Five weeks down … five to go!

31 07 2014

“So it’s the lipstick and handbag museum today then?” I said to the boys, raising a hopeful eyebrow.

It’s a running joke: keeping them entertained during the long, long holiday involves so many boy-related activities that I do like to rebel every now and then, and threaten them with an art museum, or (to their wide-eyed horror) a spot of shopping.

Plans needed for 10 weeks, in 3 different countries. Gulp

Plans needed for 10 weeks, in 3 different countries. Gulp

They looked at me aghast, as though I’d suggested slow torture. “Lipstick and handbags? NO WAY!” they chorused, in unison.

DH, who’s just spent 36 hours with us in the UK, might have smiled too, in silent agreement – and I might have inwardly sighed at the thought of another aviation museum (on top of the castle with murder holes yesterday; two air and space museums in DC; a train museum in Baltimore; numerous train rides and a submarine tour).

But off we went …

Each year, on our summer sojourn, I’m reminded how much longer my boys’ school holiday is than the six weeks or so enjoyed by British children. This is truly astonishing considering how much my sons don’t know yet and, therefore, how much schooling they need. I’m also reminded exactly why the words, “MUM-EEEE, I’m bored,” grate on your ears far more than the most irritating ringtone.

I digress. Where was I? The birthplace of British motorsport and aviation.

Actually, Brooklands Museum near Weybridge in Surrey is a great place to visit. The boys clamboured onto old airplanes; there’s a Wellington Bomber, a Hurricane and a genuine ‘bouncing bomb’, all carefully explained by friendly volunteers; and a bus museum, too. You could probably even have a sarnie under Concorde’s wing, if you wanted to.

Submarines, vintage racing cars, trains, rockets … who knew?

Submarines, vintage racing cars, trains, rockets … who knew?

But the highlight was the vintage car ride – a thrilling dash up Test Hill, along the Banking and down the Finishing Straight of the world’s first purpose-built motor racing circuit.

“Awesome,” screamed the boys in delight, as we flew up the hill and our world turned sideways while careering round the steep bank.

Displaying high-spirited glee, they started singing, “Everything is AWESOME!!!” And with the wind whistling through our hair, it really did feel like we were reliving the halcyon days of racing.

Our silver-haired driver chuckled, then remarked: “I’ve learnt a whole new language since starting this job.”

He turned round to face the boys after the car came to a juddering stop: “Wicked, eh?” he deadpanned, with a wink.

Yes, it was – and so much better than hearing, “Mummy, I SAID, I’m bored.” On repeat.






The pint-sized burglar

23 07 2014

Last night, it must have been about 2 in the morning when I was awoken by the sound of voices outside. Male voices, talking in hushed tones, surely coming from the bushes in front of my parents’ house.

Whenever I’m in England, I’m always more security conscious – aware that spates of burglaries along my parents’ leafy road have occurred.

The voices went quiet – then came the sound of clinking glass.

I sat up in bed, thinking this was it – we were about to be burgled while everyone (my Mum and Dad, the kids and me) slept. The audacity of it, I thought – and what the hell should I do.

Given that the guest room in which I’m staying is the only room at the front of the house, I figured I was probably the only person who’d been disturbed, and listened intently.

Thud …

This I heard clearly. It was a warm, humid night, and both my windows were flung wide open. If you’re not from the UK, you might not know that homes here are built with heat-retaining insulation – good for winter, but suffocating during hot spells. Other than lying still in the direct line of a fan, opening a window – and ditching the duvet – is your only hope of preventing peri-menopausal hot flushes during sticky nights.

The cheeky burglar was, in my mind, stealing the family silver as we slept

The cheeky burglar was, in my mind, stealing the family silver as we slept

Thud-thud.

I crept to the window, my heart skidding. I crouched down, and peered out into the dark street, fully expecting to witness a pair of hooligans with a crowbar.

And saw: The Milkman.

