Confessions of a cruiser (part 2)

Perhaps the biggest surprise came when checking in at the cruise terminal. “Oh, there’s Davin from school,” said Son1, as though it was completely normal to come across a school friend some 8,000 miles away from home. They gave each other a dab. Davin’s mother and I, both clutching our suitcases and bags, thought the boys were joking until it became obvious our sons really did know each other – and we really did live just two streets away from each other, in the same compound.

Small world.

cruise ship swimming pool

Tourist trap: Not my favourite area of the boat, but the kids LOVED it!

The next revelation was that, although there were some 2,600 passengers on board, which did, at times, suggest no let up from tourism hell, you could actually lose almost everyone by finding a quiet corner of the ship from which to read, or just watch the ocean. At night, the moon sparkled on its dark, wrinkly surface, and without any bright city lights, the stargazing was amazing – like being cocooned (make that dwarfed) in your own enormous, outdoor planetarium.

I also loved having a porthole in our little room, from which (we were just above sea level) the docile white-tipped waves looked like carpets unfurling, splashing the side of the boat playfully. On the last evening, another cruise ship floated past on the horizon, its lights a necklace of glitter.

Of course, the kids had their ‘moments’, especially as they had to go cold turkey from wifi. “What? Seriously, NO wifi? Son2 whined, his eyes widening, pulling a tortured face like he’d eaten a lemon. [Whispers:] Actually there was wifi, but it was an extra and expensive.

Atlantis Bahamas

The Atlantis Bahamas – I always forget that Dubai wasn’t the first with this

Both DH and I lapped the ship numerous times looking for them when they went awol (my mind working overtime wondering if one of them had pushed the other overboard), and then, the worst ‘moment’, Son2 vanished while we were snorkelling off CocoCay Island (Royal Caribbean’s private island – perhaps not the Bahamian paradise advertised with some 2,000 cruise-goers all over it – yes, some did stay put on the boat! – but a wonderful stop nevertheless).

Put it this way, the island’s lifeguards are now on first name terms with my eight year old, who’d simply had enough and decided to swim half a kilometre back to shore all by himself. They found him on the beach, perfectly fine, his mask and snorkel jettisoned in the sand. I’m still recovering from that one.

All in all, I loved the cruise. It didn’t turn into a nausea-riddled, hermetically sealed cruise passenger pen; no-one went overboard; exploring Nassau was fab; and the 70s disco was lots of fun. While DH wasn’t looking, I even visited the ‘Next Cruise’ on-board sales stand and pocketed a few leaflets advertising longer floating jollies into Alaska, and to Mexico via Cuba. I’ve got a year to persuade him …

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Hi, my name is Circles and I’m a cruiser (part 1)

As an airline family it never occurred to me that a cruise might be for us – I had visions that a cruise would involve being stuck on a boat awash with a novovirus outbreak and quarantined to a tiny island somewhere until the home port let us back in.

Majesty of the Seas

Boarding the floating hotel (Majesty of the Seas)

I was also guilty of assuming that, if the ship didn’t turn into a giant mobile sick bag, then all our fellow passengers would conform to the silver-haired, buffet-savaging stereotype, be cruise bores, or, worse, be the kind of people who don’t even bother to get off the ship when it calls at new destinations. I imagined being stuck at dinner with the latter, and then belched out with a thousand other passengers to traipse after an umbrella-wielding tour guide also owned by the cruise line.

For these reasons, I’d always given cruises a wide berth (excuse the pun!) –until last week, when I realised what I’ve been missing.

Yes, I’m now officially a cruiser – and have new friends: the American lady and her son who we shared our dinner table with each night, and who weren’t cruise bores at all but had funky tattoos (the mom not the boy), funny stories, hair tips (she was a hairdresser who’d worked in Beverly Hills) and (relevant for my sons) also had extensive knowledge of dabbing, YouTube and Pokemon cards.

It turns out the US cruise market is HUGE, as popular with college kids as retired folk, and – as our short introduction to cruising proved – is really an excuse for a three-day-long party.

Of course, it helps when you bump into the Bahamas, the sun is shining non-stop, the sea is as smooth as an ironing board and the waters and big skies of the Caribbean are the kind of cerulean blue you find in tubes of oil paint – an intense colour boiled down to its very essence.

Adjusting to the sandy summer skies of the desert is proving quite the challenge for this newbie cruiser!

Caribbean cruise

Sandy skies of Dubai: Hello? Burj Khalifa – are you there? Take me back to the Caribbean!

