Nine days around South Island: lakes, peaks, prairies and pies

A month after our return, time to head back to this very special place for a review. None of the pictures do it credit, none of the words either. This is a proper travel-bore post so no offence taken if you fall asleep or skip it entirely. If you ever get lucky enough to go, though, do it.

South Island seems to be most people’s favourite. I didn’t want to be in the majority but I fell in love, and couldn’t un-love it. We flew in from the west over the Tasman Sea, having a birds-eye view right down the coast of the long mountain range that is rocked by earthquakes from time to time, white-tipped peaks coming straight down to sea. Our flight landed on the east coast in Christchurch but we wanted to go west, so we hopped straight into a hire car and drove back the way we’d flown, crossing Arthur’s dramatic Pass – four hours of vertiginous hairpin bends. By the time Hokitika’s wild west coast came into view we were accustomed to road kill, steep drops and hot pies, having picked up a bag en route.

Hokitika A dramatic rolling coastline is the first view you get and it’s really this blacksand beach that makes the town, and the famous piles of driftwood, the result of trees that have fallen into rivers during storms, been washed out to sea, stripped to the bone and then dumped back on shore. There’s a touch of the Blair Witch about these beach sculptures (some of them man-made); we gave a thumbs-up to all the driftwood fences around town. We grabbed a bag of fish & chips from Porky’s, saw a glowworm dell and went to the cool market on Revell Street where the jade for which this town is famous is very affordable. You must, says a friend, buy it only as a gift. Luckily the boys bought me my heart necklace.

A good way of seeing Fox Glacier, if bad weather prevents the helicopters from dropping you directly onto the ice, is to trek up to the start of one. The last 100 yards to the mouth is a steep uphill scramble past signs warning ‘FALLING ROCKS DON’T STOP!’, so we didn’t. At the top of the clamber, where the start of the glacier is revealed, two women sneakily picked their way across a fence marked ‘DON’T CROSS THIS FENCE’, and took a few cautious selfies, while Jonah read a small laminated story about a tourist who died after crossing the same fence to take selfies. We loved this one-glacier town, sweeping coastal road cutting through it crossed by ice-blue streams.

Everyone loves Queenstown, a high adrenaline ski town tucked at the foot of mountain ranges and looking out over a huge lake. Winter was coming when we visited – cafes had baskets of blankets to drape across chilly knees, and all the shops were on permanent merino and possum wool sales. Biking from Lake Wakatipu to Frankton was slow-going thanks to having to stop every few seconds to look at the lake views reflected from every angle. We went on the SS Earnslaw for a chug across the water, a big steamer with a café selling hot chocolate. In nearby Arrowtown, which once had gold in them there hills, we loved the autumn leaves against white picket fences, old Chinese quarter and lolly (sweets) shop, and lunch at the Fork & Tap pub, where a woodburner kept us cosy. Back in Queenstown it seemed rude not to try a Fergburger, well worth the 45-minute street queue just to pull one of the massive burgers out of the bag (big as your head).

The journey to Doubtful Sound is as much a part of the trip as the voyage itself. We drove from Queenstown to Lake Manapouri (two hours), took a boat across the lake (one hour), rode in a special bus across the built-for-trade Wilmot Pass (40 minutes) to a little quay where we boarded The Navigator. From getting on the shuttle boat the cruise takes 24 hours and food was a big part of it – we took a packed lunch for the journey but once on board there was gorgeous soup, hot muffins, a big buffet dinner and a big buffet breakfast plus a well-stocked bar which we tucked into. As a result of that bar I inadvertently missed the fascinating nature lecture from roving naturalist Carol (who pops up in various locations around the boat to give out top tips and little talks as you pass down the Sound). She was priceless and really made the trip for us. ‘Last time I came on this boat,’ a nice woman told me, ‘I got everyone clapping to attract the dolphins’. I told Carol and she wasn’t impressed. She said: ‘We will see the dolphins if they happen to be in the area, they’re not performing monkeys’. The dolphins did pop up in the end, treating us all to a last-minute and very wonderful sighting about half an hour before the end of the cruise. So many perfect moments – sailing up one of the ‘arms’ (side inlets) to moor then jumping off the side (COLD); being taken a small way out to sea (which they can’t always do) to watch the sun set over a rock full of seals; falling asleep in our tiny bunk cabin with its waterline window; being told to find a spot, stay still and just listen as Captain Glen cut the engines for a full ten minutes of silence. Best. Sound. Ever. 

