Christmas in Wonderland

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Now that December is here, we can talk about Christmas openly and without fear of ridicule. As a lifelong yule fan I live in the perfect city to complement such a passion. When the lights went up in late October it was a tad early, even for me. But yay! Now it’s December, the Christmas ribbon has been cut (curled around a few gifts, even) and we can get started.

We live at the top of Orchard Road, a street that people visit every December from all over the island and from overseas too especially to see the famous light display, each year brighter and better than the last. This year’s effort – blue and green sparkly reindeer prancing the 2k+ stretch from Tanglin Mall to Plaza Singapura – is more demure than in past years, but those dangling Rudlolphs still dazzle after dark.

Orchard malls are decked out for the annual best-dressed contest and it’s not unusual to find some bonkers themes going on. There was the ‘pink’ year, with crazy flourescent acrobats and unicorns. There was the year with dangling presents and spinning tops (because of course that’s ALL Christmas is about, right?). This year the Forum Mall is fronted with lit up toadstools and, inside, a huge curtain of giant tulips. Vrolijk kerstfeest!

Orchard Road is locked in a permanent jam, but everything has an upside: the heavy traffic means we get a better look at the Tiffany tree outside ION mall, the massive white puffball outside Paragon, and the unashamed homage to shopping at Centrepoint – exploding goody bag of toys strung high above the store front, and life-sized collection of old-fashioned sweet and cake stands at the entrance. Frankincense and myrrh? Nice, but not a patch on what those three kings might’ve nabbed had they been transported to Orchard.

I love it all, sorrynotsorry, just as I always did as a child, but the intense festive feel does lessen with time. I remember being so concerned, at the end of Christmas Days past, that we now had an agonising 364 days to get through until the next one. It seemed an insurmountable timescale, stretching off into the distance in a grey fog. Of course when you’re a grown-up (looks around to find a grown-up) you realise that the spirit of Christmas is all about family, and not having mine around is hard. Thanks, then, to TheSister for flying out right in the middle of the sad grey post-Christmas patch for a festive visit to Malaysia; we’ve alerted the roti prata stalls.

Not that I want to go all Richard Curtis on you, but a real grown-up knows that It’s all about the build-up, the anticipation, the writing of cards, the getting back in touch, the thinking of those you love. And yes, if a few giant snow globes happen to be parked on the pavement, and metal lights that shine when you touch them, and a crazy pagoda strung with fairylights… well, you’ll find me loitering underneath them in full-on festive mode.

Let the countdown commence.

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Between Clouds and Dreams

One month on, I am still deeply in China. I try and listen to snippets of talkshows on the radio in cabs (though I’m no closer to speaking it). I try to progress to tricky foods with chopsticks. I go to the Chinese bit of my newsfeed more often than before. I remember places we went to, and Google them. I find the little vocab diary I made – English / pinyin / Mandarin – and save it, don’t bin it. We resume Mandarin lessons and instead of feeling tired and apprehensive I’m glad. I put the kettle on in advance, warm our new green and yellow dragon teapot, put out the special redwood tray, spend half the lesson chatting to our laoshi about the trip. I will talk at length about it to anyone who is willing to lend me their ears; I’m sorry about that.

Thank you, then, for Phil Agland and his brilliant new documentary, Between Clouds and Dreams. I talked about him in my last post – I fell in love with his original Chinese documentary, Beyond The Clouds, in c.1994, and then forgot all about it, or perhaps life simply took over. And then years later when we booked our trip for October half-term 2016 it all came back, and I found him again, on Twitter. And not only that, but he’d gone and made a whole new documentary, which began screening just after we arrived home. We played episode one, Mr PC and I, with the living room in ‘cinema’ mode (lights down low, popcorn, feet up). Treat of all treats; didn’t want it to end.

Is it just me? Just me who adores adores adores the way this man makes his films? Both of us glued to the screen, watching how the camera had access into the heart and soul of who or whatever it was following. Phil Agland’s documentaries are captivating to the last detail, the voiceovers silky and mesmerising, the background music sweet and haunting. His previous documentary had a female Chinese-accented voiceover, a perfect match. This one is male, mellow, somewhat Clanger-like and equally comforting, settling you into things instantly. This whole series – two years’ worth of filming – is about China’s relationship with nature. Episode one follows a small band of schoolchildren researching a story for their newspaper, about an endangered bird. Then there’s Little Ray, deaf but loving her education under the tuition of a forward-thinking, enthusiastic teacher. And then there’s Living Buddha, a man who – frankly – we could all do with as an educator for our children.

I won’t say more. It’s all too beautiful. Thank you, River Films, for enabling me to go back sooner than I’d planned.

‘Welcome aboard the multiple unit’: nine days in China

It’s half term in Singapore, so we go to China, happy to tick off another Asian must-see. We fling ourselves from Beijing to Shanghai through five cities over nine days. It’s only five hours to the north and on the same timescale, so we reckon it will work out well. By the time we get back home we are completely ragged, but we have seen such amazing sights. Some people hate travel that’s too quick, but we prefer to just take what we can get. If it can only be done in that amount of time, well then let’s do it, and soak up every bonkers hour. So that’s what we do.

