Author Archives: Michelle

About Michelle

Originally from Boston, I've been living and working in Spain for 14 years. In August 2006 I decided to leave behind my life in Boston and take a chance over in sunny Spain with nothing more than determination, a sense of adventure and two big suitcases. 14 years later I like to think I'm pretty established: I have a Spanish husband, full time job that's 50/50 Spanish/English, two Spanglish kids, home (apartment) owner, and I apparently talk in Spanish sometimes in my sleep which is as good of a sign as any of cultural immersion. Currently I work as a Program Director in Executive Education at IESE Business School (where I also did my MBA back in 2010). Prior to that I've had experience in FMCG Brand Marketing and Customer/User Experience Research and Design. These days I keep quite busy as a full-time working mother to two young kids. Although I don't have as much free time as before, I still enjoying meeting new people and sharing experiences and enjoy reflecting upon the differences between life in the US and Spain. Customer Experience as well remains an interest of mine and shows up in a number of my posts. Hope you enjoy my blog!

COVID-19 Lockdown in Madrid – Day 4

Another day – check! T- ???

Two important things I learned today:

  1. Cardboard boxes (especially if they’re big) are the solution to everything. Next time we have a birthday or occasion for gifts I’m definitely going to think twice about buying anything

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2. 8pm is now one of our favorite times of the day. It started as a spontaneous moment the first day of the official quarantine at 10pm where everyone went out on their terraces to clap in appreciation of the medical staff and support who are working around the clock to fight this. Now this has turned into a nightly 8pm clapping ritual with kids. After the first day it was announced that the following day at 8pm we would repeat so that kids could join. Now it’s a routine, jackets, shoes and all, to go out on the terrace and join our neighbors in clapping. The kids love it. Today someone in an apartment not too far away started playing what sounded like the drums. I’m looking forward to tomorrow!

COVID-19 lockdown in Madrid – 5 thoughts

We’re now officially on Day 3 of the government-enforced quarantine here in Madrid. I never would have imagined something like this happening a few years ago. Actually,  I never would have imagined something like this happening a few months ago, let alone a few weeks ago, but here we are. We’re at war with an invisible enemy.

Every time I see the news there’s something new: Spain is closing its borders, Western Europe is closing its borders, the number of cases in Spain is almost at 12,000 (a few days ago it was roughly half)… I’m thinking about trying to not watch the news for a little bit, although that will probably be hard to do. What’s also startling is the economic impact that we’re already seeing and will probably see for many years. In Spain a number of large companies have already announced massive temporary layoffs to thousands of employees. If companies are completely shut down and don’t have any income I guess there is no other viable option, but it’s still startling nonetheless.

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Here’s a picture of the supermarket the day people went crazy and thought a zombie apocalypse was coming.

And here is the supermarket the next day stocked up and ready to go. Clearly this was a false sense of security that things were under control as this was 2 days before 100% quarantine.

 

On a personal note, I can’t remember the last time I spent so much uninterrupted time at home, especially without having any defined end in sight. In my opinion this is definitely a necessary step that the country is taking. When the government in Madrid decided to close schools for 15 days last week, this resulted in the public parks, bars, restaurants, etc. overflowing the following day and multiplied cases- clearly this wasn’t going to work without some sort of formal enforcement. I’m not going to tell the US to watch out; I think even since starting this post it’s gotten more serious there. I’m the first one who thought this was all overblown and a bit crazy a few weeks ago..

Quarantine is a challenge! Especially when trying to balance working from home and having two little kids in the house all day. (We can’t even go downstairs to the common area in our apartment complex). The challenge is trying to organize activities, schoolwork, routines, playtime, etc. and work at the same time without everyone going crazy – ideal, but most likely not 100% possible. Work-family balance has gone out the window.

Here are a few thoughts:

  1. Feel lucky to have such uninterrupted family time. When was the last time you can think of that you were with your children, spouse (or both) for an extended period of time? In this day and age we tend to complain or worry about not being able to spend enough time with family due to work and other commmitments. So take advantage of this time. At some point (hopefully in the not too too far away future), playing endless games of Go Fish and Candyland will just be a memory.

