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

orange1.jpg
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).

orangepick

Culture & Tradition

flowerfest
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.

chapel
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.

beach2
Sun + sand + sea = happy children!
beach3
Sun + sand + sea = happy me!

Monemvasia Old Town

monem4
FreeToBeZ enjoying the sun and the sights in Monemvasia
lighthouse.jpg
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 . . .

monem6

monem7monem8monem9

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!

monem10monem3

castlegate

monem2

Gytheio 

shipwreck
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!

gerakas1

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.

bikez

Olive-picking

olivetree2
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.

laylaolive
FreeToBeL enjoyed eating the bitter offerings fresh from the tree!
olives
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.

asopos1
Roman bricks and tiles aplenty here
asopos2
Ancient handle – just one of our many finds

Cookery & Food

greeksalad
Authentic Greek salad in Sparta
food
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?

yogagarden4slide

tortoise

laylaplitra

plitrabay

Educational Freedom Fighter

pvbike
Evangelos helping FreeToBeP learn how to ride a bike

 

Educational Freedom Fighter: An Interview with Evangelos Vlachakis, Plitra, Greece, April 2016

Home education is illegal in Greece, yet my family and I have just attended the Worldschoolers Spring Edventure in a small Peloponnese town, hosted by cinematographer Evangelos Vlachakis along with his family and friends at the Porto Grana Hub in Laconia – a place for home educating and worldschooling families to meet, learn, share and discover life together.

I interviewed Evangelos to find out more about his vision for educational freedom in a country in which such freedoms are restricted.

How did the Porto Grana hub come about?

There was an old restaurant available, so we had the idea to use it as a recreational space for kids. Since there was a very limted budget, we tried to renovate it on our own. We tried to combine it with my idea to bring homeschooling families into contact with my family, as I was very concerned about my daughter’s schooling and I felt that having some inside information from families who already homeschool would be beneficial to us. So, it really came about through the combination of having the empty space to use and wanting to research homeschooling.

Is there a strong community of families in Greece who would like to home educate and does anyone practice it despite it being illegal?

I’ve been involved in [researching home education] over the last 3 years and I’ve come into contact with many Greek families that are already willing to homeschool, and also with families that already do it or have done it. Some of the families are doing it underground and only two that I know of have been prosecuted for it.

Some families decide to move abroad in order to pursue a home educating lifestyle when it isn’t legal in their home country – is that something that you ever considered doing or was it always much more important to you to try to develop something in Greece?

I’d like to stay where we live as I think it’s the ideal place for kids and for families – we have the sunshine about 90% of the year and the countryside here is so virgin and unspoilt that it’s an ideal place to grow up. We don’t want to leave this place – on the contrary, I would like to invite families that would like to live in this kind of place to join us here! Foreign families who visit can legally homeschool in Greece – my thought is that on some level we can form a network of foreign and Greek families around Porto Grana and collectively try to lobby the government for a change in law.

So in what way do you hope this more ‘global’ network will help with the lobbying and in the format of home education you present to the Greek government?

I’m trying to gather information about how it’s done because, whilst many people here want to home school, we don’t know how it works in practice, and that’s why we like to come into contact with home educating families so that we have more insight into how you home school the children. This would be beneficial in our attempts to lobby the government in terms of forming a proposal.

Is it in any way difficult looking in on families from elsewhere who have freedoms that you don’t have or does the closer contact with home educating families give you greater optimism that it is possible?

Yes, first of all, I can see that it is possible. I believe what would help is to build a community first, because it helps the families that feel isolated and who need the company of others to support them. I think that building a community will be an ideal base for pursuing home schooling in Greece, and a community also serves the children to more easily interact with one another and develop community projects.

Is it something you’re optimistic could potentially happen soon (as your daughter is already 10 years old and compulsory education in Greece is just until age 15) or are you looking ahead at future generations?

Yes, I’m looking at future generations, it’s not only about my daughter – I would love to home school, but the community-based home schooling I envisage might take some time to happen; we are just at the beginning but I think we have a lot of potential to make it a reality.

It takes some people a lot to take action just for their own children in terms of trying to change a law, maybe putting up with something even if it directly affects them as “that’s the way it is”, so the fact that you’re invested in this is admirable – I think you’ve probably picked up on the fact that for most home educating families it’s a huge lifestyle choice and the freedom to home educate is interlinked with so many other freedoms and our autonomy in the world. Have you got a written plan yet?

Not as yet. My main concern is with forming a community, starting with having families stay with us for a little while. The reason I organise the worldschoolers’ events is for families to come together and be able to live in the countryside and experience how it is to live here – in the future I would like to form an eco-community of worldschooling families who will be the network of people who show the government how community-based home schooling might look.

So the events you’ve set up so far are an experiment to see who’s out there with a view to a future eco-community here?

Yes. We’ve already planned the summer event for June 23rd-30th [2016],and also plan to have autumn and winter events in September [2016] and January [2017].

garden
Evangelos with home educated children in the Porto Grana garden, preparing for mealtime at the Worldschoolers Spring Edventure

To find out more about the Porto Grana Hub and its events, please visit the website at http://www.portograna.wix.com/worldschoolers-hub and/or join the Facebook page here: https://www.facebook.com/portogranahub/

10 Websites for Teaching Global Citizenship

world-map-children-silhouettes-country-continents_CC

In the age of globalisation, citizenship has become a hot topic for educators – from national citizenship lessons specific to a child’s country through to the more inclusive realm of global citizenship.

In a country such as the UK, there are many things people take for granted that those in other countries cannot (from material goods to human rights) and it is important to equip the next generation with the critical thinking skills to see the bigger picture beyond our own culture and borders.

The following 10 websites for teaching global citizenship are full of activities and resources about world culture and important global issues:

Kid World Citizen

KidWorldCitizen

I find the KWC site fun, friendly and comprehensive. There is a vast array of hands-on activities in order to learn about different cultures from the comfort of your own home, as well as family travel advice for seeking first-hand experiences in other countries.

Whether there’s a particular country or specific celebration you hope to explore or you wish to browse a general subject such as language or geography, you can find something on here which helps bring cultural studies to life.

Oxfam

Oxfam

Oxfam have a wealth of resources relating to many of the big issues facing the world community.

The Resources page allows you to search by age, topic, curriculum subject, country or activity type.

With topics ranging from climate change to conflict, development to diversity, and refugees to rights, there’s a huge variety of issues to recognise and explore.

Global Dimension

GlobalDimension

This is aimed at teachers yet has a huge array of resources and links – their list of topics is inspirational in itself! Many of these resources are free and cover up to date events, such as the 2014 attacks on Gaza.

