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 £30 (SGD50). 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....
Vincent & Debra Kwan, Founders of Hiro & Jack and stay-at-home parents with the odd life.
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