I was watching my children today as they played on the beach. They were heading into a February sea, their skin purpling with cold, goosebumps flaring, hair wild. They ran in, ran out, screamed for wetsuits, scraped their wet, sandy feet through the neoprene leggings, and dashed back in. Immediately I was on the alert — checking the horizon for bumps, watching every wave as it rose from the distance — this is an area where sudden swells or rogue waves occur. We have rip tides, currents, undertows, and most of all, cold. It was a sunny day, the wind cut across the shore, the sea was mild enough, and there were no large waves.
‘Not out of your depth.’
They played in the shallows, pretty silhouettes against the turquoise water and bright sky. After a while, they came out, shaking with cold but beaming, ready for towels, pasties, fleeces, and hot chocolate smothered in whipped cream and marshmallows.
Then we drove to the local pool for more swimming — this time lessons in the indoor, heated pool, where fluffy towels hang on poolside rails and the café kettle is always on. Here, with no weather and all non-swimmers supervised, I relaxed. We dove for toys, idled up and down the pool, and gazed blankly at the ceiling, while mothers warned their children not to splash.
As I bobbed in the tepid, UV-cleansed liquid, I wondered what narrative I’m giving to my children. What’s their childhood going to look like, when we have time to pause and look back?
Do I protect my children or stifle them? Which is the better parenting — the scary cold beach with all its wildness, or the tepid leisure centre with its safety and discipline?
I want my children to have all the experience of the wild, all the toughness it brings, without any of the danger — above all else they must be safe and secure… where’s the balance? How do people find that balance? Should we look to our own childhoods?
My own childhood was ace, but I nearly faint at the thought of duplicating it. Especially the bits I enjoyed most.
My parents were wonderful — attentive, loving, and strict, but they just didn’t fear the world as I do. I was telling a friend about when I was ten and we went to Greece for a holiday. Our stay overlapped with a Swiss family’s by a few days, and in that time I befriended Élise, a Swiss girl my own age. We played in the pool, overseen by parents who didn’t speak one another’s languages. I learned about fifty words of French so that Élise and I could buy each other ice-cream and at the end of the week, we parted company.
But not before our parents swapped phone numbers.
A few months later, my parents drove from England to Switzerland, deposited me at Élise’s house in Geneva “to learn French and look after my brother”, and then left to visit Germany, Italy and, one assumes, everywhere in between.
Élise and I stared at one another, our brothers did the same, and we all got on with it. I don’t remember really speaking, we just played wordlessly — tag, hide and seek, and lawn picnics… my only vivid memory of consciously learning any French was when I got Élise to follow me to the cellar, ‘Qu’est-ce que c’est, cela?’
‘Yaaaaark! Araignée, degueulasse!’
Everyone got on well, my brother learned to ask for yoghurts, I learned to avoid spiders, Élise’s parents were very nice, and it was fine, but after three or four days of constant companionship with this near-silent English girl, Élise quite understandably wanted to see her friends. I, meanwhile, was starting to wonder when my parents would return — I wanted to speak English and whine for chocolate and pop in the back of the car. Élise’s mother decided we should work out our frustrations on a pair of bikes so we were packed off down the lane with the promise of tea on our return.
We both loved cycling, so we were relaxed and happy as we passed through the ‘burbs to reach a quiet road cutting through a rolling landscape of fields and scattered farmhouses. And here, in slow, easy French, Élise explained that she wanted to nip off and see one of her friends — so she’d meet me in the road approaching her house just before we were due back. As soon as she’d finished speaking, she sped off down a narrow lane and by the time she’d vanished around a corner, I’d forgotten the directions home. It had taken me less than a minute to become completely lost.
I decided to cycle up the slope, to see what I could see from the top.
I remember standing on the bend of the road overlooking a valley in the Swiss sunshine; eleven years old with no real grasp of the language, no idea where I was, and no one in the world knowing where I was. There were flowers in the verge, the earth smelt of summer, and I wasn’t tired, hungry, or thirsty. I distinctly remember a moment of wondering whether I should be afraid or not, and deciding no, probably not. Not yet. I racked my brain for anything helpful and remembered the area we’d cycled through — so all I had to do was find someone and ask. There were houses I could call in at, if I couldn’t find my own way home unaided. So it was fine, right?
I was quite shy, so I started by trying to find my way back by myself. I remember feeling moderately confident, cycling a while, enjoying the place and, truth be told, the solitude. I remember a little while later thinking, ‘Not sure it should be taking this long, erm, eeep...’ and I remember finding a woman, shouting, ‘Bonjour! Où est Plan-les-Ouates?’ and her pointing and talking. I remember managing, ‘Merci’, but not knowing whether I was expected to say more; I’d only understood the pointing.
It took a while to find a road I recognised and again, the search passed comfortably at first, followed by a growing disquiet, and finally a familiar corner and a street I knew, and the magical feeling of having been lost and not being any more. Of knowing that it was now all under my own control — I could cycle in now, or later — entirely up to me. I still wasn’t unduly tired or hungry, my parents wouldn’t be worried… it was all fine. I remember cruising down around the corner and swinging into view of the house. I remember people running towards me.
I remember walking up to my brother playing on the lawn; he’d not realised I’d gone so he just smiled, and we climbed onto the garden swing-chair together in the evening sun.
‘Jeudi,’ Élise’s mum answered my question.
My parents would be coming to pick us up on Thursday.