AIR
It is parky and crisp in Beijing, breath-fogging and extra-blanket chilly. It gets warmer as we head south, with bright blue skies for the Wall and a positively humid last afternoon in Shanghai. When we pull into Xian rail station on the train, I can smell burning rubber, and it’s not from our wheels. It’s foggy here, but that’s not cloud, it’s haze. Our tour guide tells us people pay more to live out in the suburbs than in town, the other way round to ‘normal’. But then on a car ride into the surrounding countryside to see the Warriors, there are giant smoke stacks belching out coal dust, so I don’t really get it. Pack a mask.

BIKES
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‘There are nine million bicycles in Beijing” croons Katie Melua, very annoyingly in my head the whole time I am in this city. I don’t actually know about that but there certainly are lots of bikes here, and mopeds, and rickshaws. Unlike in Vietnam, where you’re told that it’s fine to step out into the street because the bikes will simply move around you, the idea here is to STOPFORTHELOVEOFGOD because the bikes won’t stop. There are special bike lanes and no one bothers with green ‘walk’ lights and the lanes are also used by tuk-tuks and dust carts, so you’d better always look both ways. Because it is cold, the moped riders wear huge body-shaped blankets, torso duvets that fit over person + bike. I wonder how they steer but they do. Right at me.

CABS
What? Where? Ah, there. Going right past us, green light and all. Mr PC finally gets one by standing right in the road, and about time too. We are now precisely one hour late for a meeting with friends who live just outside Shanghai. If you know me you’ll know that I don’t really ‘do’ late. Thanks taxis, blood pressure nicely raised for our last night in China. On the way back we take the metro – smooth, easy and much less stressful.

CROWDS
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Not until you step foot in this land do you realise why China calls itself 中国 – ‘Zhongguo’, or ‘middle nation’, or ‘centre of civilisation’. If your country was this enormous, you would also name it so. China is all about scale and everything is a superlative: biggest, strongest, widest, longest, and fullest. We begin to expect crowds, jostles at the elbow, pushing. With a country this big some residents might never leave, and those who travel might journey only within the country’s borders – so our tour guides tell us, anyway. And this explains why, at every tourist attraction, there are not only lots of people from other countries (like us) but also lots of tourists from within China itself. As well getting used to the crowds we also become accustomed to being points of interest – it’s not just the museum artifacts that everyone’s looking at. We become used to the open-starers who nudge each other as we pass and crane for a better view, because we know it is simply that many have never before been so close to such big-nosed, pink-skinned, cheese-scented families. Anyway, aren’t we staring right back? Perhaps a bit. Pot kettle black.

DRAGON, LION, PHOENIX
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Dragon is king, phoenix is queen, lion guards your house. This dragon has three claws so he belongs to a family, not an emperor. This dragon’s long back becomes the wall for the building. This lion has closed ears and that means he must not hear. He is bright gold, a colour close to the royal emperor’s yellow, so he must be very special. That lion is standing on a baby; she is a mother lion. My sign, rooster, is actually phoenix, which is nice, and those bamboo plants by the river are phoenix-tailed bamboo. By Day 9 we are exhausted but we can spot a dragon, phoenix or lion from a mile off. I knew a bit about all this before we came out, thanks to tour guiding, but it was amazing to see it all pan out before us in technicolour. Don’t ask me about the qilin, crane or bat, or we will be here for a long time.

FOOD – ‘Sauce explodes the dry flounder’
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Belt noodles, juicy slices of duck, hits of sweet and sour, crispy steamed greens, soft potatoes in colourful sauces, chilli heat that prickles on the tongue. Food in China is universally splendid. It is all the foods you’ve always found on a good Chinese menu but fuller, richer, purer. We eat in good places but the few snacky foods we try are also fine and there is only one bad meal, chiefly because of the mean content – chicken hotpot was more like a bowl of claw and bones and no meat. We declined stuff on sticks, like the live skewered soon-to-be-fried scorpions (wriggling), the huge whole deep-fried crabs, seahorses and star fish. Also donkey. The mistranslation of the title above is not to be tittered over. That’s what the menu promised, so maybe the flounder did need a sauce explosion, who knows? Chinese is a practical language and the meaning is usually straightforward. Next time we’ll try the flounder and find out for ourselves.

FORBIDDEN CITY & TIANAMEN SQUARE
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We enjoy taking pics of the standing soldiers and endless tourist groups following high flags across the vast grey concourse of the Square. In the security queue a soldier screams at a local tourist to get back in line, it’s all a bit like Oxford Circus tube at Christmas. Yet, nothing prepares us for the size of the Forbidden City. “Do you think this one is the main gate?” teases our guide every time we go through another grand entrance. After a while it becomes clear that the Emperor would definitely not have walked anywhere, not even to work off the biggest congee breakfast. This enormous complex with its yellow and red tiled roofs is a big one for me: splendid, massive and stately, a city within a city. But I’m happy that, unlike the concubines who sat around the gardens all day writing poetry, painting and hoping to visit the Emperor, I am allowed to leave.