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The dos and don’ts of a Dubai summer

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– Bother straightening your hair. Within an hour you’ll look like a lion with a proudly fizzy mane (“That scene from the Lion King, where Simba shakes his head as he gets out of the pool, singing hakuna matata,” says my friend B. “That’s me and POOF!

– Leave your sunglasses in the car. The rim of your Ray-Bans will burn your face.

– Wear jeans. Peeling them off will feel like shedding your own skin.

– Be surprised if you find yourself in a shopping mall… again.

– Visit friends who don’t use their air conditioning.

 – Feel guilty for staying indoors all day.

– Think taxi drivers are rude for rolling their window up really fast to stop the hot air coming in.

– Forget to wear flip-flops until the moment you get in the pool, or you’ll find yourself hopping around like a jackrabbit on steroids.


– Brace yourself for third-degree burns when touching the car steering wheel after leaving your vehicle in the sun.
*Ouch* … “Oven glove!! Where are you?”

– Get used to buildings sweating as humidity condensation drips down the windows.

– Wipe your phone screen on your T-shirt before sending a text.

– Save yourself the bother of ironing your clothes. The heat and humidity will make you wet and crinkled anyway.

– Apply sunscreen before you even open the curtains.

– Towel off the wet patches that appear on the back of your knees.

– Vow to get up an hour earlier to enjoy the cool of the morning. And then oversleep.

– Take care walking in the mist (when your sunglasses steam up after getting out the car).

– Skip blow-drying your hair. Winding the window of your car down is like turning on a hairdryer and directing it at your face.

– Turn off the hot-water tank. The sun-warmed water from the cold tap is hot enough for showers.

– Wonder why the odd person out running or cycling during the day hasn’t died.

– Open your car window when you get in – breathing in the fumes in an enclosed space filled with super-heated dashboard plastics is like doing glue from hot vinyl bottles.

– Look out for ‘staycation’ hotel deals that are so good they’re practically carrying you inside.

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Expat Brats: The Signs To Look Out For

My friend A was recently worrying whether her children were becoming expat brats. On a trip back to the UK, her sons were horrified when she got out to fill the car with petrol and insisted they wait for ‘the man’. Another friend – N – told me that when her daughter flew economy for the first time she had a tantrum because she’d never had to turn right before. N’s little girl didn’t even know there was a cabin behind business class.

It’s something we think about a lot here in the Middle East. The easy comforts of life in Dubai (housemaids, villas, swimming pools, four-wheel drives) mean children are at high risk of expat brat syndrome. If parents don’t nip it in the bud quick enough, the results can be quite dire.

Screen Shot 2017-06-07 at 16.58.29Aside from breeding little monsters who refuse to tidy their rooms (the maid will do it), wash the car (the man at the mall will do it) or put groceries in a bag (yes, we don’t have to do that, either!), fast forward ten years or so and you end up with teenagers who are totally unprepared for real life.

The culture here means children lead sheltered lives. In the UAE, there’s little crime, begging is banned and unemployment is virtually non-existent. We don’t feel threatened walking down a street at night; teenagers aren’t even allowed to take part-time or holiday jobs; and they don’t know what a job centre is. Forget ‘signing on’, they’re more likely to sign in at the beach club.

Imagine, then, when said offspring flee the nest for university back in their home countries. Instead of maid service, tennis lessons and pool parties, they’re faced with grotty digs, rain, domestic chores, hard drugs and even harder students.

Here’s some more clues to look out for so you can take steps to alleviate expat brat syndrome long before the kids head off to college. Good luck!

–They flew before they could walk

–It’s not a nice day unless it’s tropical outside

–They base their opinion of an entire country on how fancy the hotel was

-They have to take at least one plane to get ‘home’ and bump into friends at international airports

-They’re members of at least two beach clubs

-They take off their shoes as soon as they get home

-Their best friends are from four different continents

-An invite arrives for a classmate’s party at the Atlantis hotel on the Palm, followed by a private desert safari

-They watch the Travel Channel or National Geographic specials and recognise the places

-They know what TCK* means and consider themselves to be one

-Their school closes (or threatens to close) for rain, prophets’ birthdays, national mourning and SARS

-Someone mentions the name of a team and they get the sport wrong

-They get Christmas and birthday money in three different currencies

-They blank when asked where they’re from

-A visa is a document stamped in their passport, not a credit card

-They don’t think British beaches are really beaches at all

*TCK=Third culture kid, the name given to a child who spends a significant part of his or her developmental years in a culture(s) different from his or her own.

First published: 11 May 2011


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The Thai foot massage with a happy outcome

I treated myself to a foot massage while in Thailand over the past few days. I chose a foot massage as it didn’t involve a locked back room, stripping all my clothes off and lying face down with my eyes, nose, mouth and cheeks squished into an oval while mainlining patchouli oil.

