Hi, my name is Onke Truijen and my husband Glenn and our two kids, Zwaantje (little Swan) and Wester (wind from the west) moved from Holland to Ibiza in 2006. The reason for this was not work related at all. Glenn is a pilot and as long as he would be at the airport in Amsterdam in time for his flights we could choose where to live. Which made it ‘complicated’ as there were too many places to choose from! While I was dreaming of a refurbished old firetruck and homeschooling the kids and traveling around until we encountered our spot and our country where we would go and live, someone mentioned that Ibiza would be such a good match for us so we decided to just do that.
We sold our house and whatever wasn’t useful, put our belongings in a storage place close to the airport and rented a house online (there were only TWO at that time when we googled but the house market changed very quickly!) It was an old farm – expensive – but you have to start somewhere. I am a Virgo – a perfeccionista – and sometimes that makes me stuck in a place or situation because I don’t have all the answers and it isn’t a 100% perfect but this felt right! We wanted space, a lot of nature, sun, a relaxed and honest way of life, authenticity, simplicity, like-minded adults and friends for us and our kids.
I organised goodbye parties at school (this included a dance to ‘We’re going to Ibiza’- by the Vengaboys, all about the party life in Ibiza which was of course not what we were looking for! Both kids had a party each for their friends, we had one in the garden at our old house for friends, family, neighbours and our children’s friends. This may seem like extra work at a very busy time but I found it necessary. For me as a mum it felt so good to organise this for my family and I am convinced that it creates a happier passage to the new phase.
I always say it is HEAVEN for families with young children, ours where 7 and 4 years old when we arrived. The beach is your backyard. Island life makes for a very loving, alive and family felt community which means that you don’t feel alone. The moment we arrived people started smiling and talking to us and helping us with the necessary first-to-do steps. The Ibicencos are well known for their open arms to foreigners; such a lovely people and they keep the island authentic and real. The expats adopted this attitude as well and it creates a really good energy. A lot of people say, and I agree, that Ibiza has a lot of good energy by itself anyway.
I had been a teacher for a few years so we brought everything with us for homeschooling. There we were at the beach, writing times tables in the sand. I’m not sure if it was me or the kids saying it, but we realised they needed to go to school and we asked around and enrolled them in the public system. (We choose public for primary and later on private Spanish for secondary. Both have a good percentage of expats.) The first school was a white school with a big palm tree in front. We loved it. But the first days were hard, especially for our 7 year old because she only knew a bit of English and didn’t speak any Spanish or Catalan. Also the system was different: the children had been to a different style of school in the Netherlands which followed the natural learning curve of your child whereas this new school was more like sitting on a bench and listening a lot.
The children both made friends and we met more international people. The kids went to language classes in the afternoon and I would go to the same one in the morning. The shared learning and showing that it is new for all of us, helps a lot with the adaption process I think.
And we got the sun and the beach and the beautiful food, the birthday parties sitting under the olive trees or evenings looking at the sunset or mornings looking at the sunrise, tasting homemade food with local ingredients, the free playing in the plazas and the welcome-to-kids attitude in restaurants, the picking of your own oranges and make your own juice or figs for fig jam, showering with water from a bucket because it hasn’t rained and you’re waiting for the water truck to refill the cistern, gathering kindle and pinecones to start the two fireplaces in the house, living with solar panels, selling your stuff at markets whenever you want, meeting original people sometimes providing the most unusual children’s courses, horseriding without a saddle, modelling on the beach, playing soccer with your Spanish team…… I could go on and on. The point being that yes some things are hard but also most things are great. That’s life I think, also for a kid although as a mum I am always tempted to make the path free of scary or difficult obstacles but I think it is well proven that we shouldn’t ‘help’ like that too much and we should let the children find their own way as well.
We were lucky enough with our third(!) rental house to have a guesthouse. I would teach English, Dutch and art there but in the holidays family and friends could come over and stay a few days. So we moved a few times until we found the perfect house and we even switched the kids to a very small and family like school who were working more in line of what they were used to in the Netherlands. We knew we would stay a long time so we agreed the change was worth it and we did it after one year when we were lucky enough to get a spot there. I got involved with real estate for Dutch clients looking for the Ibiza-feel and the beautiful authentic white houses of the island. We would give them a Nordic touch. Clients would become friends and we would organise everything for the building, the process and interior of their hippie-chic homes. Not only was it a treat to work on these wonderful projects together, I met beautiful people alongside and I got to connect and use so many different skills I have.
Seven years is the time to stay in Ibiza. That’s what they say and for us there was a truth in that. As a mum (and dad) abroad we felt we had to show the children the REAL world. Ibiza is a bubble and although we travelled a lot to incredible countries and cities (we are very fortunate that we can fly cheaply through my husbands work), you are there on holiday, not living the real life.
