There will now be a short intermission

Writer’s block. First time in five years. The bin is full of scrumpled up introductions. That country cannot be put into words, it is just not possible, and since I have been unable to write real or imagined postcards I’ll stick up a few snapshots shortly.

Perhaps the writer’s block is also to do with Mr PC beginning the slow dismantle of the condo in preparation for his next big move, back to the UK and to our new lives.

So the pen is pretty dry this week. Talk amongst yourselves.

Fat lady to the green room

In my second year on this island, while studying on a museum guiding course, a fellow student took umbrage at something I had written on an online profile – ‘Head in Singapore, heart in London’. A short and simple sentence but it really riled her. Maybe she thought it meant I didn’t like Singapore (her home town), that London was better? Maybe I did mean that at the time? I had found things tricky at first and at that stage I definitely hadn’t entirely ‘settled’, whatever that means. Anyway, ever since she took me to task I’ve been careful with the things I write on this blog, sometimes to the detriment of the tone; I’m aware that my posts often sound diluted, saccharin – I guess since our conversation I’ve not wanted to offend.

I thought then – and still think now – that my colleague’s comments were unfair. Not everyone adopts a new country so completely that they give up their old life, at least not that fast. And hark at her, so hugely patriotic that she would definitely have been unable to give her heart to a brand new country should she ever have been tasked with moving to a new city thousands of miles from home.

Life’s funny, because if she knew how I felt now she might be a little less brusque. Where do I hang my hat? The loyalty card has become blurred. Anyone who knows the old me knows how impossible it would be to surgically remove London from my system, but – amazingly for my old homesick self – I do now seem to have given a bit of my heart to this tropical life. The signposts are not pointing the same way as before.

Summer is coming, time for the annual whistestop tour of family and friends, and the fielding off of the ever-bigger question: when are you coming home? This summer, actually, is the answer to that. We’ve finally stopped dithering and got a pumpkin on order to take us all back from the ball – no doubt turning up late, or ‘dropping someone off first’, or going infuriatingly down the wrong bloody bit of Orchard Road until one of us texts to redirect the driver to here (whose clever idea was it to move into a road with a similar sounding one nearby?) I hope it goes to the basement as instructed and not the turning circle, because we’re going to have a load of bags full of, well, not glass slippers but plastic flip-flops by the tonne – tropical tat picked up over time that’s looking like a 20-foot container full. It’s finally happening.

I have heard myself voicing the reasons for our repatriation countless times, and those reasons all boil down to one thing – we had to make a choice, and the bigger bit of the heart won out, but it wasn’t a cut-and-dried decision at all. I can’t think about leaving Singapore without feeling a physical sinking somewhere deep within. I’m comforted by the fact that we’ll soon be up or down the road/motorway/trainline from the family and friends who we’ve missed so much, that we’ll be able to visit the dads, aunties, uncles and cousins in a short hop, even just chat on the phone in the same timezone. Also that we can finally settle into the pretty apartment on the pretty road that we’d only lived in for two short years before leaving to come here. But as for giving up my tropical lifestyle – my favourite friends and families, all the roads and parks and bus routes and office lunches and favourite coffee shops and warm nights out and beach trips and condo barbies and so much more – it doesn’t really bear thinking about.

A friend who’s good at summing things up recently summed it up. She wrote: ‘I’m glad you’re sure about coming home, and I think that it’s a positive thing that you’re devastated too. It means you’ve had a wonderful experience and that you’re so sure about where you belong that you’re still willing to walk away from what you’ve grown to love.’ I can’t read this back to myself without a dab around the eyes but I do feel it’s time to take that walk.

I will be very glad to be heading back to people like her, because not only does she speak a lot of sense, she’s great at drinking wine, and there’ll need to be a lot of that this summer. But before then there are lists to make, things to sell, farewells to plan, a spot more travel and a general closing down of the last five years. The fat lady is making a start on her scales and I’m hanging out backstage with Denial, who is fast turning out to be one of my best mates, and will hopefully be persuaded to travel back with us.

Book bag: Daunt Books, north London.
View: Duxton Pinnacles, Singapore

Everyone loves a good round robin

2016:

Started off in England (with black tights, dark nights and woolly gloves).

Back to Singers landing with that view of tankers from above.

Jonah birthday, beaches, boats, a half term on Sri Lankan lands

(Top to bottom, east and west, curry/train/safari sands).

Leeches on a rice field school trip, jungle treks with family,

Seniors get a brand new building (posh canteen and Supertree).

Malaysia and Rosy lunches, birds, more curry, Dad comes back.

Sally, Lucy, Aunty Annie, Bintan with the condo pack.

Want to know about our trip to China? (Wo xihuan Zhongguo)

Tennis, diving, guiding, writing, swimming, sailing and piano.

Birthdays held on beaches or at Raffles scoffing fat high teas.

Book club wine club choir club football. Farewell parties out at sea.

Within all this a dark thread woven

Little bits of global poison

Nasty patches here and there

Straight to bin, no need to share.

Twentysixteen you have partied til dawn,

Now call for a cab, get your coat and begone.

Deposit your sicknesses, sadness and grief,

Bring on the new year, bring out the new leaf.

Take your B’umps and your T’rexits, your Syrian war

Your crashes, explosions – then please shut the door.

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.

