An impromptu trip – because we can…

If the past 18 months have taught us anything at all, it must surely be to take our opportunities when we can. So when Rob resigned his job for a new opportunity, and was unexpectedly on “gardening leave” during our visit to London, we readily agreed to an impromptu family holiday “somewhere warm and sunny”.

Obviously somewhere that will have us, definitely just one direct flight from London….ideally less ‘diseased’ than London. A Greek island maybe? Greece is definitely open for tourists – either fully vaccinated or with a negative test result. Easy!

The shifting sands of border restrictions notwithstanding, a villa on Kefalonia seemed like the holiday Rob and Jenna sorely needed, after pretty much a year of lockdown, with so many cancelled plans and disappointments. Sadly, Greece hadn’t quite made it onto England’s “green list” just yet, but they were hopeful that by the time they return after a month away, the rules would have changed again. Certainly, there were strong signals that the fully vaccinated would not be required to self isolate at all. But either way, 10 days isolation at home in their wee garden in midsummer seems like a smallish price to pay for a month on a Greek island, with grandparents along to provide some babysitting.

For me and Peter, the rules are different. We will return to the UK at the end of July, to catch our flights back to NZ. We will be classified as ‘in transit landslide’ for the ~48hours stopover, with no requirement to test or isolate (apart from a fit-to-fly negative test when we leave Greece)…. And anyway, the “fully vaccinated” rule may well apply to us too by then. 

In a more recent update, the “fully vaccinated” has indeed come into play, but only for those vaccinated by the NHS!

So we booked…. And then a week later, the airline cancelled all our flights!

Breathe! Remain calm.

Ryan Air was our only option. The (almost) original budget airline – less than ideal for first time parents, planning Alfie’s first flight! So we rebooked, and kept our fingers and toes crossed that the flight would actually fly.

And then, in a seemingly last ditch effort to scupper our plans, the virus threw us one more curve ball! At the 11th hour, the friends who were confirmed to look after the house and most importantly, the dog, developed symptoms and were in isolation pending test results (which did indeed come back positive).

Oh dear!

Thankfully Rob & Jenna have amazing friends. Caroline – “mum” to Westies Bumble and Bee, drove down from the Cotswolds to pick up Miso for the whole month, where we can confirm that she is now living her best ever Westie life.

Now travelling with a baby is never trivial, and for first time parents, the prospect became increasingly daunting as the pile of luggage grew and grew.  Pram, car seat, travel cot – the latter weighing 10kg!  As an aside, probably someone should have something to say about a company that sells a “travel cot” that takes up half your luggage allowance!  A month’s supply of nappies, an emergency supply of premixed baby formula (should have brought more)…  the situation for baby supplies in Katelios being a huge unknown.

Finally, the day of travel came…  we headed to Stansted (now really in London!) with our mountain of luggage.  As you may have heard, airport check-in is no longer an efficient process. With so much paperwork to check for each passenger (and diminished airline staff numbers), our half hour at the check in desk seemed almost ‘normal’. Fit to fly tests, vaccination certifications, passenger locator forms with QR codes, in addition to the normal tickets and passports – a LOT of admin!

Then just like that, we were onboard, in our chosen back row seats – with lots of encouragement and support from the staff (really can’t fault Ryan Air, they were awesome) about baby’s first flight.  The plane was around 80% full, with two wedding parties heading to their Greek Island weddings (I wanted to ask how many times they’d been rescheduled – there was certainly an air of “finally, this is actually happening” about it all). The crew had their work cut out for them as the 3 1/2 hour flight progressed, ensuring that the enthusiastic wedding revellers kept their masks on, stayed in their seats, and did NOT form a queue for the toilets!

On arrival in Kefalonia, our “Alfie pass” took us to the front of the entry queue, only to be faced with an additional step – the Greek authorities had decided to Covid-test every single adult passenger on the flight,  with a particularly convoluted process. 

