearly half a million children were born in 2015, and María and Daniel amongst the most popular.

Remember Paco? I taught him out of his office for two years immediately after giving his son, Javi, class at home. Javi had coyly told me about a girl he was interested in, and Paco slapped his palms on the table to echo the news – though far more excitedly – that Javi was finally dating. “Guess her name, Cat! It is so typical in Seville.” I tried the three most common: Macarena, Esperanza and Rocío.

I not only named his girlfriend, but her two younger sisters.

Micro’s due date is January 1st, so we could have considered Jesús or Manuel. Not on our shortlist, though.

The guiri conundrum: language versus culture 

As if I didn’t have a million names spinning around my head already, we have the language issue: I am incapable of pronouncing the Novio’s name correctly and call him by his nickname. Rodrigo was out of the picture for the difficulty with the Rs. And if I can’t pronounce them, his American grandparents wouldn’t be able to, either.

baby-names-in-spain

Many of the female names that are popular today have English equivalents: Laura, Paula, Emma, Sofia, Julia. I like them in Spanish but not in English, or vice-versa. Paula in English becomes pauw-luh and Emma pronounced in Spanish sounds like you get your mouth stuck between syllables. Of my guiri friends who live in Spain and have had babies in the last few months, only a handful of them have chosen non-Spanish names; of those, the Anglo names are easy to pronounce with Spanish vowels.

What we’re naming our son

I’d been assigned any girl’s names, despite feeling like I was carrying a boy from the beginning. My mom quizzed me on which names I liked before asking the equivalent in English. “So, you’re saying that I could have a granddaughter named after the town where Jesus was born?”

Point taken, Nancy.

I casually thought about girl names. I like Belén, Martina, Carolina and Laia, but tried not to get my heart set on any one name until we found out the gender. I’d long known that a first-born male would have the same name as his father (and the three that came before him), and that Santiago and Diego were close seconds as the patrons of Spain and the Novio’s village, respectfully.

Baby Shower in Spain

As I’ve found in my eight months of being pregnant in Spain, there’s no waiting to find out the gender of your baby. In fact, I’ve met just one woman who wanted to be surprised, and mostly because her Irish partner preferred waiting. I was a bit crestfallen when the Novio expressed that he’d wanted to know right away, as I genuinely believe this could have been one of the last happy surprises we’d ever get. But knowing we were having a boy made the naming process easier.

When the obstetrician pointed out the baby’s extra extremity, I breathed a sigh of relief as I pronounced his name aloud for the first time. The fifth in a long line of men who had been farmers and soldiers. And I could forget about female names until perhaps the next one came around.

We’re only five weeks or so away from getting a first glance of Enrique, who will be born in Triana between Christmas and Reyes. I often imagine who he’ll look more like, what we’ll teach him and how he’ll change us – giving him a name before he’s born has made his presence far more real to us.

What people name their children in Spain

What do you think about Spanish naming trends? I’m curious to hear the common names where you live!

A Guiri Guide to Having a Baby in Spain: Second Trimester

The start of my second trimester, at 14 weeks, coincided with another big event in my life: Leaving Seville for a job and a new life in Madrid.

After a relatively uneventful first trimester, I found out that being pregnant in Spain – especially when your second trimester coincides with the hot summer months and the ghost town that is Madrid – was not going to be a cake walk (and what the hell is up with my lack of cravings for cake?!).

the-guiri-guide-to

I can’t say I have complaints about how I felt during my first third of the pregnancy: no morning sickness, no noticeable weight gain, only nominal sleepiness. But the heat, looking for an apartment and drinking in a new city (and drinking cerveza sin and Nesteas in all of the old man bars we could find) meant afternoon naps and sitting down on benches any chance I got. For many weeks,  I avoided eye contact on the Metro, particularly with old people, because I wasn’t big enough to warrant getting the coveted pregnant lady seat just yet.

Miss the English Guide to Pregnancy in Spain? Just click!

People say that the honeymoon period of any pregnancy falls between weeks 14 and 28, or your second third of the cooking. This is the time to exercise, to travel (we went to Asturias via car and I took a jaunt around Northern Europe for work) or to live life as you would have before the achy joints and doctor visits, to savor the moments before midnight feedings and being covered in baby dribble. Considering I’ve had an easy, low-risk pregnancy so far, my biggest complaints lie in the bureaucratic limbo I’ve been in and not to how my body has reacted to being pregnant.

This side eye goes straight to you, Comunidad de Madrid. But we’ll get there later.

Second Trimester tests and check ups

By the time I was making the transition to Madrid, I was almost ready to take the first apartment I saw because there was something more important in play: finding a doctor and signing up for local healthcare. After we signed a contract on a flat in Chamberí, I googled the nearest public health clinic and was delighted to find it within waddling distance of my house.

Centro Médico Espronceda took care of changing my health care from Andalucía to the Cupo Madrileño, promising a card would be mailed to me within the month (and it was!). In the meantime, they gave me a print off and took care of assigning me a médico de cabecera, or a primary care doctor, and nurse.

spanish-doctors-office

While I was allowed to make my own appointments with the primary care doctor and midwife, I was assigned to another medical center around the corner for by obstetrics appointments. This would be the doctor who refers me for tests required for prenatal care. My plan was to get everything out of the way before beginning my job at an estimated 16 weeks of pregnancy, but it didn’t work out that way…

Being new to the health system in Madrid – remember that every autonomous community in Spain has their own regulations regarding public healthcare – I knew that meant a few more visits than normal. Plus, I was looking for a private doctor and had a few Goldilocks moment: too stern, too aloof… until I found one at Clínica La Luz who was just right.

This second trimester has been marked by a slew of doctor’s appointments, to say the least, and mangled test results. Here are the big tests you’ll need to complete if you’ve got a healthy, low-risk pregnancy:

Analisís del segundo trimestre / second trimester blood and urine analysis: Sometime around the middle of your pregnancy, you’ll be instructed to have blood drawn and a urine sample tested for your sugar, protein and iron, plus toxoplasmosis, rubeola and AIDS. Remember to go en ayunas, or without eating or drinking anything but water.

In the public system in Madrid, test results of this nature are typically ready within three working days as opposed to a week in Seville.

Eco de las 20 semanas / The 20-week scan: Arguably the most beautiful moment of the pregnancy, 20 weeks marks the middle of gestation and the most thorough sonogram you’ll have. A doctor will check to be sure Baby has all its fingers and toes, that most of its organs are fully formed and that he or she is not over or underweight.

In fact, the baby is nearly fully formed at this point, so the last half of your pregnancy will be the time he or she gains weight, sprouts hair on the head, begins growing its lungs and continues to develop brain cells. If you’ve been waiting to find out the gender, you should be able to see the sex organs, too – but remember, be very specific if you prefer to wait! Spaniards tend to want to know as soon as possible, so I had to remind doctors that I was waiting until the 20 week scan so as to avoid mistakes.

