Is there such a thing as too much family time?

walking to the glacierYes and no…  We are often told that having too much of any ONE thing, whether its beneficial for us or not, is not  a good thing.     But what does  a moderately balanced family life  look like and are we really having quality family  moments during those times together?

Maybe there is a secret formula to achieving optimum family time, a  bit like  the 3 fruits 2 veggies a day dose…so something like an equal parts me, relationship, kids…then there’s friends, extended family, work, hobbies etc.. Is my cake tin overflowing yet?!

It’s one thing to compartmentalise things neatly in  a chest of drawers,  it’s another to achieve this perfect  division of time between competing needs and wants….and how to do this when your entire day, yes 24/7 is spent with your family!

It’s a good thing that I like my kids and husband and they like me,  otherwise spending 24/7  together would be excruciatingly painful and harmful in the long term!   Yes, we have our moments of frustration, annoyances and disagreements but these moments usually pass and are resolved, otherwise we would all be feeling pretty miserable.

the one room house!
the one room house!

There is no other room to run  to or hide in when in a car or tent, there is little other distraction e.g. a friends house, a local bar or the television, when out in the middle of nowhere.   There may be a next day but between now and tomorrow there is a myriad of things that need both the attention and  the cooperation of you and your partner working together to ensure there is a bed to sleep in, food to eat, a place to get to,  kids to be taken care of.    Yes, there is a tomorrow, but the present is as good a time as any to sort things out or to decide if the tribulations  you did think are important then, are still now.

Yes, family time when travelling can be intense and it can sometimes feel like it can make or break you and the relationship.   However, what it can also do is build such an enormous bank of memories and experiences that it leaves you wondering how the hell you did it all…..and how you could even  begin to have done it AT ALL, if  it wasn’t for the we/us.

I remember reading an article some time ago about some of the top ten parent regrets.  The first five were something along the lines of: not spending enough quality time with the kids, not having enough holiday time as a family, and not enough time spent with kids in the baby/younger years.

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creating memories

I often think about this, because during those moments when I am struggling with the current thoughts of; not having enough sleep, not having enough me time or personal space and not having enough relationship time with my partner, I remind myself of what everyone reminds me, and of what I see and know is happening;  kids grow up so quickly.  I know this but sometimes it feels like another world away.

My eldest son is almost 5 and will soon be a school age kid.  I look at photos to remember what it was like when he  was a baby.  It seemed like the moment would last forever…including the sleepless nights, but it doesn’t and it won’t.

As we travel and meet other travellers, sometimes older retired couples, we know that at some point that might just be us, travelling together but no longer as a family.  It brings both a smile to my face and a tinge of sadness.

Spending 24/7 as a family doesn’t guarantee quality time or yours or others happiness.  Sometimes you’ll be happy other times you won’t.  But it will be whatever you and your family make of it.

Sometimes things aren’t so black and white.  Gadgets and technology can interfere in the quality of the  time spent together, other times these moments may be  quality rich.   Watching a tv program together, hanging out, engaged, interested and talking about what we are seeing is also good fun.. other times I have sat there in a world of my own, enjoyed and relieved to be in my own headspace, reading, doing my own thing, while my son is in his..definitely some quality time for me.

What I do know from spending a lot of time together as a family is that I am 100% comfortable with my kids and my husband.  It doesn’t mean that I don’t get annoyed or frustrated  or some habits irritate or infuriarate ( including my own), but that I’ve come to experience all of their personality and they mine..  Not only are we comfortable with each other, but more importantly we are able to spend time together and lots of it without losing our  heads too much.

For me,  a lot of that comes from being mostly happy and okay to be in this space.    I am happy with where I am because, here, with my family is where I think I should be and where I want to be.  We are overseas because this is where my partner and I want our family to be.      What I have gained or lost is my balancing act….. I may have forfeited girls nights out or romantic weekend getaways with my partner but I have gained in other ways I couldn’t have otherwise.  I am hanging out with my partner and best friend as much as I like and I’m doing something I love together with my kids.

When we left Australia it was a slight shock.  Even though we have been   pretty hands on parents before we left for travel (I stayed at home with the kids and my husband had flexible work hours running a business so he could be around to help out), it initially was and can  still be an ongoing adjustment to  being together 24/7.   It feels normal, and most of the time I don’t think about it, but at different times, I will feel it more intensely than others….depending on what has been happening,  where we are, what phase the kids are going through, what phase I’m going through,  how much sleep I’ve had etc etc.

Even as a stay at home parent in Australia, my days were filled with playgroups and play dates and family catch ups – weekend lunches or dinners.  I was rarely alone and rarely at home!!!    Then, suddenly we were on the other side of the world away from family and friends.  I wasn’t daunted by the prospect of  full time parenting….I was and had already been doing that part, mostly on my own.    In fact, I was looking forward to it being easier, given that there were now 2 of us to share all the responsibilities.    There wouldn’t be the same pressures of work and domestic responsibilities, there wouldn’t be the same  energy and time  consuming distractions that seem to come with living in a modern society whether it be gadgets, paperwork, beaucracy etc…. Simple living would be the aim……

On the other hand, it would be only the four of us, all the time.     None of the  other nice and comforting  distractions of family and friends….for either us or the kids.    Yes we could negotiate time and space for ourselves but a date night or time together alone???  How and when would that ever happen?  Yes we might have all this time for each other as a family, but what if it was too much time!!!

crazily intense at times
crazily intense at times

You would think there would be oodles of time in a day to devote to each of us having some “me” time.   However, in the daily reality of family travel, sometimes a shower alone was the most I could manage, if anything at all.  Other times, this “me” time came at the expense of the other…..e.g the burden or joy, depending on what sort of day we were having, of looking after both  the kids would all fall onto my husband or me.   We met a NZ family, who were taking a gap year with their older children.  The children were at school during the day and they were both at home enjoying the peace and quiet….now there’s an idea!

There is a reason why the proverb ” it takes a  village to raise a child” exists.  That is, to meet the needs of a family, and essentially look after thè youngest members of a community, requires the effort of all the community!!!   Children, parents and the community all benefit from the added support, care,  friendship, learning and working together that comes from this arrangement.

I would like to think this is the ultimate parenting philosophy and goal but who knows, it’s not a concept thats been tested or utilised  well in the western world.   I do know however, what it is like to have a house full of family members and while it can be chaotic and crazy, I have enjoyed the company of chatting to other family women, the kids who disappear with other kids to play for hours, the cooking,  washing up, and everything else that is shared and seems to just happen together.   Its an exhausting day but exhausting in a different way..not the ‘I’ve been overloaded, stressed out of my brain with too much stuff to do today’, but the “I’ve had a great exciting, happy busy tired sort of a day”.   So why were we removing ourselves from this entirely?!

travel..the "family way"
travel..the “family way”

Somehow travelling overseas as a family felt not only possible but easy, fulfilling and practical.   The reality was, we were going to be parents regardless of which country we were in.  Travelling in the  toddler and preschool years made sense….yes it could be challenging but we had no schooling commitments and parents are still pretty cool in a kids eye, to hang out with at this age…. . Being together meant that my boys could have both their parents with them.    Sure I’m good at reading and craft but I would rather leave the lego, and science questions to my husband.   It wouldn’t have to wait til he got home from work…..and I wouldn’t have to wonder and wish he was home sooner.

Separation anxiety

I’m referring to my separation anxiety not my kids… When we  arrived at our first destination in Santiago,  I felt some separation anxiety that I had never experienced before on my travels  as a single person.  My husband spent the first few weeks  trying to find a suitable road vehicle and I hung out with the kids.  A couple of times I had the scary gnawing gut feeling of what if?  What if something happened to my husband? What would I do, two kids alone, strange city, didn’t know anyone etc….It was frightening.

Home alone

I couldn’t imagine my husband leaving me for  5 days with two kids while in my home city and yet it felt completely okay to do this in another foreign city, when in London?  Why?   I don’t know, other than, normal is what normal is.  By this time, even though we were parenting together, there were lots of occasions when I had to parent alone regardless of where we were or which country we were in.

