I am struck, watching my two small children grow up in Berlin, how different their childhood is from mine in England’s industrial north in the 1980s. We are very integrated here – most of our friends are German. the nursery the children go to is German, and the places we frequent are almost completely German. Instinctively, my children say “guck guck” instead of “peepo” and “Aua!” instead of “ouch!”. They drink fruit tea with their afternoon snack and heavy dark bread is nothing unusual. Yes, for now, it would seem that my children are German, with only a streak of English.
I don’t really mind this, though I sometimes feel nostalgic for the things they can’t know: the jangling bells of the ice-cream van on a long summer’s evening; the feeling of a school uniform tie tight around a buttoned up shirt neck; grubbing around the back garden in a private kingdom. They will be city children, who remember going to public spaces to play out their fantasy games (parks and playgrounds), who slouch around grandiose nineteenth century city school buildings in jeans and the latest trainers, and only think of ice-cream as being from the organic ice-cream parlour across the road – if we stay here, that is.
It is inevitable that childhoods change over the generations. My parents experienced the tail-end of rationing, and most girls they knew became teachers, sectaries or nurses. When I was five, they bought a chunky desktop computer; its green and black screen still vivid in my memory. I was scolded for spending hours on the telephone, long wires twisting around door frames and handsets secreted into corners, and most girls I know became lawyers, business women and journalists. Now in this modern digital age, smart phones and tablets are ubiquitous. I don’t suppose my children will read many paperback novels. What they will have access to in fifteen years time is unimaginable, such is the current pace of technological change.
But bringing up my children as an expat, especially in an environment where they mostly speak a language which is not my own, adds another layer of difference, and at times, a sense of remoteness. As they absorb words and cultural norms that I have only learned and distantly experienced as an adult, I find myself wanting to consciously emphasise the aspects of our lives that make them English – in a way that I wouldn’t were we living in England: I insist we open our Christmas presents on the morning of 25th December, at birthdays it is always a sponge cake, and I parade around the playground in my old London-faithful wardrobe.
If and when we move back to the UK, I can imagine my German husband will feel more precious about being German again. Christmas will shift to the 24th, and fruit tea will be back on the table. Until then, it is I who can understand in the tiniest of ways how migrant communities become so deeply entrenched in the traditions of the homeland – because it stops home and your children from feeling so far away.