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

IMG_5022

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

A little lost

It’s just taken me two and a half hours to get back from dropping Dad at Changi Airport. I used public transport, and the trip should have taken about 75 minutes, but it wasn’t exactly a normal morning, so that’s not quite how it worked out.

I started at Gate 6 Departures (which is right in the middle of the Terminal 1 building), where we said goodbye and both very admirably did not cry (and I actually only looked back once). I then went from left to right looking for the station exit, failing miserably and trying even harder not to cry and as a result being unable to read any signs. By the time I’d mapped the hall, ant-like, for ten minutes, including dropping down into Arrivals and up again, I found the SkyTrain and took that to Terminal 2 where I hopped on an MRT train and sat dabbing at emerging tears, until it ground to a halt three stops later at Pasir Ris, totally the wrong end of the line. Never mind, from there I popped over the platform, blowing my nose, and stood waiting until a helpful guard pointed out that I might just as well stay on the same train until it went backwards down the route I’d just taken. So I did that, and for the next 45 minutes all was quiet (apart from the sound of rustling tissues and muffled honking), until I had to get off at Buena Vista to change to the yellow line, at which point I did the same backwards trip, going towards Harbour Front instead of Dhoby Ghaut and travelling in the wrong direction (snotty now and hiding behind a big book) to OneNorth so that I had to turn around and go not one stop but two to my final destination. Gah! At Holland Village (a place I know very well indeed, as I live there), I went into a bank for coffee instead of Starbucks, but the rest of the walk home was peaceful enough, apart from the sound of me by now properly sobbing into my Frappucino, mercifully blotted out by traffic hoots.

This is what my brain does when it’s upset, it short circuits. I won’t be surprised if I lose my keys later today, or email the wrong person or try and pay for something with my travelcard. The fact that my brain is upset is silly, because it knows – stupid, stupid brain – that it will see Dad again in three months time, but no matter how many times I tell it off for making me cry on the MRT, it insists on being utterly devastated every time we say goodbye to my father.

The thing about his visits are that they bring a sense of perspective to an otherwise frankly freaky existence. They level us all, reset the status quo. Here in ExpatVille life is lovely, but it’s not real. And it’s not forever. Dad helps us look at what we are doing, in a gentle and silent way. Of course the ten-year-old doesn’t see this and he’s always worse off, because ten-year-olds Don’t Know How Lucky They Are, Aren’t Appreciative and Would Never Get A Life Like This At Home. So a grown-up brain can (once it’s pulled itself together) tell itself that we are living this wonderful life for a short time only, we must make the most of every shiny second, and we must let Grandpa get back to the things and the people he needs to get back to, and in turn get back to our own lives, which are always put on hold (no matter how much we love pressing the Hold button) when anyone comes to town.

SmallMonkey’s brain sees a devastating short-term future of empty spare rooms, utter lack of experiment partners, only one person to read to him at night (me) instead of two (see? doesn’t know he’s born), zero amount of person to play with in swimming pool (when actually, again, there is me, but that’s a young brain for you), loss of forage partner, argument referee, weird plant explainer, patient joke-listener, school bus collector (yup, me again, but I know it’s not the same), partner in crime for leaving damp towels in beds and bits of old croissant in rucksacks, loss of bus, boat and plane buddy – all of the things that my brain agrees, after a stiff talking to, that it’s OK to do without for a while has SM’s brain howling at the moon every night, unable to right itself until Old Father Time works his very slow magic (and, maybe, a cheeky set of Match Attax cards is given at the weekend as a bribe).

It is the ease with which Dad fits into our lives that makes his visits so workable. It’s not simple, fitting into another family’s way of life, no matter how close you are. What we love is how he enriches our days simply by being with us, happily and without fanfare. In his place is nothing. It is not a gap that can be filled. You know, though, it’s not like that film Enchanted, where birds perch on our deck, unfurl ribbons over the kitchen sink, tidy up all the pool towels and make up our beds (yes I know we have someone to do that, but you’re missing the point); it’s not always sugar-coated. Some mornings we’re all tired, some afternoons we’re cranky or busy, but this is daily life for you, and it just highlights my point about the loveliness of having Dad around to mull along with us. His presence makes for a little bit of the year which, for me and SM, feels so much like home.