I coped because my kids were older- my youngest was no longer a baby.   I also had less expectations on myself of what should or needed to happen.     The only expectation I had of myself, was that I hang out with the kids, do the minimum required when it came to domestic duties and not feel so bad if we had a meal out.  Of course, the down side was having to be both the morning and the night person…first up and last to bed…. This would get wearing after a while and I really don’t know how single mums do it without adequate support.

What have I discovered?

These things and so much more!

My husband is a really good dad and my kids have  the benefit of what I hope is a quality relationship with both of us, not just now but for the long term

I  miss my kids having relationships with other family members and their friends from back home – different people offer different perspectives that can benefit both  us and the kids…

Having to wait til the kîds are asleep to have “relationship time” or me time!   My husband would still often run late at night or early morning just so it didn’t impact on me and the kids too much.

When the kids were looked  after by a family member after almost two years away, we had almost forgotten what it was like, and what to do with ourselves….We did however work out quite quickly what to do with this sudden spare time!

That spreading your relationship time evenly across the family sometimes requires a conscious effort…

That being a mum is pretty special and can mean so many things but I don’t want to be everything to my kids….I don’t want to be their playmate, teacher, coach, aunt, etc etc….I just want to be their mum….

The older the kids get the more these other external  relationships count.  I want my kids to have things that I didn’t have e.g. relationships with extended family, and I want them to have what I do have…..friends who have known me a lifetime…

That my boys are best mates at 4 and 2 and I hope this will last forever

That we love our friends and family back home but we have made new friends and memories that we can   take home with us!

That parents are pretty important and special people in a kids life and vice versa …..and that  there can never be enough memories to fill up that special bank in your heart and mind…

that after almost two years of travel I not only love my husband but  I really really like him, and his  company….somehow it seems to work out that when I’m not coping so well, he can and vice versa.   Support shows its form in so many different ways and so many times over

That even when coparenting, there are still the old age disagreeements about the division of labour and responsibilities

that even after spending 24/7 together, my husband still can’t read my mind……

To remember to enjoy and savour those moments when my kids want me to be involved, excited to show me stuff, want to hang out…rather than feel annoyed… these moments may not last forever…. Fast forward 10 years and it might be me, vying for their attention.

The kids have seen us in both our glorious and not so glorious moments…and I don’t mean without makeup!   When we muck up, get angry, make mistakes, argue, have a tanty.    Our kids know we are human and we are real.  But they also see us talk  (loudly sometimes) to work it out, resolve it and move on.

Periods of time in  confined spaces are bad…for everyone!

that sometimes the most difficult thing of all this time together is getting a family snap!

Feeling the responsibility of using this time I have with my kids wisely.  Making the most of our time together, ensuring they don’t miss out on same age activities, planning stimulating and challenging activities, sharing personal stories, family history, knowledge….after all you have a captive audience –  you and your partner are the most important people in their world…

That coparenting is pretty cool.  Although you often find it may  not always be what it seems..e.g while his sailing,  I’m with the kids, or vice versa…. Usually one person takes on the task that would need two people….  Sometimes,  it feels like a bit of a tag team effort.

that normal is whatever you make it.

What helps?

Having something to do that gives you some time off and headspace when you can.  My husband loves to run and I like to write.  Making time and supporting each other to have that space is important….and sometimes even after a bit of time away both you and the kids feel  joyous at seeing each other again…..some renewed energy

While there are disadvantages, there are also many advantages.  We think about how lucky and fortunate we are to be hanging out as a couple  with our kids.  This time will only happen once and it will disappear again in a blink of an eye…missing it would be the real loss……

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best friends

 

 

A London summer

london may 13 121I’m writing this blog in my head as I walk through Regents park, on a cold and wet summer’s evening.  My feet are cold – I’m wearing my sandals, the only pair of shoes I’ve been wearing for the last three months in Europe.   I went out without a rain coat…not even thinking….my glasses are covered in rain drops and I’m having my second shower for the day…a cold one this time.   Maybe I should’ve waited…but I saw a break in the clouds, my youngest son had gone to bed early, the park gates were still open  and I was taking my “me” time no matter what the weather.  I just wasn’t prepared for it..after all, it is summer isn’t it?

Well, it should be, but I happened to check Londons weather and compared it with Melbournes weather  and yes both were the same.  17degree, partly cloudy with showers.  One city going into summer, the other coming  into winter.

On my long, now short walk, I curled my fingers into my jumper, pushed my glasses over my head (I couldn’t see out of them anyway), and figured that while my Melbourne counterparts were experiencing the same weather, I was still enjoying long hours of sunlight (5am – 10pm), admiring the greenest, lushest velvet grass…and best of all,  I could still go and defrost afterwards in a big bath of hot water…I knew that my husband would love the opportunity to be out here running in the rain…yet, me….well I’m just pretty Melbournian.  There’s no reason to go out in bad weather when you can be curled up inside, instead and because in an hour/ this evening/tomorrow, the sun will shine again.

london april 13 020Londoners take the opposite attitude, if they waited for better weather, well they may never be out again..  Locals go out whether its rain, hail, or snow ( who else invented a show about muddy puddles!).   I like this…all it takes is some good warm weather gear, and some blankets provided by the local cafe for some alfresco dining.   If your going out with kids, dress in t-shirts but bring jumpers, raincoats, umbrella…basically prepare for all weather…!  Of course, it’s all about perspective, ask a Russian from Siberia or Moscow what they think of the London summer and they would probably tell you how warm and mild it is.

So this year,  the London summer is taking it’s sweet time to arrive.  Last year, we arrived in April to 2 degrees as London was experiencing a long cold winter snap and a delayed spring.  However, almost overnight summer snapped into place by June and suddenly it was reaching high 20s, even 30 degrees.  A heatwave was upon us.  Hard to  to describe it as a heatwave when compared to the 40 degree+ + summer experienced in Melbourne only a few months before.  But a heatwave in London is different.   I laughed too, when I heard the term used but soon I too was feeling it….a humid oppressive city heat, trapped amongst the buildings, and with little relief in a small apartments not designed for airflow or with any type of cooling device….where exactly is the fan/evaporative cooler switch because I could not find one…

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Sunny summer water fun

However,  London city planners are bright, cool and fun people.  They must be because even if it only reaches 30 deg for some of the two months of the year that is summer, they have loaded the city with lots of fun water play areas for kids and families.  Places such as the Princess Diana memorial water fountain (a round fountain with water spurts, fast water gushes, steep bits, flowing bits etc..), free water play area lidos (Hampstead Heath),  south bank spurting jets and so on and so on.  Now why didn’t  Melbourne think of that….a cool idea for a real summer heatwave….!!

So, my evening walk through Regents park could’ve been very different if the summer sun had arrived and wasn’t too busy hiding behind the thick heavy clouds….I would’ve been walking through the leafy park, watching squirrels and passing many a local relaxing on the grass stripped off to  their boxers and bikinis lying in a strategically placed position, avoiding the shady areas, enjoying a picnic, a glass of Pimms, ….as anyone would do…an ode to summer in London!

So maybe by the time we leave London in a month we may get to  glimpse a little bit of summer sun amongst the rainy, grey overcast days.   If not, as I fly over London with a birds eye view I will wistfully admire the greenest of green patches stretching for miles and be secretly thankful I’m not living it!!

Schengen shenanigans

imageSomething happened to free travel in the EU between the year 2000 and 2013 and no-one told me about it! One year I’m happily backpacking for 6 months around Europe without any consequence and then fast forward to 2013 and I’m told I have 90 days in total (within a 6 month period) in the schengen area.. schengen what??

Yes, that was pretty much my reaction…what is this schnegen and why is it the cause of my European vacation woes…..not too mention some anxious itinerary juggling, some last minute add ons, nervous finger counting on the calendar and missing out on visiting a host of countries not because I ran out of money but because I ran out of time.

