Eye-gouging and elbows

Singapore felt extraordinarily safe and I never thought twice about catching public transport home late at night. Sure, bad things did happen but as the local news rarely reported anything more serious than a handbag theft, you had a rather unrealistic sense of safety.

But particularly now that I’m walking home in the dark along dimly-lit streets while the media goes into a frenzy every time something goes bump in the night, my thoughts have turned to personal safety. How safe is Melbourne?

I’d always said that if I had a daughter, I’d get her involved in some sort of martial art so that if she was attacked or confronted in any way, she’d have some skills to try and fight her way out of the situation. She started karate two years ago, and we’ve found an excellent dojo in Melbourne to continue her training. Rightly or wrongly, I enrolled the boys in as well and I’m dreading the day they use their new-found skills in daily squabbles. But, I’m hoping that anything they learn will reduce their risk of becoming a victim.

With that in mind, I jumped at the opportunity to take part in the Female Urban Combat course that Samurai Karate were offering in my area. Sensei Paul Mitchell has been running self-defence courses for women in Australia for over 33 years. He runs them free-of-charge and is passionate about empowering women to defend themselves. Donations raised on the day went directly to support White Ribbon.

The emphasis of his training was not just to teach you how to survive a dangerous situation, but how to avoid getting into that situation in the first place.

We spent an enjoyable day learning how to punch, kick, elbow and eye-gouge along with safety techniques for day-to-day situations. Travelling on public transport, approaching your car in a car park – even walking down a crowded street should require a high level of awareness of your surroundings and Sensei Paul taught us well. He made it crystal clear that simple, everyday things that we do – like being plugged into your phone while you’re walking, or wearing your backpack properly on both shoulders – will significantly increase your risk of becoming a victim.

I can’t thank Sensei Paul and his team of volunteers enough for the skills he’s shown me. I hope I never need to use the direct conflict techniques but have definitely taken onboard the other skills he spoke about.

The course is open to females aged 15 and over and it’s a day that every women should experience. I urge you to  register online and find out where his next course will be.

Stay safe.

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Random conversations

Today I had to have some tests done. As the radiologist flicked through the pile of previous scans from various countries, she finally asked me where the most recent one was.

Good question – I have no idea. I’m sure it was packed but where it is now is anyone’s guess. I explained we’d been out of the country for quite a while and she became quite excited when I told her where.

“Me too!” she whispered, like it was a dirty little secret. And it struck me again how difficult it can be to talk about your former life lest you sound like you’re bragging. But what else have I got to say?

Sometimes, I must admit, I feel lost in conversations because I can’t relate to what people are talking about. Half the time I’ve got no idea what area, what group or which child they mean. The only experiences I can contribute see me starting a sentence with “in Singapore…” and each time I do that, I inwardly cringe.

I know it’s probably just my paranoia making me self-conscious and most likely people don’t notice, but in the early stages of friendship, I don’t want to come across as brash or overbearing by scattering snippets of our overseas existence into conversations.

So it was quite nice to have a chat with someone who had, as it turned out, a surprisingly similar experience to me. Same length of time away, we’d lived in the same country and her feelings of displacement when they first repatriated were exactly what I am experiencing now.

Basically, her husband had had enough after 10 years and wanted to return home. By that stage, they were living in Singapore and she was happy there but home they came. She said it took her approximately two years to assimilate and that she still missed the expat life. Despite enjoying her life in Australia now, she’s holding out hope that one day they’ll relocate again.

I wonder if the wanderlust ever leaves you?

And then the bubble burst

It was just a matter of time, really. Everything had been ticking along really well, so it was a bit of a shock when the kids fell to pieces within days of each other.

We’ve been talking openly about the move, about leaving Singapore, about how they were coping and everything seemed rosy, but all it takes is a playground incident, a photo, and what they’ve left behind comes flooding right back.

For H, it was the school camp. She was really excited about going to Phillip Island…until the night before.

“Why are you making me go? No-one ever goes on camp after being at school for only one week!” She burst into tears and no amount of reassurance could calm her down. And we understood – it was completely reasonable for her to feel nervous about a trip away with complete strangers so soon after starting a new school in what is mostly for a her, a foreign country.

We chose not to point out it had been her choice to go on the camp but instead tackled the task of finding out what had caused the emotional outburst. Eventually we figured out that she was worried about no-one wanting to sit next to her on the bus. That – and the memory of the camp she’d been on earlier this year with her Singapore buddies – was weighing heavily on her mind.

For T, it was Monday at school. His little mate was away and although he’d played with some of the other kids too, they decided he was ‘too tall’ to play and excluded him from their games. Luckily H saw how upset he was in the playground and looked after him, but his confidence had taken a massive hit.

When he came home that afternoon, he was really sad. “I just want my friends back…” he sobbed. “They don’t care that I’m tall.” OK, swallow that lump, blink rapidly and try not to think of how you’ve emotionally scarred your children by moving – again – while explaining that things will get better in time…

But the one that really threw me was S. When they’re so young, you think that they’ll just roll with the move and it won’t affect them too much, but once again I was proven wrong.

