The H Word: when there’s no place like home

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My heart is warm with friends I make, 
And better friends I’ll not be knowing; 
Yet there isn’t a train I wouldn’t take, 
No matter where it’s going. 

Edna St Vincent Millay, Travel

NOSTALGIA, pining (for the fjords?) – call it what you want, I think that homesickness is something that nowadays everyone expects you to have grown out of at some point before the age of seven. Up to that point, it’s perfectly OK to demand to go home from a sleepover because you’re scared of the shadow in the corner and you are missing your Snoopy duvet cover. After that, suck it up.

That’s not always been the case, however. According to a book I haven’t read  (isn’t Google grand?), homesickness used to be seen as a legitimate killer. In 1865, the book notes, 40 soldiers in the American Civil War died of it. They called it ‘nostalgia’, but it seems to be the same thing.

Meanwhile, Dieu Donne Hack Polay, at the Centre for International Business Studies, states in his paper on Expatriates and Homesickness, that sufferers can experience “gastric and intestinal pains, lack of sleep, headache, feeling of tiredness and some eating disorders”.

So it’s science, folks, and nothing to do with my duvet cover (which doesn’t have Snoopy on it anyway, for the record). And now I’ve got academic backing, though thankfully none of the above symptoms, I don’t mind admitting that, at the moment, home feels very far away.

We’re nearly three quarters of the way through our trip and two weeks into our stay in our last casa in San Cristobal. Which is lovely, by the way – bags of space, loads of light, a great view and still only ten minutes from the girls’ school. The weather’s great (spring has sprung), and the girls are loving their days at Semillas; playdates, school trips and all.

So what have I got to whinge about? Absolutely nothing, except that I miss you all. This week I’ve been thinking of old-style missionaries, sent off with their coffins into the Congo and not expected to return, and of settlers in the US (because Daisy is reading Little House on the Prairie) making home as they go. Unlike them, I can keep in touch with my friends and family with the swipe of a touchscreen. What’s more, we chose this trip – and it’s a wonderful privilege. This kind of cogitation makes me feel guilty because I’d really quite like a night out with my UK friends right about now, when I should be making the most of the wonder that is San C.

The girls get homesick too, as does Paul – though he won’t admit it. He would like you to know that he’s mainly pining for Brockley’s Rock – which is our local chippy, and the London Beer Dispensary. I don’t mind telling you that there’s a little bit of bravado there though. He’s missing everyone at home as well.

With Daisy, homesickness takes the very specific form of ‘missing my cousin Izzy’, who she adores and who stands for England, bunk beds, baths, schoolfriends and everything she wants to have from home. When she’s tearful about Iz, I know she needs something familiar on Netflix and fishfingers for tea – or perhaps a special trip out with mummy or daddy for hot chocolate.

Clover gets clingy. She’s never far from my lap when she’s missing home. She’s really too big to curl up on me now – legs and elbows everywhere, but lots of cuddles and a story usually sort her out, thankfully.

Fortunately homesickness isn’t particularly contagious. We don’t all get it at the same time. The girls have it less at the moment because they’re loving their new school, while I think I’m more isolated working in our new house because it’s a little further out of town, which may explain why I’m feeling it now.

How do we beat homesickness? The one thing that doesn’t work for me is ‘counting my blessings’ as my Mum used to put it. I’m not Pollyanna. Telling myself how lucky I am and how I must make the most of each day is just a recipe for a guilt trip.

Instead, I’m trying getting out a bit more and (terrible phrase, this) reaching out a bit too. I’ve made more plans this week, and written more emails. I’ve been running three times, been to three Pilates classes and baked a lemon drizzle cake – so the house smells like home. Small things like that work, so that I think that I’m nearly back to my usual bouncy self.

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So why am I telling you this now? Partly I suppose, because I don’t want people to think that a year on the road doesn’t have its drawbacks. They are massively outweighed by the positives in our case, but anyone who tries this needs to be prepared. Also, this blog isn’t just a great big show off about what a wonderful time we’re having. This is real life on a family gap year – warts (well, verrucae anyway), dogbites, regrets and all.

