Me and My Zixingche

I had an amazing bike. I bought it when I moved back to Ireland from Singapore and I had grand plans about cycling into work in St. Stephen's Green from our house in Stoneybatter. I got a semi-customised Trek bicycle with special hand grips (no idea of the technical name) for people with sensitive wrists. Eoghan had a Trek too so it was important to me that we had matching bicycles as a sign of our commitment as a couple. I later discovered that having children with someone renders relationship-affirming-matching-cycles superfluous.

Anyway, I loved my bike. It had a bell and a basket and lots of gears that I didn't know what to do with. I loved it so much that I took my chances along the quays in Dublin every morning, wedged in between double deckers and trying not to employ my general approach to scary situations (i.e. closing my eyes and waiting for the danger to pass). I cycled to work in the rain, when I was tired, when I was grumpy, when I didn't feel like cycling. I gave it up after the first trimester of pregnancy (first time mothers do things like that) and my beautiful bike was relegated to a dusty corner.

The bike didn't get dusted off until Little A was 9 months old and we bought a bike seat for it. The seat had to go on my bike because Mr Oh had a road bike which was not suited to bike seats (so he told me). The weight on the back freaked me out as I cycled carefully down the cycle tracks of Brussels - slow, flat and safe - wobbling and occasionally wailing in terror.

I got better with the extra weight on the back and when we went on our month long road-trip honeymoon to Cork, Inishbofin, Cornwall and Normandy, we took our baby and our bikes with us. Finally, the bike was back in action, with a passenger this time…one that used to pull down my pants from his seat behind me and laugh uproariously as I screeched at him. He also liked to wriggle his feet free and use my coccyx as a foot rest. All was rosy for my beautiful bike.

And then we moved to Shanghai where I took one look at the traffic and bid the bike farewell. We moved the child-seat to Mr Oh's road bike which, miraculously, we discovered had been capable of carrying children this whole time (imagine that!). For a while, this was a good solution. And then Snugglepunk came along and it became clear that, at some point, I was going to have to get back on the saddle...literally.

But you know, two years is time enough for a bit of traffic desensitisation to set in so, a few weeks ago, I decided that I would rather cycle Snugglepunk the 5km to baby-school rather than subject us both to being flung around the inside of the overcrowded buses for half an hour every morning.

So, I went down to get my bike. It had been so long, it was hard to identify. I had to look at photos of my bike from our honeymoon to make sure I had the right one. But the weird thing was, it had recently been serviced and there was a lock on it that was not mine. Once we had decided this was definitely my bike, we put our own lock on in and that marked the beginning of the great bicycle standoff of 2015. This lasted approximately three days before the building management tipped me off that the person responsible for unlawfully requisitioning my bicycle was another building resident. I sent my heavies round to deal with him. Ok, I sent Mr Oh round to discuss the matter politely and, within minutes, my bicycle had been liberated and the great bicycle standoff of 2015 came for a rather anti-climactic end.

So, no excuses left, I strapped a rather perplexed Snugglepunk onto the back and off we went. We almost fell off before I even got out of the garage because...well, I forgot how to ride my bike and Snugglepunk was screaming like a banshee.

We almost crashed into a motorbike before we got out of the laneway because, you know, it's China, and almost is the key word anyway. And we were off. Within the first ten minutes, three people stopped me to tell me that Snugglepunk was asleep and shout at me because it was dangerous. He wasn't actually asleep, he was just examining a leaf which had become stuck to his knee but I just kept cycling shouting "it's not dangerous" and throwing them my best contemptuous glare - turns out its hard to throw contempt safely from a moving bicycle.

It occurred to me later that the reason the Chinese freak out when they see a child asleep on the back of a bike is because, generally, in China, the child bike seats don’t have harnesses. They don’t tend to put children this young on the back of bikes (unless on the lap of their mother who is sitting side saddle across the pannier). So, naturally, they think Snugglepunk is in danger of falling out. I’ve had a few long chats with Chinese ladies on bicycles while we’ve been stopped at traffic lights and I’ve explained to them about European bike seat engineering. They remain unconvinced. Some have even tried to poke Snugglepunk awake on the journey back from nursery (he has never once stayed awake for the whole thing).

There's one straight big long road from our house to Snugglepunk's nursery. We didn't cycle on that though because bicycles are banned from this road, for good reason. Chinese buses were the whole reason we were cycling in the first place because they are death-traps and the bus drivers are, without exception, angry lunatics who will plough into anything that crosses their path and enjoy randomly braking for no particular reason.

So, we had to make our way to nursery through a series of back streets, mostly cycling the wrong way down one-way streets. This is ok in Shanghai though. It would be foolish not to. My strategy was to hitch myself behind a slow-moving granny and just do what she did. Sometimes, the granny would do weird stuff like veer into oncoming traffic but, in these cases, I just made a judgement call.

Cars came at us from every direction, motorbikes laden with boxes careened out of driveways, scooters broke lights when we were crossing roads, people stepped off the pavement into our path right in front of us and at one point we seemed to be playing chicken with a flatbed truck. I kept my eyes open, my wits about me and I moved at the pace of a gently scampering cockroach.

Chinese traffic might seem crazy and dangerous - ok, it is a little bit crazy and dangerous - but there's a beauty in it too...something very reflective of Chinese society generally. Everyone is pulling out in front of other people, breaking lights, ignoring pedestrian crossings...but they won't hurt you (one hopes). They know you're there, they see you, they expect you. And if you cut them off, or pull out in front of them, or make them slam on their brakes, they don't get angry...they just shrug and get on with it. There is a kind of live and let live vibe on the roads.

It makes me think of a story I read a few years ago about a town somewhere that was getting rid of traffic lights and signs to make the roads less dangerous…and I think there’s something in that. In Shanghai, no one relies on a light to guarantee their safety or a sign to give them a right of way. Everyone is looking around, all the time, judging the safety risk, making calls…they’re just probably not doing it aloud like I do. I think it makes things safer generally. All surprise is no surprise! (This is a new phrase I’ve just coined and I’m going to use it liberally once I figure out what it means).

So, for a while, things were great. And then one morning, my bike wasn’t in the apartment bike garage (the one with a 24-hour guard outside and enough CCTV cameras to make a Sharon Stone movie). It had been stolen!