Te Anau. A small town with, guess what, a lake. Also an amazing glow worm cave, which is why we made the stop-off. Behind our tiny box hut we found an eerie woody walking trail (Blair Witch again). We fell into the local pie shop for lunch without realising it was the world-famous Miles Better Pies. The night-time glow-worm cave trip ticked off two of my phobias, the dark and small spaces. Not only must you become dwarf-height for the 200-metre entrance crouch, you must then sit on a wobbly metal boat in the pitch black and stay quiet while your guide pulls you through the cave on a boat rope. But then the ceiling glows as you pass under clusters of tiny sparkling worms and oh my stars… worth every claustrophobic minute. Lost my beanie in the clamour to get out but gained a hot chocolate in the café. Every cloud has a glow-worm lining.

Lake Wanaka Didn’t think we could top Doubtful, then pulled up to this stunning town set on a, guess what, lake – far too early to get into our hut so immediately hired bikes. Pedalled up the road then took a right towards said lake, and promptly burst into tears. I don’t want to come over all Pseuds Corner, but oh, the lake, the views. I just can’t… There aren’t even pictures to express the beauty. Oh, that lake. 

Mount Cook An alpine, white-topped, chocolate box of a mountain framed gloriously by icy blue autumnal skies. The road approach is long and gives big expansive postcard backdrops as you drive all the way up Lake Pukaki.

Good views also come from the Hooker Trail, a 45-minute footlands scamper across gorse and rock to the glacier opening. I stopped to sketch while the boys crossed a swing bridge, and they returned just in time for us all to see a chunk of snow break off and rumble to the ground, about half a mile from where we were. And again, and again. We hoped it was down to the bright sun on that day, and not an ominous general thaw. 

Lake Tekapo Observatory is at the mountain-top end of a one-road-in-and-out track, a cluster of lunar white-domed buildings on the top of stony yellow ground looking down over another big, yep, lake. We stopped for a hot chocolate (what? New Zealand does really good hot chocolate, OK?) but didn’t take the night tour – as the moon was so bright, star-spotting would be half obscured. Just look up at the night sky, they said, so we did, after joining hundreds of people for a stunning lakeside sunset with pink moon rising. Yes, it was very starry, but cold, so our meandering night walk was cut short. The cold could also account for the sudden jump in percentage of merino and possum sales on the small high street. We bought, and were thankful.

Everyone gets the ferry between South and North Islands but to save time, we flew. This meant spending a large part of the day at Christchurch Antarctic Centre but it’s not a bad place to freeze away the hours, being suitcase-pushing distance to the airport (drop off the hire car, get a lift or shuttle to the Centre then walk across the car park to Departures). We hung out for three hours at the 4D cinema, chill room (takes you down to -18C in a howling gale), very adorable penguin sanctuary and mock explorer rooms. Great fun! Bought beany hats and hot chocolate.

Up when I can find the words: North Island

That’s not MY memory

“What have been your favourite countries?” I asked Mr PC on his second Last Night In Singapore. “Mine are Japan, China and New Zealand. Japan for culture: ninjas, sushi, kimonos, geishas, waving cats and temples. China for history: the Great Wall, the Terracotta Warriors, Shanghai shikumen and Beijing hutongs. And New Zealand for natural history: mountains, valleys, glaciers and those stunning endless prairies.”

“Mine would have to be Vietnam,” said Mr PC, “such a different feel to the place depending where you go, such hidden gems, such surprises, and such amazing food!”

“Mine’s Bintan,” said Jonah. “The activities, the sea, and that time when Dad face-planted off the trapeze.”


Christmas in Wonderland


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.


















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.

