The spit-up on my suitcase

If I had to summarise the last few years of my life I think it might come down to two things: changing nappies and packing suitcases.

Of course babies create all kinds of unrewarding work. There’s the constant spit-up, the colic, the nights of howling and rocking and singing until you hate every song you ever loved. We’ve all been there, I don’t think I need to go on. Changing nappies is just the epitome of that period where you don’t belong to yourself, you don’t belong to your couple (what couple?), you seem to exist only to carry out the whims of a tiny being, who not only can’t tell you what it wants, it doesn’t even know what it wants.

Now when people ask me that old favourite they always drum out for expats: What do you prefer, this country or that? I’ve begun to answer: Changing nappies is pretty much the same all over. Time zone has no effect on colic. Though changing cots contributed to the lack of sleep.

Packing suitcases is the top concurrent theme of my recent life, though not because I’ve travelled all that much. In fact, it has been years since I went on a holiday which wasn’t planned in the sole objective of seeing family, so as to keep the grandparents and cousins in touch with these squalling little people who were making so much work. But for one thing, small people take up a lot of packing space.

More than that, though, we have moved country with only our suitcases several times, first to Lebanon, just the two of us, then to Spain pregnant and with a toddler, then for six months to France to have the baby, then back to Spain again. On the final move we had things shipped. Oh, the bliss of filling a whole cardboard box with things to take, and another, and another.

Those suitcases marked not only a trip, a move, a new life here or there; they punctuate the early development of my little ones. At 22 months, my pensive, cautious daughter sits on the Persian rug in our Beirut apartment spinning the little wheels on the case. At 10 months, in Spain, my active, exuberant son clambers on top of the case and looks triumphantly down at me.

Packing becomes a far greater deliberation when you live as an expat. Trips are a chance to source things not available locally. Whenever I left Lebanon to visit family in Europe, I would also make sure to take my laptop and a few papers with me, in case war broke out during our absence and we couldn’t return. When we did return to Lebanon, I’d take a few more things I’d kept in storage each time, a few feathers for the nest if you like.

It was great to be footloose and fancy-free pre-kids. But now I’m ready to settle. I’m tired of noticing spit-up on my suitcase while mentally begging the check-in scales to register some acceptable figure. I know far more than I want to about the size of the overhead lockers, and those in-flight wall-mounted cradles that look like mini coffins. I know which nationalities have been through enough bombings to know that a bottle of water won’t blow up an aircraft, and which will let through juice for the kids. I’ve watched my one-year old get the security pat-down. It’s enough. I want to be able to get things I love (like my cake stand, and my colour factor set, and heavily reduced kids’ clothes for next winter) instead of making do with a cheap and horrible version or doing without because it won’t fit in my suitcase if we move. Basically I want to stop asking myself, Should I get that or will we move next year?

Solution number one is: Don’t move. Probably not practical, as I think a move to France sometime in the years to come is quite likely. I want them to speak and write flawless French, and I also I want them to spend a few years growing up near their cousins.

Solution number two is this: Stay in Europe. Much more likely. So what if we move. The cake stand will fit in a truck, won’t it?

Since uncertainty can get tiresome, and because I dearly miss some things in France, I’ve come up with an additional solution: Set a rough period you plan to stay, even if you don’t know for sure.

I knew a couple who would alternate spending five years in France then five in Australia. My life isn’t that organised. We don’t know how long we’ll stay here and can’t just pick up and go after some arbitrary deadline. So in my case this means having a rough idea that we’d like to return to France during the kids’ schooling, possibly after they have a solid grounding in Spanish, solid enough to keep it going without any special intervention from us. That sounds pretty woolly, and it is. But it’s easier to plan on being here for five to ten years than it is to leave it completely open-ended.

Although my littlest isn’t out of nappies yet, the end is definitely in sight. At 18 months there’s not much baby left in him. In fact, just enough to make the most of the baby fares before his second birthday, with trips to the UK and France to see family and… a holiday to Lebanon, which promises to be special for all sorts of reasons. Bring on the suitcases.


School Enrolment in Spain Part 3

Since Part 1 and Part 2 of School Enrolment in Spain, I have pursued my real-person-research involving lots of legwork and in-the-flesh encounters to add to my confusion by visiting several state schools close to my house. First, I visited the school 4 minutes walk away but which is across the rather arbitrary municipal border. There I was informed that, contrary to what I was told at the Town Hall, I can indeed apply to schools there but:
  1. I’d be awarded 0 points as we live outside the official catchment area
  2. I could only apply to the schools of a single municipality

That would mean that I could list this school first, but my four back up choices would have to be in that municipality too. Problem is, only two of them are within walking distance so if those are full I might then end up in a school which is actually far away.

Living in the school’s catchment area is apparently the second biggest points-earner, after having a sibling at the school. You get fewer points in a neighbouring catchment area, and none if you are outside the school’s municipality.

points for school enrolment

points for school enrolment

However, staff at another school told me that in theory there is no obstacle to listing schools from two municipalities on your application, but in practice the administrative side doesn’t work well, as the municipalities don’t always collaborate well together. Now that’s no surprise.

