My Way on the Worldschooling Highway

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Did you know there is a global community of families who call themselves ‘worldschoolers’?

For these families, learning while travelling and living in other countries is a primary way in which they meet their children’s educational needs.

Some families may ‘slow travel’ their way around the world and enrol their children into schools as they go, whilst others are full-time home educators who may or may not have a faster pace of exploration – or an entirely different method of exploring the globe, which I hope to describe in this article.

When I discovered the term ‘worldschooling’ about a year ago, it occurred to me that it was a very fitting label for my own family’s lifestyle.

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Lennon Wall, Prague, Czech Republic, January 2016

I was inspired to write this piece in response to a discussion I was party to in which it was assumed that worldschoolers are nomadic families who are on the road full-time.

I wanted to challenge that perspective – I say that worldschooling comes in many guises. I don’t believe full-time travel is a necessity and there are many ways in which you can explore global culture without even leaving your hometown.

I do believe worldschooling entails at least some first-hand experience of a different country each year, in the midst of plenty of global education in other forms – yet even that sounds arbitrary to me, especially knowing how my own family’s journey to the worldschooling concept has developed and how much of our journey has been moulded by chance rather than by design.

Full-time travel may well be the aim of many worldschoolers but there are many different levels of this educational philosophy – no definite border between ‘worldschooling’ and ‘not worldschooling’, no matter how many actual borders have been crossed.

So, without further ado, here are 10 ways I feel my family are full-time worldschoolers without being full-time travellers . . .

1) Taking every opportunity for a trip

By the end of this month (September 2016) we will be able to count 5 trips abroad in the space of a year. I think that’s pretty good going!

Our 5 trips cover 5 countries within 2 continents (Portugal, Morocco, Czech Republic, Greece and Italy).

Most of the travelling will have been completed as a single mum. In fact, I always used the excuse of being a single mother to stop me embracing the idea of travelling full-time – having now discovered just how many single mothers actually are travelling full-time with their children, I will have to drop that excuse!

All but one of our trips were organised just weeks in advance as we leapt on cheap fares and made spontaneous decisions to travel, and four of them were partly or wholly organised alongside other home educating / worldschooling families.

Whilst myself and my children keep a wishlist of places we’d really like to visit, we don’t turn down invites to places not on our list – we suspend expectations and are willing to take opportunities just to see what happens. This was certainly the case when visiting the Czech Republic in January (I’m usually a sun-seeker!).

We also follow the path our home education journey takes us on – our imminent trip to Italy was originally inspired by watching a documentary about volcanoes (cue chat about Mount Vesuvius, cue decide we should visit Pompeii, cue take next available opportunity to plan a trip there).

2) Hosting travellers through Couchsurfing and Workaway

We have been hosting fellow travellers in our home via Couchsurfing for over 5 years now. The majority of these travellers seek cultural exchange with locals, meaning there is ample opportunity to learn about other countries, cultures and languages.

If I combine our own trips with the sum of our hosting duties, we have spent approximately three-quarters of the past year in daily contact with people from other countries.

Our favourite guests to host are fellow families on Workaway. These families, whilst not necessarily following the same lifestyle as us, believe in the value of travel, cultural exchange and volunteering. They usually stay with us for at least a week, during which time we work communally – I benefiting from adult help, my children benefiting from live-in friends, and the guests benefiting from free accommodation and local knowledge. We have made some wonderful friends through this and some reciprocal invites to their homes in other countries.

3) Hosting language students

I put this in a different category to Couchsurfing and Workaway, as when I host language students I’m paid expenses for being a host mother to teenagers and children as young as 10. Suddenly being the responsible person for up to another 3 youngsters is an entirely different experience to hosting an adult Workaway guest who is there to help me out!

The tables are also turned somewhat in that we have to ensure our students get the most out of their time in the UK – the aim of their trip is to have an immersive language-learning experience, thus we must give them as much opportunity as possible to practice their English and learn about our life here: on the surface, it’s about their learning journey, not ours.

However, our experience of this so far has made a real impression on my kids. “Remember when those Chinese girls were here and …” still starts many conversations in our family. The nature of the students’ visit means that topics related to global education are always on the cards for mealtime conversation, said mealtime conversation often digresses into the students’ own language, and my younger children witness older children embarking on international travel without their parents.

4) Spending time with friends of other nationalities

My children are frequently exposed to other languages and cultural ideas when we spend time with friends of other nationalities. For those who have come from a significantly different cultural background, we see how one’s country of origin has a big impact on matters of hospitality, parenting norms, personal space and socially acceptable behaviour – the contrast can seem more evident in one’s own country when you are generally surrounded by your own cultural norms.

Perhaps the most topical issue to navigate as a mother has been that of parenting techniques – often a hot potato amongst friends of the same background, but all the more so when you recognise Western consumerist imperialism in modern parenting practices. In this respect, I have found myself denigrating my cultural background as friends of other backgrounds seek to emulate it (I’m thinking of traditional/biological norms of motherhood such as birth, breastfeeding and baby-care practices, and the consumer products and services that have been put in the place of a mother’s arms).

Yet openly making cultural comparisons with people I trust is like a petri dish that helps me observe and develop my own beliefs and mental scripts in a safe space (opposed to the influence of the ‘us vs them’ rhetoric that the mainstream media dangerously peddles to the masses). This is important as my beliefs could well shape my children’s beliefs, and how we communicate with some of these close friends also informs how we communicate with my daughters’ relatives in Morocco.

I hope my children can learn from these relationships and see that it really can be about making the most of our similarities as human beings rather than letting our differences come between us.

These relationships can be about finding the things that work in different cultural systems and creating your own personal culture around it – and being confident in your own identity actually makes it easier to figure out how you fit in to the wider world.

5) Of maps and stamps

This is basic but it keeps geography and travel at the forefront of our daily lives: we like putting maps on our walls.

Our living space is adorned with a large world map and a map of Morocco, and our kitchen with a map of Europe.

Our letterbox is often blessed with Postcrossing postcards, random but inspiring glimpses into the lives of individuals in other parts of the world. These cards are addressed to the children and usually include little bites of information about the card’s subject and tastes of other languages.

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Anyone can do this and for us it is a constant source of inspiration to actually go and see the world. When the postman keeps bringing you messages of hope that you will one day visit Michigan or Hong Kong or Prague (oh, we did that one!), it’s a constant invite and reminder to step outside our home comforts.

The world map planted a seed when FreeToBeP developed the desire to visit Russia just based on what he could see on the map. That seed has already started to sprout as we begin making contacts in Russia and I cost up a trip on the Trans-Siberian railway!

6) Raising mixed-race children

Our worldschooling adventure really began with a 2-year-old FreeToBeP and a fateful trip to Morocco. I now have two daughters who are half-Imazighen (the native people of North Africa).

I feel a deep responsibility in bringing up mixed-race children in a multicultural society that is at odds with itself; a society in which some people look with disdain upon anyone who cannot tick ‘White British’ on their census form. Identity is often a big topic in the lives of those born of two different racial backgrounds and it is with both honour and trepidation that I start to teach my girls about their heritage.

But what an honour! To have such a wealth of cultural discourse based upon bloodlines from two very different countries and cultures. Four-year-old FreeToBeZ is already very aware of her mixed background and it has led me into a deeper understanding about white privilege and subtle forms of racism, which will surely form the backdrop of many an informal home ed PSHE lesson.

Aside from these more sensitive issues, we also collect resources that could inform my daughters’ understanding of their paternal heritage as they grow, from Tamazight language resources through to modern anthropological studies of the Imazighen tribes (tentatively referred to as I am nervous of the sense of ‘othering’ and exoticising that these studies can smack of – something I am ever nervous of in my own accounts). These resources help me to clumsily fill in gaps that I keenly sense in their absence from the traditional mountain life that their father’s family lives.

My daughters are privileged with all the opportunity and freedom that a British birth certificate brings. Yet how sad I am for them that they cannot understand the unwritten stories of their ancestors that their ageing Imazighen grandmother can tell in a language that they do not know.

Rather than the sense of being “neither here nor there”, I hope my daughters grow into worldly women who feel comfortable in different settings – and may our worldschooling journey nurture that.

7) Exploring all the facets of your homeland

In order to get the most from our travels to far-flung places, I believe an appreciation of where we are from and knowledge of our own heritage helps. We may or may not be proud of our cultural heritage, yet knowing one’s self is often key to truly knowing what is outside of ourselves.

Travelling with true awareness of global concerns involves being aware of our own cultural history and the social capital we may or may not be privileged by.

With this awareness, as well as exploring the well-known icons of your homeland and its history, why not seek out evidence of other countries and cultures within it? There may be places of worship that are different to your own (if you have one), expatriates of other countries, people whose first language isn’t the same as yours, specialist world food shops, and public networks or events that support multicultural communities (examples in my area are the South West Dorset Multicultural Network and an annual Dorset One World Festival).

Now more than ever in a social climate in which casual racism seems to be rearing its ugly head, it’s important that we forge interfaith and intercultural links with people of different backgrounds.

Saying that worldschooling journeys must involve trips to countries other than your own ignores the richness of what you have been brought up around, especially in a diverse society such as ours. Yes, our dominant culture will always be the most obvious in our own homes, but there are people and places in your own country, town or even village who have much to teach you about the wider world.

8) Language learning

For language is not just about words and translation – the more you learn about language and linguistics, the more you realise how relative the world is based on the words we use and the way in which different concepts are expressed in different languages.

It is difficult to learn a language without also being exposed to cultural and religious concepts associated with that language, and (I find) without therefore becoming fascinated with those parts of the world in which that language is spoken.

My own forays into various languages has come as a result of our chosen destinations rather than preceding them, but the breadth of knowledge that an interest in language opens up is astounding. For example, did you know that there are over 6000 living languages in the world?

The world of languages and linguistics goes far beyond actually being able to speak another language, and travel can be a natural consequence of being fascinated with such subjects.

FreeToBeP is currently intrigued with Italian having decided that he wants “to play that game” I play on my phone – he’s referring to my Duolingo course. The advent of smartphone apps and online peer exchange have made language learning all the more fun and accessible, and can easily complement a worldschooling lifestyle whilst sat on your own sofa . . .

And to then put it into practice and learn a language in context on the move is perhaps the best lesson we can give our children about how language acquisition naturally works (no textbooks necessary!).

9) Plan a world adventure

We’re considering taking less frequent trips over the next couple of years in order to plan The Big One.

Although short trips to European destinations are well within our budget and other practical considerations, if I want to run with FreeToBeP’s Russian dream then we’re in for saving some pennies first – and if we’re going to book the Trans-Siberian railway, we should probably go the whole hog and take the route all the way down through Mongolia to China (China also being on FreeToBeP’s wishlist!).

Whilst the need to stay put and save up could feel like stagnation, the expectation of a trip flavours many of our family discussions. Planning for a long-distance trek could take months in itself.

We are currently packing for our trip to Italy and recent conversation has often turned to the language, food, sites and history of our destination – these discussions around our dinner table at home are part and parcel of our worldschooling life. The actual trip abroad does not exist inside a bubble, it is the culmination of a dream made real thanks to a period of research and planning.

Indeed, part of the fun is in the itinerary planning, and this is something you can let the kids loose on – thus when you arrive at your destination you’ll have a good idea of each family member’s hopes for the trip.

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10) Networking with other worldschoolers

As well as fellow travellers within our local home education circle, we make an effort to connect with other families in different locations who share a similar lifestyle.

As worldschooling families network and meet, more and more events are being organised especially for those following this way of life and a number of worldschooling communities are developing around the globe.

Earlier this year we attended our first worldschool event in Plitra, Greece. As a travelling single mother, these events have the added attraction of inherent friendship and support whilst losing none of the sense of adventure. Whilst I have the company of fellow parents, they are places where I can be sure that the children will also have peers to play and learn alongside.

We have learnt that distance and language doesn’t have to be a barrier to friendship as we build relationships with people in different parts of the world. My children’s social experience is often very different to those who spend their days in a classroom with 30 peers sharing the same age and hometown, but herein lies the heart of the worldschooling message – yes, some people live their lives very differently to us, but a different way doesn’t equal a wrong way.

