Our epic transatlantic trip to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia

The morning of departure

Our three day move from Arlington, Virginia to the Eastern Province, Saudi Arabia started early in the morning.  Both Mel and I wanted to get up and shower before Naomi woke up since we had to pack our suitcases, wear out Naomi, and completely empty our apartment by 11 am. 

A few weeks back we had met with some friends at a small café just down the street in Courthouse called Bayou Bakery, Coffee Bar & Eatery.  This great little bistro aims to share the culture and community of southern foods.  The chef hails from New Orleans and the food is excellent.  They serve scratch made and fresh baked goods (to include beignets!) We left the house around 8am to go get breakfast at Bayou Bakery.  I ordered way to many baked goods to include a fresh croissant and a bacon breakfast sandwich on a buttery biscuit and then two iced coffees to go. 

On our way it started to rain.  Of course.  Not a great start for team Neujahr, but we powered through the light sprinkles and onto the park.  We wanted to try to wear out Naomi as best as possible, so we headed to our neighborhood park for a final time.  We had the playground to ourselves, and we played for about a half hour before heading back to the apartment.

We still had final touches to make on our suitcases and rid the apartment of all signs of our presence.  Time flew by and after several hurried trips to and from the lobby, all of our stuff was at staged and ready to depart around 11am.  We said goodbye to our apartment and whatever staff was in the lobby as we waited for the Uber to take us to the airport.

I ordered an Uber XL which “fits 5,” but with all of our stuff, everyone had stuff on their laps and under their feet.  We got dropped off at the airport about six hours before our scheduled departure.  The gate agents for international flights didn’t get there until around 2pm so we had lots of time to burn and nothing to do. Naomi ran some laps around the departure terminal before we headed to our gate.  By the time we got to our gate, we had enough time for a quick meal of Chick-fil-a, get Naomi into some pajamas, and board our flight.

The flight to Frankfurt

We were able to pick our seats so thankfully we had three seats on the side of the aircraft all to ourselves.  Settling in the best we could, we took a selfie and took a few deep breaths.  Before the plane was even fully boarded, Naomi already had enough.  She was tired, hungry, hot, and fidgety.  She was upset and the nightmares that Mel and I had about our first international flight were slowly becoming a reality.  When it came time to finally strap Naomi into her seat, she was having a full blown melt down.  And there was nothing we could do about it.

If a screaming, shaking, and raging toddler wasn’t enough, we were then informed that there was a problem with the aircraft.  It would be another hour before we would even take off.  In that hour, Naomi’s fit of pure anger didn’t subside in the least.  Mel and I were extremely apologetic, embarrassed, and frustrated.  Everyone around us offered reassurance that they weren’t mad and that they completely understand.  They were also giving us everything they could think of to try and soothe our uncontrollable toddler.  Sweets, snacks, random stuffed animals, things from purses.  You get the idea.  She wanted none of it.  And she showed no sign of slowing down.

Once the plane started moving, her crying subsided briefly.  Since she has been obsessed with Airplanes since we moved to Virginia, she knew all about the “up, up, up” that the airplane was about to do.  She looked out the window as we took off and less than 5 minutes into the flight she was fast asleep.  It was now 6pm local time in Virginia and we still had an 8 hour flight ahead of us, overnight, before arriving in Frankfurt.

For more about our do’s and don’ts for air travel with toddlers, check out Mel’s blog post

She slept for about an hour before waking up.  For the next six hours, Naomi cycled between wanting to rest, screaming, watching movies, getting upset some more, and taking cat naps. About 6 hours into the flight, I tried to get Naomi to sleep on the floor.  It took about 45 minutes for her to finally get the idea, but that last time she asked to go “down” and “sleeping” so I covered her up, she fell asleep, and she didn’t wake up until we were about to land.

Getting to our hotel

We arrived in Frankfurt around 8am local time, about an hour late.  Since we were some of the last people to get off the plane, it was nearly 45 minutes before we made it down to the baggage claim.  We waited for a few minutes and no bags.  As we looked around, it didn’t seem like there were many people from our flight there at all.  I went to ask for some help and the lady working in the baggage claim office assured me that our bags were there and that I should check the “bulky luggage” area. 

After 15 minutes of trying to find the “bulky luggage” area, I needed some help.  She said just wait 15 more minutes.  What do you know, 10 minutes later our bags came rolling along the belt.  I rented two baggage carts and we loaded up as best we could, got Naomi in the stroller, and started walking to our hotel.

I had a rough idea where the hotel was and knew it was connected to the airport.  We started walking in the direction that I believed would take us to our hotel.  Our first obstacle was getting up to the next level.  I went ahead and did some recon on the area.  Mel stayed with our two carts and hateful toddler.  After a few minutes, I had a clearer picture on where we needed to go.  What do you know, the nearest two sets of elevators were out of service so we had to go even further out of our way. 

