Thursday, 31 October 2013

Hallowe'en when you're not in North America

In Kuwait, Hallowe'en is a sensitive subject. Whether it's something to be celebrated or not depends on who you talk to.

There are first of all the vast majority of people who are expats from countries who don't do Hallowe'en and who don't care to start the tradition (people from the Philippines, India, and Sri Lanka, for example). 

Then there are the expats from North America who are **very** keen to somehow continue their tradition with their children while abroad.

And then you have the expats from the United Kingdom, western Europe, Australia, and New Zealand who, even though they don't celebrate Hallowe'en back home, are happy to join in on the fun with their North American expatriate confreres while abroad. The Bambino's French school is an example of this mindset. The French don't traditionally celebrate Hallowe'en - at least not in France. But the French school in Kuwait definitely does. The kids in the preschool and kindergarten arrive in costumes. The classrooms are decorated. The teachers, also in disguise lead the children through the administration corridors yelling "farces ou friandises" (a French translation of "trick or treat" to anyone who'll give them some candy.

And then there is the 30 percent or so of the population that is Kuwaiti and that is divided on the subject of Hallowe'en. Some see Hallowe'en as a fun and harmless way to stimulate their children's imagination. Others see at a Christian/pagan/satanic festival that has no place in Kuwaiti culture and should be banned from sight. Kidzania Kuwait recently canceled their Hallowe'en costume party after receiving pressure from customers who took offense that a local business was promoting a non-Kuwaiti tradition.

But even in Kuwait where Hallowe'en remains a little bit hush-hush do to local sensitivities, if you're looking for something to do on 31 October, you can always find a Hallowe'en party at your local beach club or at places like The Little Gym or at your child's school. The hard part is finding a place to do trick or treating. In other expat countries, American families might organise a trick or treat in the park. We used to do this in Paris. Everyone lines up, and then the kids at the end of the line "trick or treat" the others in turn.  Nothing like that has ever been organised here in Kuwait. Last year, we did no trick-or-treating at all. This year, due to pressure from the kiddies, I'm sending them over to some (American) friends who live in a building full of other Americans (it's one of the faculty buildings for the American University of Kuwait, in fact) and my kids will trick or treat at all the apartments in the building. I'm giving a kilo of candy to my friends to distribute to other kids on our behalf.

But even with this kind of make-shift set up, I realise that my children will probably never experience a true All Hallows Eve. It's not the same thing when the whole city or even neighbourhood isn't participating. It's not the same thing when there aren't jack-o-lanterns lining the porches and window sills of every house on the street. And it's not the same thing when you don't see hordes of kids everywhere outside traipsing from door to door. The real Hallowe'en will have to wait until they're grown up and possibly living in North America - although I hear that in France, it's also catching on...

Tuesday, 22 October 2013

That moment when you realize that you really are in another part of the world...

Kuwait has so many street cats, maybe as many cats as people. Most of the cats you see hiding under parked cars or meowing from rooftops are feral and it's impossible to pet them, let alone pick them up. Even if you wanted to adopt one of these cats, you couldn't. They're not meant to be domesticated.

And then you happen upon some poor wretched cat that is not feral, just living in the street, very friendly and (dare I say) cuddly, begging you for some food. Here is a beautiful Persian cat that lives just outside our house. She's one of these cats.

Something happened to her tail. I don't want to know what it was. It's too painful to think about and I can't stand to look at it. It has puss coming out of it sometimes, and today I finally couldn't take it anymore and I took her to the vet to get her treated with antibiotics.

And here was my Kuwait moment - my moment when I thought to myself, "This part of the world really is very different from the place where I grew up". I arrived at the veterinary clinic, I took a number, I sat down with the cat in her cage (yes, I know, poor kitty) and here is what I saw:

Yes, that's a bunch of Arab men holding falcons. They traditionally use falcons for hunting, although I'm not sure that these men do. They might just keep a falcon as a pet. It was a bizarre scene - me with my stray cat and eight men that look like they're wearing pyjamas holding a falcon on their finger.

I think I'll send the photos to National Geographic.

Monday, 21 October 2013

Your kids' jeans made here in the third world

Workers at the factory.  They get paid about 40 dollars a month,
according to the head of the factory.  That's a low wage,
even by Malagasy standards.  Our nanny gets paid about 125
dollars per month.

A couple of years back when we were living in Antananarivo, Madagascar, I had the opportunity to visit a local factory where name brand children's jeans were manufactured for export to Europe.  

