Long haul: coping with big cities and non-child-friendly places

This is the third and final installment in my series on travelling across the world with a young toddler.

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Driving the safari truck. So what if I can’t reach the steering wheel?

Oddly enough, when we booked this holiday nearly a year beforehand, I was most apprehensive about going to South Africa with the Dude. I didn’t really think about being in London with him, and in Manchester and Carlisle we’d be with family anyway. I feared that the other people with us in South Africa were not there to hang out with a little kid and would be wanting to drink and party it up. I envisaged I’d be alone with the Dude a lot, while the others had fun. Which is fine, although it seemed a bit pointless to go if this was going to be the case. In the end, the South Africa leg was probably one of the best aspects of our trip. Not only did it break up the flight perfectly, but the game farm we were staying on for most of the five days was such a great place for the Dude. It was just in the middle of the bush, lots of trees and flowers and dirt and creepy crawlies, but nothing harmful, not like in Australia. It rained really heavily one morning but it was still quite warm, so Dude just went out and splashed around in all the puddles and had a great time.  He sat up in the safari truck and pretended to change gears and steer, it was awesome. And there were a few other kids there, Afrikaaner kids of family and friends, so he played a bit with them which was lovely. Most of our friends loved having him around and were happy to play with him or keep an eye out for him. There were difficult elements, like when we wanted to stay and have dinner and a few drinks and the Dude was ready for bed at his usual time of 7pm. But we managed by putting him in the ergo on my or Mr C’s back, and whoever had him just stood a little apart from the noise of the people for a bit while he fell asleep, then just kept moving so he more or less stayed asleep until it was time to head back to our cabin which was just up the road. It was a challenge with no lights at night, having to light paraffin and gas lamps to change him when he was totally past it and just wanted to be asleep. But overall, a positive experience.

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Misty Manchester. Can’t say foggy, I’ll be in trouble with Mr C who believes in some undefinable but critical scale defining airborne moisture particles. It’s a mortal sin to call a mist a fog apparently!

Manchester was interesting. It was challenging keeping him confined not only to the small space of the inside of the house but also inside for most of the day, as it was just too cold for him to run around outside unless we rugged him up and got rugged up ourselves. And in Carlisle even that wasn’t possible as it was really icy and he couldn’t walk a few paces without slipping over on the ice. He really missed his outside time. It wasn’t fun trying to get him to have his nap at the Trafford Centre (a huge shopping centre in Manchester) as, until then, he’d never fallen asleep in his pram in a shopping centre. If he was in the ergo, he probably would have, but I didn’t have it with me that day and he’s getting quite heavy for it. When he did finally pass out it was really only for about 40 minutes and he was really angry about that.

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On the drive up to Carlisle from Manchester. The British countryside, particularly the more northern parts, is so incredibly inspiring to me.

The lack of light was a hard one too, although it meant we got a sleep-in most mornings as he didn’t wake up until it was getting light. In the afternoon it seemed like it got dark so early, so the days felt very short, and it made his outside time even more precious. When we took him out to Manchester city centre, he stayed in the pram virtually the whole time, and this was like torture for him as he couldn’t really run off his energy. One day we attempted to get some shopping done by taking him to one of those supervised kids’ play areas and leaving nanna to keep an eye on him. Disasterous! He apparently cried the whole time and only stopped when he saw a man that looked like daddy whose leg he clung to and then briefly played with the man’s children before noticing we weren’t there and getting upset all over again. Poor nanna. She did try, but obviously he’s so strongly attached to his mum and dad, there was nothing she could do.

It's like Blue Poles, industrial stylie. Awesome!
It’s like Blue Poles, industrial stylie. Awesome!

In London, we took public transport. Now the tube etc there is just brilliant, an amazing achievement and I think all cities should aspire to something like that. But it’s not perfect, at least not for those on wheels! I loved the idea, in theory, of putting him in the ergo and leaving the pram at home, but it actually doesn’t work if you’re going on a long day trip to the city. At some point, he’s got to have running around time, which means you have to chase him, and when he’s not running around, he’s strapped to your back, all 12kg of him. The ergo is amazing, don’t get me wrong, and it wouldn’t ever cause a back problem, but there is a limit to how many hours I can walk around with him on my back without feeling stiff and tired. And I can’t really sit down for any length of time as the Dude will get restless in about a minute.  I imagine the feeling of being carried completely changes for him when I sit down. So we took the pram. The shitty, horrible, flimsy Peg Perego Pliko Switch. Just to digress for a moment to whinge, my dad bought this pram for the Dude on his first birthday. We hadn’t bothered to buy one before as we were gifted one and I tried the Dude in it a few times when he was really little and it was hell, he hated it, so I just wore him in the hugabub or, later, the ergo. Miraculously, when we tried him in the new pram, he actually fell asleep and didn’t seem to hate it. The pram was on sale as that model had just been superseded  so it would have been $750 but was reduced to $450.  I thought this was a brilliant saving.  I liked the fact that it was fairly compact and not a jogging stroller, and it seemed to do what we needed.  It even had a drink holder! But shortly after buying it, things started to go wrong. Parts just didn’t stay together, the top shade would randomly pop off and end up lop-sided, the wire connecting the brakes would just flick off at random and get caught on things, and the extending handles didn’t really extend very much.  In fact Mr C hates using it because he can’t walk with his usual stride as the handles don’t extend up enough, so he always kicks his foot as he walks. It is quite heavy at 12kg and we soon discovered that the folding action was pretty dodgy.  Not broken, but not easy to do one-handed, as is indicated in the instructions. Plus it never stayed folded and would just start unfolding every time we picked it up! There are few good things to say about the pram actually and we hate it so much. But we don’t have money for a new one, so we took it with us overseas. I didn’t notice when I got it out at Sydney airport, but the front wheel had been totally crushed in transit. The plastic is really brittle and just flimsy, I don’t think it would take much to crack it. So that wheel is all wobbly and the rubber is slowly coming off the crumbling plastic wheel. At least this is a good reason to get a new one, but I must say I’m less than impressed at the idea of having to buy a new pram only nine months after we bought it.

