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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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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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Confessions of a cruiser (part 2)



Perhaps the biggest surprise came when checking in at the cruise terminal. “Oh, there’s Davin from school,” said Son1, as though it was completely normal to come across a school friend some 8,000 miles away from home. They gave each other a dab. Davin’s mother and I, both clutching our suitcases and bags, thought the boys were joking until it became obvious our sons really did know each other – and we really did live just two streets away from each other, in the same compound.

Small world.

cruise ship swimming pool
Tourist trap: Not my favourite area of the boat, but the kids LOVED it!

The next revelation was that, although there were some 2,600 passengers on board, which did, at times, suggest no let up from tourism hell, you could actually lose almost everyone by finding a quiet corner of the ship from which to read, or just watch the ocean. At night, the moon sparkled on its dark, wrinkly surface, and without any bright city lights, the stargazing was amazing – like being cocooned (make that dwarfed) in your own enormous, outdoor planetarium.

I also loved having a porthole in our little room, from which (we were just above sea level) the docile white-tipped waves looked like carpets unfurling, splashing the side of the boat playfully. On the last evening, another cruise ship floated past on the horizon, its lights a necklace of glitter.

Of course, the kids had their ‘moments’, especially as they had to go cold turkey from wifi. “What? Seriously, NO wifi? Son2 whined, his eyes widening, pulling a tortured face like he’d eaten a lemon. [Whispers:] Actually there was wifi, but it was an extra and expensive.

Atlantis Bahamas
The Atlantis Bahamas – I always forget that Dubai wasn’t the first with this

Both DH and I lapped the ship numerous times looking for them when they went awol (my mind working overtime wondering if one of them had pushed the other overboard), and then, the worst ‘moment’, Son2 vanished while we were snorkelling off CocoCay Island (Royal Caribbean’s private island – perhaps not the Bahamian paradise advertised with some 2,000 cruise-goers all over it – yes, some did stay put on the boat! – but a wonderful stop nevertheless).

Put it this way, the island’s lifeguards are now on first name terms with my eight year old, who’d simply had enough and decided to swim half a kilometre back to shore all by himself. They found him on the beach, perfectly fine, his mask and snorkel jettisoned in the sand. I’m still recovering from that one.

All in all, I loved the cruise. It didn’t turn into a nausea-riddled, hermetically sealed cruise passenger pen; no-one went overboard; exploring Nassau was fab; and the 70s disco was lots of fun. While DH wasn’t looking, I even visited the ‘Next Cruise’ on-board sales stand and pocketed a few leaflets advertising longer floating jollies into Alaska, and to Mexico via Cuba. I’ve got a year to persuade him …

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Hi, my name is Circles and I’m a cruiser (part 1)

As an airline family it never occurred to me that a cruise might be for us – I had visions that a cruise would involve being stuck on a boat awash with a novovirus outbreak and quarantined to a tiny island somewhere until the home port let us back in.

Majesty of the Seas
Boarding the floating hotel (Majesty of the Seas)

I was also guilty of assuming that, if the ship didn’t turn into a giant mobile sick bag, then all our fellow passengers would conform to the silver-haired, buffet-savaging stereotype, be cruise bores, or, worse, be the kind of people who don’t even bother to get off the ship when it calls at new destinations. I imagined being stuck at dinner with the latter, and then belched out with a thousand other passengers to traipse after an umbrella-wielding tour guide also owned by the cruise line.

For these reasons, I’d always given cruises a wide berth (excuse the pun!) –until last week, when I realised what I’ve been missing.

Yes, I’m now officially a cruiser – and have new friends: the American lady and her son who we shared our dinner table with each night, and who weren’t cruise bores at all but had funky tattoos (the mom not the boy), funny stories, hair tips (she was a hairdresser who’d worked in Beverly Hills) and (relevant for my sons) also had extensive knowledge of dabbing, YouTube and Pokemon cards.

It turns out the US cruise market is HUGE, as popular with college kids as retired folk, and – as our short introduction to cruising proved – is really an excuse for a three-day-long party.

Of course, it helps when you bump into the Bahamas, the sun is shining non-stop, the sea is as smooth as an ironing board and the waters and big skies of the Caribbean are the kind of cerulean blue you find in tubes of oil paint – an intense colour boiled down to its very essence.

Adjusting to the sandy summer skies of the desert is proving quite the challenge for this newbie cruiser!

Caribbean cruise
Sandy skies of Dubai: Hello? Burj Khalifa – are you there? Take me back to the Caribbean!
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The Thai foot massage with a happy outcome

I treated myself to a foot massage while in Thailand over the past few days. I chose a foot massage as it didn’t involve a locked back room, stripping all my clothes off and lying face down with my eyes, nose, mouth and cheeks squished into an oval while mainlining patchouli oil.

Not that there’s anything wrong with all that – I just didn’t feel like getting naked.

