Posts Tagged ‘travel’

Ruminations On Passports

December 23, 2017 Leave a comment

Given the huge virtual fistfight about blue passports this week, I started to wonder where my old one had gone, and found it buried amongst old exam certificates and random paperwork in the dusty corner of the study.

I’m not madly bothered what colour the UK passport is, to be honest, and given they apparently have to be redesigned every few years to prevent fraud and keep up with biometric advances, it’s not the end of the world if they end up blue/black again without costing any more money than it would anyway. It does rile me somewhat that this is being portrayed as a huge Brexit win against the evil EU in some places, given that we could have chosen any colour we liked (as Croatia has) but didn’t. (A bit like the mythical immigration that we “couldn’t control”, when Belgium and other countries already do place restrictions on free movement so we could have done the same, but OUR government decided against it.)

Anyhoo, the idiocy of Brexit is taking up far too much of my mental and emotional energy right now, and this piece is about the other things my passport means to me, namely that it’s a visual reminder of why I became so internationally minded.

My old blue passport was valid from 1988 to 1998, from the age of 17 to 27, and looking at it now, really shows the changes that happened to me and shaped me. Some I chose, some I did not, but I am very much the person I now am due to those things.

In 1988 I was studying for my A-levels, living at home in the suburbs of Leeds with Mum, Dad, and my elder brother Lee. An ordinary life, I was a mostly confident young lady with plans to be the first in the Clark family to go to university and make everyone proud. I imagined I’d go off to another city for Uni and then come back to my hometown of Leeds, maybe rent a flat with a friend and eventually settle down, after seeing lots of the world. Kids didn’t really factor in this imaginary life but a posh flat on the canal did, and a cool 1980’s yuppie lifestyle and definitely fantastic holidays.

By 1998 instead I was living and working in London, a city I had been to fewer than 10 times in my life, and you only have to look at the ’emergency addresses’ page to see what happened in the interim period. Tellingly, stuck over the original home address, with both parents in the same place, there’s a piece of paper with two new addresses on, one saying ‘father’, and one saying ‘mother’. Typed neatly, clearly expecting that state of affairs to also last, it then gets increasingly covered with scribbles and crossings out, and arrows backwards and forwards to track the location of my parents, which change multiple times over the remaining years of the passport validity.

First Dad stayed in Leeds, Lee moved in with his then girlfriend, later wife, and Mum moved to London. That’s OK, I was going to university soon anyway, so retaining my childhood room in a family home seemed pointless, as I had no intention of being there much, if at all. I could always go to the pub in Headingley if I wanted to see a few familiar faces when I popped ‘home’.

Then Mum’s London address is changed to one in Hong Kong, then an arrow back to London, then another scribbled change to Kuala Lumpur, then back to the UK in Weybridge. Meanwhile Dad moved from Leeds to Rickmansworth in Hertfordshire, and the arrows shows that during the time he too moved out and then back to the same place again.

It doesn’t take a genius to work out that with all that domestic change comes emotional impact, both highs and lows. It was a decade of divorces, house moves, trauma, homesickness, tearful reunions and for me the gradual realisation that I no longer had a Leeds home to speak of, whether I wanted to go back to it or not.

But not all changes happened without my own input. Inside the passport pages are multiple stamps from different countries, from my madcap solo interrailing trip across Europe before university, my US work visa from the university summer holidays of 1991, and the entry and exit stamps from visiting my Mum in whichever country she happened to be living at that time. During that time I deepened my knowledge of language, and was exposed to people and places and stories I never would have expected.

These experiences too are filled with ups and downs. For one I started to hear the huge variety of interpretations of historic ‘facts’ that we in the UK hold true. There are moments of extreme discomfort when you realise that the ‘benign’ impact of colonialism that you are taught is anything but the truth, and that your forbears are at least in part, responsible for many ill-thought out decisions that still echo painfully in international politics today.

There are also moments of utter joy, when you see the the massive similarities that bind people across all those places. Family, friends, security, food, love, a roof over their heads.

These experiences, both good and bad, once seen cannot be unseen, or facts unlearned. This has driven my yearning for both a kinder politics and a more open heart to those who through circumstance were born on one side of a line that an old bloke drew 100 years ago, as opposed to the other.