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A brief snapshot on a bridge on a bitterly cold afternoon in London. Think it was somewhere near London Bridge, or possibly on it!

So, when we caught the train in London, we faced some difficulties with the pram. A lot of newer stations, such as all those on the DLR and Jubilee Line are accessible, which is brilliant, but many are not. In addition, you can’t be certain that the lifts or escalators will be working when you get there. We had such a hard time getting from the airport to the Isle of Dogs where we were staying, especially as there were works happening on the Bank end of the DLR which meant going via the Overground and District Line, neither of which had lifts or escalators. After next to no sleep on the ten-hour flight from Johannesburg, carrying the pram, which would have been nigh on 25kg with the Dude in it, up and down stairs was absolutely hideous. The rest of the time it was fine, as we splurged and took the Thames Clipper down to Embankment a few days, and the rest of the time the DLR to Shadwell which has a lift, albeit the smallest lift in the world that only fits one pram at a time so there is always a line up.

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Qantas’ contribution towards the fate of our shitty stroller.

Heading into central London for a day out wasn’t the most difficult thing in the world, but making sure the Dude was warm, comfortable, fed and not bored was really challenging. We did bring lots of warm stuff but I think we could have done better there. I noticed all the UK ‘buggies’, as they call them, had really cool zip-up insulated bag things fitted onto the pram and covering the baby’s whole body.  Our pram does have one of those cover things but it’s not really designed for cold and just sort of clips on loosely. We also didn’t have a full snow suit or down jacket for him, and I would have felt better if he was wearing something like that, although he was warm enough with a few layers and he learnt how to keep his hat on which was awesome as previously he’d just rip it off. He didn’t manage to keep his gloves on for long though, which was annoying as his little hands were icicles in minutes. I think if he’d grown up in the cold he’d be used to the gloves. I put cotton tights on him under his cords or jeans and then socks on top before his little furry leather boots which were really awesome. Ultimately, though, the extreme temperature changes took their toll and he did get sick, throwing up all over me and the floor in an Indian restaurant! They were really nice about it, although everyone at the table was a bit revolted I think, understandable!! There was one day we took him into central London and let him run round Hamley’s for a while, which was an absolute mad house but he loved having all the toys to play with. It got really hard later in the afternoon when we tried to have a late lunch in a pie shop and he was just pissed off.  He screamed and squirmed and generally made life hell for us. Not even breastfeeding did the trick. I always thought I’d get dirty looks and rude comments from the general public when he did this sort of thing, but, although people are clearly unimpressed sometimes, I’m yet to receive a negative comment, even when he’s really showing off and making a scene. People really are tolerant, generally speaking, and for that I’m very grateful.

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The great man himself!

Overall, what would I do differently next time? If possible, I’d avoid taking a child of this age that far away into such a different environment! But if I had to do it again, I’d get a better stroller, I’d have some better winter outfits, and I’d probably try and do the ergo thing more. Generally speaking, though, I wouldn’t take a toddler to central London. The amount of enjoyment he got out of it versus the amount of time he was pissed off was just not worth it. The memories, for us, are a great thing though. The photo with the statue of the Dude’s namesake on the Embankment, getting to see London again, his grandparents, cousins, aunt, and other family and friends getting to meet him, all these things and more made it worth it. It was never going to be a walk in the park, but we did it, and I wouldn’t change a thing.

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Long Haul: flying across the world with an energetic toddler

This is the first in a series of posts I’m doing on our recent trip to South Africa and the UK. This first post covers flying long haul with a young toddler.

I knew it was going to be hard. Not only is the Dude at that stage where he just wants to explore everything, he’s also mobile enough to do so, and as tall as a kid a year older, so he can get into things that an older kid would have a bit more awareness of. Breastfeeding is such a godsend in these kinds of situations, but I knew eventually he’d be sick of even that. The flight from Sydney to Johannesburg was 13 hours, then after the five days in South Africa we’d be flying on to London which was a 10-hour flight.  On the way home, we were going right the way through: 13 hours from London to Singapore, a 90-minute refuel, then back on the plane for the 7 hours to Sydney. People had always said how much easier it made it to have a few days in between the legs, and I’d always agreed, but until I did it, I had no idea how true that was!

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The windows in the cabin on the farm – no screens, but we didn’t end up with any Parktown Prawns in our beds. In fact all creepy crawlies are not poisonous in SA, who knew?