We talked, during Dad’s trip, about how long our stay will now be. We’re coming to summer, decision-making time; the lease on our apartment is up again; I’ve a new job starting tomorrow; SM’s school is ridiculously good. Where are the exit signs? We love our privileged life but the last thought before I go to bed every single night (apart from deciding whether to switch off the aircon) is for Dad, and my sister, and the rest of my family and friends, and most times it’s about what on earth are we doing out here, and what they are all doing over there, and what timescale does this bonkers existence have? How long? I don’t have an answer.

Mr PartlyCloudy tells me to live in the now, but his brain is different to mine, calculating, planning, measuring and adjusting. Mine throws out streamers, plonks up and down the piano, paints exquisite pictures then rides over them with a ginormous tractor before unfurling a giant rainbow towel on a desert shore with a tall fruity cocktail and a floppy hat, and inventing strange and unpublishable stories for the rest of the daydream. So you can see how we don’t, sometimes, see eye to eye on things. I do like his brain, though, and mine might just have to behave for a bit.

Once, in my twenties, not long after a big relationship had ended, I had trouble getting home after work, spending about half an hour walking between two tube stops on Oxford Street, trying to decide which route to take. This was ridiculous, since I had lived in London all my life and knew the route blind, but it was the result of the same panicky brain. So I’m sorry for my poor brain today and I think I’ll stay at home and give it it the rest of the day off, allowing it to track Dad’s route home, maybe eating a bit of Easter chocolate, until SM comes home from school and needs the Grandpa gaps filled. Sweets instead of healthy snacks today, for sure.

Other sad-brain posts about Dad’s Visits here and here.

Sob.

Don’t be nice

SmallMonkey went to bed in proper tears tonight. The Festival Of Dad is at an end. Trouble with having lots of fun with Grandpa is that you always come to the horrible LastNight where you know what tomorrow’s going to bring.
Best bit of this month? Starting a fab new job (Tuesday, I cannot wait to see you).

Worst bit? I hate you, Airport.IMG_9504

Seats 44D and 44E

I’m writing this at 35,000 feet during a particularly bumpy spell somewhere over the north-west of India. We’re nine hours into a twelve-and-a-half hour flight (that’s the first one, the second one’s just a little transfer hop down to Sing) and I’ve not had a lot of sleep. SM has managed to doze off, with his feet in my lap and his head nudging the thighs of the elderly lady next to him. How he’s getting any is beyond me. For some time, hours possibly, a toddler a few seatbacks away has been howling, I mean really howling, which makes me think of how brilliant SM has always been on flights. I’ve spent the whole trip fixing his earphones, folding back the foil from his too-hot dinner, picking up his specs and extracting his toes from under the armrest as he wriggles in his sleep, but at least I don’t need ear-plugs.

I hate this enforced nighty-night time. The blinds are down and the lights are off but every time I shut my eyes and try and doze I get ticker-taping high-speed rabbit-voiced rewinds of the last month. Who said what is blurring, but when I sit down and think about it, all I really need to remember is that it was lovely. The last day (today, I suppose, or maybe yesterday) was spent just where I wanted it, high on the Heath with my family, looking down to the little red brick flats where I grew up with St Pauls and The Shard in the distance, notching iconic grey shapes onto the horizon. Up on Kite Hill we had the usual jolly crowd that a sunny day brings: kites flapping, a globe of dialects dotting the breeze, and – thrown in just for us – fluffy white seedlings blowing across the air as in some kind of arthouse film. Perfect.

Now I’m bobbing up and down on invisible wind mountains, I can look back down on the visit from a distance and try and pinpoint what it was to be a voyeur in my own land. ‘It’s not like this all the time,’ everybody told me. ‘You bring the sunshine’. They didn’t just mean it physically (we seem to always arrive in town just as the heatwave settles) but socially. We are spoilt when we go home, treated like royalty and carried (only ankle-high thanks to the slow drip of tea and cakes) from house to house on a wave of happy returns. I know it’s not like this all the time because I used to live here, and I know it’ll be back to basics when we return. Despite knowing all that I also know that it’s all just so nice that leaving again is going to be very hard.

