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.