Tuesday, 2 December 2008

Toys R Us

Toys R Us, I’ve decided, is an odious place. You go in there with a list and rational intentions but once inside get sucked into a panic that your child needs one of everything in the shop for a fulfilled life. I think it’s the noise that disturbs your mind. In every aisle a different jingle is playing. It’s hard to make a sensible decision about playmobil when “Baby Born Baby Born” is ringing in one ear and Dora the Explorer chatting in the other.

My husband says I’m miserable and it’s fun but no-one else there looked like they were having fun. They all had gloomy faces, wandering aimlessly round and round the shop looking for what they really came for while wondering how they were going to afford the huge boxes which seemed to have found the way into their trolleys.

I finally lost all hope when trying to chose a puzzle and went instead to some alternative toy outlets – charity shops. There I bought four puzzles for the cost of about three pieces of a puzzle in Toys R Us. Charity shops and nearly new sales are wonderful places for children’s toys. Why pay a premium for something new when your little dears will break or bend or scratch or lose bits of the toy within minutes. Second hand toys are economic and the ultimate in recycling. Sorry Toys R Us, I’m doing my Christmas shopping with The Heart Foundation.

Sunday, 30 November 2008

Beware TERRIBLE service at The Pheasant Inn, Hungerford

Today I met some family for lunch at The Pheasant Inn, Shefford Woodlands, near Hungerford, RG17. Well, I tried to.

I had booked ahead and explained we were four adults, two children and a baby but when we arrived we were shown two small tables which they then begrudgingly pushed together. As I tried to get the children into their seats the waitress stood over us saying "drinks, drinks, what do you want to drink" and stalked off in a huff when I asked if we could have five minutes to get ourselves sitting down.

The real trouble started when we tried to order. Two of the party apologetically explained that they were allergic to dairy and wheat and asked if the fish for fish and chips was pre-battered, could the chef just fry it plain. The waitress stared at them rudely, went to the kitchen and returned saying the chef would not do that. When they asked for other dishes to be served with chips rather than things they could not eat they were told it was not possible. A more senior waitress said extremely curtly that the chef would not do anything different. We replied that if we couldn't eat anything we'd have to leave.
"Fine," she said and turned and walked off.

We were gobsmacked by their complete inflexibility and rudeness. Allergies are annoying, yes, but not unusual. There was no apology and no consideration for the fact we'd set three very young children up at a table and now had to go back out into the freezing rain.

No business which treats its customers like this deserves to survive so if you are reading this blog having searched the name of the pub to make a booking, please GO ELSEWHERE!

Saturday, 29 November 2008

Great New Bonus Credit Crunch Diet!

I remember once reading an article about cheat ways to diet. One suggestion was to turn the central heating down a few degress so that the body would have to work harder to keep warm and so burn more calories.

I can confirm it works. Due to a "catastrophic" leak in our plumbing I've had no central heating for ten days. Yes, it's cold but the bonus is I seem to have lost three kilos without trying - depsite eating an excess of bourbons to cheer myself up!

Have a go, save some money, burn the calories. I've heard there's an even colder spell coming next week so I'm looking forward to a few more bourbons and a few less kilos.

Tough life?

There are days when you feel life is tough. I think I've been having a tough time lately. My husband is working away for three weeks so I'm at home alone with the three children. The boys seem to be permanently antagonistic and aggressive, there's always one shouting, crying, pushing, thumping, hurt. Neither the carrot or stick methods of dealing with them are working and I don't quite know what to do next.

There is a "catastrophic"* leak in our plumbing so I've not had any central heating or hot water for ten days. Various experts have been through to help me but so far all they've achieved is pulling up the wooden floor in the sitting room leaving me with a shelving unit in the middle of the room and lots of books, toys and bottles piled up on the floor. I get up in the night to keep our wood burner stoked for warmth and have been relying on the immersion heater for hot water.

Tonight the immersion heater stopped working. The two boys were in bed yelling and crying. I sat at the kitchen table and felt numb and light headed. I didn't quite know what to do. So I phoned my husband. It's 2am where he is but I stubbornly kept pressing redial because I wasn't sure what else to do. He's talked me through re-wiring the switch for the immersion heater. I felt overwhelmed and tearful, scared by the rainbow of wires and little holes I had to wedge them into.

It's working again now, the socket hanging precariously off the wall. Like me it just has to limp through the week, to literally hang in there until Matthew is back on Friday, for practical, if not moral support.

