The Holiday Book

Across the years and around the globe, I’ve snapped thousands of photos and collected countless ticket stubs, flyers and brochures on every trip, but the majority would end up in the recycling once home, or else be stuffed in yet another dusty shoe-box to languish, forgotten. However, one half-term break, over ten years ago, we were set some homework from the boys’ nursery: to create a holiday scrapbook.

With a toddler and a four-month-old in tow at the time, we weren’t going far, but with a short break in the Isle of Wight already booked and with the project in mind, we redoubled our efforts to collect mementos from our trip. Once home, I found a simple, sturdy brown-paper, hard-backed journal, tied up with black ribbon, and started to create our scrapbook.

Unbeknownst to us at the time, a legend had been spawned: The Holiday Book.

What began as a one-time project began to grow and evolve and, with every weekend away or far-flung adventure, the Book began to take on a life of its own. Every now and then, a momentous event, such as a milestone being reached or a special day out, would find its way into the Holiday Book to be captured for posterity, in chronological order and in technicolour glory. It was becoming a beautiful record of our family’s life.

And then we moved abroad.

With every new expat experience or travel tale, the pages of the Book would fill with tickets and photos, wristbands and wrappers, and what had been a couple of volumes soon became five, then seven, and now we’re about to start our eleventh book. Not only were our travels meticulously recorded, but we captured memories of school International Day costumes, swim galas, academic achievement awards, and birthday parties with friends from around the globe. In this transient expat life, these records have taken on particular meaning, as friends have moved on to new lives elsewhere, yet the laughter and love we all shared forever lives on in those pages.

The boys, in particular, love to look back through the books – to times when they were impossibly small – and having more than photos brings back so many memories we’d have otherwise have lost in the chaos of everyday life or the passage of time. The receipt from a truly terrible meal in Kathmandu takes us right back to the courtyard restaurant where monkeys danced along the walls as we waited for our food, and the postcard we bought in the lanes of Galle Fort brings to mind the dazzling light hitting the bright-hued painted houses we passed and the chill of the coconut ice cream that we we tried not to drip as we browsed.

If I could give any advice to young parents embarking on family travel adventures, it would be to start a scrapbook of their own, no matter how detailed. In the early years, you’re so tired and busy that much of the everyday detail gets forgotten, but those first experiences and early memories are irreplaceable. Our multi-volume Holiday Book is worthless in itself, but it is priceless beyond measure to us. As the boys get older, I already dread the time when our whole-family travels begin to dwindle, although we hopefully have many more volumes to fill before then. I’m so glad now that we were set that holiday assignment and often wish I had a record of my own expat childhood and family holidays, beyond the few grainy photos that remain, to look back on.

The contents of the books may be just paper, photos and glue; but the memories in those pages are unique to our family and capture a shared history and a bond of global experiences that no-one else could ever replicate. On the first day of this new year, I hope we get to fill many more books in the months and years ahead.

Home

Just before Christmas, the question that every expat hears regularly popped up again.  Chatting with a fellow traveller in Oman, sharing travel anecdotes and background stories, the conversation turned to my expat life – from childhood to the present day. Then, that question – friendly, casual and loaded with far greater weight than intended: “So, where’s home for you then?”.

Home. That idyllic notion of picket fences and apple pies, warm fires and close family, friends-for-life and roots extending through the generations. For third culture kids, like me, “home” isn’t like that. I gave my usual jovial answer: “Oh, I don’t know really (chuckle)”. But sometimes it isn’t funny. I left my country of birth aged two and, save for a brief return as I entered double digits, have never lived there since. Is it home? How about the countries and cities of my early childhood – though we never stayed for more than 2 or 3 years at a time. Or the village we moved to in my early teens where my parents now live? My University town? North London where I first lived in the big smoke or South West London where I last resided? My current home in Dubai?

These days most people travel for work or study whilst, of course, in a separate category altogether, many are forced to leave their homes due to conflict or persecution. However, in the majority of these cases, those leaving would still identify with the “home” left behind, to be returned to one day.  That part of my identity is missing.

To be honest, it hasn’t often bothered me over the years. When the “where’s home” question comes up, various answers spring to mind depending on the situation and the interlocutor: “nowhere and everywhere”(the travelling hobo option); “the UK” (the easy passport-affirming option); or “wherever my husband and children are”(the trite but true option).  Yet in the last year or so it’s started to prey on my mind – not for myself but for my now-expat kids – and the conversation I had in Oman has stayed with me because of them.

