One of the expressions I picked up from living in England for many years is “Keep the home fires burning.” For some reason, that expression, along with the WWI song from which it comes, is running through my head as I contemplate talking to today’s featured author, Rosie Whitehouse (click here to hear it being sung):
Keep the Home Fires Burning,
While your hearts are yearning.
Though your lads are far away
They dream of home.
There’s a silver lining
Through the dark clouds shining,
Turn the dark cloud inside out
Till the boys come home.
For me, Rosie is an up-to-date version of what the songwriters had in mind. Educated at the University at London, with a career as a BBC journalist, she chose to stay at home with her children and keep the house warm and welcoming, and the family’s spirits up, while her husband, the journalist Tim Judah, went off to report on various wars for The Economist and other newspapers.
Rosie even went the further step of moving the family home to be closer to Tim for a time. Ironically, she kept the home fires burning in the very place where World War I began, the Balkans. She flew out to a crumbling Bucharest—it had been knocked down by the notorious Ceaușescu, whose secret police killed hundreds during Romania’s 1989 revolution—with one child in tow and another one on the way.
Then, when it seemed possible that her own home could go up in flames as war spread across the former Yugoslavia, Rosie did not give up. She stayed for a total of five years before returning to London, by which time “keeping the home fires burning” was second nature both for her and the couple’s five kids (Tim carried on covering wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Congo).
Having revived her career as a freelance journalist, she decided to write her first book: Are We There Yet? Travels with my Frontline Family—a copy of which we’ll be giving away! (See details below). The book is a tribute to families who have been “burners of the home fires,” whose emotional pain tends to go unheralded. It is also, in her words, “quite funny.” (Hey, growing up in Bucharest, Belgrade, Croatia and Bosnia can be fun!)
By now you must be as curious as I am to meet the intrepid Rosie Whitehouse and learn more about what motivated her to seek out such an unusually displaced (at least by most of our standards!) life. I note that she has an Irish mother—perhaps that explains it?! (I’m thinking Queen Boudicea…)
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Hi, Rosie. In your book you say that your husband’s journalist colleagues in Romania, all of whom were single, were shocked to hear he had a two-year-old son and another child on the way. Did people often tell you you were crazy?
Yes, lots of people thought I was crazy.
As a former journalist with a background in Russian studies, do you think you felt a tinge of envy for Tim’s opportunities—which made you want to be on the scene?
Not really, as I would not have been able to cope with going to morgues and so on.
I know you’re going to challenge our definition of “displacement,” but I’ll go ahead and ask: what was your most displaced moment during your stay in the Balkans—when you had to explain Daddy’s muddy boots (he’d been walking in a mass grave), when you visited empty supermarkets, or when you heard the first shots of the conflict in Bosnia while strolling around Sarajevo with the kids?
Those things were reality so in that one doesn’t feel displacement. Quite the opposite in fact. I was intimately plugged into life and death at those moments.
How did you keep yourself sane?
I coped with stressful moments by bunkering down. I wouldn’t send the kids to school and cuddled up with them instead. As long as I shut my front door, where ever I am and whatever is going on, and it is just us, I am able to feel at home.
But getting back to your question about displacement: My best moment in a foreign country was when I saw my mother drive off in a taxi in Bucharest and realizing that apart from my two year old son I didn’t know a soul in the country (my husband was away in Albania for weeks). Wow, at last no one to tell me what to do! Freedom!
More seriously, most displacements do not happen by choice, and my most displaced moments have been as a result of this. I recount a story in the book when I took the kids to Berlin ten years ago. My mother-in-law was born there but fled in 1933 as she was Jewish. The family settled in Paris. As a result I have half French children who speak fluent French and we don’t speak a word of German.
It was a rather stressful visit as we searched for old family homes, one of which the family were still trying to reclaim. My daughter Esti got a headache. I pointed to the department store and suggested that we go in to buy an aspirin. It was Wertheims. My mother in law’s mother was a Wertheim and was murdered in Aushwitz. Esti said:
What, first they give me a headache by stealing the department store and murdering my great granny–and now I am expected to go in and buy an aspirin to make it better? You have to be kidding!
Child-rearing on the frontlines
What was the biggest challenge about having children with you on the frontlines?
The biggest challenge was often the simplest thing such as getting them something to eat and getting hold of baby milk.
Did anything surprise you?
Life never ceases to surprise me where ever I am and what ever is going on. The terrible things and the good things always amaze me.
What do you think the kids got out of the experience?
The kids learnt a lot. My eldest son, Ben, would ask about why there was no food in Romania. For me it was a matter of telling simple tales of communism and 1917. For him it began a life-long interest in Russia. He is following in his father’s footsteps.
