What my Argentinian In-laws Taught Me about Food, Family and Authenticity
Life is full of surprises. And surprise me it did when, after being away in the UK for so long after the summer, my Argentinian in-laws arrived at my house to stay for an undefined period of time.
Keen to really make progress towards my dream of leaving the city, this did not bode well with my plans! This post tells the story of my experience living within this Latin American bubble and what I have taken away from this enjoyable, bizarre, fun, frustrating yet enlightening experience.
It is coming to the end of 2022. I am once again sat inside, wrapped up warm and listening to the rain on the roof top. It is the perfect kind of weather to indulge in a bit of inner reflection.
I am happy to report that I am feeling a lot more settled in Madrid after the initial bumpy return at the end of summer. Not that things have turned out exactly as I wanted them to mind!
If I had had my way, I would have come back to the city and powered through guns blazing in the direction of online teaching entrepreneurial success. I would have been able to prove everyone wrong and show them that an TEFL English teacher can make good money after all and perhaps write an impressive blog post all about it, to impress you too.
Within no time I would have been able to officially be able to say I am ready to leave the city and show the naysayers that I do have what it takes to make my dream of living an alternative life in the countryside a reality.
However, as usual, life had other plans.
And it came in the form of my Argentinian mother-in-law and her partner coming to live with us temporally.
The Family Descends
Maybe in my former life when I was working at the English academy, it wouldn’t have been much of a problem. I would have been out all day at work and could have come home and just enjoyed their company.
Yet now, my work space is my open plan house: kitchen, living room, ‘office’ space all in one. My only way of creating some kind of separation between where I teach and the rest of the house is a bamboo partition.
Meaning, anyone else that is in the house is party to my classes! Great if you want to improve your English; less great if you want to relax or chat or pretty much do anything else.
As you may imagine, this is not an ideal set up at the best of times. But having two more people in the house milling around behind me when I am teaching took this non-ideal situation to a whole new level!
Especially when your intention is to really focus on moving forward with your work. This new living situation was particularly inconvenient since, as you may know, Argentinians love to chat!
And chat they did!
This can be summarised in one word: distraction!
Needless to say, for the first few weeks I didn’t find this situation so easy. I was in resistance mode and felt stressed that I couldn’t focus as well as I needed to.
Consequently, I was determined to stick to my plan and made a point of going to bed earlier than the others and going to the library to work on my game plan. I thought it would be no more than two weeks and then we would have our house back. Surely I can cope until then?
Then the Universe decided to turn up the ante: my brother-in-law and his wife arrived from the north of Spain. Now there were six of us!
That meant we were relegated to sleeping on the massively uncomfortable sofa bed in the lounge area. The fact that the whole house is open plan besides the bedrooms and bathroom meant that we had no private space to ourselves.
We were now officially living in the big brother house.
My British sensibility didn’t know what to do with itself. The usual guest rules that I would normally follow with my British friends and family did not apply.
My Argentinian family don’t have the same expectations that I do. For them family is family and it’s normal to let your family stay with you whenever they need no questions asked. They also had different ideas about limits and boundaries.
This meant that they didn’t get the hint when I said “I’m going to bed now” (re: time for us all of us to go to bed!) or when myself and Sergio had to go outside to have a private conversation (hint: please can you give us some space for a bit?).
But there was nothing to be done. Resistance just led me to more stress. There was only one option left: surrender.
Easier said than done!
One one hand I was enjoying myself and enjoying their company, and on the other hand I was complaining inwardly (and outwardly when I got the chance!) and counting down the days until I had my house back.
The solution? Surrender even more.
After all, what difference did a few more weeks make in the grand scheme of things?
Especially since we hadn’t seen Sergio’s mum for over four years. The family hadn’t all been together like that in even longer. This was an important occasion for them and I had to be gracious enough to accept that.
On the plus side, we ate really tasty food…A LOT of tasty food. So good in fact that my plan of getting back into shape after a summer of indulgence was all but lost! We also played a lot of games and had a lot of laughs. I got to know my in-laws better and consequently, I got to know Sergio better too ;).
After a while, I had fully adapted to my new way of life. My life was my Argentinian family; life revolved around the kitchen, food and spending time at home with each other.
For me this was quite a novel experience. After eight years living in Madrid with no close family around me, it was strange for me to be suddenly thrown into a more family way of life.
We were living in this all encompassing family bubble whereby normal life seemed to have been suspended in time.
At times, I had to check myself. Was this real? Had I really just come back from the UK? I felt like I had been thrown into a weird time warp. Nothing seemed to make sense.
Who was I in all of this? I had just come back from three months in the UK, and now here I was in Spain but living in the Argentinian culture within the confines of my own home.
At times the culture difference felt big. Sometimes I felt lost within this cultural mix. I felt far away from where I have come; disorientated and disconnected from my roots.
This was an interesting lesson in the subtlety of cultural expectations that we aren’t even aware that we have. It is always confusing when we come up against this kind of contrast. It feels a little bit like ‘what is wrong with these people? Why are they behaving in a way that I can’t comprehend?’.
This can be very uncomfortable, but it can also be a blessing in disguise.
Experiencing cultural contrast helps us become more aware of ourselves and our unconscious cultural patterns that are neither good nor bad, but just different to the people. And more self-awareness is always a good thing!
With that in mind I decided to be more Latina about the whole thing. Yes I had to begin to find more students… but….
If I can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em!”.
So I decided I was going to make it my mission to embrace every moment of this surreal, family experience and treat it as the gift it was.
Consequently, it wasn’t long before I started calling everyone ‘boludo’ and ‘ché’, in true Argentinian fashion (much to the amusement of everyone else) and ‘mateando‘ with the best of them.
