The global lockdown does have a few positives. We've been meeting together as a family on Zoom every week for a month or more now. It's proven a good way to keep in touch and support each other.
'Today's meet-up coincided with Andy's 51st Birthday!
My youngest brother Andy and his children, Louie and Daisy, visited today. We started with a Wetherspoons breakfast together - fast becoming something of a Hider tradition!
With intermittent rain outside we spent the morning playing Monopoly and then, during a dry hour in the afternoon, managed to visit "Lark in the Park" - a Christian community event with many children's clubs.
My brother Dave (plus wife Sarah and daughter Esme) visited us in Chippenham yesterday [top left] and it was really lovely to see them all. JD still has a few memories of when Dave and Esme visited us in China. Their visit coincided with Chippenham's annual festival which, this year, was themed around space and sci-fi. I was dead excited to see a phalanx of stormtroopers [top right].
And so our wonderful six weeks in the UK has finally come to an end. We' spent our last day or so at Mum and Dad's packing our luggage, eating out and saying our goodbyes. Thankfully our suitcases turned out to be under our weight allowance (just!) and our flights back went fairly smoothly. As ever, it was sad to say goodbye to everyone, but our "real" life awaits us here, back in Kunming. For now, at least...
We've spent our last few days in the UK chillin' with my parents - walks in the park, haircuts, visits to garden centres (JD attended a "Pixie and Fairy" event) and various admin - bank, opticians, post office etc
It's been particularly lovely for me to see my small Chinese family
bonding so well with my wider UK family over the holidays.
My parents remain very involved in their local church, despite laying down various responsibilities over recent years due to their age, so a visit to Sidcup Baptist Church is in order whenever we are in town. JD has shown an interest in all things spiritual in recent months - praying to various gods, saying grace before meals, interacting with fairies etc. So he joined in the service as best he could - singing along and eagerly joining in the children's activities. We always get a very warm welcome from the SBC church members and we feel very at home there, despite only visiting once a year on average!
We're back at my parents' in Sidcup, Kent for another full and fun week. We visited "Lark in the Park" a community event my parents' church helps to put on. JD got his face painted as Spiderman, and took part in various activities such as painting, pets and puppets. We also visited Hall Place, a Tudor house which was hosting a Lego exhibition.
Then at Cooling Garden Centre, we watched a Bird of Prey show and JD got to handle an owl. And finally my Mum and Dad put on a "belated" Christmas celebration complete with a tree, roast dinner, crackers, carols and presents. How do we fit it all in?
My only other Park Run was two years ago when I last visited Hereford. That run was with Josh who dropped out halfway, injured. This time I was joined for the 5km by my brother Dave (and his dog Evie). It was great fun to run with him - running is a hobby we share but had never done together before today. We both made it round in under 30 minutes, though Dave was ahead of me by the end.
We're continuing to enjoy our time in Hereford. It's a lovely city with parks and a river within walking distance of my brother's house. Esme has taken JD swimming in the river, despite the weather becoming little cooler than of late. Hereford cathedral is also eye-catching and Jiajia loves exploring the local charity shops. Josh is a life-guard at a nearby swimming pool, so JD and I had a fun swim at the pool, which has a wave machine and water chute tubes.
We are now staying with my brother Dave and his family in Hereford. We had a nice day out today visiting Skenfrith Castle, swimming in the river there and enjoying a picnic. My nephew Josh used his police contacts to give JD a visit to police station including sitting in a police car and turning on the lights and siren. And Dave set up a visit to a forklift factory allowing JD to ride in one of his favourite vehicles.
We've also enjoyed some yummy food, both at his home and out at restaurants. I may be getting too fat to tackle Saturday's Park Run!
Today we got to see my brother Andy's new house. He and his family have been looking for their dream house for about four years but have now finally found the right home in the right location. And while my sister-in-law Ali took JiaJia to Winchester's charity shops, Andy, Louie and Daisy took JD and I to Winchester's very interactive Science Museum and Planetarium for a fun visit.
My amazing Dad turned 80 this week and, as well as a celebratory get-together with his church friends last weekend and 60+ cards on his actual birthday, my brothers and I had also arranged a trip up the Shard for afternoon tea with the family. The Shard is Europe's tallest building and quite an imposing sight in the London skyline. They had a great time, by all accounts, and I was really sorry I couldn't be there in person. We even failed to get a Skype connection up. Dad also received a book of 100+ comments, compliments and anecdotes from relatives, friends and ex-work colleagues. A small momento of a life of service to others, good humour and great respect from all who have known him. Happy Birthday, Dad. We're all very proud of you. I have wonderful parents.
So we've come to the end of our five weeks in the UK. We fly back tomprrow. We spent today packing and I'm convinced all three of our suitcases are overweight, such is the spending power of my lovely wife!
We've had such a wonderful time. JD has really connected with my parents and all his relatives, and we've managed to see everything and everybody we had hoped for, and more. And, importantly, whilst we usually arrive with one or more illnesses to deal with, this time we were all pretty much well and healthy which make a big difference.
