Advice, Kiddo

10 Tips on Taking Preschoolers to Restaurants

 

I recently saw the following quote posted on the Just Eat Real Food Facebook Page:

“We do children an enormous disservice when we assume that they cannot appreciate anything beyond drive through fare and nutritionally marginal, kid-targeted convenience foods. Our children are capable of consuming something that grew in a garden or on a tree and never saw a deep fryer. They are capable of making it through dinner at a sit-down restaurant with tablecloths and no climbing equipment. Children deserve quality nourishment.”  ― Victoria Moran

“I’m with you until the part about the sit down restaurant!” someone commented on the thread, unleashing a mini avalanche of agreement. Hmm, well, my just-turned-three year old daughter eats at least two meals per day in restaurants, sometimes three. And she’s being doing this since she was two. Is it always easy? No, but I put that down to the unrelenting frequency of our restaurant meals. It’s harder to maintain socially acceptable behaviour when you have to uphold that standard 70 times a month instead of just two or three. Adults who have to see a disagreeable relative on a frequent basis may agree with me on that point. Nonetheless, taking kids to the restaurant is completely do-able. Here’s my advice for taking small children to restaurants.

1. Start early. We’ve been taking Mila since she was a chubby little newborn, and I think getting used to the restaurant environment really helps. If you’re breastfeeding, bonus: milk is always at the ready to settle a grumpy tot. (On that note: restaurants are considered public spaces not private buildings. If you’re entitled to breastfeed in public – and you usually are – you can breastfeed in the restaurant too.)

2. Take toys. One of the main pitfalls with eating at a restaurant is that you generally have to wait for food to arrive, and you have to sit still while doing it. So for the love of God, take something for your kids to do that doesn’t involve pulling someone else’s hair or testing their own decibel capacity. Small books, coloured pencils and paper/colouring books, a small bag of blocks or even toy cars are good ideas. We avoid toys that are cumbersome (you don’t really want the whole restaurant to be distracted by the giant stuffed panda on your table) and items like felt-tip pens that can create mess. Surfaces like shiny table-tops are just too tempting for small hands with felt-tips around… You get my drift.

3. Consider bringing a drink bottle and snacks. It’s obviously not ideal to bring food into an establishment that’s based around selling it, but it is much preferable to bring out a small snack for tummies that are getting impatient than it is to deal with a hunger-induced meltdown. On that note, don’t bring starving kids: or at least feed them a snack before you go in. Bananas or a small box of dried fruit are generally acceptable. Best to avoid plastic packets with their cringe-inducing rustle. And sorry folks, but it’s only ok for little ones to have a nibble. Big kids have to wait!

4. There’s strength in numbers. I often end up eating at restaurants with just Mila thanks to Mr C’s busy work schedule, but I really try and avoid it whenever possible. One person means you have to either take your kid(s) with you or leave them unattended if you need to go to the bathroom, go up to the counter, grab some water bottles or anything else. I have left Mila alone while getting something from the other side of a large restaurant room several times. 95% of the time she’s fine and the other 5% she yells “MUMMMMMMMYYY WHERE ARE YOOOOUUUU?” so loudly it sends me scuttling back. Two adults means no playing Russian roulette with your dignity.

English: Byways Cafe (Portland, Oregon)

5. Some restaurants are easier than others. 

You know that 9 course degustation menu that looks delicious? Yup, well, save it for when you have a babysitter. Your kids can get to know good food without going to a fine dining restaurant – at least until they know exactly what the deal is. A hotel buffet restaurant means no waiting times and can be a boon with picky kids. Pubs and cafes also offer eating-out experiences in a more relaxed environment. If you’re relaxed, they’re more likely to keep their cool too. Places that have outdoor courtyards often have a casual vibe and being outdoors soaks up the sound of your darling cherubs much better.  And if you do go to a restaurant, try going to lunch before braving dinner. Lunch is usually a more informal affair and you’re less likely to be surrounded by couples on (quiet!) dates.

English: Child eating a veggie burger at a fas...

Someone else’s child!

