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 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!
We are spending a few nights at this amazing 15th Century house in a small Wiltshire village called Bromham. It's our first time to stay at an Air BnB property and we have been impressed by the warm welcome and comfortable room (despite the original low ceilings and uneven floors). We are enjoying exploring nearby villages and towns.
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.
A terrific day in the capital today, starting at the London Eye and wandering down the Thames. As planes flew in formation overhead to celebrate 100 years of the RAF, JD was more interested in popping huge bubbles blown by a street artist while JiaJia was busy taking in a Picasso exhibit at the Tate Modern.
Later we explored the HMS Belfast before heading for my Aunt's house for a meal and sleep-over. Open-topped bus and river cruise tomorrow.
Jiajia is a huge fan of UK Charity shops, but found today's Car Boot Sale - her first - even more enticing. Items were even cheaper there, and the sellers were willing to bargain. We wandered around for over an hour and bought all sorts of "unnecessary" items to take back to China. We got a few bargains too - a couple of Chinese plates worth a few hundred pounds for £3 and a new Monopoly set for £2.
We're spending a few days at my friend Ratch's. Ratch and I exchange emails once or twice a day while in China, which is more contact then I get from anyone else! It was great to visit her and husband Steve.
JD was having trouble grasping how long it is until we visit the UK, so I wrote a countdown on a block of post-its and now, every day, he rips off the top one and we stick it up on the top of the wardrobe.
We are all really looking forward to the trip. Six weeks seemed a lot of time for us to fill, at first, but we appear to be squeezing far too much in once again in order to see everyone and do all the things we want to. And of course, we're still waiting to see if Jiajia gets her visa without a hiccup.
JD, Jiajia and I went to the Kunming UK Visa Processing Office yesterday to hand in the various documents required to apply for Jiajia's UK visa. There seems to be less requirements this time, but the online application beforehand still takes about 3 hours to complete, and I had to do it twice this time after we suddenly realised that applying for a 5-year visa wasn't going to work when Jiajia's passport only had 2 years to run. However, last time we applied we had to fly to the UK Consulate in Chongqing and stay a night in a hotel. At least this time there is a processing centre in Kunming. The 2-year visa still costs some £350 though. Not cheap. And, as ever, there is no guarantee we will get the full two years or, indeed, any visa at all. The website asks for various documents, while the processing centre mentions others and whoever you ask comes back with the set phase "We are not able to advise you on what to supply - it's up to you." Hmmm ...so helpful!
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.
We made a visit to Royal Wootton Bassett, Wiltshire yesterday where I own a small flat. It's a lovely little village where I lived for 4 years before heading to China in 1994. My flat has been rented ever since, through a local agency but I was finally able to show Jiajia my UK home, though sadly it is in a disappointingly poor state of repair.
For lunch, we headed into West Swindon to visit Paul and Caroline, my cousins, for lunch. And what a meal! They have a barbecue on the garden and a smoking machine in their shed and had cooked various meats, speciality bread and vegetable dishes. It was delicious and we - well, I - ate 'til we were overly full. Afterwads we were able to pop into my poorly Uncle John and Auntie Jackie.
We spent a fun day up in London today in the company of my good friends Paul (the other one) and Elaine Bruton. I wanted to show JD the actual London sights that he'd become familiar with through a London-based storybook he'd been sent some time ago.
So we took the book along with us, pointing out the pages and the corresponding real places. We started at Trafalgar Square, where we got told off for trying to sit JD on a lion statue (unlike when I was a child and unlike the heroine of his story!). Then on to the changing of the guard at Horseguard's Parade. A salute from JD got the usual blank stare from the guard on duty, but a mounted policeman later let him stroke his horse and feed him (the horse!) a sweet.
We wandered down the Mall to Buckingham Palace and then walked back through St. James's Park, just about made it to the Houses of Parliament in time for Big Ben to chime 12. JD knows the tune off by heart as the supermarket down the hill from our Kunming house playes the tune electronically on the hour and we've paused to listen to it many a time. This was the real thing, though - a lot louder! Our attempt to take a river bus down to the Tower of London was thwarted by a police evacuation of the embankment, so we took a tube and saw the castle and Tower Bridge before a well-earned cup of coffee overlooking the Thames.
It was a tiring, but rewarding day. And great to catch up with the Brutons. Elaine was one of my best friends before leaving for China in 2005, while Paul is one of this blog's regular readers and most frequent commenters. Thanks guys for a great day.