But I feel ashamed for my distress. Am I a weak person or are these extraordinary circumstances? In the DRC people are fleeing for their lives. What hardship is my faulty plumbing compared to that? We don't really know what a tough life is in this country, all we really suffer are inconveniences to the standard of life we consider a right. When I start to feel sorry for myself I try to remember this and think of those who really have it tough.

*plumber's word not mine

Thursday, 13 November 2008

Don't Panic

I've not collapsed in a pile of empty bottles. I've just had a soak in the bath and am now eating comfort food (muesli) in front of the fire watching TV (unheard of for me) while my husband does the ironing (unusual for him)! I feel like a new woman.

Cry for help?

Is this the beginning of the end?

I'm having a bit of a crap time at the moment - I won't write why as it will probably sound bleatingly pathetic in print. However, feeling a bit fed up this lunchtime I opened the fridge to get something innocuous like cheese and spied an open bottle of wine. I must confess, I've had a glass! Drinking at lunchtime, help! But I do feel much better.

Don't worry, I've resisted more, so far. Rather than calling the AA, anyone who would like to help is welcome to come round and do the ironing which is leaning like the Tower of Pisa in a corner of the sitting room.

Friday, 31 October 2008

Christmas gifts with Samaritan's Purse

Today I had my first "only eight weeks to go until Christmas!" email, written in breathless tension to imply that if I didn't shop with them right then I would be wildly behind schedule. For goodness sake, it's still October!

However, I have spent the week organising Christmas presents - but for good reason. At my son's school they have been invited to fill a shoe box with gifts to send to a child in need. As this week is half term we've been busy choosing thing and wrapping the box. It's been gratifying to see that my son has become fully involved with the idea of sending presents to children who have very little. Our box is for a boy, aged between 5 and 9, and he has become someone else in my son's life who he thinks about. As we filled the box today my five year old was saying "he'll love this!" with genuine excitement. It was great to see.

I can therefore recommend this simple scheme, run by Samaritan's Purse. To join in, make a donation or just to find out more go to www.samaritanspurse.uk.com/occ

Tuesday, 21 October 2008

The joy of occasional solitude

I saw a friend walking through the village this morning. She looked so different - because she wasn't pushing a buggy and didn't have any children hanging off her. She was striding, walking fast and confidently. I could tell that she was enjoying her moment of solitude and independence in the beautiful autumn sunshine. I could sense her savouring the freedom of only carrying one small bag, of not having to answer endless questions about why there were leaves all over the pavement.

We've just been through the horrible experience of losing our cat - thankfully he came back this morning. Yes, he's only a cat but he's part of the family and I've been reminded to take nothing for granted and appreciate all loved ones while they are with us. However, for a mother of three children, there's nothing as exhilarating as an excursion out of the house, anywhere, alone.

Friday, 17 October 2008

Cider making in the West Country

Recently, with the world as we know it apparently crashing around our ears, I said to my husband "I think everyone just needs to calm down and concentrate on the basics". "There's the voice of the housewife," he replied.

I don't really understand any of the complex economics but I do think that we have lived too fast; we've wanted everything quickly, cheap and now and it's not sustainable, economically or environmentally. I wonder if my world will become fashionable, a simple life where a blackberry is free and grows in the hedgerow where you can pick it and, with a bit of work, turn it into jam.

Here in the West Country it is The Goode Life. We try to grow as many of our own vegetables as we can, hard work but very satisfying. Last weekend we took it to the next level by trying to make cider.

Cider making is a tradition within my local group of friends. When we were younger and without children, the boys created "Ole Lug", a brew so strong I drank one cup and thought I'd become paralysed - I'd passed out and they'd rolled me up in a duvet to keep me warm so that when I woke up I couldn't move any limbs.

Having not made any for a while we set out to re-kindle the tradition, a challenge as most of the helpers were under five. We started by crushing the apples, pounding them in a bucket with an old fence post. This felt very rustic, but therapeutic, I thought I should be wearing a home-spun gown and be ready to churn butter next.

The apple pieces were wrapped in cloth and put in a press which one of my friends had made for his A'level CDT project. We pressed down and brown liquid ran into the plastic drum. It was very satisfying.

Sadly, I had to leave to feed the children and put the soup on for lunch. There was talk about the sterility of the apple juice but one of the boys had got bored of pummeling apples with a log and was stamping on them with his wellies so we decided the concern was misplaced.

