Ever since breaking with the traditional pattern of child friendly holidays (you know: developed countries where tap water is clean, the risk of food poisoning is low and access to first world healthcare is on hand) and taking the children to Morocco a few years ago, we have been particularly rubbish about having a repeat adventure.
So when the very rare opportunity came up for Banker and I to have 3 weeks off work at the same time, we vowed to make it a memorable holiday. Chilean Patagonia and the Okavango Delta have long been on my bucket list and so why let 2 kids get in the way? On enquiry with travel agents, I found that a 3 week trip to Patagonia was going to set the family back 24k (!!!) which swiftly put paid to that idea. The problem being that Christmas is summer in the southern hemisphere making the climate just perfect for long hikes along glaciers, thus peak tourist season in Patagonia. Sooooo…what about the Okavango Delta and Namibia? Guess what? Peak summer in the Delta and Desert means baking heat, no water, no tourists and cheap(er) season! Bargain. They say that mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun, well, my family fit the bill there!
I can confess to having not one hand in the arrangements of the mega-trip and am very grateful to Banker who did all the necessary bookings and arrangements. He, being South African, had long harboured plans of bombing around Africa in a land rover so he was in his element, but even I thought his 4000km drive plans were rather ambitious. Never-the-less we were up for the challenge and had the most amazing experience, the highlights I share with you to encourage more families to have their own adventures!
Okavango Delta, Botswana
We flew overnight from London to Cape Town which is a very manageable flight with children aged 8 and 10 years who plug straight into the movies and watch until they eventually fall asleep (we are told that Bis Sis managed to watch 4 movies in a row – which is a record even for her!). The only downside is that this is an extremely popular family flight at Christmas time and I had to bite my tongue several times to stop myself from telling other people to “control their children” and to inform them that their baby’s crying was disturbing my mindless romcom. How quickly we forget that we were once those desperate parents earnestly insisting that our near-2 year old was in fact just a big boned 10-monther and really needed a basinette.
We flew from the Cape to Maun, Botswana, where we boarded a tiny 5 seater plane which took us to our base in the Okavango: Delta Camp. This is one of the oldest (and most reasonably priced) accommodations in the Delta. You’ll find that the majority of accommodation in the Delta is extremely high end and expensive, which has been a purposeful strategy by the government of Botswana to limit tourism in the area to preserve the unique environment. The downside is clearly on your wallet, but once you arrive in the Delta, you’ll see that you gain in terms of a very peaceful environment. If you go off season, like we did, you’ll probably be the only guests at your residence (like we were) and in fact, it was only on our 5th and final day on walking safari in the Delta that we had our most significant animal sighting: another tourist.
The downside of off-season visits to the Delta is the lack of water which is still awaiting the rain in the mountains of Angola. In and after the rainy season, the Delta is renowned for being an animal magnet as the water traps animals on land-locked islands and tourists can sail by very close to them safely on traditional wood carved boats called mekoros. As there was hardly any water when we went, our mekoro outings were limited to 10 minute rides and we required to do the majority of our safaris on foot.
Every day, we had two walks accompanied by 2 guides which was a luxury as they told us that in peak season, the 2 guides would accompany groups of 10-15 people. There was a long 2-3 hour walk in the early morning and a shorter 2 hour walk in the late afternoon to avoid being out in the heat. As the sensible animals also did the same, we were able to see a wide variety and abundance of animals going about their daily business. One benefit of tourism in the dry season is that where there is a water source, all the animals congregate there: at one watering hole we found around 15 hippos jostling for space in the tub and 5 elephants having a drink. As we were on foot, we were able to get very close to animals and as, Botswana has banned hunting, the majority of animals are not fearful or aggressive to humans that pay them respect. Indeed, our guides were unarmed. Initially this gave alarm, but as the days went by, we realised that their experience was enough to keep us out of trouble. There was just enough “danger element” (a grumpy buffalo that was making up his mind about charging us leading to our retreat up a termite mound, a trumpeting elephant protecting its baby and a hippo that emerged from behind us taking us by surprise) to allow us, and the children to feel that we were “having an adventure”, but insufficient danger to cause any real anxiety (even to a worry-prone parent like me). The guides were knowledgeable and child friendly: when the guides realised that Lil Bro (like many small boys) had a poo fetish, they set about showing him all the animal excrement such that by the end we all got quite good at discerning giraffe poo from warthog. If anyone came across white poo, we could all howl “Of, course that’s hyena poo because the white comes from the calcium it gets from chewing bones!”. They also taught Lil Bro how to make a rope from the bark of a baobab tree. The food was plentiful and hearty and much enjoyed after our long walks. The communal spaces which we had all to ourselves were open to animals walking by and the occasional monkey dropping in. The bedrooms were characterful and open to the wild, including the alfresco showers which even Big Sis got used to after we convinced her that the elephants really didn’t mind seeing her naked! We opted to split into 2 parties of adult and child so that we could take turns staying in a romantic tree house for 2 atop a tree overlooking the delta. It was absolutely magical.
Best of Namibia
On return to Maun by tiny plane we picked up our trusty tented 4×4 which was to be our transport for our drive back to Cape Town and our accommodation in between various booked hotels. This vehicle is literally a 4×4 with 2 pull down tents perched on top and you sleep on the roof of your car (thereby avoiding being eaten by animals who can’t climb ladders). The back of the 4×4 is a storage hold equipped with bedding, table and 4 chairs, a massive tank of water, a fridge and all your cooking equipment and utensils. Being a great fan of George Clarke’s Amazing Spaces, I was in love. Having been dubious of the vehicle when planning the trip from London, we had only planned on 4 days of camping as interim accommodation between hotels, but it was so comfy and fun, I could definitely have done more camping. The tents were easy to put up and down and after the first day, this job was assigned to the children who fought over who was going to do it (luckily there was one tent for each of them) so it really was incredibly easy. We stayed on the main roads where we could, which are straight and good and we drove through some amazing scenery. You won’t believe how many versions and colours of “desert” that there are, and there were not infrequent unplanned stops for passing goats, cows, baboons and oryx. Spitzkoppe and the coastal region are only accessible by dirt road but this was more than manageable in the 4×4. We only had one flat tyre on the journey and luckily this was swiftly changed by 5 men who leapt out to help at a petrol station.
Here were the best bits of our trip to Namibia:
Spitzkoppe: This is a striking range of mountains in the middle of the Namibian desert. We camped in a campsite here which was again practically empty which made the experience feel fantastically adventurous. There are good hikes to be done if you come when it is cooler and some amazing cavemen paintings which are between 2000-4000 years old. Due to the heat, we only managed a few short walks and to see the cavemen drawings near ground level, but even those were quite amazing. During the heat of the afternoon, we literally hid under rocks and read books and watched movies on the DVD player. At night time, the skies come alive and toasting marshmallows on an open fire looking up at stars and galaxies as far as the eye can see with just your family and no one else around for miles was superb.
Swakopmund: This is a characterful ex-German town on the coast of Namibia just south of the skeleton coast. It has a nice beach and good restaurants. Big Sis swears the chocolate fondant at “The Tug” is the best she has ever tasted, and sushi dinner at The Jetty perched out in the sea is decent sushi in a superb location, although I was the only family member strong enough not to weep at their “green dragon” sushi (sushi rolled in a layer of wasabi). Although we were pre-warned by the over-zealous travel clinic NEVER to touch raw seafood abroad; oysters are a Namibian specialty at the coast and we indulged and they were great. They even formed part of the breakfast buffet at The Delight, the hotel which we stayed at and I can recommend. We went for a morning sand surfing session organised from the hotel which you can imagine was a hit with the kids. Barrelling down a sand dune on a piece of cardboard is surprisingly fun!
