16 Decluttering Tips for Families

There is a common struggle that arises when it comes to trying to simplify our lives, and it comes in the shape of other family members. Decluttering may make perfect sense to you, but do your loved ones agree?
In my journey towards becoming a minimalist, I have had to accept that the stereotypical image of minimalism is not what you will find in my home (see second photo below) – not with three children aged eight and under as my companions in life. However, chances are these days that if you give me a 15 minute warning that you’re going to drop in for a coffee, I can get my home looking reasonably ‘guest ready’ by the time you arrive.
This is one benefit of decluttering that has been apparent to both myself and my kids when it comes to tidy-up time, so my path towards minimalism is one that I feel able to continue walking down with their mutual awareness of the ease it is bringing.
Yet creating a new family mindset does not happen overnight – there must be a mental readiness to let go of our possessions before the physical letting go even happens, and just the idea of getting rid of something that has potentially been in your lives for years (even if has been unused and unloved) can come as a shock to some family members.
Considering the varied reactions to the idea of decluttering, I have compiled a few ideas to get your family into the frame of mind for the task ahead – practical solutions for the child who might not know where to start, through to deep and meaningful discussion points that can help you understand why both children and adults alike struggle with the idea of parting with their possessions.
20161022_125318-1
Family Clutter
20161201_122555
Family Minimalism
1) Easing in
Firstly, see what your family members are prepared to part with without much fuss – some items will be obvious to them once they realise they don’t have to keep something just because they can (e.g. toys that are broken or defaced).

You yourself must be open to modifying your view of ‘quality’ where children’s toys are concerned. When your 4-year-old wants to get rid of the expensive, wooden play sets (that they rarely play with) but keep the cheap, plastic one (that they frequently play with), your view of quality may have to reflect the value of their play rather than the value of the item – there will be plenty of occasion to discuss the concept of quality and environmental concerns further down the line when it comes to gift-giving and receiving (see point 3).

Grab a couple of bags, give everyone an incentive (one that works for us is promising to snuggle up on the sofa for family film night in our less-cluttered living room that evening) and ask the kids to fill one bag with anything broken or otherwise not suitable for donating, and another bag with items to pass on to the charity shop.

2) Give logical incentives where possible

My son was aware that he no longer wanted some of his Lego sets but the thing that helped him to let go of it was telling him how well it holds its value – that if he sold it, it would help him save up for the new computer he wanted. He didn’t look back after that!

Where you can, find other logical incentives to lend inspiration and reasons for your family members to join you.

A couple of ideas:

Perhaps your child wants somewhere to display their nature collection yet has a shelf or chest of drawers covered in clutter in their room – is this the space they seek?

Maybe your child has been asking for new clothes or shoes even though they don’t really need any (like my 4-year-old daughter!) – could you get rid of a whole bag of old or unworn clothes in exchange for one special item of clothing they really want?

You are sure to find a logical incentive that works for you and your child.

3) Discuss big concepts like ‘need’, ‘enough’, ‘abundance’, ‘poverty’ and ‘quality’

When we start decluttering we quickly realise that we have much more than enough. Just because the issue of clutter may be a ‘first world problem’, it doesn’t mean it isn’t a problem – and this first world problem is often the result of third world problems (and vice versa).

There is a balance to be had, and accompanying the physical act of decluttering is a lot of reflecting on what is really important in life and how privileged we are in a consumerist society.

When we reflect on aspects of consumerist culture, we find ourselves in discussion about huge global issues – environmentalism, throwaway culture, cheap labour and quality rather than quantity, to name just a few.

Once they’re aware of the level of lack that some children in the world live with, you may be able to encourage your child to part with some toys for charitable causes – they may recognise their abundance and be more willing to part with it if it is about giving. This would work best if passing on directly to children – such as to a local women’s refuge or to children fleeing war.

This isn’t about instilling guilt for their privilege (like the proverbial “You should eat up your dinner – there are starving children out there who would love that meal right now!”), but about recognising our true needs, our impact on other people and the planet, and how we can therefore make wise decisions about what we choose to own and de-own.

4) Be brutal!

If the mess = stress, let your family know that you WILL be removing items from your home for the sake of your health and well-being. I correctly identified clutter as being a huge cause of daily stress that I could no longer sweep under the carpet.

At one point I became so overwhelmed with the mess in my home that I had to lay down the law and openly accept that my well-being (and therefore my children’s well-being) depended on decluttering.

This directly works for the children too, even if they don’t recognise it as such – quite often the mess is because they have so many options for what to play with, yet the options become overwhelming and lead to distraction. Which means you’d be well advised to . . .

5) Limit your options

It’s the difference between owning two jigsaws at a time or ten. I’ve found that when the children have two to choose from, they sit and complete them – and when they have ten, they end up tipping all the puzzles out onto the floor and then become too bewildered to do anything. Just like how I feel during the rare occasions I step foot into Asda and freeze up in the face of too much choice – how many different flavours?!

Choice is not necessarily a luxury – it can be an enemy of efficiency.

We can give our children plenty of opportunities without overwhelming them with choice.

6) New for old
Relating to the above – yes, they would get bored with just the same two jigsaws or board games to choose from all the time. Hence, once in a while, we will donate one to a charity shop and buy another in its place (preferably also from a charity shop to limit the consumer demand for brand new toys).
This is one way we can start turning around the novelty that comes with consumerism – rather than accruing more and more, we donate and swap. The novelty is no longer about getting something new just for the sake of it, but in getting something new-to-you in a conscious manner.
We still consume but in awareness and with intention: do we really need what we buy? Does what we already own still fulfil its purpose? What buying choices can we make to limit our consumer footprint?

Try implementing this ‘something in, something out’ rule, so that at the very least the number of possessions you own isn’t rising. You might want to tailor this  – “Something in, two things out” can also be a manageable challenge, especially during the early days of decluttering.

7) Clear the clutter before birthdays/Christmas

Similar to the last tip, these are good occasions to think about what you already have, think carefully about is needed and/or wanted, and make space for the new.

I do not worry about the influx of new items that is likely to end up in our home over Christmas or birthdays if we’ve ensured that everything we already own is being loved and utilised, and that we are creating space where possible.
Anything that is broken or in otherwise unacceptable condition can be thrown away or recycled; we discard duplicate/similar items where one alone would suffice; as the children grow, we pass on anything that seems too young for them; if things are unused, we can donate or sell them.
This also allows us to receive graciously from those who do want to give physical gifts as part of their celebrations – while it is nice to have other people understand our lifestyle decisions, we do not need our friends and extended family on board with our minimalist lifestyle if we’ve done the real work at home and within ourselves first.
8) Gifts for minimalists
The above said, it helps to signpost people if they do want to honour your lifestyle and give something appropriate.
If asked what the children want for birthdays or Christmas, I think carefully – yes, there are some physical possessions we all still desire, but these are limited where possible and we think carefully about the value they will have in our lives (e.g. this Christmas I have just bought my children one ‘big’ present each – my 8-year-old son a Nintendo 3DS, my 4-year-old daughter her first proper cycle, and my 2-year-old daughter her first scooter – things that will last and be used well beyond the festive season!).
I’m finding I’m having to be increasingly creative about giving presents to other people seeing as it fills me with dread to think that I might be cluttering up someone else’s home.
However, there are so many options these days and my preference for both giving and receiving is in experiences and consumables. Consumables could be a luxury food hamper, an eco-friendly toiletries set, homemade sweets or chocolates, a gift voucher for a favourite supermarket or clothing for the kids to grow into. Experiences might be days out, an annual pass to your favourite local attraction, a theatre trip or money towards an outdoor activity residential. These are just a few of the many and varied things that could be enjoyed.
And what are we more likely to remember? A token gift for the sake of a gift that didn’t really mean anything to us, or something that creates joy and lasting memories?

9) Space-saving

Allocate a certain amount of space that a child’s personal possessions can take up and place limits on what is in your home at any one time. If their possessions start encroaching into places they’re not supposed to, discuss what needs to be done about it.

Some families ask children to limit things to their own bedroom, whilst others keep the bedrooms clear of toys and have a dedicated playroom where toys must generally live and stay. Others again (as we do) keep toy storage in the general living area but have a set of storage cupboards or drawers that must keep everything contained when tidied away.

As we progress on our decluttering journey, we may find that we have an abundance of storage solutions that were previously full of stuff. This means that those items we do decide to keep can have their own home and, ideally, be hidden from view until required.

10) The myth of “I might need it someday!”

No and no again. If stuff is encroaching onto your sense of calm and happiness, this scarcity mentality for what you might (but probably won’t) need tomorrow doesn’t help your peace of mind.

In most cases if we need an obscure or little-used electrical appliance, we can probably borrow one. This is where community organisations such as LETS (Local Exchange Trading Systems) come in, where people share both skills and goods. Having less may make us occasionally more dependent on others, but this is a factor of community-building.

I also recently came across the 20/20 rule – that most things we get rid of today can easily be reacquired in less than 20 minutes for less than £20. This makes all the more sense if the thing you’re dithering over can be sold on in the first instance and you might not ever need it again anyway.

There are just a few things that I rarely use that I DO keep just in case I need them tomorrow – a small tool set, a sewing kit, a limited supply of stationery. These are things that you KNOW will be required one day in the daily wear and tear of life.

As for 101 glass jars to re-use or something that “looks like it might be part of a craft project” – unless you’re going to make everybody jam for Christmas or are an avid crafts-person who is regularly utilising random bits of shiny card and off-cuts of ribbon for your creations, just ditch it (please read this as: recycle or pass it on to someone who really would use them).

11) Travel!

Or just get out of the house as often as possible. It’s hard to let the clutter weigh you down if you can’t see it!

But seriously – travelling isn’t just about freedom in terms of escaping the daily grind of a 9-5 job or the school run, it also teaches us how little we really need to get by and be happy.

When you’re living out of a suitcase in simple accommodation and focusing on exploring the big wide world, it really puts our home lives into perspective. And if you’re away for more than a couple of weeks, you actually start to forget what you own at home – truly breaking the grip of the sense of ‘possession’ over these inanimate objects that are not actually adding any value to your life.

Draw your children’s attention to this as well – maybe even while you’re away! See what both you and they actually miss from home. I bet neither of you can actually remember what all of your possessions are – thus, are those things truly loved and needed?

12) Suggest a trial

If you’re finding some of your family are particularly resistant to the idea of decluttering, you could suggest a trial period where you store little-used items away for a set period of time. You might want to box things up and put the boxes out of sight (therefore out of mind) in an attic, spare room or garage – just make sure they don’t stay there! Put a note in your diary for 3 months, 4 months or even 6 months down the line to move them on.

Try to do this with items belonging to every family member, rather than just those who are finding the process challenging – it’s not about putting anyone on the spot and it shows that you’re all in the same boat.

If the items are not needed or wanted during that trial period, you can then make the joint decision to part with them. Don’t go back through the box again though (only the person in charge of sorting the items for charity, selling on or the bin should see the items again) – invariably, children will say they really want the thing they haven’t even noticed was gone for 3 months.

Be conscious at the start that the things you box up to potentially get rid of are already unloved or under-used items, and 3 months without them should prove that is the case.

13) Celebrate your wins

If one of your children seems keen and another doesn’t, be grateful for engaging at least one family member!

In our household, if my son gets rid of something it can inspire my 4-year-old daughter who is usually more reluctant: she may say “Actually, I want to get rid of this!”. Alternatively, she may say “Please don’t get rid of this, I love it!” If it’s the latter? Rejoice that she’s able to discern what really makes her happy (even if a 4-year-old’s choices sometimes seem odd to us!).

Rather than looking at what still needs to be done, give thanks every time an item is parted with and with each bag that goes to the charity shop – it might be a low process but at least there is progress!

14) Find your ‘Why?’ together

This is not about throwing perfectly good things out, it’s about moving towards something better.

There are lots of reasons why you might want to declutter your home. Perhaps your large house is unmanageable and you want to downsize? Perhaps you want to travel full-time? Perhaps you need to free up an extra room to make into a studio or guest bedroom or in preparation for the arrival of another baby? Perhaps you just want more space to build dens and engage in rough and tumble play? It probably has something to do with your inner vision of what an ‘ideal family life’ looks like.

Whatever your why is, deciding on it as a family or discussing the benefits of it as a family can help you all join in on a shared goal. Whenever there is resistance to the process, you can return to your reasons why and find renewed motivation to work together towards your aim.

15) Dig deep
There are many psychological barriers to decluttering and minimalism that people may not even be aware of, subconscious beliefs that drive the course of our lives without us even realising we hold those beliefs.
Those who have had to scrape by just to pay their bills or who have lived through a dramatic economic downturn may have adopted a ‘scarcity mindset’, holding onto things today just in case they should fall on hard times tomorrow.
From a young age, children are taught to use comforters to satisfy their basic needs – utilising an inanimate object for their emotional comfort rather than seeking the warmth of another human being.
These barriers can generally be ascribed to fears of loss (conscious or subconscious) which lead us to cling to anything we can attach emotional or economic significance to – and whatever sentimental or financial labels we attach, if the underlying feeling is anxiety rather than joy, there is work to be done.
So is it any surprise that the idea of parting with our possessions can cause such resistance?
The good thing is that we can make these barriers conscious, question their purpose in our lives now, and break the cycle. Whether people are ready to hear this or not is another thing – I offer this as an idea, but will leave you to decide if your loved ones are ready to reflect on such matters.
(Please note, if you’re concerned that someone close to you actually suffers from obsessive compulsive hoarding, this is another matter entirely that needs to be dealt with by a qualified mental health practitioner – bringing up the issues above may be very distressing. If in doubt, err on the side of caution and urge them to seek the help they may require).
16) Be the change you want to see!
 
If you’re really in it for the long game, this is above all the best way to inspire solidarity. I have read stories of some spouses taking over 5 years to catch on to the benefits that clutter-clearing brings.
So, if all else fails, continue to stay on top of your personal path and where you do have authority over an area to declutter (e.g. maybe you do the most cooking, therefore require the kitchen to be as efficient and uncluttered as possible).
Decluttering isn’t just about making space in our homes – it affects the way we look at all areas of life, seeing where we can simplify in order to experience more physical, mental, emotional and spiritual spaciousness.
When you have successfully completed your personal declutter of physical possessions, move onto digital clutter, then mental clutter and social clutter. Be the example and enjoy your own simplified life as best you can even in the midst of others’ stuff.
When those around you notice the rewards you have reaped from your decision to live more simply, just maybe they’ll catch on?
Do you have any of your own experiences or tips to share? Have you successfully (or unsuccessfully?!) put any of the above suggestions into practice? Feel free to let me know in the comments below, I’d love to hear from you.

From Clutter to Clarity

clutter

Something pivotal happened this year in our journey to be ‘free to be family’.

I recognised a long time ago that a great source of daily stress as a single mother, home-maker and home educator was the amount of clutter I was surrounded by. My ideal home-life was locked away in a land of dreams, somewhere behind the mountain of washing, the sea of shiny plastic tat and the pyramids of paperwork. Yes, I tried to make it fun (Look at my abundance! The evidence of a lively family life! The gorgeous, glittery, sticky mess of my toddler exploring the overflowing craft supplies again!), and yet . . .

Disclaimer: this post includes associate links to relevant resources.

Much too often, the need to clean up got in the way of actually playing and connecting with my children. Before I could even clean, I had to tidy. Whole days could be spent just moving and organising our possessions – whole days of feeling guilty because instead of spending quality time with my children, I was grizzling over all the toys and paper and other miscellany that had accumulated everywhere.

I’ve never considered myself a big consumer, yet the evidence of a typical life in a consumerist society was on display in my home – as well as the evidence of a frugalista’s inability to say no to freebies and hand-me-downs.

Catching the travel bug instigated the desire for less, a realisation that both myself and my children could relax when on the move in a way we couldn’t at home. The simplicity of living out of a suitcase in sparse hotel rooms!

So, inspired by a vision to ultimately be free to pack it all up and fit my life inside a camper van if the whim occurred, I returned from my first trip to Morocco in 2010 with a desperate need to declutter. On subsequent trips to the developing nation I also noted the benefits of having non-materialistic children who were grateful for the simple things in life.

I’m not a hoarder by any stretch of the imagination, yet it still seemed like I was unduly hemmed in by material possessions. I recognised that personal freedom involved ensuring that these possessions lessen their grip on me.

Quite apart from whether we choose to travel or not, the root of it was that I wanted a family life that was as happy and harmonious as possible – and I had identified that a home full of the distraction of ‘stuff’ was not helping me to achieve this aim.

I had found my ‘why’ for decluttering but I had not found my method.

Having been making trip after trip to the charity shop with donations for nearly 5 years, yet still feeling overwhelmed by the amount of clutter I was surrounded by, early in 2016 I decided to implement the Konmari technique of decluttering and tidying. It showed me how half-hearted, sentimental and unmethodical my previous attempts to remove the clutter had been – I had been trying to fix my disorderliness in a very disorderly way.

The Konmari method was developed by Marie Kondo, an organising consultant whose book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying would suggest that she has an obsessive compulsive need to tidy and organise. Some of her suggestions seemed odd (I’d certainly never ascribed animism to the contents of my underwear drawer), yet I decided to trust the system and see where it took me. Nothing to lose after already spending 5 years of my life attempting to achieve a more minimalist lifestyle.

