The here and now and a bit of way back then

I relived my journey to 40 and found there's so much more to say

What’s that? You can hear Forty calling me!

If I wasn’t already aware, I can definitely rely on family to remind me that FORTY is just a blink away. My Lil Sis posted on my Facebook page alerting me and everyone that I’ve now got less than two weeks of my Thirties left to go. Thanks Lil Sis! I’m looking forward to opening my present which I’ve been very good about not shaking or prodding for the last two months.

I think it’s about time to start planning how I’m going to celebrate TURNING FORTY! I can feel a wave of excitement as I write this because I’m not really sure exactly how I’m going to celebrate.

Husband has said he has taken time off for Birthday Eve and Birthday. Perhaps on Birthday Eve, he and I can have a few hours to ourselves over lunch because Birthday will be spent with #1, 2 and 3 who will undoubtedly be even more excited than me. The evening after I’m going on my first Over Forties Girl’s Night Out which means Thursday will be spent in a cool, darkened room and then Friday I’m doing Ladies What Lunch with some lovely friends.

Am I forgetting The Big Night Out part? Of course not! But I’m going to have to do that in September because it’s not going to be a celebration if certain people are not around to share it with me like Mrs Cake Pops and a few other people who are summering in the UK right now. I haven’t gotten around to organising that yet either but vaguely thinking about having it Fancy Dress in a pub somewhere. My friend Little Red, who is perhaps the most enthusiastic person I’ve met about fancy dress, suggested a Couples theme. Where people can just choose amongst themselves what to come as so long as they complement each other and not that other form of Couples theme where people wear matching outfits. That will get you banned from entry.

Besides, #2 celebrates turning the much more modest FOUR the week after and I’d like to put all my efforts into making her Birthday all that she’d like it to be. She’s set on having a ‘Frozen’ theme, surprisingly, and this year I’ve decided that a little help from my friends won’t go amiss especially when they can do a job far better than I ever could. So look out for a very special cake design from my fabulous friend Great Singapore Bake Off.

I just can’t believe how quickly a decade has gone by. Ten years ago, I was planning on celebrating Turning Thirty and it’s a cliche but it feels like no time has passed at all (but of course it has, ten years in fact.)

So how did I spend that milestone Birthday? Well, hungover. Severely hungover in fact. Accidently of course, like most hangovers tend to be. Amongst the Voluntary Sector in London there is a Charity Softball League, it’s still going strong I believe, but at the time it had just been set up a few years. The Charity Softball League is a great summertime social event, quite competitive though the charities I worked for didn’t quite fall into that category but soon became well known for being the last ones standing at the designated pub right by Nobu (where we once saw Chris Martin and Gwyneth Paltrow and who signed a softball I have tucked away somewhere).

Suffice to say, I was highly encouraged to celebrate the official last day of my twenties.

I rather enjoy spending a Birthday at place of gainful employment and have friends and colleagues around to wish you well and share cake with. Unlike Husband’s place of gainful employment where you have to buy your own cakes to share with friends and colleagues. My lovely former colleague but forever friend, Mrs Pink organised my work celebration with a cake created by her own fair hands and a pizza lunch (good for severe hangover). My gift from all my Muscular Dystrophy Campaign colleagues (www.muscular-dystrophy.org.uk) was a beautiful necklace/bracelet which I still love to wear.

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Then laden down with all my gifts, flowers and 30th Birthday balloon from Mrs Cor Blimey, I met Husband (who wasn’t Husband then) for posh Grown Up dinner. Is it just me or you too, when you go to a proper posh restaurant for dinner when you previously thought TGI Fridays was something special, that you feel like you’re just playing at being a Grown Up? I’m much better at such things now incase you’re wanting to take me out to more proper posh Grown Up restaurants.

Turning Thirty was quite the occasion. I was in London, surrounded by friends I made from University and work, all living a lifestyle quite like each other. We were young and having a great time.

I still remember telling Nana Moon to make sure I didn’t chunder in the cab home for I am not good with travelling on a full stomach of beer. When you give someone such responsibility on your 30th Birthday, they have no choice but to accept their mission. Like a true friend she equipped her bag with Polo mints. And like a true friend she was the one who came back and found me propped against a low wall where I was ‘resting’ after the bar had closed whilst everyone was rambling on about how to get home.

Undoubtedly a drunken night! And like most drunken nights I’ve had, I can tell you I had a great time but I can’t recall specifics except someone, I think Elbear, coming with temporary tattoos we all seemed to be sporting by the end of the night. I just know that I was with all the people I wanted to be with at that time in my life.

Ah! I miss you all! I can feel it in my heart as I write this. Times have changed. Families have grown and people have moved out of London too but perhaps when I’m back in the autumn there will be a chance for a belated celebration because as it turns out, Turning Forty goes on indefinitely.

So although when I come round to celebrate Turning Forty, it won’t quite be the same crowd in Singapore, the people who will hopefully be there, are all the people I want to be with at this time in my life.