JINGHSAN PARK
We stumble across this massive Beijing park on day one, just arrived in China and already turned loose from our tour guide. It is freezing and we are not prepared, so we walk to keep warm. Jonah spots the park on a map and decides this will be a good place to try some bottle-throwing (yawn, don’t ask). It is a hilly park full of big boulder rocks (from the building of the city moat, apparently) and we climb up and up until we get to a big pagoda at the top that is thronged with crowds taking pictures. We have timed this perfectly, as it is sunset, and what people are taking pictures of is the sun setting over the Forbidden City, It is magical, the perfect place for a family who has flown through the night, had no sleep, then walked two miles in a chilly daze. The next day, when we tour the Forbidden City, we see snappers in the distance, tiny ants taking daytime pics of the very same view.

GREAT WALL
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Someone on Tripadvisor writes that the Great Wall is simply this: truly great. I can’t agree more. It is a wonder, a work of majesty, on an awesome scale, and if by some lucky miracle you get the chance to go, you just have to. The first glimpse from ground level is heart-stopping – and it is at this point that if you’re scared of heights (like me) you’ll start to go all clammy. Since no one has mentioned the height thing I do my own homework, because surely if this wall is on a mountain then it’s probably going to be high. I’m therefore pre-warned, and not hugely surprised when I step off the evil cable car (almost vertical) and into the clouds. I’m not sure about it at first, especially when I gaze over to the left and see an insanely steep section going straight up like a stairway to heaven. Ah yes, says our guide, that is not a nice section, but luckily we are heading to the right. I do need a hand getting down the first steep flight because all around me is air, nothing else, but we press on and it’s so gorgeous and so much fun, and the weather is so lovely (coats off!) that soon we’re all scampering along. It’s not all about heights, there is history and storytelling in those bricks and we get a good idea of the building of the thing as we go, lucky to have a good guide accompany us. The route takes us mainly down-steps, with a few upward sections, and at times we have the place almost to ourselves. After strolling for 2.5km and passing through eight watchtowers, I have found my stride yet still decline the crazy toboggan ride back down to ground level. I opt instead to pop happily onto a ski lift with our guide and enjoy (I’m either cured or delirious with excitement) the gentle swing downhill, craning to spot my two boys bombing far beneath us on plastic sledges. Nutters.

HOTELS
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A mixed bag, but on the whole good. One is down a hutong, totally Chinese, with a big mahogany bed and red lanterns everywhere, authentically wobbly doors and utterly freezing. Another has a nightly waterfall cascading down the front – the city square fills nightly with people to watch. Another has a breakfast room that smells of vomit and the last one has an impressive front but a back that looks out onto Shanghai slums. A tour that shows us every single side to the story.

HUTONGS
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First built by Mongolians, says our guide (verified by Wikipedia), these are villages within cities like Beijing, once densely populated and now being torn down and built over. There are pockets still remaining, narrow alleys with grey walls giving way to tiny houses. Some are now dusty offices, some are shops, some are hotels (we stayed in one) and some are still dwellings. We thought Beijing had a really generous attitude to public toilets until we realised that these communal conveniences – dotted about everywhere – were used by hutong-dwellers who don’t actually have their own bathrooms, and there are many. We saw an old lady shepherding a little girl out of one down an alley one night, a tiny thing skipping along in her PJs with granny chivvying from behind all the way home to bed. Cosy.

MANDARIN
We try, OK? From day one on our own in a hutong restaurant, and on through every shop, eatery, museum, we give it a go. The longest sentence I manage is: ‘My husband is over there’ (it comes out as ‘our husband is here’ but the person understands). As with all countries the point is to try, and you need a few scattered words and the rest can be done with hand gestures. After 2.5 years of learning Mandarin, we are a bit sad to not manage long sentences, but also a little bit thrilled to have got to the point of being able to say anything at all.

PEARL TOWER
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I like a bit of warning before a proper crowd crush, especially when it’s our penultimate day in China and I’m tired and possibly a bit cranky. So taking me straight off a flight and shoving me into a 45-minute queue, then a squished lift and up several hundred feet to tip me out at the top of an equally crowded viewing room that’s far too high without really bothering to explain what is going on is not going to put me in the best mood. Poor tour guide, we don’t get off to a great start. Luckily, the sight of Mr PC and Jonah edging onto the glass-bottomed ledge then running back off again cheers me right up. And no, of course I didn’t try it. I’m not THAT cured.

RIVER LI
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You know those big pointy mountains that you see on touristy black-ink pictures whenever the word ‘China’ needs to be illustrated? Usually with a big river running along under the misty skyline? Well this is what we actually see on our boat trip from Guilin to Yangshuo. River Li, you are beautiful, totally gorgeous, and so are your mountains and your green banks of fluffy phoenix bamboo and your clear, bubbling waters. It is busy, yes, with a whole chain of pleasure boats like ours chugging along the otherwise peaceful waters. Still there are places where you can only see bamboo boats, water buffalo taking a dip, farmers on the banks. It is really stunning and the whole time I think of a trip that the folks did a few years ago, apparently just as gorgeous. The trip takes five hours thanks to shallow dry season waters. I’m happy to get off in Yangshuo, where we cycle down a few country lanes with those needle mountains towering above. I’d be equally happy to return the next day and do it again.