Gallons of apple juice are now bubbling away in an outhouse. Goodness knows what it will taste like - the last stuff we drank tasted like sherry and was best suited to unblocking drains. But in a way I don't care. We've made an effort to use our produce and had lots of fun doing it. And if the financial situation gets any worse, at least we'll be able to afford to drown our sorrows.

Friday, 10 October 2008

Fat cats and fat people

Our media is swamped with doomsday reports of how we are plunging into a world of tightening our belts. I was at the supermarket this morning and decided this might not be a bad thing. You only have to look around and see how fat we are as a nation to realise we have had too much excess. We know nothing of self-restraint, only Buy One Get One Free so we can eat twice as much.

Also at the supermarket was a stooped old man with war medals on his navy blazer. Seeing him made me realise that his generation have known true hardship. We don't really know what it means to go without. We think life is tough when the satellite television signal is interrupted or we can't immediately have this week's latest model of mobile phone. How about having nothing to eat but what we've been able to grow? I think it might do some people a lot of good.

I appreciate that the state of the global economy is serious and for some people this will cause real problems but I do wish that the media would pause in its self-perpetuating talk of doom and look at potentially positive aspects of a negative situation. If we could all learn to mend something when it breaks and waste less food, we might come out of this crisis in a better state than we went into it.

Tuesday, 7 October 2008

Help, all common sense is lost!

Yesterday my son came home from school with a shaker he'd made, a paper plate folded in half and filled with pasta. Glued to it was a typed note: Please be aware that this shaker contains small parts. Thank you.

Is this the level of paranoia we've reached in our society? Have we become so quick to blame someone and litigate over the slightest incident that a primary school feels it necessary to put a warning on an artwork project?

Monday, 6 October 2008

Multi tasking

Until today I never believed I could multi task. My husband agreed because, unlike him, I am unable to read a magazine, work on a lap top and follow a whodunnit on TV. However, this afternoon I managed to make macaroni cheese while rocking a baby and singing Five Little Ducks Went Swimming One Day. I think I only succeeded because the baby-rocking motion corresponded with the rhythm of stirring the cheese sauce. But, as baby slept and they all ate the macaroni cheese, I think I achieved a successful multi task.

Wednesday, 24 September 2008

Odyssey Guide to the Kyrgyz Republic

If you are thinking of visiting Kyrgyzstan I can recommend the Odyssey guide to the Kyrgyz Republic.


The third edition has recently been put together by dedicated authors Rowan Stewart and Susie Weldon and was launched last week at Daunt Books in London.

I am especially excited about this guide because some of my photographs have been used in it. After years of taking hundreds of photos and wondering whether I could ever do anything with them apart from stick them in my own albums, it's great to see some published.

If you are interested in finding out more, Rowan, Susie and I are speaking about Kyrgyzstan at Stanfords travel bookshop in London on Wednesday 22nd October 2008.


Friday, 19 September 2008

Jamilia by Chingiz Aitmatov

For anyone who is interested in experiencing a flavour of Kyrgyz life I can recommend Jamilia by Chingiz Aitmatov. It is a short but poignant love story, wonderfully evocative of Kyrgyz rural life. His descriptions transported me back to the huge expanses of valley, sky and mountain in Central Asia, the true remoteness and stillness of countryside untouched by our fast, modern world.

Chingiz Aitmatov is Kyrgyzstan's best known modern writer, described as a "great writer, thinker and humanitarian". Many of his books are renowned for his descriptions of life in the Soviet Union.

Jamilia is widely available in the UK and on Amazon http://www.amazon.co.uk/Jamilia-Chingiz-Aitmatov/dp/1846590329

Sunday, 14 September 2008

Starting School

My eldest son has just started school. It is a new era, life changing for all of us. He has been fantastic, so brave. After a few nerves on his first visit he now walks ahead of me up to school, swinging his book bag singing “big school big school” to himself. He’s proud to look smart in his uniform, proud to tell me about the new rules and routines – “ you have to say ‘please may I go to the toilet’” – and he’s already into the new language, telling me about “Year 1’s” and “Year 2’s” as if it’s something he’s been aware of all his life.

