I remember when I was a tiny girl, and holidays meant two weeks a year on the beautiful beaches of South Wales. We always went to the same area, the same beaches, and it felt like coming home each time when we finally made it back to the sands. It must have rained sometimes I suppose, but I don’t remember that so much – perhaps in everyone’s happiest childhood memories the sun always shines. I remember rock pools, and collecting shells and crabs and pebbles that took on the most luminous hues when wet, and the whole family digging all day building big forts to get knocked down by the incoming tide. And it must have been fine a lot of the time because I also vividly recall the odd run-in with severe sunburn, even though we presumably had an ozone layer in those days – so it’s not all rose-tinted nostalgia, it was just that pre climate change the seasons were relatively reliable and predictable.
I remember asking my beloved Nana once, about whether people were allowed to actually live near the beach all the time. Yes, she pointed out, she did herself – at the time she lived in Plymouth, and was indeed a short bus-ride from the coast. I remember trying to analyse that thought, as we never used to go to Plymouth in the summer and it hadn’t occurred to me that it was the same kind of thing. That grown-ups could make that choice… mind-blowing stuff for me, however old I was at the time. I determined at that point that when I was finally a grown-up, living by the seaside was for me. I had never actually left the UK at that time, and my childhood visions probably involved windbreaks, woollies and wellies along with the buckets and spades. But I really couldn’t imagine any finer way to live.
In my teens and twenties I discovered the wonders of the Greek islands and the Mediterranean however, and the dream inevitably evolved somewhat. I started to grasp the potential of the seaside without the British climate. Not seriously thinking about emigrating at that point of course, but enjoying lovely island-hopping holidays with family and my husband-to-be, and dreaming about and saving up for the next one between times. We always chose the quieter family resorts even in our early child-free days, preferring to hang out in little villages rather than wild clubbing meccas full of other Brits demonstrating their finer ambassadorial qualities. I remember the wistful excitement of going to get the developed holiday photos back from the chemist – remember that, when we had to wait a week or so for them! – and being momentarily whisked back to the sun-soaked memories, the same feeling as when you bought that year’s summer hits compilation tape and danced yourself back to the hotel beach disco momentarily… After which reveries and briefly boring all your friends for a while, you put them both of them away with a sigh, and got on with real life.
By then I’d forgotten that childhood promise to myself, of going to live by the sea when I was grown up. As a grown-up myself by then I was finding that work and accommodation and considerations like that became very distracting and compelling. To a great extent these factors dictated where and how one lived – back then work was a place you went to, not a thing you did. So I did what everyone else was doing and got on with building a career and a life, looking forward to the times we could escape to Wales or the Med on brief holidays. It was pretty straightforward, if I hadn’t commuted and lived in London and pursued a graduate career, there’d have been no chance of paying for the holidays in the sun we craved!
The new millennium brought our first baby girl, and that sense of panic that hits every new parent at some point. How on earth can we keep this infinitely loved and precious and vulnerable creation, that fate has somehow entrusted to us in our ignorance, safe and happy and well? Especially in a world so utterly flawed and dangerous and unpredictable. At the time we were living in South East London, and I was doing community development and race relations work in some of the roughest parts of town. I had no illusions about the grimmest realities of inner city life, and the first house we bought was in a seedy and run-down area with major crime problems – even though looking back to those times it all seemed much calmer and safer than it does now, in the days before the War On Abstract Concept and heightened fear and mistrust.
I remember watching the first series of Castaway, (the first ever ‘reality TV’ programme, full of normal people not aspiring TV stars) – a bunch of strangers who were dumped on a Hebridean island to form a homestead and community and work the land and live communally. It seemed so far removed from our London life, and glued as I was to the late-night re-runs on my baby-feeding shifts, I felt some stirrings of potential for things to change. I had these weird post-natal longings to live more simply and more closely to nature… even though I definitely didn’t fancy the toilet trenches and the drizzle very much, it was striking a chord and tugging at my dreams in a way I couldn’t quite put my finger on. Perhaps it was no more than the sense of a community, that the children were looked out for and minded by all collectively, that each person was accountable to the group for their behaviour and contributions. They felt that they were part of something greater than their individual personal or family unit, they had a stake in the outcome for all. Is this what I had imagined a career in the community sector would be like? If so, it was a stark contrast to our street in our grimy suburb, where we barely knew or spoke to our neighbours, and I couldn’t imagine our baby girl ever being big and old enough to safely play outside.
But then my thoughts turned again, to the basics of daily amenities and communications we depended upon. To the new business I was trying to develop in London, the internet and easy travel to meetings that business was going to depend on, oh and the mortgage and the new life to feed… so none of it made any immediate sense at the time, and in due course I snapped out of baby-brain-hood and got on with real life. Building a new business gave me the flexibility to stay home with my little girl, and we focussed on the home within our walls rather than looking outward to any sense of community life. At that point being able to travel regularly into central London and other cities was crucial anyway, building business relationships in those earliest days of the new millennium depended on face-to-face contact – taking people to lunch, showing up at conferences and being visible, was essential in developing a new brand.
Of course we went back to Greece and the Med when we got the chance, this time with our young daughter. The holidays were suddenly quite different then as every parent finds out the first time they go away with young kids, the experience of vacationing will never be the same again… but an added dimension to the holiday was experiencing the Mediterranean culture for the first time as a family, as parents. Having observed the differences before, we were now part of it from the inside.
We were astonished to find that our boisterous and adventurous toddler was actively welcomed everywhere we went, from shops to museums to restaurants – anytime of the day or night she could run around freely. If she cannoned into a display unit in a shop the owner laughed and helped her up, waving away our mortified apologies and offers of help clearing up his scattered merchandise. Whilst we sipped our wine on the restaurant terraces, she dashed around between the tables, disappearing in and out of the kitchen, sometimes coming out again clutching a biscuit and followed by a grinning granny. The old Greek ladies weren’t scared to pick her up and give her a cuddle or a snack, and she made friends with other little kids somehow, impossibly, across the linguistic barriers.
After dark, other people’s kids weren’t some terrifying alien entity. We were just another inter-generational family strolling around. The towns in summer were full of teenagers hanging around in groups, from a distance it looked a bit like London – but they weren’t scary or intimidating, they were cheerful, relaxed, and loud but in a non-threatening and upbeat way.
So, for a great many years, we continued to do all we could to spend every moment of annual leave in Mediterranean sunshine, and carry on trying to be parents the best way we could in an environment that just felt increasingly wrong for us and our values.
To be continued!