LIFE AS A CITY-DWELLING PREGNANT WORKING EXPAT IN SPAIN
Five years ago, I was a magazine journalist and editor working for a trendy publishing company in west London, with a zippy new car, a witty, intelligent journalist boyfriend and a nice house in Highbury. Dinners in trendy Islington restaurants, drinks in hip Soho hangouts, designer clothes, exotic holidays.
Now I live in Seville, in a rented flat without proper heating or air-conditioning, I earn a fraction of my previous salary teaching English and writing, and until recently I drove a 13-year-old banger. I'm married to a Spanish engineer whom I met here and I'm seven months pregnant with our first child; our holidays are spent at the coast or with my family in England.
In between, I left the job, dumped the boyfriend, sold the house and travelled round South America. Why? Like many people in London, I felt bored, wanted new challenges and experiences and, above all, never again to commute on the Tube. I lived in Quito, in Ecuador for a year, where I DJed and worked in a bar, had a dalliance with its owner, taught English (having returned to the UK to do a TEFL course), did voluntary work in a travellers' club and rediscovered my zest for life.
Deciding that Ecuador was a bit too far from home - family and friends are what every expat misses most, and things didn't work out with the bar- owner - I pondered where to go next. Close to England; Spanish-speaking; near the beach; warm climate; a small, historic, beautiful city. Seville fulfilled all the criteria. I arrived here nearly three years ago with a few contacts, one of whom will be godmother to my child.
Within weeks, I met my now-husband, Paco. We're both self-employed, so life is unpredictable in terms of working hours and money. We got married in England a year ago, and a few of his family came over for the wedding - he's from Camas, Seville's equivalent of Basildon. His mother is a kind, simple woman who brought up five children alone without financial support from their father. She had never been on a plane before - had barely left Seville in fact, let alone Spain. Arriving at my parents' house, she was horrified to find they went to bed at 11pm and that her favourite daily celebrity gossip programme wasn't shown on English TV.
So how is the change from cosmopolitan, sophisticated London? Going out in Seville is cheap, so English teachers' social life is as buzzing as anywhere - helped by the climate, which encourages outdoor eating and drinking. Food is cheap, both to buy and in restaurants - or more informal tapas bars, as they are mostly. As a fishetarian salad lover, Spanish restaurants don't cut it with the green stuff, but the seafood takes some beating. The shopping is, obviously, not in the same league as London, but Spanish fashion stores aren't too bad - I just miss the variety. And it's a compact city, so it's easy to get around by bus, or on foot.
In many ways Seville is also a deeply traditional and provincial city, in that everyone knows everyone else and nothing's changed for decades. It's a microcosm of stereotypical Spanish cliches such as flamenco, tapas and bullfighting. The two annual highlights, which draw visitors from all over Spain - Semana Santa (Holy Week), the spring Feria (fair), as well as the nearby El Rocio (a million-person pilgrimage) - are talking points for most of the year. As a result, Sevillanos think their city is the best in the world. This makes it both an invigorating and frustrating place to live - as a journalist there's plenty to write about, and the people aren't negative like in London; but my students can be irrationally defensive - one took offence when I said the ancient cobbled streets are uneven, and asked if I was criticising her city!
In less than two months (in September 2006), my baby is due to be born in Seville's best-reputed public hospital, which has a very busy and well-equipped maternity unit - over 8,000 births a year. Attitudes to childbirth in Spain are telling. Most women arrive at hospital with no idea what's going to happen, and are happy to do what they're told and accept what they're given, without asking why or whether there's another option available. The Spanish attitude to childbirth is that you follow 'protocolo' - the official procedure so beloved by the Spanish - which consists of epidural and, usually for first-time mothers, episiotomy, an unpleasant procedure with painful after-effects which is standard here despite being against WHO guidelines; there's no other choice of pain relief. It's all very different to the northern European attitude of informing yourself, expecting choices and being treated like a customer with individual needs and concerns.
Here, you get what drugs/treatment/orders you're given, lie back and do what the doctors tell you. Birth plan? Forget it. Give birth in any position other than horizontal? No way. Have your own opinion, or disagree with what you're told? Then be ready for a battle. For my part, as an opinionated, informed 'Anglo-Sajon' woman, I know that if I want to divert from 'protocolo' I'll have a fight, but I'm hoping that my antenatal yoga classes will help me have as calm and natural a labour as possible, and above all prevent the dreaded episiotomy. Next time, home birth!
As a foreigner, there are many accepted conventions here surrounding pregnancy and babies which illustrate that strange phenomenon of 'cultural differences'. These include finding out the sex, and then colour-coordinating everything pink or blue; the arrival of the entire noisy, excited family in your hospital room minutes after it's born; and piercing girls' ears. Thankfully I'm having a boy (I wanted to know) so that's one less point of contention, but there'll be others, like baptism (we're both anti-Catholic), diet (organic where possible, a rarity here) and manners (children are doted on, seldom told off and allowed to shriek 'Mamaaaaa!' endlessly at ear-splitting volume), which I know me and my 'suegra' will differ on. However, despite all that, I enjoy the cultural mix - it's rich and rewarding. People are more open, relaxed and have more 'alegria' (happiness), and I wouldn't live anywhere else.