Alana and her husband, Alex, with their two children, in Copenhagen

Alana Cookman, 36, is three weeks into living in Copenhagen, Denmark, with her husband, Alex, and their two kids, aged six and two. Previously, the family lived in Santiago, Chile, for just over a year, and before that they were in London, where the couple met…

The way things were
My husband, Alex, is a born-and-bred Londoner, and I grew up in a beautiful, very small town called Tenby on the Pembrokeshire coast in Wales. I left after college for the bright lights and anonymity of London, where I met Alex. We’ve been together for 16 years, although before we had kids we’d never lived together. Travel was always a part of our grand life master-plan.

We lived in Barcelona together moons ago, and got married in Mexico, but we were too busy having fun to make any concrete future plans. Plenty of time – or so we thought. Pregnancy number one took us by surprise, and changes came fast. We moved out of our party house on Broadway Market, East London, where we were living with our best friends, and got on with life.

For the best part of two years life felt like a juggle of caffeinated and occasionally hungover nursery drop-offs and pick-ups, crazy work-loads and mortgage payments for a cute flat that came with not-so-cute youths dealing weed and throwing chicken bones on our doorstep. The new responsibilities of family life threw up multiple identity issues, which felt magnified, as none of our immediate friends had babies yet. I also felt after I’d had a child that I was mourning the ‘young’ phase of my life, while panicking I only had ‘middle age’ to achieve everything I ever wanted before I was ‘old’.

We thought we were going to Lisbon and put a huge amount of effort in to creating a life there. But now it has become Copenhagen and we moved over within three weeks of my husband starting an exploratory job search

Having always been energised by change and travel and different cultures, my husband and I thought that being somewhere new would help fill our anxious voids. So on my second maternity leave, three years ago, we rented out our flat, moved in with the in-laws (again) and prepared for our trip. By ‘prepared’ I mean I watched 92 episodes of Sons of Anarchy while sitting on my arse breastfeeding. A much more productive use of the start of my second maternity leave than the first, which mainly entailed flitting round exhibitions and parties with a tiny baby attached to me, pretending I was fine.

Changes afoot
In London I was working for a large homelessness charity, heading up social enterprises that helped young ex-offenders and homeless people back into work. The non-profit sector isn’t always as good as looking out for the people who work in it as the people they are trying to help. A lot of overworked people with already compromised resources becomes very tiring after a while! I now work from home for an organisation called The Wellbeing Project, which was set up to combat this exact issue, and create a shift in the social change field that looks out for the wellbeing of the helpers as well as the people being ‘helped’.

When it came to the move, we had a spreadsheet. There’s always a spreadsheet. A key requirement for a husband who is an accountant (reluctantly so at the beginning, but the benefits, other than overuse of spreadsheets, are starting to materialise). We basically craved a big change and this meant that it had to be something quite culturally different. We wanted to be very far away. New language skills are important (for the kids, I’m a bit rubbish) and obviously a decent school option was needed.  It needed to be safe-ish (without kids we would have ended up anywhere but we didn’t want to be in a gated compound that would have been secure, but would have stood in the way of any real experience of living somewhere). We also wanted some natural beauty and sunshine after a winter in Bow.

We ticked most of these boxes with our move to Santiago in 2015, but after a year there our criteria changed again. Being closer to home became more important, some English was welcome, sun became less important, and access to good fresh food were high on the list. We added better air quality to the list, as our youngest got quite sick in the smoggy winters in Santiago. Being close to natural beauty was still on the list, but defined as places we could actually be near to and travel to easily. Chile has some of the most incredible places on earth but also the world’s longest coastline and expensive national travel dashed my visions of me hanging out in Patagonia one weekend and the desert the next. We also noticed, as a mixed-race family, that we desperately missed the diversity of London, so this will always feature high on our priorities in our lists of places to move to.

Making it work
One thing I’ve learnt is that you’re never going to tick every box, and that you adapt, adjust your expectations and become more agile the more experiences, good and bad, that you have. Alex’s job determined where we ended up. I was heavily pregnant so my options for a career move were limited… I was also committed to my job in London, despite definitely wanting a less challenging and differently paced role, so had an amazing safety net if things didn’t work out longer term. With our first move we thought we were going to Singapore originally (it ticked the most boxes on the spreadsheet, we even took Remi to Mandarin classes in a school in Victoria Park every Saturday for weeks) but it became Santiago in a random turn of events. We went with it. Same as move number two – we originally wanted to move to Valencia, then thought we were going to Lisbon for about four months, and put a huge amount of effort in to creating a life there. But now it has become Copenhagen and we ended up here within three weeks of my husband starting an exploratory job search and being offered a great job. So with the best will in the world, sometimes you’ve just got to go with the opportunities that present themselves.