But mainly, I wanted to thank so many, many people for keeping in touch. It’s fantastic when you Skype and FaceTime us, and brilliant when you send emails and contact us on Facebook. When you don’t, we know it’s because you’re busy, and we totally understand that too. But a million thanks for when you can and do. In the absence of any ruby slippers, every bit of contact really matters. Because there’s no place like home.

 

 

 

Feeding the children on the road: No-one actually starves

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I’ve just been observing the girls as they came in for their morning cuddle. How they are growing! Daisy, who was leggy as they come before we left home, is becoming taller and broader, and Clover, who still had some vestiges of her baby roundness when we left the UK, is now mainly legs and pointy elbows.

It’s not surprising then, that they are constantly hungry. Returned home from a night out last night to find our babysitter pointing out that the children had noshed their ways through apples, cheese and bananas since we’d put them to bed mere minutes after giving them a full meal.

But how do you feed children when you’re travelling? It’s one of the big questions we get asked, with many parents pointing out that their children are ‘fussy’- and therefore they couldn’t possibly leave the UK/France/Centerparcs.

So let’s get this straight. My children are fussy. I think, perhaps, all children are fussy – though some more than others. Actually, many adults are fussy too, but we have a lot more control over what we put in our mouths, most of the time.

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Where we are tremendously fortunate is in the fact that neither girl has any food allergies or intolerances, so we can at least give them whatever is offered with impunity, assuming we know that it’s clean and safe. We realise this would be a very different trip if we were grappling with a nut or dairy allergy, or coeliac disease (although ironically the latter would probably be much less of a problem here than it is in the UK, since the diet is maize based). But with that caveat over, I think you can travel with a fussy child and still get them fed. And here’s how.

Get a kitchen when you can

Thank you Airbnb. The house and apartment rental service makes it far easier for us to get a space with a kitchen – which makes it easier to control what we eat. With a kitchen in most parts of the world (even right in the middle of major cities) we’ve been able to save money and take the pressure off by cooking for ourselves.

That’s not to say that cooking is always a great or economic option when you’re somewhere for one or two nights- after all you don’t want to be travelling with half-opened ingredients, and it can be hard to find recognisable items in the local stores – central Bangkok was particularly bewildering, and Belize just not very set up for food stores.

But having a kitchen allows you to do the following:

Pancakes

Yes, the girls practically live on them, but why not? Better for you than sugary cereal and you can nearly always find eggs, flour and milk in relatively small quantities when you need them. Tempura flour works in a pinch (easier to find in Asian convenience stores than the normal stuff). Daisy likes her pancakes with lemon and sugar – easy (and you can swipe sugar sachets when you’re in restaurants if you don’t want to buy a whole bag). Clover likes Nutella – a surprisingly global foodstuff, but we often take a jar with us on short trips.

Funny tasting milk – even buffalo milk in India – goes unnoticed in pancakes. That’s breakfast sorted.

Pasta and sauce

A good stopgap when you’re tired of restaurants – you can nearly always score a bag of fusilli and some cheese or some tomato puree. Many times you can get fresher stuff too. Macaroni cheese goes down well when we have an oven. Feeding tired children is easier in an apartment than out on the street.

Noodles/stirfry/fried rice

Ditto – easy to find, quick to do. Put in fresh veg when you can find it. 

Yoghurt and fruit

You don’t actually need a kitchen for this one but a fridge is handy. Keeps the stomach healthy too – pretty vital when you’re travelling. Having a kitchen means you can wash fruit from the markets properly. Otherwise make sure you peel it. Mexican custom dictates that we currently soak all fruit and veg in a mixture including iodine for fifteen minutes if we’re going to eat the skins. Not sure whether it makes any difference really, but when everyone else does I guess it’s foolish not to. We’ll have no cholera here – we hope….

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Of course, in Mexico, we cook lots and lots of stuff – but for the times when you’re moving on every day or so, that’s a list that can keep you going.