Here it comes. I can clearly hear FORTY calling me.

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The many Farewells of an Expat Life

If there’s one thing I’ve been unprepared for with living this Expat Life, it’s all the Farewells that come with it.

Last November, I mentioned that in five years we’ve said Goodbye to over 30 families, it’s now ratcheted to nearer 40. That’s on average a leaving do every two months. Singapore is a very transient hub, it’s to be expected I know.

There are wonderful experiences to be had from living abroad. There are many interesting people to meet. There are fabulous friends to keep even. But just when you’re getting really comfortable with someone, it’s time for them to go to pastures new. I guess we’re not all on the same time line. Some have already served their time just as we arrived and some were never planning to stay that long anyway.

Neither were we. But suddenly, a six year anniversary is creeping up.

I thought the Goodbyes I said to my family and my closest friends way back in September 2008 was the most difficult. Leaving behind a life I knew well at a time when I was on the cusp of beginning a new unknown one as a parent. It’s funny how you don’t really give much thought to moving away from home when you’re truly young. Some twenty years ago now when I moved away to Manchester was the most exciting new experience and I couldn’t wait for it to happen. Same with moving to London. But this move to Singapore was different, to completely extract yourself from a life familiar at a time when you’re feeling quite comfortable and not quite so into new adventures but preferring the blanket of stability.

It was hard and it still is, that ache in your heart on every trip back to see everyone. How much you miss them and every time you notice how everyone has changed a bit; how children have grown up a lot that you’ve missed out on but back to an Expat life you must go, for now.

I thought leaving behind what I had was the most difficult part. I was wrong though. I certainly wasn’t expecting how hard it would be to say the Goodbyes to the people I have met in Singapore and some I’ve known for just a couple of years. What is that all about?

I liken my first year or so as an Expat Fresher where you wonder whether you’re going to meet any new people at all and if so where and how. In my situation with the absence of gainful employment but being with child, it was surprisingly easy to start building a network of people after the first few months of barely meeting anyone at all to talk to. Having children opens many a social door.

So you join this New Mother and Baby Group, that coffee morning, another New Mum’s Walk in the Sweaty Park Group. You smile and engage in conversation with any person you come across and maybes you meet up for coffee, a play group, a Walk in the Sweaty Park to see how it all goes.

I would consider myself a sociable person. In gainful employment, a lot of what I do is about engaging with people. I don’t find it particularly difficult to talk to new people. But at the age of 34, I would say that my social networks were more or less defined. I knew what kind of people I enjoyed spending my free time with and more importantly they knew me.

So here I was, about to start again. But unlike starting University where a lot of people reinvent themselves, I was quite happy the way I was. However, what I wasn’t expecting is how utterly life changing that life changing event called having children really is. Because it does change some part of you, even if you think only temporarily. So now I was meeting people under the guise of New Parent and the focus is so different. It’s not about whether I would like to sit with you in a pub for several pints anymore but whether you and I are sharing the same thoughts about this Parenting malarky with our children being of same age. I would say pretty much all my friendships have been built on these grounds bar one or two.

And because of this start, that’s why losing some of these friendships is so difficult. These women who in the absence of parents, best friends, local health visitors became the support network you really can’t do without when life and emotions turn you upside down, they pick you up and put you right again. I’ve mentioned before just how lucky I was to meet Mrs BA who extended warmth and friendship without needing to. Who opened up networks that I’m still attached to and whose kindness and generosity reminds me that we all can make someone feel better whilst they find their feet.

Not all meetings have ended as well of course. Some don’t get beyond that first play date, some can peter out after several months or some just decide that you really have nothing in common but the age of your children. One even went to great lengths to avoid giving me their phone number and I didn’t even realise! But all this is totally fine because it’s healthy and time saving for all if you recognise you just don’t like someone. I’d rather that than just be used to pass the time.

As the years have gone by, missing the friendships that have left me the most bereft are the ones where I have felt I’ve been able to be the ‘Me Before Expat’, which also equates to the ‘Me Before Children’ and getting to know the ‘You Before Expat’ and the ‘You Before Children’. The friendships that bring in parts of life outside of the immediate, the ones that share news of other happenings and different lives they’ve led. I suppose the ones who invest a bit of themselves in you.

As I become more experienced at watching people leave, I can feel I’m starting to become less affected by it all. I still miss them and I miss our chats and afternoon catch ups with the children but I recover a lot more quickly. Otherwise in between missing my own family and friends in the UK and the 40 or so families I’ve met here then I’d be one big blubbering mess! That’s no way to function.

Sometimes though it can feel quite an effort to put yourself out there and make new friends which you have to for the aforementioned reasons of transient hub. I’ve had a few half serious conversations with seasoned Expats about exactly how much should you invest in new friendships. Is there much point if they’re on a fixed term contract and you’re not because they’re going to be leaving anyways and if you find out that someone you see on a regular basis is contemplating leaving, does that blacklist them too? Should I be owning up to the fact that after almost six years then our time is coming to an end too with potential new friends? Would our friendship be built on a dishonest foundation if I didn’t make this fact known and would they resent me when I jilt them a few months from now having led them on under false friendship pretences? Should I even be hinting to seasoned friends that I could be leaving in case I’m unceremoniously dumped ahead of time? I am of course joking. I’m quite sure they wouldn’t do that….

