6 Surprises About Raising Expat Kids in Barcelona

Moving abroad to Barcelona can be incredible with kids, but not without its surprises along the way too!

Life abroad as an expat family really does give you an entirely new perspective into the world. And raising expat kids in Barcelona has had its fair share of surprises for my husband and I along the way.

When we made the decision to move to Barcelona with our young children, we dreamed about the new adventures they would have and broader perspective they would gain into the world around them!

However….(and I say that with a giggle) there have also been some rather….unexpected experiences for the kids that Tony and I were NOT prepared for.  Things that locals here don’t blink an eye to, just another day in the life of a major European city.

If you’re planning to move here to Barcelona, rest assured you will fall in love with the city, the culture, the history and the weather! But also be aware of a few characteristic things about this city that we had to learn about the hard way.

Here we go, starting with the most obvious and uncomfortable of them all!  Let’s just get this one out of the way, shall we?

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Surprise #1: Expat Kids and Topless Beaches

Sure, its Europe.  Yea, there are “those” kinds of beaches.  But what we didn’t realize is that ALL beaches here in Spain allow women to bear “nada” from the waist up. And bear it they DO! 

Our first experience with our expat kids and this awkward situation was during a family day trip to the nearby beach town of Sitges, Spain.

As we walked through the old walled village towards the seashore, shops began opening their doors and restaurants started setting up tables and chairs.  It felt like the perfect summer day for us. 


We made our way onto the sandy beach looking like the typical American family – fully equipped with inflatable toys, flip flops, sun hats, umbrella, etc.  And although we were the ones that stuck out like sore thumbs, something rather obvious stuck out to us – in every direction, women were topless! 

To our left was someone definitely old enough to be a great-grandmother (yikes).  To our right a group of friends having a fun and quite “free” afternoon at the beach.  Jeeze!  I felt like marching over to them and saying, “Umm really people? Can you cover up puh-leeze?! We have young kids with us!”

Sitges, Spain

Can’t say my husband shared the same sentiment (cue eye roll).

So instead, I secretly prayed that my three expat kids wouldn’t notice.  And to be honest, for the first hour they were more consumed with sand castles and salt water.  But eventually my four-year old asked (at a rather embarrassingly loud volume as she does), “Mommy why do those ladies have no bathing suit tops? That is so silly!”

At a time in American society when respect for and protection of a woman’s body is an ultra-sensitive topic, I was worried this could give my little girl the wrong idea. Raising expat kids abroad is tricky sometimes! 

I smiled at her and said, “Well love, some people believe it is okay to uncover that part….but we believe the best thing to do is to cover up, ok?” She thought about it, seemed satisfied and I was thankful.

My messaging might need to be a little more firm whenever my seven year old son starts to ask. At this point, he hasn’t yet!  We may be in for more “December beach days” than expected…!

Surprise #2 Explaining Political Divides

This one has been a little tricky.  Since we made our move to Barcelona, the civil unrest of the Catalonia Referendum had reared its ugly head.  We’ve never experienced a Barcelona without divide, but unfortunately coming from America where people are divided on just about everything including the color of the blue sky, Tony and I weren’t phased much. 

The kids, however, questioned why strikes were happening, protesters marched with flags and people were heard chanting at any given time.

At first, we took the easy way out telling them it was a parade – kind of like July 4th in America!  Yea, I felt guilty about that but we hadn’t quite figured out a way to tell their innocent little minds that an entire part of the country wanted separation – and they weren’t happy about not getting their way.

Spanish Flag Colors in Calpe, Spain

Then one Sunday after a lovely family day at the zoo, we got caught!  I mean, really stuck – in the middle of a MAJOR march happening two blocks from our home. 

Streets were closed.  Thousands of people (women, men and yes tons of happy kids) took to the streets, always in a peaceful way, to make their voices heard.  They all wore yellow t-shirts stating “Si, Libertat!”, donned Catalan flags and chanted harmoniously something that we couldn’t understand.

As we pushed through the crowd, the kids fired off questions – why, what, when, who?! And so began our chat about freedom of speech and expression.  This all felt a tad unnecessary!  I mean, my oldest was SIX!   But Barcelona is now our home and as long as we lived here, the “parades” would be happening.

So the explanation went something like this…

“People are waving their flags and cheering for Barcelona. They are SO proud of Barcelona that they want to become their own country – with their own flag, own money, own rules.  Some people in Spain are sad and don’t want them to leave.  There is some arguing going on – but just like when you kids have an argument over a toy, these people will find a solution soon.”

I pray we are still here to see that through…


Surprise #3: Street Con Artists

We’ve all seen them.  Every city has em.  And here, they’re the WORST.  You know, street hagglers.  Men selling knock-off CHANEL bags, Ray-Ban sunglasses and “authentic” Spanish trinkets.  But actually those guys aren’t too bad and I’d be lying if I didn’t admit to giving them my business a time or two! 

It’s the God awful BALLOON LADIES that kill us.

Here’s their savvy business tactic.  They’re usually found in Gothic Quarter where tons of tourists stroll. They dress up in some sort of costume resembling a clown (I think?) and shove adorable balloon animals into the hands of children walking by with their parents.  How sweet, right?!  Oh but DON’T be fooled!

