“Before Heidi arrived, every spare pound and every spare day went towards travelling. My wife and I made sure we would take one substantial trip each year – East Africa, Latin America, the Indian subcontinent – with as many short stops and weekend breaks as possible stretching the ranges of the calendar.”.
Our first family adventure to Istanbul
I remember the tram. I remember its colour, its shape, its passengers. I remember its serene approach, gliding smoothly on rails that glinted with springtime sun, rolling through a stop, moving up the road, passing the men selling grilled corn cobs under the watchful gaze of the Hagia Sophia. We were sat on a bench in the cool Istanbul air, greedily gnawing away at our snack, spilling as many little yellow cubes as we ate, Heidi swinging her legs in opposite, absent-minded rhythm beneath her. And I did what I always do – I pictured my daughter jumping down from her seat, rushing out across the road, and I pictured the tram screaming a dirge of angry metal brakes, raging against the inflexible will of physics, spitting sparks and bracing time. Though she showed no signs of leaving her seat, I instinctively shuffled closer to Heidi, placed a hand on her knee and said: ‘Careful’.
Before Heidi arrived, every spare pound and every spare day went towards travelling. My wife and I made sure we would take one substantial trip each year – East Africa, Latin America, the Indian subcontinent – with as many short stops and weekend breaks as possible stretching the ranges of the calendar. When we decided to start a family, we hoped that lifestyle would continue, but the girl we brought into the world came without a functioning sense of danger, and with an endless supply of energy as a wicked compensation.
The fear of leaving our comfort zone
It is impossible to tell how many times I directed the word ‘careful’ to Heidi in the first three-and-a-bit years of her life, each time accompanied with a fearful wince as she climbed or ran or grabbed or wandered, not perceiving the macabre near-future I saw. For our own sanity – and to minimise the risks – we sought out reasons to not travel: the flights will be too difficult; Heidi might not like the food; a bad experience will put us off travel forever. Really we knew that we just might not handle the pace; it would simply be too hard. So we hid her from the world, our precious thing. But really we hid the world from her. We had a colourful map on the wall of her room, and would read bedtime stories of far-off lands, recounting the trips her mother and I had taken as younger adults, but all these tales simply served as forbidden inspiration.
Brighton or Broadstairs?
The urgent, remorseless peer pressure of social media shook us out of our discomfort zone. Envious of a couple of friends who had taken advantage of parental leave to travel with their two children to Asia for a month, we resolved to take a trip ourselves, even if not quite so far afield. We battled through another day of Heidi’s relentless questions, perpetual motion and blind risk-taking and, collapsing on the couch after we had wrangled her into bed, identified a clear weekend.
‘So, where shall we go?’
‘Somewhere on the train, no more than a couple of hours from here.’
Bottle, glasses, corkscrew.
‘By the sea maybe?’
‘OK, yes. Brighton? Or Broadstairs?’
Pour, drink, repeat.
‘Could we manage France?’
‘On the Eurostar? I don’t know. What do you think?’
Within an hour, we had tickets in the inbox for a long weekend in Istanbul.
The flight out there was hard – as difficult as we had imagined. Heidi refused to sit still through the early-morning departure, fiddling with the tray table and kicking the seat in front of her, raging when it was time to clip in her seat belt. Snacks and games and her favourite cartoons on the tablet failed to sooth or distract. The cabin crew brought crayons, paper, stickers and sympathy; other passengers were not so generous. I was those passengers once – I couldn’t blame them.
Heidi chatted ceaselessly on the train from the airport to the city – questions that could not be answered, an internal monologue that had broken free. ‘Why has that man got a beard? Daddy, I can see a flag. That girl has pink shoes. When does this train stop?’ I couldn’t match Heidi’s energy and struggled to find suitable responses, my brain defeated by the early start and emotionally draining flight.
The receptionist at our hotel – a modern place wedged into the ancient bustle of the central Sultanahmet district – welcomed us with a pocket map that folded out across the expanse of his desk and he marked it up with a flurry of circles, arrows and lines. His final recommendations were closer to home: ‘The spa is in the basement. The restaurant is on the ground floor. You can go to the roof to see the views.’
“It is impossible to tell how many times I directed the word ‘careful’ to Heidi in the first three-and-a-bit years of her life, each time accompanied with a fearful wince as she climbed or ran or grabbed or wandered, not perceiving the macabre near-future I saw. “.
At first we felt that less was more, that staying close to the hotel would enable us to have a simpler trip, so we started our Istanbul break at the bottom – the water was cold and there were no lifeguards, but a swimming pool was familiar territory, something we could handle. Afterwards, we had dinner in the hotel’s restaurant, then hurried Heidi to an early bedtime (‘Which room is ours? Why is the carpet blue? Can I have two stories? I want to go to the roof.’). Before switching out the light, I asked Heidi what she thought of Istanbul.