We went to my parents' church this morning, and later to "Lark-in-the-Park" - a huge, free community event in Sidcup attracting attendances on the thousands throughout the week. My Dad has been volunteering as a night security guard there for many years. Nearly every attraction is free so we got JD's face painted (by a volunteer helper from Holland!) and let him play on the slides, rides and bouncy castles.
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.
The Sams family took us to a large National Trust stately home yesterday in Stourhead. We met up with Krista [see left], a mutual friend, and her Mum for a lovely day walking around the grounds and admiring the "Capability Brown" designed gardens [see below]. We enjoyed beautiful sunshine as we explored the area and finished the day off with ice-creams. Just as we drove back it started to rain - so far, the British weather has been very kind to us!
We are spending a few days in Dorset with our good friends, the Sams family. We're squeezing this visit into the start of our holiday as their eldest son (Aled, the ginger below) is off to Nepal for a volunteering challenge within a few days.
We are staying in the Sams' house - a huge place with a steeply rising back garden which backs onto a forest and a lovely park area. We've had a very warm welcome and when, on arrival, JD was shown to a huge toy railway their youngest son Ben had prepared, he gained a friend for life!
We spent our first half-day in pretty Sherbourne village, full of charity shops (for Ava) and the Abbey above (where JD played "spot the dead person"!).
A ping-pong tournament (JD cheated, see below) and a BBQ ended off the first day's fun.
We have arrived in the UK and are spending the first few days at my parents in Sidcup. They met us at the airport with a huge hand-drawn Welcome sign and pork pies! It's really hot here, so Ava is loving their beautiful garden while JD is loving "helping" by digging up spuds and watering the vegetables. As for me,I'm relishing the prospect of all my favourite "unobtainable" dishes such as casserole, fish-n-chips, toad-in-the-hole and rhubarb crumble ...oh and a large Wetherspoons breakfast which is planned for tomrrow morning. So happy to see my old folks after 1.5 years away and 24 hours of travelling. Let the holidays begin!
It was the Union Flag which first caught my eye, quickly followed by the ghastly clash of tenses in the English! But what this poster was actually advertising is anybody's guess. I spotted it in a shopping mall the other day and thought I'd see if anybody had a good guess, before resorting to asking the wife to translate the Chinese characters. Answers on a postcard please (...OK, maybe in the Comments below then).
Many thanks to everyone who made out UK trip so much fun. We really were blown away by the kindness and generosity of family and friends. The church folk we met were so welcoming and even total strangers were so much more pleasant and helpful than they often are in China - opening doors for the baby buggy, happily giving directions, offering their seats on buses etc. Thanks to you all.
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]
The return flight was somewhat less stressful than the outward bound one, as we were given special seats with more leg room and a tiny removable baby bed. JD was technically too heavy to use it, but by then were knew that "too heavy" was negotiable, so use it he did!
We flew back to China today. Our three suitcases were substantially over the limit, but JD charmed the check-in ladies and they let it slide. And we managed to get away with five items of hand luggage too. Little did we know we were just starting off a series of complications...
Our problems began in Beijing. We found out the connecting Air China flight had been cancelled and they had switched us to a China Eastern flight. However, this left from a different terminal, requiring a 20 minute bus ride (not easy with 8 items of luggage!). Still, we had plenty of time. At the new check-in, it was pointed out that our two bigger suitcases were a total of 8kg too much AND China Eastern did not allow infants a baggage allowance, so the smaller third suitcase couldn't go at all. We quickly deployed smiley JD and begged for some lenience. Finally he agreed to let our two suitcases on and suggested we take the smaller third one as hand luggage (our sixth item!).
It was only as we arrived at security that it dawned on me - we had liquids in the smaller case. The x-ray confirmed about 20 items that weren't allowed and we were asked to remove them all. Jiajia managed to persuade security that 5-6 were needed for JD on the flight, so they let us put those back. Then we politely asked to speak
to the head of security and BINGO, it was a smiley lady. We released the JD charm bomb and five minutes later went through with ALL our lotions and potions! We were last people to enter the plane and our SIX walk-on items raised a few eye-brows. Then, when I tried to put the suitcase into the overhead locker, it was just too bug to fit. "Take out some of the contents", suggested a helpful air hostess. So I unzipped the lid and BOOM - twenty illegal tubes, bottles and pots fell out! Ooops. JD was frantically waved like a magic wand as I hastily stuffed them into a plastic bag. Amazingly we arrived home with every single item we had hoped to, despite breaking every rule in the book! Thank goodness for the boy.
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