So what is schengen and what does it mean? It is basically a convention – a signed agreement between a number of European countries (about 26 to date = most of Europe!) which removes the need for internal border controls and operates a common visa policy across the signatory countries. Yes, a shame not to collect all those country stamps in your passport, but great you say….no border controls…..in and out when you please?!

Well, not exactly….unless you hold an EU passport! For everyone else, its 90 days for the whole schengen area! That’s right, not 90 days for Italy, and then 90 days France or even Greece…no it’s 90 days all up and schnegen, take careful note is different to EU.

You see, countries not even in the EU have signed the schnegen agreement. So if you thought you could escape schengen by going to Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Norway or even Iceland you would be schengen mistaken!!!

So two months into the European leg of our trip, and we suddenly discover schnegen. There goes our one year plan out the window, in supposedly border and visa less Europe. Even if you spent 4 days in each schnegen country you still wouldn’t get to see all of them!!

However, I still wasn’t too phased. Surely, we could fly out and fly our schnegen behinds back within a day/week/month to continue our trip ( by this time we had already bought a boat hoping to cruise the canals and the meditterrean schnegen sea). Unfortunately, its a 90 days in and 90 days out rule (not necessarily consecutive….e.g 90 days within 180 days….so you can fly in and out but goodluck keeping up with your 90 schnegen day count). So suddenly we were faced with the other devastating non schnegen prospect…..of spending 3 months in Gibraltar or the Vatican city or somewhere like that!

Did we want to test the enforcement capacity of the schnegen treaty? Not really, we had already heard about another canal cruising Australian couple who got fined 5000 schnegen dollars for overstaying their 90 days in Holland. We also had read countless of forums, of people who had overstayed their 90 days (either wittingly or unwittingly) and were trying to work out what the schnegen next to do…. and others who were quick to point out the legal and immoral implications of being so unschengenlike. It may not look like the immigration person behind the schnegen counter is checking your passport but believe me, it doesn’t take long to calculate 3 months in their head and the last exit stamp is always beside the last entry stamp….they find these stamps even amongst your hundred other ones from Asia or America etc… they know.

Whether they choose to pull you up on it or not is up to the schengen gods. The schnegan agreement doesn’t keep people out, it keeps people in. This is fine if you never plan to return home but for those who do they might just find themselves travelling from one schengen country to the next for 10 years unable to leave the “EU”, until they finally miss family, friends and home cooked meals and turn up at an international airport somewhere prepared to face the fine and the never to return to Europe stamp…..

We almost thought of getting away with it when the immigration officer was about to give us the schengen wave through after seeing my husband’s British passport but no we made mention of the rest of the family’s Australian passports….stupid or schengen smart?

I would like someone to enlighten me on the rationale behind the schengen agreement. Why a bunch of countries, including those not even in the EU and as far away as Iceland chose to open their borders to everyone in the EU but exclude everyone else…. Essentially, give some of us, who are the furthest away, as little time as possible to travel through a glomerate of countries and spend as little of our tourist dollars as possible…. !!!

Isn’t there an economic schengen crisis in Europe? Wouldn’t Spain or Greece like some of our tourist money? Apparently not…UK on the other hand, has benfited the most from our EU “out” time, taking up about 5 months of our total European stay… The UK, like Ireland decided to opt out of the Schengen agreement, controlling their own border entry and exit points.

Why can’t schengen countries determine on a case by case basis whether someone has the funds/ability to remain in their country/area just like the English do… the English are quite happy to ask interrogative questions if they think they need to.

What’s even worse, unlike other countries you can’t even apply for a schengen visa extension! Technically, as a US/Australian/Canadian citizen you don’t have a “visa”, you have a stamp, a stamp that entitles you to 90 days….. PERIOD…. maybe a few more days if you have a medical emergency… In trying to do the right thing, I spent a whole day trying to get someone, somewhere in France to stamp my damn passport so that there would be no dispute when I had entered the country – thats’s how I spent my first schengen day…..and now here I am, with my 90 days ticking away, while I’m motoring at 8 kms an hour along a canal in France, only half way across the bloody schengen country….so what to do?

So where to go besides Ireland and UK, because lets face it, who wants to escape the European winter and head to the UK? So, if it wasn’t for the schengen agreement we wouldn’t have spent 3 interesting months in Morocco…..(we considered Tunisia and Turkey also, as the closest countries to Europe with milder weather). Driving and camping through Morocco was great and wouldn’t have otherwise happened if not for schengen however, a visit to the Canary Islands would’ve been nice, or even Portugal and Spain on the way through but no……By the time we left Morocco three months and counting was far too schengen long and we were all feeling a little schengened out!

So we tried option 2

Apply for a permission to stay in an EU/schengen country. I have family in Italy, speak the language and the funds to support myself so I decided to apply for a permesso di soggiorno (carte du sejour in France) based on family connections and tourism motives (as suggested on their website). Did this work out well…. no, not really and 3 offices later (including a visit to the citizenship office) we left Italy in the same position as before. What I could have applied for, was a permission to stay as a spouse. So, my husband as an EU member would need to register as a resident with the local council and I apply based on my relationship with him. All fine, if we were in a stable address in Italy, but a boat even if parked in Italy does not count as a residence. All we really wanted, was to spend a schengen winter and summer in the Mediterranean (preferably Italy to stay close to relatives) but these was not to be. So off we went twice, for 3 months to a non schengen country, wishing I had an EU passport or even a NZ one… somehow unbeknown to me, there has been some “agreements” made between certain schengen countries and NZ to allow 90 day stays in these individual countries…. how?? now thats what I would like to find out…..!!

Visa free borders, well not really

There are currently 26 countries in Schengen.

Belgium, France, Germany, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, Italy, Austria, Greece, Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Norway, Iceland , Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Lithuania, Latvia, Malta, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia.

Non schegen countries:

Cyprus, Bulgaria, Romania and Croatia (this may change in the future)

Other options

Before leaving home, find out if you or your partner can apply for an EU passport. Do your research. Is there a maternal/paternal grandparent somewhere that you didn’t know about who is really from Bulgaria, Croatia? Dulve deep into your ancestral roots.. a country that wasn’t EU 10 years ago, might just be now!!

Ask your government why NZ can strike a deal with EU schengen countries and yours can’t….time to look at your countries foreign relations….

Re-think an extended trip through Europe before you leave!

Plan your trip through Europe so that you are in non EU territory when 90 days expires

You can’t apply for a visa extension on your stamp. Visit a country’s embassy from your home country to apply for an extended stay before you depart

Apply for a permision to stay (carte de sojour, permesso di soggiorno etc) immediately on arrival to the immigration officials of the country you wish to apply for, usually within 8 days. You need to meet their requirements. Italy’s familial connections law changed in 2009. Do you intend to travel and study? Also check the countries residence requirements if your partner or family member carries an EU passport.

Choose another continent such as South America for your travel of a lifetime dream. We entered several times back and forth between countries e.g. Chile and Argentina, and there are enough countries to visit to keep you busy travelling for a long time.

Sympathise with all those visitors much worse than yourself who are at the constant mercy of a country’s strict visa rules and regulations

Think Karma….there is a reason why strict visa rules apply to you….and also lots of visa charges. Its more expensive to travel on an Australian passport than a British one…we know, as we forked out ridiculous visa fees every time on our Australian one, while my husband on his British passport never paid once…not even in Argentina, and Britain went to war with them!

 

Pardon my French

imageYou would think that speaking French would be easy given that something like 30% of English words come  from the French language.  It’s no coincidence that words like nouveau, espionage, cuisine, etiquette, encore and meringue, sound a little French and fancy.   However, the list does not end there, no it goes on and on…(google Wikipedia just to see how long…).  There are many more words, some less obvious than others, such as comfortable, ponder, air, garage, orange, and even car.    In fact, when you are in France, you will be amazed at how many words you recognise in the written form….words like pavilion, regrete, fatigue.