Not that there’s anything wrong with all that – I just didn’t feel like getting naked.

I’d hurried out of the glorious monsoon rain and was standing in the porch area reading the menu of treatments as a small group of sweet Thai ladies giggled and beckoned for me to come in, out of the wet. I could see the comfy lounge chairs on which the foot massages were carried out. The huge, cushioned foot rests seemed to stretch across at least an acre of floor, and – the deciding factor – all the other clients were fully dressed. They were blindfolded (this, I realised later, was the clue), but seemed happy enough.

I was also confident that my feet weren’t in an embarrassing state anymore. I’d visited the evening before for a foot scrub, during which one of the sweet, smiley Thai ladies had attacked the soles of my feet with a scalpel and hacked away all traces of hard skin to within an inch of my life (actually the glint of the sharp knife in the soft lighting was, in hindsight, perhaps clue one).

I sit down and am greeted by the same lady from the previous night. She’s still smiling. Heartened that my dreadful feet hadn’t scared her off (I tipped her well), I smile and relax as she removes my flip flops, washes my feet, and passes me a small rectangular towel to place over my eyes.

“Lie back,” she instructs, and I recline into a chair that could well have been made from the downy feathers of baby birds.

There’s a short wait, and I close my eyes behind the blindfold, anticipating the foot massage to follow. How blissful is this? All I can see is the dark orangey/red of my eyelids.

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The lying down, naked version of the ‘foot’ massage

Well, let’s just say, I got far more than I bargained for.

A pair of firm hands grab a shin and yank my leg upwards, almost ninety degrees. It’s somewhat surprising, but I realise she needs to rub oil in. Those hands, which I still think somehow belong to the sweet, smiley lady, then begin to iron my shinbone. They press and clutch and prod my leg, and I consider how incredibly strong she is. She was a tiny, waif-like thing –who knew those dainty hands could be so powerful? She’ll surely start on my feet soon so the pain will be shortlived. Right?

“You okay?” I hear. But I’m confused. Her voice is much deeper, gruffer, than I remembered. While processing the thought that she sounds more like a man, I reply, “Yes, thanks. That’s lovely …” S/he is at that moment crushing my feet, grinding the life out of them. I feel my breath leaving me.

Inside my head, I hear another voice, “You idiot – that was your chance to tell him/her to please be gentle. WHY DIDN’T YOU SAY SOMETHING! THERE’S AN HOUR OF THIS TO GO!!”

I inhale deeply. I’m not a wimp (well, actually I am). I can take 60 minutes of this. The sound of rain and music – ambient, chime-like – fills my ears and I concentrate on trying to enjoy the bits where she/he isn’t pummelling me too much.

A minute later, I take a peek. A quick wiggle of my eyebrows causes a small gap to open at the bottom of the face towel and I can just see out. Through the narrow slit, I see that she isn’t a he, but as I suspected it’s not the smiley lady. She’s been swapped for an equally tiny, silver-haired grannie. Let’s call her Nana Masseuse. Her slick, grey hair is swept back into a bun and perched on her nose are round spectacles.

I watch in horror as Nana Masseuse’s beady eyes survey my toes with laser focus. Her mouth twists into a tight, red knot and she pulls my toes one by one out of their sockets with a clicking noise. Then she flicks each toe with her fingers. At least they’re still attached.

From here on, it gets a lot better, or maybe I actually relax and stop resisting her moves, even the ones I don’t expect. I start to sort of enjoy it in a sadistic pleasure-mixed-with-pain way.

But I don’t really get why it’s called a foot massage. Nana Masseuse ‘massages’ nearly every part of my body – my upper legs, my arms. She almost sits on my hips. Then she clambers onto the chair with me, clasps my legs with a vice-like grip and presses down with her whole weight while practically doing a handstand. I imagine the whites of her knuckles showing.

At one point, Nana Masseuse’s fingers dig into a space between the small bones of my feet and rummage around – but it feels okay. Actually it feels really good. She rams my ankles into submission and goes clap-clap-clap up and down my legbone with her hands pressed together as though in prayer (I’m still peeping – well, wouldn’t you?).

After what must surely be an hour, I hear her say over the tinkly music, “Sit” and I comply at once, thinking she’s finished. I stand too fast and dizzily thank her.

“No, NO,” says Nana Masseuse, her face stricken. She pats the footrest hard. “Sit.”