We set out for our 10am flight from Sydney and already we were behind the eight ball.  Having tried and failed to utilise Sydney’s train system to get to the airport before (which is literally half an hour’s drive away, maximum), we decided to just bite the bullet and get a cab. Even this proved a huge stress. The motorway was, as usual, congested for no reason, and we sat tight hoping we’d arrive with enough time to spare. Rocking up to the Qantas check-in, we got rid of the pram straight away and the Dude, who was already running around the airport like a crazed ape, was strapped to my back in the ergo. Most people take their strollers right to the gate, but we have never done this.  Little did we know, when leaving South Africa, we’d get a good lesson in why baby-carriers freaking rock and prams are sent by the devil to torture us! Given our 10am take-off, it coincided pretty much straight away with the Dude’s nap time, which is usually around 11am so he didn’t take too long to fall asleep. We had elected not to have the bassinet, given the Dude is so long and probably a little heavy for it, plus getting him to sleep on his own, even if it’s a metre away from me, is pretty hard. I’d resigned myself to having him draped across my lap, and hopefully getting a break for a short while to eat or stretch or go to the bathroom. I had visions in my head of the Dude sort of lying right across my and Mr C’s laps, and then us being able to put our chairs back and get sleep. I had no idea how we’d fold down tray tables and I didn’t expect to get to watch any movies. I ended up propping pillows under his head so I could pull my arm out from underneath and have both hands free for a while. Once he’d had a nap, during which time we managed to eat lunch by positioning both trays of food on Mr C’s tray table, he was rearing to go. He was full of beans and desperate to run, so we took it in turns to let him run up and down the plane aisles, following behind. He met a little girl, about three or so, who was doing the same, so they chased each other up and down, probably annoying a few passengers at the same time, but it was better than trying to restrain him in the seat. I must admit, I got a little slack with following him after a while and sort of let him go up the aisle, expecting him to turn around when he got to the end where the hostesses arrange the food. And then he didn’t come back. I realised he’d probably continued on through up the plane, so I quickly made my way up. No, not in the next aisle either.  I realised I shouldn’t have let him out of my sight! By the time I got to him, he’d made his way all the way up to Business Class (and on an A380, starting near the back, that’s a long way!) I quickly grabbed him and turned him back around, only to be politely informed by a hostess that he really shouldn’t be here.  Oops!  It wasn’t too long after that when things started to really get out of hand.  Both Dude and the little girl were really hyped up and were getting more crazy, bashing into things, stealing random stuff as they ran along, squealing, getting in the way.  As I was grabbing him to bring him back to the seat to calm down, another steward said perhaps we shouldn’t let them run like that as they’re bound to get hurt.  And he was right, it was only a matter of time. So we hauled him back to the seat, and I got to change him in the smallest changing facility ever! For those who haven’t taken a baby on a plane, the change tables are in most of the bathrooms, and they fold down above the toilet.  So you have to sort of lean over and change baby on the side, which is awkward but not impossible. I can’t imagine how anyone over about 5’10” would manage it without doing themselves a bit of a mischief though. I didn’t ask Mr C to do a change for that very reason, as he has enough of a problem folding his 6’3″ frame, complete with herniated discs in his back, into those tiny toilets.

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The view from our bedroom window in Manchester. Could you get any more typically British? I’ll never be able to live somewhere with such a tiny yard…

So we arrived in South Africa without any huge upsets. When we went to board in Johannesburg for the flight to London, we decided to try keeping the pram up until the gate this time. Big mistake! When we got to the gate, they told us to fold down the pram but the bloody thing wouldn’t fold down properly and wouldn’t stay folded (never buy a Peg Perego, worst pram ever!) and the flight attendants just stood next to us chatting while we tried to hold the Dude and deal with the pram, all in stuffy 30 degree heat because they don’t seem to understand what air conditioning is. Never again! The flight itself was pretty hellish too. It was the only leg we were flying with British Airways, and although my experience of them had previously been good, I was absolutely appalled at the service on this flight. The attendants were uncommunicative at best and downright rude at worst. The plane was prehistoric, like they’d spent all their money upgrading Business Class and had left Economy to wallow back in the 80s. We’d made the mistake of electing to get the bulk head seat which sounds fabulous but really it meant that neither of us could get up when the Dude was finally in the bassinet asleep. It also meant very little room, and although the leg room was slightly better for Mr C, the bassinet took up any spare room we had elsewhere, including that required for folding out the screens from our arm rests. At one point, for about two hours total, we did manage to get him to stay asleep in the bassinet  and it was luckily while we ate dinner, so that was awesome, although the food was pretty disgusting and they didn’t provide a meal for the Dude at all which I was pretty surprised about. Qantas provided excellent meals with fresh, often organic, healthy ingredients that I had no problem feeding the Dude.  Anyway, we both got to eat and watch something in peace, bliss! But other than that, the rest of the flight was awful. Dude was pissed off because it was an evening flight so he wanted to be asleep the whole time but couldn’t because it was so uncomfortable and the bassinet was so small that three-quarters of his legs hung over the side. They couldn’t get the temperature control right, and it was even worse than on a normal flight where you expect some temperature issues. For the major part of the flight, the bassinet was used as a shelf/holder for all our shit and we just sat there waiting to land, drifting in and out of consciousness. Getting into Heathrow was such a relief, even though it was 6am and bloody freezing. The Dude was absolutely shattered and finally did fall asleep on the drive up to Manchester.