Sossusvlei: This is depicted on the cover of every Namibia guidebook. Red sand dunes under a blue sky, sometimes with the black of a dead tree in the foreground. It’s spectacular and a photographer’s dream. Equipped with only an extremely dated cannon point and click circa last decade I was still able to get really lovely photos because the scenery was actually THAT GOOD. We did a balloon safari from nearby Solitaire with Samawati: http://www.hotairballooning-safari.com which was the most affordable that we could find and quite an experience for the children.
Fish River Canyon and the Orange River: On either side of the Namibia-South Africa border, we stopped at both of these areas and they are worth a visit, even though we were unable to hike at Fish River (closed to hiking in the summer due to heat) and didn’t have time to take a kayak out on the Orange River. We stayed in a lovely campsite at the Orange River (The Growcery) on Christmas eve, and swam in the beautiful orange river. The scenery in both places is spectacular.
Beyond the beautiful scenery and sense of adventure, my motivation to take my children to less developed countries is to give them a better sense of the world. Growing up in a nice area in London, one can easily become complacent and entitled and that is something that I really don’t want my children to become. Although I do not want to be a “poverty” tourist, going through Namibia and Botswana, it is impossible to avoid seeing poverty and the moment that made the trip absolutely worthwhile for me was at Spitzkoppe. In this extremely remote area, two orphan girls of similar age to Big Sis started talking to her, asking her to come to their brother’s roadside stall that sold rocks. Although they were asking for custom, they did also seem amazed and interested to see Big Sis as although tourists pass through the area regularly, they are usually adults and they were so happy to see a girl of similar age to them. Children have that open curiosity to ask questions, speak openly to each other about their lives and connect uninhibitedly that for some reason we lose as adults. They were cheerful, smiley, chatty girls who Big Sis instantly connected with. We said that we would visit the stall the next day and in the meantime, we rummaged in our car for tins of beans and bread that we could give them. They went away very happy with our “excess”. Big Sis was tearful afterwards. “They are just like me, but they have nothing” she said. “I want to give them more.” That night she went through her clothes and set aside some of her clothes to give the girls. “What more can I do?” she asked.
“That’s why I brought you here.” I said. “There is nothing more you can do now Big Sis. But one day, when you are older, you can remember and you can make a real difference if you want.”
Before you go:
Many people are put off more adventurous travel destinations with children by the long list of travel vaccines, and yes, it can be quite off-putting, but once you have bitten the bullet and had the children vaccinated, most of the vaccines are good for many years and so it means that you are good for many other travel destinations thereafter. Many travel vaccinations are available for free from the GP, and others are readily accessible from travel clinics or pharmacies. Malaria prophylaxis was required for the Okavango Delta, but for Namibia, areas south of the capital Windhoek are out of the Malaria area. Banker and I did not get vaccinated for rabies but after scare stories from the over-zealous travel clinic and their handouts stating: “If you are bitten by a rabies infected animal there is 100% chance of death” we opted to vaccinate the children. We chose Malarone as malaria prophylaxis which requires starting 2 days prior to entry to a malaria area and continuation for 1 week after exit. The children found Malarone no problem in terms of side effects. The generic is cheaper than the branded drug.
For long drives, travel prepared: we had over 70 hours of children’s audiobooks available. Screens in the form of a DVD player and assortment of DVDs and Nintendo 2DS were periodically doled out as rewards and as pre-emptive measures to prevent meltdowns after long days.
We found both Botswana and Namibia to be safe and had no problems to this regard on our holiday. In fact, the only time our vehicle was broken into was when we finally arrived in Cape Town. Of course, we stayed on main roads and are also careful and considerate travellers.
This half term I am braving the entire week with the kids without the other half.
Despite working 8am-8pm most days, Banker declared he also has to work the half term. I have recently come to the conclusion that the term “working class” to mean a low-waged worker (previously miner or factory worker, but more latterly I’m presuming a tele-marketer or warehouse picker) is now a total misnomer because, let’s face it, only a very few landed gentry or Russians these days don’t work, and the majority of wealthy (rather than Über-rich) people are putting the hours in. Why don’t we update the nomenclature and call a spade a spade? The “Well-renumerated” class and the “Poorly-Renumerated” class; or the overpaid and the exploited classes?
Previously I have taken the kids for 2 days to Brighton by myself and last Summer I took the kids around New York by day by myself but this is the first full 5 days/ 4 nights. I know this is completely wimpy because single parents, widows and widowers do this sort of thing all the time, but hey, I AM A WIMP.
Softening the blow, I decided to check into a luxury family Hotel: The Ickworth Hotel, near Bury St Edmunds. This was a second choice: luxury hotels these days being cheaper (£290 per night including breakfast and adult’s dinner) than Centre Parcs (£390 a night self-catering) which I found surprising. The economy I think is gained by ditching the husband, as in a hotel a family of three takes up only a double room with extra camp bed wheeled in, while Centre Parcs caters strictly to your average family of 4 so you in effect pay for an empty bed if going it alone.
Ickworth was a known entity as my family have stayed here before, albeit the last time Big Sis was in nappies, Lil Bro was on the breast and I was on the Tena Ladies. Then it was all – “Wow, this hotel room has a nappy bin and access to a microwave to heat up Ella’s kitchen pouches” and “Thank God, the staff appear unconcerned that my kid is head butting the antique furniture with a bucket on her head”. So how does this hotel that markets itself to families, particularly of young children fare for a 7 year old, 9 year old and 40-something year old?
We had a small family room: a double bed and an extra camp bed rolled in. Not spacious, but perfectly adequate as we were certainly going to spend most of the day outside anyway. Décor is all old furniture upcycled with modern fabrics: so appropriately country house but grand enough to give city kids a bit of a Wow factor. Not quite the on-trend Babington House, but that’s also reflected in the price tag so I am not complaining. No mini fridge which was a bummer because I had to stash the pork pies I’d bought for lunches (not included in the room tariff) in the sock drawer instead.
The Reception staff are friendly to children and when I couldn’t get the DVD player to work, they sent a nice man around: “You need to plug the DVD player into the TV” – oops.
Food can be taken in the Conservatory for families or in the Candlelit fine dining setting for those that choose to use the Baby Listening Service or on-site babysitters. There is also a High Tea available for toddlers, but we tried this last time we came and I can only describe it as hell. Imagine 10 sleep deprived families each trying desperately to feed babies and toddlers at the same time, with anxiety heightened by the fact that this is “THE relaxing, couple bonding holiday” and the baby-sitter and romantic candlelit dinner has been booked so the baby has to be well fed and asleep in 30 minutes flat come hell or high water. Yeah, that kind of vibe. Thankfully this time, I could go for the Conservatory option. The food is average to good, but the menu stayed unchanged all week so I ate pretty much everything on the menu. Portions are rather huge so the kids were able to share my rather generous nightly 3 course allowance.
Prepare to be Bodened and mini-Bodened. Yes, this is Boden central. If blond kids, check collared shirts and bright cords are not your scene then forget about it. I have the resilience of a stubborn pig so feel not the social pressure, but in the week of people watching I saw only one Black British family venture nervously forth into the Conservatory in their trendy leisure wear and they never returned. Towards the end of the week, a couple of Asian families that had drunk from the Boden cool-aid trough appeared; as did my doppelganger:
Big Sis: Ooh look mum, there’s a lady like you. She’s Chinese but married to a white guy.
