Nanny at 100: What family looks like

Author's grandmother smiling at age 100

Nanny at 100

This weekend, while the rest of the country goes Olympic mad cheering on Team GB as they rack up the medals at Rio 2016, Zephyr and I will be busy with our family celebrating a somewhat different milestone: On this day, 100 years ago, an inspirational woman, wife, mother, grandmother, great-grandmother and great-great grandmother was born. Greta Taylor – my Nanny and Zephyr’s Great-Nanny – turns 100 today. It’s hard to comprehend a hundred years of life when you’ve totted up a mere 37. Even less so when you’re two; when I asked Zephyr how old Nanny was, he gleefully replied “Five”!

Nanny was born in Calcutta, India in 1916. Life in India in 1916 was a million miles away from life in Surrey, England in 2016. She lived in India until she was 37 years old, the exact same age as I am now, and she bore the first 8 of her 10 children there.

Author's nanny in India, family

Nanny in the early days in Calcutta, India

What different lives we have led! Whilst I cannot claim to have any understanding of what Nanny’s life in those ‘early’ years must have been like, the tiny glimpses I’ve snatched through conversations over tea and Nice biscuits (Nanny’s favourite) have portrayed a life many worlds apart from my own. Growing up Anglo-Indian in colonial India conveyed a certain status and Nanny was raised with the help of ‘ayas’ – Indian servant nannies – after her mother died. At the age of 7 her father too passed away and so she was sent off to boarding school where she was taught by German nuns. From then on, her strict Catholic upbringing meant her options were limited: join the convent or get married have children. On meeting Grandad at a school dance at age 16, Nanny fell in love and by 19 was married. Not long after, her first child Shirley was born. Over the next twenty years, Nanny would give birth – all of them naturally and many of them at home – to ten children. As a mother of one I struggle to imagine what raising 10 children must have been like. Raising one is challenging enough. Ten is incomprehensible to me! I do know that Nanny ran a tight ship – my mum, aunts and uncles can attest to that! But by the time us grandchildren (and the rest) came along she had softened somewhat in her old age.

My childhood memories are of weekends spent mischief making with cousins at Nanny and Grandad’s house in Whitton, south west London. We’d hide ourselves away in the bathroom creating potions out of shampoo, Oil of Ulay and Nanny’s satisfyingly effervescing dentifrice tablets. Nanny would berate us when she found them weeks later stashed behind the toilet cistern. Whilst Nanny filled the house with the familiar smells of our favourite anglo-Indian fayre (prawn and marrow curry, rice and lentils and potato chops), we’d be sent off on errands to the corner shop or given strict instructions to polish the brass step – even when it gleamed from over-polishing. On Sundays we’d accompany Nanny to church, chattering and giggling through the sermon before dutifully reciting the Hail Mary and praying silently for everyone we knew in our sheltered little worlds.

Growing up in south west London and then Surrey, life was easy for us. The choices Nanny and Grandad made all those years ago made sure of that. With their eyes set on a college education for their sons and suitable husbands for their daughters, Nanny and Grandad set sail for England in 1953, leaving India behind for good. Once in England, Grandad worked hard to buy a house and provide for his growing family. Nanny meanwhile devoted her life to her children. After her 10 children came 22 grandchildren, 20 great-grandchildren and 9 great-great grandchildren.

Author and her large family - Nanny and cousins

Nanny surrounded by her grandchildren, 1996

Family is hugely important to us Taylors. From a very young age I remember being surrounded by aunts, uncles and cousins. Every weekend we would see each other, every evening our mums would be on the phone to each other, we’d go on holiday together, we’d go to church together and at Christmas and New Years we’d have big family parties. Always there’d be a focus on the children (the Santa suit worn by successive uncles each Christmas time has been in the family since my mum was small) and always there’d be a focus on food. Growing up with such a strong sense of togetherness imbues a certain confidence in a child that I imagine is hard to replicate through any other means. Of course, like any other family we have our problems and our fallouts and we don’t by any means always agree (the lively pre-Brexit debates were a case in point) but being part of the Taylor clan – with Nanny, our matriarch, at the helm – has been a defining feature of my life.

Nanny, you’ve taught me what family looks like. The strength I experience through being part of this diverse, quirky, loving and lovable family is a big part of who I am. The closeness of family is something I feel been blessed to know and I honour you for creating and sustaining that through all your long years of life. I can’t imagine what it’ll be like when you’re gone – and I know that may not be long now – but I am eternally grateful for the love, passion and commitment you have modelled for us all. I wish you peace, love and ease as you mark this milestone. Happy 100th Birthday dear Nanny.

*************

I leave you with this poem, written a few years ago when I visited Calcutta, the place of your birth and the place you most love to return to when we natter over tea and biccies:

What is it like to be born here, to feel this land as your own?
What is it like to live this as your life and to call this land your home?
And what is it like to leave this land and to travel far away?
To say goodbye to all you have known, to the city atop Bengal Bay?

How does it feel to journey so long and arrive in a foreign land?
To start from scratch for the sake of your sons and the love of your daughters’ hands?
After a lifetime away do you long to return to the times when things were good?
When life was simple, fruit abundant and servants prepared your food?

Do you miss the sights and sounds and smells, the colours, the warmth, the taste
Of a land and its people in all of its chaos and order within all the same?
Do you remember with fondness the trips to the market for spices, for daal and for ghee,
The hustle, the bustle, the haggling down, the family and friends you would see?

And the churches so open with pilgrims a-plenty, pray tell do you miss them too?
How does it feel to have known all of this but accept change with grace as you do?
And what of the railways, the source that sustained you, do you dream of them as well?
The apartment they gave you, the ticket office counter, where still I see him stand tall.
Do you picture the long trains, carriages packed, the whir of the wheels and the breeze
That cools the faces of travelers weary as chaiwallahs attend to their needs?

I ponder all this as the stations pass by, the landscape a green-brown blur,
The rhythmic sound of train upon track brings me closer to where you once were,
The movement it tells a story of a time that resides in my blood
A part of you that’s a part of me and your love who rests up above.

Author's family: Nanny & Grandad in India

Nanny & Grandad in India

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Cruising to Corfu: Italy – Greece – Corfu by ferry

After our restful and scenic journey down the east coast of Italy, it was a hop, skip and a 10 minute taxi ride to the port at Bari. From there we would be cruising to Corfu in no time. Or so we thought.

Man and child in front of "Superfast" ferry at port of Bari

About to board our Superfast ferry from Italy to Greece

We arrived at the check in desk to find that Greek Ferries – through whom we had booked our onward journey to Corfu – had, as we suspected, been somewhat economical with the truth. Apparently the ferry to Igoumenitsa on mainland Greece doesn’t stop at Corfu in May. It never has. On arrival at Igoumenitsa we would have to take a connecting ferry to Corfu adding a total of €44 to our return journey and all-in-all extending our one-way journey from a 40 to a 45 hour total. It was a blow but one we were half anticipating having contacted the booking agent a few days previously about another matter. Besides, by now we were fairly practiced at our zen-like approach to European public transport and also that bit closer to our final destination. What difference would adding one more leg to the journey really make?

sunset over the sea

Sunset from the Bari to Igoumenitsa ferry

After a rudimentary security check we boarded the once weekly Superfast ferry to Greece and settled down to watch the sunset with our now day-old French culinary tit-bits washed down with sweet Greek wine from the onboard shop. We also found the specially allocated seating area for those of us whose budgets don’t quite stretch to cabin class. Fortunately, it was mostly empty and contained a mini-cinema screen. Unfortunately, it was playing an especially rubbish Hollywood spy movie set in Turkey and featuring Liam Neeson. Having by this point shared a bottle of dessert wine, Nathan found it to be an enjoyable easy-watcher whilst I found it to be furiously frustrating, our individual responses perhaps saying more about the affect alcohol has on each of us than the merits of the movie itself. At around 11pm, we retired to the back rows of the darkened room where Zephyr and I curled up under our blanket and Nathan under his.