My eldest daughter, Esti, would like to work for an NGO like Human Rights Watch.
For all of us, it drew us closer together. We are a tight-knit family.
I’ve heard of war reporters feeling bored when they come back to “reality” in their home countries. Did your family experience any of that after five years in the Balkans? What was it like to go “home” again?
Going home is just as difficult as moving to a new country. By the way, the wars didn’t stop either after we got back. My husband has since covered lots of wars and famines including Afghanistan, Iraq and the Congo.
Writing a book, but from the backlines
After you left the Balkans, it took quite a few years before you decided to write the book. What was the catalyst?
It was during the invasion of Iraq in 2003. I was standing in the supermarket and they had just installed a TV with a live feed from Iraq by the checkout. Some soldiers were running across a street in Basra, where some of the heaviest fighting took place, followed by a reporter and camera man. All of their faces were clearly visible. My husband was in Baghdad covering the story for The Economist. I had actually popped out for five minutes of fresh air before the bombers took off from the UK and the countdown to the blitz on Baghdad began.
I realized, to my horror, you could be buying a packet of frozen peas and watch your husband killed in front of your eyes. I know this thought had never entered the mind of the supermarket manager who had simply installed the TV to attract customers.
That evening I found my ten-year-old glued to a grainy grey screen showing an image of Baghdad as the cruise missiles were expected. What do you say? I had to make dinner and she had to do her homework. The UK had a huge debate about the war and the way it was covered, and I felt nobody knew what it was really like to be part of it and a kid to boot.
I also found that very quickly after the Berlin Wall came down that people forgot in Western Europe just how hard life had been under communism, especially in Romania and Albania. No surprise in that, really, as since 1945 most people in Western Europe just forgot the East existed.
I also found people in the UK quick to judge and condemn people in Southeastern Europe as being violent and prone to war. I wanted them to realize we are no different. That is why I’ve also included a chapter on Ireland in the book.
And I wanted to describe the multicultural experience of bringing up half-French, half-Jewish, part-Irish children in various countries, something I found fascinating.
Was it also part of your mission to show others what it is like to be married to, the child of, a war reporter?
Yes, not just to a war reporter but also those who are married to soldiers—especially those who are part-time soldiers and live in the community.
Did you have any personal motives in writing the book, to help you process what you’d been through and to provide your children with a record of where they’d lived?
No, not really. I didn’t write it for us but to make people think about what was going on. I am sure that the kids will appreciate it when they are older.
What was the most difficult part of the book-writing process?
Getting time to do it. I often wrote with my computer on the kitchen side as I was cooking dinner, which was good as I could hear kids talking; and as I was writing about them, it helped to have them there doing their thing.
Did you find it easy to find a publisher for the book?
No it was hard. publishing is a tough business. I started my own publishing company, Reportage Press, which closed a few years ago. Are We There Yet? is on Amazon as a self-published download these days. We also have a number of journalist friends who are taking the self-publishing route quite successfully.
What audience did you intend for the book? Did you think it would also appeal to other kinds of expats, who don’t go to war-torn countries?
Yes, there is a large expat element to the readership, and I know the book has touched the hearts of women feeling lonely and bewildered in a new country. I have been hugged and kissed by quite a few of them. One lady said reading the book had saved her marriage. I’m not sure it was me, but I hope I helped her realize it wasn’t so bad being lonely in London. It is hard being in a strange country with children. It is you who have to interpret it for them and as you are far from the family support group and friends, it is inevitably all up to you to be their world. It’s a tough job. That said, the book is far from serious. It’s actually quite funny.
Can you give us some examples of humorous moments in the book?
The kids are a laugh a minute, so whatever was going on they would often say or do something funny. For example:
For me the market in Piaţă Amzei is the focal point of life in the city centre [of Bucharest]…
“Let’s see the old ladies with the cheese. Come on!” shouts Ben as he darts out of the pushchair and into a smelly covered hall, where they sell heaps of yellowy looking curds, which are akin to feta.They are covered in flies.
The old women with their long black skirts and headscarves beckon him over and offer him little crumbs. He watches their lips and toothy grins with fascination. They look unnerving, like witches with crunched up dirty teeth, but he doesn’t run away. He has come deliberately to stare at them. He studies an old lady’s face carefully as she says something he can’t possibly understand. He is like his father, never frightened of anything and intrigued by the smallest thing. He loves the bizarre and the quirky.
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“Where’s Mr Parking? Why doesn’t he find us a space?” asks Ben as we drive up and down the street outside our flat. Ben loves Mr Parking. I can’t see him anywhere.
