It’s hard to watch…

It started with an extradition bill (now shelved) which would allow suspected criminals be brought into China for interrogation. During peaceful demonstrations against the bill, Hong Kong police fired rubber bullets and sprayed protesters with tear gas, which prompted a rightfully angry reaction from the public. In August, a mass sit-in at the Hong Kong airport caused disruption. Flying in from summer holidays just hours before the airport closure, I was confronted by a group of young protesters handing out pamphlets and welcoming me to their city. I wanted to yell at them ‘this is my city too!’ It’s where I live, but is it really mine?

After assuring all of our friends and family back home that we were fine, we continued to watch it play out, sympathising with their plight while we went about our daily routine. By the end of August, the protestors had put together their 5 key demands. 1. full withdrawal of the extradition bill; 2. a commission of inquiry into alleged police brutality; 3. Retracting the classification of protesters as “rioters”; 4. Amnesty for arrested protesters; 5. universal suffrage for both the Legislative Council and the Chief Executive (at the moment only half the seats in the governing body are elected).

In the two months since then, the Government has conceded on the first point only, and Hong Kong has seen further protests, riots, police brutality, a rather vague ‘Community Dialogue’ from Chief Executive Carrie Lam in September which did nothing to appease the public, and escalating disruption and unrest. The movement has exploded into both large scale organised demonstrations and impromptu marches which often result in violent skirmishes scattered around the city, mostly near the MTR (subway) stations.

This week, in an effort to restore order, the Government implemented an edict to ban all face masks. How this was supposed to restore order is a question that remains. The decision incited so much ire, that both students and office workers took to the streets Friday night, blocking roads in central donning masks in direct contravention of the law. Overnight, shops, banks and stations were destroyed and burnt in acts of desperation and rage. A 14 year old boy was shot in the leg. An undercover policeman was set on fire. On Sunday a taxi drove into demonstrators and put a woman into hospital. He was subsequently dragged from his car and curb-stomped by an angry mob who witnessed the scene. So much for restoring order.

It now seems to have gone to a point of no return. Police are arming themselves and using more force as the protesters become more violent. Radical mobs are attacking police and undercover police are attacking rioters. The protesters have now undermined their position for securing #3 and #4 of their demands (or quite possibly all of them) and the government seems determined let the anger burn out while they do nothing to quell the growing rage. Meanwhile, the world waits to see what happens next.

I have had many messages, thoughts and prayers from family and friends in the UK, Canada, Australia and the US wondering if we are OK and what is happening. As expats living just outside the city, the protests rarely affect us directly. Sure, there are days it’s harder to get in or out of the office because traffic is disrupted. We have instructed our teenage boys to take taxis instead of the MTR at night, not wear black in case they are in the wrong place at the wrong time and mistaken for protesters, and stay away from certain parts of the city in the evenings where there is always trouble. Other than that, we are not physically affected. As I write this, I am looking out over the aqua marine South China Sea watching the boats chug by as usual. Behind me in the jungle where we take the dog for a walk and the only disturbance I have encountered in the last 48 hours was a sleepy wild boar roaming across the path.

But I think about it constantly, like a low-level cloud hovering over my mind. I know it’s happening right beside me, a few kilometers, a few city blocks away. There is anger and palpable tension in the air and it is exhausting. I work in an office where the majority of the team are local so most of the daily conversation revolves around what is happening in the city. I have just had another Police Appeal texted to my phone this second (it feels very George Orwellian to have the police intercept our phones and send direct messages: POLICE APPEAL. UNAUTHORISED PUBLIC EVENTS EXPECT TODAY WILL LIKELY CAUSE VIOLENCE AND DISRUPTIONS. PLEASE STAY ALERT AND AVOID GOING OUT. )

The whole thing is emotionally draining, and breaks my heart watching this city tear itself apart. Listening to the chatter, opinions are divided on whether it’s a fight they can win, and after this weekend’s violence, public sentiment seems to be turning against the radicalised component of the protest. Some feel this is just a bunch of naive students raging against the machine. Others are just really fed up with the disruption to their routine. The city’s economy is being hurt by this, and for many, their patience is wearing thin and they would quite like to get on with business.

On the other hand, there are those who feel that this is the most important moment for Hong Kong. In 1997, Britain handed back the land to China in accordance with the agreement of their lease, with a 50-year buffer period where Hong Kong would be governed under the principal of ‘one country, two systems’, hence the SAR (Special Administrative Region). Every year closer to that date, the region feels the grasp of the country’s government tighten, and this frightens them. With every new law, every new act of government, Hong Kongers are on heightened alert for anything that seems like an infringement on their rights as free citizens.

