I've written before about the concept of "being present" VS "being planned", so I'm at risk of retreading old ground here, but on our big European adventure it's a topic that keeps on hitting me in the face.
We've been moving at relative speed between multiple countries, checking in and out of hotels or Airbnb properties, figuring out transport and customs in new cultures every week. When you're in that flow, it can feel like all you do is logistics - you're so focussed on working all this stuff out that you forget to appreciate where you are and what you're doing. That feeling is amplified when you're travelling with a 4 year old, and although you might try to go with the flow, to slow down a bit, you know if you don't plan a little you're at risk of major meltdowns in very public places, or worse, getting caught out on a plane or train ride somewhere, stuck in the middle of nowhere with no way to your hotel. We had one such moment in Lille on the way to Belgium, when they replaced our train with a bus due to works on the lines, and I was struggling with my limited French to work out specifically which bus we needed to catch. I was outside, head in my hands while my wife, child and in-laws waited with our bags, and I honestly thought we were fucked, that I'd never figure this out and we'd have to pay an exorbitant taxi fare or try and figure out another crazy train route. And then the bus I was looking at changed its sign from "out of service" to "replacement service", and I spoke to the driver, and I could breathe again.
So there are things you want to avoid. But at the same time, you want to make room for the spontaneous, for the unexpected moments of joy that can only arrive after you've gone a little beyond your comfort zone and still landed on your feet. We had one of these in Belgium, when we had experienced a crazy day trying to navigate the canal locks and bridges in our boat. At various points in the day we had waited hours for bridges, I had stepped into the dirty, dirty canals with one foot, and worst of all we had managed to leave my wife and mother in law on the side of the road with our groceries while we went through a bridge that was apparently only opening once that day (so if we didn't go then we were staying on the side of the canal with no power for the night). To get back on the boat they had to cross the recently-closed bridge and walk down the side of a motorway, getting shouted at & tooted at by motorists, and then stumble down a muddy bank in the only spot we could moor to collect them. As you can imagine, neither woman was particularly happy about this turn of events and a huge row ensued due to everyone's heightened stress levels (and if you know my wife and mother in law you'll be unsurprised to hear that they yelled back just as loud at those motorists).
And then, with one more bridge to go until we could moor up for the night in Bruges, the rush hour restriction hit where they close the bridges from 4.30-5.30, and we had to moor up on the other side for an hour. We decided to pour gin & tonics (or vodka in my wife's case) on the top deck to pass the time (always a good idea in my experience), and as I was sitting there I realised this was probably the highlight of the day, maybe the week. The sun was shining, we were pulled up next to a beautiful park with rustic old windmills and lovely trees, my drink was cold and delicious, and we were all in a great mood. Would this moment have been as sweet if we had planned it? I don't think so. Would it have been such a high without the lows from earlier in the day? I'm not sure, but it definitely felt like it.
So what is it? Plan and prepare or relax and roll with it? I've tended to fall on the planning side of the fence more recently, I think partly due to work - if your boss asks for your thoughts. It's usually not a great idea to day that you're just going to see what happens,even if you secretly might think that something actually the best idea.
But with everything that's happened in the last few years I am learning more and more the value of letting things play out as they will, at least to some extent. I have taken to thinking of it like driving a boat. If you've never done it, it's a different experience. It is essentially the same as driving a car, but you are influenced a lot more by factors out of your control - winds, currents, rain, other boats. So while you need a plan to get to your destination, you also need to respond to what's happening in front of you, to work with it rather than fight it. If you can do that, you're in for a smooth ride, or at least a smoother one than I'd you had spent your time battling the elements.
Ultimately I think the most important thing is to try and accept the moment, whether it's planned or not, amazing or utterly shit. Wherever you are, you are here, you can't be anywhere else, and you can be mad or sad or angry about it, but you're still here, so you may as well enjoy yourself. Have a G&T. It's never a bad idea.
