Home

Just before Christmas, the question that every expat hears regularly popped up again.  Chatting with a fellow traveller in Oman, sharing travel anecdotes and background stories, the conversation turned to my expat life – from childhood to the present day. Then, that question – friendly, casual and loaded with far greater weight than intended: “So, where’s home for you then?”.

Home. That idyllic notion of picket fences and apple pies, warm fires and close family, friends-for-life and roots extending through the generations. For third culture kids, like me, “home” isn’t like that. I gave my usual jovial answer: “Oh, I don’t know really (chuckle)”. But sometimes it isn’t funny. I left my country of birth aged two and, save for a brief return as I entered double digits, have never lived there since. Is it home? How about the countries and cities of my early childhood – though we never stayed for more than 2 or 3 years at a time. Or the village we moved to in my early teens where my parents now live? My University town? North London where I first lived in the big smoke or South West London where I last resided? My current home in Dubai?

These days most people travel for work or study whilst, of course, in a separate category altogether, many are forced to leave their homes due to conflict or persecution. However, in the majority of these cases, those leaving would still identify with the “home” left behind, to be returned to one day.  That part of my identity is missing.

To be honest, it hasn’t often bothered me over the years. When the “where’s home” question comes up, various answers spring to mind depending on the situation and the interlocutor: “nowhere and everywhere”(the travelling hobo option); “the UK” (the easy passport-affirming option); or “wherever my husband and children are”(the trite but true option).  Yet in the last year or so it’s started to prey on my mind – not for myself but for my now-expat kids – and the conversation I had in Oman has stayed with me because of them.

I am proud to be raising global citizens. Kids who travel the world and take it all in their stride, developing enquiring minds and empathy for those less fortunate than themselves. Discovering ancient temples and tropical seas, riding in tuk-tuks and trains and learning about ethical travel and the environment. With school friends from around 25 countries, an understanding of diverse religions and learning Arabic and French as regular subjects alongside maths and reading. They are experiencing an idyllic childhood and couldn’t be happier. But I still have those occasional expat parent doubts; the ones which are usually encountered in the darkest predawn hours. Where is “home” for them?  Is their exciting but nomadic life, away from extended family and without the ability to put down roots in a particular area going to be detrimental to them? Or, given the current state of global politics and the socio-economic and environmental challenges that will face their generation in adulthood, will this life of flexibility, open-mindedness and wanderlust stand them in good stead?  I wish I could know the answer to that.

Ultimately, wherever I have lived, without obvious roots tying me to a geographical location, “home” for this third culture kid was where my parents were and, as I got older, where my own growing family was based. I may not have been able to mark it on a map, but “home” was love, happiness, support and shared experience, wherever that happened to be. All I can hope is that as long as I instill that feeling in my own children, I will have done something right, no matter where the wind carries us.

 

 

Muttrah Souq, Muscat

The site of one of the oldest souqs in the Arab world and the former centre of commerce in Oman prior to the discovery of oil, no visit to Muscat is complete without experiencing the dizzying maze of lanes that make up Muttrah Souq.  A heady mix of fabrics, incense, trinkets and antiques, the vibrant colours and pungent aromas overwhelm the senses.

Visiting this labyrinth of treasures a few days before Christmas, we were on a very festive mission. Given Oman’s important role in the ancient incense and spice trade routes, we decided to see if we could find gold, frankincense and myrrh: it didn’t take us long. Countless vendors were eager to show us their fragrant wares and decorative burners and, refreshingly, they wanted to teach the boys about the incense and traditional perfumes on display far more than they wanted a sale. The legendary hospitality of Oman is epitomised in Muttrah Souq, with warm greetings and welcoming smiles at every turn.

From plastic toys to antique khanjars, heavy gold necklaces to fridge magnets, sacks of henna to cups of tea – Muttrah Souq has it all.  Wandering the lanes, from the dazzling windows filled with gold jewellery to the seemingly endless offers of cashmere pashminas, is the perfect way to while away an hour or two. With no real hassle and no obligation to buy, you never know what treasures you might find once you start to explore.

