Birthday parties and European unity

In the era of Brexit, a little family event last week felt like the spirit of European unity in microcosm. Lily turned nine and for some time we had been planning the party. A girls only pizza party at the Praia Fluvial in Alcoutim was decided on. Invitations were sent out, Rogerio, the proprietor, was advised of times and numbers and flavours of pizza, and I made birthday cake, jelly and chocolate cornflake cakes aboard Carina. There was also the matter of lifejackets, as I rounded up the required number to ferry guests from the Spanish to the Portuguese side of the Rio Guadiana. My friend Kate, with a larger and more stable dinghy than mine, played ferrywoman, and otherwise played a blinder, helping me out at the party.

With the guests, bright giggly chatty girls aged 6 to 11, safely across the river, we walked through Alcoutim and out to the beach on the Cadavais, a tributary of the Guadiana. Rogerio had set up the party on the beach side of the bar and, while the pizzas were baking in the oven, the girls went off to play on the beach.

There were three distinct groups of children, with Lily, Katie and their friends Hannah and (another) Katie, the link between the other two groups. I had asked these girls, in advance, to make an effort to get the other two groups of girls together. Not only had they never met before, they didn’t share a common language. In one group were Lily’s Spanish school friends and in the other were two home schooled live aboard French girls, one of whom Lily has known since her family was last up the Rio Guadiana over a year ago and other whom Lily has befriended in recent weeks.

I needn’t have worried about the distinct groups making friends. After some initial shyness, the girls all played together on the sand, paddling in the water, making sand castles and, by the end of the party, Spanish and British, French and Spanish, British and French walked back to the river holding hands.

When it came time to blow out the birthday candles, we sang Happy Birthday in Spanish, English and French. Given that Lily is half-British half-Irish, and that the party was held in Portugal, I suppose we should also have made an effort to sing it in Irish and Portuguese. But by then I, for one, had had enough of singing and was hankering after strawberry jelly and lemon birthday cake.

As they sat around the table – two British girls, two half-Brits half-Irish, two French and three Spanish, the babble around the table was in a mix of languages. Three of the four English speakers also speak fluent Spanish, and the fourth is making good progress. Apart from Katie, the English speakers also speak a tiny bit of French and my girls have a decent smattering of Portuguese. The two French girls speak a little English and Spanish and the three Spanish girls are always keen to try their English out on me, their Thursday evening English teacher. So we all spoke what we could, making ourselves understood in a mix of well-spoken and poorly-spoken languages, gestures and goodwill.

And when it was time to go home the troops rebelled and insisted we stay longer, so I had to send messages to parents to say their children wouldn’t be home just yet! I sat there with Kate, enjoying a gin and tonic, while the children ate at the party table or played down at the beach. At first I thought ‘What an international group we are’. And then I revised that thought. We’re not international, we’re European, with our multiple languages and multiple cultures. For our children, hearing different languages and being exposed to different cultures is the norm (Lily and Katie’s Dutch friend missed the party, as she had gone to visit her grandparents in Holland for the Semana Santa holidays). Despite their differences, that bunch of 8 girls share far more in common than not.

I asked myself, do we share anything in common beyond a common currency (for some of us) and open borders and urban myths about regulation-shaped bananas? (I jest of course. I am a proud European). Perhaps our little party wouldn’t have softened the resolve of Theresa May and Nigel Farage and their ilk. But it made me come over all warm and fuzzy – and I’m sure that wasn’t just because of the G&T!

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