Enter the dragon (exit via the gift shop)

A small boy looks out on his strange new habitat, Aug 2012

In Chinese temples you enter via the dragon door and exit through the tiger, having moved in a counterclockwise direction through the building. If I throw a load of pins on a map of the Far East I can’t see a clear counterclockwise route, but I know that we’ve roared through a huge part of that bit of the world, and exited through the best gift shop life could have presented us with. Jonah’s Insta byline trots out that line about leaving with ‘only your memories’ or something and it’s a cliche but a good one for a pre-teen who could just as easily have picked something rubbish – the message is a gift in itself after five years of travels.

I wrote most of this at 32,000 feet, returning to the UK after a counterclockwise trip to Australia. The route home to London made no sense at all in the planning but plenty in reality, leaving at nightime after a fog of tears and alcohol,then heading further away from England to the east of Oz, landiing on wild and sandy Tangalooma Island where we found pelicans, dolphins, whales and the Connors family, who snuffed out any sadness by filling our three beachy days with as much activity as possible. What a great exit plan, I thought, as I slid down a 25-foot sanddune on a piece of chipboard and snorkelled with wobbegongs.

Arriving home after another week of catchups with friends on east and west coasts, two flights, five airline meals, several sky-high glasses of fizz and eight and a half films, and there was Grandpa at Heathrow, then a cab ride from west to north London and suddenly we were back in the room – four years and 11 months after we shut the big black door and heaved our bags into a cab.

That our connecting flight from Perth to Sing to London whipped us through Changi at breakneck speed was a good thing. The farewells of 11 days before had been enough, and our bolt from gates 10 to 4 meant a merciful plaster-rip from there to here. If you bagsy the window seat you can have a little weep as the tankers tilt at funny angles beneath you for the last time – that’s my best tip for leaving Singapore.

Five days on and I’m slowly acclimatising. The weather is making it easy, sunny days on the Heath with friends, and every day a grassy picnic (narrowing my capsule wardrobe by the hour as my waistline widens), and into the diary a nice dotted trail of happy reunions to come, and I can’t wait for all of that. My new sim card is plugged in, I’m wearing boots again (which feel like hooves) having picked up a pair in Australia. I’ve registered a new Oyster card and Jonah’s done a morning at school. But it’s not like we never left, not at all.

The comparable memories of our departure from England are as clear to me as if they happened yesterday. Where were we? There was a birthday party with a garden full of kids. Goodbye to the cats. Crazy Olympic trip with Pa and T. Sobbing on the pavement with Kate. A desperate goodbye to the folks outside 72. Emerging into the neon moonscape of Holland Residences. Discovering delightful Chip Bee Gardens and Holland V. My first swim on Sentosa. Stifling heat both day and night. Birdsong sounding like ringtones. Sharp homesick pangs coupled with an instant love of the palm trees in my neigbourhood hedges.

To say a lot has happened in between times would be an understatement. I am the same and also not the same. Our Sing leaving party was so much like our UK goodbyes (and our wedding, actually) in terms of the balance of people; we seem to pick the same kinds of lovelies to hang out with now just as we always did back then, so I know we are the same in our core, us PartlyCloudies, choosing and being chosen by kind and kindred spirits wherever we are.

And now home (our London home, that is – this will be confusing for some time, I suspect). We came in through the dragon and we left via the tiger, in with a flash of London farewells and out with a similar pop of festive hankie-waving. If we can make the next five years as amazing as the last five, there is a lot to look forward to.

As I finished writing this, London suburbs emerged far below, the Thames winding through suburban outskirts into the corner of my window – a sewed blanket replacing the dotted tankers.

Pastures new. A treasury of friends back there and here. The biggest going home presents we could have hoped for.

On on.

Home, July 2017

If you leave me now…

As the timer’s counted down, I’ve spent a lot of time whizzing about the city in cabs, most of which are tuned in to Singapore’s bluesy, drowsy retro radio stations. WHY there is this national interest in cheesy schmooze I have no clue, but after five years of golden oldies I now can’t browse the vegetable aisle at Cold Storage without humming along to 10cc, and all those cab rides have allowed me to compile my own Goodbye Playlist. I’d like to thank Gold 905 FM, my running mixtapes and YouTube.

