Tales & images from life as me…

Archive for February, 2014

what makes a home?

In the non-literal sense, I’ve been building a home from the ground up these past two months and it’s got me thinking… which parts are actually important?

It all started with finding the property – and that’s definitely part of it, feeling safe and protected from the elements, being in a location that suits who you are. It’s certainly practical, but it’s hardly the critical ingredient. I think I’ve proven I can live just about anywhere over the years – I’ve done studio flats, student housing, my dark little Kenyan bungalow, and our great big place in TZ, a 26 bed dorm in Sydney, a tent which I moved throughout Southern Africa and all sorts in between! The walls and the location don’t make it home.

Step 2 was buying some basics and unpacking my suitcase, borrowing some things, and beginning to personalise the place, but the fact is it was empty until Damien arrived.

As soon as he landed and joined in the process the whole thing came alive and we shopped and we cooked and we discussed, and there is no question that good helping of love makes home considerably more, well… homely! But I’ll return to that later. For us, the next step was more practical – the arrival of our shipping container.

As we unpacked we unleashed great splashes of our old life together into our new one. The pieces sat a little incongruously together initially, but are slowly starting to meld. The unloading of ‘stuff’ marked an interesting transition for me. Some of it I had missed, or really meant something to me – often the old things or the keepsakes – but a lot of it felt overwhelming. This was partly because our tiny house here in the UK represents around a tenth of the space we had in our old house in Mwanza (!) so there were practical elements to consider, but also I was shocked by how metaphorically cluttered everything suddenly felt. Did we need all this stuff? How did we collect so much? I realised I’d been enjoying sense of freedom at having only ‘the basics’ until all this arrived and, whilst I was very happy to be reunited with personal items and see our beautiful Zanzibar furniture again, it felt rather like eating a MacDonald’s – all good fun but somehow artery clogging, slowing you down.

Since then we’ve sorted through the boxes and found homes for what we wanted to see every day, put several (ok around 40!) boxes into storage and found a balance for our new home. But I have vowed to shed anything I don’t use every six months or so.

Next step… the dogs! I’m the first to vouch for the fact that pets are part of a home (though I’m more of a cat or goldfish sort of a girl) and my husband was so excited about their arrival that no one could deny it’s part our home-building process (in fact, the night before I was kept in hospital for observation, potentially about to give birth, and you should have seen how torn he was – see my baby born or go to collect the dogs at Heathrow?!?! Really?!). It was no mean feat to get them here but now they are very much ‘at home’: Treading muddy prints through the house, taking up what little floor space we have with their beds and bowls and spreading short blonde hairs into every nook and cranny!

What’s ironic is that I’m sure I can feel how much they are missing Africa and it’s making me miss it even more instead of making me feel more settled. It must be a shocking transition for them arriving in the UK for the first time in their lives without any comprehension of what just happened when they were loaded into boxes and put on three different flights! And now it’s different smells, no open doors so they can wander as they please, no lizards or hyrax to play with, or askaris, different food, different weather, different rules. I can’t help but empathise a little.

Anyway, so we have the roof over our heads, we have each other, our stuff and our pets, but is it home? Not quite, somehow. It’s pretty great, don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining, we have so much and we have just left a home where people have so little. But it doesn’t feel real yet. It’s like the set for a play. We are, of course, awaiting the arrival of our baby any day now, but even that doesn’t quite feel real yet (despite the size of my stomach and the ache in my back and hips!). So what will actually make this a home for us, and for our son? It’s so strange to be creating a home for a whole new person, one whose personality is not shaped. I wonder what he’ll make of it all; which parts he’ll come to love, which items he’ll treasure (from the teddy he’ll choose as his favourite in his childhood, to the family heirlooms he’ll hang onto in his adulthood). What other ingredients must we add to make a foundation for him to grow?

I think perhaps it’s partly about shared memories – our house is a bit of a blank canvas right now. It definitely helped when my dad put our wedding photos up on the wall, but now we need to start making new memories here. And I think it’s a little about traditions – how your family does things, from Sunday roast to Christmas Day, cements your little unit and reflects your values. And the repetition of a family tradition makes it comfortable, and memorable too. We’ll have to decide how we do things, how we blend the traditions of our two families and of our multiple cultures to make it all work. I haven’t cooked a roast here yet, come to think of it, perhaps that’s a place to start. And as for Christmases, we are already starting to have our own unique little pattern of Italian, Scottish, English and African influences. No doubt I can add an Easter egg hunt and birthday treats and dog walks and movie nights and bonfire night parties and all those little adventures that we loved in our childhoods.

All that will take some time I guess. As will the other crucial element – people. Of course, I have my fantastic husband and best friend. In fact, I’ve just been blubbing over the movie The Notebook – not a good one to watch when you’re already emotional and full of hormones! I can’t believe I’ve never seen it before. It actually made me very conscious of the simple truth that home is really just wherever your partner is when it comes down to it and the children have left and the dusk sets in. But right now I’m at an earlier stage in proceedings and we will soon have a baby, so I think there has to be more to it than ‘us’ even if that is at the core of it all.

