Capturing our love for art, adventure and learning
It has been WARM, DRY and SUNNY! These 3 words are enough to help anyone living across the British isles break out a little smile. After a dark cold winter, we had a gloomy wet spring and now summer is finally upon us. Daytime temperatures are around 16 to 22 celcius which means we've packed away all our winter gear. It is now nice enough to head out in shorts and t-shirt. Best of all, it is still possible to enjoy the outdoors without soaking our clothes in sweat.
We've clocked several hundred miles and travelled across the Yorkshire Dales, Lake District and Brecon Beacons. We've found ourselves exclaiming in immense joy and awe as we drive along tiny country roads. It is a feeling we haven't felt since we left Sapa, Vietnam and Cameron Highlands in Malaysia. Click here to read about all our other travels!
Now let's get to the fun parts!
SOUTH WALES (The Big Pit Coal Mine)
We drove over 2 hours before we got to South Wales. I was telling the kids that we had entered another country in the same country. We had crossed borders without our passports! It is a very unique union we've got here in Britain. The drive into the hilly parts strained our car's little 1 litre engine and there were many sections where we had to get down to gear 2 before we could make progress.
We had never gone down a mine shaft before and we definitely knew nothing about mining. The Big pit is an amazing destination that's both educational, reflective and enjoyable. We got our free underground tickets before we headed to a waiting area.
Our guides greeted us and brought us to a room to get kitted out with a special mining headlamp. The battery was strapped to our bodies and we had to wear a hard hat too. I was pleasantly surprised that they had equipment that fit children. They do weigh quite a few KGs but it was manageable even for Matt and Gwyn. We had to surrender ALL battery operated items because they can cause a spark and set off certain gases that the remaining coal may give off. All watches, car keys, mobile phones and cameras had to be put away on the surface before we took the "cage" down the shaft.
We got down 90m underground and was led through various tunnels, shown the equipment used and told about the dangers miners faced. It was both a fascinating experience and a really reflective one. At one point, the guide instructed us to all turn off our lamps and try to see our palms in front of us to illustrate the darkness miners experienced in Victorian times. Women, children and men who couldn't afford candles (yes they had to buy their own to work the mines) worked in absolute darkness. Horses that were used to pull carts stayed underground for the rest of their lives once they entered the mine. The immense hardship and dangers they faced in that darkness is absolutely shocking.
Out of these "dark satanic mills", homes were warmed, trains had steam and ships sailed across oceans. The dirty coal as we call it today advanced civilisation. I applaud the Welsh government for preserving the coal mine and funding the museum. It is completely free to visit and I think that helps us put things into perspective. Yes, we need to care for our environment and use cleaner fuels but we also need to remember the sacrifices of those who came before us too.
We also got to ask many questions along the way and Gwyn asked the guide if she could try the tool that miners used to shovel coal into the cart. She got what she asked for! Her response was most hilarious "OH IT IS SO HEAVY! I don't think I can work here". I asked the guide how people did their "business" underground...he said "ANYWHERE!" and "sometimes they put a pile on the conveyor belts carrying coal up to the surface as a joke". Oh gosh....
We headed off to the mining simulator after we got back up to the surface. It was a light and sound show where machines from different eras come to life as miners shared their stories. A quick lunch later we headed off to scale the highest peak in South Wales.
Pen y Fan
Measuring 886m above sea level, we thought it wouldn't be that tough to scale because our starting point was somewhere around 500m above sea level. The sun was out and the place looked absolutely gorgeous.
10 minutes into the hike the burn in our quads and calves became pretty real. The incline was pretty punishing for amateur hikers like us. The sun felt pretty hot but the wind was intense and cold. It wasn't the most pleasant of climbs but we pressed on. Along the way we met the real champions: the sheep. They scale the peaks in search of the best tasting grass and hang around with their friends on perilously steep sides of the mountain. Unaffected by the wind, they graze leisurely while we huffed and puffed our way up.
At around 780m just shy of the summit, the wind became very intense and the clouds blocked off the sunshine. Our muscles were crying out for a break. The children were increasingly whiny and it became clear we've reach our limit for the climb. We popped a few sandwiches into our tummies in that crazy wind and headed back down. The view was absolutely liberating.
My ankles were sore and unstable for a few days after this climb and I realised that my boots didn't provide sufficient support. Wear proper hiking books with ankle support if you intend to climb here! The downhill is especially punishing on the joints because it very uneven and rocky on portions of the trail.
We decided the next trip was to be a little more leisurely before we attempt anything like the Scafell pike (Highest point in England)...
Once we had recovered and stopped aching, we found our way to the Lake District via the Yorkshire Dales. The Ribblehead Viaduct is one of those scenic places that you can't miss in this area! Built between 1870 and 1874, this iconic viaduct cost more than 100 men their lives to build. It is still being used today!
Windermere Lake, Brockhole on Windermere (Lake District)
Travelling with two kids also meant that we can't do much passive sight seeing for too long. They kids like to do things. These lively little ones prefer to be out there doing something that appeals to all their sense. We got to this amazing lake front destination and took a short stroll before we sat down to have a nice picnic by the waters. They also got to burn off some energy at the playground after a sugary snack and long car ride.
I mean just look at it. It is AMAZING! You don't have to pay an entrance fee to enjoy it and the kids aren't fussing about sweating buckets. If the day ended here, it would have been pretty satisfying already. Then we saw a sign "Boats, Kayaks and Paddle-boards for rent". I looked at Debra in the eye and we both agreed without a single spoken word that WE HAD TO GO ON THE LAKE IN A BOAT! I headed straight to the rental booth and asked if I needed a boat license to drive and they said I didn't need one. It was GAME ON.
We paid £40 for an hour and they fitted us with life jackets of the right size before briefing us about the health and safety rules.
The kids were a little terrified in the beginning because it was their first time on an open top boat driven by their father haha! The kids were absolutely thrilled as we cruised along the lake. We kept checking with them if they were enjoying the activity and they said they were! They even suggested I buy a boat so we can do this again...ermm....