 

The dolphin whisperer

We set out across the Gulf of Oman not long after sunrise on the shortest day of the year: the sun low in the sky; the sea like glass; the horizon hazy in the early morning light. We were the only passengers and, as our captain was dubbed the dolphin whisperer, we embarked excitedly with a promise of a 90% chance of seeing at least one of three types of dolphin.  Crossing the open sea with the sun on our faces and the breeze in our hair, at times hugging the rugged coastline, at others weaving between the mighty tankers being slowly towed to port by tiny tug boats, always with an eye on the horizon, hoping for a glimpse of a pod of dolphins leaping through the air – it was idyllic.

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Well, it sounds idyllic, doesn’t it?

However, we all know that the reality of travelling with children isn’t necessarily reflected in the Instagram show-reel… We had only enticed our youngest pizza-fan, until recently phobic of boat travel, to go on the trip with the (false) promise that it wasn’t a speedboat (it was), it wouldn’t go fast (it did) and it would be worth it as we would see hundreds of dolphins (well, we didn’t). Ah. All was calm as we puttered out of the harbour and turned towards the sea and, well, you can imagine the scene as the captain opened the throttle and set off at breakneck speed across the ocean.

It truly was a beautiful morning – the coastal scenery was incredible and we were so lucky to be sharing the sea with just a few fishing boats, a string of towering ships heading slowly for shore and the gulls.  While we relaxed and took in the views, or huddled with eyes closed (guess who), the dolphin whisperer was hard at work. I’m afraid I have to shatter your illusions there too – his whispering ability was more a bellowing-on-a-mobile-phone ability, as he worked his way through the network of fishermen in his contact list to find out what they had seen that morning. The short answer was: nothing. We were about to be the 10%.

After a couple of hours, disappointed, we turned and headed back to harbour, stopping in a remote, sheltered bay of coral reefs teeming with tropical fish in lieu of our dolphins. It was a special moment and made up for the lack of dolphins. Satisfied, we started the engines to head for home. Just then, the captain’s phone buzzed. A fisherman far out to sea had just come across a pod. “Hold on, we have to go fast!” he cried. And go fast he did. Littlest pizza-fan’s face was a picture. Oops.

After about ten minutes, we slowed. The engines were cut and the captain pointed ahead of our boat. We drifted a safe distance away from one of the most remarkable sights we have ever been lucky enough to see. A large pod of sleek dolphins moving away from us, propelling themselves up and down through the clear waters further out to sea. I don’t think anything can prepare you for seeing these majestic creatures in open waters. We simply watched, awe-struck, for a few minutes as the sun glinted off their wet skin and the rise and fall of dorsal fins increased the distance between us, before starting the engines again and heading back to shore.

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We may not have seen many, but sitting quietly for those brief moments in the morning sun, surrounded by blue silence and watching the dolphins gliding away from us,  was a privilege. The dolphin whisperer had worked his magic after all.

 

Art in abundance – a family in Florence

Florence, the birthplace of the Renaissance and of gelato, is renowned for its abundance of world-class art. The museums, galleries and architecture are a dream for art lovers and provide an opportunity to appreciate some of the most exquisite beauty ever created by the human hand.

Unless, as a rule, you happen to be under the age of 10. If you’ve ever suggested a day of art appreciation to children, you’ll know that being “dragged around” galleries and ancient cities is “BORING”. The ennui sets in early in the day, the feet become leaden, and parents steel themselves for a day of compromise and disappointment. Exhortations that the painting you are looking at is world famous, hundreds of years old and the epitome of its genre are met with rolled eyes and heavy sighs.

The dictionary defines art as: ‘the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form…, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power’.  Nowhere exemplifies this more clearly than Florence, from the ornate facade of the Duomo, topped with Brunelleschi’s iconic red-tiled dome, or the ramshackle beauty of the Ponte Vecchio at sunset, to the countless treasures of the Uffizi Gallery. But in Florence, where art is closely woven into everyday life, the extraordinary has become the norm.  And this is what makes the art of Florence a family affair.