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









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


Bukit Brown for beginners

Several tours are recommended if you live on the Red Dot. Today’s tour of Bukit Brown cemetery had been on my list for a long time – especially as the whole place is currently being cut up to make way for a big road, with ancestors being dislodged and moved to stacked vertical resting places (or worse, but we won’t think about that).
‘Whoohh,’ said my Mandarin teacher last night when I told her of this morning’s trip, ‘is it still there?’ And when I replied that it was, she said with a note of suspicion: ‘Er, we don’t really go to cemeteries very often.’
I know what she means, it’s not an obvious choice for a fun day out, but when you think about all the famous cemeteries of the world (Highgate cemetery in London with Karl Marx, Pere-Lachaise cemetery in Paris with Jim Morrison) then the prospect of a guided tour around some tombstones becomes a perfectly sensible suggestion.
And that’s why we found ourselves on a morning ramble, my friend and I, threading our way through thickets and brambles with 16 other guests, crashing to scare off potential snakes while our leader, herself a relative of some Bukit Brown residents, gamely pushed giant morning cobwebs out of our way (meanwhile my friend apologised to anyone we stepped on by accident).
It’s because we are tour guides that we were invited on the morning tour today, although you can always go round yourselves (and there were people dog-walking, horse-riding and scootering). Isn’t it always a bonus to have someone guide you, though? And not just to chase off the spiders.
Some might say you actually need a tour guide here, because Bukit Brown is a proper adventure – a thick, bushy maze of partially obscured graves scattered over several hillsides. In these hallowed acres lie whole families, grouped war victims, famous local personalities. The person showing us around is also a guide at the Sun Yat Sen Nanyang Memorial Hall, and it was invaluable to have her help decode the traditional Chinese lettering and point the way around the woody place. We found tombstones tucked deep in brambles. Other graves had been tidied up, untangled, so you could clearly see the stark geometric art deco carving, the orange brickwork and Victoriana tiles. Some were exposed all on their own by the road, others placed neatly side by side or dotted one over the other up and down the sides of the hills, backed with sweeping armchair-shaped walls and guarded by stone gods, creatures, figures.
Many had little rocks placed on top, some trapping a slip of paper. Don’t move them, we were told, this is a visitor’s way of telling the ancestors, I’m here – I’ve come to see you. I did a little Google of this when I got home and it seems it’s a Jewish tradition too. Some say it means the relative is anchored in place. Whatever the reason the stones looked reverential, thoughtful, an earthy equivalent to the cut flowers you see in western graveyards.
You’d need a hard heart not to have been moved by our visit but it wasn’t an entirely solemn morning at all, quite the opposite. Our guide lead her long-trousered chatty crocodile with energy: ‘This way!’ she would shout, suddenly off-roading to the left beneath a hanging curtain of lianas, with us scrambling along behind in a cloud of Deet.
She saved the best til last – the biggest grave in Bukit Brown. After a vertical stomp the jungle opens up to a clearing with the most enormous Chinese armchair-shaped memorial. This grave belongs to prominent businessman Ong Sam Leong, who clearly did very well for himself. Once surrounded by a fish-filled moat, the tomb covers 600 square metres, has its own skate-rink sized forecourt of beautiful tiles, and is guarded by stone lions and mossy soldiers. Most graves have their own earth stone deity off to one side – not this one: this one has an entire earth god tomb all to itself.
What a morning, one of the best tours I’ve experienced since moving here: fun, exciting, and very precious to be able to see the stones before the threatened eight-lane highway swallows them up. You can take yourself off to Bukit Brown; driving is best, and there are parking spots along the roads. There’s an unopened MRT station, but who knows when that will come into play (or if we ever actually want it to). Or you can hop in a cab and get dropped off for a stroll.
When I see my Chinese teacher next week I will recommend she pops by and says hello, before the ancestors melt away into history.
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About a Boy

Throughout this diary I have referred to our son as ‘SM’, SmallMonkey. He was seven when I started writing this; I wanted to keep him secret. Well you can’t hide forever, especially not when you’re getting taller, older. So he’s not SM any more he’s Jonah, and today he turns 11.

Previous SM birthdays have been celebrated with anecdotes like this and this.

But 2015 was a funny old year, with a different flavour of discussions. Not adult, not yet – there’s still a petulant twang to the voice and a big lower lip. He’s not reading War and Peace (yet) and he’s not splitting the atom, although he likes a good science project. He’s our Only, and he often feels the weight of that, for whatever reason. He does make me laugh (mostly in a good way), but this was not a year of hilarious anecodotes. Have we just had a growth year? Or are we going backwards?