Never mind. Trust bonkers old Singapore to give me no time to dwell. I’m not just sitting here high up in the clouds writing a blog post, I’m also sorting out a diary that is already looking like a mathematical riddle. Before I’d even got to Week Four of the trip the dates were inking themselves all over August: first night out, first weekend away, first coffee morning, a possible leaving do lined up, the next three major holidays organized, the next museum tour in the diary and a load of new work from Those Nice People Who Give Me Work. No time to lie down in a dark room feeling homesick.

Parting is such hugely sweet sorrow that this year’s was done briefly, and in various bits. During the final week I said the word ‘goodbye’ several ghastly times, using brisk armlocks rather than hugs and sometimes (Pudding family, for example) not even saying a proper goodbye at all. On the last day, last hour, even, Aunty kissed us on the pavement outside M&S then went to get her bus, waving us off until Christmas. Then Dad came back to the apartment, helped me squish the cases shut, dragged them down the stairs and stood on the pavement with us until the cab pulled up. Easter is a little longer to wait than Christmas but saying goodbye to Grandpa on a busy high street allowed for just 60 seconds of tight hugs and high-pitched trembly voices, and it also allowed me to crumple in private, tucked into the back of the cab with SM’s little hand on my arm, rather than stumbling through airport security blinded by tears like last year, which was not just embarrassing but also annoying because I couldn’t see what I was putting into the little x-ray trays. Next year I’m booking a morning return flight, because as lovely and winsome as that last day was, I know we all spent it quietly wading through troughs of sadness, a bit like trying to sip a very lumpy sad soup.

Breakfast is coming round, or lunch, I think. Someone just to my right needs help finding his headphones and the seatbelt sign has pinged again. Onwards.

NB: I’m such a Gemini. After I wrote this I shut down the computer, tucked it into my seatback, chose another film with a beach scene and started planning the next beach trip: sobbing with sadness one minute, choosing a swimsuit the next. Don’t listen to me. Ever.

PS: This post came to you from Malaysian Airlines flight M001 from London Heathrow to Kuala Lumpur and on to Sing. Still flying, still friendly and long may they last

Trouble at mill

According to Urban Dictionary: Archaic term originating in the industrial North of England, similar in meaning to the “sh## hit the fan”.

When there is trouble at my own mill back in the UK my updates slow down, which is silly isn’t it, because I’m real, not fake, and I can’t just post about all the wonderful!, super!, great! stuff. So I don’t want to leave this diary hanging because if I did that, there’d be a huge gap that wouldn’t make sense. And I do get on with things quite nicely out here, but the ‘stuff’ is home stuff, family stuff and doesn’t translate: it is simply Not For Here. So where do I put it?

I suppose this is the thing: the at home stuff is for that side of the world and the out here stuff is for here. If something is relevant I’ll trot it out; if it isn’t there’ll be a blip. So if you’ve stopped by at this point it won’t have been via a self-important FB link or Tweet, you’ll just have wandered along, and thanks for that – more Singapore tales coming up once the mill is up and running again.

Good old Mr PartlyCloudy, as always the focus of all things ‘Home’, emotional barometer and sounding board. I do wish he got a salary for it.

Seats for take-off

IMG_1688Dad’s at the airport, presumably having a cup of tea in the hour he has left before take-off. I had to send him home because my sister’s birthday is on Wednesday and we have always been told to share. He’s carrying her present very carefully, as extra hand luggage. Meanwhile SmallMonkey lies in bed, refusing to sleep and looking miserable; tomorrow I’ll cheer him up with the parting gifts that Grandpa left behind: two Match Attax packs, a packet of Cadburys Animals and a dead flea on a microscope slide. Don’t ask.