The basic method with the Konmari technique is to hold each item individually and decide whether or not it brings you joy. It’s an instinctive and intuitive process and, while it doesn’t float everyone’s boat, I love it. It is a clear indicator of what we really want to have in our homes – the place that should be our sanctuary.

It means that what we are left with are items that we truly value and enjoy.

The method is not without its critics. Using a term like ‘joy’ can seem a wishy-washy concept when the problem and solution appears very practical. One criticism might be “Well, my clothes pegs don’t bring me joy, but I’d be stuck without them – what a ridiculous premise to base your decluttering on!”

Let’s pick this apart. The word ‘joy’ is usually associated with a high energy sense of bliss and, indeed, most of us do not look at our clothes pegs and feel quite so strongly about them. But let’s turn it around. Imagine if you came to hang your washing out and there were no clothes pegs. What then? What if you can only hang your washing out just the way you like it with those pegs? I will admit, I am quite particular about the way I hang the clothes out on the washing line (given that my ironing board was decluttered many years ago), and the pegs are part of a routine that does lead to the simple pleasure of having crease-free, air-freshened clothes. It is a very tiny part of the jigsaw that makes up my experience of living joyfully – but it is still a part of it and the jigsaw would be incomplete without it (and how annoying is it when you realise there’s a jigsaw piece missing?!).

We have to consider everything’s place within and effect upon the bigger picture.

All of these little things – the mundane everyday items that make our lives more convenient – they add up to comprise our own, unique version of what constitutes a ‘joyful life’. Other people may well be glad to declutter those pegs straight out of the ‘random’ drawer (you know, that drawer in the kitchen full of bits and bobs that have no real home? Apparently, everyone has one – until you decide to declutter Konmari-style!).

Similarly, Joshua Becker – a ‘rational minimalist’ and author of The More of Less – uses the concept of bringing joy to the decluttering process but covers his back from the criticisms aimed at Konmari by also including the concept of need – “If you love it or need it”. Unfortunately, I think the word ‘need’ can be even more vague in the decluttering process than the word ‘joy’. We can believe we need something, but do we really? Advertisers create needs where none before existed. ‘Needs’ have developed in consumerist societies that, in the grand scheme of things, are not needs at all.

A skewed concept of need also encourages the “But I might need it one day!” blockage that prevents us from decluttering effectively.

If we look at Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, there are many things taking up space in our lives that do not come under the banners of safety, survival or social well-being. And, as many luxuries as we have available to us, how many really assist us on the path to self-actualisation? I would suggest that true self-actualisation is better achieved with minimal belongings – and minimal accrual of other unnecessary cultural clutter. There are so many options that we have in an individualist culture to layer up our self-image and ego with both material and intellectual resources as if self-realisation is taking place, yet there is a big difference between self-actualisation and self-indulgence.

The other side of this is that we can consider what we really want to be surrounded by, what genuinely resonates with us and expresses our individual styles – not out of a false need to “keep up with the Jones’” or show off, but in order to feel in harmony with our environment.

With home décor, it may be an easy task to know what we really like and what we really don’t like. For more functional items, it is a time to reassess. I definitely do not espouse the Konmari habit of just throwing things out (how wasteful and environmentally destructive), but I do encourage people to really think about the replacements they make when items do come to the end of their life or otherwise become redundant.

When my toaster stopped working earlier in the year, I decided it would be nice to have the worktop space back (having reduced items on the worktop to just the toaster and the kettle) and I would do toast under the oven grill instead. It does the job without taking up unnecessary room, hence we’re still just using the grill – a much more multi-functional product than the toaster ever was anyway!

Likewise, when my kettle stopped working, I decided to boil water on the stove. However, this really wasn’t the most efficient way to make frequent mugs of tea, so I recognised that I actually quite like owning a kettle. This doubled as an opportunity to choose something I liked aesthetically (read: brings me joy to glance upon) rather than just buying something based on its price – so, a funky glass kettle that lights up the water blue it was!

Decluttering doesn’t just involve getting rid of what you already have – it means making more conscious, considered decisions about what you let into your home in the first place.

One of the best things about minimalist living when you’re on a budget is that you can invest in the few quality items that you really love rather than living by the false economy of spending less per item in order to acquire more. It also means that your sense of abundance is not measured just by the level of your income.

Buying new items only when absolutely necessary and reassessing habitual purchases means that I can afford to do something that is truly important to our family – travel. As well as the practical day-to-day freedom that decluttering has brought us in our home, it has refined our entire lifestyle in numerous ways.

We live in a privileged society, but our material wealth has a way of distracting us from what is actually important – it can distract some of us from even considering what is actually important, so entrenched is the social conditioning in which some people even consider ‘shopping’ a valid pastime. Is this what anyone truly wants to recall of their lives when they are on their deathbed?

Living with less has also increased our gratitude for what we have – consciously choosing that which promotes a sense of love and joy allows us to genuinely count our blessings. Freed from the lure of the next consumerist fix we can be free to follow our hearts, which invariably releases us to focus on our inner values and our relationships with other human beings rather than the pressure to conform and our relationships with inanimate objects.

Remember:

“Clutter is not just physical stuff. It’s old ideas, toxic relationships and bad habits. Clutter is anything that does not support your better self.” – Eleanor Brownn

Have you successfully decluttered? Do you want to but don’t know where to start? Share your story with me below – I’d love to hear what inspired you or what’s stopping you.

For further inspiration:

My Way on the Worldschooling Highway

mywayonthehighway.jpg

Did you know there is a global community of families who call themselves ‘worldschoolers’?

For these families, learning while travelling and living in other countries is a primary way in which they meet their children’s educational needs.

Some families may ‘slow travel’ their way around the world and enrol their children into schools as they go, whilst others are full-time home educators who may or may not have a faster pace of exploration – or an entirely different method of exploring the globe, which I hope to describe in this article.

When I discovered the term ‘worldschooling’ about a year ago, it occurred to me that it was a very fitting label for my own family’s lifestyle.

profile
Lennon Wall, Prague, Czech Republic, January 2016

I was inspired to write this piece in response to a discussion I was party to in which it was assumed that worldschoolers are nomadic families who are on the road full-time.

I wanted to challenge that perspective – I say that worldschooling comes in many guises. I don’t believe full-time travel is a necessity and there are many ways in which you can explore global culture without even leaving your hometown.

I do believe worldschooling entails at least some first-hand experience of a different country each year, in the midst of plenty of global education in other forms – yet even that sounds arbitrary to me, especially knowing how my own family’s journey to the worldschooling concept has developed and how much of our journey has been moulded by chance rather than by design.

Full-time travel may well be the aim of many worldschoolers but there are many different levels of this educational philosophy – no definite border between ‘worldschooling’ and ‘not worldschooling’, no matter how many actual borders have been crossed.

So, without further ado, here are 10 ways I feel my family are full-time worldschoolers without being full-time travellers . . .

1) Taking every opportunity for a trip

By the end of this month (September 2016) we will be able to count 5 trips abroad in the space of a year. I think that’s pretty good going!

Our 5 trips cover 5 countries within 2 continents (Portugal, Morocco, Czech Republic, Greece and Italy).

Most of the travelling will have been completed as a single mum. In fact, I always used the excuse of being a single mother to stop me embracing the idea of travelling full-time – having now discovered just how many single mothers actually are travelling full-time with their children, I will have to drop that excuse!

All but one of our trips were organised just weeks in advance as we leapt on cheap fares and made spontaneous decisions to travel, and four of them were partly or wholly organised alongside other home educating / worldschooling families.

Whilst myself and my children keep a wishlist of places we’d really like to visit, we don’t turn down invites to places not on our list – we suspend expectations and are willing to take opportunities just to see what happens. This was certainly the case when visiting the Czech Republic in January (I’m usually a sun-seeker!).

We also follow the path our home education journey takes us on – our imminent trip to Italy was originally inspired by watching a documentary about volcanoes (cue chat about Mount Vesuvius, cue decide we should visit Pompeii, cue take next available opportunity to plan a trip there).

2) Hosting travellers through Couchsurfing and Workaway

We have been hosting fellow travellers in our home via Couchsurfing for over 5 years now. The majority of these travellers seek cultural exchange with locals, meaning there is ample opportunity to learn about other countries, cultures and languages.

If I combine our own trips with the sum of our hosting duties, we have spent approximately three-quarters of the past year in daily contact with people from other countries.

Our favourite guests to host are fellow families on Workaway. These families, whilst not necessarily following the same lifestyle as us, believe in the value of travel, cultural exchange and volunteering. They usually stay with us for at least a week, during which time we work communally – I benefiting from adult help, my children benefiting from live-in friends, and the guests benefiting from free accommodation and local knowledge. We have made some wonderful friends through this and some reciprocal invites to their homes in other countries.

3) Hosting language students

I put this in a different category to Couchsurfing and Workaway, as when I host language students I’m paid expenses for being a host mother to teenagers and children as young as 10. Suddenly being the responsible person for up to another 3 youngsters is an entirely different experience to hosting an adult Workaway guest who is there to help me out!

The tables are also turned somewhat in that we have to ensure our students get the most out of their time in the UK – the aim of their trip is to have an immersive language-learning experience, thus we must give them as much opportunity as possible to practice their English and learn about our life here: on the surface, it’s about their learning journey, not ours.

However, our experience of this so far has made a real impression on my kids. “Remember when those Chinese girls were here and …” still starts many conversations in our family. The nature of the students’ visit means that topics related to global education are always on the cards for mealtime conversation, said mealtime conversation often digresses into the students’ own language, and my younger children witness older children embarking on international travel without their parents.

4) Spending time with friends of other nationalities

My children are frequently exposed to other languages and cultural ideas when we spend time with friends of other nationalities. For those who have come from a significantly different cultural background, we see how one’s country of origin has a big impact on matters of hospitality, parenting norms, personal space and socially acceptable behaviour – the contrast can seem more evident in one’s own country when you are generally surrounded by your own cultural norms.

Perhaps the most topical issue to navigate as a mother has been that of parenting techniques – often a hot potato amongst friends of the same background, but all the more so when you recognise Western consumerist imperialism in modern parenting practices. In this respect, I have found myself denigrating my cultural background as friends of other backgrounds seek to emulate it (I’m thinking of traditional/biological norms of motherhood such as birth, breastfeeding and baby-care practices, and the consumer products and services that have been put in the place of a mother’s arms).

Yet openly making cultural comparisons with people I trust is like a petri dish that helps me observe and develop my own beliefs and mental scripts in a safe space (opposed to the influence of the ‘us vs them’ rhetoric that the mainstream media dangerously peddles to the masses). This is important as my beliefs could well shape my children’s beliefs, and how we communicate with some of these close friends also informs how we communicate with my daughters’ relatives in Morocco.

I hope my children can learn from these relationships and see that it really can be about making the most of our similarities as human beings rather than letting our differences come between us.

These relationships can be about finding the things that work in different cultural systems and creating your own personal culture around it – and being confident in your own identity actually makes it easier to figure out how you fit in to the wider world.

5) Of maps and stamps

This is basic but it keeps geography and travel at the forefront of our daily lives: we like putting maps on our walls.

Our living space is adorned with a large world map and a map of Morocco, and our kitchen with a map of Europe.

Our letterbox is often blessed with Postcrossing postcards, random but inspiring glimpses into the lives of individuals in other parts of the world. These cards are addressed to the children and usually include little bites of information about the card’s subject and tastes of other languages.

20160909_162448.jpg

Anyone can do this and for us it is a constant source of inspiration to actually go and see the world. When the postman keeps bringing you messages of hope that you will one day visit Michigan or Hong Kong or Prague (oh, we did that one!), it’s a constant invite and reminder to step outside our home comforts.

The world map planted a seed when FreeToBeP developed the desire to visit Russia just based on what he could see on the map. That seed has already started to sprout as we begin making contacts in Russia and I cost up a trip on the Trans-Siberian railway!

6) Raising mixed-race children

Our worldschooling adventure really began with a 2-year-old FreeToBeP and a fateful trip to Morocco. I now have two daughters who are half-Imazighen (the native people of North Africa).

I feel a deep responsibility in bringing up mixed-race children in a multicultural society that is at odds with itself; a society in which some people look with disdain upon anyone who cannot tick ‘White British’ on their census form. Identity is often a big topic in the lives of those born of two different racial backgrounds and it is with both honour and trepidation that I start to teach my girls about their heritage.

But what an honour! To have such a wealth of cultural discourse based upon bloodlines from two very different countries and cultures. Four-year-old FreeToBeZ is already very aware of her mixed background and it has led me into a deeper understanding about white privilege and subtle forms of racism, which will surely form the backdrop of many an informal home ed PSHE lesson.

Aside from these more sensitive issues, we also collect resources that could inform my daughters’ understanding of their paternal heritage as they grow, from Tamazight language resources through to modern anthropological studies of the Imazighen tribes (tentatively referred to as I am nervous of the sense of ‘othering’ and exoticising that these studies can smack of – something I am ever nervous of in my own accounts). These resources help me to clumsily fill in gaps that I keenly sense in their absence from the traditional mountain life that their father’s family lives.

My daughters are privileged with all the opportunity and freedom that a British birth certificate brings. Yet how sad I am for them that they cannot understand the unwritten stories of their ancestors that their ageing Imazighen grandmother can tell in a language that they do not know.

Rather than the sense of being “neither here nor there”, I hope my daughters grow into worldly women who feel comfortable in different settings – and may our worldschooling journey nurture that.

7) Exploring all the facets of your homeland

In order to get the most from our travels to far-flung places, I believe an appreciation of where we are from and knowledge of our own heritage helps. We may or may not be proud of our cultural heritage, yet knowing one’s self is often key to truly knowing what is outside of ourselves.

Travelling with true awareness of global concerns involves being aware of our own cultural history and the social capital we may or may not be privileged by.

With this awareness, as well as exploring the well-known icons of your homeland and its history, why not seek out evidence of other countries and cultures within it? There may be places of worship that are different to your own (if you have one), expatriates of other countries, people whose first language isn’t the same as yours, specialist world food shops, and public networks or events that support multicultural communities (examples in my area are the South West Dorset Multicultural Network and an annual Dorset One World Festival).

Now more than ever in a social climate in which casual racism seems to be rearing its ugly head, it’s important that we forge interfaith and intercultural links with people of different backgrounds.

Saying that worldschooling journeys must involve trips to countries other than your own ignores the richness of what you have been brought up around, especially in a diverse society such as ours. Yes, our dominant culture will always be the most obvious in our own homes, but there are people and places in your own country, town or even village who have much to teach you about the wider world.

8) Language learning

For language is not just about words and translation – the more you learn about language and linguistics, the more you realise how relative the world is based on the words we use and the way in which different concepts are expressed in different languages.

It is difficult to learn a language without also being exposed to cultural and religious concepts associated with that language, and (I find) without therefore becoming fascinated with those parts of the world in which that language is spoken.

My own forays into various languages has come as a result of our chosen destinations rather than preceding them, but the breadth of knowledge that an interest in language opens up is astounding. For example, did you know that there are over 6000 living languages in the world?

The world of languages and linguistics goes far beyond actually being able to speak another language, and travel can be a natural consequence of being fascinated with such subjects.

FreeToBeP is currently intrigued with Italian having decided that he wants “to play that game” I play on my phone – he’s referring to my Duolingo course. The advent of smartphone apps and online peer exchange have made language learning all the more fun and accessible, and can easily complement a worldschooling lifestyle whilst sat on your own sofa . . .

And to then put it into practice and learn a language in context on the move is perhaps the best lesson we can give our children about how language acquisition naturally works (no textbooks necessary!).

9) Plan a world adventure

We’re considering taking less frequent trips over the next couple of years in order to plan The Big One.

Although short trips to European destinations are well within our budget and other practical considerations, if I want to run with FreeToBeP’s Russian dream then we’re in for saving some pennies first – and if we’re going to book the Trans-Siberian railway, we should probably go the whole hog and take the route all the way down through Mongolia to China (China also being on FreeToBeP’s wishlist!).

Whilst the need to stay put and save up could feel like stagnation, the expectation of a trip flavours many of our family discussions. Planning for a long-distance trek could take months in itself.

We are currently packing for our trip to Italy and recent conversation has often turned to the language, food, sites and history of our destination – these discussions around our dinner table at home are part and parcel of our worldschooling life. The actual trip abroad does not exist inside a bubble, it is the culmination of a dream made real thanks to a period of research and planning.

Indeed, part of the fun is in the itinerary planning, and this is something you can let the kids loose on – thus when you arrive at your destination you’ll have a good idea of each family member’s hopes for the trip.

worldmapcc

10) Networking with other worldschoolers

As well as fellow travellers within our local home education circle, we make an effort to connect with other families in different locations who share a similar lifestyle.

As worldschooling families network and meet, more and more events are being organised especially for those following this way of life and a number of worldschooling communities are developing around the globe.

Earlier this year we attended our first worldschool event in Plitra, Greece. As a travelling single mother, these events have the added attraction of inherent friendship and support whilst losing none of the sense of adventure. Whilst I have the company of fellow parents, they are places where I can be sure that the children will also have peers to play and learn alongside.

