Spending Christmas in the sun

Spending Christmas in the sun
Perth has become a home from home for Barbara since her grandchild was born there.

When Barbara Scully’s granddaughter was born in Perth, she realised she’d have to get used to long-haul flights, especially at Christmas, a time for families to be together.

Christmas can be a bittersweet time of year if someone you love lives overseas. And if that loved one lives on the other side of the world, your heart will start to ache even earlier than usual, as posting dates mean that you have to start buying their presents in November. It is no easy task, let me tell you, finding gifts that are light and compact enough to post and not totally inappropriate given that they may be going to someone who will be in the middle of an Antipodean summer while we are shivering in a North Atlantic winter.

But it’s the Facetime call, first thing on Christmas morning that is the worst. Trying to appear cheery and festive when all you want to do is reach right into the screen and pull your precious offspring right back to where you feel she belongs at Christmas, at home gathered around the table with her family. As we get older Christmas is really about one thing and that is family; no matter how old, how independent and how far away your children might be, the longing to have them home for the 25th of December is painful.

My eldest daughter, now 31, left Ireland along with her boyfriend and tens of thousands of others in 2011 at the height of the recession. “We’re not emigrating,” she said, “just taking a year off to travel” but I am no eejit; their ticket was a one way and it ended in Perth in Western Australia.

Seven and a half years later and my girl and her man are now permanent residents down under and will soon become citizens. I have an 18 month old grandchild, who is already an Australian (and Irish) citizen and lives her life over nine thousand miles away from her ‘home’ here in Ireland. This is not something I would had anticipated back in 2011 and I still wonder if she really exists or if, perhaps she is just a dream. Because I do dream of her, often.

I am quite sure that I am not the only grandmother who lies in bed in Ireland and dreams of her grandchildren who are growing up thousands of miles away, in a country that is very different from ours and who aches for them particularly at Christmas.

Australia is a long way from Ireland. When my daughter emigrated I was so angry that I couldn’t just visit her when I missed her so much it hurt. I railed that I could jump on a plane and go to New York or Boston for a weekend but Australia? Australia meant a long and difficult journey and that would surely necessitate staying at least three weeks in order to make it worthwhile.

Well, dear reader, let me tell you that I have changed my mind. The change came as suddenly as the phone call that every parent of an emigrant dreads. My daughter had had an accident. Thankfully not a serious one, but one that left her with a very injured hand, rendering most activities of daily living impossible. She was also quite shocked. I had to go. I wanted to go. I could only go for one week, but thought that in that time I could render enough assistance to allow her to rest and heal and that would make a difference. And it did. So, I discovered that travelling to the other side of the world for a week was not only possible but not at all as arduous as I thought.

Now that I have a very precious granddaughter, the lesson learned back in 2013 has turned out to be very valuable. Children and babies change so quickly and perhaps it’s purely the selfish motivation of not wanting to miss these changes, that draws me back to Perth regularly. I don’t want to be a shadowy person in my granddaughter’s life. I want to know her and I want her to know me.

The game changer in travelling from Ireland to Australia was the arrival of Emirates Airlines here in 2012. This meant that for the first time it was possible to fly from Dublin direct to Dubai and connect quickly to an onward flight to Perth. Emirates have since been joined by Etihad who transit through Abu Dhabi and more recently Qatar Airways whose hub is in Doha. If you look at a map it means that you are travelling (more or less) in a straight line from Dublin to Australia and psychologically that makes a difference. It also means that you complete your journey with one airline, which also helps make it feel more comfortable.

If you haven’t flown long-haul before, you should be aware that it is a far more pleasant experience that the kind of ‘herd’ madness you encounter with low-cost carriers on shorter routes. Long-haul flights are taken on wide bodied aircraft which means that boarding is altogether more civilised as it is done by zone. So along with a seat number your boarding card will tell you what zone you are in and so you will wait for your zone to be called, marking boarding very efficient.

Packing is also made easier by the fact that your baggage allowance will be larger and included in the cost of your ticket. You check in your bags at Dublin and you won’t see them again until you arrive in your final destination in Australia. You can check in online but will have to drop bags usually at a check in desk and it’s always a good idea to ask how full the flight is. Anytime I have travelled, the first leg from Dublin to the Middle East is fairly full but the onward flight is less likely to be so and usually the check in staff will happily move you to where you may have a free seat (or perhaps two) beside you.

But the real difference is putting your head in the right space for the journey. Yes, it’s long but seriously how hard is it to sit on your ass for hours and watch movies or read a book or snooze. And I say that as someone who is 6’ tall. The flight to the middle east (Dubai/Abu Dhabi/Doha) is about seven hours and thirty minutes. The onward flights to Australia vary from eleven hours to Perth and fourteen hours to Sydney. Once settled, fed and watered (or wined – and remember the drinks are free) the cabin becomes reasonably calm and quiet. And as long as you make your mind equally so, its perfectly doable.

TIPS FOR LONG HAUL TRAVEL:

At the end of a long flight, destinations like the beautiful Rottnest Island are waiting.
At the end of a long flight, destinations like the beautiful Rottnest Island are waiting.

  • Time difference: as soon as you board, set your watch to the time at your destination. And DO NOT indulge in thoughts of what time it is at home or what you would be doing if at home.
  • Pillow: invest in a neck pillow – you can buy them at the airport. They aren’t brilliant but can be handy.
  • Hydrate: Drink plenty of water and don’t over indulge in the free alcohol. Top tip is to bring your own water bottle. Most large aircraft have water taps by the galley where you can refill as you like. Bringing your own bottle means that you can empty it if necessary at security and refill onboard. And it’s easier to manage a bottle on a flight than a tiny plastic cup.
  • Snacks: airline food is, well, edible but not hugely enjoyable. So, bring some treats. Nuts (avoid salted as they will make your thirsty) and chocolate are my usual.
  • Reading: in a dimmed cabin you will have an overhead light but it is generally easier to read from an e-reader than a book.
  • Shoes: wear flip flops or sandals to enable your feet to stay cool and relaxed. Although make sure they are comfortable to walk in, as you will have to walk at your transit airport. Birkenstocks or similar are great. And for hygiene reasons, don’t walk around the cabin barefoot.
  • Clothing: wear loose comfortable clothing. Dark colours are best (white is likely to look a bit grubby 24 hours later) and layers are good as the temperature onboard aircrafts can vary. Pack a change of clothes in your carry on, just in case you drop your coffee all over yourself or (God forbid) your luggage gets delayed. And don’t wear make-up.
  • Long-haul essentials: remember no liquids over 100ml in cabin baggage but do pack (in a Ziplock plastic bag) a mini toothpaste, deodorant, a little light cologne, face moisturiser and lip balm. Also have in your hand luggage some hand wipes.
  • Jet lag: try to board your flight tired. And keep focussed on the time at your destination. When you arrive, STAY UP. Do not be tempted to have a nap. Power through and go to bed at normal bedtime wherever you are. I have found that by so doing I rarely suffer jetlag.

    Travelling to Australia at Christmas can be expensive. But a good travel agent will help you find the cheapest fares at any time of year, especially if you book early. And finally, sign up for airmiles. Then you are all set to enjoy precious time with far flung family.

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