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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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Budapest, communism and airline crew hotels

There’s something I’ve learnt about the children of pilots (and I’m talking about youngsters here – please tell me teenagers are different?). A pilot’s offspring might fly before they take their first teetering steps; their school friends might hail from all over the world; and the class photo might resemble a Benetton advert. But when it comes to the countries they’re lucky enough to visit, the hotel we stay in seems to shape their opinion of the entire nation.

Son2’s favourite place is Birmingham. Why? Something he really liked about the hotel when we stayed there a couple of Christmasses ago (he’ll say it was the carpet, but I’m sure there must have been more to it than that). Italy. The best bit, according to Son2: the airport Sheraton hotel in Milan (which, incidentally, was designed to be a car park). South Africa. The crew hotel, the name of which I can’t remember but Son2 liked the sweets at reception.

So this year, we spent Christmas in Budapest.  

It’s the most amazing city, blessed with beautiful architecture on every corner, romantic bridges, good food and an abundance of hot springs. In December, the city’s golden, twinkly lights take on an extra-special meaning against a (freezing cold) seasonal backdrop of brightly lit Christmas markets selling steaming mulled wine, ice skating at Vajdahunyad Castle, and festive decorations all over the city.

Fabulously festive
Fabulously festive but the hotel held all the appeal

At the market, I didn’t for one minute expect my sons to be into the craft stalls offering artisanal items, but I thought the food might interest them. And it did momentarily (while they were hungry). The goulash served in a huge, hollowed-out bread roll, the potato dumplings, the sausages and the fresh flat bread covered with grated cheese – it was all heartening fare on a night so cold your breath came out like a dragon’s puff. The best bit, for Son2, was the bubblegum marzipan. But once their appetites were sated, the calls began: “CAN WE GO BACK TO THE HOTEL NOW?”

On a visit to Buda Castle for a crisp winter walk with views of the city: “Can we go home?”

“Home?” I asked. “Really?”

“I mean the hotel,” replied Son2.

“We haven’t brought you to Hungary just to sit in the hotel room all day, you know … No really, we haven’t.”

At church on Christmas morning (okay so it was all in Hungarian, a beautiful but impenetrable language): “After this, are we going back to the hotel?”

At Heroes’ Square: “I WANT TO GO BACK TO THE HOTEL!” At this point, Son2 bunched his expression up into a question mark and clasped his hands together under his chin. “I want to play with my presents from Santa,” he pleaded. (Santa brought small stockings – because wherever you are, he’ll find you. PHEW!)

The bullet holes and shrapnel pockmarks on the Citadel fortress atop Gellért Hill took their mind off the hotel for a bit (their attention was actually fully engaged), and as we walked on in the footsteps of communism and the cold war and gazed up at the stark Statue of Liberty, the boys were still with us, absorbing DH’s history lesson about the Soviet “liberation” of Hungary during WW2. But it wasn’t long before we heard: “Let’s go back to the hotel! [Imagine a chant, like a woodpecker in your brain.]

“And can we get room service?” At which I rolled my eyes, not just out of their sockets but out of my actual head.

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How to cause a big scene in Bahrain

Manama skyline
Bahrain, which means ‘two seas’ in Arabic, comprises an archipelago of 33 islands lying between the east coast of Saudi Arabia and the Qatari peninsula

“Where’s Matty gone?”

I turned around at the sound of Son1’s voice, a notch smaller than usual, and sure enough his brother was gone.

It all happened in an instant. We’d spent a magnificent day exploring Manama – a cosmopolitan capital city with a liberal lifestyle, where old and new is succinctly blended; where glass and steel spires decorate the city’s skyline, and the narrow streets at the Manama souq are filled with stalls selling perfumes, spices, nuts, shisha bottles and gold.

Manana souk
The rabbit warren of streets at Manama souk is a sight not to be missed

We’d worn the children out, with sights including the new Bahrain Financial Harbour, rising like Neptune from reclaimed land, and the twin towers of the Bahrain World Trade Centre – linked by skybridges sporting wind turbines. The kids had swum, jet-skied on the sparkling bay (the small island nation is characterised by the aquamarine water that laps its shores). They’d enjoyed a Dairy Queen dinner beside a beautiful mosque with two towering minarets lit up like candles. Then they’d both fallen asleep in the car on the way back to the hotel.

I’d woken Son2 up with difficulty, and he was walking right behind me as we made our way in the dark to the wide doors at the entrance. I’d seen him a second before, his head bowed, shoulders hunched with tiredness. And then, like a car crash, it happened.

Except, of course, you don’t immediately think you’ve actually lost your son, do you? You assume he’s just trailed too far behind and you casually start calling his name across the dimly lit car park.

Manama Dairy Queen
Dairy Queen in Manama

Fast-forward 10 minutes, and I was beginning to panic. Where on earth had he gone? We’d checked all the obvious places, the room, the car park, the hotel lobby, a second entrance where workers were dismantling tables and chairs from a wedding at the hotel. Noticing that something was amiss, they joined our search. What was he wearing? they asked, and I could barely remember.

“Come,” said one of the men, and feeling like my legs were on backwards, I followed him over to the security guard at the gate. I’d noticed him earlier: dark hair stuck to his glistening forehead as he checked the trunks and underbellies of all the cars entering the hotel grounds. Checking for what? I’d wondered. Bombs?