I am proud to be raising global citizens. Kids who travel the world and take it all in their stride, developing enquiring minds and empathy for those less fortunate than themselves. Discovering ancient temples and tropical seas, riding in tuk-tuks and trains and learning about ethical travel and the environment. With school friends from around 25 countries, an understanding of diverse religions and learning Arabic and French as regular subjects alongside maths and reading. They are experiencing an idyllic childhood and couldn’t be happier. But I still have those occasional expat parent doubts; the ones which are usually encountered in the darkest predawn hours. Where is “home” for them?  Is their exciting but nomadic life, away from extended family and without the ability to put down roots in a particular area going to be detrimental to them? Or, given the current state of global politics and the socio-economic and environmental challenges that will face their generation in adulthood, will this life of flexibility, open-mindedness and wanderlust stand them in good stead?  I wish I could know the answer to that.

Ultimately, wherever I have lived, without obvious roots tying me to a geographical location, “home” for this third culture kid was where my parents were and, as I got older, where my own growing family was based. I may not have been able to mark it on a map, but “home” was love, happiness, support and shared experience, wherever that happened to be. All I can hope is that as long as I instill that feeling in my own children, I will have done something right, no matter where the wind carries us.

 

 

Muttrah Souq, Muscat

The site of one of the oldest souqs in the Arab world and the former centre of commerce in Oman prior to the discovery of oil, no visit to Muscat is complete without experiencing the dizzying maze of lanes that make up Muttrah Souq.  A heady mix of fabrics, incense, trinkets and antiques, the vibrant colours and pungent aromas overwhelm the senses.

Visiting this labyrinth of treasures a few days before Christmas, we were on a very festive mission. Given Oman’s important role in the ancient incense and spice trade routes, we decided to see if we could find gold, frankincense and myrrh: it didn’t take us long. Countless vendors were eager to show us their fragrant wares and decorative burners and, refreshingly, they wanted to teach the boys about the incense and traditional perfumes on display far more than they wanted a sale. The legendary hospitality of Oman is epitomised in Muttrah Souq, with warm greetings and welcoming smiles at every turn.

From plastic toys to antique khanjars, heavy gold necklaces to fridge magnets, sacks of henna to cups of tea – Muttrah Souq has it all.  Wandering the lanes, from the dazzling windows filled with gold jewellery to the seemingly endless offers of cashmere pashminas, is the perfect way to while away an hour or two. With no real hassle and no obligation to buy, you never know what treasures you might find once you start to explore.

 

The dolphin whisperer

We set out across the Gulf of Oman not long after sunrise on the shortest day of the year: the sun low in the sky; the sea like glass; the horizon hazy in the early morning light. We were the only passengers and, as our captain was dubbed the dolphin whisperer, we embarked excitedly with a promise of a 90% chance of seeing at least one of three types of dolphin.  Crossing the open sea with the sun on our faces and the breeze in our hair, at times hugging the rugged coastline, at others weaving between the mighty tankers being slowly towed to port by tiny tug boats, always with an eye on the horizon, hoping for a glimpse of a pod of dolphins leaping through the air – it was idyllic.

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Well, it sounds idyllic, doesn’t it?

However, we all know that the reality of travelling with children isn’t necessarily reflected in the Instagram show-reel… We had only enticed our youngest pizza-fan, until recently phobic of boat travel, to go on the trip with the (false) promise that it wasn’t a speedboat (it was), it wouldn’t go fast (it did) and it would be worth it as we would see hundreds of dolphins (well, we didn’t). Ah. All was calm as we puttered out of the harbour and turned towards the sea and, well, you can imagine the scene as the captain opened the throttle and set off at breakneck speed across the ocean.

It truly was a beautiful morning – the coastal scenery was incredible and we were so lucky to be sharing the sea with just a few fishing boats, a string of towering ships heading slowly for shore and the gulls.  While we relaxed and took in the views, or huddled with eyes closed (guess who), the dolphin whisperer was hard at work. I’m afraid I have to shatter your illusions there too – his whispering ability was more a bellowing-on-a-mobile-phone ability, as he worked his way through the network of fishermen in his contact list to find out what they had seen that morning. The short answer was: nothing. We were about to be the 10%.