The very second that child shrieks with delight and reaches out to grab such balloon animal (which they most certainly WILL do), the haggling begins.  They want money.  And no, not coins! I mean, how much can one damn balloon cost? 

We felt ultra-generous giving a one euro coin to this ridiculous scam artist, but she wanted more.  And more was what she insisted on.  Ugh, it ended with us having to literally storm away from this woman shouting “no mas!” (no more!) and our three cherubs looking heart-broken.

“Why would mommy and daddy yell at that nice clown?” I could hear their thoughts in my head…

I call this one “Economics 101” since the chat that followed our hilarious incident actually led to a great explanation about money, business, its value, how it can be earned and why some people choose sneaky (although I have to admit – somewhat cleaver) ways to earn it.

Sooo…did this convo keep my kids from grabbing the friendly little inflatable puppy? Course not!

Surprise #4: This is Marijuana

There are so many beautiful fragrances that fill the air here in Barcelona – bakeries selling fresh bread, flower shops filled with exotic arrangements, cafes brewing their finest frothy cappuccino. But one smell in particular left the children a bit…puzzled?!  Care to guess which one?  Some call it herb, others weed – joint, cannabis, pot, grass.  Never before has a friendly little plant adopted so many names!  Well regardless of how it’s referred to, it’s here and people enjoy it – anywhere, anytime, no questions asked.  No, it’s not totally legal…but as one friend explained to me, “It’s not totally illegal either” – whatever that means ha!

There are some experiences here worth explaining to the kids.  This wasn’t one of them.  So I put on my “mama fiction” hat and told the kids it was roasted peanuts.  Yes, they believed it!  Except now if we catch a whiff somewhere, the children ask where the man selling roasted peanuts is (palm to face).

Moving on…

Surprise #5 Poverty Issues

Our kids’ first exposure to this way of life was here.  Around the corner from our apartment is a woman that sleeps outside the bank.  We’ve seen her dozens of times.  She bothers no one and the police don’t bother her.  Each day she hopes for some spare change to be thrown into her wrinkled paper cup.  There are countless examples here that our children quickly began to question.

“Mommy, why is that man sitting on the ground with no shoes?”

“Why does he look sad?”

“Where are his parents?”  

These were just some of the concerns from my middle daughter.  Some of which I really had no answer to.  While rushing around each day completing my mindless tasks, I’ve brushed past the homeless as if their presence is weaved into the canvas of our city.  But the concern the kids have shown has forced me to slow down and think.

Maybe we buy an extra muffin at the bakery one morning. Or a few bottles of water in the summer.  Sometimes these folks have dogs sitting alongside them, so we may throw down some leftovers. I’m NOT looking for recognition or a pat on the head here at all – to be honest, the toughest part was explaining to them why we simply can’t help every. single. person.

But the expression on the kids’ faces when we do hand each one a few coins is priceless.  In their own little way, they feel they are making a difference.   And wouldn’t you know…..their effort is always always received with a head nod and a smile back.

I like to think in that microscopic moment of time, a difference was made.

Surprise #6 Saying Goodbye 

When you’re an expat, living in a foreign country for only a short period of time, your children will most likely attend an international school. The good news is, the majority of the other children in also come from expat families.

The downside?  Families move away.  Often.  It’s a bit of a revolving door…

The other morning, while we were on our way to school my son asked, “Mommy, when can we do a play date with Louie again?”  Louie was a sweet little boy we met on the bus.  He attended the French School nearby.  The boys hit it off immediately sharing the same interests and exchanging toys on the morning ride.  My heart sank a little and I explained to Anthony that Louie had moved back to France over the summer.  He looked sad and asked if we would ever see him again.

“Sure hunnie, we can!” I answered.  But in my heart, I knew we probably wouldn’t.

My children are not used to this. In the U.S., they attended a small Christian preschool in our home town.  Friendships were made and kept.  Luckily my son enjoys playing with lots of different children and gets less attached.  My daughter, however, does.  When Autumn finds a best friend, that friend becomes her whole world.

And unfortunately, that best friend also moved away this summer.  Back home to Athens, Greece.  The girls were inseparable, loved playing together, being silly and laughing.  I’m not sure who was more upset about them leaving – my daughter or ME!  I hated seeing the girls say goodbye, fearing that Autumn wouldn’t find a special buddy the following school year.

But as the girls squeezed each other tight one last time, Autumn said quietly to her friend, “No matter where you go, you will always have a best friend in Barcelona.”

(Yes, this made me cry.)  

“PLUS, we can always Facetime!!” she exclaimed.  (Yes, this made me crack up!)  I felt relieved that she had found a way to look at the bright side and was truly excited about it!  She often asks me when we will take a cruise to Greece so the girls can have a play date.  I just love her heart!

The kids now have a good understanding of how this whole expat thing works. And as friends come and go, they are learning to make the most out of the time spent with each one.

The unknown, the unexpected and the sometimes shocking are really what make this whole adventure so worth it.  And doing it with kids keeps us on the tips of our toes, I’ll tell ya!  We never know what we’ll find around the corner on any given day…..but in many ways, this is what keeps us coming back for more…

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