It’s called growing up, and learning about the world. I was desperate to do it, it’s painful in parts, it’s also stimulating, exciting, frustrating, scary, and life affirming.

All with my faithful passport in hand, enabling and accompanying me across those painful, joyous and inspirational years.


Lovely Random People on an easyjet Flight

September 2, 2010 Leave a comment

I often seem to be amongst the luckiest people, and today I had yet another example of people I had never met being very kind, to their own detriment.

The location was an easyJet flight from Bordeaux to Luton – certainly not a place renowned for its general altruism. Jules, Eleanor and I were travelling back from my mum’s house (yes, in France, lucky gits we are), and managed to end up amongst the last people to get on the flight (despite being amongst the first to check in, no idea how that happened, but toddler madness often creates a bit of tunnel vision.

Anyway, there we were on a full flight, with enough seats available for all 3 of us, but all spread across the flight without any 2 seats together. Now I hadn’t really expected there to be a set of 3 seats by this point, but this was a blow as we couldn’t exactly sit Eleanor (aged 2 + 3 months) with two random strangers (nomatter how much we may have been tempted ;)).

In a fit of panic I asked the general passengers if anyone travelling alone & sitting next to a single spare seat would mind moving (figuring that they’d end up sitting next to a stranger either way, so the impact on them individually wouldn’t be too bad) and like a flash two people sitting together close by stood up, and split themselves up amongst other passengers so that Eleanor and I could sit together (Jules was still several rows away, but that wasn’t the point).

What lovely lovely people.

Thank you, whoever you are.

Random Acts of Kindness Part 2

July 25, 2010 Leave a comment

Those of you who know me, and know the random adventures I spent my youth getting into won’t be surprised to know that I have had several bizarre experiences during which I’ve been the lucky recipient of amazing help from other people, which have both made enormous differences to my life at the time, and also served to confirm my overwhelming faith in the basic goodness of other people.

I like thinking well of other people, it makes me smile, and often makes them smile too when they realise that it’s absolutely heartfelt.

I’ve already told the story about one amazingly kind lady I met on a long train ride in the US. The second example that springs to mind is during a weekend trip with one of my oldest friends Caroline to the Champagne region of northern France. With visions of shopping, tasting the eponymous drink and catching up on the gossip, we planned to drive to Dover, catch the mid afternoon ferry to Calais, drive the 2.5 hours to Rheims and be in our room by the evening, ready for a hard day of fizz tasting the next day.

We were pretty confident things would go smoothly as I can speak conversational French pretty well, I’d booked a hotel in the centre of Rheims and told them about our arrival time, I’d done plenty of driving on the right hand side of the road on previous holidays, and it was basically one motorway, the A26, from Calais to Rheims – so the most serious consideration to worry about were the ratings of the dozens of Champagne houses within a few miles of our hotel, and how we were going to decide which ones to visit.

So off we drove, and for the sharper readers amongst you, the only clue to the later farce would be this part of the constant conversation between myself and Caroline not long after we set off;

Me: “We’ve got about a quarter of a tank of petrol, but we can fill up in France, it’s cheaper on the other side of the channel.”

If this was a B movie at this point you’d expect an ominous musical interlude and a close up of the offending petrol gauge to ensure you hadn’t missed it.

Needless to say, for the first and only time in my life, I forgot to stop for petrol, and we carried merrily on, chatting away.

It was late autumn, as I remember, so it was getting dark by the time I finally had a stroke of memory and checked the petrol gauge.

deer crossing sign Already practically running on fumes, the only thing for it seemed to be to come off the motorway at the very next exit, to see if there was a town/village we could fill up in. Sadly the next exit turned out to be a filter onto the A29 west to Amiens, with no more exits to be seen, huge pine forests pressing in from both sides and deer crossing signs at regular intervals. Hardly encouraging when we were looking for signs of nearby civilisation.