In fact, Mr Oh’s bike had gone missing a few weeks before but he didn’t get very far with our building in making a fuss, being stopped in his tracks by their claim that the CCTV footage “only went back 24 hours”. (Also he had left the bike unlocked and unattended for several days in the garage, feeling safe in the knowledge that no one in China would have any compunction to steal a bike with a frame they’d need a ladder to get on to).

Well, one bike gone could be chalked up to carelessness, but this was two bikes in a month! So I looked around and started shouting at the first person I saw.

No one else’s bikes had been stolen. Only ours, both of ours. I demanded to see the CCTV footage. They refused. I went down to the lobby every hour and shouted at whoever I saw there. I was just angry…and shouting felt good. I didn’t think it would make my bike come back. I banged on the security room door and asked to look at their cameras (ok, I knocked politely but they still refused to tell me anything).

But something happened, it seemed my shouting was working. They asked me to write down the value of our bikes, both of them. And then a few days later I was presented with a letter of apology and, in a very Chinese way, an envelope stuffed with money. I asked if they had seen who stole my bike on the CCTV footage. They said they had. I asked if they knew who it was. They looked to the side, giggled nervously and said “a stranger”.

I looked at the pile of money in my hand. I knew they knew more than they were saying. Something wasn’t right - I knew they wanted me to stop shouting and asking questions. I was being bought off. I was surprisingly ok with that.

I toddled off and bought a new bike. It’s orange and while I really wish my bike hadn’t been stolen in the first place…the best way to get over an old bike is to find a new one.


The "School Trip"

1. I know I swore I'd never write about anything pertaining to goldfish again but, as I'm discovering, goldfish are to young children what fixie bikes are to hipsters.  
2.  A flurry of white feathers just fluttered down outside my living room window.  If I lived in a different country, I might investigate but as I live in China, I think it's best not to.  Also, set to the background sound of the soprano practising her aria across the road in the Shanghai Conservatory of Music...the moment was quite dramatic, and weird.  

So, last week I received an email from Little A's school informing me of the upcoming school trip and inviting me to attend.  As is normal with Little A's school, the information provided was minimal.  They would be going somewhere with "rollercoasters, water-rafting, gold-fishing and vegetable-picking".  The thought of a clutch of 3-year-olds on rollercoasters and rafts in China (the 'in China' bit is important) set my A-dar blasting. (A-dar is the implant in my head that senses when Little A should not be doing something).  

The school, while encouraging parents to go, weren't too happy about me bringing Snugglepunk along as well.  They suggested I leave him at home (strapped into his highchair for the day with a supply of rice crackers perhaps?) and told me that it was too dangerous for a 1 year old (but not apparently for 3 year olds who are famous for being significantly more mature and world-wise than 1 year olds).   It's not that I particularly fancied the idea of juggling two small children for the day, one of whom likes eating rubbish and the other who likes picking sticks off the ground and swishing them around in the faces of other young children while shouting 'I'm a pirate, hearties".   But,  I didn't want Little A to miss out on whatever it was that was happening and I certainly was not going to let him go under the supervision of the school which is well-meaning but generally chaotic and disorganised.  

So, yesterday Little A, Snugglepunk and I set off on the school trip with two bags, one pram, two slings, two packets of baby wipes and about 300 rice cakes.  It is impossible to have too many rice cakes.  

Little A goes to an "international" school but it seems to be 90% Chinese.   It's also supposed to be bilingual but I think it's bilingual in the way that all the Chinese kids speak Chinese and all the English speaking kids speak English and I don't sense a whole load of crossover.  Little A never speaks Chinese in front of me so I’m never too clear how much he actually speaks and understands…more than me probably.

We took a tour bus an hour north of Shanghai which wasn't actually an hour north of Shanghai at all because it was still perhaps better to say an hour north of my Shanghai.  I had very little idea of what kind of place we were visiting, so at least my expectations were low.  I had been on enough school trips with Little A to know that we needed to pack a lot of food.  The school provided Little A with a "packed lunch" consisting rather randomly of two bottles of water, a banana, four mini "croissants" (i.e. bread rolls shaped like croissants) and two bread rolls shaped like bread rolls.  I seem to use an inordinate amount of "quotation marks" when writing about China - maybe because things are often claimed to be things that we later find out are not the things they claim to be at all - if you get me.   Little A and Snugglepunk had polished off the bread roll extravaganza before we even arrived so it's just as well I had also packed three tupperware boxes of sausage pasta, apples, juice and the 300 rice cakes.  Small boys are hungry - I know this from experience.

We arrived at what seemed to be some kind of park.  It was immediately clear that it was a very Chinese destination i.e. it was packed full of people and the bins were overflowing at 10am.  The first mass activity of the day was a trip to the toilet (this is, after all, a class full of 3 year olds).  The toilet was a ceramic trench with small dividers along the wall.  There was no flushing, no water, no doors, no toilet paper.  I've spent time in China so I was vaguely ok with this and knew that it was best not to dwell on it, not to breathe and not to touch anything.   I'm seasoned at the way of the squat trench.  Little A however was having none of it and refused to step near the trench.  "I don't want to fall in", he said wisely and went outside to find a less offensive tree upon which to relieve himself.  I made a mental note not to drink water again for the rest of the day.  

The whole thing was a bit mental.  There was a lady with a microphone and whistle whose job appeared to be to corral us like cattle.  She also had a faded red flag raised high in the air that we were supposed to follow through the crowds of people and children all in their own groups, with their own red flags that looked entirely identical to our red flag.   Every time we weren't doing what we should, she would start piping on her whistle and rabbiting down the microphone in Chinese.  She was Captain Von Trapp in the squat body of a middle-aged Chinese tour guide, with a voice like a round-saw cutting metal.   

The first "activity" (I'm starting to think I should just put quotation marks around the whole entry), was the "playground"  which was, in fact a dated and decrepit amusement park.  We had a jolly little ride on a squeaky train before Little A spotted a large swinging pirate ship and demanded that we go on it.  I looked at the swarming mass of Chinese tweens pushing and clambering to get on the ride, which looked a bit rusty and didn't appear to have restraints and tried to jolly him off in the other direction.  The only other rides were a spinning one with water guns and bumper cars.  Little A took one look at the cars and said "I wanna drive car!".  I thought "Well, that's not possible, he's only 3...surely he wouldn't be allowed on the bumper cars" but, you know, it's China so I don't know why I thought that, of course 3 year olds can go on the bumper cars!  In fact, it turns out that 1 year olds are also allowed on them but some maternal instinct at the back of my spine must have kicked in because I decided that Snugglepunk was a tad too young to be bashed around in an electrified vehicle.  My Chinese friend Kitty offered to take Aodhan on the bumper cars.  While he was at first delighted, his joy turned to horror as he realised that the cars were crashing into each other and he started to get panicked.  Kitty, however, managed to drive around the little bumper car arena in smooth circles avoiding all other cars and people while Little A sat frozen in terror beside her.  