Mr Parking is the man who organises the parking lots outside Belgrade town hall. It’s an elegant 1880s building that was once the royal palace and is right next to our block of flats. For a tip, he lets us park in the lots reserved for local officials. I haven’t seen him for weeks and have to be careful where I put the car, or we’ll be towed.
“I think he has gone back to Bosnia to fight, Ben.”
“What!” Ben is horrified.
“Why? I want to park the car. Doesn’t he want to stay here?”
“No, I expect he wanted to go home and defend his village.”
“Where is his village?”
“He’s from eastern Bosnia, the bit between here and Sarajevo [Bosnia’s capital city]. He told Dad he comes from Kamenica. It’s in one of the last bits there that’s still under Muslim control.” It’s a village close to the town of Srebrenica [the town where a massacre took place in 1995, said to be a crime of genocide].
“What! He’s a Muslim?” Ben is amazed: “But he looks like everyone else!”
“Of course, he does! You don’t look different if you’re Muslim. Bosnians look the same whether they are Muslims or not.” My mother has just sent him a book about the Crusades.
“I thought Muslims looked like Arabs.”
Are you working on any other ambitious writing projects?
I would like to write an expat guide to Britain. I spend a lot of time explaining Britain to people as I live in an expat world in the UK to a certain extent as my children have been or go to the French Lycée, and we have a lot of foreign friends who live in London.
Ten Questions for Rosie Whitehouse
Finally, I’d like to ask a series of questions that I’ve asked some of our other featured authors, about your reading and writing habits:
1. Last truly great book you read: Malaparte is on my mind as I am driving to Ukraine. His book on the 1941 invasion of Russia is unforgettable.
2. Favorite literary genre: Novels
3. Reading habits on a plane: Nothing. I am too tense on a plane as I hate flying. If I am calm enough I love to look out of the window.
4. The one book you’d require President Obama to read, and why: My son Ben’s book on Russia: Fragile Empire: How Russia fell in and out of love with Vladimir Putin. It’s a great portrait of contemporary Russia. I am his mum—what else am I supposed to say to this one?
5. Favorite books as a child: I loved Little House on the Prairie but above all I loved the stories my dad used to tell me.
6. Favorite heroine: She doesn’t have a name. She is one of the millions of women who have struggled to keep their families together against the odds. These are the mums who keep the world turning.
7. The writer, alive or dead, you’d most like to meet: I always wanted to meet William Shirer. He must have had an extraordinary experience living in Berlin at the start of World War II. Perhaps the ultimate expat experience! I suggested an interview programme with him to BBC World Service in the 80s but they didn’t have the cash to send me to America to do it. A pity as he died after that.
8. Your reading habits: I read a lot. If you want to write you have to read. I also have to read a lot for work.
9. The book you’d most like to see made as a film: None, really. If you love a book, the last thing you want is for it to become a film as you have the pictures in your head and they are your pictures not someone else’s.
10. The book you plan to read next: Vasily Grossman‘s An Armenian Sketchbook is in my suitcase. I love Grossman. He is a fantastic writer. If you haven’t read Life and Fate, you have really missed out.
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Thanks so much, Rosie! Personally, I found your story very moving and think we should confer on you a “home fires” medal for all you’ve achieved!
Readers, it’s time for you to ENTER OUR DRAW TO WIN A FREE COPY of Rosie Whitehouse’s book. Rosie is giving away ONE COPY and will favor comments that tell her why you’d like to read the book.
Extra points, as always, if you’re a Displaced Dispatch subscriber!
The winner will be announced in our Displaced Dispatch on August 2, 2013.
Rosie Whitehouse is a parenting journalist and mother of five. She is one of the UK’s leading experts on family travel. She has written widely on family matters and traveling with children for The Sunday Telegraph, The Independent, The Guardian, The Daily Mail, Sunday Express, Family Circle, The Economist, and others, as well as for the Web sites B4Baby.com and Raisingkids.co.uk. She has also spoken at events and on television and radio on parenting matters, promoting her travel books and her autobiography, Are We There Yet? Travels with my Frontline Family. You can follow her latest adventures at http://www.rosiewhitehouse.co.uk/.
STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s post in our Olde vs New World series, by guest blogger Claire Bolden.
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Images (clockwise from left): Rosie Whitehouse at “home” in London; Ben and his baby sister, Esti, living it up on the balcony in Bucharest (July 1991); Ben trying on his dad’s new bulletproof jacket, with Rosie’s mother in background (Belgrade, May 1992).