Yes, both trolleys belong to us!

We watched our luggage circle the airport conveyors several times before we were “out” and free to get it.

Tempers frayed ever so slightly in 35 degree heat,  as we discovered our pre-booked taxi van driver was singularly unhelpful, the carseat was difficult to install as the van had short seatbelts, the van airconditioning didn’t work, our villa was 40 minutes drive away – and the driver didn’t actually know where it was!  Finally there – up a very steep hill, into a sweltering house, by now in the darkness, with absolutely no supplies, and the nearest store a decent hike down (and back up) a VERY steep hill.  Oh dear!

As Jenna fed Alfie, I raced around turning on every air-conditioner in the place at full blast, Rob somehow handled all the luggage…  and Peter set off down the hill for supplies, arriving back in a surprisingly quick time thanks to the shopkeeper lady taking pity on him and driving him and his supplies (including a huge bottle of water) back up the hill.  People are kind!

That was almost two weeks ago, and here we (still) are, very much happily settled in villa on the hill, with a small rental car in the driveway for getting the all-important suppliles (and a bit of sightseeing). 

Kefalonia is beautiful – relentlessly hot and sunny – with lovely people, who are persevering despite their tourist-based livelihoods having all but disappeared last year, thanks to the virus, and then a very damaging hurricane.

Everyone, everywhere has their own stories of lockdown.  In Greece, we’re told, they spent months and months in very strict lockdown, requiring permission to leave their house for anything at all.  This was effected by text message – if you needed to go out for supplies or medical attention, you sent a text requesting permission.  A 2000 euro fine threatened anyone leaving home with the return text saying they could go!  It was brutal.

Now, at least here in Kefalonia, they are happy to welcome pre-tested / vaccinated tourists, still with caution.  Masks are everywhere if you’re going indoors (even just to use the toilet) – fortunately much of the business of eating and drinking takes place outside, where things look almost ‘normal’. There are still cases out there – with three or four people testing positive each day, no doubt likely to rise as more tourists start arriving.

Meanwhile, we’re doing our bit for the local economy by eating and drinking out, a lot. It’s so sad to see the beautiful beachside taverna, in what should be bustling peak tourist season, almost empty.  Yesterday we took a very winding drive to a local winery – very well set up for tastings of some beautiful wines – again, we were the only patrons. We bought some “supplies” to tide us over for the rest of the holiday!

Mostly, we stay “home”, enjoying the family time, with the pool, the very local beach, the sea views and plenty of supplies now in the kitchen!  The days blend into each other, which is just as a holiday should be. 

With just a week to go until Peter and I start our journey home, we keep half an eye on the changing travel situation, with fingers crossed our journey goes to plan. These days, one can never be sure.

We’ll enjoy every last moment of our time with Rob, Jenna and Alfie, and at the same time, look forward very much to being home with Pip, Howard, Izzy and Matthew. Like so many families, we will continue to navigate the new world of closed borders and travel restrictions, always with an absolute conviction that spending time together as a family, in person, is an absolute necessity, despite the challenges involved.   

Observations on an alternative approach

They say (and I agree) that travel broadens the mind – perhaps no more so when travel is not as we know it. On this trip in the midst of a global pandemic, a trip where “tourism” and “adventure” are replaced with “reconnection” and “family domesticity”, it seems that there is, nevertheless, no shortage of mind-broadening observations to be made.

Coming from New Zealand, a place that we are led to believe is widely admired and lauded for our pandemic management, there is much to ponder as we wander about an England that is visibly learning to live with the disease. So, some observations about what that appears to mean, with the disclaimer that I am simply a random person, wandering about a very tiny part of London, which in no way represents the whole city, nor indeed the whole country.

This is not a judgement, nor indeed, even a comparison. It’s just a set of random observations about life in London.

Covid 19 is everywhere.