Now, imagine if we lost internet access as well…  is it just me or has anyone else noticed an increase in the amount of mobile phone usage? (well, in your household since you can’t observe anyone else really)

2. Find humor where you can; it’s the best medicine as they say. Everyone’s in the same situation, so we might as well try to find ways to laugh. Memes are great. Within minutes of any of the more-confining public announcements there were more memes. There are too many too post and almost all are in Spanish, but trust me – they made it a little easier the first day. Here’s one of my favorites:

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3. Exercise, but with caution. I’m an avid outdoor runner, so of course one of the first things that came to my mind when the quarantine was announced was “what am I going to do if I can’t go out for a run, let alone leave the apartment?” I’m a firm believer in the importance of exercise for not just physical, but also (and almost more importantly), mental well being. Of course there are a ton of online exercise channels, but I had never been one to try this out. Now came the time.

My word of advice: don’t overdo it! The first day in quarantine I decided to do an intense Hiit cardio workout thinking it would be too difficult since I’m used to running. Wrong: the workout was great; great until I couldn’t walk the next day…

4. Buy bread. Thank goodness buying a fresh baguette is sacred here in Spain! This is one of the few “necessary” reasons why you can still leave the house, but only one person at a time and maintaining your distance if you see anyone. Yesterday I went out to buy bread at the gas station up the street. Everyone had to leave a distance of at least 2 meters between other people in line, and you had to buy the bread through a little window.

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Buying bread at the gas station

On the way back the UME (the Military Emergencies Unit) drove by me. Good thing I had the big loaf of bread or they would have asked what I was doing out. Definitely weird, but at least this is one way to get a little fresh air if you can’t take it anymore (unfortunately not for the kids though 😦

5. Take advantage of your apartment terrace if you have one. Who knew terraces could have so many uses? We’ve been living in our current apartment for almost 5 years. I can probably count on one hand the amount of times I’ve used our terrace for leisure. Usually it’s just to get something we have out there in storage or to hang up clothes on the clothes rack. It’s time to be creative. Over the past few days the terrace has been converted into a workout studio, picnic station, chalkboard, disco and weak leak to the outside world. I am counting my lucky stars now that we have the terrace!

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Pretending to go out for a run

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The terrace. Sans bikes for now

Check out this great article in thelocal.es about what some people are doing from their terraces: TheLocal.Es article. I’m waiting for our apartment complex to get on board.

To be continued. This looks like it will likely go beyond the 15 days…

 

Why I’m happy I had children in Spain instead of in the US

Here’s a very interesting HBR article that highlights different country social policies when it comes to mothers in the workplace.

https://hbr.org/2020/03/two-new-moms-return-to-work-one-in-seattle-one-in-stockholm?ab=hero-subleft-3

Granted this article is a direct comparison with Sweden and not Spain, but it still highlights some major differences of the US vs Europe. Aside from the actual time off (and/or paid time off) what’s most interesting to me is the cultural aspect here: in the US women are more afraid to tell their bosses about their pregnancy and it can be received quite negatively, whereas in Europe (generally speaking of course) this can be received as positive news.

Motherhood is tough in itself! Having to deal with uncertainties in your workplace, lack of job security and negative feedback on top of just surviving to sleep and get by every day just seems unimaginable to me in a country so advanced as the US.

 

Flying across the ocean with kids – leave the stroller at home or consider a cheap one

I was just looking back at some of my old posts, and I thought it could be a good idea to write a short, simple post about this to make a point – airlines don’t know how to handle strollers. Out of 4 international trips with kids that I’ve taken, my strollers have been broken twice – once with Delta/KLM and once with Iberia — and both times “conveniently” when I’ve been traveling alone. And don’t think the flight/ground attendants were so helpful when both times I was left with a baby/toddler asleep in my arms (and in one case a baby and another little one). Note that both strollers were left at the door of the airplane, not checked in previously.

If this happens to you the most important thing is to go directly to the airline counter when you land to fill out an incidence form (even if it is the last thing you want to do). Then you’ll probably have to go to the store where you purchased the stroller to get an estimate of how much it will cost to replace or fix it. In the case of Lufthansa I went through all of this since I had brought my expensive stroller with me. It was a bit of a headache, but in the end they paid to replace everything. (see: Delta/KLM and the broken stroller (continued)