We were woken the next morning by the intercom announcing our imminent arrival at the port of Igoumenitsa. After gathering up our belongings we relocated to the upper deck with a still slumbering Zephyr all cosied up in his pushchair. As the darkness of night subsided and the ferry chugged along on its final approach, the mountains of Greece came into view for the first time. It was breathtaking. For Nathan, who had visited Greece many times throughout his childhood, returning to this place held a special resonance. And in the stillness of morning, nearing the end of our journey, it felt like coming home.

mountains behind the lights of Igoumenitsa from the sea

Mainland Greece in the morning

As we disembarked the ferry, we watched the sun rise over the hills. We followed the other foot passengers across the tarmac and into the terminal building, dodging departing HGVs as we went. On route we met another young family who were also destined for Corfu. We shared the short taxi ride to the next ferry terminal where we queued briefly for our tickets before heading to an undercover seating area and waiting to board the 0730 Corfu Ferries service to Kerkyra (Corfu Town).

people waiting outide ferry ticket sales window

Queuing with our new friends at the Corfu Ferries desk

The crossing itself turned out to be two hours long but by now time felt immaterial. We were so relaxed as we chatted to our new friends, comparing notes on travelling with toddlers, the realities of low sugar, screen-free parenting and the life-altering power of childbirth. Zephyr was in his element, marvelling at the intensity of the waves and curiously eyeing his fearless American girlfriend Evelyn. Even with the excitement rising within us, for the first time in the journey we were able to be totally present. It was as if time stood still. Very soon, the beaches of Corfu would be on the horizon.

Toddlers on a boat giving each other "high fives" with sea in background

Zephyr, Evelyn & the high fives!

And soon enough they were. We arrived at the port of Kerkyra at 0930 on Friday morning. We were met by our pre-booked taxi and after a quick photo and some friendly goodbyes and high fives, we set off for Mirage Studios in Arillas on the North West coast of the island.

author, partner and child in front of ferry on arrival at port of Corfu

We made it! Finally… arrival in Corfu

And so it was that 3 trains, 2 ferries, 3 taxi journeys and 45 hours later, we arrived at our final destination.

Any notions we may have had about resting in the room for a while went straight out the window. Within minutes the swimwear was donned, suncream applied and we were on the beach. After the journey of a lifetime, we had our whole holiday ahead of us and it was most definitely time to get stuck in!

Without a doubt we’d earned it.

Zephyr on the beach in Corfu, in swimwear, holding toy watering can

As you can see, Zephyr was really rather chuffed to FINALLY be on the beach!

This post is the fourth in a series detailing our adventures traveling by train and ferry for our family holiday to Corfu and Italy. Read part 1, part 2 and part 3.

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Zen and the art of long-distance European train travel

After blowing every last iota of potential misfortune and train travel trauma on the “worst night ever” aboard the Thello overnight sleeper from Paris to Milan, the next leg of the journey was bound to be a breeze.

And indeed it was. The ten hour stopping service from Milan to Bari in Southern Italy was an absolute delight. We lucked out with a 6-seat car for the most part all to ourselves. The seats pulled out into a handy kingsize double bed kind of arrangement (most welcome after the previous night’s sleepless sleeper). The aircon worked just fine, thank you very much. And there was not a mozzy in sight. Basically, it was everything last night’s journey had not been. Plus, it was a perpetual motion picture of effortlessly stunning scenery: lush Italian countryside, tumbledown farmhouses and glorious coastal vistas.

View of an old farmhouse from a train: Lessons on long distance European train travel

One of the tumbledown farmhouses we passed on route from Milan to Bari in southern Italy

We arrived in the port city of Bari relaxed and refreshed having whiled away the day in turns napping, snacking, laughing, joking, writing, drawing, playing choo-choo trains with ‘Thomas’ and ‘James’ and wandering up and down the carriages.

"Bari Centrale" sign at station: Lessons on long distance European train travelThe Milan-Bari calm after the Paris-Milan storm also offered ample time for reflecting on lessons learned about European train travel, a few of which I’ll share below:

1) It’s all about the journey, silly
Attempting to combine one’s commitment to the environment with a family holiday may be laudable but unless you’re also up for a bit of an adventure, you’re in danger of finding yourself in the midst of a long-winded, inter-continental detour. Remember, expectations are everything. Prepare for a two-day audacious extension to your holiday and you’ll have the time of your life.

coastal view: Lessons on long distance European train travel

View from the train window, East Italy coast

2) Break it up
Travelling from London to Corfu in one go, stopping only for an hour or so to change trains sounds like the quickest way to the beach, but it’s actually a fair old way. It’s worth thinking about breaking up the journey if you have the time. Next time we make this trip (and yes – there will be a next time) we’ll probably stop for a night in Bari before making the ferry journey over to Greece. That way we’ll get a chance to rest and recuperate a little, and do some sightseeing in Bari, before the last burst to the beach.

3) Smartphones change everything
The interacting with fellow travellers aspect of European train travel that I had so enjoyed on previous trips six or seven years ago has become unrecognisable since the advent of smart phones. It’d be unfair to suggest this applies to everyone, and at the risk of revealing quite how much I’m not at all ‘down with the kids’, I’d say the proportion of people not consumed in screenland and actually willing to engage with other voyagers has diminished significantly over the last decade.

4) Get some rest the night before
As with any long journey, make sure you’re well rested prior to setting off. Never, I repeat, never, start a 45 hour train and ferry journey on a hangover (Nathan Ball this one’s for you).

TrenItalia train waiting at Milan station: Lessons on long distance European train travel

Trenitalia train from Milan to Taranto via Bari

5) Secure your space
There are ways and means of securing a 6-person train car to yourself. A lively toddler would work in some cultures I’m sure, though not in child-loving Italy. The presence of camembert, roquefort, brie and a well-chosen stinky goats cheese on the other hand will surely deter the majority of travellers whatever their origin. On a similar note, I also learned that 4 baguettes + 4 different types of cheese + a bunch of grapes + a couple of bottles of vino can sustain 2 adults and a child for 36 hours.

6) First class facilities
Facilities on European overnight trains are (broken aircon excepted) pretty damn good. Of particular note is the “restaurant” carriage which, unlike any I have experienced in the UK, is open to all passengers – not just those purchasing food and drink on the train. We joined several other voyagers availing of the comfy four-person booths and free paper plates, cutlery and cups. We were also overjoyed to discover that the café/bar staff happily corked our bottles of wine, free of charge and without question. There is NO way that is happening on Virgin trains.

a train at Bari Centrale train station:Lessons on long distance European train travel

Bari Centrale train station

7) Free alarm service
When the train guard comes round at the start of the journey and insists on taking your passport off you, it’s not because he’s the mastermind behind an elaborate transnational identity fraud. It’s actually so that he can take care of the necessary border checks while you (in theory) slumber on. And to make sure you don’t miss your stop, he will even come by to wake you up – and return your passport – half an hour or so in advance of the first destination of the morning. Now, that is service.

8) Unlucky without aircon
If you’re travelling during the summer months and the aircon goes in your couchette, it’s quite possibly game over. At least in terms of a reasonable night’s sleep. Depending of course on your capacity to sleep in an environment not dissimilar to a one-person tent at a festival at 10am on a hot summer’s morning when you’ve been up far too late at the all night bar. I’ve travelled by overnight train several times before and have always found it to be a pleasant experience – special even, on account of the unique sensation of being lulled to sleep by the sound of train on track. It just so happens that on this occasion – the very occasion that I chose to blog to the world about our eco-friendly trip – the aircon failed miserably. I cannot stress how unlucky this was. This is not usual and should not be taken as a typical night on a sleeper train. I repeat: it is not usual and should by no means deter you from travelling by train to your European summer holiday next year.