There’s no question that one of the elements that adds such richness to life is people. Friends and family. I guess it’s the thing that, as ex-pats, made us constantly refer to ‘home’ as the place where we were not (I think I have mentioned before how in England I was always going ‘home’ to Tanzania, in Mwanza my holidays were spent at ‘home’ in England). Home is where our favourite people are, and sadly for us they are scattered everywhere. We miss a lot of people in our lives, and we know that we will see them, but you do need friends who are part of your everyday life and who share in regular slices of your days. So now it’s time to meet some people here and make some new friends. I’m just having a hard time finding ways to this whilst I’m 39 weeks pregnant, can only waddle and feel like a bit of a weird potential-friend stalker! Again, I guess it takes time. I’m also finding it tough that our new friends will never have known me before we were a couple, or even before we were parents. How strange that will be (surely they will only ever know part of me?), and yet it has to happen if we are to settle here properly.

In the past I’ve been more of a ‘home is where my hat is’ sort of a girl, and never needed much to make it so. But here is a whole new stage in life. If home is where the heart is – I’m not sure mine is necessarily here. It maybe under an acacia somewhere on an open plain teaming with wildlife as the sun rises. But my loved ones are here and so my heart is here, and who can fail to feel happy when winter sun catches bare barked trees in silhouette or when someone greets you in your own language in a culture you understand and are accepted in? England has a lot of good parts and we will build a home for the foreseeable future. Perhaps the critical ingredient is time. And love, lots and lots of love.

I’d love to hear your additions to this list of what’s important, perhaps you’ll inspire us or help us find more things to get us settled. As always, thanks for reading.


beginnings and endings

It’s hard to spend a great deal of time thinking about birth and the beginnings of life without thinking about the end of life and the aging process. Creating a new generation means shuffling along that proverbial ‘mortal coil’ a little and realizing that we are getting older. We do this at intervals of course – the major birthdays, the big life changes (first day at uni, first job, buying a property, getting married) but not in such a specifically mortality-related way perhaps.

For a start, there are suddenly wills and guardians and life insurance concerns that crop up and we are forced to consider what might happen to our child if we were no longer there, but on a more subtle level there is the fact that our child will never see us the way we think of ourselves. They won’t remember our youthful looks – the ones that turned our partner’s head initially – they won’t know that we were wild adventurers, that we were carefree and unafraid once. They will see only the parent we have become from the time they reach around 7 years old and memory really establishes itself.

Instead they will be frustrated by our slowness, by our muddling stories or not understanding the leaps in technology, the latest music or what is now socially acceptable that wasn’t in ‘our day’. Is that it then? Have we had ‘our day’? And is it selfish to want it to continue? I’m sorry to sound miserly but, as much as I would give this baby anything and I haven’t even met him yet, I don’t want life to end. There is so much pressure to be this wonderful, selfless earth mother character in today’s society that we aren’t really meant to say this out loud (and I am trying to steel myself for some negative comments in response to this post), but the fact is I don’t want to stop my romance with my husband or our magical travels or the creativity that inspires me. In fact, more than that – I want my child to witness these things; to grow up with their light in his life so that he knows their wonder too.

Of course we are in the age of ‘you can have it all’ but I am not talking about having a job and a family. Not necessarily. I’m talking about NOT becoming the stressed out monster who moans about her lot, nags about homework and is all about getting through the day or keeping the routine. I’m talking about keeping the magic, the inspiration, the joy… even the youth? I know I can’t look like I did forever – I don’t recognize my body now and I’m really trying to prepare myself for the shock after it’s been through childbirth so I guess I have to suck that up (although I can’t help the little hopeful part of me that is kidding herself that with a little bit of gym work and a good diet… ha ha ha! Of course I also imagine the results will give me back my pre-25 figure!) – but the point is I’d like to feel young, to still have the urge to play, OK OK… and to look, at least, the way I recognise myself.

Wow I’m not painting a very nice picture of myself here, am I? Vain, selfish and scared of not being young anymore (even though, at 35, I’m clearly not that anyway!). But isn’t this a lot of people’s internal dialogue? Aren’t we all a little daunted by what we’ll become? Don’t lots of people in their 60s, 70s, 80s look back and feel a little sad they aren’t still in the thick of it all: healthy, vibrant, looking to a future full of dreams?

I am lucky that I have parents who still do a great deal, who get out and travel and live and enjoy the theatre and garden and read and get involved in the world, but even they won’t deny that it gets harder. And they stand beside us watching us forge ahead, occasionally stepping in to scoop us up when things get tough, without ever a trace of envy. Will I be good enough to do the same?

In many ways I think I will. I have had so much so far, and I know I have many years’ more experiences to gather up (life doesn’t end with a baby, it just changes – right?!) and I have such great hopes for the little boy we are going to love so much, I know I will be so proud of his every step through this amazing world. But I do not want to bear witness to my own fading and it is hard for any self-aware individual not to be conscious of that. Do I matter in the grand scheme of things? Not one bit. Have I changed the world in any way? Not yet. But he could, and maybe that is all that it’s about.