Wandsworth Town: Eighth wonder of the world

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“Your children are not your children.

They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself. They come through you but not from you, And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.

You may give them your love but not your thoughts,  For they have their own thoughts”

Kahlil Gibran  (The Prophet)

Your children have their own thoughts. So says Kahlil Gibran, whose thoughts on marriage you’ll have heard at a hundred wedding ceremonies up and down the country. And when it comes to travelling, I’m realising I won’t be able to control what my daughters find impressive. And what they don’t.

Yesterday evening we went to Wandsworth. It wasn’t so much a tourist experience, more a visit to some friends who are looking after the cat while we are away. And while I admit that Wandsworth is a little more chi-chi than SE23 (in fact I’m rather surprised we didn’t need a visa to be allowed to wander its streets), I wasn’t really prepared for the children to find it so amazing.

“Mummy, mummy, the trains have RED SEATS. Did the trains have red seats when you used to live here?”

“Mummy, mummy, is this THE COUNTRYSIDE?”

“Mummy, mummy, they have a PIZZA EXPRESS!”

Obviously I’m now seeing Wandsworth in a whole new light, and I’m sure you are too. But I just know this type of ‘awe and wonder’ (a phrase the girls’ school is very fond of) will not be replicated strategically around the globe. We’ll be standing at the Taj Mahal at sunrise, and they’ll want to go home. We’ll look on the temples of Bagan, and they’ll ask for a McDonalds. And I will be exasperated, and think of Wandsworth, and wonder why I can’t make them see that Angkor Wat is more impressive than Pizza Express.

But Gibran is right,  your children have their own thoughts, and their own tastes and opinions too. And because they don’t know what they are ‘supposed’ to find worth seeing, they notice the little things, and help you to see the world in a whole new light. Even Wandsworth.

“You may strive to be like them/ but seek not to make them like you,” Gibran adds. It’s not a bad thought for travellers who want to make the best of everywhere they go.

Though, Carole, if you’re reading this, I’d add that your lasagne was definitely a contender for my own personal Wonders of the World list last night. Especially after another few days of ‘using up the freezer’ meals, including a smoked haddock curry that elicited a half hour tantrum from Daisy. The cat (pictured above looking particularly fine) could not be in better hands. And in Wandsworth too. What a lucky boy.

For God’s sake, let us sit upon the ground…

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The above pictures show two lists that Clover made this week – the left is what she’s looking forward to on our trip, and the right the people and things she’ll be sad to miss. I’m hoping the obvious numerical imbalance is addressed as we go along.

As for the sitting on the ground: we’ve lost the sofas. With apologies to Shakespeare (and Richard II of course – who I can’t help thinking wouldn’t have sat around so long despairing if he’d still had the Cambodian visas and the removal people to sort out), the sad stories of the death of kings are optional, although I admit we are having to make our own entertainment around here at the moment.

We are trying to clear out a home that has been all-too lived in and all-too-little cleared out, and every day is a little more like camping.

There’s still a lot to do. I blame the basement. Seven years we’ve lived here, and thanks to all of the space underneath the house we’ve never really needed to consider throwing anything away. I’m trying to see the current rather painful process rather like an Old Testament Jubilee – a sort of seventh-year reset of our whole way of life that means we’ll come back somehow more sorted. Or just with a whole load of new ‘ethnic tat’ to add to the current collection. I fear the latter. The children are already talking about the ‘souvenirs we will be allowed to buy in every country’.

That doesn’t mean that Daisy and Clover are allowing me to throw anything away.  As soon as I try to get rid of anything they want it back. They are pretty fed up with our attempts to clean out the cupboards and freezer as well. Here in the worst-ever episode of Ready Steady Cook, they are eating some truly terrible meals. Paratha and baked beans, anyone? Cheese and salami pancakes?

When I’m not involved in the culinary version of George’s Marvellous Medicine I’m becoming embarrassed by my own continuing presence in SE23, which is a bit more Banquo’s ghost than Richard II.

I know I’ve said goodbye already, so I’m sorry I that I keep bumping into everyone on the way to the station. No wonder no-one really believes we’re going when they’ve said a tearful goodbye to me three times already this week.

I’m beginning to consider ducking down a dark alleyway every time I see a friend, just to spare them the need to do the whole farewell thing again, but I’m still delighted to see you all.  I just wouldn’t advise coming for dinner at the moment. Haagen Daz omelette? Frozen pea and Heinz tomato soup fritters? The possibilities are endless.