It's the little things that are different when you're travelling, the minor differences that make make everyday tasks a mini Rubik's cube to be solved under pressure. They jolt you out of your on-rails routine, and that can make you uncomfortable but it can also open up new thought paths, expose new truths, shed new light on your "normal" life. Here's a few examples from our travel so far:
~ The way "Hi" (in English) sounds really similar to "Hej", and because you look a bit Danish it leads to some brutal exposure of your lack of the mother tongue.
~ The way laundromats in England are called "laundrettes" so that when you google laundromat, you end up standing in front of a confused but helpful lady at a professional laundry service.
~ The fact that there is spirit liquor at every supermarket. As a Kiwi, where supermarkets can only sell beer and wine, and where the hard stuff is limited to liquor stores only, this feels really weird. Useful, but weird.
~ The way you just can't resist looking the wrong way when you cross the street, no matter how hard you fight it.
~ When you think you know what a place name in Denmark is called from reading the sign, and then the automated voice on the bus reads it out, and it sounds like she's pashing a fish.
~ The way no hotels seem to have, or even seem to have heard of flannels / face cloths (and sometimes even hand towels) - I had one long conversation with a hotel reception in Paris about what we could possibly want with "small towels".
~ Bikes, everywhere. I mean everywhere. And motorists actually having the patience to let them go first, rather than hooning past them with a middle finger up. And the cool bucket bikes where you can take your kids and your groceries at the same time.
~ Where are the hills? Seriously, Europe is flatter than Bill English's hair.
~ The dismissive way that Belgians talk to you. The concept of customer service has clearly not reached this country.
~ The fact that only 5% of people we waved at on our canal journey actually waved back. Most people stared belligerently at us or turned away. And who doesn't wave back at an adorable 4-year old?
~ The way that all public toilets are at least .50 cents to use. Why charge for a basic human need? And why do you always have to have the exact change? Sigh.
~ The concept of top sheets has not reached Europe and it's incredibly frustrating on a warm night to only have a duvet to contend with. They're also pretty stingy with their second pillow. If you like sleeping with two, you're normally shit-outa luck.
~ The logic of supermarkets is perplexing. There was one supermarket in Belgium that had everything but milk. When we eventually located it, it was all long-life and in the booze aisle...
~ Kids meals. Ok, so we're not flash-hot at them in NZ either. But why does everything have to have french fries and no vegetables? And seriously, you're going to charge us for tomato sauce?
Sometimes there are differences that seem awesome, but most of the time the jarring out of your comfort-zone is confusing or inconvenient and make you value good ol' Aotearoa. A lot of people we talk to can't fathom us traveling so far from home when our own home is so beautiful. Like the Belgian canal boat guy who when he asked where we were from and we answered, "New Zealand", was visibly taken aback - "So you're sitting at home in New Zealand and you think, ok, what about a little canal boat trip in Belgium?".
But we're on a journey. An adventure, and the ups and the downs are what makes it what it is. We're seeing some amazing places, experiencing some crazy things, eating like kings. But no matter where we are, what we're doing, we're still us. We're still taking everything we are and have been through with us. And sometimes that means walking out of a place when a waiter speaks rudely to you (because life's too short to take shit from someone who doesn't matter when you've been through enough already). Sometimes it means having a massive melt-down in public because you've HAD ENOUGH. Sometimes it means needing to lie down and escape everyone and everything despite the beautiful scenery outside your door. I guess what we're saying is that this journey is epic, amazing, and the photos we've shared on our social media pages show some of the highlights. But there are also lowlights, stresses. Because not everything is perfect or easy and that is never captured in a photo. But it wasn't perfect or easy when we were at home living our normal life either. You take yourself with you wherever you go.