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FreeToBeP and his sisters’ cousin in the Atlas mountains, Morocco

In conclusion, I hope these suggestions have gone some way to explaining how worldschooling is not bound by one set of rules and may look as different for each family as home education itself does (ah, and what of the experiences of those worldschooling families whose children actually attend school?).

I like to think that our family’s past year has been a comfortable middle ground – the excitement of travel tempered with the security of a home base. Part of me feels like we’re living the dream whilst another part lives vicariously through the blogs of families having a full-time, nomadic lifestyle which leads them to truly immersive experiences in far-reaches of the globe.

If you’re travelling the world full-time with your family, I’m in awe of you (especially if you’re doing it as a single parent)! But perhaps the next ‘worldschooling’ family isn’t there yet and are making the practical, emotional and logistical decisions and actions to get there one day.

Until that time, I believe they have every right to describe themselves as worldschoolers if that is their educational philosophy. With a zest for travel and a passion for meeting and understanding other people , you can’t go far wrong.

If this post has piqued your interest, it’s topics such as those found in my 10 Websites for Teaching Global Citizenship that keep me eager to see myself as a global citizen and keen to keep my children in contact with people of varied backgrounds – and to keep on exploring those varied backgrounds first-hand!

Please feel free to share your own perspective and experiences in the comments below – it would be wonderful to hear of other families’ journeys.

Edventuring in Greece

Edventuring in Greece

We’ve recently returned from the April 2016 Worldschoolers Spring Edventure at the Porto Grana Hub for home educators in Plitra, Laconia, Greece.

So much of our experience was about the sights, smells, tastes and sounds we encountered. How can I capture in words the scent of orange blossom or the pungent smell of olive oil production? Or find a way to translate onto screen the sensory stories of my taste buds? At least the visual element is more easily shared through the many images I collected.

With this in mind, I’ve compiled a photo journal of the highlights of our trip. I’ve included commentary to give you some insight into the week’s learning journey, seasoned with links to find out more where you may wish to.

Enjoy!

Orange-picking

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One of FreeToBeP’s favourite activities of the week

This was such a simple yet memorable activity. The sights, scents and tastes of the orchard as the sun beat down on us was so evocative – if paradise has an aroma, orange-blossom would be it! As if I didn’t already bemoan the quality of oranges in England, now that I’ve eaten one freshly plucked from a Peloponnese tree, I fear the bar has been raised even more.

One intriguing feature of the orchard was an orange-lemon tree – a tree that bears both types of fruit as the result of a successful graft.

FreeToBeP loved being amongst the trees and his orange harvest ensured a week’s very sufficient vitamin C intake for the whole family.

An interesting fact is that the intensive cultivation of oranges in the region dates only from the mid-20th century – prior to that, the delta of the Evrotas river and its tributaries was used as rice fields (a small percentage of EU-grown rice is still grown in Greece).

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Culture & Tradition

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Preparations for the flower festival in Papadianika

We joined local school children in the nearby village of Papadianika as they decorated candles to be lit at the traditional Γιορτη Λουλουδιών (flower festival) on April 30th. Many May Day festivities take place in Greece, of which this festival is one example.

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Greek Orthodox chapel next to Diros Caves

Religious tradition is very evident in Greece – chapels are built in all sorts of places, and the above picture was taken just along from the Diros caves [a boat trip through the caves was part of the itinerary for the week which I was unable to do due to the wants/needs of my children, yet I have it on good authority that it’s worth the €12 per adult / €7 per child].

Wherever you go, you will see numerous prayer boxes along the side of the road, known as kandylakia. I sadly neglected to photograph any. These are shaped like miniature chapels and often include icons of saints, and incense or candles to burn. As well as traditionally being spots where travellers can stop to pray, they are increasingly used to commemorate lives, particularly of those lost upon the road – there is a joke that roadside kandylakia can be seen as unofficial ‘drive with caution’ signs!

Plitra Beach

beachrunWhat a treat to have the local beaches all to ourselves in 25+ degree heat! The beach was a short walk from both the home education hub and our accommodation. Just like our seaside home in the UK, the bay at Plitra is calm, featuring sandbanks and a very gradual decline into deeper waters – a perfect beach upon which families can relax, play and paddle.

As the boys went scouring the rockpools, our host scoured the same area for food – the seashore forage finds were an impressive array of herbs and spring greens that well illustrated how ‘frugal food’ is often about the richness and abundance of Mother Nature.

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Sun + sand + sea = happy children!
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Sun + sand + sea = happy me!

Monemvasia Old Town

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FreeToBeZ enjoying the sun and the sights in Monemvasia
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Restored lighthouse – and a levitating FreeToBeP, apparently

A truly fascinating place for both children and adults, the old town of Monemvasia is an ancient fortified town (now largely restored in keeping with its original style) and it’s worth spending a full day exploring. Our trip wasn’t as lengthy as planned as, unfortunately, the castle and grounds atop the summit were closed to the public due to renovation works. However, there was still plenty to see . . .

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monem1There was a wonderful vibe of history coming alive upon the peninsula of the old town, complete with quaint little shops and cafés that complemented the town’s heritage. Both architectural antiquities and local flora were prevalent here, and I also appreciated the local bee colonies through the purchase of a very sweet honey wine – indeed, Malvasia wine is historically from the town.

The nooks and crannies of the narrow cobbled streets were a delight to explore and the views were divine. A must-see if you’re in the region!

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Gytheio 

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Dimitrios shipwreck

We stopped for refreshments upon Mavrovouni, the longest beach in the region, near to the charming port town of Gytheio. Volunteers observe and protect this beach over the spring to summer months as it is the nesting ground for sea turtles, yet also a busy tourist spot during the height of the season.

As we left the Gytheio area we also spotted the Dimitrios shipwreck on Valtaki beach, where the poor vessel has lain abandoned for 35 years.

Gerakas Port

gerakas2The entrance to Gerakas Port is well hidden, historically making this a safe enclave away from looting pirates. A glorious mountain drive took us up and over the headland to this hidden beauty, where the environments of wetlands and sea merge via a fjord-like approach from the sea. I sense this little gem is best appreciated by boat!

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Cyclingpbike

liambikeWe arrived in Greece with two eight-year-old boys who couldn’t cycle and left with two eight-year-old boys who could! You’ll be relieved to hear they weren’t swapped for different children, but gained new skills whilst having free bike hire at the hub and Plitra seafront all to themselves throughout our stay. Three-year-old FreeToBeZ was rather pleased with her attempts too.

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Olive-picking

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FreeToBeP harvesting late olives

Although the olive-picking season was officially over, there were plenty of olives left on trees in public spaces – the children made the most of climbing them whilst the late olives were collected from both branch and ground (and are now being salt-cured on my kitchen worktop).

Sixteen-month-old FreeToBeL loved the fresh yet bitter fruits, her young palate open to new flavours in a way our modern sweet and salty diet has scuppered for many of us.

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FreeToBeL enjoyed eating the bitter offerings fresh from the tree!
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Wild olives collected, cured and preserved (and shared with us!) by the owner of our accomodation (Pansion Amarylia)

Ancient Asopos

asopos1asopos4asopos3asopos5Wow! What finds we made here. The ancient Roman port town of Asopos was destroyed by an earthquake in around 365BC and much of it now remains hidden under the sea.

Much of the ‘beach’ here is made up of broken brick and tile, the remains of buildings which last stood over 2000 years ago. A bathhouse, port and temple are some notable remnants along the shore and a number of large storage urns remain partly intact. Sections of pavements and mosaics are preserved, with areas being revealed or masked as the tides strip back or deposit covers of rubble and sand.

There are so many historical ruins in Greece that not all have been excavated and this was very evident here – on one section of beach we found numerous remnants of ancient Grecian pottery, which really quickened the pulse of the archaeologist in me.

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Roman bricks and tiles aplenty here
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Ancient handle – just one of our many finds

Cookery & Food

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Authentic Greek salad in Sparta
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Preparing a traditional spinach pie with vegetables from our host’s garden

FreeToBeP has recently developed a real passion for cooking and has been lucky to have the opportunity to spend time with people who have a true love for good food.

Our host showed us how to make vegan varieties of local dishes (many of which are traditionally made just with vegetables anyway) and the children had opportunity to help out, picking fresh ingredients from the garden and appreciating the food in a new way thanks to doing this.

As much as possible, the food eaten at the Porto Grana Hub is organic, vegan and grown locally or foraged – whilst the hub’s philosophy encompasses both frugality and ethics, we always ate satisfying and delicious meals thanks to our host’s cooking skills and knowledge of local edible plants.

We were surprised with the vast array of foodstuffs that can be foraged for within just a few minutes’ walk of the hub, quite apart from the abundance of olive, orange and lemon trees – wild mountain thyme and edible seaside plants were some of the notable examples, particularly the very tasty kritamo (better known here as rock samphire and something I hope I will, quite literally, stumble over again along the Dorset coast).

And finally . . .

All in all, we thoroughly enjoyed our busy week in Laconia and heartily recommend a visit to the Porto Grana Hub to other home educating and worldschooling families!

Springtime was the perfect time to go, the country blooming with greenery yet the temperature already reaching 30 degrees during our stay.

Greece is definitely on our list of places to return to – the history, language, fauna and geology captivated us all, and what we managed to explore in our one week was just a small taste of what the country has to offer.

To learn more about our base in Greece – the Porto Grana Hub – read my interview with the hub founder, Evangelos Vlachakis, and/or visit the Porto Grana website.

Oh, and did I mention the animals, playground and family yoga session?

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Coventry Reviewed

Coventry Reviewed

I was born in and spent the first 21 years of my life in Coventry. Over the past 12 years I’ve made frequent visits to my family who still reside there, yet I’ve barely had a good thing to say about the place itself. In fact, I must admit to being downright scathing. I now live but 2 minutes from the seaside on a UNESCO World Heritage Site and am spoilt for beautiful locations to visit; the familiarity of my birthplace seemed dull and dingy in comparison to my adopted town in Dorset.

However, much has changed over the past decade and what was once urban decay is now urban development, with a good portion of Coventry City Centre enjoying a long overdue makeover and dose of modernisation. With its central location, manufacturing industry, multiculturalism and large student population, there are things that always made Coventry a very practical place to live – but I never once saw it as a tourist stopping point.

Until today.

On the suggestion of a friend, we decided to take time to peruse a display about children’s television in the Herbert Art Gallery and Museum. This was to be a brief point of interest en route to the outdoor store in order to buy tent pegs and guy ropes, the initial reason for a trip into town.

Serendipity had other ideas, and we ended up whiling away half the day following our whims . . .

Herbert Art Gallery & Museum

It had been years upon years since I’d set foot in this place – it was great to see the museum revamped, complete with a plentiful supply of hands-on activities for the kids.

We began in the Story of Children’s Television display, FreeToBeP aptly sporting a ‘Button Moon’ t-shirt in order to get his photo with Mr Spoon.

Mr Spoon

Between dressing up as a dalek and a teletubby, puppeteering with Sooty, Sweep and Sue, and being bemused by mummy’s reminiscences, the kids got their morning-time energy out in this bright and noisy display.

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Yet FreeToBeP surprised me by being most fascinated with the art gallery, even engaging in the suggested activities supplied by the museum which included something of a ‘PSHE through art’ lesson:

Blind art

We were pleasantly surprised to be greeted with video footage of Durdle Door in the ‘Elements’ gallery, a section of the museum exploring natural history through the concept of the four elements. Full of crystals, fossils, shells and taxidermy specimens, this was packed with interesting sights and sounds. Even the driftwood and beach stones got a look-in from my coastal-bred children – I did wonder if the artefacts had also made their way up from dear Dorset.

Durdle Door

And the main item of intrigue – narwhal tusks:

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My personal favourite in the museum was the ‘History of Us’ display by street artist Pahnl. This funky, visual history of humankind was really captivating – from the work of art itself (fully stencilled), to the supporting information, to the video of the installation in progress. Further information and snapshots of the work can be found on the artist’s website – but I urge you to visit if you can to take in the detail of the artwork and the laugh-out-loud content of the supporting text.

