Happy new year

In 1992 HRH Queen Elizabeth II, in her Guildhall speech, described the preceding year as one ‘annus horriblis’. As I recall she had, actually, just had a shocker of a year, full of things far more serious than the odd corgi with a leaky bottom. It’s a great phrase, nothing like a spot of Latin to give weight to words, especially when the words themselves look a bit manky. But if you’ve ever had one of them, it’s not something you want to repeat.

I spent the first few months of Small Monkey’s time here wondering whether my son was embarking on his own ‘horrible year’. I’m not a fan of hindsight so I won’t go back over the details: basically for him the move wasn’t ‘fun’ as promised, more of a shock – one that we hadn’t anticipated. New teach was tough, he didn’t like TheHeat as much as I always thought he had on previous trips out here, he missed his mates. Doesn’t sound like much but when you’re a boy of seven it can all add up, and the resulting tinges of depression made it a very tough year for him and a bit of a tough one for us too, in a way that I’ve not detailed here (because after all shouldn’t this be about me me me, right?). I dunno, I guess writing the words on here would have meant I had to properly deal with them instead of just complaining endlessly to anyone who would listen (er, thanks for that Everyone). In any case it was his business, not for the public; I felt hugely over-protective all year.

Hey though, what do you know? School started again this week and OK, a small reshuffle may have been demanded (after the debacle of last year I wasn’t going to settle for the wrong cocktail of ingredients), and a hurried rejig granted (reminding me so much of my own mum’s infamous trip ‘downtheschool’ on the one occasion I’d been put in a room with my nemesis) and an agreement was reached, and up the steps of the dirty white bus he went, courage levels boosted by a summer of love, and the house was once again quiet, bar the sound of over-protective nails being gently chewed.

What a change, for many reasons. Being established, liking his teacher, enjoying the work, realising the friends he made last year are a bit fabulous – a few days of all this has changed our house. How lovely it’s been every night this week when he’s paced back up the path, slightly sulky, wobbly tonight after dozing on the bus, pestering for snacks, complaining about homework, in other words behaving completely normally, aka ‘HowHeAlwaysDidBefore’. No terrified, wan expressions, no churning stomachs, sudden appetite loss, quiet sobbing at bedtime. Not once have I had to beg ‘PLEASE think of one good thing to say’, or bribe him with extra canteen candy, sit up with him late at night, tell him to man up*, promise him a puppy**, promise him next day would be better when in fact none of us knew if it would be. He won’t ever love school days, neither did I, and we’ll get the usual complaints, normal ones, but that’s all we need, and it’s so much more like it. God save the Queen.

*I did it once. I’m not proud. I was a bit tired…

**Yeah, kidding. A gecko, maybeIMG_2832


Last year was like one of those fast-frame telly adverts with a quick-moving background shutter-clicking between locations and varying action poses with volume levels going up and down the octave range and a central figure (me) in all kinds of different outfits and poses going from place to place as I JoinedThisAndDidThat.

This year, a change in tempo. New settings. I’m thinking velvet and ochre – not boudoir, more library. Soothing music, something bluesy. Intervals. Less chatter, more observation. Less of the multi-tasking, more of the optional extras. Cue Season Two.

Holiday project

Blog1We are all in the van, red dust from the last crumbling temple dotting the footboards beneath our feet, rice paddies rumbling past to left and right with iconic old ladies in conical hats picking off the grains. This is Cambodia, Siem Riep, temple land, and we are travelling with friends. So far it has been just like it says on the tin.

We’ve toured four or five temples (or is it six?), hopping over broken altars and scrambling across sacred fallen bell-towers and massive stone toes, crouching in window frames to take silly snapshots and acting out ‘Temple Run’ a hundred times. We’ve driven down a sagging brown track to the mouth of a big, beautiful lake where we got on a narrow wooden boat that was promptly rear-ended, necessitating a mid-river stop so the driver could pump out, before chugging us on to a crocodile farm to stare at the sad snapping crocs and poke a cobra round a small girls’ neck; and that was only Day Two.

This is not backpacker land any more, it is getting wise to tourism, but it is still far from what any of us have ever known. We dine out heartily and inexpensively every night; we know if we were to venture deeper within the country we could do this for even less: it is a real and humbling change from the hardcore cash-heavy exchanges we are used to. As a bonus we have been lucky with the weather (a crucial point when you’re a Brit): this is meant to be rainy season but so far it has only drizzled politely after dark and the days have been cooler than usual for this time of year, and pleasantly sunny.