I haven't been ready to talk about what happened to us 5 years ago. It has been too much, and I've felt trapped under the pressure of compartmentalised grief. I put it in a box and never really looked at it again. Looking back I can see how stoic I was, how calm and logical. At the time I was 16 weeks pregnant and very very sick. My priority was my own health but also the health of my unborn child. I had read about the mother's emotions having an impact on the fetus and I was determined to protect my little baby in the only way I could. I couldn't provide it the nutrients it needed as I was vomiting multiple times a day and not keeping food down but what I could do was to protect it from the flood of grief that engulfed our entire family.
My defining memory of this time is walking into a funeral home in Mangere, late at night, I had been awake since 5am. It was cold and very dark, a stark contrast from the heat and sunshine of Samoa where we had been a mere 5 hours earlier. I was there to support my cousin. She had grabbed my hand at the airport and said "You're coming with us, right?". And then somehow we were the first ones there, walking into a dimly lit chapel in a pacifica-decorated funeral home. A body was lying on a bed at the front of the room. My cousin couldn't wait for everyone else, she had to see. So I held her hand and talked in a soothing voice as we made our way down the aisle, thinking "Surely that's not right, it must be the wrong body, it looks nothing like her".
But just over 12 hours earlier, my Aunt, having fought 48 hours through an illness that rapidly spread through her body, lost the battle and succumbed to the blackness that overtook her. Her body would not, could not look the same after the significant battle it had been through. She first started to show signs of illness, perhaps a slight cold or seasickness on the previous Thursday when we were on a boat from the island of Upolu in Samoa, across to the other island of Savai'i. Her illness progressively got worse and she was hospitalised in the tiny clinic on Savai'i on the Sunday. An air evacuation later that day to the "bigger" hospital in Apia could not save her and she died in the early hours of Tuesday morning. She was there with her husband and her sister, my mother. What they witnessed in those short hours before she died will no doubt haunt them for the rest of their lives.
Samoa is a small proud island nation. In NZ, especially in Auckland, we feel a familiarity with the Samoan people due to the large proportion of Samoans who have settled there. In my family we feel a particular affinity as my Dad's sister married a lovely Samoan man who is a major part of our family. His family have become our extended family and this trip to Samoa in September 2012 was Nick's and my second trip there. What the Samoans don't have is the medical resources we're lucky enough to have in New Zealand. The limited access to medical staff and medical supplies means that in an emergency, the care they are able to provide is patchy. And while the medical staff who attended to my Aunt were compassionate and did their absolute best, this island nation is severely under-resourced. An example I can give is that when my Aunt was first taken to hospital, two hotel workers hopped in the van (driven by my Dad) with a big box of towels and linen. Because the resources are so limited that you need to BYO sheets. Since our loss in 2012 the rugby coach Andrew Strawbridge survived a similar serious sudden illness and his wife has been active in fundraising for medical supplies. This is an extremely worthy cause. Kiwi's travel so frequently, especially to the islands. What happens if you get seriously ill while you're away? You might have medical insurance, but what good is that to you if the country you're in doesn't have access to much needed medical supplies & trained staff?
Our family, friends and colleagues of my Aunt raised a significant amount of money for the hospital in Apia and we went back on the second anniversary of her loss to gift the money to the hospital. There was a brief formal meeting where we were treated to coffee & a selection of treats to honour our presence there. My Samoan uncle spoke on our behalf and my Kiwi uncle, who had 2 years earlier watched his wife pass away in that same hospital, proudly handed over the cheque. It was a cathartic trip for those of us who had been there and an eye-opening experience for her daughters who had not been with us in 2012.
9 days before her death in 2012 an assembled group of about 40 friends and family descended on Litia's in Lalomanu for the 60th birthday celebration of my father. It was an amazing celebration. So many people traveled to be there with him. There were speeches, songs, champagne and in traditional Samoan style, a LOT of food. I was struggling through it because while I had managed to get my vomiting mainly under control with the assistance of Ondanestron, I was still severely nauseous and malnourished. In fact, I remember that the only thing I could eat there was icecream! So while the celebration was incredibly special, I almost missed it completely and I was very lucky to be there.