That wonderful British tradition. On his rounds (at 2am!), with an assistant. Delivering milk, eggs, orange juice (in pintas), bread and all kinds of other goodies to doorsteps all over the town, in time to put a smile on his customers’ faces at breakfast – provided the milk hasn’t curdled by 8am.

I did notice he’d jettisoned his battery-operated milk float: after shifting a few crates around (thud, bump … tinkle) he drove off in what sounded like a diesel truck, and I climbed back into bed, more than a little relieved.





Silent Sunday: Circles in the Sky

21 07 2014

Following more than £200bn of orders over the past five days, the Farnborough Air Show opened its doors to the public this weekend, and what an experience it was. (I’m not usually one to shout about my birthday, but yesterday was the day, and my treat was the air show!) Can you guess who painted this heart in the sky?

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My absolute favourite aerobatic display team – the Red Arrows…

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I probably shouldn’t forget to mention the airplane my DH flies, too…

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Which took off to cheers from the crowd, and proceeded to execute a seemingly impossible display of tight turns relatively close to the ground.

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Defying the weatherman’s dire prediction of storms, the show also featured a helicopter that dazzled onlookers with its back flips (no joke!), wing walkers, a WWI mock dogfight and this Harrier Jump Jet, which hovered in the air and took a bow…

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Awesome day!





Travel post: The District

20 07 2014

With its wide-open avenues, front porches, old neighbourhoods and views of the Potomac River, Washington DC is a city in which you can see the expansive sky – and feel the pulse of power

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July 4th in DC: Waiting for the parade to start

When direct flights from the UAE to Washington DC were announced, we put the US capital on our radar. Formally the District of Columbia, DC is a city familiar to anyone who watches the news, or at least ‘West Wing’, and has fascinated me since my teenage years.

When I first visited, more than 20 years ago, I touched down at Dulles International just as a snowstorm was hitting the East Coast. My American boyfriend (now DH) picked me up in the near white-out conditions and navigated the slippery, traffic-choked roads back to the Watergate building – a journey I’d later find out was his first solo drive.

This time, we arrived with our two boys in tow, in the middle of summer. A heat advisory on the first day saw us steering the children off the National Mall (not a UAE-style shopping mall, but the strip of green space between the Washington Monument and the Capitol building) before they melted and into the wonderful Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum (more on this later).

The temperature continued to nudge the mid-90s for much of our visit, but whatever the season, the effect DC has on visitors is the same: the epicentre of power, and the city in which the machines of politics grind, Washington is memorable due to its boulevards, elegant buildings and knock-out symbols of US rule.

Designed by a Parisian, the version of the capital you see – comprising marble, museums and historic monuments – may stand in stark contrast to the run-down urban parts you don’t see, but you can’t fail to appreciate the grandeur and prettiness of DC’s heart.

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Segways: Now THAT’s the way to tour a city

Washington DC is also the only American city that does not allow skyscrapers, and its grid system layout means it’s both fairly easy to navigate and accessible. Determined to find the White House (left), we parked nearby and walked a few blocks until we stumbled upon it.

From a distance, I even had to look twice to be sure I was admiring the right home: The White House may host the President, but it’s not huge or shouty in itself. Closer inspection revealed it to be a rather lovely white residence, surrounded by green, manicured lawn and dwarfed by the US Treasury next door.

That’s the other thing I love about DC: take a stroll through Foggy Bottom or downtown, and you practically trip over national headquarters. To your left, the US Chamber of Commerce. On your right, the Labor Department and FBI Building. (Although our boys, of course, were more interested in the police patrolling high-security areas, especially the snipers on the roof of the White House.)

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The Reflecting Pool: Lined by walking paths and trees on both sides

Sights to see
At 170 metres high, and with no taller buildings to obscure the view, the Washington Monument (right) is visible from miles around. Erected in honor of George Washington, the American Revolutionary War commander and first US president, the iconic marble obelisk recently reopened after three years of repairs to fix cracks sustained during a rare 5.8-magnitude earthquake in August 2011.