We have learnt that distance and language doesn’t have to be a barrier to friendship as we build relationships with people in different parts of the world. My children’s social experience is often very different to those who spend their days in a classroom with 30 peers sharing the same age and hometown, but herein lies the heart of the worldschooling message – yes, some people live their lives very differently to us, but a different way doesn’t equal a wrong way.

kr
FreeToBeP and his sisters’ cousin in the Atlas mountains, Morocco

In conclusion, I hope these suggestions have gone some way to explaining how worldschooling is not bound by one set of rules and may look as different for each family as home education itself does (ah, and what of the experiences of those worldschooling families whose children actually attend school?).

I like to think that our family’s past year has been a comfortable middle ground – the excitement of travel tempered with the security of a home base. Part of me feels like we’re living the dream whilst another part lives vicariously through the blogs of families having a full-time, nomadic lifestyle which leads them to truly immersive experiences in far-reaches of the globe.

If you’re travelling the world full-time with your family, I’m in awe of you (especially if you’re doing it as a single parent)! But perhaps the next ‘worldschooling’ family isn’t there yet and are making the practical, emotional and logistical decisions and actions to get there one day.

Until that time, I believe they have every right to describe themselves as worldschoolers if that is their educational philosophy. With a zest for travel and a passion for meeting and understanding other people , you can’t go far wrong.

If this post has piqued your interest, it’s topics such as those found in my 10 Websites for Teaching Global Citizenship that keep me eager to see myself as a global citizen and keen to keep my children in contact with people of varied backgrounds – and to keep on exploring those varied backgrounds first-hand!

Please feel free to share your own perspective and experiences in the comments below – it would be wonderful to hear of other families’ journeys.

It’s Maybe in the Language: Linguistic Relativity

maybespeechbubble

Disclaimer: the blog author receives commission on sales made via product links on this article.

“Maybe.” came my answer, much to his frustration.

“Maybe? What is maybe?” he would reply. “Yes is yes and no is no.”

My daughters’ father and I regularly use the Arabic word for ‘maybe’ in our conversations (‘imken’ in the Moroccan dialect), yet it never occurred to me that ‘maybe’ could be quite an abstract concept, a prime example of linguistic relativity.

For me the word ‘maybe’ speaks of possibilities, keeping one’s options open and looking out for chances. It’s about not ruling anything out.

Conversely, he was continually exasperated by my maybes.

I’m Mercurial and live in my head, occupying a land of dreams and ideas and a million maybes. To spend enough time with me is to be party to those ideas – whether or not they surface as tangible realities in the physical world is another matter entirely.

I enjoy the process of exploring new ideas and brainstorming logistics, often wondering out loud to those who happen to be in my company at the time, utilising that company as a form of feedback regarding the potential viability of a venture.

I may then completely discard the original idea and move on to the next distraction, leaving more earthy types floundering like fish who find themselves in a deserting riverbed. My girls’ father is one such flounder, precisely the sort of man who should never have pursued a Gemini woman.

Yet the idea of things only ‘maybe’ happening seemed to fit the relaxed Moroccan lifestyle quite well – you’re never quite sure something will happen until it actually does, with so many exchanges left hanging under the banner “insha allah” (“God willing”).

Eventually, I compiled a list of words I initially wanted to learn in the mother tongue of my daughters’ father, a mixture of Tashelhit and Tamazight, examples of the indigenous Imazighen languages of North Africa. These languages, now predominantly spoken in Morocco and Algeria, are thought to be the closest surviving languages to Ancient Egyptian (more about that in Helene E. Hegan’s book The Shining Ones: An Etymological Essay on the Amazigh Roots of Egyptian Civilization).

Upon asking him the word for ‘maybe’ he replied, “There is no word for this in my language.”

Well, that could explain a lot.

We think of our language as being capable of explaining all the realities and facts of the world around us, and yet there remain many concepts that are not succinctly contained within a single word – if the concept exists in our culture at all. Here are some examples.

Even though the English language has a vast amount of words compared to most others, it goes to show that they still don’t necessarily capture everything effectively, and that languages with less populous vocabularies will almost certainly not reflect our own lexicon.

Guy Deutscher explores the issue of language shaping our world views in his book Through The Language Glass, a fascinating insight into the way our vocabulary moulds our perspective.

Whilst some extol a need for a single world language (usually English) for business purposes in a global market, a monolingual world would be a dull world indeed. A single language quickly becomes a single culture, and with the loss of each language (thought to be about one per fortnight) comes the loss of world heritage.

Each and every word enshrines a wealth of history and preserves cultural artefacts in much the same way as a piece of pottery or an item of artwork. A word may not be palpable but it has undergone the processes of conception, growth and evolution, always reflecting the point in time in which it exists.

Deutscher explores such history in The Unfolding of Language, an inspiring read that led me to question my own snobbishness when it comes to topics such as grammar and ‘textspeak’. So much of what we consider ‘proper English’ is but a contraction of what it once was. Why, there even maybe grace in an ‘ain’t’.

The single word ‘maybe’ was itself, originally, two individual words . . . But to contract it out of existence to ensure we are only ever faced with the path of ‘yes’ or the path of ‘no’? Forget textspeak; within the broad spectrum of the English language, to get rid of the possibility of possibility would be tantamount to Newspeak – with a very big maybe dangling over the chances of such a phenomenon taking place given some of the other Nineteen Eighty-Four-esque goings on of late.

As if the act of learning a new language is not enough of a challenge, the skill of fluency really comes to the fore when you can interpret rather than just translate. Yet true interpretation relies heavily on cultural and linguistic knowledge that it can take years to acquire and perhaps a whole new mindset to truly understand.

So, it maybe that my “maybe” may not be as basic and self-explanatory a response as I once thought, but I hope that this piece goes to show the potential of a simple ‘maybe’ – maybe?

Other titles that explore translation and the interlinking of culture and language are:


And, as always, please feel free to share your thoughts about my thoughts by commenting below.

Title image courtesy of Prawny.

Edventuring in Greece

Edventuring in Greece

We’ve recently returned from the April 2016 Worldschoolers Spring Edventure at the Porto Grana Hub for home educators in Plitra, Laconia, Greece.

So much of our experience was about the sights, smells, tastes and sounds we encountered. How can I capture in words the scent of orange blossom or the pungent smell of olive oil production? Or find a way to translate onto screen the sensory stories of my taste buds? At least the visual element is more easily shared through the many images I collected.

With this in mind, I’ve compiled a photo journal of the highlights of our trip. I’ve included commentary to give you some insight into the week’s learning journey, seasoned with links to find out more where you may wish to.

Enjoy!

Orange-picking

orange1.jpg
One of FreeToBeP’s favourite activities of the week

This was such a simple yet memorable activity. The sights, scents and tastes of the orchard as the sun beat down on us was so evocative – if paradise has an aroma, orange-blossom would be it! As if I didn’t already bemoan the quality of oranges in England, now that I’ve eaten one freshly plucked from a Peloponnese tree, I fear the bar has been raised even more.

One intriguing feature of the orchard was an orange-lemon tree – a tree that bears both types of fruit as the result of a successful graft.

FreeToBeP loved being amongst the trees and his orange harvest ensured a week’s very sufficient vitamin C intake for the whole family.

An interesting fact is that the intensive cultivation of oranges in the region dates only from the mid-20th century – prior to that, the delta of the Evrotas river and its tributaries was used as rice fields (a small percentage of EU-grown rice is still grown in Greece).

orangepick

Culture & Tradition

flowerfest
Preparations for the flower festival in Papadianika

We joined local school children in the nearby village of Papadianika as they decorated candles to be lit at the traditional Γιορτη Λουλουδιών (flower festival) on April 30th. Many May Day festivities take place in Greece, of which this festival is one example.

chapel
Greek Orthodox chapel next to Diros Caves

Religious tradition is very evident in Greece – chapels are built in all sorts of places, and the above picture was taken just along from the Diros caves [a boat trip through the caves was part of the itinerary for the week which I was unable to do due to the wants/needs of my children, yet I have it on good authority that it’s worth the €12 per adult / €7 per child].

Wherever you go, you will see numerous prayer boxes along the side of the road, known as kandylakia. I sadly neglected to photograph any. These are shaped like miniature chapels and often include icons of saints, and incense or candles to burn. As well as traditionally being spots where travellers can stop to pray, they are increasingly used to commemorate lives, particularly of those lost upon the road – there is a joke that roadside kandylakia can be seen as unofficial ‘drive with caution’ signs!

Plitra Beach

beachrunWhat a treat to have the local beaches all to ourselves in 25+ degree heat! The beach was a short walk from both the home education hub and our accommodation. Just like our seaside home in the UK, the bay at Plitra is calm, featuring sandbanks and a very gradual decline into deeper waters – a perfect beach upon which families can relax, play and paddle.

As the boys went scouring the rockpools, our host scoured the same area for food – the seashore forage finds were an impressive array of herbs and spring greens that well illustrated how ‘frugal food’ is often about the richness and abundance of Mother Nature.

beach2
Sun + sand + sea = happy children!
beach3
Sun + sand + sea = happy me!

Monemvasia Old Town

monem4
FreeToBeZ enjoying the sun and the sights in Monemvasia
lighthouse.jpg
Restored lighthouse – and a levitating FreeToBeP, apparently

A truly fascinating place for both children and adults, the old town of Monemvasia is an ancient fortified town (now largely restored in keeping with its original style) and it’s worth spending a full day exploring. Our trip wasn’t as lengthy as planned as, unfortunately, the castle and grounds atop the summit were closed to the public due to renovation works. However, there was still plenty to see . . .

monem6

monem7monem8monem9

monem1There was a wonderful vibe of history coming alive upon the peninsula of the old town, complete with quaint little shops and cafés that complemented the town’s heritage. Both architectural antiquities and local flora were prevalent here, and I also appreciated the local bee colonies through the purchase of a very sweet honey wine – indeed, Malvasia wine is historically from the town.

The nooks and crannies of the narrow cobbled streets were a delight to explore and the views were divine. A must-see if you’re in the region!

monem10monem3

castlegate

monem2

Gytheio 

shipwreck
Dimitrios shipwreck

We stopped for refreshments upon Mavrovouni, the longest beach in the region, near to the charming port town of Gytheio. Volunteers observe and protect this beach over the spring to summer months as it is the nesting ground for sea turtles, yet also a busy tourist spot during the height of the season.

As we left the Gytheio area we also spotted the Dimitrios shipwreck on Valtaki beach, where the poor vessel has lain abandoned for 35 years.

Gerakas Port

gerakas2The entrance to Gerakas Port is well hidden, historically making this a safe enclave away from looting pirates. A glorious mountain drive took us up and over the headland to this hidden beauty, where the environments of wetlands and sea merge via a fjord-like approach from the sea. I sense this little gem is best appreciated by boat!

gerakas1

Cyclingpbike

liambikeWe arrived in Greece with two eight-year-old boys who couldn’t cycle and left with two eight-year-old boys who could! You’ll be relieved to hear they weren’t swapped for different children, but gained new skills whilst having free bike hire at the hub and Plitra seafront all to themselves throughout our stay. Three-year-old FreeToBeZ was rather pleased with her attempts too.

bikez

Olive-picking

olivetree2
FreeToBeP harvesting late olives

Although the olive-picking season was officially over, there were plenty of olives left on trees in public spaces – the children made the most of climbing them whilst the late olives were collected from both branch and ground (and are now being salt-cured on my kitchen worktop).

Sixteen-month-old FreeToBeL loved the fresh yet bitter fruits, her young palate open to new flavours in a way our modern sweet and salty diet has scuppered for many of us.

laylaolive
FreeToBeL enjoyed eating the bitter offerings fresh from the tree!
olives
Wild olives collected, cured and preserved (and shared with us!) by the owner of our accomodation (Pansion Amarylia)

Ancient Asopos

asopos1asopos4asopos3asopos5Wow! What finds we made here. The ancient Roman port town of Asopos was destroyed by an earthquake in around 365BC and much of it now remains hidden under the sea.

Much of the ‘beach’ here is made up of broken brick and tile, the remains of buildings which last stood over 2000 years ago. A bathhouse, port and temple are some notable remnants along the shore and a number of large storage urns remain partly intact. Sections of pavements and mosaics are preserved, with areas being revealed or masked as the tides strip back or deposit covers of rubble and sand.

There are so many historical ruins in Greece that not all have been excavated and this was very evident here – on one section of beach we found numerous remnants of ancient Grecian pottery, which really quickened the pulse of the archaeologist in me.

asopos1
Roman bricks and tiles aplenty here
asopos2
Ancient handle – just one of our many finds

Cookery & Food

greeksalad
Authentic Greek salad in Sparta
food
Preparing a traditional spinach pie with vegetables from our host’s garden

FreeToBeP has recently developed a real passion for cooking and has been lucky to have the opportunity to spend time with people who have a true love for good food.

Our host showed us how to make vegan varieties of local dishes (many of which are traditionally made just with vegetables anyway) and the children had opportunity to help out, picking fresh ingredients from the garden and appreciating the food in a new way thanks to doing this.

As much as possible, the food eaten at the Porto Grana Hub is organic, vegan and grown locally or foraged – whilst the hub’s philosophy encompasses both frugality and ethics, we always ate satisfying and delicious meals thanks to our host’s cooking skills and knowledge of local edible plants.

We were surprised with the vast array of foodstuffs that can be foraged for within just a few minutes’ walk of the hub, quite apart from the abundance of olive, orange and lemon trees – wild mountain thyme and edible seaside plants were some of the notable examples, particularly the very tasty kritamo (better known here as rock samphire and something I hope I will, quite literally, stumble over again along the Dorset coast).

And finally . . .

All in all, we thoroughly enjoyed our busy week in Laconia and heartily recommend a visit to the Porto Grana Hub to other home educating and worldschooling families!

Springtime was the perfect time to go, the country blooming with greenery yet the temperature already reaching 30 degrees during our stay.

Greece is definitely on our list of places to return to – the history, language, fauna and geology captivated us all, and what we managed to explore in our one week was just a small taste of what the country has to offer.

To learn more about our base in Greece – the Porto Grana Hub – read my interview with the hub founder, Evangelos Vlachakis, and/or visit the Porto Grana website.

Oh, and did I mention the animals, playground and family yoga session?

yogagarden4slide

tortoise

laylaplitra

plitrabay

Educational Freedom Fighter

pvbike
Evangelos helping FreeToBeP learn how to ride a bike

 

Educational Freedom Fighter: An Interview with Evangelos Vlachakis, Plitra, Greece, April 2016

Home education is illegal in Greece, yet my family and I have just attended the Worldschoolers Spring Edventure in a small Peloponnese town, hosted by cinematographer Evangelos Vlachakis along with his family and friends at the Porto Grana Hub in Laconia – a place for home educating and worldschooling families to meet, learn, share and discover life together.

I interviewed Evangelos to find out more about his vision for educational freedom in a country in which such freedoms are restricted.

How did the Porto Grana hub come about?

There was an old restaurant available, so we had the idea to use it as a recreational space for kids. Since there was a very limted budget, we tried to renovate it on our own. We tried to combine it with my idea to bring homeschooling families into contact with my family, as I was very concerned about my daughter’s schooling and I felt that having some inside information from families who already homeschool would be beneficial to us. So, it really came about through the combination of having the empty space to use and wanting to research homeschooling.

Is there a strong community of families in Greece who would like to home educate and does anyone practice it despite it being illegal?

I’ve been involved in [researching home education] over the last 3 years and I’ve come into contact with many Greek families that are already willing to homeschool, and also with families that already do it or have done it. Some of the families are doing it underground and only two that I know of have been prosecuted for it.

Some families decide to move abroad in order to pursue a home educating lifestyle when it isn’t legal in their home country – is that something that you ever considered doing or was it always much more important to you to try to develop something in Greece?

I’d like to stay where we live as I think it’s the ideal place for kids and for families – we have the sunshine about 90% of the year and the countryside here is so virgin and unspoilt that it’s an ideal place to grow up. We don’t want to leave this place – on the contrary, I would like to invite families that would like to live in this kind of place to join us here! Foreign families who visit can legally homeschool in Greece – my thought is that on some level we can form a network of foreign and Greek families around Porto Grana and collectively try to lobby the government for a change in law.

So in what way do you hope this more ‘global’ network will help with the lobbying and in the format of home education you present to the Greek government?

I’m trying to gather information about how it’s done because, whilst many people here want to home school, we don’t know how it works in practice, and that’s why we like to come into contact with home educating families so that we have more insight into how you home school the children. This would be beneficial in our attempts to lobby the government in terms of forming a proposal.

Is it in any way difficult looking in on families from elsewhere who have freedoms that you don’t have or does the closer contact with home educating families give you greater optimism that it is possible?

Yes, first of all, I can see that it is possible. I believe what would help is to build a community first, because it helps the families that feel isolated and who need the company of others to support them. I think that building a community will be an ideal base for pursuing home schooling in Greece, and a community also serves the children to more easily interact with one another and develop community projects.

Is it something you’re optimistic could potentially happen soon (as your daughter is already 10 years old and compulsory education in Greece is just until age 15) or are you looking ahead at future generations?

Yes, I’m looking at future generations, it’s not only about my daughter – I would love to home school, but the community-based home schooling I envisage might take some time to happen; we are just at the beginning but I think we have a lot of potential to make it a reality.

It takes some people a lot to take action just for their own children in terms of trying to change a law, maybe putting up with something even if it directly affects them as “that’s the way it is”, so the fact that you’re invested in this is admirable – I think you’ve probably picked up on the fact that for most home educating families it’s a huge lifestyle choice and the freedom to home educate is interlinked with so many other freedoms and our autonomy in the world. Have you got a written plan yet?