Forecasting

Dreamed of repatriation last night. Everyone is getting ready to go, ’tis the season, so no wonder that my brain should go into overtime about the mass exodus. But then I had a little think about the dream and realised it had actually been about our impending summer holidays. There was a beach, a row of huts and a boat – typical Southeast Asian weekend getaway, yes? There was a cool beach bar full of twinkly fairy lights and chatty people – Indonesia or Malaysia, for sure. And a big group of kids running in and out of the sea – sun high above and each of them wearing nothing but a pair of boardies, right?
But no. The huts were fishermen’s huts, wet-roofed and grey against a stormy backdrop; the beach bar turned out to be my Aunty’s kitchen (which actually isn’t far off a Southeast Asian holiday beach bar, but still…); and the kids were kitted out in mini wetsuits and lifesaving jackets.
How funny that my brain should automatically translate what I have now for what I will most likely be having in July – good ol English drizzly summer hols.
We had a nice time, though, and I came away with a framed painting. As you do.

Leap Year

I can ask Mr PC to marry me (again) today. I can also wish my friend Scott a very happy birthday (married with two kids, he is just 9, or is it 10 years old). Today is Leap Year, the one time every four years that February has 29 days. I know exactly what I was up to last time round. I probably thought about all of the above at some point but mostly I remember very clearly that Mr PC had the day off work because something was being fixed in the flat. I was working at home as always, writing that novel that was never and will never be published (whispers: it was rubbish). The cats were probably being adorable and Jonah was definitely at school. It was Wednesday.

He had a playdate afterwards with a friend and, it still being the wintry months, it was after dark when I picked him up and started the long walk back uphill to home. I remember being unable to concentrate on his chatter as I led him along. This was because, at some point earlier that afternoon, my husband had stopped what he was doing with the flat to take an interesting phone call from work, during which a subject had cropped up that would change our lives forever.
I remember he put down the phone, came into the office room where I was thinking up another rubbish paragraph that would never be seen (whispers: it was really, really rubbish), and sat down on the couch behind me with one of those sheepish looks, as if to say: ‘stand by’.
‘So,’ he said. ‘Singapore’s come up again.’
And I turned around, ditched the Word document, and Googled: ‘S-c-h-o-o-l-s i-n-…’ etc.
Happy LeapYear anniversary Mr PC – four years but a lifetime of happenings. It’s been fun.

For C

You know those times when there is only one person on your mind, and every song that comes on the radio is written for them, and every thought that you have links back to them, and the world is suddenly a different place because of them – or lack of them? This blog is about me and what I do, but every now and then I might have to write about things that have no real interest to anyone other than a small group of likeminded or linked people. That’s this week, that is.
Caroline, this came on the radio yesterday, and I wanted you to have it. I can’t recall if it was on your List Of Strong Tunes, so it might not have a link to you and it might not make any sense (much like a lot of things in the world this week). Still, the song is strange and strong and I like it (much like you). Here you are, have it, wherever you now are:

random weird song

[See? Even an accordion for Viktor]

Pulling the cord

Have you ever called the police? I’ve done it about three times in my life. Once for a noisy neighbour, once for a nutter and then just last night on a night-time train coming back from Kent in a carriage shared with a group of drunken passengers.
It started with Platform Loudness – you know the noise, it has a special kind of tone, a shouting that carries above the hubbub, a metallic clang of voices that you SO hope is just football chanting but you know, deep down, is messy and dark. What you don’t want to happen, as you sit clenched and waiting, is for the Shouters to board your carriage. As the cloud of angry wasps poured through the doors last night we felt the familiar stomach lurch that you get when you know you’ve picked the unlucky seats.
Dramas always seem to happen to us just after Mr PC has flown away (I’m reminded of the Wardrobe Falling On SM incident in particular, but that’s another story). So it was just me and SmallMonkey on the train, the third member of our family being many miles away in Sing, making me The Responsible Adult (and of course I still always expect a grown-up to come along and help me). At first SM sat bolt upright, almost dropping the iPad (because you just don’t get this sort of sh*t in Sing) then hunched right down, tapping away nervously. After a while I swapped seats with him, pushing him gently into the cosy shelter of the window seat and bravely taking on the aisle.
In fact it wasn’t all that bad, there was no actual punching and no blood, but after about 10 minutes of the air being filled with f**king, sh**ting and that most florid word of all beginning with the third letter, as well as some dangerous-looking stand-up posturing and a bit of quiet pleading from a member of the public, I quietly dialed the three magic numbers and got a nice lady who asked me about five times to explain the complicated location (“we are in the first carriage of the high-speed train from Herne Bay to St Pancras”) before promising to “patch me through” to someone.
While I answered her questions quietly and deliberately, SM sagged against the dark night-time window and sobbed silently, all thoughts of iPad joy miserably left in his lap, in an outward reflection of the inner thoughts of every carriage member. Good old 999, though, because sure enough at the next stop the theatre troupe were removed and the carriage returned to the normal chatter that I have so enjoyed on our many UK train journeys over the past month.
This was the good bit: SM could not believe it – problem solved with one phone call. That the police didn’t mount the train through the roof or shoot through the windows in a shatter of glass was surprising enough. That the offenders were led away in good humour, swaying as they tipsied off the step and into the arms of the jovial train driver, was amazing to him – no sieges, no armed guards and no loud explosions, just a strong arm and a nice cosy telling off.
For me this was all very homely, but maybe not in a good way. Having spent a month soaking up all the things I miss so badly – most of them human – I can’t say I ever hanker for the Saturday Night Party Crowd, because although cr@p does happen in Singapore it’s rare and controlled.
In the UK the world is three-dimensional and wide, full news reports get through all the time, people come up and talk at you for all sorts of reasons on the street and in shops, and this is all healthy, real and important, and I’ve loved being back in the thick of it all.
But you can take your Saturday night pub crowds and stick them right at the end of the World’s Longest Train Line and leave them there, thanks.