SNOT
Day 9, our last day, and our last lunch, and Jonah is restless, tutting and sulking, but I have travel exhaustion and can’t deal with it. Only when he pushes his plate away and growls out: ‘Why do they have to keep DOING that?!’ do we realise that someone is routinely hacking snotballs a few chairs away and it’s putting him right off his beef cubes. Mr PC and I seem to have become completely impervious to the sound. This is a noise that’s totally commonplace here, though younger nationals with western educations agree it’s about time the habit is outruled. In the end it’s not until a meeting with some expat English friends that we find out quite how equally disgusting we are to the locals, many of whom think that the habit of sniffing our nasal waste into tissues is worse. No, I don’t buy it either, especially not when scaling the stone steps of Xian’s city walls and brushing past a huge gob of drool hanging off the railings. Bacteria anyone?

TERRACOTTA WARRIORS
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As my friend, who visited not long before us, said: there are no words, and she’s not wrong. But this is a blog and so I must find some. Crowds make it very hard to understand what we are about to see as they throng the narrow entrance to the great hall, clogging up the viewing railings until a space suddenly clears, and then there it is. Or rather, there they are. Lines and lines of real, actual, proper, original stone soldiers, standing alongside horses, hands curled to hold imaginary wooden sabres and horse reins, long since crumbled and leaving the men holding nothing but air. They are beautiful and the scale is simply overwhelming, and after this is another shed housing warriors being patched up, and after that is another one with more horses, and then there is one with exciting looking mounds not yet dug up, the promise of yet more discoveries to be made. Our guide says this is a carrot-on-a-stick method of stringing out the discoveries so that people like Jonah come back in 20 years to see new warriors and spend more money. But we’re suckers for a bit of history and we totally buy into the whole setup, happy to be steered into the shop to spend money in a haze of feelgood warrior wonderment. Our three tiny soldiers now stand on the bookshelf, spotlit, and a bronze dragon is on our piano, claws poised to bash out a sonata.
Note: My father reminds me of something that I can’t believe I forgot to mention. Only in China can you then actually meet the man who discovered the things. On the way in he is parked in a bookshop ready to sign copies and pose for pics for a price. We decline politely, no matter how awestruck. And then we see the Warriors. On the way out we head back to the shop, take the picture, get the signature, buy the book. Insane.

TOUR COMPANY
We’ve done tours twice before – both times short trips with the same family as company. When it came to booking China I remembered how useful it had been, if time-poor, to have all that admin taken care of, so we booked with a well-known group and as a result had a different experience from our normal trips, but a very good one. From Arrivals in Beijing to Departures in Shanghai, we are met at each place by friendly guides and delivered to our hotel, taken around town, marched up and down walls and in and out of museums, urged through crowds to see Warriors, taken to lunch and, most importantly, treated to endless stories about the history and culture of China. The four tour guides – one for each city – wear their own clothes and have their own approach to the job and their own versions of the myths and legends. They vary in attitude, age, and usefulness, but are on the whole very good. It’s not for everyone, this tour thing, and I doubt we’ll do it again, but we definitely recommend the one we used. One guy uses his Subway loyalty card to get our van to the top car park at the Great Wall. Another bargains for a better bike for Jonah when we cycle through Yangshuo. One tells amazing tales of long-ago dragon ladies, and another discounts all those stories and instead talks about the current way of life in city and town, which to be honest is just as interesting. By Day 5 I have hit an information wall but I get my mojo back next day when the scenery changes. That’s the thing with dashing about – always another day around the corner.

TRAINS – ‘Welcome aboard the multiple unit’
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This is the voiceover delivered silkily every time we pull out of one of the 12 train stations between Beijing and Xian. In Beijing West station there are hints of Japan about the pointy bullet trains waiting nose-forward beside the enormous platforms, and also a certain organised code for the way it all works: station buzzer goes to signal boarding, neatly uniformed assistants help you board and get your bags sorted (nothing heavy on overhead racks please), and then patrol the aisles every now and then. From sunset and on through the night we whizz silently across 1000km at 300km per hour, a slight leaning shake the only clue as to speed. First Class cannot have given us a normal impression, but we do have fun sinking into the squishy red-velveteen seats, cracking open our funky snack boxes (plain bun, dry cracker, tiny bag of dried peas), signalling ‘more please’ to endless freeflow hot green tea from a huge iron kettle. The train stops at ghost towns, dark empty cities with skyscrapers trimmed in neon. I only wish I could try out all of the multiple units from here to Tibet.

XIAN CITY WALL
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Hire a bike and go round the top of Xian’s old city walls – all 13k of it. They say this is a great way of seeing the city but in fact you can’t see a lot. One side of the wall is too high, and the rest of the time you’re trying not to fall off or hit pedestrian tourists. It’s cobbled and there are ramps here and there. But it’s so much fun! Here we spot beautiful azure-winged magpies for the first time, powder blue and very fast. I don’t know exactly what type until I get back to Singapore, and emails, and message Dad. He says they’re only found in Spain, Portugal and China. Doubly lucky for us to catch a glimpse.