In the case of Iberia, during my last trip I decided to purchase a cheap umbrella stroller online to have when I arrived since it wasn’t necessary for me to travel with one as my youngest was older. Iberia decided to break it (wheels and entire frame missing/destroyed) when I landed back in Madrid at 7am from Boston (direct flight by the way). In this case it was going to be more hassle for me to go to a store and get all of the necessary forms, and given the cost of the stroller I didn’t pursue it further. However, it doesn’t seem right to me that they can get away with it. In any case what Iberia should do is offer a voucher or gift card to be used at your discretion. The damaged items web site has a voucher as an option, but when you try to get this you get a strange error message which forces you to call Customer Service (not toll-free). When I did call it turns out that apparently they do this with bags, but in the case of baby strollers it’s not an option. So they shouldn’t even have this option on the site since it was clear it was a baby stroller…

I’m glad to finally be getting away from this phase of traveling with strollers, but I thought it might be helpful to share my experiences for those with upcoming trips. Airlines (Delta/KLM, Iberia, etc) need to be more careful with these kinds of items! And in the case that something happens the post-service reclamation should be a lot less headache-filled for those who already have enough headaches with little kids!

Is Saudi Arabia the new Spain?

The short answer is no. After my recent travels to the kingdom, however, I would venture to guess that in 10 years time the current kingdom as we know it will be unrecognizable, perhaps in the same way Spain was unrecognizable after the fall of Franco’s fascist regime in 1975.

Over the past few months I have traveled three times to Riyadh for work-related purposes. Prior to the first visit I have to say that I really didn’t know what to expect. When I would hear about Saudi Arabia, images that would come to mind would be oil, the desert and women wearing burkas. To be honest I really didn’t know much about the culture and life there, nor if I would feel safe. Approximately two years before my trip women started joining the work force, and approximately one year before my trip women were given the right to have driver’s licenses.

While there is a long path ahead to modernity, I will admit that I had some incorrect pre-conceived notions.

I had no sensation of lack of safety during my visits. A sensation of subservience, yes, but lack of safety, no. At least in Riyadh and in the office setting where I was it was not necessary for me to wear a hijab. I did this during my first visit out of respect, but during the past two trips I’ve let my hair down. (Note: this doesn’t mean that the Saudi women are doing this. I didn’t see any women in fact that did not at least have their head covered, and full burkas are extremely common, probably in half of the cases). As for clothing I don’t think it would be appropriate to wear my fitted outfits that I wear back home, but with a long, loose shirt (better if it’s dark) and/or a long jersey or jacket over my clothing it’s been fine (see my past post: Saudi Arabia just changed its formal dress code for international female visitors). What you don’t want to do is wear something really tight, fitted, or showing skin; I think it will take a while to get to that point.

The Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammad bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, is moving forward a lot of change in the kingdom, especially with the ambitious Strategy 2030, a plan to diversify the income of the kingdom with moves into areas like technology and tourism. Since he came into power in 2017 he has made a number of changes like with the religious police (a colleague of mine pointed them out sitting in a police car while he was showing us around Riyadh’s center one evening; they have a real lack of power now).

 

He’s also opening the kingdom up to tourism which wouldn’t have been thought of five years ago. Now beautiful, historic (and interestingly/importantly, religious) sites like Al Ula will be opening up to tourism (Al Ula in October 2020). There are now tourist visas upon arrival into the country and just recently a new norm allowing unmarried opposite sex couples to share a hotel room, something that would have been unheard of before (see Another Saudi Arabian law change).

And women are now allowed into football games (or at least one recently), public concerts are happening, movie theaters are opening up. Even the NY Times published an article about coffee shops becoming a new space for young unmarried people to meet up (see: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/01/15/world/middleeast/saudi-women-coffee-shops.html).

NY Times article Saudi Arabia coffee shops

It’s almost hard to keep up with all of the changes!

While I was given a tour around a historical museum/fortress in the city center I was overwhelmed by the  hospitality of the people welcoming us into the center. At the Masmak fort museum we were greeted openly with tea, dates, incense (and repeatedly) without anything expected in return. I had the feeling that the idea of tourism and foreigners visiting the country is so new that people don’t know what to expect. In a sense this reminded me of my honeymoon trip to Myanmar 8 years ago. Five year old boys were riding around on top of buffalo and Coca Cola didn’t exist (now it does). When we were there the country was on the brink of tourism. I think Saudi Arabia will be there soon.

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My favorite Arabic coffee and date man (I don’t know his name as there was no common spoken language…)

All of the changes also make me think of Spain, which explains the title of this post. When the fascist regime of Franco ended in 1975 Spain changed – dramatically. Granted I wasn’t around at that time, but from what I’ve heard and read this is when the free, fun, vibrant, live and party culture that currently defines a large part of the Spanish being and culture came into being. Once you take away religious restrictions, involve alcohol, freedom, music…. well, I guess the rest is history.

