Schools – Part 1

The efforts of parents to get their kids into a good school has been well publicised in the UK. But nothing could prepare me for the Spanish system…

It’s up to the Parents…

Parents seem to go to any lengths to get their kids into the “right” school in the UK. At least if you believe the media coverage – and on this subject, mostly I do.

From moving to a house with the right postcode to applying for every scholarship that is on offer. I even know people who have miraculously (no pun intended) “changed their religion” in order to get their kids into faith based schools.

There is a kind of panic associated with finding the right school that I never fully understood before. Now I have to think about it for my own son. To be honest though I still don’t quite get it. We have been looking at schools for Dani – mostly private – and the whole process is wearing me down. I really don’t know where to begin.

Spain versus UK

In Spain school starts at 3 year olds. But it is a calendar based thing. So, if the child is 3 years old by end of December of that year then they start school in the September of that year. For Dani who was born in November this means he will still be 2 when he starts school. It is not exactly school at that age of course. It is still very much like nursery and indeed the early years are referred to as nursery and reception. Then it becomes year 1 etc… “Aha” I hear you cry. “But that is no different to the UK system”.

Well in the UK, even though many do so, it is not compulsory to send your child to nursery at 3 years old and reception class at 4 years old. Whereas in Spain it is. From 3 years old it is considered full time compulsory “school” (although they still refer to the first two years as nursery and reception classes).

Also the early years classes are not necessarily full school days in the UK. In Spain they are.

In Spain the tax credit assistance for nursery costs stops when the child is 3 years old. This is the time they have to go to full time school so nursery costs no longer apply. From what I can gather, in the UK, half day for 3-4 year olds is free and parents pay if they want their children to stay the extra half day. Then most of the nursery sessions are free from 4 to 5 years old.

Private versus State School

In the UK there are still many state schools that are considered OK or even “good”. In Spain state schools were not even an option I was told. I have no experience of the state schools in Spain so I need to investigate that one. Surely they cannot be that bad?

This is all very difficult for me. Having been educated in the state (comprehensive) system I find it hard to come to terms with paying for my boy’s schooling. Why pay when it is there for free? Or at least already paid for by taxes. This is the mentality I have and I need to lose it quickly. The clock is ticking and the deadlines for school entry fast approaching.

The private schools are not cheap either – no surprises there. It is between 6k and 8k (Euros) per year and that is just for a (not quite) 3 year old. Could I not send my son to an excellent private school in the UK for those prices?

Reality check…

But you know the biggest problem I have with all this? At this rate I will need to go back to work sooner than I thought. My short term plans derailed. My new non-working lifestyle shot down in flames before I have barely had the chance to settle into it. Woe is me (and so on…).

And so the search is on for the right school. A good school – no, make that perfect! – that he can possibly stay with for the next 16 years. It is seriously starting to freak me out.

To be continued…

Ikea Hackers

Previous posts have focussed on Dani being a little kitchen helper. Well, we keep him safely where we want him in his very own “kitchen helper” – a purpose built protective platform.

This was home-made and based on an idea from a great website. If you don’t already know about it let me introduce you to the fantastic website Ikea Hackers (www.Ikeahackers.net).

If you have not yet checked this site out then I suggest that you do so. It is full of great ideas. Some off the wall or a bit wacky but others are genuinely useful.

Let me get one thing straight first of all. I will admit that I am not the biggest Ikea fan and I genuinely do not like shopping there (dread it most of the time). However, I do appreciate that:

  1. They do have a lot of good items amongst all the everyday tat – the better stuff just takes some finding.
  2. They have a lot of very cheap tat that can be easily converted in something useful and/or different
  3. If you go at off peak times then it is possible to get in, get what you want and get out very quickly and efficiently. So nothing to fear really.

I have bought and modified some Ikea products myself in the past (out of necessity) and have been a regular DIYer over the years so I find this site very interesting. Among the plethora of “hacks” on the site there are always enough thought provoking and inspiring ideas.

You can make something that you previously thought you couldn’t buy or find. And using Ikea products it is cheap too. So I actually love this site!

At this point it is important to point out that Ikea Hackers is not at all related to the Ikea company. Anyway all this is explained in the Ikea Hackers website so there is no need for me to go any further.

The best thing about those little flat-pack self-assembly boxes is that Dani wants to join in and help to make them.

Dani’s kitchen helper platform was made from a very common Ikea step stool – costing less than 13 Euros – and a bit of spare wood. Of course now we no longer have a small step stool.

kitchen helper hack

Great business for Ikea eh? Many of their most useful products will now sell twice. One for hacking and one for its intended use.

Incidentally, that “kitchen helper” seems to be an American name and they sell online for over $150. Food for thought eh?