After a couple of hours, disappointed, we turned and headed back to harbour, stopping in a remote, sheltered bay of coral reefs teeming with tropical fish in lieu of our dolphins. It was a special moment and made up for the lack of dolphins. Satisfied, we started the engines to head for home. Just then, the captain’s phone buzzed. A fisherman far out to sea had just come across a pod. “Hold on, we have to go fast!” he cried. And go fast he did. Littlest pizza-fan’s face was a picture. Oops.

After about ten minutes, we slowed. The engines were cut and the captain pointed ahead of our boat. We drifted a safe distance away from one of the most remarkable sights we have ever been lucky enough to see. A large pod of sleek dolphins moving away from us, propelling themselves up and down through the clear waters further out to sea. I don’t think anything can prepare you for seeing these majestic creatures in open waters. We simply watched, awe-struck, for a few minutes as the sun glinted off their wet skin and the rise and fall of dorsal fins increased the distance between us, before starting the engines again and heading back to shore.

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We may not have seen many, but sitting quietly for those brief moments in the morning sun, surrounded by blue silence and watching the dolphins gliding away from us,  was a privilege. The dolphin whisperer had worked his magic after all.

 

The joy of contentment

A couple of nights ago I had to take a taxi to an event. I love chatting to the taxi drivers here in Dubai where I currently live, as every one has a fascinating life story to share, whether funny or tragic. However, this week, I met a man whose story and approach to life were so uplifting and joyful that I haven’t stopped thinking about him all week.

Khalid has been driving a taxi in Dubai for 24 years.  Having seen the city grow exponentially over that time, from a sandy small town to the modern metropolis it is today, he had lots of interesting anecdotes about the “old days”.  Yet when I asked about his family back in Pakistan, he glowed with joy.  He told me about his oldest daughter, who achieved her MBA last year, got married and has just had a baby boy. He proudly showed me photos, with one hand on the wheel and the other precariously scrolling through his phone’s camera roll, a broad smile plastered across his face.  I got to share in his daughter’s beautiful wedding photographs and heard about the three days of celebrations they enjoyed. He told me about his first son, who is just finishing his mechanical engineering degree at Pakistan’s top university and who has been awarded a full scholarship to study for his Masters degree in Germany or Australia – he can’t decide which to choose. Finally, I heard about his youngest twin sons, the brightest of all his children apparently, who are top of their class and who constantly switch between first and second place in examination results and compete for the top spot endlessly. They are in their final year of school and will go to university next academic year. Khalid will continue to work until their education is complete and then he wants to retire home to Pakistan.

He spoke of his wife, who he met on his wedding day, having trusted in his parents to choose the best bride for him and told me with love and respect in his voice that he was so lucky to have been able to marry the “best woman in Pakistan” who is entirely responsible for shaping his children into the fine young people that they have become. He said he only provided the money – the rest was all down to her.

He concluded that his life is complete. His purpose was to provide for and give the best opportunities to his children and he has achieved that, so there is nothing more that he wants.

The entire conversation was liberally sprinkled with ‘Alhamdulillah (thanks be to god)” at the end of most phrases and, whilst I don’t share Khalid’s religious beliefs, I could see that he feels truly blessed and has an enormous sense of gratitude for the life he has led and for his intelligent and hardworking children. They must surely have been inspired by the example he has set them over the years.  He was a gentle, humble, thoughtful man and he had what I can only describe as an aura of contentment around him. It was joyful to be in his company and I was genuinely disappointed to reach my destination.

I have thought about Khalid a lot over the last couple of days as his words and manner have stayed with me. His acceptance of his role in life and his view of his ‘purpose’ was inspiring. He didn’t long for material goods, he didn’t complain about driving a taxi for almost a quarter of a century and he didn’t protest at having missed out on being with his children as they grew, as he wanted to keep working to provide for their education.  It is so rare to meet someone who is genuinely content with all aspects of their life and at peace within themselves. I know I would be the first to admit that I am not. However, this chance meeting has had a profound effect on me – it’s hard to explain. There was true joy in his contentment and I’m working on changing my mindset to be more accepting and grateful in my own life. He may not have had much money, but Khalid was the richest man I’ve met in Dubai. Alhamdulillah.

