Marla Kaftan Special to the Jewish News
A local family left everything familiar to them for a yearlong adventure of a lifetime.
We returned home last August after spending one year living in Barcelona.
My husband, Jeffrey, and I fantasized about an extended overseas experience early on in our now 18 years of marriage. My father always talked to me about world travel — and Jeffrey has a great sense of adventure. We were both born and bred in Detroit, and committed to our family and our community — but we both craved a bigger experience. We knew we could do this if we set our minds to it, and we pursued this dream together, for ourselves and our children.
Four years prior to our adventure, we set the ball into motion. We knew that the 2016/17 year would be ideal, as our middle daughter would have her bat mitzvah in May 2016, just before we left, and our oldest son would begin his freshman year of high school overseas.
Jeffrey and I knew it mattered how we presented the idea to the kids. And we like to lead by example. Jeffrey stumbled upon an article in an entrepreneurial magazine from a group called Young Entrepreneurs Organization — the article presented a family of five, like ours, who recently came back from spending a year in Barcelona, so Jeffrey reached out to the father, David Rich. David was on such a high after his experience that it became contagious to Jeffrey.
We had already scheduled a trip to New York that December (where David and his family lived), and they invited us over to share their story with us. They quickly had us drinking the Kool-Aid. This family guided us in so many ways toward our dream. It was during that visit that we shared our idea of moving to Barcelona with the kids for the first time. They displayed aversion but also curiosity.
We chose Barcelona, researched resources, submitted visa applications, prepared a budget, applied our three kids to international school — and eventually shared our decision with our parents. Many of our friends and family raised an eyebrow at our agenda. In particular, the parts where Jeffrey was to work remotely, the kids were to leave their friends and we were to abandon our seats at the Passover seder.
On Aug. 9, 2016, the five Kaftans boarded an airplane with 15 pieces of luggage and heavy hearts beating in trepidation with a side of excitement.
The June prior to leaving, Jeffrey and I traveled to Barcelona for a week on a reconnaissance trip. We chose a neighborhood, found an apartment and toured the school. At the time, we may have thought we understood the leap we were about to take. However, upon our arrival to that sweltering European Spanish-speaking nation, we realized we had little idea about the adventure ready to unfold.
Within the first month, the adjustment to our new community created frustrations, hesitations and innovations. The kids had taken public-school Spanish, and we studied with a Spanish teacher before we left. Jeffrey and I and our children, ages 10, 13 and 14 at the time, encountered one never-before-encountered experience after the next. The entire year felt like every day provided us with the opportunity to gather around the dinner table to discuss our daily challenges and conquests.
We desired to immerse ourselves into the Spanish culture as much as possible. Elliot, our oldest child, did this by teaching third-grade Catalan children English once a week after school as well as attending weekly classes at the community art center. Amelia, our middle child, took hip-hop at a local Spanish dance studio. And Asher, our youngest child, joined a Catalan-speaking basketball team that practiced three times a week and played a game every Saturday.
As for Jeffrey and me, each day additionally exposed us to new situations. Whether it was Jeffrey attending an entrepreneur organization meeting with his Spanish forum or navigating the city on a moto, he had no choice but to engage a global attitude and lots of patience.
As for me, my attempts at grocery shopping, making doctor appointments and finding an American coffee increased with precision and speed as the days turned into months. I recall early on in our experience the language barrier enticing and aggravating simultaneously. We busied ourselves converting Euros to dollars, Celsius to Fahrenheit and kilometers to miles. Hand gestures were common means of communication until our Spanish-speaking skills evolved from rudimentary to conversational. We all — the kids especially — learned what I call “forced independence.” They were forced out of their comfort zone over and over again and, in the end, learned adaptability, determination, leadership and confidence.
As for Jewish life in Spain, we attended services on the High Holidays; we invited two lovely exchange students we met at those services to Rosh Hashanah dinner; we fasted and broke fast; we lit Shabbat candles; we ate a festive seder meal in the Jewish ghetto of Venice. The importance and recognition of our Jewish identity prevailed. While we traveled, we typically visited the Jewish communities of those regions, including synagogues in Marrakesh, Florence, Girona, Seville, Rome, Amsterdam and Venice. Our first religious experience occurred in Barcelona’s Jewish Quarter shortly after we arrived to acquire a mezuzah, the hanging of which became a ritual we will always cherish.
Navigating our adventure became finding the desired balance between receiving numerous visitors, traveling various cities around the world and immersing ourselves into our new Spanish community. We entertained and hosted exactly a dozen sets of friends and family, each time visiting new sites, restaurants and neighborhoods. We traveled as a family to 10 different countries, including participating in a 10-day mission to Israel with our Detroit Temple Israel community. We all created many friendships with many wonderful people while living in Barcelona, many of which we continue to treasure. And always will. We have been able to see some of our new friends since returning home and others we continue to communicate with frequently.
The differences between what we knew and what we now know continue to evolve. With our traveling and touring, we gained the ability to navigate foreign cities, taste unusual foods and communicate without words. Additionally, since returning to the U.S. each of us, on his own level, recognized growth in each other as well as in ourselves. During our year abroad, we were continuously put in situations where we stretched our thinking and our values. These lessons and developments still unfold as we continue to navigate our lives one day at a time. Specifically, the knowledge that what matters will get done when it matters. This constantly reminds me to slow down and spend time breaking bread with friends and family as we did assuming the role of Spanish Europeans for one year.
During our time in Barcelona, I published a blog called NoSpainNoGain.me. The blog became a way to share our lives with our friends and family back home. I shared moments and memories and experiences and exasperations. The long-distance love from home continued to remind me that everything and everyone will be just where we left them once we returned. Although we longed to be at a few bar mitzvahs and other gatherings, most situations allowed us to pick right back up where we left off upon our return.
In the end, spending one year 4,000 miles away from home created a new home for us, another home with love and loved ones. Making the invisible become visible will never be the same for us again. We will forever be grateful for our own energy to make this happen, the support and encouragement of our friends and family, and the realization that everything not only requires a little bit of faith but also the desire to leap.
There was a point near the end of our experience in Barcelona that my then-13-year-old, Amelia, said to me, “Mom, why would you even bring us all the way here to make all of these friends when we only have to turn around and go back home soon?” She asked this with tears in her eyes. Tears welled up in my eyes, too. Those words were music to my ears, as I heard them as the proven success of our experience.