Pro tip: I was told to consume a bit of sugar before the scan so that the baby would be active. It must have worked: we got the full frontal, so it was easy to determine the baby’s sex!

Curva de azúcar / glucose test: Also called the test O’Sullivan in Spain, you should have your glucose test between 24 and 28 weeks of your pregnancy. This tests for gestational diabetes and can take several hours to complete, depending on your pregnancy and your immediate test results. I decided to do my test in the public system, which I got done at the same time as my second trimester blood and urine exams.

glucose-test-pregnancy-spain

People often complain about the sugary drink, which tasted like a cracked-out version the McDonalds orange pop that we drank after soccer matches as kids. I jokingly told them woman I’d chug it like a beer, college style, but she ordered me to consume it more slowly, in 5-10 minutes, and then sit. Someone will take blood again at one and two hours of consumption to determine your risk for gestational diabetes, which can provoke an overweight baby or preeclampsia. After the second hour, you’re allowed to have breakfast (what sane person deprives a pregnant lady of food?!) and walk around a bit. Thanks to the Novio feeding me plenty of legumes and fish, my margins were extremely low.

Tósferina / whooping cough shot: If your doctor merits it, you’ll have to also have a whooping cough shot around 28 weeks. I was told to put it off until after my third trimester scan to see if it was actually necessary.

Differences Between Madrid and Andalucía’s healthcare systems 
I fully expected to not have any issues with changes from the cupo andaluz to the madrileño. After all, everything works better in Madrid! There’s an appointment system! The Metro runs on time! You can go grocery shopping on Sunday night!
But, much like moving to Spain in the first place, I ran into a lot of bureaucratic brick walls, head first.
When I first met my gynecologist, an older man who stared at me over his glasses while I pulled out all of my paperwork as if he was late for a delivery, I was not impressed. He continually told me that the Andalusian care system was crap, that he had no access to my records, and that he wouldn’t even see me until I’d done another round of blood tests and a sonogram with another doctor. He tossed my cartilla de embarazada back at me and proceeded to pull out a folder and write my vitals on it. I will remember until the day I die that March 29th, 2016 was the first day of my last menstrual cycle – I have probably recited it 100 times by now.

micro-meets-freddie

Apparently you don’t keep your cartilla de embarazada with you, but at your doctor’s. This wouldn’t have been a big deal had it not been during summer vacation time – but I’ll tell you that story later.

Additionally, my doctor doesn’t make my appointments for me. After getting assigned a test or follow-up, you must make the appointment at the medical center: you can do this by phone or internet, or simply by waiting in line at your assigned center. In the stressful first weeks trying to schedule my 20-week scan, I was jockeyed between medical centers and put on a wait list, finally being called by the public system 30 minutes before an appointment – and I was in Seville for the weekend. My being proactive (as in, calling the sistema madrileño de salud out on their inability to adequately staff a public health clinic during the summer months) succeeded to a point, but even being an “urgente” case did nothing to give me any preference.

Once you do get in to the doctor, be sure to have your appointment print out, called a volante, with you. Rather than being polite and asking what time everyone else’s appointment is, you have to stalk the obstetrics nurse and shove your volante at her when she comes out to call a name. I suppose it’s better than the uncomfortable shuffle of times or cutting an abuelita in line, but I was scolded on more than one occasion for not presenting the paper and being skipped over.

If you don’t have a volante because you called for an appointment, flash a photo ID so that the nurse knows you’ve arrived.

The Autonomous Community conundrum

I was – and have been – optimistic about my pregnancy, and am taking it all in stride as my body stretches, droops and tires. Being proactive, I called my OB-GYN before he called me and made an appointment immediately. It wasn’t that I was concerned, but I wanted to be sure that I had my 20-week sonogram scheduled so that the Novio and I could find out the gender together.

Twenty weeks also coincided with our birthdays, which sweetened the deal.

The doctor ordered me to repeat the tests that he didn’t have access to, which was fine, despite a disorganized system at Hospital San Carlos and a two-hour wait, urine in hand. That afternoon, I went to my local clinic to make an appointment for the results with the hope of scheduling the 20-week scan.

hospital care in Spain

I waltzed up to the appointments counter, flashed my brand-new card and presented the papers from the work up. Without looking up, the man shook his head and said that no one – NOT ONE DOCTOR – was available for the month of August. I laughed, “What do you mean? Every single obstetrician in this medical center has been sent on vacation for all of August?”

Tal y como le digo. You have to go to the Centro de Especialidades Avenida de Portugal in two weeks’ time.” Now, I’m new to Madrid, but generally speaking, a street bearing the name of another country tends to be on the way to that place. I’d been sent to the other side of town to pick up test results, out towards our westernly neighbors!

“Babies usually aren’t born in August.” Again, I laughed, as both of Micro’s parents are August babies, and asked for an hoja de reclamación to make a complaint. I was informed that one could only do that between the hours of 9am and 2pm. Had there been a table, I’d have been tempted to flip it… or at least pound my fists.

I begrudgingly left work after a week of waiting to head to Avenida de Portugal. The young doctor was gracious and apologized for the packed waiting room before folding her hands in her lap and asking what I had come for. I responded that I’d like to get my test results from July 27th, to which she gave me a blank look and informed me that I had nothing on file.

“Well, at the very least, let us weigh you and take your blood pressure since you’re here?”

Public or private?

I’ve long been a proponent of Spain’s public health system. Doctors are well trained and the treatment is free, plus prescriptions are subsidized.

And then I moved to Madrid.

I had absolutely no right to ever gripe about the system in Sevilla, because wait times were half as long and doctors took their time with patients. I felt rushed and unattended in Madrid in the public hospitals, like no one really knew what they were doing or where to send me. Is this how things are in America? Is it really normal to lose three different tests from the same person?

After asking some women at work, I checked out Hospital Clínica La Luz, a private hospital up the road from campus associated with Quirónsalud that accepts my private insurance. Unlike in Andalucía, most people I know choose to go private for healthcare, no matter what it’s for.

I was assigned to Dr. Alvi, a young woman who is specialized in pre-natal care and scans. I briefly explained my situation, and she took a look at the few papers I still had in my possession before performing an ecografía. The service seems more personable here, even if the wait times once you’re in the clinic’s magazine-stocked waiting room are longer.

We’re still undecided whether or not to have the baby in the public or private system, but that’s a tarea for third trimester.

So, does it have a pito or not?

I could tell the Novio was visibly nervous when he arrived at my office the day of our scan. He barely said a word as we quickly ate a menú del día at the nondescript bar next to the hospital.