It seems to be harder for the rest of us to adapt. Younger brother took some persuading to go to nursery on his own and looked lost at first without big brother to trail after. He has a matching polo shirt, his “uniform” which he insists on putting on and changing out of when his brother does. “We’ve never been split up before,” T said rather touchingly, feeling lonely while he hung about with me waiting to go to afternoon school.

I feel I’ve spent the whole week in the car - he’s only doing half days. There are also rules and regulations which I have to get right. I live in fear of being late to pick him up. I feel claustrophobic about being locked into the school timetable for the next twenty years. Most of all it’s difficult letting go of my little boy.

It’s very strange watching him walk away from me into class. He looks very new and small, as if he’s shrunk slightly inside his uniform because I bought sizes to last. It’s such a relief when two hours later he runs out smiling, the hovering mothers closing in to receive their children. “So, what did you do today?” I ask brightly. I want to know everything without seeming to give him a grilling. I know I’ve overdone it when he replies “oh no, not that question again,” on day two. But he actually tells me quite a lot, proud to recount the day’s routine and perform a rendition of a song they’ve learnt.

Some things he says make me feel sick. “Someone tripped me up in the playground” he reported casually and I went into turmoil, imagining older children thinking it funny to pick on the new, little reception boys running innocently around. He seemed so vulnerable, let out alone into the big, bad world of the playground. Eventually, through careful probing questions – I wanted to find out what went on without him realising I was concerned – I learnt he’d tripped over someone’s game, purely accidental. I’m now trying to think positively about the event, to be pleased that he feels able to enter that huge, new environment, cope with a fall, pick himself up and carry on and be very matter of fact about it. In paranoid moments I’m hoping his bravery is not a front hiding fear inside. In rational moments I’m proud that he’s growing up and coping well with independence and new, intimidating situations.

Starting school is as much about me letting go as T entering formal education. As I was tucking him in tonight he said “I love school” and that’s what matters.

Friday, 12 September 2008

What are you scared of?

In many things my boys are the same - especially because No. 2 copies and mimics No. 1. In their fears they are very different, as I discovered today. No 2. son was sitting on the carpet doing puzzles when a huge spider lumbered towards him. He whimpered and shied away. I whacked it with a magazine. Sorry. No. 1 son would have picked it up and carried it out of the door. But No. 1 son is scared of the dark, he insists on a light being left on and in his nighttime vision, bags of toys metamorphose into scary monsters. I'm scared of the cliche - how would I cope if I lost one of them?

Tuesday, 19 August 2008

The controversial debate of boys and guns

On Sunday my two year old was playing beautifully with “Bristol Builder”, a construction toy with wooden blocks, sticks and circles. He turned to me with an “L” shape he’d made and said, “look mummy, a shooter.”

What to do in this situation is a question many parents ask. Of course, guns are not nice things, they kill people, so the natural reaction is to say “no dear, it’s not a shooter but a lovely flower.” But every time you say no to a child they want it more so that’s not necessarily a productive answer.

The issue is complex and controversial. Until recently there was no debate: guns were bad toys and the existence of one in a toy box would be tut-tutted about by other parents. If my son made a “shooter” at someone else’s house there would probably be disapproval and I would be embarrassed and mutter apologetically about how I’d no idea where he’d learnt about such things. And I have no idea where he’s learnt such things. Guns are not part of our daily conversation and I’m not sure my children have ever seen one. Because of this, watching my two sons hold fingers up and say “tsch tsch” as they shoot at each other, I wonder if this desire is somehow inherent in their male make up.

Others, it seems, agree and apparently fashions are changing too: the official line is that playing with guns is now no longer completely taboo. Government advice, I read in an article provided by my sons’ nursery, is that “boys should be encouraged to take part in role-play involving superheroes and toy guns.”

Don’t be shocked. This is not some crazy policy but a sensible acceptance of our modern society and a child’s exposure to it. “Images and ideas gleaned from the media are common starting points in boys’ play and may involve characters with special powers or weapons. Adults can find this type of play particularly challenging and have a natural instinct to stop it. This is not necessary as long as you help the boys to understand and respect the rights of other children and to take responsibility for the resources and environment.” Okay, so there’s a bit of government babble but the basic idea is that you don’t have to make a fuss about boys playing at guns if a sensible discussion about what they’re all about goes with it.