We thought the kids might get a shock going to university later abroad – so much is asked and expected now from children in my opinion. We felt that we should move and experience life in a city and not show only life on an island. This was the most important reason for me as a mum, maybe the party lifestyle and the lack of ‘normal’ things to do for adolescents too. We didn’t want our kids to go in the direction of drugs, boredom and clubbing – we wanted to offer them other interests.
So we looked online for the happiest places to live and visited Vienna for instance. We loved it but it meant the children learning a new language if they went to a state school. The only alternative are very expensive international schools. So that made the decision easy: Spain it was. We wanted to be close to the airport of Barcelona, Madrid or Málaga. I went and stayed a while in all of them before making a decision. We both went back to Barcelona and it felt the best.
The MumAbroad website made me aware of Alella, a village in the Maresme, just north of Barcelona with an international school and since we were looking for a place close to Barcelona but still green enough and close to the sea, we chose this place. I went to Hamelin-Laie International School (trilingual – Spanish, Catalan, English) put our children’s names down. Zwaantje would go to 4 ESO and Wester would start 1 ESO and we found a beautiful house to rent.
Like in Holland we had our second hand markets on the patio to sell things, we had a wonderful goodbye party in full hippie style with our lovely friends, the goodbyes at the schools etc. We were ready for a new adventure. Our children have travelled a lot with us since birth so they do get the concept of a new adventure well (lucky for me as it would be way harder as a mum if they didn’t).
In the summer of 2015 we took the boat (people waving goodbye!) with our dog, cat and two guinea pigs, our Landrover Defender (not so practical in Barcelona we found out) full of stuff, the container with the rest of the household and the moving van with men and our Vespa. The beautiful late afternoon sun and the mountains and the smell reminded us of living in Los Angeles a long time ago. I followed the Vespa with Glenn and Wester on it, driving the car with Zwaan and all the animals on the Ronda Litoral, the seaside road of Barcelona. It felt good, a new journey!
The children’s first day in school was so difficult! At this age to start over with friends is difficult. We had doubts about our decision: the school was not international enough and it seemed that the other children had known each other since kindergarden so it was hard for our children to fit in. “We’ll give it a week,” I said. Too many new things altogether: days were way longer and eating at school was new. I’ll never forget that first day, the big family hug: this was hard.
So what did I do as a mum? I looked for alternatives just in case. I made sure they had good experiences too – the more the better. Home is safe, home is also fun, so I invited the new children over to our environment, to play in the pool etc. I connected with the other mums as much as possible (which is more difficult in secondary school because we all drop off our kids by car and drive away). Thank goodness for the other kids opening up to my children. In the end it was the other children who made it better.
And of course we showed Zwaantje and Wester all the beautiful things we could do and see in and around Barcelona. We could all of a sudden ski in the mountains after an hour and a half drive. We could order pizza and they would bring it to our house (really, this was exciting), taking the train, going to the movies in English, seeing that it was so much better for Glenn also to go to work, going to a mall close by, a huge supermarket where they have everything they could imagine, drive to grandparents in France, go on holiday in Spain with the car and do road trips in your own country, having all kinds of food you want, skateboarding along the coast, modelling for Elite: new, cool, happy, urban, centered and more and more rooted here: exciting new things. The animals adapted (so good to see for kids!) the parents adapted and yes the children too.
What I love about Barcelona is wandering around, getting lost and seeing traces of modernists everywhere. To me the idea to make everything more beautiful, to include nature and light, some free, bohemian extravaganza is what makes me happy in life just by looking around. After Ibiza we couldn’t decide between Madrid and Barcelona. Madrid felt like Rome and Barcelona felt like Paris, renewal and freedom, lively and welcoming and Madrid felt beautiful and so together and perfect but more conservative. A bit of sea breeze does wonders also! Unconventional and informal, Barcelona is flourishing and the atmosphere is so artisan and everywhere you look it is full of art. Make sure you always look up!
Moving here has made me paint a lot more, A LOT MORE. A new phase in life and this is what I wanted. I started www.onkepaint.me and I combine my love for people, colours, sunlight, connections and recycling beauty. I paint portraits and it makes me and the people who order them very happy. I have my studio at home where I can enjoy the songs of the birds. Painting portraits is also a way for me to give back to the community. Helping the homeless by painting them and giving them attention. I worked on the project #ISeeYouBarcelona : 50 portraits of people in the streets: homeless but also people I met on the famous shopping street Passeig de Gracia: a tourist, a shop attendant, a construction worker, a police agent, a street vendor, a Catalán grandma etc.
We got what we wanted. Our children know both worlds now and can be comfortable in both and a new phase starts for our daughter this summer. She is finishing her International Baccalaureate this year and she is taking a gap year modelling in Europe and New York before starting university (hopefully veterinary medicine in Edinburgh if all goes well.) Luckily I still have my son Wester home for three more years. Let’s see where he ends up and where we will go next.
Onke wrote this piece for MumAbroad Life in 2017. Since then both of her children have left home and Onke is now living with her husband in Bergamo, an Italy city in the Lombardy region. She continues to paint portraits on commission and gives online painting classes to adults and children.