That morning, I’d gone through the public hospital for my 20-week scan. Despite my previous woes with Hospital San Carlos, I was called just before 9am and shown into a stark room. An intern gave me a quick pelvic scan to measure the height of my cervix before dropping the goo on my stomach.

“For a pregnant lady, you’re very calm,” he said as he spread the jelly around the reaches of my belly, which now domed slightly over my profile.

And I was – this baby has made me mellow.

micro-at-a-wedding

I asked him to turn the screen away so that I could get the surprise (reiterating that I did NOT want to know the sex), but he assured me that the baby was healthy and so was I. Even my worry that I wasn’t gaining enough weight was shot down!

Once I’d wiped the goo off and got dressed, I was instructed to wait in the waiting area. A nurse handed me a few pamphlets and a facts sheets about the baby like how much it weighed and its predicted height.

The private hospital experience was a bit more welcoming. Despite my doctor being away on vacation, Dr. Orozco was pleasant and thorough, explaining every measurement he was taking, showing how the blood was flowing in and out of the ventricles and assuring us that the baby didn’t have Zika (the head was actually a bit bigger than normal – thank you, blue fish).

“What do you prefer?” he asked. I shrugged my shoulders because I had bounced between the gender just about daily, even though I had a feeling our first child would be a boy. The Novio admitted he was hoping for a girl, and the doctor told him to watch the screen.

Between the two wiggling legs was something else, proving that a mother’s instinct is always right (and meaning I didn’t have to stress over choosing a name!).

The 0,0 Smackdown

My body seemed to know I shouldn’t be drinking beer from the time we conceived. In plena Feria de Abril (but seriously, this kid is andaluz through and through), I spent my final day sipping water, followed by cancelling plans for the Patios de Córdoba last minute.

If there’s one thing I miss, it’s beer. The sin alcohol or 0,0 stuff tastes plastic-y and has no gracia, so I’ve been sticking to juices, tonic water and the occasional Fanta when we go out to tomar algo.

which-non-alcoholic-beer-is-best

I’ve been sampling the 0,0 and non-alcoholic beers, much to my dismay. The worst sort? Cruzcampo. I know, Cayetana de Alba, strike me down for this blasphemy, but it is absolute garbage. Amstel has been my favorite thus far, and the Novio even scouted out a German beer bar that boasts a nicht alkoholisch on tap (it’s called Saint Germain at Calle Rios Rosas, 7) with a generous helping of snacks.

I’ve been promised a cold botellín in the puerperio, the recovery period directly after birth. I am holding my husband to that.

Everything that I know about pregnancy is wrong

Admittedly, I was nervous to be pregnant, afraid I’d balloon up like a cow and be unable to keep active. I saw my nine months of carrying a child as the beginning of the end of my freedoms – to travel, to meet friends and to sleep.

Strangely enough, I’m really enjoying it! I lay in bed for 10 minutes every morning – often before my alarm – feeling the baby wiggle around. I haven’t started speaking to him yet, despite having a named picked out and knowing that the earbuds have already developed.

micro-and-his-other-girlfriend

Everything I thought I knew about pregnancy has been utterly wrong. I expected to have the morning sickness, the stretch marks, the discomfort; but I’ve been pretty comfortable all throughout my pregnancy, save a little less spatial awareness. As a heavy eater, I assumed I’d blow up as I gave into cravings and be grazing all day. It’s true that I feel fuller faster, but it’s sometimes a question of blood sugar, and a few nuts or apple slices will suffice.

My biggest complaint is that I can’t eat everything I want. It’s difficult to remember to ask a waiter to skip the jamón in my salmorejo, or to cook the red meat just a little more on each side. I’m trying to eat more blue fish. The biggest surprise is that most of my cravings have been for healthy foods, so I’ve kept my weight under control with very little effort. And from what I hear, breastfeeding is when you really start to feel hungry!

I’ve also been sleeping like a baby, practically falling asleep and staying asleep from the time I shut my eyes until it’s time to stir. Clothes are just beginning to feel tight in the wrong places, as my belly seemed to double in size in the last five weeks of second trimester. My sister finally confessed to my husband, “YES! Cat is finally showing!”

The only complaint? Why isn’t my hair gorgeous and shiny?! The Madrid dryness means that it looks dull and dead; the upside is that my nails are growing.

What’s up in third trimester?

second-trimester-baby-bump-evolution

Apart from getting rounder? Stretch marks? Swollen ankles? I’m beginning to feel pregnant, from having to stand up slowly or feeling my belly descend towards the end of the day. I just bought my first piece of maternity clothing – a dress for a fall wedding – and have dug back out the books to think about the due date and giving birth.

Things we’re still looking into are storing the umbilical cord blood, me eating my placenta (which prompted a, “YOU WON’T EAT GRILLED PIG’S EAR BUT YOU’LL EAT THAT!? from the Novio) and childcare once my 16 weeks of maternity leave end. My OB-GYN switched me to a high-iron pill with folic acid, which I’ll take for two more months so that Micro is getting the nutrients he needs.

One of my biggest question marks still is where to have the baby. All signs point to Seville and a public hospital, and that makes sense – we have a car, the space and one of the best maternity hospitals in Spain. But if Micro comes early, I’ll need a Plan B! And as a planner, I’m remembering that the baby will come when he wants, not when’s convenient to us.

Finally, we’ll begin pre-natal classes with the matrona.

As the due date hurtles towards us, I have a little bit of everything – elation, apprehension, sorrow that it will all end and nothing will be the same. I’m enjoying my pregnancy and the way the Novio and I are savoring our time alone together. I’m sleeping and eating well and still able to take advantage of a new city, traveling for work (Micro hit four countries in one month, and I felt fine but for aching limbs at the end of the day) and feeling like my old self.

I sometimes feel like I’m fumbling for the lights in a dark hallway, bumping into walls and furniture as I try and navigate pregnancy in Madrid and Spain in general. My American friends with kids have admitted a certain degree of jealousy in knowing that I’ve had so many sonograms, but I’m just relieved that Micro is healthy and I’m feeling so good.

Remember: every woman’s body and pregnancy are different – I had very few risk factors in my family and the Novio’s, am at a healthy weight and age for pregnancy, and have not experienced any problems, save a bit of bleeding at the very beginning. I am not a doctor, so this post is a result of my experiences and research. Consult with your health care professional and don’t be afraid to ask questions.

Those of you mamás who have given birth in España: have I missed anything? Any words of wisdom for my readers and me for pregnancy in Spain?

If you missed the first trimester, skip to the first trimester of pregnancy in Spain post!

A Guiri Guide to Having a Baby in Spain: 1st Trimester

Well, if there were ever a cat in the proverbial bag, it’s gotten out of the bag and run around the block.