 

History Lessons

The first glimpse of the Bridge over the River Kwai takes your breath away. It’s not just the impact of its striking design, but more the significance of what it represents. Whilst this was not my first visit to Kanchanaburi on the River Kwai, it was the first time I had been with my children and it would prove to be a profound learning experience for us all.

The construction of the Death Railway during the Second World War was an extraordinary feat of engineering, seeking to create a supply route for the Japanese forces between Thailand and Burma across 415km of inhospitable jungle, broad rivers and solid rock. Yet the prisoners of war and conscripted workers who were forced to work in appalling conditions to complete the project in only 16 months, mostly using simple hand tools, faced unimaginable ill-treatment, disease and starvation and over 100,000 lost their lives.

Wherever we’ve travelled, I’ve always made a point of explaining the history and culture of our destination to my children. I truly believe that children have an incredible capacity for understanding and appreciating those things that are outside their usual experience and that the realities of the world around us shouldn’t be hidden from them.  We have had many conversations over the last few years which have really made me think about how to explain difficult subjects – such as poverty, religious practices and beliefs and political ideologies – in a way that they can understand. However, this was a tough one. How do you explain the brutality of the Japanese PoW camps, death and disease on such a vast scale and the futility of war to a modern-day 7- and 9-year old? The answer, I discovered, was with honesty.

Visiting the wonderfully informative Thailand-Burma Railway Centre Museum and the Allied War Cemetery in Kanchanaburi helped them to understand what had happened and, so far as is possible, why events unfolded in the way that they did. They were shocked by much of what they saw, but took it all in and asked surprisingly insightful questions – I was tremendously proud of them for the compassion and respect they showed. Pausing with my sons to read the inscriptions on the grave markers of the brave young men who never returned gave me an enormous sense of gratitude that we live in an age where I should never have to go through what their mothers had to endure.

Yet the lessons we learned in Thailand were brought closer to home with the knowledge that my great uncle had spent the War fighting in the jungles of Burma alongside his brave Gurkha colleagues. The boys wanted to know more, so emailed their grandparents with a  long list of questions and we all learned something new about their great-great uncle’s story.

Our family history brought a different dimension to our trip, as the events we were learning about and trying to explain to the children were not just something from a dusty old textbook that happened to someone else, but were lived through by the kind, jolly man who I remember fondly from my own childhood. As with most of his generation, he rarely spoke of his experiences in Burma, but the letters and postcards he sent home during the War give a glimpse into the nightmarish experience that we now know so much more about. Walking through the Allied Cemetery, you couldn’t help wondering whether any of those tragic young men from the same regiment had been his friends.

The final stage of our journey was a visit to the poignant Hellfire Pass Memorial – a dignified and moving tribute to those who died building the railway, located 80km north-west of Kanchanaburi. The barbaric events that took place in this infamous cutting were depicted in the 2013 movie The Railway Man, based on Eric Lomax’s autobiography, and walking along the original rail bed through the Pass is a truly moving and sombre experience.

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In this month of November, when we remember those who paid the ultimate sacrifice fighting for freedom and, at a time when our global politics is in a state of flux, wars still rage in parts of our beautiful planet and desperate refugees are being scattered to the four corners of the world, it seems to me to be vitally important that the lessons of history are not forgotten. Our children are eager to learn and they understand more than we think. It is our duty to teach them about the past; the future, after all, is up to them.

Glorious Gibbons in Phuket

Oh, Phuket, the dream destination for strolls on white sandy beaches lapped by the Andaman Sea, attempting new watersports, and drifting through lazy days by the pool. That is until one of your children falls over, needs three stitches in his chin, and has to avoid water for several days. Oh.

Fortunately for the land-bound, Phuket is also the home to one of the most fantastic animal conservation projects in Thailand.

The Gibbon Rehabilitation Project, in Thalang, has been working since 1992 to rescue, rehabilitate and, where possible, release gibbons rescued from the tourist industry and illegal captivity.  The Project, which is funded entirely by donations and staffed by volunteers, also has a strong educational mission, seeking to educate local communities and tourists about the illegal trade in wildlife and the importance of environmental protection.  The volunteer staff on duty are passionate about the cause and are incredibly knowledgeable about the history and work of the project and about the resident gibbons.