Thankfully, activity 1 was now over.  Activity 2 was a "boat" ride.  The "boat" was a series of bamboo poles tied together with benches strapped on top.  The "life jackets" were pieces of orange material stuffed with something that may or may not have been buoyant.  Apparently they also have no problem with one year olds on floating bamboo rafts although they had neither child nor infant versions of the possibly-though-not-necessarily-buoyant "life-jackets".  Not wanting to be the neurotic foreigner who wouldn't participate, I gingerly stepped onto the raft clutching my two children, and chose a bench towards the back.  Just after I got on, about 6 other families pushed their way onto our raft, including one that wedged themselves onto our bench.  The gondolier-man shouted "too heavy!" so two more men jumped on.  He shouted "too heavy!" again.  I was about to volunteer to get off as the raft started listing precariously to one side and then, Tour Guide Von Trapp herself hopped on, shouted at the man with the pole and off we lurched into the middle of a lake of unknown depth.  I looked down at the bamboo poles that separated us from the water and saw that they were now submerged and water was starting to pool around my shoes.    If I had a picture of my face at that moment, I am entirely sure it would have been ashen.   It's not that I can't swim, I can swim just fine, but the two little boys can't swim and didn't have life jackets, and the raft was slightly submerged with one side rising up out of the water.  I was the only person concerned, apparently, as everyone else was chattering away and Tour Guide Von Trapp blew down on her whistle in a moment of, what seemed from my panic station at the back, to be exuberance and joy.  Snugglepunk started to squeal and try to wriggle out of my arms.  I forced a smile and looked down at Little A beside me.  With my best jolly voice I said, "Isn't this fun?  A boat!".  He looked up weakly and said, "I want to get off".   I nodded, gripped his hand and started trying to remember what I had learned in those two lifesaving classes I did when I was 14.  Thankfully, it was a short boat ride.

Swiftly moving on to Activity  Sorry, "fishing".  Fishing consisted of a series of large plastic tubs filled with water and terrified goldfish around which dozens of crazed children with nets were wedged, frantically trying to, ehm, fish.   When a fish was caught, it was squeezed into a container of some kind, usually a waterbottle the diameter of which was less than the diameter of the fish itself.  Sometimes they didn't bother adding water - it was grim. For proof - see picture below.  I'm not big into animal welfare but even I was slightly horrified.  Even so, I gave Little A a net, squashed him in between some older kids and let him loose, knowing that the freaked out fish were all huddled together in the centre of the tub, beyond the reach of his little arms.  He caught nothing.   Eventually, Tour Guide Von Trapp got on the whistle again and we all assembled under her frayed red flag.  Little A looked around...all the other children had goldfish.  He looked at me plaintively, "Where's my fish?", he wailed. And in a very Augustus Gloop fashion, he threw a net at me, pointed to the tubs and screamed "GET ME A FISH.  NOW!".  My little tyrant - so cute.  
Normally, I would deal with this like a good parent, gently talk to him about his tone and help him deal with and understand his emotions.  But I had been in that godforsaken park for 3 hours, I was sweating, Snugglepunk was screeching for food, i had at least 7 mosquito bites and all my good-parent-motivation was drowned in the lake.  I picked up the net and took myself over to the fish tub.  After a minute of failed fishing, I gave up.  The net was too small, the children were pushing me and the fish were wiley.  Unable to face the prospect of Little A's inevitable meltdown and the ensuing chaos, I looked desperately around for a solution. Kitty pointed to a man with a barrell.  I gave the man 20 kuai (€3) and he gave me a little fish box with a handle and there were 7 little fish inside!  A failure for parenting, perhaps, but a triumphant win for my afternoon sanity.  Predictably, Little A was bored of carrying the fish approximately 3 minutes later so I was left to juggle baby in sling, fish in hand, buggy in other hand and small child trailing behind me whining that he wanted to go home.  

Activity 4 was "peanut picking".  Despite the fact that I had three Epi-pens in my bag, I did not feel like bringing my nut-allergic baby "peanut picking", quotations marks or not.  Instead I spent 45 minutes milling around the rubbish strewn entrance, waiting for the group to finish the final activity and watching my children lick the railings.  

Eventually it was over and we were back on the bus.  Some parents had to take another bathroom break before we got back on the bus.  It had been 4 hours since we had last been to the bathroom but I was holding it in.  Kitty came back looking shell-shocked. She didn't want to speak about it.  And she's Chinese - that's saying something.  

On the bus, Little A turned to me and said. “I had a great time”. Confused I asked, “Did you like the bumper cars?”. “No.”, he said, “They were dangerous”. “Ok, did you like the boat?”, I asked. “No”, he said, “That was dangerous”.

“So, what did you like?”, I asked again. “Mummy came”, he said, before falling asleep against the window. Sniff.

So now we have our four fish, plus the seven from the school trip, two of whom are already dead.  Current fish count: 9.  

Likelihood that I'll never mention fish again in my blog: low.  



What I Did Last Summer

And...we're back!    We've all returned to Shanghai - Little A has returned to school - I've returned to checking the air quality every hour,  retching on the street (the sound of spitting does it to me) and screaming "Don't touch that!" at least five times an hour.  Summer is officially over! 

When I first arrived here, I heard about the total mass exodus of expats from Shanghai during the summer.  If you're foreign, have children and are able to - you leave - for months if you can.  It all sounds a bit decadent at first but after I did Summer 2014 in Shanghai, I swore never again.  It's 40 degrees, 100% humidity, the pollution sticks to the sweat in your hair, there are still no parks, the schools are closed, everyone is gone. In summer, the Chinese to French person ratio in my neighborhood skyrockets and the sock-less Vespa riders disappear from the roads. So, this year, we left too.  