After a year in Chile our criteria changed again. Being closer to home and sun became more important, and access to good fresh food moved high on the list

We put loads of effort into researching places we haven’t ended up in. And then currently with Copenhagen we pretty much did everything in a weekend. With no prior knowledge of anything, we said ‘yes’ to everything without a second thought because it was all quite hurried; for a few days we even commuted from a friend’s house in Malmo, Sweden to Copenhagen. We had heard lots of horror stories about flats being really hard to find in the areas that we said we wanted, and nursery places with four-month waiting lists (the government subsidy is about 65 per cent of the total cost, so worth the wait!). But we were insanely lucky on both fronts.

We are three weeks into our life in Copenhagen, so it’s very new. Even though it is closer to home and everyone speaks English, and it’s a good stable, established and very family-friendly environment where the first things we hear in the morning is birdsong (as opposed to car alarms or reggaeton), there are some aspects that feel harder. The South American adventure was exhilarating at first. The complete unknown-ness and the anticipation of travel and a whole new life made it a very special first six months. And that exotic far-awayness will always be alluring. But, easy babies can quickly become temperamental toddlers, 14-hour flights are not at all appealing or affordable, friends and family are missed, as are their weddings, birthdays and babysitting skills. It’s very easy to become emotional about greener grass and what’s better or not for you as a family, when you are on the move.

Life lessons
If you have kids of school age, then sorting schools is easily the most important thing to do – something my husband was much more on top of than me! Areas to live, and life-budgets grow and develop around this decision. We always send emails to a list of schools as far in advance as possible, even before it’s a definite that we are actually moving there. Researching and following up on these is time-consuming, stressful and sometimes costly (deposits, admin fees for holding spots, etc). Depending on the place, these may be state, international or private schools. We are more than aware that not being in the UK means forgoing the option of good free education, but it’s a price we are willing to pay for the education that comes with exposure to different cultures and languages.

Being so far away from what we were used to was so freeing. It allowed us to grow as our little family unit

In Santiago, we decided to send our then four-year-old daughter to a private bi-lingual school. She was the only non-Chilean in her year, and definitely the only mixed-race kid. We wanted the bi-lingual aspect after her baptism of fire at a Chilean, 100 per cent Spanish speaking nursery, (a painful two months as soon as we arrived, where neither she nor I could communicate with anyone, as our Spanish was so limited). Turns out there wasn’t much English at school either, but that’s something we are glad of now as she could speak fluent Spanish, with a Chilean accent, in about six months.

In Santiago, our visas were sorted through my husband’s work. Despite being on maternity leave having a ‘dependant’ visa did not sit well with my very independent self. After my maternity leave was up I found it very hard to relax and be fine with being a dependant… I tried to set up my own project, became a member of some groups, set up an intercambio group with some other mums from school (I was the only non Chilean mother in the school) and wrote a lot. Looking back, I should definitely have just tried to enjoy this time and soak it all up, but reality is often very different to what you imagine or allow hindsight to determine.

The way we live now
Given how much the winter depresses us I am somehow baffled we’ve ended up in Copenhagen. When we came here in March for a job interview it was -7 degrees and our faces burnt with cold. But it’s set up for it, we just need to be set up for it ourselves as well. And actually looking forward to a massively ‘hygge’ christmas after not celebrating the last two at all traditionally. Despite being with my husband for 16 years we’ve never lived alone together, just the two of us. So these adventures are as much about us growing ourselves and relationship together and figuring out what we want from this life, as it is about experiencing what life has to offer us.

After Chile, we thought we’d be back in London for one month and it became almost four. It was great seeing our loved ones, but the novelty of London wore off really quickly. We felt a bit itchy and restless. Hard to pinpoint exactly, but the need to move onto the next thing was real. This is going to sound so cheesy but the best thing about moving around is growing our relationships with ourselves and eachother.

Being so far away from what we were used to and a bit bored of was so freeing. It allowed us to grow as our little family unit – something we were finding difficult in London. Just to make it clear, we are still a shouty, dysfunctional, impatient and confused ‘normal’ family, but we are doing things much more our way now. Being able to get to know ourselves and each other (again, as changed people, parents, newly excited people) properly without distractions was pretty special, and obviously massively claustrophobic at times. But we’ve got to know each other way more. And can handle tricky situations way better than we did, as it being only us means that the only option is to resolve things quickly and move on.

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