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The Project base itself is small but perfectly formed: a visitor centre with an abundance of information; a gift shop stocked with gorgeous gibbon themed t-shirts, crafts and gifts, many handmade locally, sold to raise funds for the Project’s work; and the main attraction – the gibbons!

The aim of the project is to rehabilitate and release the rescued gibbons and, between 2002 and 2013 they released 31 gibbons into the protected forest of the Khao Pra Theaw non-hunting area. Even better than that, 11 wild-born gibbons were born in the reintroduction site during that period.

However, there are a few individual gibbons, non-native species or those badly affected by the injuries or trauma sustained in captivity, which cannot be released. There are also a few residents which call the project home after release attempts failed when they repeatedly returned.  These long-term residents live on-site in fantastic forest enclosures, visible to visitors but kept at a sufficient distance to allow them to live as naturally as possible. This provides the visitor with the opportunity to see these beautiful animals in their natural habitat without them being exploited or harmed.

The boys instantly fell in love with one of the most vocal residents, called Gibby. A Golden-cheeked gibbon donated to the Project in 2008, Gibby was in the enclosure closest to the information centre when we visited and she provided endless entertainment with her distinctive loud singing and acrobatic demonstrations. Gibby definitely knew how to play to the crowd!  The Project shop sold locally hand-made soft toys which were too hard to resist,  and we somehow left with two life-sized Gibbys… However, as every penny goes back into the Project’s conservation work, it was well worth the small cost and the slight embarrassment at the amused looks of passers-by and airport staff on our return home!

 

The GRP is now working on a new release site in Chiang Mai due to limitations of space at the Phuket site. Whilst it’s great news that the Project is so successful in its rescue and rehabilitation work that it requires more release sites, it’s sad that the demand for their work continues unabated, as a result of the on-going use of gibbons in the tourist industry.

If you’re looking for something to do away from the beach in Phuket, you won’t be disappointed by a visit to the Gibbon Rehabilitation Project. More information about the work of the project and their fundraising, including their gibbon adoption programme can be found at www.gibbonproject.org

 

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Art in abundance – a family in Florence

Florence, the birthplace of the Renaissance and of gelato, is renowned for its abundance of world-class art. The museums, galleries and architecture are a dream for art lovers and provide an opportunity to appreciate some of the most exquisite beauty ever created by the human hand.

Unless, as a rule, you happen to be under the age of 10. If you’ve ever suggested a day of art appreciation to children, you’ll know that being “dragged around” galleries and ancient cities is “BORING”. The ennui sets in early in the day, the feet become leaden, and parents steel themselves for a day of compromise and disappointment. Exhortations that the painting you are looking at is world famous, hundreds of years old and the epitome of its genre are met with rolled eyes and heavy sighs.

The dictionary defines art as: ‘the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form…, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power’.  Nowhere exemplifies this more clearly than Florence, from the ornate facade of the Duomo, topped with Brunelleschi’s iconic red-tiled dome, or the ramshackle beauty of the Ponte Vecchio at sunset, to the countless treasures of the Uffizi Gallery. But in Florence, where art is closely woven into everyday life, the extraordinary has become the norm.  And this is what makes the art of Florence a family affair.

The streets are lined with gelaterie, their creamy fare decorated with fresh fruit and piled up in glorious, inviting mounds; pizzerie with rows of sumptuous pizza slices on display; and windows filled with confectionery that would delight Willy Wonka himself.  The small side streets are a maze of beautiful window displays, with artists sketching and selling their work on every corner. Performance artists enchant children of all ages, masquerading as statues or filling the air with giant bubbles to chase and catch. It is not only a feast for the eyes, but for all the senses, and the artistry of the everyday appeals to children in a more accessible way than “proper” art.

However, even appreciating the beauty all around you, the lure of the formal art scene in the city can’t be ignored. Fortunately, the museums and galleries are accessible to all ages and there is something that will appeal to even the most reluctant pint-sized art critic.