There is no suggestion of an “elimination strategy” – it’s just not seen as a possibility. Rising case numbers, and they are rising again, are viewed with concern, rather than panic – tempered with reducing levels of hospitalisation and deaths. There is a strong sense that “we’ve got this”, so long as everyone follows the rules.

When everyone knows someone who’s died of Covid, or been very sick, it suddenly becomes very real. People mostly take the rules seriously. They wear masks on public transport, and when shopping inside, mostly. Today I saw a woman on the bus without a mask – she had a big NHS badge on her lapel, saying that she was unable to wear a mask. Occasionally one sees people with their mask over their mouth but not nose – no one comments, but disapproving looks are passed, and people move further away.

But that level of familiarity with the disease, and what it is an does, the enormity of being locked down for most of 2020, has also made people pragmatic about how to deal with it. When Peter’s NHS app signalled that he’d been exposed and needed to self-isolate for 10 days from the exposure, Rob & Jenna were calm, and wouldn’t hear of us moving out (thankfully, because that would have been difficult). He self-tested, didn’t hold the baby, and generally was a bit more careful, but mostly just vigilant for any symptoms.

Vaccines are seen as the saviour.

The British vaccination rollout has been swift and apparently effective. While there are always bureaucratic glitches when bureaucrats are involved, in the main it appears to be rolling along quite quickly towards the goal of a “fully vaccinated” adult population – obviously not 100%, but aiming to be pretty close to that. Current point of contention is the gap between the two doses – one assumes purposefully lengthened to 12 weeks to push more people through the ‘first shot’ sooner, but nevertheless frustrating for those really, really wanting their second shot.

Rob & Jenna drove across London one afternoon last week when they heard there was a clinic happy to do second doses anytime after the manufacturer’s 3 week specification. We celebrated having a fully vaxed household!

The anti-vaxers must exist here as they do wherever else “freedom of speech” is valued, but they don’t seem to get any airtime at all. In the two days after the vaccination rollout opened up to the 18 – 29 year olds, over a million appointments were made. Long queues formed outside the roll-up vaccination clinic down the road from us, where temporary traffic signs proclaimed vaccinations are available to anyone 18+, from 8.30am to 5.30pm every day. Anyone.

One assumes that the next tranche will be to vaccinate the children, at least those aged 12+, as they are now doing in the USA. UK case numbers increases are currently being driven by the unvaccinated, including that age group.

Quarantine-free travel is the “carrot” – and a massive incentive it is too.

While countries are being careful not to suggest that there is a “vaccine passport”, it is becoming clearer every day that the fully vaccinated will have the holiday spots of Europe pretty much to themselves this summer. Some countries are waiving the requirement for pre-travel testing for the fully vaccinated, as well as any need to isolate on arrival.

There is a certain irony in the fact that the vaccination rollout left those most wanting / needing to travel – the young – to last…. while granny in the resthome has (one might argue justifiably) been fully vaccinated for some time, her grandchildren wanting to visit her are still awaiting their shots.

And while international travel may be seen as a luxury, an indulgence by some, the reality for the truly multi-national population of most countries these days is that travel is essential to maintaining family connections, and indeed, connections with one’s homeland, wherever that may be. Physically cutting off the rich diaspora of citizens living abroad cannot be in any country’s long term interests.

Rob’s friends talk a lot about wanting to visit “home”, wherever that may be – and many are experiencing very real financial and emotional hardship to do so. One couple talked about having to book a ‘layover’ of 2 weeks in Namibia in order to get the non-South African husband into South Africa with the rest of the family – ironically, they had to travel through Johannesburg to get to Namibia!

The thought of taking young babies into quarantine facilities is scary, travelling with spouses who are from other countries is difficult, sometimes impossible – they contrast the UK systems, which are relatively easy to navigate, and which mostly allow isolation ‘at home’, to those of their home countries, which are mostly much more difficult, expensive, stressful and even alienating. “Home” no longer wants them, it seems.

