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Travel with Kids: The Bad and the Worse

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Please…Help…Me!

Like many expat mums the world over, every year I take the children on a pilgrimage to the motherland, to reintroduce them 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.

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. Without much further ado, here’s my take on the eight steps mothers desperately seeking serenity on board must navigate:

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.

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.

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.

This is an excerpt from my book Circles in the Sand: Stories about Life in the Big D. Please click on the Books tab above, or on the cover top right, to find out how to get hold of it.

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Family vacations: Are you having fun yet?

Dream on
Dream on

1-2 years [with a health warning]: While friends with older children sip cocktails and watch the sunset, your toddler has more energy than an atomic explosion. He scales the furniture and hurtles round your holiday home like a hurricane. Anything breakable, you’ve already moved higher, or hidden – it was either that or develop such a shrill tone through continually shrieking ‘Don’t touch that” that it doesn’t even sound like you. Relaxing is inconceivable so you’re out and about every.single.day, which means, between your (early) morning latte and lights out, you save his life at least five times. Think of holidays with 1-2 year olds as paying to lead your normal life in a less convenient location.

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“Muuuuuum, MUMMY, where are yoooouuuu?”

2-3 years: By now, there’s a sibling on the scene and travelling with two constitutes a whole new level of pain. Expect nightly games of musical beds and heated debates over who slept the less. Be careful not to let your guard down: your 2-year-old will be irresistibly drawn to dirt, puddles and dog poo, like bees to honey. Remember to bring several changes of clothes per day for each family member – expiry through laundry overload isn’t covered by travel insurance.

3-4 years: Continually ravenous / thirsty / hot / cold / bickering / or in sudden need of the loo, your children are a zillion times more demanding than your most attention-seeking work colleagues. Yet on Facebook it’s all smiley faces in front of stunning backdrops. You’ve tried holidaying with friends so the kids can play together while the adults drink wine, but the downside is you can no longer claim their bad behaviour is a temporary blip when it lasts all week long. You’ve also discovered you can take your children to the best zoos and wildlife parks and introduce them to all manner of cute animals, but they’ll never be as happy as when you discover cockroaches in the kitchen.

4-5 years: By now, you’ve resigned yourself to the fact that holidays aren’t what they used to be, and you’ve learnt how to hit the ground running. On arriving in an unfamiliar environment, you can find the supermarket, buy essentials and whip up a supper for four. Hell, you can even cook fish fingers in an Aga. And with the letting go of any notions of late-nights, lazy days reading and uninterrupted sunbathing (pre-child holiday memories that might as well have taken place in Ancient Rome – because there’s no going back) comes the realisation that family vacations can be fun, especially if there’s a kids’ club.

Don’t think family holidays will now be a breeze. It’s not that relaxing is bottom of your children’s priority list. It’s not even on it

5-6 years: Showing your offspring new things, new places and new horizons is not only rewarding, it’s like putting a down payment on developing citizens of the world. On good days, your rosie-cheeked kiddos slip little hands in yours, and swing happily on the farm gate. On bad days, there’s always electronic stimulation to fall back on. Life-long memories are made, bonds are strengthened. Your children become your ambassadors, opening doors to new experiences and conversations. While they race their new Italian friends around the Campo in Siena, you can actually enjoy your Campari. As the years roll by, you look back at holiday snaps of your babies with rose-tinted specs on, and marvel at those precious, crazy moments captured in time.

Happy holidays everyone!

First published August 2014

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Trench warfare at Waterloo

SUBTITLE: Why I don’t miss commuting

There were dire warnings, but no-one truly expected London’s Waterloo station to turn into Wembley on Cup Final Day.

The thing is, I’m sure the £800m upgrade of Europe’s busiest station will be a wonderful facelift, but what exactly are the hundreds of thousands of commuters who rely on the train service to London supposed to do this summer? Vaporise?

You can’t just tell people to go on holiday for three weeks, work from home, or travel at completely different times while the project is underway. Actually, that’s what rail chiefs have told everyone to do.

Of course, not everyone can heed this advice, and so tonight as I got off a train from the suburbs and passed through the ticket barrier into Waterloo’s concourse, I was greeted by the sight of thousands of seriously grumpy people squinting at the departure boards, their faces frozen into the grimace of a gargoyle. Here’s what the scene looked like:

Waterloo upgrade

They were all wedged up against each other, jostling for position, elbowing each other in the ribs. It was basically trench warfare: Inching forwards in the hope of gaining ground, not letting your guard down for one moment – because if you did you’d get trampled. Thirty minutes, at least, I’d say, just to get on a platform.

There was even an ambulance in attendance in case there were any casualties – you’d think it was some kind of stadium event, but no, they were just trying to get home from work! And paying full fare for it too (the train company’s running half a service, badly, and giving no compensation). Having been a commuter myself years ago, I felt very sorry for all those poor people.

Although maybe they were the lucky ones: Tube passengers were being held back in tunnels for upwards of 15 minutes to reduce the crush. Others were being herded like sheep from the Jubilee line onto the closed platforms where all the work was going on to get to the main station.

