We were looking forward to retirement in 3 years or so but
there was nowhere in the United States that we wanted to live.
Our beloved New York had changed radically. It was always
expensive to live there, but when Brooklyn became more chichi
than Manhattan...? We’d lived in Los Angeles through enough
tremblers. That’s a euphemism for everything shaking - walls,
mirrors, furniture, and lighting fixtures circling crazily...enough.
We learned to love Chicago while our daughter attended
Northwestern University. But in winter there were ropes on
the streets to grab so you wouldn’t be blown away by the
wind. I’d end up hibernating (sort of what I’m doing now with
the virus; it’s called “estivating in the summer”). Summers in
Chicago were brutal, too. Ah well.
We’d always loved Europe and took a 6 week honeymoon traveling all over. We went as often as we could, along with our little nomad baby, choosing Spain for her first trip because the people were so kind and tolerant of children. They were disappointed that she couldn’t accept the candy & gum they wanted to give her. And when we arrived way too early for dinner at a parador, they brought her bread, cheese and olives. And the cat from out of the kitchen. Her madrina (godmother) was from a big warm Puerto Rican family. We celebrated everything together. (She was once my husband’s girlfriend, but that’s another story).
Americans can be very ignorant about Europe. I remember a good friend, an educated woman, who said, “You’re going to Europe AGAIN?! You’ve already been there.” Like taking the Grand Tour and then you were supposed to settle down forever.
Choices narrowed to Spain & France. I read everything I could find written by expats, paying particular attention to the negatives: enclaves, gated communities, cliques, feuds, the difficulties of adjusting. Although one story tickled me: a German couple went to City Hall to say that their papers had expired. They were clearly upset & expecting trouble. The Spanish official told them to go away and enjoy themselves. Maybe it’s not that way now, but the writer concluded that in Spain the law is considered a suggestion. Tranquilo.
Ultimately we realized that a couple of ex-New Yorkers needed a city, a manageable city with all that a city had to offer. There’s a vibe in Valencia that we immediately picked up on. Art, music, culture, street life, people chatting animatedly everywhere. All you had to do was make eye contact on the bus and you’d walk out with a new best friend. Ask a stranger how to prepare something in the market and get a hand written recipe. (And be sure to make the mayonnaise yourself, not from a jar!). Turn a corner & find people dancing in traditional costumes. One late night there was so much noise that we went out to investigate. There were 100 people on the next block, all eating paella. There wasn’t any PR or signage. When I asked someone what they were celebrating, I was told, “Probably something to do with the Virgin.”
This is a fiesta town that loves its traditions. During Fallas & other celebrations there are loads of marching bands. Music is always in the air. I was told that in the pueblos the children learn to play instruments before they can read.
The first time I saw the City of Arts and Sciences, I was blown away. I just stood & stared for as long as I could, knowing that there wouldn’t be a first time ever again. The solution to the damage from Turia flooding: turn it into an amazing park that winds through the city. I sensed a commitment to modernizing even in the midst of a crisis. The latest additions are the pedestrianizing of the city & turning the old railroad yards into the stunning Parque Central.
We wanted total immersion & lived for 7 years in a comunidad of 5 buildings where we were the only native English speakers. We made friends around the pool, in the gym and the community room. Nobody ever corrected our Spanish, although I asked them to. They were just so delighted that we were trying. We still go back to see the neighbors and the lovely family that bought our piso. Friends had been concerned that “they don’t like Jews in Spain,” but their minds were back in the days of the Inquisition. Many Valencianos were curious about Judaism because there were hints that their families were conversos.
Here, a baby is born and has healthcare for life. Guns are prohibited; and in some communities, hunting rifles must be turned into the police when the season ends and signed out for the next hunting season. When I was obviously a newbie, I was continually asked why a nation as prosperous as the U.S. didn’t provide healthcare for its people. And what about all the guns and violence? And how is it that my cousin went to a party in New Jersey where someone slipped and fell into the pool and was now suing their own neighbor? Unthinkable here.
Valencia’s greatest gift to me has been the loss of my New York anxiety. I’m sensible, but I can walk alone at night at all hours and laughed out loud when a British man asked if I was afraid to go home alone in a taxi.
I think that, while this is a city, there is true community here. I call it a pueblo mentality. Everyone is looking out for everyone else. Someone will alert me if my handbag isn’t closed. If I drop something, 3 people bend down to pick it up (& not to steal it!) People are proud of their home and not prone to complain. There’s a healthy philosophy of life: tranquilo, poco a poco, es lo que hay, no te preocupes, no pasa nada, pero bueno. Toma la alegría!
Friends used to complain that they had to write us down in their address books in pencil, or that we’d taken up 4 pages - always chasing a dream.
We’ll be here 10 years in December and I still love looking at all of the public spaces, the buildings, the sculpture, the flowers and the greenery. I only wish we’d come here sooner. Valencia is home.