Blegh. I am now a cliché.
The ethos is strictly “conventional family” and I noted that I was the only lone parent there in a week. I imagined the other parents looking sadly over at our table for 3 wondering about the death or divorce that had befallen me. “And since our Papa died, we can’t afford Boden clothing any longer…”
One of the attractions of the hotel was the availability of on-site facilities for kids. A literal stable full of bikes and bike helmets meant we didn’t need the pfaff of bringing all our kit up with us, and a navigable, traffic-free country park within which city kids wobbly on their wheels, could safely practice in was ideal for us. An on-site swimming pool heated to the temperature of “warm-bath” is also within flip-flopping distance. Not quite the full on tidal pool and water slides of Centre Parcs, but in the morning and at lunchtimes, it’s possible to get the whole pool to ourselves which at half term is a luxury. Tennis courts, trampolines, croquet and football are all available, as well as a bank of family board games to play in the perfectly crafted “homely lounges” available. Unfortunately, they are all packed in the late afternoons, but hey, it is half term. The kids and I hole up in our room to play scrabble. I make them promise not to cry if I win. Yes, I am that mean mother that won’t let her children win at Scrabble. Cards, chess, Monopoly, sure – but there is no messing about in Scrabble.
The basement hosts kids craft activities and a games room where my tech-deprived two slink off to from time to time to play Wii Bowling and Air Hockey. They befriend a kid who spends the day in his Boden pyjamas; such is the “home away from home” feel of the place. In the evenings there is a cinema, but there were no adults there so I felt a bit of a spare part wandering about my room while my kids watched the movie. Yes, when you finally get rid of the darn kids, you end up moping for them. If Banker were with me, we could’ve hit the bar, but as it was it was kind of lonesome. The rest of the week we opt for borrowing family-friendly DVDs (Harry Potter, Cool Runnings) from the hotel to cuddle up and watch in our room.
On day 1, we ventured out for some “educational activity”. As a Chinese parent, going on holiday without at least one “educational outing” can induce stomach cramps and nausea, so it is best to get it out of the way first thing so that you can breathe a little easier the rest of the holiday. I choose West Stow Saxon Village. It’s basically a couple of mock-Saxon out buildings strewn with what I presume are volunteers dressed in mock Saxon garb pretending to be Saxons. There are some ladies moulding mud to make a Saxon oven, another lady crocheting some Saxon cloth and another whittling wood. There are a couple of teenage boys pretending to be Smithies banging away on bits of B&Q iron attempting to make an iron dragonfly. Lil Bro is fascinated by this and keeps returning to check on the progress of the dragonfly. After 3 hours they have basically twisted one piece of iron and hammered out 2 feet. At the last return they’ve shut up shop and are eating Tesco’s finest buttered raisin toast in Saxon garb. There’s also a child friendly museum where kids (and adults) can also dress in Saxon garb, don a Saxon helmet and look at remains of artefacts that were actually dug up at West Stow. Quite cool except that it brings on lectures from Big Sis regarding the Neolithic and Mesolithic periods and all about querning which they have apparently been learning about at school. Quite the Hermoine Granger our Bis Sis, fantastic yet also slightly wearing. When I had thought about an “educational outing” I had meant educational for them, not for me! I bundle them off to some archery activity just in time as Big Sis looking up at the clouds says “Ooh, look at the Stratus clouds Mummy – we’ve been learning about cloud formations at school…”
On Day 4, I pack both kids off to Barrow Farm Stables (a 20 minute drive away) for a “Pony Experience” day. Sadly Lil Bro is the only boy (why can’t boys do ponies?) but they both seem to enjoy themselves, and this time, no moping about for me as I have booked myself in for treatments at the hotel’s spa. Yipee.
On our final day, we will visit Ickworth House, the National Trust Property next door to the hotel. Hotel guests get free entry and there are family friendly Halloween activities on, so that’s a good bonus. We’ll finish off on afternoon tea then head back to London.
The Children’s verdict
The kids have had a blast. They are requesting to come back again next half term. “The people here and the other children are all so nice”; and it turns out that the kid in Boden pyjamas had asked my kids the question that all adults wondered but never dared ask:
“Is your dad dead?”
Big Sis: No, he’s working in London.
It’s Christmas morning and the tree is adorned with coloured lights and decorations. The breakfast table is set with Panettone and tea, and oysters sit at the sink in preparation for lunch. We are back in the French countryside with my in-laws, settling into what is likely to be the last Christmas in rural France, as my in-laws are soon to be down-sizing and giving up the idyllic life in their rustic farmhouse of over 20 years.
But something is rather off.
This year, Father Christmas has not arrived and there is only one present each for the children beneath the tree from the grandparents. Lil Bro is wearing Granny’s old t-shirt unadorned with trousers or the like, above which he is wearing great granny’s cardigan such that the sleeves overwhelm his arms in the manner of a vampire bat. The look is evermore preposterous as he is intent on running around flapping his sleeves so that they whip his back in the manner of self-flagellation. His bare skinny legs protrude beneath, drawing attention due to their perpetual motion. Big Sis sits curled-up cat-like in a nightie of unknown provenance that comes down to her ankles, on the lap of her father who is sporting a pair of flowery shorts from his adolescence.
This year, I have felt moved by the evils of capitalist excess and humans as the cause of climate change that we have embarked on a sinless Christmas where we reject commercialism and think about the true meaning of Christmas. As such, there will be no presents, no decadent wrapping paper and Santa Claus will not call. We have chosen to think of those less fortunate than ourselves and donate all the children’s presents to charity.
Don’t be daft! I’m a shrink not a saint!
Rather, let me fill you in on the ridiculous antics of the night before. Having spent days meticulously ordering gifts from Amazon, and further more days sitting at home to try and receive said ordered gifts from Amazon, and further days puzzle-piecing boxes and boxes of gifts into big black suitcases, and coaxing Big Sis to help reassure Lil Bro that Santa is very clever and will find us in France (Big Sis has figured out about Santa – but that’s another story); we were finally set and ready to go.
Bundled off we went with 3 large laden cases full of paraphernalia, eyes bright in anticipation for a calm and restful Christmas and a short sojourn of skiing thereafter. Because of the mass of our present haul and the multitude of “essential skiing gear”, I whittled down my own belongings to a small wheelie case, pathetic amongst the other large ones. Little had we anticipated the disaster encountered at London Bridge when 2 trains to Gatwick were cancelled. Never fear, Uber is here. A cab was called and disaster was averted by a knight in shining Mercedes that pulled up some 8 minutes later.
The children and I crammed into the back seat and promptly fell asleep after the excitement of the morning’s rush to head off, but some 40 minutes later I was rudely awakened by Banker’s woeful tone “I think we are going to miss our flight”. Then it was tender hooks for the remainder of the journey. The Uber-man remained optimistic to the last, but my pessimistic nature understood that we were doomed. Never-the-less, we took the chance that given we had checked in on-line that there was a slither of a chance.
The dash to the luggage drop off point was in vain, even after having nearly knocked several people sideways with the big, heavy case.
The baggage drop-off point was closed.
The gate to boarding would close in minutes.
The next flight out from Gatwick would be boxing-day.