History of Us

Thumbs up to the museum café too – definitely not the worst place you could choose to have lunch if you’ve got slightly ‘hangry’ children (I recommend the salad bar), and they sold off their chicken kebabs to the kids for 50p each due to lack of chips for the full meal on the menu.

After lunch we intended to make our way to the shops, but Coventry had other ideas . . .

Coventry Cathedral

We cut through town via Coventry Cathedral. FreeToBeP wasn’t interested in going into the new cathedral to enjoy/endure the lunchtime organ recital, but he was taken with the idea of visiting the ruins of the old cathedral.

Coventry Cathedral

Bombed by the Luftwaffe during the Second World War, the shell of Coventry’s old cathedral remains. This is actually the second of three cathedrals that the city has had. It is still a popular place for visitors of Coventry to seek out, with remnants of its former glory clear to see – not least the surviving tower which is open to the public to climb.

Coventry Cathedral tower

Tourist Information is also housed at the base of the tower, and what a friendly reception we had – free boiled sweets for the kids while the lady on duty and I chatted about the sights of Coventry (newly appreciated from my point of view) as I purchased postcards for our Postcrossing habit.

FreeToBeP also took interest in the Traidcraft shop which shares premises with the cathedral’s souvenir shop – cue discussion on Fair Trade products plus a useful information leaflet for his home education folder.

Upon the recommendation of the Tourist Information receptionist, our feet next led us not to the shops (plan scuppered again) but to the Guildhall next door . . .

St Mary’s Guildhall

Apart from a precarious spiral staircase if you’re wearing a baby and supervising a 3 year old (gulp!), St. Mary’s Guildhall proved a great family attraction.

With its decorative ceilings, chambers to explore, carved furniture, slanting floors and collection of armour, it was intriguing enough for both adults and children alike. Whilst I admired the stained glass, they wowed at the ancient furnishings – huge door bolts, mysterious storage chests and imposing wooden chairs. I even managed to hold their attention on The Coventry Tapestry for all of two minutes, thanks in part to the laminated information sheets provided by the Guildhall.

Guildhall bolts

And, of course, there was the token children’s activity courtesy of replica armour:

Armour

 

Eventually, we made our way through the cobbled back streets to the main shopping precinct, albeit still in ‘tourist’ mode with camera at the ready . . .

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Times really do a-change – fifteen years ago you could have found me at the pub above, much more interested in the beverages and giant Jenga than the City Centre Trail signage. I might just have to find out what that City Centre Trail entails now!

The penultimate item on our spontaneous itinerary was a typical tourist shot – the local celebrity of olde, Lady Godiva! After taking such things for granted for many years as a born and bred Coventrian, it had to be done. For the first time in all our visits to my family home, I stood beside the statue excitedly telling FreeToBeP the story of Lady Godiva, Earl Leofric and Peeping Tom.

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To use a Marcel Proust quotation that I have utilised before for my 10 Mind-Altering Family Travel Tips post, “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.”

Coventry, I apologise for my less-than-complimentary remarks about you in recent years. You are not the city I remember.

And, yes, I did finally purchase my tent pegs and guy ropes.

(At the time of publishing this post, all the attractions we visited were free admission – donations welcome.)

 

Travelling with Children in Morocco: 5 Things To Know Before You Go

Travelling with Children in MoroccoIt’s exactly four years to the day since my very first excursion to Morocco, which was also my first trek abroad as a mother and my first time travelling beyond the borders of Europe.

Ten trips later, I now have my share of embodied experience about travelling with children in Morocco to convert into well-meaning advice.

For those considering or looking forward to a family holiday in Morocco, I hope the following will help you to prepare in a way that travel sales sites might not – it is not intended to put you off (and I’m not trying to sell you travel insurance either!).

1) That’s Entertainment

Morocco is extremely family-friendly, yet not in the way we’re now conditioned to consider the term ‘family-friendly’ in the UK.

Children revolve around day to day community life there (sometimes even going to work with their mothers rather than being put into childcare), but life does not revolve around children. You will not find restaurants with children’s menus and play areas or themed parks and farms designed with children in mind.

Children are allowed into the domain of adults in a way we’ve divorced them from in our own society, yet the domain of children – which has largely been developed for commercial purposes in places such as the UK and US – is not taken for granted in Morocco.

Generally, most Moroccan people seem accepting of kids being kids. However, I have always been well aware that I’m often the only woman sat in the cafés – ergo, the only person with kids in tow (the gender division is stark here, with women unquestionably being those who stay with the children whilst their menfolk sit in the cafes with their cigarettes and espressos).

Thus, in the cafés, the children have often been expected to sit like mini-adults. The café culture in Morocco can be very appealing, but this obviously comes with the same issues as sitting in restaurants and cafés with kids in the UK.

A rare sight: a children's play area on the beach outside a café in Essaouira.
A rare sight: a children’s play area on the beach outside a café in Essaouira.

Sometimes a street café will be next to a wide pavement or large square where, if you sit outside, the kids can have a bit of a run-around, often mixing in with the local youngsters who may be playing football or gathered at the roadside socialising.

Yet this can’t always be relied upon, and providing entertainment for them becomes a priority. FreeToBeP’s preferences of things to do are suitably compact for our outings – playing games such as Minecraft or Angry Birds on my smartphone, or taking out his pencil case full of random Lego pieces to create with.

You can find lots of lovely souvenirs that make do as affordable objects of interest. A lot of the toys found here are really cheap, plastic tat that are a waste of money and a waste in general. A lot of rubbish here ends up strewn across the streets rather than being dealt with properly (quite apart from any recycling), and I have no desire to add to the mess by adding a pile of broken, plastic toys at the end of my stays.

Thus, it’s really useful to bring a small supply of good quality, inspiring toys such as Lego to keep the kids happy.

Lego Morocco
Lego. Enough said.

You could also set up little games using coins or other ‘somethings’ you might carry in your day bag. During our latest trip to Morocco, FreeToBeZ ended up with a stash of low value money we’d collected – some British coppers, some Moroccan half dirham and one dirham coins, as well as 5 Euro cents we found on the plane. These kept her well amused for a good portion of time and she was very possessive of it (I lost count of the times she wandered our apartment asking “Where’s my money?!” over the ten days we were out there!).

2) Cats & Dogs

Feral Feeders
Street litter.

There are many stray and feral animals in the streets of Morocco, including some very cute kittens. Understandably, the kids love to chase them around and stroke them – yet this is best avoided if you have young children who may not be aware of and understand the associated dangers.

The street cats and dogs in Morocco may well be infected with rabies, with 90% of human cases of the disease in the country caused by dog bites and most of the victims being children. At night, the stray dogs roam the streets in packs and can be quite an intimidating sight for those who are not used to seeing groups of strays congregating together.

Another street litter.
Another street litter.

FreeToBeP suffered a minor cat scratch on our very first trip out there not long before his 3rd birthday. I was unaware of the rabies risk at the time and thinking back to it makes me feel physically sick. The general advice is that you must seek medical attention within 24 hours of exposure to a potentially rabid animal to avoid going down with this (almost always) fatal virus.

Whilst there is a pre-exposure vaccine for rabies which travellers can pay for (it isn’t available on the NHS for a trip to Morocco), this just buys you a bit of time in case you do get bitten or scratched – and in an emergency situation in Morocco you’re unlikely to be over 24 hours away from the nearest clinic or hospital (all of which are apparently well-stocked with the post-exposure rabies antidote).

3) Clean, Cool, Content

Just before my tenth trip to Morocco (yes, this one took me a while to figure out!), I finally came up with a “kill three birds with one stone” solution for bath-time: a small, inflatable paddling pool. (The three birds being cleanliness, temperature control and entertainment.)

Unless you stay in a more expensive hotel (and I have no idea what the facilities are in such places in Morocco), there is unlikely to be a European-style bath to make use of when it comes to bath-time. Yet a proper bath is often the only way by which young children who are used to growing up with ‘bath-time’ can enjoy a wash (at least this is true of my kids, who will scream blue murder under a shower).

The shower or bucket option usually available in Morocco is not a pleasing option to my children (although FreeToBeZ is still small enough that we can make a shallow makeshift bath in the shower basin by blocking up the plughole with something).

FreeToBeZ enjoying her 'bath'
FreeToBeZ enjoying her ‘bath’

I’ve had one bad experience too many with trying to get FreeToBeP (who is extremely sensitive when it comes to water and temperature) to take a wash in the small shower rooms of most Moroccan apartments. Add to this equation ultra-hygiene-conscious FreeToBeB who grew up in a home without running water, without a toilet, without a washroom: he finds it difficult to grasp why a young child doesn’t want to remove the daily, dusty grime under the luxury of a warm shower. I’ve been party to too many heightened emotions about this topic!

Another bonus is that I’ve seen many a Moroccan person casually tip whole buckets of water through their homes to clean the floors. Apart from the slip hazard, the splash zone can be tolerated much more than the same would in my damp-prone home in Britain (if you don’t believe me, read this).

So, next time – a mini paddling pool. Compact enough to easily fit in the luggage, small enough to inflate using just lung power if need be, versatile enough to serve a multitude of purposes.

The kids will get clean. The kids will cool off. The kids will have fun.

4) Risk Assessment

From daring scooter riders to mad dashes across busy roads; from things jutting out of the pavements to numerous potholes and rocky landscapes: there are many hazards in Morocco and it’s not a country known for its adherence to strict health and safety regulations.

Where there would be "No Climbing" signs in the UK, this was a public thoroughfare for exploring below the land bridge near Demnate. Heart in mouth as I took this shot.
Where there would be “No Climbing” signs in the UK, this was a public thoroughfare for exploring below the land bridge near Demnate. Heart in mouth as I took this shot.

While I think we’ve gone too far with some health and safety rules in the UK (no coffee break at toddler groups? Why else do some new mums even go along to toddler groups but for the joy of someone else making them a mug of steaming brew?!), there is definitely a happy medium to be had. Morocco actually makes me grateful for many of our regulations in the UK.

Driving through Morocco is a risky business and my preference is to hire a car that we can check over and drive ourselves rather than trust an unknown, over-confident taxi or bus driver. The state of many of the public transport vehicles themselves does not inspire confidence. Between myself and FreeToBeB, we are both cautious drivers who can generally relax as passengers to one another.

I’ve had trouble finding suitable child safety seats for FreeToBeZ and some laughable moments with the car hire companies. Children’s car seats are generally not used in Morocco (this is a place where you see entire families riding, helmet-less, on a single scooter!). The hire companies have tried to pass me off with some really dodgy, aging contraptions with broken straps and even entire base units missing that have left me feeling like my own grip would be more trustworthy in an accident.

If you’re planning to embark on some road tripping around Morocco and have the option and ability to take your own car seat along with you, it may save a lot of stress and worry to do so. The last time I checked, Easyjet had a policy of allowing up to two bulky infant items (per each child under 2) in the hold for free.

For older children, you could try the Bumblebum inflatable booster seat.

On some occasions we’ve done without – and on others my mother’s intuition (or plain old fear?) has led me to cancel trips rather than travel somewhere without suitable child safety seats.

FreeToBeZ with her Moroccan car restraint - her dad.
FreeToBeZ with her Moroccan car restraint – her dad.

5) Comfort Zones

If you have a child who is particularly sensitive about their personal space and being touched, you may want to forewarn them about how damn affectionate Moroccan people can be.

There seems to be an unspoken rule that everyone who wishes to comment on your child’s beauty has to do so with at least a ruffle of their hair – and even an unsolicited kiss for a baby. (I suppose a baby doesn’t consciously solicit any kisses, yet our own cultural rule seems to be ‘family only’ for such gestures of love – even friends don’t tend to shower one another’s babies in kisses, let alone strangers in the street!)