Not as yet. My main concern is with forming a community, starting with having families stay with us for a little while. The reason I organise the worldschoolers’ events is for families to come together and be able to live in the countryside and experience how it is to live here – in the future I would like to form an eco-community of worldschooling families who will be the network of people who show the government how community-based home schooling might look.

So the events you’ve set up so far are an experiment to see who’s out there with a view to a future eco-community here?

Yes. We’ve already planned the summer event for June 23rd-30th [2016],and also plan to have autumn and winter events in September [2016] and January [2017].

garden
Evangelos with home educated children in the Porto Grana garden, preparing for mealtime at the Worldschoolers Spring Edventure

To find out more about the Porto Grana Hub and its events, please visit the website at http://www.portograna.wix.com/worldschoolers-hub and/or join the Facebook page here: https://www.facebook.com/portogranahub/

A Story of Hope: Palestine in a Picture Book?

A poignant yet optimistic look at how conflict affects children comes in the shape of A Child’s Garden: A Story of Hope, an Amnesty International-endorsed picture book by Michael Foreman.

A Child's Garden

Today seems an appropriate day to feature this book, as it marks the first anniversary of the commencement of Operation Protective Edge, the 2014 Israeli offensive against Gaza – and the anniversary of my realisation of how ignorant I was to the history and politics of the Palestinian campaign.

Yes, I’d often observed the ‘Free Palestine’ posters over the years and the issues spoken of in the mainstream media were at the periphery of my awareness. Yet, really, I was uninformed and uninterested for a long time – it’s a sad fact that the amount of causes to campaign for and injustices out there mean we cannot lend our attention and time to everything that may deserve our recognition. And, in truth, certain issues tend to resonate with us more than others.

Yet last year, largely due to following independent press such as Scriptonite Daily via social media, I suddenly became aware of the slow genocide of the Palestinian people. Watching a live stream of a journalist reporting from within Gaza as air strikes took place and she conveyed the horror of hearing children screaming in the streets below, it became more than ‘just another news story’.

Then I picked up A Child’s Garden during a browse of the children’s picture books in our local library. Although no specific conflict was explicitly mentioned in the blurb, it seemed to me that the inspiration was the issue of Israel-Palestine. The illustrations appeared to allude to Palestine for many reasons: one group of people clearly in a position of superiority over another; white-washed high-rise blocks looming beyond wire fencing; families living amidst rubble in a situation of oppression and segregation; people dreaming of their return to hills dotted with date palms.

It was very evident that the issue at stake was the repatriation of land.

I found this book both disturbing yet hopeful. For, indeed, what have the Palestinian people got at the moment without hope? The alternative is too sickening to contemplate, and especially at the hands of a group of people who were themselves persecuted by a regime bent on ethnic cleansing (whilst not all Israelis are Jews and not all Jews are Zionists, et cetera, let’s not forget that the State of Israel was officially created after millions of Jewish people were killed or displaced by the Nazis – and that the topic of this post renders me immune to Godwin’s Law!).

The book reminded me of the character and fortitude of El-Phil, a vibrant Palestinian villager in Emad Burnat and Guy Davidi’s documentary, 5 Broken Cameras. Amidst the chaos, uncertainty and tragedy, there was still something or someone who could raise the energy and raise a smile, a child-like need to play in spite of the pain. There is also more than a hint of defiance – and the awareness that the alternative to hope is utter despair.

Illustrated to drive these points home, the symbols of peace and hope sit vibrantly in colour against a background of grey; the green and seeking tendrils of creeping plants teasing the fences, the rainbow wings of birds knowing the freedom of the skies. Through children and nature, differences are diminished and our true birth-rights brought forth.

A Child’s Garden was a thought-provoking yet gentle means by which to continue a conversation with FreeToBeP about war and oppressive regimes. The book works on many levels without introducing issues or images that are too harsh to present to a child, allowing parent and child to set their own tone for discussion. There is no bloodshed and no death, yet there are walls, sadness and segregation. The hardships of families living in war-torn countries may be softened but the emotiveness is not lost  – personal loss is conveyed through the brutal removal of a lovingly-tended plant rather than the heart-breaking bereavement of beloved kin.

Call me naïve but the very fact that this issue can be so carefully and appropriately portrayed in a ‘mere’ picture book speaks volumes about the nature of war and peace.

The answer is simple if only we value other members of the human race. Is that really so hard to do?

Peace and freedom are natural states craved by the scarred yet innocent children in this book. There is a simplicity many of us would do well to emulate: the children do not wish to engage in complex politics about Zionism or Hamas or the IDF, they wish to engage with the land of their forebears.

Likewise, I won’t pretend to know all the politics but what I do know is that something which, technically, holds millions of people hostage whilst systematically stealing their land and slowly killing them off is not a situation a fellow human being should tolerate.

We know the big players are generally corrupt and do not necessarily stand for the wishes of the civilians. We know our own government pays lip service to peace-keeping as they simultaneously trade weapons or engage in wars that result in untold amounts of ‘collateral damage’ (talk about dehumanising – in layman’s terms, that’s the murder of innocent civilians).

Whatever Hamas or the IDF do, it is not a simple narrative of ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys’. Even as Israeli MPs demonise unborn Palestinian children, there are Israeli human rights activists fighting for the interests of people living in Gaza and the West Bank. As pro-Palestine campaigners are accused of anti-Semitism (in secular countries no less!), alongside them exist Jews against Zionism. For as many people who believe in the two-state solution there are probably just as many who don’t; those who will never recognise a Palestine and those who will never recognise an Israel.

Hence, we could go around in circles with the politics, just as the conflicts and ceasefires do. The crux of the matter is that there are thousands of innocent families being forced from their homes with nowhere to go, children forced to grow up in a blockaded war zone without even hope of escaping to the loftier status of asylum-seeker. Children like yours or mine who just happen to have been born in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Some of those children will, with enough misery and pain to fuel their righteous anger, go on to be the vengeful extremists of the future.

Some of those children will, with enough empathy and passion to fuel their righteous anger, go on to be the peace-makers and peace-keepers of the future.

So, let’s at least stop feeding our own children stories about ‘us’ and ‘them’, about the ‘need’ for armaments and war. The world is already quick to tell them this.

Let’s instead teach them to see the humanity in everyone, irrespective of their nation, religion or culture.

Let’s teach them to seek information beyond what the BBC tells them.

I don’t want my children to grow up in fear and suspicion of the world, but I do pray that they see the people rather than the propaganda, that they think about making the world better rather than making do, that they recognise small ways to help make big differences, and – as per A Child’s Garden – that they give thanks when hope and simple pleasures sustain the dream of freedom.

And, in time, may that dream of freedom come true.

Learn more? Links below:

Palestine Solidarity Campaign

5 Broken Cameras

The Parkour Guide to Gaza

How I Caught The Travel Bug

It’s Free To Be’s 1st birthday! Here’s the post that got the blog started:

Free To Be Family

Almond blossom, Atlas mountains

I suddenly realise that I’m no longer scared. I have so much to tell you about my experiences of life as a mum who travels, yet have hitherto been possessive of those memories as if sharing them with the world will somehow betray my family. Yet, whilst I sense this first post may be somewhat navel-gazing, I now believe that my valuable experiences can translate into useful information for other people. I hope to share that information via Free To Be.

I have no doubt that I will find myself writing of things that seem ridiculous, naïve or irresponsible in hindsight and that, in documenting the life of my children and my partner via a medium that may never be erased, I will be careful to ensure that some things remain sacred. I am very conscious of the image I am putting across, whilst simultaneously very…

View original post 1,620 more words

Coventry Reviewed

Coventry Reviewed

I was born in and spent the first 21 years of my life in Coventry. Over the past 12 years I’ve made frequent visits to my family who still reside there, yet I’ve barely had a good thing to say about the place itself. In fact, I must admit to being downright scathing. I now live but 2 minutes from the seaside on a UNESCO World Heritage Site and am spoilt for beautiful locations to visit; the familiarity of my birthplace seemed dull and dingy in comparison to my adopted town in Dorset.

However, much has changed over the past decade and what was once urban decay is now urban development, with a good portion of Coventry City Centre enjoying a long overdue makeover and dose of modernisation. With its central location, manufacturing industry, multiculturalism and large student population, there are things that always made Coventry a very practical place to live – but I never once saw it as a tourist stopping point.

Until today.

On the suggestion of a friend, we decided to take time to peruse a display about children’s television in the Herbert Art Gallery and Museum. This was to be a brief point of interest en route to the outdoor store in order to buy tent pegs and guy ropes, the initial reason for a trip into town.

Serendipity had other ideas, and we ended up whiling away half the day following our whims . . .

Herbert Art Gallery & Museum

It had been years upon years since I’d set foot in this place – it was great to see the museum revamped, complete with a plentiful supply of hands-on activities for the kids.

We began in the Story of Children’s Television display, FreeToBeP aptly sporting a ‘Button Moon’ t-shirt in order to get his photo with Mr Spoon.

Mr Spoon

Between dressing up as a dalek and a teletubby, puppeteering with Sooty, Sweep and Sue, and being bemused by mummy’s reminiscences, the kids got their morning-time energy out in this bright and noisy display.

Teletubbies

Yet FreeToBeP surprised me by being most fascinated with the art gallery, even engaging in the suggested activities supplied by the museum which included something of a ‘PSHE through art’ lesson:

Blind art

We were pleasantly surprised to be greeted with video footage of Durdle Door in the ‘Elements’ gallery, a section of the museum exploring natural history through the concept of the four elements. Full of crystals, fossils, shells and taxidermy specimens, this was packed with interesting sights and sounds. Even the driftwood and beach stones got a look-in from my coastal-bred children – I did wonder if the artefacts had also made their way up from dear Dorset.

Durdle Door

And the main item of intrigue – narwhal tusks:

Narwhal

My personal favourite in the museum was the ‘History of Us’ display by street artist Pahnl. This funky, visual history of humankind was really captivating – from the work of art itself (fully stencilled), to the supporting information, to the video of the installation in progress. Further information and snapshots of the work can be found on the artist’s website – but I urge you to visit if you can to take in the detail of the artwork and the laugh-out-loud content of the supporting text.

History of Us

Thumbs up to the museum café too – definitely not the worst place you could choose to have lunch if you’ve got slightly ‘hangry’ children (I recommend the salad bar), and they sold off their chicken kebabs to the kids for 50p each due to lack of chips for the full meal on the menu.

After lunch we intended to make our way to the shops, but Coventry had other ideas . . .

Coventry Cathedral

We cut through town via Coventry Cathedral. FreeToBeP wasn’t interested in going into the new cathedral to enjoy/endure the lunchtime organ recital, but he was taken with the idea of visiting the ruins of the old cathedral.

Coventry Cathedral

Bombed by the Luftwaffe during the Second World War, the shell of Coventry’s old cathedral remains. This is actually the second of three cathedrals that the city has had. It is still a popular place for visitors of Coventry to seek out, with remnants of its former glory clear to see – not least the surviving tower which is open to the public to climb.

Coventry Cathedral tower

Tourist Information is also housed at the base of the tower, and what a friendly reception we had – free boiled sweets for the kids while the lady on duty and I chatted about the sights of Coventry (newly appreciated from my point of view) as I purchased postcards for our Postcrossing habit.

FreeToBeP also took interest in the Traidcraft shop which shares premises with the cathedral’s souvenir shop – cue discussion on Fair Trade products plus a useful information leaflet for his home education folder.

Upon the recommendation of the Tourist Information receptionist, our feet next led us not to the shops (plan scuppered again) but to the Guildhall next door . . .

St Mary’s Guildhall

Apart from a precarious spiral staircase if you’re wearing a baby and supervising a 3 year old (gulp!), St. Mary’s Guildhall proved a great family attraction.

With its decorative ceilings, chambers to explore, carved furniture, slanting floors and collection of armour, it was intriguing enough for both adults and children alike. Whilst I admired the stained glass, they wowed at the ancient furnishings – huge door bolts, mysterious storage chests and imposing wooden chairs. I even managed to hold their attention on The Coventry Tapestry for all of two minutes, thanks in part to the laminated information sheets provided by the Guildhall.

Guildhall bolts

And, of course, there was the token children’s activity courtesy of replica armour:

Armour

 

Eventually, we made our way through the cobbled back streets to the main shopping precinct, albeit still in ‘tourist’ mode with camera at the ready . . .

IMG_1382

Times really do a-change – fifteen years ago you could have found me at the pub above, much more interested in the beverages and giant Jenga than the City Centre Trail signage. I might just have to find out what that City Centre Trail entails now!

The penultimate item on our spontaneous itinerary was a typical tourist shot – the local celebrity of olde, Lady Godiva! After taking such things for granted for many years as a born and bred Coventrian, it had to be done. For the first time in all our visits to my family home, I stood beside the statue excitedly telling FreeToBeP the story of Lady Godiva, Earl Leofric and Peeping Tom.

IMG_1383

To use a Marcel Proust quotation that I have utilised before for my 10 Mind-Altering Family Travel Tips post, “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.”

Coventry, I apologise for my less-than-complimentary remarks about you in recent years. You are not the city I remember.

And, yes, I did finally purchase my tent pegs and guy ropes.

(At the time of publishing this post, all the attractions we visited were free admission – donations welcome.)

 

10 Websites for Teaching Global Citizenship

world-map-children-silhouettes-country-continents_CC

In the age of globalisation, citizenship has become a hot topic for educators – from national citizenship lessons specific to a child’s country through to the more inclusive realm of global citizenship.

In a country such as the UK, there are many things people take for granted that those in other countries cannot (from material goods to human rights) and it is important to equip the next generation with the critical thinking skills to see the bigger picture beyond our own culture and borders.

The following 10 websites for teaching global citizenship are full of activities and resources about world culture and important global issues:

Kid World Citizen

KidWorldCitizen

I find the KWC site fun, friendly and comprehensive. There is a vast array of hands-on activities in order to learn about different cultures from the comfort of your own home, as well as family travel advice for seeking first-hand experiences in other countries.

Whether there’s a particular country or specific celebration you hope to explore or you wish to browse a general subject such as language or geography, you can find something on here which helps bring cultural studies to life.

Oxfam

Oxfam

Oxfam have a wealth of resources relating to many of the big issues facing the world community.

The Resources page allows you to search by age, topic, curriculum subject, country or activity type.

With topics ranging from climate change to conflict, development to diversity, and refugees to rights, there’s a huge variety of issues to recognise and explore.

Global Dimension

GlobalDimension

This is aimed at teachers yet has a huge array of resources and links – their list of topics is inspirational in itself! Many of these resources are free and cover up to date events, such as the 2014 attacks on Gaza.

Children can learn about global issues through browsing their favourite curriculum subjects or by choosing a specific issue facing the world community.

Education Scotland

EducationScotland

Based in Scotland yet truly global, this has a wealth of ideas, information and resources for approaching global citizenship and international education. Its blog and calendar are up to date, making it a great site for informing yourself about current affairs.

This site is a bit on the ‘dry’ side for looking at with younger children, but there are plenty of conversation starters – even just thinking about their definitions of terms could provide enough material for a learning session:

Education for citizenship encourages taking thoughtful and responsible action, locally and globally. – Education Scotland / Foghlam Alba

International education helps to prepare young people for life and active participation in a global multicultural society. – Education Scotland / Foghlam Alba

Oh, and giant panda lovers click here.

My Learning: Citizenship

MyLearning

The Citizenship page of this site features plenty of resources for researching both local and global concerns, particularly for primary school aged children.

When looking at human rights, slavery and discrimination you might want to explore the Global Citizens – Make An Impact! resources. For learning about women’s rights, the From Suffering to Suffrage page may prove useful.

Global Footprints

GlobalFootprints

Yet again aimed at schools, the Global Footprints website by the HEC Global Learning Centre nonetheless looks to be a handy resource for exploring global community, whether in a classroom or at home.

Their classroom page includes a number of activities for getting to grips with global issues via literacy and numeracy lessons, with many key topics being explored alongside the 3Rs.

Traidcraft

Traidcraft

The Traidcraft website provides a number of activities for looking at the issue of fair trade with children and young people. From group assemblies to competitions, there are a variety of ways to get kids engaged with the topic of fair trade.

Including many seasonal activities, the most relevant as I post this is their Easter page, featuring an Easter egg hunt with a difference!

Picture My World

PictureMyWorld

This site is the face of CAFOD for children (CAFOD being the Catholic Agency For Overseas Development); whilst I automatically link such organisations to missionaries and conversion efforts, I believe this can be a talking point in itself, leading onto topics such as secular society, and the links between religion, race and culture.

On this site, children are invited to learn about life in other areas of the world through looking at photo diaries of other children. It also draws attention to issues such as world hunger and the need for clean water.

Global Kids Connect

GlobalKidsConnect

A US site aimed at school classes, this site nonetheless has useful information about what it means to be a global citizen, with ideas on how to encourage cultural exchange and philanthropy.

With an emphasis on the lives and culture of children in other parts of the world, this gets kids thinking about what it means to be a child in a different country – or even someone in your own community with a different background.

British Red Cross

RedCross

The Red Cross provides a broad range of issues to explore which can be browsed by topic or school subject. Featuring current news headlines such as ebola and migration, it also looks at citizenship issues closer to home – from day-to-day kindness through to emergency situations.

