Muslim Contributions to Modern Society

Watching Donald Trump win the presidential election last November made our family worry a lot about the future of our country. My kids were upset the next morning, and the thing I told them to reassure them was, “Our family will be fine. Other people will not be. And that is not right.” At the time, it seemed clear that Muslims were one group that would likely not be fine during a Trump presidency, and the recent news of travel bans out of our country has confirmed this.

During the long 2+ week vacation over Christmas, our family traveled through Andalucía, a region in Southern Spain that was once inhabited by many Muslims until they were expelled from the country (along with the Jews) in 1492. I knew we would be seeing many examples of Muslim influence, such as the Alhambra in Granada. Since my kids had such a long break from school and since they haven’t had much experience writing in English this year, I decided to assign them some homework to read a couple books and then write an essay about Muslims. We read The Genius of Islam and Growing Up Muslim and then they each wrote an essay about what they had learned. They both decided to write about Muslim contributions to modern society, and you can read their essays below.

12-year-old’s Essay

Muslims have made many contributions to the modern day world, but few of us realize how much the Muslims have helped us in coming this far through the ages. Muslims have made many contributions in many fields, but some of the most important are the development of a healthy population through the intricate health systems that they created, sometimes known as a “Healthy Hierarchy.” Muslims made astounding and advanced leaps forward in the growing of plants and the creation of food using many strategies and techniques to progress through the ever-growing amount of hunger in the world at their time. Some people are amazed to know that Muslims introduced the crank to the modern world, used in many mechanical structures. These are some of the few contributions that the Muslim population has made to our ever-growing world.

Muslims improved the world standards of health and medicine by creating a new system of treatment and medicine distribution that was used throughout the Muslim population. Instead of using the traditional door-to-door doctor system, Muslims made major health centers, later known as hospitals. These public buildings were designed to treat the sick through the different stages, such as treatment and recovery. Muslims had specialized doctors working around the clock at their hospitals to improve the patient’s condition. Instead of having many treatment doctors all in the general field of medicine, hospitals consisted of many different groups, such as trauma treatment and pharmaceutical centers which provided medicine for the sick. This surpassed all medical practices of the 16th century, and we continue to use this method of healthcare up to this day.

Food and hunger where major problems in the 16th century, and Muslims found a way to reduce worldwide hunger using advanced methods of farming and agriculture. Instead of only growing wheat and other native foods, Muslims used their vast territory as an advantage against hunger and started farms in almost every growing climate they had under their rule. This provided new tropical foods, and also let them grow more of basic foods such as wheat. Because of their advanced agricultural community, Muslims could combat world hunger on a new level.

Many people have seen or ridden on a merry-go-round, but few people know that the Muslims invented the key mechanism to this attraction, which is now known as the crank. The way the crank works is it converts rotational energy into power, using a long rod with notches in it in the merry-go-round. The rod will spin, and the wires attached to the notches will go up and down with the rotation of the axle. This is also used in oil derricks and steam powered trains in different ways, but all of these mechanisms use the crank. As you can tell, our life would be much harder without this ingenious Muslim invention.

Muslims have created many things in the modern world, such as the idea of Californian orange juice, the invention of the crank, and the creation of the hospital. This is why Muslims are such an important culture in this world, and why it is important to appreciate all of their contributions.

10-year-old’s Essay

Muslim people were very important. They made important changes to the world. Muslims found out what simple machines are. They made what the numbers look like today. Muslims made paper and lots of creations with it. Muslims were very important to the world because they made a lot of contributions to the world

One contribution that Muslims did to the world was that they made paper and different creations with it. They made different types of paper like cardstock, construction paper and more. They needed paper to write things so that they wouldn’t forget them. After a bit, they started making books to entertain and share things. That is the history of Muslim paper.

Another contribution that Muslims made to the world is that they made the first numbers and changed the look of the numbers every century or so. They finally found numbers that everyone agreed to. Those are the numbers that we have today. They made up the operations multiplication, division, subtraction and addition. They also made algebra. That is how Muslims made math.

The last contribution that Muslims made to the world is that Muslims discovered simple machines. They discovered the pulley, the lever and much more. Muslims found out that these would make life easier by making simple machines. They spread this theory around Europe and the rest of the world. That is how people found out how to use simple machines.

That is how Muslims are important to the world. As you can see, they have made a lot of important changes to the world. They found out how to use and make simple machines. They also made a lot of changes to math. They made paper and different types of it. Hopefully you learned a lot about Muslims.

Extracurriculars

Back home in the US, our life as a family of six can feel pretty busy. The kids are all involved in seasonal sports and weekends sometimes feel like we are just running everyone around to their games and practices. However, we generally just do one sport at a time, and usually our weekday afternoons are pretty quiet with a lot of downtime and time to get together with friends.

In Spain, kids get out of school at 2pm, which means there is a lot of free time in the afternoons. Since our goal was full immersion in the language and culture here, we decided to sign them up for a lot of extra curricular activities. Thankfully, this has all been very convenient and easy to manage, as well as extremely inexpensive by US standards.

Here are the activities each kid is involved in:

4-year-old: Music and Movement, Soccer, Swimming Lessons, and Rollerblading

7-year-old: Soccer, Tennis, Swimming Lessons, and Rollerblading

10-year-old: Soccer, Tennis, and Rollerblading

12:-year-old: Judo, Tennis, Fencing, Rollerblading, Trombone (starting soon)

 

School Activities

Directly across the street from us is a Catholic school that our kids do not attend, but opens their extra curricular activities to children from other schools. They have extensive offerings there and two days a week our kids do all their activities there, which is incredibly convenient. The activities we do there are:

Music and Movement – Singing and dancing class for 4 and 5-year-old kids that our daughter attends twice a week. Our daughter is more interested in sports than this type of activity, but we thought the extra language exposure provided in a music class would be beneficial, and she seems to enjoy it. We pay 45 euros a month for this.

Rollerblading – Our kids play hockey back home and found their skills transferred over pretty well to rollerblades, so they signed up for the advanced skating class which takes place in the gym or patio. They are mostly playing different games and racing on skates during this hour-long class that they attend twice a week. The class is for ages 6-12, but when my oldest broke his arm I asked if his younger sister could temporarily take his place, so our 4-year-old has joined as well and skates well enough to keep up with the big kids. We pay 30 euros a month per kid.

Judo – Our oldest son had expressed some interest in wrestling before we arrived, and when I realized Judo was offered right across the street I thought he may want to give a it a try. He liked it so much that he decided to attend classes there 3 days a week, which costs us 38 euros a month.

 

Fencing and Trombone

Our 12-year-old also attends a fencing class which takes place about a 10 minute walk from our house. He goes once a week and we pay 10 euros a month. He will be starting up trombone lessons soon, now that he finally has an instrument. We attempted to ship his trombone from the US in September but it got lost in the mail and we eventually gave up on it and bought him a new one here. We have an instructor lined up to start with him soon in a couple weeks, and I am guessing the cost will be 10-15 euros per hour.

 

City Sports Complex

The kids do tennis and swimming at the main city sports complex which is about a 5-10 minute bike ride from our house. It is an incredible campus that includes multiple swimming pools, tennis courts, basketball courts, a gym, paddle tennis courts, etc. When we first arrived, we signed up for a monthly family membership which allowed free usage of the pools, but afterwards converted it to an annual membership since we made good use of it. The family membership cost about 400 euros for the year. This does not include use of the tennis courts, but we can reserve these when we want for 4 euros an hour.

