Ladies Only

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.

Ladies Only

Throwback Thursday: The Expat Olympics

Circles staggers over the final hurdle to win gold in the hail-a-taxi-in-rush-hour relay!
Circles staggers over the final hurdle to win gold in the hail-a-taxi-in-rush-hour relay!

If you think about it, it’s a funny ole thing that expats spend such a big chunk of the year away from their adopted home, living out of a suitcase. While most people take two-week holidays, for expats six to eight weeks is often necessary in order to see all your family and friends who you don’t see the rest of the year.

As we all know, it’s not always plain sailing …

With the Rio Olympics about to start, I thought I’d repost my list of some of the events that expats the world over would be in great shape for this summer:

Speed

  • Catch every flight, with time to spare
  • Pole-position passport-queuing
  • The find-your-holiday-home-before-dark Road Race
  • The 32-hour-day Time Trial
  • Sprint to the toilets before the inevitable

Endurance

  • The up-before-dawn jet-lagged 6YO (how long til you lose it?)
  • The bath-book-bed triathlon in new surroundings
  • The time-zone jump (how many days to adjust? Bonus points for family members under 10)
  • The Eventing marathon (plan and execute four to six weeks of events and get-togethers without leaving anyone out)
  • The 1,500km cross-country steeplechase (how many relatives can you visit?)
  • Sofa surfing (who needs a good night’s sleep anyway?)

Gymnastics

  • Stay vertical at the Bar during reunions with friends
  • The Parallel park on tiny roads
  • The Roll-your-clothes test (does this mean you can fit more in your suitcase?)
  • Pommelling-it-shut after repacking
  • The Beam-me-up-Scotty moment (when it all gets too much)
  • The Dismount (when DH extricates himself from the travelling circus and goes back to work – no blubbing)

Skills

  • The daily Dress-Arghh competition (find something uncreased to wear in your capsule wardrobe)
  • Ride public transport in rush hour with children and suitcases
  • The don’t-stick-your-oar-in family regatta (aka, don’t rock the boat if it’s best left unsaid)
  • The triple shift childcare derby (one mum, two whining kids, DH gone)
  • Synchronised schedules (find a good moment to Skype your absent DH)
  • The overtired tantrum throw (how many until you have one yourself?)
Ladies Only

A wing and a prayer

Upstate New York: Four hours north of NYC lies six million acres of wilderness
Upstate New York: Four hours north of NYC lies six million acres of wilderness

“You look nervous – you okay?” DH put the car in park and laid his hand on my knee. “You don’t have to come if you don’t want to.”

“I’m fine,” I lied. “There’s no way I’m watching you all go up without me!”

I meant it: if my family was about to be in a plane crash, I was going down with them! I might be a pilot’s wife, but small planes still make me anxious. “It’s perfectly safe, isn’t it?” I asked.

DH looked out at the Cessna we’d hired. He gave a boyish grin. “Yep – it’s fine.” He held my gaze for several seconds. “Ready?”

I swallowed and felt the bubbles of anxiety begin to pop. “Yes, let’s go.”

"This is your pilot speaking!"
“This is your pilot speaking!”

I looked up. A few white, puffy clouds were drifting slowly across a clear blue sky and I wondered if we’d fly through them. Peering through the fencing, I saw a Cessna taxi-ing out; it stopped just short of the concrete airstrip. It was a bright day and at the furthest point the runway appeared to shimmer, creating the illusion of wetness. I’d seen all this before on previous visits to small airports and flight schools, but DH’s world – the glinting metal, engines, smell of machinery and fuel trucks – never fails to intrigue me.

After the paperwork was finalised, we walked out across the apron in the sunshine. The boys bounded towards the airplane in excitement – they’d been waiting for this day since we’d arrived in the States. As DH checked the plane, I found myself wondering how we’d all fit in. All four of us. The Cessna looked gleaming and airworthy, but … small.