The prospect of two months of clean air made me happy to unprecedented proportions.  So much so that I was willing to do that journey again - you know the day-time one that I do on my own with the two boys that lasts 13 hours and then the Heathrow transfer and then another hour long flight?  Yeah, that one.   Mr Oh looked a bit terrified for me as he waved goodbye to us at the airport.   He was following us a month later.  No, I didn't feel sorry for him.  He had a month of partying, fabulous dinners, lie-ins and lazy weekends to look forward to.  I had a month of laundry, and solo-parenting ahead of me, plus that awful journey.   In reality, he appeared to do rather little partying and spent his weekends sitting forlornly on the sofa playing his guitar into the middle-distance.  

And the journey was fine.  Once you accept that you will spent 13 hours being bitten and crawled upon by a 10 month old, wrangling three people into a dirty plane toilet at regular intervals, bribing an almost 3 year old with snacks and endless TV and trying to stifle the sobs of boredom and frustration that are welling up inside you like a tidal wave of volcanic emotion.  Once you make your peace with that - it’s totally doable.  It also makes you feel like a superhero (only when it's over though, during the actual journey you will feel like a human dishcloth - damp with sweat, fear, breastmilk and the various bodily fluids of your small children).   

If anyone would like further information on flying solo with young kids, please see my earlier post

We had an amazing two months in Dublin, London and the south of France.  Snugglepunk crawled on grass for the first time ever.  Little A dug potatoes out of the garden and learned that not all dirt contains nuclear waste.   We went for walks, ran over sand dunes, swam in the sea (France), paddled in the sea until our feet got headaches (Ireland), climbed walls, visited castles and playgrounds, ate food that was high-quality and healthy (Percy Pigs are made from real fruit juice) and did all the things that we can't do in China.  We saw some friends - not as many as we would have liked but Snugglepunk isn't a fan of the car, much like his brother before him (
see previous post on baby car-travel trauma).  

I even became a Godmother for the first time (Hiya Baby T!) which was amazing.  Our boys don't have a lot of experience in churches (they are, however, incredibly well behaved in Buddhist temples).  After Baby T's christening, Little A ran up to me, pointed at the altar and said "I want to go up there and sing Let It Go".  I said "Let's go light some candles for your great-grandmothers instead who are, at this moment, turning in their graves".  Little A said "Ok, that sounds fun."  He lit six candles and promptly blew them all out.  I had to hold my hand over his mouth as he started to sing Happy Birthday to the lady statue.  I looked over at Little A's own Godmother and sighed...she's got her work cut out for her.  

Mr Oh joined us in London and we all spend the next 3 weeks jetting around Europe consuming our body weight in ice-cream and raw meat.  We were able to travel back together to China although I noted that Mr Oh brought his book with him on the plane which I thought was hilarious. 

So 7 weeks later, here we are.  Back again.  On return, we spent 7 full days tortured by jet-lag and children who tag-teamed night time waking so that I never got any sleep.  Just when I thought they’d fetch a good price on Taobao, they all started sleeping again and I got bronchitis.  Ah China's good to be home. 

Footnote: The title photo appears courtesy of the London Massive (i.e. my bro and sister-in-law). It’s not really courtesy of them because I haven’t asked them if I can use it yet. In fact, I only realized they probably took the photo when I noticed that it appeared strangely unwarped - which is unheard of in any panoramic iPhone shot that either me or Mr Oh have attempted. Our panoramas look like a bad dream. The London Massive, however, know how to work their iPhones - this is how we know it was them.

The photo itself was taken at Uisneach, the sacred and mythological centre of Ireland. We spent a morning on this hill looking at bulls and sacrificing our hangovers to the ancient gods of Ireland. (The hangovers were courtesy of my cousin Jude and her new husband Trevor who had the most amazing wedding in a field…as you do).

Flying Without Fear

At some point last year, I was lying on the sofa, heavily pregnant (which for me was anytime after month 3 onwards) eating what was probably my seventh bowl of chocolate-sugar-cluster-cereal of the day.  I was browsing the internet, specifically the Shanghai Mamas website for interesting tidbits of information...details of how someone's ayi slapped their children and ran off to the mountains of Anhui province with all their jewellry and 20kg of organic infant formula hand carried from Minnestota.  I like these kinds of stories.  I also like to keep an eye out to see who is looking for what and where it be found - e.g. WTF almond powder? - invariably the answer is either Taobao or the Avocado Lady (the largest online market in the world and the smallest streetside hole in the wall respectively)...more on both of these in the next installment.  It was a few months before I realised that WTF was 'Where To Find' and not 'What the F@*k'.  I'm kind of disappointed now.  I preferred it when the Shanghai Mamas were a bunch of foul-mouthed, pissed-off angry ladies looking for baking supplies...although I suspect they still might be.  

Anyway, so I came across this one post asking whether flying on your own from Shanghai to Europe with a small baby and a toddler was possible.  My immediate reaction was 'Hell no, crazy people!.'  Yet to my surprise, the replies all indicated that not only was it possible, but the lovely expat ladies of Shanghai seemed to be at this kind of thing all the time.  One woman even said that she regularly flies back to the States on her own with four children (I reckon that's cheating because if you have four children then surely the eldest is at least old enough to act as a kind of foreman/pack mule).  

I shouldn't have been surprised by this though.  The expat moms of Shanghai are tough sons of bitches. They're constantly monitoring air pollution and can spend up to a week barricaded in their apartments with stir-crazy kids when the air gets really bad. They put their hands down the back of taxi seats in search of a damp, musty seatbelt that is likely home to at least three new strains of dengue fever so they can strap in a carseat.  They test their water/paint/toys for lead before it poisons their children and constantly try to find safe food in a country where even an 'organic' certification can be faked or bought. They negotiate bank transfers and food deliveries in a language that is so alien to English speakers that it might as well be Klingon.  They go to five different shops to get the ingredients for one meal. They wrestle face masks onto screaming children and spend way too much time shouting 'Don't touch that!' at curious toddlers. They haul babies, buggies and bags up and down hundreds of steps getting to and from the subway and they physically throw their own bodies in front of taxis and buses trying to get their kids across the road on a green man.   Shanghai mamas are like Navy Seals.  They're fearless, they're tough and they 
will elbow you in the face if you tell them that their child is not wearing enough clothes.  Flying long-haul with two small children?  Bring it.  