Coming home from the UK, I realised, was going to be a bigger challenge, given we weren’t going to have a proper break and it would be one long flight the whole way there.  I think it was only about 20 hours actual flying time, with a 90 minute refuel at Singapore after 13 hours. This time, we didn’t choose the bulk head seat, but we got this weird position near where they serve the drinks but just one half row back from the emergency exit. So there were just two seats in front of us, but kind of out in the open. From my seat next to the window, I could get up and walk forwards and around the two seats in front without disturbing anyone, so that was great, although there weren’t many times when I was free to do this! The only downside of the seats was the lack of leg room for Mr C (which is his usual complaint anyway) and the screen folding out of the arm rest for me, which was quite tricky to do with 90cm of squirming toddler trying to get comfy on my lap. Thirteen hours straight is always going to be pretty hideous, but we tried to just go with the flow. The couple sitting in the odd seats in front of us clearly knew how good they had it in those seats and as they sat facing the air hostess on take off they got chatting and she agreed to serve them drinks first before anyone! They must have each had two or three drinks before we even got a first! So when it came time for ours, we didn’t muck about. We each ordered a bloody Mary and I got a sparkling water too. The food options were lamb or fish pasta, and as I hate lamb I went with the latter. I wolfed it down as Mr C held the tray for me and tried to stop the Dude kicking his meal which was balanced precariously on a ridiculously small tray table next to too many drinks. The woman next to him just sat there surly, trying to ignore us. I guessed she wasn’t having a good time. As I sipped my bloody Mary, after failing to eat the whole meal and guzzling my mineral water, I began to feel odd. I decided the alcohol was probably not a great idea and swapped for water. A few minutes went by and I felt no better, worse in fact. Over the next ten minutes or so, I began to realise I might be sick. I am not a vomity person, having really only thrown up from too much alcohol and morning sickness. So throwing up is a bit of a foreign concept for me and I denied I was feeling so queasy. That was a huge mistake! Eventually I said to Mr C that I think I’m going to be sick and I need to get up, but the Dude was fast asleep in my lap and it’d taken so long for him to settle down I didn’t want to move and wake him. I kept trying to breathe through it and convince myself I didn’t need to throw up. I realised quickly that I’d have to get up. Mr C offered me the sick bag and I waved it away in horror: surely only kids use them, I can’t throw up in a bag in front of the whole plane! I frantically looked around me, trying to formulate a plan, a way of getting the Dude off my lap without waking him. It was too late. I felt myself begin to spasm and motioned to Mr C, who had gotten up and was standing opposite me, to get a bag. I was holding the sick in my hand as he finally thrust a bag under my mouth. It was one of the worst things I’ve ever had to do! It felt like I filled up the entire bag but Mr C, so typically non-squeamish, just held the bag up and pushed my hair out of the way. I saw him hand it to the air hostess and I just closed my eyes and tried to become invisible. I needed to wipe my hands and mouth and just as I started looking about for someone, as Mr C had been commandeered by the air hostess for some reason, the girl in front came with a glass of water and a big pile of napkins. She was so lovely. I asked if she was a nurse and she said no, she wouldn’t have the patience. I thanked her over and over as she so kindly got me wet wipes from her bag. Mr C came back and helped get rid of all the soiled napkins. Dude had slept through the whole ordeal! The woman next to Mr C glared sullenly in our direction, but I didn’t hate her for it; that would have been me a few years ago.

I felt so much better after my little episode, and we flew on to Singapore, arriving into slightly uncomfortable humidity late at night to the wonder of modern civilisation that is Changi Airport. We were shattered. We took it in turns to chase the Dude around and stop him getting stuck on the travelators while the other freshened up and before we knew it, it was time to board the plane again for the last leg of seven hours to Sydney. It was at that point I vowed to myself I wouldn’t do this again with a toddler. He was totally out of himself, going from laughing hysterically to screaming like his arm had just been cut off! Even breastfeeding wasn’t really cutting it any more. He was exhausted but feeding to sleep just didn’t seem to be working, probably because there wasn’t a lot of quality milk after I’d thrown up all the fuel for that. I’d been trying to remember to take the Travel Flower Essence and Rescue Remedy Sleep drops I’d bought, and the small pump spray of deionised water I brought was an awesome way of freshening up, plus the Dude thought it was hilarious when we sprayed it in his face. That all helped, I’m convinced, but nothing can substitute for quality sleep and decent food. We staggered off the plane, lining up at border control in our different lines, as Mr C is still on a British passport (although we later discovered we all should have gone to the Aussie line). Like zombies, we collected bags, dragged ourselves out to a taxi and paid an exorbitant amount of money to get home, with a shameful stop at Maccas drive through on the way to get coffee and bacon and egg muffins. The jet lag was hideous, mainly due to sleep deprivation, but we were home. I said to Mr C that we won’t be doing that again for another few years at least, and happily gave him the green light to go home on his own whenever he wants. It’s great to go as a family, but the stress of long haul flying with the Dude is just too much. Needless to say, we all got sick towards the end and weren’t right for at least a week afterwards.

Next post in the series: co-sleeping on the move

The quest for belonging

As I’ve mentioned here before, we’re not sure whether moving to Australia was the right choice. When we were in the UK, we had this idealistic view of Australia. I thought I wanted to go home to settle down. I couldn’t imagine how people have children in London with no space and high rent. I imagined us finding a nice big family home with plenty of space outside and bringing up kids. Mr Chewbacca, who’d been to Australia about five times previously, had this rosy picture of Aussie life: days lying on the beach, nights drinking in the pub and watching rugby. Between us, it was a foregone conclusion that we’d move back. And we were in a rush, for some strange reason. Not once did I really contemplate the idea that I might not feel very Aussie any more after having lived in the UK for a few years. Let’s face it, Aussie culture never made a lot of sense to me and I always considered myself ‘European’ before going to Europe and realising I actually did like my own country. I don’t think Mr C ever thought it would be what it has turned out to be either. Without going into details, neither of us are particularly happy here, for a variety of reasons.  We’ll be giving Australia one last chance in September next year when we move 1000km south to Melbourne.

