I grew up in an Italian-American family where food was constantly a topic of conversation. I started working in restaurants when I was 16 and fantasized about becoming a chef. Fast forward a few years and I’d just graduated college with degrees in Hospitality and Tourism Management and Spanish Language. I heard about a program to teach English in Spain that only involved 12 hours a week in the classroom -- I was hooked! I thought it would be a great way to put off “the real world” for one more year and discover everything I could about Spanish cuisine and culture.
I met my partner, Alejandro, soon after moving to Seville, Spain in 2009. He won me over by showing me some of the city’s most authentic tapas. We were married a couple of years later and decided to start our family in 2019. Little did we know, we’d grow from a family of two to four so quickly!
I went into pregnancy with a very positive and excited attitude, which I think really helped. I felt great for the most part, except for some diaphragm pain under my right ribs and terribly swollen ankles. I’d start each day with a big breakfast and a walk in Madrid’s lovely Retiro Park, then I’d either work from home or head into my office (which, at the time, was less than a 10-minute walk away). This all changed when I started having side pains at 30 weeks. I never thought it could be serious (they felt like gas pains) but decided to get checked out.
The ER quickly sent me away to another hospital - I was in early labor! Luckily, the public Spanish hospital I went to (La Paz) is one of the very best for high-risk pregnancies and preterm labor. I went on a constant IV of Atosiban, which kept the contractions at bay. I was admitted to the hospital and told that I’d stay there until the babies came. I was on total bedrest - I couldn’t even get up to use the restroom. As a very active person, this was torture and I had to work really hard to mentally get through each day. I couldn’t use my laptop, stand up, use the restroom... I would watch TV on my phone (thank goodness for that!) or read, laying down. I knew I was lucky that I was safe and healthy, and that this lengthy stay wouldn’t cost me a dime under the Spanish social security system. But it was challenging, nonetheless.
I lasted two full weeks before my water broke, bringing me to 32 weeks. This is a key moment for babies’ development, and I feel fortunate to have made it this far.
Alex and Sofía were born completely opposite my initial birth plan, by emergency C-section. There was no skin to skin after the surgery (I didn’t even get to see them for a few hours). I had to keep reminding myself that the important thing was everyone was here and safe. But it was hard. Being separated from your babies right after the birth is absolutely brutal.
My first few weeks of motherhood were spent shuttling back and forth from the NICU, pumping around the clock, and recovering from the surgery. It was really rough. Not having the babies at home was heartbreaking, but we felt very lucky that they were healthy and wouldn’t have a long stay in the hospital (it ended up being three weeks).
I wish I’d realized that with a twin pregnancy, it’s best to have everything done very early - we had barely bought anything yet by the time the twins arrived, and didn’t have any freezer meals made, etc. My mother-in-law was a savior during this time, I don’t know how we would have managed without her.
I think becoming a mother is a process -- in many ways I feel like I’m still settling into this new role today! It's a constant sacrifice, something I definitely wasn’t used to. I was surprised at just how difficult the beginning was. The lack of sleep was torture. I was averaging three hours at a time. My husband and I would take shifts. I’d sleep from 9:00 pm to midnight, pump for half an hour, then from about 12:30 am to 3:30 am, and pump again. Then I was with the babies while my husband slept from 4:00 am to 9:00 am. I was jealous he got a five hour stretch!
Breastfeeding was extremely difficult - I had no idea. I thought it was natural, and therefore would be easy. It ended up being one of the most physically and emotionally difficult parts of the first year. I ended up exclusively pumping after trying extremely hard for the babies to latch. We even got their tongue ties revised and I had a couple of visits with a lactation consultant. In the end it just wasn’t happening and trying in between and around the clock pumping sessions was too much on my mental health. The decision to exclusively pump felt right, though it was difficult and sad too. Various Facebook groups were very helpful at this time.
I am thankful that here in Spain we get maternity and paternity leave - we certainly needed it! I took a full six months off and my husband took two months off completely, and then slowly transitioned back. We could have both used a lot longer, to be honest, but as business owners it wasn’t possible for us to be away any longer.