Out of the blue one morning, S became quite distraught and he came over for a hug.

“I miss school,” he cried. “I want Miss M and Miss K.” And then he rattled off the list of kids in his class. “I want to go there now!”

S had rarely mentioned Singapore in the whole time we’ve been back, and quite simply, appeared happy just to have the backyard and a few catchups with his little friend E. But obviously he’s thinking a lot but probably doesn’t have the vocabulary to verbalise what’s he’s feeling. And it was harder to explain to him why we couldn’t just ‘go back’ and see everyone – he clearly has no concept of time and distance!

Anyway, fast-forward a few days – H had a great time at camp and  she made a few new friends; T’s mate was back on Tuesday and all was well in his world again; and S had a playdate with E and was happy.

I know there’ll be more rough patches ahead as they try to fit in, but as we keep telling them, each day will get a little easier. And like all our other relocations, it’s just going to take a bit of time.

Family matters

“So, are you going to the party on the weekend?” Big brother raised an eyebrow and cocked his head to one side. “Well?”

I hadn’t forgotten…but the memory of the invitation had been packed away as carefully as our glassware in bubble wrap – which we were still discovering in the pile of boxes that littered the floor.

My aunt was turning 90 and a surprise party had been arranged quite some time ago – on the same weekend that our container was due to arrive. I’d expected to be knee-deep in boxes however, by some miraculous stroke of fate, everything had arrived a week early. But as I eyed off the clutter we were living amongst – and  trying to ignore – I realised:

  1. The bedrooms had beds in them;
  2. The kitchen was workable – and even contained some food; and
  3. There was a good stock of loo paper.

What more did we need? After all, she was turning 90. So why not?

The “do” was an afternoon tea in Corowa, a lovely little spot on the Victorian/New South Wales border. It was a good three-hour drive and I decided to drive up with my brother, leaving the family behind to enjoy a little more unpacking. Staying overnight would have been great, but timing was a little tight. My brother had to be in Queensland on Monday and I was starting the new job, so we decided we’d better go up and back in the day.

So off we went! W and I had done loads of these trips in the past and it was great to be on the road again. Before I left Australia, we used to talk almost daily but with time-differences, small children and school routines, the habit was not easily replicated overseas.  Those little routines, that closeness you have with your family – it’s sorely missed when you’re away.

After a quick brunch in a quaint little town, we drove on and suddenly we were there. And it felt wonderful. Over the years, I’ve lost count of the birthdays, weddings, christenings we’ve missed and to finally be able to attend something was fabulous.

There’s just something special about being immersed in your family – that sense of belonging, that you’re a part of something bigger. Of course, a lot had changed – we were all a little older, there were a few new additions to the clan and even I was rolling out the phrase “Gee, haven’t you grown!”

Auntie J had a terrific time and the afternoon rolled into evening far too quickly. Then it was decision time. Do we crash on a couch for the night or take the sensible option and head home? Big bro, always the party guy, surprised me by choosing the sensible option.

Perhaps we’ve all grown up…just a little.

Back to basics

I’d been looking forward to doing a proper supermarket shop here for years. How fantastic to have everything I needed finally under one roof! So after we’d survived the first few days on the basics, I snuck away from the family, intent on filling my trolley with absolutely everything on my list, and then some.

But what I didn’t factor in was H’s peanut allergy. Very quickly I discovered that just about everything I touched contained a standard warning of “May be present – peanuts.” With a groan, I realised that the entire freshly-baked section was off-limits, cooking supplies such as chocolate chips, tahini – even the sprinkles to decorate her birthday cake – were a no-go zone.

I tried another supermarket – same result. I tried an independent supermarket. No good. So I wrote to a major supermarket as well as two chocolate manufacturers explaining my predicament. I asked them what, if anything, was available for peanut allergy suffers. The short answer was “nothing.” What did become clear though and quite worrying, was that the companies I contacted didn’t understand the difference between a tree nut and a ground nut (peanut). Peanuts are a legume, not a nut and I thought a chocolate factory would be well-educated on that fact.

But what baffles me is that I could buy the same products from the same manufacturers in Europe and in Singapore without any mention of “traces of peanuts”, but we can’t buy them here? None of the companies contacted could provide an answer and I doubt I’ll ever get one from them.  So, we’re heading back to basics – and my old habits of shopping with iHerb and lots of internet research.

I wondered whether chocolate is hard to make from scratch and to my surprise, it’s not. On the weekend, I discovered a recipe for home-made chocolate chips (or rather, chunks, as they turned out for me) and the crazy thing was, they were really quick and very easy to make. So I went a step further, baked some vanilla muffins and included the choc-chunks in the recipe. I then used the kids as guinea pigs and waited, with interest, for their reaction.

“Could be a bit more chocolate-y,” was H’s only comment.