The positive one (for Hannah): So Good To Be Back Home – The Tourists
The conical one: Take A Bow – Madonna
The gothic one (for Debs): Say Hello Wave Goodbye – Soft Cell
The operatic one (for The Connors): Time To Say Goodbye – Sara Brightman
The unutterably sad one: Bye Bye Blackbird – Alison Moyet
The boyband one: Bye Bye Bye – ‘Nsync
The glamdram one (for Soph & Han): Going Home – Rocky Horror Picture Show
The angry one (for Claus): Cardboard Boxes – Loudan Wainwright III
The one with the high bit: Goodbye Yellow Brick Road – Elton John
The #guardiansofthegalaxyII one: Father & Son – Cat Stevens
The dance one: So Now Goodbye – Kylie
The retrospective one (for John, Lou and Karen): All These Things I’ve Done – The Killers
The Kate one (for Kate): Clouds Across The Moon – Rah Band
The New Zealand one (for my boys): It’s Time – Imagine Dragons
The friends-everywhere one: History – One Direction
The reflective one (for the Roa-Pauls): In My Life – The Beatles

So long, Comfort Cabs, and thanks for all the choons

PS The one for when I get back (from Tamsin): Mr Blue Sky – ELO


I’m about to have another First to write about. As well as running, Mandarin, bird-watching loom-ing (a brief phase to keep Jonah company during his equally brief craze), aquafit, macaron-baking (twice) and Scottish country dancing (F for fail), I will soon be adding Yoga to my list of learnings since arriving here in Singapore. I’ve had a terrible bad back for the last month and this opportunity to try out a yoga class has dropped out of the great fitness menu in the sky at the perfect time for me, as the chances of me getting into running gear any time soon are becoming slim (shame that’s not my waistline). My first class is tomorrow morning, with a friend who is just about to qualify and needs guinea pigs. I’m game! I only hope I’m still friends with her by 10:30.  Will report back from beyond the yogamat.

Next day:
Hooray, we’re still friends! In fact we’re more than friends, we are officially now Teacher and Student. Three of the four other people at K’s inaugural trainee yoga session this morning turned out to be mates of mine, so it was a very chatty bending session, which was nice. I met one friend in a lift and we both confided we weren’t a fan of the ‘om’ type of yoga. But not only did K have us blowing out noisily and bending our legs around our knees while stretching our arms out behind our ears (at least I thought that’s what she told us to do), she had us omming and ahhhing as well. She’s a gentle but confident teacher with a lovely, sure way about her, and a GoodSenseOfHumour (a vital component for things like this). There was a bell, plus yogi tea at the end, and a snack, and those lovely mates I mentioned before, and I felt truly wonderful at the end – refreshed, calm and stretched out in a good way. I immediately signed up for Lesson No 2.

At least 18 years have passed since my first – and last – brush with yoga, a disappointing trial of forced meditation and unreasonable twisting. It takes a certain maturity to admit you’re a bit rubbish at something, which I clearly was unable do at the time, when in fact I should’ve just called it a day. Well now I’m older, creakier and frankly could do with the help. Chilling out is something I’ve been meaning to learn for ages – this morning’s session felt like someone had caught my brain by the ankle mid-flight and held up a big STOP sign. I’m very happy to stop for a bit, and my back will be happy with all the bending. Plus I’m sure this means I get to buy a new set of ActiveWear.

Good v Evil: last one out switch off the lights

Following on from the hero-Dad-post, I took Jonah to see another hero today, at least he always was one of mine. Superman is in Singapore, appearing several times a day in various locations. I had two boys with me for a school holiday viewing, and enjoyed that frissance of fun that I still get when I watch anything during daylight hours*. We had a lot of popcorn, which – as usual – kept appearing long after I got home (down my bra, stuck to my skirt), and a big drink each, and we were all set for some tights-over-pants action.

There was a lot of talking. Some of it made sense but I couldn’t follow all of it – at least not while fishing stray popcorn kernels out from under my thigh. The man in front of me had a very smelly head, and left early. Jonah always asks a lot of questions, but today’s rate increased to levels that even his friend found tiresome: ‘JONAH, SHUT UP!’ For a while they both sucked bubbles loudly through straws. Sandals were kicked off and toes tickled the heads of the people in front – no one noticed so I didn’t mention it. While noses were picked, I found another kernel stuck to my left elbow.

About two hours into the film, Jonah needed a wee and disappeared off to the toilet, just as Superman’s head was clonged against a steel pylon for the 11th time. I squinted closely at the big screen to see if any bruises were starting to come up, because surely that was going to sting, but he just mumbled a bit. Once Jonah came back his friend needed to go, so off they went together – just as Superman told Lois he loved her. When the boys came back I updated them and I’m amazed that no one told us to shut up but frankly I think the whole audience appreciated the distraction.