We didn't plan to do a boat ride because we didn't know we had this option but it turned out to be one of the best change of plans ever. We manage to catch a glimpse of the Wray Castle and the beautiful hills surrounding the picturesque lake.
What are your plans this summer?
Let us know in the comments what would be fun for the kids. We are always open to new ideas! We are happy to connect via chat and social media channels too!
One year ago in April 2022, we gave up all we've known to travel for 7 months across South-East Asia. (If you're interested and want to read those, click on the blog categories at the bottom of the page to see our travels by country!) We walked on through the wind, through the rain, through the tears, had our dreams tossed and blown. We tried to find healing for our grief and a way forward but nothing seemed to work. We tried out best to walk through the storms with our heads held high.
Life can be rough. In fact, it can be rough for an excruciatingly long time. It is so easy to lose sight of it all in a storm. But I hope that whatever your circumstances may be, you'll walk on. I hope you'll walk on with hope in your heart and that you'll never walk alone.
We just said goodbye to April 2023 and it looks like we've finally seen off the worst of the storms. The shadows of the storms of life along with the gloomy bitterly cold winter has gone. We can finally see glimpses of the golden sky. We are here we are in the United Kingdom settled like we've been here forever. The kids are done with their semester of homeschooling, I've turned 12,500 words into turn-it-in while Debra has kept us all happy and alive with yummy grub.
As you will notice with the pictures below, we've shedded the layers of thick clothing because t-shirt weather is finally starting to arrive. We've been so blessed by a couple of days of amazing sunshine and balmy 16-19 celcius weather.
With the deadlines sorted, I've had a lot more time to hit the motorways in search of places we can explore and enjoy. The kids didn't get their Easter or Mid-term breaks because I was really busy and we decided to have our schedules align. But now...they get a long break with me!
We got the ball rolling with the RAF Midlands museum that really gave us great insights into the history of human conflict. Matthias and I were excited to see the Spitfires and Messerschmitts and other historic aircraft we've watched about in documentaries. I can't say the same for the ladies. They are amazed at these planes and the stories behind them but they just don't have the same fascination with machines as the boys do. I don't mean to generalise what do you think?
We had the opportunity to visit an apple orchard in Cotswold this week. No luck with the apples because apple picking season is in summer so we still have a little bit of waiting to do. Having lived our entire lives in a city, we were absolutely clueless about the times crops are sown and harvested. We'll keep learning! We did manage to buy some apple juice and enjoyed a nature trek around the property. The cool air and warm sunshine made everything look so stunning.
For a person who takes cleanliness very very seriously (wifey reckons it is OCD...), I still can't decide if I like cleaning a salty, gritty, mucky car or one that's an insect graveyard. One thing for sure, the scenery is a feast for the senses and the soul. It is worth cleaning the car for.
With an abundance of daylight nowadays (Sun rises at 530am and sets at 830pm), it is a lot easier to plan days out. It is nice that we can drive home in the evenings and still make it home with daylight to spare. What a contrast from the 230pm sunsets just a few months ago. We managed a nature walk/farm visit + Cotswold (Bourton-on-the-water) in the same day!
That's all for today's episode of our lives. We recognise that though we live pretty extraordinary lives, all we want is to savour the ordinary things. What you and l want is to experience love, our beautiful world and joy in our hearts. We hope our journey through grief, change and uncertainty resonates. We don't know when but we know there'd be better days. Press on and walk on with hope in your hearts.
家 (home) is a very peculiar mandarin character. The top part represents a roof and the bottom letter represents a pig. I'm inclined to think that the ancient Chinese person's home is where their most treasured roast pork is. There is perhaps much wisdom in this because the English speaking world would agree that home is where your heart is.
I've be raised all my life to think that Singapore is my home. Compulsory education meant that I was taught the right brand of history, learnt the national education objectives and sang the national anthem every single day for 12 years. I was conscripted by law to an elite military unit for 2 years to defend the only "home" I knew. I thought I knew where home was. When I returned to Singapore in 2010 after my stint at Loughborough University, I suffered a severe identity crisis. All that I was taught and ever knew was suddenly questioned and I did not have the answers.
Since then, I've tried explaining why I felt more at home in the UK. I was dismissed as an anglophile and a young man who doesn't know how lucky he was to be Singaporean. I've also been told many times to look at the strikes, the political "mess" and the statistics that condemn Britain as a shameful fallen empire. These people quote Singapore's GDP per capita, multi-million dollar properties, high HDB (public housing flat) ownership and highly ranked efficiency almost like a religious mantra to justify their pride of being Singaporean. The thing is, I am not questioning why you call Singapore home.
The crisis is MINE.
The questions are MINE.
Home should MINE TO DEFINE.
Home is where you thrive.
Thriving is beyond just making money.
Thriving is about growing, learning, being a better person and being emotionally healthy. Thriving is also being kind to others, encouraging others and being wholesome.
Thriving is for those with exceptional abilities that don't fit in a prescribed schedule.
Thriving is also for people with disabilities.
Thriving is for all personalities.
13 years later in spring 2023, I am still trying to answer the questions and define what home is to me and my family. Here is a little portion of my recent thoughts...
HOME IS WHERE WE LEARN AND GROW
It has taken a whole new dimension now that I see my own children thriving in the UK. I see Gwyn getting excited about dance class, loving Sunday school and asking her homeschool parents for more work. She feels heard and understood and therefore She WANTS to learn. We are so grateful that she doesn't have to feel unduly pressured to perform.
She greets me at the door when I get back to ask me, "Papa, what did you do at University today? What did you learn today?". She does it EVERYDAY. It touches my heart that she sees the importance of taking something away every time you go to class. I want our home and country to be one that protects and nurtures this attitude.
The strongest desire to learn must also be met with the opportunity to do so. We are over the moon that Matthias is being mentored by a volunteer to be a radio presenter. He ran his first live show on a community radio station here in Leicester last weekend. The beauty of it all is that there are many others who are passionate about sharing their craft with others in and around the country.