We’d hoped to take the elevator ride to the summit, but alas, arrived too late in the day to get tickets (book online so you don’t miss out – the views are meant to be amazing).

Instead, we gazed up to take in the towering obelisk’s austere, white outline. Set against a bright-blue sky, the building seemed to be standing proud, resolute after its facelift. At its base, it’s encircled by 50 American flags (one for each state), and you can’t help but admire its simplicity.

We then walked the length of the famous Reflecting Pool – which dramatically mirrors the pointing monument – and paused for a while at the National World War II Memorial, a moving, grand-scale tribute with stone architecture and fountains.

Our last stop was the Lincoln Memorial, immediately recognisable as the building depicted on pennies and five-dollar bills. Its marble halls, engraved with Abraham Lincoln’s most impressive speeches, resonate with significance even before you see his larger-than-life sculpture, staring pensively towards the Capitol.

World-renowned museums: DC treats visitors to more than two dozen free museums. With limited time, we only managed to squeeze in the National Air and Space Museum on the National Mall, and its companion facility in Virginia (pictured), by Dulles airport, where you can see Concorde and the space shuttle Discovery. Next time, I’m pretty sure my boys would enjoy the Crime Museum and the hugely popular International Spy Museum.

World-renowned museums: DC treats visitors to more than two dozen free museums. With limited time, we only managed to squeeze in the National Air and Space Museum on the National Mall, and its companion facility in Virginia by Dulles airport (pictured), where you can see Concorde and the space shuttle Discovery. Next time, I’m pretty sure my boys would enjoy the Crime Museum and the hugely popular International Spy Museum, but not before I’ve marched them around the National Gallery of Art and Sculpture Garden as revenge.





Flying with kids: The bad and the worse

15 07 2014

Like many expat mums the world over, I’m currently on our annual pilgrimage to the motherland, to reintroduce our children to their grandparents, grassy fields and Wellington boots.

Most expat kids are frequent flyers, but I think it’s the hollow-eyed, jet-lagged mums – many of whom have to travel long distances with their overactive offspring solo – who deserve recognition for ensuring that everyone arrives intact.

“Please…help….me….”

“Please…help….me….”

Now that my two are older, flying with them is so much easier, but I haven’t forgotten what trial by two-year-old is like at 37,000 feet. During the 22 hours of flight time we’ve clocked up over the past two weeks, I turned my thoughts to the various stages mums go through when taking their little ones back and forth to see family. Without much further ado, here’s my tongue-in-cheek take on the eight steps mothers desperately seeking serenity on board must navigate:

Sky cot: Hands-free flying

Sky cot: Hands-free flying

0-8 months:
Provided your baby doesn’t cry like a banshee due to earache or colic, you’re relieved to discover that small infants are essentially hand luggage, and can be stored in a wall-mounted bassinet – meaning, in between feeds, you’re left with plenty of hands-free time for other, adult-related pursuits. Enjoy it. Indulge in a glass or two (while you can). This phase is over quicker than you can say pass the earplugs.

9 months – 2 years:
Now mobile, your infant is classed as a lap child, a burdensome phase that sees the two of you co-joined like Siamese twins and squashed into one seat. Once sleep finally arrives (for your 30lb lead-weight bundle of joy, at least), you find yourself sitting statue-esqe – and needing the loo – as you attempt to inhale a meal and not flinch an inch in case the slightest movement rouses your child.

2-2½ years:
Your toddler has progressed to a seat, but the games, toys and books you’ve spent days collecting are dispensed with in minutes. Fun is sought in mischievous ways: Meal tray up/tray down. Light on/light off. Window shutter open/shutter closed. Call the flight attendant. Call the flight attendant again. When all the un-dinging you have to do gets too much, you traipse up and down the aisle – jolting several unsuspecting passengers awake as you go – or visit the bathroom together, where double-jointedness is always a plus when assisting your offspring.
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2½-3 years:
You’ve reached that murky zone where diversionary tactics are all that stand between you and a mile-high meltdown. Tantrums occur due to the most innocuous of reasons: not being allowed to bring the stroller up the aisle; the seat belt sign coming on. No other passenger makes eye contact – not even the smug mother of two crayon-loving girls opposite.