When we finally found our elevator, we found that they were just big enough for one person and one cart.  With our two carts and a stroller, there was no way to get up without leaving something unaccompanied.  Its like one of those puzzles where you need to get the animals across the river in a boat and you can’t leave the cat alone with the dog, nor the cat alone with the mouse, etc. 

I went up first, dropped off the cart, raced downstairs, grabbed Naomi in the stroller, awkwardly rode the elvevator back up to our luggage.  The whole time I’m fearing that security would sieze our luggage since it was unaccompanied.  Thankfully there were no issues and about 5 minutes later, Mel rode the elevator with our stuff and we were on our way. 

It was another 15 minute walk through different hallways, corridors, and indoor plazas (and elevators) before we made it to our hotel.  Check-in wasn’t until 2pm and we arrived at the lobby around 10 am so I kindly asked for an early check-in.  For 60 Euro, they could check us in early but our room wouldn’t be ready for another hour.  At this point, I would have paid any amount to get my family into a hotel room to shower and take a nap.  I went to pay the early check-in fee and couldn’t find my credit card.

Panic set in and I double checked all of my pockets and backpack and Mel did the same.  While we were at the baggage claim, I used my card to also get some carts for another traveler who had no credit card.  Since it was like 1 Euro, I gladly obliged.  I must’ve forgotten to remove my card from the machine.  I pulled out another credit card as to not delay the early check-in and then sprinted off to try and recover my lost credit card.

About 5 minutes into my run back to the terminal, I realized that my card was in a secured area and there would be no way I could even go check.  Defeated, I resigned to the fact that my card was lost.  I called the bank, cancelled my card, and waited in the lobby with Mel and Naomi for the hotel staff to finish prepping our room.

The rest of the day in Frankfurt

We wanted to get a head start on getting over jet lag so we didn’t want to sleep away the rest of the day.  The bunch of us were stinky, hungry, and tired and we addressed our problems in that order.  We got Naomi in the tub, we both showered, ate some snacks that we lugged along from the USA, and took a short nap. Thankfully we had two adjoining hotel rooms, so there was plenty of space and two bathrooms to help us expedite the entire process.

We didn’t have a specific time to wake up or any real agenda for the rest of the day so after a 3 hour nap or so we ventured out into the city.  Other than getting away from the airport, our main destination was the Frankfurt city center.  Since the regional and long distance trains were also part of the labyrinth of buildings connected to our hotel, we made it down to the appropriate train platform and rode 6 stops or so to city center. 

We still really hadn’t had a meal since we left the US, so we made a quick detour at McDonalds.  (I know, I know.  Our first meal abroad was Micky D’s.  But we just wanted some chicken nuggets and juice that Naomi could eat and we needed something fast.). We strolled out of the Frankfurt train station and just started walking East.  No real destination in mind other than to get out, stretch our legs and see just a little bit of Germany.  The road we walked down had tons of little shops and restaurants.  Nearly every cuisine you could think of.  After about a mile of walking, we came to a little bit of green space.  Which was perfect since Naomi was getting restless in the stroller.

Naomi and I ran around the park chasing each other for about 20 minutes.  There were many people out enjoying the sunshine with their beers and wines.  It was dinner time in Frankfurt after all and the area was teeming with activity.  While the nap we had earlier in the day was great, we still wanted to get a good night sleep.  We started the trek back to the train station, but decided to stop for ice cream along the way.  Keeping it simple, we opted for a McDonalds.  This McDonalds was not as well staffed with English speakers as the one at the train station.  With no working proficiency of the German language, I pointed and mimed my way into two ice cream sundaes. 

Naomi was getting kind of grouchy and restless on the train ride back to the hotel.  Thankfully we found a spot right by the train door so Naomi watched out the window the entire way.  We practiced our words and phrases like “door” and “open and shut” and “train, choo choo” to make sure we got to our destination without a full blown meltdown.

Before making it back to our hotel room, we picked up a couple of sandwiches from a vendor along the way.  Two salami and one brie cheese.  While Mel was giving Naomi her bath, I went across the indoor plaza to a little grocery store to accompany our sandwiches for dinner.  This little grocer was amazing.  All the fresh veggies, fruits, cheeses, cured meats, drinks, and breads you could imagine.  I ended up getting a little container of olives, some gouda cheese, prosciutto, strawberries, bananas, and some milk.  Once Naomi fell asleep, Mel and I snacked on our dinner as we prepped for the next day.

From Germany to Saudi Arabia

Thankfully everyone had restful night’s sleep.  While Mel and Naomi were getting ready, I got us some coffee from the Starbucks right outside our hotel.  Mel and I nibbled on the rest of the fruit and cheese from the night before and re-configured our bags.  We made our way to the airport terminal and after a bit of searching and sweating, checked into our flight.  It was important to get to our gate as early as possible so I could find some ice to keep Mel’s medicine cold.