However, this is where the similarity ends..You may think you know French but do you really?   You might be able to sing along to the words of Kylie Minogue’s hit song perfectly, (remember, Je ne sais pas pourquoi?) or  you may find yourself using French/English words in your everyday conversation with ease…such as when asking your beau for a rendezvous!  You might even write RSVP on the bottom of every invite and actually know what it stands for.  In fact, since watching Master chef, you probably know the difference  between a terrine and a gratin…..or better still, maybe you pepper your sentences with real French words like voila!  But does this mean you can speak French?  And more importantly can you be understood?

We all know it’s a disaster  to try and say many of these French  origin words phonetically…. somehow, we just know how to say them (those familiar to us, anyway).   But can you think back to when you first tried to say any of these or other French sounding words?  Did you cringe when someone corrected you ( its not fox pas…its foe pah!).  Did you first whisper it quietly before feeling bolder and more confident to talk about your “déjà  vu moment while having  hors d’ouvers at the haute coutture shop?”

The words you already know may seem like child’s play…but what about all the rest..e.g the ENTIRE French language…what do you think then…  Do you think you’ll just be able to fake it by putting on a French accent and sounding all posh?!  Well…. close enough…pronouncing any of the words with a French flair is defintiely a good start.

So when WE  got to France, I was feeling particularly smug.  Firstly, I had a background in Italian and some Spanish so this was just another one  of those Latin languages.  I also found, that I could recognise many of the words I saw, I just couldn’t say them in a way that was understood by anyone except for me.

Somehow, an ocean exists between the way I say  a french word and the way it’s meant to be said….  When we were in South America, I cringed when I heard someone pronounce   “hola”  like they were some rodeo riding a bucking bronco…  (oooohhh laaaa). I thought, how could they get it so wrong… but then I found myself in France, wondering how my request for “creme brulee” was not understood, then mistaken for cafe au lait, until finally I had to point to the word on the menu… ahh,  ickkrrrreme brulayy!. That’s what I thought I said, but no..

I met someone who told me, the French aren’t rude, they just don’t understand what your saying.  I think there is a lot of truth in that.

I remember my Italian cousin finding it hard to differentiate between the sounds of  beach and bitch.  There is a huge difference, and you don’t want to make the mistake of getting it wrong.  So when your speaking French, do you really know what it is that your actually asking for!  Carrying flash cards or miming the words might just be safer!

The French people we met weren’t as arrogant as I originally thought or as the stereotype suggests.  When I asked ” parlay vou anglais”  the answer usually was: yes a little.   This had changed from ten years ago when as a backpacker in France, the answer back then, was almost always no.  Given that we are struggling with speaking French, I gather the French might also be finding it somewhat difficult speaking English…..a bit of vis-a-vis.

French is not the sort of language, you can learn from your French phrasebook, no it’s not that simple and no you can’t be that lazy…. even the phonetics to help you with the pronunciation are way off the mark…. no, French is a language that must be learned by audio means.  So for this visit to France I packed a beginners 1 & 2 learning french audio CD pack.

Even my eldest son couldn’t get it quite right…. Up til that point he was doing brilliantly, repeating a word he heard once and getting the pronounciation perfect immediately.   Yet we arrived in France, and he couldn’t quite seem to get bonjour right, preferring to say bonjour’d.   Let’s say, I stopped asking him to “repeat after me”….

We found google translate useful, if not hilarious at times.  We had to write several emails to book camping accomodation for ourselves and confirming a spot for our two donkeys.   One email confirmation returned to us google translated  as “yes, we have room for you and your asses”!     It was funny because it sounded so correct and yet was horribly incorrect – the French would never be so crude, well not in a first email.   You will find the French to be unusually polite – addressing someone as madame or monsieur.  This form of greeting is not just reserved for the “older” generation, but used all the time.  It helps if you greet this way also upon entering a shop or store.    

So what is the best thing you can do to help  in the foreign language speaking department?  Start young and early.   There is a reason why many German and Dutch people speak English almost better than you.  Language learning starts early and its offered more than 30 minutes per week, more like 30 minutes per day.  I would often find myself forgetting that the German person I was conversing with was speaking to me in their second or third language.

However, if you didn’t quite start at age 3, never fear.  It can be harder learning  a new language as you get older as it requires more effort.  However, it’s never too late.   Visit a tourist country and you’ll find locals with very little schooling and who are sometimes a lot older than you (in their 60s+)  conversing in 4, 5 or 6 languages.  Unfortunately, a native English speaker  often has the expectation and assumption that everyone can or should speak English, no matter where they are in the world.

There is nothing quite like the experience of being misunderstood and the frustration of miscommunication to be more sympathetic to those who you encounter in the same position whether it be while travelling or meeting a non English speaker in your own country.  There’s nothing quite like a bit of humour, empathy, understanding and some patience to help someone get their message across or at least let them know that what they need to say is important even if it is a struggle.  So even if its talking in monosyllables,  a series of unintelligible grunts, pointing fingers and comic hand gestures….,we’ve all been there at some point…even if we have to think way back to our toddler years!

 

 

Overland vehicle options for a travelling family

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our mode of travel for 3 months in Morocco, car and tent

So, what is the ideal road trip vehicle for a travelling family?

It is the ultimate question for any family about to embark on a road trip adventure and there isn’t a right or wrong answer.

We have asked it a million times and discussed it endlessly, sometimes with a different result depending on our mood on the day, which country we’re in, or what new overland vehicle we have just spotted on the road that day…The answer to this question will depend largely on who you ask at the time…everyone will tell you, theirs is the perfect travel vehicle (they had it custom built) and is the perfect solution to your family road travel woes. What vehicle you chose will depend on factors such as; your period of travel, budget, location, your family’s needs and size and well ultimately, your personality!

Some initial questions to consider include…..Do you want practical, big, small, convenient, creature comforts, homemade, custom made, affordable, trendy, fuel efficient, off road capable, fast, slow, head room, no room, old, new, etc.

So, say I wanted cool and homely, I would go for a converted old bus (we spotted two yellow ones) and it reminded me of the idealised old hippie travelling days. The inside of one was lovingly converted complete with a cosy woodfire heater, wooden table and bench seats and even a sewing machine for the creative inner you…Buses have personality and big windows with lots of light…but it is a bus… think noisy, slow, old and not particularly fuel efficient.

Converted old 2WD trucks are popular amongst some of the French surfers/hippies travelling along the coast of Morocco – basic, homemade, and obviously not too expensive to buy. I love the idea of having a truck fitted out with anything you could find from your house/freecycle/donations whatever. A truck is made to carry weight… so think claw bath and big futon bed with floor to ceiling bookshelves.. you could make it however you wanted – bolt anything to the floor of it, and off you go…. But you wouldn’t want to get stuck anywhere (you’d be waiting for days to find a bigger/stronger vehicle to tow you out), drive too far (high fuel costs), it would be a pain to manoevere and would add an extra couple of hours to your travel time especially if driving in hilly countryside.

converted 4WD trucks
converted 4WD trucks

We have seen ex german/russian converted military trucks as well as all sorts of other 4WD truck conversions.

The former can come in 4/6/8 WD. This would be the way to go if you wanted the space, head room and better off road capability (e.g. something that  can hold the weight of your “house” even on dirt unpaved roads). But they can look huge and very conspicous. They seem somewhat out of place amongst the local cars, can use up to 5 x the amount of fuel of a normal 4WD, and depending on what you want done, it wouldn’t be cheap to either buy a truck as is, or for the conversion. Some 4WD trucks because of their size can still be impractical off road especially on smaller roads.

Motorhomes

Europe and Morocco: motorhome paradise
Europe and Morocco: motorhome paradise

It seems as if every French older person (and a handful of Germans, Italians and Dutch) has a motorhome and travels each year to North Africa to escape the European winter – something in the vicinity of 40,000 when we were there. We saw motor homes of every shape, size, brand and year on the road, from the cheap and affordable to the decadent and fancy. They are custom built, compact, well organised, fuel efficient (newer ones) with a practical space, albeit a bit sterile and same same looking. They can come with all the creature comforts you desire – shower, tv, satellite, aircon, heating, trailers with bikes, motorbikes, dune buggy’s, even a town car on the back.   It doesn’t mean they can carry all of this quite so easily… Question is….do you need to take your whole life with you on your travels and where do you really want to go when there? Motorhomes have a practical and comfortable space, but they are not made for driving on unpaved roads with the weight they are carrying – think flat tyres and maybe broken motorhome..