Yes, we ran out of petrol. It was dark. There were barely any other cars and we were more than a little worried about the next steps. Without many options on offer, we thought we may as well walk to see what we could find. Some rummaging in the boot revealed my trusty camping torch, and we wrapped ourselves up for a trudge to the nearest emergency phone, presuming we’d be able to call *someone* to come and bring us petrol, or if it was closer, find a petrol station where we could buy a canister and enough petrol to get us back there to fill up properly. This was, I may add, before the days of iPhones and 3G and the instant ability to see the closest place that sold marmite or wedding hats or whatever necessity of which you suddenly found yourself in urgent need.

Spookily within about 30 seconds of starting to walk, a lone car passed us, slowed down and pulled up not far ahead of us. Looking at each other we figured it was either a rapist or a saviour, and we’d just have to be careful to not get in the car and trust our instincts. A solo male driver, looking like he was aged about 50,, with a big smile on his face didn’t seem like a safe option, until he explained that he was having a conversation on the handsfree mobile phone to his wife at the same time, and it had been her who had insisted that he stopped to see if we needed help. She was still on the line as we got into the car, and we haltingly explained what had happened, and they described their teenage daughter who they had nightmares of the same thing happening to one day.

He drove us to the next service station, about 15km away, where we thanked him effusively, bought him a coffee, offered him petrol money (which he refused, insulted). We thanked our lucky stars too, bought a canister and filled it with petrol.

The poor chap had almost made a clean getaway when he heard our conversation with the petrol station staff.

Us: Can we order a cab please to take us back to our car

Them: You won’t get a cab out here, we’re miles from anywhere

He turned around, slowly, came back to us, smiled and offered to take us back to our car. We couldn’t quite believe our luck. Up until this point he had done us a massive favour by picking us up, but as the service station was still at least another 15 km from the next junction west where we could turn east again; he was offering to drive us a further 15km towards his own destination, then turn around, double back 30km to the junction where we had originally joined the A29 at St Quentin, and then back to our car.

A 60km detour for people he had never met before, who had got into this situation by sheer stupidity, not bad fortune.

He was true to his word – sure enough he took us all the way back to car, wished us well and carried on his original journey back from a working visit selling double insulated cardboard boxes for use in Champagne houses. They needed stronger walls due to the extra pressure from the second fermentation, he explained – so we even got a bit of early inside knowledge about the places we were to visit. We stayed in a hotel in Amiens that night instead – shattered and relieved, and had a wonderful weekend after all, courtesy of Tattinger et al.

Calais to Rheims map

Our route (north to south) with minor detour

Trying to explain the concept of a Knight in Shining Armour to him was quite difficult without specific French vocabulary, but I think he got the message. I sent flowers to the work address on his business card after we got back, but I don’t think we went even part of the way to repaying such an enormous favour.

Categories: travel Tags: , , , ,

Random acts of kindness part 1

July 14, 2010 3 comments

I’m a great believer in the fundamental goodness of most people, under most circumstances. I know the more inflammatory sectors of the media will sell zillions more copies when covering stories about people taking part in seemingly amoral acts, but I for one am glad that we do get so worried about them, because that simple reaction means that they remain outside the imagination of most people and therefore are not accepted as the norm.

I am also a humanist, and think that having a moral compass does not require the input of any imaginary being to reward or punish, but that’s another story entirely. I have had many experiences of people going beyond any call of duty or pity to help me out, of which two bear the telling.

The first was in the summer of 1991. I was in my summer break from university, and for some unknown reason decided that selling books door-to-door, commission only in the States was a good way of passing the time. There were plenty of adventures during that summer in Michigan, but this particular story starts on my journey home, which involved a 24 hour+ train journey from Jackson, Michigan to Newark, New Jersey, via Detroit, Toledo, and eventually New York City. I was skint (as seemed par for the course during uni, and for that matter for the next 6 years of working), so had bought my train ticket, but had around $20 left to my name, to last me for the entire journey, and get me from Manhattan to Newark airport, and give me walking around money until I got to Caroline’s student house in Hounslow (handy for Heathrow, phew).

