Arriving in a new country with children requires a particular preparation. Here is what the Expatclic team suggests, depending on whether your expatriation and/or change of country includes babies, small children or adolescents. If your children are older and especially if this is not their first arrival in a foreign country, you will already know all the best tricks for a quiet flight and a… not too turbulent landing! Anyway, it is always useful to be reminded of these tricks, and it will certainly help those who go through the adventure for the first time.
Silviaexpat with the Expatclic.com Team
The first piece of advice for those traveling with children is to do everything possible so that the arrival in the host country coincides with the start of the school term, be it in August/September or after the winter holidays. There are several reasons for this. The first one is that by arriving only a few days before the school starts, children will have less time to get bored and/or sad in a new and still empty house or, worse, to get dumped in a hotel room with satellite TV which seems to be able to transmit cartoons 24/24! And more so if the weather is terribly hot or it is snowing and it gets dark soon. You should also consider that the majority of expats take advantage of summer and winter breaks to go back home, receive visitors, explore the country and, in short, to escape from the usual routine. It will definitely be harder for you and your children to make friends during those weeks of school closure. Try, therefore, as far as possible, to schedule your arrival with the beginning of school activities.
Of course you must contact the school well ahead of time, do not expect to arrive on the spot and to start the registration procedures: international schools in many countries may sometimes be full and/or have a waiting list, so it is always best to enroll your child as soon as you are sure of your transfer. International schools obviously accept enrollment of new students online so that once you arrive you can use the first few days to visit the school campus, to purchase the uniforms and more generally to make the children and older kids feel that their world is about to get richer within the safety and security that a sense off continuity brings – (of school and family above all).
For those traveling with small children and if the arrival is in the late afternoon or evening, our advice is to try to stick as much as possible to the routine that your children are accustomed to: keep a bubble bath bottle in your suitcase (buy a small one for the occasion) and the favorite toy for the evening bath, and if your kids, like mine, are fans of pasta, why not make them a good plate of pasta with tomato sauce? 200grs of penne and a can of peeled tomatoes packed in the suitcase can do wonders in a new situation. If this is not possible because it’s late and you are at the hotel and dare not venture out in search of a pizzeria, you can offer them anything that is familiar. A glass of milk with special biscuits, a special snack that you could carry with you in your suitcase. Being able to have their favorite dish or snack will give little ones a sense of continuity and stability and will help them sleep in their new bed without many fears and questions … at the same time allowing you and any older child to relax.
Another valuable suggestion, which applies both to adults and kids: if you know in advance that you will spend several weeks at the hotel (or pension or furnished apartment) think of those two or three little things that you’d like to see around, touch, smell, during those first (and seemingly endless) times you have to spend moving around in an unfamiliar space, where everything is new and strange.
Personally I feel at home when I have found a space to put flowers (immediately, always!), my computer, a lamp, the two books I am reading at the moment and a picture of my newborn daughter. She, my daughter, still needs (yet!) her stuffed elephant, the alarm clock and a book of Calvin & Hobbes. Other children need their own bed cover, and it is never a bad idea to bring along a particular pillow case, a sheet, a plastic tablecloth to put on the table at lunch time. Many of these things weigh little, do not take up space and even if they do, you should not underestimate their importance in helping you to feel at home when you feel lost in the chaos of trunks or in the silence of the empty rooms.
With children, I recommend you: put their most valuable objects, those you know represent their whole little world, in the suitcase just at the last moment. If children are older, think about buying a backpack or trolley just for them, to be filled with their favorite toys, books, paper, pencils and markers and that they can easily carry onto the airplane if the journey is long. And that will make it easier at home, or hotel, or wherever, to gather their things (often- have you noticed-?, really tiny things that get literally everywhere!) and throw them all back inside that backpack or trolley in a split second or so. Ask them to help you; they will be happy to participate in the move, you’ll make them feel responsible and active and this will help them deal with any feelings of sadness or anxiety about separation and detachment (from school, grandparents, the house where they live, etc..) at their own rhythm.
As we said above, try to find on the Internet (or on Expatclic!) sites and attractions to visit in your new host city. If there are no such places, try to imagine what could please your confused children…the discovery of an ice cream shop, a particular baker, an exotic landscape… Think about it, after all, who knows better than you what boosts the morale of your children?
And take advantage of the visit to the school to check the noticeboard: even if the school is closed for holidays, ads give us an idea of any possible extracurricular activities (in the future you might also want to include activities that you would not normally think of: in some countries you have a lot of choice, in others you have to be content with what the market offers), as well as informal meetings between children and parents, outings, music lessons or dance etc. It will take time before all this happens, but just the possibility of it makes us happy and gives us hope of new friendships and new adventures.