Learning is not about getting a grade or getting up a ranking table. Learning is not an unpleasant rite of passage to a job. We should learn zealously because we are infinitely curious and passionate of a certain craft/field. If it leads to a good vocation, that's a bonus. If it doesn't, the attitude itself will set us on a good path wherever we choose to venture. This is not a predominant belief where I grew up.
HOME IS WHERE THE SPACE AND CLIMATE PROMOTES GOOD HEALTH
I think it is hard to call a place home if the climate brings you an incredible amount of distress and health issues. British people moan about the rain, snow, sleet and gloomy skies all the time but we'd rather have these than being a sweaty mess in extreme humidity all day long. When the sun comes out, many like us are compelled to head out there and make the best of the sunshine. It encourages us to exercise and get outdoors.
And when we do get outdoors, we are always given a huge boost of endorphins. Being able to go trekking without being completely drenched in sweat makes us want to walk more, climb more and play more. There's trees to climb, sticks to pick and rocks to scale. We come home happy and do not have to worry about an eczema flare up.
Seeing the seasons change and flowers bloom must be one of the biggest highlights of our time here. We really don't mind a home where we are surrounded by a lively natural environment that isn't a curated concrete man-made place. In fact, this has grown our desire to learn about and appreciate the nature around us. It is such a wholesome experience!
I've also mentioned in our previous blog posts about how we are more able to find gluten-free grocery and dining options here. Allergies are taken very seriously and they never have to feel left out when snacks are given out. You can't feel at home if food around you is making you feel constantly unwell can you?
HOME IS WHERE THERE'S KINDNESS
Our kids have had crazy amount of fun playing with other children they have met for the first time. I have witnessed groups of kids readily stop their game and give a Gwyn a go at the football/ basketball. Some of them were complete strangers. Our kids don't get strange stares when they initiate play or a conversation here. It just feels so wholesome that children can be children and not grow up with a constant wall of defence against some perceived threat. They way kids play (or don't play) reflects a huge deal about the home and country they live in.
I don't want to paint the UK as some kind of heaven. It isn't.
But if I really have to compare the road cultures, it has been heavenly here.
Most people give way to others. Put on your indicators in Singapore, it is almost likely that the car behind will cut you off. People in the opposite direction use their high beams to say, I'm slowing down for you, you can go ahead and turn. In Singapore, high beam is used to maliciously blind the person in front because they have offended you in some way.
People let their hazard lights blink twice here to say thank you. In Singapore, it is quite often used when you are pretending to stop due to hazards but is fact brake checking someone. The horn is rarely used here unless there's real danger or in a very occasional moment of rage. In Singapore, it's the quintessential way of saying "f*** off" on the roads daily.
Way more patience, way more kindness, way less stressed. That's how a home should be, no?
The idea of home is a very personal one. Considering what are the most important aspects of home can be very beneficial. It could change the culture in your house, it could change the path of your family and it can start a quest like how it did for us. What's your idea of home?
Why the countryside?
Yes, it is in the middle of nowhere but it is also the center of it all. The countryside is where our food comes from and it is where we can run away to seek refuge from our stressful lives. It is food for both the soul and stomach.
More than 25 years ago, my dad brought the family for a vacation on a farm in rural South Australia. A little Singaporean city boy who knew nothing but a concrete jungle all his life was suddenly staying in a little cottage on a piece of land so vast he could see the nothing but fields stretching all the way to the horizon. I was ecstatic that I was free to run around (and not sweat because it was winter), sit around a fire and go shoot hares at night with the big boys. Yes, it was dusty, muddy, cold and we battled the houseflies. Those were worthy inconveniences for the liberation I felt. My love for the countryside deepened even further during my last stint in the UK.
Now that we're back, I try my best to do the same for my family. We jump into our little hatchback and drive out of our village into the country or farm when the weather gods are happy to bestow us a precious dry and sunny winter's day. We were so blessed to have one of those days at Stonehurst farm in Mountsorrel (A village north of Leicester City near Loughborough) yesterday.
COURAGE, KNOWLEDGE AND HEART RATE
Those who have stuck with us for the past 6 years would know that Hiro & Jack are the names of our late guinea pigs. They lived long lives (5 and 8 years) and we loved them to bits. Our human kids literally learned how to walk by holding themselves up with the guinea pig cage. They talked to the guinea pigs, stroked them and fed them. But somehow they became very fearful of animals after the piggies passed on and after two years of the pandemic madness.
We've been trying our best to help them overcome that fear. They did pick up courage to stroke cats/dogs while we traveled last year. This visit to the farm surprised us at what being outdoors can do to the confidence in kids.
We also took the opportunity to explain our relationship with animals to the kids. I think it is important to let the kids know that some of these animals work for us and others are our food. It is important that we raise, work and slaughter them humanely. It is easy in our city lives to be completely disconnected from these realities because all we see are chicken nuggets and fish fingers. People should understand that they should never waste food because the farmers work really hard and we take lives of animals to put food on the table.
A visit outdoors won't be complete without getting the heart rate up! Mine went up when I saw the amount of sand/hay stuck on their clothes and shoes (which means it will find its away into my car and house....)
Growing up in a home and city that's compulsively cleaned, it is hard to do otherwise. Keeping up obsessively with cleaning/tidying can be anxiety inducing and very unhealthy. Being in the countryside teaches me to be less compulsive with desiring a perfectly clean house and car. The cold air and calm natural surroundings takes my anxiety away. Nature teaches me that it is okay to have some mess.
THE GODS MUST BE CRAZY
A few weeks back, we took the kids on a very exciting first farm visit in the UK. Meteorological service said that there was no chance of rain or snow. The sky outside looked sunny and we decided to give it a go. We headed to Windmill farm located in the south of Leicestershire between Leicester and Market Harborough. When we arrived at the farm and checked out a few animals, it started drizzling. Oh! This is as British as it can get! So we thought....
Without warning....this happened....