When anyone mentions that cliched term ‘multitask’, it always makes me think of superheroes, and not the ones in kitchen aprons with office pencils behind their ears and nappies sticking out of their back pockets (although they deserve a round of applause too, especially as that’s Me, that is), but the ones in tights, holding up busloads of screaming citizens while KAPOWING a baddy in the goolies at the same time. Call me old-fashioned, but the superheroes of yesterday were just so much stronger, braver, and tidy as well, really thoughtful. No one brought down an entire Parliament including truckloads of innocent bystanders, because that’s too close to real life, and who wants to watch that? In the olden days they saved everyone and got out the dustpan and brush afterwards. Today’s film brought out my latent OCD (which, sadly, never surfaces in real life) – just who is going to clear up that little lot, I thought, as Jonah stepped on my toes while fumbling for his seat yet again.

As for Wonderwoman: great plunge top. I looked hard for signs of see-through shoulder straps or Sellotape sticking out under the armpits, but can only conclude that she got one of those clever low-back scaffolds or perhaps had a bespoke one made at Rigby & Peller, because she did all sorts of things with her arms (waving, thrusting, crossing one in front of the other) and nothing fell out sideways, not even once. You’d never find any popcorn down there, that’s for sure. She was a bit late, I have to say, but when you’ve got a big magic hubcap to lug around I guess you’re going to be hard-pushed to follow a schedule.

That’s the thing though – in the old days, Wonderwoman wasn’t late, and had much bigger hair. I like my superheroes to be good role models, strong and brave but neat and efficient too, because the magic superbras won’t put themselves away in the undies drawer. I’m being political here, obviously. I’ll get my coat of many colours.

*Daylight viewing was banned in our house. This is because Mum was brought up in a beach house on the north Cornish coast with a garden full of sand, and thought her own kids should be out GettingFreshAir just as she was. Frankly, I think her sort of beachcombing sounded scary – she was found ‘playing’ in the waves no less than three times, scaled high cliffs without her parents knowing, and spent happy hours tripping tourists with man-traps made out of dune grass. Conversely, I was brought up in urban Kentish Town, six flights up in the air, with dog poo pavements and, yes, the Heath to roam over, but, well, it’s not the same. While everyone else was watching Saturday morning telly we were sent out to get some of that FreshAir. So I always feel naughty if I watch things in the day, which is probably why I do it more the older I become.

Thinking out loud

This morning’s mental playlist, in approximate order:

Gun laws and mental health legislation
Singapore laws and clean pavements
The man on the MRT
The wealth of Nassim
The Myanmar embassy
Ceiling fans, exterior and interior
Jason the fan-mender
My artwork, currently bubble-wrapped
Jacky Tsai
Shelving and Well Walk
Kitchen linoleum and wooden shutters
Bank accounts
Holidays to Japan
Mount Fuji
Scotland and Glencoe
Family health
Weight loss and knee pain
Play to end

Just saying…

My library card expired. At the same time I knew I was about to start a new research project for the next exhibition at TPM, so I thought I’d renew the card and get ready for some swotting at the same time. I had a load of books to give away so I took them to the public library up at Bishan, being a) a branch that was on my MRT line, b) a branch that has shelves for dropping off old books and picking up new ones, c) somewhere I still hadn’t yet explored.

Bishan was spacious, windy and smelled of lunch, which immediately put me in a bad mood because I’d started the stupid Farce Diet and was feeling the starvation just as I walked past Simply Bread’s croissant-rich air outlet.

A nice lady at the library counter confused me completely by telling me that the card itself had not expired but that I still needed to pay. This she helped me do at a ‘kiosk’ where you press in your card and wait, stamp in some codes, wait, out comes card chip facing up, wait, put card back in chip facing down, wait, slide, wait, tap in more words, buttons go ping, card pops out. Yes, that is why she helped me.

Having dropped off the books and updated my card I did a big smug tick-motion with my arm off the imaginary list and stepped gaily towards the MRT (ignoring mean old Simply Bread very bravely), but the stupid list got all needy again two weeks later, when I got a payment renewal notice by post. So today I popped in to my favourite Singapore library branch, the very central National Library on Victoria Street, partly to challenge my own private vertigo by going up and down in the glass lifts that are stuck to the outside of the building, but partly also to ask, politely, WTFpleaseandthankyou.

So I did that, nicely, and the nice lady (they are all VERY nice at libraries here, please go and see for yourselves) told me that in fact I didn’t need to pay anything until October and that everything was fine. She said that sometimes, just every now and then, they will send you a little note to remind you that at some point, in the future, you will probably need to pay something.


