Siblings and the expat child

Growing up as an expat child, moving constantly between homes, cultrues and continents,  there were really only five constants in my life until the age of 13 when I left for boarding school: my parents, and my three siblings. To be more precise, my parents and my three brothers. And actually, to be fair, the 1970’s being the 1970’s, I saw an awful lot more of my brothers than I did of my parents.

We spent what I think of as my formative years (from the age of 4 until I was 8) in Manila, the capital of the Philippines. It was, for the priviliged expat children that we were, a fantastic place to spend a childhood. We went to a large, International school; lived on a safe, gated compound where we were able to freely move around and run barefoot to friends’ houses; spent weekends either at the Army and Navy Club diving from the high board or at the Maya Maya Reef Club, snorkelling and collecting shells on the beach. We had what I remember as a large house surrounded by garden, filled with various pets – from cats and rabbits to quails and cockerals.

Maya maya pic

But when I think back to those days, although I do have memories of my mother (shopping, putting on puppet shows to raise funds for a local family planning clinic, plaiting my hair, ) and father (listening to the BBC World Service, putting on his tie, showing us how to catch fish), it is the time I spent with my brothers that really stands out in my mind.

We had to make our own entertainment. We not only had no internet, playstation, Minecraft, tablets, Wii, computers and all those distractions of modern childhood – we didn’t even have a television. There wouldn’t have been much to watch even if we had – bar the 1976 Olympics (when my parents managed to borrow a set for that glorious summer, and we all gorged on Wacky Races and the Road Runner), and the 1975 Ali/Fraser Thrilla in Manila fight. But we found plenty to do.

My family (plus one stranger, minus one brother) on the summit of Mount Apo, the Philippines 1977

My family (plus one extra, minus one brother) on the summit of Mount Apo, the Philippines 1977

Card games, in particular, loom large in my childhood. Like the leader of some sort of slightly shady crime family, my eldest brother would regularly set up his own card school where we used centavos or pennies (depending which country we were in), beans or even matches (yes, really – this was the 1970’s don’t forget!) in the place of proper money. I learnt three-card brag, poker, gin rummy….I learnt to lie convincingly, not get too upset if I lost and how to spook someone else out about what was in my hand. All great skills for later in life!

We played numerous other games – from non-gambling card games (knock-out whist, something involving the black queen that kept getting called different things), to board games like Monopoly (never my favourite – it went on WAY too long) and Diplomacy. We  made endless, complicated mazes for our pet mice out of bricks. We climbed on the roof and scrambled under the house – trying not to entangle ourselves in the electric wiring. We spent hours swimming in our neighbour’s pool, playing Marco Polo and a game that you had to pretend to die and the one who died most convincingly was the winner….

We also travelled a lot so for much of our free time were away from our school friends. On a beach, in the middle of nowhere without our toys, our imaginations really ran wild. I remember one game where – as there were four of us – we became the Swallows and Amazons: finding an abandoned sail boat to use as a prop was the icing on the cake. I always had to be Titty – but my poor second-born brother was forced into being Susan. He seems to have got over it!

All of this doesn’t mean that we didn’t fight. Boy did we fight! I can still feel the pain of my hair being pulled from the roots, and there will always be a place in my heart for the dolly who got thrown in the swimming pool and whose eyes never opened again….But isn’t this part of growing up, of childhood? Isn’t the rough and tumble with our siblings one of the ways we learn how to behave in the adult world?

On the Kyhber Pass (also 1977)

On the Kyhber Pass (also 1977)

Of course childhood doesn’t last forever. In fact, my own children’s childhoods are passing in a flash. And as we grew older, we started to go our separate ways. There is six or seven years between the oldest and youngest of us siblings so while my younger brother was still quite little, the oldest was off to boarding school. We all followed one by one, but then it was university, the world of work – and then we were spread to all corners of the globe.

Childhood bonds don’t always translate into adult closeness, and so it has been for us (although the birth of our own children has brought us closer than we have been for a while). But the shared childhood, so precious because we were our only constants, will always be there. I look at my own two girls now as we are about to take off for another overseas adventure and I hope that they too will look back on these days, and the time they spend together, as a precious time. Even if I don’t let them gamble with matches!

In memory of my eldest brother Matthew Quantrill: May 21st 1965 – June 30th 2014.

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A tale of a toddler, a crayon and a multilingual experience in Czech hospital

A perect example of why it’s always wise to be prepared (where to go, how to communicate when you get there…) for any medical emergency when you move overseas. A scary situation at the best of times, somethig like this can be very daunting if you have just relocated somewhere new.

Having two small kids around, it helps to occasionally let go and allow yourself not to worry about little things. Little annoying things. For example, mess all over your flat, plastic cutlery in a socks drawer, toys in a kitchen cabinet, etc. A tidy up maniac that I am, I think, I’m doing pretty good nowadays, trying to control the urge to wash everything as soon as it gets dirty and yesterday was a pretty good example.

