It’s the little things

Last week passed by in a blur. The kids were back at school and we set ourselves the challenge to clear out the clutter from the back storage area, the spare room and the boys’ bedroom. Doesn’t sound too daunting, does it? We were trying to do it while S was away at preschool, leaving us with 12 child-free hours over three days.

First stop was the back area and that was the easy part. We’ve been carting a fair amount of stuff around that shouldn’t never have left Melbourne and I’m still not sure where some of it came from. Anyway, out went the old modems, the stuffed toys that seemed to have bred in the cupboards and the antiquated TV.

The spare room was next. Broken toys, jigsaws with pieces missing, McDonald’s toys – gone. We’re were well on our way, on schedule and the rubbish chute was getting a great workout.

But here’s the catch. I find it really hard to get rid of the little things. Paintings, drawings, homemade Christmas decorations…why do I feel the need to hoard? And then we moved onto the boy’s room. Do I really need to keep all those learning journals, art books from pre-school and pictures that look more like tadpoles than people?

But I feel that I do. Why? I’m not 100% sure but I think it’s because those tangible, physical household memories are gone for us. Like that dent in the wall that perfectly matches the scar on H’s nose? Or the lines on the doorframe marking height and time? Swept clean every time our life was packed into boxes and shipped.

So if that cute little drawing of Frosty takes me right back into the house in The Hague, the backyard and the first time the kids built a snowman, I’m keeping it. Or the paintings that have hung in their room since they were tiny? The kids have probably outgrown them but I remember each wall they’ve been hung on and they’re staying.

Fortunately my husband isn’t as sentimental as me, so thanks to him, we did get rid of a fair amount of clutter that needed to go. But there’s also a little bag of bits I went back and retrieved when his back was turned. I’ll probably get rid of it all one day. Just not today.

Grocery shopping – but how and where?

If I’d been told ten years ago that I would never again buy all my groceries at the one store, I would have laughed out loud. But what I didn’t take into account back then was location, availability and price! And I naively assumed that sure, there might be some different produce on offer, but most things would be available, right? Wrong!

It’s not just that items we liked were hard to source, it took some time to realise how people shop in different countries. Sure, most places have a supermarket, but often times people prefer to shop locally, which was certainly the case in The Netherlands. People liked to visit their local butchers, bakers and fruit and veg stalls where the products were fresh, the variety was extensive and developing a relationship with the shopkeeper makes the experience quite enjoyable.

The cheese shop I used in The Hague is a great example. The business was family-run, they were always friendly and incredibly patient with my fledgling Dutch (OK, they spoke to me like they would to a small child but hey – it helped!). Even after a two-year hiatus, I was welcomed back like an old friend. Our shopping street had a wonderful sense of community and when you’re a long way from home, it felt great to be a part of it.

Here in Singapore, it’s a little different and although the supermarkets carry a good range of items, they can be a little pricey, particularly for meat and dairy. But where else do you go? And that’s where you a little local knowledge comes in handy.

Partly because of the allergies my kids have, and partly because of interest, I make my own cleaning products. They’re not difficult to make, they won’t bleach the towels by accident and are great for the environment. But finding ingredients such as liquid castile soap and tea tree oil here was tricky – until someone mentioned iHerb? Heard of it? It’s fantastic and sells a huge range of items including organic flours, oils, supplements, beauty products – the list goes on at http://www.iherb.com. Shipping rates are very reasonable and they ship all over the world.

Red meat is expensive here but you can find cheaper cuts without compromising on quality. Foodie Market Place in Tiong Bahru offers good quality meat at great prices, as well as cheeses, coffee, frozen foods and loads of other items.(https://www.facebook.com/FoodieMarketPlace)

Sligro in Den Haag which was my saviour for bulk-buying and keeping the cost down. You need a membership card to shop there, which I got through the ANZWC. http://www.sligro.nl/vestigingen/sligro-den-haag-forepark.htm)

Tekka Market in Little India is another great place to buy meat, chicken and seafood at very reasonable prices, along with spices, and fruit and veg. The Hague equivalent was the Haagse Markt…www.dehaagsemarkt.nl.

Buying chicken anywhere can be tricky if you are trying to source organic produce, it can be even harder. I’ve found a “chicken man” called Stanley who sells Kampong (free-range) chickens and he assures me that they’re as hormone-free as they can be. He has a stall at Tiong Bahru market but will deliver if the order is over $30. I send him a text with my order details and address, and he delivers the next day. He’s a great guy to deal with and very passionate about his chooks! (#01-171 – Stanley’s Fresh Chicken & Duck Suppliers (+65 8161 2178))

I do a crazy amount of baking because of H’s peanut allergy and thankfully discovered Phoon Huat about two years ago. It’s a great place to shop for dairy – particularly butter and cheese (in bulk) – as well as flour, cake tins, cake decorating supplies..the list goes on.  (http://www.phoonhuat.com/)

The rest of my groceries I collect at Fairprice, Cold Storage or Giant. I still dearly long for the day when I can get everything I need at the one shop, but I’m wondering…will I? Will it be hard to give up the habits of a decade? Anyway, at least I’ll have options.  Happy shopping!