The three boys are taking weekend group tennis classes on Saturday and Sunday. We had to pay for the first two kids at a rate of 60 euros per kid per quarter (about 10 weeks), but then the third kid was free since we had two kids already enrolled. We will often reserve the court for the hour after their lesson and play as a family.

I wasn’t planning on putting the kids in swimming lessons in Spain, but we were spending a lot of time at the pool and I realized that lessons were going on during the hours we were already there, so I ended up signing the younger two kids up for swimming lessons. The rate was similar to tennis for twice weekly lessons, but when I went to pay I was told that they were both free since we only had to pay for the first two kids enrolled in any sports programs there. There are many benefits like this available for large families in Spain.

 

Soccer

The three younger kids are all playing soccer, which is Spain’s national sport and also the most popular activity at recess. They had all played soccer sporadically in the US, but it wasn’t a favorite sport for them so other activities usually took priority. Our oldest tried playing here during the first few weeks, but found that the age level he was in was a bit too advanced for him and the older kids were not very welcoming of a newcomer, so he decided to focus on other sports instead.

There are several differences between soccer in the US and soccer in Spain

  1. We are used to having a short soccer season of about 10 weeks in the spring or fall. Here, soccer is a yearlong commitment and they play from September to May, which is possible due to the warmer climate. The younger two kids practice for an hour twice a week and our 10-year-old practices for 90 minutes twice a week. Thankfully they all practice at the same time which makes it easier logistically.
  1. We are used to volunteer parent coaches but soccer is mostly run by professional clubs with paid coaches. There are a few schools which seem to also have teams as part of their after school programs, but the vast majority of teams are from one of the many local clubs.
  1. Our kids have always played in the low-key town soccer programs where they have received a team t-shirt and that is all. Here, they receive uniforms for practice and games, as well as additional gear. They each have a short sleeve/shorts practice uniform, a long sleeve/pants practice uniform, a separate game uniform which includes a shirt, shorts, and socks, and they also received a warm jacket with the team logo on it that they are supposed to wear to practices and games during the colder months. One of our kids plays goalie and got a separate shirt in a different color for games. The other surprising thing about gear is that no one wears shin guards here.
  1. For one, practices start way before games. They started practicing in September and our 10-year-old didn’t have his first game until early November and our 7-year-old started at the end of November. For the youngest division, which our 4-year-old is in, they just organize small matches within the club. Games are also very official and organized by the city. Kids needing to show ID cards before each game. Parent culture is definitely a bit more intense here, but not as bad as I was expecting. However, our 7-year-old goalie apparently heard a parent loudly criticizing his goalie skills after he let a goal in. Thankfully I didn’t hear it.
  1. Somehow soccer has not really caught on among girls in Spain. The teams our kids are on are technically coed and a few girls do play, but it seems like most teams are all boys with only a few having a girl or two playing. This probably is not creating a great culture for girl soccer players. Our 4-year-old is very comfortable playing with boys so I didn’t anticipate this being an issue for her. However, after the first session all the kids in her 4-5 year old age group switched their schedules and she was the only one left. She ended up joining her brother’s team of 6-7 year old boys for practices, which has worked out surprisingly well. The boys in the group are so sweet with her and cheer her on whenever it is her turn, and she is comfortable playing with them in the little scrimmages.
  1. Age ranges. Most town soccer programs in the U.S. just go up through middle school ages since after that kids play high school sports. Sports and academics are mostly separate in Spain, so the youth sports clubs go all the way up until 18. They are broken into two-year ranges based on birthyear, so kids born in 2005 and 2006 together form the category known as Alevin, for example. It seems that when kids get to around high school age, there are separate teams for girls.
  1. It’s hard to compare the cost to US soccer since the amount of playing time and included gear is so different. For each kid we paid a 120 euro registration fee which I assume covered the cost of all the clothes they got initially. The monthly cost after that is similar to other activities, about 40 euros a month, although there is a small discount for the second sibling and the third enrolled sibling is half price.

 

Adult Extracurriculars

Clearly the kids have been keeping busy with activities, but the adults in the family have been quite busy as well. My husband is mostly busy with work. He is keeping the same schedule as his Boston colleagues so he works from about 3pm-11pm every day. I am taking the year off from my regular job, but have been teaching an online graduate school class which has no set schedule, so I can do work at any time of day.

My main priority during my time in Spain is to improve my level of Spanish. I studied Spanish in high school and college and had continued to work on it sporadically as an adult, but always felt like I still lacked confidence in communicating. I have connected with several people in my city who want to work on their English, and we have regular language exchanges in our homes or in cafes where we each get to practice speaking and listening. I generally have at least one of these language exchanges per day, and I am gradually noticing an improvement in my ability to understand when people speak quickly or when two Spaniards are speaking to each other. The kids’ progress has definitely been much faster, however.

For further practice with the language, I recently signed up for an African literature book club which meets at the public library right near our home twice a month. Reading in Spanish has always been a relative strength of mine, but it is still definitely a challenge to read entire novels in Spanish and has helped me learn new vocabulary and internalize some of the grammar.

My husband is also working on Spanish, though he has never studied it formally so had a pretty low level of Spanish when we arrived. He enrolled in a morning class which meets twice a week at a local adult education center and has been making very good progress.

I also signed up for tennis classes which meet three times a week at the nearby sports complex, which has been a great way to develop both my tennis skills and my language skills. My husband swims at the pool while I am playing tennis.

All the members of our family are keeping very busy in Spain, and we have found that participating in these activities helps us to feel even more connected to our local community. We also love that we are able to easily walk or ride bikes to all of our activities. Transitioning back to the U.S. and our minivan full of hockey bags in the back will be a big adjustment for us next year.

City Living

Our family has been very happy living in Spain. People have been very friendly and we have been enjoying experiencing a new culture and food. Of all the things we love about living here, the thing we love the best is the experience of living in a city.

We technically live in a city back in the U.S. Our city has over 100,000 people, is incredibly diverse, and has a decent public transportation network. We can do some errands on foot or on bike, and generally do not use our car on a daily basis since we both commute by bike. Yet somehow, in the U.S., everything is still so far away compared to in our city in Spain. We do live in a part of the city in the U.S. that is a little more spread out, but even when we lived more in the central part of the city it was still easier to get in the car and drive to the grocery store than do many errands on foot.

Where we live now has a walk score of 100 (compared to 72 where we live in the U.S.). There is a grocery store right at the corner, less than a minute walk on foot. You know that feeling of coming back from the grocery store and realizing you forgot one thing on your shopping list? No big deal here – we just head right back over or send a kid out with a few Euros.

We also live a short walk away from a bakery, and our two older boys alternate walking there every morning at 8am to buy breakfast for our family and fresh bread for the day, which usually costs 4-5 euros altogether. They have gotten quite used to fresh croissants and baguettes and recently asked if we would continue this tradition when we got back to the U.S., but unfortunately there the nearest bakery is over a mile away and those items would cost over 20 dollars a day.

Back home in the U.S., we do have a couple schools within a reasonable walking distance, but we chose to send them to the Spanish immersion school so riding the bus is a part of their daily routine. Here, we walk about five minutes through a park to get to their school, and I’ve been enjoying being able to drop them off and pick them up every day, which isn’t an option in the U.S. due to my work schedule. There are actually about five schools closer to our house than the one our kids attend, so we could have an even shorter commute, but the school we are at had spaces for all four kids and we are very happy there.