People living in the tropics will ask, what's the difference between snowfall and sleet falling? Snow is frozen ice crystal, it falls as a flake or in clumps of flakes. Sleet is kinda wet and partially melted. There are many different forms of snow and it falls in a number of ways. We were so blessed to have experienced 3 in a row!
We were all smiles but it was getting colder and so we headed inside to warm up by coffee, hot chocolate and soft-play.
Once we've warmed up, we headed back out to see the animals in the barn. I like farms because we get to be up close with the animals. I even managed to observe different parenting styles among the sheep and their lambs. Some just eye-balled their lambs when the little ones walk away from them. Some just follow at a distance. It was hilarious I even managed to observe a helicopter parent sheep that made sure she followed her child's every step and pushed others out of the way to protect the lamb.
What's a visit to the farm without stepping out in the fields right? Only this time the field was rather frozen, snowy and muddy. We had a long, mindful, quiet and relaxing stroll around the fields. All we could hear was the crunching of snow and ice under our boots. Just look at how beautiful it is...
What is the farm and countryside effect you may ask? In a world of instant gratification via endless scrolling on our screens, looking beyond ourselves is a very important exercise. It really helps to have wholesome experiences out there in the fields and farms that ground us and reconnect us to nature and ourselves. Feeling stressed lately? Kids addicted to their devices? Try the countryside, nature reserve, seaside and great outdoors today!
Skeletons tell a story
Faster, better and newer is the only way we've been told. Life is lived by treading the narrow lane of doing only what makes you profits, gives you savings and advances your overall career or wealth. We've rejected that very early on with our odd life. We chose a line of work that allowed us to homeschool our kids and worked from home long before the pandemic happened. We chose the road, our mental health and building a core memory with our children.
The "skeletons" of the UK keep reminding us of why we've made this huge move across the globe. We chose this life so we have the freedom to preserve memories and form our identities beyond the prescribed way of life.
I recall when dad first retired, he would spend his days cycling to places around Singapore. He would take long bus rides from one end of the island to another. He would also come home and lament how the Singapore he knew is no longer around. He would tell us of the places he formed great memories at and how they have disappeared. I felt that it was his way of reconnecting with the land and his surroundings after more than 40 years of work that occupied so much of his time. But his attempt at reconnection only brought out a sad sense of disconnect. I was then only in my early 30s but his experience resonated deeply with me. So many places that defined my childhood have been torn down in favour of the newer and better. It explains my own disconnect with the supposed "home" country.
Old places, things and buildings give us a sense of stability in our identity and acts as a reference point for us. The sense of place forms our identities, sometimes personally and sometimes as a collective. When I first stepped foot in Britain and the rest of Europe, I observed how they have kept vast amounts of old buildings and archived artefacts in museums. You can find a museum for anything from transportation, space, natural history, art, science, astrology to lawnmowers. (There's really a British Lawnmower Museum in Southport!) Debra and I often laugh about how the Brits are such hoarders because they keep and preserve everything.
We visited Oxford for an afternoon last weekend and the realisation hit me like a freight train. These worthless "Skeletons" that are preserved do tell a story. That story is continuously told to generations and beyond if we preserve, display and teach about them. Museums, old buildings, old things and skeletons are important because they are depositories of our collective cultural and historical identities. They make us, us.
Preservation of heritage is not just a frivolous nostalgic exercise.
It dawned upon me that these places we visit and form memories at will still exist when I'm long dead. Matthias could be walking into Oxford University Museum of Natural History in 2083 with his grandchildren, recounting his childhood running down the hall of a building opened in 1860 with his sister Gwyn. There in an instance, an invisible thread connects 4 generations, their memories and their ties with the land.
We had a magical afternoon hearing the stories these skeletons and buildings of several hundred years speak to us. We know that we are all gaining knowledge, creating memories and forming our identities.
We were also excited to find some ancient Egyptian artefacts and other artefacts that helped us make sense of history. How did writing come about? What is embalming? It is one thing reading about it, it is another seeing, hearing, being physically present and touching something as a process of learning. Both kids were never fond of museums before we came to Britain. They are now excited about going to one because they make their books and Horrible Histories show come alive.
What are your thoughts? How important is preserving heritage to you?
We say, keep the skeletons (old buildings, places and artefacts too!) and let them speak wondrous stories to generations.
Surviving the Winter
Hello there! We are so glad you're back here with us in 2023! We really hope 2023 is being kind to you wherever you are! I can't be more grateful to be another year older surrounded by the people I love dearly.
Here in our little village (oh yes we found out our area is considered a village and that makes us villagers HAHA!), we've been finding our footing in a very different environment and climate. We talked about the shocking truths of living in the UK here in our last post but I think we are only starting to grasp the power of nature and its ability to shape our lives.
We've spent most of our lives along the equator of the planet on a geographically sheltered island (Singapore). Nothing really happens in terms of weather because it is either rain or shine. Shorts, T-shirt and slippers works 365 days a year. Occasionally, the temperature dips to about 21-22 celcius and you'll see people flooding social media with pictures of being all wrapped up and feeling "cold". The past month has redefined the word "cold" for all of us.
Winter is not a season, it is an occupation - Sinclair Lewis
I think Sinclair Lewis is quite right in saying that it is an occupation because winters are to be endured and there's a lot to do if you want to live well in winter.
Winters are to be endured
A short nice ski/winter holiday may actually sound exciting but living through the entirety of winter is a completely different ball game. I know I run the risk of sounding like a wimp because there are many who live further north in Scotland, Canada, Russia and the Nordic countries who experience far more brutal winters than we are getting here in the UK. To survive winters, you've got to endure the biting cold, the constant darkness, being stuck indoors, spending way more money on energy bills.
When we do get a break in the weather (e.g. the sun comes out and it isn't raining, sleeting, hailing and snowing), we try our best head outside. It can be frustrating being stuck inside all the time. It can also be miserable shaking in the cold. I do my best to head to places that have the great outdoors and a heated indoor space to take refuge when it gets too cold.