It’s become a minefield but one which I’m still willing to navigate because it’s not about how long you or I are staying for. It’s about what we gain whilst we are here. If you make true friendships you’ll see them again and it’s a huge joy when that happens. When you know that I like you for all the right reasons and not for reasons of convenience or just to pass the time whilst we’re here. I’ve recently had several reunion encounters and it was like just yesterday we saw each other. Like how it feels when I see my UK friends.

So I’m glad I was plucked out of my comfort zone and had to learn the art of Making New Friends in my Thirties, something which I recently read an article about being such a difficult thing to do. It’s opened my world to people who are from all over the world and who now live all over the world. It’s huge out there and I can travel to many a far flung place and actually know someone. Someone who I would love to see again. There’s one in Dubai, a few in Australia and New Zealand, the USA, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Ireland, I could go on.

And I hope we don’t lose this art of Making New Friends in our Forties either whether an Expat or person back in native country because at any age and for any reason you could come across someone starting over again. You could make one big change for someone just by inviting them for coffee.

The true privilege of living this Expat Life are the people you meet. And so I think I’ve been very privileged indeed.

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In the News today

On any given day when you scan the News headlines there is always going to be coverage of severe atrocities happening around the world. It makes for depressing but important reading. In many ways, wouldn’t it be better to live in ignorance of the world around us.

Often where these events are occurring are a world away from our own daily lives. Sometimes it’s hard to imagine that some of these events are actually taking place at all.

Of course I’m aware that a part of what we are alerted to in the News is controlled by the media and that some News channels have a certain way of reporting that differs to others. Nonetheless, scan through several online News channels and you’ll find the same stories covered from different angles.

Perhaps it’s because I’m only reading the News online these days that means I’m only picking up the main, most shocking and sad headlines. Last week alone the coverage that shocked and saddened me the most was the loss of life in the Israeli-Gaza conflict, the six year old girl who was raped in India and the tragic crash of flight MH17.

I don’t want to talk about these events per se but just our general awareness and responsibility to take notice of what’s happening around us changes as we get older. Whether it’s about home or international affairs, just because it doesn’t affect us imminently doesn’t mean we shouldn’t still be concerned. Same goes for politics.

Although I allow myself to get annoyed by some of the daily minutiae that happens in my day to day existence, and I believe we all should just so we can let it go and move on, I’m also much more aware of how and where I express this annoyance. To Husband and one or two close friends is fine because they’re probably not listening anyways. But again the danger of social media is that you can inadvertently tap out a tweet or status update and there it sticks.

There’s some discussion that the digital footprint left by teenagers ought to be deleted so that it doesn’t impact on their later years on the premise that they don’t really know what they’re saying. Even as I write this blog, I’m aware of every word I type and the impact on those I refer to. And the fact that I’m not telling you everything because this blog isn’t just about me and you don’t need to know everything but as far as what I’ve said, it’s what I’m willing to share that doesn’t compromise anyone important to me. If anything, it’s about wanting to say the good stuff about the people who are important to me. Besides, I write this with the intention of keeping it to perhaps refer to again in another ten years time. Maybes, #1, 2 and 3 will read it too at some point.

As I was saying, the News headlines this week left me feeling a lot empty at some of the sad state of affairs in the world. It left me feeling even a bit guilty too. Of the fact that I have a privileged life and what am I doing with it. What impact am I making to change things for the better? What difference could I possibly make?

When I was in gainful employment and working in the voluntary sector with the many different organisations supporting and campaigning for the many different causes that need our attention, the answer is that everyone can make a difference. Either with a big statement or quietly behind the scenes.

Sometimes though, extreme events you read about do impact on people you know as much as you wish it wouldn’t. So in response to all the terrible things that happen all around the world, I may not be able to change much of that but I can appreciate what I have today and if I can offer comfort in any way to those that need it, then that’s the very least I can do.

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Who taught you to read?

It has always fascinated me how children learn to talk just by absorbing language around them. #1 knew a lot of words by the time he was two but most of them were the names of trains from Thomas the Tank Engine. When the Doctor asked me at his two year old growth and development check up whether he knew 20 words and use them in the right context, I couldn’t actually be sure that he did.

#2 on the other hand could articulate herself quite well way before the age of two and the other day we all sat down as a family to add up the words that #3 can say, it’s over 30. Such are the benefits of having older siblings. But I also know that even though #2 has a wide and varying vocabulary, it’s often not much help if she doesn’t understand the meaning of the words or sticks by her own interpretation of the words that go in her favour.

