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Friday September 20, 2013

Expat parents can have their cake and eat it

A newly arrived British expat in Majorca told me how difficult she was finding it to make friends with other parents at her daughter’s school. Having opted for the Spanish system, she waved off her daughter at the school gate each morning, unable to converse with local Majorcan mothers who had next to no English, or with her child’s teachers. Although she and her husband were taking Spanish classes, she didn’t feel confident enough to conduct a conversation and had begun to feel isolated and miserable.

I remember my son’s first day at a local Spanish school. He made my husband and me stop at a petrol station en route and bought a large packet of sweets. We indulged him because a daunting day lay ahead but he calmly explained his logic in the car. As the only English-speaking child at the school he would form introductions by offering sweets and if approached by bullies or ringleaders, would offer several. His gambit worked and with such small gestures he easily began to make friends until able to hold his own in the language.

In the early days at the school gates his classmates’ mothers would be full of good cheer, exchanging hugs and kisses and arranging sleepovers and weekend barbecues while I stood lamely by smiling and offering polite nods and holas. And then a few weeks into the term, our son’s teacher announced a class fiesta and following my son’s example, I quickly asked if he’d like me to make British fairy cakes for all the children and parents. He seemed delighted. My chocolaty, icing-drizzled creations went down a treat and various mothers rushed over to ask for the recipe. Thus began our entry into school life. Soon sleepover invitations followed and within a matter of months we were part of the gang. Admittedly we didn’t understand everything uttered but the other parents made a huge effort to help us as did the teachers and we began to enjoy a wonderful round of social engagements, walking weekends, dinners, fiestas and sporting events.

Whenever our son had difficulties with his Catalan homework – he was learning in the dual Catalan and Castilian system – parents would patiently talk him through the grammatical complexities at the weekend, and in return my husband and I helped their children with English. When an evening Catalan language course was arranged at the school I attended along with Castilian only speaking parents and brokered more friendships. A year after our son joined the school we held a traditional English sports day for children and teachers in our field with sack, egg and spoon, and three-legged races and served up tea, cucumber sandwiches and cakes. We had toy, book and cake stalls with all monies raised going to charity. It was a hugely enjoyable – if exhausting – day and sealed our acceptance into school society.

So I told the lonely expat mother to take the plunge and to try out her limited Spanish at the school gates and not to worry about making a fool of herself. With a warm friendly smile and an offer of help with English homework or extending an invitation to tea, miracles could be performed. And of course handing out fairy cakes at the same time might surely prove the icing on the cake?

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