Let me just say that I have always been a big supporter of free trade and free movement of capital.  While some people might complain about the loss of manufacturing jobs in developed countries to China, India, Bangladesh, or Madagascar, my reply has always been, "More power to the Chinese, the Indians, the Bangladeshis, and the Malagasy!".  I'm happy for them to have jobs and opportunities.

It is therefore with a bit of sadness that I am revealing these photos.

Outside the factory, tons of eucalyptus wood cut from Madagascar forests
and burned to make hot water to wash and treat the jeans.
The factory head maintained that they contributed to tree replanting too.  I suppose there may be good arguments to use eucalyptus trees instead of say, gas, but I tend to think that the resulting carbon footprint must be huge.
Blue toxic waste is the byproduct of washing, bleaching,
dying and chemically treating the jeans to create the
"stone-washed" and "acid-washed" look (Note to self: don't buy these jeans).  The waste gets
dumped in uncontrolled landfills and leaches into rivers,
lakes, and the soil.
Children's jeans ready for export

As I toured the factory and saw the hundreds or workers labouring over fabrics and machines, I thought to myself, well, at least this factory gives them a job. Many people in Madagascar live in abject poverty and have no employment at all.

"And can I assume the employees get to make a living wage here, unlike so many in this country?" I said out loud to the factory manager showing me around.
"Mais NON ! They earn 80 US dollars a month."
80 US dollars a month would allow you to live in Tananarive, but not very well. You would definitely need other income earners in the family. 

So there you have it. The next time you buy jeans for your kids, let your mind travel to the factory where those jeans were made. I would never suggest boycotting jean purchases, but I definitely don't buy stone-wash or acid wash jeans now. 

Wednesday, 9 October 2013

Five Bad or Overrated Tips for Flying with Children

We've just booked our tickets back to France for Christmas (annual ski trip in the Alps!). Choosing the best times to take a plane with kids made me think of some "traveling with kids" tips that I have never followed, or stopped following very early on.

1) Bring snacks.

The issue with snacks is two-fold. First of all, the snack often doesn't get eaten. How could this be the case, you ask? Kids are hungry all the time, after all, especially when they're bored. The snacks you pack don't get eaten because you decided to stop at a coffee shop in the airport instead, or because it was an overnight flight and your kids slept, or because well, they didn't fancy the four-hour old peanut butter sandwich smushed at the bottom of your purse.

So the food ends up sitting in your purse or bag - dead additional useless weight that you have to carry. You discover it four days later while cleaning out your purse in your hotel room (so that's what that smell was!).

Secondly, there is the crumb, stickiness, and general mess factor. Chocolate is a huge no-no for this reason. Chocolate melts in hands at room temperature. Imagine what your 3-year old will look like after downing that Hershey's during the transatlantic flight. Yes, I know you brought baby wipes, but the baby wipes will only get his face and hands. Have you taken a look at his shirt? Do you really want to have to change his clothes for that?  Cookies and muffins create lots of crumbs everywhere, including on your seat, and you're stuck with those crumbs for the rest of the flight. No matter how much you try to dust off that seat, you'll still be left with half the snack under and around your three-year old's (and your) butt.

Fruit is often too sticky and does not satisfy appetite. In fact, it increases it. That apple you just ate is going to make your stomach growl for more food. Then there is the fact that if you're going to pack something healthy and not some pre-packaged industrial junk, you're going to have to bring it in a container - more things to carry - and you're stuck with a dirty container for the rest of the trip.

So, no, this globetrotter mom does not bring any snacks for long plane or train trips. No really, I bring no snacks for the kids. None.

And what if my kids get hungry in the airport? We stop at Starbucks (barely more acceptable than McDonalds. Just barely). They get a muffin, or maybe a short hot chocolate, and some water.  If we are truly fortunate, the Frenchman's frequent flyer card will get us into a lounge, and then the kids can have a proper meal. Otherwise, they eat at an airport take-out place and eat very little, if anything, on the plane. No containers or dirty bags to carry around, no mess in my purse. Crumbs, excess food, and spilt drinks land on the airport table and floor and are left there.

What about on the plane, I hear you asking? Well, here is one tip I do actually follow. I try to book overnight flights. Because on overnight flights, kids tend to sleep. Or if they don't, they can watch movies, or play on ipad or the Bambina might read a book. When we arrive at our destination, we have a proper breakfast or lunch somewhere, or if we arrive at nighttime, we just go to bed.