So it was partially bravado and partially a lack of alternatives that led to my decision to fly from Shanghai to Ireland on my own with a 2 year old and a 3-month-old.   It doesn't sound so hard at first, what could possibly go wrong?  Well, eventually someone will need to go to the bathroom.  That's what. 

It was six months of planning for about 20 hours of travelling.  It was an operation.  I have developed an entirely new skill-set - one that might come in handy some day if I'm ever invading a moderately fortified city or putting down a military coup, for example. The journey itself was what one might class a success based on the fact that a) no-one died, b) no-one engaged in high-altitude screaming and c) no-one did a poo that ran up their back.   

Now that 'the journey' is but a distant memory (and the PTSD has reduced to the faintest of tremors), I feel able to share some guidelines and tips for those who might someday be facing a similar trial.  

1.   Pack as light as is possible.  This is as light as is possible:
- 1 lightweight buggy that can be folded with one hand and thrown over the shoulder while simultaneously carrying two children and four bags;
- 1 sling or carrier (I would reccommend a semi structured type with full buckles in a vomit resistant material);
- 1 changing bag containing enough nappies and wipes for two children for 24 hours.  This will take up the whole bag, there will not be room for anything else.  
- 1 backpack containing 2 laptops, two iPhones, two sticker books, a collection of at least 10 (small) new toys for the toddler ("stop, have a tiny stegosaurus") and at least a kilo of chocolate.  All electronic equipment should be well stocked with movies, tv shows, apps and anything else that two-year-olds find engaging i.e. videos of themselves and anything with singing fish.  Pack toddler headphones so you don't have to listen to Iggle-piggle-iggle-onk for ten hours straight.  
-  4 lollipops (for take off and landing on the two flights). 
-  A beany neck pillow - a huge space waster but when the exhausted toddler is finally asleep after 10 full hours of not being even a little bit asleep, you will not want to rely on anything inflatable or flimsy for his precarious comfort.  
- Three changes of clothes for each child.  
-  Passports - it's surprising how easy it is to overlook this when swamped under a pile of nappies and mini-dinosaurs.  

2.   When on the flight, I found that the following activity rotation worked well for the toddler - tv, new toy, unhealthy snack, repeat.  Repeat.  Repeat.  Repeat.  Repeat.  Repeat.  Repeat.  Repeat.   

3.   The baby is the easy one.  Put him in the bassinet and take him out to feed.   Breastfeeding is easiest.  This isn't a judgmental, emotive, divisive opinion.  This is a transport fact.   Be aware that whenever the baby falls asleep and you put him in the bassinet, you will hit turbulence within five minutes and have to take him out again.  He will wake up again and you will feed him again.  It's just as well that Fireman Sam is on loop beside you.  

4.  Pray that your air hostess isn't a total bitch.  Ours was (thumbs down to you British Airways).  Thankfully we had the most lovely pregnant Spanish woman on the other side of Little A.  He called her 'Lady' and tried to feed her his snacks.  She seemed to genuinely think he was cute which I find surprising given the close proximity and the length of the flight but I'm putting it down to hormonal blindsiding.  

5.  Plan on not sleeping.  You will not sleep.  It is your job not to sleep.  

6.  I'm not going to lie to you, transiting through Heathrow is not fun.  You won't have the luxury of getting off the plane last and taking your time.  As soon as those fasten seatbelt signs go off you need to throw the baby into the sling, backpack on, bags over shoulder and whisper promises to the toddler involving raisins and lollipops as you coax him down the aisle, out the doors of the plane and into his buggy.  Then you need to start running, and you need to keep running, for about an hour.  Everyone will be crying (including you).  Don't fall into the trap of believing that just because you don't have to change terminals that this will be easy, or even well-signposted.  You will still have to take one train, pass through immigration, pass through random photobooth thing plus security plus a lot of long, corridors to get to your connecting flight.  There will be long queues that you cannot afford to wait in because you will miss your flight.  This is when the fact that all three of you are crying will come in handy.  People are not heartless, even the security staff at Heathrow (I think they've been given a very bad rap).  Do not be afraid to wail publicly.  It will help.  You will get through it all and your mother will be standing at the other end of security with a sandwich and bottle of chilled San Pellegrino to help you along the final, short leg of the seemingly endless journey.  

7.  Before I flew, another Shanghai mama said to me "It's hell. But it ends".   Amen.  

There are a number of people I'd like to thank for making 'the journey' a not-totally-unbearable experience.   My husband, Mr Oh, for not divorcing me in the run-up to the journey.  The amazing security people at Heathrow, who opened up a lane just to let me through and didn't make me take off my shoes - I have never wanted to hug strangers so much (but I didn't because they're still kind of scary).  The nasty British Airways air hostess who never answered the call bell and rolled her eyes whenever I asked for milk to be heated - you made me a stronger person (and I reported you to BA when I got back).  'Lady', our Spanish guardian angel and the best travelling companion a toddler could have.  My mother, for flying all the way to London just to make the last stage a little bit easier.   And finally, the Shanghai Mamas for being badass and making me think I could do it.  

I need a nap.

Hello Bali!

P1196455I’ve been on a break, and not just any break, I went on a ‘sun holiday’. I don’t think I’ve ever gone on a sun holiday before. I don’t like the sun. I barely like holidays. I don’t like heat. I definitely don’t like sand and I hate the feeling of salt on my skin. I’m also not a fan of cocktails…except for Bloody Marys…thankfully they had Bloody Marys in Bali, otherwise I wouldn’t have gone. I also don’t like visiting locations of religious worship - churches, temples, mosques, fairy circles - they all seem to be an integral part of holidays. Nothing like trying to insert a random ‘cultural’ element to your booze-soaked hedonism to give it legitimacy and gravitas. I would rather spend the day strapped to an ant hill than have to visit a gallery or museum. All in all - I’m part killjoy, part philistine. I also hate flying.

Imagine my surprise when I actually had a wonderful time on my sun holiday. The presence of Little A seems to have made all the difference but not in a smushy ‘I’m happy just being with my child’ kind of way (because that is patently untrue). It’s because toddlers and I have the same outlook. We do not want to drink vodka from a bucket. We want to go to bed on time. We do not want to do ‘stuff’ unless stuff involves splashing in the water, napping and eating. We do not want to tan. We do not care about culture unless culture involves peanut sauce (thankfully, in Bali, peanut sauce is a key component of the culture). We don’t like sand in our pants. The only difference between me and the toddler is that he doesn’t mind if there’s a dead gecko in his bed…I really would have. Luckily the dead gecko wasn’t in my bed or I wouldn’t be so gushing about my holiday.

