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Exactly one year ago, we arrived in Spain on our 81-day, do-it-yourself, family study abroad in Spain. It’s hard to believe it’s been a year since we left. Following a gentle nudge, I put down some thoughts on the lessons we learned from our journey.
Lessons We Learned
- It wasn’t as expensive as we thought it would be. There’s no doubt that traveling like a typical tourist would have been expensive. But a slower, longer trip, patterned after regular life back home was mostly as expensive, if not cheaper than living back home. I was stunned that we could get haircuts for both myself and my two sons in Valencia and only pay for all three what I would normally pay for just my haircut back home. Cheaper groceries, cheaper dining out. My superstar wife optimized museum free times and tickets for touristy things. Our largest expense, by far, was our housing.
- It was both incredibly short and long. To most people, three months on the road may seem like an excessively long trip, but by the end of it I was sad it wasn’t longer. There was always more we could have experienced. The long stay enabled us to enjoy experiencing Spain more like how the locals do, but we still barely scratched the surface. At the same time, it felt long to be away from home and the familiar, and we required some reacclimation when we got back home.
- It was both harder and easier than I thought it would be. Making my way through the details of a trip for eight was exhausting at times. Finding and reviewing Airbnb stays and navigating bus timetables in a foreign language wasn’t easy. I realized it wasn’t going to be easy, but I didn’t fully understand how exhausting it could be, always planning the next segment of the trip. I totally understand why people go for all-inclusive tourist packages. At the same time, it wasn’t so bad that I wouldn’t do it all again. I’d certainly farm out more planning responsibilities to my children, especially as they get older and more capable. I would also be more flexible and willing to forgo ultra optimizing everything.
- Ensuring cultural interactions takes work. Part of the purpose of the trip was to expose our family to a new culture. But being there didn’t just simply make that happen. It took effort to ensure we didn’t isolate ourselves in the comfort of our own family interactions. Our choice to attend weekly worship services with local congregations helped provide a push away from isolation. Looking back, I wish we had had more native contacts in Spain prior to arriving, that could have helped us even more.
- We really could do it without a car. American society is built on motor vehicles. You practically can’t live in American without access to one. We made a gamble that we could do the whole trip without a private vehicle and we succeeded. Living in urban settings and using Spain’s public transportation made this possible. There were tradeoffs we accepted, such as not being able to go to areas generally inaccessible without a car, but the simplification was also freeing. I’m not sure I’d always do every trip like this, but it worked well for this trip.
- We were more urban than we expected. Because we were car-less, we ended up with urban Airbnb stays. It was a different experience than my children would get living in the suburbs of Northern Virginia. We saw things that we wouldn’t see normally back home, most of it good. For example, take the downtown graffiti park two blocks from our Airbnb stay in Barcelona. We were fascinated by the vibrant, detailed art that took hours to craft but was covered within days (or even hours) by another graffiti mural. Or the Crematori de Montjuïc, a cemetery spanning acres of tombs stacked five high. A fascinating experience mostly experienced only by the locals and definitely part of an urban setting. Simple things like graveyards and graffiti can be inspiring. The homeless vagrants in Barcelona? Not so much.
- A long break from regular life provides clarity to what’s truly important. Life has a way of building up cruft. When you can live without a material possession for three months, you realize that maybe you could do without it forever. Does that mean we purged when we got back? We did a little. But our trip gave a new perspective on the value of things that only collect dust. Two weeks of vacation would not have done this in the same way.
- Telework and work-a-tions don’t suck. Being six hours ahead of my team, I selected things to work on that enabled more independence. But it’s not so far away that I couldn’t have some overlap with my team’s schedule back home. Having the regular weekends and company holidays gave me plenty of time to experience Spain without work conflicts. I also took off a copious amount of time during the trip, about four weeks in total. Telework doesn’t work for some jobs, but my employer was super flexible, even excited to let me have this opportunity. And talk about preparing me for the pandemic and the perpetual work-from-home that is my current experience!
- Having someone trusted to watch your home is super helpful. My mother-in-law lived in our house while we were in Spain. The only drawback was that when we returned, she liked living in Northern Virginia so much that she decided to relocate to an apartment nearby. I prefer 2,000 miles of separation. Joking aside, she did a terrific job watching our place and keeping our vehicles in motion while we were away.
- We got tired talking about it. Especially right before the trip. What was new and novel to others hearing about it for the first time became rote and boring for us to talk about. I’d probably give people less heads up next time, letting many find out about it once we get to our destination or even only after we return.
- Next time, take more laptops. We had my work laptop and a family laptop. The family laptop was always in high demand. The biggest demands were from my oldest child who was working on college essays and editing video footage from her GoPro for her vlog.
- Medical plans often provide support for long vacations. Two of our children were on maintenance prescriptions during the trip. Usually, the insurance will fill no more than 30 days at a time. However, they make exceptions for long vacations and we were able to order and take with us a 90-day supply of medicine. It’s also good to know that airlines will generally allow unlimited medical supply carry-on baggage.