Piece of cake…right?

I’m about to enter birthday hell – all my kids will celebrate their milestones within the next 2.5 months…and as much as I love the parties, I dread the cakes.

My biggest mistake was letting the kids browse through a cake book and letting them choose what they wanted.

“This one, Mum – looks pretty easy!” I look in horror at the elaborate fairy castle complete with hand-crafted roof tiles and individually-moulded white chocolate gates.

“How about this one…?” I stutter, trying to steer the focus towards the square-shaped photo frame encrusted with sweets. “I’ve got just the picture…”

“But Mum…” The lower lip wobbles and I sigh, resigning myself to the fact that the next two weeks (or more) will be dedicated to cake decorating. But that’s not the major problem. In the countries I’ve lived in, it’s generally easier to find that needle in the haystack than what you need to decorate your daughter’s birthday cake.

Every year I’ve had to start sourcing produce and products weeks in advance. In Holland – cake baking appeared to be an obscure pastime so the items I needed simply weren’t available. In Singapore – if the products are available, you need to have timed your shopping with the latest shipment into the island or alas – too late and you’ll miss out.

The cake for S should have been so simple – he wanted a kite. Easy? It’s a diamond shape, four different colours of tinted butter cream and some black liquorice to break up the shades. Simple, right? But how wrong I was! Can’t get the liquorice but managed to find a substitute. Drive to the next shopping centre to source the rest of the stuff I need for the party – nothing difficult except for the volume of traffic going into the shops. After an hour of fighting for a parking space I gave up and went home.

Take two – fast forward several hours which were spent baking cakes in a kitchen that felt hotter than the oven on high, I tried a third shopping centre. And a fourth. Both are betwext and between a major sporting venue, which had multiple events happening this afternoon. The queue was only half an hour long and I praise those patient shop assistants, who were still smiling under pressure. But I’m back to making do. I took what I could get and ran. Not quite what I wanted but the clock was ticking.

Anyway, S will get a cake, and it will – in part – resemble the picture in the book. And the kids are very forgiving with my improvisation skills.

“I’m sure it’ll taste great…”

One birthday (almost) down, two to go.

Will things like this be a little easier when we move home? I’m sure home has it’s own set of challenges but here’s hoping for one stop, one shop. Happy birthday, S!

Prolonging the agony?

It’s funny how feelings can change after a bit of time – namely, a month of school holidays.

Sunday afternoon, H announces, “I wish we had more time off school.”

“But you could have…” I said, surprised. “It was your decision to go back for Term 3.”

She looked a little sheepish. “I wish we could just move now.”

Interesting…Maybe she felt a bit odd going back for Term 3 knowing that this was her last one? Perhaps being away from her friends and the familiar routine for four weeks was what she needed to process the move and be OK with it? Or maybe she just wants to get it over and done with?

It’s hard to tell. On Monday morning, she did seem a little apprehensive about going back, but by the time I picked her up she was absolutely fine.

T, on the other hand, who’d been adamant we should move as soon as possible so we’d arrive in Melbourne at the same time as his friend, was incredibly excited about seeing his mates again. He didn’t seem at all perturbed that this was the final term, just happy to know that he’d be with his buddies.

So now I’m wondering, are we prolonging the agony by staying? Would it have been better not to send them back once the ties were broken over the break? Sure we had play dates but they’d gotten out of the habit of seeing their friends on a daily basis. Perhaps sneaking out of the country might have saved them some emotional turmoil?

As a parent, the self-doubt can be crippling. Did I do the right thing? Did I make the right decision? What if I’d done this differently? I don’t think this feeling will ever change so I guess embracing the decision has to be the way forward.

Maybe their final day of school will be as emotional as when we first told them we were moving. But I do believe that as difficult as it will be, that’s something we need to work through as a family. Leaving friends behind is one of the hardest things I’ve had to do. Some people you know you’ll see again but others? A lot of water will pass under the bridge before paths cross again – if ever – and that feeling is incredibly sad. But the one constant is family.

Despite the fights and consistent, persistent bickering, the kids are a tight little unit and despite outward appearances, they do care deeply for each other. I’ve seen how much they support each other when we’ve moved in the past and they’re amazing.  And that’s how they’ll cope. It’s how we’ve always coped.

Treading water in the rapids

School goes back tomorrow and now the countdown is on. We’ve got about eight weeks to go before we leave the country and I have the strangest sense of time flying past but dragging at the same time. Strange, right?

The only way I can explain the sensation is that I have a lot to do but much of it can’t be done until nearer the time. And that’s really frustrating.

The apartment will need to be spotless (and in much better condition than when we moved in) so we can get our bond back. But with three kids and a husband-in-residence, I can only scratch the surface of the house cleaning until nearer the time.