Our lovely two week break consisted of a three day stay in Singapore followed by twelve nights in Bali. I learned a lot about many things during this brief period - here are some of them:

1. Singapore is an amazing place to bring a toddler on holiday. Who knew? The zoo, the bird park, the botanical gardens…and that’s about all we could manage in the three days. We could have stayed for ten and never be bored. I cannot say enough great things about the zoo - it should be one of the Seven Wonders of the World. Screw the pyramids, they have neither a water playground nor white tigers. The visit also re-ignited my love for queues, order and social hygiene. I love you Singapore - you’re everything I want in a country. (In contrast, there was a woman beside me on the 911 bus in Shanghai this morning clipping her finger nails and spitting on the ground.)

2. If your child gets sunburnt - you are officially a bad parent. Plus, everyone will know you’re a bad parent. It’s not like psychological cruelty or emotional neglect where the scars will only show up years later on the ward. If you are a bad parent on holiday - your child is a public beacon of your shame. Thankfully, I am not a bad parent. Sun-cream is expensive, only mildly effective and sand sticks to it which gives me the heebie-jeebies. The key, rather, is outfitting your child in a baby burka - from neck, to ankles to wrist - all of it should be covered in material. Gone are the days of children wearing little swimsuits or, God forbid, nothing at all. Nowadays, more is more. Hats are good too. Suncream can be limited to hands, feet and face.

3. The Balinese love children. No need to worry about babysitters. You just arrive at the restaurant, someone whisks your child out of your arms, wanders off with them and usually they turn up again by dessert.

4. An iguana is not always an iguana. Sometimes it is a really large gecko. So, when you see what looks like an iguana clinging to the thatchy roof above your bed take a moment to think before you go screaming hysterically to the front desk that there’s a baby komodo dragon lurking in your room. You will look stupid when they tell you it’s just a gecko. You will still feel justified in your panic on account of the fact that the ‘gecko’ is the length and width of your forearm and looks suspiciously like the iguana you saw in the zoo only days before…but the staff will just think you’re a crazy nut who doesn’t know a gecko from her forearm. Four separate members of staff will try to reassure you that the gecko will not fall on your head as you sleep - they will be right - it will not (but maybe that’s because you never really fall asleep knowing that it might).

5. When your child falls headfirst into a fishpond, don’t panic, grab an ankle. Children are easier to carry by the legs than by the arms - there’s more grip. So outraged will he feel at being fished out of the soup like a common grouper, upside down and dripping with fish-water - he will not fall in again.

6. If you absolutely must have culture, Bali is one of the nicest places in the world for it. There’s nothing wrong with a bit of temple visiting now and again. We went to three on our trip which seems like a lot but when there’s a temple every ten paces, they’re hard to avoid.

7. Don’t diss family resorts. They rock. Authentic experiences are for young people and hippies.

8. Never go anywhere without Tiger Balm and raisins. I don’t think this needs explaining.


111 Boxes


The temperature has dropped ten degrees in the last few days. Baby A is cutting molars and his gums look like a war zone. Mr Oh has caught some Chinese version of the Ebola virus and is wracked with fever and inexplicable pains - apparently the worst thing about being sick is my insistence on sticking a thermometer in his ear every ten minutes. I like the beepy noise. He should be glad I’ve chosen technological gadgetry over accuracy when it comes to determining his core body temperature. As the Belgians will tell you, there’s only one way to get a truly accurate reading from a thermometer.

In other news, our shipment arrived. It was a bit of a shock. I had presumed it had sunk (Mr Oh only wished it had). For the last two months we had lived very well without the 111 boxes that arrived in our apartment on Saturday. “I wonder what’s in them all”, I mused as I gazed upon the stacks of unopened boxes that littered our heretofore minimalist abode. “Your crap”, Mr Oh said pointedly. I think his tone was a bit harsh. At least I brought useful things into our marriage - a full set of cutlery and crockery, a dining room table, a bed, a sofa, a tv, a giant bean bag. He brought a guitar and a lifetime supply of cod liver oil.

I have to admit that some of it was unnecessary. An x-ray of my foot, for example, did I think I’d need that in China? {Post-script - Mr Oh has asked me also to mention the Wedgewood pot filled with novelty, flag badge-pins and the set of ornamental granite elephants}. The problem is that my parents don’t want my crap either - they have four children, all of whom have now moved out of the family home while forgetting to bring any of their stuff with them. I think they brought it on themselves - if they wanted an uncluttered house, they shouldn’t have had grandchildren. Poor parents, no sooner had the youngest one moved out, than they had to start filling the house with travel cots, high chairs and prams. In response, they built a gym/shed in the back garden where they go to burn off the stress of not being able to live in a stark and graceful manifestation of Swedish design.

I realized, as we unpacked the boxes, that you could psychoanalyze our personalities on the basis of what we brought to China. I am responsible for the 7 large boxes of effervescent Solpadeine, the 150 doses of Dioralyte and the seemingly endless amount of Motillium. I’m either sickly, hypochondriacal or expecting a lot of hangovers - possibly a mix of all three. Mr Oh brought over six deodorants and at least a gallon of Savlon in three different configurations - liquid, cream and dry spray. Based on this one might conclude that he fears uncleanliness and germs (coincidentally those are two things that China has in abundance). Baby A brought a lot of stuff that he is no longer interested in or no longer fits into. He’s afraid of change.

Despite the piles of unsorted clothes and the question of where we’re going to put everything, unpacking all our not-entirely-necessary stuff has been fun. The one truly useful item I found was our baby carrier which has meant that I can bring Baby A to playschool on my back and no longer feel like the 13 kilo toddler is pulling my spine out through my abdomen. The downside of this is that he gets up to all kinds of stuff back there and I can’t see him (although I do carry a little mirror in my pocket so I can occasionally take a peek). This leaves me very little control over who pokes and prods him or pops walnuts in his mouth. He seems to like it though and generally falls asleep on the bus ride home.