Free home self-testing kits

If vaccines are the saviour, then testing, testing, testing is the saviour’s right hand man.

Perhaps the most interesting observations for me have been around testing. There a quite a range of types of tests available, and each appears to have its purpose. The highest level (PCR, I think) required for travellers entering from high risk countries… all the way to the most commonly used “rapid antigen” tests, that are handed out free (like lollies) by the NHS, in packs of 7 tests at a time, to enable everyone to be able to test themselves, whenever they want.

Akin to that home pregnancy test that changes colour with the result, a quick swab at home provides reassurance that you’re safe to visit granny, go to that parent-teacher interview, or simply meet an at-risk friend for coffee. Also used as a “ticket” (along with your paid ticket) to allow you to attend major sporting events, like the Euro2020 football matches, and the Black Caps crickets tests against England.

There are free, rapid testing stations on almost every street corner (small exaggeration, but you get the picture), specifically for testing the well to provide reassurance.

The NHS smartphone app has lots of cool functions

With all this testing going on, it make sense to keep track of results, and that’s part of the role of the NHS app. Besides enabling QR-code log-ins at hospitality venues and many retailers, and Bluetooth enabled contact tracing, the ‘covid-app’ also records test results (self-administered and lab-administered ones), and your vaccination status if you’re vaccinated in the UK.

There’s a screener for symptoms, a guide on where to get what types of tests, and what they mean, and a log of test results. Many venues refuse entry if you don’t check in – in fact, in York we had a very annoying experience where I checked in, and then (because I didn’t have data on my phone), I couldn’t order anything from their QR-code enabled remote menu.

And amazingly, as a sidenote, the bluetooth tracker genuinely doesn’t seem to drain your phone’s battery!

“Freedom day is coming”.

The real sense here in England is that there is no going back.

The current restrictions – masks, isolation, testing – were due to be lifted on 23rd June, then delayed to 19th July with the arrival of the Delta variant. A purposeful delay, to allow the younger generation to be vaccinated. Once they are, there are no more excuses.

Travel ‘restrictions’ will remain – testing pre-entry, self-isolation for most visitors with testing in the first 10 days (though there’s talk that will be completed waived for the fully vaccinated), and hotel quarantine only for those from very high risk countries (the “red zone”).

But international travel will be back – at least to those countries who will have them.

Vigilance will continue – testing, tracking and tracing… and a lower tolerance of those who go out while sick (with anything) and spread their germs around – which is surely a positive move for civilisation in general. Face coverings will, one suspects, remain a standard item in every woman’s handbag, every man’s pocket – to be used by choice rather than by mandate, when circumstances make it sensible.

Vaccinations will be ongoing – there is already talk of a booster shot in Autumn, ideally (but maybe unlikely) to be combined with the annual flu shot.

And much as the situation is more analogous to a war than a crisis of other sorts, the outcome is likely to be conquest, domination, and beating the viral enemy into submission, rather then extinction any time soon.

Living a risk-assessed life

I should have been there! I COULD HAVE BEEN THERE!

As I sat on the couch on Tuesday, celebrating the Black Caps stunning win over India, I was wracked with regret.  With the match extended into a sixth day, suddenly tickets had become available.  A WhatsApp message from Rob offered to get me one – just £75 …  did I want it?  Hell yes, BUT…

What about the risk?
Unlike many of the sporting events going on in the UK this month, with packed stadia, this particular event did not have the same “no negative test, no entry” rules in place.  Limited ticket numbers offered some protection, but maybe not enough.

Then there was the 1½ hour train journey each way to Southampton and back. 

Our last train journey (to York) resulted in Peter having to quarantine at home for 10 days, his NHS Covid app pronouncing that he’d been exposed to a positive case (via the Bluetooth pairing function). 

2 days to go… of the original 10!

Bugger – that man on the train, coughing, sneezing and blowing his nose, without a mask on as he tried to relieve his feverishness with Fanta…  yes, I knew it! 