Browsing the activities on this site, the practical and emotional concerns of people during crises are clearly evident – the shared experiences of all humanity brought to the fore.

 

I hope this list gets you off to a flying start with your family discussions about the human family!

Do let me know what you think of the sites listed and whether you successfully make use of any of the resources they lead you to.

Book lovers – if your children’s appetite for global citizenship education has been whetted, the following titles may be of interest (FYI, these are Amazon affiliate links):

GrowingUpGlobal

iftheworldwereavillage

weareallbornfreewhoeveryouaredreamsoffreedomihaveadream

The Congruent Blogger

Integrity

Congruence: in counselling terms, this refers to the outer self being in harmony with the inner self – that what you display to others reflects what is occurring in your inner world. It doesn’t necessarily mean that you disclose your every thought or feeling, but that you find a way to present yourself authentically.

I have been reflecting on whether this blog is in accordance with the above.

Free To Be was inspired by my travels to Morocco and launched at a time when I was seriously considering emigration; I was expecting baby number 3 and investing in work that I could ultimately do from anywhere in the world. It felt like an exciting time and I knew I had to write about my travels and what it means to be part of the human family.

The themes of peace and freedom and adventure ran through those first posts.

Peace.

Freedom.

Adventure.

The biggest questions I had when I began blogging were:

“Do I really want to share these personal stories with the whole world?”

and

“If I present myself as this person, don’t I have to continue to be her?”

How can I be honest and real without compromising my privacy or my Geminian tendency to, well, just change my mind about anything and everything? And not just change my mind, but my entire lifestyle on occasion (for I continue to shake off labels that I once upon a time made use of to shape my identity).

In the past I posted a personal social media status at least once per week, but this gradually diminished to big life events only (at least the birth of a child is a fact that can’t be altered!). My personal opinions can be garnered through calls to petitions and choice news stories – in someone else’s words of course.

It was from a sense of feeling more private that I decided to go public. I finally felt safe in my own skin and no longer needed my friends to comment on day-to-day trivialities for my sense of self-esteem. Hence, I gained the courage to invite strangers to comment on my writing; writing that is generally sourced from experience, sometimes garnished with facts yet often doused in personal philosophies and opinion – always an expression of one’s sense of self.

I just hoped to offer something that could inspire others or be a call to action, with a life of inspiration and action to provide such material – to walk the walk as I talk the talk.

Yet I occasionally feel, for as balanced and open as my accounts of our travels have been, our family circumstances have been less exotic and more excruciating than might be assumed. I have many articles drafted regarding travel advice for Morocco, being part of a mixed race family, language learning and other topics, all liberally seasoned with personal anecdotes which include many casual mentions of FreeToBeB as if our cross-border relationship is normal and sustainable – for it is neither. Between issues of finance, language, immigration law, culture and religion to downright personality clashes, it is – frankly – incredible that it survived its first year, let alone four years and two babies.

The question on everyone’s lips: When is the next trip to Morocco?

The answer: Sadly, less of a when and more of an if.

So, as I found myself at the mercy of a 6 year old’s distress at a 2 year old’s temper with a baby wailing in my arms at 8pm on a rainy winter’s night in Britain, seven months beyond any adventures abroad, feeling somewhat alone and isolated, and wondering why the universe was testing me in such a way (and breathe!), I pondered those themes.

Peace?

Freedom?

Adventure?

Thus, from this low point, I questioned my congruence this week with regards to this blog, wondering how the person reading these posts perceives the person writing them; wondering if my current lifestyle lives up to what the blurb promises.

Where is the peace?

Where is the freedom?

Where is the adventure?

Well, the answer to these is right here.

Even as I castigated myself for yearning for the icing on the cake in the modern mother’s repertoire (i.e. time to myself), I also knew that was not the solution.

We don’t fight the monsters by running away; we don’t escape the inner demons by changing our outer environment.

For anyone who’s ever read Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now or even has a basic understanding of living mindfully, you will know that the power always resides in the very moment that you feel powerless.

And so I realised:

Where there is love, there is peace.

Where there is thought, there is freedom.

Where there are children, there is adventure.

Winter as a home educating single mum with a new baby has been challenging. But I like a challenge. And within that adventure, we are free to be family – for there is many a country where home educators or single mothers would fare a lot worse than I do in the UK.

And there is always, always peace when staring upon a sleeping baby’s face.

It all begins at home.

A part of me feels like I’m grasping at straws, that I have lost the person who wrote the inaugural How I Caught the Travel Bug.

Yet as I centred myself and dealt with the siblings’ squabbles, I found that person.

FreeToBeP screamed (real tears and all) as his little sister angrily disagreed with something he said. He chose the misery of wanting everyone to agree with his stance – isn’t that how wars are started?

And so I thought of a quote that I’d spotted on my social media news feed earlier that day:

“It’s dark because you are trying too hard. Lightly child, lightly. Learn to do everything lightly. Yes, feel lightly even though you’re feeling deeply. Just lightly let things happen and lightly cope with them. So throw away your baggage and go forward. There are quicksands all about you, sucking at your feet, trying to suck you down into fear and self-pity and despair. That’s why you must walk so lightly. Lightly my darling…” (Aldous Huxley, Island)

“Choose the happy path, P.” I advised, before doling out suggestions on how to cope better (note to readers: I was taking my own advice as I said it – for I do not always handle such bickering with such grace!).

And as part of the happy path I tried to lead him upon, I thought of all the memories I hope to make with my children this year, all the opportunities we have to make life one big adventure . . .

Aha! Here comes that train of thought which includes getting the camping gear out, attending festivals, booking flights, travelling to new places, trying new things, meeting new people and, yes, perhaps even emigrating. Yes, here comes the fever of the travel bug.

If having children has taught me anything, it’s that I still have a lot to learn. And as we learn, we grow. And as we grow, we change.

As such, I can always give my promise that at any moment my writing comes from the heart and that congruence exists despite a change of heart. If anything, it is all the more congruent in that I invite you along for the journey, as witness!

And I can always give my promise that for as long as this blog exists, I shall be striving towards those themes even as they seem to elude me:

Peace.

Freedom.

Adventure.

Travelling with Children in Morocco: 5 Things To Know Before You Go

Travelling with Children in MoroccoIt’s exactly four years to the day since my very first excursion to Morocco, which was also my first trek abroad as a mother and my first time travelling beyond the borders of Europe.

Ten trips later, I now have my share of embodied experience about travelling with children in Morocco to convert into well-meaning advice.

For those considering or looking forward to a family holiday in Morocco, I hope the following will help you to prepare in a way that travel sales sites might not – it is not intended to put you off (and I’m not trying to sell you travel insurance either!).

1) That’s Entertainment

Morocco is extremely family-friendly, yet not in the way we’re now conditioned to consider the term ‘family-friendly’ in the UK.

Children revolve around day to day community life there (sometimes even going to work with their mothers rather than being put into childcare), but life does not revolve around children. You will not find restaurants with children’s menus and play areas or themed parks and farms designed with children in mind.

Children are allowed into the domain of adults in a way we’ve divorced them from in our own society, yet the domain of children – which has largely been developed for commercial purposes in places such as the UK and US – is not taken for granted in Morocco.

Generally, most Moroccan people seem accepting of kids being kids. However, I have always been well aware that I’m often the only woman sat in the cafés – ergo, the only person with kids in tow (the gender division is stark here, with women unquestionably being those who stay with the children whilst their menfolk sit in the cafes with their cigarettes and espressos).

Thus, in the cafés, the children have often been expected to sit like mini-adults. The café culture in Morocco can be very appealing, but this obviously comes with the same issues as sitting in restaurants and cafés with kids in the UK.

A rare sight: a children's play area on the beach outside a café in Essaouira.
A rare sight: a children’s play area on the beach outside a café in Essaouira.

Sometimes a street café will be next to a wide pavement or large square where, if you sit outside, the kids can have a bit of a run-around, often mixing in with the local youngsters who may be playing football or gathered at the roadside socialising.

Yet this can’t always be relied upon, and providing entertainment for them becomes a priority. FreeToBeP’s preferences of things to do are suitably compact for our outings – playing games such as Minecraft or Angry Birds on my smartphone, or taking out his pencil case full of random Lego pieces to create with.

You can find lots of lovely souvenirs that make do as affordable objects of interest. A lot of the toys found here are really cheap, plastic tat that are a waste of money and a waste in general. A lot of rubbish here ends up strewn across the streets rather than being dealt with properly (quite apart from any recycling), and I have no desire to add to the mess by adding a pile of broken, plastic toys at the end of my stays.

Thus, it’s really useful to bring a small supply of good quality, inspiring toys such as Lego to keep the kids happy.

Lego Morocco
Lego. Enough said.

You could also set up little games using coins or other ‘somethings’ you might carry in your day bag. During our latest trip to Morocco, FreeToBeZ ended up with a stash of low value money we’d collected – some British coppers, some Moroccan half dirham and one dirham coins, as well as 5 Euro cents we found on the plane. These kept her well amused for a good portion of time and she was very possessive of it (I lost count of the times she wandered our apartment asking “Where’s my money?!” over the ten days we were out there!).

2) Cats & Dogs

Feral Feeders
Street litter.

There are many stray and feral animals in the streets of Morocco, including some very cute kittens. Understandably, the kids love to chase them around and stroke them – yet this is best avoided if you have young children who may not be aware of and understand the associated dangers.

The street cats and dogs in Morocco may well be infected with rabies, with 90% of human cases of the disease in the country caused by dog bites and most of the victims being children. At night, the stray dogs roam the streets in packs and can be quite an intimidating sight for those who are not used to seeing groups of strays congregating together.

Another street litter.
Another street litter.

FreeToBeP suffered a minor cat scratch on our very first trip out there not long before his 3rd birthday. I was unaware of the rabies risk at the time and thinking back to it makes me feel physically sick. The general advice is that you must seek medical attention within 24 hours of exposure to a potentially rabid animal to avoid going down with this (almost always) fatal virus.

Whilst there is a pre-exposure vaccine for rabies which travellers can pay for (it isn’t available on the NHS for a trip to Morocco), this just buys you a bit of time in case you do get bitten or scratched – and in an emergency situation in Morocco you’re unlikely to be over 24 hours away from the nearest clinic or hospital (all of which are apparently well-stocked with the post-exposure rabies antidote).

3) Clean, Cool, Content

Just before my tenth trip to Morocco (yes, this one took me a while to figure out!), I finally came up with a “kill three birds with one stone” solution for bath-time: a small, inflatable paddling pool. (The three birds being cleanliness, temperature control and entertainment.)

Unless you stay in a more expensive hotel (and I have no idea what the facilities are in such places in Morocco), there is unlikely to be a European-style bath to make use of when it comes to bath-time. Yet a proper bath is often the only way by which young children who are used to growing up with ‘bath-time’ can enjoy a wash (at least this is true of my kids, who will scream blue murder under a shower).

The shower or bucket option usually available in Morocco is not a pleasing option to my children (although FreeToBeZ is still small enough that we can make a shallow makeshift bath in the shower basin by blocking up the plughole with something).

FreeToBeZ enjoying her 'bath'
FreeToBeZ enjoying her ‘bath’

I’ve had one bad experience too many with trying to get FreeToBeP (who is extremely sensitive when it comes to water and temperature) to take a wash in the small shower rooms of most Moroccan apartments. Add to this equation ultra-hygiene-conscious FreeToBeB who grew up in a home without running water, without a toilet, without a washroom: he finds it difficult to grasp why a young child doesn’t want to remove the daily, dusty grime under the luxury of a warm shower. I’ve been party to too many heightened emotions about this topic!

Another bonus is that I’ve seen many a Moroccan person casually tip whole buckets of water through their homes to clean the floors. Apart from the slip hazard, the splash zone can be tolerated much more than the same would in my damp-prone home in Britain (if you don’t believe me, read this).

So, next time – a mini paddling pool. Compact enough to easily fit in the luggage, small enough to inflate using just lung power if need be, versatile enough to serve a multitude of purposes.

The kids will get clean. The kids will cool off. The kids will have fun.

4) Risk Assessment

From daring scooter riders to mad dashes across busy roads; from things jutting out of the pavements to numerous potholes and rocky landscapes: there are many hazards in Morocco and it’s not a country known for its adherence to strict health and safety regulations.

Where there would be "No Climbing" signs in the UK, this was a public thoroughfare for exploring below the land bridge near Demnate. Heart in mouth as I took this shot.
Where there would be “No Climbing” signs in the UK, this was a public thoroughfare for exploring below the land bridge near Demnate. Heart in mouth as I took this shot.

While I think we’ve gone too far with some health and safety rules in the UK (no coffee break at toddler groups? Why else do some new mums even go along to toddler groups but for the joy of someone else making them a mug of steaming brew?!), there is definitely a happy medium to be had. Morocco actually makes me grateful for many of our regulations in the UK.

Driving through Morocco is a risky business and my preference is to hire a car that we can check over and drive ourselves rather than trust an unknown, over-confident taxi or bus driver. The state of many of the public transport vehicles themselves does not inspire confidence. Between myself and FreeToBeB, we are both cautious drivers who can generally relax as passengers to one another.

I’ve had trouble finding suitable child safety seats for FreeToBeZ and some laughable moments with the car hire companies. Children’s car seats are generally not used in Morocco (this is a place where you see entire families riding, helmet-less, on a single scooter!). The hire companies have tried to pass me off with some really dodgy, aging contraptions with broken straps and even entire base units missing that have left me feeling like my own grip would be more trustworthy in an accident.

If you’re planning to embark on some road tripping around Morocco and have the option and ability to take your own car seat along with you, it may save a lot of stress and worry to do so. The last time I checked, Easyjet had a policy of allowing up to two bulky infant items (per each child under 2) in the hold for free.

For older children, you could try the Bumblebum inflatable booster seat.

On some occasions we’ve done without – and on others my mother’s intuition (or plain old fear?) has led me to cancel trips rather than travel somewhere without suitable child safety seats.

FreeToBeZ with her Moroccan car restraint - her dad.
FreeToBeZ with her Moroccan car restraint – her dad.

5) Comfort Zones

If you have a child who is particularly sensitive about their personal space and being touched, you may want to forewarn them about how damn affectionate Moroccan people can be.

There seems to be an unspoken rule that everyone who wishes to comment on your child’s beauty has to do so with at least a ruffle of their hair – and even an unsolicited kiss for a baby. (I suppose a baby doesn’t consciously solicit any kisses, yet our own cultural rule seems to be ‘family only’ for such gestures of love – even friends don’t tend to shower one another’s babies in kisses, let alone strangers in the street!)

I’ve also had people plant kisses on FreeToBeZ’s head as she breastfeeds – after my initial shock, I was glad at the acceptance that she was ‘just’ feeding (compared to the sometimes enforced privacy many women in the UK contend with), but not every breastfeeding mother would be comfortable with this close proximity to her bosom.

There are cultural differences in both bodily autonomy and accepted social mores. Affectionate advances from anyone other than close family members can be confusing and difficult for some children to deal with, especially if they’ve had the ‘stranger danger’ mantra drilled into them back home.

Quite apart from different social etiquette, after one random stranger too many had kissed and pawed FreeToBeZ as a young baby, I began grimacing at the thought of infectious diseases (and I’m not one to worry unnecessarily about such things).

As with the issue of health and safety, I think there’s a balance to be had between the stiff upper lip associated with British folk and the (over?)familiarity displayed by the people of Morocco – between the reserve of suspicion and the open-hearted trust (although I know which one feels best!).

You certainly can’t complain of a lack of warmth in Morocco, and that’s not just the climate.


So, there you have it – forewarned is forearmed!

The good thing is that these 5 things are just 5 and I have already documented many more positives about exploring Morocco.

There are other things to be aware of if you choose to stay in a rural location with your children but I shall hang fire on these for another time.

There are also numerous cultural differences which may seem as irking/worrisome as some of the above to many people, yet many of these are dealt with in some depth in standard travel guides (e.g. this is not the post for learning about how to deal with persistent street vendors!).

Have you visited Morocco with your children? Would you add anything to the above that the travel guides don’t always tell you about? Tell me what you loved too!

Want to read more family travel tips? Read my other articles:

10 Mind-Altering Family Travel Tips

The Quiet Zone: Tranquil Travel with a High-Spirited Child

Paltry Packing (Part 1): 10 Tips for Travelling Lightly 

 

Chicha Morada

Chicha Morada

Chicha morada is a Peruvian beverage and a non-alcoholic take on the traditional saliva-fermented chicha.

The term ‘morada’ is taken from the type of maize used in this recipe – maiz morado or, in plain English, purple sweetcorn.

As part of our Home Ed project on the Inca Empire we decided to host an Incan Feast and chicha morada seemed like the perfect drink to make for it – sweet, alcohol-free and delicious either hot or cold.

Unfortunately, I was unable to source any fresh or dried maiz morado in the UK, but I was able to get hold of some authentic Peruvian purple corn flour. Having found a couple of recipes online that used the flour opposed to the whole cob or dried kernals, I decided the flour was better than nothing – and the idea of purple flour was in itself a novelty!

Whatever the form, I’m always happy to try out new ‘superfoods’ – a title this particular type of corn can lay claim to thanks to its colour; the anthocyanin that produces the colour also acts as a powerful antioxidant.