10k v2

What a difference a daytime run makes. The night-time stagger to the Finish at my first 10k last May left me thinking: never, ever, ever again. So who’d have thought that just five months later I’d be cantering over my second 10k Finish? Well, not me, clearly.

It was Book Club Louise’s fault. I really didn’t ever want to run a 10k again but she suggested giving it a go. No harm in going in for round two, I thought. I’m a morning person and so the crack of dawn start was nice, with a cool rainy breeze and quiet, peaceful roads down to the Flyer. By the time the sun came out we were halfway round the course and the pavements hadn’t had time to reach baking point; when you do a nightime run the roads are slowly going back down to a cool temperature but they’re still very warm. Running in the day also meant that you could see where you were going: result.

I won’t lie, I didn’t ‘canter’. The first 5k was great, 7-9 was bad. It hurt. My knees have been hating me all day. Having hosted my best buddy on a visit to Sing for the last two weeks, my training routine had been all about eating and drinking, and I wasn’t at all ready. Last time my spreadsheet was printed out and stuck on the wall beside my desk and I followed it religiously. My curry, cocktails and cake routine and the odd saunter round the block will never make it into any professional training manual. Still, being a plump but happy runner has its benefits: it made me much jollier about lining up at the start, but I can’t say it did me any physical favours.

That’s it for me with 10ks, for sure, my knees will be happy to hear. I’m leaving it to people like Mr PC who actually like running for an hour and a half, often longer, in temperatures approaching 32C. I’m not sure Louise will be doing one again, but she should – she flew round the course and had already picked up her bag and banana by the time I limped under the flags. I think I’d rather have healthy knees than a banana.

Signs and wonders

I’m doing a tour tomorrow and I’m always nervous the night before. Then I walk through those pretty double doors of The Peranakan Museum, past the blue eagles (high-flyers, protectors of the elite, just the job for taking care of the schoolboys who once went in and out of the place), and I’m fine.

Guiding aside, I knew there was a reason for me taking that docent-training course last year and it came to me yesterday, on a trip to a dusty junk shop. Tucked down the side of one cavernous room was a low red chest with metal decorations. I loved it, as did my friends, and we spent a long time fondling the gorgeous thing, wondering what it had been used for. Some symbols gave clues as to its story.

For starters, the dresser had bat handles – bats are signs of good luck because the Chinese word for ‘luck’, ‘Fu’, sounds like the word for bat, and very often the bat character is portrayed upside down, emptying its luck out on those below. There were two birds on the front – parrots or maybe pairs of phoenixes, queen of the birds and another emblem for good luck in marriage. There was the colour itself, lucky red – trademark pantone choice for auspicious events. Finally, right on the top, was the giveaway side-by-side symbol for ‘double happiness’. I looked for another chest because if there were two, then… and yes, tucked away deep in the next room was the matching twin: a pair of lucky double happiness wedding chests no doubt given as a wedding present. Douze points and smugface.

Have not gone back to buy them yet. I may have passed the symbolism test but I need to convince Mr PC that my wedding trousseau is still missingimage(2) something.

Truth and lies (or myth-busting home visits)

There’s plenty of talk about what it’s like to be an expat on home leave. Well, here I am coming to the end of my UK summer hols, so I’m now qualified to comment on all the quotes that get bandied about on what to expect when you go back home for a visit:

‘There’s not enough time’: True, there is absolutely not enough time.

‘Nothing changes when you go home’: Poppycock. Any old chat with the person pouring the coffee will reveal that everything changes, for both good and bad. Open your ears.

‘Next year I’m hiring a farmhouse in Suffolk and everyone can visit us’: What, everyone? Will you have enough bedding? Will there be enough wine? No, that won’t work for us, or for any of my family and friends apart from those who happen to actually live in or near Suffolk.

• ‘No one wants to know what you’ve been up to’: Partly true, partly false, but it depends on who you’re seeing, how much time you have and what the kids are digging up while you’re trying to chat. I have found most people are keen to hear about work and school, not the swimming pools, and I think that’s a nice reflection of the kind of life I had before we left and the kind of people my friends are. So that’s alright.

‘You can’t see everyone’: Very true. Apologies to Parrot, Michaela, Mr Laing (for the second year running), Louise, Pam, ohgodeveryone – and the Cornish lot too #sadandguiltyface

• ‘Haven’t you grown?!’: Yes, if directed towards my stomach, and definitely yes for the children, yes indeed, they have all grown so much since last year, and now I know why old ladies say that a lot. Amazing and a little bit scary.