9) Get a bed for your toddler
Children under 4 travelling for free is great as long as you have a spare bed in your couchette. We were lucky in that one of our fellow couchetters decided to move carriages. Whether it was the small size of the lower berth she was allocated, the full to capacity couchette or the presence of a toddler, we’ll never know. But boy were we glad she did. Had she not, an already uncomfortable night’s sleep would have been positively unbearable! Lesson: book a bed for the wee one for the overnight leg.

10) Remain zen-like at all times
Even if one leg of your journey falls short of your expectations, there’s always another one around the corner ready to make up for it all. Certainly, maintaining a zen approach to long-distance European train travel is advisable. It will stand you in good stead for when you reach your final destination and is good practice for family holidays in general. In fact, a zen approach to parenting as a whole is not a bad thing to aspire to and will surely help level the most turbulent of journeys.

man looking out of train window: Lessons on long distance European train travel

Nathan remaining zen-like from Milan to Bari

This post is the third in a series detailing our adventures traveling by train and ferry for our family holiday to Corfu and Italy. Read part 1 and part 2.

Posted in Parenting, Travel | Tagged , , , , | 8 Comments

Sleepless in a sleeper: Paris to Milan by train

Thello sign on the side of the overnight sleeper train from Paris to Milan

Our Thello overnight sleeper train

I’d love to say we found the next leg of our ‘Corfu & Italy by train’ voyage to be relaxing and enjoyable, but frankly I’d be lying. After an easy-as-pie Eurostar start to our 45-hour low-impact train and ferry journey from London to Corfu, we boarded the 19.11 Thello from Paris to Milan in high spirits. In keeping with our trip-down-memory-lane theme, during our two-hour changeover we’d made a brief foray through the Parisien backstreets to a boulangerie and mini-market where we stocked up on supplies for the next two days.

So when the three of us, our suitcase, rucksacks, guitar, pushchair and assorted toddler toys clambered into our designated Thello couchette that hot mid-May evening, arms laden with a fine selection of French bread, wine and cheese, we were really hoping to have the 3m x 2m, 6 bed space to ourselves. Just for a short while. Until we ate our bread and cheese dinner. Or got ourselves sorted. Or took a breath. Anything would have been preferable to arriving to find 4 people already sat there, eyes glaring at us. No doubt they’d been hoping for the same thing, a bit of space. Not a family of three with an unsettled two-year old and an unfathomable volume of luggage.

It was then that we realised the aircon was most definitely not functioning. Sitting there with 4 strangers, every one of them headphones in ears, eyes fixated on screens, sweat dripping off all our brows, Nathan and I decided now was not the moment to get out our crumby baguettes and stinky cheese. It was time to decamp to the “restaurant” cart for the duration of the evening. Hopefully when we returned, beds would be down, the heat will have subsided and we can all settle in for a good night’s sleep.

view of the inside of a couchette on Thello Paris to Milan overnight sleeper train

A couchette aboard the Thello Paris to Milan overnight sleeper Credit: Matthew Black: CC license

I’m a big believer in life being what you make it. I’m certain that we have a role in manifesting whatever it is we decide to be true. Positive thinking and all that. So when our fantasies of an empty couchette were shattered, we started to see only discomfort, a sweaty carriage and four other bodies competing for fresh air. Even as we tucked into our delicious French fromage washed down with vin rouge, the conversation quickly got desperate. Nathan, less experienced at European train travel and not having been involved in the hours of research, questioned why on earth he’d allowed himself to be hoodwinked into a 45 hour journey as part of a ‘holiday’. Seven of us sleeping in a small space with humidity through the roof and a distinct lack of aircon? The scene had been set.

The worst night’s sleep ever.

According to Nathan.

OK, so I fared a little better and was hugely relieved to find that one of our fellow couchetters had decided to move carriages, leaving a spare bed for Zephyr. Without it, I would have had to share my 70cm bed with a wriggly toddler as well as the dozen or so mosquitos I found myself bunked up with. Although I wouldn’t go quite as far as Nathan, I can confirm that the night spent on the Paris-Milan sleeper train was pretty sleepless*.

nterior of Milano Centrale station

Milano Centrale station in the early morning

Eventually, we arrived in Milan. We were greeted by the sights and sounds of a city stirring from its slumber: birdsong whispered through the dim light of dawn, the first commuters commencing their march to work and café baristas turning on the coffee machine.

Now, I’m not a coffee drinker. In fact it sends me a bit doo-lally. Green tea is about as much as I can manage. Normally. But today was not a normal day. Today was a double espresso day. And it didn’t even touch the sides. So I had another one. Clearly the discomfort of the night before was gonna take some getting over. It required coffee. And chocolate.

And that’s how Zephyr – who has only ever once before tasted chocolate – ended up devouring a gooey chocolate croissant for breakfast.

Author & Child at cafe table with coffee & croissant

Zephyr’s 6am chocolate fix

* I can also confirm, having made several European overnight sleeper train journeys in the past, that we were extremely unlucky. Without the excessive humidity compounded by the absence of aircon, the Paris-Milan leg of the journey would have been fine. Positively enjoyable even. Seriously. This is as bad as it gets. I sincerely hope I haven’t put you off. Granted, in future I’ll book a bed space for Zephyr but my experience that night won’t deter me from making another journey through Europe by overnight sleeper. And now that it’s over, Nathan assures me he’d be happy to be hoodwinked once again.

This post is the second in a series detailing our adventures traveling by train and ferry for our family holiday to Corfu and Italy. Read part 1.

Posted in Parenting, Travel | 2 Comments

Going Green to Greece: our first family holiday

My body tingles with excitement as we await the departure of the 13.31 Eurostar train to Paris. We’re on the first leg of our five stage journey to the Greek island of Corfu: the place where Nathan and I fell in love almost 17 years ago… and now the destination of our very first family holiday.

The significance of returning to Corfu with Zephyr makes the trip particularly special but that’s not the only thing giving me butterflies in my stomach. This holiday has been a long time coming and has taken several days worth of research, planning, booking and confirming to get us sat in the tidy, wide, reclining seats of the Eurostar. After such a prolonged build-up and having spent many an evening immersed in research, being at the very start of the journey feels both exhilarating and intense. I’m acutely aware that if I’ve made just one little mistake in the timing of things, not left enough transfer time between trains for example, the whole thread could disintegrate and we could find ourselves stranded – and only able to move on at great expense. So as I sit here in my unsettled (bordering on mild anxiety) state, I try to enjoy the sensation of being at the beginning, of not knowing how it’ll all pan out and of hoping we arrive in Corfu on Friday morning as planned!

going green to greece: looking out to the streets of Kings Cross, London

Setting off from Kings Cross, London

Of course, it was partly a desire to inject into our holiday some of the adventure and wonderlust we had enjoyed pre-parenthood that led us to opt for taking the train and ferry versus the plane. Our main motivation though was to travel in a way that would minimise our impact on the environment. As we plan to be away for a little over three weeks, the extended journey feels doable. Plus, Zephyr loves traveling by train and is currently obsessed with a well-known tank engine named Thomas, so all in all our plane-free trip makes a lot of sense.

going green to greece: family pictured at Kings Cross station, Eurostar terminal

London – Paris by Eurostar

I knew we would be saving a fair few kilogrammes of CO2 by choosing not to fly but I was surprised to find that a return flight to Corfu yields a whopping 1646kg of CO2 equivalent (I used Choose Climate’s online carbon calculator – recommended by The Guardian as one of the better ones for air travel calculations) . – The ‘equivalent’ part is a universally recognised measurement that allows for the comparison of different greenhouse gases based on their ability to trap heat in the atmosphere. In the case of aviation emissions, their increased effect on climate change – via nitrogen oxides, water vapour and the fact that CO2 emitted at high altitude causes greater damage – can be accounted for by multiplying CO2 emisions by DEFRA’s recommended Radiative Forcing factor of 1.891.