Vans

If you want to blend in with the local vehicles, I can guarentee that almost anywhere in the world a white non descript van (ex passenger/delivery type ones) would be the way to go. Only the foreign number plates would give it away, and maybe the curtains, the silver foil windscreen shield and the world map design on the side.  Apart from that, the more battered looking the better. Many travellers have chosen a van as the way to road trip – its compact, and a simple and yet do-able living space – you can fit a bed in the back, a simple cooker, sink, and some storage. You can park it anywhere and no-one would guess your sleeping in it.

A van as an all in one vehicle even as a 2WD would handle dirt roads better than a motorhome. There are various sizes, brands and even 4WD options.  Although, it’s important to remember that a 4WD is not just about  having 4 wheels that drive!  So a 4WD doesn’t always equal 4WD capable on all roads.  Consider weight, tyre size, clearance and other factors to determine and assess the 4WD suitability for your desires.  To fit a family, a soft pop top or a hard one, can give you the extra bed space, and/or head room. If you don’t like white, paint it, sticker it, stripe it, whatever you like it.

4WD ute camper conversion
4WD camper

4WD car

A 4WD gives you the ability to go almost anywhere. It doesn’t matter whether its a paved road, a muddy road or a corregated one, a road with pot holes, one thats been washed away or even a bush or dirt track. It doesn’t matter if it’s a small road, a windy road or a steep one. You can just drive it – easily…. If you want to go off road to wild camp, or tuck in somewhere a little more discrete, chances are you can probably get there in a 4WD. They are practical, useful, less likely to get stuck, and depending on the model you buy – spare parts can be found anywhere in the world.

The question than is – how and where do you sleep? Possibilities include: rooftop tent, pitch tent, camper, bed in the back, accomodation… As a couple, a 4WD is an ideal way to travel. In 2007, we travelled for 6 months pre kids. We drove our landrover defender canvas roof with a bed in the back from far east Russia to Turkey via Central Asia. We paid for accomodation in cities (although you don’t have to – we met a dutch couple travelling for 8 years who always slept in their landcruiser no matter where). The cost of accomodation and our overall travel/vehicle expenditure was much cheaper than paying for an expensive conversion or a motorhome.

Accomodating a family in a 4WD car is more difficult and has given us much to think about. With our first son, we did a couple of desert camping trips in Australia with the three of us.. again the bed in the back was still okay (just) for us all to sleep comfortably. Our son loved sitting in the front seat, between the two of us during the driving time. It was practical and easy, with very little set up required (we had a fridge, cooker attached and storage space) and we could park anywhere and go to bed.

And then we became four…!! Our 4WD with a bed option was no longer possible….so what now??!!     See blog: Things to consider when choosing your family’s overland vehicle, for a discussion on the important factors to weigh up when deciding on THE “ultimate” vehicle or just the most affordable way to road travel as a family.

Travelling through Morocco in a landrover.  Great for off road
Travelling through Morocco in a landrover. Great for off road

 

 

Buying and selling a car (in a day), the Chilean way

Our 4WD Nissan pathfinder: served us well for 4 months
Our 4WD Nissan pathfinder: served us well for 4 months

During our 5 months in South America, we bought and sold two vehicles (privately) in Chile for our travels. The first was a motor home (see blog: our 12 day motor home nightmare: but don’t let that put you off), the second a Nissan pathfinder. You could travel in a capable 2WD vehicle ensuring you go real slow on the dirt roads to avoid punctures ( we did meet travellers who had hired a 2WD drive doing the same roads as us).   A 4WD however, gives you the freedom to go more places especially hard to reach camping spots, off track.  It provides more opportunities for wild camping rather than structured campsites/carparks.   There are  a wide range of cars to choose from in Santiago, and these are quite affordable, compared with say, Argentina or even home (Australia).

It is possible to buy and sell a car privately if you wish. It is a fairly straightforward, simple and easy process. You don’t necessarily have to go through a dealership. In fact, we found that when it comes to doing the paperwork – its a one day job. I have provided a simple step by step process further on.

The actual buying/selling process takes a bit longer as there can be a bit of back and forth tennis communication going on, and locals can be quite hard to pin down – even when your the one trying to buy something from them. You may have to call/ text several times, just to lock in a time and then feel guilty when after the 10th call, the person tells you, can they call you back in 5 minutes, they are just coming out of church…….

We discovered that  locals tend to prefer phone contact rather than email or text (even though we requested email contact to help us with the communication process – google translate works wonders). But no, locals generally want to call and talk about it and you will get less interest if you only limit yourself to email communication.

Expect late night calls – yes even at 11pm, lots of questions, before someone even considers coming to look at the car. However, the one person who does come and look at the car, is likely to buy it – unless there is something drastically wrong – like its missing an engine or something. Both times we sold our vehicles, we also had what seemed to be serious offers to buy the car without seeing it. Cars seem to move quite quickly in the Santiago market place.

The biggest issue you’ll face is trying to organise appointment times for viewing. You’ll usually get the “ call me later, tomorrow, that afternoon, etc and see how we go..” either people are really busy, waiting for better offers or they are on the same merry go round as everyone else ( who are also being non committal) to make a time with you. No one really seems to know what they are doing tomorrow, until tomorrow comes.

In fact, we allocated times of 1-2 hours apart for 3 people to come and view our car one afternoon, and somehow all three managed to turn up within 5 minutes of each other.. It was a bit embarrassing but hey, the car got sold that day with very little negotiation. A private sale can maximise the price you can get for the vehicle, and if you have a couple of weeks up your sleeve before leaving the country, than it can be worth the extra little effort.

While there may be some fluffing around which happens during the pre sale, once you’ve bought or sold a car, the locals spring into action. Somehow, taking a day off work the very next day to complete the paperwork is no issue, neither is the inconvenience of suddenly not having a car. We went to view our 1998 Nissan pathfinder, agreed to buy it for $7,000US and the very next day it was ours with the authorisation papers. We left Santiago a day later. When we returned in 4 months we were able to sell it easily (in one week) at a loss of only $400US. Not bad when you consider the outrageous hire price for the same period.

While travelling through Patagonia, we saw many backpackers travelling by bus/ hitch hiking (it can get quite competitive and we sometimes passed 10 couples/individuals trying to hitch a ride). We also met other travellers who had bought or hired a car (depending on length and period of travel) and were camping/sleeping in the back of the car.  If you want to get to the National Parks and see the countryside (which is stunning by the way) rather than the towns..than having your own wheels is a good way to do it.   We did see some motor homes, mainly European imports, but nothing like the number of motor homes/campers you would see travelling through Europe/North Africa.  I gather the cost of shipping wouldn’t be so cheap…

Here is some practical information about buying a car in Santiago (Chile) to begin your road trip through South America.

What you need to purchase a vehicle as a foreigner

Obtain a RUT (Rol Unico Tributario) number

A RUT number is like an ID number. You need it to buy/sell a car, even to purchase a mobile phone or a BAM (internet access stick for laptop). Its useful, free and easy to apply for.

Apply at the office of: Servicio de Impuestos Internos (SII office). The office you visit will depend on where you are based whilst in Santiago. We went to the office at: Padre Alonso de Ovalle 680, which is the regional office for Santiago Centro (barrios of Centro, Independencia and Recoleta). For other office locations check out: www.sii.cl/sobre_el_sii/resumen.htm. Scroll to S for Santiago.

Office hours are usually 8.30am – 14.00. Go early, bring your passport. Walk in, fill in the paperwork and you will leave with a piece of paper which is your temporary RUT number. Carry it with you and guard it with your life until you get your permanent ID card. This can can be mailed to you or picked up from the original office 3 months later.