In which we are not brave

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Just occasionally we all come across books that change the way we think. Which is why I spend so much time recommending Risk: The Science and Politics of Fear, by New York Times journalist Dan Gardner. What did it teach me? That we are, as a species, incredibly bad at predicting what is risky and what isn’t. Our inability to regulate our risk appetite can be catastrophic. Most of us would like to play it safe, but unfortunately we really don’t know what safe is.

When it comes to assessing risk, we are locked in a constant battle between our intellect and our gut instinct. And gut instinct often wins. How often have you been told ‘go with your gut’? But gut instinct is often wrong. What was a sensible decision-making tool when we were hunting deer on the plains of the Serengeti or wherever  (my Geography is rubbish before you point out to me that the Serengeti doesn’t have plains. Or deer. Or does it?), doesn’t always work in a busy London street.

Gardner’s favourite example of this is the fact that after the World Trade Centre attacks, thousands of American citizens decided not to fly due to the fear of terrorism. The result? The number of people  that died on the roads went up by more than the number who died in the attacks themselves, in the months following September 11. Air travel was still the safest way to get from A to B, but fear skewed everyone’s decision making.

As a financial journalist, I see all the time how our poor risk appetite affects how we manage our money. We consistently underestimate our life expectancy, overestimate the pain of loss and underestimate the role of speculation in financial gain. In our attempts to keep our money safe we often lose it (to creeping inflation) and are chronically unable to cut our losses, even though it would be the ‘safest’ thing to do.

But (wake up, you at the back) what has all this got to do with our trip? A lot of people have described our decision to go away as ‘brave’ recently. They’ve said it admiringly, they’ve said it disapprovingly, and they’ve said it just because they can’t really think of anything else to say. But whatever the reason they have for saying it, they’re wrong. We’re not brave at all. All we have is a slightly differently calibrated risk appetite.

My sister (hello, Bel) dissolved into hysterical laughter the other day when I described myself as ‘risk averse’, but I’d still argue we’re far from happy-go-lucky. In recent months I’ve thought about risk as never before. I’ve researched the safety record of various train systems and airlines. I’ve done a First Aid course. We’ve made a will and taken out some pretty hefty insurance, we’ve all been jabbed to within an inch of our lives to protect against nasties from Japanese encephalitis to Hepatitis B.

Because when you plan a trip like this, you have to face up to the risks you take in a way you don’t in day to day life. Do hire cars in India have rear seatbelts? Will a boat down the Mekong have life jackets? What will we do if the children get lost? What about the school places? How will we pay the mortgage? In short, I’ve never been so safety conscious in all my life – much of which I spend wandering at the side of busy roads with small children without a second thought.

I remember one glorious morning in Mexico, when Daisy was a baby and all of our friends at home in London were worrying about us taking her to live in such a dangerous country. I walked down to my language class, only to discover there had been an item on the news the night before about a spate of teenage stabbings in London. My teachers were borderline hysterical in a thoroughly Latin American way about the whole thing, begging and pleading with me never to be irresponsible enough to take Daisy back to London.

Since then, I’ve tried to see how my upbringing, cultural perceptions and media consumption affect my risk assessments, though I’m not really sure its made me any better at them. And when people say ‘brave’, do they really mean foolish? One man’s dream trip is another’s nerve inducing nightmare, after all.

Sorry, we really will get onto the juicy travelling stuff soon. Rather like the audience in Shakespeare in Love, I know you’d all prefer “love, and a bit with a dog” to my pontification about behavioural finance. Or perhaps love and a bit with a giant iguana. Not long now, I promise.

Ripping it like a Band-Aid

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“And did you get what
you wanted from this life, even so?
I did.
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
beloved on the earth.”

(Raymond Carver)

I know what you’re all thinking: just leave already! You’d like to get to the interesting stuff – a voyage down the Mekong where the raft breaks and we nearly get killed by a poisonous snake on our trek back, or an amusing description of a hospital visit during which there’s at least one suppository story, and a funny bit with a camel.

So I’m sorry to disappoint you. The Bigmores are still in Forest Hill, and really and truly, still saying goodbye. This weekend, with apologies to my Canadian ex-colleague Kara Gammell, who always used to use this phrase when starting a feature she wasn’t looking forward to, we’ve been ripping it like a Band Aid – taking the end of the sticking plaster and pulling. Hard.

So over the last three days we’ve had not one, not two, but three parties. Daisy turned eight on Friday, and for some reason, in a weak moment we agreed to a a sleepover. We celebrated Clover’s sixth birthday today with a small gathering in advance of our trip, since she turns six two days before we go. And in the middle we had what the girls termed the ‘Big Party’ – a leaving do on an epic scale.