I was also surprised at how lonely maternity leave was. I do think this was in part because of having twins, but I’d see things about Mom and baby groups or meetups and could not fathom how I’d ever be able to attend. Getting the babies out was such a process, and with pumping I constantly need to hook up to the pump... and the babies napped often (and randomly) at the beginning too. I was basically cut off from the world for those six months, and right as I went back to work (February 2020) coronavirus began!
The coronavirus has impacted a lot of things this year. As a family, it’s been hardest on my parents and siblings in the US. They’ve never met the babies -- something unfathomable pre-coronavirus. They were supposed to visit us in April, and we’d spend the month of August there. My mother-in-law, despite living here in Spain, has similarly been kept apart from us since September as there have been travel bans within Spain. It’s really sad thinking about this, and all of the special moments they’ve missed. But I just try to keep positive about all the future time we’ll spend together. And I know that the babies have had a great first year of life, with lots of love and way more of mom and dad than if we’d been working normally in our offices.
Workwise it’s deflated the business I worked nearly ten years to build. I’d moved to Madrid from Seville during the financial recession here in Spain in 2011. I looked for jobs in hospitality and tourism, which was my background, but didn’t find anything. At the same time, I met a lot of fantastic people at my local food market who were absolute experts in their offerings (olives, cheese, jamón...), and I wanted to introduce them to people visiting Madrid who wanted to discover the authentic way that locals eat and drink. I read about the concept of a “food tour” - a 3-4-hour walking tour that mixes food tasting stops, history, and culture, and thought it would take off in Madrid. Luckily, I was right, and soon I decided to take the food tour concept further afield to Barcelona, then Seville, and then beyond!
Devour Tours began as just me, on my own, showing visitors the places and people, I found so special in Madrid. I loved sharing their stories and creating memories for my guests. As we grew to other cities, we pledged to always continue with the same mission. We create tours that are experiences - they take you on a journey through a neighborhood’s history, stories, and foods. We work exclusively with small businesses who are happy to greet our guests and appreciate the positive impact we create.
When Coronavirus began, the demand for tours disappeared and the tour operator sector has been one of the worst hit by the crisis. We went to zero sales overnight and thousands of refund requests. And we have not yet rebounded at all nearly one year into this. Luckily, my business partner and I realized that this would be bad from the start (though we didn’t realize just how bad!) and planned things so that we’d be able to hibernate until demand comes back. But we had a full-time staff of 26 people, as well as 80+ tour guides working for us in February, and it’s been devastating to lose those people.
Despite the challenges the pandemic presented to our business, we still moved quickly to figure out how to keep connecting people over food, and we found two ways: we’ve published two digital cookbooks, including a holiday cookbook, filled with fantastic local recipes that home cooks can make to feel closer to Europe. And we offer interactive online cooking classes, hosted by some of our local guides. The classes are truly interactive, lots of fun and teach you some of the best dishes you taste on our tours.
In our online cooking classes, you can do things like learn to make an authentic Spanish paella or make your own Spanish style vermouth. Since the groups are kept small people are able to ask questions and really have an interactive experience with their host and fellow guests. We even offer a “Tapas Challenge” -- a culinary competition that we book for team building or groups of friends who want to try something different this year!
I hope that throughout 2021 and 2022 we can begin serving guests on our food tours again. We can’t wait to bring people back to our favorite places. I hope to be able to rebuild our team again -- it will be hard not to compare to the team we had previously! But I’m energized by the opportunity to make changes and tweaks to the business -- changes that we most likely wouldn’t have made had coronavirus never happened. For example, we’ll keep offering the online classes even when tourism returns. It’s such a fantastic way to connect with a place before or after your trip. Imagine taking a crash course in Madrid before visiting, or a paella class after you return so you can recreate the delicious dishes you had there!
I also hope to be able to manage the balance between being a mom and a CEO. Before babies I worked crazy hours, and once things go back to “normal” for the business it will definitely be an adjustment to figure out how it all fits together.
Lauren, Mom of 2
CEO, Devour Tours – Madrid, Spain