I’ve also had people plant kisses on FreeToBeZ’s head as she breastfeeds – after my initial shock, I was glad at the acceptance that she was ‘just’ feeding (compared to the sometimes enforced privacy many women in the UK contend with), but not every breastfeeding mother would be comfortable with this close proximity to her bosom.

There are cultural differences in both bodily autonomy and accepted social mores. Affectionate advances from anyone other than close family members can be confusing and difficult for some children to deal with, especially if they’ve had the ‘stranger danger’ mantra drilled into them back home.

Quite apart from different social etiquette, after one random stranger too many had kissed and pawed FreeToBeZ as a young baby, I began grimacing at the thought of infectious diseases (and I’m not one to worry unnecessarily about such things).

As with the issue of health and safety, I think there’s a balance to be had between the stiff upper lip associated with British folk and the (over?)familiarity displayed by the people of Morocco – between the reserve of suspicion and the open-hearted trust (although I know which one feels best!).

You certainly can’t complain of a lack of warmth in Morocco, and that’s not just the climate.


So, there you have it – forewarned is forearmed!

The good thing is that these 5 things are just 5 and I have already documented many more positives about exploring Morocco.

There are other things to be aware of if you choose to stay in a rural location with your children but I shall hang fire on these for another time.

There are also numerous cultural differences which may seem as irking/worrisome as some of the above to many people, yet many of these are dealt with in some depth in standard travel guides (e.g. this is not the post for learning about how to deal with persistent street vendors!).

Have you visited Morocco with your children? Would you add anything to the above that the travel guides don’t always tell you about? Tell me what you loved too!

Want to read more family travel tips? Read my other articles:

10 Mind-Altering Family Travel Tips

The Quiet Zone: Tranquil Travel with a High-Spirited Child

Paltry Packing (Part 1): 10 Tips for Travelling Lightly 

 

Food For Thought: Reflections During Ramadan in Morocco

Jemaa El Fna square, Marrakech, Eid El Fitr 2014
Jemaa El Fna square, Marrakech, Eid El Fitr 2014

I tend to have a ‘feast or famine’ experience when in Morocco, and I was pleased that my arrival this time quite literally coincided with a feast.

I arrived during the evening at the end of a day of Ramadan, just in time for ftur (breakfast). I also cleverly timed my visit to coincide with the Eid festivities, the celebrations at the end of a month of fasting (Eid El Fitr being due to take place in Morocco as of Tuesday 29th July, two days after my arrival).

Having not eaten since lunchtime at Luton Airport and it nearing 10pm, both FreeToBeZ and I were impressed with the spread of food that FreeToBeB laid out as a starter whilst he cooked the main meal. I could have taken my fill just with this first course: grapes, fresh figs, prickly pears (the fruit of a cactus that is abundant here), mixed nuts, fried fish, bread and sweet pastries.

FreeToBeZ began devouring the fish, which I also found quite tempting – I usually avoid fish in Morocco, it being something that I’ve known to disagree even with native FreeToBeB, but it’s been one of my pregnancy cravings. Despite my precautionary perusal, I promptly managed to get a small bone stuck in my throat whilst 2-year-old FreeToBeZ continued to carefully stuff her bread with huge chunks of fish and greedily consume it without problem.

Just in time for a 10pm breakfast
Just in time for a 10pm breakfast

Added to the selection for the main course were a bowl of deliciously spiced mixed olives and a dish of chicken and olives cooked in a copiously seasoned tomato and onion sauce.

Moroccan food

It’s a good job a vegan diet is something I just tend to practice from my own home for health purposes and that I can allow myself to be flexible when visiting other people and places. Not that the ethics of food choice aren’t important to me – they most certainly are – but travelling has made me very aware that our ethical choices in Britain are not always practical in other countries.

These choices may also not carry the same moral weight in countries where observing particular etiquette during rituals of eating and drinking apparently say a lot about the sort of person you are – I tend to find it more morally objectionable to be rude to my living host by turning my nose up at their food than to eat part of an animal that has already been killed and cooked. That’s material for a whole other blog post though (and I’ve got lots of pointers on how to retain a healthy vegetarian diet in Morocco).

Following our well-fed arrival, our first full day turned out to lean more towards the ‘famine’ experience, at least until later in the afternoon.

It was the final day of Ramadan and FreeToBeB slept most of it away, informing me that none of the local shops or restaurants in the suburb we were staying in would be open for food. FreeToBeZ and I contented ourselves with a small breakfast of bread and jam, topped off with orange juice – simple but satisfying thanks to the bread and juice being locally sourced and made just the day before.

From late morning onwards, FreeToBeZ had her fill of breastmilk whilst I eventually took stock of the contents of the fridge at around 3:30pm. FreeToBeB had still showed no signs of stirring, yet I was beginning to go slightly stir crazy. I’m not sure if it was hunger or boredom that led me to the kitchen; there’s a certain ennui I always have to come to terms with in Morocco (something I dwelt on a lot during this visit and managed to find the positives in).

In the fridge I discovered the previous evening’s leftover olives, figs and stale pastries and decided they would do as a late lunch, which we ate as we watched a American children’s film on MBC3, a Moroccan kids’ channel. The Standard Arabic subtitles seemed to bear little resemblance to the Moroccan Arabic words I would have used to translate the dialogue into English and, not for the first time, I caught myself up in thoughts of how useful it would be to study Modern Standard Arabic alongside the local language.

I was pleasantly surprised when our host returned from work at around 4pm to announce that he was cooking for himself, inviting FreeToBeZ and I to share.

Ah, yes. FreeToBeB had expressed his disapproval the previous day that he’d spent the day cleaning the apartment for our arrival whilst observing Ramadan, yet our host awoke late and immediately disregarded the fast by finding something to eat and drink.

I’m more inclined to discover what makes people tick than to immediately cast judgement upon them. As we shared the dish of chicken, liver and onions in a pepper sauce (OK, I drew the line at the liver – if there’s one thing I consistently refuse to eat, it’s internal organs), I asked my host if he was fed up of Ramadan or didn’t partake in it at all.

I know God and I don’t need a religion to tell me what to do. It’s hot in Marrakech and if people are thirsty they should drink, said my host.

I agreed with him. I’m not uneducated in the ways of fasting and the spiritual significance behind it – I’ve practiced it in the past in order to put myself into a particular state of mind for rituals I’ve been part of when I was very active in the pagan community. Indeed, Wikipedia’s article on Ramadan notes that its origins lie in the pre-Islamic pagan culture of Arabia. Fasting is undoubtedly a sign of submission and tolerance and restraint and patience, especially for a whole lunar month during the hottest, longest days of the year.

Yet my host’s reply was something I’d tried to explain to FreeToBeB when he’d been struggling with the fast. I’d told him he should just eat and drink if his body was screaming for it; that no loving God would be punishing a good person for doing something necessary for health and survival. FreeToBeB had responded by telling me to respect his religion – yet my advice had not stemmed from thoughts of respecting or disrespecting any religion, but all about respecting a person’s individual autonomy and physical needs.

I know the pagan doctrine of “And it harm none, do as thou will” is still a driving force for me, despite my lack of identification with any one spiritual path these days. As long as what you’re doing isn’t harming yourself or anyone else, go ahead and do it. Obviously, this could still be read very subjectively – if you believe that what you’re doing (e.g. breaking off a religious fast) may reduce your chances of making it to Paradise in the afterlife, then you would certainly see it as harmful to yourself. Yet, from my point of view, my respect for a loved one and their need to eat and drink will come above my respect for a belief system that I don’t even subscribe to and that I therefore see as having arbitrary rules.

That’s not to say I believe people shouldn’t practice Ramadan. In reflection, there was certainly some way I could have acknowledged FreeToBeB’s struggles whilst supporting him to find the positives in the experience of fasting rather than denying his desire to observe it. Even as I asked him why it was so important to him personally rather than important to his religion that he observed the fast, I recognised my own individualist culture and upbringing in what I asked – for in regards to the spiritual pursuit of selflessness and the solidarity of religious community, am I totally missing the point?

Yet I do strongly believe in people practicing such things as religious fasting through their own understanding of it and a genuine yearning for spiritual union with the divine. Not doing something just because everyone else is doing it, yet may have never even stopped to question the reasoning behind it. Not doing something just because you’re worried about others’ disapproval if you don’t conform. Not doing something just because that’s what your family have always done and because that’s what religious leaders say ‘should’ be done.

I see little substance in things that aren’t practiced from the heart – and if you have a good heart, the thing that I call ‘God’ (Allah, Yahweh, Para Brahman, the divine, the source, universal energy – whatever name you wish to give it) knows this irrespective of whether or not you abide by a specific religious teaching and what is often merely another fallible human’s interpretation of a religious story. Yes, there are certain religious teachings that run through all belief systems that I genuinely do believe are part of the make-up of someone who is tuned into ‘God’, and they are wholesome attitudes to adopt and practice – yet these attributes, such as “loving one’s neighbour”, are things that any decent human being would seek to practice, whether they have a religion and/or a belief in God or not.

I remembered talking to my host and his brother during a previous visit to Morocco and being intrigued to discover that not everyone in what is classed as a 99% Muslim country takes the religion they’ve grown up with at face value – and that some even decide to openly reject it. By ‘openly’, I’ve observed that they seem to have no qualms stating their case to friends – how publicly open they would be is another matter, especially with laws against proselytising. Tourists are generally advised that topics such as religion and politics are ‘sensitive’ issues in Morocco. However, it is thought to be one of the most – if not the most – liberal Islamic countries and I’ve always found a way to talk about my own Sufi-inspired beliefs using Islamic terminology.

Religious freedom, to me, is about being free to deviate and interpret things in your own way whilst allowing others to also make up their own minds. Thus I respect all those Muslims who wholeheartedly take on Ramadan and make the most of the month to connect with the divine, give charity and reflect upon their human limitations. Just as I respect all those atheists who have concluded that there is no divine being to call on or report to, yet whose hearts are imbued with much more goodness and pureness than those who practice hateful follies in the name of ‘God’.

I’d actually spent a fortnight observing the final half of Ramadan during a previous visit in 2011, when I felt the hshuma (shame) of eating when everybody else was fasting. Of my own volition, I felt a need to “When in Morocco, do as the Moroccans do”. Unfortunately, being but an amateur in the ways of Ramadan and failing to get out of bed for the last meal before dawn, I probably ended up eating even less than the locals.

And so much for the pride of martyrdom: I definitely spent more time selfishly thinking about my own evening meal than meditating upon my usual luxuries and praying for those who have no other choice than to regularly go without.

I do, however, remember Eid El Fitr fondly and am glad to have spent a second Eid in a Muslim country.

Happy Eid, Eid Said
Happy Eid

I thoroughly appreciate being in Morocco during such a special time for the people here. Judging by some of the celebratory interludes on the children’s TV channel, being in Morocco for Eid is akin to being in the UK for Christmas.

However, in much the same way as the ‘true meaning’ of Christmas is oftentimes lost beneath piles of presents and frantic food shops, I’m left wondering how much spiritual reflection permeates the day to day lives of the people here during Ramadan? How much is just a waiting game for the festivities of Eid and the cheerful resumption of normal eating habits? Being spiritual yet non-religious, am I truly able to take a more objective viewpoint whilst genuinely appreciating others’ beliefs in ‘something greater’, or will any tradition I observe be severely clouded by my own cultural conditioning?

If this post had a point, I suppose I’ve found it. It’s difficult to write about Morocco without writing about its food, yet cuisine was never intended to be a main topic of this blog (as much as I love food and cooking). There are already many resources out there with instructions on how to cook the perfect tagine or how to make authentic Moroccan mint tea.

Tagine, vegetable tagine, Moroccan cooking
A delicious tagine cooked during our stay, courtesy of FreeToBeB

Yet the colourful cultural issues surrounding food are a fascination I can reflect upon as I discover this big wide world, learning at my children’s sides as I encourage them to be open-minded, curious, sensitive global citizens themselves.

I question and discuss not to judge but to discover. Together with my children I can look and learn and say:

What is happening here? Why are people doing this and what do they believe? Why do they believe it? What can we learn from them? Do we already share any of these beliefs? What do we believe?