For example, the interactive exhibits and the free information app at the Museo Galileo  (www.museogalileo.it) keep little hands busy, while the giant globes and scientific equipment occupy the mind; the layout and design of the Uffizi Gallery, combined with excellent signage, allows for a truncated visit with weary children without missing the best of Botticelli, Michelangelo and da Vinci; and the magnificence of Michelangelo’s David  makes the queue for the Galleria dell’Accademia well worthwhile.  The sight of my children genuinely lost for words at the scale, precision and beauty of David was a moment to be treasured.  For the first time I could see that they “got” it and aren’t destined to be complete philistines for life!

It can be easy to underestimate the ability of children to appreciate art, but there is no denying that tiring gallery and museum visits can try the patience of even the most laid-back parents and children. Florence is the perfect antidote.

Pizzas galore in The Eternal City

The advantage of taking children to the stunning city of Rome is that there is always something available that they will actually eat. Whilst we have loved exotic trips to far-flung destinations, in part for the culinary delights on offer, trying to find fare to satisfy a fussy child doesn’t tend to enhance the experience! However, the abundance of pizza in Rome is like manna from heaven to both kids and parents alike.  With pasta and gelato completing the gastronomic Trinity, we could stop worrying about what to eat and could focus on the sights and sounds of the Eternal City.

We began our adventure when we picked up our keys for our rental apartment – a stunning 3 bed apartment in the vibrant bohemian area of Monti, just a stone’s throw from the Colosseum. A typical and atmospheric Italian home with shutters and sunlight, nuns chanting outside in the morning and vespas roaring past till the small hours, it was simply perfect.

 

Armed with the invaluable Lonely Planet “Not For Parents: Rome” city guide, our intrepid gladiators-in-training set off for the Colosseum, incredibly located only a few minutes from our apartment. The boys were thrilled by the sight of the ancient amphitheatre: we were thrilled that on the first Sunday of the month, which it happened to be, entry was free! My top tip is to get your tickets from the small ticket office for the Palatino, a few metres across the Piazza del Colosseo, which has almost no queue and enables you to then join the ticket holders’ queue. Be prepared to wait either way – at the Colosseum, there’s ALWAYS a queue! The ticket is valid for entry to not only the Colosseum, but also the Palatino and Forum.

Having had our fill of fighting imaginary lions and dreaming of rising through the earth to the roars of the crowd by way of trap doors, we returned to Monti for a well-deserved gelato break, before venturing on to the top of the Palatine Hill and Roman Forum. The views are breathtaking, the history awe-inspiring and the crowds dispiriting, but by the end of the afternoon we had two very tired boys with a new-found passion for Roman history, and they’d even learned some Latin and were spotting the famous SPQR engraving at every turn. It was time for a pizza!

There is so much to do in Rome, you could spend weeks there and never see it all. We only had three days, so tried to cover as much ground as we could. It wasn’t all history and ruins; the boys loved riding a bus through the city to the Bocca della Verita, navigating the metro, and visiting the AS Roma shop for football souvenirs.

 

 

Family highlights included: the gardens at Villa Borghese, which had a small land train, lots of green spaces and playgrounds where children, tired of museums, can let off steam, and a zoo; people-watching in Piazza Navona; strolling through small piazzas with bubbling fountains and cafes at each corner; eating spaghetti on the Via delle Paste; taking in the grandeur of St Peter’s Basilica; and marveling at the construction of the dome of the Pantheon. All provided stealth learning opportunities, and you are never too far from a gelateria.  The promise sealed by our coins in the Trevi Fountain is not the only reason we will return one day.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Oh, The Places You’ll Go…

“You have brains in your head, You have feet in your shoes, You can steer yourself any direction you choose” Dr Seuss

The scariest part of moving abroad is the decision to leap into the relative unknown and go for it. Once you step off that precipice, there is no going back – not, having taken that first step, that you’d ever want to. Having grown up as an expat, I knew that I wanted the same adventures and experiences for my own children, so when the opportunity for a move came our way, uprooting the family from South West London to Dubai, we teetered on the edge of the cliff, and leaped.

And we spread our wings, caught a thermal and soared.

As a third culture kid myself, I have always loved to travel, discovering new countries, cultures and cuisines, and now I am bringing up my children as expat adventurers. We are discovering the beautiful, big, wide world together, and they are teaching me just as much as I can show them.

My three passions in life are family, travel and writing; it’s time to bring them together.  I am looking forward to sharing some of our travel and Dubai adventures in this blog, and will show you that you and your family, as Dr Suess said, really can go any direction you choose.