6. Skip the kid’s menu. One of the great things about taking kids to restaurants is that they get to eat really great food. No offence to your home cooking intended, but often restaurants are able to take their food up a notch. And then there’s the kid’s menu: usually an homage to the deep fryer. I have a friend who calls it the “beige menu” because of the shades of the items on it – chicken nuggets, pasta, fries. Personally, I don’t take my kiddo out to eat in order to jack her up on empty carbohydrates and sugar. Instead ask if you can order a half portion of something from the real menu, or share your own meal with your little one. Ordering a couple of extra sides can help stretch out your own meal to accommodate a small child. (Bonus tip: take their own set of child-sized cutlery to encourage cutlery use and minimise frustration).

7. Set realistic expectations and be consistent. I expect Mila to talk quietly. That doesn’t mean she always does but I will always remind her when she forgets. Our other rule is no playing with food. If she does, the food goes away (on the far side of the table) while we talk about how we need to respect the food we eat, and that means no playing with it. Then if she wants it back she can have it back. We’ve found this works better than talking to her while the immediate fun of messy food is still right in front of her. On the other hand, I let her eat non-messy food with her hands if she really wants to and if she wants to hop down from her chair, I’ll show her a place that is appropriate to play in. Like everything else in parenting, pick your battles – but don’t be afraid to set limits on what behaviour is ok and what isn’t.

8. Don’t drag it out forever. On the flip side, make things easier on your kids by limiting the time you spend in the restaurant. Order quickly: consider ordering a finger-food starter as soon as you’re seated so that hungry kids can pick at it before the main event. Reconsider a three course meal with very small children: two courses is  enough or one if there’s a storm brewing on the pre-schooler horizon.

Abort, abort the misson!

Abort, abort the misson!

  9. Evacuate the premises. Some days, even the best laid plans don’t work out and you end up in tornado alley. If your child is having a meltdown, do everyone a favour (including yourself) and take them outside until they’ve calmed down. Don’t let them scream the place down. It’s incredibly hard to stay present with your child when you’re intensely aware of the negative attention you’re attracting. A walk around outside for a few minutes can do everyone a world of good, including your fellow diners.

10. Enjoy it! Eating in restaurants is a privilege and something to look forward to, not hyperventilate over. Don’t stress about it too much or your kids will pick up on it. Just relax, expect to have a good time and take pleasure in eating together as a family. I promise, it won’t hurt a bit…

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Advice, Kiddo

Our Baby Expat Turns Three

Oh, time is slipping away too fast. Our littlest expat turned three today. She has no friends here (where are all the small children in the Maldives?!) so it’s been a quiet, peaceful kind of day. Mila woke up at 7 and made short work of opening her presents. We may have helped in that department by being too lazy to take them out of all the parcels that we received them in and just collating them in the biggest box. She didn’t care.

Her presents included books, a wooden dragon and knight set, dyed wooden eggs and eggcups, dyed wooden tiny stacking acrobats, a marble run and a few other other bits and pieces. I used to be very much the minimalist when it came to birthday gifts, but now that the weather keeps us penned into very small living quarters much of the time I’m starting to see the value in having a wide range of different toys.

I started planning her gifts a few months in advance, which turned out to be a very good idea. Male’ is chock-full of toy shops… BUT most of what they offer is pretty rubbish, to be frank. Cheap plastic tat that falls apart after a couple of uses. And Male’ being Male’, none of it is even cheap. So I ended up looking overseas. Etsy is fantastic for handmade wooden toys – we’ve been buying things from there since Mila was born. A bonus now that we are overseas is that you can tailor search results to view only items that ship to the Maldives.

All the books were from Book Depository. I have mentioned them before in my posts and for good reason – excellent prices and free shipping worldwide! My only beef with them is that they send every book you order separately (regardless of whether you order several at once) and each book comes in very thick cardboard packaging. It seems like a waste of resources, but I guess as someone who is ordering items from overseas I can’t bitch too much about the environmental impact of their actions.

Finally, we also took advantage of my parents’ kindness. They offered to ship toys over for us, so we bought online from New Zealand toy shops and had the items delivered to their address. Of course this also gave them a chance to slip a few extras in for the birthday girl. The marshmallow bunny to be fair was looking slightly the worse for wear after surviving being juggled around different airports and customs. This was of no concern to my daughter, who swallowed it up like a cobra.

The rest of our day will likely be equally low key. Once Mila wakes up from her nap, we’ll make some more marble runs. We’ll go to dinner at the resort restaurant. We’ve got a dragon cake lined up as a surprise: dragons + chocolate = winning! Mr C has the night off. And then we’ll play some more, try again to explain what “turning another year older” actually means and watch a Spot the Dog movie. I’m slowly learning here that small is good, that simple is good. That this quiet existence is enough for us all.