In our household, there is constant chatter all the time. Some of it in the form of needs and wants, some in the form of delightful, funny two way conversations and some in the form of unintelligible wailing. All three at the same time ever proving that they are on their way to mastering the power of language.

I have often wondered though, how #1 was ever going to learn to read let alone to write. For I have to admit that I have not been one of those parents who have religiously sat in front of #1, 2 and 3 whizzing flash cards past their faces even before that first tooth had popped out. Judge me not.

Should I be sitting with them practising their alphabet and sight words for an hour a day? Should I decorate the walls with useful educational posters? Should I be turning everyday activities into a learning experience?

Then some time last year a friend of #1 who was only five months older than him was able to read a book. All by themselves. READING? At the age of just four? I felt a frisson of panic. How did you manage that? How do you teach them to read when they barely acknowledge the alphabet?

As it turns out, the sensible Mum of #1’s friend said, ‘Just leave it to school’. So I did. And lo and behold #1 came back from school earlier this year with his first ever reading book. Admittedly the book consisted of four words arranged in a combination of ways to make new three word sentences but it was a book that he was reading all by himself all the same. Husband and I were very proud. Whilst #1 couldn’t see what the hoo ha was all about. He’s progressed far in a few months.

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It’s a funny thing when you think about it but being able to read and write is just one of those things that you know how to do without remembering who or how you were taught. Besides having a firm belief that school was invented to give parents and children a break from each other, it’s amazing the skills that school and an education equip us with. It is a privilege that we can take for granted now but that’s not the case for all around the world and you only need to know a little about Malala Yousafzai’s story in Pakistan to consider just how lucky we really are. A few months ago, I listened to an interview with Malala and she touched upon how it makes her feel that some of her contemporaries fail to see just how lucky they are to have the right to an education and sometimes not appreciating this right appropriately.

At the moment I have no predictions for the educational goals or career aspirations for #1, 2 and 3. There is the underlying hope that they will do well and follow a career path that will give them stability and fulfilment but how that looks is entirely up to them as we go along.

For now, it is enough that they enjoy learning. I enjoyed learning as a child. I loved learning in fact. The old fashioned way with text books and pens, libraries and reference books. I don’t know how I will greet this new world of laptops and iPads for all children. At searching for information and getting answers to the most complex of questions within a few keystrokes. I get that we all have to move with the times and a digital generation will still be one that is sophisticated, enthralling and challenging. My worry is that they will not be as adept at remembering things. If we’ve become such a throwaway society with material things then does that go for our memories too? Even now I can only recall several telephone numbers off the top of my head and Birthdays because all that information stored in that one small gadget.

This past week, I attended the Parent Teacher meetings for #1 and 2 and I marvel and respect the hard work and effort that their teachers have put into laying the foundations for their educational future.

Make learning fun is definitely the key for all ages and I can only be complimentary to what the school is teaching my children. It’s a beautiful little school in an old black and white house set off a rural track, quite a rarity in urban Singapore. #1 and 2 are leading this whole other independent life enriched with knowledge, creativity and happiness there. I love how they come back from school with facts that I have long forgotten about which they have heard for the first time and think is wonderful.

They do lots of fabulous arts and crafts and I’m beginning to wonder where everything is going to go because how could you possibly throw away anything that your children have painstakingly created?

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In and amongst all this fun stuff though, there has been a structured learning programme in place working hard behind the scenes. The letters they were encouraged to copy with pieces of pasta and string at the age of two, revisited at the age of three and reemphasised at the age of four. All these steps have been leading up to the moment when #1 comes home, without much fanfare, with his first reading book that brings a whoop of delight from us at this most exciting moment.

I spare a thought for my Dad, Mr Li having to attend my own Parent’s Evenings. I’m not sure whether much was gained by him being there or not but who wants to be the only child in the class whose parents don’t come to Parent’s Evening? When you spend the day at school making sure the classroom is tidy and get your tray ready with all the fruits of your labour so that you can proudly show your parents where you sit in the class and the work you do.

My Dad, Mr Li came of course but always with the slight air of anxiety and perhaps embarassment that he couldn’t understand much of what was being said beyond, ‘Hello, Mr Li, very pleased to meet you’. And ‘Good, no problems here’. To which my Dad, Mr Li would nod and smile and say ‘Good, Thank you’ and feel very relieved that there are no problems. Needless to say discussions were short. My Dad, Mr Li once said that he understood his limitations in being useful as a parent who could sit down and help with reading, writing and doing maths. How sad and worrying must that have been for him at the time.

You see, even though my Dad, Mr Li has no idea what I’ve been doing all these years, it doesn’t really matter to him. He feels pride enough to see that we’re doing something. He doesn’t really understand what I did in gainful employment but then neither do I fully understand what Husband does in his gainful employment.

For #1 though, the serious stuff has just started. The reading, the writing, the basic maths. There’s still a long way to go though for all of us but I hope he relishes the world of information out there and never wants to stop learning new things. He will be guided to appreciate the effort and amazing work teachers do. For although Husband and I can credit ourselves with many things he knows, we did not teach him the basic skills in how to read which makes it so much easier for us to encourage him onward with his reading. One of life’s best gifts.

