We’re on the road. We left Greece a couple of weeks ago for the first time in over a year to travel to Italy overland to see my parents and meet my brother’s daughter, Ines, who was born five months ago.

Those 14 months in Greece were the longest I stayed put in my adult life. This may not come as a surprise, if you’ve been following my work for a while. You may remember that my son Lorenzo was born while we were housesitting in Umbria, central Italy, and lived in that home until he was three months old. We didn’t have a fixed address again until we decided to settle in Greece between lockdowns. If you’re new to this space, however, let me tell you that I was born in Naples, in southern Italy, and I left when I was 17 to study abroad. It was 1999. Since then, I’ve lived in a dozen countries across the Americas and Europe for studies, work and love.

After meeting Nacho, my Argentine partner, who’s also a journalist, we decided to live out of suitcases while pursuing writing projects. Friends would tell us that we would stop once we had a child. Now they tell us we will stop when Lorenzo starts primary school. My father has given up guessing the future and has settled for calling us hippies.

When Lorenzo was born, we did not stop travelling. He came along with us during work trips to Lampedusa and Amsterdam, to conferences in Switzerland and Sweden, to visits with friends and family in France, Germany and Argentina. I sometimes worried whether this nomadic lifestyle was too much for him, but I usually concluded that travelling was an intrinsic part of my life I couldn’t shelter him from.

After so much movement, staying put in Greece felt strange but also quite natural. There was the pandemic, of course, and a lengthy lockdown. We dealt with a tough year: I lost my job at The Correspondent and launched this newsletter, faced the pain of miscarriage and dealt with the pressure of working full-time from home without childcare. Travelling did not seem feasible at the time.

Once we got vaccinated, though, things started to look different. I wanted to meet my niece in Italy and hug my family too. We packed our van, as we had done many times before, and we set off on a trip through the Balkans to reach Italy, where we are now.

Lorenzo was excited about the idea of seeing his grandparents, and that helped us through long days of driving. We listened to all his favourite nursery rhymes, played at spotting trucks and horses along the road, bribed him with cookies and read books. We even told him that once in Italy, he could try a gelato for the first time. There were some bouts of crying, but we made it.

Since getting to Italy, Lorenzo has gotten into the habit of asking for gelato every day (we are trying to ignore him) and has received way too many gifts. He’s met many of my friends, been at the centre of everybody’s attention and had many adventures. He’s also started asking for his home. He wants to go back to Greece and often talks about our neighbours and friends there. He says casa, the Italian and Spanish word for home. It seems that his first nomadic year of life has been replaced by a strong sense of where he belongs, at least geographically. While I grapple with conflicting feelings about what home is to me, I also worry that this long road trip is bringing too much change and uncertainty in his life right now.

But then, this morning, he surprised me.

We were playing by the pool at the accommodation we’ve rented in central Italy, overlooking olive groves and the medieval borough of Orte. There is a stationary bike that Lorenzo started playing with. He first hung his beach buckets, then his goggles, then the shoes that were lying around and some towels too. “I’m going to leave,” he said. And then he added “ciao ciao” and stepped on the bike with all these random objects. He was playing, of course, but isn’t that how children process their emotions – and traumas too? He was reimagining our travels and taking control of them. He was getting used to our road trip and to the constant goodbyes. We’ve been on the road for a couple of weeks now, but Lorenzo just really got the hang of it now, it seems. And so have I. Seeing him play like a travelling biker helped me relax. We parents often feel a huge burden with the choices we make – and guilt too. But children are much more flexible and imaginative than our fears and worries. I’ve spent most of my adult life travelling, but it’s my son who’s teaching me how to do it with a lighter, more playful spirit.

What I’ve been reading

This article gives an excellent overview of the famous box that every Finnish baby receives at birth. It’s an initiative that started in the 1930s when Finland was a relatively poor agrarian country – not the wealthy Nordic democracy that we envision now. It was meant to provide some basics for every newborn, including some clothes and cleaning products for the baby, but also what a mother may need in the first few months of the baby’s life. The box itself could turn into the baby’s first bed: a mattress, bedsheet and blanket were provided too. Overall, the baby box has become an example of how the welfare state could provide an equal start in life to every new citizen – and it has inspired a lot of awe internationally. Scotland, for example, sends out a baby box too, now. It includes a poem in Scots called Welcome Wee OneA charity that focuses on postnatal depression has criticised the poem for emphasising the happiness that a baby brings, and I think they are right. I also just simply love the idea of giving a poem to every newborn.

What I’ve been listening to

I am slowly making my way through the BBC’s Parentland podcast. As you can guess from the name, it is a parenting podcast with an active and international group of listeners on Facebook. What I’ve liked so far is its international outlook, with presenters, contributors and listeners reflecting on realities from different countries. So far I’ve found one episode particularly interesting, this one about raising a multilingual child. The show includes an interview with cognitive neurologist Thomas Bak, who speaks four languages and teaches many more and is raising a multilingual child himself. There are also fascinating insights into children growing up with many languages across Africa and how parents in the African diaspora are getting organised to pass on their native languages to their children abroad. I’ll be coming back to multilingualism soon, so if you have any thoughts or tips, please share!