When you consider that in order to avoid catastrophic climate change, every man, woman and child on the planet will need to stabilise their annual personal carbon footprint at 1500kg by 2050, 1646kg emitted on a return flight looks somewhat incompatible with living a sustainable lifestyle*. By contrast, the same return journey taken by train and ferry emits 124kg of CO2 (according to calculations I made using Carbon Footprint’s calculator and Carbon Independent’s estimation of ferry travel emissions). This works out at over 13 times less carbon than flying. For those of us concerned about our impact on the environment, minimising plane travel has got to be a major consideration.

Needless to say, traveling by train and ferry to Corfu takes significantly longer than an EasyJet flight: 45 hours door-to-door it turns out as compared to around 7 by plane. It is also, you’ll be unsurprised to hear, a bit more expensive. Not, as some people assume, on account of the high prices charged by train companies (train travel within Europe is actually pretty reasonable) but as a result of the enormous tax breaks the aviation industry benefits from. Did you know that the UK government subsidises the airline industry to the tune of £8.5 billion every year? – That’s around £320 each year from every UK household. And that a £150 return flight to Corfu would cost an extra £133 if a fuel tax and duty were applied to flight prices in the same way they are to petrol?

going green to greece: baby sleeping in pushchair on platform of Kings Cross Eurostar terminal

Someone’s raring to go!

Still, it’s a little known fact that for those of us with a child (or children) between the ages of 2 and 4, the cost of traveling by train is comparable to traveling by plane. This is because although airlines start charging full whack for children once they turn 2, train companies wait until they’re aged 4 – and even then they pay a much reduced fare. This means that whilst the train and ferry (and a 3 mile taxi ride) from London to Corfu cost nearly £600 for the three of us, a return flight from London Gatwick to Corfu booking around the same time would have cost us approximately £450 (including baggage but excluding Nathan’s guitar – both of which were free on the train and ferry). So if you’ve got time, a young family and an adventurous spirit, traveling to your European holiday destination by train and ferry is not as expensive as you’d first think. It is however several times less damaging to the environment.

My meticulous nature means I spent a great deal of time researching our various travel options, but it has to be said: train travel within Europe is a lot easier than it used to be thanks to specialist train booking site Loco2. Whereas previously you’d have to search for and book each leg of the journey separately according to which train company serviced the route, with Loco2 you can book the entire train journey from start to finish (in our case London – Bari) with one search.

Booking the ferry from Bari in Southern Italy to Corfu was a little less straightforward. There is no definitive site for booking ferries to and from Greece although Greek Ferries positions themselves as offering the service. A plethora of companies purport to run ferries from Italy (Bari, Brindisi and Ancona) and mainland Greece (Patra and Igoumenitsa) but as far as I could tell only one (Superfast) does the Bari-Corfu route, certainly during the month of May when we wanted to travel. Frankly, I found the whole thing quite confusing and I suspect the fact that we were traveling out of season made it that little bit trickier. Still, after much to-ing and fro-ing and some playing around with dates and times of trains so as to match the one ferry a week with the requisite train timetables, I booked an overnight ferry making up the itinerary we now find ourselves part way through. For the record here it is:

going green to Greece: itinerary for train& ferry trip London - Paris - Milan - Bari - Igoumenitsa - Corfu

London – Paris – Milan – Bari – Igoumenitsa – Corfu

After a slight (half hour) delay – not nearly enough to make us miss our next train: overnight from Paris to Milan – we were on our way. As if to ease us in gently, Zephyr slept for the first half of the two and a half hour journey to Paris. When he woke up he was chilled as you like, tucking into the M&S bought humus and pitta bread and sitting quietly listening to Julia Donaldson CDs on his newly stickered-up CD player.

And so it was that after a relaxed start to our journey, we arrived in Paris feeling optimistic and inspired about the remaining 40 hours ahead of us…

To be continued…

going green to Greece: Author breastfeeding child in seat on Eurostar train London - Paris

Relaxing on the first leg of our journey

Tips for booking your European holiday by train and ferry

  1. Use seat61.com to check out possible routes for your journey
  2. If your journey involves ferry travel, be sure to research this part first so that you can work any train travel around it
  3. Use loco2.com to book train travel within Europe – you can book the whole journey through them and they’ll even calculate how much carbon your journey will emit…
  4. If you don’t mind taking on the responsibility of missed trains yourself, you can save a few pennies by booking each leg separately (eg. we booked the first two legs London-Paris and Paris – Milan via Loco2 and the third leg separately via TrenItalia).
  5. Save money on the ferry by not booking a cabin and opting for a reclining seat or deck travel instead. We were booked to stay on the deck which believe it or not means sleeping outside (!) but in practice the ferry was far from full (and we were told usually runs at far less than capacity) so we got to stretch out across 4 seats each. OK, so it’s a long way from a VIP cruise but made for a perfectly good night’s sleep (especially after sampling the local dessert wine!)

This post is the first in series detailing our adventures travelling by train and ferry for our family holiday to Corfu and Italy.

*I confess, I’m not a scientist and I couldn’t work out whether the figures given for annual personal carbon footprints referred to carbon or carbon dioxide. My limited understanding tells me that the two are different but I can’t tell how exactly they relate! The figures I’ve given for plane, train and ferry travel emissions are definitely for CO2 so an accurate comparison with targets for an annual personal carbon footprint would likewise need to be for CO2 emissions. I suspect that 1646kg emitted on a return flight would in any case be incompatible with a sustainable lifestyle, but it would be good to have accurate figures! If anyone out there can clear this up for me, please do so…

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Raw Raspberry Cheesecake Tartlets

12 finished raw raspberry tartlets lined up in a tray

Utterly indulgent… raw raspberry tartlet yumminess Credit: Charlie Brown

This weekend I had the great pleasure of spending two days holed up in a cottage with ten fantastic women as part of my dear friend Ruth’s hen do. The sun was shining (mostly), the fizzy flowed freely and the conversation was inspiring and ridiculous in equal measure 😉 Between us, we managed to put together a delicious gluten-free, largely vegan menu to sustain us over the weekend… with a few sweet treats thrown in…

These scrumptious raw raspberry cheesecake tartlets were my contribution to the weekend’s festivities. Completely sugar-free, gluten-free and vegan yet utterly decadent at the same time, they are the perfect naughty but good-for-you indulgence for adults and children alike. They are also incredibly easy to make, require very few ingredients and only 45 minutes total prep time – plus overnight in the fridge.

What you’ll need:

bowl of pecans in the kithcen

Plenty of pecans Credit: Future Street | CC license

For the crust:

  • 150g pecans
  • 175g dates

For the filling:

  • 200g cashews
  • Juice of 1 lemon
  • 2 tablespoons of coconut oil
  • 2-3 tablespoons maple syrup (to your taste)
  • a little water
a bowl of dates

Mmm…. dates Credit: Daniel R. Blume | CC license

For the topping:

  • 200g raspberries
  • a few sprinkles of desiccated coconut

Equipment:

  • 12 tartlet cases (I used heart-shaped silicon ones) or a 6 hole fairy cake baking tray

Makes 12 small (4cm diameter) or 6 large (8cm diameter) tartlets

What to do:

  • Whizz the pecans in a food processor until they’re the consistency of flour
  • Add in the dates and whizz up until the mixture becomes sticky (you can add more dates if it breaks up too easily)
  • Use your fingers to press the mixture into the inside of the tartlet cases so that it forms a thin crust with a hollow for the filling to occupy (you will notice that there is a surprising amount of excess pecan oil – don’t worry you can either just tip it away or use it in place of the coconut oil for the filling)
a bowl of cashew cream on a teacloth with a jar of cashews nearby

Cashew nut paste Credit: Jules | CC license

  • Now whizz up the cashews, lemon juice, coconut (or pecan) oil and maple syrup before adding water to create a thick paste the consistency of creamy mashed potato
  • Fill the tartlets almost to the top with the cashew cream
  • Cover and place in the fridge overnight
  • Just before you serve the tartlets, cut the raspberries in half and use them to cover the top of the filling
  • Sprinkle the tartlets with the desiccated coconut and serve

Enjoy!!!