What do you, my child, believe?

 

Thank you for reading this post. What do you think about any of the issues I’ve discussed above? Feel free to leave your feedback below, I’d be glad to hear other points of view – or just others’ experiences of enduring or enjoying Ramadan and Eid.

 

An Update

Marrakech, Marrakech Menara, Marrakesh, Marrakesh Menara, Morocco, Maroc
Outside Marrakech Menara, Morocco

FreeToBeZ and I have just returned from a hot and lazy 10 days in Morocco with FreeToBeB. Well, I’ll take credit for the ‘lazy’ part (not something I usually have the chance or inclination to describe myself as) as I readjust to being back with both of my children and not having a man around who does all the cooking and cleaning (strictly speaking – in order not to discredit my dad’s amazing hosting skills! – this will be true as of three days’ time when we leave my birthtown and really return to the life of a lone parent family in another part of the UK).

Apologies for the lack of live travel blogging but all my good intentions were thwarted by our trusty technology; between an unreliable wifi connection and a dodgy computer, my attempts to get some posts out resulted in frustration and failure.

However, a good amount of writing got done out there and I hope to make up for my silence by posting more frequently over the next fortnight in order to update you on our trip.

From reflections on Ramadan, to tips for taking children to Morocco, to feedback on the reality of our Paltry Packing, to cohabiting with cockroaches (!), I have a variety of musings I’m looking forward to sharing with you.

In the meantime, here’s my favourite non-FreeToBeZ shot of the trip – always good to get a “mummy milk” picture, whatever the species!

Camel Milk (Marrakech Menara)
Camel Milk (Marrakech Menara)

 

 

Paltry Packing (Part 2): Our Personal Packing Plan

bag icon

As I mentioned in last week’s article – Paltry Packing (Part 1): 10 Tips for Travelling Lightly – FreeToBeZ and I are shortly going to be heading to Morocco for a 10 day trip to visit FreeToBeB.

This visit includes the festivities of Eid El Fitr and invites to two weddings (not 100% confirmed; this is Morocco we’re talking about – “in two weeks” could just as easily mean “in two months”).

We’ll be going with just two small backpacks and a handbag.

I fully intend to have a Mary Poppins-style experience when removing my belongings from my bags at my destination, with much more than seems possible packed into our modest hand luggage. Yes, I’ve trimmed back a lot in order to travel lightly (so it won’t seem as if everything but the kitchen sink is in there) but what should be apparent is a sense of what is truly necessary for us.

We’re flying with Ryanair, who are notorious for being stingy with baggage allowances. Therefore, I decided on the backpack option rather than going for my usual cabin-sized suitcase – I’m not going to risk them charging me an arm and a leg for chucking my carefully crafted ‘hand luggage only’ trip into the plane’s hold just because a cabin bag’s wheels take me 5mm over the maximum allowed dimensions or something.

Having a backpack on my back is also a lot easier to handle than needing a spare hand to wheel/carry a small suitcase around.

On the plus side, Ryanair have recently made an allowance for an extra, small bag per passenger as well as the usual cabin bag allowance. The additional small bag allowance fits the dimensions of my usual handbag perfectly.

Both FreeToBeZ and I are each allowed to board the cabin with a 55x40x20cm bag and a 35x20x20cm bag.

FreeToBeZ’s toddler-sized backpack actually fits the dimensions of the latter, so for our return journey I’ve factored in the option of another bag (a fold-up one which will be taken, outbound, in my main bag). This will come within our hand luggage allowance yet ensure we have an appropriate carrier for our return journey for any gifts or other purchases we may wish to come home with.

Our spare, foldable bag that can function as FreeToBeZ's main hand luggage for our return journey if we need extra room for purchases we've made at our destination.
Our spare, foldable bag that can function as FreeToBeZ’s main hand luggage for our return journey if we need extra room for purchases we’ve made at our destination.

In the case of not having the option of the additional small bag, I usually take a small shoulder bag – big enough to fit the important and valuable possessions (e.g. passports, boarding passes, purse, phone, ipod, medication) yet small enough to discreetly tuck under a cardigan or coat so as not to be penalised for taking on extra items that won’t fit into my already crammed cabin bag.

 

So, here’s what we’re actually taking with us:

MY BACKPACK

luggage, travelling lightly, packing lightly
My main luggage

This is a ‘laptop’ backpack (i.e. a slim backpack that has a compartment specifically to fit and pad a standard-sized laptop computer, plus a main compartment, a smaller compartment on the front, and two pockets). Its dimensions are 50x30x20cm.

Clothing and accessories:

  • Flip flops
  • 2x pairs of knickers
  • 1x pair of socks
  • 1x bra
  • 1x leggings
  • 1x thin, light summer dress
  • 1x thin, light long-sleeved kaftan-style top
  • 2x short-sleeved tops (for either under or outer wear)
  • Neck scarf
  • Maternity belt

Toiletry bag:

  • All-in-one shampoo/soap/body wash bar
  • Olive oil soap bar
  • Salt of the Earth travel-sized deodorant
  • 2x folding toothbrushes
  • 2x disposable razors
  • Electric shaver
  • Tweezers
  • Mini nail clippers
  • Spare glasses in case (that’s both ‘in a case’ and ‘just in case’! I’ve always been fearful of broken glasses whilst away from home as the extent of my short sightedness deems them an absolute necessity. FreeToBeZ once accidentally flung my prescription glasses overboard on a ferry from Motril to Al Hoceima after whipping her hand up to point at something. They RIP in the Mediterranean Sea. Thus, this is definitely one of my more sensible packing policies.)

(NB: any liquids/creams are to go in a separate, clear zip-lock bag in my handbag for airport security)

First Aid bag (small plastic bag stored inside toiletry bag):

  • Pregnancy multivitamins
  • 5x individually wrapped antibacterial wipes
  • Individually wrapped plasters of various sizes
  • Paracetamol (just a few to get by as these can be easily purchased at my destination)
  • 2 packs anti-diarrhoea tablets
  • 6x sachets rehydration treatment
  • Sterilising tablets
  • 2x wound dressing pads and first aid tape
  • Small roll cotton wool
  • First Aid guide leaflet

(NB: any liquids/creams are to go in a separate, clear zip-lock bag in my handbag for airport security)

Miscellaneous:

  • NHS maternity notes
  • Pad of paper and pens
  • Travel towel
  • Hair towel
  • 3x muslin cloths (as quick-drying hand towels and also to use to cool down: drench in water and place over body if necessary).
  • Nightlight
  • Torch
  • 2x plug adaptors
  • Mini speaker (gift for FreeToBeB)
  • Old smartphone, charger and accessories (gift for FreeToBeB)
  • Spare, foldable bag (48x31x15) for the return journey (this will count as one of our main cabin bags on the way back if we decide/need to use it)

 

FREETOBEZ’S BACKPACK

luggage, travelling lightly, packing lightly
My daughter’s main luggage

This is a small toddler backpack, dimensions approximately 31x25x16cm.

  • 8 disposable nappies
  • Pack of toilet-training wet wipes (smaller pack than standard wet wipes)
  • Small changing mat
  • Spare, lightweight shoes (plastic, slip-ons)
  • 3x thin short-sleeved tops
  • 1x thin long-sleeved top
  • 3x leggings
  • 2x socks
  • 3x knickers
  • Hair fasteners (bobbles and hairclips)
  • Small soft toy
  • Small toy
  • Paper, crayons and stickers
  • 4x mini board books
  • ‘Travelling treasure sack’ (a small bag which includes small trinkets found around our home such as old jewellery, crystals, coloured feathers, plastic rings, etc, to keep FreeToBeZ occupied with ‘new’ things).

MY HANDBAG

hand luggage, travelling lightly, packing lightly
My handbag (additional allowed piece of hand luggage)

This has three compartments and three small pockets, which makes it really practical for staying organised. Its dimensions are 30x20x20cm.

  • See-through bag of liquids/creams for presenting at security – 3x inhalers (asthma treatment); 100ml toothpaste; 100ml children’s sun lotion; 30ml antiseptic cream; 20ml Arnica cream; 10ml patchouli essential oil (my ‘perfume‘); 10ml tea tree essential oil (for First Aid kit and general antibacterial use); 20ml Rescue Remedy; 2x 50ml hand sanitising gel; 100ml handcream; 10ml lipbalm; empty 100ml spray bottle (for spritzing ourselves with water in the North African heat)
  • Travel documents in a plastic wallet – in here I keep our passports, plane boarding passes, coach or train ticketsaccomodation documents (if applicable), EHIC cards, travel insurance documents, copies of our main passport ID pages, international driving permit, and a card of useful numbers in Morocco
  • Purse (emptied of loyalty cards and other such things that are useless on foreign soil; ideally restocked with cash)
  • Smartphone (including Kindle app full of potential reading material) and charger
  • Ipod, earphones and USB lead
  • Digital camera
  • Sunglasses (in their case)
  • USB stick (loaded with any work I need to do – in Morocco, I have the option of using an internet café or FreeToBeB’s notebook laptop)
  • Pen
  • Eyeliner
  • Lipstick
  • Tangle Teezer hairbrush
  • 2x packs of travel tissues
  • Plastic bags for rubbish, FreeToBeZ’s dirty clothes, etc.

PLASTIC CARRIER BAG

This will contain food and drink for the journey. It is certainly not packed 6 days in advance, but will consist of something like:

  • 2 x 500ml bottles of water
  • 2x small cartons fruit juice
  • Homemade sandwiches in sandwich bags (enough for lunch and a later snack)
  • 4x packets of crisps
  • 2x apples
  • 2x satsumas
  • Packs of dried fruit
  • Flapjack
  • 2x Kinder chocolate bars (FreeToBeZ’s favourite)

ON THE JOURNEY

To purchase in the departure lounge:

Mineral water for the plane journey – pricey, but not as pricey as on the plane!

I intend to bring enough snacks to take us right through the day, as we will be eating a main evening meal once we arrive in Marrakech (usually at a street-side restaurant in a suburban area where we eat a family-sized feast for all of about £4).

What I shall wear:

  • Underwear (this should go without saying, but you never know!)
  • Travel socks
  • Abdominal support band (3 pregnancies later . . . :-/ )
  • Leggings
  • Strappy top
  • Thin, light, ankle-length summer dress
  • 2x thin overtops / cardigans
  • Neck scarf
  • Sun hat
  • Ankle boots (slip-on Doc Martens – practical, comfortable and hard-wearing for any walks or scrambling in the mountains we do).
  • Pouch sling (if FreeToBeZ wants to be carried on my hip for any distance)

What FreeToBeZ will wear:

  • Short-sleeved dress
  • Long-sleeved top (under dress)
  • Leggings
  • Thin jumper or cardigan
  • Socks
  • Sunhat
  • Casual summer shoes (Clarks Doodles – nice and light but good for walking in due to being fastened up securely).
Travel clothes, travelling lightly, packing lightly
Our clothes and shoes for the journey – saving on luggage space by layering it up and wearing the bulky boots.

AT OUR DESTINATION

Shopping trip

To give you more of an idea of how I’ve managed to keep our packing to a minimum, here is also a list of the things we will purchase on our first day in Marrakech (just from a local hanout – a general shop found in both urban and rural areas selling everything from loose pasta to women’s sanitary products):

  • Disposable nappies
  • Wet wipes
  • Toilet roll
  • Tissues
  • Shower pouffe
  • Batteries (spares for camera, shaver, etc).

If you’re going to be somewhere that is inhabited by other people, there will always be a way to find most of what you need – or you’ll figure out the locals’ methods of surviving without the things we deem so ‘necessary’ in more privileged societies.

There are a number of other things that could be purchased at our destination if I wasn’t so principled (fussy?), and this includes toiletries such as sun lotion, toothpaste, shampoo and soap – you can find the standard brands of many of these things in many parts of the world, but you won’t necessarily find your favourite natural and/or eco-friendly products.

However, there are numerous natural body care shops and argan oil cooperatives in Morocco where I could potentially find many toiletries free from harsh chemicals, and this is something I hope to explore further on my next trip (watch this space!). For now, I will take my usual Green People suncare product and handmade, SLS-free shampoo/soap bar.

