New to the Parish: ‘Athlone has more of a social life than we thought’

A twist of fate brought a Spanish couple from Madrid to Athlone, a place they’re now very happy to call home

Juan Olmedilla with his wife, Lupe; and their children, Juan (2) and Ana (6 months) at their home in Athlone. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons

Juan Olmedilla with his wife, Lupe; and their children, Juan (2) and Ana (6 months) at their home in Athlone. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons

 
Juan Olmedilla Arregui: arrived from Spain, 2011

When Juan Olmedilla Arregui told his wife, Lupe Alvarez de Toledo, that he would have to return to Athlone for work, she was sceptical. She had quit her job as a piano teacher and left the jazz band she played with in preparation for the couple’s move to Berlin, where Olmedilla had secured a new job with a start-up. On the day they were due to leave for Germany, the newlyweds received word of financial problems in the new company. Olmedilla decided to call his former office in Athlone.

“My wife had quit her multiple jobs. I needed to find something. The idea was we would stay in Ireland for a while, six months maybe, and we would go to London after.”

Alvarez remembers things differently. “I was told we are going to live in London or Berlin or Paris, going to the opera and the theatre. ‘You are going to teach in a big music school.’ ” She finally decided that a few months in Ireland would allow her to work on her English.

In late 2012, the couple arrived in Athlone, where Olmedilla had worked the year before. He had left his home in Madrid in 2011 after his company went bust and his relationship ended.

“I had finished two bad relationships – one professional and one personal – and was still struggling with the consequences of both. First my company went bust. Then the relationship I had with a girl went really bad; it was toxic. I wanted to leave Spain behind and forget about all the bad experiences.”

Olmedilla, a computer scientist, had planned to move to London and work as a contractor before working in Brussels and Berlin. “As a contractor I would keep my independence and a free and roaming lifestyle.”

He applied for work through a recruitment company in the UK and received a call with a job offer in Athlone. “My first reaction was, ‘Avalon? Is that a fantasy kingdom or something?’ I’d never heard of it.”

Olmedilla decided to take a chance. He packed up his car and took the ferry to Rosslare. “When I arrived in Athlone, I went down the main street and saw all these grey houses. It was raining, of course. There were so few colours. It was so different. I was expecting Ireland would be something like England with a twist. I wasn’t expecting it to be so different.

“The first few days were horrible, but then I started to meet people. I would go alone to Sean’s bar, with my book on Irish history, sitting alone while I read, and someone would always ask me where I was from and would chat with me. People here immediately engage. The Irish are so curious and talkative and good conversationalists. There is always this link between the Irish and the Spanish when people come out with tales of the struggles against the English. It makes you feel a bit at home.”

‘We fell in love’

Olmedilla met Alvarez on a trip home to Madrid for Christmas and soon after became engaged. “We fell in love and all my plans of a roaming life across different cities in Europe were dropped,” he says.

“We had a fast romance,” says Alvarez. “After three months he proposed to me to get married and follow him. I just said yes.”

At the time she was playing piano with an all-female group of jazz musicians. As soon as the couple arrived in Ireland, she began searching for work in Athlone. She now teaches piano and plays classical music recitals with a local baritone.

Irish music has played an important role in the couple’s love affair with their new home. “In every pub you can listen to live music of the highest quality every day of the week. It seems like everyone in this country plays an instrument,” says Olmedilla.

“Both my wife and I are music lovers and city dwellers, so before our first child was born we would go to Dublin for concerts. That is one of the things we miss the most from Madrid: the vast number of cultural events you can attend there. I miss going to the opera every month.”

However, the couple have learned to embrace the wide range of cultural events on offer in their new hometown.

“It has more of a social and cultural life than we initially thought. I like to compare it with the city where my mum’s from – Mahón, the capital city of Minorca – which is of comparable size to Athlone.

“You have the Athlone musical society, people sing in choirs, people play in bands with neighbours, and work colleagues play instruments. People here have more hobbies and do more things inside, obviously because of the weather.”

Olmedilla and Alvarez now have a two-year-old son, Juan; and a baby daughter, Ana.

‘All backgrounds’

“What I like about a small city is that you know people from all backgrounds, whereas in a place like Madrid you’re more constrained to your own social milieu. Here you have neighbours who are on welfare and you have people who have more education. I don’t want my children to be narrow-minded. I want them to be open-minded and put themselves in the shoes of others before taking decisions.”

The couple have developed close friendships with locals from the area and often invite people over for Spanish food. They’re eager that their children will develop a taste for the flavours of their parent’s native cuisine.

“I do regret my children not having the experience of tasting flavours. The flavours here are very plain. We don’t want to miss our good Spanish diet, so every weekend I cook and we like to invite friends over to enjoy it.”

Olmedilla is doing a PhD in software engineering part time, which he hopes to finish by 2017. This year the couple bought a house in Athlone.

“I’m comfortable; this is home now. We are happy here and most importantly we have built our home in this country. It would be nice to have a proper summer but one cannot have it all.”

  • We would like to hear from people who have moved to Ireland in the past five years. To get involved, email newtotheparish@irishtimes.com
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