We have learnt how silk is farmed, seen a local gallery at work where we stroked more stone Buddhas than I ever dreamt possible, and now we are heading for lunch and, possibly, another temple. The three kids are in the back seat of our tour van, slapping each other about. Mr PartlyCloudy and the two other adults are dozing and I’m trying to take arty shots of tuk-tuks through the front windscreen without actually going through it.

A huge truck roars past, piled high with something or other – bamboo, boxes, pigs – to be honest we’ve all stopped pointing these things out because they’ve become ten-a-penny over the past few days. Our van rights itself after the obligatory swerve-past and then the guide (polite, gentle, great with kids) decides to tell us a joke. He clears his throat to call attention to us all, craning round in his front seat to talk, smiling and nodding in anticipation of the punchline:

‘What kind of van (and he pronounces it ‘wan’) has more wheels than any other?’

It takes a while to get to the punchline because he insists on asking us the question again and again, rephrasing it to make perfectly sure we all understand, so that when we finally get the answer it is with a balloon-emptying, flat-eared down-tempo as if we had been set up with the best pub joke in the world only to realize we had heard it before:

‘A wan that transports wheels!’

In the ensuing polite silence the guide explains that this is typical Cambodian humour and of course that as a fact is more interesting than the joke itself. Since none of us have been to Cambodia, and none of us speak the language, and certainly no one has told us any Khmer jokes over the last two days, we have no way of knowing what is hilarious in Cambodia or not. What we can safely say, however, is that our two families are not in the least surprised by the fact that Cambodians like a good laugh. Khmer people have shown us nothing but kindness and gentle humour since we got off the plane. Here amongst the rice fields on our long weekend away from the heat and fuss of Singapore’s National Day (sorry about that but we must take the chances to travel as and when they arise) we have encountered some of the loveliest, kindest, best-natured people ever in the whole wide world. This was a cliché we had heard before we arrived and like all clichés it has turned out to be nothing but true.

Cambodians are gentle, generous, smiling and happy to help; even Tuna the hotel dog sleeps outside our friends’ room every night in the hope of a gentle ear-ruffle in the morning – food doesn’t seem to be part of it, he genuinely loves us all. It’s like a giant scout troupe of the highest echelon, with everyone wanting to do their very best. The bloke in the rain mac in the market tries at first to get us a tuk tuk but we only want to find a nearby café. He is persistent but he’s not hustling, he just wants to get us out of the wet (the only spot of rain, mind, that we’ve been caught in) and when he eventually works out what we want he is quick to point out the way. Helpful, not malevolent.

Our guide is great with the children, brings props every day (a piece of plastic with which he makes bird noises, small change to buy us a bamboo stick stuffed with rice). He tells more jokes, catches endless crickets to the never-ending delight of nature-loving Small Monkey, does magic tricks to keep our three smalls entertained better than any of us ever could, and in between all this he stuffs us full of facts for three whole days. At every crumbling heritage site there are gentle people ready to show the way. On the way home at the airport I overhear a woman in the Duty Free shop being openly bullied by a loud tourist trying to get a discount. The shop assistant is gentle in her rebuff, holding her dignity where anyone else might have been driven to responding rudeness. Admirable.

There are life lessons everywhere, and lifestyle lessons, which we hope will stick. The guide makes the driver pull back down a road to stop at a sagging roadside stall for an impromptu taste-testing session of crickets and silkworms. The day before, a visit to a Vietnamese floating village on Tonle Sap Lake showed the kids how the other half live – naked, in boats, on brown water with a school on stilts for the days when they’re not hijacking your vessel to flog you cans of cola. When this happened to us, Small Monkey had only just pestered – for the 694th time – about going on a shopping trip to the Old Market. Perfectly timely. You can never really be sure how much this sort of things sinks in, but at least now the image has been planted for a handy recap whenever expat brat syndrome rears its tiresome head.

I won’t go on about the temples. They blew us away. I’m almost scared to hand out the link in case everyone piles on down, but on the other hand I so want to share the experience; it’s only a matter of time before Starbucks picks out a plot down those colourful narrow streets. Our two families had a tuk-tuk-tastic time and I’m certainly not done with Cambodia, not yet. We saw a hankie-sized area and there’s a lot more trekking to do – not any day soon (too much of Southeast Asia to get through first), but one day for sure, if only to learn some more of those hilarious Khmer jokes.