ONE MORE THING…
In 1994 I was obsessed with a TV documentary by a man called Phil Agland, Beyond The Clouds. Cameras had been allowed deep into rural China to film in a small town called Lijiang. The town is now a major tourist destination, but back then it was the China of olde, and cameras followed the doctor, police units, teacher and a handful of other characters as they went about their business. I was transfixed, longing to hear the haunting whistled theme tune each week and see what the locals were getting up to in their smoky, cobbled town. When planning our China trip this year, the documentary came back into my head so I tracked down a couple of episodes on YouTube and also found the makers on Twitter. They have been working on a new one, I am happy to say, and how eerie that they should let me know as I cruised the River Li. I didn’t see the message until I got back to Singapore: quite the best homecoming gift ever.

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Interdependant’s Day

Just four years ago, the idea of taking a cab in Sing held less thought for us than it does now. Now I have to think twice before ordering – do I really need one? How near is the MRT? I won’t melt in the rain. I could probably walk it. It’s not accurate these days to say that cabs in Singapore are cheap, because with the advent of online taxi apps the market is volatile. But this morning’s Grabcab was a good price and it was also quick to arrive, which was a good thing because this was a cab ordered by me but not FOR me, a cab for Jonah to get him home fast after a sleepover at a friend’s. I had to call the friend to get her to warn Jonah and load up his iPhone so he could text me along the way, as we’d not tried this before.

This business of putting kids in cabs is normal here, a very expat thing, veeery Sing-ish. If you don’t have a car, can’t wait for a bus, need to be two places at once, then a cab is often the answer. You can track the route and delivery is straight to your door. To pick up this morning from the friend’s house would have involved me taking two buses there and two back, one hour each way, and all before 09:30am Much easier, said bossy Mr PC (completely springing the idea on me) for him to come back on his own. ‘Everyone does it,’ he said, ‘and he already goes to scouts alone by local bus on Mondays.’ But scouts is near by, and the local buses are so reliable and… and…

Silly to be worried. At the same age I was going to school on the bus on my own (walking a 10-minute hike at the other end), popping into Covent Garden by tube to see the buskers, down to Camden to buy neon nail polish in the market, crossing the Heath on foot to visit friends on the other side – and not an adult in sight. And no cellphone either. Of course it was all rainbow jumpers and unicorns back then and it’s a different world now. All the same he needs to start learning, and what better place than in super-safe Singapore?

Jonah got into the cab looking worried, said the friend’s mum. After all, we hadn’t planned this or talked it through. ‘You should probably give him a call,’ she said. Thanks to iPhones I kept up a chat exchange the whole way home, in fact I stalked the route from there to here (panicking slightly when the app froze for a while). Ridiculous – the most non-independent mission, in fact positively pampered, but a step in the right direction for sure. Next stop, MRT to VivoCity and meet him at the cinema lobby.

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celtic popquiz

Sitting in the queue at immigration far too early one Saturday morning – actually yesterday, waiting for Jonah’s new green card to come through, feeling slightly jaded after a fun night out. As we sit heavy-lidded on the yellow bucket seats in that very odd immigration centre, Mr PartlyCloudy and I while away the time by reviewing the previous night’s very fun social shenanigans at a post-summer drinks night full of Scottish food and nice wine. We’d got chatting to a lovely couple, one of whom had asked me:

“Now then, what do you call someone who’s from Cornwall?”

To be fair it was rather an odd question, so instead of stating the obvious (“Cornish”) the best answer I could give was “Morwenna”. Much hilarity ensued, and if the lighting had been better I think this would’ve been one of those rare moments when the usuallly rather smooth Mr PC could be found blushing.

Fast-forward back to our hungover Saturday morning queue and Jonah asks what all the sniggering’s about, so we try out the question on him.

First answer: “Grandpa”
Second attempt: “Farmer”

Mr PC rubs away the tears and with a sigh checks the slow-moving ticket numbers on the screen: “I might see if I can put in for a new family”

Back in the room

Someone who shall remain nameless suggested, as I complained my way through the packing at the end of this year’s summer trip to England, that I should’ve sorted out our sons’ school shoes at some time during the “holidays”. How I laughed. At what point might I have found the time?
I write this on my first afternoon back in Singapore. I’ve had dinner out, done a morning at work, had lunch out (#lazylah) and, yes, bought those s*dding school shoes.
Thing is, there was a time when long-term expats would explain to me why they never did home visits any more. They’re tough. You zig-zag from picnic to pub, taking up people’s floor space with your exploding suitcases, refusing and then accepting endless puddings, having hurried farewells as you kiss the growing children on the top of their summer holiday heads and then waking up the next day and doing it all over again. Five weeks, five different beds, a million kisses goodbye and then a flight back through the night, holding back the inappropriate homesick tears at the end of the supposedly funny film on the flight, before hitting the heat of the taxi stand and having the first of a string of sleepless nights as your body struggles to right itself once more.
That’s the negative version. I concur, to a point, but I still think there is massive mileage in going back and seeing all those friendly faces, drinking all those cups of proper tea, getting all those bearhugs. The visit gives us all a large dose of happiness that stays in the system for a long time. Our 2016 version went a bit like this:
Cool air, late twilights, high blue skies, cups of proper tea, trees to climb, lawns, bacon, M&S deli, favourite old toys, trains, DELAYS, traffic, sirens, ROADWORKS, pub grub, festival fun, beach huts, car trips, park life, baths, chewing gum, fudge, familiar faces, bear hugs, gossip, scandal, the odd bit of appallingly bad news, more picnics, more bear hugs, much inexpensive but delicious wine, bus stop chats with strangers, thrift shop bargains, clouds that don’t burst, plates that are hot, more trains, washing up in old family sinks, neighbours who love you, kids playing nicely, curiously pleasing smelling laundry tabs, butter that doesn’t melt, more bloody ROADWORKS, intravenous familiarity and lots of love.