Are you a mom with expatriate children and you want to tell us what you have discovered about your host city for your little ones? Contact us: your experience may be helpful to other mothers!
Below are our stories. Maybe by reading them you will find your own experiences, but also some new tips and tricks …
When I arrive in a new country, the first thing I do with the children is to leave the car and maps behind, and to start discovering the neighborhood on foot. Even in Arab countries, where walking is not always easy, there is always a playground or a lawn to go and play football, and this space becomes the constant for all of us, at least during the first weeks.
Later we find the key shops, always on foot and always in the neighborhood. Those shops that sell the “products” that make us feel “at home”: the cereals children have been eating every morning for the last years, the chocolate biscuits they love, but also the baker that sells freshly made bread or focaccia.
At home or in the hotel we try not to lose touch with the usual games, the usual books that we always stuff in a suitcase, which we could absolutely not put in a box or in the container. At the beginning (it might not be the best piece of advice, I admit it!) a big help comes from the TV or the dvd reader: children, taken from one airport to the other, from one climate to another (from the fur jacket to the bathing suit!) can relax with the movies they are used to watch, be they in Arabic or English, it does not make any difference, it’s the familiar characters that count, and that somehow make them feel safe.
After this very initial phase, during which energy is restored and surroundings start to become familiar, we start being “tourists”. At the beginning it is hard to feel “residents”, so you show your children everything the place can offer to a child who is on “holiday”: the beach, the playground, the aquarium… until school starts and with it the journey of our little ones towards the discovery of new friendships, new ways of learning, a new world!
Every time we arrive in a new country with our children, we aim to make the shift in a serene and non traumatic way. Therefore, like every mother, whenever I have arrived in a new place, I have acted according to a series of strategies that changed over the course of time, since it is very different to land with a small baby than with a pre-adolescent. Thinking back over my arrivals in the different countries, I have remembered with pleasure many things that I am happy to share with you:
Landed in Bissau with a seven months baby: in the very first days in the new home, I immediately identified a space that Alessandro could feel his own. I bought huge carpets made of palm leaves at the local market, and I laid them in the living room. I put all of his toys there (into a big straw basket, bought at the same market) and I started encouraging him to play in that same space every day. He soon recognized it as his. I explored the neighborhood to find what it offered for a child of this age: I let you guess the results of my investigation, in one of the most run-down African capitals! However I discovered that there were a lot of children in the area (many of them helped their parents to sell bread or other things), who were always happy to come and play with the sophisticated European toys. Even if their interest was certainly not in Alessandro, he was very happy to see children around him, and his days soon got into the rhythm dictated by “the toy corner” and the short but steady visit of his friends.
Landed in the Congo with a three and a half year child: our home had a swimming pool! A big help – I think no child on earth dislikes playing in the water! – and indeed during the first period we were practically in the water the whole day. But since the child also needs to socialize and to find out what his new place has to offer, we also went out to discover what this city had in store for us (even in this case: practically nothing!).
The first destination was the ice-cream shop. I believe that getting to know immediately the location of the ice-cream shop of our new host town is of fundamental importance if you have children. A small walk to eat an ice cream when you feel sad because you do not know anyone and wonder how to get to the end of the day, is absolutely regenerating. This is obviously valid if the kids are small and are happy even if the quality of the ice-cream is far from the Italian ones. Now, in Jerusalem, when I invite Mattia for an ice-cream, he looks at me as if I were an alien and answers “I eat ice-cream in Italy only”.
Going back to the Congo, one thing that kept Alessandro busy for a good amount of time was a sand box that we had built for him: four wooden planks and some nails, a plastic sheet at the bottom, and some sand bags created a place where he could play with plastic dishes and glasses without getting tired – until he saw a huge spider getting out of the sand, of course! But when that happened, we had already made some friends.
On this occasion, the problem we had to face was that our arrival matched the end of the school, and most children were going away on holiday. In order to solve this problem, I asked the kindergarten where he would go to after summer, to let me hang on the notice board a paper where I wrote: “Alessandro, 3 year and ½, seeks friends to share the long summer days in Brazza”. One contacted us: a slightly younger than him French boy, with whom Alessandro spent many an afternoon!