The kids are showing a lot less stamina in the cold and would complaint about wanting to go home. The ironic thing is, the only way to overcome the cold is to go into the cold. Our bodies need time to adjust the way it responds to the cold and if we simply stay home all day, we'll never adjust. If you'd really want to survive the winter, you must endure the cold and head outside.
Days are very short in winter and it can be very disorientating when you've got only 6-7 hours of daylight. Perpetual darkness can make you very lethargic because the absence of light tells your body it is time to sleep/rest. Lack of vitamin D also puts you at a way higher risk of serious health problems and depression. Cabin fever can also set in when you are stuck indoors too much. We try to take in as much fresh air and sunlight as we possibly can to keep ourselves sane.
There's a lot to do if you want to live well in winter
Here's how we get an outing done in the winter.
-Check Meteorological office for adverse warnings
-Watch BBC weather report
-Check road closures
-Check winter operating hours
-Slap a lot of cream on your skin
-Pack the snack pack and prepare water/warm flask
-Dress up (Tee, sweater, coat, gloves, beanie, jeans/stockings, warm socks, boots, scarf)
-Repeat dress up 2 more times for the kids
-Scrape the ice off the windscreen, windows and mirrors
-Some people have to first shovel snow away to get moving
-Turn on the car window defoggers and wait for the condensation to go away before you can see well enough to get going.
In Singapore, we'd get out of bed and walk out of the house in pyjamas (tee shirt and running shorts). Call Grab or just pick food up at a 24hr eatery. It will always be fast and convenient. You would expect nothing less than that.
Winters don't give you that luxury. It is messy, uncomfortable and hard work. Winters bring ice that make roads extremely dangerous and difficult to drive on. There will be no deliveries, people can't get to work, businesses shut, all forms of transport halts and life comes to a standstill. You'd really need to be very aware of weather developments and prepare for disruptions. If you don't stock your food/fuel ahead of an adverse weather warning, you are going to be cold, hungry and miserable.
Such disruptions don't happen on a daily basis but there's always a possibility and it takes effort to be prepared. We are looking at temperatures hovering around -5 to 5 over the next two weeks. It is going to be colder than the milder 8-12 degrees we've been getting. There's a possibility we will get frost, snow and ice. We have put fuel into the car and stocked our fridge twice this week in anticipation for that freeze that's on its way!
Just 6 more weeks before spring
As much as we are looking forward to the next season, we do our best to enjoy the winter. I think that is one of the most effective way to survive winter - enjoy it!
As we steadied ourselves the strong wind around Foxton Locks along the Grand Union Canal in Leicestershire last weekend, I reminded everyone that we are not soaking our clothes wet with sweat while enjoying the great outdoors. We are not bloated nor feeling sticky. We are still enjoying the beautiful sights!
We are really grateful that after any good long walk, we will be absolutely ravenous. That means our food tastes better and gives us more satisfaction!
Yes it is disruptive, uncomfortable, a lot of work and dangerous at times but like any occupation, we are grateful for what it gives us. Winters can and do bring great satisfaction as well as enjoyment.
You can't get rainbows without the rain. You can't have the amazing four seasons without winter.
8 out of 12 months of year 2022 has been spent not living from a place of permanent abode. Needless to say, it feels extremely foreign that we now have a place to call home and come back to every night. For the first time since April, we've unpacked our luggage and they sit empty while the wardrobes are filled. I think more than the comfort of living a more settled state of life, we rejoice that we are back where our hearts yearned for so much. For 10 years since the last time we were here, we longed for the day we would come back. If you were to tell me in January that we would be back in December, I would have probably felt that you were making some kind of sick joke.
Dreams aside, there is a stark difference between living and travelling in a country. As we complete setting up home here in the UK, we took stock of our lives and uncovered some shocking truths about living here.
SHOCKING TRUTH #1
Direct income taxes for regular folks is between 20-30%. Higher earners pay 45%. Income taxes are way higher than what we are used to in Singapore.
SHOCKING TRUTH #2
Due to Putin's war, Europe now faces an extremely difficult energy/cost of living crisis. It can cost up to £500 (SGD800) for the monthly gas bill alone. Most people heat homes with gas boilers and there are people who can't afford to even turn on the gas anymore. We've had to turn our heating down from 21-22 celcius to 17-18 celcius because we realised the bill was going to be quite astronomical. This cut the bill by more than 50% but it also means we have to put on an additional layer! There's enough hardship in this world, we really don't need anyone to add to that...
SHOCKING TRUTH #3
Strikes are legal and they do happen. For Singaporeans of my generation, the word strike is what moms threaten us with when we mess up the house and take her work for granted. Other than that, it is almost a dirty word to utter in public.
Strikes can mean no train services, no bus services and even reduced staffing in hospitals etc. But this is how society here achieves equilibrium on the scale of work and pay.
SHOCKING TRUTH #4
Despite the cost of living crisis here, your grocery bill in Singapore is DOUBLE of what we pay here. So it must be a cost of living catastrophe in Singapore.
Milk costs SGD$2.23 for two litres. (In SG: $5.95 to $6.50)
Broccoli costs SGD$0.30 for 375g. (In SG: $3 for 250g Aussie broccoli)
Fresh loaf of Gluten free bread SGD$3.15 (In SG: $12-15)
Fresh Chicken thighs 2kgs SGD6.30 (In SG: $14 and above)
Rice is so far the only thing we found expensive to buy here. ($17-20 for 5kg). Almost every vegetable, fruit, cereal, meat, dairy and sauce is cheaper. We were absolutely shocked because we thought we had a chain of supermarkets that is a social enterprise. It is supposed to be FAIRprice?
SHOCKING TRUTH #5
Eating out costs a bomb here in UK. An average fast food meal costs £25 for 4 people (SGD42.50). We really can't just grab our phones and order a take out. Eating out/taking out is for special occasions or just once or twice a month affair. We cook or bring sandwiches whenever we can!
SHOCKING TRUTH #6
Your average 4 room HDB flat can buy you 3 flats or 1.5 Semi Detached houses here in Britain. You can buy a 3 bedroom suburban maisonette flat for less than SGD150,000 in midland cities (1.5 hours from London by rail). Most of these are also freehold.