How did my husband, who is at least six foot tall, spend several years giving flying lessons in such a tiny, cramped space, while students practised terrifying manoeuvres, rolls and engine failures?

The aircraft was red-and-white, with a white underbelly and two dark pinstripes running along its entire length. The propeller pointed upwards like a finger. DH climbed onto the plane and pulled a rod out of the fuel tank and studied it.

“Everything alright?” I asked.

“Looking good,” he said.

He inspected the rest of the aircraft then we crawled in, surprisingly fitting snugly inside. DH was relaxed and happy, busy following the procedures on his checklist. My heart gave an exaggerated beat as the propellers started turning. The plane shuddered, and, all of a sudden, the engine spluttered and roared to life. We taxied to the runway, and through the headset, I heard my youngest son chatting away.

DH asked him to be quiet for a bit, then I heard his calm voice talking to air traffic control. “Cleared for takeoff.”

Bounding down the runway, we picked up speed, bumping along, the plane straining to escape the earth. Until suddenly it was smooth. We were tilting upwards, the nose forging through the air. The ground dropped away, and we cleared the trees. The leafy tips looked as though they were in touching distance. Then, within seconds, they were below the plane.

The plane banked to the right, and I looked back down at the airport. The buildings and planes on the ground could now be toys, the cars tiny diecast models. The turquoise swimming pools in the grassy backyards were all different shapes, a rectangle, a circle, a kidney. We were up! Now I just had to loosen my vice-like grip on the seat.

As we levelled out, I craned this way and that – my nerves giving way to exhilaration, my shoulders dropping, mouth curving upwards in a wild grin. Before us, a vast expanse of blue sky. Below, dense green forest and blue, mirror-like lakes. The whole landscape was bathed in a warm, golden glow.

Noticing I’d been struck speechless (mostly because Son2 had started jabbering over the headsets again, right in my inner ear), DH turned round to see if I was ok. He gave me a look that said, Isn’t this great? Isn’t life so much better up here? Ahead, the tree-covered Adirondack mountains came into view.

Final approach
Final approach

I couldn’t stop looking: at the lush woodland; at Lake George; at the real estate (so much land); the properties clearly visible from our bird’s eye view. I thought about my office in Dubai, stationary and sterile, and the smallness of the cockpit didn’t matter anymore. From above, anything felt possible.

The odd jolt shook the plane but other than that, we weren’t buffeted or tossed by the wind like I’d feared. If it wasn’t for the deafening growl of the engine and the vibrating metal, we could almost be gliding.

I unfurled my fingers from the seatbelt, only for my heart to leap into my mouth as DH handed the controls over to Son1. Christ, my ten-year-old was flying! And loving it! “Just small corrections,” said DH, nudging the stick gently to keep us heading straight. Out the front window, the propeller whirled round, like a baseball bat pounding the air.

We headed over glassy lakes and wilderness, eating up miles of greenery. And before too long, it was time to head back.

At some point, we started descending; the toy towns, dots on the roads and bushes became houses, cars and trees once more. The runway rushed up towards us, and we touched down.

It took a while for my ears to adjust to the silence and we climbed out carefully. “Did you enjoy that?” I asked Son1 as DH tied down the airplane.

“Yes,” he nodded, grinning broadly.

“Think you might want to be a pilot?”

Another enthusiastic nod.

Me thinks we’d better start saving …

Ladies Only

Home for the holidays (on DH’s sleigh)

Holiday travel got a whole lot more exciting on Christmas Eve – a special day for us as DH flew us home!

It took a while to get off the ground: ten minutes before push-back, there were 121 passengers missing, no doubt doing some last-minute Christmas shopping. Once they’d been rounded up (bar two, who never made it out of duty free), we were off. At least we would have been if it wasn’t for the construction on the taxiways.

Still, wouldn’t be Dubai, would it, without roadworks?

Our flight on FlightTracker!
Our sleigh-ride on FlightTracker!