Landed in Honduras with a 3 year old and a 7 and a half-year-old child: this destination represented a huge novelty for all of us who had never before set foot in Latin America. The first new thing was the endless journey and the subsequent jet lag that hit us for a good whole week. We spent the first weeks in a hotel. I obviously applied the usual tactic: exploration of the spaces in total freedom (the hotel had a swimming pool!) and a lot of TV (a little bit comforted by the fact that the kids had to learn Spanish, and so some hours of cartoons would help them a lot…)
However I have always loved to show my children the local reality from the very beginning, so one day I decided we would go out. I opened the Lonely Planet guide and chose our destination: the granja (farm) of the iguanas, where children could even hold a baby iguana! I thought it was the most appropriate, exotic and exciting thing to do. The only flaw: I did not speak a single word of Spanish, and had no idea about the topography of the city! Anyway, I called the place hoping that someone would speak English. Obviously no one did. I tried to make sense of the explanations in Spanish, put the kids in the rented car, and left towards the farm full of optimism. After about one hour of turning around and looking at the map (which for me was like reading a sacred text in Arabic), and scrutinizing all possible signs, trying to recognize the name of the neighborhood I had been told on the phone, I found myself in one of the remotest, most notorious and dangerous areas of Tegucigalpa (I luckily found that out only later on). By chance I ran into a very nice girl who spoke English perfectly and she gave me clear and precise indications. After another forty minutes I made my triumphal entrance in the farm, where my kids actually held a baby iguana!
I tell you all this because I want to encourage you never to be afraid to face new places and situations, even when you are not familiar with the language: your children will be motivated and encouraged by your resourcefulness and your enthusiasm, you will certainly find someone to help you and getting to find your way around in those first days gives a huge sense of security and increases your self-esteem, which is usually low at the beginning of a new relocation.
Landed in Peru with an 11 and a half and a 7 year old child: I must say that Lima, compared to all the places where we had lived before, is a real city, very well equipped, very big, and full of nice places where children can play. While searching for a house (an activity in which I suggest you involve the kids as much as possible) I had spotted a very big and busy square, with an ice-cream shop, a small arts and crafts market and a small park with swings and slides. I asked its name, and had a taxi bring us back when we had a bit of time. The children loved it (we obviously started from the ice-cream, not bad at all), and I particularly remember that Alessandro had been struck by the art and crafts, to such a degree that made him say “this country is very beautiful!”. Other discoveries during the first days, and that we exploited to the utmost to happily fill our days, were the restaurants (fabulous!), the sea walk, with a lot of nice spots, and the park behind our hotel, a beautiful and relaxing place.
My suggestions to face the first days:
- bring with you a “special” present, that you can offer upon arrival and that will entertain your children when you need a break;
- find immediately one or more corners of the house or of the hotel that can constitute an entertainment, that are particular, that can be arranged in a peculiar way, and have your children participating in this search;
- involve your children as much as possible in arranging your new home, bring them to buy a “special” object that you will place in the new home;
- before leaving, look for some pictures of the new country, and find a place that seems to be nice and interesting. Once you arrive, go there with your child – it is a special excursion and it allows you to spend half a day in a different way, getting to know your new place;
- for the older kids, it is important to have immediately an Internet connection so that they can chat and write to their friends;
- find a place (ice-cream shop, drugstore, baker, swimming-pool, playground) that can become a regular appointment during the first days: going there daily will give the children a sense of rhythm and safety;
- bring with you a packet of coloured chalks, you can give them to the children to colour outside (if the weather allows it) on some big sheets of paper.
Apart from the Parisian break, where I applied exactly what Alessandra wrote (going out on foot to explore, looking for indications about what to do in town with children, searching for parks and open air games, cinemas, etc.), my relocations have always been in places where security is a big problem and therefore it is impossible to walk on foot or to look for suitable places for children.
Therefore my main problem has always been to match the first days of forced staying at home with the thousands of practical problems linked to the move and to the functioning of the new house (appliances, water supply, electricity supply, etc.). Being engaged in solving practical but fundamental problems (no electricity means no TV!!!), while at the same time keeping three bored but excited children busy is a real nightmare.
My strategy so far? Despite it being exhausting both from a physical and psychological point of view, I consider it of basic importance to plan to arrive not more than one or two days before school starts. This way children will be busy and concentrated on the beginning of school activities (this is also true for the little one that goes to kindergarten).
This way the physical energies of the little ones concentrate on the school and the time span before making new friends gets shorter, and invitations to play in the afternoons become possible.
The first mornings when they are at school give me the time to unpack and rapidly arrange the house: the first boxes I concentrate on are those containing toys and materials for the kids, so that they can feel at home as soon as possible and can have a space where to play.
When possible, in order to settle them into the new destination, we prepare an environment exclusively for them, i.e. their room. The first thing to visit in the new house has always been the children’s room, their bed enriched with new and colorful bed sheets, and the walls cheerfully decorated. This always helped them a lot: to see a nice and welcoming bed and space makes them feel immediately at home. Exploring the garden and the little animals that inhabit it is equally important: small friends that live with us. Later, in the garden, we planted flowers and plants with the children, or a fruit tree to be looked after by them.