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It’s never just a game

Will you be cheering on Germany or Argentina this 2014 World Cup Final?

With the game being played at 3am on Monday morning, I’ll be fast asleep and waking up to check BBC Sport to find out who the World Champions are is far less thrilling.

Though I think there would be something quite rebellious to give up on sleep to go and watch the match in one of the bars just a 10 minute walk away down by Robertson Walk. But I’m not going to.

The problem is that this whole tournament has passed me by without having watched a single game or even any of the highlights. It’s partly to do with the time difference and being on holiday during the Group Stages helped to avoid the shame of England going out then.

Living this Expat Life for almost six years has dug a void in my already limited sporting knowledge. I recognised just three names from this year’s England squad and I bet I won’t know any of the current players in my chosen home team of Newcastle United. ‘Toon Army, Toon Army’.

You may argue I’m obviously not a true supporter then. The fair weather type that hangs around when things are going good and not to be seen when they’re languishing in the lower leagues. That’s not me either but to be a true supporter you have to dedicate a lot of time to the cause and at the moment I can barely keep in touch with real people I know, current affairs and everything that #1, 2 and 3 are up to.

There is none of the grabbing a free newspaper on the way to work that gives you a round up of all the current sporting news or catching it all at the end of the News at Ten. Or just hearing people talk about sport. For if you can’t talk about the weather to kickstart a conversation, then sport is the acceptable alternative. All this subliminal absorption of information that makes you still feel part of something that everyone else is involved with..

I first realised just how bonding having a ‘team’ is during the first few weeks of starting University. I don’t think it had occurred to me that other footy fans existed, which may sound a bit odd but growing up you were surrounded with family and friends supporting the same team. Then suddenly you are one amongst hundreds of new people from all different backgrounds, upbringings and regional slang.

Having spent months imagining an independent life away from home, you find yourself seeking another someone that understands the same English. How much easier can it be to find that someone than a public declaration of which football club you supported. I bet only a small percentage of the student population didn’t have a poster, a mug or scarf on proud display of some football or rugby team. Though I equally bet that some posters were only there purely for aesthetic pleasures.

If there was ever a better time for England to host a football tournament then it was whilst we were still students. Enough hours in the day to watch all the games and the Euro 96 tournament meant longer drinking hours in all the pubs in Manchester.

As I’ve said before, I have very little sporting knowledge and it’s always my least favourite piece of pie in Trivial Pursuit. Even more so now that I’m not subliminally absorbing any form of sporting information. But does it make me any less of a true fan? No, I don’t think so. It just makes me less of a contender to cover the Sports questions in a pub quiz team.

Choose your team. For life, for one tournament or just one game. When you’re there with others how can you possibly not be swept along in the tidal wave of passion, tension and belief uniting and dividing a group of people. It’s exhilarating to walk into a pub packed to the rafters with people and their pints at the ready. Roars from the crowd at every perceived injustice against their side and even louder roars of jubilation when things go right.

I miss the social aspect of sporting events. The Saturday or Sunday afternoons down the pub. The outdoor screens showing the big tournaments. It’s never just a game and I would never deign to say that to a truly bereft fan but there’s always going to be another game on the horizon.

I haven’t been to many live football matches and never to the rugby, but I’d really like to. I prefer the disciplined behaviour of rugby to the deplorable squaring up to the Ref you sometimes see in football and what kind of example is that? Where are the role models who really merit this level of commitment, time and money that supporters put in and not forgetting the often obscene levels of pay that players get.

But I don’t know enough to offer any kind of debate on these matters. I just know that whether it was my first game watching Stalybridge against Woking, my only time at St. James’ Park watching the Toon Army defeat Leeds United with my Mum, the last game between England and Scotland at the old Wembley Stadium before it was rebuilt or sat in the West Ham stand whilst secretly supporting Liverpool for the day; the atmosphere of being there is invigorating.

I only just remembered the other day about having been to Munich during the 2006 World Cup to watch Ivory Coast play Serbia and Montenegro. I’m pretty sure I have no blood affinity with either country but for that day we were definitely Cote D’Ivoire fans and I have the t shirt and everything to prove it. I completely forgot just how much fun those five days were. So well organised, as you’d probably expect in Germany, and good behaviour all round.

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Munich is a beautiful city, quite roomy too and here and there were special outdoor areas with big screens and big steins of beer to match. The weather was glorious too which always helps along a good atmosphere and some sightseeing and so it was that we found ourselves wandering through Munich’s English Garden. I think I see persons sans clothing in the distance but Husband, Mr No Beans and Ms Relight My Fire are insistent that I am mistaken. Until we loop back round and happen upon the persons sans clothing. See! Or rather don’t make it obvious that you’re seeing.