 

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Strawberries & cheese: The dilemmas of parenting a fussy eater

Three days ago, my son ate an omelette. It’s sad to say but this made me ridiculously over the moon. So much so that I had to suppress a squeal of delight and remain po-faced while my stomach did somersaults and I communicated the joyous moment to my partner in hushed tones.

Two days ago, my son ate chips. Yes chips. I’m sure most parents lament their child gorging on chips but for me, chip-eating represents a rare and most welcome incidence of vegetable consumption and therefore most definitely an occasion to celebrate.

Finally, yesterday my son ate soup. With VEGETABLES in it. I can’t tell you the joy I felt at watching him spoon the thick green liquid into his mouth. Gazing lovingly at him as he slurped awkwardly with the remnants dripping down his chin and into his tommy tippy bib. So mesmerised was I by the spectacle of the three of us sitting there, all of us eating the very same meal in true Goldilocks style, that I actually said out loud “It feels like we’re a real family now”. Unsurprisingly, in response Nathan looked sideways at me as if I’d gone completely and utterly nuts.

My, oh my, this really has been an exceptional week.

You may have guessed by now that my son is a fussy eater. Not just a “won’t eat vegetables or anything green” kind of eater. More of a “lives on a diet of porridge, bread (and associated products), goats cheese and fruit” kind of eater. As you can imagine, as a parent this can be challenging.

But then again, I am thankful for small mercies. After all, if it weren’t for the fruit (primarily strawberries) I would be tearing my hair out over the nutritional deficiencies of my otherwise healthy little boy. You see, strawberries are by far Zephyr’s favourite fruit. He can eat a punnet a day. – Fine in the summer when strawberries are in season and affordably priced. Not so fine in winter when you’re buying organic strawberries at around £3 a punnet and your child’s potentially £20-a-week strawberry habit is burning an unhealthly hole in your pocket, not to mention rendering your efforts at reducing your carbon footprint to a shamefully pathetic footnote.

lots of juicy, red strawberries

Thank goodness for strawberries: Zephyr’s favourite fruit. Credit: Antoine Bertier, CC license

But I digress. Zephyr’s eating habits (or perhaps more accurately, my obsessing over them) have caused me no end of parental angst. The fact that he has, until this week, refused to eat the vast majority of foodstuffs we try him with leads me to fluctuate between stomach-knotting anxiety and zen-like “it’s-just-a-phase-ignoring-it-is-bliss”. Sometimes I can go for weeks, merrily serving him up pancake after pancake, occasionally interspersed with a goat cheese sandwich or, from time to time, porridge. For dinner. But after a while I inevitably feel guilty that I’m not making more of an effort. And so another round of making him a healthier, perhaps even vegetable-containing, version of something close to what he likes, ensues. I obsess about trying out these new things for a while, I experiment with pizza, mashed veg or patties of some kind. I buy packets of salt-laden Lidl vegetable crisps just so that I can mix a handful of them with my own home baked versions and trick him into eating vegetables. (He likes packets of stuff you see – crisps, fruit bars and Ella’s pouches – but food made at home by my fair hands? No thanks.) And when he still won’t eat what I offer him, I give up again and go back to giving him what I know he’ll eat.

If all that sounds exhausting, it’s because it is. Oftentimes I’ve wondered whether I’m taking entirely the wrong approach. Certainly, I’ve found myself thinking about Zephyr’s eating rather more than I suspect is healthy. And in case you’re wondering, I do have an approach… or at least, I started out with one. It began with baby-led weaning, which I was drawn to because I wanted to be guided by my son’s interest in food and let him explore it for himself. For the first few weeks, it worked a treat. He ate everything we put in front of him and we enjoyed many a family evening meal together, eating the same food, only with varying portion sizes. I can’t pinpoint where it changed, but gradually Zephyr started rejecting what we were eating and I’d scramble around trying to find quick alternatives I knew he’d eat. Sweet potatoes, broccoli, avocados, bread and goat’s cheese became firm favourites. At some stage we mostly stopped giving him what we were eating save for a token trial at the beginning of the meal which he always declined in favour of what was to come. By the time he was 18 months old, he had ditched the vegetables all together.

As far as I can tell, baby-led weaning is based on the premise that trusting our child to know what their body needs and to eat accordingly is a good thing – and importantly, that it works in terms of supporting him or her to develop a healthy relationship with food. As this chimes with my overall approach to parenting – to trust and support my child, rather than to control him – it seemed to fit. And because my guiding premise is that I want my son to enjoy the food he eats, to develop a lifelong love of food, to be able to connect to his own dietary needs (both in terms of what he eats, when he eats and how much he eats) and to eat a healthy, balanced diet, I figured that the best way of doing this was to be led by what he indicates he wants, or indeed doesn’t want, to eat. But in reality, because what he wants is actually rather a narrow range of foodstuffs which rarely, if ever, coincides with what I am cooking for dinner (except on Shrove Tuesday), I find myself fretting over whether he will ever eat what I would deem a healthy, balanced diet. Maybe he will always be a fussy eater. Maybe my approach is enabling him to become more and more restrictive around what he eats?

Friends have suggested to me that I should just offer him what we’re eating and if he doesn’t eat it, let him go hungry. (I suspect as he’s still having breastmilk at night that this option is more likely to translate into filling himself up on milk at bedtime.) Part of me feels this is a reasonable approach and certainly one that would, over time I suspect, yield a positive result in that I would no longer have to cook separate meals, cart goats cheese around or obsess over Zephyr’s eating habits. But I can’t help thinking that changing tack and denying Zephyr the foods he wants to eat in favour of the ones we want him to eat could result in him developing negative associations with food. Would such intervention end up obscuring his natural tendencies regarding food and prevent him from connecting to his own dietary needs? For sure in the short term there would be lots of tears, but could such an approach actually lead to him have an unhealthy relationship to food? Can I trust him to find his own way and explore different foods in his own time? Or is it true that intervention is needed?

almost empty plate with nectarine stone in it, banans skin on the left hand side of the plate

Rather a narrow range of foodstuffs Credit: Rachel Zack, CC license

It feels important here to look at my motivations. Am I concerned about his unusual eating habits because I’m worried about his health? Am I driven by a fear of him remaining fixated by cheese and fruit into adulthood? Is it actually that I find the task of ensuring he has the food he likes too stressful, time-consuming or onerous? Despite my professed parenting ideals, is there an element of me needing to exert a degree of control over Zephyr’s food choices so as to simplify mealtimes and make him conform to what I believe he should be eating?

On the first point, I can honestly say I’m not worried about Zephyr’s unusual eating habits being detrimental to him health – he’s been eating this way for almost a year now and he looks and acts like a normal, healthy, vibrant little boy. Nor am I especially worried that his somewhat limited palate will continue into adulthood – lots of children are fussy eaters but few adults appear to suffer such an affliction. And whilst carting goats cheese around and spending an inordinate amount of time pontificating over a toddler’s eating habits can be a right pain in the butt, I wouldn’t say I feel overburdened by it.

…At least not today, which I admit is a good day.

Overall, we enjoy structured mealtimes and within the range of what I know he likes, Zephyr eats what he’s given. Setting aside one incident where he rejected the goats cheese sandwich I’d given him and made him porridge instead, which he then refused to eat, I’ve purposefully steered clear of making him elaborate meals, much less pandering to his every whim. Certainly, I am keen to be led by what Zephyr himself wants, but I am reluctant to take this to what my mum would call “the nth degree”. To an extent, I’d say there is part of me that feels the need to maintain some control over what Zephyr eats, which I guess demonstrates that however much I like the idea of trusting that he will find his own way with food, part of me feels that he needs me to nudge him in the right direction.