I would go as far as to say that I actually started to enjoy myself! The big brother house was now my new normal and I was ok with that. At one point, I even suggested that my brother-in-law and his wife stay even longer to enjoy more time together (which they did!).
We continued feasting on typical Argentinian food and I added some typical British food into the mix as well. I made my favourite British dessert (apple crumble, or course), as well as some shortbread biscuits, and a nut roast which went down well. My mother-in-law even asked me for the recipe, which coming from a woman who has spent a large part of her life cooking for her family, is a real compliment!
It was fun to exchange cultures in this way and helped me to feel more connected to my roots. I learnt things about Argentinian culture that I didn’t know before, like how obsessed with ice-cream they are and how food takes such an important place in daily life.
However, eventually everything has to come to an end.
One Chapter Closes
10 days later, my brother-in-law and his wife left. The house felt strangely quiet now that there were only 4 of us. My mother-in-law and her partner started to make their return plans for Argentina and it seemed like this strange, all-consuming family bubble was about to burst.
To be honest, I was feeling ready to have the house to myself again and get back to moving forward with our plans. I was anxious to get focused and make progress. Especially since we were in peak time for getting students since it was the start of the new academic year.
However, once again life had other ideas.
The flights to Argentina were hugely expensive and the only more affordable option was to book it later….20 days later!
So the four of us embarked on another 20 days of big brother house living. At least this time we had our bedroom back, so a little bit more privacy. By this time I was fully accustomed to my new living situation and had committed to making the most of the precious family time.
It was the kind of family time that one experiences when you are a child; everyone living under the same roof, eating together but also living their own lives. I would chat to my mother-in-law about her life whilst she was sitting doing some sowing, her partner would be watching the football on his phone, Sergio would be doing some DIY…all of us content to be sharing a living space with each other.
The positive to all of this is that thanks to their help, we managed to do some DIY jobs that had been on the to-do list for a long time, so in some ways I felt an advancement. After being away in summer for so long, I hadn’t quite felt comfortable in this warehouse-turned-flat where we live, so these small changes helped me feel more comfortable and cosy, which is important.
I also learnt a lot about the importance of authenticity. There was only one way that this living situation was going to be sustainable and that was if we were all free and comfortable to be ourselves.
Sometimes I sat with them to chat, other times I didn’t. Sometimes we ate every meal together, other times I opted to do my own thing. There was no ‘obligatory family time’; they didn’t mind either way.
Equally, they made themselves at home and treated the house like it was theirs. It wasn’t ‘the host and guest’ dynamic which can be very tiring, since neither one is really being themselves. We were just family, living and enjoying together.
It also made me reflect on the British culture of not wanting to impose on anyone (or be imposed upon). This experience of living with people of a Latin culture certainly highlighted to me how much us Brits (and maybe other Western countries too) like to maintain our distance, even with family.
Whilst at times the lack of boundaries or awareness of the personal space of others grated on me, I also appreciated the beauty of being able to all live together in a natural and close knit way. It had been a long time since I had experienced that and it was as refreshing as it was challenging.
In the end I decided that us Westerners could learn a lot about family from those from Latin cultures. And likewise, they could learn a thing or two from us.
Whilst it would certainly be easier if I had a partner from my own culture, Sergio and family being from Argentina is certainly an enlightening experience for me. As much as sometimes it drives me crazy, ultimately serves to make this adventure that we call life much more lively and interesting and I am grateful for having had this experience.
Eventually, bonfire night (5th November) came: the night that they got their flight back to Argentina. The time had finally come. But before they departed, a stroke of good luck happened: Sergio’s brother and his wife managed to find a flat in Madrid, round the corner from our house!
Within a few days they had moved in and we were all back together again for a few days before their mum and her partner finally got their flight back to Argentina.
We shared one last dinner together and to end on a celebratory note we made it into a Christmas meal. My contribution was of course the traditional Christmas pudding, which we were eating for weeks after they left.
And so after almost two months, we finally had our house back. Whilst the first day I felt exuberant, the following days felt a little bit quiet, like something was missing. However, now a few weeks on and it is like this weird, family time-warp bubble never even happened! Time just flows on, swallowing up all that was in its wake and urging us on.
In hindsight, I don’t know if I made the right decision or not by surrendering so much to the cohabiting situation or whether I should have insisted more on drawing certain boundaries. But I do think that in the grand scheme of life, I made the most enriching choice.
My heart is glad to have been able to spend some good quality time with them. It is true that now I am feeling the realities of not having as much money as I would like, especially coming up to the festive season. But I chose to value family time over work for a while and this is just the consequence of that decision.
This is also a new experience and is teaching me a lot about what abundance really is. It is also allowing me to experience enough contrast of what I don’t want (to not be able to do all the things I want to do, for example) to be able to discern what it is that I do want. And that is good fuel to take into the new year!
So now, here we are, six weeks to go until the end of 2022. I don’t know about you, but I feel like I have lived a decade worth of change in a short amount of time! It feels like years ago that I was finishing my permaculture design course, not just six months!
After so much change and so many distractions over this time, and plus the fact that the flights are very expensive, I have decided to stay in Madrid again for Christmas this year. Whilst it was difficult to accept that I wouldn’t be able to go again for the third year running, it feels like the right decision.
I have spent a lot of time in the last six months focused on other things besides my future (working and visiting family in the UK, living with my in-laws) and it is finally time to get down to work and focus on where I am going and what I want to create.
I plan on using the next 6 weeks to end the year on a firm footing, ready for 2023.
I have had enough of the instability of pandemic years. I have had enough of the ungroundedness of experiencing so much change on a personal level. I have had enough of making space for other people to the detriment of my own advancement.
It is time to make this dream a reality once and for all.
2023; I sense good things are on their way…
The More Beautiful World That Our Hearts Know Is Possible– let’s make it happen!
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