While we moved carriages promptly (the train manager having advised there was nothing he could do to get said man off the train), and wore our masks, and sanitised…  having a pulsing red alarm on your covid app on your phone is pretty limiting, and means you really do have to stay home.

So Peter couldn’t go with me to the cricket (or anywhere else, for that matter), and reminded me rather pointedly that I really didn’t want to risk spending the next 10 days locked at home myself, as he had just done.

And so I did the unthinkable. 

I said ‘no’ to the opportunity to witness in-person one of the great sporting wins for New Zealand.  At this point, my good friends will be asking “what have you done with the real Debra?”.

But that’s simply life, right now, right here. 

With about 1,600 new cases in London each day, currently rising largely due to the yet-to-be-vaccinated younger generation, who have only just been offered the vaccine, there is no “zero-risk” option.  The ability to track cases “in your area”, literally by postcode, means you have a great deal more information to feed into your risk assessment of every decision to leave the house.  Not that we’re actually doing that…

But nevertheless, as we head into the fourth week of our visit to London, I’m struck by how life itself shrinks when everything that you do involves a certain, but random, level of risk. We walk the dog (and the baby), we meet friends locally, we drink Guinness out of plastic cups in the Palm Tree pub carpark, we get almost everything we need delivered… a very different London visit from the ones of the past.

No theatre, no museum visits, almost no shopping excursions – not because they are not open, but because they suddenly seem unnecessary.

Life is good, is somewhat shrunken!

On being Ouma (round 3)

A wise man I know would often challenge others with the question: “is it okay to love more than one?”.

For in most Western societies, loving “more than one” man or woman is certainly frowned upon, despite the clear evidence that “human nature” would have otherwise. Yet thankfully, when it comes to children, no one would suggest that a mother or grandmother should love only one! It is one of life’s great mysteries that somehow your heart expands not only to “make room” for each new arrival, but to positively embrace each new child with great outpouring of love.

My role as “Ouma” began on in early 2009, with the arrival of Isabel (the brave one), joined three years later by Matthew (the witty one). Blessed to have them living close by, I have watched their far-too-fast growing up with love and wonder. Matthew and Isabel have filled our hearts and our lives with adventures and discoveries. We learned that it truly does take a village to raise a child, and feel so privileged to be part of that village. Having missed out on having grandparents close by in our children’s early days, we have come to appreciate how much of a loss that was to them, and to us.

And now they are three – Alfred Ernest Hall – their long awaited cousin, born in March this year on the other side of the world. A “lockdown baby”. With significant restrictions in place through a dismal London winter, Rob and Jenna hunkered down through their pregnancy, with support from friends in similar situations.

Plans for both sets of grandparents to travel in turn, to provide support soon after the birth were scuppered – they were in this together, but alone.

And now, three months on, just like that, Ouma and Peter arrived!

“So what do you think of Alfie”, their friends ask. I have no words for this – he’s a baby, a tiny treasure, perfect in every way. He eats, he sleeps, he yells (increasingly testing his vocal range), and oh boy, when he smiles and laughs, it just melts your heart.

He snuggles, he splashes in the bath, he’s learning to love storytime (currently dominated by my favourites rather than his). He dances with Mum, who sings to him in French and English, and is calmed by Peter’s magical “what’s your mattering?” that’s still working on number three, I’m pleased to say.

Even more special than Alfie though – as if that were possible – is the love and admiration that grows for your own children, and their chosen partners, as you watch them grow into wonderful loving parents. Rob, the father is the best version yet of the many versions of Rob, the man. Seeing him with Alfie feels like the circle is complete, the mantle has been passed.

I chose to be “Ouma” in tribute to my own great grandmother, Aletta Petronella Catherine de Beer (née Bester), who lived to see her great-great-grandchildren, and was beloved by us all, as we were by her. Five living generations is a feat which seems unlikely to be repeated any time soon!