These are the ingredients you will need to make approximately 2 litres of chicha morada:

2 ltrs water

1 fresh pineapple diced or sliced OR 800g tinned pineapple chunks or slices in juice

2 green apples

3 cinnamon sticks

1 tbsp cloves

150g purple corn flour

6 tbsp honey

Juice of 5 limes

Put all the ingredients except for the flour, honey and lime into a large pan and bring to the boil, stirring occasionally.

Chicha Morada

Next, add the flour – the mixture will immediately turn a deep, rich purple. Stir the mixture almost constantly as you bring this to the boil to prevent the flour sticking to the base of the pan and burning, and to get rid of any lumps.

Chicha Morada

Turn the heat down, cover the pan and leave it for an hour to simmer, stirring occasionally. If you want a thicker, smoothie-like drink, the apples can be mashed as they soften.

Once this hour is up, remove the heat and add the honey and lime juice. Stir well.

Find a suitable bowl or container to strain the mixture into. When I first started doing this I was aiming for a thin fluid and began by using muslin cloth to filter the mixture. However, this proved difficult and time-consuming, so I substituted the cloth for a basic strainer and accepted that the consistency would not be as expected.

Chicha Morada

The mixture may need a little teasing with a spoon to get it flowing through the strainer.

Finally, decant your drink into your vessel of choice – straight into a glass still warm for an immediate pick-me-up (this makes a perfect winter warmer), or into a sealable container where it can be cooled and left refrigerated for about a week.

Serve chilled with an extra squeeze of lime juice for a cool fruity refreshment.

Chicha Morada

This particular batch was a thick, smoothie-like drink and delicious both hot and cold. It initially reminded me of a spiced cider and the cinnamon and clove combination harkened to the treats of the Christmas season.

Whilst my attempt may not be a genuine chicha morada, the hallmark of this drink – its glorious purple colouring – was a delight to behold. I also wonder if the consistency makes this particular concoction less a chicha morada and more an ‘api’ or ‘Inca’s Dessert’ (a hot gruel of purple corn and fruit).

One day I hope to get a chance to try a ‘real’ chicha morada made with fresh maiz morada (anyone want to sponsor a trip to Peru?!), but the results of this first experience of something I call chicha morada were satisfying enough.

Quite apart from the taste sensation of this drink, we have enjoyed discovering and preparing new foodstuffs as a family and had the joy of sharing our learning journey with good friends through our Incan Feast.

Almond Blossom

If you visit the High Atlas Mountains around this time of year, this is one of the springtime sights that will greet you: alluring almond blossom. For many families in this region, the almond tree is a staple crop that feeds them through both the consumption and sale of the seed.

Project Planning & The Organic Organisation of Home Education

The theme music plays, evoking memories of time spent in childhood reveries about mystery, exploration and other worlds. The Mysterious Cities of Gold, an adventure revolving around an orphaned boy and the search for Inca gold, was a favourite TV series of mine as a child, and famous cultures of old that built magnificent temples and tombs always held a fascination for me; a fascination which remains to this day.

mcg

And now it seems that, through his mutual love of a TV programme, FreeToBeP is becoming as captivated as I was about the journey to ancient civilisations in search of secret places and secret knowledge.

As a home educator who takes a semi-structured yet child-led approach to our family learning, I’ve jumped on this as an opportunity to begin our first proper ‘project’ as an HE family: The Incas.

We’re currently forming a plan of what we can do, things that will satisfy FreeToBeP’s visual, auditory and kinaesthetic learning style. Even just doing preliminary online research for possible activities, we’re both taking in new concepts and learning new facts – we test the sound of new words on our tongues as we learn what quipus are and what chicha is; FreeToBeP giggles nervously as he ponders the fate that would befall our friends’ pet guinea pigs in Peru (guinea pigs being ‘cuy’, a favourite meat dish of the Inca empire); and I grin in anticipation of knowing I will soon be purchasing some purple flour.

The ruined Inca city Machu Picchu (Creative Commons image. Copyright: Peter van der Sluijs)
The ruined Inca city Machu Picchu (Creative Commons image. Copyright: Peter van der Sluijs)

The further we tread on our path of home education, the more I realise how compartmentalised conventional schooling is. Once upon a time I viewed my Year 5 project on the ancient Egyptians as ‘just’ history. In forming a plan for our own ‘history’ project, it quickly becomes apparent how holistic such projects actually are.

During our first day of brainstorming activities and points for discussion, our list of project components covers history, geography, cultural studies, geology, religion, cuisine, politics, archaeology, art, engineering, human biology, mythology, mathematics and literacy.

In successive posts I hope to share some of our activities with you, which will hopefully culminate not only in a child (and mother!) who can wax lyrical about the Inca empire but also in a whole project plan for others who wish to pursue the same subject.

FreeToBeP has already started constructing his Minecraft Inca city, complete with booby-trapped temple. For me, some background reading: free books available on Kindle – History of the Incas and (a novel) The Treasure of the Incas.

history of the incastreasure of the incas

 

How do you plan any family projects? Do you ditch a ‘plan’ and just let it flow? Any other fans of The Mysterious Cities of Gold out there? Let me know below 🙂

 

Raif Badawi: A Lesson in Human Rights

free raif

Yesterday evening we attended a touching tribute to Raif Badawi, the liberal Saudi blogger who is in the midst of a sentence of floggings and imprisonment for daring to speak his mind.

Having found out about the candlelit vigil late in the afternoon, the children were given little warning of our unusual evening outing to Weymouth Pavilion. Yet they approached the small crowd beside the theatre in good spirits and were cautiously intrigued by the flickering flames. One attentive lady soon assigned FreeToBeP the task of keeping the candles alight as a gentle sea breeze ensured the steady snuffing out of the many tealights.

My children may not have understood why we were there, but their presence seemed poignant. It was one of those moments where I can understand (if not agree with) people who don’t wish to have children due to the sort of world that they would be being brought into.

FreeToBeP and FreeToBeZ both adopted a natural reverence – whilst they may not have fully appreciated the occasion intellectually, they certainly seemed to intuitively.

Initially, it appeared difficult to know how much to disclose about such a case as Badawi’s to a child – I don’t want to wrap my kids in cotton wool, yet equally don’t want them fearing that the world is a cruel place. But, really, the explanations came naturally and in a language that FreeToBeP would understand.

I gently explained that in some countries, people can be punished for doing exactly what I do: expressing opinions publicly by way of an online blog and encouraging people to share information, think outside the box and question life, the universe and everything.

I gently explained that this man has children who know their daddy is being hurt, and that it’s important to try to free him so that he can be reunited with his family.

I gently explained that we were attending to show that we care about other human beings and don’t agree with people being treated cruelly, that when we know someone is being mistreated we must speak out against it.

Somewhat black and white explanations maybe, but more than sufficient for a six year old who is at liberty to ask further questions if my initial words don’t suffice.

I hope that by attending such events, I’m not merely focusing on the negative happenings of the world but showing my children how much compassion and hope there is between people despite the brutality of others; that through solidarity with our fellow humans – even a stranger in another country – we can affect change and our children will grow up to live that change.

The simple message was Yes, bad things happen, but good people rally together to make things better.

The children were a huge credit to me, FreeToBeP conscientiously being the flame-keeper and FreeToBeZ the observant bystander: both of them calm and contained and careful in both speech and action. I have no doubt that they, on some level, perceived the energy of the event and responded accordingly.

The general atmosphere was one of quiet respect – it was sociable, hopeful and yet suitably solemn. We were a fairly small gathering yet not insignificant – for if no one stood up in protest, the world would be a free for all in quite a different way to the one Raif Badawi calls for.

Yes, there are many atrocities taking place the world over – each and every day witnesses the suffering of numerous warzones and injustices against innocent people. But some stories captivate the collective consciousness more than others (or someone tell me this is due to media spin!) and call on us to respond, to take action, to say “enough is enough”.

burning candles

As our candles stood as symbols of hope, so has Raif Badawi’s case become a symbol of the right to free speech.

He is just one of countless scapegoated people, yet in speaking out against the inhumanity shown towards one, we speak out against inhumanity in general.

As my children tended to the tiny flames, so I saw the tiny flames that they are – the next generation who will light the way forward.

In allowing our children to take part in peaceful activism and empowering them to believe that they can change the world, may they be the lights of hope that pave the way to a future where freedom of expression is a birthright the world over.

 

To sign the petition against the punishment of Raif Badawi, please visit Amnesty International here.

To read extracts from the blog that got Raif Badawi into trouble, visit The Guardian’s article here.

A local account of the evening’s vigil can be found at the Dorset Echo website here.

The Price of Cross-Border Love

 

BritCits campaign: What price to fall in love and live with your family?
BritCits campaign: What price to fall in love and live with your family? (http://britcits.blogspot.co.uk/)

I compile this post as the festive season draws to an end, a time during which those who have wanted to spend time with their families have most likely had the chance to. Or have they?

Unfortunately, for many UK citizens, all that was wanted for Christmas is the right to live with their spouse and pursue a traditional family life in their own country. Yet for some corners of society this is not a right but a privilege – a privilege which depends on your spouse being of British or European citizenship or your personal income being at least £18,600.

The current family immigration rules, introduced in July 2012, prevent many non-EU family members from joining their loved ones in the UK. I feel sure that most of the families affected by these rules would agree that the propaganda machine repeating the “soft touch” and “open door” mantra when it comes to UK border control is a far cry from their experience.

Is it really ok to tell nearly 50% of British citizens that they are too poor to be able to fall in love and pursue a relationship with whomever in the world they wish to? That is effectively what the current immigration rules do.

The minimum income level of £18,600 doesn’t account for many variables, such as the difference in average pay in different areas of the country, the difference in average pay between women and men, and the reality of life for those who are parents. Anyone who is in a full-time job on the minimum wage would not be allowed to have a non-EU spouse join them in the UK.

From international students who meet and start relationships with British students in the UK, to British people posted abroad for work who find romance with people in far-flung places, to those who meet their future spouses whilst on holiday: there are people from all walks of life affected by these rules.

And don’t be fooled by being a British citizen in a job in another country that satisfies the visa application’s financial requirements: if you are living with your non-EU partner in a non-EU country, you will have to separate in order to be in work in the UK for at least 6 months before you can even apply for them to join you. Even if either or both of you are promised high paid work in the UK, this is not enough to satisfy the rules.

Where the non-EU partner is the main breadwinner – even in a high-earning, professional position – the onus is on the British citizen (and them alone) to fulfil the financial requirement.

BritCits campaign: United by love, divided by the Home Office (http://britcits.blogspot.co.uk/search/label/flyers)
BritCits campaign: United by love, divided by the Home Office (http://britcits.blogspot.co.uk/search/label/flyers)

Prior to these new rules introduced in 2012, the British citizen could call on the support of a sponsor to show that there were funds in place to support the immigrant partner and the financial requirement was also much lower. For example, a British student wanting to live with their American spouse could ask a parent to sponsor the visa application and the minimum income level stood below the £6000pa mark, making it very possible for students or single parents to show that they were economically active despite their commitments to study or children.

Add children to the mix and the situation is all the more dire. Some people state that the UK resident should “just do what they need to in order to earn £18,600 per year” or “if you’re that bothered about your family being together, you should just move to your partner’s country”. The naïvety and lack of compassion in these statements is, frankly, unbelievable to me. Without knowing a family’s specific situation, these are potentially harmful things to suggest.

I have heard of some British citizens struggling to get their Syrian family members over here. Would you suggest the British citizen take their children to a war zone rather than allow the non-EU spouse both asylum and their family in the UK?

There are mothers with children from previous relationships who are unable to emigrate due to the fathers of the older children (understandably) not wishing to see their children relocate to another country. All the while, married couples remain separated and any younger half-siblings in these families are unable to maintain a close relationship with the non-EU parent. Other situations involve children with specific needs who it would not be wise to move away from the support and healthcare we have in the UK. Should any British child to a British parent – wherever the other parent is from – effectively be forced into exile and potentially have to make do with lesser standards of living just because the Home Office decided to impose a high financial requirement on their parents sharing a life together?

The financial requirement is increased for any families whose children have been born outside the UK and are not classed as EEA citizens. These children potentially have the same proportion of British ancestry as my own mixed-race British daughters do, yet for the purpose of this visa, they would not be classed as British as they do not have British citizenship. For a British mother wishing to return to her home country with her family, this makes her wish close to impossible to achieve unless she not only leaves her spouse behind but also her children in order to focus on earning in excess of £22,000 within the UK (the figure rises depending on how many children are involved), the likelihood of the latter depending immensely on the mother’s qualifications and career history.

The argument about saving state benefits by curbing immigration is, for this visa category, a false and misleading one. For one, non-EU citizens entering the UK via this route are not even entitled to claim any benefits until they have been living and working (i.e. paying into the tax system) in the UK for 5 years.

Add to this the fact that these rules split up the traditional family unit and create many single parent families, and I fail to see the logic. My own personal circumstance falls into this category: I live in the UK as a single mother on a low income, entitling me to a number of state benefits. Yet if my daughters’ father were allowed to be in this country to be with us and support us, we would be much more likely – as a united family – to be able to lift ourselves out of benefits and function as an economically active unit. Even if he couldn’t find work, he would have no recourse to public funds.

As for the argument that the British citizen should ‘just’ gain the required income, this may be difficult for individuals without children, let alone parents who may have been out of the job market for a number of years whilst raising children. Looking at my local full-time job opportunities based on the work experience I can claim, there are very few jobs that exceed the £18,600 requirement – and those that do would no doubt be highly sought after by people who may be more attractive to employers than I (for all the talk about flexible working for parents, I’m cynical about the reality of it).

Encouraging single parents into full-time work is known to be psychologically detrimental to their children, particularly where an alternative close and affectionate caregiver doesn’t provide the majority of their care. In a situation where one parent is already separated from the child due to visa rules, it strikes me as particularly cruel that the resident parent should also be encouraged to spend a significant portion of time away from the child.

Instead of the parents’ desired situation of family unity, quite the opposite happens. And even once the British citizen has acquired 6 months’ worth of payslips showing that they earn the requisite amount, as well as the couple acquiring the substantial fee required for the visa application itself, there is still no guarantee of when the visa will be granted, if it is granted at all.

BritCits campaign: Not earning £18,600?
BritCits campaign: Not earning £18,600? (http://britcits.blogspot.co.uk/)

But not to worry if you’re not earning anything – there is another way: savings. Provided you have at least £62,500 cash sat in a bank account somewhere, your non-EU spouse may join you.

Oh, not forgetting another requirement first: submission of a certificate from the correct accredited English language test to prove that the non-EU spouse has intermediate level English.

This language requirement is also a controversy. I strongly support the notion that people should speak the language of the country they reside in – indeed, I find it acutely embarrassing just travelling through other countries with only English at my disposal (and my conversational Moroccan Arabic is only really useful in one country!).

However, both my own personal experience and research by language experts tell us that the best way to learn a language is by immersion in a native-speaking environment.

This requirement also assumes the skill of being able to perform speaking and listening tasks in a controlled, academic exam. Cultural imperialism is very apparent here.

My daughters’ father is multilingual, with English being the latest addition to the list of languages he can speak. I’m thoroughly impressed by the way he picks up language, and amused when he tells me to put my language dictionaries down and just use my brain. He has never sat a formal academic exam in his life. When attempting to take formal English classes at a language school in Marrakech, he felt his learning stalled; his mind went blank in class, yet only an hour later on the phone to me he’d be perplexed at how well his English flowed when engaged in natural conversation.

The reason for this is simple: put a person in a pressured and stressful situation, and their ability to think clearly will shut down. It quickly became apparent that the requirement to pass a formal exam may be an even more difficult requirement for him to fulfil than the financial requirement expected of me.

This leaves a particularly sour taste now I know another Moroccan national who recently came to the UK without any knowledge of the English language. Yet that family, her spouse with EU citizenship, took advantage of EU free movement rules in order to live in the UK.

The positive news is that British citizens can also take advantage of EU free movement rights, assuming they are free and willing to emigrate to another EU country in order to reside with their partner. Yes, just move across the Channel and your non-EU spouse automatically has the right to reside with you! And as long as the Brit moves their centre of life to another EU country and lives and works there for a number of months, they can later return to the UK with their family as an ‘EU citizen’ with the right to a family life that this citizenship of the Union upholds. As the partner or child (whatever their nationality) of an EU citizen (in this case the British national), this right entitles the whole family to the same freedom of movement into the UK as any other EU national exercising their EU treaty rights.

Yet be a British person trying to tick all the boxes from within the UK according to the government’s guidance for spousal visas, and you are up against a much more brutal system that puts economic status before a family’s needs. For many people, moving to Europe to be with their loved ones is the sensible option – and some have even suggested that, once there, they may even be happier in another EU country than in the UK. Having technically been exiled from their home country in order to pursue a life alongside their spouse, life may indeed feel much greener on the other side.

I do not believe in curbing EU migration and feel the current national feeling against such free movement is the result of a paranoid island mentality stirred up by the media to support the establishment’s use of the ‘divide and rule’ theory. A glance at the figures for British citizens who have themselves emigrated to other EU countries shows that millions of UK nationals take advantage of their right to live and work wherever in the EU that they wish to – the right to be an expat is not a one-way street. However, I do believe that British citizens should be afforded the same right to a family life in our home nation as we would be afforded if we chose to live in France, Germany, the Republic of Ireland or indeed any other EU country (take your pick!).

Sadly, for those who are not able to emigrate from the UK – however short-term – this light at the end of the tunnel is not visible.