This year’s tune-to-wash-up-to, a bit tacky, goes to a hot road trip back from the lavender fields with Isabel, Chris, Cam and Georgie. Press play and clear the kitchen.

See you next time, Blighty

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Things I’ve noticed after 4 years in Sing

The snails are huge.
The roads are long. FitBit city.
The escalators are high. Still can’t quite…
Does the taxi smell of lunch? That’s OK, it’s not your cab, drivers can do what they like, just remember that long drive + full stomach + hot weather = sleeptastic #avoidtheairportroute
Bubble tea = genius. Why did we not know about it before Singapore? Gong Cha, Each-a-Cup, Koi, we [heart] you.
It is hot. I tried to be all relaxed about this at first and I hated people saying: “Too hot for you, ah?” Well alright, yes, since you ask, yes it is hot. I give in.
You can have a good curry puff and a bad one. Know your puffs #killiney
Toastbox is actually fine for dinner #chickencurry
Cinema tickets are SO cheap! Dirt cheap. How can this be?
Mandarin will be something that I quite possibly won’t ever master.
No one will congratulate you if you say 你好 or 再见 (when you’re in England and a Spanish person is talking English, do you give them a bear hug for being clever? No.)
In Singapore, no one can see you trying out all the very fit sporty things. Result.
“Inside table, please” Did I really say that? Yes you did. It is hot.
Why does the milk never spoil and the bread never get mouldy? Do not ask that thing.
I don’t think “freedom” eggs does quite what it says on the box…
The business of being able to get to Indonesia or Malaysia and back in a day without having to get on a plane is something I will never fail to feel excitement about.
A country that’s the size of the Isle of Wight, yet east and west can seem as far from each other as Glasgow and London.
Going to school means getting on a motorway.
Time difference is better this way. I can start my day and be ready for all your messages when they start ping ping pinging at around 16:00.
There is crime. We just don’t see it, or choose not to, and the papers are *CENSORED*
I love the tankers, truly. And I always swim on Sentosa. But OK yes, #rubbishinthesea
Singlish is a language, a real one, with a dictionary. Why no one tell you this, lor?
Don’t feed the monkeys.
Don’t be mean to geckos, they eat mosquitos.
Don’t leave the plates overnight. Ants.
You possibly have had mycoplasma several times, you just didn’t know it.
Singapore is the unspoken theatre capital of the world, or on its way to being. There’s a seriously fast-moving drama scene out here, and I should be buying more tickets.
There is nothing on Starhub. NOTHING.
Plates will always be cold. And your food, often. And coffee lukewarm.
Go to the longest queue at the hawker.
If I’m a size 39 and would like a black pair, then trying on a blue size 36 probably won’t work, will it?
In department stores, don’t seek help if you need information on anything other than the thing the staff member is selling. Total mystery. DO YOU NEVER GO AND ACTUALLY SHOP IN YOUR OWN STORE, or is it just that you aren’t allowed to tell people the answers?
First World Problems can seem very real for us poor expats. Pop along to East Coast park and check out the view from time to time. You live somewhere a.w.e.s.o.m.e.
Buses run in all weathers, roads are built for buses, roads have proper bus lanes. #efficiencypersonified
If the MRT goes wrong, stand-in buses will immediately come and get you where you want to go.
Kids need travel cards, but travel is cheap.
Tagging on and off buses – inspired.
If five of us squeeze into a cab it is far cheaper than taking a bus.
If eight of us squeeze into a karaokebus then it’s not so much cheap as very loud.
There’s an emergency runway on the way to Changi – all those flower beds in the middle of that last long stretch of PIE? Portable.
Palm trees and lianas, right there by the side of the pavement. Now that’s what I call “hedge”.
Cockroaches chase you.
Buy the tissues off the old man. It is his actual job #pensionless
Have you had your lunch? You must.
I’ve yet to see (m)any homeless people.
Storms like whirlwinds, whiteout in five minutes flat with all the tall palms bent sideways, then twinkling and scorchio half an hour later? Bonkers.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: lightning makes noises.
I’m so often called ‘Lawson’ that I now quite like it. Surname first, always.
There is a reason that Changi is repeatedly voted best airport in the world, and that’s because it is.
This is Asia Lite, yes, but it’s still Asia and you’re not in Kansas any more. Respect the differences.
Great view? Cherish it, they’ll probably start the building work tomorrow.
On the construction plus side, the lifts usually work.
Get close if you want, but they might be gone in six months.
Singapore is very far from England. Still.

