Speak, that I may see a muddle

Although my Englishness is not the top thing I’d choose to draw attention to, nationality or origin does tend to come up when meeting people. I suppose it’s a typical ice-breaker question and it does answer those burning questions (sometimes unasked) Why do you look strange/like you’re not from around here? and Why do you sound strange/have an accent?


In Beirut, my identity could be succinctly summarised as “English”. Sometimes “European” was even enough. In Paris, on the other hand, where many people had visited the UK, “English, but not from London” pretty much covered it. Soon after I arrived in Spain I was asked the same “Where are you from?” question and I answered “England.” Then I felt rather stupid since the person asking was evidently English too and was wearing a look which said “Well, obviously!”


In my 13 years abroad I have never been surrounded by so many English people as here on the southern coast of Spain. Now simply saying “England” won’t pass muster in these awkward introductory moments where one is required to define oneself in a few choice terms before being allowed to move on to actual conversation. Not only must I be more precise, all the information I give will mean something, be processed and assessed by peers.


I can no longer merely be “English”, I have to be a southerner, from Devon, where all the posh folk are (so they tell me). Not that I need say much; my accent labels me a southerner before I admit it myself. At this point I should probably point out that most Brits in this part of Spain are from the Midlands or the North of England. Who would have thought that after years of being defined (superficially, at any rate) by my foreign accent in French and in Arabic, it is now my mother tongue accent that is getting me pigeon-holed.


I had spent a long time outside the English social class system. I didn’t miss it, I can tell you. Of course, every country has its class system, its social strata. In Lebanon, for many, being European alone was enough to put you in the upper ranks. But I could ignore that, with it being so out of touch with reality. This is something altogether closer to home. Everything I say is like a label for my little perch in that class-ridden society. A misleading label though.


Actually, I’m only a fake southerner. Where I grew up in a market town-cum-holiday village in south Devon, you only qualified as a “real” local if your parents were born there. Some people in school were from families who had been local fishermen or farmers or butchers for generations. The rest of us had moved in. I wasn’t a true local because my parents are from the north and the Midlands, both from working class families. So I grew up with a mixed accent; actually I think my parents’ speech varied a lot too depending on the situation, it’s just not the type of thing you think about as a kid.


I remember my older sister laughing at me when I was about 10 and inadvertently picked up the pronunciation of some local school friends – not a posh accent though, more a farming accent. And I was probably about 13 when I spent some time with a few “toffs” who laughed at my short-vowelled “fast” and “grass” and instead said “fahst” and “grahss”. A couple of years later, school friends pointed out that I sounded mostly normal except I said “lizzen” for “listen”.


I still seesaw between long or short a’s. Just the other day, while I was giving my three-year old a bath, she picked me up on saying what we would do “afterwards” with a short ‘a’. “We don’t say ‘afterwards’ mummy, we say ‘ah-fterwards’”, she announced from a mountain of bubbles. A bit rich, I reckon, since she gets her English almost entirely from me. Since she is learning to read, I do sometimes use a short ‘a’ sound on purpose when we are practising reading together as it seems inconsistent to read ‘cat’ with one type of ‘a’ and ‘pass’ with another. In my accent, the long ‘a’ is also the same sound as ‘ar’ makes in ‘cart’ too, making it particularly unhelpful for phonetic reading.


I was never aware of actually changing my accent as a kid, but I guess over my school years it was knocked into a fairly bland “standard” British accent of questionable paternity with the odd Geordie touch. (If you want to know what a fake southerner sounds like you can listen to me here, from about the 24 minutes mark.)


This may sound naive to proper Brits, but as an out-of-the-loop expat, I hadn’t realised quite how much I would be judged on my accent in my adult life. Now if only I could crank it up or down I could keep both camps happy…. but I’m afraid it’s entirely out of my control.


“Language most shows a man: Speak, that I may see thee.” – Ben Jonson

“I am Arabic.”

A few months ago, my three year old stumbled onto the topic of where we all come from. I have never tried to tell her she was any particular nationality. It can be quite a false measure of culture, and it’s easy to get the two confused at a young age. Still, I often talk about the facts of where we were all born or were living at a given time. Curious to see what she had understood I asked her a few questions, starting with the easiest:

“So where does mummy come from?”

“England,” she answered confidently. Of course. I left the UK an awful long time ago (I was 18), but we always visit my parents in England, in the house I grew up in, they speak only English, and I always speak to her in English. Not too hard. Next up:

“What about you? Where are you from?”

“Beirut,” she replied, without missing a beat. This made me smile, as even her dad never says he’s from Beirut, having lived most of his life in the US and France. Plus we left Beirut two years ago, and she only knows about a dozen Arabic words.

“What about daddy, where’s he from?”

“We don’t know,” was her succinct reply. And I think that about sums it up. Her dad is a mix of three distinct cultures. The origins of a third culture kid can’t really be packaged up neatly, which is what makes the questions “Where are you from, then?” or “Are you more cultureA or cultureB?” pretty tiresome. But what tickled me was her assumed independence from us. Why should her origins have anything to do with ours?