I will write a separate post about the kids’ after school activities, but they are all very convenient as well. Many of them occur at the Catholic school directly across the street from us, and other days we ride our bikes for 5-10 minutes to the sports complex near the edge of the city for swimming, tennis, and soccer. The city we live in is dedicated to bike infrastructure and there are off road bike paths the whole way there, which means that even my 7-year-old can ride safely.

In addition to groceries, nearly any shopping we have to do can be accomplished within just a few minutes walk. When a kid comes home from school and says “I need a paintbrush for school tomorrow,” I just send him out to the stationary store at the corner. When a kid comes home from school with a huge hole in a sneaker, we walk a block away and are back home within 15 minutes (including trying on shoes and paying). When I get a craving for something sweet at 10pm, there is a frozen yogurt store right around the corner. That one is a little dangerous.

It’s not just shopping that is so accessible. The largest library in the city is just a couple minutes away, and there is a hospital and medical office within just a few minutes walk. This is where the kids see their pediatrician and where we went to see a specialist and get follow up X-rays when our oldest broke his arm on a weekend trip away. I feel like it would be possible to live for years without traveling outside of a 5-block radius of our apartment.

Our apartment is also very close to the center of nightlife in our city, an area called “La Zona” which is where people from all over the province come for bachelor parties and nights out. Since our oldest is a responsible 12-year-old we feel comfortable leaving him in charge of his siblings for short stretches of time, so when my husband has a break in his work schedule in the evening we will go out for tapas and drinks at one of the many taperias within a 1-2 minute walk. When my husband is traveling and I want a break from cooking the large midday meal, we’ll stop at home to drop off backpacks after school and then head out to one of the many restaurants within a couple minutes where we can get a meal for the five of us for about 20 euros.

Our older boys are also enjoying the freedom they have here. There is a candy store and a seasonal ice cream store just a minute away, which they like to walk to on their own for an occasional treat. They can ride their bikes back and forth to the sports complex, which means they are not stuck there waiting for the siblings to finish up swim lessons after their own activities have ended.

In addition to everything being so nearby, there is also a small town feel here and we feel known by the local retailers. If our kids get to the bakery in the morning and realize they are short on money, they can make it up the next day. When I bring my daughter to the shoe store in December to buy new shoes, the woman there remembers that she sold us soccer cleats in August and asks my daughter how soccer is going. When a screw falls off the rack for the child seat on my bike making it unsafe, I head to the hardware store the next morning where the person working there helps me figure out what is wrong, find the right size screw, makes sure I replaced it correctly, and then refuses to let me pay anything. Our kids feel known in their community here, and little things like the woman at the fruit store asking how they liked the melon they had picked out a few days ago, or knowing that the woman at the bakery near the soccer field will know exactly which donut they want for a treat after practice, mean quite a lot to them.

We have also really been enjoying the excellent rail network in Spain. We live about half a mile from the train station in our city and from there we can travel by a direct train to many other cities. The city we are living in is not a tourist destination at all, but we have been able to travel to many other places for weekend trips during our time here so far, and have plans for more travel in the coming months. Train travel is also very reasonably priced, especially since there is a 20% discount for those who have a familia numerosa card (a government issued card available to residents who have families with three or more children).

We really have not missed having a car at all, and the few times we have had a rental car it has been a huge hassle to deal with parking. The only time we wished we had a car was when we were planning a birthday party for our older boys at a park a little outside the city. Many birthday parties here are held at this park which is easy to get to on bike, but not with all the food and supplies required for a birthday party. We had rented a van for the afternoon, but then had the reservation cancelled after we had sent out invitations. However, we were easily able to arrange a ride from party guests who lived near us who were able to help us bring all the food there, and many other people have told me to let them know if I ever need a ride somewhere.

We have tried to think about whether this type of city living really exists in the U.S. The only place we could think of that is similar is Manhattan, which probably doesn’t have the same small town feel we experience here. In the U.S., cities seem to mostly composed of office buildings that people commute to from the suburbs, so the number of businesses serving the community is minimal. In Spain, life seems to revolve around the cities and it is common for people to live in the cities and commute to office parks outside of the cities for work. There are some suburbs around the larger cities, but most Spaniards live either in cities or in small countryside villages. Because of this, the businesses that exist within the cities seem to be primarily there to serve the people who live in the city. Whatever the reason for it, we are glad to be able to have this experience living in the middle of a city at an affordable price, and feel very welcomed by the community here.

Updates and Videos

The kids just wrapped up their first trimester of school and I wanted to post an update, and also some videos of them speaking in Spanish.

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In general, things are going great here and we have never questioned our decision to move to Spain. The kids are all settled in and in their routines of school and extracurricular activities. They enjoyed the holiday season leading up to the winter break, which included learning villancicos (Spanish Christmas carols) to perform for parents and for community members, and visits from one of the three kings to the classrooms of our younger two kids to give a stuffed bunny to each child in the class (pre-purchased by the parents). In Spain, children are given some gifts on Christmas by family members or Papa Noel, but the main gift giving holiday is on January 6th when the Los Tres Reyes Magos come and leave them presents in their shoes. Because of the two holidays, schools have a long winter break which we are spending touring cities in Andalucía.

Our 4-year-old is completely adapted to school and doesn’t really remember ever living anywhere else. Her flexible attitude and friendly personality has resulted in a very easy transition. Since I don’t see her interacting with peers much it has been hard to judge her language progression, but I recently realized that she is speaking completely fluently, which is shown in the video below. She is very verbal in English and I don’t think she has the same expansive vocabulary in Spanish that she does in English, but it seems that she is able to communicate at an age appropriate level. She received a first trimester report card in which she received the top rating for all topics, including communication.

Our 7-year-old is also very much turning into a Spanish kid and is doing great in school. His level of Spanish seems to have very quickly caught up to his peers and he received excellent grades on his first report card, especially in math and language. He is reading long chapter books intended for older kids in Spanish without difficulty. Even though he knows he is American and the other kids are Spanish, it does not seem that he thinks of himself as being different on a regular basis. His memories of the U.S. are fading quickly and he only remembers a couple friends there.

Our 10-year-old had the roughest transition at the start of the year, though he has settled in and is pretty happy. He had trouble with the language demands initially at school and is still not at the same level as his peers, but he has improved steadily over the months and has impressed his teacher with his progress. Math has been a consistent area of strength. He got good grades on his first report card, though there is definitely some room for growth as his language skills continue to improve. Of all the kids, he is the most homesick and talks pretty often about wanting to go back home and missing things and people there. Sometimes it comes out of nowhere, but more often it is preceeded by a less than perfect day (lost soccer game, bad grade on a test, etc).   I feel like when we do move back, we will likely hear that he misses Spain, since he is a kid who forms strong connections to people and places.

Our 12-year-old has continued to be happy at school and with his new friends. There are times he will mention wanting to go home after a bad day, but this happens pretty rarely. We’ve had many discussions about “The grass is always greener” and I think he will miss Spain most of all when we do return. He is doing well in school, though he is a kid who has never been content with anything less than perfect grades, so sometimes he holds himself to unrealistic standards. He was disappointed with his first report card, though his teacher explained that the reason was because he does not keep his notebooks neat enough, so this lowered his grade in every subject. There is a huge focus here on organization of notebooks which they start teaching in the early grades, but was quite a shift from what our older two kids were used to at home. It seems the older boys’ teachers have discussed our children and this tendency with each other, which leads me to think our kids will be remembered at the school as “those nice hardworking boys with the messy notebooks.” We do not want them stressed out about grades while we are here so haven’t been making a big deal about it, but they both seem to want to improve in the second trimester and now have a better idea of what the expectation is.