Children can learn about global issues through browsing their favourite curriculum subjects or by choosing a specific issue facing the world community.

Education Scotland

EducationScotland

Based in Scotland yet truly global, this has a wealth of ideas, information and resources for approaching global citizenship and international education. Its blog and calendar are up to date, making it a great site for informing yourself about current affairs.

This site is a bit on the ‘dry’ side for looking at with younger children, but there are plenty of conversation starters – even just thinking about their definitions of terms could provide enough material for a learning session:

Education for citizenship encourages taking thoughtful and responsible action, locally and globally. – Education Scotland / Foghlam Alba

International education helps to prepare young people for life and active participation in a global multicultural society. – Education Scotland / Foghlam Alba

Oh, and giant panda lovers click here.

My Learning: Citizenship

MyLearning

The Citizenship page of this site features plenty of resources for researching both local and global concerns, particularly for primary school aged children.

When looking at human rights, slavery and discrimination you might want to explore the Global Citizens – Make An Impact! resources. For learning about women’s rights, the From Suffering to Suffrage page may prove useful.

Global Footprints

GlobalFootprints

Yet again aimed at schools, the Global Footprints website by the HEC Global Learning Centre nonetheless looks to be a handy resource for exploring global community, whether in a classroom or at home.

Their classroom page includes a number of activities for getting to grips with global issues via literacy and numeracy lessons, with many key topics being explored alongside the 3Rs.

Traidcraft

Traidcraft

The Traidcraft website provides a number of activities for looking at the issue of fair trade with children and young people. From group assemblies to competitions, there are a variety of ways to get kids engaged with the topic of fair trade.

Including many seasonal activities, the most relevant as I post this is their Easter page, featuring an Easter egg hunt with a difference!

Picture My World

PictureMyWorld

This site is the face of CAFOD for children (CAFOD being the Catholic Agency For Overseas Development); whilst I automatically link such organisations to missionaries and conversion efforts, I believe this can be a talking point in itself, leading onto topics such as secular society, and the links between religion, race and culture.

On this site, children are invited to learn about life in other areas of the world through looking at photo diaries of other children. It also draws attention to issues such as world hunger and the need for clean water.

Global Kids Connect

GlobalKidsConnect

A US site aimed at school classes, this site nonetheless has useful information about what it means to be a global citizen, with ideas on how to encourage cultural exchange and philanthropy.

With an emphasis on the lives and culture of children in other parts of the world, this gets kids thinking about what it means to be a child in a different country – or even someone in your own community with a different background.

British Red Cross

RedCross

The Red Cross provides a broad range of issues to explore which can be browsed by topic or school subject. Featuring current news headlines such as ebola and migration, it also looks at citizenship issues closer to home – from day-to-day kindness through to emergency situations.

Browsing the activities on this site, the practical and emotional concerns of people during crises are clearly evident – the shared experiences of all humanity brought to the fore.

 

I hope this list gets you off to a flying start with your family discussions about the human family!

Do let me know what you think of the sites listed and whether you successfully make use of any of the resources they lead you to.

Book lovers – if your children’s appetite for global citizenship education has been whetted, the following titles may be of interest (FYI, these are Amazon affiliate links):

GrowingUpGlobal

iftheworldwereavillage

weareallbornfreewhoeveryouaredreamsoffreedomihaveadream

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 

 

The Price of Cross-Border Love

 

BritCits campaign: What price to fall in love and live with your family?
BritCits campaign: What price to fall in love and live with your family? (http://britcits.blogspot.co.uk/)

I compile this post as the festive season draws to an end, a time during which those who have wanted to spend time with their families have most likely had the chance to. Or have they?

Unfortunately, for many UK citizens, all that was wanted for Christmas is the right to live with their spouse and pursue a traditional family life in their own country. Yet for some corners of society this is not a right but a privilege – a privilege which depends on your spouse being of British or European citizenship or your personal income being at least £18,600.

The current family immigration rules, introduced in July 2012, prevent many non-EU family members from joining their loved ones in the UK. I feel sure that most of the families affected by these rules would agree that the propaganda machine repeating the “soft touch” and “open door” mantra when it comes to UK border control is a far cry from their experience.

Is it really ok to tell nearly 50% of British citizens that they are too poor to be able to fall in love and pursue a relationship with whomever in the world they wish to? That is effectively what the current immigration rules do.

The minimum income level of £18,600 doesn’t account for many variables, such as the difference in average pay in different areas of the country, the difference in average pay between women and men, and the reality of life for those who are parents. Anyone who is in a full-time job on the minimum wage would not be allowed to have a non-EU spouse join them in the UK.

From international students who meet and start relationships with British students in the UK, to British people posted abroad for work who find romance with people in far-flung places, to those who meet their future spouses whilst on holiday: there are people from all walks of life affected by these rules.

And don’t be fooled by being a British citizen in a job in another country that satisfies the visa application’s financial requirements: if you are living with your non-EU partner in a non-EU country, you will have to separate in order to be in work in the UK for at least 6 months before you can even apply for them to join you. Even if either or both of you are promised high paid work in the UK, this is not enough to satisfy the rules.

Where the non-EU partner is the main breadwinner – even in a high-earning, professional position – the onus is on the British citizen (and them alone) to fulfil the financial requirement.

BritCits campaign: United by love, divided by the Home Office (http://britcits.blogspot.co.uk/search/label/flyers)
BritCits campaign: United by love, divided by the Home Office (http://britcits.blogspot.co.uk/search/label/flyers)

Prior to these new rules introduced in 2012, the British citizen could call on the support of a sponsor to show that there were funds in place to support the immigrant partner and the financial requirement was also much lower. For example, a British student wanting to live with their American spouse could ask a parent to sponsor the visa application and the minimum income level stood below the £6000pa mark, making it very possible for students or single parents to show that they were economically active despite their commitments to study or children.

Add children to the mix and the situation is all the more dire. Some people state that the UK resident should “just do what they need to in order to earn £18,600 per year” or “if you’re that bothered about your family being together, you should just move to your partner’s country”. The naïvety and lack of compassion in these statements is, frankly, unbelievable to me. Without knowing a family’s specific situation, these are potentially harmful things to suggest.

I have heard of some British citizens struggling to get their Syrian family members over here. Would you suggest the British citizen take their children to a war zone rather than allow the non-EU spouse both asylum and their family in the UK?

There are mothers with children from previous relationships who are unable to emigrate due to the fathers of the older children (understandably) not wishing to see their children relocate to another country. All the while, married couples remain separated and any younger half-siblings in these families are unable to maintain a close relationship with the non-EU parent. Other situations involve children with specific needs who it would not be wise to move away from the support and healthcare we have in the UK. Should any British child to a British parent – wherever the other parent is from – effectively be forced into exile and potentially have to make do with lesser standards of living just because the Home Office decided to impose a high financial requirement on their parents sharing a life together?