What I’ve been watching

‘Nadirah: Coal woman’ is a stunning short animated documentary directed by UK artist and animation director Kate Jessop and written by French/Iranian feminist geographer Negar Elodie Behzadi. Based on Behzadi’s academic research on the stigma that female miners face in Tajikistan, the short tells the story of Nadirah, a woman who ends up as an informal miner to feed her daughter and herself after her husband goes away to Russia and forms another family. “Sometimes, when men are away, women stand up,” says Nadirah. But people in her village say that “women who mine cannot take care of the house, cannot make good babies, they cannot be a woman. If women mine, what are men for?” asks Behzadi. Well worth watching and sharing. (And thanks to Daniel, a member of this community, for sharing the link.)

Who’s been inspiring me

This online campaign by Afghan women to protest against the Taliban’s strict dress code for female students has inspired me hugely. Many women are using the hashtags “#DoNotTouchMyClothes and #AfghanistanCulture to show the diverse and colourful garments that are traditional to the country. It was Dr Bahar Jalali, a former history professor at the American University in Afghanistan, that got the campaign going on TwitterThis tweet portraying Afghan children in their traditional clothes made me happy and broke my heart at the same time.

With love and care,
Irene

📣 Catarina Fernandes Martins, a member of this community and a dear friend, edited and improved this newsletter with lots of love, logging in from Orte, Italy. Thanks, Cata! (If there are mistakes, they are my fault, not hers!)

📸 Photo credits and alt-text: red and green plane toys, photo by Sigmund on Unsplash.

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6 thoughts on “What my child is teaching me about travelling

  1. As a child I moved many times with my family because of the work of my father and it didn’t bother me at all, I liked to be in a new place and had no problems to make new friends.

    But as I was used to it I did the same with my daughter and she didn’t like it at all!
    So I think it depends on your character whether you are ground-bound or easy to move around.

    Now that I’m retired I am very happy with our second home in France where I really enjoy being ground-bound in the nature that surrounds our place, so things can change as well!

    1. Dear Catherina,
      Thanks for sharing this! I think you are right: there are people who struggle more with change and are more attached to routine and people and places. I remember longing for that when I was a child, and doing a lot of travel over the years. But I feel that my son likes routine more than me, and that’s why I sometimes worry.
      That said, I am feeling more and more attached to the idea of having a fixed home now. For the first time in years, we travelled back “home” after a road trip, and it’s been great to find my office and books in their place for once.
      So, yes, things can definitely change!

  2. I definitely think children adapt to such lifestyles, and I also think that their acceptance of moving around so much depends in large part on how we deal with it ourselves as parents (as with most things). Children’s individual characters will definitely influence this as well, but overall they naturally adapt.

    So far (with COVID measures so definitely not a normal situation), our daughter has always been fine moving around: we were the ones having the most difficulty with it and likely making things more complicated than they were in reality.

    There’s such a richness in cultures, languages and visiting places that you don’t get from staying in one place. Some may move around more than others, and over further distances, but the idea remains the same.

    Very interested in the newsletter to come about raising a multilingual child: we’re raising our daughter bilingual (Dutch/French) but we speak English between us so she’ll likely grow up speaking all three, or at least having a good understanding of them. We’ve heard that the most important thing is consistency, but not sure whether there have been any new developments in that area. Many families we know are raising their children multilingual, sometimes even three or four languages (one family we know has a rule at home that the kids can watch TV only in a language they don’t know: they’ve had French, English and Dutch, and are now on to Spanish). Interested to find out more and see what the different experiences are.

    1. Dear Patricia,
      Good to hear from you, and I totally agree that often it’s us parents that complicate certain things. I always think that going outside in the rain or cold is so much harder than going outside when it’s warm and I probably have an influence on how Lorenzo feels about being outside in the rain… But anyways. We do our best!
      As for multilingualism, there is a lot of information out there on consistency. If you check out the Parentland podcast I refer to in this newsletter, consistency is not the only important thing. I personally find it hard to start a relationship in one language and then switch the language, but I also know that it’s hard for other parents to stick to one language only, for several reasons. One of the things that I learnt recently that I think is very valuable is that children learn a language more deeply when they hear more people talking it. So community is as important as what we parents do, it seems.
      I’d love to hear more of your thoughts on multilingualism!

  3. As a mother raising her first child abroad, I wonder: don’t you miss having your friends or relatives around, Irene? Of course the pandemic didn’t help me and my partner find mates here in France and, as my child grows and becomes more responsive to the external world, I desperately would love her to have “a village” around her as it would be case if we were in Italy/as it is the case when we go on vacation there. I’m surely more worried than her about this because I was so unhappy with my parents not having any friends hanging around when I was a child.

    1. Ah, V, this is such an important question! I guess that part of my answer has to do with the fact that I left Italy when I was 17 and I went on to live in a dozen countries or so. So, I don’t have a clear sense of what “abroad” means to me. I do however think a lot about community, and where to have or find one. Unfortunately not even in Naples, where I was born, I have a community. Most of my friends left, and my brother did too, so there are mainly my parents there. My parents are scattered around the world, but we do have a clear community in Argentina, where most of my husband’s family and friends are. But is there where we want to go back to? We never have a clear answer. But I know for sure – and with Covid more than ever – that a “village” or community is what I would like to have around me and my family in the future, and that it takes time to build or find.

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