It’s 1973. Jimmy Saville has yet to tell us to “Clunk Click Every Trip”. We are still waiting for Rolf Harris to tell us that we must teach our children to swim (“kids and water, they love it”, remember?). The Green Cross Code Man has not yet told us we must “First find a safe place to cross then stop….”. Leslie Crowther has convinced our mums that Stork SB is much tastier than butter. New born babies are brought home from hospital on the back seat of Ford Cortinas in their mother’s arms or in carrycots in the foot wells of Morris Marinas. We can drink as much as we like and then hop in the car and drive home – why not? No need to wear a crash helmet on a motorbike (gives you a very bad case of “hat hair”) . The “Keep Britain Tidy” campaign has not been launched yet –and presumably, if necessity is the mother of invention, we were happily dropping our litter everywhere.
We do all our shopping in a very badly merchandised corner shop and our choice of each item is limited to a couple of brands. Supermarkets, where they do exist, are small and dark with a slightly musty aroma. Shelves are a bit dusty and the “cereal aisle” which is about 3 miles long and ¼ mile high containing over 3,000 different types of breakfast fare is beyond our wildest imagination.
The “popman” delivers every Friday (well he does if you live in Sheffield anyway) and his visit is eagerly anticipated. Oh what to choose this week? Orangeade, Limeade, Cherryade or Tizer. We were unable to try the “freezability” test as only very posh people had luxuries like freezers, colour TVs and telephones. But the limeade was so luminous you could see it from space so it is unlikely that it would have frozen in a vat of liquid nitrogen. Tasted good on a sunny afternoon though. (Didn’t the sun shine every day in 1973? It did in my memory at least).
Rustic wholemeal bread? Never heard of it. Bread was geometric, sliced and as white as Donny Osmond’s teeth. If food had been labelled with nutritional values, Mother’s Pride would have read: Zero in all categories (probably including calories, there aren’t any in cotton wool are there?). But how nice with a bit of Spam as a sandwich for tea. A healthy pudding? Tinned mandarins with sugar and some Carnation Milk – delicious and nutritious! Even though it was about 25 years since those oranges had been anywhere near a tree. 5 a day? Tomato ketchup made up at least 3 portions, a strawberry jelly and some reconstituted “Kellogg’s Rise and Shine” orange juice made up the rest. Dehyrated convenience food was just becoming popular – think Pot Noodle and Vesta Curries.
And the sweet shop on the corner where we were allowed to go unaccompanied from the age of 4. No busy roads to cross (far fewer cars) and the freedom to spend 2p however you liked; gobstoppers to break your teeth on, black jacks that turned your lips and teeth black for 3 days, fruit salads that glued your mouth shut so your mum couldn’t see your black teeth. And sweet cigarettes, what a great thing they were. In your mouth for a quick suck/puff and then waving them around between your first two fingers. Smoking away, age 3, just like Grandad.
Social mobility was not popular or even conceived of. Most people were content to live in the town they had grown up in, moving very close to their parents when they got married. Perfect for babysitting. And how great for the children to be able to wander up to Granny’s house unaccompanied at will.
Children pretty much all walked to school and from about 7 or 8 (often younger) would certainly be going unaccompanied. After school clubs and extracurricular activities? No such thing. We played on the street and in the mud and raced home to watch Scooby Doo and Crackerjack. Gobbled down a quick tea and ran back across the street to knock on doors to see if anyone was “playing out”.
In school holidays and at weekends we could go off for a whole day without explanation. I don’t think our mum’s were frantic with worry because cell phones hadn’t been invented so we couldn’t stay in contact. Well, we didn’t have a phone at the house so no point in the invention of the cell phone just yet!
Much of our writing and thought-sharing on the way of life in the Dominican Republic has been in a tone of bewilderment, gently mocking if not overtly critical. But now that we have been here for 3 months and are starting to adjust to the way of doing this here, if not to accept them completely, maybe it’s time to look through to glass the other way and see what reflects? Because in lots of good ways it’s still 1973 here. What if the Dominicans have the right attitude to life and we are wrong?