Happy birthday to my sweet, loud, beautiful, firecracker of a child.

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Advice, Travel

Things To Do in Male’: Classes and Courses

 

When I first typed “Things to do in Male” into Google, Thilafushi came up as a ‘point of interest’. Sorry, my beloved Google, but visiting rubbish island really doesn’t cut the mustard as a leisure activity. Instead, here’s a quick ideas list of activities aimed at expats (or perhaps tourists bored of looking at cheap shoes and fake coral).

  1. Nashee Cakes offers a cake decorating course

  2. Heat Health and Fitness is a gym with Les Mills fitness classes and yoga

  3. Sea Explorers offer diving courses…

  4. And so does Maldivers

  5. Traders Hotel has an indoor gym on their top floor which you can buy monthly memberships for

  6. Xtreme Fitness. Yep, another gym.

  7. The Alliance Francaise offers regular classes in French and Divehi and occasional classes in French cooking

  8. Nadiya’s Taste of Maldives offers, surprise, Maldivian cooking classes

 

 

Please let me know if you’ve found any other classes and courses in or around Male’. I’d love to add them to the list.

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Advice, Expat Stories

Just the Three of Us

I have an old friend who hates Lonely Planet books. “Everyone reads the same guide books then goes to the same places, eats in the same restaurants and stays in the same hotels. And they wonder why those places aren’t as good as the guidebooks say! Well – Lonely Planet spoiled them, that’s why,” he would complain.

I had to admit that he kind of had a point. Nonetheless, I looove me some Lonely Planet. Like a little chunk of travel in my hands, just waiting to spill out of the pages into a thousand mind-bending experiences. Plus, despite all the information out there on the internet, guidebooks are a handy all-in-one. It turns out that I don’t like being stranded without a map and directions to dinner. I like being guided.

Crap, there is no guide for living as an expat in the Maldives.

OK, so that’s a bit of a lie. There are actually a few of the forum variety, including Allo Expat Maldives and Expat Blog Maldives. Maldives posts also pop up in places like British Expat despite the site having no dedicated Maldives page. But, but, but, there isn’t the kind of camaraderie I’m searching for. To begin with, during quiet weeks you could hear a cricket cough browsing the same expat forums that were humming when we lived in Malaysia. And there’s nowhere full of Maldivian expats bitching and complaining about the same trivial things, getting sick of eating tuna curries and wishing someone would send them a nice big jar of Marmite from home. Know what I mean? There might be forums, but I wouldn’t call them communities.

But surely there are other Maldivian expat bloggers, right?

Somebody let me know where this tea party is at, if I’m missing it. So far I’ve tracked down one blog that’s still being regularly updated. But for the most part, we’re winging this on our own. Even expanding my search for other bloggers, I keep feeling like the same kid I was in high school: trying way too hard to fit in and never quite managing. Fuck it. I’ll do my own thing.

This blog is an oddball, too.

There are lots of homeschooling families living overseas and blogging about it. Mila doesn’t go to kindy or school, but we do have a part-time nanny. So even though she IS at home, I get the impression that it doesn’t count since we have a (lovely) non-relative traipsing in regularly to look after her. Naughty us.

Then there are lots of travelling unschooling families. I quite like the idea of unschooling on some levels: passion-led learning without a fixed curriculum. But perhaps even more so than the homeschooling crowd, a lot of unschoolers would be horrified at the idea of a nanny. We’ve also had Mila in a Reggio daycare in New Zealand – a fantastic, enriching experience. More blasphemy to the unschooling set! On the other hand, I’m also decidedly not into the radical unschooling lifestyle of complete child autonomy. I need my time alone, I need my house reasonably tidy, and horror of horrors, I need my needs and desires respected too. So we negotiate and compromise and as a parent I do set limits around things like food and media viewing. These things are often at odds with the radical unschooling philosophy.

As I mentioned here, I’ve also stumbled across travelling family blogs. They’re brilliant and inspiring and I hope one day we’ll be lucky enough to be among them. But we’re not full time travelling now, just plotting trips here and there to keep the travel fire sated. The long term travel idea is just bubbling away on the backburner, a wee nugget of excitement that will take time to come to fruition. We’re not counting down the number of days til we leave or the days til we return.We’re not part of that club. (And here I can’t help but whisper, yet.)