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Love thy neighbour

Dust settles after the Brexit weekend. Here in Sing, with the online explosion of the divorce as backdrop, we’ve had another couple of days of saying goodbye to the exiters (Australian, English, Chilean-Indonesian, Norwegian, Swedish, American). Jonah just had an end-of-term Scout party at a climb wall (English, European, Scottish, Other). I spent a while on the phone today talking to several people (Singaporean) to sort out this and that. Saw my doc (Singaporean). Chatted to the neighbour (French). Mr PC had lots of business meetings (Singaporean, English, Australian). Then Dad (Cornish) emailed as did my sister (Cornish-London).

Arriving at work this morning I found our office neighbour, a girl (French) from the company next door, locked out. I invited her to come and wait in our meeting room and she accepted, happy to sit down and start work. Then another one turned up (also French). Then a third one (French again). After some quiet chatting and bit of keyboard clicking, someone with a key arrived and off they went, with a grateful ‘merci’. A nice little vignette to start the day. Before Thursday 23 June this would have been nothing more than that – a happy episode – but instead it made me feel like a superhero, single-handedly propping up European relations and bringing the EU back together, soldering continents right there in our little office in central Singapore. Quite – simply ridiculous, as is the whole race-relation fiasco kicking off back home, brought about by a Referendum campaign that was supposed to have nothing to do with throwing actual people out of the actual country. Mr PC talks of his own Anglo-Chinese background, and how that felt living in Newcastle in the late 70s, early 80s. Nasty scenes that he doesn’t talk about much, and why would he want to? Are we going back in time?

Out here in Sing, rumblings of racial tension are muted but they exist. I’ve had first-hand experience perhaps three times in four years, not much, but enough to give me an idea of the horror and isolation that it engenders. In terms of the EU split, out here we are removed from the noise and the cut and thrust. I can’t attend remain rallies at Trafalgar Square or hang posters from my railings, I can only add my name to petitions, but I can do something at grass roots level. The boy that lives in our back bedroom – teetering on the brink of adolescence – is these days mostly sulky-with-headphones, but we still have about a six- to twelve-month opening before the teen door slams completely shut, through which we are allowed now and then access to his still spongy brain, to leave gentle reminders of social conduct. He attends an international school where the ethos is, of course, that everyone samples from the same smorgasbord, and although the school itself would admit that one size definitely doesn’t fit all, attempting to live and abide by shared cultural expectations is something that the kids have to navigate every day.

These days that’s not such an unusual thing to find in any big city school the world over, especially in London, my home county and one of the few that voted Remain. You only have to take a poll at most of my friends’ kids’ schools to see that these places are more international than the biggest international schools out here – and most of the children sharing the halls in those big inner-city London schools would call themselves British.

Today is the last day of the school year. In August it’s Y7 – homework tightens up a notch, there are lockers, more new kids, gaps where the leavers have left, a new building to get to know, a load more after-school activities to choose, a touch more sport, a lot more freedom (bus pass and WhatsApp phone? Check). And off he goes, one year closer to adulthood. If he grows up to be the sort of person that will make cups of tea for someone who is locked out, wherever they’re from, then our work is done.

Sand in my eye


Six years ago I had a picnic party on Parliament Hill. Since childhood, this was something we would often do when a family member had a birthday, well, for everyone apart from Mum, whose wintry January 4 birthday of course had to be inside. But for me (June), my sister (April) and Dad (September), it was a case of packing up the blankets and heading outdoors with as many friends as we could gather. Standard.

At the exact moment that Mum died, in the early hours of June 4 2010, no one really gave two hoots about how to celebrate my birthday, which was disastrously scheduled to happen no matter what the following day. As it turned out, by the time the sun came up again some 22 hours later, we were very ready for temporary distraction. One swift Facebook wallpost from my sister and around 20 of us were knocking back the much-needed vino under a tree by the Bandstand, partly to remember Jo Darke, and partly to give us all a chance to eat cake. It was quite the most bittersweet birthday I’ve ever had. The kids bundled about in the long grass, people kept appearing from over the hill, waving that long-armed “seen you!” wave, we had natural shelter when it rained, and Jonah had Fanta for the first time ever. You’d never have known we were in mourning. I’m not sure we were really, not quite yet.

The next year there was another picnic, which was lovely but rainy and a lot more low-key. The next year there was a house party combined with a farewell knees-up for John, as he prepared to move out to Singapore ahead of us, so that was fun but odd, and then we were here, and the next three June 5ths in Singapore have been tropical hotties played out whichever way I could organise it in this funny new life of ours.

And always the date was preceded by that sombre little 24-hour patch known as June 4, extended out here in Singapore to 31 hours thanks to a seven-hour time lag. In that time I always receive sweet messages and little blinking kisses and then, rather like The Resurrection, the big hand hits the 12 and it’s party time. I love that she allowed me to relax and enjoy my day – generous to the end.

This year, unable or simply too lazy to host, I dropped a mumbled note to friends about a picnic on a beach and that’s how we wound up, last Sunday, flopping about on Tanjong with a cricket bat and a blow-up birthday crown. As dawn broke on the last line of sorry kisses and they segued into happy party-popping tweets, the sun came out and I floated out into the sea with a friend while the kids ran native all over the sand. I thought of Mum, who would have so loved this loose sort of party arrangement – planned but not planned – and I thought of her again when I emptied the sand out of my lovely new blue birthday shoulder bag at home (because oddly enough a lovely new blue birthday shouder bag was also the last thing she got me), and as I tripped over a piece of uneaten sandwich and tipped the last dregs of wine out of a picnic glass, I thought of her again.

