Loving the farm and countryside
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....
Tiny little balls of ice (Hail) started making a ruckus over the metal sheds. The kids were most amused to see tiny balls of ice fall from the sky. Almost as suddenly as it started, it went all silent. Sleet started floating down on the ground. (Sleet is like frozen rain that's slightly melted and wet). A strange calm descended upon the farm, that same calm I've experienced with every snowfall. True enough....
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 the odd lifers 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 £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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