The financial requirement is increased for any families whose children have been born outside the UK and are not classed as EEA citizens. These children potentially have the same proportion of British ancestry as my own mixed-race British daughters do, yet for the purpose of this visa, they would not be classed as British as they do not have British citizenship. For a British mother wishing to return to her home country with her family, this makes her wish close to impossible to achieve unless she not only leaves her spouse behind but also her children in order to focus on earning in excess of £22,000 within the UK (the figure rises depending on how many children are involved), the likelihood of the latter depending immensely on the mother’s qualifications and career history.

The argument about saving state benefits by curbing immigration is, for this visa category, a false and misleading one. For one, non-EU citizens entering the UK via this route are not even entitled to claim any benefits until they have been living and working (i.e. paying into the tax system) in the UK for 5 years.

Add to this the fact that these rules split up the traditional family unit and create many single parent families, and I fail to see the logic. My own personal circumstance falls into this category: I live in the UK as a single mother on a low income, entitling me to a number of state benefits. Yet if my daughters’ father were allowed to be in this country to be with us and support us, we would be much more likely – as a united family – to be able to lift ourselves out of benefits and function as an economically active unit. Even if he couldn’t find work, he would have no recourse to public funds.

As for the argument that the British citizen should ‘just’ gain the required income, this may be difficult for individuals without children, let alone parents who may have been out of the job market for a number of years whilst raising children. Looking at my local full-time job opportunities based on the work experience I can claim, there are very few jobs that exceed the £18,600 requirement – and those that do would no doubt be highly sought after by people who may be more attractive to employers than I (for all the talk about flexible working for parents, I’m cynical about the reality of it).

Encouraging single parents into full-time work is known to be psychologically detrimental to their children, particularly where an alternative close and affectionate caregiver doesn’t provide the majority of their care. In a situation where one parent is already separated from the child due to visa rules, it strikes me as particularly cruel that the resident parent should also be encouraged to spend a significant portion of time away from the child.

Instead of the parents’ desired situation of family unity, quite the opposite happens. And even once the British citizen has acquired 6 months’ worth of payslips showing that they earn the requisite amount, as well as the couple acquiring the substantial fee required for the visa application itself, there is still no guarantee of when the visa will be granted, if it is granted at all.

BritCits campaign: Not earning £18,600?
BritCits campaign: Not earning £18,600? (http://britcits.blogspot.co.uk/)

But not to worry if you’re not earning anything – there is another way: savings. Provided you have at least £62,500 cash sat in a bank account somewhere, your non-EU spouse may join you.

Oh, not forgetting another requirement first: submission of a certificate from the correct accredited English language test to prove that the non-EU spouse has intermediate level English.

This language requirement is also a controversy. I strongly support the notion that people should speak the language of the country they reside in – indeed, I find it acutely embarrassing just travelling through other countries with only English at my disposal (and my conversational Moroccan Arabic is only really useful in one country!).

However, both my own personal experience and research by language experts tell us that the best way to learn a language is by immersion in a native-speaking environment.

This requirement also assumes the skill of being able to perform speaking and listening tasks in a controlled, academic exam. Cultural imperialism is very apparent here.

My daughters’ father is multilingual, with English being the latest addition to the list of languages he can speak. I’m thoroughly impressed by the way he picks up language, and amused when he tells me to put my language dictionaries down and just use my brain. He has never sat a formal academic exam in his life. When attempting to take formal English classes at a language school in Marrakech, he felt his learning stalled; his mind went blank in class, yet only an hour later on the phone to me he’d be perplexed at how well his English flowed when engaged in natural conversation.

The reason for this is simple: put a person in a pressured and stressful situation, and their ability to think clearly will shut down. It quickly became apparent that the requirement to pass a formal exam may be an even more difficult requirement for him to fulfil than the financial requirement expected of me.

This leaves a particularly sour taste now I know another Moroccan national who recently came to the UK without any knowledge of the English language. Yet that family, her spouse with EU citizenship, took advantage of EU free movement rules in order to live in the UK.

The positive news is that British citizens can also take advantage of EU free movement rights, assuming they are free and willing to emigrate to another EU country in order to reside with their partner. Yes, just move across the Channel and your non-EU spouse automatically has the right to reside with you! And as long as the Brit moves their centre of life to another EU country and lives and works there for a number of months, they can later return to the UK with their family as an ‘EU citizen’ with the right to a family life that this citizenship of the Union upholds. As the partner or child (whatever their nationality) of an EU citizen (in this case the British national), this right entitles the whole family to the same freedom of movement into the UK as any other EU national exercising their EU treaty rights.

Yet be a British person trying to tick all the boxes from within the UK according to the government’s guidance for spousal visas, and you are up against a much more brutal system that puts economic status before a family’s needs. For many people, moving to Europe to be with their loved ones is the sensible option – and some have even suggested that, once there, they may even be happier in another EU country than in the UK. Having technically been exiled from their home country in order to pursue a life alongside their spouse, life may indeed feel much greener on the other side.

I do not believe in curbing EU migration and feel the current national feeling against such free movement is the result of a paranoid island mentality stirred up by the media to support the establishment’s use of the ‘divide and rule’ theory. A glance at the figures for British citizens who have themselves emigrated to other EU countries shows that millions of UK nationals take advantage of their right to live and work wherever in the EU that they wish to – the right to be an expat is not a one-way street. However, I do believe that British citizens should be afforded the same right to a family life in our home nation as we would be afforded if we chose to live in France, Germany, the Republic of Ireland or indeed any other EU country (take your pick!).

Sadly, for those who are not able to emigrate from the UK – however short-term – this light at the end of the tunnel is not visible.

The issues aren’t limited to the expensive and intensive spousal visa application. Many families (my own included) who have attempted to secure a mere visitor visa for a parent to visit their child in the UK have been refused on grounds of financial status and presumptions about an intent to overstay. So, despite the fact that it would be cheaper and easier for me to sponsor a visit to the UK than it is for me to travel with three young children to Morocco, the only way my daughters can see their father is through my commitment to doing the latter.

Whilst I’m quite a revolutionary thinker when it comes to global community and am open to entertaining ideas such as the No Borders movement, I know that many people affected by these rules would agree that certain limits on immigration are desirable. Yet none can fathom why it has to be families that suffer – if the government genuinely believe in marriage and family life as they say they do, there are many more visa categories that could be limited to affect migration figures whilst retaining children’s and families’ human rights to secure and maintain a family life together.

In 2013 a court case took place in which the judge branded these rules as “unjustifiable” and gave those affected some hope that these laws could be challenged.

