I can still remember the feeling of being a child and opening the first door on my advent calendar, popping the chocolate in my mouth and sighing at the deeply frustrating test of my patience that lay ahead. With 23 doors to go it felt like Christmas would never come. But of course come it did, nice and predictably right on schedule, just as it did every year.
The wait I endured leading up to this last Christmas however has been far longer, more flecked with uncertainty and with more logistical roadblocks to overcome than any of those childhood Christmases.
It’s been almost nine years since my goddaughter little G was born to my cousin and her husband in Perth, WA. The time I’ve been able to spend with G and her younger sister has been limited to a day here and a day there every year or so, dependent entirely on when they flew back to the UK to visit. On each trip their wispy blonde hair has been a little longer, their characters a little stronger. These snatched moments in time have been enough for me to grow to adore them, but never enough to get to know them properly.
It’s always been my intention to visit them, preferably at Christmastime, when everything is at its most magical for children and when family feels most important. But for years, things have stood in my way; despite my best intentions, the trip has never quite come together and I’ve been left wondering when I would ever get to spend some proper time with the girls.
When I found out earlier this year that my brother had accepted a job at a hospital in Perth, everything fell into place: Christmas 2015 would be our time. Better still, my parents decided to come along too, making this the proper Australian family Christmas I’ve long dreamed of.
The next step for me was to choose my route. Christmas is the most expensive time of year to fly to Australia, so there was no way around it — the trip was going to be pricey. As a OneWorld Sapphire member, I get access to priority check-in, fast-track security and business lounges when I fly with a OneWorld airline, as such it was a no-brainer to book this lengthy flight with an airline that gives me those benefits.
With several options open to me, it didn’t take me long to settle on Cathay Pacific. Of all the OneWorld airlines I’ve flown with long-haul in the past, Cathay is definitely my favourite. With its hub in Hong Kong, it also offered me by far the most attractive stopover destination. I passed through Hong Kong on a business trip earlier this year, but even though the city was tantalisingly close, I had no opportunity to explore it.
I flew to Perth from Heathrow, breaking my journey for 24 hours in Hong Kong. Unlike some airlines, Cathay’s cabins all feel very modern and new. There are no signs of wear and tear and with Haagen Dazs ice cream on the menu and a kind and attentive crew, you don’t feel like you’re getting a raw deal by being at the back of the plane.
The journey was long, but so worthwhile. On my first morning in Perth I awoke to the sound of tiny voices outside my door at 6.30am and jumped out of bed to take the girls to school. As the days passed, playing with the girls in the sunshine, making gingerbread houses and experiencing Christmas with them was everything I’d hoped it would be.
Little G is so like me when I was her age. I watch her imagination turning corners at a speed that almost no-one can keep up with, churning out stories, developing games, devouring books and unwillingly grappling with realities that don’t make sense or seem fair. I want to tell her everything I’ve learned about what it’s like to be a person like us — to help her deal with being hyper-sensitive, tell her not to let the world stifle her imagination, make her promise never to stop reading — even though I know all too well it’s not that simple.
Meanwhile her little sister, a puck-faced little beauty strokes my face, squeezes my arms, climbs all over me, all the while telling me at a million miles a minute what she thinks about this or that and giggling hard to herself. She is tactile and boisterous and robust, and I am glad: I have feeling she’ll be alright.
Both of them will be really, but my instinct is to want to be there to fend off any sunshine stealers they might encounter in life so they can keep being the vivacious little people they are right now.
Christmas celebrations began in earnest on the Sunday before the big day. A huge outdoor carols by candlelight session was taking place in Langley Park by the Swan River so we went down to join in. It was strange to be sitting outside watching the sun set over the swaying palms and eating ice cream while singing Christmas carols, but with thousands of people belting out We Three Kings it was impossible not to feel in the festive spirit.
The same was true of the girl’s nativity play on Christmas Eve.
There was little discussion about where to spend Christmas Day, after seeing what Santa had brought the girls, my extended family hopped into their respective cars and we made our way to Cottesloe Beach. We played in the waves and admired the snowmen crafted from sand, until hunger took over and we headed back for a traditional Aussie BBQ lunch, complete with local fish, meat and craft beers.
The final stop-but-one on my Australian family Christmas journey was to check out the road named after my great uncle, an orthopaedic surgeon who set up the spinal injuries unit in Perth when he first moved here as a young doctor. I only met him once (he died back in 2000), but he was a kind man and it meant a lot to my mum, who was close to him, to go and see what he’d achieved.
After the most glorious three weeks, we all gathered at my brother’s place for a final supper before we headed to the airport. He’s scored himself a pretty sweet apartment with a view out over the Swan River, so we sat out on the balcony munching on fresh salads and sourdough as we watched the sunset.
The skies were unfailingly blue the whole time I was in Perth, but that final afternoon saw some clouds gather above the city for the first and only time (back when I was doing my English Lit degree this is what we called pathetic fallacy). As anyone who regularly stares out of windows knows though, clouds only serve to make sunsets more interesting. And the city silhouetted against those glorious smudges of colour — just beautiful.
Having heard how much this trip meant to me, Cathay Pacific kindly gave me access to the recently renovated Pier first class lounge in Hong Kong on my return to help me round off my holiday in style. I curled up in one of the day suites to FaceTime my boyfriend and let him know I’d be with him in a few hours. Then, missing my family and yearning for home, I drowned my sorrows in a glass of Moet & Chandon Rose Brut (a great antidote for pretty much any kind sadness).
When I arrived at the gate to board my return flight to London I also found that I had been upgraded to premium economy, which was much appreciated given that this was the longest leg of my entire journey.
Grasping my champagne, I reminded myself how lucky I am to have my family, even if some of them are half a world away most of the time. I watched Hong Kong, a city I can now claim to know just a little, spin beneath me as we took off and circled the islands.
When the sky clouded over, I sank back into my pillow and slept. I can’t tell you what a difference it made to have the extra space and comfort on this 13+ hour flight. With a wider, more comfortable seat, more legroom and more recline, I finally got some much-needed rest.
Let’s not forget the fine dining.
I’m home now and still missing everyone terribly, but reminding myself to patient for the adventures that still lie ahead.