Travel with Kids: The Bad and the Worse


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.


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

Blond(ish) mum and son seek new friends

“I’ve got some great news Mum!”

“What’s that?” I asked, raising my eyebrows a fraction.

“Zaid and Ryan say they’re going to stay at school until Year 12.” Raptor smiled.

Friends come and go like buses

“That’s good,” I said, and thought, “we’ll see about that.” Not because I’m expecting Zaid and Ryan to flunk out before Year 12, but because there’s a high chance their fathers will get posted to Singapore or some other far-flung corner of the world well before then. Either that, or the family will decide to repatriate – or switch to a new school offering an astronaut cadet programme.

It’s a big problem in expat schools – your kids make friends, and then their friends pack up and leave. Sometimes overnight. “Noel never even told anyone he was leaving,” Raptor said to me. “He went back to Finland … And then there was Horace. He went to Germany forever. And Hanna went to … erm,” His eyebrows snapped together. “I can’t remember.”

“Hungary,” I prompted.

“D’you remember Corner?” he asked. “Who always used to sit in the corner?”

I nodded.

“Well he left.”

Then his face softened. “And Morgan went to a different school.” His girl crush, now in a nearer, American school. And Eva and Omar – the list went on.

We haven’t got to the point yet where a school friend is off sick with a cough and all their classmates assume they’ve left, but it is something that, as a parent, you think about: Will they assume all relationships are transient? How much are they really affected by these lost friendships? Or, worse, perhaps they’re so used to it they barely notice?

Screen Shot 2015-09-30 at 21.55.25Adults, of course, are equally as likely to lose friends in expat societies. I sat on a small, hard chair recently at Raptor’s back-to-school night, and realised I didn’t know anyone. At a school we’ve attended for five years. (Each year, they mix up the classes and so Raptor started the term in a class filled with different and new faces.)

A group of ladies were listening to a mum whose eyes looked a little too wide awake. She ran her hand through her hair, bracelets jangling, holding court. A new girl feeling swept over me like a cloak, transporting me back to the awkward, pimply, teenaged me on my first day of big school.

The start of the meeting was delayed as the head finished his speech downstairs, and after 10 minutes of shifting in my seat, someone I knew finally walked in. An Italian mum who’s been at the school almost as long as us.

She strode over and gathered me into a hug. She smelt like a posh department store, her earring pressed hard into my cheek. “How was your summer?” she trilled. We swapped very brief highlights. Me: Isle of Wight. Her: Los Angeles.

And, by the way we greeted each other like long-lost friends, I wondered if she had that fish-out-of-water feeling too.


Silently stealing luggage space

My DH took the children away last week. I couldn’t go because of work, so I (rather forlornly) waved them off to Beirut, where their grandparents live.

It was the first time I’d had to ‘let the boys go’, and I felt strangely untethered, as though gravity had disappeared – until I rediscovered how much extra time there is when you’re the only person in the house (things stay exactly where you leave them, it’s crazy!)

Our nanny did the children’s packing, but when I got home from work, DH was doing some pruning.

Don’t forget their toothbrushes – and the class gorilla! (hehe)

Now, when I pack the cases, I’m pretty thorough. If we got stuck on a desert island, we could be self-sufficient thanks to my packing (which is sometimes, I admit, excessive – but then I’ve got nearly nine years’ of experience of travelling with children who create laundry like nobody’s business).

Men, I’ve realised, view packing quite differently. DH had thrown out several T-shirts; when I tried to put baseball caps in, I had to argue their case; and as for taking suntan lotion, you’d think I was attempting to sneak a brick into the suitcase. (“There’ll be some there,” was DH’s viewpoint. “Just take it, in case,” I replied.)

So I did have to secretly smile when DH’s hand-luggage only plans were stymied by the class bear. The mascot is actually a gorilla – at least a foot tall. As Son2 left school clutching the stuffed toy – hardly able to believe his luck that he was the first to take him away – DH must have groaned inwardly at the gorilla’s surprisingly large size.

At the back to school night, another dad had quipped, “If he’s excess baggage, he’s not going.” But, given the jet set life of a travelling toy in an international school, you just know that the class gorilla has probably scuba-dived in the Maldives; made it to Hong Kong Disneyland; not to mention enjoyed weekend trips to Oman and Turkey.


The ‘bear’-faced selfie

It was the moment Son2 had been waiting for since the beginning of the school year: The day he got to take Bernie, the class bear, home.

Bernie arrived at our house in a bag, with his scrapbook – a well-leafed diary documenting his time spent with the families in Son2’s class. The pages were filled with photos, hand-written stories, speech bubbles, decorative stamps, evidence of baking extravaganzas and even a bear-class boarding pass.

You wouldn’t believe how creative it gets.

Son2 and I browsed the book together. ‘Oh look, there’s Bernie parachuting into someone’s garden, ” I exclaimed, my wide-open eyes settling on a photo of the bear floating into the family’s backyard underneath a make-shift canopy. “And here he is ON SKIS, in France!”

Silently seeking attention

It got even better: Blow me down, but Bernie spent Christmas in Lapland. There were snaps of him playing in the snow, snuggled up in the log cabin and listening to music in his airplane seat. “Let’s take Bernie on a husky safari, then tonight, if we’re really lucky, we might get a shot of him gazing at the Aurora Borealis rolling across the sky,” I could almost hear the enthused parents telling their bemused children.

Our time with Bernie had much more of a homey feel. In the knowledge that on top of all the usual weekend chores, I had to find amusing things to do with a bear, I set up numerous photo opportunities – of Bernie reading books, cosy in his pyjamas, sitting on the kitchen table eating noodles and using his paws to scale the bunk bed ladder. In an inspired moment, he posed for a #nomakeupselfie.

I even remembered to take Bernie with us when we went to football, and in the car, took care to buckle him up in the back.

Son2 looked at me suspiciously as I fiddled around trying to secure the seat belt. It was a look that suggested he thought I’d lost my mind. “Mum, he’s just a toy, you know!” my 5YO reminded me, with a roll of his eyes and a casual glance in Bernie’s direction.


The gender agenda

“Mommy, how old were you when you knew who you wanted to marry?”

Not a question from my son, but from his adorable, blonde-haired, blue-eyed best friend and girl next door, who I posted about before when it became blindingly obvious to us that little boys are from Mars and little girls from Venus.

Childhood sweethearts: But while BB likes to dabble in toilet talk, his BF has more romantic thoughts
“I was about four or five when I knew,” she told her mother – referring to BB, despite the fact he’s incredibly messy and only talks about trains.

Later, she started asking her mom why they lived in the UAE, and not America.

“If BB moves to America, I have to go with him – just so you know,” she declared.

“Because we’re family – or we will be after we get married.”

“He thinks he’s going to marry a toilet,” (don’t ask, but if you really want to know, look here).

“But I know better and he’s in for a SURPRISE!” she giggled.

More proof, if ever it was needed, that male and female brains are hardwired so differently, it’s no wonder we can’t fathom our partners at times.