Towards the end of the flight, we hit turbulence. The seat-belt sign chimed. I felt the plane pitch, the thrumming of the engines as the aircraft bounced and shook.

Now, there was a time when being buffeted by strong, gusting wind like this would have caused a patch of sweat to form in the small of my back. My breath has even been known to come in shallow bursts during bad turbulence. But (by necessity) I’m so much better at this now!

No longer do I find myself gripping the armrest tightly, skull vibrating against the seat, eyes fixed straight ahead, as though undergoing a root canal. I can (almost) remain relaxed now.

Of course, there was something that helped enormously – DH’s voice. A cool baritone with a slight American twinge, which always sounds reassuring.

“Just to let you know we’ve sighted Santa on the radar,” he announced, to a rapturous gasp from the children on board. “And as a result, air traffic control has asked us to slow down to give Santa priority.”

Nice one, DH!

Ladies Only

Travel post: Stepping back into antiquity

Finding yourself alone inside a pyramid is now a real possibility

After the revolutionary chaos of the past few years, many people will have struck Egypt off their list of must-see places for the time being. With good reason. But there’s an upside for travellers: low visitor numbers.

Egypt’s tourism industry has been decimated since 2011, with income plunging so low that the Antiquities Ministry has struggled to pay thousands of staff. Tourist hotspots such as the market in central Luxor emptied out as holidaymakers shunned Egypt in favour of destinations not plagued by social unrest and travel warnings.

Against this backdrop of turmoil, I was initially taken aback when DH suggested Cairo as a getaway, saying he’d heard the hotels were quiet (and cheap), and the historic sites uncrowded.

A week later, we found ourselves gazing at the Great Pyramid of Giza, awestruck in admiration. And sure enough: the sense of wonder surrounding the magnificent, ancient pyramids is much easier to experience when the site isn’t overrun with tour groups.

Part of the glory of the majestic pyramids is their magical atmosphere, and watching the shadows lengthen on these extraordinary monuments in their glorious settings is made all the more special when the place is this quiet
Space: Part of the glory of the pyramids is their magical atmosphere, and watching the shadows lengthen on these extraordinary monuments in their glorious setting is made all the more special when it’s this quiet

Enormity of Cairo
We travelled to Egypt with our children after I satisfied myself that tensions appeared to be easing. What I wasn’t prepared for was the intensity of Cairo. One of the world’s most densely populated cities, the capital is huge (with a population in excess of 16 million), and driving through the sprawling, chaotic metropolis is a hair-raising experience. But while Cairo is noisy, polluted and disorganised, it’s also incredibly vibrant, colourful and, above all, alive.

Egyptian coffeehouses like Fishawi’s Ahwa have been important gathering places since Islamic times
Cairo cafe: Egyptian coffeehouses like Fishawi’s Ahwa have been important gathering places since Islamic times. Fishawi’s is said to have been open 24/7 since the 1700s

As we crossed the Nile – the river on which the first package holiday tourists travelled in 1869 – I peered out the window to take in its impressive wideness, then hastily retreated as we passed the rubbish piled up in Giza along the banks of the canal. Nine kilometres from the Nile, on the edge of the desert, we arrived at the Pyramids, built by the ancient Egyptians as tombs for the pharaohs and their queens.

xxxxx
Hotel: View from the Mercure Cairo Le Sphinx

Our accommodation (the Mercure Cairo Le Sphinx Hotel) was indeed great value, and set in the most amazing location: at the swimming pool, you literally stare up at a pyramid from your sun lounger. You almost have to pinch yourself to truly believe you’re swimming at the foot of the last surviving Wonder of the Ancient World. At night, after the pyramids have been absorbed into the darkness, I recommend viewing the sound and light show from the rooftop terrace.