Mel takes a once monthly medicine that is required to be kept between 36o and 46o F.  One of our carry on bags was a large cooler with a 12 months supply of cold chain medicine, reusable ice packs, and a Bluetooth temperature sensor.  The medicine stayed within range the entire journey so far, but the temperature was creeping up in the mid 40s fairly quickly.  There was no way that the medicine would have stayed cold enough through the last leg of the trip, so it was important we found ice once we made it through security. Naomi was restless and the Frankfurt airport had two sit down restaurants in the entire terminal. 

**For those who might be reading this blog who also wonder about hand carrying cold chain medicines around the world, here is the sensor that we used.

I guess it’s been a while since I’ve flown internationally, because I was expecting dozens of fast food places where I could just order a few large drinks and have them only give me ice.  I finally stopped at one of the restaurants and explained my situation.  Thankfully the bartender was able to give me two large bags of ice for free and we were on our way.  At that point, I felt like giving the man a hug because he just saved about $1000 worth (after insurance co-pay, of course) of medicine from spoiling.

We got to our terminal and Naomi needed to get out some of her wiggles.  She ran around a little bit and we watched the little utility trucks and busses buzz around the tarmac.  She was getting pretty wound up and hot so we ended up just holding her and pointing our portable fan right at her face.  After about 15 minutes or patting her back just like she did when she was an infant, Naomi was asleep.

We boarded our plane without much complaining from Naomi.  We upgraded to premium economy on this last portion of our journey.  Let me tell you something.  In my mind, premium economy would be a gimmick.  An extra inch or two of leg room, dedicated overhead bin space, and a USB plug in the space between the seats.  Boy was I wrong.  These seats were like double wide, had massive tray tables, extra recline, and tons of leg room.  Our flight was about 60% capacity, so there was plenty of open seats around us as well.  The conditions were perfect for a great flight.

Naomi played very nicely with her toys and activities during boarding through departure.  Not as much of a cry or whimper out of her through boarding, takeoff, and the first 20 minutes of the flight.  Once we took off, Naomi cuddled up under her blanket, nestled her head on the arm rest using a neck pillow, and dozed off for about 2 hours. 

Before food service came around, they gave us each paper menus that showed our dining options.  Mel and I both opted for the veal whatever it was.  Our meals came out on glass plates with nice, metal utensils.  Maybe this is what all Lufthansa flights are like, but Mel and I couldn’t believe it.  Perhaps we were still shell shocked from our first flight and the icing on the cake was that our daughter was still asleep.  Mel and I dined like royalty in our premium economy seats, sipping on wine, and living large.  I can’t say enough good things about the cabin service on the flight.  Absolutely great.

When Naomi finally woke up, she occupied herself pretty quickly with the variety of games, toys, and movies we had prepared.  She never cried, sometimes got a little squirmy, but gave us a very pleasant trip into Saudi Arabia.  Our plane had a quick drop-off in Kuwait City and around 10:00pm local time (2:00pm Eastern Time), we landed at King Fahd International Airport in Dammam, Saudi Arabia.

Getting home

We were greeted at the airport by a pair of consulate employees – one American and the other a Saudi national.  The American was our “social sponsor” who we had been chatting with over the past several weeks.  They advised on what to pack, what could be found locally, how to dress, etc.  The Saudi national made sure that we made it through the airport and customs in the most frictionless manner possible.  There was a consulate car arranged for us at the curb of the arrivals terminal.  And just like that we were on our way.

The drive to our house took about 30 minutes.  Although it was pretty late in the evening, it was the start of the weekend (Thursday evening.  The workweek here is Sunday – Thursday).  The highways were packed and we could tell right away that Saudi social life starts late and goes well into the morning hours.  We also got our first impression on Saudi drivers and the rules of the road, or the lack there of.  Lane markers are merely suggestion, blinkers optional, making a right turn from the left most lane is normal, and speed bumps are everywhere because of the need for speed.  No need for us to worry since we had an expert driving us home.  We made conversation with our social sponsor who accompanied us home from the airport.  It was difficult to get a lay of the land from the window of our moving car, but we were all excited to finally be in Saudi Arabia.

We arrived to our housing compound and parked in front of our villa.  We had seen pictures of our house so there weren’t many surprises.  I opened the front door for the first time and was pleasantly surprised at how open and bright the house felt.  The pictures we saw of the place beforehand were compressed so it was difficult to get true dimensions so it was nice to see it in person.  We brought all of our suitcases inside then did a quick walk through of our place.  Our social sponsor was kind enough to stock our fridge and pantry with a few essentials.  I got a few things unpacked in order to get Naomi to bed and Mel fried up a couple eggs for herself and Naomi.

It wasn’t a flawless trip but we made it with all our things and right on time.  We learned a lot about how we want to manage these types of trips in the future.  What to pack, how to pack, and what to do.  Next time we wont have a 23 month old little girl, but I’m sure we will have new challenges no matter how old Naomi might be.  We’re here and still getting our bearings.  But I’m happy to report in the meantime that the Neujahr family is doing well here in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia!

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