As for those wedding invites . . . FreeToBeB is encouraging me to purchase a takchita, (a traditional Moroccan dress) to wear to the weddings, of which there will be plenty to choose from in the Marrakchi souks. We can also purchase any wedding gifts over there too.

Things I’m doing without

There are some items of ‘utility’ equipment that I have to make do without when going down the ‘hand luggage only’ route, namely my nail scissors and my trusty multi-tool which includes a penknife.

My multi-tool usually resides in my handbag –  it usually comes everywhere with me (except on this trip!) and I feel quite lost without it. However, if it was truly necessary, I could always purchase another one over the other side.

I’ve also factored out swimwear and nightwear for this trip.

FreeToBeZ is young enough to get away with not being too modest if she wants to splash about in any water, and I’m not particularly bothered about donning my swimsuit whilst pregnant.

Full nightwear is rarely desirable during sweltering Moroccan summer nights, yet I’m taking daywear that can easily double up as nightwear, including a very thin but large neck scarf that can be used as a cover for FreeToBeZ if she is without clothing yet bothered by mosquitoes in the night (whilst Morocco isn’t a malaria risk zone and mosquito nets aren’t required, they can still be quite pesky for some people).

 

Obviously, we all have different preferences as to what we like and ‘need’ in our lives, and what feels necessary to our personal circumstances at the time, so these lists are just a guide to how I’m personally limiting our load. I can’t imagine many people need to be concerned with packing a maternity belt to ensure their comfort!

The important thing is that I look at these lists and can think of nothing I desperately need or want in addition to them – at least nothing that I won’t be going without anyway, irrespective of what I pack (I’m thinking of my bath and half of my usual kitchen equipment!).

My hope is that in sharing our personal packing plan, I’ve provided you with some ideas of how it is possible to travel with both a child and a truly light load.

Happy travelling lightly!

Please feel free to comment on this post below. Let me know if any of this has come in useful for you (or not!) or if perhaps there’s anything you’d cut back further or substitute?

Next week: depending on both inspiration and an internet connection, I will be blogging live from Morocco next week 🙂

Paltry Packing (Part 1): 10 Tips for Travelling Lightly

It may seem hard to conceive, but my 2-year-old daughter and I are about to embark on a 10 day trip to Morocco with just a handbag and two small backpacks as our luggage (her toddler-sized backpack being particularly small!).

Our luggage for 10 days abroad: a 'laptop backpack', a toddler backpack and a handbag.
Our luggage for 10 days abroad: a ‘laptop backpack’, a toddler backpack and a handbag.

And, no, despite our family ties over there, we don’t keep a second home in Morocco stocked with belongings and necessities.

Whilst my confidence in our ability to travel this lightly stems from my knowledge of the country and the frequency of our visits, I believe a light load is possible for anyone with a little forward planning.

This time, for me, packing lightly is necessary thanks to my advancing pregnancy (I shall be nigh on 6 months pregnant) and the realities of travelling with a 26 month old whose preferred form of transport is to sit on mummy’s hip. Previously, a Mei Tai sling was our travelling carrier of choice, but the baby bump no longer allows for this.

I write this post from the perspective of my forthcoming trip, which includes a plane journey. This makes things all the less flexible. If your own trips don’t include such restrictions on baggage allowances, take from this what you will and adapt any of these ideas to the nature of your individual journeys.

You may have the luxury of your single backpack being a 35 litre hiking rucksack – for many, this could still be considered ‘travelling lightly’ (if the piles of suitcases on some airport trolleys are anything to go by).

So, without further ado, here are some of my tips for ensuring a jolly journey without all the baggage:

 

1) Head for the sun

Forget all the “Just in case it’s cold” wear!

Less clothing may not be so much of an option if you’re planning to trek around the Outer Hebrides or have Iceland as your destination. However, assuming that most people tend to head for warmer climes on their family travels, this tip sticks.

Thin and light clothing is a necessity for warmer weather, and it’s also a necessity for travelling lightly. Once these are neatly rolled up in the bottom of your backpack, there should remain more than enough room for the other items that you consider necessary for your trip. But perhaps only if you also follow rule number 2 . . .

2) 2 changes of clothes + some domestic duties = a light load

Based on rule number 1, this shouldn’t be too much of a feat – after all, the lighter the clothes, the easier they are to wash and dry.

In Morocco we usually have to handwash our clothes (I take very little credit for this – FreeToBeB tends to eagerly take on this responsibility), yet you may well have the luxury of staying somewhere with a washing machine or laundry service. Either way, the stress saved in not having to cart heavy bags around is worth a couple of hours of domestic labour.

3) Dress to undress

On your actual journey from home to your destination – assuming it’s not already too hot where you’re travelling from (easy for me to say, I’m in England) – make ample use of layering your clothing. Cardigans and jackets can easily be tied around waists or attached to a bag if you find your temperature rising, and they make good bolsters if you fancy a nap as you travel.

This makes rule number 2 somewhat easier to bear as well – you might find you actually have more changes of clothes than your meagre luggage would suggest.

4) Purchasing power

Wherever you’re going, you won’t (unless you’re attempting something like an Everest expedition or a trek into a rainforest) be existing in a vacuum away from other people who need to eat, drink, dress, wash and do pretty much all the things we all need to do in order to survive.

Even in many rural areas, there will be outlets where you can buy things that you’ve forgotten or that you hope to purchase at the other end to at least make your outbound journey lighter.

During my first trips travelling with FreeToBeZ as a young baby, half of my suitcase was taken up with eco-friendly nappies. On our very first trip with her, I even took a hefty, heavy stash of cotton washable nappies (plus their liners and covers) and a huge box of Ecover washing powder.

Nowadays, I compromise my eco-ideals for the sake of my health and sanity: I’d much rather purchase standard disposable nappies when I arrive at my destination than cart a supply of my favourite type through 3 train journeys, a bus to and from a hotel prior to an early flight, only to eventually get them checked in (with a huge sigh of mental and physical relief) at the check in gates.

Really, when you’re travelling with kids, short cuts are a good thing, even if you have to suspend your usual, ethical purchasing habits. It took me a while to realise that being a martyr over some nappies was not a sensible idea.

5) Minimalist mindset

OK, this one is best cultivated over time in accordance with ‘living it’ at home as well.

Sometimes a sense of spiritual ascetism can be good, at least until it gets you where you need to be. You can rage against it when you arrive at your destination and bemoan all the things you wish you’d brought (if only that damn woman on that blog hadn’t extolled the virtues of travelling lightly!).

Yet, seriously, it helps to try to take on a more minimalist approach to life. I’ve found that travelling has helped instil that in me anyway. From the realisation that so many people in this world can function with so little compared to our Western consumerist lifestyles, to the desire to rid myself of clutter in order to ultimately fit my life into a camper van; there have been many opportunities whilst travelling to appreciate a life of less.

Without the distraction of your possessions, you can tune in to your travelling. Perhaps leaving all those entertainment gadgets behind will encourage you to spend more time sitting and talking to the locals? Perhaps without a huge array of clothes and accessories to choose from, you get up and go with more speed in the mornings?

However it works for you, it’s true that we have to leave many home comforts behind when we travel anyway: between you and the neglected suitcase, what’s a few more?

6) Downsizing

Wherever possible, take the ‘mini’ option.

If there’s one thing my clutter-clearing has been wary of, it’s been my well-stocked bookcases. I’ve always loved having plenty of reading material whilst away from home too.  In the past, this would involve at least 5 books in my suitcase for a week’s holiday.

Thankfully, we’re now in the days of the e-reader. Yet we can go one better than that: there is no need to even waste space on a Kindle itself – I ensure I have plenty of reading material on my smartphone’s Kindle app and away I go!

The smartphone also technically works for music, although I personally prefer slipping my ipod into my bag due to the battery life limitations of my phone, and at least an ipod doesn’t even take up the room of a single book.

What else can we downsize on?

Toiletries are an obvious answer, but you’ll be restricted to 100ml containers of these anyway if you plan on taking a flight with hand-luggage only.

I like to take my own toiletries rather than purchase them at my destination, as this is one ‘ideal’ that I won’t compromise on: I only buy toiletries free from harsh chemicals such as SLS and parabens, and I cannot even buy these in British supermarkets let alone North African corner shops.

I tend to bypass both of these issues by purchasing organic shampoo bars from an online shop that triple up as shampoo, regular soap and body wash.

7) Child’s play

All this is well and good, you may be thinking, but have we forgotten someone here?

My little traveller, aged 3, 2011
My little traveller, aged 3, 2011

In most respects, all of these tips work for children as well as adults. You may find it more difficult if travelling with a young baby or toddler (no chance just 2 changes of clothes are going to last long there!), but there are some simple things you can do to ensure the kids are catered for without loading your luggage with kiddies’ paraphernalia.

The trick is in packing for the journey itself rather than the destination – I find it easy enough to keep the kids entertained on foreign soil without the need for too much ‘stuff’ (you can always purchase things whilst there which may be both local and educational – FreeToBeP was fascinated with our host’s Arabic newspapers and asked if he could go out and buy his own, which cost the equivalent of about 30p). However, keeping them entertained is not so easy to achieve when you have a few hours trapped aboard a plane or train.

Firstly, I plan to pack my kids’ things in my kids’ bags. In the case of older children (who will also be able to handle heavier loads), entertainment may be as simple as a handheld games console or a tablet computer.

As for younger children, this is the chance to collect together all those little annoying plastic toys that have no real home. You know the ones? Originally the contents of a party bag or randomly accrued from some car boot sale or charity shop. Many of these toys fester in the bottom of the ‘miscellaneous’ toybox and by the time they see the light of day for your journey, your kids will either treat them as long-lost friends or as brand new acquisitions.

Either way, it’s a win.

I usually pack this odd assortment into something like a pencil case or small make-up bag, so they’re compact and contained, ready to get out when the restlessness starts kicking in.

8) Food glorious food

Unless you’re a glutton for punishment, it’s impossible to travel with children without thinking about how much food you might need to take for snacks.

Snacks also serve as good distractions even if the kids haven’t actually alerted you to any sense of hunger – many a train or bus journey has been calmed by the fortuitous arrival of a packet of crisps.

I’m very averse to paying the prices usually charged on trains, at stopover hotels, in the airport and on the plane for everyday food and drink items, thus tend to make at least one packed meal for the journey, as well as taking a variety of healthy and not-so-healthy treats to keep the kids sweet.

Rather than use my precious cabin baggage space on things that will have been consumed by the time we board the plane, I take a plastic bag full of the meals and goodies that I expect we might get through before arriving for our flight (and even on our flight if we’ll be travelling through our usual mealtime).

Some airlines allow each passenger to take on board a plastic bag of Duty Free purchases in addition to the usual hand luggage allowance. In this you can surreptitiously harbour your homemade lunch having restocked on overpriced bottled water in the departure lounge.

9) Compare the best deals on airlines

As well as their basic flight prices, check out how generous your prospective airlines are with hand luggage allowance.

If you’re finding it difficult to pack everything down yet are determined to avoid both a heavy suitcase and a heavy fee, it may be worth paying a few pounds more for the flight to go with the airline that has more generous hand luggage allowances, including the Duty Free bag allowance noted above.

Often, the ‘budget’ airlines will make up for their budget prices by charging a lot more for items that need to go in the hold or that require their own seat for the journey.

At the time of typing, Easyjet have a number of family-friendly policies in place, e.g. if you’re travelling with a child under the age of two, you can have two infant items put into the hold for free (such as a pushchair, car seat, travel cot, etc).

That said, I never used that service despite making 5 return trips with Easyjet whilst FreeToBeZ was an infant, as my own way of living lightly – which spills over into travelling lightly – is to make little use of all the baby paraphernalia we supposedly ‘need’.

Sling-wearing and co-sleeping are lifestyle choices that fit my travelling family perfectly, and do away with any sense of needing to lug buggies and travel cots around.

No waiting around at this thing the other end!
No waiting around at this thing the other end!