NB:  You can buy or sell a car with the temporary RUT paperwork.

Where to look?

Private sales

We searched the popular local websites;

Chile autos www.chileautos.cl and

Mercardolibre www.mercadolibre.com

There are traveller websites such as lonely planet thorntree forums where those finishing their south american road trip can post vehicles for sale.

Note: When going out to view private car sales you may need to bring your own GPS as taxi’s can get lost when heading out of Santiago centre..!

Dealerships

Dealers generally sell cars on consignment, and you’ll find lots to look at. It may mean the paperwork takes about 3-5days but everything is generally taken care of.

There are various dealers and you can peruse popular areas such as Avienda Las Condes or Irarrazaval Av.

We also went to visit a Nissan car dealer, who spoke good English and was helpful.carlos verdugo cverdugo@verdugo.cl

 Purchasing a vehicle

So you’ve chosen a vehicle, checked it out, negotiated the price (may not be much negotiating…) – what next?

Accessing Money:

ATM’s in Santiago will only dispense 200.000 Chilean pesos at a time ($400US). Plan for this when organising your payment/pick up time!

Most people will not want you to come with wads of cash that they carry back to their home or office, so organise a “vale vista” (bank cheque/money order) at the bank.

Complete the transfer of sale

To transfer the car in your name or vice versa as a foreigner,  you will need to visit a notorio to complete the paperwork. If you were a local you could do the paperwork at the main registry office for $40US!

There are notorios everywhere and both times we went to one located near the vehicle. The local person you are buying/selling from can even help with finding one. The average cost is about $200 – 300US, but they lodge all the paperwork and take the necessary paperwork required from you – no hassles. Both parties need to go to the notorio together preferably first thing in the morning, because it can get hectic. Usually the person buying the car pays the notorio fees but we paid for the notorio fees when selling our car also because a local doesn’t have to go to a notorio, however we do.   Locals can  chose to do so because they want to ensure all is done well from a legal perspective but they could just as easily pay $40 and go to the main registro office…Your call/negotiation.

The car paperwork will take approximately 15 working days to transfer into your name. You will need the official paperwork before you cross borders but you can travel within Chile with the temporary one. You can get the paperwork posted to a forwarding address or do as we did – we visited the local registro civil office in the town we were in, pre crossing the border and got a print out from there.

Ownership/other paperwork to do with the car

You will soon discover that the servicio de registro civil is where it all happens: birth, death, marriage certificates, passports, car paperwork etc… Its a one stop government shop. So your official paperwork will be issued by this office. The main one in Santiago centro is: Servicio de registro civil: Huerfanos 1570, Santiago. Go to www.registrocivil.cl for other region locations.

Permiso de circulacion

This is the yearly registration (tax) cost for the vehicle, paid end of March. We sold our car start of March before we had to worry about any additional costs. Why not do the same?

Revision tecnica

The car’s safety inspection certificate. Again, check when this was completed last, and when its due again.

You can request a “ certificado de anotaciones para vehiculos motorizado” which shows any violations, parking fines etc outstanding on the vehicle.

Heading off

Car insurance is not compulsory in Chile. It is compulsory in Argentina and other South American countries, and can be easily organised before you cross the border through MAPFRE – we did this online before crossing the border (you will need a print out of your insurance – don’t just flash the document on your computer around!). We also noticed as we neared the border of Chile/Argentina (especially on the main/popular border crossings) signs advertising : segurios obligatarios – insurance available to buy at various shop locations. You can either check country by country or organise insurance to cover you for your entire south America period through: MAPFRE http://www.mapfre.com/mapfreasistencia/en/home.shtml (it does most of South America, but double check) or falabella (local Chilean department store) http://falabella.cl.

 Tolls

To enter or exit Santiago, you will need to purchase a day pass (toll fee) which can be done prior or within a 24 hour period at a servipag office in Santiago:  www.servipag.com or you can find automated booths at  major COPEC fuel stations. Just make sure you know your car registration details!

Any other toll fees are paid at toll booths in cash.

Fuel:

Pre pay service fuel. Attendants fill up for you!

Crossing borders

The paperwork that matters is your RUT number, official transfer sale document and insurance if required (and of course your personal document/passport). Make sure that the car information is typed correctly when crossing borders by the immigration official. The Argentine official at the border had made a typo error when entering our number plate. So, instead of owning a Nissan pathfinder, it came up as a completely different model car altogether. The police at a random checkpoint picked it up, questioned us about it (sensitive to illegal importation of cars given the ridiculous price difference) but accepted it as a one number typo error…

Selling a car

RUT: You can sell your car with either a temporary or permanent RUT. So if you finish your trip before you receive your permanent ID card (in 3 months), that is okay. Make sure you still have your temporary RUT paperwork. Most importantly is  the official document of car ownership in your name (15 working days to obtain at any servicio registro civil).

Advertising

We advertised in both Chile autos (free) and Mercardolibre websites (paid). We also posted on a couple of traveller forum websites and made up some flyers to place in various city hostels, especially as we were giving away some of our camping gear with the car. The best response was from the local private websites. We got lots of interest even after the vehicle was sold. You will get a good response if advertised for the right price…check out the competition online before you advertise.

Buy back

When you are looking at buying a car from a dealer they may offer a “buy back” from you at a reduced cost (a % loss). This sounds very attractive to a short/medium term traveller and may influence your purchase of the vehicle…e.g. The car has only been bought and its already sold! Just keep in mind, it may or it may not happen. If it does, than it’s another great option to consider when selling.

We had our dodgy backyard dealer (when we bought our motor home) tell us he would happily buy the motor home back from us, which was a complete croc. He didn’t want anything to do with it and we came to understand why…. So, when buying a car, would you still buy it if not for the attractive offer of a buy back? E.g. is it a good reliable car, or if you don’t care for it to be,  then is it worth what you are paying for it?

Documents:

Visit the servicio registro civil for the “certficado de anotaciones vigentes” (document with all the particulars of the vehicle – current/past owners etc) prior to the visit to the notorio – usually the morning of the sale.

Visit the notorio, but this time as a seller, not the buyer.

Get the cash, and congratulate yourself for a smart cost effective way to travel and don’t spend it all at once…..!!!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mind your p’s and q’s

imageI wish that Australians showed more manners sometimes…. I thought that the Chilean ‘politeness’ was simply a cultural thing, as we often had anyone from a teenager to an adult offer us seats when we were out as a family..it .didn’t matter where it was, whether it was the local pool, on the metro etc.  Then we got to London and I soon discovered that even in a city with a population of over 8 million, here were another bunch of really courteous people… whenever we were on the tube someone always offered a seat to either myself or the kids and everyone knows that spare seats in the tube are rare.

Sure we might be a bit miffed and joke about the overly organised societal rules that can exist –the almost iconic ‘mind the gap’ (although its no longer continuously broadcast over the PA), ‘keep to the left’, the specific doors you have to enter or exit when catching a double decker bus. The refusal (either wittingly or unwittingly) to comply with any of the above can at best be met with a rude glare or an abrupt excuse me, and  at worst, well find out at your peril!!    These matters can be taken into one’s own hands and might even  be the cause of a riot…….In one instance, I witnessed a bus driver refusing to drive until one  passenger (an older lady) got off and re-entered the bus again through the entry not the exit doors.. Well, all manners went out the window, and it caused everyone much grief. For ten minutes there was lots of grumbling, swearing, insults, sides taken, and I could foresee a fight to break out…and all for what? I even joined in with a “come on mate, it doesn’t really matter, does it?” (as I felt it my duty to remind him of his duty; to drive the bus!) Oh yes, for someone with staunch principles…everything matters, either that, or the bus driver was having an exceptionally bad day…..

Aside from these rare moments, when it comes to driving etiquette, a similar politeness and courteousness takes place on the roads too. On the motorway in the UK, people keep to the left, overtake in the right lane and generally, are mostly good natured even though the traffic can be hideous and the conditions not so great especially in winter time with fog, black ice, early darkness.