School’s busy. Evenings are hectic and often end in homework sulks, belligerent demands for toast, ice cream, nachos, never mind what we actually have in stock. From me there are shouted commands (TIDY, SHOWER, TEETH, BED!) and mornings have the same code (SHOES, BAG, BUS!) – this isn’t family chatter, this is boot camp. And don’t get me started on the high school debates.
How long until the XBox? Can we skip tennis? Sleep over? Tonight? Why not? Ditch homework / piano / chores? Can the entire condo have pizza? Why not? Can everyone have lunch here? Can he have lunch there? Why do we have to do that? Can’t we watch a film? Why is it too old? Half the class has seen it. Yes they have. Well their mums must be wrong. Why are we having fish? Who in the house likes ginger? Can he leave it? Why temples, why not the mall? Why does he have to do swimming, football, rugby, tennis, swimming, football, rugby, football, tennis? Can we have pudding on the sofa? Can he have more food? Less food? Better food? Why can’t he have a phone?
With this kind of debating prowess he will surely build legacies; communities; cities.

Never mind. They’re all at it, and within all of this can be found the flashes of kindness and genuine moral standing that anyone who knows Jonah will know he possesses. When homework is forgotten an email is swiftly tapped out to the teacher, sweetly phrased with apologies and constructive ideas. I am sad one day, and, placing a kind paw on my arm, he suggests a Grandpa Skype (it always works for him, he says). He comes back from a neighbour very full. What did he eat? He says, Mum it was all German, and I was the only kid who tried anything, I felt so sorry for her, so I kept eating whatever she offered.

I always have an ear out for howlers but this year has been rather thin on the ground. I’ve copied down three, all in the last few weeks, that sum him up:

We were having a little chat about Death, as you do.
‘Do you know that you’re going to die?’ he asks.
‘Yes,’ I say. ‘From the moment you’re born, it’s the one certainty.’
‘But do we know exactly when? And how do we know what happens after we’ve died? For instance a guy – say he’s called Steve or something – dies and then maybe he gets transported into my body. Because you can’t just lie there all day in the dark when you’re dead, can you? Maybe it’s like sleeping and you can’t feel anything? Wish I could work it out.’

Muddy-faced after PE, Jonah is challenged by the head of the girl bulllies:
Her: ‘Ugh! What happened to your face?’
Him: ‘I’ve been playing rugby, what’s your excuse?’

Heading back to class after a guitar lesson at school.
Teacher: ‘Where are you going next?’
Him: ‘Sri Lanka’

Happy birthday, you big monkey (and in the Year of the Monkey too, your year). Keep up with the comebacks and don’t fret the BigEverAfter.

