fifth grade in madrid

Hello, friends! S started 5th grade in Madrid today. Now that I’ve managed to dry my eyes a bit, I thought I’d tell you about it. (By the way, do all mothers cry on the first day of school? I’ve done OK the past couple of years, probably because we’ve simply put her on the school bus and waved goodbye. But I always cry when I take her to school to meet her teacher on the first day. Teachers have such a big, important job, and I’m so grateful to them that I always get emotional.)

When we decided to move to Spain for a year, we did it in part because we wanted S to become fluent in Spanish. When we started telling people about our plans, a lot of people assumed that we would send her to an international school where all learning was done in English. But what better way to become fluent than to be fully immersed in a language? So we decided, early on, that we would enroll her in a neighborhood public school.

The school we put at the top of our list–and that were fortunate to be accepted into, we found out this morning–is a 15 minute walk from home through one of the oldest neighborhoods in Madrid. This is the route we’ll be taking to school each morning.




The school is the oldest in Madrid. It was founded by Carlos V in 1543. (We were impressed that S’s school in New York celebrated its 110th birthday last year, but that’s nothing compared to her new school!) Today the school has a bilingual program, so half of the day is taught in English and the other half is in Spanish. We expect that she’ll be close to fluent in about three months in this environment. Assuming, that is, that her classmates will agree to speak Spanish with her at lunch and on the playground where the real language learning happens! Right now they’re so excited to have an English-speaking classmate, they’re all speaking English with her.

Since Spanish students are all assigned to schools in April, we needed to wait until September 1 to register for the fall. Registration was quite complicated, requiring multiple visits to various government agencies to get all the proper documentation. (This seems to be the Spanish way. After multiple appointments and visits to banks and copy shops and government agencies, we still have more appointments before we receive our resident cards.) Once she was registered we were able to select our school preferences, but we had to wait until today, the second day of classes, to be assigned to a school. (I think this is done so the schools can get an accurate count of the students before they fill any remaining spots.)




After she was situated, her teacher brought us into the classroom to meet the children (wow, fifth graders are so big!), and of course I got all teary-eyed. I just can’t believe we’re here and it’s all become a reality for us. I think it’s going to be a great school year for S as well as a wonderful experience for all of us.

So that’s our little first-day-of-school story. Several of you, our friends and customers, have been helpful in assisting us with developing an understanding of the school registration process and choosing a good school. We are so grateful to all of you who have written emails, left comments with advice and suggestions, and made phone calls to get information on our behalf. Thank you all for your help and encouragement! I’m still pinching myself that this is happening.

(Oh, and by the way, her new school has a very strict uniform policy–including a uniform for gym class–so I won’t be sewing school clothes this year. But that’s probably a good thing since I’m way behind on my work and need to start getting caught up. I’ll show you the school uniforms soon.)

How was your first day of school, those of you in the northern hemisphere? Lots of emotions? Relief? Sadness that summer is over?


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  1. Kathy

    Sounds like you are having a wonderful experience. I won’t be surprised to read in June that you have decided to extend for another year. Foreign language immersion is a wonderful experience for kids. Our sons attended French immersion in our Virginia school. I have to say, their classroom experience was somewhat hit or miss — but our older son is more or less fluent in French and our younger one is very good at Spanish, which he took up later in life. Having a second or even a third language is an invaluable skill that pays dividends for a lifetime.

  2. What a great adventure for all of you, but especially for S. You guys are going to have a wonderful year (or more)!

  3. Tamara

    Congrats S and Congrats Liesl! I hope your year is a happy experience. Living overseas as a child has been one of the best experiences of my life (and I didn’t need to speak another language) so I am expecting that this will be something that will stay with all of you for a long while. And learning to speak in the environment of which it is spoken is the best way to grasp a lamguage. It is far better than learning at school and only remembering how to count to ten!

  4. I love this! We put our son Harvey (age 2) in a Spanish/English bilingual nursery here in London so he could learn a second language. It’s so awesome to hear Spanish words creep into his vocabulary!

  5. The only regret I have in life is that I never learned another language fluently. I studied three languages in school and was getting close to fluent in German by the time I graduated college, but without the opportunity to use it, those skills have atrophied. I look forward to more lovely photos and blog posts from your year in Madrid.

  6. liz n.

    Holy cow….you live in my old neighborhood, and your daughter will be attending my old school!! SMALL, teeny tiny world!

    You need to go to the fish market on Fridays. Noisy and busy, but worth it for the freshest fish you will ever eat!

