This season we travel to Gibraltar to talk to expat mum, Laura Wharfe, about family life on the rock.
Laura Wharfe and Rob Bailey live in Gibraltar, a British territory of just 2.6 square miles perched on the southernmost tip of Spain, with their baby daughter, Tabitha.
aura was just 21, and living with her parents in Enfield, North London, when she met Rob on a work night out. “We both work for the same insurance company, but Rob was based in the head office in Gibraltar and I was at our office in Enfield. After a couple of drinks we got talking, and then spent most of the night chatting about life in Gibraltar and the latest gossip from our Enfield office – the rest is history!”
Rob and Laura embarked on a long-distance relationship, and over the next few months they travelled between the UK and Gibraltar in order to spend time together. When, after six months, Laura was offered the option of a transfer to the company’s Gibraltar office, she jumped at it. “I wanted to be with Rob no matter what, and I’d been getting really down about us not being able to see each other as much as we would like to. I told my parents that not only was I moving out, but I was leaving the country as well! I packed my suitcase, sold my little car, had a very drunken and emotional leaving do, and that was it.”
Once she was there full time, Laura found it relatively easy to adapt to life on the other side of Europe. Rob had been living in Southern Spain, and commuting to Gibraltar for four years, and he had a close group of friends that Laura was able to slot into. “I settled in very quickly. I love the Gibraltarian and Spanish way of life – everything’s very laid back, and Gibraltarians are very friendly and welcoming. It helps that the Costa del Sol, which Gibraltar borders, is full of British expats, and that English is the first language in Gibraltar – though the majority of locals are fluent in Spanish as well.”
After a couple of years together in Gibraltar, Laura and Rob decided to start a family. “We both knew that we wanted children, and I wanted to be a relatively young mum, and to have quite a large family – I think Rob just went with the flow!”
Tabitha was born in July 2012, and Laura is full of praise for the maternity services at St Bernard’s – the only civilian general hospital on Gibraltar. “The care I received both before and after the birth was absolutely brilliant. The hospital is very modern, spacious and clean. I enjoyed going there for my pre-natal appointments, and didn’t want to leave the maternity unit after the birth. I felt so well looked after that I can’t wait to have another baby there!”
Rob, Laura and Tabitha now live in a two bedroom flat, in the South district of Gibraltar. Space is at a premium on the peninsula, as Laura explains. “There’s a shortage of houses, gardens and outdoor space. Our flat is in a beautiful complex and has a decent sized balcony, but to live in a house with a garden, which we would ideally have liked, would have been too expensive. It’s much cheaper to live across the border in Spain, but the traffic can get very busy – in the summer it’s not unusual for it to take three hours just to get over the border – which would make life extremely difficult with two parents working, and a child at nursery.”
However, according to Laura, the cost of property and lack of outside space is more than compensated by the benefits of living in Gibraltar. “Obviously the beautiful weather is a big bonus. Our winters are very mild, and the summers are a lot of fun – the beach is a five minute walk, we have barbecues every day, and we spend lots of time sunbathing by the pool. I walk to and from work, and to drop Tabitha at nursery every day, and we spend most of our weekends walking to places and eating outdoors. There’s also a very low crime rate in Gibraltar, and a small community feel to the place – I always feel safe here.”
Laura also appreciates the way that the laid back attitude of the locals extends to children. “Children stay up quite late here – it’s not unusual to see young children up and having dinner after 9pm – and people seem to be happy to have them around playing, unlike in London where it sometimes feels as though there’s a bit of a tutting attitude towards kids. There are also lots of activities and celebrations here that are entirely for children, for example the Three Kings Cavalcade in January – when there’s a big parade and kids dress up on floats, and throw sweets to the crowds waiting below.”
And with Tabitha now at nursery, Laura seems very happy with the childcare and schooling options available locally. “The schools in Gibraltar follow the English curriculum which is great, as Tabitha may need English qualifications for university entrance or jobs in the future. There’s a private school here, which has a great reputation and is not expensive at all, compared to private schools in England. That’s where we’re hoping to send Tabitha, though we’ll look around before making the final decision, as we’ve been told that the local schools are very good too.” As most local people are fluent in Spanish, Laura and Rob are also hoping that Tabitha will grow up speaking both languages. “Although schools follow the English curriculum, and lessons are in English, the majority of students will speak Spanish amongst themselves most of the time – so it’s highly likely that Tabitha will pick up the language.”
Another advantage of living in Gibraltar is that there is no shortage of nearby countries to explore. “The whole of Spain is right next door, and there’s also Morocco. We can see Tangiers clearly from our balcony, and you can take a boat there. Marrakech is a 50 minute flight from Seville, Portugal is a four hour drive, and Ibiza is a 50 minute flight from Malaga.”
With all the sunshine and travel opportunities, there doesn’t seem to be much for Laura to miss about life in Enfield, though she does admit to pining for the London shops, “There are lots of British high street stores here – Topshop, Dorothy Perkins, Monsoon, even a Morrisons – but space is very limited, so they can’t carry a wide variety of stock”.
And one thing that Laura has found challenging, is becoming a mum so far from her family. “I didn’t really think about how hard it would be having a baby abroad – it wasn’t until Tabitha was born that I realised that it was just the two of us and our baby, alone. We’ve come to rely on friends to help us, and we do the same for them. It does make me sad, though, to think that Tabitha won’t grow up seeing her grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins as much as we would like her to.”
Nevertheless, with London just a two and a half hour flight away, Laura and Rob aren’t planning to give up their relaxed life in the sunshine any time soon. “We’re very happy here – we enjoy our jobs, and we’ve bought our flat. We have some great friends, and I have a large support network of other mums who all live nearby. Hopefully we’ll stay here for a while yet – it really does feel like home!” ✿