However, for the time being and whilst the anti-immigration rhetoric in UK politics seems ever on the increase, a huge number of British people are left in limbo, wondering if they’ll ever be able to pursue the family life they want in their own home country.

Links to my sources, further information and sources of support can be found below.

Are you affected by these rules? Do you think there is a way for immigration rules to remain stringent without splitting families up? Can anyone support these rules whilst genuinely supporting the notion of a human right to a family life? I would be glad to hear your experiences and thoughts below.

 

Links to reports:

Report On The Impact Of The New 2012 Spouse Visa Rules With Recommendations compiled by British citizens

Family Migration Inquiry Report by the All Party Parliamentary Group on Migration

United by Love, Divided by Law by the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants

Adverse Impact of UK’s Immigration Rules by BritCits

 

Links to support:

BritCits charity supporting international families

I Love My Foreign Spouse Facebook support group

EU Free Movement Facebook support group

 

Take action:

Immigration laws are tearing families apart – change them now (petition on change.org)

Keep Families Together (petition on 38degrees)

The Morocco I Love: 10 Things To Be Thankful For

Ben Yuosef Madrasa, Marrakech, Morocco, architecture, ceiling

I’m conscious of the posts I’ve made so far about our latest trip to Morocco not being particularly practical in nature, and possibly being a tad on the ‘grin and bear it’ side!

I’ve also been very aware of all my blessings since returning home and it’s been easy to complain about the things I find difficult in our ‘second home’. I have a love-hate relationship with Morocco that leaves me feeling conflicted and contradictory.

However, there are a number of things I’m already missing about Morocco. Obviously, I’m really missing seeing FreeToBeZ playing and laughing with her daddy; despite the infrequency of our visits, their bond is obvious and strong, and regularly brings tears to my eyes to witness.

But with the aim of providing some insight into the cultural cultivation that anyone can enjoy during a trip to Morocco, here are the 10 things that first come to mind about the pros of spending time there:

 

1) Embrace the Excitement

Excitement? Ok, read ‘chaos’.

At home in the UK, I could think of myself as a ‘chaotic’ person. My mind is always on the go, I don’t get enough sleep, I perpetually strive for a more organised homelife, and there is always physical, emotional and mental ‘clutter’ (I could use the excuse of children for all of these things – in the spirit of congruence, it’s not just that!).

When I get to Morocco, I don’t see myself as chaotic at all – the external world fulfils that for me!

Arriving two evenings before Eid for our last trip, it really achieved this label: I’d never seen the airport arrivals area so extraordinarily busy (and this was our 10th visit) and there were those people who were more observant of the queuing system-of-a-sort for passport control than others.

Out into the streets and into all the traffic; the constant hooting of car horns, the heightened sense of anxiety as you try to cross a road without being mown down, the people who have less concept of personal space and ‘rights of way’ than I’m used to.

Yet this makes any trip to Morocco immediately tinged with a sense of adventure. Your senses come alive – there is no way they can’t. And if they didn’t, you might find yourself in some undesirable situations thanks to your lack of alertness.

Morocco truly is a place of contrasts – from relaxing on the ponj of a laid-back host who you’ve spent a sedate afternoon enjoying food with, straight into a mêlée of being squeezed along crowded backstreets trying to contain your handbag and your children whilst dodging scooters. I’m sure my blood pressure must rise and fall with interesting frequency when I’m navigating Moroccan towns.

I say this and yet I’m so glad I know this. I’m so glad I’ve seen and experienced this side of the world and have the story to tell. I would urge others to make the trip precisely because of these idiosyncrasies of place.

 

2) Street Life

Every time I get back to the UK, I wonder at what ghost towns we live in. Where are all the people? Mostly stuck indoors or transporting themselves around in cars.

And when there are people forced together out in public – on trains, queuing for various services, in the supermarket – where is the chatter? Whilst I’m hardly one to complain (being someone who is generally shy to start up conversations with strangers), it strikes me that this reluctance to interact is not just personal but cultural; my traits have always felt at odds with my instincts.

Even in the ‘quiet’ suburbs of Marrakech, the streets are alive – there are always children playing and adults casually chatting with the kerb as their seating.

Whilst there are plenty of cars in Morocco, there are also those who travel by mule or donkey or horse and carriage, or market traders who transport their goods using a handheld cart, which enables those people to be more contactable and present with the pedestrians they share the space with.

There are many reasons for this difference that means it’s not a lifestyle easily recreated in the UK. The weather is often a big deciding factor in whether we’re outdoors or not, and yet there certainly used to be more suburban street life in English cities too.

Without going into the politics and cultural changes that have happened in the UK to destroy communities and encourage people to live more isolated lives, I love the fact that I can exit an apartment in Morocco and know without doubt that the street will be vibrant with the sound of children playing, animals braying and the calls to go praying.

 

3) Fresh Food

Between buying fresh croissants and crepes for a matter of pennies from a local patisserie and sipping on freshly squeezed orange juice from the deliciously sweet native citrus fruits, breakfast food here is imbued with an energy and vibrancy that I just don’t get from our usual morning routine involving a box of cereal and a carton of a long-life dairy-free milk alternative.

Combined with the fact that they make bloody good coffee in Morocco, and the start of the day is usually a good one.

Whilst out on the town and for just 4 Moroccan dirhams (about 30p) you can enjoy a tall glass of freshly squeezed orange juice in Jemaa El Fna square – at that price, there’s no excuse not to!

FreeToBeZ with her avocado ice-cream whilst I down a fresh orange juice (Jemaa El Fna, Marrakech)
FreeToBeZ with her avocado ice-cream whilst I down a fresh orange juice (Jemaa El Fna, Marrakech)

There is also an amazing array of different fruit juices and smoothies made to order in many restaurants and cafes that we just don’t find back home unless we were to head for a specialist (expensive) juice bar. And, saying that, I’m not sure I know where to locate one of these in my local area.

Not to forget the figs, olives, almonds and other native foods that are much better in their fresh form than anything you buy in packs at the supermarket.

Whilst it can often be a hand-to-mouth lifestyle that ensures many people here eat fresh produce, there is also less emphasis on the supermarket and more emphasis on market culture and seasonal goods.

Many people in the towns also seem more inclined to go out in the mornings and bring fresh breakfast in rather than expecting shelves, cupboards and fridges to be stocked. And FreeToBeB – brought up eating daily-made bread in the family’s traditional outdoor, earthen oven – is often surprised that I’ll happily eat yesterday’s bread in preference to buying the freshly made breads each day. Even against 24 hour old Moroccan flatbreads, our long-life sliced and packaged loaves just can’t compare.