I think this makes good sense. It would be lovely to give children a world without guns but that is not our world. Death and violence is sadly all around us. At three my eldest son asked me what “killed” meant after listening in the car to a brief news bulletin on our local radio station: with the War on Terror the word is used almost every day. I didn’t shy away but gave him a full explanation, including prison for the perpetrator. Many people would tell me to turn the news off but I don’t think it’s necessarily helpful, or realistic, to spend your time isolating them – and therefore you – from the world out there.

When my disapproving friends react I will feel slightly culpable – I let my boys watch Power Rangers and they are fascinated by the Daleks. Power Rangers are “goodies” but they still fire at the baddies; our superheroes are inherently violent. “You be the red one and I’ll be the black one,” my four year old told his younger brother then they ran around blasting each other.

It’s reality – these are the games they love, an acceptance my friends with only girls find hard. We are listening to High School Musical in the car to dilute our diet of Spiderman, Daleks and Power Rangers. They love it but nevertheless, when it comes to make-believe in the garden, I suspect shooting aliens from outer space will be chosen over singing and dancing.

The article quoted is “Let boys play with guns, says DCSF” – Nursery World, 10 January 2008

Wednesday, 16 July 2008

The shame of a modern parent

We have just returned from two wet weeks in Cornwall. However, the hardest thing was not the weather but the sad realisation that my four year old declared he was bored on the beach. "What do I do now?" he whined, "I want you to play with me". Despite having a fantastic imagination, and moments of wonderful independent play, what he really wanted was our attention. If we dutifully started building sand castles, he would watch and give instructions. I felt deeply ashamed, failed as a parent because I'd produced a child who could not play on the beach. What had I done wrong?

I'm learning that what I've done wrong is doing too much. The four year old is my first child and from discussions with friends we've seen that our first children are all the same - demanding of time and not as good at independent play as younger siblings. Having all arrived at motherhood from full time jobs we threw ourselves into our new roles, thinking we were being "good" mothers by responding to every need.

Today's children have so many distractions - television channels constantly playing programmes for them, toys which beep and stimulate, special clubs and sporting activities designed just to help them develop and "helicopter" mothers who hover over them squeaking enthusiastically about how well they are doing.

I was delighted to read an article by Joseph Epstein which eloquently summed up my feelings and reassured me that I wasn't the only modern mother who had fallen into the trap of over stimulating and fussing my child. He writes children have moved "from the background to foreground figures in domestic life, with more and more attention centred on them, their upbringing, their small accomplishments". Their parents "seem little more than indentured servants", the children given an inflated sense of their own significance.

Too late have I learnt this lesson. My second son is much more placid, having had less fuss as his older brother was taking up a disproportionate amount of time. It's very difficult for parents today. We are bombarded by books and programmes telling us the correct way to raise children and offered a plethora of activities and entertainments which it's implied are good for our children and which we, as good parents, should be providing. But I think that this is suitable example of where "less is more" and that a bit more of life like the good old days when children were seen and not heard and sent off to play with mud and sticks in the garden would be healthy.

That seems an idyllic scenario but there is a balance between giving your children some time and focus and them learning to entertain themselves. I worry that I have lost that equilibrium, distracted by the hectic schedules we give ourselves. When my four year old recently asked me to help build a train set and I refused, being busy cooking them something suitably nutritious, his response was "you always say later". Of course I felt guilty. In racing around trying to keep my children happy do I never actually give them some decent attention and sit down and play properly with them? Is that the real reason he's always asking?

As a modern parent it's a brave step not to opt in to all the extra curricular activities and stimulation. But having seen my child flounder on a beach, a place supposed to be a haven of pleasure for children, I think I am paying the price for today's world of instant gratification and will now focus on guiding them towards independence. Peversely, that actually means stopping and spending five proper minutes with them every now and then. I hope this will then give them the courage to do their own thing as well.

Monday, 19 May 2008

Three is easier than Two

I've not written for a while because four weeks ago Baby 3 was born. Since then I've been ignoring the call of technology, emails and blogs which sap your time, and enjoying her newness.

I've made a surprising discovery - that three children are easier than two - at the moment anyway. When Baby 2 was born, T was a terrible two and rampaged while I was pinned to the chair feeding. Now, with Baby 3, B and T entertain each other while I am feeding. Okay, so they're often fighting each other but at least they're not throwing the TV remote control at Baby 3's head.

Baby 3 is also very well behaved and far less demanding than her brothers. Some people tell me this is simply because she's a girl. Some people say it's because a third time mother really knows what she's doing - or just doesn't have time to fuss.