SHOCKING TRUTH #7
Public transport costs SGD2.50 for a single trip here in Leicester. The maximum charge in London for an entire day of rides is about SGD14.30. People walk when your destination is a stop or two. Renting a public bicycle also makes sense.
SHOCKING TRUTH #8
You can buy an old but reliable runabout car for under SGD5000 (including one year of road tax, insurance and general maintenance). It is yours to drive FOREVER.
SHOCKING TRUTH #9
Healthcare is FREE. (Permanent residents and Citizens) Foreigners who reside in the UK on a visa usually pay a one-time health surcharge when getting your visa and are also then treated for free.
Yes you are treated for free for all hospitalisations, A&E visit, specialist visits, whether you require cancer treatment or brain surgery. Small charges like prescriptions do cost for outpatients. But it is a fixed cost of £108.10 for an entire year.
SHOCKING TRUTH #10
It rains 159 out of 365 days here in the UK. It rains 167 out of 365 days in Singapore. So I don't understand why UK gets the reputation for being miserably dark and wet.
And the point of pointing out these shocking truths is to challenge our preconceived notions about other countries. All throughout our travels we've realised that people can have very little and still feel contented. People can have a lot and yet feel like they have nothing. There are people in Britain who cannot afford to heat their homes, there are people in Singapore who cannot afford to buy nutritious food for their children and many others worldwide who are unnecessarily burdened by the rising costs of fuel.
We can be thankful for what we have and never stop trying to make life better for ourselves and those around us. An act of kindness can go a long long way.
HOW IS LIFE THEN?
Shocking truths aside, we've been trying to squeeze an outing here and there between the winter showers. We try out best not to complain about the weather even though it is very British do so. It really beats perspiring and getting eczema flare ups!
The weather is wet, windy and cold but our hearts are so full and warm. You hear me saying that very often but it is real.
The wide and open spaces are what we came here for! Deep in my heart, the green and pleasant land is one of the greatest pull factors about Britain. Having grown up in a city that flattens its forests and historical places rapidly, these things have become very very precious to me.
In all our travels, we've learnt of the healing powers of nature. It is a blessing to go into the woods, breathe fresh air, not perspire and walk free. It is an immensely freeing experience to only hear the sounds of nature and see the animals roam.
We also took the opportunity to take the kids to the Great Central Railway in Loughborough. (Read as "Luffbra") It is one of those places I would ride my bicycle to and watch the steam trains go by in my undergraduate days. When I got married, I took my wife to the same steam railway not expecting her to enjoy any of the geeky outdated antiques. But she saw my perspective of how it is important to preserve old things. It connects us with our history, it roots us and it incredibly comforting to return to a place you know will remain the same.
I'm grateful beyond words that I was able to visit this place as a single man, a married couple and now as a father of two. Perhaps visiting this railway could be our new Christmas tradition for all future generations! You can see the train move on our Instagram page: www.instagram.com/hiroandjack
HOW ARE THE KIDS ADJUSTING?
These shocking truths don't really affect the kids as much as their parents who have to make the pounds and pence work out. They are getting used to the cold but learning is business as usual. They get their daily dose of regular English, Math, Tamil and Science along with age appropriate TV programmes on the BBC.
It is one thing reading about steam power and another to experiencing it happening before you. The kids are amazed at how that huge machine actually comes alive. That's how we try to make it fresh and exciting for them. The sense of wonder fuels lifelong learning. Not skills future credits. We need to rekindle our own sense of wonder so that we'll WANT to learn! It shouldn't be out of desperation to keep a job but should be out of a genuine desire to pursue knowledge.
HOW ARE THE GROWN UPS ADJUSTING?
We are getting back the hang of cooking our own yummy food, loving football and having to vacuum clean the house. So far I've also been quite successful at trying not stall our little manual hatchback because most cars here in UK are stick shift (manual gearbox).
We dared not expect 2022 to end the way it has. It feels good to be grounded again. As the year draws to a close, we have a little more reason to look forward to the new year with optimism and hope. We wish the same for you.
Thank you for being around in 2022! We hope you'll stick around and continue to journey with us in our odd lives next year.
We pray you'll have a very joyous year ahead with a lot of hugs, kisses and time spent with your loved ones.
Signing off for 2022.
Matthias had a dream one of the days earlier this year in January when we were still living in Singapore. He told us we will be spending Christmas in a place he can see snow. I told him "we'll see..." but deep inside this jaded old man I knew the math didn't add up and scoffed at the idea. A man of little faith I am....
Moving across the world
If you've done any form of moving you'll know that it is an excruciating process. Moving light makes it easier but moving an entire family is anything but light or easy. We made it a point to offload all the things that we won't want to ship over in future and only stored the important things. I'm still in disbelief that we actually stuffed our lives in 3 cabin sized suitcases and a larger suitcase. We've realised time and time again how little we actually NEED to live a comfortable life.
"Are you excited?" "OMG you've been dreaming of going home to the UK for so long!". To be very honest, I felt nothing. I was too busy to feel anything. I loved meeting people that mattered to us for the entire week prior to flying off but I was numb. The mind didn't seem to register that it was actually happening.
"THE DREAMLINER" the kids exclaimed. At this point my mind was fixated on the gargantuan task of surviving flying with two kids aged 5 and 8 for 14 hours. My anxiety quickly dissipated when we settled into our seats.
These two digital natives instantly took to the inflight entertainment. This was their first time flying a full fare airline. We've only flown budget airlines across South-East Asia with them. I was pleasantly surprised they were able to operate the system with no instruction whatsoever. We kept the kids up as long as we could to ensure they could at least start syncing their sleep times to the UK's time.
As the aircraft descended through thick clouds and the suburban landscapes of Hounslow appeared, we were greeted with amazing sight. The roofs of houses and cars were covered with snow! I immediately felt myself involuntarily smiling. It felt like homecoming. 12 years ago when I departed London, it was in the middle of a cold snap. 12 years later, we were now in the middle of a cold snap. As the reverse thrust slowed the plane down, it finally felt real.