10) 1 adult, 2 children, 3 adult sized cabin bags

If need be, you can always go for maxing out everyone’s hand luggage allowance irrespective of whether each child needs that much luggage space and provided at least one of the children is capable of helping out with one of the bags. If you’re travelling as a couple, this obviously makes this option easier (depending on how many children of certain ages you’re juggling!).

Any child over the age of two will usually have their own seat on a plane and their own cabin baggage allowance to match an adult’s cabin baggage allowance. This means that you can feasibly take full-sized cabin bags for each passenger in your group – even if one of them is but a little shy of their 2nd birthday and is obviously incapable of carrying ‘their’ hand luggage.

 

To sum it all up, I love the following quote as I have learnt that it’s so true:

“When preparing to travel, lay out all your clothes and all your money. Then take half the clothes and twice the money.” (Susan Heller, New York Times)

This fits my Paltry Packing philosophy perfectly – we invariably need a lot less than we think we’ll need, and anything we do need is best served by having the cash at the ready!

Next week: Paltry Packing (Part 2), in which I divulge our actual packing list and baggage restrictions for my upcoming trip and how I organise it ‘all’.

Do you have any other tips for travelling lightly? What do you find indispensable when it comes to travelling with kids? I’d also love to hear if you’ve managed to pare things back even more than me! Please feel welcome to leave your comments below.

The Quiet Zone: Tranquil Travel with a High Spirited Child

High Spirits (public domain image)
High Spirits (public domain image)

Oh, how we were glared at when we entered the Quiet Zone carriage on that evening train home from Legoland Windsor.

The harried mother had arrived with her two young children, noisy at the transition from waiting to boarding, said mother harried due to the realisation that their reserved seats were in the dreaded area that could just as easily be named the designated ‘Child-Free Zone’.

The old guy at the table adjacent to ours put his head upon his hands and muttered some complaint about our arrival. The lady with him, who I presume was his wife, basically told him to stop being such a miserable git. I silently willed my children to do as they usually (touch wood) do when we make a journey: once settled into their seats, transform into angelic, thoughtful beings who are actually placated by the excitement of our trips.

I’m often amazed by FreeToBeP’s complete change in character when we travel – he forgets to annoy his sister, adopts a slightly dreamy look and becomes absorbed by the travelling. Or resigned to it? Either way, if only we could both learn how to adopt this somewhat meditative state in our home lives.

Six year old FreeToBeP could be described as being on the upper end of the ‘boisterous boy’ scale. A day doesn’t go by where I don’t hear myself frantically asking him to “Calm down and just listen!” when I’ve asked him to stop doing something for the umpteenth time and it appears that, despite his actions being obviously questionable to the adult eye, he has lost any capacity for either hearing or self-control (and, yes, I do realise that my own reactions are a big part of the picture!).

FreeToBeZ, having recently turned 2 years old, is naturally highly spirited by virtue of her being a toddler.

Yet travelling often seems to put children into a different state of being – for leaving familiar territory can quieten the restless mind. It’s true for all of us to some extent.

The mundane everyday realities become somehow more exotic, especially to those who are still relatively new to the big wide world. Perhaps the sandwiches are out of a self-chosen packet from a shop shelf instead of mum’s (boring and familiar) homemade cheese and pickle.

Even the opportunity to sit on the loo seat of a clattering train or as the plane hits some turbulence tinges even our most base needs with an element of adventure.

And, wow, the unknown quality that hangs in the air as you see the look on mum’s face when she realises you’ve just pooed your pants at 30,000ft, minutes away from the compulsory seatbelt-wearing descent whilst all the loos are occupied. Such priceless moments which are just impossible to recreate in the comfort of your own home.

Some children are thirsty to explore the world and seem to become different people when they travel. ‘Demanding’ and ‘wilful’ children are often trying to tell us (through challenging behaviour rather than words) that they’re feeling bored or isolated or under-stimulated. In all of these instances, travelling helps to address these underlying needs.

Also, whilst travelling with minimal possessions and without the daily distractions of our home and working lives, we can become more attentive parents, able to enjoy the beauty and bustle of the great, wide world with our children beside us instead of allowing the little stressors of day-to-day life to become the focus of our days together.

I have no doubt that my children become more relaxed in the knowledge that, on a journey, I have become a captive audience to all their needs and verbalised thoughts – much more genuinely ‘with’ them than if I’m preoccupied by cooking or tidying or the obsessive-compulsive checking of communication devices.

Travelling puts everything into perspective.

When I see my son carrying his own cabin bag between connections or passing through the airport security scanners on his own, it occurs to me just how young and vulnerable he still is. Practicing the empathy and compassion I always hope to practice with my offspring suddenly becomes easier when we’re ‘out there’. My role as protector and provider comes to the fore as we leave behind the security of home sweet home.

I do believe that the earlier you start with family travel the better. My children have always known long car journeys due to our 4-5 hour treks to visit my immediate family at least 4 times a year. I expect that this – along with my natural inclination to practice a flexible lifestyle based on each new day rather than adhere to strict schedules and routines – has helped my children become the adaptable and obliging little travellers that they are.

However, most children’s natural curiosity and malleable nature means that even without having travelled extensively during their early years, older children – however ‘spirited’ – may benefit from the out-of-the-ordinariness and new experiences that travel offers.

Whilst I know many families who feel that the lifestyle I share with my children would not be appropriate for their own children (some of whom have diagnoses for various behavioural issues and learning difficulties, and who need carefully preparing for any changes in routine), there are different degrees of family travel that can allow any family to experiment and note how their children respond. You needn’t jump in the deep end and plan a backpacking trip in another continent; just a family day trip on the train to a town you haven’t visited before can help you gauge how your children react to the concept of travel.

I’m certainly not saying that my own children’s generally calm response is how all children respond to travel. Your child may well be the opposite, and turn from generally obliging and thoughtful to over-excitable and disorganised. This over-exhilaration is perhaps what is expected of children when they travel – but can you blame them? Whilst, as adults, we can usually control our excitement internally, the joy and expectation of ‘holiday time’ is expressed physically by many young children.

We can either live in dread that we’ll have difficult journeys to our destination or reframe our outlook and deal with it creatively (see 10 Mind-Altering Family Travel Tips for more ideas on keeping family travel full of sweetness and light).

All the sights and sounds of travel provide parents with ample opportunity to channel high energy appropriately – all the waiting and sitting gives us lots of time to engage our children in conversation about new and unusual experiences. Shared observations and conversations aid our loving connection to our children which in turn serves as the basis for a strong, respectful relationship (i.e. ensuring it’s more likely that they’ll listen to us when it’s really important that they do).

I also tend to think that the more we look to the spirit of adventure, the more new things there are for everyone – ergo, the more distractions and novelties there are to limit or prevent tantrums of boredom and under-stimulation.

The last leg of the journey to a Mid-Atlas hamlet: travel needn't be a trial and can actually be a treat. There was no chance of FreeToBeP being a bored passenger here.
The last leg of the journey to a Mid-Atlas hamlet: travel needn’t be a trial and can actually be a treat. There was no chance of FreeToBeP being a bored passenger here.

Travelling also gives children the opportunity to take on little responsibilities that they may not usually have, thus keeping restless feet and hands occupied. FreeToBeP often takes care of his passport when we queue for passport control. I was initially wary of this, but in trusting him with the responsibility, I have learnt that he takes it very seriously: the bored child wanting to swing on the barriers becomes a child so focused on using his hands to hold onto his very own important documentation with all his might that nothing else matters.

So, if you’re a parent with a desire to travel yet hear a little voice telling you about all the things that could go wrong with your lively 4 year old, I would encourage you to put aside the worries and give your dreams a chance.

I always say that it’s better to try and fail than to never try and never know.

Yes, things could go wrong. They could also go very, very right.

 



Have you noticed a difference in your children’s temperament (for better or worse) when you travel? Do you concur with any of the above observations? I’d love to hear your thoughts, so please feel free to leave a comment below if you wish to share your experiences.

Next week: Paltry Packing: 10 Tips for Travelling Lightly

10 Mind-Altering Family Travel Tips

New Eyes

If to be mind-altering something must change one’s mood and behaviour, then I hope the following post will live up to its title.

I would like to share some ways of doing and thinking that may allow your family more freedom, fun and flexibility as you journey to new horizons. My focus is on adopting an open and relaxed mental attitude to ensure you truly embrace the adventure of travelling with your children.

There are plenty of resources out there sharing information about practical matters such as documentation, transportation and sights to see, but little about actually nurturing yourself and your family to make the most of the travel experience.

If you travel with a genuinely positive and relaxed attitude, any obstacles and challenges can be experienced with a level of grace and acceptance that may be much harder to accomplish if you pressure yourself to stick to a predetermined plan shaped around ideals that work well at home but may not adapt so well to the spirit of travel.

This list has no particular hierarchy and can certainly be added to, but herein are 10 pieces of advice for anyone hoping or planning to take a family trip anywhere in the world (yes, even Skegness). Some of them may go against conventional parenting advice but I would like to suggest that your best ally as you travel is the ability to think outside the box . . .

 

1) Prepare Your Self

Body and mind are as important as bags and money (or, indeed, bags of money) when it comes to anticipating a trip with children.

I tend to get the packing and paperwork sorted well in advance of travelling – not because I’m super organised, but because I’m super excited! This gives me a bit of space and time to ensure I’m well-rested before embarking on our journey (or at least as well-rested as a restless single mother to two young children can be).

I can’t emphasise enough how useful it is to ensure you have some well-sharpened relaxation tools in your metaphorical toolbox before you go, whether that be a well-tuned meditation practice or merely the awareness of a need to take some time out and have a drink.

I’ve heard many stories of family holidays being the absolute opposite of the relaxing and bonding experience that was hoped for, and I’ve wondered how many of these families have well-established mental anchors when the stress levels start to rise. My own anchor isn’t always heavy enough to keep me from allowing the anxieties to get the better of me at times, but I generally avoid being too buffeted by the ocean of emotion when I remember the many relaxation techniques at my disposal.

If all else fails – keep quiet and just breathe!

Before I embark on my journey, I also take some time to reflect on what I’m hoping to get out of the trip, yet also how I can be mindful and accepting of whatever comes our way.

Whilst the logistics and practical concerns of travelling as a family take precedent, we make ourselves better able to deal with any strains or unforeseen events if we are mentally prepared to accept that:
a) we can never be 100% prepared; and
b) in choosing to go beyond our usual environments and comfort zones with our little ones, poo happens (sometimes quite literally).

2) The Group Mind

Travel as a group.

Taking your own community of friends or extended family with you is a big bonus. Though perhaps not the norm, it is a set-up I would recommend whenever it is possible. I suggest that you and your travel companions speak in advance about what might be expected of each other, the details of which may be dictated by whether or not they also have children with them.

The old adage that “it takes a village to raise a child” seems somehow all the more appropriate when you’re in strange new places and in need of that extra support when the kids go hyper just as you’re queuing at passport control or involved in some other such non-negotiable event.

Sharing your trip with others also serves as a home base for everyone. You don’t have to agree on what to do each day and you may separate to pursue different outings or activities, yet it is comforting to know you will be seeing a familiar face for dinner or evening drinks.

3) Be Spontaneous

Whilst preparation is the key to making a smooth getaway and in ensuring you have everything you need for the duration of your stay, spontaneity is a good trait to practice during your actual holiday.

I generally have some idea of things that I’d “quite like to do” in a particular location, yet I do my best to avoid setting in stone what will happen when. Keeping a loose agenda takes the pressure off and, if you do have a day where it feels better to stay close to your accommodation for easy rest or if the kids seems a little off-colour, this can result in a fresh burst of energy the following day when – feeling rejuvenated – you may end up packing lots of activities into a single day.

Be dictated by the needs and feelings of your family rather than by a schedule.

4) I Repeat – Forget the Schedule!

I once spoke to a family whom had hosted another family in their Mediterranean home during the summer. Just envisage those balmy summertime evenings following siesta time, families gathered around for late evening meals and socialising…

Well, they were rather bemused when the visiting family told them that their children would be going to bed as per their usual early evening bedtime – and that the visitors also expected the hosts to impose the same bedtime on their own child!

