For years, millions in Britain thought that Alex Batty vanished at the age of 11 into parts unknown. But it turns out that Alex had been traveling in Europe with his mother and grandfather from place to place in Morocco, Spain and France as part of an itinerant spiritual community that lived on the edges of society.
They car-pooled with community members, carried solar panels with them for energy, ate homegrown vegetables and never stayed in one place long.
This week, Alex re-emerged in France — resolving one of Britain’s best-known missing-person cases. But new questions arose. The French authorities said Alex had decided it was time to part ways with his mother when she decided that they would move to Finland from France, where they had been living most recently.
The authorities in southwestern France said the teenager had walked for four days and four nights, sleeping when it was light, hiking in darkness and eating what he could find in fields and gardens. Around 3 a.m. on Wednesday, they said, a delivery driver saw him trudging in the rain and took him to the French police.
Now, as details of Alex’s story continue to emerge, he is finally expected to return home to Britain in the next few days. On Friday, the British police said his family there — including his grandmother Susan Caruana, who is his legal guardian — were enormously relieved.
Chris Sykes, an assistant chief constable of the Greater Manchester Police, said the British authorities were “overjoyed to receive the news from the French authorities.” Alex, who is temporarily in the care of the French authorities, talked with Ms. Caruana via a video call on Thursday.
“She has a whole host of emotions and feelings,” Mr. Sykes said.
Ms. Caruana last saw Alex before he left for vacation in Spain in 2017 with his mother, Melanie Batty, and his grandfather David Batty. She has told reporters that they soon disappeared because of disagreements over his care and his mother and grandfather’s interest in pursuing an alternative lifestyle with the boy.
The three became part of a roving community of about 10 people whose members fluctuated and whose beliefs include meditation and reincarnation, Antoine Leroy, a prosecutor in Toulouse, France, said at a news conference on Friday. The French authorities provided details based on the account that Alex had given officers.
“It’s a nomadic life,” said Léa Chambonnière, a local French police commander, with the only constants being a reliance on vegetable gardens and solar energy. “Wherever they settled, they would find odd jobs in houses, doing repair work, and then move on to something else.”
Alex told the French authorities that his grandfather died about six months ago, and the last he knew, his mother was heading to Finland.
The British police said little about the missing-person case, noting that they wanted to speak to Alex first. When asked whether his mother was considered a person of interest in any crime, Mr. Sykes declined to comment.
Mr. Leroy said Alex had given the officers some information about his early life: Alex’s father, Mr. Leroy relayed, left when the boy was 2, and he was raised mainly by his mother and Ms. Caruana, his maternal grandmother, who later became his legal guardian.
In 2017, the authorities said, Alex’s mother asked if he could come along with her and his grandfather on a 15-day vacation to Spain. His grandmother agreed — and that was the last she saw of him for six years.
Mr. Leroy, the prosecutor, said that Alex had told the police that after the trip to Spain, he and his family spent two years in Morocco, returned to Spain briefly in 2020 or 2021, and then traveled to the French Pyrénées, where they moved every couple of months.
Alex told the police that he was never physically abused. He was calm, well-spoken and in good health when the police questioned him, Mr. Leroy said. But Alex said he had not been to school in the past six years — he did not speak any French, Mr. Leroy noted — and he seemed to have tired of his family’s alternative lifestyle.
Mr. Leroy said it was unclear whether Alex’s mother had agreed with his decision to leave the group. He had no cellphone on him when he was picked up, and only 100 euros in cash, about $110. He was trying to head toward Toulouse, a large city where he believed he could seek assistance from the authorities.
“What he told us,” Commander Chambonnière said, “is that he didn’t want to continue this life.”
Alex was still considered missing when Fabien Accidini, 26, a delivery driver, saw him on Wednesday on the side of the road in the middle of the night in Chalabre, a town about 50 miles southeast of Toulouse.
“He was walking in the rain, with a skateboard under his arm and a flashlight,” Mr. Accidini told La Dépêche, a local newspaper. “I offered him a ride. He wanted to go to a big city.”