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The expat life has always appealed. The chance to become immersed in a different culture, eat different food, have your cosy assumptions about life challenged in ways small and large. As a child, I lived abroad for three years when my parents moved from Dartmoor to Swaziland, a tiny kingdom in southern Africa. Although I don’t want to be one of those people described in Alexandra Fuller’s autobiographical novel Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight as, ‘Someone who lives in Africa for five years and talks about it forever’, it was a very formative experience. We returned to Britain when I was nine, and I was pretty homesick for the heat, wide-open skies and schoolfriends I’d left behind. And after singing it daily in school for all those months, to this day I can still remember most of the words to the Swazi National Anthem.
What I don’t remember, of course, are the daily frustrations involved in being somewhere so different to your own country. When we moved over, my parents were in their twenties and early thirties, with four children aged from a few months old to eight to organise. My father, a teacher, had been promised a government house (he was there to teach in a local college as part of a Brit government program). This house didn’t materialise for some weeks because a Swazi princess (the King of the time had over a hundred wives, so there was royalty in every classroom and street) wanted the house, so we lived in a hotel and hung out with the resident cabaret girls. This was in the days of Apartheid, and – unbeknownst to us children – Swaziland was where South Africans would come to gamble, marry or have mixed-race relationships, all of which were illegal in South Africa at the time. As we discovered during holidays to places like Cape Town and Johannesburg, even the playgrounds there were strictly assigned to different colours. As such, Swaziland had acquired a racy reputation as something of a grown-up playground.
Our school was mixed-race, with white faces like mine very much the minority, which made the unfairness of Apartheid across the border seem even more shocking. Ditto the poverty that’s still very much a part of the Swaziland experience to this day. We were by no means wealthy expats, but our three-bedroom bungalow had servant’s quarters and a relatively large garden, and we had plenty of clothes, shoes and food, all of which were out of reach of most of the country’s inhabitants.
So when people ask why on earth we bother travelling with our children (our oldest is five) when they’re too young to take anything in, I have a very simple reply: ‘When exactly do you start experiencing life?’ As far as I’m concerned, you’re never too young to start learning. Otherwise, why would we all sign our littles up to everything from music and baby signing groups, almost from the time they’ve learnt to focus their eyes?
I know expats don’t have an easy time of it. I’m told it can be lonely and often frustrating. I don’t know what it’s like to have to organise getting signed up to an electricity board, make friends when you’re the one speaking a different language, and learn the social nuances involved with children’s birthday parties. But there’s a lot beyond the niggles that I also won’t experience. Very Bored in Catalunya’s son Joseph, aged three, is being brought up to speak three languages. He’ll gain a different perspective on Europe to a child solely being brought up in Britain. He’ll probably spend a lot more time outside, interacting with a wider cross-section of society – as Very Bored in Catalunya puts it in her guest post, ‘Children are much loved by all. The saying it takes a whole village to raise a child is very much a living and working thing here’. Not something that springs to mind in the UK where only yesterday my three-year-old was chastised for accidentally dropping a piece of Lego on to a shop floor.
London is a fabulous, cosmopolitan, dynamic city. I personally feel it’s a great place to bring up young children. But that doesn’t stop me wishing I was brave enough to experience Spanish skies, or their equivalent, for longer than the occasional holiday.