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Tomorrow we’ll be taking the Dude across the world to meet his British family in Manchester, via South Africa. This is the first time he’ll meet his nanny and granddad Chewbacca and the rest of the family, and it’s the first time we’ve been back since we first came back to Australia in 2010. I can’t express just how mixed my emotions are about the trip. I agreed to a stopover in South Africa on the way, to stay at a friend’s parents’ game farm just outside Johannesburg.  I’m not apprehensive about being in South Africa as such, as I’ve been before and it’s not a scary place. I am a bit concerned about being the only one with a small child in a group of 30-somethings, most of whom don’t seem to have worked out they’re not in their 20s any more, but it’s only five days so I’ll be right. I’m not keen on the flight at all as the Dude isn’t two yet so he won’t have his own seat, which means I’m going to have 12 plus kilos of wriggling toddler sprawled across me for most of the 24 odd hours each way. How we’re going to entertain him when he’s hyped on the plane is completely beyond me, but I’m sure we’ll manage.

The major part of the rest of the trip will be a couple of weeks in Manchester and London. I’m so looking forward to the cooler weather and soaking up a bit of real northern hemisphere Christmas spirit, which feels somewhat diluted here in Australia. There’s something so special about those Oxford Street Christmas lights, despite the crowds of chavs in their soggy ugg boots fighting for a bargain in Primark. And the Christmas markets, the Hyde Park Winter Wonderland, ice skating, ferris wheel, mulled wine, the possibility of snow, shopping for warm boots and being relieved at the stagnant heat trapped deep underground in Victoria station.

Our street in West Hampstead, London – February 2009

After five days braving the rough heat of the game farm, we’ll fly straight north to London, where Mr C’s good friend, let’s call him the Northern Intellectual, is going to pick us up at Heathrow and drive us straight up north a couple of hours to Manchester, where the Chewbacca grandparents reside. Hopefully by then the Dude will at least have recovered from jet lag, as, although South Africa is a good ten hour flight from London, it’s only an hour or two time difference. Anyway, needless to say nan and granddad C are very excited at meeting their grandson. And Mr C and I are looking forward to catching up after so long.  We’re also secretly looking forward to a little bit of time off from the Dude, whose nan will I’m sure be happy to hang out with him while we go to a movie or two.  We’ve also got tickets for Ben Folds Five on the night after we arrive, which is particularly exciting as we had tickets to see Ben Folds on 13 May 2011, which was one day before I was due to have the Dude.  Needless to say, he came a week early, and I missed the concert.

We’ll spend most of our time up in Manchester with a couple of nights at Mr C’s nan’s place in Carlisle.  There we’ll see her of course, along with most of the rest of Mr C’s extended family, as that’s where they’re all from and where most still live. We’ll catch up with two of his sisters back in Manchester and a few friends there, then we’ll end our time with five days in London. It’ll be mainly catching up with friends there, checking out our old haunts, and doing a few touristy things before the big flight home.

The most nerve-racking element to all of this is that I’m not sure it will be as we remember. Yeah, okay, it’s only been three years, but I have this feeling I’ll remember pretty quickly why I left. It’s been pretty hard for me not to get sucked into all Mr C’s ‘everything Aussie is inferior to its European equivalent, if it has one’ mentality, and I kind of secretly hope he gets a bit of a rude shock and realises it’s not quite the utopia he remembers. It’s hard because he is actually English, and he feels at home in London. Me, on the other hand, I don’t feel truly at home anywhere. I wanted to leave London, even though I did develop a love for it, and I wanted to leave Canberra, even though it was where I grew up.  I’ve never wanted to be in Sydney and wish I could leave every day. I’ve not had enough time in Melbourne yet to say anything, so we’ll see.

Furio Giunta: The Sopranos (image courtesy of Wikipedia

Watching The Sopranos the other week (we’re finally watching this brilliant drama after everyone else did a decade ago), we saw the episode, season four I think, where Italian mobster with a heart of gold, Furio, returns to Naples after an extended absence setting up his life in New York State. He tells someone, Carmela, I think, about how he can never go back for good because he has changed too much. He just doesn’t feel like he can belong in Italy any more. Yet when he returns to America, we see him staring wistfully out of the window of the taxi as it passes typical suburban middle-America, star-spangled banners displayed almost defensively in front yards, and we know he feels no affinity with that America either. Culturally, he’s suddenly in no-man’s land. I wonder, will we have a similar experience in the UK? We’ll see.

I’m no longer curious

The new name has been chosen and changed. I don’t know if it makes any sense but I’m sticking with it! I’ve changed the name of this blog so many times, it’s ridiculous! So this was the last time.

I felt like Kat is curious was just too boring or something, I don’t know, and I decided it would be better to use my whole first name, as it’s fairly distinctive.

This blog is my time. My time to think, plan, idealise; my time for me. It’s a special way if travelling through time, something I’ve always been fascinated with, as I can go back and read about where I was at in any moment. My time to be who I am. My time to write.

I am trying to be a little more specific or deliberate about my theme or identity through this blog but, as luck would have it, I seem to be experiencing a serious case of writer’s block. I sat and stared at my WordPress dashboard for a whole minute today, then clicked over to Pinterest but even that wasn’t inspiring. I changed a few things, tried and failed to sort out my Facebook page, then just gother frustrated.