Australians have generally had a great record when it comes to road safety especially with the introduction of child safety seat laws, mandatory seat belts (as early as the 1970s) and compulsory helmets for bike riders (who could forget the stack hats of the 80s). Currently, the governments latest target as the biggest killer on the roads is speeding, and anything above 5kms over the speed limit gets you a hefty fine, yes even on the free way/motorway.

So what does this lead to??? A bunch of angry, frustrated, impatient and arrogant drivers..and 3 lanes of traffic on a free way ALL driving at the same pace, give or take a couple of kms depending on the accuracy of your car’s speedo.

There are the drivers who refuse to move out of the right (overtaking lane) because they are doing the speed limit, so why should they, would come the reply.

There are the drivers going slow (still in the right lane), who can’t quite make the transition to the middle/left lanes, partly because there’s few gaps in the traffic (cars are all going just under 100 kms) and they seem to miss every opportunity and partly because in 186 kms or so they will be taking a right turn exit off the free way so why move now only to move later.

Then there are the arrogant drivers who are in the right lane also, who refuse to budge, because after all, they pay taxes and the right lane is just as much theirs as anyone else’s.  So is anyone driving in the left lane you ask? Well, that’s what I’d like to know…

So what does this create? Road rage, reckless driving, undertaking, tailgating, lots of raised fingers, hand shaking out the window, high stress levels, high blood pressure, headlights flashing, horns beeping, low morale, low cash flow (camera’s are everywhere) and basically some very dangerous driving conditions. Even when I’m driving at home on a free way, I’m torn between yelling at the driver in front, to get the hell out of the right lane and back to the left and to the driver behind me to back off unless he wants to pay my fine and cop my demerit points…

100 or 105 kms, is it really a speeding hazard or a revenue raising venture?? Sure, in residential areas it’s important to keep driving to a minimum safe speed especially where there are schools, parks nearby, families out walking, kids out playing etc. But on a free way?? Surely the danger is in a driver who is distracted, not concentrating, driving dangerously or driving at ridiculous speeds…

We have witnessed in awe at the driving that can take place in other countries…. even amongst the more arrogant EU countries that we won’t name. The speed limit is usually anywhere from 110 to 130 kms (in Germany we found no speed limit freeway!).  Drivers generally as a norm seem to go at an average 110/115kms regardless.   Of course there are always the drivers that push the limits and go much faster regardless of the speed restrictions (this happens every where in the world).    We found that drivers generally  keep left (or right depending on which country your in), keep the fast lane for overtaking and will move very quickly out of the way when another car is in sight…And you know what?  It works….. in 2010, the road death toll was 3 per 100,000 in Great Britain, compared with 6  per 100,000 in Australia. Don’t get me wrong, Australia’s record is quite good in comparison to some countries, but it’s also quite average compared to others despite its strict speed regulations.

The other day while driving back into London after a weekend away in the countryside, my husband pointed in disbelief to the  strange scene ahead of us….. “did you see that… the car in the left lane slowed right down to let the merging car in”… and you know what, there was no honking, screeching, yelling, anger… just polite road manners….I’d like to see more of that. Sure as Australians we have big roads, big country, big cars but do we need the big egos?!

Equality, liberty & fraternity… except for when it comes to dress

imagesCA0J0GHZEven if you don’t know much about French history, these three separate yet interlinked words can be associated with the  French. A bit like the three musketeers (sometimes the third gets forgotten) these words are well known. If you are in France, you will regularly see these three short and powerful words proudly adorned on the facade of many a town hall.

For some reason, the notion of equality and liberty doesn’t quite translate when it comes to the liberty of choosing your style of swimwear when visiting the  local swimming pool.

I can understand, the swimming caps (I had to purchase three of them, even for my 18 month old who has very little hair), I can understand the obligatory showering before entering the pool for hygiene reasons…. all this makes sense to me. I get it….  What I didn’t quite get, after 30 minutes of  getting my two kids and myself ready was being told that my 4 year old son who was wearing his new batman swim suit (shorts and top) was unable to enter  the pool because his shorts were too long….Imagine saying that to a 4 year old… I just stood there….really??!  We all must’ve looked so disappointed, forlorn and absolutely rooted to the ground…(there was no way I was going back through those change rooms…) that the lady went away for 10 minutes and returned to tell us that it was okay this one time…. phew….

So of course, the next time we went to the local pool (a different town this time and an aquatic fun centre – so no swimming caps required here), I made sure my husband knew the rules… wear the short shorts. We could conform too, you know. Well, it wasn’t long (this time we got into the pool and even had a splash in the water) before my husband got pulled up by the fashion police patrol, or should I say lifeguards… The only reason he got caught out was because he decided to go and have a turn on the waterslide…if only he kept low and discrete and not brought attention to himself, you know blended in with the crowd…

It was then that we discovered rule number 2, it’s not about the shorts being short (my husband was wearing his running shorts) but about the right style of shorts, the new version male  speedo swim shorts. Well it appears that they have become the uniform poster outfit of the French pools (has the French president taken to wearing them?!). So, much like a national holiday is declared, these shorts have been declared THE only swimwear that can be worn in the pool… for boys and men.

This time, we were told we could purchase a pair at the front counter…isn’t that handy… and all for some ridiculous price.   I’m beginning to wonder whether its a revenue raising venture… some company out there is making a hell of a lot of mens’ swimsuits to meet France’s dress code requirements… I have no idea what the requirements are for women, other than, at this stage, my two piece tank top which is faded and years old, has not offended or violated any French law.

So, too bad, if your an awkard teenager, a modest sort of a guy, or one who just wants to wear whatever the hell he feels like… .. sorry no liberty to chose your own swimsuit here and as far as fraternity goes…well you’ll be in it together…all wearing the same style shorts looking all very much…the same….!

 

 

 

 

Adjusting to change

untitledYou will be surprised at how adventurous your child/ren can be.  I thought I was being adventurous until my eldest son happily ate snails in France, or would try a different flavour gelati whenever we treated ourselves to one…(I always go for boring strawberry…), or when asked what  he would like to do next (we had to leave the EU), he said camping (not home!).

But it’s not always smooth sailing.  Our first week in Santiago, and my son would tell us “taxi’s” are bad …our 3 years of repeating our safety first motto regarding travel in our  car, had worked…but it worked against us in Santiago, as he didn’t have his special car seat nor would we always find seatbelts… It wasn’t a bad thing… we looked out for seatbelts when we could, and only used a taxi for special need trips.. e.g. with luggage or hard to get to places… Even so, after a little while my son was sticking out his finger too when needed…  Kids are good that way, they don’t carry the same “baggage” adults do….  It might take a couple of hours, a day, two weeks but kids can and do adjust their reality… It might take a day or two to figure out which language to speak – is it Hola or hello here?   My son might start talking to another kid in English in the playground before he realises they speak French…. or vice versa….

paris donkey walk may13 347So what sort of routine/ norms are you creating for your children?

If having chocolate eclairs for breakfast is the norm (and believe me it wouldn’t be so hard  in France), then so  be it, if having a siesta and 10pm bedtime is the norm in your child’s life than so it will be and  if walking for 8 kms a day is your family’s  reality, then so it is.  Will it go pear shaped if your kids don’t have a bath every night before bed?.. no not really…  In fact, when they do get to have a  bath they will love it, and will even ask for it!

Thankfully, some routines or habits can be  changed if you want to, and it is much easier to do this if you are no longer living in that environment….  For instance, we were very glad to move onto our boat and change our habit of morning tv in our London apartment.  So nothing needs to be set in concrete.  Some things will change as you change environments and as your children change too.  Celebrate the differences your children are experiencing – its not everyday they get to be in a different country and when you need to, help them find the connection and familiarity in their experiences.

watching dora in French...kids aren't so different!
watching dora in French…kids aren’t so different!

