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.
The biggest questions I had when I began blogging were:
“Do I really want to share these personal stories with the whole world?”
“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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
So 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.
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.
‘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.
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!
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.
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 . . .
. . . 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 . . .
Oh, how we were glared at when we entered the Quiet Zone carriage on that evening train home from Legoland Windsor.
The harried mother had arrived with her two young children, noisy at the transition from waiting to boarding, said mother harried due to the realisation that their reserved seats were in the dreaded area that could just as easily be named the designated ‘Child-Free Zone’.
The old guy at the table adjacent to ours put his head upon his hands and muttered some complaint about our arrival. The lady with him, who I presume was his wife, basically told him to stop being such a miserable git. I silently willed my children to do as they usually (touch wood) do when we make a journey: once settled into their seats, transform into angelic, thoughtful beings who are actually placated by the excitement of our trips.
I’m often amazed by FreeToBeP’s complete change in character when we travel – he forgets to annoy his sister, adopts a slightly dreamy look and becomes absorbed by the travelling. Or resigned to it? Either way, if only we could both learn how to adopt this somewhat meditative state in our home lives.
Six year old FreeToBeP could be described as being on the upper end of the ‘boisterous boy’ scale. A day doesn’t go by where I don’t hear myself frantically asking him to “Calm down and just listen!” when I’ve asked him to stop doing something for the umpteenth time and it appears that, despite his actions being obviously questionable to the adult eye, he has lost any capacity for either hearing or self-control (and, yes, I do realise that my own reactions are a big part of the picture!).
FreeToBeZ, having recently turned 2 years old, is naturally highly spirited by virtue of her being a toddler.
Yet travelling often seems to put children into a different state of being – for leaving familiar territory can quieten the restless mind. It’s true for all of us to some extent.
The mundane everyday realities become somehow more exotic, especially to those who are still relatively new to the big wide world. Perhaps the sandwiches are out of a self-chosen packet from a shop shelf instead of mum’s (boring and familiar) homemade cheese and pickle.
Even the opportunity to sit on the loo seat of a clattering train or as the plane hits some turbulence tinges even our most base needs with an element of adventure.
And, wow, the unknown quality that hangs in the air as you see the look on mum’s face when she realises you’ve just pooed your pants at 30,000ft, minutes away from the compulsory seatbelt-wearing descent whilst all the loos are occupied. Such priceless moments which are just impossible to recreate in the comfort of your own home.
Some children are thirsty to explore the world and seem to become different people when they travel. ‘Demanding’ and ‘wilful’ children are often trying to tell us (through challenging behaviour rather than words) that they’re feeling bored or isolated or under-stimulated. In all of these instances, travelling helps to address these underlying needs.
Also, whilst travelling with minimal possessions and without the daily distractions of our home and working lives, we can become more attentive parents, able to enjoy the beauty and bustle of the great, wide world with our children beside us instead of allowing the little stressors of day-to-day life to become the focus of our days together.
I have no doubt that my children become more relaxed in the knowledge that, on a journey, I have become a captive audience to all their needs and verbalised thoughts – much more genuinely ‘with’ them than if I’m preoccupied by cooking or tidying or the obsessive-compulsive checking of communication devices.
Travelling puts everything into perspective.
When I see my son carrying his own cabin bag between connections or passing through the airport security scanners on his own, it occurs to me just how young and vulnerable he still is. Practicing the empathy and compassion I always hope to practice with my offspring suddenly becomes easier when we’re ‘out there’. My role as protector and provider comes to the fore as we leave behind the security of home sweet home.
I do believe that the earlier you start with family travel the better. My children have always known long car journeys due to our 4-5 hour treks to visit my immediate family at least 4 times a year. I expect that this – along with my natural inclination to practice a flexible lifestyle based on each new day rather than adhere to strict schedules and routines – has helped my children become the adaptable and obliging little travellers that they are.
However, most children’s natural curiosity and malleable nature means that even without having travelled extensively during their early years, older children – however ‘spirited’ – may benefit from the out-of-the-ordinariness and new experiences that travel offers.
Whilst I know many families who feel that the lifestyle I share with my children would not be appropriate for their own children (some of whom have diagnoses for various behavioural issues and learning difficulties, and who need carefully preparing for any changes in routine), there are different degrees of family travel that can allow any family to experiment and note how their children respond. You needn’t jump in the deep end and plan a backpacking trip in another continent; just a family day trip on the train to a town you haven’t visited before can help you gauge how your children react to the concept of travel.
I’m certainly not saying that my own children’s generally calm response is how all children respond to travel. Your child may well be the opposite, and turn from generally obliging and thoughtful to over-excitable and disorganised. This over-exhilaration is perhaps what is expected of children when they travel – but can you blame them? Whilst, as adults, we can usually control our excitement internally, the joy and expectation of ‘holiday time’ is expressed physically by many young children.
We can either live in dread that we’ll have difficult journeys to our destination or reframe our outlook and deal with it creatively (see 10 Mind-Altering Family Travel Tips for more ideas on keeping family travel full of sweetness and light).
All the sights and sounds of travel provide parents with ample opportunity to channel high energy appropriately – all the waiting and sitting gives us lots of time to engage our children in conversation about new and unusual experiences. Shared observations and conversations aid our loving connection to our children which in turn serves as the basis for a strong, respectful relationship (i.e. ensuring it’s more likely that they’ll listen to us when it’s really important that they do).
I also tend to think that the more we look to the spirit of adventure, the more new things there are for everyone – ergo, the more distractions and novelties there are to limit or prevent tantrums of boredom and under-stimulation.
Travelling also gives children the opportunity to take on little responsibilities that they may not usually have, thus keeping restless feet and hands occupied. FreeToBeP often takes care of his passport when we queue for passport control. I was initially wary of this, but in trusting him with the responsibility, I have learnt that he takes it very seriously: the bored child wanting to swing on the barriers becomes a child so focused on using his hands to hold onto his very own important documentation with all his might that nothing else matters.
So, if you’re a parent with a desire to travel yet hear a little voice telling you about all the things that could go wrong with your lively 4 year old, I would encourage you to put aside the worries and give your dreams a chance.
I always say that it’s better to try and fail than to never try and never know.
Yes, things could go wrong. They could also go very, very right.
Have you noticed a difference in your children’s temperament (for better or worse) when you travel? Do you concur with any of the above observations? I’d love to hear your thoughts, so please feel free to leave a comment below if you wish to share your experiences.
An interesting read in relation to raising a multicultural family. The question of identity is something I wonder about a lot with regards to what my mixed race children’s sense of identity will be in the future, especially as there is also a chance that we will end up living in a country that is native to none of us. I find the concept of ‘belonging’ quite difficult myself, and my national/cultural background is quite straightforward, so I’m fascinated with how those of mixed heritage interpret their place in the world.
This week features a piece by Sara Salem, a PhD scholar based in Cairo.
Throughout my life I have gone through different phases in terms of relating to where I am from or where I belong. Growing up in Zambia with an Egyptian father and Dutch mother meant that a restless feeling of not quite being settled was always part of my life. During my teenage years I remember this expressing itself as a dramatic quest to find out “who I am” and “where I belong”—something that should probably be attributed to the fiction I liked to read or drama shows I liked to watch rather than some universal human need to belong somewhere. I quickly grew out of that and the question didn’t seem to matter so much anymore. When I was 16, I moved to Egypt, when I was 22, I moved to the Netherlands, and for now…