So instead I sent a long email to my friend KK. What a chick! A goddess really, that’s how I’d describe KK. And I’m not just saying that because she might read this; I know it to be true. The woman is the perfect combination of class and guts. Thin as a bloody rake without losing femininity, bronzed, angular, sparkly-eyed, KK is like some sort of Audrey Hepburn – Mae West amalgam with a 21st century attitude. She seriously knows how to put an outfit together from high street fashion mixed with vintage and she’s the only person I know who can make a velvet jumpsuit from 1977 look smoking hot. She once ordered a life-size Elvis cardboard cutout online but then had a massive freak out when she realised she’d ordered it to be delivered to our place of work (at the time we worked together for a UK government agency in a secure office building in Westminster). “How the hell are they going to deliver Elvis to me at work?” she lamented. She was even more concerned at the prospect of getting him home on the Tube. Luckily Elvis arrived folded in half, although I’m still not sure how she got him home.

At the moment I’m missing London big time. I miss the weather, the culture, the accents, the buildings, the pubs, even the public transport! I know I’ll never live as I once did there but I can’t help but think I belong in Europe and that one day I will end up living there again. Mr Chewbacca feels the same way. The difference is that I don’t complain about how backward Australia is all the time. Anyway that’s for another post. If you want to read some of his rants, check him out at Whodyanickabollockov. He might be a whinging pom but he’s a funny mofo.

Who, me?

Yay, Eden is doing Fresh Horses again! It’s a meme. Whatever. If you don’t know what the hell I’m on about, go here. Or just ignore this first bit and keep reading. Or click away. Actually no, don’t, I’ll try to keep this one short… Who am I kidding, I don’t know how to do that.

Who am I? Such a hard question. I find it hard to define the essential me that differs from my roles. Mother, wife, daughter, friend… Yeah I’m those things but they don’t define who I am.

I was always shy. Not timid, just reserved and self-conscious. I never said a word to any stranger, wouldn’t even look someone in the eye if I didn’t know them. Except one day, about age three, some woman walking past said, “hello little girl.” Apparently I looked her straight in the eye and said, “you’re a tomato.” As you do. Made perfect sense to me at the time. And that kind of defines me in a way. I keep my head down and do my own thing most of the time but I know what I think and will give an opinion at intervals. And when I do, it can be extreme!

People don’t believe me when I say I’m shy but it’s true. I felt so different as a kid. I truly believed there was no one in the world like me; no one who really got me. I always marvelled at others who seemingly sailed through life, enjoying just being. I felt out of place and often overlooked. I was neurotic, still am. I’d watch others and judge: why is he walking pigeon-toed? Why is she slouching? Don’t they realise what their bodies are doing?

In high school I had physical anxiety at the prospect of socialising. I’d get off the phone with my best friend, having just agreed to some spontaneous outing later that night, and immediately feel pain in my stomach as I frantically reeled through ideas for getting out of it. Tell her I can’t; just don’t turn up; get sick; make an excuse…

I am a perfectionist. I’m hugely judgmental of myself. I’m a procrastinator. I’m lazy. I’m indulgent. I’m patient. I love ice cream. Especially gelato and Ben & Jerry’s. I’m overweight. My weight is the biggest and longest-standing issue in my life. I have an extraordinarily strong body and constitution. I’m lucky for that.

I’m great with languages, so much so that I ended up with a degree in Italian only because it was easy. I used to work in government even though I vowed never to as I thought that was for average people; and I am anything but average. I can be snobby, but it’s not so much a class thing as an intelligence thing. I can’t be bothered with stupid people who float through life without any self-awareness. Harsh, right? Yeah, I can be harsh. But for some reason people still like me.

I value feeling at home in a place over the people who are around me. I have a bizarre fascination with Scandinavia. I’m pretty sure I was Norwegian in another life. I love ice and snow and cool crisp air. I love European trees, autumn leaves, wood fires, wooden houses with attics and Persian carpets and heavy old furniture. I love my comfort.

Eden says she’s good at starting fresh, drawing a line in the sand. I’m shit at that. Actually I’ll clarify that: I’m good at declaring a line has been drawn and that this is the beginning of a whole new phase. As for actually following through, forget it, never happens. That is one thing about myself that I really hate, that lack of discipline and motivation. But it dominates and I can’t rid myself of it. Probably the only time I’ve successfully ‘changed’ is when I went to live in London. I ended a long term relationship, slept with some randoms, got beer from the offie at 3am, took drugs, took risks, went on blind dates, smoked, manipulated men with sex, drank a lot of coffee, earnt good money and met my husband. Sounds dodgy but it was liberating. I don’t regret any of it. Except the time I went home with an ugly Greek guy who lived in Kingston upon Thames. And maybe the time I had taken so much coke I couldn’t get to sleep even though it was like 7am so I stood on an icy balcony and looked out over the apartment complex and breathed in the cold air and smoked and wondered if the few people I saw could guess I was coked up the yin yang. That was the last time, I vowed. And I guess I did draw a line at that point.

I really don’t know who I am. But I do feel glad to be it. I feel excited at the prospect of finally being at home; I know it exists, I’m close. Can’t wait to get away from bloody Sydney. I’m glad to be married to a man currently sitting watching rugby and occasionally looking over at me and eating his shortbread seductively; and then sticking up his middle finger when I laugh at him. I am glad to be the mother of this heavy 13-month-old currently draped across me, boobie firmly in mouth, sound asleep, little mouth fluttering at interval. I’m a writer and I’ll keep writing until I have nothing left. Maybe then I’ll know who I am. Probably at the end. It’s one of those journey versus destination things, right?

Oh, and I am allergic to honey. True story.

Edenland's Fresh Horses Brigade

A life lived large

This is my granddad, Hector:

I’ve had this photo in my possession since I was 14. I did a family history project then, which was the beginning of my genealogical research. That was nearly 20 years ago now.