Merci kteer 7abibté. Killik zo'.

Merci kteer 7abibté. Killik zo2.


Another generation, another new country. Apart from being brought up in a country which is new to all of us, our kids already have parents from different cultures. Does that make them fourth culture kids?


In any case, I’m glad my little Beiruti will feel the part when we return to Lebanon next month. Even though I call her that tongue-in-cheek because it is ironic that she have come into the world during the years we were there. Had it not been the case, Lebanon would have been a distant dream by now. A completed episode, a mere fling, back when we were young and childless. Instead we will always carry around Beirut with us – on her birth certificate, in her Arabic child health record, in my memories of childbirth, and defining my introduction to motherhood.


Today the topic of Arabic came up.

“I am Arabic,” announces my daughter.

Clearly we haven’t worked on ‘Arab’ versus ‘Arabic’ and I’m not intending to. It’s confusing enough for a three-year old that there’s no country called Arabland and that all Lebanese speak French and English to her.

“Yes, you’re Lebanese,” I say, “and you have a Lebanese identity card.” She loves her passport, her zoo pass and library card (both photocards), so I thought she’d like that idea. She did, apparently.

“Does the card say ‘thank you for being Lebanese’?”


“Does the card say ‘thank you for being Lebanese’?”

I can only suppose my little Beiruti is muddling with the thank you cards we make for friends. Or else she has a marginally overblown sense of her own worth to the Lebanese government.

Why state school in Spain?

We first began asking ourselves the school question over three years ago. Our daughter was just born and I wanted to keep her at home for a good while yet, but it came up because we were planning to move house. We were thinking of investing in our own place in Lebanon, a place out of town above the heat of Beirut. We even had our eye on a pretty refuge among the parasol pines. Had we pursued that plan, our kids would have ended up in a private school taught in French or possibly English, learning Arabic in the playground.


Well, life did its thing and here we are in Spain of all places. When it comes to education, the choices are very different.



In Lebanon, where very little government money goes into state education, the standard of state schools was poor enough for us to feel a private school was the best option, both for a good general education, and to support the French language acquisition. Although we hoped for our children to mix with people of all backgrounds, and especially those who were less Europeanised or Americanised through private education, we felt private school was probably the only choice and would make for a smoother return to Europe later on. Also, unlike English, French grammar really requires formal teaching if you want to write well. So we know that if we don’t include that factor during their school years, our kids may grow up bilingual in the oral sense, but not fully “biliterate” (pending much effort on their part as adults – ask me all about it!).


Here on the southern coast of Spain, there is a large number of private schools, including many international ones. Most are English, with a large French one too far away to consider. I might have been tempted by the French option, as I always fear it will become the weaker language.

However, the English schools did not really appeal. It could be a very different story if our kids were older. It could be quite cruel to land a 13-year old in full-on Spanish school not speaking any Spanish, depending on their personality. But at 4 years old full immersion shouldn’t be too painful.


In fact, linguistically, I think the English schools would actually be unhelpful. English is the one language that we can crank up at no extra effort in the home. We are both native speakers, have plenty of English-speaking friends (nearby) and family (further away). And do I need to mention its global dominance?


In addition, the Brits are well known in this area for not integrating. Forming a circle of other non-Spanish speaking friends at a private school won’t do much for our own integration. These schools run on the pattern of British schools, with long days (until 4pm or 5pm instead of 2pm) and similar holiday dates to their UK-based counterparts. Although some wealthy Spanish families send their kids to these places, the schools are intentionally out of sync with local community life in cultural terms, on top of the linguistic gulf.


State school, on the other hand, could do something for our kids that we never could: teach them native-level Spanish, along with an insider understanding of Spain. Fortunately I have heard nothing but good things about state school here. Actually, that’s not quite true. I have just taken the negative points and filed them in the box of things I can cope with. All of them so far sound decidedly similar to my experience of French state schools. I spent three years as a language assistant working with kids from 7 to 18 years of age. Both systems seem to have in common vast amounts of homework, a strong focus on written work and long texts, a heavy reliance on textbooks, colossal schoolbags (perhaps a consequence of the above), a preference for “in-the-box” thinking, and lots of shouting by teaching staff.


So far, and at this young age, I can still happily put my kids in this context without feeling they will be stifled. For one thing, Spanish primary-age kids round here look anything but stifled. Apart from that, I feel their multicultural home and broader family life, along with travel, will compensate in terms of stimulating, out-of-the-box thinking. Although I may have been obsessing about schools for the past few months, I really feel it’s only a small part of their education. The rest is down to us.


This week we should find out if my oldest has got a place at one of the near-by schools, which will transform school from a speculative abstract debate into an altogether more concrete concept, both for me and my three-year old.


“I have never let my schooling interfere with my education.”  - Mark Twain

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, 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 did contribute 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)