Knowing that the children’s life outside of school develops mostly at home (ours or friends’), I put into my boxes a lot of plasticine, colors, albums and material for practical activities and games. Or I look for, where possible, toys that keep the children busy for a good amount of time. Even the TV is important: we carry our favorite dvd and video cartoons to bring a note of quiet relaxation to those times when we have reached utter physical and psychological fatigue (both for children and parents).
I don’t want to do any advertising, but I discovered that the Wii is great to entertain the older ones, especially for the team games, that involve brothers and sisters and friends who come to visit.
Another thing: the swimming-pool, a place where you can go 3-4 times a week, has not only become a place where to swim, but also to play. Every time we go, we take with us water toys, balls, pots and pans, etc.
There are things one does not put into the container, since that will take weeks to arrive. These are the things that, when pulled out of the suitcase, “make home”, the doudous of Camilla, the mythical Babar and the dirty Rabbit, friends of many travels; Tagliano, Chiara’s one must have accumulated an extraordinary quantity of miles… at least thanks to them the first nights will be full of dreams for my youngest ones…
But beyond objects, what do we look for, or better, what do our children look for in order to quickly feel at ease? How to recreate as quickly as possible the safe world left behind? The playground in Tokyo was our first great discovery, in ten minutes we adopted it, and realized that a slide and a swing are all we need to make us happy anywhere in the world. The shop that sells our cereals and the good bread, that lessens the kilometres separating us from home, was one of the first things we sought in India, where everything was a fresh discovery from a gastronomical point of view.
Going back and forth on the road to school so as to make it ours, on our bicycles along Otsumadori, between one junction and another, surrounded by an army of cows in the chaotic Indian traffic, becoming more familiar with the neighborhood but still tense and worried when going to the International Lycee of Saint Germain en Laye…
Children rapidly rebuild their world, and if we are positive and full of enthusiasm in the new adventure, we help them to quickly find their routines again…
There are moments I will never forget, and I do not know why, but they are always linked to the food… The first moments upon arrival in Tokyo, that delicious sashimi in our new Japanese apartment, the first night, tired from the travel and excited by the change, the surprised little faces of our girls, as faced with the raw fish, they discovered their new world.
The same sleepy and surprised faces that some years later sat in front of the first Indian dinner a few hours after our arrival in Chennai, the discovery of the delicious Indian tastes, with Camilla who smiled and said “that’s good!”, opening her mouth wide so as to get as much air as possible, and drinking litres of water to cool the spiciness!
And the enthusiasm that thrilled them when they discovered the splendor of the market of Saint Germain, upon arrival in Paris, with all those fresh and yummy products that for so many years we had dreamt of finding again together…
Arriving in a new country is the time I find the most difficult in expatriation, especially if you have children. The personal sense of disorientation is accompanied by the fact of having to take care of the feelings of the children. There is usually an empty house, a suffocating heat, at least in my African experiences, and one, two or more children who go around crying. The first thing I usually do is to look for a place inside the house where we can arrange their things, opening the suitcases that contain their toys and books, and searching for air conditioners and fans in case they are to be found in the house.
Shopping at the supermarket is an important moment: you immediately understand in which continent you have arrived! For instance, you get to know which biscuits or sweets you can count on when needed. Besides, getting out of the house opens up interesting scenarios for us: is it advisable to go around in the streets of a town, like Khartoum, with three more or less independent little girls, 40 degrees in the shade, and huge holes in the few roads where you can go on foot? Would it be better to wait for more appropriate times of the day, and use more usual means? Speaking of which, I found it very useful and instructive to use public transportation with the girls: here in Khartoum it is a rather risky option in terms of safety, both for the terrible state of the vehicles and for the deadly traffic. Still, you can use “rasha”, a sort of Asiatic rikshaw that the girls found very entertaining and that I used for short journeys. After a first exploration, one gets a more appropriate idea of what is around, and the real settling down starts.
In countries that are so difficult from an environmental point of view, I find it very important to get support from the school, to start attending the various associations of parents, to invite schoolmates, to talk with the teachers. Even the relationships with the neighbors have been of basic importance for me: another expat mother can be a source of bright inspiration.
Where there are no playgrounds, important reference points are the swimming pools and the sport clubs. Here you can find structured courses for older children, like tennis, swimming, gym, horse riding, etc. I think it is also important to get some interesting games at home, where you spend most of the day anyway, to recreate a children-friendly environment, maybe to buy an inflatable swimming pool or a swing for the garden.