Banker and I looked at each other. In a split second we both understood that Christmas was about family and not presents. We dumped the big bags at left luggage, not even stopping to give details of who we were or where we lived. The attendant seemed to understand, put a barcode in our hands with a telephone number hastily scribbled on the back, shouting to us as we fled “Run! Don’t worry about your bags! Just call!”
Banker, with marathon and triathalon training was sent as the forward party, without a look back he leapt over obstacles and weaved his way to Gate 20. I followed as fast as I could encumbered by my backpack and case, the only case deemed small enough for hand luggage, shouting encouragement to two children who trailed behind. They made a good start, having sensed the dire nature of the situation. Lil Bro, who had killed the Reception sprint at his last sport’s day made good ground. Big Sis who had participated enthusiastically in the Borough Cross Country continued apace. But believe me when I say that Gate 20 was a LONG way from the security gates. At Gate 4, when the computer screens heralded that boarding at Gate 20 was CLOSED, I wondered if my legs could make it. Behind me, I heard crying as Lil Bro succumbed to the enormity of the task. I went back and grasped his hand. Banker was nowhere to be seen.
I pulled Lil Bro by the hand propelling him forward. “Lil Bro”, I said, “We are tired, but now we can press our “Booster Pack” buttons and set off our reserve fuel. The Gate is closed, we have to run or there is no chance”. We plundered on, shouting and waving to poor Big Sis each time we turned a corner so she did not get lost as she was ten metres behind.
Eventually, we got to Gate 20 where Banker had made them hold the gate open. Sweating like a pig and with two crying children in tow, bereft of worldly possessions, we boarded the flight. On the plane, Big Sis and I started to muse to Lil Bro about the possibility that Santa may not be so smart after all, and had he left Santa a note to tell him we would be in France? Because if he hadn’t then Santa may deliver the presents to London and there would be no presents until we were back in London, but not to worry as they would be waiting safely there….
For all that people say about the cynicism and materialism of children and their obsession with more and more toys and presents at Christmas, and the frenzy-like states that parents get into to prepare for a Magical Nigella-esque Christmas “for the children”, I can attest that the half-naked children swathed in foraged clothes made not one complaint and had a perfectly splendid Christmas in the company of their grandparents. For all our doubts, even 21st century children can understand that Christmas is about family, not presents.
As for me, I was thankful that I had packed the 5 disc-collectors’ edition of Anne of Green Gables (a nostalgic Christmas present to myself) into my own tiny case. At least I alone am fully clothed and will be having a merry Christmas introducing Big Sis to Gilbert Blythe…
Tomorrow we hit Decathalon’s ski section with gusto!
I hope you had a Merry Christmas without our mistakes!
The 6 week (even longer if your kids go to private school) summer holidays pose an annual dilemma for parents who typically only have 2 weeks leave a piece. So, in the spirit of maximising parent time with kids, we decided that the kids and I would join Banker on his work trip to New York.
I’m a city gal, and while dragging 2 kids off alone during the day in the countryside somewhere would fill me with dread, New York is just like London – a metropolis navigable by subway, so I was totally confident and excited. Before you go, get the kids excited by watching movies featuring NY (Home Alone 2, Ghostbusters, Splash, Big, Enchanted etc) and playing classic tracks featuring NY (Sinatra to Swift via Sting). Once you are there, here are my recommendations if you are ever stranded with 2 kids in New York.
Kayaking on the Hudson
I read about this in the guide book: “Free Kayaking on the Hudson” but didn’t really believe it to be true or was sure that it would involve a lot of pfaff. On the contrary, we took a stroll along the river north from Battery Park where we had met a friend with the intention of going to the Children’s Museum of the Arts and there at Pier 40 was the Downtown Boat House where an abundance of kayaks and kayakers were out on the Hudson. There were no queues when we went (mid afternoon on a Sunday), we signed a waiver, used the free lockers and life jackets and were helped into Kayaks! Each child requires to go with their guardian, so luckily it was a Sunday and Banker was with us. The view of Manhattan from a Kayak is great, it’s great fun for kids and kayaking turns out to be incredibly easy even for someone who has never done it before. I left thinking that we should have this on the Thames!
(There is also the same operation at Pier 96 and at Houston St.)
Children’s Museum of the Arts
Not so much a Museum, but a fun place for arty-crafty children. They run little workshops throughout the day including animation in the Media Lab and model making at the Clay Bar. The family made a great little animation within half an hour and the children created their own mini-worlds from modelling clay. There is also a large painting room where artists were on hand to help with projects such as paper boat making and invisible ink messages. Families work together, or side by side (which is how I think it should be) rather than children being escorted to a lesson while parents sit at a coffee station. It allows parents to get messy and creative too and hours of discourse afterwards about the art that we had created together. When the junior artists are all tired out, there is a room filled with yoga balls for the kids to bounce around in. This place was voted by my kids to be in their top 3 of New York.
OK, I live in London and have access to the West End hits any time I want, but how better to escape the hottest day of the year in New York than to retire to an air conditioned theatre to watch the Broadway Production of The Lion King? Easy hit with the kids.
After a Broadway show, get ice creams and sit up on the Ruby steps at Time Square. People watching is great fun and there are plenty of bright lights and billboards to occupy kids’ interest. If they wane, pull out “Super Hero Top Trumps” from your bag and that will buy you an extra half hour of relaxing!
The High Line
The Meatpacking district was probably my favourite area of New York. We wandered to Chelsea Market to pick up picnic stuff from the lovely delis there and had picnic dinner on the High Line, a park built on a disused raised railway track coursing through the East of Manhattan. I confess the kids were not as enamoured with wandering around the streets of Chelsea as I was, but the High Line was a hit, with the water features that kids could splash in, and sun loungers for relaxing on. The theatre-like seats looking onto the NY traffic was also a hit and makes for great photo opps where the children tried to make photos of themselves kicking and stomping on cars. We went in the evening which was great as the temperature was just right and there were lots of trendy street food stalls along the way selling shaved ice with chili flakes, watermelon ice-lollies and other yummy things.
MoMA (The Museum of Modern Art)
My personal favourite space in NY, which I have visited several times since my first visit to NY when I backpacked the East coast of US with a University friend. Kids go free and kids audio guides are also free. I listened to the Kids’ audio guides with them to share their experience and it was great. The kids didn’t complain once until the 3rd hour which is pretty good going at a gallery and even then they were easily coerced to spend another hour! As well as a fantastic permanent exhibition which is readily accessible to children (think massive electric fan made of cloth by Claes Oldenburg, and comic strip art by Lichtenstein, as well as Matisse Cut-outs, Starry Night by Van Gogh and Monet’s Waterlilies which the children had studied in school) we saw an exhibition by Yoko Ono, including the iconic video of her having her dress snipped off by the public, which as a feminist I had always wanted to see. She also had lots of art accessible to children, such as a sound booth and a spiral staircase into the sky. Big Sis (supplied with a camera) snapped away all morning. I think that I may have succeeded in giving the children the gift of “art” which is really precious to me.
So good we went there twice. It’s free so its no problem to rock up again and again. You need to get tickets and get an allocated slot time to go in, but we waited no longer than an hour and there are coffee shops nearby to have a drink in while you wait. Controlling robots, computer-operated open-heart surgery, recording your own news programme, animating your own cartoon character and making a life size cartoon character follow your dance moves and lots and lots of video games – what’s not to like? Needless to say, this was in my kids top 3 New York.