Goodbyes are just about the absolute worst thing of being out here, an emotional onslaught every single time. That reverse trip to the airport after the reverse countdown of the final day, after the reverse countdown of the past week. Thankfully Mr PC has just booked our tickets back to the UK for a summer break and the thought of seeing Dad again in just two months is a huge comfort. I looked for a picture from last week’s Easter Borneo trip to sum him up: this gentle, funny, botany loving, fluffy pillow hating, ignorance loathing, Rendang fancying, bird watching, lizard spotting, plant tickling, uber thoughtful, tirelessly generous, Grandson-adoring, playful family man.

Here is a sunny one, a reminder of our fantastic week in Borneo: my three boys. The only clue as to age is the height of them all. Dad’s on the far right, enjoying a relaxing dip in the warm Kota Kinabalu sea after four days of monkey spotting in the jungle. Shortly after this picture was taken, one of us was tickled by a passing jellyfish, and then a venomous sea snake wiggled gracefully past. As the three youngest Cloudies pushed each other out of the way to get back to shore, Dad was taking a deep snorkel breath and finning down to see them up close.

He’s like that. Terrorist threats? Big jungle spiders? Planes, trains and rickety tourist vans? Piece of pandan cake. He is enthusiastic and well researched in his approach to travel and he puts us lazy lot to shame in terms of stamina. I won’t even talk in terms of generations because they just don’t apply to him. Does he know how amazing he is? He must do, but I’m really not sure…

So the spare bed gets packed away and don’t set me off again. I won’t see him at breakfast tomorrow and I’m planning the day with one less person. The shoe rack is lighter and the fridge now empty of festering specimens. There is one pair of shoes left behind that I’ve said I’ll bring back in June. I could just keep them hostage to make sure he comes back soon. He’s on a promise.

Here we go: take-off time. Deep breaths.

Bad language

SmallMonkey said a rude word over dinner, and not for the first time over the last few weeks. This was all naughty enough but then he ignored my mild admonishment (I’ll react gently now, I thought, and pick it up later – but I never got the chance), and went and texted the word to a friend. Again, not for the first time. “Ping!” went my phone. Sadly for him he’d picked a mate whose mother bears no truck with this sort of thing – quite rightly – and as a result he now has one less pal on the block, at least until the curfew is off.

This is one of the tricky things about expat living. It’s not just Mandarin that we need to learn to speak out here, it’s all the social languages too, and each person you meet will have a different code and all those codes need to be filed away and then you can only hope that the kids remember all the social rules too and sometimes they do and sometimes, well…

All the lovely pals I’ve met out here only know me because I happen to be living in the same country as them at the same time. We didn’t meet in the playground and establish a long-lasting friendship. We didn’t get together at work and stay friends, or buddy up at the local NCT class, at the school gate. We only have current conversation to go by, and if that doesn’t work out then there’s not a lot left over; no history. You can’t get away with the same things that you got away with at home, and it’s the same no matter how old you are. SmallMonkey’s situation is not so far removed from a dodgy coffee morning or a not-so-good night out where I’ve not quite got my point across in the way I intended. At least I am old enough to tell myself off, and I don’t get my iTouch taken away for two weeks. Poor little s*d (whoops), as if he wasn’t already isolated enough just by being out here.

In the same way that I sometimes find myself having to dial down my ‘eccentric Londoner’ act when I sense people are finding it a bit too much, my son now has to learn that the new stuff he is bringing home from school is just as illegal in our Singapore kitchen as it is in our London home. Rude words are just as banned here – they are not just part of the excitement of going to a new school and giggling in a new corner with new friends and it’s not OK to then experiment with the new words on all your other new friends out here, because they will be just as insulted as your friends back home would have been. As will their mothers. Our eccentricities, his and mine, can cut short a coffee morning or a playdate if we are not too careful.

Whatever. There are many levels to what was essentially kind of a minor incident and I tackled the most obvious ones first, those being Internet safety and messaging protocol:

‘Those words you’re writing don’t just flutter about in the air,’ I said, ‘they go into someone’s house, and that person reads them, and that person’s mother reads them and then you are in trouble.’ (‘And then so are you,’ he added, to his credit.)

Learning about swear words might not be any better at home but I do wish, a little bit, that we hadn’t quite reached this stage yet, because not only is he dealing with a life away from the norm but if he was swotting for all those ‘Inappropriate Language’ exams back in the UK at least he’d be doing it amongst people who know him and have a bit of history to go on, who can make the distinction between the new kid with the foul mouth and the small child with the exemplary social record.