Love from your PC parents xxx
TinyJonah:3 weeks

Christmas on Mars

It still amazes me that simply by sitting down for 14 hours (12 without a headwind), we can transport ourselves from one planet to another. Well OK, to another country, but when you’re changing seasons as well as cultures, you might as well be arriving on a different planet.
Having not experienced a winter since 2011, popping out of the rabbit hole from boiling hot Singers into a dark and icy London morning was alien and magical. While SM pinched his fingers to keep warm as we pushed our luggage towards the Heathrow Express at 6.30am, I did a happy little shuffle, so glad to be back for the season, revelling in the cold against my skin (maybe regretting packing our coats deep within the bags, but ah well, lesson learned).
Alright. Now you’re going to tell me it was the warmest Christmas since 1248, but for us it was baltic, a shock to our systems. I bought a better jacket on day one, and proper socks, Grandpa took SM to buy gloves. We wore scarves and woollen hats, got dressed to go to bed, blasted out the heaters in every home we stayed in, kept the electric blankets on for as long as we could, and it was lovely – properly festive, sense-tingling and sparkly, with dark black nights, soft winter sunrises and a real use for mulled wine.
I’ve always championed a warm Christmas, because when you think about it, half the world can’t help having one, so we might as well accept them. Out of the other half, around 70 per cent probably think that it’s wrong to have Christmas in the tropics, and the remaining 30 per cent of us quite enjoy the blow-up snowmen bobbing against hot blue skies, curry dinners on the beach and celebratory dips in hot oceans wearing Santa hats. (For some people, you don’t need a hot sea to do this – the cousins went for a mad Christmas Day dip in sub-temperature seas, the chilly weirdos.)
Still, after four tropical Christmases on the trot, it was nice to have a proper wintry backdrop for the tinsel, to be dashing about under stormy* winds and fetching bags of goodies in and out of cars with the weather whipping rolls of wrap and scattering rain over our shopping. This is the proper way of burning off all those deeply bad foods trolleyed out in spades: meats soaked in naughty fats with sausages and spuds, fruity puddings and cakes, crisps, nuts, wine, stocking treats, and chocolates enjoyed at a slow pace with no fear of anything melting into the foil.
A London Christmas involves the same chores, visits and drinks as always but with a more thoughtful attitude to things like dress (tights and coats) and time of day (8am to 3pm and that’s it) than in sultry Singapore. In London, sparkles are reflected in colder puddles, heating is inside not out. Stuffed into a packed hire car, setting off for the wild west, I got SM to count Christmas trees in windows just as we’d always done when we were small (scoring a lamentable seven, distracted by the joys of high class snacking from posh service stations: never had THOSE in the oldene days.)
Put me in our Cornish cottage at this time of year and I am retro happy, sitting at my desk in the upstairs double room, transported back to the ghosts of Christmas past – legwarmers, rainbow jumpers, Wham! topping the charts and that first ever boyfriend Christmas card curling slightly in my happy hand.
These days, walks on the beach with cousins become double-layered: two sets of cousins from two generations, with us now falling behind and them now running up ahead, bobble-hatted and wet-ankled.
And these days it’s me tip-toeing into the smaller back bedroom, stashing a fat stocking at the foot of a bed and sneaking backwards, already two tired hours into the big day and covered in bits of tape and glitter from the snowstorm of wrapping, and just a few short hours before SM heaves his treat-laden stocking into our bedroom, just as we did with our own parents for so many years. To have Grandpa and Auntie in on it too – special, wondrous and well worth the night-time sit across many lands and seas to get to them.
We’re planning next Christmas already, no doubt a hot one, though I might try and recreate the chill as I’m beginning to think it does work a bit better. To start the planning now is a good way of padding out the holes in our hearts, gaps created when we make that long return sit to pop out once again in palm tree land, where the lights are still on the tree that we left behind some two weeks before. Traces of fat stocking debris leading up the hallway to a small back bedroom in this other world of ours tell us that it wasn’t all a dream, and grey monsoon skies outside are doing a fair job of helping me merge the planets so the distance is not quite so wide.
Happy New Year one and all, whichever planet you’re on.
* apologies to those who suffered in the real storms Up North. You would probably all have preferred a tropical one this year

Out and about

Recently I went to hospital. I hadn’t hurt myself (unless you count burning my tongue on a takeout coffee as I waited to meet my friends); I was there to have a poke around a museum. Now that’s a funny old sentence, I do realise, because why would you be at a hospital to visit a museum? You don’t usually find antiques (apart from very old people) inside medical facilities. Well, that’s Singapore for you, surprises around every hospital corner.

The following Saturday I was in the Botanic Gardens at 9am for a short course on birdwatching. I’d never have thought I’d ever be interested in sitting through a slideshow comparing beaks and breast colours, yet one and a half hours of ornithological slides later, there I was, standing under a promising looking palm tree, waiting patiently for a flash of feather and marking my findings down on a clipboard, not a hint of irony about the binocular marks around my nose.

What is UP with me, I asked myself (quietly, so as not to disturb the Javan Mynah pecking around the palm).

Singapore for me is all about doing things I might not do back in the UK. I draw the line at white water rafting and hot yoga, but otherwise I’ve spent the last three years trying out all sorts of things. The Tan Tock Seng Hospital visit was a research trip for our latest Peranakan Museum group, to dig up a bit of background for the latest upcoming exhibition, showcasing famous Peranakan characters. A kind and learned gentleman gave us a personal and thorough guided tour around the Heritage Museum, including close-up squints at some old and scary looking tools, and a great bit of background on the building and its history. What chance will I ever get to do that again?

The twitching was to do with a current National Parks Garden Bird Count taking place in April – anyone could sign up for it, and if you didn’t know your Oriental White Eye from your Spotted Dove you could go along to the crash course and trial bird-watch morning. A good friend had sent me the link, and when I emailed to join I asked politely if expats could come along and was positively welcomed in. Completely charming, completely FOC and completely brilliant.

I’ve no grand statement to make at the end of this posting, apart from to say how fantastic I am finding this new explorative side that a relocation seems to have brought out in me. Ten out of ten, Singapore. I can’t wait to find out what’s next.

Teapot set at Tan Tock Seng Hospital Museum

Teapot set at Tan Tock Seng Hospital Museum

Porcelain and opium pillows left behind by patients

Porcelain and opium pillows left behind by patients

Our perfect birdwatching weather

Our perfect birdwatching weather