The line snaked around in front of us, chasing its tail slowly. It was like the queue for Disney ride but the reward for making it through was confusion about where to go next. We assured the kids it would move quickly but we were lying. It was slow. Slower than slow. It was as if the people controlling line speed timed our kids rolling their suitcases through the airport and that’s how they decided how fast the line should move.
While we stood there, shuffling forward a few steps every few minutes, our two-year-old was crawling. Literally crawling. All over the filthy floor of London Heathrow Airport’s border control waiting area, which was no doubt coated with germs from all six inhabited continents and probably Antarctica as well. You wonder how parents allow this sort of thing to happen and then you find out. Crushing apathy caused by sixteen hours of overnight travel. To make things even better, our daughter stopped crawling periodically so she could lift her shirt and press her belly against the cool, very hygienic tile floor. Brilliant! Our dogs sometimes do that in summer, except they don’t wear shirts. And presumably our floors are somewhat cleaner.
We were angry, irritated, and exhausted. With good reason, but I couldn’t help but think how odd it was that this was all something we chose to do voluntarily. As fun. We spent money and my wife took vacation from work so we could not sleep for an entire day and eat nothing but packaged cookies. The idea of staying home and watching Paw Patrol suddenly seemed very appealing.
Just before joining this never-ending line, we had flown from Orlando to Iceland and Iceland to London. We departed around seven p.m. Eastern time and arrived in England the next morning at what was around seven a.m. by our body clocks (eleven a.m. local time). We survived frigid temperatures and an icy tarmac during our brief Iceland stopover, which required exiting and entering the plane via stairs and riding a bus to and from the terminal. It was pitch black, cold, and we were completely underdressed for this unexpected outing, but hey, the kids saw snow for the first time! Then, prior to landing at Heathrow, we circled the airport six times. Five times was okay, but the sixth was just too much. Our four-year-old who was seated beside me suddenly shouted “Water!” then coughed. I scrambled first for his water bottle before deciding to grab the barf bag instead. He held his hands to his mouth to catch the mucous slipping out. I got the barf bag open in time to catch the last of it. Then to my left, I heard more retching as our seven-year-old vomited into his bag. His appearance immediately shifted from normal to ghost with raccoon eyes.
After all that, we waited sixty minutes or more to gain entry into the UK. The four-year-old, exhausted from travel, lack of sleep, and airsickness, fell asleep in my arms as we waited. The seven-year-old still looked like a ghost. And the two-year-old was energized and highly motivated to touch and lick every inch of Heathrow. I tried to look pathetic as I stumbled under the weight of my sleeping child, but no one took mercy until we were about five people from the front of the line and one of the border agents called us forward.
Next, we collected our baggage and stroller and proceeded to the Heathrow Express train to Paddington station that we had luckily pre-booked. This train is expensive, but if you’re traveling to London with kids, I highly recommend it. You can also save by booking ahead of time. Navigating the Underground labyrinth is impossible enough without luggage to corral. We made it to Paddington without much problem and then the fun began. After exiting the train, we had to work our way through the automatic barriers that swing open and closed. I failed to organize things properly before scanning my ticket and as I walked through pushing a rolling suitcase a tall, serious uniformed man standing beside the barriers said quietly, “Your son, sir.” I looked back as the barriers started to close in front of our seven-year-old. I reached back instinctively as if to stop the gate from closing. They don’t stop, of course. The serious man looked sad and disappointed as he inserted his key to open the gate and calmly said, “You don’t have to do that.” I was ashamed but tried to give myself a break because I was a bit punchy.
At Paddington, we walked around to several different Underground platforms before deciding on one to try. I don’t remember the details, but I assume we eventually found the right one. We navigated to King’s Cross and on to our final destination. Then, we eventually found our friend’s flat without the help of cellular data or WiFi. Quite an accomplishment.
After a long day and night, a small win was what we needed to get us going. We settled into our flat and my wife Michelle took a quick nap (she didn’t sleep on the planes, but not surprisingly, I managed to) while the kids and I went out for a neighborhood stroll with our old university friend who was graciously letting us use her flat.
We stopped first at a hole-in-the-wall coffee shop with a pink flamingo, old chairs, and hipster hot chocolate that the kids turned their noses up at.
Then we walked down to the canal and looked at some barges and boats. And finally, we found a playground. Specifically, my seven-year-old did.
This wasn’t a small win, it was a huge one. The kids played and had a grand time in the small park nestled by the water in between multi-level residential buildings. It seems so mundane. Like, why travel across an ocean to play on a playground, but when you think about it, it’s kind of the perfect mix of familiar and exotic. Slightly different play equipment with a new backdrop and children to play with who are different, but ultimately not that different. There was even a little boy in the sand pit area to trample the boys’ very special sand castles and creations. Just like home!
Dusk snuck up on us as the kids played happily in the cold. We convinced them to leave with promises of returning the next day and made our way home. The kids were sacked out before seven o’clock local time.
That the two-year-old threw up four to five times the next morning is probably a coincidence, right? Or perhaps it’s a hereditary thing. We learned after the fact that Michelle vomited the day after long flights when she was a toddler as well. What an unexpected and fun toddler feature!
Our first full day abroad got off to a slow and ominous start. I had a few hours of panic imagining a week spent in England passing around a stomach bug. Luckily, the little one recovered quickly, and we even made our way back to the playground around midday. Before that, I zipped downstairs to buy croissants and a latte from the Pret that was literally just outside the apartment complex’s door. City living is incredible.
Fortunately, we had made no plans for this day (or any other day) so we were content to watch TV and Netflix four thousand miles from home, eat croissants (for the first of five consecutive days), go to the playground, and walk to the Underground station, buy the kids McDonald’s, and turn around and walk back home.
We had some vague plan to take the subway to see Big Ben, but that could wait. All of it could wait. We were in England. We had made the journey and that was good enough. There was more fun to come, but it’s important not to rush things. When it comes to traveling with children, sometimes it’s best to embrace your inner border control agent.