It appears that one side of the not very wide river is for people clothed and the other is for people sans clothing. Of course I was mature about it all! And I also learnt how to smoke a cigarette in a manner that prevents stray flecks of ash from burning parts of your person that may be sans clothing. You hold the cigarette as normal and arc from the elbow in a windscreen wiper sweeping motion.

We didn’t have any tickets for the games in Nuremberg but we headed over there anyway for a couple of days. It’s just a train ride away and Nuremburg is exactly the sort of place you would want to come back to for a real Bavarian winter market. Mr No Beans is not a fan of baked beans but a huge fan of sausages and took great delight in sampling as many bratwursts as possible. Bratwursts for every meal and snack he boldly declared. That’s a lot of bratwursts with each bun in Nuremburg carrying three of them.

We passed the site of the Nuremburg Rallies and the solemnity that surrounds the acknowledgement of this historical site reverberates around us.

Beyond here was another well organised spectators base with fans from all over the world in a kaleidoscope of football strips. A sea of people wearing the same team colours is uniting but a sea of people wearing a clash of team colours and having a great time together is uplifting.

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Even though you may not speak the same language, it’s funny how everyone speaks the same language of beer. Husband spent a whole game conversing with a German supporter with neither of them speaking in the same language but gesticulating wildly and nodding vigorously. Mr No Beans declared a new affinity with Ghana whilst I and Ms Relight My Fire ate more bratwursts and drank more beer with two hands holding onto our steins.

As I write this and remember just what a great time I had at the 2006 World Cup, I think maybe I might just be on the side of Germany this World Cup Final.

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SayoNara Osaka

All good travelling companions are the ones that show a bit of compromise. So it was that we found ourselves on the way to Osaka Aquarium Kaiyunkan (www.kaiyukan.com/language/eng) instead of Osaka Castle which looked majestic in the guide book. Ah well, there’s always another time.

We took a rapid local train to Osaka arriving in 45 minutes and completely bypassed any other part of Osaka to get to Osaka Aquarium which is also quite near to Universal Studios.

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So when I went to S.E.A Aquarium in Singapore, it apparently was ‘the world’s largest aquarium’ and I believed them. Then I arrive at Osaka Aquarium and that too is ‘the world’s largest aquarium’. How can that be? Should I write to someone about this in case they don’t know?

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The Aquarium is thoughtfully designed leading you up and down five floors and through 10 exhibition areas that are all interlinked like a pathway around the globe. It’s not all about tanks of beautiful tropical fish and playful seals but pay attention and you can see lots of education and conservation work in place educating people on the dangers our demands are putting on the demise of many species

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Osaka Aquarium wouldn’t have been on my list of things to do without #1, 2 and 3 but I enjoyed it very much. If it’s not ‘the world’s largest aquarium’, it definitely has ‘the world’s broadest range of aqualife’. Whilst we were there, we didn’t get to see the whale sharks who had been moved out for a check up. I still don’t get how the smaller fish aren’t eaten up in those great big viewing tanks with lots of different sharks and things.

So that outing was a treat for #1, 2 and 3 and our next train ride out of Kyoto was to Nara, once formerly the capital of Japan. Though I didn’t know this until the day we went. (In fact I learnt yesterday over a few beers with friends back in Singapore for the day that during WW2, the US made a promise not to bomb Kyoto because of its historical value.)

Nara is also about 45 minutes out of Kyoto on a rapid local train. I mention rapid train because the non rapid ones are a lot less rapid as we found out on the way back from Osaka. Even if you have to wait 20 minutes before a rapid one when the non rapid one is going to leave right now, you’ll still get back to Kyoto a lot faster. I don’t know how it works either.

When we exited Nara train station there was hardly a hint as to what glorious sights were hidden within this small town. You know, you just see lots of traffic and modern buildings. Unlike the GNER train approaching Durham station as you pass the glorious Durham Cathedral. That feeling of almost being home never leaves you every time I take that route. I’m digressing. The very helpful Tourist Information Window at the train station have a very helpful map, carefully not drawn to scale with all the temples and shrines to see in Nara. A proper full day starting early in the morning would enable you to take in quite a few sights around Nara but with #1, 2 and 3 we took a city loop bus that dropped us right by Nara Park.

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Nara Park is well known for the free roaming deer that live there and who are no strangers to visitors feeding them. Bouyed on by this fact and the high probability that the deers ought to be feeling quite well fed by the high volume of people feeding them shika senbei. I (who am not a natural one with all things animal) thought it would be within my capabilities to also feed them. Even #1 was successful at doing this. So I get my deer crackers from the stall and start feeding one, then two come along, that’s still ok and then four and now I’m not so comfortable when there’s six deers jostling for cracker space. So I do what comes naturally, I yelp and toss the crackers far away from me. Husband guffawed and regrets he didn’t get a video of it but will happily re-enact the scene for you.

