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The school uniform shop

So back to school – it’s complicated.

On the one hand, you’re reminded how fast time is passing and feel nostalgic about years gone by when your kids wore pint-sized uniforms and looked so cute and small in their back-to-school Facebook photos.

On the other hand, you’re doing a happy dance and ready to pop some bottles because, HALLELUJAH, the summer is almost OVER.

But first, there’s all the organising to do – the buying of supplies and uniforms, the labeling of clothes, the food shopping for snacks and lunch boxes, the fitting of school shoes, and the brow-beating of your children to get them to finally do their holiday homework.

I saw a Tweet the other day that made me smile – Real American Dadass wrote: “Back to school shopping is kinda like Christmas shopping. It’s an expensive pain in the ass but it leads to a great celebration.”

How true this is, especially when the school uniform shop is as packed as the malls just before Christmas. Of course, we could have gone weeks ago, but that would have been too sensible and anyway my boys – who are shooting up like beanstalks – might have outgrown everything.

Screen Shot 2017-09-04 at 02.06.34Son1, fast approaching his teens, was barely speaking to us as we drove to the store; Son2 wanted to know what reward he’d get for coming with us. I’d persuaded DH to come too, and he looked grim, the memory of being dragged to school uniform stores and made to try on countless items of clothes by his own mother still fresh in his mind.

The queue to park was the first sign of the upcoming chaos, then there was the look on the other parents’ faces: a sort of hollow-eyed, tense, almost defiant refusal to engage: I know we’re all in this together, I know it’s hell, but I’ve been waiting for 25 minutes so just let me hog this poor salesgirl for a bit longer, ok?

I joined the throng at a desk serving uniforms for our school, and tried to block out the soundtrack of impatient exclamations: “You’ve given me the wrong size!” “Do you have this in a 12?” “Don’t you have intermediate sizes?” “There’s threads coming out of this!” (Ironic that the store is called Threads.)

My children were jostling with each other like hamsters, and when made to try items on they pulled faces like they’d eaten a lemon.

“It fits fine Mum,” huffed Son1, even though the trousers were so tight they’d have cut off the blood supply to his lower body. He pulled a face again. “Can we go now?”

“Try these!” I handed him a larger size and he eyed me like I was giving him explosives.

In all fairness, the lady who helped us was fast and efficient, but then in the queue to pay, our escape plan came to a juddering halt. The dad in front was on a mission to organise tailoring. Our school requires blazers and the kids have to be measured so they fit properly. I’d accepted my fate that the tailor wasn’t available until Saturday, but not so this Dad. He wasn’t here on Sat. The woman on the only cash register began making phone calls – all round Dubai to track down another tailor.

Why I thought we’d get out of the shop anytime soon, I don’t know (Open more than one cash register? How ridiculous! That would be … customer service!)

“Excuse me, is there another till?” I ventured after a while. I tried to be polite.

“We’ve been waiting a long time too,” growled Frustrated Dad, deep lines burrowing their way across his forehead as though his kid had drawn them with a pencil. We glared at each other – unwittingly pitted against one another in a who’s been waiting the longest? contest.

But it worked. All of a sudden, a young salesboy woke up and noticed the queue snaking round the shop. We got out … just. Thank God that’s nearly (there’s still Saturday to go) over.

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Longest zip line in the world coming to the UAE

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Ras al-Khaimah may not have all the immense, shiny, glass-and-steel spires of polished, tourist-ready Dubai, but as the UAE’s mountainous northern outpost it makes up for this with an abundance of rock.

The rugged Hajar Mountains, sweeping down to the blue waters of the Indian Ocean, are a well-known destination for thrill-seekers in the UAE looking to partake in rock-climbing, mountain biking and trekking. There are all sorts of companies that take groups of adults, children and families on adventure activities or camping trips. Team-building events amid the rocky terrain are also popular.

Full disclosure: We’ve only ever driven through the mountain range, on the way to hotels in Fujairah on the UAE’s east coast. But something just caught my eye that even I might be persuaded to try when it opens in December: the longest zip line in the world.

The zip line is set to be more than 28 soccer fields in length, with those experiencing the hair-raising journey expected to travel at speeds of between 90 to 130 kph. The cable itself will weigh in at seven tonnes and will consist of two lines, allowing friends and family to take part in the bucket list flight together.