Of course all of these changes will require a BIG shift in mindset for the people within the country and a softening of religious norms and views of outsiders. What is clear though is that there’s no turning back. As the country opens itself up to the influx of foreigners and the nationals go more outside the kingdom and experience more of the world it will be very difficult to maintain an enclosed, tightly enforced society as before.

Time will tell… there are already a lot of similarities to the Spanish culture in the kingdom, like the importance of family, gatherings around food, lunch/dinner schedules (I had no idea they ate so late), etc.

What are your thoughts? Have you been to the kingdom? What are your impressions from your visits or reading of the news?

 

 

The Iberia Oro (Gold) Status upgrade – WIM. My customer experience.

So, what does it mean being upgraded from Plata (Silver) to Oro (Gold) Status with Iberia? Not too much really. It was more exciting for the colors to change from silver to gold on my phone app then anything else. I had the barometer forever showing that I was thisclose to upping my status. However, the one big difference I noticed was when I had to contact Customer Service…

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With Iberia Plus Plata (Silver) the best part is that you can check in at the business class counter (whether you’re traveling business or not), priority boarding (key if you don’t want a small suitcase to get involuntarily checked-in when there’s no overhead space left), ¡ and you can check in an extra bag for free, depending upon the flights. With the upgrade to Oro (which is not easy to get there as you need to have either a ton of flights or a number of business-class flights earning points), the only additional real tangible benefit is that you can use the VIP lounges at the airports.

The big difference was with the Customer Service when I called the Customer care line. Normally I tried to avoid as much as possible calling any Customer Service number here in Spain. Usually they don’t care and aren’t very friendly (not to generalize of course, but this has sadly been my experience). The best is being hung up on, which has happened to me several times, and Iberia is not out of the blame game here as they have hung up on me in the past. The reason I called was to look into booking a ticket with points (avios) and with kids – impossible to do this online. Granted I had done this in the past, but I remembered it was a painful process, speaking to different people, receiving different information, etc.

So I called the Iberia Plus Oro dedicated Customer Service number (different than the standard one). The woman who helped me out was very nice and efficient throughout the process. Of course the call didn’t come without complications – just as the tickets were being issued there was a technical problem, and it wasn’t possible for her to finalize the transaction. She said not to worry, she would complete this as soon as the system was back up, and then I would receive the emails. Granted to say I was more than skeptic. To reassure me she said she would call me once everything was finalized so that I would know it was all set. Right!

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Much to my disbelief, about a half hour later (after I received the confirmation emails) I got a call from the Iberia lady just to let me know that everything had gone through and was all set, saying she wanted to call just because she had agreed to do so. And to think in the past I had been hung up on by the normal Iberia Customer service people.

Even just this past summer when Iberia broke my baby stroller on a flight home from Boston, I was cursing them after their lack of help on the phone to deal with this (that’s another story in itself).

My learnings: 1. Iberia Plus Oro is great for the Customer Service and fringe benefits, although overall not significantly different than the Silver level 2. It makes me wonder how there can be such a difference between “normal” Customer service and that for elite customers. It seems to me like Iberia should be striving to improve their overall experience, not just for one level.

The Never-ending Spanish Holiday Season

One of the great things about the holiday season in Spain is that it goes on forever. And it’s all about family (and food).

It starts off with Christmas eve with a big family dinner and get-together. That’s followed by Christmas day when Santa leaves his presents (or Christmas eve in the case of my family). The kids then have almost a week to play with toys before the next holiday – New Years.

New Years Eve is a family tradition with a large meal and the traditional “campanadas”, the countdown at midnight which involves a countdown with a bell ringing pretty quickly 12 times while you choke back 12 grapes (or try) with each ding. In the US, New Years Eve is all about going out with friends and finding a party where you’ll be guaranteed a midnight kiss. In Spain it’s all about family (and then partying afterwards). Back before kids I remember going out until the early morning to celebrate New Years eve, leaving the house around 1am.

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And last but not least we have King’s Day. This is on January 6th and is when the Three Wise Men or Kings come overnight with their camels and leave presents for the kids. But it isn’t just this day alone: the night before before most towns have a “cabalgata”, a large parade with floats, camels, ducks, you name it (details and specific parade parts depend upon the city). During the parade the floats throw tons of candy out to the kids who anxiously wait on the sidewalks.