All 4 luggage made it safely and we dragged ourselves from Heathrow's Terminal 5 to Terminal 4 via a free underground transfer. If you are visiting London and want to save some money on accommodation+ your sanity, I'd highly recommend really nice hotels like Crowne Plaza, Sofitel, and Hilton in Heathrow. These hotels are directly connected to the airport terminals which means you can catch a rest without having to immediately travel into central London after a 14 hour flight. They also cost at least 50% off the price of the SAME hotels in central London. With the brand new Elizabeth line now connecting Heathrow to London Paddington in under 30 minutes (at Underground prices not Heathrow Express prices), staying near the airport when visiting London is no hassle now compared to the rickety old Piccadilly line tube trains. (those took more than an hour)
We used our platinum status on Agoda to score some really good prices for Hilton at Heathrow Terminal 4. It is connected to the terminal via covered linkway. The rooms were quite the normal 4 star standards but they were really quiet. Every single member of staff we encountered were attentive, energetic and polite. We really enjoyed the variety at the breakfast buffet. They even served our kids gluten free bread when we requested for some in faith. It was amazing :)
We really struggled a little the first day going from +30 to -2 degree celcius. The kids actually wanted to go back to the hotel because it was "too cold". But they were constantly exclaiming when they saw the leftover snow the piled up around central London. It was a little like saying I'd like an ice-cream that's a little warm?!
I explained that our bodies needed some time before it got into the mode of producing more warmth. The only way was to rough it out in the cold until the bodies went into winter mode. Hiding is never the answer. True enough, they got really used to it within a day! My eczema that flared up after we returned to Singapore for a short while suddenly disappeared after a couple of days in the freezing weather. Just not built for the tropics!
The kids were promised that if we ever got to London before Christmas, they'll visit the Winter Wonderland at Hyde Park. I'm so thankful we managed to fulfil that promise. Inside, there are many fair rides, a real ice skating rink, burgers, sausages, mulled wine and Christmas fairs. The scale of it just made it fantastical to walk through.
Too add on to the Christmas cheer, we took our time to enjoy Oxford street for the Christmas lights, chocolates and Hamleys (5 stories of amazing TOYS. Even I got excited just being there.
I must say that the kids struggled to stay awake for the first couple of days as we adjusted to the UK time. It was tough, Gwyn even walked with her eyes closed. Jet-lagging is hard but they did enjoy the city!
I don't usually say I like cities. But I've grown fond of London over the years. That is mostly because of its charm. This charm is the coexistence of the ancient and modern architecture and spaces. The modern buildings are built AROUND what is already there. Just take a look at these shots...
There's just something about the Brits and keeping old things. When there are places where generations of Brits, migrants and their descendants can make shared memories, it connects the generations to their shared history. That develops a sense of place and a sense of belonging. It a beautiful thing.
Another beautiful thing about London is how new stories are always written about old places! You have the Harry Potter's platform 9 3/4, Paddington bear at Paddington station and Andy's prehistoric adventures at the Natural History Museum. These places capture the imagination of people all over the world.
We tried out best to show our kids the best of London. But to be honest, we've not even scratched the surface. There's still much more to see. We'll definitely be back in London on weekends when we are free.
After just 4 days, we drove a 100 miles to where we'd be living long term and started the dreaded unpacking business. Setting up a home is pretty much as exhausting as moving. We'll continue to chronicle our odd lives here in the UK!
We'll just leave you with this little anecdote....
"Mama, is the fish bigger than me?"
In my heart I was saying, "yes darling, there are quite a few things in this world that is way bigger than we are. They will also be standing here for way longer than we are going to last. Such is the wonderful world we live and breathe in but for a moment in time."
Till our next adventure....
We are back!
We took a break from blogging at the end of September in Thailand and headed to Batam, Indonesia for a couple of weeks to reevaluate our options. We knew we needed to head back to Singapore after 7 months of shuttling about South East Asia. What came out of this was nothing short of a miracle. More on that later!
As we review 2022, we would like to first thank our readers so much for reading, sharing and following our odd lives. Back in January 2018 we started this blog as a way to…
‘…connect with our inner selves and with the readers out here. We believe many new adventures await our little family and we hope to be able to capture those precious moments here…The dream has always been to be with our children, live the (penniless) life of an artist and stay-home parent. But I guess being a blogger & shoe designer (that actually earns bucks) isn’t that bad too haha!” (Our first post - 9th January 2018)
It is mind-blowing that 4 years later we REALLY did have a whole load of new adventures and many precious moments recorded here. Apart from the exciting travel bits, I think the blog best captured the paradoxes of our odd lives. We’ve had to contend with stability vs change as well as individuality vs conformity. These challenges have profound ramifications on our lives.
The first quarter
We started 2022 in a very very dark place. It was only two weeks ago that we interred my dad’s ashes at the columbarium. We trudged along as most people do after a couple of days of “compassionate leave”. It became more and more difficult to live life as per normal. We knew we had to make a choice if we wanted to give ourselves space and time to grieve.
That space and time is costly. We fought that perennial conflict between stability and change by drawing out spreadsheets, looking at our bank accounts and evaluated every possible option possible. In the end, we did something very odd. We did something that would attract frowns and shocked faces. We said goodbye to our home. On top of making sure our finances worked we had to choose between our individual needs and conforming to a societally accepted brand of being responsible. We held on to our car thinking we could just travel around Malaysia and Thailand for 3 months before making further plans.
The second quarter
For 3 months we shuttled between Singapore and Malaysia. It was safe, comfortable and familiar. Every single one of the 7000km was liberating. We caught up on sleep, time together and got into the rhythm of living off our tiny car boot. The Grand Tour rekindled my love for photography, writing and blogging. Debra picked up her pen and started drawing for pleasure again. It was so strange that the supposed instability brought so much solace and stability to our souls.