He shook his head. “Maybe the swimming pool?” he said, looking askance. I wasn’t too worried about the pool, as Son2 swims well; by now, I’d started imagining he was in someone’s car, half-way over the King Fahd Causeway to neighbouring Saudi Arabia.

DH, Son1 and I lapsed into a dreadful silence as everyone continued to search, the sound of loud music from the wedding party reception at the edge of my hearing. How could he have vanished in the blink of an eye? I’d only taken my eyes off him for a second. My heart was thumping, my mouth as dry as the desert all around.

Then out of the darkness came the silhouette of a man. A security guard was walking towards us, all smiles, eyes twinkling with warmth. He was carrying our sleeping son – Son2 had wandered off, laid down on a grassy verge, and fallen fast asleep. Totally oblivious to the commotion going on around him …

Just when I thought holidays with kids were getting easier!

Tree of Life Bahrain
The Tree of Life: This amazing, 400-year-old tree stands alone in the Bahraini desert, surviving on water gleaned from particles of sand and the air’s humidity
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Frequently asked questions

“Your ticket is upgradable,” the nice lady at the check-in informed me. “Do you wish to upgrade?”

“Thank you, but no,” I replied, shaking my head (thinking yes, YES please. Do I want to upgrade? Of course I do! Who wouldn’t?)

But, no matter how tempted I was by the free-flowing wine, champers, gourmet cuisine, canapés, flat-bed and acres of legroom on offer in the A380’s upper deck, it was never going to happen. There was no upgrade for the boys, and they’re too young to sit by themselves (there’s always next year!).

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Bye, bye England! (s0b)

So, instead, I leapt on Son2’s conversational freight train for the 7-hour journey from London to Dubai:

“Mummy, what country are we flying over? What’s the smallest country, Mummy? … Is Dubai bigger than England? … Are we in space? If we’re not in space, is the upstairs in space? When are we there?” …

[The moment my eyes closed] MUMMY! WHEN.are.we.THERE? [Bringing me back to earth, or at least 37,000 feet above it, in a snap.] Is it nighttime in Dubai? I’m hungry Mummy! (Me: “They just served you a kids’ meal, and you didn’t want it!’ said through gritted teeth.) Is there wifi? Can I watch YouTube? How fast is the wind, Mummy? Is England still bigger than Dubai?”

Until I could see his mouth moving, but couldn’t really hear what he was saying and could do nothing but nod at whatever his moving lips were trying to assault me with.

Whereas Son1 plugged himself into the in-flight entertainment and watched back-to-back movies, with a couple of iPad breaks. Oh the difference being nearly three years older makes.

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Family vacations: Are you having fun yet?

Many of us are travelling with a shouty entourage this summer and, if you’re anything like me, you’ll know there’s an initiation parents must go through before you can honestly say family holidays no longer leave you feeling winded.

Here’s my five-step, tongue-in-cheek guide to achieving holiday zen:

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.

xxxx
“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. Do be careful not to let your guard down: your 2-year-old will be irresistibly drawn to dirt, puddles and dog poo, like bees are 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.

xxxxx
The heaven, hell and humour of family holidays is the new normal

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
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!

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The holidays by numbers

I was one lucky expat this holiday and got to go home for a whirlwind trip – six days (three of them travelling) overflowing with family, food and surprises. I could wax lyrical about that home-for-the-holidays feeling, the novelty of winter and the precious time spent with loved ones, but I don’t quite know where to start. So, instead, here’s my numerical recap (SUBTITLED: Travel with kids never did run smooth) …

Distance travelled: 8,650 miles (in 2 planes, 2 trains, 1 tube train, 2 cars and 2 taxis)

Family members visited: 24, including DH’s 95-year-old Grannie

Visas forgotten (due to being in old passport): 1, causing immigration officials to shake their heads and tell us we couldn’t travel (in the end, they took pity on me)

Visas reunited with: 1, thanks to two special people: C who searched our house to find it; and DH who discovered that overnight FedEx delivery doesn’t apply when there’s bad weather in the UK

Skipped heartbeats: 3, when the concierge at the hotel the visa had been delivered to by a fellow pilot mistakenly presented me with a box of jewellery instead of an envelope

Waterlogged UK, but wonderful nevertheless
Waterlogged UK, but wonderful nevertheless

Passports lost: 4 (Yes, seriously. I think I was cursed)

Passports found after 45-min panic: 4. They’d dropped into a black hole in my suitcase

Children lost: 1, before the pantomime at Birmingham’s Hippodrome, triggering a full-scale search for Son 2 via walkie-talkies. (I know, I know, we’d only been out of Dubai for five minutes)

Children found: 1, in a deserted area of the theatre, clutching the booster seat they give kids like it was a life raft

Christmas dinners eaten: 3

Floods (or water ponds as they’re called in Dubai): Too many to count

Fish rescued: 2, found in a puddle, as floodwater receded from my parents’ garden; they were returned to the fishpond they’d escaped from

Minutes stayed up past midnight on NYE: 7

Speed of gusting wind as plane sat motionless on taxiway: 40mph

Memories made: Priceless

HAPPY NEW YEAR! (and thank you for reading Circles in the Sand in 2013) x