You know those soft crayons, which are made specifically to use as a face paint? My girls love them. Not only do they’d colour all of their bodies in an Indian/Avatar patterns, these crayons are easily washed off the surfaces, therefore, mom doesn’t get all mad, when they make living room laminate floor so much prettier. The colour of the day was black and by the time the girls moved on from body…

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Bliss: A Moment in Time

Today’s photo101 challenge is to capture our idea of ‘bliss’. I was tempted to take a picture of a box of Hotel Chocolat chocolates because obviously that is the most blissful thing I could think of. But I came across this picture of my youngest daughter, M, on a swing in our garden in St Lucia and I love the double meaning. It’s bliss for her, swinging in the garden, mastering something she’s just seen her older sister do. But her little baby chubbiness is also blissful – you forget this stage so quickly, when you’re trying to cope with endless tantrums and fights and mounds of washing…don’t you just want to go and squeeze her?

Martha on a swing in St Lucia

She’s got it!

I’ve also just noticed her shoes are on the wrong feet!



Seychelles Mama

I’ve spent my whole life feeling home-sick for somewhere….

As part of a trailing spouse link-up this month we have been asked to write about home-sickness. At the moment, I am home. But that doesn’t mean I don’t get home-sick. For all my life I have been leaving places – and people – behind. And even now I still get a pang for countries that are so far in my past I can hardly remember what they feel like.

A friend of mine has recently returned from a posting in the Philippines. On her arrival back in the UK, she posted a set of photographs – set to some stirring song or another – of her time in that beautiful country. As I watched the pictures flick across the screen in front of me they not only showed me what a fabulous time my friend had had, it also brought back my own memories. And suddenly I was there again – the smell of Frangipani on a humid tropical evening; the excitement of arriving at our favourite beach resort at the start of the weekend. Diving from the top board at the Army and Navy club – and the agony when the perfect arc turned into a belly flop. Eating pizza at Shakey’s. My first sleepover, at a Korean friend’s house. Birthday parties with the rich children from school at the Country Club. Running barefoot round the corner of our gated village to my best friend’s house….

Maya maya pic

The Philippines in the 1970’s

The feelings are fleeting but they are still there. Another example: I recently met someone who is about to be posted to Venezuela. I spent some very formative years of my life in that country – we were posted there when I was 15 and left when I was 19. I was at boarding school for much of that time but spent most holidays in Caracas and then a year there between leaving school and university.

As we spoke about what Venezuela was like (sadly very different from the country I knew – so safe I was able to go out at night on my own, finding my way home via taxi’s or lifts from strangers I met in bars; now it’s all armoured cars and close protection teams), I remembered trips to the Llanos, swimming at the base of the Angel Falls, endless cinema outings to watch the latest 80’s teen movie. Terrible clothes shops. The blandness of arepas, but the wonderful beef. These memories are deep but they haven’t gone away.

Yes I get homesick all the time – for all of these countries and for more. For verdant New Zealand, with its stunning views and laid-back people. For Jamaica, where I met my husband and we spent the weekends underwater. For St Lucia, with its beaches and its pools. Even for Pakistan, a strange three-month interlude in my life where I barely touched on getting to know the country but nevertheless gained so much.

Jamaica wedding

Jamaica wedding

But all of those will still pale into insignificance when I move abroad again this summer as I know the one place I will always miss more than any other is this one.

I wasn’t born here – that honour goes to Cuba – but I have always known the UK is home. Maybe not even the UK, maybe more significantly England, or perhaps even west England, where I live now. We always had a house in this country and family. We returned here between postings and I went first to school and later to University here. I have lived and worked here – in Kent, Hertfordshire, Essex, the Midlands, the west, and of course London. I know the people, I know the humour. There is no other country that does better television. We have our radio and our music. Our culture and our history. The NHS. Marks and Spencers. Cheese rolling and Morris dancing. We have the diversity of Birmingham. We have the beauty of the Cotswolds. In my opinion, having travelled and lived in all four corners of the globe, there is no better country in the world.

The view from our kitchen window

The view from our kitchen window

So why do I keep leaving it? This is a good question – but maybe one of the reasons I love it so much is because I do keep going away. This gives me a different perspective on this place, I can see it from a different angle. And while others might see ambulance queues and GP waiting lists, I see free and universal healthcare open to all. Where others complain that our politicians are corrupt, I see freedom of speech, freedom to wear (almost) whatever we want, freedom to complain openly and voraciously about those politicians. And where others moan about immigration and foreigners taking our jobs, I see an open and generous country.

But of course I won’t just be homesick for the country as a whole, I will be homesick for the little things, the meaningful things, the things that really mean OUR home. The autumn blackberry picking. Chats with other mums on the school run. The girls running outside to play with their friends in front of our house. Being able to walk into town and buying sausages from the local butcher. Reading the Times on Saturday afternoon with a coffee. Looking out of my window at the oh-so-familiar view of the road, trees, houses and play park in front of our home.

All of these things are what I miss. All of these things are what home means to me. And all of these things will be what I most look forward to when it’s time to return.


Read more about other trailing spouses’ experiences with homesickness:

• Elizabeth of Secrets of a Trailing Spouse shares how homesickness wasn’t what she expected
Tala Ocampo writes about the Life that Was in the Philippines and how she would still say yes to the trailing spouse life
• Yuliya of Tiny Expats relives the sensory experience of being back home
• Jenny of My Mommyology explains why we become homesick in the first place
• Didi of D for Delicious talks about her love-hate relationship with her home country