3-3½ years:
By now, you’re travelling with two small children – a whole new world of in-flight angst – which means that if you’re on your own, losing your oldest at the airport or on board must be avoided (if you have more than two, good luck with that). After collecting all the luggage at the other end, you feel like hugging the kind lady who, on seeing that you don’t have a seventh arm to push the stroller, offers to help.

3½-4 years:
Someone’s told you stickers are great for keeping children entertained on board, so you’re armed with sticker books. But while in the toilet, your kids stick them all over the TV. Bad idea: the heat from the screen can turn the adhesive into superglue. Imagining the entire aircraft being decommissioned while engineers scrape Lightening McQueen and his friends off 35F’s TV, you start peeling and don’t stop until there isn’t a single trace of sticker left. A happy coincidence is it uses up a good 20 minutes of flight time.

Happy travel days await (honestly)

Happy travel days await (honestly)

4-5 years
An iPad loaded with games is your saviour and, whilst still arriving disheveled and decorated with orange juice stains, you realise you had more time to relax on board, and even watched half a movie. A basic aviation knowledge – so as to answer questions like How does the wind move? – is extremely useful during this stage.

5 years+
You’ve made it. Long flights with small children no longer fill you with terror. While queuing at security, you see a mum with a seven-month-old infant struggling with all her baby paraphernalia, juggling her little one, taking her belt and shoes off, then, at the other side of the x-ray machine, pulling it all together again like a 100-piece jigsaw puzzle, and you feel like punching the air with joy that you’ve left the aforementioned stages well and truly behind. Well done, you’ve arrived!

Sponsored by: My own personal experiences. Every.single.example.





An 8-year-old’s embryonic blog

30 06 2014

Thank goodness that, for Son1, at least, the days of bringing back half a rainforest of artwork are over. This week, he’s mostly brought home exercise books, rather than the artistic creations exploding with glitter and glue that used to get piled up to the rafters during his kindergarten years.

The English, Maths, French, Arabic and Music books were certainly interesting to look at, but the workbook I enjoyed the most was the diary documenting his weekends. It was almost like an embryonic blog, with squiggly pictures and illuminating insights into his mind:

On the role DH and I play:
“Families are important because they take us places … They pay for cheeseburgers and crisps. They go to work to get money to buy toys.”

Before we busted him for getting up at 5.30am to play computer games:
“Happily, on Friday morning I played Xbox for 4 hours, then my mum came downstairs.”

Such a hard life:
“If I could make something disappear, it would be homework … and school.”
["Tell me more," wrote the teacher!]

In my next life, I’m coming back as an expat kid:
“On the weekend, I flew to Oman and stayed in a fancy hotel.”

On being small:
“I think it is great being a child because we don’t have to pay the bills. We can also fit through small holes, and adults can’t.”

Not Son1's, but this made me laugh. It was turned in by a first grader in the US, and marked by the teacher. The next day, the mom wrote a note: "Dear Ms. Davis, I want to be perfectly clear on my child's homework illustration. It is NOT me on a dance pole on a stage in a strip joint surrounded by male customers with money.  I work at Home Depot and had commented to my daughter how much money we made in the recent snowstorm.  This drawing is of me selling a snow shovel.

Not Son1’s, but this made me laugh. It was turned in by a first grader in the US, and marked by the teacher. The next day, the mom wrote a note: “Dear Ms. Davis, I want to be perfectly clear on my child’s homework illustration. It is NOT me on a dance pole on a stage in a strip joint surrounded by male customers with money.
I work at Home Depot and had commented to my daughter how much money we made in the recent snowstorm.
This drawing is of me selling a snow shovel.”








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