I must admit I feel much calmer and despite all the demands on my time, am really enjoying three children. Circumstances were quite complicated when Baby 2 was born and I think some of his babyhood was lost in the darkness of deep winter. Baby 3 was planned as a spring baby and it makes such a difference. The sun is shining, leaves are bursting open and it's light and birds are singing when I feed at 5am. The optimism of spring is seeping into our family making it a very special time.

While I was pregnant I sometimes wondered whether we'd made a mistake and three children were going to be too much but, as with many things, so far the anticipation has been much worse than the actual event. So, to anyone reading this who is contemplating a third but anxious whether they'd cope, I'd say, go for it, but preferably in the spring!

Saturday, 12 April 2008

Life after baby

One reason I hope this baby isn't too late is that I'm speaking at a Kyrgyz evening on Wednesday 14th May.

The event is at Stanfords travel bookshop in Bristol where I will be joining Rowan Stewart and Susie Weldon, authors of the Odyssey guide to the Kyrgyz Republic in talking about Kyrgyzstan. We will be showing photos, selling crafts, displaying our yurt and welcoming you with vodka.

For more information please see http://www.stanfords.co.uk/events/saffia-farr-rowan-stewart-susie-weldon-kyrgyzstan-evening,83,EV.html

Still no baby

The twinges came to nothing and I'm still waiting. It's an odd time, lying in bed at night and waking every morning thinking "will it be today?" You live in a state of uncertainty, knowing that something extraordinary is about to happen and your life is about to change drastically again but not quite knowing when, or how it will start. I keep making appointments wondering if I'll keep them.

My four year old asks, "when is the baby coming?" and there is no answer. I'm enjoying every kick baby makes, thinking it might be the last I feel inside. I like being pregnant and have to remind myself that birth is a beginning of a life rather than an end of a pregnancy. And yet, struggling to keep up with my two boys, I'm wondering if I've got to the stage when I need to have this baby because I need my physical strength and manoeuvrability back.

I was so confident baby would be early. Maybe I'll be proved wrong and will still be waddling around in May.

Monday, 31 March 2008

Going into Labour

Sorry I haven't written for so long. I've been busy trying to get all the jobs done which I think must be done before baby arrives. I'm sure none of them are actually necessary, but I'm hormonal and can't be expected to think rationally.

Probably the most important thing to do is pack my hospital bag, which is why I haven't done that yet. I'm possibly about to get my comeuppance for my irrationalities as I've been having odd pains all evening and now panicking I'm in early labour (baby isn't actually due until 25 April, but Baby 2 was ten days early.) Me being me, I just thought I should post a blog so that I can cross that off my Pre Baby to-do list. Then I've got to download some photos and send an email to a friend I haven't been in contact with for ages. Then I'll pack my hospital bag.

I'll keep you posted.

Sunday, 24 February 2008

Feeling sorry for myself

I'm feeling sorry for myself today. My parents are having a large drinks party and my husband has been asked to help. That leaves me looking after the children alone on a Sunday, again, trapped by their inescapable demands and squabbles to the extent I feel claustrophobic.

We tried joining the party but a room full of adults holding glasses of wine is not really an appropriate place for two hyperactive little boys. Deciding that despite the lure of the canapes it was too stressful, we've come home and I'm feeling sorry for myself.

I've realised that one of the problems of full-time motherhood is that you feel left out of adult life. My husband tells me that going to work is not that exciting but I don't think he appreciates the luxury of being able to interact with people whose vocabulary extends beyond "tractor" and "mashed potato". That's why mother and toddler groups are so important - I would have gone mad (madder) a long time ago had I not met such a great group of mums in the village. However, even conversations there are frustrating, ended abruptly all too often by a child's urgent need for a wee or a fight over Thomas the Tank Engine.

So, what is a full-time mum to do to preserve her mental sanity? Writing Revolution Baby helped me as it provided some cerebral stimulus, even if it was at ten o'clock at night. Now that's finished and I'm succumbing to the reality of the gravity of late pregnancy there are few options left. Some remain though, however dire the circumstances: feeling VERY sorry for myself as I pulled out of my parents' drive I diverted via the local garage and bought a bar of chocolate. I'm about to eat it all, with a cup of tea. That will serve as some recompense for missing out on adult conversations and canapes. But not much.