The issues aren’t limited to the expensive and intensive spousal visa application. Many families (my own included) who have attempted to secure a mere visitor visa for a parent to visit their child in the UK have been refused on grounds of financial status and presumptions about an intent to overstay. So, despite the fact that it would be cheaper and easier for me to sponsor a visit to the UK than it is for me to travel with three young children to Morocco, the only way my daughters can see their father is through my commitment to doing the latter.

Whilst I’m quite a revolutionary thinker when it comes to global community and am open to entertaining ideas such as the No Borders movement, I know that many people affected by these rules would agree that certain limits on immigration are desirable. Yet none can fathom why it has to be families that suffer – if the government genuinely believe in marriage and family life as they say they do, there are many more visa categories that could be limited to affect migration figures whilst retaining children’s and families’ human rights to secure and maintain a family life together.

In 2013 a court case took place in which the judge branded these rules as “unjustifiable” and gave those affected some hope that these laws could be challenged.

However, for the time being and whilst the anti-immigration rhetoric in UK politics seems ever on the increase, a huge number of British people are left in limbo, wondering if they’ll ever be able to pursue the family life they want in their own home country.

Links to my sources, further information and sources of support can be found below.

Are you affected by these rules? Do you think there is a way for immigration rules to remain stringent without splitting families up? Can anyone support these rules whilst genuinely supporting the notion of a human right to a family life? I would be glad to hear your experiences and thoughts below.

 

Links to reports:

Report On The Impact Of The New 2012 Spouse Visa Rules With Recommendations compiled by British citizens

Family Migration Inquiry Report by the All Party Parliamentary Group on Migration

United by Love, Divided by Law by the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants

Adverse Impact of UK’s Immigration Rules by BritCits

 

Links to support:

BritCits charity supporting international families

I Love My Foreign Spouse Facebook support group

EU Free Movement Facebook support group

 

Take action:

Immigration laws are tearing families apart – change them now (petition on change.org)

Keep Families Together (petition on 38degrees)

Welcoming Baby: A Rite of Passage & A Book Review

IMG_0927So much for weekly posts: it seems three months have passed since my last offering on here. However, major happenings have taken place, one of which is nicely complemented by a book review that shall feature herein.

Many changes have taken place in our lives since September:

I have backed out of a big project which meant a great deal to me in order to concentrate on the things that mean a great deal more;

I have re-embarked on Home Education with FreeToBeP after nigh on two years’ in mainstream school;

Last but definitely not least, we’re celebrating the arrival of FreeToBeNumber3 (hereafter known as FreeToBeL) who is currently snuggled against me in the sling; a sweet, sleeping three-week old.

I delivered FreeToBeL myself in the birth pool at home – a quick, intense labour but a gentle water birth that I’m thoroughly glad I achieved for this precious new water sign. Just as her head was about to crown and she was making her way between two worlds, her siblings informed our dear friend who was taking care of them in FreeToBeP’s bedroom that they must see mummy right then.

Thus, they checked in with me at the perfect moment and were able to greet their little sister the very moment she entered the big, wide world.

In my opinion, this is the ideal welcome for a new life – in calm surroundings at home, directly into the comfort of a mother’s arms, and to the smiles and coos of friends and family.

First-born FreeToBeP had an elaborate pagan blessing ceremony at 3 months old after a long, hard labour to get him out left us both exhausted rather than celebratory. I also felt, as a single mother, that it was important to see him surrounded by supportive people and to be accepted into a community. My biggest fear as a single mum is that of isolation.

Blessing Ceremony

FreeToBeZ (who was out in 4 pushes accompanied by beatific smiles) had a similar experience to FreeToBeL, thanks to FreeToBeP’s timely entrance into the same living room where FreeToBeL was delivered. As the second-born, it felt like FreeToBeZ was born into a family; albeit an immediate and local family of only of a mother and a 4-year-old brother, it was a family with an established network of supportive friends, and a father who wanted to be involved even if immigration law meant he couldn’t be.

So, an appropriate book for the moment is ‘Welcoming Babies’ by Margy Burns Knight. I read this with the kids both before and after FreeToBeL was born.

welcoming babies book cover

‘Welcoming Babies’ is an educational picture book which briefly describes many different ways in which babies are welcomed into the world depending on the country, culture and/or religion they’re born into. A double page of notes at the back of the book goes into greater detail about the customs and beliefs behind the ceremonies described. The full page illustrations are colourful, engaging and full of movement.

I found this a valuable book with regards to learning about global community; that whilst many things in our lives are determined by the country we grow up in or the religion of our family, babies – new human beings – are celebrated all the world over, recognised in a myriad of ways for the precious new instances of life that they are.

The importance of the rite of passage from womb to world is something that people of all nations and belief systems mark and respect. It also draws attention to the fact that – whatever one’s beliefs – we are all bound by ritual when it comes to birth and death.

My favourite ‘welcome’ of the book was the simple but symbolic Hopi greeting; regarding the dawn of a new day and the light of the sun rise as a fitting occasion and event for the blessing of a newborn child. This reflects the ‘elemental’ blessing ceremony that I wrote for FreeToBeP – honouring Mother Nature for the seemingly miraculous yet perfectly normal process that is creating new life, and recognising the symbols in the natural world that put the microcosm of our individual lives in balance with the macrocosm of the greater world and universe.

We borrowed ‘Welcoming Babies’ from our local library and, in my opinion, it is a really useful tool in the ‘teaching global citizenship’ toolbox. Many children can relate to the topic of new babies (indeed, it is a lovely book for introducing the issue of new siblings which bypasses the usual human biology and gets straight to the end result!), and it introduces concepts of religion, spirituality, community, family dynamics and culture without any of these complex subjects detracting from the main theme.

And thus, still in my baby moon, we continue with our own welcome:

The many occasions to express gratitude for being entrusted with the care and guidance of another human being, for the gifts and kindnesses of friends and family, for the smiles and love that surround the presence of a baby;

The protected time to exist in a bubble with few demands from the outside world and an invaluable opportunity to bond and to take joy in witnessing the newly established bonds of siblinghood;

The reminder to reflect on what is truly important in life, especially when it seemed like only yesterday that your first-born arrived and yet six and a half years have passed, and you live in the unsettling mix of guilt and hope that you have learnt from the errors you have so far made as a parent.

Thus a welcoming ceremony takes place each and every morning, where the light of each new day shines a light on the preciousness and precariousness of my children’s lives and I pledge to try my best to live our new family mantra . . .

Whatever the question, the answer is love.

 

How did you welcome your child(ren) into the world? Was a formal celebration an important way in which to mark the occasion? Please feel free to share your thoughts and experiences with me. 

Pushing the Limits of Moroccan Hospitality

As I mentioned in The Morocco I Love: 10 Things To Be Thankful For, I get worried every time I ask to change FreeToBeZ’s nappy in the home of a family in Morocco.

I’m always just looking for a small patch of floor that they’re happy for me to change a soggy or dirty disposable nappy upon, and am invariably asked if I wish to give my daughter a full strip wash at the same time.

This in itself isn’t a problem.

What is a problem is someone assuming that this is what one wishes to do without both parties having a mutual understanding of what is about to happen . . .

Time for tea: a typical sight of Moroccan hospitality (Commons Licence image)
Time for tea: a typical sight of Moroccan hospitality (Commons Licence image)

We were taking afternoon tea in the well-kept and textile-laden home of a Gendarmerie officer, a friend of FreeToBeB’s.

FreeToBeZ had been quickly changed out of a wet nappy in the shower room of their apartment upon our arrival (one of our reasons for stopping during a leisurely trip from Marrakech up into the Middle Atlas Mountains).

As we waited for FreeToBeB’s friend to finish his shift policing traffic outside the Gendarmerie’s buildings, we drank their tea and ate their biscuits, making small talk with the friend’s wife.

Not half an hour after changing FreeToBeZ, FreeToBeP asked to use the toilet, which I got up to direct him to. We were stopped short by a huge puddle of water on the floor, slipping us up and seeping into our hosts’ living area.

No, it wasn’t a puddle. It was a flood.

The floor must have been a good few millimetres deep in water, soaking the thick pile handmade rugs, turning the tiles into slippery death traps.

It took me but a split second to realise that the leak came from within the shower room.

And but a split second later to realise that it had spread to the bedrooms and kitchen of the beautiful apartment.

And but a split second later to realise that I was the last person to use the bathroom.

Oh ****! What happened?! What have I done?!

The horrible sensation of flight or fight began welling up in my body as I froze on the spot. I was about to wish upon the ground to open up and swallow me as my mind skipped over possible scenarios. Had I left the tap on when I washed my hands? Had there also been a plug in the sink or something?

Thankfully, just as the redness of shame was about to burn my cheeks, it took me but a split second more to recall that when the lady of the house had shown us to the shower room, I’d noticed her move the showerhead into a bucket already full of water. At the time, I’d just assumed she was moving something for her own domestic purposes, not for us. I had no interest in the shower, I was merely intent upon using the floor as a baby changing facility.

It turned out that the officer’s wife had actually turned the shower on and left the water running into the bucket so that I had an ongoing supply with which to wash FreeToBeZ with. The water pressure doesn’t seem to be very good in many Moroccan homes, thus washtime often involves standing in the shower basin with a bucket to scoop cool water from rather than luxuriating beneath the hot rain of a showerhead.

Except I hadn’t asked to wash FreeToBeZ – I’d asked to change her nappy. (The cultural differences in nappy changing etiquette – who knew?! Obviously not me.)

FreeToBeB looked at me in horror, assuming I’d been the absolute cause of the chaos.

“It wasn’t me, it was her!” I exclaimed bluntly in English, hurriedly casting the blame onto our hostess.

Whoever was at fault, it was quite an excruciating time as she insisted she didn’t need any help in mopping the mess up. Even FreeToBeB must have felt out of his depth; usually the first to rush in and lend a hand, he sat as pathetically as me as we watched her clear up the result of her gesture of help.

Thankfully, this is Morocco: I’ve regularly seen people tip buckets of water through their homes to clean up the tiled or dirt floors. Coupled with the intense heat, and their many sodden rugs were quickly lined up along the banisters and railings of the Royal Gendarmerie apartment block to dry.

FreeToBeB’s handgun-adorned friend entered his home once his traffic cop shift had finished. Wide-eyed, he asked his wife what had happened and she graciously stated that she’d left a tap on. He looked faintly amused and promptly sat down, removed his hat, poured himself a glass of tea, and took up an unrelated topic of conversation with FreeToBeB as if nothing had happened.

Overall, it was mashi moushkil all around (Moroccan Arabic for “not a problem”).

That said, we decided to beat a hasty retreat very soon afterwards.

Upon leaving, they enthused that we should visit them for tea again when we were due to pass back through a few days later (really?!).

Suffice to say, as much as FreeToBeB mentioned on our return trip that he’d like to stop for tea at his friend’s, I could only cringe in embarrassment and say “No, please – let’s not!”.

What have been your most embarrassing moments whilst travelling with children? What cultural faux pas has left you with your own cause to cringe? Feel free to share your own stories in the comments below and assure me I’m not the only one who makes a fool of their family.

The Morocco I Love: 10 Things To Be Thankful For

Ben Yuosef Madrasa, Marrakech, Morocco, architecture, ceiling

I’m conscious of the posts I’ve made so far about our latest trip to Morocco not being particularly practical in nature, and possibly being a tad on the ‘grin and bear it’ side!

I’ve also been very aware of all my blessings since returning home and it’s been easy to complain about the things I find difficult in our ‘second home’. I have a love-hate relationship with Morocco that leaves me feeling conflicted and contradictory.

However, there are a number of things I’m already missing about Morocco. Obviously, I’m really missing seeing FreeToBeZ playing and laughing with her daddy; despite the infrequency of our visits, their bond is obvious and strong, and regularly brings tears to my eyes to witness.

But with the aim of providing some insight into the cultural cultivation that anyone can enjoy during a trip to Morocco, here are the 10 things that first come to mind about the pros of spending time there:

 

1) Embrace the Excitement

Excitement? Ok, read ‘chaos’.

At home in the UK, I could think of myself as a ‘chaotic’ person. My mind is always on the go, I don’t get enough sleep, I perpetually strive for a more organised homelife, and there is always physical, emotional and mental ‘clutter’ (I could use the excuse of children for all of these things – in the spirit of congruence, it’s not just that!).

When I get to Morocco, I don’t see myself as chaotic at all – the external world fulfils that for me!

Arriving two evenings before Eid for our last trip, it really achieved this label: I’d never seen the airport arrivals area so extraordinarily busy (and this was our 10th visit) and there were those people who were more observant of the queuing system-of-a-sort for passport control than others.

Out into the streets and into all the traffic; the constant hooting of car horns, the heightened sense of anxiety as you try to cross a road without being mown down, the people who have less concept of personal space and ‘rights of way’ than I’m used to.

Yet this makes any trip to Morocco immediately tinged with a sense of adventure. Your senses come alive – there is no way they can’t. And if they didn’t, you might find yourself in some undesirable situations thanks to your lack of alertness.

Morocco truly is a place of contrasts – from relaxing on the ponj of a laid-back host who you’ve spent a sedate afternoon enjoying food with, straight into a mêlée of being squeezed along crowded backstreets trying to contain your handbag and your children whilst dodging scooters. I’m sure my blood pressure must rise and fall with interesting frequency when I’m navigating Moroccan towns.

I say this and yet I’m so glad I know this. I’m so glad I’ve seen and experienced this side of the world and have the story to tell. I would urge others to make the trip precisely because of these idiosyncrasies of place.

 

2) Street Life

Every time I get back to the UK, I wonder at what ghost towns we live in. Where are all the people? Mostly stuck indoors or transporting themselves around in cars.

And when there are people forced together out in public – on trains, queuing for various services, in the supermarket – where is the chatter? Whilst I’m hardly one to complain (being someone who is generally shy to start up conversations with strangers), it strikes me that this reluctance to interact is not just personal but cultural; my traits have always felt at odds with my instincts.

Even in the ‘quiet’ suburbs of Marrakech, the streets are alive – there are always children playing and adults casually chatting with the kerb as their seating.

Whilst there are plenty of cars in Morocco, there are also those who travel by mule or donkey or horse and carriage, or market traders who transport their goods using a handheld cart, which enables those people to be more contactable and present with the pedestrians they share the space with.

There are many reasons for this difference that means it’s not a lifestyle easily recreated in the UK. The weather is often a big deciding factor in whether we’re outdoors or not, and yet there certainly used to be more suburban street life in English cities too.

Without going into the politics and cultural changes that have happened in the UK to destroy communities and encourage people to live more isolated lives, I love the fact that I can exit an apartment in Morocco and know without doubt that the street will be vibrant with the sound of children playing, animals braying and the calls to go praying.

 

3) Fresh Food

Between buying fresh croissants and crepes for a matter of pennies from a local patisserie and sipping on freshly squeezed orange juice from the deliciously sweet native citrus fruits, breakfast food here is imbued with an energy and vibrancy that I just don’t get from our usual morning routine involving a box of cereal and a carton of a long-life dairy-free milk alternative.

Combined with the fact that they make bloody good coffee in Morocco, and the start of the day is usually a good one.

Whilst out on the town and for just 4 Moroccan dirhams (about 30p) you can enjoy a tall glass of freshly squeezed orange juice in Jemaa El Fna square – at that price, there’s no excuse not to!

FreeToBeZ with her avocado ice-cream whilst I down a fresh orange juice (Jemaa El Fna, Marrakech)
FreeToBeZ with her avocado ice-cream whilst I down a fresh orange juice (Jemaa El Fna, Marrakech)

There is also an amazing array of different fruit juices and smoothies made to order in many restaurants and cafes that we just don’t find back home unless we were to head for a specialist (expensive) juice bar. And, saying that, I’m not sure I know where to locate one of these in my local area.

Not to forget the figs, olives, almonds and other native foods that are much better in their fresh form than anything you buy in packs at the supermarket.

Whilst it can often be a hand-to-mouth lifestyle that ensures many people here eat fresh produce, there is also less emphasis on the supermarket and more emphasis on market culture and seasonal goods.

Many people in the towns also seem more inclined to go out in the mornings and bring fresh breakfast in rather than expecting shelves, cupboards and fridges to be stocked. And FreeToBeB – brought up eating daily-made bread in the family’s traditional outdoor, earthen oven – is often surprised that I’ll happily eat yesterday’s bread in preference to buying the freshly made breads each day. Even against 24 hour old Moroccan flatbreads, our long-life sliced and packaged loaves just can’t compare.

FreeToBeP in 2011 'assisting' our hosts with the daily task of bread-making
FreeToBeP in 2011 ‘assisting’ our hosts with the daily task of bread-making

Yes, we may be able to buy freshly prepared food in some shops back home – but the ubiquity and low cost of it in Morocco makes it the easy choice there, whilst it may be the more expensive and less convenient choice in the UK.

It really brings home to me how lifeless are some of the packaged foodstuffs that are supposed to sustain and satiate us. The difference is also reflected in the cooking and the sharing of food – this is only a thought, but I’d say that the way in which Moroccan people are proud of their cuisine as they earnestly encourage you to share in their meals (“Koul! Koul!” – “Eat! Eat!”) is a reflection of the true life force apparent in their food resources.

