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Dublin: 5 °C Monday 24 February, 2020
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'There was a lot of nodding and smiling': 6 unexpected learnings from my first year abroad with a baby

Nathalie Marquez Courtney shares the challenges – and some lovely perks – of raising her son Ari in a foreign country.

Image: Shutterstock/Rasstock

OUR SON WAS born nine months after we arrived at our new home of Lisbon, Portugal. We actually found out I was pregnant three days into the move.

Immediately, our grand notions of intense language classes went down the toilet – along with most of my breakfast – in those first few months, so by the time he came along we still felt like we’d just arrived.

Here’s some of what we learned about what living abroad with a baby is really like. 

1. There was a lot of nodding and smiling

This is probably just as true when you’ve got a new baby in your home country as well. No matter where you live, you’ll no doubt be greeted with a flurry of wise words and “helpful” guidance whenever you venture out. But it’s one thing to nod and smile along to unsolicited advice – and another thing to not understand it completely. For all I know, we could have been cheerfully agreeing that yes, we will be getting our son’s ears pierced any day now.

2. We had to rethink lots of items on our baby list (like Sudocrem)

Things that would be on most Irish parents’ must-have list, like a cellular blanket or Sudocrem, were impossible to find here. And we soon realised that our biggest priority for buying a buggy was going to be whether it would fit into our apartment building’s teeny, antiquated lift. The result is that ours looks like a doll pram when compared to the roomy, SUV-like ones our Irish friends have. 

We also ended up having to order him PJs online – the Portuguese stores were packed with fleece-lined jammies, even though it was August and well over 30ºC when our son was born. We felt the temperature completely differently than natives did, and our kid was usually wearing two or three fewer layers than most other babies. Even now, older Portuguese women wrapped in jumpers and shawls lament our poor baby, wearing “only” a t-shirt and shorts on a 25ºC day.

shutterstock_287399501 Source: Shutterstock/ivkatefoto

3. It forced us to learn the language in weird and wonderful ways 

I never thought I would learn how to say “he has four teeth” before learning to ask where the train station is, but there you have it. Learning Portuguese through parsing the very friendly and overly familiar things you hear over and over from the besotted Lisboans in our neighbourhood has been a fun part of our experience. It’s how we leaned “weeks”, “months”, “beautiful”, “friendly”, and how we practiced all of our numbers.

Thankfully, most Lisboans are infinitely patient with our embarrassing lack of language skills, happy to coo and clap affectionately when they realise we don’t understand what they’re saying. But, we’re fast learning that while we may not have a clue, our son definitely does. Just this week, he started waving and saying “ciao, ciao” to the staff at our local grocery store. He’s not saying “bye” in English yet, which has made us realise we really need to brush up on our Portuguese as he’ll no doubt soon start saying things we don’t understand. 

4. Even the most basic of medical stuff can be daunting

We had a bilingual doula for my son’s birth, so I wasn’t too worried about not knowing what was going on during labour. But once he was born and the stream of check ups began, we started to feel daunted. Most doctors tend to speak English but often the nursing staff – the ones responsible for administering vaccines and charting his growth stats – didn’t. Seeing someone stick a needle into your tiny, squirming baby isn’t the  great craic at the best of times, but it’s even worse when you’re having to furiously type your questions into Google Translate. 

My husband went into full-on spreadsheet mode, creating a mammoth document that tracked all our son’s vaccines and when they were due, as well as where they overlapped or differed from the Irish system. As for me, the regular nurse we see and I have come up with a series of rather hilarious hand gestures to cover everything from breastfeeding to bowel movements to sleeping. It’s a little wacky, but it works. 

shutterstock_1310160889 Source: Shutterstock/Dasha Petrenko

5. But we grew to love Portugal’s priority system

We didn’t know when we moved here, but Portugal has a priority system that people genuinely obey. If you’re elderly, have a disability, are pregnant or have a baby, then you jump to the top of the queue, it’s the law. It’s in action everywhere – from coffee shops and supermarkets to buses and trains and even places like H&M and Zara. It also makes travelling through Lisbon airport with a baby an absolute breeze, as there are fast track priority lanes the whole way through. It means you’re not a harried mess, trying to rush through collapsing a pram and removing your shoes while your baby fusses and you hold people up.

6. And there were other perks – like forming our own family bubble

There was no doubt that an extra pair of hands (or four) would have been handy in those bone-weary early days, but not having family or friends around had one big pro: we didn’t have to tidy the apartment nearly as much. There was no frantic stuffing of soiled muslins into the washing machine, clearing away of day-old plates, or emergency runs out for biscuits (well, other than the ones we were scoffing). While we definitely missed sharing the wonder that was our delightful kiddo with those we love most, it did allow us to stay in a blissful little bubble that bit longer, free from obligatory trips out and any peer pressure to be doing anything other than lovingly staring at our son – or exhaustedly staring at each other.

More: ‘She stopped crying when she heard me’: Mums and dads on the moment they first felt like a parent

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Nathalie Marquez Courtney

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