Below you can see some videos of how they are each progressing with their language skills.

 

 

 

School in Spain

Our kids have been in school in Spain for nearly a month now, and it is going well overall. We are still learning about the Spanish educational system, but wanted to share our initial impressions.

Types of Schools

There are three types of schools in Spain. Public, concertado, and private.

Public schools are the schools most children attend, including ours.

Concertados are a type of school that doesn’t exist in the United States. They are sort of like Catholic charter schools. They get public funding for the kids who are enrolled there, but they are religious institutions that also seem to receive some financial support from the church. In some cases, parents have to pay an extra fee for their kids to attend concertados, but it seems like they are free in our city. All kids take religion classes as part of their school day.

Private schools in Spain are similar to in the United States in that families pay for their children to attend, and like in the United States they are very variable. Some are international schools that follow the British or United States curriculum, and some follow more closely to the Spanish curriculum. Our small city does not have any international schools since the expat population is very small, but I believe there is one private school just outside the city. We did not consider it since we knew we wanted our kids to attend public school.

Ages and Grades

There seem to be some programs for kids under age 3, but most kids start their formal schooling in a colegio which are for ages 3-11. The first three years are called Infantil and are not compulsory, but it seems pretty much everyone enrolls their kids since it is free. After that, students go through grades 1 through 6 in the same school and this stage is called Primaria. These 6 years are broken up into three cycles, so grades 1 and 2 are called Cycle 1, etc. I am not sure how typical this is throughout Spain, but in our school the kids keep the same teacher for the cycle, so the teacher starts with a group of first graders and follows them through to the end of second grade. It seems that kids also have the same Infantil teacher for all three years. In the United States, we call this looping.

Your grade in school is determined based on your birth year, which is different from where we lived in the United States where it was based on your age as of September 1st. Since our kids all have fall birthdays, this means the three oldest kids were supposed to basically skip a grade upon arrival in Spain. More on that later.

School Schedule and Calendar

The school calendar roughly follows the same September – June calendar used in the United States. Most schools seem to start around September 9th, though ours didn’t start until September 13th due to local holidays. There is also a long vacation at Christmas which lasts more than two weeks, and a week off for Easter. There are various days off for national and local holidays as well, which are sometimes stretched into long weekends.

For the month of September, schools in our city ran from 9:00-1:00. In October, they added an extra hour so the school day ran from 9:00-2:00, which is much shorter than we are used to in the United States. Our kids haven’t complained, though! In June, the schedule again gets shorted to 9:00-1:00. This is due to the heat in the afternoons during these months.

In many other areas of Spain, kids get out around 1pm year round but then return to school for a couple hours in the afternoon from October through May. When we were choosing a city to move to, we knew we may end up living far from the school since we had missed the normal registration period, so were concerned about having a schedule where kids had to make two trips to school each day. One of the reasons we chose the city we did was because of the school schedule, since it also leaves a lot of time in the afternoons for after school activities, which I will write about in a later post.

Language

Those who are considering a move to Spain to immerse kids in Spanish should be very aware of the language of instruction in various areas of Spain. One reason we chose the area we are in is because all instruction is in Spanish, but in some other areas of Spain different languages are spoken and you may find half or more of the school instruction to be in an entirely different language, such as Catalan, Valenciano, Mallorquin, Basque, or Galician.

In our school, English instruction starts at Infantil and occurs about twice a week through 6th grade. Our school is not considered a bilingual school, but there are others that have that designation and I believe this means they teach some additional subjects in English. Many of the concertados are bilingual schools, and I have heard they do a decent job in language instruction.

The English instruction in our school is very basic and many of our kids’ friends seem to attend additional after school English courses in the afternoons. There is a huge focus here on learning English, since it is considered the common language of Europe. The English taught here is British English, and our 7-year-old actually learned new words in English class when they were learning about clothes, such as trousers and trainers.

School Supplies

From reading other expat blogs, I knew that we would need to purchase our kids’ school books. After we got our school assignment, I went to our local bookstore and told them what school my kids would attend and their grades. They had a list of all the books required for each grade level for every school in the city, and placed an order for us after we paid a 30 euro deposit per kid. I knew the books were going to be expensive, but it was still a little shocking to return in September to pay the remaining cost of the books, and find that all the books for the four kids came to a total of 620 Euros ($700)! When I returned home from the bookstore and my husband asked the cost, I told him that at least it was less than a month of preschool back in the United States. Had we been living back in the U.S., we would have had to pay twice that for my daughter’s preschool each month, whereas here in Spain it was completely free. It seems there are book sales organized at the end of each school year, and siblings can hand books down to each other until the publishers come out with a new version, so for those living permanently in Spain the cost would not be quite as extreme every year.

We had gotten a school supply list from one of the teachers with the usual supplies: markers, crayons, scissors, glue, paper towels, etc. so I had all those items purchased prior to the start of school. Once school started up, all four kids kept bringing home additional lists of supplies needed, including some additional books for art and music class. Thankfully we have two school supply stores within half a block since we were there practically every afternoon. After my experience shopping for school supplies in a foreign country, I will never print a supply list again without pictures of the items for those who may not be familiar with the English terminology. I spent so much time wandering the aisles trying to make sense of the list, and had to ask store employees and other shoppers multiple times to direct me to the correct item. I speak decent Spanish, but when something on the list just says colores, which translates to “colors,” it is pretty hard to know that that word is used here for colored pencils.

By the time we purchased all the additional books and supplies, the total for the four kids was probably close to $1000. For us, this was a lot of money, but every time I took out my credit card to pay I thought of the people for whom this is an impossible expense. Spain is in economic crisis and unemployment is extremely high. Salaries are low here, and $1000 is likely to be 2-3 months rent even for families with professional parents. The kids who can’t afford these supplies are already behind before they have even started school, and will constantly be reminded of their economic status. It made me extremely grateful that the schools in the diverse city we live in back in the United States provides all supplies to students so that everyone can start the school year prepared.

In addition to her school supplies, my youngest also needed something called a baby, which is pronounced like bobby. The closest translation for this would be smock, but it is a concept that does not exist at all in the United States. It is a large button down shirt that goes down to her knees that she has to wear over her clothes at school every single day. Each school has their own style so all the kids in Infantil at her school have matching green and white striped ones. We tried to get her used to this prior to school, but she is very particular about what she wears and would freak out whenever we tried to put it on her. But peer pressure won out and now that she sees that everyone else wears them, she goes to school with it on without an issue. Many parents have their kids’ names embroidered on them, which I am planning to do at some point, though it’s hard to get it done since she wears it every day.

Almuerzo and Comedor

As I mentioned in a previous post, the main meal in Spain is eaten in the mid-afternoon, around 2pm. Schools get out at 2:00 to accommodate this schedule, and we have been having our main meal for the day as soon as the kids get home from school, which also works out well with my husband’s schedule since his remote work day starts at 3pm. We are supposed to pack almuerzo each day for our kids, which directly translates to lunch, but is really more of a snack. Our 4-year-old eats her almuerzo in her classroom, but for the other kids it is combined with recess and eaten on the patio in front of the school. It seems a standard almuerzo is a small ham sandwich, but we have usually just been packing a piece of fruit for the older boys and a jelly sandwich for the youngest. Sometimes the boys eat their almuerzo, and sometimes it distracts them from playing so they don’t eat until they come home. My kids describe that at recess the boys are all playing soccer with ham sandwiches in their hands. Multi-tasking, I suppose.