I was prepared for hassle from tour ‘guides’ and other touts, so wasn’t surprised when our taxi driver suddenly thrust his mobile phone into my husband’s hands so his friend could attempt to sell us a tour; or when the hotel driver we hired took us less than a mile, to a stable, where we ended up shelling out more money for four-legged transportation (one camel, one horse-drawn cart, with several stable hands and a guide) to see the pyramids.

But, actually, the ‘hassle factor’ wasn’t as bad as I’d feared, especially considering how desperately people need the business. Nobody leapt into our taxi on the approach road to the pyramids and demanded to be employed, and everyone we met was friendly and warm – just trying to make a living. At Cairo’s Grand Bazaar the next day, there was even a sense of humour amid the kaleidoscope of shops, smells and sights: “Maam, how can I take all your money?” one vendor joked with a cheeky glint in his eye.

Guided tour
The downside for me was realising that the animals used to ferry visitors around the pyramids are most likely mistreated. Our guide, on the other hand, was excellent, engaging our young boys with illuminating stories and drawing triangular diagrams in the sand to demonstrate how the pyramids were constructed.

Sphinx: A man rides his horse and carriage past a scene that’s been part of the landscape for thousands of years
Sphinx: A man rides his horse and carriage past a scene that’s been part of the landscape for thousands of years

During our two-hour tour, we rode past the limestone Sphinx (the oldest known monumental sculpture and largest monolith statue in the world) and stood alongside the pyramids, admiring their advanced geometry and massive scale. We also climbed inside one of the smaller pyramids (claustrophobic and hot, but I’m glad we did it), and marvelled at the carvings inside the tomb of Queen Meresankh III.

Not everyone enjoys their visit: there’s litter clinging to the fence and the touts are out in force, plying camel rides, souvenirs and refreshments. Plus, when you get there, it doesn’t initially look like the thousands of photos you’ve seen. While one side of the pyramids faces the desert, the other is right up against a rundown residential neighborhood. The Sphinx literally looks at a Pizza Hut.

But with so much of the pyramids’ majesty retained, I, for one, will never forget our magical and mellow afternoon spent clambouring around the world’s most famous manmade structures. Knowing I was standing at a site visited in history by Julius Caesar, Alexander the Great, Mark Antony and Napoleon left me feeling pretty inspired. As did the fact the biggest pyramid was the tallest structure in the world for close to 4,000 years. The Burj Khalifa, it seems, has some way to go.

Geometry: It could have been because the blocks the pyramids are made out of reminded our boys of Minecraft, but their imagination was captured
Geometry: It could have been because the blocks the pyramids are made out of reminded our boys of Minecraft, but their imaginations were well and truly captured
Ladies Only

Work-to-rule Santa

Where would Christmas be without a repeat? Here’s a rerun from 2011 … apologies if you’ve heard it all before.

At the Wafi mall this morning there was a long line of harassed-looking parents, with kids orbiting round a giant Christmas tree two houses high and decorated with baubles the size of small planets.

"C'mon Santa! You can do it!"
“C’mon Santa! You can do it!”

Barely concealing the fact they wished they were spending the morning sleeping in and reading the paper rather than queuing for Santa, the Christmas-weary parents were doing their best to keep their overexcited offspring under control as the queue inched forwards painfully slowly.

Some of them must have been waiting for up to two hours, but most remained resolute – the promise of seeing Dubai’s most authentic-looking Santa, followed by a free cup of tea and entrance to the play area, proving to be a crowd puller.

Santa’s top-security grotto was heavily guarded by toy soldiers and you couldn’t even peep at the man in red – we tried, but just found ourselves face-to-face with animatronics.

Then, at about a quarter to one, a Filipino lady appears and walks over to the queue. There’s a pause as she surveys the expectant little faces and restlessness among the ranks.

“Santa’s taking a break at 1,” she announces. No apology.

“For 30 minutes,” she continues, deadpan.

You’d think, wouldn’t you, that since he only works for a couple of weeks a year, Santa might be able to plough on through?