 

4) Retailing the Rainbow

OK, so this is a matter of whether you are in town or country. If I think about the natural environments around me, nothing beats the sight of green, green England as we come in to land after a North African excursion. How fresh and lush and brimming with life it appears; I missed this usual view as we came into land at nigh on midnight earlier this month. I wonder if Moroccan people love their ochre landscape as much as I love my green?

However, take to the high street and the drab, dispirited monoculture of a typical British town is apparent. I don’t care how well a chain store thinks it’s dressed its window, it’s not a patch on the flood of sights that comes with a walk amidst the market of a Moroccan city.

Whilst I’m not a keen shopper and would rather not focus on material goods, I love wandering the souks of Marrakech and being charmed by all the colour and glitter and exuberance around me. Yes, you could purchase something as a reminder of your visit, thinking that the vitality of the items will remain, but – just like the picking of a flower – something of their life-force invariably falls away once they are set apart from their original backdrop.

Every shade of the rainbow is everywhere to see and the beautiful clothing and jewellery makes a feast for the eyes. The joy isn’t in purchasing single items of these delights but in seeing them all together in a jumble of hues and patterns and textures: piles and piles of unabashedly embellished and gleeful garments in the clothing stores, small shops crammed to the ceiling full of shining thuya wood products, ceramic diningware decorated in intense colours and swirling patterns, florid and flowery offerings at the textile merchants . . .

A shop of scarves and soft furnishings in the souks of Marrakech
A shop of scarves and soft furnishings in the souks of Marrakech

. . . Not to mention the scents wafting from spice shops and cosmetic sellers. From the bright and showy pyramids of turmeric and cumin, to the smoke of incense blooming from a stall of hammam products, the combination of the sights, smells and sounds of the souk come together to remind me of the beauty and vivacity of life.

The effect is kaleidoscopic and I could spin myself around admiring it all for hours.

Jewellery, Marrakech, Morocco, souk
A jewellery shop in the Marrakchi souks.

To see more of what I mean, you might like to visit my Pinterest board ‘Morocco’ dedicated to the delightful side of this country of contrasts.

 

5) Mañana

While this can sometimes be frustrating, if you want a peaceful break free of pressure, it’s helpful to take on the Moroccans’ mañana attitude.

It’s a good attitude to adopt for any family break (emphasis on the fact that a holiday should indeed be a rest from the usual daily grind!) and taking it on in Morocco will ensure your increased immunity against impatience at the sometimes slow and seemingly unreliable pace at which things often appear to get done here.

You can be asleep at any point of the day here (or up and about at any point during the night) and it’s perfectly acceptable. This is particularly true during the long, hot summer days.

Things get done when people feel like getting them done, so little does the structured, time-bound mentality of what I would consider a ‘usual’ working day penetrate many people’s lives here. And yet – everything gets done.

In the words of Lao-Tzu: “Nature does not hurry, yet everything is accomplished.”

I’ve spent a lot of time in Morocco just waiting. And often not even knowing what exactly I’m waiting for. Just knowing that in order for the next thing that needs to get done to get done, I must bide my time and trust the process. From a world of appointments and general punctuality (I shall never again complain about the length of wait at a dental practice), I could see this as a con rather than a pro of my time in Morocco – but it’s yet another practice in mindfulness.

I’ve had time to sit and reflect, hence why so much writing comes of my trips. I’ve had time to sit beside my demons of impatience and judgement and talk them into angels of patience and acceptance. I’ve had time to savour the food at my lips instead of rushing the routine of mealtimes. I’ve had time to sit and listen and absorb the social discourse around me, more rather than less intriguing for its unintelligible vocabulary.

And it has taught me that there is time. It is ‘stuff’ that gets in the way back home. Stuff I would rather relegate to the recycle bin so I can sit and just be with my children, sit and just be with my self.

 

6) Moroccan Hospitality

The people of Morocco are famed for being some of the most welcoming, hospitable people in the world. Indeed, a recent study by the World Economic Forum found Morocco to come 3rd in a report of the most welcoming places for foreign tourists to visit.

It’s taken me a while to get over some of my typical British politeness and make the most of this. Indeed, what may be considered more ‘polite’ over here can be seen as a snub to your hosts over there, especially if you refuse a glass of the ubiquitous sweet mint tea whilst everyone else is cheerfully partaking.

Family-sized cous cous during a trip into the Atlas Mountains in 2012. Clockwise from top: my father, me, FreeToBeP, FreeToBeZ's auntie, two of FreeToBeZ's cousins, FreeToBeZ's grandmother, FreeToBeZ, and a family visitor.
Family-sized cous cous during a trip into the Atlas Mountains in 2012. Clockwise from top: my father, me, FreeToBeP, FreeToBeZ’s auntie, two of FreeToBeZ’s cousins, FreeToBeZ’s grandmother, FreeToBeZ, and a family visitor.

That said, there have been times when I’ve been embarrassed by the level of generosity we’ve been shown, especially when it’s been unplanned and I feel we’ve had nothing to give in return.

We once had a really sweet guy named Hicham guiding us around Fez (he was a school teacher on his summer break and was with us as a compassionate companion rather than a guide looking to make money out of us). On our second afternoon with him, he took us back to his parents’ home for a meal. It was an elaborate meal and was followed by their encouragement for us to take a post-meal nap by curtaining off an area of their living quarters so that the ponjs (Moroccan sofas) could take on their alternative use as day beds. So we – strangers to them – passed an hour or so privately chilling out in their living room.

As if this wasn’t enough, before we left, the matriarch of the house (who must have already spent hours preparing food in the kitchen) then insisted on pressing various items of costume jewellery and cheap but pretty bracelets into the hands of myself and FreeToBeZ – even after FreeToBeZ had already broken one such bracelet, tiny beads bursting across the tiled floor. I frantically tried to reject the jewellery in embarrassment (I should be bringing the gifts as a guest!), but our hostess wouldn’t have any of it; smiling and laughing and nodding, she insisted I take her offerings and I eventually accepted as graciously as I could amidst my discomfort.

I also get worried every time I ask to change FreeToBeZ’s nappy in someone’s home. I’m always just looking for a patch of floor that they’re happy for me to change a soggy or dirty disposable nappy upon, and am invariably asked if I wish to give my daughter a full strip wash at the same time, usually accompanied by the lady of the house rushing to find soap and towels.

This in itself isn’t a problem. What is a problem is someone assuming that this is what one wishes to do without both parties having a mutual understanding about what is about to happen . . . But this is a whole other story . . .

However, I will never forget how observant and human some people have been about genuine needs.

For a week during a stay in 2013, we were accommodated by local people in two different cities when all the rooms were full at the inn.

I will never forget the relief of hearing that Halima, a bolshy and outspoken Rifian lady in Al Hoceima, had kindly offered us her sitting room to stay in when it was nearly midnight and we still hadn’t found a bed for ourselves. As she walked home on that hot August night, she saw a family taking shelter on an empty shop floor and spontaneously opened up her home. We paid her more generously than I am generally willing to pay Moroccan hotels – and I can’t even be cynical about her intentions of inviting us (knowing that some people here see a European person and simultaneously see money); for when she first saw us she thought we were entirely a fellow Berber family, and not just because of FreeToBeB’s ability to claim this (it turned out she thought all European women used pushchairs for their infants – FreeToBeZ worn closely to me in a sling was enough for her to decide to distinguish me as a fellow Berber woman!).

Pretty much the same thing happened again just 3 nights later in Chefchouen, and we spent a wonderful 5 days relaxing in the spare living quarters of a kindly older widower.

If anything, it has given me all the more faith in travelling ‘on a wing and a prayer’, not to mention faith in the kindness of humans who have not been jaded by the ‘stranger danger’ mantra so prevalent in Western societies.

 

7) Simplicity

I’m all for a more simple life. It takes a lot of discipline and a big change of perspective for someone brought up in a commercial culture. And, whilst I often complain about how difficult it is to cook on a single ring over a gas bottle or to have a proper wash with just a bucket of water and a jug, in reality it’s only difficult because of all the luxuries I’m used to. There is no excuse to go hungry or to not be clean when you have the means at your disposal.

OK, if I actually lived in Morocco I’d ensure I have a decent electric oven with at least 4 cooking plates and a wet room big enough to install a ‘proper’ bath, but – as with camping – it can be good to get back to the simple life, even if it is just a way to truly appreciate what we take for granted in our own homes in better-off countries.

I tried to embrace the simple things in life as much as possible during our latest visit (see Embracing the Ennui: Retreat, Respite and Relaxation), as I’d previously struggled with it during visits to FreeToBeB’s mountain home.

For all the daydreams of a ‘back to nature’ lifestyle of self-sufficiency in an unspoilt landscape, reliant on community and surviving (literally and economically) on home-grown produce . . . the reality can be harsh. Yes, being amidst the Atlas Mountains and a group of people I was unable to verbally communicate with whilst they clean sheep innards is very different to, say, joining a vegetarian English commune in a field in Devon, but the point is valid: romantic, rose-tinted ideas of ‘the good life’ are naïve and impractical.

In order to enjoy a simple lifestyle, the first step isn’t necessarily about diving into the embodied experience of it but in changing your perspective of what is already around you and slowly forgoing the things that don’t genuinely serve you.

Since returning from our latest trip, my de-cluttering project has resurfaced with a vengeance. There is a tidiness to the simplicity found in Morocco. Not only is the home tidy due to lack of ‘stuff’, but it makes everything else seem tidier – easier. Rough play with the kids becomes an almost anytime possibility when there isn’t a floor full of toys to trip over or various breakables dotted about the living space that douse the fire of playful spontaneity. True presence and communication with the people you are sharing your space with becomes more attainable when one isn’t constantly distracted by the ‘things to do’ that come with living a complex, modern life.

For all the talk of ‘modern conveniences’, many things that are supposed to make life more convenient actually make it more complicated, or at least less fulfilling. We race around partaking in ten quick and convenient habits when – psychologically and spiritually – we may yearn for two more involved jobs performed mindfully.

Honestly: I would rather spend a morning engaged in bread-making with my peers as the children run around together than to spend half an hour in isolation preparing ingredients for and later washing up the equipment needed to bake bread in a machine, potentially in a rush whilst trying to get the kids out of the house for a social ‘appointment’. This concept of making an appointment to pop in and see your friends is something else that is alien in Morocco – again, it comes down to ideas of convenience and inconvenience. And this is why I operate an ‘open home’ policy with my friends (that is, proving this point, rarely taken up) – I never want my friends to see their presence as an inconvenience to me, to think that I might have better things to do alone than could be gained from connecting with another human being.

We’re social animals; and in the vast array of things to do, places to be and material matters to attend to, this basic fact is becoming lost in ‘developed’ nations.

When material possessions that are surplus to genuine needs are set aside, we may actually appreciate what is truly necessary for a whole and healthy life.

 

8) The Joy of Children

In many ways, I can relax in Morocco with kids in tow.

I will soon be posting my top tips of things to take into consideration when travelling with children in Morocco (mainly about the not so relaxing stuff!), but one thing I can say with confidence is that no-one will mind you bringing your kids. If anything, people in Morocco generally take great joy in children and, when I travelled without FreeToBeP this summer, he was very much missed by those who expected him to be with me.

From breastfeeding an infant to having my kids become over-excitable whilst out and about, people here look upon the natural and typical behaviour of young children with endearment and acceptance. I have no fear of any tut-tutting as I breastfeed in public or while my toddler has a loud meltdown. And thanks to the relaxed state of mind that this lack of tut-tutting fosters in me, my children are also more relaxed, ergo I have less fear of my children even having said meltdowns.

Children playing in the streets late into the night is a common sight and sound. On hot days when families have been indoors having siestas, the whole family may come out at night to enjoy the street life, and this fits in well with my own relaxed attitude about bedtimes (whilst we have a routine, we do not have a schedule!).

Many so-called ‘attachment parenting’ beliefs and practices I try to live by are taken for granted here – there is no label, just women doing what they have always done to birth and raise their children naturally (homebirth, breastfeeding, babywearing and bedsharing). These are all things that I instinctively felt drawn to do as a mother that have been overshadowed in Western societies by the medicalisation of birth and the commercialisation of babyhood.

This is not to say that I agree with all the parenting practices that are at play in Morocco. I know that the ‘good’ behaviour of many Moroccan children is less about respect for the parents than fear of The Stick (physical punishment both at home and in school seems to be a socially acceptable tool for eliciting cooperation from a child).

And yet the positive bonds of family and community are obvious – the shared laughter as families gather together in their living quarters during and after evening meals; the acceptance of children as part of the community after the 9pm watershed; the ease with which the people here will pick up and dust off crying children who are not their own; or merely the planting of kisses and tousling of hair performed in the unselfconscious manner of those who are comfortable being around and showing affection towards the younger members of our human family.

 

9) Flora and Fauna

Whether out in the wilds of the mountains or in the centre of bustling Marrakech, there are plenty of sights to see for those interested in animals and plants.

FreeToBeP picking an orange earlier this year
FreeToBeP picking an orange

If you’ve got young children in tow, excitedly spotting horses and donkeys will soon become second nature in both town and country.

Whilst in the city much of what you see can’t be classed as ‘wildlife’ and there is often suspect animal welfare, it can’t be denied that there are novelties to be enjoyed.

In Marrakech alone, there are plenty of intrigues for anyone interested in natural history. Merely taking a taxi into town, budding botanists can spot palm trees (this might be more ‘exotic’ for some than others; here on the Jurassic Coast we’re already quite spoilt for more Mediterranean plants and trees), orange trees, olive trees, Damask roses and various succulents surviving in the arid soil.

If that’s not enough to satisfy your thirst for greenery, Marrakech boasts a number of gardens that can be worth a visit. Whilst I primarily wish to share information about things you can appreciate for next to nothing, I would gladly part with a few pounds again in order to revisit the Majorelle Gardens.

A visit to the pool of Marrakech Manara will grant you a view of half-tame fish which come to the surface to be fed.

Storks roost on the roofs and wide walls of tall buildings, including the minarets of the mosques.

Mules, horses and donkeys are common sights at the roadside and upon the roads, and camels are brought into the cities as tourist attractions (but the obvious thing to do if you want authentic camel memories is to make the journey to the Sahara).

Jemaa El Fna in the daytime can be like taking a trip to the zoo: snakes, monkeys, birds and other creatures are taken for display – you can look at these from a safe distance (safe from being encouraged to part with money that is) or for a small fee can have your picture taken with them.

In the mountains I have seen some beautiful butterflies and huge, sleek millipedes, as well as snakes, scorpions, and the evidence of wild boars.

The mountains can be quite colourful in the springtime with swathes of flowers.

A carpet of springtime flowers in the Atlas Mountains
A carpet of springtime flowers in the Atlas Mountains

The cacti of the prickly pear is also easily spotted along roadsides and around villages – the abundance of them is evident in the amount of fruit that is left unpicked (think of them in terms of the humble British apple tree!). There are also many herbaceous plants which the local women pick in order to use for medicinal purposes.

Moroccan Flora
Moroccan Flora

We have had our curiosity piqued by the array of insects we’ve spotted, all the more enticing to look at precisely because we don’t know if they’re things that could bite or sting us. Judging by the way I’ve seen some of the locals react to the sight of a spider – and assuming they don’t just have tendencies towards arachnophobia – I think it’s probably safe to say that there are resident arachnids that could cause harm to humans. And I’ve already detailed our encounters with cockroaches.

Moth, Morocco
A spotted moth (official name unknown to me!) in the mountains

I also have a ‘thing’ about birds (not sure if this grew from my childhood YOC membership or a more primal, psychological desire to ‘grow wings’) and have noticed many species of birds that I am unfamiliar with. I only wish I could use more informed, naturalist terminology to explain what I’ve seen! (If anyone knows more about the wildlife of North Africa, please do get in touch.)

Thus my next step is to find the Moroccan equivalent of my trusty ‘British Wildlife’ book.

 

10) Sun, Sun and Sun!

Last but definitely not least: glorious sunshine and dry heat is a huge plus point.

In Morocco I can pretty much forget that I’m medicated for asthma. The dry heat is really good for my lungs and barely a wheeze escapes me.

Yes, it can get too hot during the day, but the simple solution to this is that you adjust your expectations about what happens when. During our summer trip we were getting up during early afternoon, having an extremely late breakfast, eating lunch at teatime and then heading out for the ‘day’ when it had cooled down a little (to about 36 degrees Celsius that is) at around 6pm.

Whatever the thermometer may say, I find the dryness of North African heat much more bearable than the humidity of a ‘hot’ day in the UK. In my opinion, a dry and clean 35 degrees is much preferable to a sweaty 25 degrees!

Aside from general sun-seeking and the knowledge that both your physical and mental health are being given a boost thanks to the production of vitamin D and serotonin, the other bonus is in the small joy that is knowing your clothes will be bone dry within the space of a couple of hours after washing them.

Yes: simple pleasures.

 

In writing this, it would seem that the love-hate relationship I maintain with this country really is due to focusing so much on the contrasts and comparisons that a more objective view is obscured. For wherever you are, there are pros and cons, highs and lows. For whatever nuisances and inconveniences exist, there are so many things in this world that have the power to brighten our day.

Looking back on this list, the things that have the power to uplift – the things that really matter – are invariably day to day experiences that cost nothing, yet lend to us a wealth of spirit that can make any place a pleasure.

On this note, I’m off to make myself an avocado smoothie and eat some self-imported Atlas almonds . . .