Most schools have a cafeteria attached for students staying for comedor. For working parents or parents who prefer it, kids eat their main meal of the day in comedor and also have some playtime. In other parts of Spain where kids return to school in the afternoon, this covers the midday break. Our school is one of the few in our city that does not have a comedor, so I don’t know much about it, but I have looked at the menus and they serve a wide variety of foods. From a young age kids here seem to be expected to eat the same food as adults. There are multiple menus available for kids with allergies or dietary restrictions, but no vegetarian options, and I have heard that kids are required to eat what is served. Our kids technically have the option to go to comedor in a nearby school, but since three of the four kids are vegetarian it would not be a good option for us.

Specials and Religion

In addition to English twice a week, our three older boys in Primaria also have regular Art, Music, and P.E. classes. The schedule and activities are quite similar to what we are used to the United States. These activities happen in the regular classroom, though I’m not sure if that is normal or just because our kids attend school in a very small building.

One huge difference is that religion is taught in schools here. I already mentioned the concertados, which have mandatory religious instruction, but all other public schools have optional Catholic instruction twice a week. When I first visited the school to fill out paperwork I could choose between Religion or the alternative, which is called Valores Sociales (Social Values). We are not Catholic so opted for Valores Sociales. The religion class takes place in the regular classroom with a visiting teacher and kids who aren’t participating go elsewhere with their classroom teacher during this time. Based on their reports, it seems like they talk about feelings and watch movies and draw things and play computer games. Once my oldest wanted to go back into his classroom to get a pencil but he wasn’t allowed back in since they were doing religious instruction, so they seem to be pretty strict about not exposing kids to it without the parents’ permission. The kids have not reported any talk of religion during other parts of the school day.

I wasn’t sure how many kids would be opting out of religion, since the sense I’ve gotten is that Spain is a Catholic country but that religion doesn’t play much of a role in people’s lives. I have heard that even for those who aren’t religious, the rites of passage, such as First Communion, are considered an important part of their culture. Our two kids that are before the age of first communion report that just a few kids in their class aren’t participating in religion, but the two older boys report that it is about half the class. It could be a coincidence or it could be that parents opt their kids out of religion after First Communion.

School Choice

In most of the United States, the school your kids attend is determined by where you live. We live in a city that has School Choice which means that during the registration process you choose from any school in the city and rank your top three, but may not get in to the school of your choice in the lottery and there is a system of getting additional points for proximity school and if you have a sibling already registered. I thought it was a complicated system until I saw how things work in Spain. In many cities here, there is also school choice, but there are about 10 different categories that can get you additional points, such as having disabled family members or working near one of the schools.

This whole process happens in the spring, and I called a few times to confirm that we couldn’t do anything the spring before we arrived. Instead, we had to wait until we had an address in the summer and then we went to the school department. The man we spoke with looked at where there were openings and suggested two schools that had room for all four of our kids, and we picked the one that was close to our house.

Our School

The school are kids are attending is probably one of the smallest in the city. It is just one classroom per grade level (9 classes total) with up to 25 kids in each grade. The principal is also the gym teacher, and my son’s 5th grade teacher is also the assistant principal. From the beginning, we have had a wonderful experience with the school. Everyone has been very friendly and welcoming of our family, and has been very patient as we try to navigate a new school system in a new country.

Their school is located in the large park in the center of the city, which means they have more room for recess than most schools. It is just a 5 minute walk from our house through the park, and is quite a nice way to start the morning. Nobody is missing rushing out of the house early to catch the bus in the morning, and we are all home from the school pickup by 2:10 each day.

Parent-Teacher Communication

This is very different than in the United States. Each teacher has one hour per week outside of the school day dedicated for communication with parents. At the start of the year, each classroom had a parent meeting during this time which was similar to the Back to School Nights we are familiar with back home. If at any point you want to discuss your child’s progress or ask a question, you can set up an appointment with the teacher during this time, which I think takes the place of parent-teacher conferences. I also discovered it acceptable to just drop in for a quick question, since sometimes when I was in for a meeting for another child I’d pop by another teacher’s classroom just to see if everything was going OK. Other than this scheduled time, you do not see your child’s teacher at all. Parents do not enter the building in the morning and the little kids in Infantil are just handed to their parents at the door to the school at the end of every day.

Teachers do not have school issued email accounts and cannot be reached by email. To get in touch with them, you send in a note or write it in your child’s book which they then show the teacher. There is a single email address for the school which is used to send updates to parents about days off and the schedule for parent-teacher meetings.

Parent-Parent Communication

This is also very different that the United States. We are used to schoolwide email lists and class email lists, but here everything is through WhatsApp, which is a texting app that everyone in Spain uses to communicate. It even has its own verb now, wasapear, which basically means “to send a text via WhatsApp.” Each class had its own WhatsApp group that one parent runs and it is how parents communicate with each other to find out what the homework is, plan birthday parties, talk about activities their kids are doing to see if others are interested, etc. I am on 4 separate WhatsApp lists since each kid’s class has one and the volume of messages is quite overwhelming. If I’m away from my phone for half an hour sometimes I’ll come back to over 30 messages. It is a very helpful resource when my kid comes home and says “I need some kind of instrument for music class tomorrow but I didn’t understand the word” since I can quickly find out that he needs a recorder of a specific brand and where I need to go to buy it.

Academics

In general, the academics have been more similar than different. The kids have the same subjects they do at home: Language, Math, Social Studies, Science. Like in the US, more focus is placed on Language and Math. Language in the upper grades seems to put less emphasis on reading and writing skills and takes a more academic approach to language, like learning the different names for words based on where the accent is, and learning sophisticated vocabulary to talk about communication (code, receptor, channel, etc.).

I had heard that learning in Spain was more rote, but they have also had some hands on projects to complete at home. One kid had to make a model of a cell, and another had to create an interactive physical map of Spain.

There are still many differences, however. Kids learn cursive here first, which means that my 2nd grader is expected to do all his writing in cursive. Thankfully I had been tipped off to this prior to our arrival, and worked on him over the summer so he adjusted to this with no issues. There is also an enormous focus on study habits and neatness. The older kids are expected to each have a notebook for each subject where they copy down questions from the book and write their answers. They are expected to have clear headings, dates, neat margins, etc. This has been a big adjustment for my older kids who are more used to worksheets or workbooks where you just fill in the blank space, or notebooks where they didn’t have to worry about being neat. From the work my 2nd grader is doing, I can see how they start preparing kids with these expectations from a very early age, since he has to copy writing from the board neatly into his notebook.

Those who know me well may wonder what I think of the math instruction here, since my career is based on improving math instruction in elementary schools. As I expected, math instruction is very rote with little focus on why the different algorithms work. Division is done differently here and my 5th grader and I both had to learn the new method so I could help him with his homework, since his teacher will not accept work done with the algorithm he already knows. I wonder if he will continue to divide the Spanish way when we return the US, and also whether my 2nd grader will always write in cursive from now on. I guess we will see what the long term affects of this time in Spain are, other than proficiency in the language.

Homework seems fairly similar to the United States in that it is very variable. My 2nd grader has a math sheet to do some nights and is expected to read at home. My 6th grader has some work out of his books, but he usually has time to do it during the school day. My 5th grader has been coming home with about an hour of homework each night, however.