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Within Nara Park is where you’ll find the infamous Todaiji (Great Eastern) Temple with the main hall, Daibutsuden (Big Buddha Hall) that houses one of Japan’s largest bronze Buddha statues. The Todaji was once the most influential Buddhist Temple in all of Japan. It was because of this immense accumulation of power that caused the capital to be moved from Nara to Nagaoka to withhold its influence on government.

Like with many of Japan’s Temples, you are instantly impressed just by the huge entry gates that you pass through, the Nandaimon Gate. It looks a bit weathered as is the duty of gates to be but it’s still beautiful nonetheless. Intimidating even. There’s another building to enter where you buy tickets for the main Daibutsuden Hall and at this point I’m still oblivious to just how majestic the main hall is going to be.

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Then we pass through the ticket check and you see it straight ahead of you. This amazingly well preserved stunning building looking back at you. Even #1, 2 and 3 sat and stared at it for a while.

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Inside the Hall is another smaller Buddha statue, a couple of huge guardians as well as wooden replica models of the original Daibutsuden, this current Hall is a lot smaller than its predecessor. At the time I didn’t know what this school group were lining up for but #2 and I still watched with some amusement as one of them was squeezing themselves into a wooden column as the others looked on. The young, I thought. It was afterwards I read that this hole is the same size as the Big Buddha’s nostril and if you can get in then you’ll achievement enlightenment in your next life. He quite likes a good laugh I think and that in itself can bring enlightenment.

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Surrounding the grounds outside of the Daibutsuden Hall are plenty of smaller buildings and the Todaiji Musuem. We chose to wander up the hill to look around rather than be indoors in the Musuem trying to shush #1, 2 and 3.

As much as the deers are mild and used to people around them, there’s still going to be that natural instinct to protect their young. #3 happened to stop and stare as a doe and her young one walked by when the mother turned around and came back to butt #3 in the chest. Again I yelped in real fear this time but no harm was done. #3 was more surprised than scared that she’d been pushed over by a deer.

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So that was Osaka and Nara for us. Admittedly we didn’t really see much of Osaka but #1, 2 and 3 had the best time at the Aquarium. The day out to Nara was a pleasant surprise with all the open space of Nara Park that I haven’t seen since being back in the UK. There’s something quite soothing visiting the Todaiji and how peaceful the grounds are that you can amble around in for a while. It’s a fine contrast to the hustle and bustle of Kyoto. So different and well worth taking time out to see.

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Arigato Kyoto

Kyoto is located in the south of Japan, about two and a half hours from Tokyo station on the Shinkansen, Japan’s bullet train, through towns scattered amongst paddy fields and passing factories with recognisable brand names. It’s been a long while since I travelled by train and I think it can be a more relaxing, more interesting way to get places (providing you get a seat).

#1 being a longstanding fan of all forms of transport was hugely excited at travelling on the Shinkansen. As was Husband. Once we got ourselves and two large suitcases, hand luggage case, rucksacks, buggy and extra bag of stuff onto the platform was I then able to get excited too. The front of a Shinkansen train looks like a slightly squashed goose head.

Once inside though, oh my word. More leg room than the one and only time I’ve flown Business Class on an A380. For a fraction of the price too. Reclining seats that aren’t sticky, window shutters. This is nothing like being crammed into the London King’s Cross to Newcastle GNER. And if like me, you are rendered immobile on most forms of transport through motion sickness then you’ll be pleased to know that the train seats in Japan can be flipped around so that you’re always facing the direction of travel.

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Even better for #1, was the fact we stayed at the Hotel Granvia at Kyoto station overlooking the Shinkansen and local train platforms. This may not sound like a great view to you but for a 1, 3 and 5 year old, it provided great entertainment for pointing out all the trains arriving and departing the station. It’s a lot and all needed to be acknowledged. Thankfully our hotel room was BIG!

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Prior to arriving in Kyoto, I had heard it was full of the old charm of Japan with magnificent temples and geishas still practising an ancient art in such modern times. But when you arrive at Kyoto station this is not quite apparent as the station itself is a structure of modern interest. On one side you see steps that seem to climb up into infinity. We always had to catch the lift though.

We spent six days in Kyoto because as tourists you can buy a special price Japan Rail travel pass (before you get to Japan) that you can use for unlimited journeys in a seven day period. (Passes with longer durations are also available) So although we could have easily occupied all our time in Kyoto, to make better use of the JR pass we also took day trips to Osaka and Nara but those I’ll leave for another post.

I suppose what truly lures you to revisit a place you’ve already been to is the way it captures your heart and leaves you feeling like you really want to get to know this place better. Like that person you meet and get on really well with and you look forward to seeing again.

Kyoto has many, many hidden treasures of peace, beauty, opulence and magnificent architecture. On our first day we took the train out to Saga-Arashiyama station, from the station it was a short walk to the start of the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove. Before we headed into the Bamboo Grove we had a really yum lunch at a beancurd in a pot place that also had an ice cream and mochi shop right beside it.