Tuesday, 12 February 2008

Travelling with Children

I've just returned from a holiday in The Gambia, West Africa, with my two children (aged 4 and 2). "Are you mad?" I hear you gasp, "travelling with children!"

Actually, it's very rewarding.

I never expected that I would ever take a child abroad - I didn't fly until I was twelve and there's nothing wrong with Cornwall. But since I gave up my career to travel with my husband I've learnt that nothing is ever as expected. Therefore, I was quite calm when I found myself checking in for a ten hour flight to Kyrgyzstan with a three-month old baby. Now it seems perfectly normal for me to travel with my children and it's surprisingly easy - they love it.

Children are more adaptable and capable that we give them credit for. Take malaria pills for example. I'm sure I'm blacklisted as an irresponsible mother at my local health centre, being the only person they've ever encountered who has taken her family to a malarial area. However, the nurse consented to give me malaria pills and I wondered how I would ever get two children to take the disgusting things.

On the first morning I fussed around trying to dissolve the pills in orange juice and hide them in food. Not successful. Feeling desperate I decided the next day to just hand a pill to the four year old and tell him to swallow it. He put it on his tongue, took a drink and proudly told me "it's gone." The two year old wanted to try so I thought why not. He put the pill between his teeth and I could only see aggravation ahead. But before I had time to fuss he took a drink and looked up at me. "Gone!" he announced, flinging his arms wide with pleasure. We are still on the course - you have to take them for a week after you return - and it's their favourite part of breakfast. I'm now worrying about what entertainment I can create when the pills run out.

They are just as relaxed about the aeroplane. I've realised that when you're a child, everything about airports and planes is completely exciting, even taking your shoes off at the security check. They love being involved in the process, handing their passports over at the desk, looking out for the bags. And my four-year old is the only person who ever reads the safety card. This time he studied it carefully, asking intelligent questions about when the oxygen masks would drop down and whether he could see his lifejacket under his seat.

I no longer bother weighing us down with toys; the greatest entertainment are the gadgets. The two-year old spent many happy minutes switching the light on and off - and intermittently summoning a harassed air hostess. They both enjoyed their headphones, choosing music channels and dancing in their seats, fun for them and the amused passengers around us.

I could bore you with tips - take lollies to help ease the pressure as you land; check if blankets are provided if it's a night flight; get them to wee just before you get on board as the “fasten seatbelt” sign stays on longer than you’d think - but the greatest tip in enjoying travelling with children is for yourself. I've learnt that to succeed you have to go with the correct mindset.

For the first few days in The Gambia I felt frustrated: the sun was shining, we were by a pool or on a beach and yet I was confined to reading The Gruffalo in the shade. Then I had an epiphany - there's no point expecting such a holiday to be relaxing. Going on holiday with children is not relaxing; they don't morph into obedient, quiet angels just because you drive them down the M5 or change countries. But going on holiday with children can be rewarding. I discovered great joy in showing them new things and sharing experiences, wondering how the smells and sights of Africa appeared to a curious four year old. And I realised that if I didn't waste time hankering after holidays of old when I spent days reading on a sun bed, the week was relaxing in its own way.

If you can appreciate the change of scene, new routine, new stimulus and family time you can all come back refreshed and revitalised, if not necessarily relaxed. And it’s amazing how beneficial a small amount of time out can be – unable to spend a week on a sun lounger I felt rejuvenated after ten minutes.

And don’t dismiss the added bonus of how much you all appreciate home and its conveniences on your return.

In summary, I recommend travelling with children. Don't be scared, ignore the disapproving looks of your health visitor and give it a go.

Thursday, 7 February 2008

Review of Revolution Baby

After years of hard word and fretting over writing Revolution Baby: Motherhood and Anarchy in Kyrgyzstan it's always very rewarding when people contact me to say how much they've enjoyed reading it. Carole very kindly sent an extremely detailed review and it was especially gratifying to see that she had enjoyed and interpreted the book in a way I hoped people would.

Review of Revolution Baby: Motherhood and Anarchy in Kyrgyzstan by Carole in Amsterdam

Ever wondered what life would be like as an ex-pat living in a small but feisty corner of the former Soviet Union? Well, this would be an excellent primer to help you figure that out. Saffia’s husband is a water engineer, so his work for an international aid organisation tends to lead the family to the most out-of-the way places; of course, all the “soft” postings (like my current location, the Netherlands) already have universal clean drinking water for their citizens.