There are also more tests here and a greater expectation that kids are spending time at home studying. Even in 2nd grade, the language book was sent home the night before a test so we could review capital letters and periods together. We have been leaving it up to the kids whether they want to study for tests at home, since we are trying to keep academics very low key initially while they are adjusting.

The Kids Adjustment

With four kids with completely different personalities, as you can imagine the adjustment was quite different for each child. The two younger kids have adjusted as we expected they would based on their personalities, and the older two were surprising. Here’s the summary:

4-year-old

Our 4-year-old is the type of kid who always does great in structured group settings. She is equally happy sitting in her seat doing art projects, participating in free play, and running around outside with a ball. She has switched schools every year since she was born and usually does fine after a bit of separation anxiety in the first couple weeks. She attended a Spanish immersion school last year so had some foundation in Spanish before our move.

Her transition has been extremely smooth. She cried at dropoff the first couple days, but now she marches into the school with her class and comes home talking about her friends and everything they did that day. Her teacher says she understands absolutely everything in class but is not speaking much Spanish yet, although this does not seem to be affecting her ability to make friends with other kids. She is capable of speaking Spanish and I have heard her use it when I ask her brothers to speak Spanish at home, so I’m sure within a few more weeks she’ll be talking more in class.

7-year-old

Our youngest son turned 7 a few weeks after school started. Back in the United States he was in Kindergarten last year, but because of the different cutoffs here he moved up to 2nd grade. I asked his Kindergarten teacher about this last year and she said he would do just fine since he was a strong student with good reading, writing, and math skills. He had spent two years in Spanish immersion PreK and Kindergarten so had a good foundation in the language. Even though we knew his skills were pretty strong, he is a kid who has trouble with change and takes a long time to adjust to new things. He is constantly comparing himself to others and often feels like he can’t do things as well as other people around him (which is probably related to having two older brothers). He is also shy and it can take him a while to feel comfortable with other kids and make new friends.

He was sobbing as he walked into school on the first day, and the change to 2nd grade was a big adjustment for him. No longer was school about playing with friends around tables, but now he was sitting at a desk doing what the teacher said all day long. For the first couple weeks, he complained of a stomachache every morning and told me that his stomach was hurting all day long at school, so he was clearly feeling pretty anxious. I checked in with his teacher who said that he seemed to understand everything that was going on in class, but said that he seemed to always be sad. He made one friend quickly who he invited over to our house, but was reluctant to interact with other kids. Although he played soccer with the other boys at recess, every day we heard about how terribly he did compared to everyone else.

After a few weeks of school, we started to see a transformation. He started to notice that his academic skills were actually quite good, and felt more confident about his performance in school. He got a 10 out of 10 on a math test, and 9.25 on a language test. His teacher has a system of tracking how many books kids have read on the wall, and one day he came home with a 64 page long book and told me that he wanted to read it all that night and write a summary in his reading log, and got right to work. The next day he got to record the book he had read on the classroom wall, and was very proud of himself. When I asked him at pick up how school had gone, for the first time he said, “Good.” I am pretty sure we are past the worst of the transition and he will continue to settle in over the next couple months. It’s hard for me to judge the speed of the kids’ language acquisition, but from reading with him it seems to me that he has been really soaking up Spanish and there seems to be less of a gap between his ability level and grade level expectations than with the older boys.

9-year-old

Our 9-year-old is the most social of our boys. He makes friends easily and always has a packed social calendar. He is also a very good student and always received excellent grades in school. We thought of all the boys, he would probably have the easiest transition to a new environment. Because of the age cutoff, he jumped from 3rd grade to 5th grade, but we were pretty sure he could handle it.

In fact, he has had the toughest transition, though it seems to be getting better after several weeks in school. Even though he had five years of Spanish immersion in school, his lack of confidence with Spanish seemed to make him very shy. Kids have been friendly towards him, but he usually sticks by my side at school dropoff rather than joining the group of kids playing together from his class. He has made one good friend who he has gotten together with outside of school, but doesn’t have a group of friends like he is used to.

He also had some trouble adjusting to the academics, and without a group of friends he was looking forward to seeing, going to school was a daily struggle at first. He understands enough Spanish to know what is going on in class, but makes more errors than the other kids with anything related to language. Math was the only area where he was feeling successful, until they got to the division unit and he was told he was doing it all wrong. We definitely expected that the kids wouldn’t be successful academically right away, but it is hard for him to feel he is no longer an excellent student. His teacher’s style is also different than he is used to, and when the teacher points out areas for improvement, he takes it all extremely personally. The biggest struggle has been the amount of homework, since the school day is already tough and then he comes home to more work. It certainly doesn’t help that his older brother has practically no homework and is playing on the computer while he is still working in the afternoons.

During the third week of school, we started to see a gradual improvement. He no longer asked every day how many more months until we could go back to the U.S. He instead talked about his new friend and how he would miss him when we leave, and was enjoying playing soccer with the other kids at recess. He is gradually becoming more independent with homework, and seems to understand that we are not really concerned with his grades at the start of the year while he is adjusting. Like with our 7-year-old, I am pretty sure we are past the worst part of the transition and it will continue to improve from here.

11-year-old

I was most worried about how our oldest would handle a new school. Change is extremely difficult for him. He was completely against our move to Spain and told us that we were ruining his life. In our last months in the US, he attitude softened a bit and he seemed a little more open to the idea, but made it quite clear that he would rather stay home and that he was only coming with us because he had no choice in the matter.

Based on his year of birth, he should have been in 7th grade this year, which is when kids move to the Institutos. When we registered for school, we asked to keep him in 6th grade, which would have been his grade this year had we stayed in the U.S., since we thought the transition to a large secondary school would have been too much for him. It took some convincing, but in the end we were able to register for him for 6th grade which meant he could attend the same school as his younger siblings.

To our surprise, he settled into school immediately and is happier than he was back at home. He even told us that this is the first time in his life he really loves school. He really likes his teacher who motivates the kids to learn without putting a ton pressure on them, and he had a great group of new friends right away on the first day of school. He is feeling confident with the Spanish and successful in all areas of school, although supposedly his notebook organizational habits are not quite what is expected of kids who are heading off to secondary school the following year. Still, we are thrilled he is so happy in school and is having a great experience in Spain.

Overall

Even though a couple of the kids had bumpy starts in school, at no point did we question our decision to move abroad and have them attend school in a new country. They are all getting so much out of the experience and I’m sure their level of Spanish will be very high by the time we leave, since they spend many hours each day fully immersed in the language. They are also learning a lot about adaptability and what it is like to be the new kid and attend school in a different culture, which I’m sure will increase their empathy for others. They are also very engaged in extracurricular activities, which I will write about in another post.

The pictures below are both from the first day of school, and two kids were crying on the way there but everyone was happy at the end of the day. We are pretty sure these pictures are representative of how our time here will go for them, since things that were hard at first are gradually getting easier. We think they are all off to a great start and look forward to seeing what the rest of the school year will bring as they continue to adjust and grow.

Essays about Europe by the Kids

I am one of those parents who makes my kids keep up with some kind of schoolwork over the summer. One day my kids asked if they could write essays instead of reading, and I suggested they write about our trip through Europe. Here is what they wrote:

My Trip to Europe

by G, age 11

I am currently in Europe, traveling with my family to different countries. So far the trip has been amazing and I have seen many famous, historical landmarks such as the Mona Lisa, and also the Eiffel Tower. I am very glad I came, as I was a little bit nervous to be going on such a big trip. I have learned about many different cultures, and I have experienced many new things, such as tastes, architecture, and religions across this amazing part of the world. I would highly recommend coming here, as it is an amazing place where you can learn lots of things about the rest of the world.