Yes, I’m pregnant.

Yes, it’s the Novio’s.

Yes, I’m exhausted and have a little half moon of a bump. I am also thrilled. And that’s why I’ve been MIA from this blog, social media and my favorite cervecerías for the last several weeks.

Having a baby in Spain was something that my mind had been programmed since the Novio and I got serious. We’d talked about offspring quite early on in our relationship, bought a house with said offspring in mind, and began conditioning our minds to nights nursing babies instead of beers (oh, and I bought a pregnancy book, which thoroughly scared the Novio).

Being pregnant in Spain

And then it happened.

On a Friday night in May, I was fresh off of a train from two interviews in Madrid. I’d been too nervous to eat, so I sat in a friend’s car snarfing down a pizza I’d begged the Novio to order me before a concert. I was drained, which I chalked up to the 5am wake up, the dizzying cost of breakfast in Madrid (4.80€ for a coffee and slice of tortilla!) and two intense interviews.

“You drive terribly in heels,” he said with a mouth laced with beer.

I cried.

“You’re pregnant.”

Qué nooooo,” I responded, knowing full well that I was late but a bit in denial about the whole thing. I was interviewing for jobs in Madrid! I was making summer plans! I was about to drink the Western Chicago suburbs out of craft beer! And I had no other symptoms.

The following day, I took out the trash and headed to the pharmacy, constantly checking behind my back to see if any of my maruja friends from the barrio was in line.

Uhh, dispone de prueba de embarazo?” I asked the pharmacist, not knowing if I’d be able to get a pregnancy test there or if I’d have to head to the Corte Inglés, the Plan B for anything you can’t find at another store. She handed me a box, which I stuffed at the bottom of my bag.

At home, the Novio urged me to take the exam before he began making lunch. Knowing that the HcG horomone – the horomone that surges in pregnant women and determines the outcome of a pregnancy test – is highest in the morning, I chose to wait until the following day, Mother’s Day in the US.

When the two crimson lines appeared the Sunday, post-churros, on the stick, my mind was sent into a tailspin. Crap! I drank a ton of rebujito at the Feria de Jerez the weekend before! How many weeks along am I? Is everything developing ok? How am I going to keep this from my mother when I call her this afternoon?!

I emerged from the bathroom, and the Novio read my face. “Lo hemos conseguido!

Pregnancy Vocabulary in Spanish: Words to Know

Much like when I got my driver’s license in Spain, being pregnant has come with a slew of news words to learn.

Aborto natural / forzoso – Miscarriage / Abortion. A word that’s also sounded a bit fuerte to me, Spanish uses the same word for pregnancy termination, whether or not it’s natural or by choice. An abortion can be performed in Spain up to 14 weeks; abortions performed due to high risk to mother or baby or deformations can be administered up to 22 weeks. If this is a consideration for you, check this Q&As page in Spanish, or ask your healthcare provider.

Ácido Fólico – Folic Acid. Long considered a must during pregnancy, folic acid helps your baby’s spinal cord form properly and you’ll notice it grows your nails and hair, too. I was advised to start taking folic acid a month or two before planning on being pregnant and to continue all the way through the pregnancy. My prescription is written by my public doctors (many private doctors cannot issue them) and are nearly fully subsidized by the government.

Analisís de sangre / orina – Blood / urine analysis. Get used to needles, cups and doctors. If you have a normal pregnancy, you won’t have to do too many, but the first trimester is rife with testing. Tests will likely be ordered by your tocólogo and/or gynecologist.

Cartilla de Embarazada – Pregnancy Information pamphlet. This document will include information about the mother: her age, her health, any previous pregnancies and medications taken. The same will go for the father (just no previous pregnancies). This information will be filled out by the matrona on your first visit, and your obstetrician will fill in information regarding your subsequent appointments, such as medication prescribed. You should bring this pamphlet with you to all visits.

Cartilla de Embarazada for Andalusia

Cribado – Genetic testing done at 12 and 20 weeks. Stemming from the verb cribar, which means to narrow down, a cribado is a blood and urine exam performed to rule out genetic anomalies, such as Down Syndrome and Edwards Syndrome, plus confirm your blood group. This test is extremely important if you’re over 35. Your results, at least in Andalucía, will be mailed to your home address. If results are positive, you’ll undergo more testing. If it’s negative, do yourself a favor and DO NOT Google what your baby likely doesn’t have.

Ecografía – Sonogram or Ultrasound. These will be vaginal until about week 12, after which the baby will be large enough to detect through an abdominal sonogram. Expect to have 3-4 of these in a normal, non-risk pregnancy.

Embarazo de Riesgo – High-Risk Pregnancy. Women in Spain are considered high-risk pregnancies if they are over 35 years old, have a history of multiple miscarriages, are carrying multiples or have certain medical conditions, such as diabetes. These pregnancies often have more doctor’s visits and testing, though it is all covered under the social security scheme if you’re going that route.

Fecha del Parto – Due Date. This will be 40 weeks after the first day of your last missed period, meaning conception usually happens two weeks after (full disclosure: we’re pretty sure baby Micro came to be during the Feria. Any surprise there?). Note that trimester (trimestre) and weeks (semanas) are important buzzwords, and that your baby’s gestational age is considered week+day, such as 11+4. Many of my pregnant or mom friends also call it, salir de cuentas.

Grupo Sanguíno – Blood Type. I have yet to figure mine out, but this is a good time to do so.

Matrona – Midwife. Though you won’t see a midwife too often in the first trimester, you should ask your GP for an appointment with her so that she can fill out your cartilla del embarazada. She will also measure your weight and blood pressure on each visit, then note it done for your records, plus conduct your pre-birthing classes. This person will be assigned to you if you are in the Social Security Regimen, though you can choose to see a private midwife if your insurance covers it, or you pay out-of-pocket.

Tocólogo/a – Obstetrician. This doctor will lead you through the medical side of your pregnancy, from sonograms to the actual delivery if you so request. This person will be assigned to you if you are in the Social Security Regimen, though you can choose to see a private midwife if your insurance covers it, or you pay out-of-pocket (I chose to change to a friend’s mother in the same building with my public health insurance, and she makes the appointments for me. I feel comfortable asking her questions when I have doubts, and this has made a huge difference in keeping me calm!). This word is extremely Andalusian, from what I can tell.

Toxoplasmosis – This may be way Spain-specific, but toxoplasmosis is a big, big deal: this parasitic disease can spread through toxoplasmos found in raw or undercooked meat, poorly washed fruits and vegetables or even cat feces. I’ve long let go of a rare steak and sushi, but jamón can also be dangerous for your unborn child. Some may say it’s a crime to eat embutidos, cured meats, that have been previously frozen to kill potential toxins, but it’s one way to savor your bocadillo de salchichón!