Knowing that we are unlikely to be back here for a couple of years is a sad feeling, and a real shame for JD. But Kunming is "home" (for now at least) and I imagine things wouldn't be quite so special if we were meeting up with everybody all the time. All the same, we'll miss you all.
Dave drove us to a halfway point today where Andy picked us up and we are now settling into this huge house which they currently rent while looking for a new permanent home. We'll be sleeping in the large converted attic. Andy and Ali's kids, Louie and Daisy, go to a school literally 100m over the road from the house. Pretty perfect place!
We spent today in Cardiff. Unfortunately, Wales lived up to its reputation, and it rained almost non-stop. We wandered around the damp bay area, took an expensive boat ride to nowhere and had a picnic on the steps of the Welsh Assembly building. Later we checked out the funfair before heading for "Technoquest" - an interacive science centre which was fun (but not as fun as the Dr Who exhibition would have been - I was outvoted!). Finally fish 'n chips on the beach (well, BY the beach in the car) before heading back to drier England.
Yesterday we took a train down to Hereford to stay with my brother Dave and his family. A very warm welcome and delicious food.
Today we walked into Hereford centre, where Ava loves the charity shops, with a picnic in the Cathedral grounds. JD is fascinated by the "dead people" in the churches, Cathedrals and Abbeys he has viited and now thinks any and every statue must contain a dead person! He's "clicked" with his cousins really quickly which gives Ava and I a bit of a break at times through the day.
Today was yet another sunny and dry day. We've been very lucky during our UK visit so far. Rumours of a wetter day tomorrow though. We shall see.
Today was our Open Day where we invited a lot of friends and family to come to my Mum and Dad's house for a chat over food and drink. We welcomed ex-work colleagues [eg Susie from Futurekids and Alan from National Power, in picture, left], family [eg cousins Maureen and Dorothy, left side below] and friends from College days [eg Ratch and Catherine, below] plus many others. It was a lovely event, held outside in the sunshine with a gazebo for those who preferred the shade. Thanks to everyone who travelled from near and far to come see us. It was terrific to catch up with you all again.
Kudos to my brother Dave for taking the huge leap of accepting voluntary redundancy from his well-paid but very stressful job as Director of the fastest growing Housing Association group in the country, and setting himself up as a self-employed training consultant. It was easy enough for me to take voluntary redundancy when I was in my twenties with no family commitments, but Dave has had to consider so many more factors. He has so much experience and so many skills to offer, though, I'm sure it will be a great success. Click here for more information. Good luck bro'!
Today was a recovery day after the journey back to China, and a largely sleepless night with an upset and screaming JD. None of which is being helped by a stinking cold with all the requisite symptoms. The school term starts tomorrow and Lattitude, the charity for whom I do teacher-training ever 6 months (starting on Monday), is having all sorts of problems getting their volunteers' visas. So I've no idea how many students, if any, I'll have turn up next week.
But the UK trip was so worth it. We only just made it, with Ava's suspected TB and confirmed pneumonia, and plans were changing all the time. But you can't beat family, can you? Or good friends. Everyone rallied round and were so generous with their time, energy and money. JD has a whole new bunch of relatives and he grew up an awful lot in those three weeks. Let's hope there's less trauma when we (hopefully) return in Summer 2016. The countdown has begun!
[PS 27th Feb: I had a fever last night and woke without a voice! Ava still coughing - 5 months and counting. But at least the Lattitude volunteers all got their visas finally, so a fully cohort next week]
Andy's second surprise was a belated gift for my 50th Birthday - tickets to a Premiership match; Southampton v Liverpool. So Andy, his son Louie (birthday treat for next week) and I braved torrential rain and bitter cold to take our seats and cheer on the Saints. Well, as an Everton supporter, I didn't want Liverpool to win, right? It was a good match with controversial penalty decisions and a stunning first goal. Sadly the best team lost; 2 v 0 to Liverpool. Great fun though.
We are staying with my youngest brother Andy and his family now after a wonderful time with Dave and family in Hereford. Andy has a few surprises up his sleeve for our time and the first was for JD - a fantastic "Thomas the Tank Engine" model steam train ride in a nearby park. JD is a big fan of the TV series and could barely contain his excitement at the trip. We walked around the lake and played in the playground first, to build the anticipation levels and then straddled the engine and puffed our way back to the car park.
JD meanwhile was more taken with the local Fire and Mountain Rescue Team doing various exercises which saw them swimming across the bitterly cold Wye river before coming to each others' rescue with ropes and floats. Something for everyone.
One of the things Jiajia likes most about the UK is the easy access to beautiful, natural scenery. I must confess to sometimes being a little blasé about rolling hills and wide-open spaces but what I do thoroughly enjoy though are her ooohs and aaahs as she sees scene after scene of countryside views. Symonds Yat [below] was well worth the drive that got us there. Stunning views looking down on the winding river below, whilst birds of prey hover above.
I haven't ice-skated since I was a youth, so it was fun to head to a small rink in an industrial estate today to give it another go. Esme and Josh were embarrassingly confident. I looked carefree when pushing JD around on a little sledge - less so without the support. JD loved it though. Sometimes he looked a bit nervy, but whenever I paused to catch my breath he was shouting, "...again, again!".
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