The streets are lined with gelaterie, their creamy fare decorated with fresh fruit and piled up in glorious, inviting mounds; pizzerie with rows of sumptuous pizza slices on display; and windows filled with confectionery that would delight Willy Wonka himself.  The small side streets are a maze of beautiful window displays, with artists sketching and selling their work on every corner. Performance artists enchant children of all ages, masquerading as statues or filling the air with giant bubbles to chase and catch. It is not only a feast for the eyes, but for all the senses, and the artistry of the everyday appeals to children in a more accessible way than “proper” art.

However, even appreciating the beauty all around you, the lure of the formal art scene in the city can’t be ignored. Fortunately, the museums and galleries are accessible to all ages and there is something that will appeal to even the most reluctant pint-sized art critic.

For example, the interactive exhibits and the free information app at the Museo Galileo  (www.museogalileo.it) keep little hands busy, while the giant globes and scientific equipment occupy the mind; the layout and design of the Uffizi Gallery, combined with excellent signage, allows for a truncated visit with weary children without missing the best of Botticelli, Michelangelo and da Vinci; and the magnificence of Michelangelo’s David  makes the queue for the Galleria dell’Accademia well worthwhile.  The sight of my children genuinely lost for words at the scale, precision and beauty of David was a moment to be treasured.  For the first time I could see that they “got” it and aren’t destined to be complete philistines for life!

It can be easy to underestimate the ability of children to appreciate art, but there is no denying that tiring gallery and museum visits can try the patience of even the most laid-back parents and children. Florence is the perfect antidote.

Pizzas galore in The Eternal City

The advantage of taking children to the stunning city of Rome is that there is always something available that they will actually eat. Whilst we have loved exotic trips to far-flung destinations, in part for the culinary delights on offer, trying to find fare to satisfy a fussy child doesn’t tend to enhance the experience! However, the abundance of pizza in Rome is like manna from heaven to both kids and parents alike.  With pasta and gelato completing the gastronomic Trinity, we could stop worrying about what to eat and could focus on the sights and sounds of the Eternal City.

We began our adventure when we picked up our keys for our rental apartment – a stunning 3 bed apartment in the vibrant bohemian area of Monti, just a stone’s throw from the Colosseum. A typical and atmospheric Italian home with shutters and sunlight, nuns chanting outside in the morning and vespas roaring past till the small hours, it was simply perfect.

 

Armed with the invaluable Lonely Planet “Not For Parents: Rome” city guide, our intrepid gladiators-in-training set off for the Colosseum, incredibly located only a few minutes from our apartment. The boys were thrilled by the sight of the ancient amphitheatre: we were thrilled that on the first Sunday of the month, which it happened to be, entry was free! My top tip is to get your tickets from the small ticket office for the Palatino, a few metres across the Piazza del Colosseo, which has almost no queue and enables you to then join the ticket holders’ queue. Be prepared to wait either way – at the Colosseum, there’s ALWAYS a queue! The ticket is valid for entry to not only the Colosseum, but also the Palatino and Forum.

Having had our fill of fighting imaginary lions and dreaming of rising through the earth to the roars of the crowd by way of trap doors, we returned to Monti for a well-deserved gelato break, before venturing on to the top of the Palatine Hill and Roman Forum. The views are breathtaking, the history awe-inspiring and the crowds dispiriting, but by the end of the afternoon we had two very tired boys with a new-found passion for Roman history, and they’d even learned some Latin and were spotting the famous SPQR engraving at every turn. It was time for a pizza!

There is so much to do in Rome, you could spend weeks there and never see it all. We only had three days, so tried to cover as much ground as we could. It wasn’t all history and ruins; the boys loved riding a bus through the city to the Bocca della Verita, navigating the metro, and visiting the AS Roma shop for football souvenirs.

 

 

Family highlights included: the gardens at Villa Borghese, which had a small land train, lots of green spaces and playgrounds where children, tired of museums, can let off steam, and a zoo; people-watching in Piazza Navona; strolling through small piazzas with bubbling fountains and cafes at each corner; eating spaghetti on the Via delle Paste; taking in the grandeur of St Peter’s Basilica; and marveling at the construction of the dome of the Pantheon. All provided stealth learning opportunities, and you are never too far from a gelateria.  The promise sealed by our coins in the Trevi Fountain is not the only reason we will return one day.