The Chinese on the bus are even less convinced by the wisdom of my parenting choices than they were before. I was standing on the 911 bus yesterday with Baby A on my back in the sling. I was being offered a seat at least every 30 seconds and was trying to explain that I couldn’t really sit down without squashing the baby. There were two OCGs (old Chinese grannies) who were particularly vexed by this arrangement and the conversation went something like this:

OCP1: Here (offering me her seat) - sit down.
Me: No thanks, I can’t sit down.
OCP1: But he’s tired.
Me: Yes, he’s asleep.
OCP1: You must sit down - he’s tired.
Me: I’m not sure I understand.
OCP1: He’s not comfortable.
Me: He’s asleep. He’s comfortable.
OCP2: His socks are too tight.
Me: What??
OCP2: (lifting a limp toddler leg and pinging his socks down to rub a sock band mark) See? Blood problems. His socks are too tight. Not comfortable.
OCP1: (tutting in agreement). Not comfortable.
Me: He’s asleep!
OCP2: You must sit down.
Me: Ok. (Sitting down and perching very uncomfortably at the edge of the seat so as to avoid crushing Baby A’s chest).
OCP1 and OCP2: (simultaneously smiling and nodding). Yes, he’s comfortable now.

The Shanghainers


Yesterday, Baby A and I went to work with Mr Oh. Work consisted of getting up at 6am and boarding a bus to a Chinese tourist water town with a group of 20 other people. Half of the group were students of Chinese literature from Fudan - one of China’s top universities - with the other half comprising the world’s leading Joycean scholars.

Baby A and I could pass for neither. We were too old and too young, respectively, to pass for Chinese literature students or, indeed, students of any kind unless one of us is remarkably prodigious and the other is *gasp* mature. Although, physically we may have blended passably with the other group, the fear there would be that someone might start a conversation with us. “Have you read much Joyce?”, they might ask. “No” we would reply (or I would reply because Baby A would be busy rubbing bean paste from the cake that one of the students slipped to him along the seam of the Joycean scholar’s trouser leg). “Have you read any Joyce?” they might continue, deflated. “No”, I would reply. They would be disappointed. This would be before they noticed what Baby A had been up to. Disappointment would turn to barely concealed rage. I would apologize profusely and reach for tissues. Baby A would cackle and then, as I was trying to wipe bean paste from the fabric, Baby A would grab the loose skin on their face, just below their eye, and gouge tightly with his unkempt claws. It would be ugly - people would cry.

I thought if I were, however, to deflect all talk to Joyce - Baby A and I might be in with a chance. I could go in on the offensive. “So, have you read Incy Wincy the hard back wipe-clean tab version?…Sublime”. Baby A and I would then break into a round of Incy Wincy Spider. I would do the hand movements and Baby A would bounce up and down in his pram like the conductor of the New York philharmonic. The scholars would be confused and, later perhaps, moved by our touching rendition. No one would cry, unless they were tears of joy. Ok, Baby A might cry but it would have been unrelated to Incy and possibly related to the unexpected loss of the bean paste cake which I would have grabbed out of his sticky hand in the preceding moments.

The reality about Joyceans though is that they’re really, really into Joyce and not that much into Incy Wincy. Joyceans are intense and focussed and random. I say random because they’re not who you expect them to be i.e. they’re not all David Norris. We met a very nice Korean lady who was a Joycean scholar. I wanted to know how and why she decided that that was what she wanted to do with her life and career. Does she read it in Korean? Maybe Joyce is more appealing in Korean than it seems to be in English. I didn’t ask her, I was terrified of mentioning Joyce in case someone thought this was an invitation to start a Joycean-type conversation.

One of the Chinese professors on this unusual outing had recently translated Finnegan’s Wake into Chinese and apparently it shot to number 2 on some Shanghai bestsellers list. I secretly wonder if it was the Chinese Joycean Scholars bestsellers list. Not having read it, I’m in a weak position when it comes to criticism or sarcasm, I admit.

I decided to hang out with the students mostly and let them fawn over Baby A and feed him cake. It seemed like the better option. At one stage as we wandered about in the sweltering mid morning heat looking at an ancient Chinese building, I looked over to see two young, very intelligent, serious, Chinese literature students fanning my 12 month old son from either side of his pram as if he were Tutankhamun himself. I made a mental note that the child needs to be socialized in a normal environment before he comes to believe that he’s immortal.

Mr Oh, during this excursion, was taking a different and not altogether unsuccessful approach. Having actually read some Joyce (albeit not a whole lot) he was taking the little nuggets of knowledge available to him and wringing ever single nano drop of conversational kudos out of them, with gusto. As he wandered around the alleys of Zhujiajiao discussing the merits of The Dubliners (and not much else) he did seem vaguely convincing as a Joycean scholar.

As to why an international band of Joycean scholars, a handful of Chinese literature students, a diplomat, a hausfrau and a baby were meandering the streets of ‘Shanghai’s Venice’ together early one hot August morning, I’m still not sure, but it was a good way to spend a few hours.

I’m still recovering from the fact that this town, Zhujiajiao, is considered a suburb of Shanghai and yet we drove for over an hour on the motorway to get to it. That’s a story for another day. The mind-melting giantness of China is not an issue I’m ready to tackle before lunch but I would like you, my faithful reader i.e. Mom, to think about that for a minute. An hour - on the motorway - still in the suburbs - not even left the city. Bonkers.


Mommy No Sleep


I spent weeks researching how to manage jet lag in babies. I asked people, I made schedules, I had a system. Turns out, babies cope with jet lag pretty well. There was one night of wanting to party at 3am and then, last night, he slept through like a clockwork orange. Sadly, the same can’t be said for adults.

At 2am, Mr Oh was reading the imaginatively titled A Short History of China which he reckoned would help him nod off but which, despite its lack of titular titilation, he was still reading at 4am. I was tossing and turning for hours until insanity seemed to take hold and I started mumbling in my best faux-Confucius impression “Body ti-yard, mind wi-yard”. On occasion, I would leap out of bed to look something up on the internet and return half an hour later for another futile attempt at falling asleep.

I tried to count slowly in my head but what started out as “One…two…three…” became “Twenty four - I wonder if I can buy sweet potato here - twenty five - stop thinking about sweet potato - twenty six - focus on the numbers - twenty seven - twenty eight - mmmm, sweet potato salad - twenty nine - no more sweet potato - thirty - thirty one - thirty two - I should google where to get sweet potato”.