Clearing out the kid’s cupboards? Oh yes, the cardboard box creations, those broken, mismatched toys and super-special craft items are going, but I’m itching to sort through the summer clothes…again. It still might be a bit early though – they’re still wearing them.

So we move onto the kitchen cupboards. Biggest problem there is that we have to eat. But I can start reducing what’s in them which will mean a little less variety and perhaps a few more trips to hawker markets as the weeks roll on.

What I’d really like to get rid of though, is a couple of select items of furniture my husband’s kept since his bachelor days. You know – the ones that you wish would go missing in the next move but never do? I have a sneaking suspicion that if they mysteriously vanished in the next few weeks, their disappearance wouldn’t go unnoticed. I’ll just have to hope that they’ll be on the “B” team when the container gets packed.

We also have a lot – and I mean a lot – of books that none of us want to get rid of. Although we have a Kindle and I know how easily I could reduce the amount of paper in our house by simply using it, I just prefer the touch, the feel, the smell – of books. And that’s why, after four moves, our book collection is growing faster than the kids. But I still can’t bring myself to part with them – or the kids.

So in the meantime, while I’m procrastinating about what I can and can’t do in the coming weeks, I’ve got an idea. I’ll read some books to help me decide which ones to keep while I eat my way through the contents of the kitchen cupboards. It’s a start…

Gardening leave – it’s no bed of roses!

“Can you drive me here?”

“Where are you going?”

“What time will you be back?”

Cripes, I’m being micro-managed! My husband has been on gardening leave for the last month or so, and this has been the most consolidated amount of time we’ve spent together as a family. His job, particularly in the last couple of years, saw him travelling a lot, working longer hours and busily checking his phone in his downtime. The kids and I had gotten so used to our own routines and generally getting on with things, that for me, it’s taken a bit of adjusting to have him home 24/7.

But it’s been great! The kids love having their dad around so much and for me, having another parent on tap to break up the fights, bark orders and try to maintain some order in the house is fantastic. We even have meals together now as a family, something that would normally only happen on a Sunday.

The biggest change I’ve seen though, is in him. I guess the pressure of the job built up over time and now that it’s gone, he’s not stressed, he’s not constantly thinking about work and if he was any more relaxed, he’d have trouble standing upright.

The bubble will burst next week though, when school goes back and the crazy routine of homework, activities and constant food preparation starts up again. And the school runs? The hour round-trip to pick up the kids is something I’m hoping to offload – at least some of the time.

I’m sure the novelty of extended leave will wear off in the not-too-distant future and he’ll start to get bored but to circumvent that, I’ve compiled a laundry list of jobs for him to do leading up to the move. And I’m going to fully embrace the extra pair of hands to help sift through the stuff we’ve accumulated over the last few years. Surprisingly, sorting out what to take and what to throw has never been a task I’ve enjoyed.

At some point, job hunting will begin in earnest and I’m hoping that there’s a company out there for him that has their work/life balance in alignment. The effect of having both parents consistently around is enormous. And besides, the kids and I quite like having him around!

Ticking the boxes – Fort Canning Park

Earlier this year T had a school trip to Fort Canning Park, a verdant, leafy green oasis which overlooks Orchard Road. He had a marvellous time and was bursting to tell me all about it when he got home. He still talks about the excursion, so we decided to go there today and let him play tour guide.

I’m constantly surprised at how everything I say to him seems to go in one ear and out the other, but clearly he pays attention to his teacher. T led us all around the park – which is 18 hectares in size – with remarkable confidence, keeping up a running commentary as we walked.

“Look Mum, there’s Raffles House…and over there, see – that’s the 9-pound cannon.” And after the kids had climbed all over it and I tried to convince S that no, there weren’t any cannon balls to play with, T took us to the Spice Garden. Out of everything we’d seen, this garden was the thing that he took the most pleasure in showing us.

“See Mum, rub the leaves between your fingers – you can smell the spice.” So we did, and he was right. The little monkey had also remembered the ones that didn’t smell so good and pointed those out quite happily. “You’ll love this one…” and I was left with a foul, bitter smell lingering on my hands for quite a while afterwards.

I’ve always wanted a spice garden but we’ve never been anywhere long enough to establish much more than a few plants in pots on the windowsill. It was wonderful to be in such a fragrant green space and it was at that moment we started to plan our garden back home.

“We have to have mint!”

“Basil, that smells sweet.”

“We need chilli…” said the three-year-old just as he was about to rub his eyes after touching the plant. Love the way he thinks, but suspect he won’t be allowed anywhere near it until he can cook it in a curry.

It was great to see the kids running around the garden, trying to decide what we’d need and arguing over what they’d plant. H took it a step further and started mapping out a secret garden down the side of the house, just for the girls to share.

Flower garden, secret garden, spice garden – whatever we end up with, I’m just really happy that the kids are starting to view Australia for what it is – home.