The third quarter
In classic odd lifer fashion, we decided to continue our grand tour. We said goodbye to our car and flew to Vietnam. We were now officially living out of two cabin sized suitcases, homeschooling, travelling and blogging. For 6 weeks we saw the most incredible mountains, experienced the craziest traffic and came out with the most ridiculous idea.
Debra and I wanted to publish our own books. We needed time and less moving about to get that done. For one month, we worked out the massively daunting process of putting our ideas on paper. We managed to get 'Ravi and Kitty’ out while we stayed put in KL for a month.
The fourth quarter
We had enough of the city and took a much needed breather in Phuket. This was where “The Aroma of his coffee” was completed. By this point we have travelled for more than 6 months. We were once again faced with the dilemma of choosing between some form of stability or the constant flux of roaming. In the couple of weeks in Batam, we reevaluated our lives. 7 months of travel, grieving and engaging our passions did tremendous things for us. We found that this life of growing with our kids, roaming and honing our craft is what brings us great joy. We scoured the internet for opportunities. How can we marry all of these and keep going?
Debra: “Why don’t you go back to school?”
Vincent: “Me? Back to school?!”
My first thought was “that doesn’t make any sense!”
On second thought, it made all the sense to be back in academia. We will be able to continue roaming, homeschooling and growing with the kids. It would give us an opportunity to live abroad longer term. And so the odd life continues.
How do we sum up 2022?
Annus horribilis or mirabilis? I would say it is both!
Out of the deep sorrow, darkness and instability came miracles. We would never have expected ourselves to have these marvellous adventures and experiences. It is even more mind-blowing that in the midst of our grief, we produced books and art we would have never dared to dream of creating. If you told me in January that in December we would be heading to the United Kingdom for the foreseeable future, I would probably scoff. These precious things we acknowledge are ours to hold only by the grace of God.
What’s up ahead?
We should already be on our 14.5 hour flight to London when you read this. It is mind-blowing that this year, the Christmas songs about warm fires and cold weather will finally make sense.
The blog will continue to be an integral part of our lives. We will fill you in with our adventures in London very soon! We'll take our time and roam before heading to our long term abode outside of Leicester. We will continue to capture the precious moments and adventures of our odd lives. Hang around www.hirojack.com as we continue to share our stories, art and books with you!
The end product of our Grand Tour
We’ve been incredibly blessed with 24 weeks/almost 6 months of full time travelling, homeschooling and being digital nomads. We set off knowing we needed a break away from the daily grind to just enjoy each other and the journey. It was our own journey of grief.
Travelling across Malaysia, Vietnam and now Thailand, we’ve enjoyed many experiences and made many wonderful memories. We have had a lot time to find ourselves, relax, reflect and reconnect with each other. But it still felt like something was missing. As Debra was creating her first published book "Ravi and Kitty", I had a sudden realisation that I could write a book as part of our amazing journey. To be honest, I was apprehensive about writing. I’ve never written or conceptualised a picture book.
“Nobody will think anything good about it!” were one of the many self-doubting thoughts that flooded my mind. Then, that still small voice in my heart went “It is for your daddy, mummy, your kids and family”. My heart almost immediately swelled up with passion and inspiration to embark on the project. The core ideas of the book came almost instantly. It must be about COFFEE! There I sat at the dining table, pouring my soul into writing a book that would be a fitting end product of our Grand Tour.
THE END PRODUCT
First and foremost, I must give due credit to my beloved wife and illustrator of this book. Without her support and countless hours of drawing, none of my ideas would be brought to life. I’m so very proud of how she connected my thoughts and ideas and communicated them so well through the art she produced. She also the artist behind our sticker, art card and t shirt collections.
She’s really the better half!
This is not just an ordinary book that comes off a regular profit making publishing house’s conveyor belt. "The aroma of his coffee" is our journey down memory lane as we remember a man's love for his family, travel and his coffee. Debra and I will launch this book on 28th September 2022 on what would have been our beloved daddy’s 70th Birthday. This book is first dedicated to my dad. We feel acutely his absence every single day. I feel this is the most fitting way to remember what he meant to us and what we meant to him.
WHAT WE HOPE TO ACHIEVE
I have also written the book while being profoundly aware that grief and loss is a huge part of everyone’s life. I hope that our book can help others journey through their grief of losing a loved one through remembering. We hope people will be inspired to explore the many forms that memories take. Photographs/Videos have been the primary medium through which we reminisce but we've realised how powerful smells and a sense of place are in rekindling memories. Remembering is always bitter sweet. It can initially feel painful to remember but remembrance can help us cope and inspire our steps ahead.
Anyone who has experienced loss and grieve would be familiar with this cycle:
What we really need however is to work through our grief and loss. (As we have discussed in our mental health post how important it is not to just chuck it aside)
We need to exercise remembrance to reframe our thoughts, accept the situation and have a go-to coping strategy. Grief will never actually go away. You’ll always miss the person you’ve lost. Working through grief can help to lessen the debilitating effects of the pain and cope better when the wave hits you again.
This book has done exactly that for Debra, the kids and I. Being the author/illustrator of the book, we’ve had the fortunate opportunity (or unfortunate for some haha) to read the book a million times before it gets published. It brings out the feelings of loss and pain but at the same time, we are comforted by the fact that we actually shared those wonderful moments. It gives us the impetus to make more of those good memories and do what really matters in the grand scheme of things. This reframing exercise helps us accept the situation and channel the emotions into something positive in our lives. We hope that our story can help you do that too.
E-Books will be immediately available while hard copies will be on pre-order while the press works on producing them. We hope to have your strong and generous support this launch!
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You may be wondering if the end product also means that our trip is ending. To be honest, that prospect is looking quite real. We are not sure where we’ll be going next or how this will pan out long term. We hope that our work is well enjoyed and supported and in turn we can keep going for awhile until we decide on the next phase of life. We think that we would like it to go on for a little more.
In the meantime, please help us share this post and about our upcoming launch. Let us know your thoughts and comments too!
Sharing our love of art, travel and learning with you.
KWANS LEARN TAMIL