In the meantime, we’re expats, if not like most of the expats I’ve met. We stick out like a sore thumb here in the Maldives because a) we’re not single and b) we have a child in a country that doesn’t make it easy for expats to bring one. We have no fancy house, no army of household staff and definitely no modern cosmopolitan city in which to shop til we drop. I know I’m making some massive generalisations, but those are my attractive-if-unrealistic associations with the word ‘expat’. Harrumph.

Enough of the complaining, already!

Sometimes you just need to suck it up, and maybe today is one of those days. I didn’t leave my cosy, happy, easy life behind because I wanted to fit in. Things were pretty good in New Zealand. We weren’t evacuating the premises, we chose to come here. Like a beating drum in my soul, I remind myself of that: we chose this, we chose this, we chose this. That doesn’t mean I’m reprimanding myself about it: it’s actually kind of liberating. I chose this life, so I can always go back to my old one if I want to. Except that I don’t, not at all – and that realisation means I know I made the right choice. I accept the good and the cruddy because they’re all part of the package I signed up for. We’ll make it work. We’ll have an adventure. We’ll poke the frustrations with a stick and laugh.

And sooner or later, we’ll find our community – whether that be online or in real life. Maybe for now, it’s just Mr C, Mila and I, together. I can live with that.

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Advice

7 Things I Wish I Had Known Before Becoming An Island Expat

I’ve lived, in general, a rather surprising life so far. My first overseas solo travel experience was moving to Mongolia to work in an infant’s orphanage when I was 17 – not exactly de rigueur, even for travel-hungry New Zealanders. After that I ended up on an organic crop test farm in South India. I also got very sick, switched universities several times, ran away to Nepal and Tibet, ended up as an expat in Malaysia, had my daughter right after turning 23 and found out I was moving to a tropical island the day after I returned from my wedding.
So in a sense I’m used to the unexpected blessings and road blocks life likes to throw my way. With all that said and done, I’ve found I was less prepared than I thought I was for living on a tiny island in the Maldives. Here’s why.

1. Your previous expat experiences don’t mean you know the ropes.

Time for me to eat a bit of humble pie. Being a second time expat I expected my life to be similar to the first time aside from being in an obviously different location. But it isn’t. The work culture is different. I can’t leave the resort as easily as I could leave the hotel last time. I can’t self cater here and that makes a surprisingly large difference to my life; I can’t teach my daughter to cook, for example, and if I run out of snacks when the restaurants aren’t open – too bad! Food and clothes that I like are much harder to come by in Male’ shops compared to Malaysia. There are differences in the interpretation of Islam (and that affects things like when the shops are open). The climate is better here. My accommodation is different. All these little differences add up to make my previous experience not all that relevant to the current one. One thing I am used to: monsoon!

Lessons learned: Every expat experience is different. Even if you’re returning to a country you’ve already been to before, your own circumstances – where you are in life – will be different. Go with fresh eyes and do your homework first.

2. The local language is not always the most important

I assumed that the Maldivian language, Divehi, would be the most important for me to learn. I also assumed that I could get by in English, and for the most part that’s true – everyone here does speak English. However, living on a resort island, what matters is where the staff are from. Most of the labourers are from Bangladesh and speak Bengali; our nanny is from Sri Lanka and speaks Tamil. Hindi and Tamil-speaking Indian workers are here too. The same applies on Male’, an island with a huge presence of foreign workers.

Lessons learned: Look at all the languages being used, not just the official one(s). If you’re planning on learning a language, pick one that travels well. Tamil and Hindi are good options in the Maldives.

3. Transportation is tricky

Before I arrived here I was told the ferry zipped between the island and Male’ every half an hour, and that the trip itself took 15-20 minutes. First of all, the ferry does NOT go every half an hour: it goes several times a day, but mostly early in the morning or in the evening, with no trips in the middle of the day (ie: when I need them). So careful planning around ferry times has been important, and I’ve had to accept that I can’t go to Male’ half as often or as easily as I’d like.