Throughout my time in the States that summer I had been either awed or bemused by the American’s famous welcoming nature, and the extra special treatment for the Brits. The further from the coasts you went, the more surprised, hospitable and truly interested people were to find you were from England. It’s arrogant to jump on the anti-American bandwagon and sneer that the fascination stems from the fact that few Americans travel abroad – given the vast size and geographical diversity of the US compared to any single country within Europe; I’m pretty sure that if we didn’t need a passport to travel within Europe the number of British citizens holding passports would fall from the current 80% to nearer the American’s 30%. Nevertheless, I did have to deal with various nonsense questions like “How do you speak such good English?” and “So, is Disney World Paris in England?”, so there were unflattering moments of my smug self satisfaction amongst the general welcome from everyone else.

On this occasion the lady I sat next to for the majority of the train journey was gratifyingly interested in everything I had to say, an unashamed Anglophile and even understood British English slang (must have picked it up from Monty Python, as the only English things on the telly at the time seemed to be either our favourite Oxbridge boys and Benny Hill). During the journey we swapped life stories and she told me about her teenage boys, and her husband with a huge postcard collection, who was meeting her at New York to drive her to their upstate home.

During the journey it became obvious to her that I was little prepared for the logistics of getting from Manhattan to Newark, on the now considerably less than $20 that I had on me. Now it seems there’s a spanking new monorail that would get me there no problem, but at the time it seemed like the public transport options were limited, and so I just threw in the thought that “Maybe I’d hitch”. The poor woman  practically hyperventilated at this and after shooing me along the platform when we finally arrived, whispered in her husbands’s ear, then turned round and gave me $50 for a cab, with a thanks for being good company on the journey, and a request for a postcard addressed to her husband when I got back to London. She didn’t even hang around for long enough for me to express my immense thanks, but I still wonder now what horrible alternative fate she saved me from, in my moment of madness.

I sent them about 25 postcards, by the way, from every new city I went to in the British Isles for the next two years. I hope it put a smile on their faces like they did on  mine.

Travel with tots – how to enjoy it!

July 8, 2010 1 comment
Eleanor sunning herself in Cape Town 2008

Eleanor sunning herself in Cape Town Nov 2008, aged 6 months

One of the major pastimes me and Jules didn’t want to miss out on by having children was being able to go on decent holidays abroad, and before Eleanor was two we managed to take her to South Africa twice, Antigua once and several times to southern France to visit her grandparents. As in all things baby, there were tribulations & logistical hurdles to get over along the way, but rest assured that not only is it possible, but it can also be great fun and a relaxing (yes, I really did say that) experience, as long as you bear a few things in mind – and most importantly of all, plan ahead!

Ready for our first visit to France to see my mum, we dutifully sent off for Eleanor’s first passport when she was a month old.

The process of getting a passport photo in the first place at first seemed like a bit of a hurdle – I had visions of us cramming into a photo booth (leaving the pushchair outside to get stolen), me having to squat on the floor and hold her up at arms length as I stayed out of sight; or pay a fortune to the many predatory photo studios that stalk you from the minute that you procreate. Happily I found a website on which you could upload a digital photo of your baby, and they would crop and edit it to fit the strict criteria for acceptable passport photos (which include such near impossibilities for a tiny one as facing straight on, no smiling, no other people, plain background, no accompanying toys etc) and send you a set of four within two days in the post. This was a huge find, and made us marginally less daunted about the whole process.

On the subject of kids passports – they’re valid at first for 5 years, and anyone who’s seen at close hand how much a baby changes between birth and the age of 2, never mind 5, can’t fail to find this slightly ridiculous. Pity the customs workers (I never thought I’d be in a position to say that) who having let through an entirely different child has to try to describe the other wailing bundle that got smuggled out in front of them
Even this is arguably better than the situation when I was a kid, with mine and my brother’s names just written in our parents’ passports and not needing any ID of our own at all.

Interestingly, my mum remembers her mum, my uncle Colin and herself being refused entry to a cross channel ferry once whilst trying to go on a family holiday in the 50s, because at this point even the wife didn’t have to have her own passport – and was just another piece of chattel on the list on her husbands’ identification. My grandad hadn’t come on this holiday, and while my nan had brought his passport with them, it wasn’t valid for them unless the passport holder was there, so they had to travel back from Dover all the way home to Leeds, to add further to the disappointment, and embarrassment.