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Cabalgata image (candy not included)

So basically you have a sugar high followed by brand new toys the following morning. It’s kind of like Halloween + US xmas.

Not a bad deal for kids, if you ask me! And not a bad deal for me here in Spain to have such a long holiday season and over two weeks off from school. I’m already looking forward to the next holiday (Easter break) – just three months to go…

 

Happy Veteran’s Day

It’s days like these that make me realize it’s been a while since I moved to Spain.

I admit I didn’t realize it was Veteran’s Day until I saw some posts on Facebook. Not even cnn.com which I log onto faithfully every morning gave me any hints.

I need to start putting the US holidays on my work calendar!

Meeting the Queen of Spain

Thirteen years ago when I was still living in the US I never would have imagined that one day I would be M.C.ing an event with the Queen of Spain and then taking a close-up photo together. Back at that stage I probably would have assumed the Queen of Spain would be older and wearing a crown as well. Not the case.

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That’s me with Queen Letizia of Spain

A few weeks ago I was approached at work to ask if I would be willing to act as M.C. at an awards ceremony where I work, The International Friendship Awards, an event that recognizes distinguished Chinese and African citizens, I didn’t really think twice about it. I said I’d be happy to help, assuming that the majority of the content would be in English. (if not there would be no reason for the Queen to have to suffer through a Spanishized accent). I think they asked me for two simple reasons: international female = showcasing our modernity and internationality. To make a long story short I had to put together a short script based upon the prior year’s awards ceremony, and this script (text, language (90% English, with some Spanish mixed in)) along with my profile was sent off to the Royal Palace for approval. I was approved.

Fast forward to last week. Generally I don’t get very nervous speaking in public, but the day before the event when I started to see all of the protocol and security issues going into place, this changed a bit. To give an idea I had a detailed conversation with a coworker to decide how we were going to communicate that the Queen had arrived (as I’d be presenting in front of the auditorium with about 200 people at that time) and to indicate that she was coming down the stairs to tell everyone to stand up before she came. Hand signals? Head nod? Phone call? In the end it was a combination, but I had the vibrating phone as the final sign.

The event itself went quite well. Some nerves right at the beginning, but then it was fine. My part was a brief introduction to the audience before the Queen’s entrance and then another short speech after everyone’s arrival. Then I basically was up at the podium between different speakers, to read off the prize winners’ names and to close the event. What I found funny was when I learned later that I was translated simultaneously into Spanish (go figure). As there were too many people attending to fit into the auditorium, the event was broadcast in two other classrooms.

Here are some event pictures:

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View of the auditorium center (other two sides of the room aren’t visible) from where I was. That’s the queen in the middle. Don’t miss the camera crews behind.

 

 

Here’s the official event report from the Royal Palace web site (surprisingly my name made it there): http://www.casareal.es/ES/Actividades/Paginas/actividades_actividades_detalle.aspx?data=14176

After the event there was a brief cocktail with her majesty at the center. It was a bit of madness. Despite the fact that the event audience was very senior-level, educated, etc., it was crazy to see so many people almost on top of her and trying to get pictures. I managed to get mine as well; this was the one thing I had on my list as a prize for my role in the event – plus I knew my mother-in-law was waiting with bated breath to see it.

The main question I’ve gotten afterwards is what was she like up close? Was she nice? What was she wearing? Despite some things you read in the news, at least from my very very brief experience, she was quite nice and pleasant. Of course this is being judged on speaking with her for about 30 seconds and then taking a photo, but I guess it’s better than nothing. She congratulated me on my MC role, asked where I was from (I guess the Boston accent is hard to hide) and asked if I wanted a picture (yes). I really can’t complain from my brief interaction. And yes, she’s very pretty up close. As for the clothes, well there were already news reports immediately after with the brand of every item she was wearing, so better to read that than listen to me. (more info here from Hola!: https://www.hola.com/realeza/casa_espanola/20191030152854/reina-letizia-international-friendship-award/)

What I can say is that I can’t imagine having her life and having to play that role every single day. I don’t think she even got to enjoy one cocktail during the cocktail…

Definitely a cool experience though to be in a formal event with the Queen of Spain and being able to direct my speech directly to her and receive feedback! I guess I can check this off my bucket list 🙂