Jebel Jais – the UAE’s tallest peak at 1,934 metres above sea level – will play host to the zip line. Its exact length is being kept a closely guarded secret until the multimillion-dollar adventure tourism project opens at the end of the year. Then it will be certified by Guinness World Records; the zip line is also expected to be named as the world’s highest.

I can see it now: me harnessed to the wire in a flying Superman position, the wind whistling past my ears, my cheeks sucked inwards against the acceleration … my eyes shut tight until the end.

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The dog days of a Dubai summer

This post was going to be about reaching THAT time of the school summer holiday, when you’re so over it and have become a twitchy, cranky mess, breaking out in zits and clawing at your skin because it’s been TEN weeks and the kids are STILL out of school.

You know how it is – they’re fighting and bored and so so loud – not to mention the fact they’ve been talking to you non-stop for ten weeks until it’s got to the point where you can see their mouths opening and closing but can’t really hear what they’re saying and you can do nothing but nod at whatever their moving lips are trying to assault you with.


And while I’m at it, I’m sure I’m not the only mum who has totally run out of things to do with them, having already ticked off two continents, nearly 40,000 kilometres of air travel and, as well as planes, taken them on a cruise ship, a boat, buses, scooters, bikes and trains.

Screen Shot 2017-08-27 at 22.31.27But … that might come across as whining when I am truly grateful to have had this time with my boys.

Instead, it occurred to me that there are a few factors that make these last couple of weeks before school starts again quite unique (read: challenging) in Dubai.

Let’s start with the heat. It’s still as hot as Hades out there. Much of the compound’s communal greenery has been singed to within an inch of being set alight under the hottest sun on earth; large areas of plant life have sadly died. Where there were green, bushy shrubs, there are now dried up, tangly bush-skeletons shedding brown, curled-up, dead leaves onto the dusty paths. On my dog walks past these summer casualties, it all feels very post-apocalyptic – the burnt-out fag-end of a Dubai summer.

Not only that, but while the buildings are still standing, it’s as though the people have all gone. Some of them are still there, of course. They’re just indoors as it’s too hot to come out. They won’t properly resurface until school starts. But many are still away, not wanting the holiday bubble to burst just yet.

Our compound feels like a ghost town. The children who are back from their hols are climbing the walls cooped up at home, and, up the road at the Premier Inn, there are still lots of single-for-the-summer dads staring into their pints, indulging in the restaurant’s 50% off meal deals.

But in just a few more days, a week at the most, all the wives and families will be back. I’ll no longer have to twitchily scour the compound looking for familiar faces, searching hopefully for friends for my bored sons to play with. The compound will be back in business, the hammering on doors non-stop again as the children call for each other.

And then school will start. Followed, a month or so later, by the halcyon days of cooler temperatures and some of the best weather in the world. Bring it on!

Hang in there peeps …

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The lingerie tycoon’s house

AshwoodPlace1
Downsize Abbey

There’s nothing quite like finding out your parents have moved into a house built by a lingerie tycoon.

I blogged last year about the 8 things that happen when your parents sell up.

Well, it happened –they sold up (finally!) and six months ago moved about 200 metres up the hill. I call the place Downsize Abbey as it’s a rather fine, Grade II-listed building, converted into apartments and packed with the decorative details beloved of the Arts and Crafts movement, including oak panelling, ornate plasterwork ceilings and ceramic-tiled fireplaces with brass canopies.

You can imagine the hazards of bringing two young boys home, one of whom is a human fidget spinner. He simply cannot, will not, sit still.

In the bathroom, there’s a framed, old yellowed newspaper advert for scientific lingerie. The corset ‘secured’ the wearer with a magnetic ribcage and was the brainchild of the man who commissioned the house as his family’s home. (The Derry family moved into their mansion, complete with mullioned windows and diamond-patterned brickwork under steeply pitched roofs, in 1929.)

Frank Derry sold his underwear invention as a ‘cure’ for rheumatism, gout, sciatica and lumbago – and much else besides, including “nervous troubles, mind wandering, involuntary blushing, and loss of willpower”.

I can just imagine the kind of lady it might have appealed to: a woman with big hair, a wide lipsticked mouth, a husky laugh and, once she’s donned the garment under big clothes, a waspish waist.

Not only did Frank Derry become a corset king, but he also took over a mail order business that became the largest mail order corset house in the world. Its successor company still exists to this day, selling a wide range of ladies’ fashions.

All rather fascinating, I thought – a predecessor surely to Spanx. Clever man.

corset

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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.