‘I don’t know,’ she said. It was her standard response to many questions, but this time I felt that she meant it. She had seen glimpses of the city through the windows of the train, but little else.
The next day, we finally poked our heads out of the comfort blanket of the hotel and ambled down to the Bosporus. Heidi was initially captivated simply by watching the water, but it didn’t slow her down for long. I clasped her hand tightly, convinced that she would somehow fall into the river or wander into the road. She buzzed around the streets, dragging us to keep up her pace, entranced by everything she saw, asking questions, squealing whenever we passed a café and she saw the glistening trays of sugared sweets shining in the window displays. ‘Mummy, sweets! I know how to count to fourteen-a-million. Has my friend Daniel been to Turkey? I need a wee.’ Her energy outlasted ours, even without the sugar rush she so desperately craved.
“We ate sweetcorn in Sultanahmet Square and wandered around the dusty lanes near the Grand Bazaar…”
Exploring the city
We ate sweetcorn in Sultanahmet Square and wandered around the dusty lanes near the Grand Bazaar, then hurried along dark, covered alleyways where men sat on small metal chairs at small metal tables, sipping steaming glasses of rich, black coffee. But all I really saw were the trams, the dogs, the potholes in the pavements. ‘Careful,’ I fretted, again and again, my hand gripping tighter each time.
As the day closed, we collapsed back into the hotel lobby’s armchairs. Heidi’s energy had still not dipped. ‘I have an itch in my wellies. Is tomorrow the next day? I want a chocolate cake for my birthday. Please can I go to the roof?’
‘OK,’ I replied. ‘Just five minutes.’
We let the elevator carry us to the top floor and stepped out into the night sky. The rooftop was deserted and dark. My wife and I scanned the area for danger – low walls, trip hazards, anything sharp – but we needn’t have bothered. Heidi looked out across the city, a skyline of a dozen centuries, and for the first time was silent and still. Then she changed her view, craned her neck and looked up. The skies of Europe and Asia met, sewn together in a patchwork of galaxies. Her hand relaxed in mine, for once not straining for release. I let her go, but she stayed close. She spoke again: ‘Stars!’
I followed her in looking up. ‘Yes, they’re beautiful, aren’t they?’
She didn’t cut her gaze or turn to me, just stared straight up at the universe. ‘I’ve never seen actual twinkly stars before.’
I hated myself that my daughter had passed three without seeing real stars and imagined what other wonders I had withheld from her. I tried to console myself that back home there’s more light pollution and it’s normally cloudy and we make sure she goes to bed at a sensible time, but still, she’d made her point – I realised that we had spent too much time looking down, too fearful of imagined lows to experience actual highs.
The next day, we resolved to look up. We went back to the waterfront and sat hypnotised as gulls swooped above the cars streaming off the ferries, shipped across from Asia. We watched men fishing off the Galata Bridge, their rods all positioned at the same upward angle, like the necks of a herd of giraffes. We strolled around the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque, and this time we looked up to the skies and the spires, and we noticed the pale pink blossoms of the trees in the park. I gave Heidi some space, loosened the reins, relaxed.
The rewards of travelling with kids
Travelling with Heidi was hard. But a trip to the park’s hard, bedtime’s hard, getting her to eat green vegetables is hard. Travelling’s no harder than all that really, and its rewards are so great. Seeing a cityscape of centuries-old buildings stacking up away from the water, with minarets dominating the skyline; hearing the wailing calls to prayer reach out across the rooftops; breathing in the sweet smell of pastries as we passed the hundreds of cafés that dotted the city; marvelling at the countless pastel shades of Turkish delight. All of this was surely far more interesting and exciting for a three-year-old than the same grey houses we pass, under the same grey skies, on the same grey way to nursery, day after day after day. Children don’t even need to see the tourist-grabbing sites – adults don’t either – it’s the daily differences that amaze, and they’re frequently much more accessible.
On the flight home, Heidi sat in quiet acceptance of her surroundings, the questions and comments silenced temporarily. I like to think that the short taste of the wider world helped her, calmed her, enlightened her, and that our increased trust in her did the same. I also like to think that since that trip, Heidi has thought back to seeing the ferries cross between continents, to wandering the spice-fumed cobbles of history’s streets, to beaming with delight as the corn-seller called her a princess; that she’s remembered all that and would like more of it. The early signs were good. As the plane banked over the city and we pointed out to her the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque and the wide sweep of the Bosporus down below, Heidi pressed her face against the glass, taking it all in – the right kind of looking down.
First published in Bradt Guides’ Kidding Around: Tales of Travel with Children
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