For those who love it, a pet can also help (dogs, cats, rabbits, birds, parrots).
As time goes by, you start knowing the strategic places where you can go in case of need: for me a small ice-cream shop with a little garden is the way out of nervous and claustrophobic afternoons that would end in tears.
Since not all toys can be stuffed in a suitcase, I also find it useful and even entertaining to go to every garage sale of expat families who are leaving the country. This has allowed me to enrich the toy lot of my girls with interesting pieces, coming from all over the world. Important, but to use wisely, both for the educational-moral reasons we all know, and not to dismisstheir addictive effect, are the DVDs, that I buy in big quantities when I go back to Italy or in an international airport.
A new thing for me, which I discovered thanks to expatriation, is the habit of sleeping over, very popular in Anglo-Saxon cultures, and that I personally find fantastic. You give your child to a family of friends for a day and a night. This allows children to try different family environments and to deal with other mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers, thus making the family routine more lively.
Travelling by plane: our daughter started travelling on an airplane with us when she was nine months old, and since then she has always been happy on airplanes, never suffering for instance from the intensity of the cabin pressurisation, on the contrary! She always slept soundly on the flight Zurich – Yerevan. When she was about 4 years old we moved to Pakistan, and she was very happy with the thought of the long travel ahead. As soon as we were on board, she organized herself with her videos, her colors, the Barbie dolls, the stuffed elephant, a joy! I remember one of the rare times we flew in Business Class, from London to Islamabad: a very excited middle-aged man complained with the flight attendant about the presence of a child (my Emily!) in Business: he was sure she would scream and prevent him from sleeping… I invited him to take a look at the “monster” and I must say that seeing her lying happily between an orange juice and her elephant, watching her favorite Walt Disney, greatly calmed him. Later on, a bit drunk and visibly under stress, he confessed that his bad mood was due more to his fear of flying than to my daughter, who, obviously, was already snoring like a baby!
By car: three years of expatriation in the Balkans offered me the wonderful opportunity to cross Europe by car, which I did often and happily, just Emily and me, in summer, to avoid the big heat in Skopje (where her father unfortunately remained to work). My daughter was not particularly happy at the idea, she who loves aircrafts, but I wanted to do Skopje-Berlin by car, a unique chance for us to seriously see this Europe we are often so far from. I tell you this here because I think it would be wonderful to be able to reach our next destination by car, it would help us fill the distance between Berlin and the new, unknown country…
For long travels by car I obviously have my tricks:
- With the children, prepare a box (those for printing paper A4 are perfect) full of toys and books they want to have with them during the trip, and place it if possible on the back seat, so that they can get it without needing you to stop the car (and slow the trip down…);
- Get a dvd reader to place on the back of the front seat of the car: the child will feel like being on an airplane, he/she will enjoy the movie and let you drive happily;
- If possible, break your trip into segments and stop for the night. If you can maintain a rhythm of 5 to 6 hours driving per day, everyone will feel more rested. Try to plan to arrive at the next destination at the end of the afternoon, in time for a nice dinner somewhere and a good dessert as a goodnight!
- Carry an abundant amount of water and some snacks, both for the children and for yourself, and remember: you are the one who drives, be careful about sugar loss!! Those who love coffee should prepare a thermos to keep close in case of need…
Arriving home: I admit it, we are lucky because the organization for which my husband works provides a furnished house, where we’ll live during our whole stay in the country. This makes things easier unless – like in Khartoum – the apartment is huge (5 bathrooms) but empty… It is exactly in these cases that it is important to take out of the suitcase those three or four little things that make us feel at home, especially the child. She has always taken with her a lot of books and toys, since she was very young. Of course now, as a preadolescent, she is more impatient and sometimes confused about what to pack, and the first thing to do for us as soon as we arrive, is to organize the TV and Internet connection. This allows Emily to talk to the friends she has just left and with the family, and makes us feel both less lonely (daddy, it’s known, goes to work as soon as we arrive…). And we can obviously watch a cheerful and funny movie that keeps the sadness at bay (do you remember Louis de Funes? He saved us more than once at night in Khartoum…).
Second step: to find immediately a means of transportation so that we can go around exploring the new city, the new school, to look for an ice-cream/pastry shop, a mall, a bookshop. Even the least inviting town hides precious jewels, you just have to know how to look for them. The playground in Yerevan, the zoo in Islamabad, the Museum of Natural Sciences in Skopje, the tour on the Nile in Khartoum… all wonderful places, in their simplicity, seen with the eyes of a child… and not only!!!