Tessa and Millay in ruins

I never had a sister, a fact that used to bum me out when I was growing up. But here’s the thing: you don’t have to have a sister to be a sister, or to spot a real Sister when she enters your life. As I see it, there are three ways to recognize a Capital-S Sister when she ends up on your doorstep wrapped in Midori ribbon.  (My first one arrived when I was Goose’s age, and she’s still a Sister.)

Tessa and Millie looking out over wall_1364

One. A Sister will be interested in you–in your mind, your emotions, your tastes. She will want to know your thoughts, she will show concern for your feelings, she will respect your likes even if she doesn’t categorically share them. Such a Sister is a gift. When the universe tosses someone like this into your path, embrace her!  And hold on.

Tessa and Millay by bronze door_1768

Two. A Sister will be gentle with you. She will not belittle or denigrate you. In her presence, you will feel like an equal not only because she shows you respect but because she views you as a peer in the best sense.

Tessa and Millay on street_1735

Three. A Sister can be trusted with confidences of every kind. Sometimes it’s a terrifying risk to reach out to a would-be Sister in the hopes that she is what she seems to be. Ninety-nine percent of the time, your gut will steer you right. If you are blessed to have in your life a Confidence-keeping Sister, it’s probably because you are a Confidence-keeping Sister.

There’s always room for younger women to grow into the role. Raising a generation of Sisters–especially if they’re related to you and to each other by blood–might be one of the most important things we’re about in this short life, don’t you think?–showing daughters how it looks? Indeed, that might be the trickiest act of all: creating opportunities for girls in the same family to value each other not just as sisters but as Sisters.

Girls looking through wall at Sagunt

Living abroad has strengthened my daughters’ attachment (which is both rich and, at times, complicated), but I’m convinced that travel can involve something as basic as a trip to the local yogurt shop.  There’s something about just logging time together:  it acts as mortar.  What’s more, if you’re paying for the goodies, the girls’re on board.

What are your thoughts??

(Photos:  Sisters in the ruins at Sagunt.)

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When Opportunity Knocks

by Becky on January 14, 2013 · 2 comments

in Travel

Door knocker_2938

Sometimes we wonder, What are we doing here? Other times we think, Why didn’t we do this sooner?   For those who may be entertaining the idea of coming abroad with kids, here are my Top Five Challenges and my Top Five Opportunities–thoughts about living in a foreign country as a family.


One.  I miss my books.  I do.  Especially the library in my home.  I’m a bibliophile, and so are my kids.  I likewise often miss having access to city libraries with books in English.  Our library here is beautiful, but for my kids, it’s more of a homework station than a place to browse and borrow from.

Two.  I miss knowing that my dollar buys a dollar’s worth of goods.  The exchange rate has been fluctuating here, and that affects ex-pats of all stripes!

Three.  School.  I have the highest repsect for people who consistently home school.  Wow.  We’re home schooling our younger son, and it’s a full time proposition–both exhilarating and demanding!

Four.  Friends.  My kids often miss friends from home.  We consequently love skpye!

Five.  Kitchen “swag.”  I spend a lot of time in the kitchen and sometimes miss my kitchen gadgets.  (Anyone got a waffle iron?)


One.  Spanish!  And Castillian Spanish, no less.  Wow, I love this language.  I love that we live in a place where the majority culture doesn’t speak my kids’ language.

Two.  Living urban.  I love big cities.  I love how each one has a distinct personality.  Barcelona is both cosmopolitan and very intimate.  In character, it’s both big and small at the same time.  I love that we walk everywhere, sometimes many miles in a day, and that I can never quite seem to see it all.

Three.  The religious architecture.  When I walk five blocks south to the Sagrada Familia cathedral, I’m never not in awe.  Whether it’s the small Basilica del Mar in the Born district or the massive Barcelona cathedral, I am often moved to tears when I walk inside.  Entering a European church for the first time–whether in Budapest, Vienna, Amsterdam, or Cadaques (Costa Brava, Spain)  is one of my greatest pleasures.

Four.  Friends.  Yes, some of my kids’ friends are at home.  But some were always here, waiting to collide with my children (not really, but it feels that way!).  My son’s new friends include an Estonian boy whose family lives here in Barcelona, and a Catalan boy whose family lives in our apartment building.  My daughters have acquired wonderful new friends, some from Bolivia and Peru, some from Venezuela, one from Russia.  All are bilingual, some multilingual, and all of them are refreshingly open to widening their circles, a trait that seems to be common in kids whose families have moved frequently.

Five.  Just the sheer differentness of it:  look, feel, food, languages, people, cultures, cityscapes, seascapes.  Brilliant.

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Looking back over some family photos from Christmas 2011 got me thinking.


With the holidays approaching, I’m hung up on the always perplexing question of what to give my kids for Christmas, which is the holiday we celebrate.


Seems like every year, just after Halloween, I get excited and anxious in equal proportions.


I make lists, I plan, I start my Christmas errands, of which there are far too many.  But this year is different. Celebrating Christmas in the style to which we’ve accustomed ourselves makes absolutely no sense here in Spain.