I’ve found that some people are more lax about what they’re consuming than others – always speak to a medical professional and make the choice yourself. Toxoplasmosis can be scary and require further testing and even treatment, so chow down at your own risk!

First Steps

Once we’d told my mother-in-law (and, yes, she promptly began crocheting bonnets and booties), I made an appointment right away with my GP, which is the gateway to any other specialist. She didn’t do much more than congratulate me and ask how I was feeling before scheduling an appointment with the matrona for the following week. I had also called a friend’s mom personally, who would eventually become my tocóloga in Seville.

An important document you’ll receive is known in Andalucía as a cartilla de embarazada, or a small pamphlet that your doctor will record your stats, your treatment and your ultrasound results, plus all dates. Later, you can write down your birth plan here.

Typical doctor visits when pregnant in Spain

The matrona took down all pertinent information regarding both mine and the Novio’s health history, checked my blood pressure as well as height and weight and talked to us about having a healthy pregnancy. These doctors become more important as you develop a birth plan and begin to take birthing classes, though we haven’t had to see her since.

I’ve been fortunate to have a close seguimiento throughout my entire pregnancy. I have been able to squeeze in appointments before Dr. Sánchez is actually on duty and have her call me when other women cancel. In the two months since we found out the news, I have gotten four ultrasounds in the public health system, all of which have been no cost to me. Additionally, the medicine prescribed to me – folic acid, progesterone and baby aspirin – has been mostly subsidized by my public health insurance – a month’s worth of the aforementioned meds have cost me less than 5€.

Two important tests that you’ll do during your first trimester are blood and urine tests around 10 weeks to determine a few things: your blood type, your risk for genetic diseases such as Down Syndrome, and infections. You’ll also be told if you’re at risk for anemia, gestational diabetes or toxoplasmosis and get a check up of your general health. I was able to do both at the same time (be sure to go en ayunas, or without eating or drinking, for at least 12 hours, and bring a snack for after your blood gets drawn) and got the results mailed right to my house two weeks later.

The cribado can be a little scary – it’s when your mind begins to wonder if anything is potentially wrong – and it requires you to sign a waiver. You can refuse to take it, of course, and any other treatment offered to you by the state. Be sure to take the documentation given to you by the tocólogo, which is both the order for the test and the release form, which you must sign before the tests can be administered.

The best advice I’ve gotten from all four doctors I’ve seen? Keep living your life as you normally would. Don’t overeat, listen to your body when it needs rest and cut out alcohol, drugs and cigarettes. And surprisingly, the ganas to have a beer have been next to none since right before I found out I was going to be a mom.

Público or Privado?

Spain has two healthcare schemes: public and private. If you are working for someone else, you are automatically in the social security, or public, scheme. If you are autónoma, self-employed, you can go public, as well; if you’re not working you would be considered private and thus pay for your insurance, co-pays and medication. Check to see if the baby’s other parent has access to healthcare for you and the baby, as some partnerships can share this right.

Public healthcare is open to anyone working or who has worked in Spain (such as a retired person). Clinics and hospitals are denoted as public and usually subject to regional law, called leyes autonómicas. You would be assigned a general practitioner, or a médico de cabecera, in the clinic or ambulatorio closest to your residence, who will then pass you along to the matrona and tocólogo.

I chose to go both routes, as I have both public and private insurance. Truthfully, I prefer the public route because it’s very wham, bam, thank you ma’am – I go at my assigned time, am seen by the doctor with no frills, and they schedule my subsequent appointments for me. The public doctors can also administer prescriptions and women who have high-risk pregnancies often prefer the public system because of the close eye they keep on pregnancies.

When I saw the private doctor, I felt out of place. There was a higher degree of modesty, which actually made me feel uncomfortable, though the equipment was more high-tech and the tests were more thorough. And because I had my cartilla with me, the doctor could give me a second opinion about the treatments I’d received (and spoke highly of my public doctor!).

Some women prefer to get recommendations from other mothers and pay out of pocket. As you can imagine, those who are at the top of their field are more costly. Most private hospitals and clinics can help you choose a provider. The Facebook group Mums in Seville has been great for searching for recommendations, used baby goods and general questions about raising a baby as a guiri in Spain.

Note that private insurance may require what’s called a periodo de carencia (usually 9-12 months) before you can have a pregnancy covered for free or a reduced cost. This means that you must have been paying your plan for a duration of time, stipulated by the company, before you can have free access to maternity specialists. I’ve had Caser’s Activa Plan for three years, so I qualified for free check-ups and most non-invasive procedures are covered. Plus, they have doctors in every neighborhood, so I can walk to appointments!

Maternity Leave in Spain

If you’re cuenta ajena, praise the social system – you’ll get 16 weeks of maternity leave with 100% of your salary paid by your employer at the time this article was published. As someone procedente de the USA, I am sure I’ll be forever thankful to have that time at home to adjust to my new role and bond with my newborn.

Be sure to double-check local and sector labor laws (type convenio + your sector + your province into Google for a PDF document. For example, “Convenio Enseñanza Privada No Reglada Sevilla”).

Any recommendations for English-speaking doctors in Seville?

Feeling confident in my Spanish and fully knowing the restraints of Spanish red tape, I was satisfied in the public system. That said, I asked several guiri moms for their recommendations for doctors and doulas who spoke English in town:

Doctor: Dr. Guillermo Espinosa at Millenium Clinics in La Buhaíra, a Sanitas clinic who often sees Americans and other English-speaking patients.

Doula / breastfeeding expert: Eugenia Nigro, a Dutch woman who has practiced in several countries and now calls Sevilla home. She does a number of prenatal classes, as well, and can be reached by email at ginanigro@gmail.com.

I have not personally used these professionals, but it could be a good place to start.

Pero bueno, how are you?

Fantastic, actually. Before I could see Micro’s tiny arms and legs, I could hardly believe that I was growing a tiny human. Coming up with excuses for going home early or not drinking has been a fun challenge, and telling our family and friends has been emotional. I was able to tell my mom, dad and girlfriends back home in person.

My only symptoms are a few larger body parts (namely my breasts and butt) and becoming tired at an earlier hour, but I’ve had no nausea or mad aversions to food (miss you, pescaíto frito). Truthfully, these 20 weeks have been eye-opening and have left me with a lot of emotions as I am not only swallowing the changes in my body but also how this baby is going to change our lives. To say the Novio and our families are excited is a gross understatement. Oh, and I moved to Madrid just before starting second trimester.

pregnancy at 11, 12 and 14 weeks

And s/he’s been doing some cool things – a long-haul flight, trips to the beach and festivals in Andalucía, sleeping a TON and witness to a few heavy metal concerts before those tiny earbuds could be damaged. I’ve been able to work and work out normally, though I’m a bit more conscious of what I’m eating, the pace at which I’m living and what my body is telling me. As my father said, “I’m sure you’re healthier than ever if you’re eating a Mediterranean diet.” The legumes, fish and lean meats have been in my carrito and I’m craving fruit juice, salmorejo and spicy foods. I can sleep on a dime (or doze off on the floor or on public transportation). I stopped running, even if just to not wait for a stoplight.