But is that really such a bad thing? At the moment, providing him with foods I know he will enjoy, whilst also offering opportunities to explore other gastronomic possibilities, feels like a good balance. He gets to lead the way while I stand alongside him showing him what else is out there. Broadly speaking, I’d found seven main things that seem to help Zephyr to enjoy and experiment with food:

  1. Engagement: involving him in food preparation (the whizzing up of the soup was what led to the eating of it) & involving him in preparation for mealtimes itself (setting the table)
  2. Community: eating together and making dinner time central to family life
  3. Ritual: having a little ritual around dinner time (lighting a candles at the beginning of the meal)
  4. Repetition: offering him what we’re eating every dinner time, even though he almost never ends up eating it (after six months of being offered rice pudding every week at playgroup, last week he finally ate it)
  5. Familiarity: offering him new foods that share some characteristic with existing favourites (strawberry yogurt is admissible on account of the strawberry element; he only tried the “omelette pancake” ‘cos he thought it was a pancake)
  6. Clarity: offering clear messages about food and maintaining boundaries as to what is acceptable (food preparation is fun and creative, food is to be respected, we wait until everyone has finished eating before leaving the table)
  7. Availability: making a range of food available to him in between mealtimes (putting a plate of fruit, vegetable crisps and oat cakes close to where he is playing)
smiling child with goat's cheese round his mouth, holding packet of goat's cheese

Zephyr chowing down on goat’s cheese

The truth is that incidents like the omelette encounter, the chip breakthrough or the soup-eating family idyll show me that Zephyr’s eating habits will change and that he will try new things, only at his own pace. That pace may be painfully slow to watch, but as with all things parenting, processes that seem at the time to take an eternity, appear with the benefit of hindsight to be over in the blink of an eye.

Zephyr enjoys his food and I’ve no doubt that with time, he will eat a hearty, healthy and balanced diet. In the meantime, I suspect it’s time for mamma to sit back, relax a little and worry less about changing Zephyr’s eating habits and more about readjusting my expectations.

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All I want is a bit of peace! Supporting children (and ourselves) to engage nonviolently with the world

In this article, first published in the December 2015 – January 2016 issue of Green Parent magazine, I consider how we can bring more peace into our family lives and parent in ways that support our children to engage nonviolently with the world.

row of daisies leading to 2 half drunk pints and a baby's beaker, on an outside tableDespite its seeming simplicity, “peace” as an enacted, everyday concept can be difficult to grasp. Associations with tranquillity and wellbeing, whilst entirely valid, run the risk of reducing peace to something passive. Perhaps for the politicians arguing over security policy, peace can be conveniently defined as the absence of war, but real peace, sustainable peace is much more than that.

Peace to me is active, a conscious way of interacting with the world, one that requires awareness, thoughtful consideration and staying power. It requires me to look at things from others’ perspectives and be open to change. It requires that I engage with – rather than steer clear of – conflict. After all, people are different, we don’t always agree, and conflict is a natural and inevitable aspect of human interaction. For many of us, conflict is a dirty word, something to be avoided at all costs. But as anyone who has entered into a conflict with a spirit of love and cooperation knows, the process of resolving a conflict, without resorting to violence, coercion or force, can be hugely empowering and beneficial to both parties.

As a parent, my relationship with peace is twofold: firstly, I seek ‘everyday peace’ – a peaceful home life and a sense of personal security and personal freedom; and secondly I endeavour to practice for myself and engender in my children, peaceful – or nonviolent – ways of interacting with the world. In its simplest form, nonviolence can be characterised as the practice of fostering understanding among those who are different from you, opposing injustice and seeking loving solutions. So on a very basic level, practising nonviolence and supporting children to interact nonviolently means cultivating empathy, compassion and connection.

Being a relatively new parent, and one who has worked as a peace and disarmament advocate and a nonviolence trainer for campaigning groups, I have been exploring different parenting approaches and feel drawn to those that resonate with my understanding of peace and nonviolence. Like most parents I pick and chose the aspects of different parenting models that work for me and my family, and in terms of bringing my commitment to peace into my parenting I have found there are certain key themes that fit particularly well.

Connection

According to the Peaceful Parenting Institute, connection is the biggest contributing factor towards a child’s behaviour, so it stands to reason that making sure our children feel loved and valued is a great place to start in terms of bringing peace into our lives. But children need a lot of attention and because most of us live very busy lives, we can’t always give our children the love and time they need – and I dare say we’ve all experienced the emotional outbursts that arise when this most basic need is not met. One tool I’ve found especially useful in this regard is “special time” which involves setting aside time to focus entirely on engaging one-on-one with your child. Hand in Hand Parenting recommends setting a timer for an agreed length of time (even 15 minutes a day per child can make a difference), then simply pouring your love into your child and delighting in whatever they do. No putting out the washing, no answering your mobile phone, checking Facebook or keeping an eye on the dinner. This is a time to follow your child’s lead, say “yes!” to their requests and muster all the enthusiasm, patience and flexibility you’d like them to be able to show the other twenty-three and three-quarter hours of the day!

Daddy and child looking at pebbles on the banks of a stream

Daddy & Zephyr exploring the world together

Recognition

Every one of us, adult and child alike, seeks recognition and acknowledgement. The simple practice of acknowledging and honouring a child’s feelings can help them – and us as parents – to develop empathy, which is essential for cultivating the compassion, understanding and respect for others that forms the basis of sustainable peace. By helping a child to connect with and express their feelings we can begin to create a culture of openness and understanding in the home.

Oftentimes though, in an attempt to shield our children from the pain and heartache of seemingly negative feelings, we rely instead on distraction tactics. I’ve certainly found myself doing this! To help me better support my child’s emotional literacy, I’ve drawn on a well-worn Nonviolent Communication (NVC) tool, also described as “sportscasting”, which involves stating in simple, non-judgmental terms, what it is that I’m observing – that is the facts of the situation and the feelings it seems to have generated. For example, “Sam’s got the toy you wanted and you seem annoyed. Is that right?” But “sportscasting” needn’t necessarily be restricted to your child’s feelings. If you observe someone you come into contact with demonstrating particular feelings, you can use it as an opportunity to get your child thinking about what that person is experiencing. For example, “That lady on the checkout seemed short with us. Do you think she’s having a bad day?”. And “What do you think could have happened to make her have a bad day/be short/other?” Drawing attention to feelings in this way and encouraging consideration of what might be happening for other people, can also help our children to connect with a sense of injustice and can pave the way for more mature approaches to dealing with conflict.

Trust & Autonomy

Approaches that encourage us to recognise our children’s feelings – and importantly to respond to those rather than the behaviour exhibited – require a certain degree of trust in our children. We must, in the words of “Unconditional Parenting” author and parenting guru Alfie Kohn, “attribute to children the best possible motive consistent with the facts”. But the idea that we should trust a child to act in accordance with their needs runs contrary to traditional approaches to discipline and sometimes also with the way we ourselves were parented. And to be fair, without seeking out the feeling beneath the behaviour, it is easy to assume that a child is merely being difficult or manipulative.

But in terms of bringing peace into our family lives and developing empathy and compassion in our relationships, trust is an important component. One way to build trust in our family relationships is to adopt a democratic, mutual problem-solving approach to parenting. Asking for a child’s help or opinion is a great way to make them feel valued, and demonstrating that you don’t have all the answers lets a child know that it’s OK not to know everything. It also places the emphasis on the process of working through things, rather than on the end result, and can remove the tendency towards power struggles by injecting some equality into the parent-child relationship. Children have an innate need to feel valued, understood, powerful, and loved, and when these needs are met, there is less need to misbehave.

Alongside trust comes respect for a child’s personal autonomy which again is not a notion that is popular amongst those who advocate a top-down, “respect must be earned” approach. But for me, respecting my child’s autonomy by listening to his requests, offering as many opportunities as I can for him to chose things for himself, by honouring his “no’s” (particularly where his body is concerned) and by involving him in routine activities, feels like the best way to develop his self-reliance as well as show him what respectful interaction looks like in practice.