My favorite part of this trip was experiencing all of the new cultures and religions that people were a part of. In France there was lots of art, and many expensive foods, such as cheese and wine that many people consider part of their culture in France. I found that in Spain many people were Catholic, but did not go church every day. Spain also had lots of open markets, and there were sometimes huge areas the size of football fields that were covered in stands selling hats, clothing, juice, and many other goods. The foods in every country were different, because some places like Switzerland had not many foods, but France and Spain all had their own foods for their countrys.

I was amazed by the architecture of many of the places we had visited. France had amazing and complex churches, while Switzerland had old and preserved castles and forts from the middle ages. Every day my family and I went to some place in the country we were visiting. My favorite trip was the trip to the Eiffel tower, because the Eiffel tower was just mind-blowing. I had never seen it before except in pictures, but the real thing was a giant mountain of steel all entwined in one giant tower. There were also so many different people visiting it, some from Asia, England, and even the United States. I think the architecture in Europe is pretty amazing, and it is cool how the people of Europe preserve it so well.

There were also lots of different tastes to be tried, such as the taste of moldy, stinky Spanish cheese, which everyone except my dad refused to try. I loved the French bread in France, and the pastries were great. I loved the cheese in Paris, and we ate cheese and bread for dinner every day. I tried a cheese with truffle inside and it tasted great! The pasta and gelato in Italy are great, and our dinners in Spain are  just as good.

I really liked the bike paths in Copenhagen, because our family rides bikes a ton. We went to a bike store and rented a cargo bike, an adult bike, and 2 kids bikes. My little brother was very upset over not getting a bike and insisted that there was a bike big enough for him in the store (there was not). We biked everywhere in Copenhagen, because every single street had a bike path almost ⅓ to ½ of the size of the road. I thought it was impossible for transportation to be as good as my mom had told me it would be, but I found it it can. It is very important to have transportation like that because when we were in Iceland, there were lots of long car trips which were very boring.

Overall, I am very impressed with how old but preserved Europe is, and I was amazed that so many cultures could be in such a small space. I love everything about Europe, except for all of the plane and train rides we have to do. The food is great, I like how cool the buildings are, and in most places transportation is relatively easy. I would highly suggest coming here, maybe with a close friend, to share the experience with someone else.

Europe is a Great Place to Be

by D, age 9

Europe is a great place to be. There are lots of cool places to be. You can visit the Alps in Switzerland . There are lots of castles in Denmark. In Paris there is really good food. I think that Europe is a great place to be and you should definitely go there.

The places formed by nature are really cool. The caves in Mallorca have spikes of stone coming from the ceiling. Another cool thing that was naturally formed is in Switzerland . It is the waterfalls in the Alps. They are really cool to look at and you can also go inside them. It is awesome.

There are lots of cool structures in Europe. One example is the Eiffel Tower. The Eiffel Tower is so cool. You have to look way up to see the top. I think it would be really cool to see the whole city of Paris on the Eiffel Tower. Another really cool place to visit are the castles in Denmark.

One other thing in Europe is the food the food is great. The pasta in Italy is so good. I really like the food in Mallorca. There are these great spinach things with crispy stuff on the outside. It is so good. As you can see I reallyI think the food in Europe is good.

Europe is great. I really like the structures, the places that are naturally formed, and the food. You should definitely go to France, Italy, and Denmark. Those are my favorite countries in Europe. I hope you now want to go to Europe!

Reflections on Traveling Through Europe

This summer, we spent 8 weeks traveling throughout Europe and visited Iceland, Copenhagen, mainland Spain, Mallorca, Paris, Switzerland, and Italy. We knew this was a big undertaking with four kids, ages 3-11, but we also knew that airfare to Europe was expensive so we should make the most of it while we were there. As we led up to the trip, I was excited but also nervous. What if after a week we all just wanted to go home? Would we be able to adapt to moving to a new country every week? I was also certain that there was no way we could travel that long without dealing with some sort of horrible situation, like an emergency room visit, missed flight, or a night spent in a train station.

The surprising reality was that everything went incredibly smoothly. At no point did the kids want to go home, and we all settled into a routine that involved plenty of downtime along with fully experiencing whatever country we happened to be in that week. We went along with the slow travel mentality, which means that we didn’t have jam packed days full with sight seeing, but instead spent more time living like locals. My husband was working remotely for much of our trip, so we generally went out in the morning and then spent afternoons at home, so he would be working at the same time as his colleagues back in the US, and was able to call into meetings, etc.

There were definitely some minor blips in the trip, such as showing up in the middle of the night to enter a rental property and not getting in for an over an hour, and a walk to the bus in Copenhagen with all our luggage that coincided with my 3-year-old daughter completely losing her ability to walk a single step, but with a good sense of humor and realistic expectations we made it through everything and it was all absolutely worth it.

The Itinerary

We found one week per location to be just the right amount of time. It would have been great to spend more time in each place, but then we wouldn’t have been able to visit as many places, and we really loved everywhere we visited. It was definitely tiresome to have to pack up all of our things and clean everything up every week, but the inconvenience was well worth it for all the experiences we got to have.

Transportation

Our first few trips from country to country involved flying, and after five flights in five weeks we were pretty sick of airports. The flights themselves were all fine and we shockingly did not have a single delay, but the whole process of getting there early, going through security, and hauling our luggage to distant terminals got old pretty fast. I still would have made the same decision again, though, since the places we wanted to visit were all pretty spread out so it was the only possible way to visit all of them.

Once we got to Paris, we traveled exclusively by train and we enjoyed this much more. The train stations were more centrally located than the airports so easier to get to, and we didn’t have to get there two hours early. We could just walk right on with our luggage and the kids had more room and freedom to move around on the train.

Our least favorite way of getting around was by rental car. It was essential in a few of the destinations we were visiting, but almost every time we ran into major issues when we arrived to rent a car, despite having reservations for automatic minivans. A couple times it meant we had to wait over an hour since they didn’t have a car ready for us, and once they did not have an automatic available and we had to get a manual car instead. Neither of us has much experience driving a manual car, but I had thought this sort of thing may happen so had asked my husband to take a manual driving lesson prior to our departure, which proved very useful and he was able to manage well enough.

Packing

Our plan was to eventually settle in Spain but we decided to visit Iceland and Copenhagen first. This meant we arrived to these two places with quite a lot of luggage. We did pack reasonably light for the move abroad. We only brought a rolling carryon for each of us (6 total) and also two large rolling duffel bags. Since we knew my husband was planning to return to the US in September, we also packed an extra duffle bag with some additional clothes for cooler weather and left it our basement back home.

When we left Spain, we left the two larger duffel bags behind and from this point just traveled with the six carryon bags. This made it possible to fly budget airlines without paying for any checked bag fees.