Without getting too Mommy on you all, I’m finding it incredible that my body is made for this and that it knows what to do. Some days I’ll drink gallons of water and other days I crave salty food. I can be up all night or sleep for 12 hours straight. My pace of life has definitely slowed down a bit, but in a good way. Micro hasn’t stopped me, surprisingly!

What’s ahead in Second Trimester

First off, we find out if Micro will be a gitana or a chulapo in the second trimester of pregnancy! Typically, the gender can be revealed as early as 14 weeks, but I wanted to wait until the Novio and I could go to a sonogram together. I believe he’ll be in disbelief, despite my growing belly, until he sees the little one on the screen move around and we find out if it will share a name with him or not.

Pro tip: People in Spain don’t seem to understand why you’d wait to find out the gender, so if you don’t want to know, tell your doctors immediately and remind them again at every subsequent visit. I could have found out far earlier, but I’m enjoying the wait! In fact, by the time I push publish, I’ll be at 20+2 and will know if the baby is a boy or girl (My feeling is that it’s a boy!).

Having a baby in Spain appointments

I’m teetering right in the middle of my pregnancy and between two medical systems and beginning to think about what comes around week 40 – delivery and bringing home a baby to our teeny flat with no elevator. I’m thinking about public v. private in Madrid, where I might have the baby and how I want the birthing experience to be. Nancy and I focus our Skype calls on babies and the topic always sneaks up – my jet set group of friends in Madrid were legitimately shocked when I relayed a list of no-no foods to them.

But it’s been fun and I’m loving the extra sleep. And pastries. I am also loving the extra pastries.

What do you think about the big news? Any lingering questions, moms-to-be, or advice to give? Please note that I was a healthy, 30-year-old woman with no family history or previous pregnancies and low risk factors across the board. This post is meant to be orientative and speak about my experience. I appreciate those of you who have mentioned other treatments depending on your situation and pregnancy. Always, ALWAYS consult your doctor or midwife, ask questions and get informed!

Please read about the second 14 weeks of my pregnancy on my post A Guiri Guide to Pregnancy in Spain: Second Trimester!

How Billy Madison Memes Perfectly Describe Wedding Planning

Ah, summer. My most favorite season of the year – beach days, sunshine and sleeping in. And sunburns. Always sunburns.

summertime

And then I decided to plan a wedding one summer and get married the next. My leisurely time off of work soon turned into spreadsheets, frantic phone calls and early morning work outs.

On one particularly stressful afternoon, I turned on the TV during a self-mandated wedding time-out. Billy Madison, easily one of the most quotable movies of all time (or else my childhood), was on, and as Billy struggled to make it through Veronica Vaughn’s third grade class, I felt a kinship. He had to stay sane amidst the O’Doyle clan, devious Eric and the penguin, and I have to stay on top of seating charts and meal selections.

As I head into the last stretch of planning and plotting my big day, Billy’s memes are getting me through:

When Dad announces what your wedding budget will be:

billy-madison-big-trouble

DIY? Please. Caviar taste on a pauper’s budget.

When you find out your date is open at your top-choice venue.

jackpot

The stars align. I’m serious people.

When vendors try and upsell you their confetti machine / ice sculpture of your head / custom cocktails / something else outrageous, and you’re about ready to plug your ears:

stupid answer

Survival of the fittest in wedding land is all about the bottom line, and mine is Nah NO.

When you get too hangry because your wedding diet sucks all of the fun out of lunchtime.

snack pack

Working with small kids and their bounty of delicious snacks is a terrible way to stick to your diet. It’s cruel.

When your wedding “beauty routine” has you second guessing your personal hygiene (and why you should be coloring your grays, getting hydration treatments and going to the gym twice a day):

shampoo is bettter

I hate you knot.com (and myself).

When you find a way to save money and/or time:

smartest man

When you have to address hundreds of save the date postcards, wedding invitations, thank you notes and place cards:

cursive

Shoulda cut down that guest list.

When you get to the “I just don’t care about this anymore” phase:

good great

My thoughts on cake, programs, transportation and all of those details. OVER them.

When you frantically need answers from vendors and no one is answering your calls or emails:

t t t t t t

 

Time zone, people. 

When you’re trying to track down people who haven’t RSVP’d.

guest list

There shall be payback when it’s your turn by way of missing the deadline. Or maybe with your table assignment.

When it’s time for the Bachelorette Party. Bring on the margaritas, y’all:

steve buscemi

I know this is from the Wedding Singer, but Steve Buscemi was in Billy Madison, and it was this or Nudie Magazine Day.

When you leave it up to other people to buy your trosseau:

get it on

I’m sorry, future husband.

When the first meal after taking off your wedding dress is something so terrible for you:

get me a happy meal

Ok, I cheated again, but I also cheated on my wedding diet, so who cares?

This is, of course, all in jest. I’m crazy excited for Saturday and have been trying to take everything in stride. My vendors have been really helpful, my mom has done a bang-up job in my absence, and my Type A personality has disappeared (well, except when it comes to creating schedules!). 

Onto married life!

Take the Grilled Cheese and Run: How a Desperate Family Committed a Christmas Crime

It was on my fifth Christmas abroad that my father decided to make us accessories to a crime.

Since moving to Spain, my family had made the effort to follow me around the globe. We’ve spent Christmas with the monkeys on the Rock of Gibraltar, making gingerbread in Germany and visiting the cliffside Monserrat Monastery near Barcelona. In seven years in Europe, I’ve spent just one Christmas in my native Chicago.

But in Killarney, desperation meant my father had to pillage a hotel cafeteria for the sake of his hungry daughters.

How a Family Stole in Ireland

I come from an Irish family (red-headed, freckled and deathly pale are my hallmarks). A family that marches in local Saint Parick’s Day parades. Still has ties to the homeland in Country Mayo. One whose prized heirloom fiddle cries with “When Irish Eyes are Smiling” at weddings. In fact, my surname is synonymous with Irish sport. The Emerald Isle has always been my father’s greatest travel dream, so he booked round-trip tickets to Ireland for Christmas without asking anyone’s permission.

But this vacation was doomed from the beginning – satellite photos showed the entire UK covered in snow. This meant a seven-hour ground delay for me in which my mom texted me, “R U hungry? I bought u a bagel” followed 20 minutes later with “Srry ate ur bagel.” I arrived famished and grumpy, and having not seen my family for a year, they were less than thrilled at my reception.