Perhaps sensible people would have spun it out more, and certainly at 3am on Saturday, when I was trying to persuade Daisy and eight friends that a sleepover should do exactly what it said on the tin, I heartily wished I had. It turns out, though, that just as ripping a plaster off all at once can give you a tiny feeling of exhilaration, so can having three parties in as many days. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

We’re truly grateful for every one of you who came this weekend – just crunched the numbers and there were well over 150 of you. We’ve talked, drunk, laughed, cried (the tiniest bit) and been so bowled over by your help, good wishes and love. I’ve also never seen so many children’s shoes in one place. In other news, Daisy now thinks it is fine to eat cream tea for breakfast, and I know that the decking is stronger than I thought. Thank you for every scone, every glass washed, every hug and every good wish you’ve given us. They mean the world.

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There’s nothing like going away to make you really appreciate what you’ve got at home (and I’m not just talking about the clean bathrooms, but about every one of you we’ll miss). If it’s not bathetic to begin a post with Raymond Carver and end it with Joni Mitchell, I’ll point out that ‘don’t it always seem to go, that you don’t know what you’ve got til it’s gone’. Or nearly gone. Two weeks to go.

As the young people say O. M. G.

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When the going gets tough, the tough… buy water purification tablets?

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They don’t call it retail therapy for nothing. There’s nothing more calming than a little bit of shopping when the world spins out of control. Except when you’re going travelling of course. Then you can’t buy anything, because it’s not going to fit in your backpack.

So perhaps it’s unsurprising that my shopping tastes have become a little more, shall we say.. specialist (that sounds dodgier than it should)? It turns out there’s a whole niche market of ‘gap year impulse buys’ out there for the likes of me. I’m trying so hard not to be a sucker for them, and still the credit card is feeling a little singed.

Last night we bought some luggage. To be fair, we needed that. We only had a slight row about how big it should be (size isn’t everything, right?). And my goodness, backpacks have come on since my teenage days. It’ll be a miracle if I can even work the straps, given how much I used to struggle with the rain cover on the children’s buggies. I also bought some dinky travel detergent, a plug, and any amount of handgel. In other sins, I’ll confess to some microfibre towels (a bit like magic, pack down very small, the kids will probably hate them), some sleeping bag liners in brightly coloured silk, and a ‘miracle laundry device’ bizarrely known as the Scrubba. No jokes please.

But I did leave the water purification tablets. Much as I’d like to present us as intrepid explorers going far off the beaten track, as Paul so often points out, we’re never that likely to be far from a chemist. Or a decent bottled water seller.

Can’t wait for that backpack to arrive. The whole process of getting ready for this trip has felt a little like making a very complicated consommé. We keep boiling down, reducing and clarifying everything we’ve got, until eventually all we need for the year is in four small(ish) bags that we can take with us everywhere. As a family of hoarders, that will be a huge achievement. I feel lighter just thinking about it. Must. Stop. Shopping.

But how strange, the change from major to minor

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…Every time we say goodbye.

Farewell, Auf wiedersehen, So long, Hasta luego. Did I mention that I’m bad at goodbyes?  Turns out I’m worse than that, I’m catastrophic. No matter how you sugar coat them, and no matter how much you promise to stay in touch, I’m just not very good at telling you I’ll “see you in a year”.

I need to take a leaf out of the children’s books. No matter how apprehensive they are about leaving the friends and school they love, the home that Clover was born in, the cat that they’ve not known life without, they remain fabulously ‘in the moment’. So as we begin the last week of normality (school finishes on Thursday), they are still bouncing in wondering whether they’ve forgotten a reading record or a PE kit (the answer is inevitably yes), while their Eeyore-like mother trudges behind them muttering about everything she’ll miss. I’ve been whinging about the school run for approximately the last four years – how can I get nostalgic now? Tiredness can do strange things.

Some landmarks this week. The girls’ bunk beds have gone to a friend in Nunhead, so they’re now sleeping in separate rooms. That makes our last three weeks seem oddly temporary. The rest of the furniture is also fast dispersing. Meanwhile we also said what felt like the cruellest goodbye – to Paul’s 96-year-old Nanna. I won’t dwell, but that wasn’t an easy thing to do.

Time is speeding up. In less than three weeks we need to be on a plane to Finland. We don’t even have any luggage yet, and the to-do list is fast shifting from a work-based one to one featuring train bookings, plane tickets and tours. This is a project in itself. This week I’ve got to grips with the geography of the Mekong, the Vietnamese and Thai train booking systems, and a rather fabulous app that allows you to order food delivered to your seat whilst on the Indian train network. And yes, yet more jabs (rabies and Japanese encephalitis tonight – we really do know how to party).

