Emotions have been running high this week in our brightly lit, sparsely furnished Sarrià apartment. The five of us have been 'feeling all of the feelings' during seven days of intensive change and transition.
Was it really just five days ago that we moved?
Unbelievable. After spending three full, sometimes frantic days at Barcelona's Gran Via IKEA furnishing our entire apartment (rented 'sin muebles'), we moved in while workers were literally painting the walls and cleaning the kitchen.
While an IKEA crew was putting together our beds so we would actually have a place to sleep that night, Señor Aventura and I attended the first of six 3-hour school orientation meetings this week for our kids. So, our amazing Australian babysitter 'Nicole' (blond, tall, athletic, professional!) was here to deal with the argument that broke out in our living room between the IKEA workers and the building's night security guard.
"We didn't really understand what they were fighting about," said The Scientist, who witnessed the argument. "I think it had something to do with their big truck."
Yikes! By the time we'd gotten home though, the beds and couches were assembled and our three kiddos were racked out asleep - so tired from six weeks of travel, apartment hunting and endless errands. They looked so contented in slumber.
"We're home," I whispered to my husband. "We have a HOME here."
We hugged quietly in the doorway to the bedroom Soccer Dude shares with Little Angel.
Since that day we've tackled and mainly completed all of the endless back-to-school shopping and continued picking up many smaller things needed for an apartment - like bathroom trash cans, an ironing board and iron, hangers and laundry hampers. We spent one harried evening labeling all of their new school uniform pieces and school supplies, packing snacks and getting ready for our first super-early morning rush since June.
Just when it felt like summertime might never end, AT LAST (hallelujah!) we waved goodbye yesterday morning to our excited, nervous children as they boarded the tiny white school bus.
I'm not sure who had more butterflies in their stomach while we waited for that bus to arrive. I won't lie, my heart was in my throat a little. "Who will they sit with?" I wondered. "Will the other kids be nice to them? Will they be nice to each other?"
All of these jitters evaporated when the sweet little bus pulled up. Its front door slid open and our first sight inside was the beaming, radiant face of Señora Marisela who greeted all three of our children (and the children who boarded in line behind them) warmly with a big hug and kiss. "Welcome to the first day of school!" she sang out in Castellano. I could see each of my kids visibly relax. Soccer Dude's face illuminated as he was greeted by a boy on the bus, and I knew everything would be okay.
Señor Aventura and I were amazed by the silence in our apartment when we returned home yesterday morning. We spent a full hour ensconced in this beautiful silence, marinating in the peace. We hadn't experienced so much companionate solitude in six weeks. We smiled and hugged but neither of us spoke much for a long time, enjoying the surreal tranquility.
I cleaned the apartment fully, unpacking suitcases, making beds and doing laundry. Slowly I put order into our new home. Señor Aventura did some work and then mapped out a bicycle ride. Eventually we began talking like long-lost friends who hadn't seen each other in a while. We found ourselves laughing, and every so often one of us would remark how strange it felt without the children around. After all, we had not been apart from them for so long.
"I can't wait until they get home!" I said out loud more than once. "I can't wait to hear about their day!"
I truly looked forward to greeting their school bus, carrying their backpacks and hearing about every detail of their school day.
The bus. Wow.
Riding the bus is a big change for three kids who have been driven to school every day of their lives by one parent or another, for as long as they can remember. This was the very first time our kids had ever taken a bus by themselves from one city to another... especially (and probably most nerve-wracking for them) a school bus filled with other children their age, none of whom they know yet.
Millions of American children ride school buses every single day. It isn't rocket science, and our family didn't invent anything new yesterday. Still... for the three Aventura kiddos (and their mother with helicopter tendencies) taking the bus to a country town 20 minutes outside of Barcelona represents a big, exciting step toward their growing independence.
When we first discussed leaving San Diego to build a life 6,000 miles from home, I'd pictured Bohemian, nurturing mornings where I would hold the hands of my younger children while we walked happily to a neighborhood school close by where I could also volunteer - something I have not been able to do as a middle school teacher. I would at last accompany my children on field trips, and run little errands for their teachers. I was going to be the expat Mom of the Year!
I LOVED this vision. Even though I'm not naturally well-coiffed I vowed I would work toward being that perfect mom I've seen throughout my many years in my classroom. (There's always at least one, every year.) I would finally be that mom who shows up early in casually chic clothes and nicely brushed hair; the relaxed but organized mom who coordinates bake sales and field trips; the mom who knows the other moms... whose kids always have matching, clean clothes and neatly braided hair.
My children (who still care about these things, especially the younger two) would feel so proud to have their mom attending all of their events and presentations. They would pretend they didn't want me to snap so many photos from the audience, and then ask me later in private with big smiles to show them every picture I'd taken.
It was a really great vision, something to look forward to. Those dreams got me through some tough days. Whenever I worked a 12 hour day last year - which happened a lot due to my own type-A personality, I would apologize to my kids and promise that this year would be different - that this year, I would be PRESENT.
The heart is unpredictable though; and even though I'd planned on one kind of life, we accidentally fell in love with a Barcelona school that didn't mesh with any of my best-laid plans.
Agora International Sant Cugat.
Agora International Sant Cugat is quite simply phenomenal.
Can we call it true love yet? Are we still in the crush phase? Will the affection we feel for this amazing school hold up over time?
Based on the evidence of the past five days, I would say that this may turn out to be one of those rare stories you read about from time to time in "PEOPLE" magazine... stories about love at first sight.
I recall the morning about a year ago when Señor Aventura and I first found Agora International Sant Cugat on the web. I'd done so much research into the many, many private and international schools in Barcelona. He and I had already decided on applying to at least four other schools. Then we found Agora.