FreeToBeP in 2011 'assisting' our hosts with the daily task of bread-making
FreeToBeP in 2011 ‘assisting’ our hosts with the daily task of bread-making

Yes, we may be able to buy freshly prepared food in some shops back home – but the ubiquity and low cost of it in Morocco makes it the easy choice there, whilst it may be the more expensive and less convenient choice in the UK.

It really brings home to me how lifeless are some of the packaged foodstuffs that are supposed to sustain and satiate us. The difference is also reflected in the cooking and the sharing of food – this is only a thought, but I’d say that the way in which Moroccan people are proud of their cuisine as they earnestly encourage you to share in their meals (“Koul! Koul!” – “Eat! Eat!”) is a reflection of the true life force apparent in their food resources.

 

4) Retailing the Rainbow

OK, so this is a matter of whether you are in town or country. If I think about the natural environments around me, nothing beats the sight of green, green England as we come in to land after a North African excursion. How fresh and lush and brimming with life it appears; I missed this usual view as we came into land at nigh on midnight earlier this month. I wonder if Moroccan people love their ochre landscape as much as I love my green?

However, take to the high street and the drab, dispirited monoculture of a typical British town is apparent. I don’t care how well a chain store thinks it’s dressed its window, it’s not a patch on the flood of sights that comes with a walk amidst the market of a Moroccan city.

Whilst I’m not a keen shopper and would rather not focus on material goods, I love wandering the souks of Marrakech and being charmed by all the colour and glitter and exuberance around me. Yes, you could purchase something as a reminder of your visit, thinking that the vitality of the items will remain, but – just like the picking of a flower – something of their life-force invariably falls away once they are set apart from their original backdrop.

Every shade of the rainbow is everywhere to see and the beautiful clothing and jewellery makes a feast for the eyes. The joy isn’t in purchasing single items of these delights but in seeing them all together in a jumble of hues and patterns and textures: piles and piles of unabashedly embellished and gleeful garments in the clothing stores, small shops crammed to the ceiling full of shining thuya wood products, ceramic diningware decorated in intense colours and swirling patterns, florid and flowery offerings at the textile merchants . . .

A shop of scarves and soft furnishings in the souks of Marrakech
A shop of scarves and soft furnishings in the souks of Marrakech

. . . Not to mention the scents wafting from spice shops and cosmetic sellers. From the bright and showy pyramids of turmeric and cumin, to the smoke of incense blooming from a stall of hammam products, the combination of the sights, smells and sounds of the souk come together to remind me of the beauty and vivacity of life.

The effect is kaleidoscopic and I could spin myself around admiring it all for hours.

Jewellery, Marrakech, Morocco, souk
A jewellery shop in the Marrakchi souks.

To see more of what I mean, you might like to visit my Pinterest board ‘Morocco’ dedicated to the delightful side of this country of contrasts.

 

5) Mañana

While this can sometimes be frustrating, if you want a peaceful break free of pressure, it’s helpful to take on the Moroccans’ mañana attitude.

It’s a good attitude to adopt for any family break (emphasis on the fact that a holiday should indeed be a rest from the usual daily grind!) and taking it on in Morocco will ensure your increased immunity against impatience at the sometimes slow and seemingly unreliable pace at which things often appear to get done here.

You can be asleep at any point of the day here (or up and about at any point during the night) and it’s perfectly acceptable. This is particularly true during the long, hot summer days.

Things get done when people feel like getting them done, so little does the structured, time-bound mentality of what I would consider a ‘usual’ working day penetrate many people’s lives here. And yet – everything gets done.

In the words of Lao-Tzu: “Nature does not hurry, yet everything is accomplished.”

I’ve spent a lot of time in Morocco just waiting. And often not even knowing what exactly I’m waiting for. Just knowing that in order for the next thing that needs to get done to get done, I must bide my time and trust the process. From a world of appointments and general punctuality (I shall never again complain about the length of wait at a dental practice), I could see this as a con rather than a pro of my time in Morocco – but it’s yet another practice in mindfulness.

I’ve had time to sit and reflect, hence why so much writing comes of my trips. I’ve had time to sit beside my demons of impatience and judgement and talk them into angels of patience and acceptance. I’ve had time to savour the food at my lips instead of rushing the routine of mealtimes. I’ve had time to sit and listen and absorb the social discourse around me, more rather than less intriguing for its unintelligible vocabulary.

And it has taught me that there is time. It is ‘stuff’ that gets in the way back home. Stuff I would rather relegate to the recycle bin so I can sit and just be with my children, sit and just be with my self.

 

6) Moroccan Hospitality

The people of Morocco are famed for being some of the most welcoming, hospitable people in the world. Indeed, a recent study by the World Economic Forum found Morocco to come 3rd in a report of the most welcoming places for foreign tourists to visit.

It’s taken me a while to get over some of my typical British politeness and make the most of this. Indeed, what may be considered more ‘polite’ over here can be seen as a snub to your hosts over there, especially if you refuse a glass of the ubiquitous sweet mint tea whilst everyone else is cheerfully partaking.

Family-sized cous cous during a trip into the Atlas Mountains in 2012. Clockwise from top: my father, me, FreeToBeP, FreeToBeZ's auntie, two of FreeToBeZ's cousins, FreeToBeZ's grandmother, FreeToBeZ, and a family visitor.
Family-sized cous cous during a trip into the Atlas Mountains in 2012. Clockwise from top: my father, me, FreeToBeP, FreeToBeZ’s auntie, two of FreeToBeZ’s cousins, FreeToBeZ’s grandmother, FreeToBeZ, and a family visitor.

That said, there have been times when I’ve been embarrassed by the level of generosity we’ve been shown, especially when it’s been unplanned and I feel we’ve had nothing to give in return.

We once had a really sweet guy named Hicham guiding us around Fez (he was a school teacher on his summer break and was with us as a compassionate companion rather than a guide looking to make money out of us). On our second afternoon with him, he took us back to his parents’ home for a meal. It was an elaborate meal and was followed by their encouragement for us to take a post-meal nap by curtaining off an area of their living quarters so that the ponjs (Moroccan sofas) could take on their alternative use as day beds. So we – strangers to them – passed an hour or so privately chilling out in their living room.

As if this wasn’t enough, before we left, the matriarch of the house (who must have already spent hours preparing food in the kitchen) then insisted on pressing various items of costume jewellery and cheap but pretty bracelets into the hands of myself and FreeToBeZ – even after FreeToBeZ had already broken one such bracelet, tiny beads bursting across the tiled floor. I frantically tried to reject the jewellery in embarrassment (I should be bringing the gifts as a guest!), but our hostess wouldn’t have any of it; smiling and laughing and nodding, she insisted I take her offerings and I eventually accepted as graciously as I could amidst my discomfort.