 

 

Time for a Cuppa

It is with great pleasure and burning pride that I can officially tell the world that my son knows how to make his old dad a cup of tea.

Seriously. At only 2 years and 3 months he really can make a cup of tea.

Ok, before you get on the health and safety bandwagon let me just point out that I do not let him pour the boiling water from the kettle into the cup and I make sure I have a firm hold on said cup while he is mashing the tea. But apart from that Dani does the rest. All from his little kitchen helper.

He stands in the kitchen helper and I gather all the ingredients he needs to brew me a refreshing cuppa. He genuinely loves doing it.

How great is that?

Next step; one of Jamie Oliver’s 3 course 30 minute meals.

Beards – Part 1. Or, What’s with all this Face Fuzz?

A tale of whiskers and facial fuzz fashion….

A few weeks ago, it occurred to me that I had never grown a beard or even a moustache. Not even a stubbly goatee! While the hair on my head was quite long (and I was fortunate enough to still have it all), my facial hair on the other hand had never been allowed to pass the early stubble stage.

The seed is implanted…

This all came about at the end of my first trip to the UK with Dani since finishing work. We went to visit an old friend of mine and were discussing his brother who is currently working away in Azerbaijan. My friend was talking about Skyping his brother in Baku. Then he mentioned, somewhat surprised, that his brother had grown a beard for the first time. Well, it is certainly the “in” look with lots of men of all ages now sporting a full face of whiskers. Yet I had never had the inkling to stop shaving for more than two days (max).

Why no beard?…

The reason? Well, I just hate not having a clean face. The whole thought of stubble, face fur and definitely a full on beard & mussy thing that is currently all the rage just doesn’t interest me. The way I see it there is something not right about watching a man with a full-on Grizzly Adams look drinking a beer and getting the frothy ale caught up in the facial hair. Even worse when they then suck it back out. No. It’s enough to put me off a beer.

Other reasons were that my facial hair was never the quickest growing and being fair haired it was not the darkest. I suppose I always thought it would never look right on me. Now that I am older there are a lot of grey (OK white!) whiskers. I had resigned myself to the fact that if I did grow a beard it would be more like Father Christmas than one of the trendy hipsters that seem to be all over the magazines these days.

The decision is made…

That conversation with my friend coincided with my running out of shaving foam. Of course I could have bought some more but I didn’t. I thought I would leave it until we returned to Madrid when I would shave again. Then during the flight home, whilst stroking the longer than usual stubble on my chin, I made the conscious decision to let it grow for a couple of weeks at least and see how it looked. I also wanted Dani to have a photograph with his hairy-faced old man. Funny how little Dani could have such a big influence on this decision.

I am more than a little surprised at how little it has bothered me. There are some patchy bits but I can see that with a little more growth these areas will be more or less filled in. There are also obvious white patches. Nothing I can do about that of course as it is probably just age related.These may well blend in more with the darker hair as it continues to develop. We shall see. But how long will all that take and how much longer can I stand it?

To be continued…

From Growing up in Madrid to Lino floors

What has growing up in Madrid got to do with lino floors making a comeback?

I was just thinking about Dani growing up over the next few years. Rather, I was trying not to think about schools! Anyway, let’s not get into that subject just yet….

Growing up in Madrid

It occurred to me that Madrid is not a bad place for him to grow up. Sure, it is a big city with all that goes with that but it is easy enough to get out into the countryside and mountains. There are even ski resorts (well ski areas would be a better way of saying it) just outside the city. It is the capital city of Spain so obviously it has pretty much everything. The one thing that anyone living here will tell you right away that it does not have is a beach. Madrid is more or less in the centre of the country so the nearest beach is just over a 3 hours drive away – if you nominally break the speed limit. Probably under 3 hours if you drive like a Spaniard.

A definite plus is that it hardly ever rains here. Of course it rains but in comparison to even the driest place in the UK it really hardly ever rains. But that does not mean that the weather is always warm and sunny. In fact, in summer it is often too hot and sunny. Not the same thing believe me.

In winter time however it can be cold. The thing about living here though is that most people live in apartment blocks. The whole block is heated from a central boiler so the heating is on constantly. At no extra cost, and no huge bills. Well at least for me, as it is already covered in the rent I am paying. It is usually included in a monthly community charge paid by every apartment in the building.

The problem with central heated apartment buildings is they can be too hot. Even turning down your own radiators is not always enough. Today for example. Even though it is cold outside I need to walk about in shorts and T-shirt indoors. Or maybe I should try turning the radiators down a notch?

Cold winter memories?

That got me thinking. How did we manage all those years ago in a council house with no central heating? Not here in Spain but back in cold, wet and damp Blighty!

Back then we did not even have duvets on our beds. We had a couple of blankets – and pyjamas of course.