Lessons learned: Ask for the ferry timetable to be sent to you in advance. Be aware that you may not be able to travel between all the islands (despite the fact that there are many islands, I can usually only go to Male’). Plan trips so that you don’t miss ferries and so that you have enough to do if you have to fill a whole day before the return trip. Learn the name of your ferry and which jetty it leaves from.

4. Childcare is trickier

I’ve written about our experience hiring a nanny before here and here. Before we arrived I was confused about how hiring a nanny would work. There didn’t seem to be much concrete information, just “don’t worry about it!”. I’m not a hakuna matata kind of woman, so that didn’t really cut the mustard: but we had no alternative except to accept it. As it turns out, nannies don’t just drop primly out of the sky (where are you when I need you, Mary Poppins?!) and finding a decent nanny can take a few weeks.

Lessons learned: Find out what is in your contract/your partner’s contract. If they don’t allocate accommodation for a nanny and the island has no kid’s club, you need to be near enough to an inhabited island for a nanny to commute. Moving to an island with a kid’s club (that includes your own child’s age range) is ideal. Forgo international nanny websites unless you’re willing to pay an international salary and air fares, and list on the local buy/sell sites (whatever is the local equivalent of Ebay). Be precise about what you are looking for and set up a trial period. It’ll take longer than you think.

5. The post is rubbish

Many online shops don’t ship to the Maldives, and when they do it can be insanely expensive. Not only do the usual international charges apply but post must then be taken to the right jetty and put on the right ferry for your island. This hikes the costs further and also means that items may take weeks and sometimes months to arrive. Non-arrivals are pretty common, too. Smaller items for some reason are more likely to arrive than larger ones, so I still buy my books online from Book Depository. For those of you who are not already BD addicts – free shipping worldwide!

Lessons learned: Bring things with you when you move or buy them on trips home. Buy smaller items online if you have to but try and find large purchases locally. Find out who is in charge of the mail once it leaves the post office, so that you can follow up if something isn’t delivered. Make sure whoever deals with mail on the resort island knows which room your post should be delivered to.

6. You don’t need to worry about the water

Before I arrived my biggest fears were all to do with the water. What if the boat capsized and we drowned? How would I keep a pre-schooler safe with so much water everywhere? What if she ran off and into the sea? What about sharks? The truth is, that water is not an issue. Never an avid ocean-lover, I’m learning to make my peace with the sea. The sea is almost never choppy, so ferry rides feel safe. The island is configured so that you only really go to the beach or pool if you want to end up there: you’re not constantly battling water hazards. The shark attack risk is negligible according to Lonely Planet because there is such an abundance of smaller fish that sharks don’t bother with the chunkier residents of the sea (that’s you and I).

Lesson learned: stress less! The sea is one thing you really don’t need to worry about.

7. There are unexpected bonuses

I realise this list may not make the most uplifting reading. That’s not a reflection of living on a small island – just of the many things I was wrong about! There are several good things I knew we were signing up for: a better income, virtually no living expenses, a beautiful beach and pool on our doorstep… oh, and a cleaning service. As other toddler parents will probably know, small children make mess like it’s their full time job. I might have come for the cleaning alone. Nonetheless there were more goodies in store once we arrived that I wasn’t expecting. I didn’t even consider how safe it was, how I can walk around at night and leave my bag on the beach when I go for a swim without anything happening. Mr C and I have more time for each other now that we have a nanny. We save money by having less shopping available. And through having a restricted lifestyle on some levels (ie, the resort makes the rules here) I’m s-l-o-w-ly learning to let go of what I can’t control. Enlightening experience for a closet control freak. I’ve had new experiences, like learning to dive, that I wouldn’t have had if we weren’t here. And I’m finding my feet as a parent without a support network. I can do this! I am capable of doing this on my own, and that’s a good feeling.

Lesson learned: Coming here was the right decision. I would tell anyone considering a move like this to go for it. Work on the rule that if you can always go home if it turns to custard, it’s worth going. You’ll never know what you’re missing if you don’t take the leap.