As the crowd surged forwards towards a very delayed train, with me trying to go in a different direction, it was like a tsunami of people pushing me back to where I’d just come from. My feet barely touched the ground. Briefcases banged my knees. I was squished between men and women in dark suits, with absolutely no eye contact whatsoever. Everyone maintained a defiant refusal to engage: I know I’m breathing down your neck, I know we’re all in this together, but I can’t see you. I’ve got commuter blindness. Ooops, sorry I just shoved you. I just want to get home, dammit.

I let the groundswell carry me along for a bit until I had to start fighting back in order to escape, and then I was released like a wave dumping a surfer. Phew! I’d got over the mountains to Switzerland.

It’s a good job they were handing out water and ice cream in apology for the modern-day Battle of Waterloo.

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“It’s MINE!” All about (not) sharing

giant ice cream
Eat your heart out! Photo courtesy of a friend

One of the nice things about being back in the motherland is the large, green park just a short walk away. It’s a firm favourite with the boys: a jungle-themed adventure playground, a cricket pitch, an indoor pool with slides, paths to scoot along, and the best bit (in Son2’s opinion), an ice cream van.

Leaving the house today, Son2 turns to me and says, “Bring money, Mom!” He grins. He checks I’ve remembered every time we go to the park. That old chestnut, “Oh, I’m sorry, no ice cream today, I’ve got NO money!”, no longer works.

And I have to admit that even I listen out for Mr Whippy’s jingle because without a tinny rendition of Greensleeves it feels like there’s something missing.

Ice cream vans conjure up such wonderful images of summer, sticky-faced kids, and days at the beach. Growing up in the UK, summer holidays weren’t complete without the thin, peculiar chime of an ice cream van shooting down a warm, child-cluttered, residential street, a crowd of excited kids in pursuit. Unless you lived in certain parts of the country, in which case they were undercover police.

But as much as Son2 loves indulging in a lolly, he loathes sharing it.

Today, there was thunder and lightning forecast for 1pm (living in a country where there’s very little weather, it amazes me that the British weather people provide such up-to-the minute forecasts.) Sure enough, as 1pm rolls around, dark clouds roll in. A stiff breeze drifts across the park, rustling the rhododendron bushes. Never mind that five minutes previously it was sunny and hot.

“Quick Mom, let’s get the lolly!” Son2 swivels on his heels and runs up the path towards the van, strategically parked just outside the play area.

I follow him, hand over the money and watch as he rips it open.

His eyes widen as he takes those first licks of strawberry ice.

“Can I have some please?” I raise an eyebrow. I’ve already opened my mouth and closed it twice.

“Nope!”

I stare back, then ask him again. My taste buds are being teased.

“I gave you two Hula Hoops, remember?” Son2 says impassively. “Just before we came out.” He puts a protective hand around his lolly, as though I might suddenly launch myself at it, and devours it in a sticky mess.

When he finishes, he hands me the wooden stick.

“Wh– What? NO WAY!” I give him an incredulous-Mom glare. “You didn’t give me any so you can put it in the bin yourself. Look–” I point at a rubbish bin. “Over there.”

“But I did all the hard work of eating it, so it’s your turn to do all the hard work of throwing it away.”

Gah! Kids!

Postscript: He did throw it away himself, and has promised me one bite tomorrow.

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Top 5 summer car maintenance tips from Careem


Careem, the Dubai-based private ride-hailing app, has always taken road safety very seriously, not just for their own Captains and customers but also for the other motorists throughout the UAE.

As part of its ongoing campaign to make the UAE’s roads a safer place, Careem’s care centre manager Hamid Moaref, who overlooks the maintenance of 300 of Careem’s fleet per month, reveals his top five tips to keep your car running safely in the intense summer heat.

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Don’t tire out your tyres
Tyre failure can occur when it is least expected. Tyres are the only part of the car in contact with the road, hence it is important to get them checked and replace them if necessary. All Careem vehicles are required to undergo a check-up every quarter and Careem recommends the same for your own vehicle. A good tip is to fill your tyres with nitrogen and not regular air. Nitrogen does not expand as the temperature rises inside your tyres, thus making them last longer.

Keep the battery alive and kicking
As cars will be working harder during the hot summer months, so will the car battery. Within the GCC region, car batteries typically work for up to two years only, mainly due to extensive use of the vehicle’s air conditioning and the greater degree of evaporation of the many fluids used throughout the mechanics of the vehicle. Careem advises all motorists to check their car battery at periodic intervals.

Screen Shot 2017-08-04 at 22.07.58Stay cool
As your vehicle’s air conditioning system will be heavily used throughout the summer months, it is essential to make sure it is working at the optimum level. All the A/C filters need to be checked and replaced if dirty. Cleaning the filters makes a huge difference to the air circulating inside the vehicle, and reduces the chances of getting an air-borne infection. As an added extra, the Careem Care Centre recommends getting an A/C disinfectant job done as well.

Hydration
Your car’s fluid levels, from engine oil to coolant, should be checked regularly to prevent the engine from overheating and reduce the chances of a vehicle breakdown. Careem drivers are required to check coolant and oil levels at least once a month.