The schools in my municipality introduce English as a foreign language at varying ages (some in preschool, others from 6 years old) and a couple are centros bilingües meaning they teach a few of subjects in English (like social studies, art and physical education) from a certain age. The school across the border also begins French at age 10-ish.

The schools confirmed that I’d be able to get the application form from them on the first working day in March (job done) and the deadline is at the end of the month. Looking at it now, the list of requirements isn’t difficult to meet. I don’t need a sworn translation of her partida de nacimiento (birth certificate) which is in English because they’ll accept a photocopy of the passport as is. They don’t even ask for the volante de empadronamiente, just authorisation to check up on the fact that we are registered here via the Oficina de Estadística. One school said it wasn’t bothered about proof of her vaccinations being up-to-date. The other didn’t need it translated – good job as it’s in a mix of Arabic and French.
school enrolment requirements

school enrolment requirements

The bottom line is, I am no clearer on “official” policy but relieved to see that – so far at least – the red tape is pretty slack. In fact, the paperwork seems totally feasible, and unless there’s a nasty surprise waiting for me, it’s not at all the bureaucratic nightmare I expected. The people, on the other hand, have fully lived up to my expectations, being amiable and pleasant all along the way. And as a bonus I’ve learnt some new words, such as…
  • el centro docente – educational establishment (as in France, any kind of paperwork always sounds like it’s trying to climb up in the world)
  • el aula – classroom (like el agua, it’s a feminine noun in disguise)
  • alumno/a – pupil (that’s current, or in this case future, but not former. The English word alumnus would apparently be ex-alumno or antiguo alumno)
  • tributario – not tributary, but tax/fiscal (think of the tribute, or even national insurance contributions)

The Problem With Arabic

Anyone who has put their minds to Arabic will know that the initial major issue is WHICH Arabic to learn, classical or dialect and if dialect, which one. Do you study the written language you can find in books, or the daily conversation Arabic which has no written form?


As a parent, trying to open a little window, even a tiny porthole, onto the language and culture, this problem takes on a new form. I can read my kids books in French, normal everyday useful French. I can even read to them in Spanish, and apart from the rubbish accent it’s the same Spanish people really speak, more or less. But reading books in Arabic to your kids is rather weird. Because these simple sentences are things that no mother would ever say to her child. No-one actually speaks classical Arabic in any informal situation. And classical Arabic really is vastly different to the dialects in my unprofessional opinion. It even makes things complicated for native-speakers teaching their kids Arabic as a additional language.

SNAP! or according to my 3-year old: "CAC."

SNAP! or according to my 3-year old: “CAC with a dot.” (from The Odd Egg in Arabic)

The result? No one reads my Arabic books to the kids. I thought people would quite like reading a story to the kids in Arabic and at the same time the kids would get some native input. So I pull out these lovely stories and they cuddle up on the sofa together, while I get on with preparing the dinner …only to hear Al Bayda Al Ajeeba (The Odd Egg) translated from Arabic into French. Or translated back into English. (Perhaps I should tape it and send it off to author Emily Gravett?) Not all my Arabic-speaking visitors do this automatic translation trick, but the majority. You’ve got to admire their linguistic flexibility.


It seems that the Lebanese are so unused to reading to kids in classical Arabic (let alone speaking it to them) that they naturally slip into other languages. And we mustn’t forget all the Francophile Lebanese who speak Arabic all day long in their daily lives, but only French to their kids.


No wonder many adult Lebanese find it such a drag to pick up a book in Arabic. They are not even used to children’s books in their native language (although I suppose classical Arabic doesn’t feel like their native language, and that’s the whole point). It’s a bit like French teenagers moaning about the ‘antiquated’ passé simple in French literature, but for Arabic it’s not just one verb tense which is no longer used in everyday language. It’s almost every part of speech.


While it is true that we could eliminate the French passé simple and just say the same thing in everyday French, I’m a bit of a romantic when it comes to language, so although it is more ornament than instrument, it doesn’t bother me. As for classical Arabic, it can’t be superseded as there is (as yet) no accepted written form of Arabic dialects (though I love the imaginative transliterated dialect I read online). More importantly, classical Arabic crosses the borders of the many Arab countries. That’s quite a sacrifice if you decide to opt for just one spoken dialect.


All the heavy debate aside, I just love to watch my 3-year old bouncing up and down on the terrace shouting “Wain el ‘amar?” (where’s the moon?) to her little brother who nearly falls over himself pointing and shouting “Amar! Amar!” (moon! moon!). Later they’ll have to learn that it is written something like “Ayna el qamar?” but for now I’m chuffed as it is.