What to take.
Not as much as you think! Unless you’re going to outer Mongolia, believe it or not, most places sell nappies, jars of baby food and formula. Usually it’s exactly the same brand you buy at home, and often cheaper – and it won’t kill you (or your baby) if they have to compromise a little bit. Take enough for max 3 days, and go shopping on your 2nd day and stock up for the rest of the hols.

Driving to the airports and checking in
Whatever you do, don’t get your kids in the car until everything else is packed. If it’s still possible to leave them in a bouncer chair/cot/playpen while you pack the car & get everything ready, then do. If not, then get them dressed and let them play in their room/run around and get rid of some energy before they’re strapped in. Travelling inevitably involves too much sitting around in one place, and I don’t know any mobile kid who doesn’t prefer moving around when it’s possible.
On long haul journeys where we know we’ll have tons of luggage we’ve often paid extra for the valet parking service which is an absolute godsend. You drive to the drop off point, a nice chap in a waistcoat helps you unload onto a trolley and then drives your car off to be parked. Much nicer than trailing through a long stay car park 10 miles from the airport whilst paranoid about getting to the flight on time. It’s even better on the way home from an early morning long haul landing – a nice purring warm car to meet you, and no 6am stumble to find the car and defrost yourself and the windows with a crying baby in the back, and the beginning of post-holiday blues.

Security and baby food/milk
The last few years of added restrictions taking liquids on planes have caused endless issues for those with babies, but again, there is a knack.
Option 1: check whether the airport has a Boots after check in. Ring them and reserve a few cartons of ready made milk and jars of baby food, pick them up after check in and hey presto – all sorted for the flight.
Option 2: boil & cool water for formula, and put more than you need in each bottle sealing each tightly afterwards to keep sterile. Do enough bottles for your entire journey (including an extra one just in case of delays before you get on board/leave the airport). Take the milk powder in pre-measured portions with you so you can mix it in at a moment’s notice, and take a straw so that you can taste the water in each bottle to show customs that it’s not liquid explosive (or whatever they think it might be. The straw is important so that your saliva doesn’t touch the water and stop it being sterile, and the extra water in each bottle is important so that there’s the right amount left for your pre-measured milk powder when you need to mix it. Better to pour a little water away than not have enough – too much milk powder:water ratio can make your little one ill.

On the plane
Long haul flights are surprisingly much easier than short haul, as long as you’ve booked a bassinet. That way you get the bulkhead seats, and with luck your baby will sleep for the majority of the journey. Have everything they may need handy – toys, milk, snacks, and a dummy for take off and landing – really important as the pressure can hurt their ears and a dummy helps to equalise the pressure as it changes.
Remember you will need to keep the baby on your lap during take-off and landing, so plan for a bit of disruption & them getting bored sitting still – if they’re mobile let them sit/play with toys on the floor until the very last moment, and if tiny a sling can do wonders.

If you’re doing a night flight get them changed into the PJs and preferably a travel sleeping bag (genius inventions – with holes for a 5 point harness – I’ve got this one). If possible do it after check in & before getting on the plane, so they’re snug & you can get them in the bassinet & off to sleep with the minimum of fuss once you’ve taken off.

The car seat/pushchair/travel cot dilemma
Most airlines let you take a pushchair (normally to the steps of the plane, which is brilliant), a travel cot and a car seat (in the hold) for free on top of your baggage allowance. For tiny tots you can get pop up travel cots which are brilliant and take up barely any room/weight in the car/suitcase/trolley.

Think hard about the car seat. If you’re struggling with a lot of luggage it can be a pain, but if you have *any* doubts about the availability or safety of car seats in your destination country, take it with you. Many countries have lower safety standards than the UK and this is a risk not worth taking. *Do* practise putting it in/taking it out of the car a few times so you’re not cursing yourself and the whole world whilst figuring out how to do it for the first time in a year after a red eye flight. Not fun, I promise.

We figured out all of the above through trial and error, with a bit of advice from other people – and by the return from the 2nd of the 10 or so trips we’ve done with her we were like old hands. Eleanor slept from practically the moment she got on the flight till we landed, and we even got to see a film or two, and have a Bloody Mary to start the holiday feeling.

Enjoy, and let me know of any other tips you find!