10 things I never thought I’d say

(til I came out here):

1 Pau for lunch again?

2 Don’t leave your flip-flops on the deck, they’ll melt

3 The man is coming to fix the Jacuzzi tomorrow

4 Please stop kicking the football into the sea

5 Yes I’ll do that 5k with you

6 I couldn’t eat another dim sum*

7 Go and get the football out of the swimming pool RIGHT NOW

8 What a fuss, it’s only a gecko, here, let me get it

9 Shall we just stay home this half term?

10 Them: ‘Have you been in Southeast Asia long?’ Me: ‘A year’

*Actually I don’t ever say that but wouldn’t it be funny if I did?




London as a tourist

I always knew London was a great city but I was also aware of its limitations, in fact sometimes I’d wonder what on earth a tourist could possibly think if they travelled into town along the gritty A40, or came up through the Blackwall Tunnel. Soot and grime, dusty houses chopped into half by brutal roads bringing more and more people in. Yuk – wouldn’t you say so? Well I’ve come into town as a tourist now and I think that to really get the point of a place you must first step back and come in again from a different angle.

I get London now I’ve returned as a guest, I really do. All those people who went on about it being gorgeous and brilliant were bang-on, because it’s bloody marvellous is this city, no doubt about it. It smells a bit, yes. It is over-crowded and the traffic is bonkers – I must’ve spent half my visit sitting on buses in the heat, missing Singapore’s cool air-con carriages and efficient bus lanes just for, y’know, buses. Admittedly I saw the whole place through rose-tinted specs because a heatwave landed just as we did and lasted right up til we stepped foot in our return cab to the airport, quite literally. So I noted down a few things in my head, and I think I may well be calling up this page and re-reading it some time down the line when I am back in the UK and moaning on about how rubbish everything is.

The river comes first. I saw a lot of it for some reason and I really love it; it’s just so big and wide and yes, a bit brown, but brown in a good way. And of course there’s the skyline – isn’t any city’s skyline gorgeous, I guess, but that doesn’t mean that ours is not. I like the fuzzy seats on our Tube trains (though I hate to think what’s actually in them) and I like the way you can eat on the trains and buses and drink too (there’s your answer). I love the fact that we have a beach right in the middle of  London town (yes we do, South Bank near Waterloo). You’re falling over restaurants and cafes in London and that’s not a novelty, nor is the fact that they stay open quite late in general, but I love them. Just do. Plates of hot food in those restaurants are usually hot themselves, and when your food arrives so does everyone else’s all at the same time – brilliant! Superdrug has all those teeny tiny tubes of stuff. The Shard is gorgeous and very, very tall. Pimms tastes amazing when you are a little bit late and arrive breathless and flushed. At picnics you sit on proper soft grass and if it’s been warm (and I grant you that’s not often) the grass often turns to hay and then you can pretend to be in the proper country.

People are bouncy Tiggers when London is hot and sunny; they go all ‘festival’ and switch to party-mode and sometimes that means they are feral and shouty, which isn’t great, but other times it means you might get a lovely bit of Aswad floating up from the steaming gardens four floors below your Dad’s open window and that makes a nice little touch to a morning, especially when you have a proper mug of proper tea in your hand. Nice. When the sun shines you can sit in people’s back gardens and pretend you are in Sicily and put on half a stone. Then you can cart that half-stone down the pub and order a nicely mixed vodka and often you can wobble home on foot – actually walk back.

You can telephone a shop and they will go and find someone who can help. That person will tell you that you can take the thing that you bought by mistake back, even if you didn’t buy it from that actual branch. Then they’ll thank YOU for calling THEM. Amazing. People often know the way (though most times they only speak English but hey – they know it, and that’s what’s so great!). You can buy chewing gum and then chew it very loudly (you can also spit it out on the pavement and tread it into the dog poo but we won’t look down, not just now). There are several massive green spaces, some of which have actual woodland animals and all that, dotted about right within the city walls. Splendid.

None of this made me reluctant to come back to Singapore (it was the people who live in the city that did that, but that’s for another post) because for every good London point, Singapore has a matching Good Thing. Changi, for one, beats Heathrow hands down but that just makes coming back a whole lot easier so that’s alright. Anyway, none of this is competition fodder. Just a few souvenirs I brought back with me.