We were all unlucky though over a week later, if you can use such an insigificant word. Although it is luck really. She didn't do anything wrong, there was no signs of grave illness until it was too late. I understand that even if she had access to the full resources of a NZ medical team she would have still met the same fate unless antibiotics had been administered at the first sign of illness. And how could they have been? We all, herself included, just thought she had a cold. It is incredibly unlucky that this illness presented itself within her body, even unluckier that it killed such an amazing woman. The real tragedy of it all was that it happened where it did, at a time that we were all there to celebrate. My father's birthday is always tainted by the trauma of what we all went through. Celebrating his 65th in Edinburgh recently was incredibly special. But we all felt echoes of what we went through together 5 years earlier.
And I know that her loss is significant to many people. My uncle lost his partner, my cousins their mother, my own mother lost her sister. I feel acutely aware of their loss along with my own. But what we all went through, those of us who were there, trapped helpless on the island of Savai'i as her health spiraled away from her on another island, will never be forgotten. As with our post of moments, there are moments, snapshots, that will never go away. And being memories they are not in chronological order but a scattered collection of my thoughts....
~ Standing outside my room in the darkness in the early hours of Tuesday morning and being offered a Valium by the hotel manager. I denied it, of course, being pregnant, and told him that while I couldn't take it, maybe it actually would help with my next task - telling my 84 year-old Grandmother that her daughter had died in the night.
~ Standing next to the drivers-side window of our van on the boat back to the mainland. My Dad was in the drivers seat and I was hanging over the side of the boat vomiting into the water. I stood up to wipe my mouth and my Dad commented on how amazed he was with my resilience - vomiting then standing up & soldiering on.
~ Being the first to walk into Aggie Grey's hotel where my uncle and Mum were waiting for us in reception on Tuesday morning and hugging my uncle tightly, tears streaming down his face and telling him that this was no-one's fault.
~ Waking multiple times in the night waiting for my Dad to knock on our hotel room door and tell me the bad news. Listening to the wind and rain of a brief storm pass overhead. Feeling cold from the aircon being too low. Thinking that every minute that passed meant hope for a better result, that the inevitable would not happen. That miraculously a med-evac team would arrive and get her to NZ in time to save her.
~ Sitting in the line for the ferry to the mainland early on Tuesday morning, waiting an hour just to board, the heat already sweltering, and seeing my Grandmother, sitting stoically in the middle seat with quiet tears streaming down her face.
5 years on and our family has suffered more than this one loss. We've lost cherished family members and many of us have had illnesses, surgeries, set-backs. Sometimes it seems that our bad luck run is never-ending and it all stems back to our own tragic 9/11. September the 11th 2012 changed me forever and every year I remember what we went through. I remember the special lady that we lost and think how she should have been there for every future tragedy we would suffer and how her loss, in bad times and in good is felt so significantly that sometimes it seems inconceivable that we even lost her in the first place.
Moments in our journey, snapshots of the realities of traveling...
There is a moment when . . . you're finally through security, your bags are checked, you've done the duty free shopping (bourban and vodka of course) and you know there is no turning back now even if you wanted to, that all you need to do is get on the plane and everything changes. Your horizon has just extended. You know that you will be exhausted, angry, sad, scared shitless. And you know it'll be like nothing else you've ever done.
There is a moment when... it's 3am and everyone is awake, despite only having gone to sleep 4 hours ago. You give up the battle, the heat is making sleep impossible anyway. You make your child a bowl of Weetabix, which you helpfully purchased late last night from Tesco Express, and you all sit at the breakfast bar of your apartment. You're actually here! Who cares if you're all knackered and haven't had enough sleep! You decide to wander the early-morning streets and have an amazing walk across Waterloo Bridge and down the Southbank with no crowds about.