Kids’ books in Arabic

I realise it’s a bit odd trying to introduce Arabic to my kids when it’s not my language. I know that out of the three key factors - need, exposure and prestige – none are really present enough for Arabic in our family. There’s really no need to speak of, since all the Arabic speakers in the family have a second native tongue, French or English. As for exposure, the kids only get a tiny bit of exposure from my in-laws, but at least it’s authentic. However, I’m not aiming to teach them the language as such. I couldn’t if I wanted to. I just want to open their minds to it, to give them the option of tuning in to it, rather than tuning out when they hear it spoken. By viewing it as important, I can at least give it a modicum of prestige. I also thought the native Arabic speakers we know would enjoy reading to the kids, although that side of it didn’t quite work out as planned.

So back to translated books. As for Al Gharfoul, as The Gruffalo is called in Arabic, I’m not qualified to judge the quality of the translation and I haven’t had much feedback from Arabic speakers. But we like reading it, and I’ve chosen a few simple expressions from it to use around the house with my three-year old, for example “ila ayna, ila ayna” (in the original, “where are you going”), “fa’ra” (mouse) and “lisayn aswad” (“black tongue”). This has been a lot of fun and my three-year old daughter does play around with these words on her own, along with a few others she has learnt.

The Gruffalo in Arabic, translated by Nadia Fouda

The Gruffalo in Arabic, translated by Nadia Fouda

I did notice a few short vowels are not printed. Probably it’s because these are words that would rarely be mispronounced, so there’s no need to add vowels for clarification even for children. Typically, if you can read a story this long in Arabic then you know the language well enough to pronounce these words correctly. But…I don’t, really, and this story is over my head linguistically. I have to decipher it fairly slowly. If my three-year old, who understands even less, wasn’t such a bookworm and a language nerd then she’d get bored. I rarely read the entire text in one sitting, and nor does anyone else. Sometimes I do the narration in English and the voices in Arabic.

The Odd Egg in Arabic, translated by Hanouf Al Buainain, Amira Abed

The Odd Egg in Arabic, translated by Hanouf Al Buainain & Amira Abed

So having learnt from this, I recently ordered the Arabic translation of The Odd Egg by Emily Gravett. Ironically, I used to borrow the English original from our little library in Beirut. Back then, my daughter wasn’t two yet. There is much less text than The Gruffalo. The text is also bigger and all on a cream background, making the script easier for me to read. As for the translation, in the original, there are some words in the illustrations, for example, comments by the birds, and the title of a book which is pictured. All of this has been carefully rendered in Arabic in the same handwritten style. Much better than the Spanish translations of Charlie and Lola, aka Juan y Tolola, which are in the local library; Charlie has been renamed Juan, but in the picture his top still has Charlie written on it. I particularly like the rendering of the owl’s brainy utterance which was a list of sums in the original: in the translation, it becomes a string of literary Arabic pronouns.

Conclusion: Both are lovely but I should stick to short stories for now!

It might be just what’s needed to trigger some passive learning. I do want my kids to feel attached to it as a family language. I feel attached to it, and I’m only Lebanese on paper, not by blood like them. If they were to take it further later, then there are native speakers in the family, it’s just that for now we need them to help us with French!

School Enrolment in Spain part 2

See here for Part 1 of School Enrolment in Spain.
After a good look at “colegios públicos” on Google Maps, I went along to the ayuntamiento (town hall) to start my real-people-research. The ‘Department of Education’ ended up being a nameless office on the second floor. In fact, a lady from the information desk readily accompanied me to make sure I got the right place. I’m consistently surprised by how patient and helpful people are despite my terrible Spanish.
In fact sometimes I wonder how they understand me at all. I stammer out stuff that I’m not even sure is Spanish, it’s probably French with a few more o’s and a few less nasals, muddled with English word order, and yet somehow they get it (probably from my body language) and answer me as if I were a normal respectable citizen. This did not happen when I moved to Paris. No-one was quite this indulgent, believe me.
ah, the joy of tax stamps

ah, the joy of tax stamps

One of my main aims was to find out which schools I can or should apply to. Our address is close to the border between two municipalities. One school I had in mind, which is just five minutes walk away, is actually in a different municipality, and the official told me there is no way to enrol there unless we get ourselves declared resident in that municipality. (I later found out this is not quite true.)
There are five other schools in our municipality within a 12-minute walk (thanks Google Maps for this precision!) so it’s unlikely I’ll actually end up having to drive them to school, something I really want to avoid.
He *thinks* the applications are in March. I guess he too is lacking a decent web site with all the basics spelt out.
In the list of establishments he jotted down for me, he marked one school with a small asterisk and another with a large asterisk. “Those are good,” he said matter-of-factly. I assume that the size of the star is linked to just how good he considered them to be. Then he told me the rest of the procedure is done through the school directly, and stood up to shake my hand. My visit was fast drawing to a close. I was still trying to figure out where to get my volante de empadronamiento to prove residence in my municipality, otherwise I would have tried to get more details on exactly what makes these two colegios better than the others.
Downstairs in the town hall, I paid for a couple of tax stamps (oh, the happy memories of Lebanese bureaucracy and tax stamps) and got my volante de empadronamiento. So the next stop is to speak to some schools directly. And gather local opinions on “good” schools in the hope of unearthing some actual information. Or failing that at least practise my Spanish.