I think it was almost 5am before I finally fell asleep. Baby A had, at this stage already been asleep for six hours. Four hours later he was up again, bright as a button and ready to play. I groggily picked him up and was wandering about our serviced apartment looking for the iPad with which to amuse him when the doorbell rang. This was surprising because a) it was 9am on a Saturday morning and b) we don’t know anyone in China. With Baby A slung across my hip, I opened the door and was confronted by three small middle aged Chinese ladies. On seeing Baby A they let out a chorus of ‘Waah, oooh’s and Baby A, feeling the love, gave them a wave along with a general shout of welcome and the three of them toddled right past me into the apart.

The three unknown women all split in different directions - one into the kitchen - one to the bathroom and the third started heading down the corridor to where Mr Oh lay in a sleep-deprived haze. I shouted that he should get up and a few moment later he emerged in a stumbly fashion from bedroom and collapsed back onto the sofa for several minutes before enquiring as to why there was a Chinese woman making his bed at 9am on a Saturday.

While Mr Oh was unsure about the whole thing, Baby A was totally invigorated by the sudden arrival of company. He scurried on hands and knees down to the bedroom and was quickly swept up in the arms of two of the ladies who poked and pinched him merrily as he giggled away. They chattered away to him in Chinese and he, in return, shouted and them loudly in a Maoist fashion. Eventually, Mr Oh and I, sensing that we were getting in the way plucked Baby A from his coterie of admirers and hauled him (still shouting away) out of the apartment in search of breakfast. By the time we returned, an hour later, the ladies were gone, the apartment was spotless and Baby A was ready for a nap. A successful Saturday morning in Shanghai.


The Accidental Orienteer


This weekend I learned lots of things about my betrothed. At my uncle Declan’s 50th birthday party in Belfast, I learned that he has no difficulty holding a newborn with one hand and a pint of Guinness with the other. I’m not sure when this will come in handy...but I’m fairly certain that it’s positive. I learned that he can eat three bowls of cereal and still be hungry an hour later (interesting). I learned that he will do
anything to put off starting an essay, including the dishes (useful), that children are unafraid of him despite his size (good) and that when he grows his beard and hair too long he looks like a cross between Jesus, a tall monkey and a tennis player circa 1972 (odd).

I also learned that he cannot be allowed to undertake even the simplest of long journeys unsupervised. One would think, looking at any map, that the drive between Dublin and Belfast was relatively straightforward, if not, exceptionally straightforward on account of the fact that it’s essentially (if not entirely) a straight road from point A to point B.

We were driving back down to Dublin early on Saturday afternoon and I had made the fatal mistake of drinking two cups of tea before we left with the result that after about half an hour, I needed to pee again. I was trying to distract myself by putting new words to the Gummi-bears theme song when I noticed that we were not too far from Omagh. Isn’t that nice, I thought, I’ve never been to Omagh.

A few moment later, it occurred to me that I have driven between Dublin and Belfast hundreds of times without ever getting the opportunity to go to Omagh. I looked at the next road sign and realised that I hadn’t ever been to any of the places on it, except Donegal, I had been to Donegal and remember it because of the 7 hour journey from Dublin so I was pretty sure I didn’t want to go there this weekend. I asked Mr Oh calmly, ‘Are you sure we’re on the road to Dublin?’. He shot me a look of what I think might have been contempt and said, ‘Yes’ (I think he was rolling his eyes internally too). I thought, maybe we are on the road to Dublin, Mr Oh tends to know what he’s talking about and the fields outside the window do look vaguely familiar, they’re green and square and I’m fairly sure I’ve seen that cow before somewhere. I relaxed a little bit and then I saw the next sign, ‘The West’. I was very sure I did not want to go to the West. It was then that I started screeching.

Rather than come off the motorway and go back the way we came, Mr Oh thought that we’d take a detour and ‘triangulate’ to Newry to rejoin the Dublin-Belfast road - a decision which launched us on an hour long tour of the heartland of paramilitary activity in Northern Ireland. We drove down the Garvaghy Road which was fun. It was one of those places that I have often heard mentioned on the news but have never been entirely sure where they are on a Srebrenica or Bazra.

Mr Oh seemed quite pleased with his scenic tour of sectarian hot-spots until I pointed out that I really really needed to go to the bathroom so could he please hurry up and get us to Newry. He started to slow down outside a petrol station and said ‘You should just go in there, I’m sure they have a bathroom’. I pointed out that the petrol station was draped in the Union Jack and adjacent to an Orange Lodge which seemed to make his reconsider the wisdom of pulling his southern registered car into the courtyard and idling in it for several minutes looking as he did i.e. bearded, papist and 1970sy.

I resolved to make it to Newry and we whiled away that part of the journey looking at scenes of pastoral hilliness where we reckoned we could afford to buy a rather generously sized house but would have to change our names to Nigel Patterson and Arlene Dobson (which I quite liked).

The rest of the journey was relatively uneventful and we made it back to Dublin before nightfall where we spent the evening watching Charlie & the Chocolate Factory followed by Tallafornia (which we pretend not to like but can’t stop watching).

Today turned out to be the first day of spring and the whole lack of hangover thing opened up to us an entire world of early morning (i.e. pre-noon) possibility. We decided to go running. Well, Mr Oh went running and I cycled alongside, jollying him along with motivational observances like ‘gosh, this is easy’ and ‘you look very pale in the sunlight’. He refrained from pushing me off my bike which I thought was damn decent of him but suspect this would not have been the case were I not pregnant.

As we arrived back to our little house, the woman in the flower shop across the street shouted out ‘Mr Oh, I have your plate and your cutlery’....that’s when I realised that there were some things about my betrothed that I would never learn.

Actually, that’s not true. The flower shop woman had helped Mr Oh with the roses on the day he proposed, even though he hadn’t bought them from her but from another flower seller on Grafton Street - who happened to be her sister in law bizarrely enough. So anyway, she helped him make the roses into a nice bouquet so he - just after we got engaged - ran across the road with breakfast for her which is why we now live in an Irish episode of Coronation Street. They’re great friends.

I don’t mind Mr Oh’s mysterious visits to the florist as he inevitably returns with pretty things for me...see below.