"Honey, look at this one! Wow - how cool is this? It's based on four main pillars... multilingualism, music, sports and new technologies. The core teaching is done in Spanish, Catalan and English. What could be more perfect for our kids?"
"That definitely sounds too good to be true. The whole point of moving to Spain would be for the kids to become bilingual. To add in music, sports and technology on top of that? I really like that. We should contact this school!"
As we talked and researched, we grew more and more excited. My husband suggested that we look on a map of Barcelona to see where the school was located in the city.
To our surprise and disappointment, the school wasn't anywhere in central Barcelona! Instead, it sat beyond the mountains, 20 minutes away by car. "Sant Cugat is a town, not a neighborhood," explained my husband. "It looks nice but that's a little too far out of town for us, babe. We want the city experience, not country living."
He was right. We put Agora on the back burner, deciding to contact them anyway but pursue the other options more intensively.
We applied to five private and international schools in central Barcelona, schools that were walking distance from cool neighborhoods. Schools that had great websites! From 6,000 miles away, we thought we'd figured it all out. We had both a first and second choice all lined up. We didn't even submit an application to Agora International Sant Cugat, and we almost canceled our school visit in March because, as Señor Aventura had sagely said, it just wasn't too practical. "Too far away!"
Looking back, I thank my lucky stars that we didn't cancel our visit! We decided spontaneously to keep the interview and check out the school anyway, despite the distance, just for reference.
Yet once we'd seen it up close for two hours... met the teachers, seen the classrooms, listened to the sound of instruments filling the hallways and seen the glorious artwork on the walls; once our boys took one look at twelve futbol games taking place on the vast turf soccer field... that was it.
There was no going back. We knew. We all knew.
We'd found 'the one'.
"I want to go to THIS school, Mom," declared Soccer Dude.
"It's my favorite too, mommy," agreed Little Angel. "This is the one I want!"
"I think we will get a better education there," nodded The Scientist. "I think we will be happier, too."
Their decision was unanimous.
That day back in March, with one nod of my head and a big happy group hug, I agreed with my children. In that instant I sacrificed the carefully nurtured vision of motherhood I'd hoped to achieve during our family adventure abroad.
My children will not walk to school slowly holding my hand, eating freshly baked bread and telling me stories... instead, they now ride a school bus for 20 minutes, twice a day.
I will not volunteer in their classroom, because that sort of thing isn't really encouraged at this particular school, as special as it is. Instead, I will join the Parent's Association and wait to get news of special family events appropriate for me to attend. I will quietly support in the ways that are officially approved.
I won't lie, even one week ago I still had a heavy heart about all of this.
Was it worth it? Was the school going to be what we'd hoped? Was the bus ride manageable? Was it worth the many sacrifices?
So far, the answer seems to be a resounding yes.
The Scientist's main teacher (called a 'tutor' here) blew us away three nights ago with her description in Spanish of project based learning, the social-emotional growth of pre-teens and the flipped classroom. She described a curriculum very similar to what our kids have experienced at their progressive charter school in San Diego, combined with the incredible addition of Liceu (a music academy), computer science, art, ethics, swimming lessons, a wide variety of competitive school sports, intensive language instruction in many languages including Chinese and German (in addition to Spanish and Catalan), natural science and technology.
To top it off, in 2012 Agora Sant Cugat was authorized to become an International Baccalaureate World School (IB) and offer their students the opportunity to complete a dual national and international baccalaureate program.
This next part literally brought tears to my eyes. Agora Sant Cugat has a relationship with the Fundación Privada Javier Berché in Barcelona, an organization that caters to gifted students and helps to assess their abilities and also provides resources to the school to make certain they are properly challenged. "We have noticed over the years," said the international student coordinator, "that we do a great job supporting students who struggle, but we wanted also to really challenge and push our brightest students. These are the students who have the desire to succeed but do work swiftly and inevitably get restless. Our relationship with the Dr. Berché foundation helps us to identify these children and make sure they get the challenge they deserve."
Señor Aventura and I were floored.
Where ARE we? Did I somehow invent this school with the power of my intense yearning for it to exist?
Agora International Sant Cugat somehow also manages to have excellent test scores and was named the 10th best school in all of Spain by El Mundo (the major Spanish newspaper) for 2015-16. El Mundo rated over 1,000 private and international schools in 27 different categories to come up with this assessment, and in the end, our school was named one of the top two in all of Barcelona. Frankly, after a week, we can see why.
"I can't believe our luck," exclaimed The Scientist when we read the school's exceptional review in El Mundo. "We didn't know any of this when we picked the school in March!"
"Yes, we got SO lucky!" I agreed.
As I walked to the city bus stop to wait for my kids yesterday evening, I mulled over all of this. I couldn't wait to see their tired faces, hear their confidences, and learn at last whether the reality of attending such a school could possibly measure up to our tenderest dreams.
When the bus door slid open once again, Little Angel jumped out first, grinned and hugged me hard.
"Mommy, my tummy hurt while we were driving to school this morning because I was worried that we might not make it. I wondered what we would do if the bus got lost? I wondered if I would see you again!"
"But the bus didn't get lost, did it? You made it to school. And look, here I am!"
"Yep! I had a REALLY good day, Mom!!! I made two friends!!!" She wrapped her arms around my waist one more time.
I hugged my little girl back and beamed at my disheveled, grinning, mainly cheerful sons who had just stepped off the bus. One of them handed me his heavy backpack. "It was a good day, Mom."
Little Angel and Soccer Dude each took one of my hands.
"Let's go home." Together we walked down the hill.