We both have our mouths shut for now but I do see this ‘communication’ theme as one that is bound to crop up again…

Christmas is coming, isn’t it?

There’s a lot of talk, out here, about how hard it is to enjoy Christmas when the weather is so hot, about how wrong it all seems. Many travellers who’ve come to the east from colder climes seem to have had abrupt memory loss about the impassable snowdrifts, biting wind chill and awful misery of those cold December months, where ice inside windows and cars that won’t start herald every freezing dawn. Me, I don’t mind having a hot Christmas, I’ve had a few now. I think the fluffy trees with baubles bouncing about in afternoon storms are still festive, and though I agree it’s weird to be doing it all in a vest dress and flip-flops it’s just different, isn’t it? It’s not actually wrong.

Perhaps the discomfort is more to do with simple homesickness, that old roast chestnut, and if it’s seasonal spirit that’s missing then I guess I’m guilty too.

There’s no doubt I’ve been waiting for that skip inside that I usually get when I think of wrapping, clementines, stockings, bread sauce. Today for a big Christmas lunch I made piping hot mulled wine in a kitchen that must have been around 39C just to get that ruby waft of sugar and spice. Last Friday after the big choir concert I missed our aftershow party because the last beautiful descant of a carol that my mother had always loved made me so suddenly sad about her that I knew I could only walk home crying, instead of chat over the mince pies. And instead of the usual 698 cards I always send I have counted out just 35. I’m sorry about that but I feel somehow justified in cutting it down: it is my turn, this year, to forget.

I know what it is for me. My sister arrives in a week and I know I’m counting down every single slow-moving second until we are in a cab heading back from the airport together, and to a certain extent things are on hold until she unpacks the pre-ordered festive spirit here in our tropical back bedroom. Hope she hurries up, because until then you can find me stirring a hot pot of wine in a boiling kitchen with Slade on the radio and candy canes melting in the bottom of all the stockings.

Homesick

Ugh. That phrase. Yuk. Don’t you just hate it? Brings out the 12-year-old in me. I don’t want to be all needy and sad, it’s tiresome. So I’ve stuck the feeling in a pot, drawn my specs down to the end of my nose and am inspecting it as if it’s one of my son’s little woolly caterpillars from off the path.

This week I am definitely ‘homesick’, but what’s it all about? A bit like that condition Vertigo, which doesn’t necessarily mean you are scared of heights, this homesickness I have is something different to what the name might suggest, something unplaceable (I’m afraid I can’t work out quite what, I’m altogether too homesick to focus).

It’s a misnomer, this business, because I’m not sick, and not ‘sick of home’. And I don’t think I actually want to go home. Well, maybe I do, in fact yes of course I do, but it’s odd because at the same time I very much don’t want to go home just yet – and that’s a good thing, isn’t it? Yes I badly miss my family and friends, almost physically, but what will be at home when I get there? And how would I feel if I landed back there tomorrow, literally in 24 hours? It’s not that. Is it the date? Fifth November, fireworks, bangers, bobby dazzlers on the Heath all scarfed up? Nope. And it’s not that I hate it here, that I loathe every day and want to actually leave. Mostly it is all lovely: my apartment looks like something out of a magazine, I can swim any time I want, I don’t have to wear much so getting dressed is a dream for a lazy dresser like me, and even if it rains my bones are warm. Oh, and there are palm trees outside my window. So it’s nice, this life.

But this week I am homesick to the point that I find it hard to get out of bed, I go to sleep sad and I wake up sad. Food tastes sad, I don’t even want ice cream, so at lunchtime I am sad and by dinnertime I am still sad. It’s got nothing to do with the amount of brilliant people I’ve met since arriving and without whom I would definitely be going home. And it’s got nothing to do with the brilliantly lovely people I’ve left behind.

I’m told it takes six months ‘to settle’, whatever settling involves, and we are three months in so I will just have to hunker down and weather it. Oh boy though – the lights might be on but I am definitely not in.