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It’s impossible to show you in a photograph the exceptional beauty of the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove. I’m a big fan of trees as it is and entering this magical display of greenery was simply quite breathtaking. Being surrounded by all this lush greenery seemed to envelope us all in a world of calm. Green is a soothing colour after all. Unlike big bushy tree forests which obscures the light from above, the elegantly tall and slender bamboo trees let in light all around you.

There are recommended walks you can do that take you all the way up a hill which I’m sure would have provided amazing views but with #1, 2 and 3 we did half a route and took in the Tenryu-ji temple, past the Okochi-sanso Villa and Jojakka-ji temple before heading back to where we started for the ice cream we promised #1, 2 and 3. Perhaps Tenryu-ji gets the most visitors with it being the first temple you pass on the route and there are so many temples scattered around that you simple can’t visit them all at one time.

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One temple that you definitely can’t miss going to see is the Kiyomizu-dera. It’s described as the spiritual heart of Kyoto set atop a hill that overlooks all of Kyoto and built around a holy spring. We caught the bus from Kyoto station directly to the base of the hill but if you catch a taxi you can save yourself part of the walk up the hill. This is where #1 really showed us the difference going on holiday with a five year old makes. He being the oldest, was asked to walk the same number of steps as us. #2 mostly occupied the buggy and #3 the baby carrier, I slept well every night from the lugging around of small child I can tell you.

But up this stretch of hill you see other tourists getting into the spirit of their stay and wandering around the streets of compact houses in brightly coloured kimonos and men in traditional dress too. Half way to the temple, lining both sides of the street are shops selling their wares of special Kyoto sweet treats, cucumber on sticks, ice cream, delicate fans and bold, eye catching souvenirs.

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It’s heaving with visitors travelling to and from the temple until you reach some stone steps that open up to the entrance gateway and you stand and marvel at the ancient architecture. But time and again, you can be fooled into thinking this first appearance is the extent of what you’ve come to see. It’s just the beginning as you enter through the gates and walk further in to find the main attraction inside. Kiyomizu-dera appears to have been built into the hill.

This temple is also famous for those looking for luck in love too. If you successfully walk with your eyes closed from one stone to another then you will soon find an honest and true love. If you don’t then you won’t but I’m not sure how long you won’t for. I don’t think you’re forever going to be on your own though. There’s also a secret passage you can walk through that is meant to resemble walking into the womb of Bodhisattva and symbolise a spiritual rebirth but we didn’t do that.

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By the time we made our way around the grounds and washed our hands in the holy spring, it was getting on for tea time and as Kiyomizu-dera is a short bus ride to the Gion district, we headed over to take a look. As it wasn’t yet 6pm, not much was happening in the area but it was interesting all the same to wander through the streets of small buildings with their bamboo awnings and easily imagine a time from years past with it thriving with tradition. It’s a shame we didn’t see Gion in all it’s night time glory and catch a glimpse of the fascinating world of Geishas.

It’s quite amazing that a few streets away from Gion by Pontocho resides a whole host of modern bars and restaurants and further along to a densely packed area of shops and department stores.

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On our last full day in Kyoto, it was a choice of either the Imperial Palace or the famous ‘Golden Pavillion’, Kinkaku-ji. You could definitely do both in one day as both are quite near to each other. But again with #1, 2 and 3, we were just a bit restricted to make a full day of it as the tours around the Imperial Palace are at 10am and 2pm. We weren’t able to book our visit on line and it said it was fully booked anyway but I read in the guide book that you can go to the Imperial Household Agency at least half an hour before the tour starts to register. So we thought we may as well try our chances and it actually paid off.

I can’t really tell you much about what I learnt on the tour except that in the wintertime with no heating the women would have to wear 12 layers of clothing to keep warm. And that every time the Imperial Palace was burnt down then they would just rebuild it. And that there’s a special gate that only the Emperor and quite possibly the Empress, can use. It was stunning though, the buildings and the grounds that we passed. The gardens they had were just amazing and so pretty. Not many places to lounge around and the pond definitely wasn’t one for swimming in.

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One final temple we went to see that was a short walk from our hotel was the Higashi Hongan-ji. The main Founder’s Hall was huge which only tempted 1, 2 and 3 to run circles within it, which of course is not appropriate behaviour within a Buddhist temple. The adjacent Amida-do Hall was under preservation so we couldn’t see everything in all it’s glory and I had read that within this temple you can find the longest coil of rope of human hair on display. It was donated by women in the 1880s to the wood logs needed to rebuild the destroyed building. Imagine that. The other thing I was really impressed with were the facilities. Multi function room encompassing disabled toilets, sick bay and baby change plus a separate Nursing Room. In a temple hundreds of years old! You may wonder why I keep marvelling at such things but having worked for a disability charity and being a parent, these things matter and make you feel welcome.

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So that was Kyoto for us. I love Kyoto. Reading about these amazing sights in a guide book just didn’t prepare me for how exceptional the real thing would be. I would love to go back again on another visit but then again, I’ve heard that Hokkaido is pretty amazing too.

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