I also get worried every time I ask to change FreeToBeZ’s nappy in someone’s home. I’m always just looking for a patch of floor that they’re happy for me to change a soggy or dirty disposable nappy upon, and am invariably asked if I wish to give my daughter a full strip wash at the same time, usually accompanied by the lady of the house rushing to find soap and towels.

This in itself isn’t a problem. What is a problem is someone assuming that this is what one wishes to do without both parties having a mutual understanding about what is about to happen . . . But this is a whole other story . . .

However, I will never forget how observant and human some people have been about genuine needs.

For a week during a stay in 2013, we were accommodated by local people in two different cities when all the rooms were full at the inn.

I will never forget the relief of hearing that Halima, a bolshy and outspoken Rifian lady in Al Hoceima, had kindly offered us her sitting room to stay in when it was nearly midnight and we still hadn’t found a bed for ourselves. As she walked home on that hot August night, she saw a family taking shelter on an empty shop floor and spontaneously opened up her home. We paid her more generously than I am generally willing to pay Moroccan hotels – and I can’t even be cynical about her intentions of inviting us (knowing that some people here see a European person and simultaneously see money); for when she first saw us she thought we were entirely a fellow Berber family, and not just because of FreeToBeB’s ability to claim this (it turned out she thought all European women used pushchairs for their infants – FreeToBeZ worn closely to me in a sling was enough for her to decide to distinguish me as a fellow Berber woman!).

Pretty much the same thing happened again just 3 nights later in Chefchouen, and we spent a wonderful 5 days relaxing in the spare living quarters of a kindly older widower.

If anything, it has given me all the more faith in travelling ‘on a wing and a prayer’, not to mention faith in the kindness of humans who have not been jaded by the ‘stranger danger’ mantra so prevalent in Western societies.

 

7) Simplicity

I’m all for a more simple life. It takes a lot of discipline and a big change of perspective for someone brought up in a commercial culture. And, whilst I often complain about how difficult it is to cook on a single ring over a gas bottle or to have a proper wash with just a bucket of water and a jug, in reality it’s only difficult because of all the luxuries I’m used to. There is no excuse to go hungry or to not be clean when you have the means at your disposal.

OK, if I actually lived in Morocco I’d ensure I have a decent electric oven with at least 4 cooking plates and a wet room big enough to install a ‘proper’ bath, but – as with camping – it can be good to get back to the simple life, even if it is just a way to truly appreciate what we take for granted in our own homes in better-off countries.

I tried to embrace the simple things in life as much as possible during our latest visit (see Embracing the Ennui: Retreat, Respite and Relaxation), as I’d previously struggled with it during visits to FreeToBeB’s mountain home.

For all the daydreams of a ‘back to nature’ lifestyle of self-sufficiency in an unspoilt landscape, reliant on community and surviving (literally and economically) on home-grown produce . . . the reality can be harsh. Yes, being amidst the Atlas Mountains and a group of people I was unable to verbally communicate with whilst they clean sheep innards is very different to, say, joining a vegetarian English commune in a field in Devon, but the point is valid: romantic, rose-tinted ideas of ‘the good life’ are naïve and impractical.

In order to enjoy a simple lifestyle, the first step isn’t necessarily about diving into the embodied experience of it but in changing your perspective of what is already around you and slowly forgoing the things that don’t genuinely serve you.

Since returning from our latest trip, my de-cluttering project has resurfaced with a vengeance. There is a tidiness to the simplicity found in Morocco. Not only is the home tidy due to lack of ‘stuff’, but it makes everything else seem tidier – easier. Rough play with the kids becomes an almost anytime possibility when there isn’t a floor full of toys to trip over or various breakables dotted about the living space that douse the fire of playful spontaneity. True presence and communication with the people you are sharing your space with becomes more attainable when one isn’t constantly distracted by the ‘things to do’ that come with living a complex, modern life.

For all the talk of ‘modern conveniences’, many things that are supposed to make life more convenient actually make it more complicated, or at least less fulfilling. We race around partaking in ten quick and convenient habits when – psychologically and spiritually – we may yearn for two more involved jobs performed mindfully.

Honestly: I would rather spend a morning engaged in bread-making with my peers as the children run around together than to spend half an hour in isolation preparing ingredients for and later washing up the equipment needed to bake bread in a machine, potentially in a rush whilst trying to get the kids out of the house for a social ‘appointment’. This concept of making an appointment to pop in and see your friends is something else that is alien in Morocco – again, it comes down to ideas of convenience and inconvenience. And this is why I operate an ‘open home’ policy with my friends (that is, proving this point, rarely taken up) – I never want my friends to see their presence as an inconvenience to me, to think that I might have better things to do alone than could be gained from connecting with another human being.

We’re social animals; and in the vast array of things to do, places to be and material matters to attend to, this basic fact is becoming lost in ‘developed’ nations.

When material possessions that are surplus to genuine needs are set aside, we may actually appreciate what is truly necessary for a whole and healthy life.

 

8) The Joy of Children

In many ways, I can relax in Morocco with kids in tow.

I will soon be posting my top tips of things to take into consideration when travelling with children in Morocco (mainly about the not so relaxing stuff!), but one thing I can say with confidence is that no-one will mind you bringing your kids. If anything, people in Morocco generally take great joy in children and, when I travelled without FreeToBeP this summer, he was very much missed by those who expected him to be with me.

From breastfeeding an infant to having my kids become over-excitable whilst out and about, people here look upon the natural and typical behaviour of young children with endearment and acceptance. I have no fear of any tut-tutting as I breastfeed in public or while my toddler has a loud meltdown. And thanks to the relaxed state of mind that this lack of tut-tutting fosters in me, my children are also more relaxed, ergo I have less fear of my children even having said meltdowns.

Children playing in the streets late into the night is a common sight and sound. On hot days when families have been indoors having siestas, the whole family may come out at night to enjoy the street life, and this fits in well with my own relaxed attitude about bedtimes (whilst we have a routine, we do not have a schedule!).

Many so-called ‘attachment parenting’ beliefs and practices I try to live by are taken for granted here – there is no label, just women doing what they have always done to birth and raise their children naturally (homebirth, breastfeeding, babywearing and bedsharing). These are all things that I instinctively felt drawn to do as a mother that have been overshadowed in Western societies by the medicalisation of birth and the commercialisation of babyhood.

This is not to say that I agree with all the parenting practices that are at play in Morocco. I know that the ‘good’ behaviour of many Moroccan children is less about respect for the parents than fear of The Stick (physical punishment both at home and in school seems to be a socially acceptable tool for eliciting cooperation from a child).