    1. Wow! That’s so great. Are you still in Madrid? Is the fish market at El Mercado de La Cebada or is it somewhere else?

  7. jennifer sampou

    Wow! I am so excited for you! We moved to Mexico for the same reason and it was the best thing we have done for so many reasons. Have a ball, good for you! Can’t wait to get updates

  8. This is so incredibly inspiring! What an incredible experience this is for you all! Enjoy!

  9. This was a wonderful post to read, as we are experiencing something very similar, right next door in France! We moved to France in July, with our two kids, 10 and 7, in tow.
    We also chose to enrol them in a regular neighbourhood french school, where our kids are in the equivalent of gr5 and gr2. Our kids attended french immersion school in Canada, but the level of french is on a completely different plane here of course! My youngest can understand, speak, and read in French but her level is quite far still from the kids here of course. My big guy, having already had 5 yrs of immersion back home, has a better grasp on the language but still uses so many anglicized terms. I can hardly wait to hear fluent french streaming from their mouths in the next few months! One difference here is that while there is a tiny bit of English instruction, it is extremely minimal, probably only around 20 minutes per day! We were also asked why we didn’t choose the international school for our kids, and it was the same reasoning for us.
    We plan on spending a year here as well. We are living in a small town in the Loire valley, 2 hours to Paris by train.
    The french are equally enamoured with bureaucracy and paperwork! We are still awaiting our medical exams (tuberculosis X-rays!!) to complete our year resident cards. What a process, I’m sure you completely understand!! It is (and was, with the initial visa process) a daunting procedure, but completely worth it now that we’re here. I’m always finding myself amazed that we are actually doing it, just as we’d set out to do. A dream!
    Best of luck to you all. I’m sure, like us, you will be sucking up every minute that you can of the culture, the lifestyle, the FOOD and the travel. What a family adventure! (And sorry for the crazy long comment, it’s just so neat to hear from another family doing a similar thing with a kid our son’s age, too! So exciting.)

  10. i LOVE the joy on your daughter’s face. from 2nd grade to high school, we moved about 5 times within the same town, i loved it, every time felt like an adventure. this must feel like adventure starship enterprise level!

    1. Thanks, Oona! It’s been pretty exciting for all of us, but S has been looking forward to the start of school for weeks now. She absolutely loves it! xoxo

  11. OOH I have such jealousy! How I wish we could port our work elsewhere. Not that I don’t love the good ol’ US of A and its comforts, but the cultural and experiential education you both and S will receive will be priceless. Only last weekend, when I co-oerced my nephew to take a road trip across the border to Toronto to go to a museum exhibit on Pompeii, we talked about how you can feel even between the US and Canada that you really are in another country. And that you can feel the European influence still pulsing beneath Canadian modern life.

    When I was a teacher, I took kids on trips to Europe. So, I have had an admittedly small smidge of England, Ireland, Scotland, Austria, France, Italy, Spain and Portugal. As a former Latin teacher you would expect Italy to be my favorite, and it was. But Spain, oh Spain. I tell my husband if we only have one chance to go on a European vacation, it must include Spain. It was like a slower, less frenetic, Italy.

    You will be there much longer than a year, I think. Your heart may be there forever. 🙂

    1. Oh, I completely agree with you about the differences between different countries. I find it all to be so fascinating and fun! And yes, I think we’ll be here longer than a year–I’m almost certain of that. It’s funny–Spain was never on my radar in terms of countries I wanted to visit. Todd and I were saying it might be because all the art books and cultural references of our childhood were written during the Franco era when no one could really visit Spain. But now I realize what a rich cultural heritage the Spanish have. Let’s just hope my Spanish language skills improve dramatically–and soon!

  12. Barbara Dawkins

    What a wonderful gift you are giving your daughter. My daughter and her family are in Ankara, Turkey and following the same path – it is amazing how fast the 6 year old has learned Turkish. Wishing you all a wonderful experience!

  13. liz n.

    Todd, no, we aren’t in Madrid anymore. We live in Dallas now, although we will be there for a few weeks in spring. Well, Madrid will be our landing spot; we’re going to be in Yorkshire, Chartres, Cork, and Lisbon…Anyway, fish markets: the Mercado de Maravillas (in Cuatro Caminos) is the best one for buying fresh seafood (at least, I think so!), but the other two I like for tapas and wine and buying pantry staples like olives and anchovies and seasonings and such are Mercado de la Paz in the Salamanca neighborhood and Mercado San Anton right next to Plaza de Chueca. Take a soft-sided cooler with cold packs, and maybe your own bucket if you buy shellfish. Omg, the mussels are to die for….