2. Order the kids' meal

The only thing more disgusting and unhealthy than airplane meals is the airplane meals for kids. It is also more likely to increase the crumb and mess factor, as it is more likely to contain things like cookies and chips. If your kids have to eat on the plane, just get them the regular meal. And once the flight attendant has served your meals, don't let her/him move on to the next row before you hand back every single item on the tray that you know your little one is not going to eat. You'll have much less clutter to deal with when the eating is over.

3. Bring toys

Why not bring toys? Kids need entertainment when they travel!
Kids need entertainment when they travel until about age of three, at which point they can watch the movies or sleep. And that two kilo / five pound bag of small toys you brought for your two-year old? He'll be done with it in about ten minutes or before you can say "Hey! Where're you going! You can't go in there, that's the business class cabin!"

One exception: if you can bring a few wax crayons and some paper or colouring books, this should hold your child's attention a little longer. Maybe even 20 minutes if you're very lucky. Don't hold your breath, though.

But even if the toys only occupy them for half an hour, it's something, right? But guess who will eventually have to carry them... You. Yes, I know, your toddler has a carry-on suitcase with wheels on it that she can pull with her. Do you think she'll be able to manage when you're on the escalator, when you're going through doors, or when your racing to the gate because they changed the gate number at the last minute and your gate is now at the other end of the airport? And once you've reached your destination, guess who will have to deal with the toys littering the hotel room floor... You. And guess who will be stuck looking for them when they are left at the airport or in the hotel room...Yes, you, while your little one is howling because they're lost.

But my kid will be bored if I don't bring toys, you say. Do you own an ipad? Does it have games on it? Does it have an app for painting or colouring? Trust me, those ipad apps are going to hold your kid's attention much longer (and be far more educational) than that new plastic truck you picked up at Boots drugstore yesterday. You can also bring one or two small books, preferably ones that your little one hasn't heard yet. No more - they can add a lot of weight to your bag.

4. Accept the airline's goodie bag for kids

Flight attendants typically provide little goodie bags for children on a long-haul flight. These bags often contain pencil crayons, a small colouring book or an activity book, sometimes a furry toy. The problem with them is that the activity book is rarely age appropriate - by the time your child is old enough to actually read the instructions and do the activities, he or she will not likely to be very interested in completing it. The pencil crayons draw so faintly that the wax crayons you brought will be more effective. The colouring book is usually very small. The toy is, well, junk. The Bambina - age 9 - now routinely refuses the goodie bag. If the Bambino is sleeping, I refuse it on his behalf. If he's awake and insists that he would like it, I make a point of leaving the contents behind when we get off the airplane. It's just more junk that I don't want to carry and that I don't want in my house.

5. Bring large suitcases with lots of clothes, even if you could manage with carry-on suitcases.

Most tips for travel with children encourage you to bring as much as possible. Better safe than sorry after all. Bring numerous changes of clothes, the bottle warmer, extra diapers, toys, books, changing pads.

My take: bring what you absolutely have to bring, but if at all possible, bring it in carry-on suitcases, and don't check in the stroller. Waiting for luggage is that last thing you want to do when you've arrived at your destination. Waiting and searching for the stroller that never showed up on the carrousel or in the "special luggage" pile is pure hell when you have small children who just want to leave the airport. Kids' clothing doesn't take up much space. I've packed a week's worth of clothing for a toddler in one carry-on suitcase. I buy diapers at the destination. The stroller is a bigger problem, as some airlines force you to check it in. There is also greater risk that the stroller will be lost or broken than there is with other luggage. Just remember, generally speaking, the less checked in baggage, the better.

Tuesday, 1 October 2013

Driving in Kuwait. Yikes!

Seen today, on the Fahaheel Highway of Death (otherwise known as highway 30) going from Salwa to Salmiya: a mother in the driver's seat, an empty carseat in the back, and her under-two year old child sitting next to the mother in the driver's seat.

Here are some other things we see all the time while driving in Kuwait:

People talking on their phone while driving

Small children not in a car seat and not wearing a seatbelt, often moving around inside the car, sometimes even standing up and sticking their heads and arms out the window or sunroof!

People texting while driving

Here are the kinds of accidents and car wrecks that we regularly see:

We are continually surprised by the driving culture in this country and by the number of horrific accidents that we see, so much so that the Frenchman and I have created a Facebook page called "Too Many Car Accidents in Kuwait." Look it up for yourself.