• ‘I hate living out of a suitcase’: So do I, and that’s why I blow most of our home leave allowance on a rental apartment. Here we can recuperate, chill, allow our pants to spill out of that suitcase, and drink cups of restful tea in anticipation of doing it all over again the next day. An essential booking.

‘We spend our lives on trains’: Same here, but I quite like it. Yep, it’s exhausting and can be costly, but what a great way to pack in precious glimpses of my home country.

‘It’s hard to work out where home is’: Not such a big deal last year, very much so this year. I’ve got lost in London a couple of times this past month, which is bonkers, yet I feel completely at ease walking around my old neighbourhood. I find I keep referring to Singapore as ‘home’, yet the homesickness I feel for London is very strong this year. I can only see the lines becoming more blurred as time goes on.

• ‘Coming home is a great reality check on how lucky you are’: You betcha, and just to prove how grateful I am I’ll be in that pool before my cases are out of the [fast, plentiful and inexpensive] cab. And to the Sing friends I’ve made, I have missed you (and you, and you).

‘Leaving gets harder every time’: Immeasurably so. No-brainer. Sadface #heartemoticon #kiss

• ‘You need another holiday when you get back’: Vietnam? Check.

Drawn to it

Last weekend the Affordable Air Fair came to town, setting up behind the Flyer for the third time since I’ve been living here. This was my second visit; last time I went to the bunfight of the opening night and spent the entire evening being careful not to spill my bubbles on the artwork. This time I went early one Saturday, going along for the ride with the same friend who took me before. She’s an art buff, she knows her apples, and she can recommend what to look for. She can also tell you what she likes and doesn’t like – she’ll give you a polite: ‘hmmm…’ if you show her something unsatisfactory. If she likes it she’ll propel you right up to the exhibit like a member of Miami Dade police at a house raid. While I prefer to dot in and out of the cubicles, firmly telling people I’m ‘just looking’ (as you have to here in the shops to avoid being hassled), ArtFriend is falling over herself to accept those grabbing hands. She gets drawn in by vendor after vendor, asking for cards, adding her name to lists, asking all the right questions, and – in fact – usually walking away with some other stunning bit of kit to go with the growing gallery that makes up her beautiful home. Watching her work the floors is as satisfying as the artworks themselves. Me, I just like to potter.

I did go to art school, actually – ArtFriend was surprised to learn this as we drove away from the show in a halo of good art vibes. Oh yes, I got a degree in printmaking, having spent my second year putting the painting tutor to the test by doodling a series of scrappy Tony Hancock-style feet in ‘simplistic style’ and being heralded as someone funky and innovate when, in fact, I’d just scribbled a few toes. That taught me, and in my third and final year I moved on to screenprinting, where the nuts and bolts of the technique blended with my passion for writing and I completed a series of sarcastic prints that heaved me up and over the precipice (along with a competent thesis) of a shabby Third and got me the 2:2 degree I didn’t really deserve. As a result of my cynicism I didn’t leave college with a great deal of knowledge about or love for modern art, but those years at art school at least left me with an idea of what I like on my wall. I go through phases: it was portraits for a while, and for that I had London’s National Portrait Gallery, a place I now realise I never visited enough. Now I’m in Asia Lite I find myself drawn to paintings of goldfish, for some reason, and I found several of those as I wandered around the galleries last weekend, sipping my free [brand name] espresso.

Although my happiness at blagging a precious ticket to the AAF wasn’t so much about ‘getting something’ but was more about dipping a tentative toe back into the art arena, I did love the venue and I loved the show, room after room of fun, fascinating, clever, poignant and funky pieces of original art, with friendly faces to tell you all about it and that nice free coffee thrown in. In fact I loved about 80 per cent of the pieces on show and after a while found myself seeking out local artists, looking for something different, something fun but not garish, most importantly something to put my current life in context.

I’m never going back with ArtFriend again, that’s for sure – she was far too good at the whole thing. It’s because of her that our dining room wall will, in about three weeks, look substantially more beautiful, and that whatever holiday fund we were hanging onto just went down to zero. It was definitely worth it. The ‘local’ context has ended up being a somewhat more far-off blend of Shanghai and London, but it will do. There are also no goldfish, but the fun theme is there and so is the beauty – it’s going to look amazing, and to top it all off the artist went to St Martins School of Art, where Mum went in the 50s. I think she’d have been happy with all that.

As for naughty ArtFriend, she is banned from taking me anywhere else for a while (though if there’s any more of that free coffee I might come along for the ride).