    The Chamberi neighborhood has at least a dozen really good fabric and sewing shops.

    Also, if you visit the royal palace, the clock room is insanely noisy. And make sure to find a pushcart vendor who sells pernil sandwiches or helado wafer sandwiches!

    I will shut up, now! There is so much to discover, and you shouldn’t feel obliged to follow someone else’s list.

    1. Thanks Liz! And S thought it was so great to hear about someone who went to her school.

  14. I’m a weeper, too. Mine started 1st grade and each year I’ve thought it would be easier than the last, but this year has been the hardest by far. I cried in the car. I cried through breakfast. I got home and wandered around the house, crying. I cried through a sewist’s equivalent of a bottle of whiskey (internet shopping). After a whole summer together with my little buddy, it was painful to be separated. Only for me, I should add. She hopped off with a smile.

    Lesley, I would love to hear more about your experience! I grew up sort-of bilingual, in the way that kids of immigrants can understand the mother tongue but reply in the new one, and it was important to me that my kid grow with an opportunity to be bilingual, so we enrolled her in a dual language program (not a language that either of us speaks, though I know enough to read her storybooks to her) and are weighing our options for moving abroad for proper, whole-life immersion.

  15. Oh Sarvi. Confession, the night before Kindergarten, her first real day, the bed time story was something like— “On your way to Kindergarten.” Um… I got through exactly this much, “When you were born…” Then suddenly, I had some sort of strange “asthma or allergy” attack and bolted from the room. I handed the book to my husband, closed the door to the bedroom and wept.

    She will, of course, rock K, but mommy is another story. Her brother bolted off the bus, with a “see ya, mom!” But he’s an old hat… you know, 4th grade. I weep every year.

    Next day, I walked her to her classroom, that same unpredictable “allergy” attack came.

    Sigh… as I type, I feel it coming back. Might have to see a doctor about this. 😉

  16. I love the conversations that are happening here! I’ve emailed a couple of you directly because it’s difficult to reply to specific blog comments (we’re going to change that very soon), but please continue to add your comments! We’re all enjoying the discussion.

  17. Hilde

    Hi Liesl, I am so glad you managed to get her to the school you had on the top of the list! She’ll be speaking Spanish fluently before you know it, make a lot of new friends and have a great time…learn a foreign language at a young age, is something she’ll be so gratefull for later on, it will make it a lot easier to learn a third, a fourth and so on 😉 if she wishes to…
    I am also raising my kids bilingual. As we live in Madrid and my husband is Spanish, Spanish is their first language of course, but I have been speaking only Dutch with them since birth, and we sent them to a small Dutch school here in Madrid where they get to learn Dutch, Spanish (it’s a 50%-50% learning program) and once they manage these two perfectly, they start to learn English as well, so by the time they are twelve, they will be trilingual…I hope! It’s an investment for a lifetime…
    And my kids started school last week. For my little boy of three it was the first time to go to the Dutch school, no guarderia anymore, but he behaved so well on the first day (“adios mami!”), I didn’t have to chance to get teary ;-)…then he went all teary on the second and the third day instead…giving me a hard time as well!

  18. Hola! I recomend you this blog to get to know and discover my lovely city:

  19. christopher

    hi. i loved reading this post and i’m so happy for all of you, especially S!! the photos are amazing and she looks so happy and excited. maybe she can teach me!? xoxo!!

  20. liz n.

    By the way, I had a chuckle over S’s friends being so eager to practice speaking English with her! I went through the same thing! (They are not kidding about uniforms, by the way. I will not tell you how many demerits I earned, lest I encourage rebellious behavior.)

    Also, Spanish mothers love to spoil all children, so American etiquette of “no, thank you,” when offered a treat does not apply. A smile and, “That is very nice, thank you, Senora,” is the appropriate answer.

    I think this is going to be a very good year for S!

  21. Michelle Nowak

    I am so behind. I had no idea you moved to Madrid. We have lived here for two years now and are so happy. Our kids do go to the American school and enjoy the international community.

    I belong to a great club, if you have any time, of mostly women, called the International Newcomer’s Club. Our website is Please, if you need anything in Madrid, we’d be happy to share. Buena suerte y happy sewing!

    1. Thanks so much, Michelle! It’s lovely to “meet” you, and I’m glad you enjoy Madrid so much also. Once my schedule let’s up a bit I’ll look at the Inc-Madrid club for sure! Cheers.

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