We’re not done. I sit down and she starts pounding my shoulders, finding all the accumulated crevices of tension and popping them like bubbles. There’s another round of artillery fire as her hands smack-smack-smack my neck and shoulders.  Then she lifts my arm, twisting it behind my back in a move I thought was impossible without breaking something. With my elbow pointing outwards behind me, Nana Masseuse applies pressure and does something amazing to my shoulder blade. Ahh, who knew that could feel so good? I actually look forward to the same contortion on the other side.

Finally, it really is over and while relieved to be done – to have survived intact – I feel like a million bucks. If ever you find yourself in Karon Beach, Phuket Island, I do recommend going to see Nana Masseuse for a ‘foot’ massage.

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The overseas school trip (aka: pricey package holiday)

I’m back! It’s been a while, mostly due to work taking over my life for a couple of months.

Having just surfaced from full-time officedom, I suddenly find we’re just a week away from Son1’s first overseas school trip. I realise this is a rite of passage all parents must go through – that moment when you release your little fledgling into the big wide world and hope he flies far and wide.

As the Chinese proverb goes, ‘There are two gifts we should give our children: roots and wings.’

But I have to say, as the day approaches, and Son1’s excitement builds, it does feel ever so slightly bittersweet to know we’re about to watch him soar for the first time.

I also feel rather grateful that the trip is to a place we know very well – the UK – and isn’t one of these ultra pricey school jollies I keep hearing about, like the excursion to New York’s Wall Street organised by the economics department at my friend’s son’s school. Or the visit to a Nasa installation in Turkey that the same friend’s daughter went on. Another friend just waved her son off to the jungles of Borneo.

When I was at school, we went on a coach to the seaside at Littlehampton and thought it was really exotic.

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Have fun Son1! I’m going to miss you

How things have changed over the past decades, as schools shift to what educationalists call “learning outside the classroom”, or, to use its natty text-speak acronym, LoTC.

But I digress. As luck would have it, Son1 and his friends will cross the world in safe hands as DH is flying the plane from Dubai to Gatwick. Okay, so this had nothing to do with luck at all. We knew which flight they were going on. DH requested to operate it, and got it.

Which led to this conversation yesterday:

DH: “You could come too, you know.”

Me: “I can’t!”

DH: “Why not?”

Me: “Can you imagine? Both his mum and dad on the flight, like I was stalking him on his first school trip.”

DH: “You wouldn’t actually be sitting with him. It would be fun!”

Me: “Well … yes. But. [thinking: I know mums who’ve followed their kid’s school bus in the car].

A pause while I scratch my chin.

Me: “If I came too, wouldn’t it be taking helicopter parenting to a whole new level?”

DH shrugs: “Think about it. We could go to Brighton.”

I mean, I really shouldn’t. Not on the same flight, on his first school trip. I just couldn’t.

Or could I?

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Just an everyday trip to the vet in Dubai

This morning’s activity was a trip to the vet with my beloved Bella for her annual vaccinations and check-up.

Nothing unusual in that (bear with me!). For people in other parts of Dubai, the vet we use – Nad al-Shiba Veterinary Hospital – might be considered too far to drive, but it’s a pleasant trip through some green areas with little traffic. You get the sense as you meander along a dusty road past scrubby desert that at any moment you’ll meet a herd of camels, chewing on the prickly vegetation with their large, leathery mouths. (Arabian camels aren’t known for having kissable lips.)


Waiting for his owner

I promise you it’s worth the journey. Once you get there, the staff are so friendly, and you’ll often find falcons waiting in reception. If you’re really lucky, you’ll see an Emirati dressed in a traditional white kandora and artfully-wrapped headgear with his falcon perched proudly on his arm.

The falcon is the UAE’s national bird. Images of them are everywhere, on walls, in TV ads, on bank notes. The UAE even issues passports for falcons. Gulf airlines such as Qatar Airways, Etihad and Emirates allow the bird of prey – of which hawks are close relations – in the passenger cabin.

I digress. In the treatment room, our lovely vet examined Bella the dog and began speaking Greek to her to calm her down. “Είναι εντάξει,” he said, then turned to us. “Excuse me talking Greek, but it’s the tone that soothes her.” Bella quietened nicely.

“So what other animals do you treat,” DH asked a few minutes later as Bella bounded off the table after her jabs. I had a feeling he wasn’t going to say just cats and dogs – the vet’s location is close to an area populated with locals, among whom keeping exotic pets is a status symbol.

“All sorts,” said the vet with a smile. “A cheetah. Lions … tigers.”

Never a dull day for Dubai vets!

There’s always the chance you’ll get up close and personal yourself. “Last time we went there was a cheetah cub in reception – and I got to cuddle her,” said a pet-owner in a comment on Geordie Armani’s blog.


Can’t resist a puppy photo – she just turned one!

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