Shade is everything
The intense summer heat can play havoc with the internal compartments of a vehicle. Try to always park in a covered garage or in the shade, or purchase a sun shade. Reducing the impact of the sun’s rays not only lowers the chance of the engine overheating, but also prevents the interiors from fading and stops cracks developing on the dashboard.

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Reverse culture shock (and who really owns London?)


I get reverse culture shock every time I come home! It’s like a U-bend. There’s the initial euphoria of returning home – seeing family and friends, wearing the cooler-weather clothes in my wardrobe, eating my favourite foods. Then, suddenly, I start feeling like a fish out of water, out of place in my own culture.

From having to look the other way when crossing the road to remembering to grab an umbrella every time I leave the house, reverse culture shock is the bottom of the U-bend. It feels like you’re a performer in a play who’s walking round the wrong stage – the setting is familiar, yet unreal.

Emirates Air Line
Home from home: Crossing the Thames on the Emirates Air Line

As Robin Pascoe, author of Homeward Bound, writes: “Re-entry shock is when you feel like you are wearing contact lenses in the wrong eyes. Everything looks almost right.”

And I honestly think it’s more ‘shocking’ than the initial culture shock of moving abroad. That reaction you expect. Reverse culture shock can be quite unexpected and unanticipated.

Which is maybe why when it was suggested we take the boys to Bricklive at ExCeL London, I said, “Ooh, we can cross the river on the Emirates Air Line!”

All of a sudden, the idea of paying money to get a Dubai fix seemed a good idea. They might even serve champagne.

The cable car swings across the Thames at a vertigo-inducing altitude with views of the glinting Canary Wharf tower, the Cutty Sark, Royal Observatory and O2 arena. The brackish-brown river glides underneath, twisting and turning through London, an arm of the sea, never the same water and never still. My eyes followed the river’s sweeping path to the steel gates of the Thames Barrier.

After disembarking on the other side, we walked towards the ginormous ExCel centre. I soon noticed the oversized lettering on the front of the building: ‘Part of Abu Dhabi National Exhibitions Company’.

And that’s when I was reminded: the Middle East owns more of London than the Queen these days.

London cranes
From the window of our cable car, London looks just like … Dubai!
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The technology struggle is real!

I’ve relaunched the blog! It’s now on a different, self-hosted platform, which means I’m having to learn a few new tricks and do things slightly differently. There’s nothing quite like getting to know a system really well, then throwing it out the window and starting again with something that looks similar but is, in fact, a souped-up, all-singing, all-dancing version that turns my brain to putty.

I like it when the technology I use stays the same. Maybe I’m easily confused, but it irked me recently when my Outlook mail account started sorting my inbox for me into ‘Focused’ messages and ‘Others’. I mean: How does it KNOW which emails I need to read and which ones I can ignore? All that happens is I think I’m caught up, and then I find a whole pile of messages sitting smugly and silently in the ‘Others’ folder. Can I next expect an algorithm humanoid to show up at my office to rearrange the files in my filing cabinet? Needless to say, I’m still trying to figure out how to turn this new Outlook feature off.

I’m also one of those people who see those little icons and pop-up messages on my computer, iPad and iPhone, indicating there is a new software update available, and inwardly groan. The thought of having to download and install whatever it is they’ve come up with now fills me with distrust. I find it disruptive. And then I ignore it, thinking ‘I don’t need it anyway’, ‘My computer’s working just fine’ or ‘This update’s not for me!’

old TV
Turning the telly on was much easier in days gone by

Okay, while I’m at it, it also annoys me that turning on a TV these days requires three remotes with 60 buttons. I quote Bridget Jones: “Suspect designed by 13-year-old technogeeks, competing with each other from sordid bedrooms, leaving everyone else thinking they’re the only person in the world who doesn’t understand what the buttons are for, thus wreaking psychological damage on a massive, global scale.”

And I’m not even going to tell you what happened last week when I attempted to operate our tumble dryer for the first time (in my defence, we rarely use it – the climate ensures clothes become bone-dry super fast when hung outside). Okay, briefly: It was nearly midnight. The dog had peed on the clean duvet that my mother-in-law, arriving very late, was to use. The buttons had only strange hieroglyphic swirls on them. There seemed to be about 40 different drying combinations, none of which actually dried the duvet in time. I felt like a man.

Am I the only person who thinks it’s all getting a bit ridiculous?

Getting water from the fridge has even become a complicated task. There’s a type of fridge – a Kenmore Elite I believe – that offers you temperature options, manual, automatic. You have to choose how many ounces of water you want (who knows how many ounces a glass takes?!?!), what type of ice, and more.

Anyway, rant over. I’m working on my trust issues. In the interest of keeping up with my older son, who has become so fluent in technology it’s downright intimidating, I’ve decided to try to tackle all these technical things head on. I’m going to stop being scared of software updates, turning the TV on, operating the dryer, and hope this makes life run more smoothly.

Welcome to the new-look blog – and forgive me if it takes me a while to figure out what all the damn bells and whistles do.