Home for the Holidays
It’s 9:50 am in a not-so-small town outside of Madrid. I’m pushing a double stroller across the bridge over the highway on the way to Pedro’s preschool. After I drop him off, if the baby lets me, I’ll pop in to Carrefour, the large, French-owned chain supermarket, and pick up the groceries for the day: zucchini for soup, fresh bread, a few portions of fish. This store also has a fairly decent clothing section, and though I hate to admit it, that’s where I get a large proportion of my clothes these days. The logistics of shopping anywhere else are too mind-boggling. Weekends, my husband and I take the car so we can stock up on larger items, such as the numerous plastic bottles of milk that, like most milk sold here, needs no refrigeration until opened. We’ve often joked that this store is our second home.
It’s hardly the kind of lifestyle I had imagined for myself before moving here six years ago…
A popular Spanish song from the eighties contains this line: “Mi patria en mis zapatos.” (I wear my homeland in my shoes.) It’s a romantic sentiment, and one that appealed to me when I was younger and doing a lot of traveling — first a semester abroad in Spain, then a summer in the mountains of Mexico, next a few years in Costa Rica with side trips to Nicaragua, Ecuador, and Peru. Who needed to be tied down to one country, wrapped up in patriotic notions? I could be a country of one, a citizen of the world.
When I finally decided to move to Spain for good, I was optimistic. Madrid was an exciting place, and I had a job teaching English at a language academy in Puerta del Sol, right in the center of things. My first class started at 8 am, and many mornings I would arrive early and go to the bar next door. As I took a seat on a stool at the long counter, my café con leche would be set down in front of me before I even ordered. I’d chat to the waiters, if they weren’t too busy, and once or twice my drink was even “on the house.” Being a regular felt good. I belonged, and it was slightly exotic. I was Living In Europe. Not just on a semester abroad, or a stint after college before going back to get a real job. This was going to be my home.
Now, living in a new residential neighborhood instead of the more cosmopolitan capital, the glamour has worn off. These days, the motto I embrace is closer to “Home is where the heart is.” But where, exactly, is my heart? Of course, on a day-to-day basis, the answer is clear. This is a great town, complete with storks nesting in centuries-old bell towers and ruins dating back to when the city was first established as part of the Roman Empire. We’ve settled into a comfortable routine, making the rounds of the nearby playgrounds between visits to the supermarket. We walk to the train station so Pedro can watch the passengers getting on and off the trains. “People!” he exclaims. “¡Viajeros al tren!” (All aboard!) my husband calls. In autumn, we buy roasted chestnuts from the street stand before heading home. My family is here, if family is my husband and children.
But everyone else is, well, “back home” in upstate New York. Weekends, when we talk with them on the phone, it is our hectic afternoons to their lazy mornings. “Oh, we’re on our second pot of coffee, just reading the newspaper,” they’ll say. “Hmm, sounds nice,” I’ll answer. Here, that wouldn’t happen even if we did have time to read the paper. Coffee is drunk at the table, never on the couch, and my mother-in-law wouldn’t think much of the idea of lounging about when there’s so much housework to be done. And while my family back home enjoys conversation, we have also been known to enjoy quiet time, each of us ensconced in a corner of the sofa or armchair, reading a book or flipping through a magazine. Here, my mother-in-law doesn’t read much, and she believes that if you’re not keeping up a steady stream of chatter with the other person in the house, you might as well be alone. As the one who is most often the other person in the house during her visits, I sometimes find myself wishing that I were, indeed, alone.
But of course adapting to a new place means also accepting the people who live there, just as getting married means welcoming your in-laws into the forging of a new family. And questions of home and family are always thrown into special relief at the holidays, whichever ones you may celebrate. To me, a real, good old fashioned Christmas will always mean snow, Santa, and candy canes, but this year it was fun to have Pedro discover the Three Kings parade through the center of town on the night of January 5th.
Though I missed out on a Christmas tree and my own family’s traditions, this year I sang the lively and irreverent Spanish Christmas carols just as readily as the nostalgia-ridden American standards. I may have crooned “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas” one minute, but the next I was trilling “Esta noche es Nochebuena y mañana Navidad/Saca la bota María que me voy a emborrachar” (“Tonight is Christmas Eve and tomorrow is Christmas Day/ Get out the sheepskin of wine, Mary, I´m going to get drunk!”) or “En el portal de Belén han entrado los ratones/Y al bueno de San José le han roído los calzones” (“Mice have gotten into the stable in Bethlehem/and they have gnawed away at good old Joseph’s underwear”).
Maybe next year we will take the kids to New York to celebrate. But here or there, I think it is now safe to say that at least in some way, I will always be “home for the holidays.”