Dingle Peninsula

And there was more: the frost meant the pipes were frozen solid, leaving us without running water to shower or brush our teeth. Roads were shut down on the Ring of Kerry and thus rerouted us more than once, and sites that claimed to be open during the holidays didn’t bother to post that the snow had them shut down. My sister even came down with the flu and missed seeing Cork and exploring Amsterdam on my family’s layover.

But our lowest moment came on Christmas Day, where we had to stoop as far as breaking the law to save the holidays.

cliffs of moher

Christmas Eve dawned bright but cold in Galway on a bustling shopping day. We awed at the Cliffs of Moher before heading to Limerick for the night. After we shared a hearty Christmas meal, my dad and I went to the bar for a drink. My vision suddenly became cloudy and my head began to pound.

Apart from inheriting a love of beer from my Irish father, I also got his tendency to get sinus infections while traveling. I called it an early night and hoped to be over it the next morning (because I also, luckily, got my mother’s iron immune system).

Having plowed through Angela’s Ashes on the long flight delay, I was eager to walk around Limerick that morning before setting off for the Dingle Peninsula. It was just as desolate and depressing as Frank McCourt describes – the morning still was interrupted by an occasional car passing by, or the honk of a goose. Squat, dilapidated houses lined the “historic” quarter.

Limerick Ireland

My dad chucked his map in a nearby bin, and we chucked the city.

Climbing into the car, I warned my family that we’d have trouble finding a place to eat on Christmas Day. Dad came to the rescue with a gas station English breakfast – soggy hash browns, pale grey sausages and a pack of cookies for good measure.

The ride around the damp Dingle Peninsula that morning was torture: every pothole sent a jolt of pain through my head and any time we stopped, I’d have to be coaxed out of the car. I grew hungry and restless to just stop somewhere and have something warm to drink, but storefronts were dark and the nearest gas station was back in Limerick. 

Galway Ireland

If I was grumpy and starving, my sister was far beyond that point. We passed the majority of the day in absolute silence.

Driving into Killarney, Mom spotted a sign for McDonald’s. “Don!” she squealed, “TURN AROUND! McDonalds will surely be open!”

After another strike, my dad pulled into a hotel nearby. We kept the car running to stay warm, but it took him 20 minutes to return.

He handed us each a Styrofoam plate with a steaming grilled cheese and french fries. “I told them we were guests at the hotel and that I’d check in once we ate, and they allowed me into the kitchen to make sandwiches,” he snickered as he put the car into first and sped off.

Guinness in Ireland

As I ate a tasteless grilled cheese and some cold french fries once we had safely escaped the scene of the crime. I smiled at my father, who was rifling through his suitcase for some more sinus congestion pills. 

Even at the most desperate of moments (and the most disastrous of family vacations), I knew my father would do anything for us, particularly if it included a good story and a plate of food.

Have you ever done anything desperate on your travels?

Grieving as an Expat: A Story About Loss, Life and Last-Minute Bookings

Death is about as taboo a subject as they come. As my cousin Christyn and I tried to mask our fear the last time we talked to Pa, seated on the futon, it was as if the proverbial White Elephant had come and wedged itself in between us.

As my days living in Spain have stretched on to nearly seven years, there has always been a little voice in the back of my head that has reminded me that there are things I’ve given up. While some are trivial, my heart sometimes hurts when I miss weddings, babies and other defining life events.

And believe me, it weighs on my expat mind nearly every day.

Back in November, by dad delivered the news I had been dreading since boarding a Spain-bound plane: my grandparents needed assisted living. My grandmother had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and could no longer look after herself or the man she’d cared for during 63 years of marriage. She’d forget to give him his medicine for a weak heart, or not feed him.

I decided to turn down my summer camp position to spend time with my family back in Chicago during my summer holidays. It wasn’t a hard decision in the end – not for money, and not for experience. 

I lost my maternal grandmother to cancer at age 9, my maternal grandfather to a hit-and-run at age 19 and was facing losing my remaining grandparents – one in body and one in mind – at 29.

 —

My grandfather, Don Gaa, Sr., was a man of few words. He loved working with his hands, sitting with his feet up and playing jokes on us. As my dad, who took the same name as his father, summed up a simple man who grew up in Nebraska during the Dust Bowl as he gave the eulogy: “You could tell how much Don loved you by how much he teased you.” His winks and sly smile were words enough.

When I said goodbye to him over the phone about 48 hours before he passed, I could feel his smile through the phone. It’s hard to be serious and tell someone you love them and will always remember them when you burst out laughing every time you think of him and his sly little smile.

Christyn slung her bag on her back and gave me a hug. I reminded her to call her dad that afternoon. Christyn is a nurse in Germany and had explained Pa’s condition, his decision to withdraw care and get hospice care. He was as stubborn as they come, and he wanted to go in peace.

As I unlocked the door to work that day, I got a frantic whatsapp in capital letters from my mother: CALL ME IMMEDIATELY FOR PA. I fumbled with the keys, tears flooding my eyes, as I struggled to tap out a response. “Is it really that bad?”

“Yes. <3 <3 <3”

I paced the corridor of the academy, trying to compose myself before the other teachers arrived. I decided to stay mum, not wanting to cause an avalanche of tears and blubbering and ugly cry onto people with whom I had a professional relationship. But this is life, and life sometimes sucks, and crying makes me feel better.

As soon as my secretary came in, I crawled into her lap and sobbed.

My boss allowed me to take a walk between my classes to clear my head. I had to work up the courage to call my Uncle Bill, who was at the hospital with my grandfather as he waited to be moved. My grandfather has been deaf for as long as I can remember, so I probably looked like a psycho walking around Barrio de la Calzada with sunglasses on and shouting into my cell phone in English. Pa was on a feeding tube and the muscles in his esophagus had all but stopped trying, so I talked at him as I always did as the bubbly granddaughter.

After moving to Spain, he always pretended I was speaking to him in Spanish before I’d give him a nudge and he’d envelop me in a hug. I knew I probably wouldn’t speak to him again, so I told him two important things: that I was fortunate to have him in my life for nearly 29 years and that goodbye is a word that is often replaced with “hasta luego.” It felt final but not final to send him off that way.

“He’s smiling, Catherine. I think he wants to tell you that,” Uncle Bill said before we hung up.

I continued to walk around the neighborhood for 10 minutes before happening upon a donut shop. I forked out a euro to drown my sadness in chocolate and sugar. It made me feel better.

That night, I hardly slept, checking my phone every few hours for an update on Pa. Nothing came. I awoke groggy and grief-stricken, and decided going home would be too much emotional strain on me. I didn’t send any messages to family, inquiring about how the move to the retirement village had gone or how the old man was holding up.