And yet the positive bonds of family and community are obvious – the shared laughter as families gather together in their living quarters during and after evening meals; the acceptance of children as part of the community after the 9pm watershed; the ease with which the people here will pick up and dust off crying children who are not their own; or merely the planting of kisses and tousling of hair performed in the unselfconscious manner of those who are comfortable being around and showing affection towards the younger members of our human family.

 

9) Flora and Fauna

Whether out in the wilds of the mountains or in the centre of bustling Marrakech, there are plenty of sights to see for those interested in animals and plants.

FreeToBeP picking an orange earlier this year
FreeToBeP picking an orange

If you’ve got young children in tow, excitedly spotting horses and donkeys will soon become second nature in both town and country.

Whilst in the city much of what you see can’t be classed as ‘wildlife’ and there is often suspect animal welfare, it can’t be denied that there are novelties to be enjoyed.

In Marrakech alone, there are plenty of intrigues for anyone interested in natural history. Merely taking a taxi into town, budding botanists can spot palm trees (this might be more ‘exotic’ for some than others; here on the Jurassic Coast we’re already quite spoilt for more Mediterranean plants and trees), orange trees, olive trees, Damask roses and various succulents surviving in the arid soil.

If that’s not enough to satisfy your thirst for greenery, Marrakech boasts a number of gardens that can be worth a visit. Whilst I primarily wish to share information about things you can appreciate for next to nothing, I would gladly part with a few pounds again in order to revisit the Majorelle Gardens.

A visit to the pool of Marrakech Manara will grant you a view of half-tame fish which come to the surface to be fed.

Storks roost on the roofs and wide walls of tall buildings, including the minarets of the mosques.

Mules, horses and donkeys are common sights at the roadside and upon the roads, and camels are brought into the cities as tourist attractions (but the obvious thing to do if you want authentic camel memories is to make the journey to the Sahara).

Jemaa El Fna in the daytime can be like taking a trip to the zoo: snakes, monkeys, birds and other creatures are taken for display – you can look at these from a safe distance (safe from being encouraged to part with money that is) or for a small fee can have your picture taken with them.

In the mountains I have seen some beautiful butterflies and huge, sleek millipedes, as well as snakes, scorpions, and the evidence of wild boars.

The mountains can be quite colourful in the springtime with swathes of flowers.

A carpet of springtime flowers in the Atlas Mountains
A carpet of springtime flowers in the Atlas Mountains

The cacti of the prickly pear is also easily spotted along roadsides and around villages – the abundance of them is evident in the amount of fruit that is left unpicked (think of them in terms of the humble British apple tree!). There are also many herbaceous plants which the local women pick in order to use for medicinal purposes.

Moroccan Flora
Moroccan Flora

We have had our curiosity piqued by the array of insects we’ve spotted, all the more enticing to look at precisely because we don’t know if they’re things that could bite or sting us. Judging by the way I’ve seen some of the locals react to the sight of a spider – and assuming they don’t just have tendencies towards arachnophobia – I think it’s probably safe to say that there are resident arachnids that could cause harm to humans. And I’ve already detailed our encounters with cockroaches.

Moth, Morocco
A spotted moth (official name unknown to me!) in the mountains

I also have a ‘thing’ about birds (not sure if this grew from my childhood YOC membership or a more primal, psychological desire to ‘grow wings’) and have noticed many species of birds that I am unfamiliar with. I only wish I could use more informed, naturalist terminology to explain what I’ve seen! (If anyone knows more about the wildlife of North Africa, please do get in touch.)

Thus my next step is to find the Moroccan equivalent of my trusty ‘British Wildlife’ book.

 

10) Sun, Sun and Sun!

Last but definitely not least: glorious sunshine and dry heat is a huge plus point.

In Morocco I can pretty much forget that I’m medicated for asthma. The dry heat is really good for my lungs and barely a wheeze escapes me.

Yes, it can get too hot during the day, but the simple solution to this is that you adjust your expectations about what happens when. During our summer trip we were getting up during early afternoon, having an extremely late breakfast, eating lunch at teatime and then heading out for the ‘day’ when it had cooled down a little (to about 36 degrees Celsius that is) at around 6pm.

Whatever the thermometer may say, I find the dryness of North African heat much more bearable than the humidity of a ‘hot’ day in the UK. In my opinion, a dry and clean 35 degrees is much preferable to a sweaty 25 degrees!

Aside from general sun-seeking and the knowledge that both your physical and mental health are being given a boost thanks to the production of vitamin D and serotonin, the other bonus is in the small joy that is knowing your clothes will be bone dry within the space of a couple of hours after washing them.

Yes: simple pleasures.

 

In writing this, it would seem that the love-hate relationship I maintain with this country really is due to focusing so much on the contrasts and comparisons that a more objective view is obscured. For wherever you are, there are pros and cons, highs and lows. For whatever nuisances and inconveniences exist, there are so many things in this world that have the power to brighten our day.

Looking back on this list, the things that have the power to uplift – the things that really matter – are invariably day to day experiences that cost nothing, yet lend to us a wealth of spirit that can make any place a pleasure.

On this note, I’m off to make myself an avocado smoothie and eat some self-imported Atlas almonds . . .

Closer to Home: A Delightful Day in Dorset

In my desire to blog about what may be classed as more exotic family travel experiences, it’s too easy to lose sight of the fact that we live in an amazing part of the UK that is a tourist hotspot in itself.

Indeed, in the days since returning from our latest visit to Morocco, I’ve attended more events and indulged in more pastimes that could be compiled on a ‘Things to do in . . .’ list than I managed in Marrakech (my last post about Embracing the Ennui in Morocco no doubt drew attention to the fact that I wasn’t particularly adventurous and explorative on that particular trip).

Whilst Dorset may be ‘home’ to me, I shouldn’t take it for granted – there are potentially many local places and issues I could be writing about that would benefit other families on their travels for whom Dorset is actually a destination.

I’ve also started remembering to get the camera out at times other than trips to new locations. Hence, I hereby present yesterday’s full day of summer holiday activities:

FreeToBeP and FreeToBeZ with the Lego megalosaur mosaic at Dorset County Museum.
FreeToBeP and FreeToBeZ with the Lego megalosaur mosaic at Dorset County Museum.

In the morning we attended a children’s event at Dorset County Museum. This was a paid event (including a Lego gift – the design wasn’t genuine Lego, but the bricks themselves were), yet the museum often runs free sessions for kids during school holidays.