I’d hurried out of the glorious monsoon rain and was standing in the porch area reading the menu of treatments as a small group of sweet Thai ladies giggled and beckoned for me to come in, out of the wet. I could see the comfy lounge chairs on which the foot massages were carried out. The huge, cushioned foot rests seemed to stretch across at least an acre of floor, and – the deciding factor – all the other clients were fully dressed. They were blindfolded (this, I realised later, was the clue), but seemed happy enough.

I was also confident that my feet weren’t in an embarrassing state anymore. I’d visited the evening before for a foot scrub, during which one of the sweet, smiley Thai ladies had attacked the soles of my feet with a scalpel and hacked away all traces of hard skin to within an inch of my life (actually the glint of the sharp knife in the soft lighting was, in hindsight, perhaps clue one).

I sit down and am greeted by the same lady from the previous night. She’s still smiling. Heartened that my dreadful feet hadn’t scared her off (I tipped her well), I smile and relax as she removes my flip flops, washes my feet, and passes me a small rectangular towel to place over my eyes.

“Lie back,” she instructs, and I recline into a chair that could well have been made from the downy feathers of baby birds.

There’s a short wait, and I close my eyes behind the blindfold, anticipating the foot massage to follow. How blissful is this? All I can see is the dark orangey/red of my eyelids.

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The lying down, naked version of the ‘foot’ massage

Well, let’s just say, I got far more than I bargained for.

A pair of firm hands grab a shin and yank my leg upwards, almost ninety degrees. It’s somewhat surprising, but I realise she needs to rub oil in. Those hands, which I still think somehow belong to the sweet, smiley lady, then begin to iron my shinbone. They press and clutch and prod my leg, and I consider how incredibly strong she is. She was a tiny, waif-like thing –who knew those dainty hands could be so powerful? She’ll surely start on my feet soon so the pain will be shortlived. Right?

“You okay?” I hear. But I’m confused. Her voice is much deeper, gruffer, than I remembered. While processing the thought that she sounds more like a man, I reply, “Yes, thanks. That’s lovely …” S/he is at that moment crushing my feet, grinding the life out of them. I feel my breath leaving me.

Inside my head, I hear another voice, “You idiot – that was your chance to tell him/her to please be gentle. WHY DIDN’T YOU SAY SOMETHING! THERE’S AN HOUR OF THIS TO GO!!”

I inhale deeply. I’m not a wimp (well, actually I am). I can take 60 minutes of this. The sound of rain and music – ambient, chime-like – fills my ears and I concentrate on trying to enjoy the bits where she/he isn’t pummelling me too much.

A minute later, I take a peek. A quick wiggle of my eyebrows causes a small gap to open at the bottom of the face towel and I can just see out. Through the narrow slit, I see that she isn’t a he, but as I suspected it’s not the smiley lady. She’s been swapped for an equally tiny, silver-haired grannie. Let’s call her Nana Masseuse. Her slick, grey hair is swept back into a bun and perched on her nose are round spectacles.

I watch in horror as Nana Masseuse’s beady eyes survey my toes with laser focus. Her mouth twists into a tight, red knot and she pulls my toes one by one out of their sockets with a clicking noise. Then she flicks each toe with her fingers. At least they’re still attached.

From here on, it gets a lot better, or maybe I actually relax and stop resisting her moves, even the ones I don’t expect. I start to sort of enjoy it in a sadistic pleasure-mixed-with-pain way.

But I don’t really get why it’s called a foot massage. Nana Masseuse ‘massages’ nearly every part of my body – my upper legs, my arms. She almost sits on my hips. Then she clambers onto the chair with me, clasps my legs with a vice-like grip and presses down with her whole weight while practically doing a handstand. I imagine the whites of her knuckles showing.

At one point, Nana Masseuse’s fingers dig into a space between the small bones of my feet and rummage around – but it feels okay. Actually it feels really good. She rams my ankles into submission and goes clap-clap-clap up and down my legbone with her hands pressed together as though in prayer (I’m still peeping – well, wouldn’t you?).

After what must surely be an hour, I hear her say over the tinkly music, “Sit” and I comply at once, thinking she’s finished. I stand too fast and dizzily thank her.

“No, NO,” says Nana Masseuse, her face stricken. She pats the footrest hard. “Sit.”

We’re not done. I sit down and she starts pounding my shoulders, finding all the accumulated crevices of tension and popping them like bubbles. There’s another round of artillery fire as her hands smack-smack-smack my neck and shoulders.  Then she lifts my arm, twisting it behind my back in a move I thought was impossible without breaking something. With my elbow pointing outwards behind me, Nana Masseuse applies pressure and does something amazing to my shoulder blade. Ahh, who knew that could feel so good? I actually look forward to the same contortion on the other side.

Finally, it really is over and while relieved to be done – to have survived intact – I feel like a million bucks. If ever you find yourself in Karon Beach, Phuket Island, I do recommend going to see Nana Masseuse for a ‘foot’ massage.