Modelling

Of course, one of the most profound ways children learn is by observing and mirroring our behaviour. From a nonviolence perspective, modelling the behaviour we would like to see others enact is fundamental, as is treating everyone, ourselves included, with love and respect. For many parents, modelling is the hardest part of being the parent we want to be – it seems we have first to be the person we want to be, and virtually none of us are. Rather than give ourselves a hard time though, it’s important that we model the compassion and self-care we hope to teach our children. If we are forever negating our own needs in favour of others’ (our children included), they learn to behave similarly.

Communication

At its heart, conflict resolution is about communication, so it should come as no surprise that the most powerful, and simple, tool I have found thus far in my peaceful parenting journey is speaking clearly and respectfully to my child. It sounds obvious and its efficacy may well be because he’s still a toddler (and not yet talking himself!), but I find that by informing my son of what we’re doing well in advance, and by listening to and acknowledging his response, he seems to feel included and valued. And because none of us are at our best when rushed, I also endeavour to allow plenty of time, particularly if I know he’s likely to resist whatever it is that’s happening.

Naturally, there are times when parent and child disagree on what to do and although my first port of call is always to ask myself whether I really need to do that thing, when I judge that I do, I try to use clear and patient communication to get across my expectations. Whilst the concept of boundaries is an accepted one in traditional parenting circles, coming from the more permissive end of the spectrum where limiting of a child’s self-expression is kept to a minimum, I have struggled to find a way of establishing boundaries which does not impose stifling limits on my child but that respects my own needs and enables me to guide my child appropriately. On the back of some trial and much error, and after seeking advice from people who’ve been in the parenting game longer than I have, I discovered a method that for now seems to yield positive results. By coming down to my son’s level, making soft, kind, physical contact to get his attention, and by communicating my expectations calmly, clearly and with confidence, I have felt able to offer parental leadership in a loving but firm manner.

Unsurprisingly, I don’t always get it right. In fact my interactions with my son frequently lack the connection, recognition and trust that I aspire to. But my commitment to peaceful parenting is not diminished, because I am reminded that nonviolence is not about lying down and passively accepting what is thrown at us. It is about stepping up and actively engaging in the relationship, being clear about our own needs, seeking to understand the needs of others, and finding loving solutions that work for everyone. And I hope that by applying some of this to my parenting, I might contribute in my small way to creating the more peaceful world we all seek.

Further Reading:
Aware Parenting Institute: http://www.awareparenting.com/
Hand in Hand Parenting: http://www.handinhandparenting.org/
Peaceful Parenting Institute: http://www.peacefulparent.com
Resources for Infant Educarers (RIE): https://www.rie.org/
Unconditional Parenting, Alfie Cohn: http://www.alfiekohn.org/UP/

This article was originally published in the December 2015 – January 2016 edition of The Green Parent – “the UK’s leading green lifestyle and natural parenting magazine”. Subscribe here

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Five ideas to help you avoid Christmas present overload… and create magical, meaningful and excess-free festive fun instead

an Amazon warehouse full of boxes

Boxes in the Amazon warehouse in the run up to the Christmas rush Photo: Bruno Vincent/Getty Images; https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/

Christmas with children can be such a magical, fun-filled time. Yet as any parent will tell you, it can also be busy, stressful and for the children themselves, fraught with obsessing over presents and the next “I want”. While most of us would never deny our children the joy of giving and receiving gifts at Christmas time, let’s be honest: yuletide gift-giving – at least for those of us in the excess-laden First World – has become something of a consumerist nightmare, far removed from the original sentiment of the season.

Last year, as a new parent, I found myself dreading the frenzied, gift-giving extravaganza of Christmas, with its likely onslaught of well-meaning but potentially unwanted, plastic tat presents. I was aware that as much as I’d been able to avoid the seasonal excesses pre-parenthood, with the arrival of a new and much-loved addition to the family, Christmas was likely to bring a whole load of gumpf that no one really wants or needs… Least of all a baby who really only wants to rip up paper and gnaw on cardboard boxes.

So I enlisted the help of some fellow mums and together we came up with a few ideas for parents of young children on how to avoid being overwhelmed by mountains of presents whose only lasting impact is to expose our children to the very worst of our throwaway, capitalist culture. And because Christmas is about so much more than gift-giving, we also shared our ideas for bringing magic and meaning to the festivities.

1. Be brave and say it like it is

If you’re anticipating your little angel being bombarded by pressies or even just receiving gifts that will be played with once or twice and then discarded/are made from planet-wrecking fossil fuels (ie. anything plastic)/serve the purpose of filling a stocking but nowt else [delete as appropriate], try being bold and asking overzealous gift givers to tailor their gifts appropriately. I’m not suggesting you corner Great Aunt Maud weeks in advance and demand she buy something off your pre-approved list, but making some thoughtful suggestions of gifts that have less of an impact on the planet and her purse and more of an impact on the child in question will surely be welcomed.

For some of us that will mean asking friends and family for handmade gifts or longer lasting presents such as books or clothes. For others it will mean requesting only pre-loved toys and gifts and for givers to support charities with their purchases. – Do be aware though that often when people buy gifts from charity shops they feel the need to buy five times as much in order to offset the financial savings made! Some parents will suggest that people buy activity gifts, rather than actual “things”, for example swimming lessons or days out, preferably ones that involve the giver spending time with the child. For closer family members, why not ask whether they’d be willing to send money towards necessary items such as shoes or memberships to clubs and favoured activities. You could even suggest they open a bank account for the child and put money in every Christmas and/or birthday so that he/she can spend it on something really worthwhile when they turn 18. And if you’re not sure how to get your suggestions across to everyone, talk to the most influential person in the family and ask them to filter your requests through to others.

The truth is people love giving children presents, and children love receiving them, so make your requests gently and respectfully, but don’t be afraid to make them. Christmas is a big deal – and children know that – so rather than letting everything slip slide “’cos it’s Christmas”, use it as an opportunity to give people a little window into the values you try to espouse in your parenting. For me it’s about explaining to people that whilst we love giving and sharing gifts, we are aware of the impact we are having on the planet and want to bring this awareness to our son. The tradition of giving gifts to our nearest and dearest at Christmas is a lovely one – let’s make it even more beautiful by doing it in a way that’s conscious and teaches our children the kinds of values we’d like them to practice year-round.

2. Employ the golden rule of parenting

The golden rule of parenting? What, pray tell, is that?! It’s the rule we’d all like to follow but seldom do (alright, in our finer moments we do, but more often than not, we probably don’t): Modelling the behaviour we’d like to see is just about the most powerful way our children learn how to be in the world. It’s important to practice with children but it’s also worth practicing with adults. Just ask Mahatma “Be the change you wish to see in the world” Gandhi. This right here is the Gandhi of gift-giving: if you want people to give less ie. only one – less costly and more thoughtful – pressie, then it’s time to put your own house in order and practice excess-free giving yourself. Do it quietly and without too much fanfare and you never know, others might just follow suit…which brings me on to number 3…

3. Focus on giving and gratitude

Make giving and gratitude central to your Christmas experience by doing things in the run up to the big day that help children to express gratitude for what they have and to consider others less fortunate than themselves. Zephyr’s a bit small for this one at the moment but I love the idea of taking time at the start of each day during Advent to say thank you for something you’re grateful for in your life. Of course, the “gratitude attitude” needn’t be confined to Advent – it’s a good practice for children and adults to institute year round. Another alternative way of marking each day of Advent is to do a kind of “reverse Advent” where you take a box and each day put a non-perishable food item inside, then on Christmas eve you take it to your local food bank or homeless shelter.

