[A guest post by Bernard Darnton, last seen here several months ago as Not PJ. He disappeared overseas for several weeks last year and finally feels ready to talk about it.]
Our motives for displacing our eighteen-month-old daughter and hauling her around the world for several weeks were sincere. We wanted her to share a Christmas with her English grandparents. We wanted her to meet her English cousins for the first time. We want her to become a well-rounded, well-travelled child comfortable with the food, the customs, and the multi-lingual babble that animate our planet.
So enamoured were we with our motives that we failed to realise that every expression of good intent laid a cobblestone on the road to hell.
Flying a Long Way
Spiritually, Christchurch is as close to England as it's possible to get. Physically, you need to venture to an icy sub-Antarctic outcrop inhabited only by seabirds and conservationists to get further away.
Traversing that vast physical gulf requires crossing into the unreal conveyor-belt world of mass international travel, each step mediated by a passport, a departure card, or a boarding pass. The first step on the conveyor belt is the Singapore Airlines check-in desk bearing a paper slip encrypted with the abbreviated details of airport codes and seat classes.
Singapore Airlines is the enormous beating heart of a tiny island nation. Aircraft stand at the gates of Changi, wingtip to wingtip, together for a few brief moments. A heart beat later they will be spread across the globe, arteries stretching from Christchurch to Rome. A second beat and they will have returned, carrying the human corpuscles that bring oxygen to Singapore's tourist economy.
But a heart beat for an international leviathan is an eternity to a toddler. An adult can pass the time by exercising or dulling the mind. Looking at a flat projection of the continents and guessing the Great Circle path; imagining the topographically and politically induced deviations from that route; then flagging down the drinks trolley for another dose of VSOP. To the toddler there are no such diversions. With a ten-minute attention span and carry-on baggage cruelly limited to seven kilograms, even a Saint Nicoline sack of never-before-seen goodies stands no chance of filling the temporal chasm that awaits.
Meal times provide a welcome relief from the tedium but a child on one knee and a meal tray on the other instigates an unwinnable game of whack-a-mole.
In the pure and orderly world of mathematics, small children only have two hands. However, small children do not inhabit a pure and orderly world. One hand grabs a knife, one lunges for the fork. Another hand pokes its fingers into the individual serving of strawberry jam, while yet another tightly grasps an explosively pressurised thimble of milk, whose tiny dimensions belie the quantity of fluid it contains.
Between meals the reading light winks, seemingly at random, and we are repeatedly visited by flight attendants inadvertently called by those same exploratory hands.
One of the less noble motivations for travelling with a toddler is the steeply discounted ticket price for under-twos. A thousand-and-one times during the interminable flight I wished that my wallet had been prized open wide enough to accommodate an extra seat but, in reality, the extravagance would have been wasted because the familiar contours of a parent will always be more attractive than a mostly empty airline seat. For the parent whose contours have been favoured, the ever changing contours of the child mark the passage of time as the nanoseconds slip into microseconds and the plane inches its way across the map.
Then, suddenly, unexpectedly, it's over, like an executive pardon to the condemned prisoner expecting a death warrant. Gears whine to extend the flaps as the wings clutch at the slowing air, the scale model world below undergoes a phase change back into real landscape, and finally we feel the welcome shudder as our aluminium cocoon once again becomes land-borne.
Displacement alters a toddler’s sleeping habits. Away from the familiar cot, the familiar blanket, and the familiar shelf of toys, what remains is the family. From the foreign environment of the hastily-erected travel cot, our bed looks like the Promised Land. Out of consideration for our hosts’ eardrums we become indulgent parents.
For an adult, the act of going to sleep involves snuggling into a comfortable position, stilling the body and calming the mind. For a toddler it is a task more akin to breakdancing as she explores all possible orientations in a wide-ranging search for a preferred sleeping position. If she eventually settles on an alignment compatible with her parents', some minutes or – luxuriously – hours of sleep may be had before the exploration resumes.
At a certain point it becomes futile to continue the quest for sleep. In that tired wakefulness the hours crawl by, neither opening nor closing my eyes provides any respite from the infinite darkness of the never-ending night.
Biologists have a simple word to describe the ecological role fulfilled by small children: “vector”. They succumb to illness with wearying regularity and inopportune timing. For a child sickened by the stresses of unchosen travel, Rome is not a place to absorb the faded glory of a once-great empire; it is a place for recuperation and copious laundry.
My once indefatigable immune system, without a non-self-inflicted sick day in ten years of childlessness, also submits to the disease incubated in our midst. Viral legions besiege my organs and begin their sack. They are defeated but not without heavy collateral damage to the itinerary. The cultural experience has become a sightseer’s checklist.
Becoming a Philistine
A toddler's timetable is not tuned to the contemplation of priceless and ancient works of art. The Vatican Museum is home to millennia-worth of craftsmanship and plunder. Any of its numerous galleries would reward a lifetime of study. Or a day trip for those in a hurry. But with all clocks set to toddler time Giotto, Caravaggio, and da Vinci hold no interest.
The Egyptian room, packed with three-thousand-year-old treasures, is skimmed. Raphael, the Etruscans, the ancient Greeks, and the early Christians are passed over completely. The cartographic room, home to ancient and medieval maps of the known world and imaginings of the rest, a place where the previous childless I would have spent hours, barely noticed. Given the chance to see the world through the eyes of the wise men of a different time and place, I chose to see nothing. A quick glance at the ceiling, a second glance to hunt for a familiar landmark. Sistine Chapel. Done. And all in time for the day's primary goal, the afternoon nap.
I only wonder what the rest of those stampeding through at the same pace had to do so desperately at one o'clock.
The Castel Sant'Angelo is a medieval fortress, situated on the banks of the River Tiber, enclosing the mausoleum of the emperor Hadrian. During our week in Rome we visited Sant'Angelo four times – not because of the magnificence of the fortress and its approaches, nor because of the importance of Hadrian, but because its surrounding park contains a children's playground with swings, a rocking dolphin, and a slide.
The mysteries of Hadrian's tomb and the castel remain mysteries but the playground is well-trodden territory because swinging on the swings was one of the few holiday activities that made our young charge genuinely happy rather than inducing her to mere tolerance or simple sleep.
Serving as a Warning to Others
It is said that we all have a purpose in life. It is quipped that some people’s purpose is to serve as a warning to the rest of us. Or should that now be: the rest of you. Do not be seduced by the ten percent airfares. Do not be cajoled by distant grandparents; let them come to you. Do not be persuaded by images of foolhardy parents carrying their infants on treks along the Silk Road or through the Vietnamese highlands. It can be done. But it shouldn’t be.
The preceding catalogue presents one side of the story. On the other side, we have indelible memories of faraway places. We have visited places that most people will never see. We briefly reunited a family separated by continents. But would it have hurt to wait a couple of years until our daughter could tell us what she thought of the whole imprudent idea?