My favourite quote of the week comes from the tour I’ve just booked for us to do in Varanasi. Mr ‘Groovy Tours’ promises us a trip through the “Narrow and Puzzled Alleys” of the city. Since everything feels a bit like a narrow and puzzled alley at the moment, I feel that Mr Groovy and I are going to get on just fine. Wonder if he can guide me through the next few weeks as well.

Is that even legal?

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Last concert, and last dress up day (Ancient Greeks is tricky when your sewing box is already packed)

In the top ten questions I’ve been asked when I’ve told people about our trip, this has to be the most common – and perhaps the most bizarre. So obsessed has the world become with having our children in school all the time (otherwise we’ll fine you) that many people think we might be breaking the law by taking the children travelling. Luckily, I can answer that one quickly. We aren’t.

“Is it legal?” is closely followed by “what about the school places?”so I thought I’d tackle them both at once. Let’s start with a disclaimer. We are schooly people. The girls have been at the local state primary at the end of our road since they’ve been old enough to be there. We have our moments with state education, but generally I’m a fan. Paul’s the co-chair of the PTA and I’m a rather inept governor. The girls have thrived.

I’m hoping they will thrive there again. But for the next year we will be “Electively Home Educating”- which anyone is legally allowed to do. We’ve told Lewisham Council, and sent a formal letter to the school – though I think they’ve probably noticed, given the amount of times I’ve had to take the children out for jabs. And no, they can’t hold our place, so it will be the luck of the draw whether they have a space when we get back (but since we live so near and the girls will go into the Juniors where there are usually a few spaces, they probably will).

As the daughter of a teacher, handing in a letter taking my children out of school is enough to bring me out in hives. I feel a bit guilty if I forget to sign a reading record, so ‘electively home educating’ is quite a big step. I’ve always associated it with a) hippies with beads and b) quite conservative religious families – not good girls like me who always contribute to the class collection at the end of term.

But in the end, missing a year of school didn’t seem enough of an excuse not to go, nor even did the threat that the girls might not get their school places back. We’re lucky in our tiny pocket of Lewisham, where all of the schools are good or outstanding, so that probably helps. And even though I love state education, I get tired of the measuring, the tick boxes, the admin (not to mention the sudden demands for costumes, random homework and endless, endless cakes).

The girls’ school reports arrived yesterday, dividing their various skills into ‘expected’, ’emerging’ and ‘exceeding’ – not categories I’d ever use for anything they do. I particularly hate “emerging’ – which makes children sound like inept caterpillars who may, or may not, transform into beautiful butterflies.

So we’re going straight for the butterfly stage. No emerging, expected or exceeding for us next year. And yes, the school have been very supportive (though I hate to break it to them that we’re not going to pack ALL of those handwriting booklets in the backpacks). We’ll do diaries, we’ll do times tables (under duress, I suspect) and most of all, we’ll do chat. And for six months, the girls will go to school in Mexico, where I’m not really expecting them to learn anything except Spanish. Most days I think it will be fine. Fly free, butterflies…

At the Delicatessen of Delay

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Enjoy the picture. The ten minute walk along the canal from Paddington Station to VFS (the company which now runs India’s visa services) was the most calming thing about the whole experience. The VFS building isn’t called Battleship House for nothing.

The first ‘visa torpedo’ came the second I got in the doors. I found myself face to face with the same Cerberus who turned me away a week ago for not having a copy of the girls’ birth certificates. Fair enough, I should have had them, but anyone who takes such a perverse joy in pointing out the mistakes of others ought not to have a job checking whether people have met VFS’s draconian requirements – which are hidden on about page 35 of the website.

So nervous was I that I had not fulfilled my duties that I was shaking as I handed over my applications this time. “Application for a minor?” he barked..”You must have the birth certificate”. I handed it over. “The consent form?” I had it. “The photos?” I showed them. Since it had clearly made the chap’s day turning me away last week, I feel I really spoilt his morning with my careful preparation. Even though I rather ruined my moment of triumph by dropping all of the passport photos on the floor, and having them picked up by sympathetic fellow queuers.

I am sure the Indian Visa Office is the only one in the world that has an Arts & Crafts stand. Once you’ve shown your documents you have to cut out and stick your passport photos onto your application, so VFS handily provides a table with gluesticks and scissors.

“Just like playgroup” I quipped to the security guard. He didn’t smile. Note to self – must stop making jokes to people in uniforms when nervous. I’m the sort of person who, when asked “did you pack your bags yourself?” is likely to reply “No, this foreign-looking gentleman offered to do it for me. I hate packing, so I was delighted”. I can see that, at some point in the next year,  this is only going to get me into trouble.