Easy fixed, I’ll add more cocoa in the next batch. T just asked for another one.

When we were a bit more settled, I’d planned to source local suppliers for fresh fruit and veg, but after losing faith in the major supermarkets, I rather quickly discovered a market close to home. I dealt with an extremely friendly lady who was very sympathetic to my cause and she was more than willing to try and source peanut-free products for me. Fantastic!

So armed with my KitchenAid, new role as a chocolatier and a lot of networking ahead of me, I feel very grateful that we live in a country where fresh produce is abundant and I don’t have to be reliant on supermarkets for all the family’s needs. The dream of a one-stop-shop is gone, but I suspect we’ll all be a lot healthier for it.

If anyone has any tips, tricks or chocolate-y recipes they’d like to share, please contact me. I’d be very happy to hear from you!

https://www.facebook.com/Pellegrinos-Fresh-Fruits-117162151787419/timeline/

http://www.unrefinedkitchen.com/2011/08/11/homemade-dark-chocolate-chips/

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peanut

A lot to learn

“So what drinks do you want with your meal: cola, water or calciyum?” The cashier raised an eyebrow and looked at me expectantly.

“Calcium?” Seemed a little extreme for a kid’s meal, didn’t it?  “What, exactly, is that?” I asked, hesitantly.

“Calci-YUM.” Like that made things clearer? There was a rather long pause and after an eye-roll that would have made my daughter proud, she explained very slowly, very patiently, “It’s chocolate milk.”

There were a lot of moments like that in the first few days. Products I’d never heard of, acronyms that made no sense, shops that didn’t exist before we left – I started to cringe every time I had to ask for directions.  Every response seems to be prefaced with “You know…” Well, I don’t anymore!

As an expat I either looked or sounded different and could make a joke of my lack of knowledge – here, I might look the part of a local but feel like I’ve been living in a time-warp. My confidence takes a battering every time I know I have to ask a question – fully aware that I’ll sound like an idiot for asking.

I’m guessing the kids feel it too and they’ve got the added issue of “no prior knowledge”.

The night-time lows of sub-6 degrees has been a bit of a shock and after a few rapid purchases of hot-water bottles and bed socks, we realised the kids didn’t have any bedding to speak of, for when we moved into the house. So we started to look around for duvets. Now in Singapore it was too hot to be tucked in at nighttime so the kids have grown up without blankets and sheets.

We walked around the store for a while, trying to decide what thickness the duvet should be, etc, when H tugged my arm.

“Mum,” she said, eyeing off the piles of quilts and looking a little confused. “They all look warm, but…they’re all white. Where are the coloured ones?”

In that moment I realised she didn’t know what a duvet really was. Or that they had covers. Trying not to laugh, I had to explain, “They’re a bit like a pillow, they go inside a cover…”

“Makes sense,” she said, not looking the least bit embarrassed.

And that’s what I love about kids. If they’ve got a question, they’ll  generally ask it, no matter how ridiculous it may sound, once curiosity -or need – gets the better of them.

Perhaps that’s the attitude I need to take too. So going forward, I’ve decided not to get caught up in what people think when I ask my ridiculous questions. I’m going to simply embrace the decade we had away and talk my way into the next one.

And get the kids to ask the tricky questions!

Early days

Wow, what a crazy first day. We shivered through breakfast, unaccustomed to life without humidity, and left the warmth of the apartment for a first look at the house.

I used to live in a neighbouring suburb and I’d driven along the streets many times in the long, distant past. But nothing felt familiar anymore. In fact, I really struggled to get my bearings.

The house is fantastic and the kids loved it. Even completely devoid of furniture, they had a great time exploring, plotting and planning about where our things would go. And it was wonderful to see them just simply running out to the backyard – a freedom they haven’t had for the last three years.

We took a drive past their school and decided on the spur of the moment that we would take the kids inside for a look-see. There was still a week of classes to go before the holidays and I thought it would be good for them to have a sneak preview before starting next term. It took a bit of a push to get them over the threshold, but it was worth it.  Sometimes it’s the simple things that count, and particularly important for H, she got to see exactly what, from the uniform list, the other kids were wearing. It’s hard enough being the new kid without turning up wearing something completely different to the others.

We were given a tour of the school and the kids were asked if they’d like to go in for a couple of hours later in the week. We thought that was a terrific idea; the kids begged to differ, but the seed was planted.

Next stop was the supermarket and as I wandered along the aisles, I felt quite overwhelmed. Here I was, in a massive grocery store where the shelves were bulging – something I’ve dreamed of for ages – and I was paralysed by choice. And I’ve noticed that since we’ve been away, the two main supermarkets are selling many of their own brands now. But where does their food come from? Is it local produce or imported? I’ve always tried to support local growers no matter where we’ve been, so no shop will be a quick shop until I figure out where things come from.

So much like a move to another country, coming home to Australia feels new and exciting – and just a bit strange. It’s going to take a while for us all to adjust, but whatever the case, it’s still good to be home.