The Lego Store/ Rockefeller Centre
If your kids like Lego, then this is a nice little place, although I found it disappointingly small and packed to the rafters with people. Pick and mix Lego is on offer and we embarked on creating ourselves in Lego. One unanticipated problem was that amongst the buckets full of Lego hair, I could not find any Lego ladies’ hair that was black. I was informed by staff that Lego only make one version of long black hair and this is from the Hawaiian range, with a tropical flower in the hair and this is rather rare. Obs I am not criticising Lego for racism given all its figures have yellow skin and no noses, but it was disappointing not to be able to have a character in my likeness and I’m sure millions of Chinese will agree.
A massive park with plenty to do within including a castle, boating lake, lots of boulders to climb on and a zoo. We took a stroll of an evening and ended up at the free Summer Stage concert where we listened to African-inspired music, ate Kimchee dogs and drank beer. Not a bad outing.
American Museum of Natural History
A whole day would be insufficient to explore this massive place, not dissimilar to the British Natural History Museum. It’s a bit disorganised and easy to get lost here and it is teaming with troops of Summer Camp kids. The stuffed animals are a bit scary especially after watching Paddington, but give a sense of museum history and how far we have come in exhibit design. The food in the food-court is dire, but some of the special exhibits are great and the newer installations are very child-friendly and hands on. The 3D-cinema and planetarium were fun.
Not exactly kid friendly, but I don’t think we should shy away from explaining to children the atrocities man is capable of and this most significant historical event of our own life-time, particularly as the last time I was at that spot I was looking up at the twin towers not down at their footprints. Sobering, touching and important enough to endure some whinging.
We saved this for the last day as it was sure to be a hit with the kids, and indeed was voted their number 1 day out. The entire holiday was manageable only by repeated reference to naughty children not being allowed to go to Coney Island. Beach. Funfair. Need I say more? $20 buys little ones unlimited rides for 4 hours and $35 the same for kids eligible for high thrill rides. Well worth it and the kids were expired even before the 4 hours were up due to the shortest queues I’ve seen in a while (we went on a Friday afternoon).
We did not book to go up the statue of Liberty, and ended up being unable to stop off at Liberty Island. A ticket tout sold me a ticket to board a boat that circled the island and the kids wanted to go. So, fearful for the validity of a ticket bought off the street, we proceeded and thankfully it was all fine. Only, by the time we boarded it was the hottest part of the day and Big Sis spent the whole time aboard moaning about the heat while Lil Bro fell asleep. Doh! This sort of thing happens with kids. Disembarking at South Street Sea Port though, the day was salvaged by ice creams and street food in this vibrant area and a great little children’s play ground, with plenty of water play areas to cool down over-heated children.
I love the Guggenheim museum and I think it is also a good place for kids given the ramp design of the building. Unfortunately we pitched up on a Thursday when it is closed. Doh! We crossed the road to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which is a lovely building and was OK but not great for kids. We left after 2 hours.
We made a failed attempt to get to Governor’s Island from Brooklyn, only to find that ferries from Brooklyn only run at weekends. Doh! Again, day saved by a great playground close to the ferry terminal. We consoled ourselves by playing a baseball game in Prospect Park and walking around Brooklyn Heights.
Shucks, but these blunders mean I have an excuse to come back again with the kids.
If you are venturing further afield, Woodberry Common is a designer outlet village which puts Bicester Village to shame. Think DKNY dresses for £35. Also, if you are Chinese and wish to perpetrate the child abuse that you suffered at the hands of your parents as a child, you can drag your kids around an Ivy League university at Yale in New Haven.
When I was a teenager I used to want to be Andie from “Pretty in Pink”.
Not because I wanted to snog Andrew McCarthy, but because I wanted to hack-up clothes and invent new ones.
I’m too old for the Prom, but isn’t that why mum’s have daughter’s? I have been making all manner of cute dresses for Big Sis and it is as easy as pie and cheap as chips.
Although the “Great British Sewing Bee” is fun to watch, the actuality of spending hours slaving at a machine is never going to happen and my skills are little more than cut and sew in a (nearly) straight line on my 2nd hand Bernina.
I noticed that the length of an adult skirt, is roughly the length of a little girl’s dress. Why buy expensive bolts of material and spend hours measuring and cutting, when you can just upcycle your old skirts? Clever-eh?
Here are some I made:
This was a broderie Anglaise skirt I got from French Connection some ten years ago. No longer good for me, but perfect for a little girl.
This is a ten year old Oliver Bonas skirt with an elasticated waistband that folded over. Fold it out and it makes the perfect bodice. A tied ribbon bow on one shoulder makes it even cuter.
Did I mention the Prom? This market stall gypsy skirt looks like cheap polyester on an adult, but sew on a plastic pearl necklace et voila – the perfect ball gown for a little princess. She looked so grown up, nearly brought a tear to my eye!
So here’s my easy-peasy guide to a quick and effective new fashion range for your little girls, totally do-able within one to 2 hours (but you will need a sewing machine):
All the dresses I made were basically a variation of the above. Take a look at the skirts you no longer wear and see the best way to adapt it. Once you get the hang of it, it is really great fun and you need never throw away any of your old skirts again! Don’t worry if your sewing isn’t great, one or two wears and the blessed child will grow out of it anyway. Big Sis is now learning to use the sewing machine and it’s a really fun way to spend a mother-daughter afternoon.
Hands off the Moschino skirt!
And of course, the other hazard is the hours of prancing …
Last week I was on the obligatory family ski holiday. Around this time of year, there is no getting away from it for those of us privileged enough to be in the demographic that “does ski holidays”. For most people, the dilemma is about “to dump” or “not dump” the children. Whizzing down black runs is not something one can achieve with a baby or toddler in tow. If your children are old enough to learn to ski, then “dumping” the children in ski school becomes legitimatised as “teaching your child a life skill”, a “healthy sporting activity” or for the tigers “brownie points for extra-curricular activity on the child’s CV”. There will be those who opt for all day children’s ski school and others who opt for ski resorts with all manner of childcare facilities so that they can get a good days skiing in. Reserve a place at the resort crèche where the children will participate in all manner of “arty-crafty activity” and they will mix with European children and might even learn a little French or German. Wunderbar! Hire a chalet nanny, or hell, bring your own nanny (or grandparents) with you. Why not? It’s your holiday as well right?
I have no problem with “dumping children”, but what I dislike is the pretence surrounding it. Why not just be honest and say “I love skiing and this is the one chance a year I get to do it”? If you are going to do it, indulge and do it guilt free. We all need a break sometimes. However, I would refrain from framing it in your mind as a “family holiday” and make sure you have a “proper” family holiday where you actually engage with your children as well. Even better, take turns with your spouse to go during term time without the children – they will feel less “dumped” that way. Given that most people that can afford extravagant ski holidays are also the ones working long hours and not spending quality time with their children, holiday contact is really important, and if the only holidays you have involve a crèche and a nanny then you have to begin to think about the impact of this on relationships with children. I opt for morning session ski school and family time in the afternoon. Banker is quite good at taking Lil Bro skiing between his legs and Big Sis can now ski independently. Banker says he gets great satisfaction watching the children’s skiing coming along. Haven’t I trained him well?
I have a different reason for finding family ski holidays a chore.
I don’t ski.
Not having grown-up wealthy, skiing every winter was not part of my childhood. By the time that I was earning enough money for ski holidays, I was spending my money on holidays to South Africa to visit Banker as we spent 3 years living in different continents and holidays were our only time together. By the time that we eventually managed to live in the same place, I was the lone “non-skiier” of my friends and I didn’t fancy being the hole in the donut of other people’s ski holidays.