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Advice, Travel

What to Take to the Maldives

I once travelled around India for five months with nothing but a school-sized backpack. A couple of changes of underwear, one change of outfit, my passport, a book, my wallet and a bottle of water: that was pretty much it. Cleanliness went slightly by the wayside in favour of portability and adventure. Yes, I was that dirty backpacker, and it was bloody fantastic. So, I fancied my chances when it came to packing light. How hard could this be? This time we were all – adults and mini-me alike – allowed 27kg total each: 20kg in checked-in luggage and 7kg in carry on. That equates to about 60lbs per person. Sounds plenty, right? I thought it did. I was wrong…

Though I have been on a good number of overseas trips, I’d never travelled as a parent before. I didn’t take into account that most of Mila’s weight allowance would be taken up with her toys. When you’re not planning on coming back for a decent slab of time, packing toys takes on a sentimental as well as a practical slant. Anything we didn’t take, she will have grown out of by the time we next see it again. The only real point in keeping toys for storage is for potential future babies, grandbabies (now THAT is a weird thought) and just because you will never pry those precious mementos from my cold, dead hands… Ahem.

Mila’s toys that we managed to bring with us. You can probably see how this would eat up a luggage allowance.

So, Mila’s suitcase was filled with toys and hot weather clothes. Mine was filled with 7 kg worth of textbooks that would enjoy a brief fortnight or so of use while we had our first nanny, and my clothes and shoes. Mr C’s carried work shoes, work equipment and clothes. Our weight allowance was quickly being sucked up, and we still had a house full of possessions to sort out.

In the end, we went for professional storage: a 3m x 2.7m insulated and ventilated cube that would hold the majority of our clothes, furniture, books, kitchen utensils and odds and ends. AKA, our entire lives. I try not to appear super-materialistic, but I will admit that shutting the door on all the stuff that represented our happy lives in Wellington was a wrench. It was also a step into the unknown. Still, we had been living in a small two-bedroom house, so we got off pretty lightly on the amount of storage we needed. As for the rest, here’s a breakdown of what we actually brought with us, what we shouldn’t have bothered with, and what I wish we had brought. If you’re reading this and planning your move to the Maldives, I hope this comes in handy.

High design it’s not, but I’m glad we brought this wall frieze to add a splash of colour to Mila’s bedroom walls

Good ideas:

Me:

Long skirts, both on the resort and for trips to Male’
Long dresses, ditto
T-shirts, ditto
Shorts, for the resort
Bikinis
Sandals and wedges
Makeup, jewellery and toiletries
Sunhat, sunglasses and sunblock
Insect repellent
Books
Laptop and phone

Mila:

Shorts and tshirts
Skirts and dresses
Sandals and summery shoes
Toys
Books
Sunhat
Colouring pencils
Child sized life jacket
Bunting flags and wall frieze for her bedroom

Some of the offending tops I didn’t need to bring

Space wasters:

Me:

Way too many cardigans and tops – 3 or 4 would have been plenty
Heels: great for getting stuck in the sand
Boots: too hot
Text books – not much use without a nanny!

Mila:

Warm clothes
Raincoat
Toddler sized sleep sack that is too warm even with the air-con on
A brand new scooter (that sand again)
Cloth nappies. Too warm to store them and we don’t do laundry often enough for them not to get seriously stinky.

What I wish we’d brought:

Tonnes more sunblock
Another sunhat
Home decor stuff: rugs, wall decals, posters, ornaments… etc. Our rooms are still very spartan, and that’s being kind. On grumpy days I complain about our prison quarters.
More long pants/leggings for Mila
More picture books: the ones in Male’ are pretty poor quality

What we were able to buy once we arrived:

Travel washing line
Shoe racks
Cupboards and bookshelves
Child sized cutlery set
Disposable nappies and wipes
Basic kitchen equipment like a fridge, toaster, kettle
Cups and plates
Food and drinks
Pool toys
Potty training gear (potty, toilet insert, training pants etc). I live in hope.
Stationery, arts and craft stuff

Can’t find for love nor money:

Eco and skin-friendly toiletries and beauty products. Don’t expect to buy anything here that intentionally avoids harsh chemicals that are potentially damaging: that kind of awareness is just not here yet.
Good quality toys and children’s books (plastic tat, on the other hand, abounds). 
Affordable, modern art prints – or even just posters
Anything that might resemble a souvenir that won’t set you back at least a few times what the item is worth
Attractive duvet covers and home decor
A sewing machine

So, that’s my packing round up. Overall, I’d give our efforts a solid B. I don’t think we did too badly, given all the must-brings we already had to accommodate. If I did it again I’d do it differently, but hey – we made it in one piece, and nobody forgot their underpants. High fives all round!

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