If we manage to find a tree somewhere, it’ll be pint size, and, with all my ornaments and other tree-decorating accoutrements in storage back home, we’ll have nothing to drape on it but homecrafted stuff. But maybe that’ll be cool. Strings of popcorn and “caramelos” (hard candy) wouldn’t be difficult, right? And maybe a tinfoil star for the top?  I could delegate the tree ornamenting to Miss Zinnia, who would not only rise to the task but shine!

I realize I am smiling. Being unburdened by all my stuff could be a very nice thing indeed.

And all the home decorations? Well, we could spend an afternoon cutting out paper snowflakes, for starters. And maybe hang them around our loft, just so?  For this, I could enlist the help of a daughter who loves design.  I provide the supplies, she heads up the effort, gives us our jobs, keeps us on task, and stages the home, so to speak.  And a subsequent photo shoot for Habitania magazine–no big deal.

The baking, I can handle. I have a buttermilk cookie recipe given to me by my childhood BFF, Melissa. And we can surely find some Vince Guaraldi on Spotify and make a Charlie Brown Christmas playlist so we’ll have some classic background music to dose up on while we’re also dosing up on cookie batter. I bet I can even find some Christmas sprinkles for the tops of the cookies.

And we can go carolling. We sing all the time anyway, shamelessly, and we’ve made lots of friends here who would, at the very least, be amused by our attempts to spread a little musical cheer. We have coats. And scarves. And gloves. And ready voices.

Ahh, but the gifts!  What to give my children?


Whatever we present to them we’ll need to pack up and take home next summer, so there’s that to consider. And my “wrapping factory,” (perhaps you have one, too?), also in storage, won’t help me one bit come December, when I’m normally closeted with my supplies and madly trying to create masterpieces of paper and ribbon that rival the gifts inside the boxes. Nope, not going to assemble a wrapping factory here.

What to give, what to give?  One thing is sure, though: whatever we do, it will be simple, and it will be more about experiencing than opening, more about seeing than collecting.

I like the sound of a little road trip.  Just the five of us this year, in some town no one’s heard of, waking up on Christmas morning, wishing each other well, breakfasting on pastries and breads and cheeses, then heading out into the day to hike through castles we’ll never set foot in again.  Hmm. I’m game. (And I’m smiling pretty big now.)

What are you doing for the holidays?  Are you going to stick with tradition or shake it up?  Do tell.

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Flight info to Barcelona from London

About a month ago, we moved to Europe.  We’d always wanted to move abroad with our kids, and, strangely, everything sort of lined up so that we could.  Odd but cool.  So, after putting all our stuff in storage, selling two of our cars, withdrawing our kids from school, and getting on a plane, we are now in Barcelona, Spain, living in the seventh-floor loft we call home.  Are we nuts?  Definitely.  Is it a grand adventure?  Definitely.  Will we ever regret doing something that had been at the top of our bucket list for a couple of decades?  Nope.

Getting the kids on board with the idea was of course the first step.  Son number one was planning to be gone for two years and basically said Good luck, wish you the best, you go do your thing, I’m going to go do mine.  Which was important, really, because had he somehow felt that he was going to be missing out, we might not have come.

Daughter number one was key as well.  A senior in high school, she might have said, No way.  But she fell in love with the idea of living abroad:  seeing new things, sampling cultures, thrifting here, there, and everywhere (her Thing).  Though she knew she’d miss her friends, she also knew she wouldn’t have a chance to do anything like this again.

Tessa's MUN Friends at the Farewell Party

Friends say goodbye to Tess (center, in the “Y” t-shirt).

Daughter number two was hesitant.  A happy and talented song bird, she belonged to a choir she adored and studied with a voice teacher she adored equally.  When and where would she sing while we were gone??  Valid question, we agreed.  But it was only one school year, not forever, and her voice would keep, as would her gift, as would her enthusiasm for working her way toward a vocal music scholarship, her dream.  We suggested she could sing on the road, as it were.  Finally she bought in.

Millay at the Farewell Party

Millie enjoys the farewell party.

And that left our youngest, who, like all youngest children, goes where the family goes and does what the family does.  I believe he’ll remember this experience as The Year of the Sisters given the fact that they dote on him, pester him, and tell him his business in equal proportions, constantly.  But.  He’s connected with a new hobby–photography–and as long as he’s got his Puma sneakers on and the camera battery is full, he’s good to go.  A couple of days ago, during a family outing to the Raval neighborhood downtown, he took 350 pictures!  What other American nine-year-old gets to snap photos of the colorful effusions of foods in the markets?–the spray-painted artwork on the corrugated pull-down doors of the city’s endless stores?–the brilliantly engineered drinking fountains tucked here, there, and everywhere?  Yeah, he’s dealing okay.

Mom with Silas in London

Silas and I trade silliness in the airport.

Our Airplane to Barcelona

Tessa asleep in London

Silas asleep in London

Millay in Heathrow Airport

Long flight.  Sleeping.  Making our connection in Heathrow.  And landing in Spain.

On British Airways Flight to Barcelona Spain

Over Barcelona

Over Barcelona 2

It’s all working.  Stay tuned for more thoughts on living abroad.  With teens.  And one groovy little nine-year-old.

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