I had happily been avoiding ski holidays to no great regret. “Oh no, I can’t come skiing, we are off to explore the temples at Angkor Watt”; “Oh, sorry, maybe next time, I’m off to climb the Himalayas”; until kids. Given that my kids are de facto wealthy by UK-not-London standards (Big Sis has proclaimed herself “Rich” – when I questioned this, she replied “I will be when you two die.” Typical Big Sis!) – was I going to stand in the way of their wealth-based leisure pursuits?
I have in mind independent secondary school and Russell Group University ski tours and ruddy faced chaps called Tristan and Hugo that might wish to invite Big Sis to a family ski holiday; or blond, horsey gals called Cressida that might require Lil Bro to deliver chocolates to her. Did I want to deprive them these opportunities?
So I have been forced onto the slopes against my will by my diligent parenting ethos. My ski instruction to date has so far consisted of 3 hours with a private ski instructor. Ski instructors are usually of the buff 20 year old variety so it is no great torture, particularly as I spent many parts of the 3 hours being hoisted and supported by them (“Oh dear, I’ve fallen down again!”). This time however, the private instructors were all fully booked so I was left to my own skill (or lack thereof) and my darling husband.
Think of the second Bridget Jones movie and you get the idea of how I spent the last week, only worse as frankly, Renee Zellwegger would look great in a paper bag. Think: short, Chinese person dressed head-to-toe in Decathalon with sporadic catalepsy. No button lift was able to keep me upright and even flat terrain was insufficient to guarantee that I could stand. There was the time that a failed turn left me skiing backwards for a time screeching like a banshee till I fell forwards and tried aimlessly to use my fingers to stop my downward trajectory so that I left a trail of scratch marks in the snow like a demented cat failing to cling on for dear life in a cartoon. There was the time my ample bottom fell off the miniscule button of the button lift, but fearing that I would be left alone half way up a mountain slope, I carried on holding on to the lift with my arms so that I was dragged on my backside for several metres before I decided I had better let go. Or the time that I fell over for no apparent reason whilst attempting to embark a button lift and couldn’t get back up and in a truly British way, not wanting to hold up the queue of teenagers waiting to get on the lift, I heroically gestured that they ought to “Don’t mind me” and encouraged them to just step over me in the interests of the queue. Speak nothing of the slope-side verbal exchanges with Banker, incredulous at my ineptitude when I tried to put my skis back on with my skis pointing downhill. Let’s just say that I measure the success of my skiing by the ability to descend a slope alive. If no bones have been broken, it has been a successful day.
Then there was the time that I hurtled down the piste, poles akimbo at constant risk of entanglement with my skis, ineffective snow plough engaged, heart and lungs in my throat, in perfect uncontrolled freefall, shouting “sorry” every 5 seconds as I cut across paths of furious proficient skiers and forcing snowboarders on their knees as they are forced to divert their course unexpectedly, as my life flashed before me. Only then to glance sideways to see Big Sis and an orderly row of bibbed midgets skiing calmly, gracefully and naturally down the slope past me.
Ah, it’s all worth it. Hope Cressida and Hugo will be thankful.
In hindsight though, I think there is a further benefit of my ineptitude. In this age of heightened perfectionism sending eating disorders and depression in children soaring, what better role model can there be for the nonsensicalness of it all than a parent who is prepared to put participation in front of looking good and doing well. For all the talk of promoting “non-competitive” competitive sports at school and inviting motivational speakers into schools to discuss successes that have come from failures, surely the most impact to children on this matter can come from parents who are not afraid to demonstrate failure and can wear it with a smile?
And I sure do epic fails and falls well!
After a busy year, we felt like taking it easy over the Christmas holidays and guaranteeing ourselves a “White Christmas”. That’s white sand, rather than white snow. Banker and I lived and worked for a while in Cape Town some 12 years ago. He was already a banker and I was doing psychiatric research surveying adolescent experiences (of sex, drugs, bullying, self-harm) in high schools throughout the Western Cape. It’s like a second home and we still have a lot of friends there. When we lived there, it was all reading books on the beach, drinks at sunset (sundowners) and clubs, but nowadays with the kids in tow, we find that Cape Town still has a lot to offer both parents and children as a holiday destination. As an ex-resident and regular visitor, here’s my Top 10 to do in Cape Town.
1. Table Mountain & Lion’s Head
Table Mountain is the city’s icon. A massive mountain slap bang in the middle of the city. Traditionally, you should climb it, but with kids in tow, it is acceptable to take the cable car. Kids love cable cars so it’s a sure fire winner. Think fantastic views of the whole city. Ring ahead to check the cable car is operating to avoid disappointment though, as in strong winds it shuts down and if clouds are on the mountain (the table cloth) you won’t be able to see anything. If, like us, you have children old enough to do some walking and climbing, try climbing Lion’s Head instead (the smaller peak next to Table Mountain). It is a shorter climb and still extremely satisfying in terms of the view and sense of achievement. Our 5 year old made it to the top with only a bit of help, but make sure your children are ones that like scrambling up rocks and don’t mind the occasional scraped knee. Most children I know like this sort of thing, even our Princess who whinged and complained up the first short section that is gravel road hitched up her skirt and scrambled and climbed in delight up the remainder which is bare rocks with the occasional ladder. Finish off with drinks and gourmet picnics on the lawns of the roundhouse (www.theroundhouserestaurant.com) nestled in the foothills of the mountain.
2. Clifton and Camp’s Bay
Cape Town is a good family beach holiday destination despite the cold Atlantic water. There are 4 beaches at Clifton and 1 at Camp’s Bay. Traditionally each has it’s own atmosphere. Dogs are allowed on 1st beach, 2nd and 3rd are more secluded and therefore more partial to romantics and 4th is the trendy beach for beautiful people. I’m not keen on the beach – like most Chinese people the idea of turning browner has no appeal, but Banker is a typical South African sun worshiper and in his youth he was a Clifton life guard. I accept that beaches are good for children and so I do occasionally make a beach sojourn, but all-day, every-day grates against my Chinese genes which require me to see local sites and take selfies.Over the years, Banker and I have therefore reached an agreement where we rent a flat right on the beach so he can take the kids there every morning while I have a lie-in (bonus!) and we can DO something for the main part of the day. So he and the kids build drip castles, explore rock-pools and jump waves daily. He even did a science experiment with the kids by hauling back a litre of sea water in an empty bottle and boiling it on the stove until all that was left was salt (in-situ educational activities – I know I have trained him well haven’t I? FYI Clifton sea water has a salt concentration of 40g per litre). He and the kids even go and pick mussels right off the rocks. They get enough to make Christmas lunch of Moule et frites. Seasoned with sea salt.
3. Penguins at Boulders
4. Kalk Bay & Olympia Cafe
Nostalgia always takes us back to Olympia Cafe at Kalk Bay, a great little bakery and restaurant where hippies have been using the side door for decades. It retains it’s shabby chic Bohemian feel, whilst always serving great food. It’s right next to the harbour where the catch is brought in, so fresh line fish is always on the menu. If you visit the toilets, you have to overlook its proximity to the kitchen, but in all my years dining there I have never had food poisoning. Here’s the kid-friendly part: if you take a wander to the dock, you will be sure to encounter the sea lions. If you are lucky, they might even come out of the water to say “Hello”. There is a nice parade of quirky shops along the main street and plenty of Zimbabwean street vendors selling the beaded or wood crafted curio of the year. We already have the giraffes and hippos (so last decade); this year, thanks to an on-line comparison website, it is meerkats. It’s amazing how many shops you can browse pester free if you promise a kid a Meerkat at the end of the day. We each pick our own rodent likeness in Jacaranda.