Finding the familiar in the unfamiliar

It is not as difficult as you think to find or create the familiar in an unfamiliar environment…  For example: conversation with my eldest son when we first arrived in an apartment overseas:

“what do you know, the landlady’s name is peppa (the name of my son’s favourite show peppa pig) and our apartment number is 7 (my son’s favourite number!).  In Santiago, we rented the same apartment a number of times  (for the familiarity), rather than change each time we returned to Santiago to buy/sell our car and fly in and out of the capital.  So each time we returned to Santiago it was exciting and nice to be back in a familiar space.  Not just  for the apartment, but for the location and building itself also.   We could wander out and my son knew when we were back in our street and which one was our apartment block.

In London, we stayed in the same apartment for 3 months (thanks to a family member’s generosity) and again it helped when  my eldest son was able to identify familiar surroundings and locate where he was.  It probably takes about 1-2 weeks for my kids to familiarise themselves in a new environment.

Flying to London was  exciting not just for the plane journey but because he would see his “zia”.    I could talk to him about the time I had spent in London when I was younger.    We got excited about seeing double decker buses, seeing a real palace, dinosaur museums,  the home of  Peppa pig and some of his favourite shows.

Now that we are in a boat, my son loves his boat bed and “room” (its an 8m boat, but its a room as he knows it…).  I have covered the  walls with  postcards he received for his birthday, drawings he has made, and his beloved treasure box is above his bed.

When your overseas and out in the parks/town remind your children that the kids they are seeing in the playground aren’t so different to them, help them strike a conversation or start a conversation yourself with their mothers, notice the fire hydrants in this country are yellow instead of red (Chile), but they still have them!!  Most importantly, even if you learn a few words in another language use them so  it becomes familiar to your children.

Count in French/Italian/Spanish etc. when you play hide and seek.   Even my not yet two year old understands ‘besito’ (kiss) and ‘vamos’ (lets go) in Spanish and can say “bon jour, au revoir and bon nuit” (French) so that its understandable.   Local people will love it…!!   Your kids will make you look incompetent!!!  In each country there are a few words that we then take as our own – and we use these with each other even if its just a morning or a night greeting.

Just like for adults,  home can seem a lifetime away, and what happened 3 months ago can seem a lifetime ago for kids too.  3 months of grey London spring and  my son on our first sunny day in London complained “its too sunny….!!”  (this is after spending 6 months in hot South America).  When we experienced a few cold days in autumn time in France, my son again complained its too cold when on our boat… I had to gently remind him that only 6 months ago, he was in a tent in southern Patagonia!!   So routine and normality are whatever you make it, and you will be surprised by the things your kids do or don’t remember. One year on into our travels, and one of  my eldest son’s fonder memories from Chile is of a homeless man giving him a dragon key ring…he still treasures it.

My son  has told me he wants to be an explorer….would he still choose this, if we weren’t travelling?  Maybe…. he also wants to be astronaut, own a toy store etc….many kids whether travelling or not, dream of adventures to be had….  My children will have a lifetime of experiences, which will shape who they are, as well as other factors such as personality, family, external relationships, etc.  This time away, will not be the be all and end all of who they are, or who they will become.  But it will hopefully, give them wonderful memories of not just travel, visiting other countries, but most importantly of us and our time together.  If that’s all that remains for them of our time away, I will be happy, if not a little broke….

 

Are kids really adaptable?

We have been overseas for almost one year now.  We have flown across two oceans, travelled in two continents and had various homes during this time.    What I have  learnt very quickly is that children are adaptable, accepting and able to cope and deal with change.  Some changes they will cope with  better than others.  We have good days and bad days, much like life at home.  We cannot control everything in our sons’ environment nor would we wish too, for us, that isn’t what life is about…  We do however, make sure that both our sons safety, health and well-being are our top priority, along with ours, no matter where we are.

paris donkey walk may13 207
adjusting to our new travel companions

Familiar routines and consistency can exist anywhere, even when in a different country and even when on the move  (e.g. we eat, sleep, read bedtime stories, brush teeth before bed, have morning cuddles,  etc)  and  a “home” can be created and exist in different forms – whether it be a tent, car, boat etc.  Most importantly as a family we are the stable unit in both our sons’ lives, and we would have to agree wholeheartedly, with whoever said, “home is where the heart is’.

Before leaving Australia, I thought it was imperative that we travel in a mobile home e.g. thinking motor home.  I felt that we needed to have a mini home away from home, not necessarily because we needed all the conveniences but because I thought my children wouldn’t cope otherwise and I thought it was the only way we could really travel as a family of four.

 

Our tent became our new home for 4 months
Our tent became our new home for 4 months

What I discovered once we were on the road in South America was that a tent can suffice as a home, and my kids loved the car we travelled in just as much as the tent.  While we predominately camped in the tent we did use other accommodation when in cities/towns, when it rained and when we just wanted a little piece of luxury – like a good hot bath….  My kids coped well with moving into different accommodation, but I wouldn’t necessarily recommend staying in hotels/accommodation if  moving every day – that becomes tiresome for everyone…!!

While my 14 month old son sometimes got overexcited when in a new bed and by the new surroundings, my 3.5 year old coped surprisingly well.    He had gone from sleeping in our room in Australia to being quite happy sleeping in all sorts of beds – bunk beds, sofa beds, a mattress on the floor bed etc…  This was the biggest adjustment and yet one which he coped the best with, and that surprised us the most..    We were impressed with his ability to cope with this change, and his level of comfort and readiness for his own space wherever that might be.

When we are about to undertake a new change we do our best to prepare our kids, whether its catching a plane somewhere, leaving a city, buying/selling our car that has been our home for the past 4 months etc.    Kids are pretty good at experiencing their emotion in the  present time and  then having experienced it they are also better at letting go and accepting the “new” reality more easily than adults sometimes.  By the time we had spoken to our kids about selling our car, they were  already excited about the plane trip we were about to  undertake and arriving in London.  Often its  perspective and how things are presented that  helps the most.   It doesn’t have to be frightening if you don’t make it so.

How will travel change your child’s behaviour?

Has travel dramatically altered our sons behaviour?  While we travel, one of my son’s has grown from a crawling 12 month old to a full blown toddler.  My eldest son has grown  from a 3  to a 4 year old.  These changes in themselves bring their own sets of behaviours and personality developments.   Sometimes it can  be hard to separate which is what – would my son be having this tantrum/meltdown if we were at home?   Who knows.  If your child had a complete personality change while overseas than yes, it would probably be a worry/indicator…

Yes our eldest son,   has moments where he gets angry, sad, frustrated etc., but nothing more than what we think he would experience at home or what we know his temperament to be… All children are different, and different kids will react/respond/behave in different ways to new situations.

Definitely    things like jet-lag and tiredness, or a new  change  can mean he is more susceptible to grumpiness but this usually takes about a week or two of adjustment with parental understanding and sensitivity ( if you can manage it, in your jet-lag state too).

Yes, there  will be times when your children will tell you – they miss home, family members/friends, that they don’t like something or somewhere they’ve been.   And that’s okay.  It doesn’t happen often and when it does we tell him we miss our friends too, that they will be there when we get home, and we make opportunities to write/ Skype/ etc.  Sometimes what they miss is not even about home any more, but part of what they have experienced during their travels (my son really took a liking to London).

parque quelat
Seeing some natural wonders – Parque quelat in Chile

Sometimes just as you may be feeling that all this travel is way too hard, your son comes up with gold – he talks about the new friend he met, he tells you “I want to go to German so I can speak  German” (after meeting German travellers),  he play acts with his toys using Spanish words, he makes volcanoes and mountains out of sand, castles out of rocks, he tells someone who asks him what he thinks of camping/country/ city he is in, and as you wait with abated breath, he smiles and his eyes light up and he tells them, he loves it.

I remember being in a Chile National park and turning to my son and saying this is why I love to travel, to come and see this, pointing to the awesome view of a natural wonder (the siete tazas).  My son got excited saying   “I want to go to all the lived places in the world”

Recently, he started asking us to go to other places – “can we go to Africa/Asia”…or  he has told us that he wants to be an explorer when he grows up.  This is when  you realise that this journey may not end any time soon and suddenly your not sure whose driving this adventure any more………!!!