All we knew was that we’d be building a giant Lego dinosaur. As it happens, the ‘build’ was a mosaic – I’d been wondering how they were planning to get numerous kids to construct a single 3D creation! Each child had to help piece together the tiles that would eventually form the image using Lego bases of 16×16 studs and print outs of what each brick on that tile should be. The list of required bricks were coded (e.g. LGY – 15 equalled 15 light grey bricks) and for each new tile they came to do, the children had to go and find the required amounts from the coded boxes. They picked up the appropriately numbered base to match the number on their instructions, thus keeping track of where each tile should be placed on the huge mosaic base.

It didn’t occur to me at the time to take note of the total number of tiles, but it was made up of around 154 tiles (guessing that it measured about 14 by 11 bases).

FreeToBeP really enjoyed the event, but FreeToBeZ – tagging along as a little sister rather than a true participant – quickly became frustrated that she couldn’t just play with the Lego and protested loudly when we had to prise one of the final bases from her grip. It certainly wasn’t quite the ‘free for all’ experience that is encouraged in the brick pits at Legoland itself, but they had accurately advertised it as being suitable for ages 5+.

However, all in all, it was a fun event and it has definitely given me more ideas of different ways for us to make use of the vast amount of Lego that is in FreeToBeP’s possession.

Following on from this, it was carnival day in Weymouth.

Weymouth beach on Carnival day - we managed to find ourselves a relatively 'quiet' spot!
Weymouth beach on Carnival day – we managed to find ourselves a relatively ‘quiet’ spot!

I actually genuinely enjoyed our walk along the crowded seafront. Yes, it was exceptionally busy and therefore slow-going, but compared to the crush of people I’d been forced to walk up against in the crowds of Marrakech, I could actually breath and pretty much retain my personal space – or at least more personal space than the comparative experience!

It took us over an hour to wander from one end of the Esplanade to the spot on the beach we decided to head for. Usually, wandering past stalls full of cuddly toys and noisy, overpriced fairground rides would be enough to make me boycott Weymouth seafront on carnival day, yet it didn’t bother me at all this time.

FreeToBeZ was so in awe of everything that I was able to live through her eyes – as she gawped at the rows of stalls and insisted that she’d be going on the white-knuckle, adult-only fairground rides (giggling at the screeching people up in the air and announcing “Me go on later?!”), I found myself smiling at the things I’d usually be cynical about.

All the lights and colour brought back to me something I’ve just written about Morocco. I’d complained about how grey and drab British towns seem, and yet yesterday Weymouth (a town I usually consider to have more colour than most anyway) was vibrant and brimming with positive energy.

Our aim was to get to the community radio station’s stage in order to enjoy the live music with friends. As it happens, we found no familiar faces by the time we eventually got down there and the music just became a happy background noise to the job of supervising two kids on the beach. The sun had decided to come out to bless us for the latter half of the afternoon and everyone was in good spirits, FreeToBeP and FreeToBeZ content with that desirable holiday trio of sun, sand and sea.

Weymouth beach fun
Sun, sand, sea and cheerful children.

We’d decided on a mutually desired itinerary for the remainder of the day, and sat counting down the minutes until the Red Arrows’ display.

I’m not usually one for endorsing the glorification of military organisations, yet I must admit to having a soft spot for the RAF’s Acrobatic Team. A combination of nostalgia about my own childhood, plus the fact that they are actually bloody good, meant that I was genuinely as excited as my children at the prospect of seeing a display. You’d have to be blind to deny the skill and precision of those pilots, and there’s something quite touching about smoke trails shaped as hearts in the sky (yet as I type this, the environmentalist in me is balking!).

Weymouth Carnival, Red Arrows
Watching the Red Arrows over Weymouth Bay.

FreeToBeZ was particularly impressed by their presence. She has a ‘thing’ for planes at the moment following our own flight earlier this month, and greeted their arrival with a little dance. She voluntarily clapped in appreciation throughout the show.

“Me want go in that plane!” she exclaimed earnestly, as they performed one of their famous opposition passes. As nervous as it might make me – both now (on the climbing frame) and in the future (as a stunt pilot?!) – I do hope FreeToBeZ loses none of her braveness and boldness as she grows; for a fearless nature bodes well for a life lived fully when channelled into positive occupations.

Following this, we made a leisurely trip back along the seafront, stopping occasionally to satisfy the kids’ interest in the various stalls. I must have learnt something from my time spent relaxing in Morocco, for – once again – things I’d usually rush them past with excuses about whether we truly ‘need’ things, I instead looked upon in a more gentle, accepting light.

We got tickets for a tombola that FreeToBeP was determined to win on and – lo and behold – he most certainly got exactly what he wanted. FreeToBeZ didn’t have the same luck, yet her big brother was aware of the injustice of this and insisted he must purchase a floral headdress for her. With my money, of course. He confidently approached the headdress seller and told him he was buying it for his little sister, a gift she graciously accepted as the trader perched it on her head.

Many people enjoy watching the evening’s carnival procession – indeed, for some, this is the pinnacle of the event – yet we were all hungry and decided to go for dinner. We would return to the seafront after dark in order to watch the firework display.

Generally, I’m not a big fan of fireworks, but I do enjoy the odd organised display and I had high expectations of this one. The last time I watched a display on Weymouth seafront I’d had an extremely transcendental experience, being totally drawn into the way the light and patterns of some of the professional fireworks played the sky, seemingly falling towards the audience with an invite into the vortex to . . . somewhere!

“Do you remember the last time we watched the fireworks?” I said to FreeToBeP, “Some of them were like portals into outer space – like we were travelling through the stars!”

“Oh yeah!” he replied in agreement.

“I felt like I’d left the beach and was somewhere else.” I told him, wistfully.

“Yeah. It was like we went up into space, past all the stars!”

I don’t know how much was the power of suggestion, but I think he remembered. Yet I doubt he placed such significance on it. Young children are often living in states of transcendence through their power to live in the present, yet such peak experiences do not tend to happen as frequently in adult life.

The display this carnival night was also a good one, if not spiritually significant (I do feel I put high hopes on such simple things sometimes!). We sat in a cosy row a few metres from the calm sea, wrapped up against the somewhat autumnal chill and rapt with the light and colour and sparkles of the show.

FreeToBeZ didn’t want to leave the beach. Conversely, FreeToBeP was looking forward to going to bed (result!) with the cuddly toy he’d won.

It felt satisfying and soulful to truly appreciate our locality. No, there’s not a carnival every day but there’s always the sea and sand.

Today FreeToBeZ packed her little backpack, put on her shoes, unlocked the door to the outside world and told me she was going down to the beach to watch more planes.

“But we’re not going down to the beach now.” I told her, apologetically.

“Yeah, me like beach, me go myself! Mummy home, me go myself – ok?!” she informed me precociously.

I think it’s safe to say we all had fun.

 

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 🙂

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