5. The Old Biscuit Mill
OK, this one is more for the parents, especially ones that like to shop and eat. But at R18 to a pound at the moment making everything extremely cheap for Brits, it’s got to be done! The Old Biscuit Mill was an empty old Mill in an arty but down at heel area of Cape Town called Woodstock when I lived here 12 years ago. It’s now gentrifying rapidly and the Old Biscuit Mill with it’s quirky and arty homewares shops and internationally ranked restaurant “The Test Kitchen” is central to the area’s rejuvenation. Book well ahead for “The Test Kitchen”, Banker called up a few weeks prior to our trip to make a reservation and was told they were fully booked till May. Other good food is also available, and on Saturdays there is a Neighbourhood Market where local produce and all manner of yummy food is sold from stalls to be eaten off lines of “tables” made from front doors on trestles.
6. Victoria and Alfred Waterfront
This high end shopping mall just keeps getting bigger and better. Shop till you drop to your heart’s content. There are plenty of children’s clothes shops too so the kids are now set for summer clothes and Crocs and I stock up on MAC make-up. The favourable exchange-rate and the 14% tax back for tourists makes shopping guilt-free. There is also a fantastic Aquarium, one of the best that I have been to with kids, and other venues for child friendly activities. When we were there “The Art of Brick”, which we missed in London was on and so we went to see that, but there was also another installation on at the same time called “Dinosaurs Live”, so there is always plenty for children here. Eat sushi and drink £3 Mojitos upstairs at the Harbour Restaurant. The boats that go out to Robben Island also go from here. As we are regular visitors to the Cape, we are saving this for when the children are old enough to understand, but if it’s your one time out, you shouldn’t miss it.
Take a walk around the city centre to really get a feel of the city. See part of the Berlin Wall that stands near Green Market and have a go at haggling at the main curios market in Cape Town. The children’s favourite eaterie in Cape Town was “The Food Lovers Market Cafe”, a large canteen selling everything from pizza, burgers to sushi in the old Offices of the Cape Argus Newspaper. The food is not exceptional, but there is a large sweet pick-n-mix and dip your own donuts into your choice of sprinkles stand which may have swung it.
8. The Winelands and Spa!
Drive out of Cape Town into the Winelands and there are plenty of beautiful wine farms. The child friendly flavour of the moment for those in the know is Babylonstoren (www.babylonstoren.com), a wine farm, hotel and spa halfway between Paarl and Franschoek. Pictureseque vineyard set within acres of laid gardens growing everything from papaya to lawns of camomile and thyme which you are encouraged to prance over barefoot. Book early for the Hotel, we couldn’t get a booking but managed to come for the day-spa. Banker and I are great fans of spas, but most do not welcome children or have nothing for them to do. I am not keen on sending children to creches on a family holiday, so Banker and I always take turns for treatments and childcare, and here there is a child friendly swimming pool, acres of garden to explore, a fake beach, a coffee shop and free roaming animals – so there is no need to fret that the children are not having fun when its your turn to indulge in your Dr Hauschka facial.
Of course, there is also the wine!
In the evening, I thought it only fair to give our children a “spa” treatment in our flat. They get to lie under a towel with a face-pack while I trim their finger and toe nails. They have a great giggle and love it so much they are urging us to go back to the spa – WIN-WIN!
9. Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens
We didn’t get to go this year, but I love this place, it is like a Southern Hemisphere Kew Gardens, plenty of the national flower the Protea. The gardens are strewn with African sculptures and in Summer there are concerts in the evening. Guinea fowl roam the grounds and its a lovely place to take a picnic.
10. Cape Point
This is an old photo from a previous trip. If you are only visiting Cape Town once, it is worth coming to see where 2 Oceans collide. There are plenty of baboons and buck to spot too.
Township tours are available and I do think that people visiting South Africa should be conscious of South Africa’s past and continued inequalities. I am not personally keen on making a “tourist attraction” out of poverty and inequality, but the income generated may be helpful to populations in poverty. I have visited several Townships in Cape Town when I worked there and it is pretty sobering stuff and although I wish my children to learn how lucky they are, I’m not quite sure they are at the right age or maturity for it yet.
If you are planning for a longer trip, take a drive along the Garden Route. There is whale watching in Hermanus, and there are Ostrich farms where you can feed, ride and eat ostrich (tastes like beef, but much healthier). Further along the coast towards Knysna, the Knysna elephant park is great for kids and allows adults and children to feed, touch and walk with elephants (www.knysnaelephantpark.co.za) and at Plettenberg Bay, there is Monkeyland (www.monkeyland.co.za), both of which are great for kids.
Cape Town is a great place to holiday. I know that for many people the security is a concern, not one South African I know does not know someone personally that has not been affected by violent crime. However, the South Africans know that tourism is its major industry and relatively few tourists come to harm. Petty crime is common, my bag got stolen once from the back of my chair in a nice restaurant so you do have to be a bit careful, but if you are sensible and stay in the touristy areas then chances are you will be fine. Just say “No thanks” if your husband tries to tempt you into dinner at that “great restaurant” in the townships…
I was not brought up to believe in Santa. Being from Taiwan, Christianity and Christmas were not as prevalent as in the West. Once we moved to the UK, my family joined in with the festive spirit with a plastic tree (Made in Taiwan) and a large meal (non-turkey Chinese food), but we never had stockings and Santa never visited. Once or twice, I remember wishing on a star on Christmas Eve that Santa was real and that we would get presents from Santa, but it never happened.
As teenagers, my sisters and I even had a bet that my mother didn’t know what the festival of Christmas was celebrating. We were right, my poor mother put on the spot muttered something about Jesus on a cross, to which there were many peals of laughter and shrieks of “That’s Easter!”. This Christian festival confusion amongst the Chinese may explain why one time in Hong Kong I saw a Christmas decoration being sold at a market stall that depicted a cheerful Santa Claus figure on the crucifix…quite bizarre to say the least!
Remembering my Santa-less childhood, I was quite certain that my kids would have the full Santa experience. Letters would be written and posted, mince pies and carrots would be left out at the fire place (and duly consumed leaving a designer sprinkling of crumbs), stockings would be filled and gifts delivered under the tree. When Big Sis was almost 2, she had requested a new play kitchen from Santa. As we were celebrating Christmas with grandparents in France, and were not lugging a wooden play stove and sink unit on the plane, we recorded video footage of Santa (who bore more than a striking resemblance to Banker) delivering her kitchen to our flat to be played to her on Christmas day so that she knew that Santa had delivered it! Santa’s wrapping paper was always bought separately and hidden lest a clever brain wonder why Santa has the same wrapping paper as Mummy and the whole Santa build up would be flawless with meticulous attention to detail. I have even gone so far as to shake bells gently next to the sleeping heads of my children on Christmas Eve so they may subliminally hear Santa’s sleigh bells in their sleep. I’m so sad, I know.
In all honesty though, the upside of the myth of Santa is so great, I can’t see why people complain about him and the commercialisation of Christmas. Without Santa and the Easter Bunny, I don’t know how I’d get my children to eat their greens, stop having tantrums and generally behave themselves. The threat of “Santa/ Easter Bunny is watching” is enough to stop my kids, in their tracks and reconsider their actions. Coca-Cola, Clintons and Americans in general should be given a medal from all parents in my book for the invention and popularisation of these characters as the good behaviour of my children from October to March is basically down to these two characters. If only someone could invent a fictitious character for the summer months, then the calendar year could be covered.