Getting kids into the spirit of giving can also serve as a seasonal de-cluttering. Invite children to choose some toys, books and clothes from their existing collection to give away to charity. Doing this before Christmas helps to build the sense of Christmas as a time of giving and depending on where you donate to, children who may not otherwise receive very much can benefit. And for just £2 (the cost of postage) services like Link to Hope’s Christmas Shoebox will send a shoebox full of your old toys and books to a child in Eastern Europe who needs it.

4. Create and sustain Christmas rituals

Whether you’re an avid church-goer or a no-nonsense atheist, the Christmas celebration provides an opportunity to create meaningful annual rituals and traditions that can be sustained throughout childhood (and beyond). Have a think about what this time of year means to you and how you want to mark it. By taking a little time to consider the traditions you want to enshrine for your kids, you can inject a real sense of magic as well as meaning into Christmastime. Depending on your beliefs, you might want to emphasise winter, the Solstice, the forthcoming new year or Christmas itself. It could be as simple as lighting candles every day throughout December, talking around the dinner table about moving towards mid-winter, singing and dancing to Christmas songs, or gathering a small group of friends and family to share stories about what you’ve enjoyed throughout the year and your hopes for the year to come. For slightly older children who enjoy craft activities you could spend some time making a dreamboard to help them visualise their dreams and goals for the coming year. These kinds of things help children to feel included and actively engaged, rather than Christmas being something that happens ‘to’ them – and it’s always interesting to see what kids come up with!

5. The secret stash

At the end of the day, you can do your very best to keep the piles of presents at bay but if you still find yourself wading through wrapping paper on Boxing Day, just remember: the cupboard is your friend. Ideally they’d make it there before being unwrapped but either way, setting a few extra gifts aside until your child’s next birthday (or even until next month) might just save you, and little Johnnie, from gift gluttony.

Because Christmas is actually brilliant. And if we can sidestep the overindulgences and choose instead to inject a bit of thought and seasonal goodwill into our festive spirit, we might just be able to embrace Christmas and come away from it with a warm fuzzy feeling inside. That’s got to be better than being left with a lingering sense of guilt when the baubles come down.

Christmas tree and presents

Have yourself a merry and magical Christmas! Photo: Falk Lademann; Reproduced under https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

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Feeling their pain: Reflections on Paris

Eiffel Tower peace sign

Paris for Peace

I woke up this morning to discover that last night, whilst I enjoyed a quiet evening at home, at least 120 of my fellow humans were killed in terrorist attacks across Paris. No doubt, by the end of the day, the death toll will be even higher.

A myriad of emotions swirl around inside me. I feel shocked and angry at the loss of so many innocent lives. I feel overwhelmed by the sheer scale of the attack and incredulous that it has even happened. I feel confused about the attackers’ motives and feel a strong desire to understand what it is that drives human beings to commit such heinous crimes against one another.

I think of my brother who was working in Pairs until yesterday. I also think of friends I have in Paris and of the thousands of strangers who call the city their home. And then I feel guilty because just a few months ago, when 500 people died when their boat capsized in the Mediterranean as they fled war and dictatorships in search of a better life in Europe, I felt similar emotions but I didn’t put pen to paper and write about it.

Most of all though, I feel a deep sadness and what I can only describe as despair at the world we live in.

My temptation is to take a deep breath and go back to what I was doing. To the housework or the breakfast or (I wish) back to bed. But a question goes over and over in my head. It’s the question my cousin and fellow mamma Sophie posed on Facebook this morning and it’s been occupying my thoughts ever since: “What kind of a world are we bringing our children into?”

It feels uncomfortable to sit with this question because the only answers that come are full of negativity and darkness and sadness and sorrow. But it is an important question and one we must grapple with if we are to honour the people whose lives have been lost – in this tragedy and in others passed and still to come. This, after all, is our reality. Of course, atrocities like the one that took place last night are not the whole picture. There is joy and lightness and beauty and connection too. But surely by choosing to shy away and forsake the darkness, we serve only to push it into the shadows from where it is free to expand and intensify its reach? So whilst the emotions it brings up are not easy to navigate, it seems to me that taking the time to feel the pain in the world is a necessary part of the healing and in fact, if we ignore it we run the risk of experiencing further suffering.

One of the things I’ve been conscious of as I guide Zephyr on his way is my response to how he expresses his feelings, whether they be positive or, seemingly, negative. I think there is a tendency in our culture, particularly in Britain, to brush aside feelings, especially if they appear negative or make others uncomfortable. As a nation we are well known for being reserved and although it seems to have shifted in modern times, the British stiff upper lip and stoic outlook is a cultural trait that continues to inform our behaviours. And I don’t think this is necessarily good. So many relationships, between lovers, family members, friends and work colleagues falter or become enmeshed in conflict because people are unable, or simple don’t know how, to express their feelings. In terms of interacting with children, this ‘stiff upper lip’ approach to feelings often translates into the squashing down of particular feelings or the overuse of distraction tactics or for a child simply to be told “it’s not that bad” (when clearly they feel it is). More often that not, parents do or say these things automatically, without thinking (I know I have) and if there is a motivation it’s either through a desire to spare the child the intensity of the ‘bad’ feeling or else to spare other people (most notably strangers in a supermarket) from witnessing the child’s outward expression of his/her feelings.

In my own parenting, I try to be mindful of the way in which I respond to Zephyr’s feelings. I am careful to acknowledge how he’s feeling and give him the words to describe certain emotions in the hope that he will learn to connect with how he feels and be able to express his feelings rather than push them aside.

And so, as I contemplate the events of last night and feel into the shock, the incredulity, the sadness, I am faced with my own despair at it all. And I am reminded that feeling, really feeling, is good. The despair I feel comes ultimately from a place of compassion and empathy, of recognising others’ humanity and of ‘standing with Paris’. To honour and own the pain we feel for the world is a normal and natural human response. It is not a weakness, as some would have it. Rather it is a strength and a sign of emotional maturity.

I am glad Sophie posed the question and that people are expressing their own sadness and despair in response. Because although letting these feelings move through us, instead of exhausting ourselves by keeping them at a distance, can feel overwhelming, it’s a whole lot better than the alternative: keeping it all inside and feeling isolated, insignificant and powerless as a result. By reflecting on Paris, by attempting to connect in our own ways with the trauma so many are experiencing and by sharing our feelings as they come up, we realise we are not alone and can start to move out of our sense of powerlessness.

Not only that but by connecting with our feelings on these matters of grave significance, we are allowing emotions that may have lain dormant to come to the surface. No matter how difficult, these feelings and emotions help us to come alive and as we do, we begin to stir up our passions and imagine our visions for the future we wish for our children.

And when we do, what emerges is powerful. Action borne both of passion and of shared human connection, of solidarity with one another, is infused with a strength of purpose and depth of commitment that is hard to replicate. We’ve only to look back through history to see how human beings coming together to work towards a shared goal can achieve unfathomable things.

And that is where hope comes in. Hope can come out of despair. Even when things seem impossible, hope can never be taken away from us. We can’t necessarily choose what happens to us but we can choose the way in which we respond. And we can choose to have hope.

Today is undoubtedly a day for quiet reflection and solidarity with our Parisian brothers and sisters – and for all others suffering in the world. But when today is over, and when the shock has dissipated and the media fanfare has died down, my hope is that rather than shy away from the difficult feelings, papering over them to go back to our everyday lives, we can be brave enough to face up to our reality and to really feel the pain and despair it evokes.

Because, this is not the end of the story. There is a quiet but immeasurable strength that comes from recognising and connecting with our shared humanity, from being open to the difficult feelings this provokes and from following the passions that inspire us to action. I firmly believe that meaningful change – the kind we desperately need to set us back onto a positive and sustainable path – will come from this place of strength in vulnerability. With this in mind, I intend to embrace it and I hope you will too.

For further thoughts and reflection on reconnecting to the pain in the world, take a look at Joanna Macy’s ‘The Work that Reconnects’

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