There is a moment when . . . your child has just woken up in the middle of the night crying and with a burning fever, and vomited everywhere. You're in the middle of the Lakes District in England, and you know the nearest available medical help is at least a 40 minute drive away. Your head hurts a little bit because it's midnight and you had a few beers the night before. You're tired, disorientated and trying to hold it together. Your child gets out of the shower and as you're drying him down he says "Dad?", and you say "yes" expecting to have to calm & reassure him further, and he says " . . . I really love you".
There is a moment when... after spending the day alternating between the hospital, the car, the pharmacy and cuddling your sick child, and your husband settles said child and your father orders buckets of ice and between them produce an ice cold beverage to be enjoyed in a wisteria-filled courtyard among gorgeous stone houses which are dwarfed by a magnificent castle. The sun in shining, the child's window is open & he's silent and there are peacocks strutting around and you sigh in relief.
There is a moment when . . . you realise you've fucked up a flight booking, and although you have enough time to fix it. it's going to cost you an extra few grand that you don't have, that you didn't really plan for, but that you're going to have to pay anyway because there's no other way home. Your wife is understanding, but you snap at her anyway, because you're angry with yourself for being so stupid. The bottom drops out of your stomach, you feel the colour go from your face. You re-run the sums again and again in your head and on the spreadsheet. And then, after a few hours, you suck it up and you sort it. There is that moment too.
There is a moment when... your better half, taking on all the driving responsibility is trying to navigate on his phone which keeps freezing, drives us down a one-way pedestrian shared-space where there are no other cars and no clear way through the crowds and instead of help him navigate a way out you laugh with such mirth that you think you might wet yourself, especially when an elderly lady on a mobility scooter decides to lead the way.
There is a moment when... your child, who has been clingy and only wanted to hold your hand everywhere we go, lets go of your hand to race ahead and cling to his Grandfather's. Watching them walk ahead you appreciate the special bond between the two and how lucky you are to all be together.
There is a moment when . . . you have been driving around the manic one-way-traffic-filled streets of Edinburgh for half an hour, going in circles trying to find the unbelievably poorly signposted rental car drop off place, and on the third Google you finally find it, and you drop the car off and there are (thank God) no problems, and you walk out into the early evening gloom, and you hear your father-in-law shout your name, and you see him wave you down. He is at a pub, and you order a big, cold, pint of beer. And there is a moment when you taste it, and everything is better again.
There is a moment when... your child has a tantrum in the middle of the supermarket, says a loud "WAHHHHH" in your face and then shouts his new catch-phrase "You hurt my feelings!". You decide walking away is the best strategy and feel slightly guilty that your other half has decided to engage in this ridiculous behaviour. Not guilty enough to assist him, better just look at the foreign chocolate instead.
There is a moment when . . . you are driving back to your hotel, just you and your son, and you've committed to try and get him to have a sleep because he's exhausted and you've promised him he could watch the football game with you if he does. You're 15 minutes away and you're just not sure this is going to happen, and just when you're starting to think about Plan B, you here that telltale rhythmic breathing from the back seat, and you glance back to see his eyes closed. And then you come up over a ridge to a beautiful English country view, and your favourite song kicks into your favourite guitar lick, just at that second. And you smile.
There is a moment when... your taxi arrives and you realise that it's a black cab! The one experience you felt you missed in London. Your child has his own miniature black cab, so excitement abounds for the entire 15 minute journey.
There is a moment when... you drive off the beaten track over judder bars into fields of purple heather where sheep wander free amid signs warning you to slow down. The Yorkshire moors are filled with that magical light after a rain shower and every so often you have to stop the car while a sheep decides to lazily waddle across the road.
There is a moment when . . . the three of you hold hands, and you walk down a cobbled street that your son insists is "just like at home" when it is clearly not, and you look up at buildings hundreds of years old, and you look at each other, and you smile. And you walk on.
And then there are the photo moments, some of which we've already shared on our social media accounts, Follow us using one of the icons below to see more of our journey!
We are a family of 3. This blog is the story of how we almost became 4, why we didn’t, and what we are doing to recover from that experience.