However, now that Big Sis is seven, I am beginning to wonder when the penny will drop. I have heard varying ages for the “Santa realisation” moment, ranging from 5 to 10 years. Some of Big Sis’s friends are already “non-believers”, but given that earlier this year I overheard Big Sis and Lil Bro having an existential conversation regarding Harry Potter, God and Santa, and coming to their own conclusion that only Santa was real as they had received physical presents from him, I’m reckoning on belief still going strong. I’m starting to worry though about Big Sis’s cognitive capacity if at the age of 7 years she can continue to believe that some old geezer can fly around the world delivering presents to all the children in the world overnight. I suppose though, that it is only slightly less plausible than the entire adult world telling her consistent lies and making her write and post letters and leave food out for non-existent people and sneaking around behind her back. Maybe I should be grateful that she finds it more plausible that Santa is real than that her mother is deceitful. Maybe I’m just too good at “being Santa”.
That is until now. In my old age, I am getting sloppy. Lil Bro asked for a watch from Santa for Christmas and I ordered it off Amazon to be sent to Banker’s office. He duly brought it home and showed it to me and left it on the coffee table. I went to bed forgetting to put it away. The next morning, remembering my mistake, I rushed downstairs, snatched up the watch and hid it. The kids, as always were up before me and were having breakfast with their father. Throughout the day, no one mentioned the watch so I thought I had got away with it. Then, the next morning Big Sis out of nowhere says “It was very strange, yesterday Lil Bro and I saw a watch on the coffee table. Then it disappeared.”
“Hmpff” I said, “I don’t know what you are talking about.”
I will repackage the watch and hope for the best, but I think my cover may be blown. I thought about returning the watch and swapping it for another one, but maybe this is how all cons fail, myths explode, truths get outed; the inevitable slip-up made from complacency over time. And maybe it’s time that Big Sis realises the truth, and I realise that we can’t hang on to our children forever. At some stage they wise up for better or for worse.
We’ll see what happens…
I heard about Cath Kidston’s #totesbig/totessmall campaign and laughed, surely for all parents it’s #totesbig? Mine’s this fetching strong and waterproof Longchamp number.
Carrying large quantities of “vital” stuff around with you all day has never been quite so important as when you have kids in tow. The ante on organisation is raised on having children, purely because logistically, there is so much more that is required to be remembered and carried with you at all times in preparation for all eventualities. We all have a “very organised friend”. Someone who is always on time, never forgets anything and prepares for everything. For me it’s my big sister. When baby Lil Bro yakked up lunch all over himself, and I had not brought a spare baby-gro, who should pull one out of her handbag? Apparently a spare, even though her child no longer wore baby-gros. When we went on a weekend break with the extended family and I forgot to pack towels, who produced a whole spare extra set which she had packed “In case”? Yup, my darling sister. Indeed, whenever I go anywhere with her, I can rest on my laurels as I know that if I have forgotten anything, she will be sure to have “spares”. Thank goodness!
Although I have moments of organisational inspiration (packing a volcano making kit in my suitcase on a holiday to Sicily so I could teach the kids about volcanoes in-situ), at other times I am pitiful. For instance, when Lil bro was a baby I remember joyfully pushing the buggy to my mother-and-baby yoga class in Primrose Hill thinking that I was on time for once, but actually having forgotten the entire meticulously packed Cath Kidston baby changing bag on the table at home. Thankfully, what I lack in organisation, I make up for in practical, can-do attitude. I didn’t miss my yoga class, I just popped into a newsagent. I got some funny looks from the skinny and beautiful Gwyneth types that frequent Triyoga Primrose Hill with their yummy-mummy nappy changing bags, matching cashmere blankets, Sophie giraffes and wooden rattles when I rocked up with nothing for my baby save a 34-for the price of 30 jumbo pack of nappies and a pack of Johnsons’ wet wipes. Well, what more do you need – eh?
At the start of this summer though, I thought that given that I am now a blogger and passing on my worldly (ahem) views on all things parenting, I would write an illuminating blog about all the things “one” should carry in their totes when travelling with young children on holiday. Here is my list:
Bottled water (I know it’s heavy, but always comes in handy)
Snack (usually of the pre-packaged biscuit/ chocolate variety – but on a good organisational skill day, a pair of satsumas)
Like all good doctors, I espouse the sin of sun worshipping, although a little dose here and there to relieve vitamin D deficiency doesn’t do any harm. Still always best to carry sun hats, sun glasses and sun screen with you at all times over the summer hols. A warm waterproof top is meticulously tied around the waist of each child should the weather take a turn (Brits will understand this!).
My kids (like most) are terribly impatient in restaurants, and will not stop asking “When’s the food coming?” as if I have personal telepathy with the kitchens. For distraction purposes, I have found it well worth my while to carry sticker books around with me at all times. In addition, fully equipped pencil cases as pencils and coloured pens can be transformed into any activity: drawing, colouring, noughts and crosses, the shape game (where one person draws a random shape and the other turns it into a picture of something) , pass the portrait (where one person draws a head on a picture, folds it over and passes it to the next person to draw the upper body, then passes it on etc.) and an endless possibility of other games. If we visit a landmark (like a cathedral) or an art gallery, the children will always be asked to draw what they see as this really makes children look carefully, observe and remember what they have seen. I carry 2 of everything because do you think it is possible that they could share? It’s not worth the grey hair.
I know that most people just let their kids use their iphones or ipads, but I am of the old school who fuss and worry about tech getting broken. It comes from my dad’s indoctrination of us in childhood over the perils of biscuit crumbs and spilled milk on the Commodore 64 such that anyone holding food or drink was not allowed within a 3 metre radius of “the expensive computer”. I carry cheap his-and-hers cameras with me to give to the kids to take photos as part of a game or just to see what they find interesting. Looking over pictures they have taken at the end of a day trip is always fun, particularly when you find that the beautiful city of Rouen you visited had nothing more worthy of photographing than a mannequin in a shop front…
The children got “kiddigos” (hand held TV/ games console for little ones) for Christmas last year. As exposure is strictly rationed, the effect of producing the kiddigo is dramatic. The kids are only allowed to use them for the last hour of a long (3+ hours) car journey if they “have been good” during the earlier parts of the journey, and it’s really amazing how well the constant threat of losing the screen time can keep the kids at bay.
So, with all this “well prepared vital stuff” being carted with me everywhere on holiday, you can imagine what a peaceful time we had. It was all going wonderfully smoothly, with hardly a hiccup of “Are we there yet?” or wails of boredom and running up and down in restaurants, until a day trip to the Citadel at Carcassone. We exited the Castle to go home. “I need the toilet” one of them said. “No problem, I’ll take you” I said. Only to find, it was a number 2 of diarrhea proportions. Only to find there was no loo paper in the ladies or the gents. I looked in both.
Despite having a variety of splendid craft and technological activities in my bag and enough sun protection to keep a Scotsman from burning in a dessert, there was no tissue or wet-wipe to be found.
Having unsuccessfully attempted to use pages of the sticker book as toilet paper, it was – OH CRAP – literally.
Well, as I said, what I lack in organisational skill, I make up for in can-do attitude.
Maternal hand it was….
Where was my big sister when I needed her?!