I clearly remember not having any fitted carpets on the floors. More like large rugs that more or less filled the floor space in the living room. I can also remember not having any carpets in the bedroom. Not even cushioned vinyl. We just had lino.

Lino

Ah Lino! Short for Linoleum. The floor covering of choice back then; and you can still buy it. I know this because I have just googled it.

I suggest you google it too as it is far more interesting than you might think. Made with natural, sustainable products and highly durable too. In this eco sensitive era in which we live surely lino is due a huge comeback. Now I have read about the product I am surprised that there haven’t been protests outside vinyl flooring factories with eco-warriors waving placards made of lino.

Can anyone out there remember having lino floors? Is lino overdue a comeback?

The funny thing is I can clearly remember all of those things like lino flooring but I cannot remember what it actually felt like not having central heating.

These kids today eh… They don’t know they’re born do they? And of course they would not have a clue what lino is! Come to think of it neither would their young dads. Probably.

Old dad blues setting in. Time for a short break…

Pancake Day

From pancakes & biscuits to Master Chef Junior. A growing trend in Spain is to encourage kids to help out in the kitchen.

Dani’s First.

Not technically his first pancake day – his 3rd really – but the first time he will help to make them and help to eat them.

This year pancake day – or to give it its technical name Shrove Tuesday – fell on the same date as Dani’s mum’s birthday. And I forgot – which means of course that Dani also forgot – to get his mother a birthday card and present.

My attempts to blame this blogging thing fell on deaf ears naturally, but it was worth a try. It’s true, I did spend most of my free time yesterday writing when I should have gone shopping but that is no excuse of course. I have no idea what Dani’s excuse is. He is not saying – just keeping schtum; clever boy.

Little kitchen helpers…

We recently bought him a little chef’s outfit. Not a fancy dress costume but an apron with his name neatly embroidered on the front and the smallest chef’s hat we could find. It seems with all of the cooking programmes on TV and now even a Master Chef Junior show that parents are keen to get their kids into the idea of preparing and cooking food. It has become a popular pursuit in Spain. It also gives the kids a sense that they are genuinely helping out in the kitchen. In Dani’s case this is certainly true. He loves helping out in the kitchen even if his version of helping is more like getting in the way.

Biscuits…

For the past few months I have baked biscuits for Dani since he started eating (in my eyes at least) far too many of the factory made sugar bombs. I was keen to make my own biscuits with no sugar (we use honey instead) and now he helps me to make them. The best thing about this is that he prefers my biscuits to the commercial brands. That gives me a great deal of satisfaction. Maybe I should try to sell them? If they pass Dani’s taste test and with no sugar (or artificial sugar substitutes) then perhaps other parents might like to buy them.

The recipe is written below at the end of this post. It is so quick & easy and they really are quite tasty. Try it for yourselves and let me know what you think.

Does anyone have any other simple biscuit recipes to share?

Pancake mix…

This year, as there was no way that he was going to leave me in peace to do it alone, I thought it would be good fun for him to help make some pancakes.

While he seems to enjoy all aspects of the cooking he particularly loves the small electronic scales and measuring out the ingredients. He loves the scales so much that unless you are very alert and quick enough to intervene he will press the tare button in mid-measurement. So you need to have an eye on the exact weight at the time he presses the button or it is back to square one: empty the bowl, place it back on the scales and start all over again.

This time I managed to avoid repeating any steps in the process. The ingredients were correctly measured out into the big bowl and he helped to mix the batter. Now for the really fun part of making and tossing the pancakes.

At this stage I would like to point out that safety is of the utmost importance and we always keep Dani at a safe distance from the cooker at all times in a purpose-built protective platform.

He loved watching the pancakes being cooked and of course the traditional tossing was highly amusing. Naturally he wanted to have a go. “Not for a few years yet little man!”

Finally came the real test. The proof of the pudding so to speak. Typically for a kid of his age this was short and sweet. He tried one pancake with cheese (his preferred flavour enhancer these days) and didn’t seem particularly keen. After a couple of bites he reached for his milk (which he gulped down) and asked to go to bed.

Oh well. Not really a problem. He enjoyed helping to make them and that was the main aim this year. I am sure that next year he will not only be making but also eating the full pancake.

How old were your kids when they got hooked on pancakes?

Pancake Day 

Dani’s Biscuit Recipe

This recipe produces a shortbread-like biscuit which is fairly brittle but delicious.

100g Butter

150g Plain Flour

2 Tablespoons Honey

Preheat oven to 180 degrees centigrade.

Melt the butter in a pan and add the honey.

Stir the butter/honey mix into the flour until it forms a large dough ball.

Roll out the dough (aim for 5mm thickness) and cut into small circles.

Place them onto ovenproof paper on the oven tray.

Cooking time: 10 minutes.