For the rest of our journey, the stuff we took with us was:

  1. A few changes of clothes per person. We made sure we had a washing machine everywhere we went so we did not have to carry a lot of clothes with us. Since we knew Switzerland would be chilly, we did have to bring long pants, long sleeve shirts, and lightweight coats. We actually used these in Paris too, since it was quite chilly in the mornings while we were there.
  2. Toiletries and medication. Just the basics, since we figured we could buy anything else we needed.
  3. Swim gear. Necessary in Mallorca where we had our own pool, though we also swam a few times in Switzerland.
  4. Technology. The list is a bit embarrassing, but we traveled with 3 laptops, 4 Kindles, 1 iPad, 4 iPhones, and 2 DSs. Also assorted chargers, batteries, earbuds, etc. This was super fun every time we went through security at the airport and had to separate electronics, but after the first time I learned to pack all the technology into two bags so we could unpack it easily when needed.
  5. Markers, paper, a few books, and some small cars to keep our 3-year-old daughter entertained.
  6. A backpack that we used for outings.
  7. An Ergo carrier. I debated endlessly whether my 3-year-old was going to need a stroller but eventually decided against it, since it just seemed like one more thing to deal with. It was definitely the right decision and she proved to be an excellent walker most of the time, though we kept the Ergo in the backpack just in case when we’d be walking a lot, and it was helpful a few times in Paris and on longer hikes in Switzerland.
  8. Portable car seats for the younger kids. Renting car seats adds up really quickly so we brought for our 3-year-old daughter a Ride Safe travel vest and a Bubble Bum inflatable booster for our 6-year-old son. It was sort of a pain to have to carry these even through the stretch where we were only traveling by train, but we needed them for part of the time, and they were pretty compact so it wasn’t a big deal.

It was a bit tight but we managed to fit all of this into 6 rolling carryon bags. We often had to deal with stairs so I made sure the two older boys had the lightweight stuff packed into their bags, and then my husband and I could each carry two of the heavier bags. Our 6-year-old was occasionally willing to pull his own bag, but couldn’t handle stairs.

Flexibility

I was really surprised by how easily all of us adapted to every new environment we found ourselves in. One of my kids is not especially known for flexibility, and he ended up being the one who enjoyed the trip the most and really appreciated all the different cultures. I am also a creature of habit and have had the same exact tea every day for at least a year, which I have to special order on Amazon. When packing I stuffed a box in my bag and figured I’d ask my husband bring it back for me whenever he traveled home. The tea traveled with us to Iceland, then Copenhagen, and then I ended up leaving it behind in Spain since I hadn’t even opened the box since I left home. So I discovered that I was a little more flexible than I thought as well, and did not find myself missing much about home at all during our trip.

screen-shot-2016-09-26-at-7-38-27-pmAlthough we had to be flexible since each country was different, there were also some things that were surprisingly similar in Europe. In the months prior to our departure, my daughter became particularly attached to a certain blue IKEA cup, as young kids often do,
and insisted on drinking out of it at every meal. I normally wouldn’t give into this for as long as I did, but I figured we were moving soon enough and would be leaving the IKEA cup behind. Turns out that IKEA cup followed us around Europe. Well, not that one exactly, but several of the rentals we had had the exact same set of IKEA kids cups, including our long term rental home in Spain. Thankfully over time she has become a little more flexible and will drink from all colors now.

Favorites

I thought that after visiting seven places it would be clear which were my favorites, but it ended up being too hard to choose. We really enjoyed everywhere we went and each place was so different.

The kids did have some specific favorites. My 11-year-old loved the city in Spain we ended up settling in best of all, since we are very centrally located and he made friends in the city. My 9-year-old settled on Italy as his favorite. That kid just loves pasta. Copenhagen was a close second for him, due to the ease of getting around on bike. My 6-year-old loved Mallorca where he could swim all day in our private pool. And my 3-year-old stuck with Iceland, the first place we visited, since she loved the outdoor space there and the freedom to run outside whenever she wanted.

Best Age to Travel

Since our kids range from 3 to 11, we got a good sense of what it is like to travel with kids at different ages. I would recommend taking a trip to Europe at any point with kids, but here are what our experiences were like with the different ages.

My older two really soaked up all the cultures and new experiences. Their walking stamina is as good as mine which was great for exploring cities and hiking. They could carry luggage, help with grocery shopping, never got whiny, and were pretty awesome travel companions. The only downside was that they were sometimes hard to mobilize to get out of the house, since their ideal day involves 12 hours of Minecraft, but once we got them out they were quite content and up for just about anything.

My 6-year-old was less enthusiastic about all the traveling, though was mostly a good sport. Depending on his mood, he could be a solid walker or a whiny mess. Copenhagen was a great city for him since he was still small enough to fit in a cargo bike which made it easy to transport him around. He didn’t care one bit about cathedrals or historical sites, although the Eiffel Tower did impress him. I think he got a superficial sense of other cultures, though probably would have preferred to be in the pool in Mallorca all summer rather than in a new place every week.

I felt bad for my 3-year-old before embarking on our trip. This is probably a once in a lifetime experience for us, and I thought she wouldn’t remember it at all and wouldn’t get much out of it. At this point it is too soon to say what she will remember, but she got so much out of the experience and I know it will stick with her in some way. She learned how to ride a bike in Copenhagen and learned how to swim in Mallorca. We have now been back in Spain for four weeks and she talks constantly about every one of our destinations and asks to see Google Maps to see where we went. She repeatedly talks about wanting to go back and visit the places we went to this summer, though expresses no desire to return back home to the US. I am pretty sure she will be a lifelong traveler and this was the first of many big adventures she will have in life.

What Did it Cost

Obviously this was a big trip and it was expensive. However, we were renting our place back home via Airbnb during the high season, and the income we made covered most of the cost of the trip.

Here is the rough total of all the expenses involved:

Airfare and Train for 6: $5000

This includes six flights and three train trips from one destination to another. It does not include local transit since that would be harder to track, but that probably would add another couple hundred to the total. Note that this was only one way airfare to Europe and had we returned to the US, we would have had to pay at least another $1000 for round trip tickets.

Car/Bike Rental: $3000

This includes cars in Iceland, Madrid, and Mallorca for a total of 4 weeks. For families who can fit into a smaller car, the cost would probably be about half of this or perhaps even less. Minivans are rare and expensive in Europe.

Accommodation: $9500

This was our biggest expense. We mostly stayed at Airbnb units and averaged around $160 per night, which seemed like a pretty good deal considering that we rented places with at least three bedrooms, washing machine, kitchen, etc. that were usually in a central location.

Activities: $1000

The bulk of this was the Mallorca boat trip and Iceland horseback riding trip, but this is a rough estimate of the total including museums and other sites that we visited.

Food: ??

I’m not going to go through credit cards and ATM withdrawals to track our food expenses, but I think the conclusion that I’d come to is that we spent more than we usually do on food at home, but probably less than twice the normal amount. We mostly cooked meals at our rental properties, though did eat out more than we usually do at home. We also stayed in several countries with really expensive groceries and weren’t able to do our usual bulk shopping, so I’m guessing our food total is pretty high for the summer.

So overall, the total was probably somewhere under $20,000. Our Airbnb unit made a little over $15,000, although that is taxed income. We also saved on some of our normal summer expenses, such as summer camp and car insurance. Overall, the trip was definitely affordable considering what we were able to earn on our place back home. This means that this may not be the last time we attempt a European summer vacation, though if we do other trips in the future we will probably only stay a few weeks and focus on just a couple countries.

Conclusion

If you are considering a family vacation to Europe and can find a way to afford it, I would strongly suggest you do it. The kids gained so much perspective on the world that exists beyond the United States and had many amazing experiences. Feel free to get in touch with me for more specific recommendations about where to go depending on the ages of your kids and interests. Even though we visited so many places, we still only saw a small portion of Europe this time around, and hope to have the opportunity to travel more in the future.