See the eyes? They were a bright, piercing blue; my son has them. And those pointed, slightly buck teeth? Same in my mouth. My dad got his black hair from granddad. Luckily no one else in the family has inherited that nose – you can’t see it in the photo but it was large and hooked. You can see the smooth confidence this young man exudes, he’s an open book.

All I knew previously was that this photo was taken around 1943 or 44. But now I know more.

“We went into town, got drunk, and had our picture taken.” This was 1944, at the end of granddad’s training for the paratroop regiment. He was 17. He tried to join the army the year before but his mother followed him down to the recruiting office, gave the recruiting officer a serve and dragged granddad home by the scruff of his neck. “If you must join up, you’ll wait until you’re 17 and for Christ’s sake, stay off the water! Get into something with wheels on.” This was his father’s lecture. He’d just returned from five voyages to Dunkirk. He knew what his son would be confronted with. And he knew how vulnerable being on the ocean would make him.

Granddad did get into something with wheels on, but only because of a slight tall tale he rattled off. Upon signing up at 17, when asked by a superior what aspect of duty interested him, granddad mentioned he knew how to drive a bren gun carrier. A lie of course, unless you count the one time he and his mate accidentally drove a bren gun carrier into an Air Raid Warden’s hut. “Which side are you on?” shouted the Warden. “Silly little buggers.” They were 15 and had no licenses.  But that was war, that was the way things went in London in those days. The superior officer was impressed and assigned young Hector to drive trucks. He had a day’s lessons, no real driving experience, and then he was put at the wheel of a first world war Leyland Lynx, a huge monstrosity of a vehicle that required some clutch skills just to get into the next gear. Which was a challenge for Hector as he didn’t actually know how to change gear at all. Luckily his superior and the mechanic were riding up front with him and taught him as he went, with 30 troops in the back, complaining all the way about the bunny hopping.  Off they trundled, in convoy with another truck, across from the far north east of England, Newbiggin by Sea, to Kirkcudbrightshire, just over the Scottish border further west.  They hit the notoriously bad weather in those parts, and the second truck broke down.  This is where destiny begins to show itself in granddad’s life.  He suggested to the officer in charge that they put the 30 troops in his truck.  And against his better judgment, the officer agreed. So now he had 60 troops, two officers, and the mechanic.  The others stayed behind with the broken down truck. The mechanic mentioned they might make up for lost time if they removed the speed limiter the truck was fitted with, and granddad liked this idea a lot.  They came to a sign at the top of a steep incline. “Use low gear”.  Granddad ignored it.  He took off down the hill, spun the truck and overturned it into a tree, the troops having abandoned it halfway down the hill and the mechanic hiding in the footwell. Broken gear stick.  Disaster.  He hadn’t even been in the army three months, and this was his first driving assignment.

So even though it wasn’t his fault, although he could have been more cautious, he was reprimanded and sent off to peel potatoes all day as punishment for two weeks. It didn’t seem much of a punishment.  He and his mate (he always had one with him) were on their lunch break.  They’d snuck off beyond where they should have been and were having a smoke and watching the planes coming in over the downs doing bombing raid practices. And suddenly they saw one plane land roughly and crash nearby.  Without thinking, they rushed across and dragged out the pilot and rolled him in the dirt to put out the fire on his suit, shortly before the whole plane exploded. They disappeared as soon as the fire brigade showed up, hoping their little stunt might go unnoticed. The pilot remembered them and pointed them out.  They were transferred to another unit, “got rid of”, sent back to London on a week’s leave with orders to report back to the CO.  Apparently they had been labelled as ‘good round aeroplanes’, so to their shock and confusion, Hector and his mate, who he refers to as Bennett, were sent up to Marlborough and then Leicester for paratrooper training.

There’s more to the story, so much more, but this is just a little snippet of my granddad’s extraordinary adventures, taken directly from his own narration on the tapes I’ve been transcribing which he recorded in 1996. Unfortunately, as I think I might have mentioned before, I got to the second recording only to discover it’s unintelligible. All is not lost though, as I’m going to try and adjust the sound with some software.  I am desperate to hear about how he met my grandmother.  All I know is that they met at a dance sometime around the end of the war and he told her he’d marry her during that first dance and she laughed and said there’s no chance. I can imagine that.

New Year’s Resolutions: 2012

I know, it’s not exactly an original topic for a blog post, but hey, I need to jot them down and by putting them here I feel as if I will need to stick to them more… or something.  Anyway, humour me, here they are, in no particular order:

1. Try to get the Dude into a routine.  This means getting his meal times a little more sorted out, as he’s a hungry boy but only when he’s not too tired, and also getting sleeps happening on more of a schedule, as I think he’ll respond better to that and I might actually get some peace. I’m getting closer to achieving this already, given that he now has 12 hours sleep a night (mostly) and a clear two sleeps per day, and I can roughly predict when they happen. Roughly.  I’d like to get him into going to bed earlier, as currently he goes down between 8 and 9 most nights, although saying ‘goes down’ implies that I put him to bed and he stays asleep for the night, which never happens.  He is slowly improving, but most nights I spend a good half hour to an hour settling him down the first time, then have to go in twice to resettle before we finally go to bed about 10:30 or 11.  My mum says I should just get over the fact that I can no longer be a ‘night person’ and go to bed early with him.  I’m still in denial.

2. Finish NaNoWriMo.  I’d like to finally do this, having attempted and failed for a number of years now.  I’m not sure what it will take.  Actually that’s not true, I know exactly what it will take: some discipline, daily targets, sticking to a routine.  Refer back to number 1.