Pack your ‘food heroes’

When we were children, even a trip to France involved packing whole boxes of British food (tinned new potatoes anybody?). You can’t do that when you’re travelling light, so you’ll be glad to know that we didn’t smuggle half of Sainsburys out of the country. What did we bring? Teabags – naturally – though we’ve now run out despite regular refills from visitors so we’re surviving on the Mexican stuff. We also bring what the girls call ‘drop squash’ – the tiny bottles of Robinson’s squash that take just a few drops to make a fruit-flavoured drink. I don’t love the aspartame content but they’re really useful when the only restaurant option is fizzy (currently banned because I am ‘so mean’) and the children want a treat because you’re ‘drinking wine again’.

 

As I mentioned we often take Nutella on short trips, and some sugar sachets. We also pick up longlasting snacks in various places. In South East Asia it was mainly nuts and a particularly chewy sweet that was a bit like a sesame snap. In India we ate a lot of crisps (oops) particularly on long distance train journeys. But we also bought bananas every day to take with us (no mess). Here it is often energy bars (you can even get the Nature Valley ones) as well as nuts again – though there’s also a nice line in pre-prepared fruit and dried fruit.

Let it slip sometimes

The children’s diets are 80 per cent good, I reckon. Their fresh fruit and veg consumption has been immense, simply because we’ve been to so many places where it is so cheap and good. Here they eat buckets of strawberries and mangos (quite literally, they sell them in buckets), as well as apples – surprisingly hard to get hold of and much missed, and the aforementioned bananas. In Mexico (and in fact in most of the world) bananas come in many more varieties than at home. We prefer the little tiny ones or the big red ones – those are probably not their horticultural names.

 

However, before I sound too smug, there have been days when their diets have been execrable. I’ve mentioned the whole ‘Indian train’ thing – at one point they only ate crisps and snacks for 24 hours when no food turned up and I didn’t really trust the vendors on the train (especially the one with the can of tomato soup who had got on 24 hours previously and was breaking up croutons with the same bare hands he was using to scratch his bum).

I was slightly stressed about my slipping standards already when Daisy, who had taken the heavily-promoted Healthy Eating Week very much on board at school, in the UK remarked that this wasn’t very impressive and I should be giving her breakfast cereal. Where she thought I was going to procure Shreddies on the Second Class Sleeper to Ernakulum Junction I don’t know. Some days the food choices have been less than ideal, I admit. And there is still a heavy ‘fishfinger component’ to their diets even here … but then (shhh) I love fishfingers too.

Don’t panic

I do. I panic often. Faced with a menu that I can’t find a thing they’ll eat on, or a lovingly cooked meal from local friends that I know they’ll reject, I flap. But then I repeat this mantra

  1. They won’t starve – they can always make up for it later – and there are always bananas, right?
  2. Most people will cut children a lot of slack with eating. We make them try – to be polite. We make them say thank you. And we explain that lots of eating is cultural – the children just aren’t used to the same tastes. It’s easier now they aren’t babies.

Sometimes even I can’t eat it (pigs stomach stuffed with its own intestines?) – then I need people to cut me some slack too. I try my best, for politeness’ sake.

 

Don’t expect nuggets

Children’s meals? Not really – and in Mexico the favoured meal for kids’ parties is chickens’ feet (suck those toes…) so even if there’s a kid’s menu on offer it may not be what you expect. Fortunately most restaurants allow children to share meals or will bring you an extra plate to share with them. And when it gets terrible there’s always (shh) McDonalds or Burger King – well, not always, but often anyhow.

So yes, it’s not always been organic alfafa sprouts and quinoa (in fact, it’s never been organic alfafa sprouts and quinoa – I think that might just about be the end of our marriage) but the children are eating just about fine. And in San C, they’re currently enjoying an amazing abundance of fruit and vegetables that we’d never be able to afford at home. Eleven mangoes for 50p means they can have them for every meal if they want, and I’m not even going to get started on the homemade guacamole…Maybe it will make up for the days of terrible nutrition on the Indian trains, or maybe not – but we’re grateful for good food and a good kitchen right now. Provecho – as they say here, and which I can only translate as ‘Bon Appetit’.