Even if you don’t intend to tell a host family what to do with their own children (perish the thought!), I would also encourage you not to tell yourself that you must adhere to what is actually an arbitrary, culturally-prescribed set of expectations. What works on a school night is not necessarily the best rule for other nights. The sense of time passing and the sense of what is necessary to get done changes from country to country and culture to culture. And, as they say, when in Rome…

Many would argue that adherence to as close a routine as you have at home is desirable. Whilst this is true, particularly for young children, with regards to keeping things familiar and consistent (e.g. retaining the same comforting bedtime routine, whatever time bedtime actually falls), being too focused on this can be a stress in itself – especially if there have been delays during the course of the day (be it problems with transport or the need to accept some countries’ more ‘mañana’ attitude).

Here we must make the distinction between a ‘routine’ and a ‘schedule’.

If you’ve passed the usual 7pm wind-down time and everyone is still waiting on an evening meal, you’ll do yourself no favours by worrying about it. You all need to eat and you’ll all get to bed eventually. As long as you respond to (and, ideally, premeditate) your children’s needs for food, drink, toilet stops and sleep/rest throughout the day, kids themselves are incredibly adaptable and accepting beings who, depending on their age, aren’t that conscious of the actual time. As long as they’re with a loved and trusted caregiver who doesn’t berate them for behaviour that results from any tiredness, they can feel ‘at home’ in themselves.

By all means resume your scheduling when you return home, but embrace the spirit of adventure whilst you’re away – take a risk and see what happens!

Eat when you feel like eating, sleep when you feel like sleeping, and build your usual little rituals and routines around that. If all hell breaks loose and the kids start pushing for tighter boundaries on their time, rein it in again. But you could be pleasantly surprised by the opportunities it gives you and how liberating it feels to fall into natural rhythms.

5) Must have a GSOH

I find that remembering one’s sense of humour is most useful when around the inevitable grumpy old men you will cross on your travels (I can count at least three) who will invariably find a reason to audibly complain about your children, even when your little sweethearts are actually being on their best behaviour. Some people just aren’t child-friendly. Don’t take this personally.

I vividly recall standing in the queue for passport control when returning to the UK and both kids were tired and in need of a trip to the toilets. They were complaining very noisily. A couple in front of me did much staring and tut-tut-ing before the woman loudly announced to the queue “This is why I’m glad I never had children!”.

I actually felt quite sorry for her. Reflecting on this, I could just as easily have felt sorry for myself. Thankfully, I was quite seasoned at travelling with the kids by then and was able to shrug it off and even snigger about it when an airport official then let us jump the long queue precisely because I did have children.

I’ve also employed humour to get me out of many an argumentative situation with FreeToBeB. We don’t have the luxury of living together full-time in order to create a stable basis for our relationship before we’re travelling around Morocco together and dealing with the usual family travel gripes. It can make our time together as a family fairly intense.

Mid-disagreement I will remember to think about how ridiculous our concerns are in the great scheme of things, and I will break into a smile and laugh (if you want a reminder of how ultimately insignificant all our worries are, check out this link ). My giggles aren’t always met with a matching reaction, but at least my own tension is released, which means there is no animosity left for the other party to feed on other than whatever they still choose to dwell on.

I’ve also employed the method of making fun of our previous fallings-out to lighten the mood and remind us that we always make up in the end, so better to make it sooner than later.

Emotions are often heightened for couples during travelling, so I imagine these techniques could work for anyone – including with our children, whose own moods can only be calmed if we ourselves are calm.

6) Blue Sky Thinking

Turn holiday time into adventure time!

For some, the words ‘family holiday’ may conjure up images of all-inclusive excursions to busy holiday resorts.

I’ve never taken a package holiday with my kids (unless a night in Legoland counts), although I can certainly see the appeal in the apparent ease of this. Yet I’m not satisfied with run-of-the-mill ‘family entertainment’ (i.e. I tend to find it downright cringe-worthy) and tend to think there are so many more activities ‘out there’ that can open their minds, hearts and souls to all that is beautiful and diverse and possible in this world.

Some people may feel less able to think creatively when they have children to consider and perhaps assume more ‘outside the box’ activities just aren’t possible for families. This makes a good excuse for taking the easier option.

However, the easier option is rarely the one that develops us as individuals, and I heartily recommend going outside one’s comfort zone when it comes to planning a family break.

There are many other ways to ‘do’ family travel which allow us to introduce our children to new and exciting aspects of life which may not otherwise be easily available to them. Whatever your interests or ambitions, there will be someone out there catering to families or at least making provisions for adults who will be accompanied by children. And if there isn’t? Well, there’s that niche business idea you’ve always been after!

Volunteer programmes such as WWOOF (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms) offer families the chance to work and learn whilst experiencing different countries and cultures.

CouchSurfing is also a popular way to go out and experience the world. You are accommodated for the price of a gift or favour to the host (which itself isn’t obligatory but certainly good social etiquette) and you also benefit from experiencing the destination from the point of view of a local, including the added bonus that you might have a free walking, talking guidebook. CouchSurfing is great for people genuinely interested in cultural exchange, including language exchange. You may feel more comfortable staying with another family who are familiar with the ways of children, yet there are many couchsurfers without children who are more than willing to host entire families.

Backpacking is also an option. I successfully spent 5 days backpacking and CouchSurfing around Andalusia with a 25kg rucksack, FreeToBeP (then 5 years old) carrying his small backpack, FreeToBeZ (then 15 months old) on me in a front-carrying sling, as I hobbled along on an injured foot (brave or crazy? You decide!).

Yes, it was hard work. Yes, it was extremely satisfying and life-affirming.

I have even heard of families successfully being able to take their children on meditation retreats, with lovely tales of their offspring tuning in and peace-ing out amidst the calmness of the community. I’m yet to test this theory on my own kids and think this is the point at which I would really be pushing my comfort zone – given the way all hell has a tendency to break loose when I instigate our nightly bedtime routine (which often includes meditation), I’m not sure I’m quite ready to let them loose amidst a group of Buddhists. That said, we could be a good test for other attendees’ true level of enlightenment and Zen-ness 😉

7) Luggage That Fits Into The Kitchen Sink

I will be covering the topic of packing lightly in much more detail in a couple of weeks’ time.

However, many of us have a tendency to over-pack, and this can be an additional and unnecessary burden in an already challenging situation. There are also many lessons in doing the exact opposite and taking as little as you can get away with.

I try to pare things back by thinking about what I really need for survival and comfort, and about what I can do at my destination. Perhaps there are things you can purchase at your destination instead of lugging it around in your luggage? Maybe you could do a little washing every couple of days instead of packing more changes of clothes? This also does away with the mammoth laundry task when you return home.

Travelling has also truly alerted me to how much we have in this country compared to many places in the world and how bizarre some of our ‘necessities’ are. That’s consumer society for you!

It was very humbling (and somewhat embarrassing) to realise that I often take more personal possessions in a single suitcase than many Amazigh women have in their entire homes. FreeToBeP takes more toys in a couple of pencil cases than a whole family of young boys may own in the Atlas Mountains.

Yet every place has its pros and cons. In the mountains, nature is their playground. FreeToBeP can forget all about Lego for an entire day when he has tree-climbing, rock-scrambling, bug-hunting friends to explore with, with the required trees, rocks and bugs right on the doorstep. In urban landscapes, we make up for that lack of natural freedom by filling rooms full of toys.

The boys in the Atlas Mountains, Morocco
The boys in the Atlas Mountains, Morocco

I’ve found that the less you take, the more you are forced to really take in and take on what is around you. Ergo, you go from a sight-seeing tourist to an all-seeing traveller.

8) Be a Cheapskate

Don’t be afraid to do things on the cheap if you need to. Having a low budget does not prevent you from travelling – but it does make you more resourceful.

Most of the things we think we ‘need’ as families are actually things we’ve just become used to and dependent upon as adults in a highly commercialised, consumerist society, whereas children are naturally quite adaptable in new and different situations.

Indeed, as with the examples above about packing, this can help to highlight different cultural and societal norms that your children may not experience if you partake in a holiday resort experience in a country where the typical activities and living standards of a resort are not the embodied experience of the families who actually live in that country.

Depending on the age of your children, you may all be comfortable sharing a double room (or even one bed) for your travels. I once booked a single room for myself and the two kids in Spain with camping mats as our second bed; the hotel owners actually provided a second single mattress for the floor at a cost of 6 Euros (their standard charge per child), which still ensured the single room remained cheaper than the double, and much cheaper than a family-sized room.

Provided you are capable of doing a quick risk assessment upon entering a hostel room, there is nothing wrong with booking a low budget room for your family and doing your own safety-proofing where necessary and possible. Ultimately, you – and no amount of health and safety legislation – bears the responsibility for keeping your children safe. If anything, taking the cheaper and apparently less ‘child friendly’ option can make us all the more attentive and responsive as parents (by which I mean being more present for them opposed to wrapping them in cotton wool).

As with all things, trust your intuition.

That said, I’ve stayed in some really grotty places that I would never recommend to anyone. It has made me really aware of what I’m prepared to compromise and what I’m prepared to pay for. And, also, how clean my home actually is despite housework not being one of my strong points (for I’ve never entered my own home wondering what that awful smell is only to discover a decomposing toad lying under my bed, maggots and all. That’ll serve me right for staying in the cheapest place in town).

Again, I would heartily recommend options such as CouchSurfing to families on a budget. One of our big joys as a CouchSurfing family is hosting and meeting other families in our own home. I also know of families who have arranged home swaps via CouchSurfing for the purpose of taking a cheap holiday.

If cheap equals simple, I like to think simple is the blank canvas required for further blue sky thinking. A room without a TV and a hostel without family entertainment will force you to spend more time bonding as a family and to get out exploring as much as possible.

I know that my truly budget travels have been the times that have resulted in the greatest challenges yet also the greatest learning.

9) Slow Down

Going at a child’s pace may be something we’re happy to do on a leisurely wander up to the local shops, but compile an itinerary for a journey (particularly by public transport) and we suddenly see a list of strict deadlines which we will make our children adhere to.

Provided you factor it in before you’re due to make your trip, it is possible to take your time. The journey to your destination need not be one fraught with panicking parents and cranky kids as everyone gets hurridly ferried between connections.

If need be, book a pre-flight hotel stay. When booking in advance, I’ve been able to book a well-equipped, en suite family room complete with king size bed for as little as £18 a night at Gatwick, with kids eating for free in the morning.

I find this extra expense a good investment for a payback of reduced stress levels, well-rested children and an extra day of travelling adventure. I will often do this even if my flight isn’t particularly early, as the peace of mind experienced from knowing I’m already ‘at’ the airport when I wake up in the morning is invaluable.

I actually find it much easier when I’m away somewhere to factor in all the dawdling, fussing, staring and general messing about time that young children must do. At home I’m much more likely to be preoccupied by a to do list or the need to be somewhere at a specific time, yet the nature of taking holidays should enable us to stop clock watching, be more mindful of the present moment, and ungrudgingly take things at the pace of the slowest members of the group.

Yes: slow down, lest all the speed just blurs the scenery.

10) Through The Eyes of a Child . . .

. . . is an amazing way to view the world!

Taking this view allows us a greater understanding of children’s needs as young travellers, yet also allows one to be the most open, non-judgemental person possible in a new environment.

Zen Buddhists (yes, them again) talk of seeing the world afresh in every moment, and this is all the more apt as travellers – to leave behind our own cultural conditioning and experience a place for what it is rather than what we feel it ought to be. And, in meeting them in empathy, truly allowing our children to do the same.

 

Please feel free to feedback in the comments below. Do these tips have the capability to alter your mind? Which of them resonated for you and which didn’t? Do you already have success in utilising some of these things?

Keep following Free To Be for my top tips on travelling as a single parent, travelling with a baby and travelling whilst pregnant.

Next week: The Quiet Zone: Travelling with a High Spirited Child