I never need to write about the Fourth of June because it is remembered by so many people in such lovely ways. I can organise my own June Fifths, have always done, and I do it very well (spotlight, moi?) but since the 5th is now permanently glued to the 4th we might as well raise a double glass every year. To you and me, Ma. Bottoms up x

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Memory cul-de-sac

A friend posted something online the other day, about her local beach. She has moved back home after living in London for years, and that ‘home’ is Cornwall, and that beach was my grandparents’ local beach, and they lived just above it in a modern (for those times) purpose-built bungalow that Grandpa built as a retirement place for them both, aiming for a nirvana setting where family would come and relax and enjoy the sea air and the stunning views. And that is just what we all did when we went to stay there, or visit for the afternoon: my sister and I spent a good deal of our childhood adventuring on the lawn with our two older boy cousins. Those were the days.

My sister went back there years ago; I think she was shown around, but this was quite soon after we had sold it. I also took a walk down the back path but I couldn’t see much, and what I could see I didn’t like so I didn’t hang around. Again, this was years ago. So my friend’s post made me instantly go online to see if my grandparents’ bungalow was still standing. You can do anything, go anywhere these days, without having to leave the house. Thanks to the wonders of online science, this time I went right up to the front door and on inside, all from the comfort of my Singapore dining table, to find that the place is now a rental holiday home, a four-bedder with stunning sea views, pictures of which appeared everywhere.

The views are precisely why my Grandpa bought this bit of land and built the bungalow right there on the cliffside, a house nesting in its own dreamy thicket of green, approached by driving down a beach road, then a cul-de-sac, then down an almost vertical drive. It had three bedrooms, an orchard, winding pathways going in and out of trees and an olympic-sized lawn that followed the cliff’s slope down to a gate. When we drove over to visit from our own cottage on the north coast, we would chant ‘I can see the sea’ as our old VW beetle nosed ever south towards the little front parking area. The prize once we had bunny-hopped to a stop was the unlocking of the big 1960s wooden door, a huge bosomy hug from Granny, and an apple-scented one from Grandpa, appearing from the orchard greenhouse to chuckle out a hello. Then us girls would sprint off to the garden to roll down the lawn and gawp, panting, at the stunning sea view. This ritual is the kind you find in magical childrens’ books, and the garden was the kind of prize that even small children appreciated – a piece of land so stunning that we never wanted to leave.

When we were little, passers-by walked the cliff path at the bottom of the garden, and would peer in through the iron gate, nosily entranced by the enormous upwards sweep of green. We would dance and twirl on the lawn, ostentatiously aware of onlookers, and enjoying showing off ‘our’ garden to the tourists. On that huge bit of grass, with borders of lavender and hyacinth, we sat and ate biscuits on plastic summer chairs during school holidays; we creaked the double swingseat higher and higher, and took turns on the proper single swing with its faded pink metal guard-poles (the one that couldn’t quite take Granny’s scone-happy weight so that she fell off, once, with a bump; she was fine, she couldn’t get up for laughing). This is where we watched the grown-ups pour tea, dark scented liquid making a pleasing bubble sound as it went into the china cups. It’s where we dutifully passed around the scones, and where the cousins chased us with pretend guns. Where water-play sessions got our frocks soaking wet and where, one rare snowy winter, we toboganned down the slope – and in all weathers that sweep of sea, gunmetal grey or glittery azure, could be seen from almost any room, any angle. What a clever piece of land.

So there I was, visiting online, musing about how it must be around 25 years since I was last there in person. No wonder, then, that changes have been made. They involve concrete, a lot of it, totally covering the old patio and (wince) half the garden. Inside, the moss-coloured carpets are gone and so is the pearlescent sliding room screen. The rooms are uniformly a pale Farrow & Ball shade of ocean grey, and there’s a little woodburner at the back where once a round brass-framed fisheye mirror, fixed high up on the wall, had me staring endlessly at the distorted reflection of my bulging face. The neat fireplace halfway down the wall of the sitting room – with a mantelpiece that had carriage clocks, and a chair on either side for Granny and Grandpa – is now just one big space, oddly huge. Four bedrooms, says the blurb, but I couldn’t work out quite how, and I also couldn’t find our old twin bedroom, a bed each for me and my sister and a high-up shelf full of china teapots in the shape of houses.

Oh, it’s OK. I suppose I can manage the change, and in any case it was my fault for snooping. I didn’t have to go inside the place to know that over the years things would be different. And if I ever visit the friend who lives nearby, I bet I’ll be tempted to take a walk along the beach path again to see what I can see. No doubt there’ll be no little girls twirling in their party frocks on the lawn…

There are two positives that I can take from this, and they are: 1) at least the place is still low-rise, still vaguely the same shape and still boasting the same vistas. And 2) I reckon Grandpa, so very modern-thinking in his design for the original bungalow, would probably be chuffed with this shiny new version.

Oh, and 3) you can’t take away a great view, so it was worth the online snoop just to see the sea once more.

My cousin, and one of those amazing sea views