Impact on My Kids
- Language learning confidence. We started learning Spanish as a family a year before our trip. As the day of departure grew nearer, our kids were still anxious. My 12-year old was downright terrified. But nearly three months of seeing street signs and advertisements in a foreign language works wonders. As also will accompanying mom or dad to the grocery store or market and seeing that they could understand more than they thought they would. I even have several found memories of a child stepping in to help me when I didn’t quite understand what a shopkeeper was saying. Even though we’re home, we’re continuing the language learning by working into our home schooling and the kids continue to build their confidence in learning what was formerly incomprehensible.
- Confidence to do big, risky things. All of my kids knew that we were taking on a big, audacious adventure. Being able to see how mom and dad approached it provided a template for them in who they can take on big things in the future. My oldest was recently talking to a fellow college student who had also travelled to Spain for an all-too-typical nine day trip. My daughter said later “I didn’t have the heart to tell her that we had been there nine times as long as she had.”
- They had safety concerns. They were terrified we’d get separated in the busy metro systems. So we talked about what they could do and what we would do. When I gave my second oldest daughter some euros and told her to go across the street from our Airbnb stay in Valencia and buy a bus ticket at the tobacco shop, in broad daylight, she refused, terrified that she would be abducted. You could say that I totally underestimated her fear, feeling it was a bit irrational. I walked her over and helped her buy the ticket. To her credit, she did feel confident enough to immediately, by herself, take the bus across town to join up with my wife and the other children on an outing.
- Learning to try new foods, meet new people. Most of my kids will eat nearly anything. Spain provided another avenue to explore cuisine that they don’t get in Northern Virginia, like paella, tapas or calamari fritos. And their willingness to participate in weekly worship services in Spain was another sign of their bravery.
- Feral monkeys cool in concept, but not in reality. Before our trip we learned about the feral monkeys in Gibraltar. The kids were excited to see them when we got there. It was an anticipated highlight. But once we got to Gibraltar and read all the signs warning of how dangerous the monkeys could be, my kids started rethinking. Seeing a brazen monkey jump onto the back of a tourist, grab his sandwich from out of his hands, and then watch the tourist run away in terror, cured my kids of their desire to get close to the monkeys. Cute in pictures, not so cute up close.
- Fear of pickpockets. Especially in Barcelona, a city with a reputation of pickpockets. We watched a Youtube video of the Pickpocket Huntress and they were worried we’d be victimized. Especially my second oldest who has medical equipment that she was worried about being stolen. We never saw a pickpocket. I don’t mean to downplay the risk because I’m sure it’s real. But for my kids, it was almost a letdown. I’m sure they wanted to see Dad fend off a thief.
- We packed super light, only taking carry-on backpacks. Yes, you read that right. We took no checked luggage. I took an Osprey Farpoint 55, which although it technically doesn’t meet every airline’s carry-on limits, is close enough that no one batted an eye. Might be tricky if we’d done a super budget airline. My wife took the Osprey Fairview 40, which is totally in carry-on range and I bought Osprey Ozone 46s from REI’s clearance for our two oldest. The rest of the kids took cheap backpacks that we’d purchased previously from Costco. We laughed when we saw a young couple in Ronda who had four rolling suitcases between the two of them which was probably more luggage space than we had in total. Packing light is the way to go.
- We bought a small “cartina” to help cart things between Airbnbs. The little cart made it easy to transport items that we didn’t want to repurchase at every Airbnb, such as clothes pins for laundry, detergents, and other items. It also made lugging groceries the few blocks between the market and our Airbnb stay manageable. As we headed to the Barcelona airport and our return flight home, we left the cartina next to a homeless man camping in a bank ATM vestibule, sure that he could put it to good use.
- Wireless setup/internet. Each Airbnb stay had Wifi, but in an attempt to make it easier to connect to new Wifi networks in each stay, I took along a travel router. I also brought along a USB charger for the multitude of phones, Kindles, GoPros and medical equipment. And of course US/European power converters to plug everything in. For the internet, our plan was to use the Airbnb connections or tether our phones.
- Phone plan through Orange. My aversion to expensive phone plans was only strengthened by our trip. Immediately after we got to Madrid, we signed up for two, per-month Orange plans. For $10/month, we had 5 gigs of data each, more than needed. I’m not sure I ever used more than 1 gig per month. Even though we had Spanish telephone numbers, we continued to use our Google Voice setup to communicate with each other and with those back home.
- Try to learn the language. We found the trip more fulfilling and enjoyed our brief glimpses into the Spanish culture through its language. Highly recommend any amount of time you can spend on learning the language.
We had a fun trip. Many times since we’ve been home we’ve found ourselves laughing around the table, remembering this or that memory from Spain. We hope to do this again, maybe taking our adventure to another Spanish speaking nation, probably in this hemisphere.
Is there a question from our trip that I didn’t address? Let me know in the comments, below.