People are not being killed in their 1000’s or even 1’s on the streets every day from road accidents. So even without seat belts and crash helmets, carrying kids and washing machines, people are generally getting from A to B just fine.
We have thought of the children at the school as unsupported, possibly even abandoned by parents or carers . But are they just much more independent from an early age? There is a sense of community here that I have never felt in the UK. It’s very hot so people sit outside their house. It’s fairly poor so sitting outside your house means sitting on the pavement or even the street. The older generation often sit out all day and into the evening. The result is that you get to know all your neighbours very well because you pass them every day. Even with our fledgling Spanish we are getting to know our community well and probably say “Buen Dia” (very lazy with the “s” here all Spanish speaking friends!) 10-20 times on our 5 minute walk to school. Katie stood in some wet concrete (no need to put up a barrier when mending potholes!) a few days ago and was most distressed that her pink flip flops had gone black! Within minutes a man had appeared with a big bucket of water and a brush and started to clean her shoes and feet. I went into the bakery yesterday and the baker’s wife made me understand that I mustn’t buy bread as Richard had bought our usual 12 rolls and 6 cakes earlier in the day. (I meant to ask for 6 small coconut cakes but I think I asked her for 6 baby crocodiles instead – must work harder in Spanish lessons!).
So whilst the parents/grandparents might not be accompanying their children everywhere as we do, the streets feel remarkably safe because there is a whole army of would be grandparents lining the streets ready to help if help is needed. And everybody knows everybody really well. The children play much more like we used in our childhoods; on the street or in each other’s houses/yards as the mood takes them, without the need for parental consultation and pre-booking!
We’ve already let Ben and Matthew walk around the corner to a friend’s house to play. I can foresee a time in the near future when we allow Ben to go back so school in the afternoon to play basketball with a couple of children from the neighbourhood and could never imagine that scenario in England.
There is no welfare state or benefit system here to encourage idleness so if you can work then you do and you look after those in your family or neighbourhood who can’t look after themselves. So often parents (or more often a single Mum or single Gran) have no choice but the leave children to look after themselves whilst they are at work. But they are all part of a big community that feels perfectly safe.
I think in the UK the pendulum, in some instances, swung too far the other way and parents have been prosecuted for child neglect because they have left a sleeping baby in a car on the driveway outside their house. Or let a fractious 3 year old remain strapped in a car seat in locked car outside the post office whilst they nipped in to buy a stamp. Child neglect or just a bit of parenting common sense?
We have often lamented that in some ways the childhood we are able to offer our own children doesn’t feel as “wholesome” as the ones we had; this desperate need we feel to have them playing the violin or having drama lessons, playing chess or doing street dance because there are so many extracurricular activities on offer for them these days. As I was cycling round Bournemouth dragging my trailer I used to be amused by the amount of mum’s hurtling towards the leisure centre with a car full of kids ready to take part in their latest fitness craze. (I am mocking here but should also be mocked as I have done more than my fair share of watching football/gymnastics/tae kwon do/swimming lessons/tumble tots). Ditching the car and getting the whole family walking to the park for a good run around will achieve pretty much the same ends. The kids will love it because they are pre-programmed to and it’s free! There is no word here for extra-curricular activities, they simply don’t exist. Basketball practise is just a group of kids who happen to get together in the school yard in the hopes one them has a ball. Chess club is a sweet old man with one arm who gets out a few old chess boards and some mis-matched pieces on a table the outside the “sports centre” every afternoon.
As we have said many times before, our new friends, family and neighbours are the kindest, friendliest most generous on the planet. They live in the moment and for the moment. They love to party and live life to the full. They literally live every minute as if it is their last because their lack of foresight and forward planning make it impossible to live any other way. This is frustrating for us because we come from a nation of planners and “what if-fers”. But maybe we spend so much time worrying about the consequences of our actions that we don’t leave time to act!