The original Ouma was always calm, always ready with an ear and a shoulder, and the biggest cuddles. She was wise, and well-informed about the world, even though she never travelled. She lived by the motto “stilbly is ook an antwoord” (keeping quiet is also an answer) – and while I aspire to “be like Ouma”, that’s probably a bridge too far for me. But meanwhile, I will cuddle Alfie (currently the cute one), and take joy from my regular videocalls with Isabel (the brave) and Matthew (the witty one).

Miso walks on water

As we settle into domestic life with Rob, Jenna and baby Alfie, we must not forget the very important 4th member of the family, Miso.

At just one year old, Miso is still very much a teenager, mostly well behaved (being very well brought up, of course), but prone to occasional lapses in self control! Barking at phantom foxes at the bottom of the garden at 530am is a particular specialty… the fox WAS there, but is long gone. She annoys her mum and dad by digging up the garden, sitting on the table, and of course the challenge of all dogs when a baby arrives – waking the baby!

Miso’s morning routine starts with “puppy breakfast” delivered one tiny dog biscuit at a time by a rolling puzzle feeder, so she doesn’t gobble, followed by an hour long walk in Victoria Park.

Living near Victoria Park is truly glorious…. vast swathes of open spaces, large trees, ponds and streams, and an eclectic selection of mostly well behaved, mostly off leash dogs.

Smaller dogs are popular – it is inner city London after all – but we have also met all manner of larger specimens, all the way up to a giant piebald Great Dane. Miss Miso is game to play with all comers, usually returning to the rattle of treats in her little portable treat jar.

She cools off with a little wade in the edge of the stream, and a drink from the doggie water bottle that all walkers seem to carry.

After a week of tagging along with Rob for the morning walk while Jenna gets Alfie ready for the day, Peter and I felt well prepared to venture out on our own, with dog and baby in tow. The retractable leash appeared to be a bit of a challenge for Peter, but Miso was patient and we got to the park without incident, Alfie dozing in his pram. Off leash, Miso chased her ball and generally hooned about, until about half way round, she took off in an unexpected direction, and leapt into a pond not usually on our walking route.

In hindsight, we had been there once before, when Jenna explained that this pond had frozen over in the winter and Miso had tested her ice skating skills. Perhaps the thick layer of seaweedy, pond-scummy, green gloop made her think she could indeed walk on water again, but instead she simply disappeared, as both grandparents rushed towards the pond (one more rushed than the other), expecting her to reappear, shaking herself off and looking embarrassed. But no dog was to be seen….

As I neared the pond, trying not to bounce the sleeping baby in the pram, my top of mind thought was “don’t forget to put the brake on”. Visions of Alfie, pram and all, rolling away while I leapt into the pond to rescue Miso, were not to be contemplated.

I scanned the green, slimy pond… no Miso to be seen.

Then a tiny “njiff” at my feet… paws up on the pond wall, little bedraggled head poking out of the slime, as she clung to the edge but couldn’t get out. Now Miso is a small dog, but believe me, when all her fur is drenched and flattened and green, she is tiny! I’m not sure who was more relieved as I hooked her out by her harness. Poor little (green) thing!

Immediately back on the lead, no more adventures today, we told her. Poor Miso – too mucky to play with the puppy friends!

I saw the squirrel first, sitting right in front of us. Miso was quick (“like a fox”) – well, quick enough to escape Peter’s light hold on the leash, and she was off, into the woods, heavy leash handle bumping behind, Peter in pursuit. No squirrels were harmed.

That’s it! Home!

Now the challenge of bathing the dog! Turns out gloopy pond scum is about as hard to remove as fox poo! Our first attempt was woeful… dog now even more unhappy, and still filthy, albeit, no longer smelly. Then Jenna pulled out the “fox poo shampoo”… who knew?

Whiteness restored!

The next dog & baby walk was uneventful.