After the gluing came the waiting. VFS operates a ticketing system, rather like the one they have at Waitrose when you’d like to buy a few slices of ham and a scotch egg. Only at number 744 and with 720 on the screen, it was clear I wasn’t going to get to the deli counter any time soon.

While waiting, I watched the other applicants. The woman who had come from far away and was told that she needed a ten year old passport with a former visa in for her application to be processed; the lady who had really cracked motherhood, with her baby slumbering peacefully in a sling throughout the whole interminable waiting period, and the ‘professional visa applicants’ with five or six carefully filled out applications for those who would rather not wait in line.

Finally getting to the counter was rather an anticlimax. Twenty minutes of nervous smalltalk later (during which I thankfully failed to say anything that would get me arrested as a potential terrorist), I came out feeling lighter (over £200 lighter, as it happens) and with three really ancient-looking receipts instead of mine and the girls’ passports. I’d have preferred a block of mature cheddar and a slice of gala pie to be honest, but apparently in three days I’ll have the passports back, and hopefully with the visas in them. If I’ve done it right. Still not completely convinced.

In the beginning were the visas… and all the other admin too

image(9)With one month to go until we set off on our one year ‘family gap year’, I can’t blame people for bouncing up to me every morning and asking me “if I’m excited”. Please excuse the rictus, schoolgate parents…I promise you I’m not really avoiding your eyes.

To be clear, the answer’s yes. I am excited. I am, and I am, and I am .Why wouldn’t I be? What we’re planning is a whole year with family, seeing wonderful places, finding out new things and luxuriating in that commodity we in the Western world all seem to have too little of- time. What a massive privilege. What a massive step.

But forgive me if I’m not too tigger-like at the moment. Because when it comes to travel planning, the storm comes before the calm. The storm is pretty intense right now, and my to-do list looks something like this;

  • 9am Book third set of jabs (don’t warn them about Clover’s nasty tendency to hide behind a resuscitation kit in the corner of the surgery as soon as the needle comes out)
  • 9:15am Sacrifice first-born in order to pay for third set of jabs (just joking, Daisy)
  • 10am Visit Indian visa services – probably with the wrong set of paperwork AGAIN (admin has never been my strong point)
  • 12 noon Sort out consent to let form for mortgage company
  • 12:30pm Plan two children’s birthday parties and a leaving do
  • 1pm Somehow fit in full day’s work before picking up children at quarter past three

I’m not even scheming in a time for collapsing in a tearful puddle due to being utterly overwhelmed, but I’m beginning to think I need to. After nearly eight years in our lovely home and nearly 14 years in the SE23 postcode, our family is slowly uprooting itself in almost every possible way. Believe me, it’s harder than you think.

The belongings were the first to go: some to friends, some to the charity shop, and far too many to the school fair, where the children tried to buy them back. Then there was the house (let already, though we don’t have to leave it yet), the school place (apparently we will be ‘electively home educating’), and next it will be the cat, the chickens and last of all, our friends and family, and the entire UK, as we wave bye bye from the back of a taxi.

The children are getting good at goodbye, but I am not sure I am. I’m not good with finality, and I’ve got terribly comfy here. Every gathering I’m going to miss, every birthday I won’t be here to celebrate feels raw at the moment – I guess because I’m swapping them for a dream obscured by visa applying, house letting, injection enduring and a to-do list that rivals Spenser’s Faerie Queene in both its length and my inability to get through it.

And piled on top of that is guilt (what mother doesn’t have it?). Should we be taking the girls away from their friends and their education? Will they hate me later? Will it be safe? Will they rebel against their parents and resolve never again to leave the country on our return? So many questions, so few answers, and (thank you Indian Embassy) so many forms to fill in too.

I’ve spent this evening preparing the documents for our Indian visas, and I’m arlready fed up with post-colonial paperwork. Consent forms for the girls, signed by both of us. Their birth certificates. A promise that I won’t do any ‘media-related work’ while I’m in India. References – both in the UK and in India itself. Photos in a funny format. If I could just provide the name of my late neighbour’s dog when I was growing up, that would probably help my application.

I can’t work out if it’s a bright spot or not that the visa services appointment means that I’ll be missing Sports Day. I’ve never been much good at the Parents’ Tug of War. Besides, I’ve got one of my own at the moment, and between the dreams I’m struggling to remember and the fears of what I’ll lose while I’m away, I think the fears might be winning tonight. But, as my mother always says, ‘it will look better in the morning’. So do ask me again, ask me if I’m excited. Perhaps my inner tigger will reappear after a decent night’s sleep.