A portable home

Creating a feeling of ‘home’

Lamia with Aasha the Haboba – Khartoum, Sudan

Whether as an expat family, a trailing spouse, or an expat child growing up in more than one place, as you move from one new home to the next quickly creating a feeling of ‘home’ in a new place is vital.

As a child I moved around with my parents between four countries and seven schools and nurseries up to the age of nine. We followed my father’s work around the Middle East finally ending in the UK to escape President Nimeiry’s military coup in the Sudan. With every move my mother settled us into each new home, creating a sense of stability with a couple of simple routines. It helped to soften the blow when we had to leave our friends.

Playing with a friend’s pet birds, in Cairo, Egypt
Playing with a friend’s pet birds, in Cairo, Egypt

Some families keep pets. We displayed souvenirs

A few of our friends kept pets with them; pets help create a familiar feel to a new home and settling children into a new location. At the time we knew several expat families from the US or UK who took pets with them, or bought new pets shortly after opening the doors on a new property.

Because we moved regularly from post to post, pets were off the menu until we settled in the UK. However, my parents had other ways to quickly establish a sense of home.

During our years on the move they collected a small number of portable souvenirs from each place which proved to be of great sentimental value though little financial worth, however, to this day they continue to evoke each place we visited. On arrival somewhere new the first thing my parents would do is to display these objects in order to make our new house seem more like home.

Crafted Tric Trac box in wood and mother of pearl from Khan il Khalili in Cairo
Crafted Tric Trac box in wood and mother of pearl from Khan il Khalili in Cairo

This was a curious collection. My favourites were beautiful ebony sculptured heads, wooden carved artefacts from Sudan, tric trac (backgammon) boxes and other wooden items encrusted with mother of pearl selected from the Khan il Khalili souk in Cairo and small finely worked silvered items from the Lebanon.

Nothing among these items was of any great worth to anyone except us. Each of these small nick-nacks has evocative powers because they were integral to every move.

First time shopping to make our favourite meals

They next thing we would do is go shopping in the new town to make our favourite dishes. There is no substitute for the smell of your favourite foods home-cooked. We would look to find the raw ingredients we loved and discover together new foods that we didn’t recognise. I remember trying a custard apple for the first time in a market in Egypt, reluctant because of how ugly it looked and surprised by how nectar sweet it tasted.

The custard apple or Annona reticulata (hyperlink https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Annona_reticulata ) is not the most attractive fruit.
The custard apple or Annona reticulata is not the most attractive fruit.

Then at the next cart in the market my mother and I were offered the most unbelievably ripe dates that simply melted in the mouth, a far cry from the dried and shrink-wrapped tablets we now chew at Christmas in England.

Strangely, as we toured the Middle East we tended to stay with the same food shopping list always comparing which market had the ripest fruits, the reddest tomatoes, or the best barbecue corn. And yet when we arrived in the UK the supermarkets were quite a revelation. I remember thinking Safeway’s on the Edgware Road in London to be a vast emporium with so many new foods all available at the same time. And yet when we picked up the fruits and vegetables hygienically wrapped in cellophane there was no smell or touch to stimulate the taste buds. How could you choose the best? And remarkably my mother simply couldn’t find courgettes (zucchini) in store because they simply did not feature yet in the British diet. Early disappointments with the produce led us to try other items, and we quickly adopted the English habit for biscuits and cakes, jams, marmalades and chutneys to replace the distinct fruit and vegetable flavours we missed from the Middle East.

To this day …

I am conditioned to feel more at ease when sitting in my home if I have some favourite objects visible around me. I too display them around my house. They continue to give me a sense of well-being and continuity. Now in my current home in the UK I have ended up with my own curious collection of very portable items that would mean next to nothing to any other family, but to us they conjure up extraordinary memories of baking stifling heat when alighting the plane in Khartoum, or a stunning seaside in Beirut, or the souks in Cairo teeming with all manner of exotic life, beautiful objects and handy-crafts.

Today my family’s diet is enriched by an abundance of raw foods available in range of supermarkets, and a remarkable number of chefs vying for our attention to show us how to produce exotic meals. Yet I only have to trip across custard apples or ripe mangoes and I am transported back 40 years!

By Lamia Walker
Founder and Director – HouseSitMatch.com


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