3. Study.  I really want to do my Masters.  Probably Arts, probably creative writing or life writing.  I’m also thinking about finishing off the Grad Dip in Editing and Publishing I started a few years ago.  That way, I might actually be able to start working towards my dream job, editing books in a publishing house.  I realise that now I’ve left work to have the Dude, I have a once-in-a-lifetime golden opportunity to rearrange my career into something I actually want to do, instead of constantly being branded a ‘project management professional’ or being offered marketing jobs, which I’d frankly rather chop off an arm than consider.  The marketing and advertising machine and all who sail in her totally shit me.  Although I do like watching The Gruen Transfer.

4. Get a job.  Money is really tight.  I’m talking really tight.  Okay so it’s not to the point where we have to ration our food or stop eating meat or can’t ever have takeaway, true, but it’s not great.  And me not working is making it super hard.  It’s hard for me because I have this mortgage and all these bills to pay but no income.  Actually scratch that, I have Centrelink and their awesome $24 per week.  Strangely enough that doesn’t suffice.  So I need to start earning an income again and I really don’t want the Dude in care just yet as I don’t want him catching all sorts of colds and diseases from all the other vaccinated, non-breastfed, chemical-ridden kidlets, and I also don’t think it’d be good for him to be away from me for that long, so it’s going to have to be working from home.  Which is doable.  I just have to find the time.  Refer back to number 1.

5. Write more.  Yeah, this one always makes an appearance.  But it needs to be there because I do need to write more.  And by writing I mean working on actual stories that will one day be published, not blogging.  How I’ll ever find the time is beyond me, but I must have this one in the list just in case its presence helps make it happen.

6. Blog more.  I go through phases of being really good with blogging, but then I slack off or Christmas happens or I forget or the Dude has a hard few days or weeks or some other shit goes down and I forget I have a blog for a while.  I would like to blog at least once a week minimum, preferably more.  Again, no idea how I’ll find the time but I just have to.  I read all these blogs by all these other awesome mums and think, how do they do it?  But they don’t have the Dude.  Although The Feminist Breeder is one that I am pretty amazed by, her baby is currently not sleeping at all at night yet she still manages to blog and presumably do all her other stuff like work and study and be a mum to her other two kids and a wife to her husband.  But she might actually be an Amazon.  That’s what I think anyway.

7. Move house.  This isn’t much of an actual resolution, but I want to have it in there because it’s something big that will be happening next year and it represents something bigger for me.  I guess it represents a compromise, but at the same time it represents a new phase for us as a family because we’ll finally be in a new place, an actual house, and even though it’ll be in shitty Sydney it’s one step towards what I want.  A small step, but a step nonetheless.

8. Refinance the mortgage.  This has needed to happen for a while, pretty much ever since I let the fixed interest rate lapse and started paying way too much to a stupid finance company in WA who handle my mortgage from a bank in Adelaide for my house in Canberra.  Yeah, makes no sense.  I’m close to getting this sorted, although it means husband taking it on technically as he’s the breadwinner, but by marrying me he gets half the house anyway so I figure that’s fair enough.  Once I’ve done this, I’ll be paying so much less that the rent will more than cover it, so paying bills will be a little easier.

9. Discharge all debts.  This one is important, not just because I need to be debt free, but because I don’t want to end up with a terrible credit rating like my dad and be unable to ever get a loan.  I also hate the stress of bills and debts hanging over my head, and it’s particularly hard because what is hanging over my  head is automatically hanging over husband’s head and he doesn’t need all that.  He shouldn’t have to pay for my inability to manage my finances.  So I plan to get a little extra money when I refinance so I can pay off all the debts and consolidate.

10. Refurbish my house in Canberra.  I’ve needed to do this for a while, and just recently when the carport randomly collapsed I realised it needs to happen in the new year.  The house is nearly 40 years old, and although the kitchen and bathroom were re-done not long before I bought it in 2005, that was six years ago now, seven actually, so it’s definitely time to do something.  I shudder to think what it’ll cost to deal with the issue of the water leaking from the bathroom upstairs through the ceiling of the laundry below it, but that has to be tackled.  In addition there are a few other things like a pergola that I’d like done.  I need to speak to a real estate agent to gauge just what I need to do in order to improve the value without over capitalising.  As it stands, I have great equity in the place and excellent tenants, so I’ve done well.  But if I don’t do something soon it will all fall down!

11. Collect all my stuff from my shed in Canberra.  Back in mid 2007 when I went to London, I sold a lot of my stuff, but the stuff I didn’t sell or give away that I still wanted to keep; important stuff; stuff with sentimental value. I packed it all into my little shed in the front garden before I left and when I came back in January 2010 I peeked in.  It was all still there.  That’s as far as I got.  I haven’t been back.  When my tenant rang to say the carport had collapsed, I thought she meant the shed.  It’s not exactly the most stable building in the world, just a little tin shed someone bought from Bunnings.  I can’t believe it’s still standing.  And I wonder what state my stuff is in!  There’s so much important stuff in there, pictures and stories from my childhood, an Edwardian sideboard that was in my parents’ house which I always meant to refinish, some random art projects, all my artwork from my year at art school, probably even books that are no doubt damp, mouldy or eaten by insects… There’s so much stuff I can’t even remember half of it.  At some level I’m looking forward to going through it all, the process of rediscovery, but the thought of seeing just how much it’s been destroyed and then trying to work out what to do with it and how to get it where I want it is not appealing at all.  No doubt I’ll update about that at some point…

So that’s it.  Bloody long list!  Only I could write 1500 words on my new year’s resolutions…