I collapsed into bed that night, right after work, and slept soundly.

The next day was a whole different story. I woke up and checked prices for a Madrid-Chicago trip. I texted my mom to tell her I wanted to come home, if only to see Pa once more and tell him I love him. I asked my boss to ask about a week-long leave of absence. Being a spiritual person, she immediately agreed and offered to take over my classes and speak with lawyers about the legal ramifications of missing four days of work.

Pay deducation or not, I had promised my grandmother I’d be at her funeral, and now that she was on the verge of being a widow, I felt it was my duty. And I wanted to.

My dad called just after midnight. I had already chosen flights and just wanted to run my travel plans by him so I wouldn’t be stuck at Midway with a non-functioning phone and no one to take me for an all-beef hotdog.

“Yeah, Pa just passed away about 45 minutes ago,” were his first words to me. My grandfather had slipped into a coma on Tuesday night, received last rites twice and my grandmother and my father’s two youngest boys were with him when his heart decided that enough was enough.

I was sorry, but at the same time, relieved. When someone whose health is poor suffers and who had lived to nearly 86 dies, there’s always a moment of grief and of loss, but it dissipates quicker than I had imagined it would. My dad had lost his first parent at 62, whereas my mother was an orphan by 47. I cried quietly, but nothing compared to Monday’s bawlfest with MariJo.

Somehow, I pulled it together to book a Delta flight, a train ticket to Madrid and a hotel in Barajas, then planned my classes for the following week. I slept like a zombie, relieved that I wouldn’t be racing against the clock to see Pa before he passed. In fact, I was relieved.

The following morning, the Novio took the day off of work to help me prepare for my trip. Rather than being sad, he told me all of the memories he had of meeting Don, Sr. in Chicago and Arizona. I laughed as we had a morning beer while the other abuelitos around us drank their coffee. 

“Your ‘grampy’ was the funniest man,” he said, recalling a time where he had teased my mother and her sweet tooth with a little wink.

He really was the funniest man.

My sister greeted me at my gate with a beer in hand. She and Pa had always been close, as I was the proclaimed favorite of his wife, and Pa gave everyone else all the love that Grammie gave me. “I wish we were seeing each other under different circumstances, but it’s really freaking good to see you,” she said. There was no culture shock whatsoever (my guess is from frayed nerves, a three-hour delay out of Atlanta and the fact that my trip was so last-minute).

I was beyond tired – both mentally and physically – but happy with the decision to come home.

As I plopped down I my bed, something poked my upper back: a wooden bull that my grandpa had carved for me the summer before. It went straight into suitcase to be carried back to Spain.

On Saturday afternoon, we set off to my grandparents’s house near the Illinois-Wisconsin border. The Gaas had moved in to that house on David street just after they married, and before my father was born. To me, it’s the house where many of my childhood memories were formed.

My dad’s brothers and their wives were there, as well as my grandmother, who looked frail but stoically did not cry. My arrival from Spain took center stage (I had not been home in nearly two years), and I suddenly felt elated to be with my family. We pulled out the photo albums my grandmother had kept since her marriage in 1950. There were no tears, just laughter and memories and trying to find the fake poop he’d hid amongst our Christmas presents.

“Do you think you could get married in October? That would be a nice month.” My grandmother held on to me as we passed a picture of her wedding day. I’d told her that we wanted to do a ceremony in the US, and her face changed. She was so happy that the funeral home had done a great job of making Pa look like Pa, and I even said I think he had a slight smirk on his face.

She was as stoic as a widow can be during the wake, and was so delighted to see so many friends come out. My Pa loved little kids, and when all of my second cousins came with their babies at once, Grammie’s mood changed. Keri’s daughter ran up to the casket and poked Pa, then ran away, giggling as if Pa were actually chasing his only great-granddaughter.

For four hours, I played catch up with all of my extended family. The last time I had seen them was for Thomas’s wedding in Boston two years ago, and despite the circumstances, we all laughed and hugged and ate and rejoiced at being together again. “You definitely win the award for furthest traveled!” Uncle Mark quipped.

When we went home that night, I fell asleep, wrecked by a non-stop week of travel and emotional distress and jet lag. The following day, we would bury Pa in Antioch, just a stone’s throw from the house he had lived in with his family.

 —

The funeral was sad, as funerals tend to be. I cried alongside my sister, but was able to read a passage I’d selected from the Book of Wisdom about eternal life without cracking into ugly cry or even a sniffle. My voice echoed in my ears, and the tears came as soon as I’d finished.

At the funeral, we said goodbye to Pa one by one as we touched the casket. I repeated my words: hasta luego.

I walked to lunch with my dad. I’ve only seen him cry twice to date – when my mom’s parents died – and is mind is already switched to ‘Irish Funeral’ setting. Even though my grandfather was German, he played up my grandmother’s love of the motherland, often donning green and marching with us in Irish parades on March 17th. 

Beers in hand, we took turns telling stories about my Pa: his best friend Joe was with him when they picked up two Chicago broads hitchhiking to Wisconsin and ended up married to them, moving next door to one another on David Street. The elation when my cousin Brian, the only male cousin, was finally given the honor of carrying on the family name. The hat collection he kept when he semiretired from owning a grocery store to work as a mechanic at Great America.

My favorite? Pa told my great aunt Anne that he’d wink at her when he was lying in a coffin. But of course he would.

When it was my turn, I kneeled on a barstool and recounted the words the Novio had told me after meeting Pa for the first time. “Your dad is a great man, Puppy, but I want to be just like your grampy.”

“When I die, please have fun remembering me.” Don Gaa, Jr. and I were leaning against the car hood at the Dairy Queen in Mundelein. We were somber, yet I felt better knowing that we’d laughed just as much as we’d cried at the funeral. Even my grandmother seemed determined to start making friends at the retirement home.

I’ve often felt guilt at being so far away from home, and it had never burned so much as in that span of days at home. There was talk about long-term healthcare, of cashing bonds and of who would get what. Most fell to my sister, including being the executor of the will, “only because she lives here.”

I left the US the following morning after a third hot dog lunch with my dad. I suddenly felt this weird urge to get married and start a family so I wouldn’t be depriving anyone of anything. It was a topic that came up countless times in those days, and it really lit the fire under my culo

I don’t think my grandma will take too long to go. After more than six decades with my grandpa, she’s left with ever-fading memories. My heart hurts thinking about the grief she must feel, about how lonely she likely is. But how much would I give up here to be there? Is there any way to still straddle the Charca? To be present in two places?

The truth is, I wouldn’t if I could. I’m too independent, and maybe that makes me selfish. The best I can do is promise to be there when it counts. 

Have you ever dealt with death or loss on your travels?

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