Biscuits

Carnival – A Great Time to be a Toddler

Last year he was Superman complete with dummy. This year he is Clark Kent. The annual Carnival (or Carnaval in Spain) is underway and the fancy dress (disfraz in Spanish) craze just keeps getting stronger. Hard to believe that it took me 3 shop visits before I found those false glasses frames. Even the specialist party shop didn’t have the right style. There were plenty of wacky extra-large or crazily patterned “glasses” but nothing simple enough for such a subtle fancy dress outfit.

I admit on the one hand that it is a little unimaginative, especially using part of last year’s Superman pyjamas as a key part of the kit. On the other hand it is stylish and he does look cute. And it’s great to compare with last year’s photos… Didn’t Superman get changed in a telephone booth? Still, I suppose, a lift will do.

SUperboy          Clark Kent

While in the UK we only ever celebrated the start of Lent with the traditional pancake day (or Shrove Tuesday), in Spain some places have long held a huge carnaval, most notably Cadiz and towns in Cataluña such as Tarragona.

Carnaval is really term used in areas of the world with a predominantly catholic population. And this being Spain they do not need an excuse to party. It is directly related to pre Christian pagan celebrations but conveniently finishes at the start of Lent. Basically now the whole of Spain celebrates the beginning of Lent with carnival parties, some low key with others turning into full blown street carnivals like on the island of Gran Canaria.

For us in Madrid it was limited to Dani’s nursery fancy dress party and a Sunday morning trip to a public park where the local kids (and even many parents) turn out in fancy dress and the local authorities put on a small stage show for the kids.

How did you and your kids celebrate Carnival?

Tomorrow is pancake day of course and I will be making some for our evening meal. We shall see how Dani likes his first taste of pancake day.

Quitting Work to be an Old Dad

After many months of thinking about it, planning what I would do and even trying to talk myself out of it, I finally quit my job. The great plan was that I could now spend more time with my young son. Why does anyone do something like that? Why did I do it?

The main reason was not to be the so called “stay at home dad” and prove that I could do that kind of thing etc.. Neither is it like many of the situations stay at home dad finds himself in – at least the ones I have read about online. Unlike many others, who appear to have lost their jobs for some reason and/or have a partner who is pulling in more money; the “main breadwinner” so to speak. I had a contract that could have run for at least another year with the possibility of an extension or moving onto a newer project and I am (or was) the higher earner by a considerable amount.

This was not some experiment either. Apart from not particularly liking my job (more on this later) I had been thinking about doing this since before he was born.

In reality the main reason was simple and so obvious. Time.

Time is the biggest factor. Biggest and very real. While Dani is only 2 years old I will be 52 in a few months. With almost 50 years between us I am indeed an old dad. It was now or never while the nipper was still nipping.

This is all about being able to spend as much time with Dani while I still can. Although he is technically in that stage people refer to as “the terrible twos” it is a great age. A good friend of mine said it best when he told me “You can’t buy that time back. No matter how much you earn”.

Dani was born in Spain and we live here in Madrid with his Spanish mother Beatriz. I wanted him to be able to see more of his family in the UK; to improve his English and form deep bonds at this crucial age.

In Spain they typically start full time school at 3 years old or to be more exact, if they are 3 years old in that calendar year then they start school in the September. As Dani was born in November this means that my son will be starting full time school before he is 3. This just seems crazy to me but it is considered normal here so I just need to get on with it and plan accordingly. The school search has already begun and looks like turning into a real saga. In a funny kind of way it is already proving too much for me. I went to a state comprehensive school and that was ok (well sort of); so that is my natural reaction. Defence even. It is hard work but I will soldier on… There will be posts about that to follow for sure. The reality check is this: We have less than a year’s worth of complete freedom before the school timetable kicks in.

Work for me is engineering. I have been a freelance contract engineer for more years than I care to remember now. On site and/or office based in just about every type of industry. In fact I am hoping that being away from my usual working environment may give me the inspiration to do something completely different.

Sometimes work could be enjoyable other times a real pain – the usual mixed bag I guess. If I do decide to go back to work then at least there is always a reasonable amount of that kind of work out there.

People choose to give up their work for various reasons but they also choose to remain in work for differing reasons too. In my case – and this is certainly true of many of my former colleagues – it was that comfort zone of being in an enviable position of earning a decent wage. Despite being in that position work can still get you down. The jobs seem to get worse each year – surely this must be an age thing, at least partly? Then there is all the additional garbage like Health & Safety, ever changing regulations and of course the politics… You can get into a real rut. But the money was always good, and that was the catch! A former colleague from an old project way back described it perfectly when he said “we are in the velvet rut”.

Well, finally I am out of that velvet rut and this is an interesting time so let’s see what this year brings. I have never been one for new year’s resolutions but this year is definitely already a bit different. A bit special.