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.

Have child, will travel

After numerous heated discussions and difficult exchanges, husband suggested I go to Melbourne and just chill out with friends for an extended weekend.  At first I was reluctant, thinking about how hard the flight would be with the Dude, who just doesn’t do the comfort feeding thing and doesn’t just fall asleep, but I finally agreed to go and booked some flights on Qantas.  Luxury!  Normally we fly dodgy Tiger but with the Dude I wasn’t taking any chances, and besides, it wasn’t actually much more expensive.  I booked an 11am flight out on the Thursday, thinking that would be cruisy, and a 4pm flight home on the following Monday.  But it wasn’t to be so cruisy!

Firstly, about a week beforehand, husband revealed that he’d volunteered for a day out accompanying some deaf kids into the city to the Botanic Gardens and on the ferry etc. Which is lovely, except it happened to be the day I was due to fly to Melbourne.  And he had to be at the school by 8:30am.  In North Parramatta.  An hour’s drive away.  And my flight was booked for 11am.  Urgh.  We discussed the possibility of him bailing out, but he’d already saved the day as someone else had pulled out and I thought it would be pretty slack to bail at the last minute like that.  So after discussing the possibilities – him taking public transport to North Parramatta (erm, that’s like having a death wish!), me taking public transport to the airport (erm, again, a bit of a death wish, given I’d have the baby and my wheely bag), me taking a taxi to the airport (for $70? Hmm, think again) – and finally settled on a plan.  He dropped me in the city at about 7:45 and I strapped the Dude to my chest, put my nappy bag in my wheely bag, and took the airport line straight through from St James – easy!

A few things to explain here: I decided not to bother with taking a pram as the Dude isn’t a fan and I can’t fathom how one person can possibly handle a wheely bag and a pram at the same time.  Seriously.  How is that possible??  The other thing is that I don’t own a nappy bag.  My nappy bag consists of a rather tatty Target ‘green’ bag.  I have the material at home, just haven’t gotten round to making one, and there’s no way I’m spending $100 on a proper one, what a total rip off!  Plus I’m not a fan of carting round a whole bunch of shit just because I have a baby.  Sometimes I take a nappy and wipes, occasionally a change of clothes, a hat, socks… that’s about it.  So anyway, all I had was my modest wheely bag, my handbag and the Dude strapped to me in the Ergobaby.

The train trip through to Sydney airport’s Qantas domestic terminal was a breeze.  Fast, easy, simple.  The only drawbag is being subjected to extortion when you pay $15 for a ten minute train journey!  Freaking rip off!  But that’s Sydney for you… Anyway, I got there, decided to check my bag, and was impressed with how easy it was despite the fact that Qantas seem to have now gotten rid of actual people to check you in and you do the whole thing yourself: check in and print off your boarding pass and bag tags, attach your own bag tags, then drop off your bags yourself.  Pretty cool really.

I headed through security and grabbed a bacon and egg muffin at Hungry Jacks and a big veggie juice at the food place next to it – yum!  I found a nice seat facing out over the tarmac, finished my food and drink and gave the Dude a feed.  I had a couple of hours still before my flight at 11am, and I planned to get him to have a decent sleep so he’d be cool for the flight.  It was great, I strapped him to my back, then grabbed a coffee, then found a bench and stood rocking him while crocheting and sipping my coffee, too easy!  At 10:40 I went to board my flight; and that’s when things started to go awry.

The flight was delayed 25 minutes, so boarding at 11:05.  I kept walking round with the Dude, gave him another feed… It was 11:30 and we still hadn’t boarded.  Finally we all filed on.  Apparently the flight before had been late in.  I was beckoned to the front and slipped on board first, which was brilliant.  My seat was right at the back and the one next to me was empty, perfect!  The male and female flight attendants immediately flocked to me and took the Dude, who was happy to hang out with them, a total miracle, as normally he screams as soon as I pass him to someone else, unless it’s daddy.  This was going well! And then we sat on the tarmac.  For an hour!  The Dude got restless.  The lovely male flight attendant brought him some baby food, awful artificial Heinz vanilla custard (I read the label enough to notice the second ingredient was ‘sugar’ and then pretended not to notice), which the Dude of course absolutely loved and ate about a third of the tin!  But we weren’t flying anywhere on this plane it seemed, and were soon asked to disembark as the flight had been cancelled due to electrical problems.  I filed out with everyone else and stood in line for 10 minutes whereupon we were booked onto a 3pm flight.  Hmph.

Anyway, eventually we did fly out on the 3pm flight, but sadly the attendants on this flight weren’t of the calibre of those on the first and basically ignored me the whole time.  The Dude had had enough by this point and promptly screamed the plane down for most of the flight, even though I tried to soothe him by walking around and feeding (it only worked for the first 15 minutes during take off).  I finally arrived in Melbourne at 4:35pm and had to wait for my friend to pick us up as because of the delay she was stuck in traffic!  What an ordeal!

Some general observations about flying:

  • Baby change area at the airport? This had to be the most impractical place to change a baby, unless the baby in question is completely covered in poo and you need to give him a bath to clean him up… Where is the bit you change them on? I really do need to invest in a portable change mat, as the changing area consisted of a narrow, hard metal bench.
  • People that work at Sydney airport – really, this is your career? Reminds me why I want to leave Sydney!  I watched people working behind counters and in shops and thought, damn, what a way to live, how boring and average.  Yes, I am a cynic.  And a snob.
  • Are people really that lovely and helpful when you’re travelling with a baby? Some, yes, but judging by the stupid article I read in the Age about flying with a baby, some are just callous assholes who probably wouldn’t have the guts to say to your face what they’d say in an online comment.
  • There is a huge difference depending on the flight attendants.  I guess they see a million babies complaining on flights every day, but it made SUCH a difference to have those lovely flight attendants on that first flight.  I personally thanked them both before getting off the plane, and the female flight attendant came up to me in the airport after we got off the first plane to check if I’d been successfully rebooked and commiserate.  So nice.
  • Some people are tolerant and understand just how embarrassing and stressful it can be when your baby is screaming and you just can’t do anything.  As I sat waiting to get off the second flight to Melbourne, waiting for everyone to get off first, a smiling guy in a suit leaned down to me and said, “don’t worry, we’ve all been there before”.  I smiled.  Thanks man, I really needed to hear that.

My conclusion? Having kids and participating in mainstream society do not exist in the same dimension! But what’s new right?  All I know is, I did it, I took a flight alone with my baby and it was all good.  In fact he slept for the majority of the flight home – miracle or what!  I can’t say I’ll be doing it again in a hurry but at least now I know I can.