The book itself is an engaging and well-written and essentially sympathetic account of Saffia’s time in Kyrgyzstan, a tiny, mountainous, central Asian province squeezed in between Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan & China, a stone’s-throw away from Afghanistan.
From my point of view as a fellow “trailing spouse”, I found myself struck by the parallels of the expatriate lifestyle, despite the vast differences in our circumstances.

About the only similarity I can draw between Amsterdam and Bishkek is that they are both capital cities, yet the essential alien-ness of life away from “home” (don’t even get me started on where “home” precisely is!) is an experience that will be familiar to anyone who has ever lived abroad. Homesickness, hopelessness, culture-shock (and don’t forget the “reverse culture-shock” which is somehow much worse than any other kind) jostle with the sense of accomplishment that comes from starting to master the language, finding your way around, meeting new people and even just managing to carry out the most basic of daily tasks.

Whilst the main focus of the story is Saffia’s experience of pregnancy and raising a small child in a country with no reliable healthcare and limited resources, it also has much of interest to say about the politics of international aid, Kyrgyzstan’s struggles to come to terms with the legacy of soviet rule, international ulterior motives and western foreign policy.
I would highly recommend this book to anybody who is remotely curious about the recent history or politics of the former soviet central Asian republics, I would also recommend it to anyone who has lived or is contemplating living abroad.

Tuesday, 5 February 2008


Those who have read my book and become interested in yurts might like to look at http://www.yurtworks.co.uk/

This company is run by Tim Hutton who makes beautiful yurts and also runs a yurt camp as an alternative holiday venue in Cornwall.

Tim showed one of his yurt frames at my book launch last November, a beautiful structure which looked stunning in the gallery at the RWA. You can see a photo of this on the Yurtworks website news page.

Sunday, 20 January 2008

Two children, two kittens and three ducks

Two children, two kittens and three ducks - these are my dependents; solely my dependents at the moment as my husband has been working abroad for two weeks. I can feel very sorry for myself; in all this foul weather I've been on my own with two hyperactive boys, wind and rain lashing incessantly against the windows, flood waters rising on the lane outside. And I'm six months pregnant. But I feel proud - I'm surviving. I've just about kept it together with the children and I've not even cried yet.

I've been more worried about the animals. Symptomatic of my obsessive traits when things get out of control, I found myself cleaning the duck house out during the storm last Friday. Their house had flooded and I was worried about them spending the night on wet, freezing hay. So I put on my wellies, hat and coat, shovelled the muck out and put clean bedding in, drenched myself by torrential rain so that I had to strip to my underwear when I got in.

Thank God for CBeebies; my children were safe and content in front of the fire. So I turned my obsessive concern to the kittens, fussing around their house to make sure it was a dry haven in which they could spent the night. A very sensible and supportive friend of mine suggested that of all my dependents, the ducks were probably best able to survive the weather alone. But my father taught me to always care for the animals first and I knew I'd not sleep that night unless I was sure they were all safe from the raging elements.

We've been to Sunday School this morning and it reminded me how important it is to get out and mix with other families. At 7.05am I felt tired to the core, despondent, tearful and was contemplating driving off and leaving my children who were spitting cereal at each other across the table. Arriving at Sunday School I realised that other families have just the same amount of problems and inconveniences, and felt ashamed for my self-pity. This morning Sunday School and my wonderful supportive friends there, restored my sense of perspective so that I am now able to face another wet, windy day as a single mother with renewed vigor.

Tuesday, 15 January 2008


Great excitement - I am published in The Telegraph. An article which I have written about the Tulip Revolution in Kyrgyzstan has been published in The Weekly Telegraph and is on-line at http://www.telegraph.co.uk/global/main.jhtml?xml=/global/2008/01/15/kyrgyzstan.xml&page=1

Sunday, 13 January 2008

Zagazoo by Quentin Blake

For those of you with young children who enjoy reading stories with an adult undercurrent, I recommend Zagazoo by Quentin Blake. A couple receive a baby in the post and are enjoying its fun until it turns into a squawking vulture. It becomes a rampaging elephant, filthy warthog and angry dragon until it turns into a large, hairy monster which keeps growing. The parents are exhausted and despairing, their hair starts going grey. Then the monster becomes a polite young man...

Reading it tonight it struck me what a perceptive parallel of child rearing it was, although one which was difficult to explain to my inquisitive four year old who wanted to know why the baby kept changing into animals!