And so here we are. Every historical moment has a consequence, and Hong Kong is still feeling the repercussions of the Treaty of Nanking (Google it and it will give you some understanding). Arguably, there are many other moments in history that have lead to this, but the point is, Hong Kong was ceded to the British where it was ruled under one system and they gave it back (with conditions) to China which is ruled under a very different one, and now it’s messy.

There is no clear solution to this and it is difficult to see how or when it ends. So for us and many other expats who have built a life here in Hong Kong, we will continue to live as outsiders in our own home, observing people fighting in the streets for something they believe in, with our fingers very close to the eject button. And for what it’s worth, even if it is all in vain, we along with the rest of the world continue to watch them rage against the machine.

A Dog Says It All

So, it’s been a while and we are still here.

I can’t actually believe we are coming up on a decade in Hong Kong.  The kids are fully fledged teenagers, we are now permanent residents (we have that handy card that gets us through immigration at the airport really, really fast…), and yes, we have a dog.

So that’s it then.  I think it’s a sign that we may never be leaving, or not for the foreseeable future anyway.  I figure once you commit to the dog, it’s game over and you are staying put.  Cats, not so much – they are independent creatures who barely have time to acknowledge anyone’s existence nevermind emotionally attach themselves (we have two of them, equally contemptuous).  It’s actually a bit of a menagerie around here and yesterday my eldest was complaining that it was far too distracting to study amongst all the animals.  But honestly? A beetle crawling slowly into the corner would distract a sixteen-year-old from studying.  A crumb on the table distracts him.

My boys board weekly at their school about 30km outside the city so to fill the Monday to Friday void in the apartment, Mr. C and I decided to get a dog – well, we weren’t going to do anything as rash as have another child, so as it turns out we did the closest thing possible but I didn’t know it at the time.  I feel like we were sending ourselves a message because there is such a permanence to the responsibility that we’ve taken on.  And just so we’re all clear on this, we didn’t do it for the kids (although the video of the surprise puppy waiting at home for them when they came back from school was priceless).  We are not so naive to think that they will actually look after her, take her for walks when there are far more pressing appointments on Snapchat to attend to, or participate in any meaningful way in the effort to keep her alive other than rolling about on the floor with her.  So she belongs to the adults and the children amuse her.  Her name is Lucy Liu and regardless of the role we each play in her life, we all adore her.

I have always been scared of dogs and I never thought I would own one.  But then again, I never thought I would be in Hong Kong for a decade either.  Didn’t really see myself as a mother of teenagers.  Or twenty-five years married and that one’s coming up – not that I thought I’d be divorced, I just didn’t see it coming.  Or menopause.  Who knew that treat was around the corner?

So while some things stay the same, I guess I should embrace the changes.

It’s especially easy when change has four legs, golden fur, and big sad eyes.

On The Road

The Campbell camping experience has been filled with new things – some more pleasant than others and none more surprising than our ability to cope with each other in such small quarters… that beast might look big, but once you start on the road it closes in on you by the kilometre, or by the mile, depending on what side of the border you’re on. We have come away with great stories, endless laughs, amazing scenery, weird stuff and some small epiphanies. Here are some of the more significant things I have discovered (apart from the fact that you should never drive away from your campsite while the 8-foot awning of your RV is still out).

7 Things I Have Learnt On The Road: 

  1. Our bed is super comfortable.  No kidding. This is the biggest shocker.  It’s not something I expected on a cross country RV camping trip.  It is just the right combination of soft and firm and has this extra mattress layer on top of the regular thick bed mattress and the whole set up is actually hard to get out of it in the morning. 
  2. The RV is not that difficult to drive.  We have shared most of the driving and I have not driven it off the road, which I did dream about the other night. 
  3. It takes longer than you think to get anywhere.  We are pretty much consistently 3 hours behind schedule.  Maybe 4.  Or 5. Sometimes a day.
  4. Ben seems to have some sort of calamity in every stop we make.  So far, he has given himself a fat lip by hitting bottom of swimming pool, smashed his head falling out of the top bunk of the RV while we were stationary at a petrol station, has sustained a nasty abrasion on his neck from his helmet during go-karting, he is having an allergic reaction to a bee sting/ant bite (we are unsure) on his right foot, and has been violently sick in the middle of the night due to over consumption of root-beer and popcorn.  He is resting quietly now, with no incident to note and we are increasing the insurance when we travel into the US…
  5. There is a lot to do on a camping trip.  And by this I mean chores.  What with the dishes, the cooking, slushing out the plumbing, sweeping, tidying, setting up, striking down, campfires, map-reading, planning, debating, arguing about best routes and activities… there is a plethora of tasks to complete before actually sitting down to enjoy the scenery.  We are getting better at this (the kids are in boot camp training) and by the time we get to Nova Scotia we are going to be super efficient campers, perhaps giving sage advice to other camping novices…  Even arguing with the kids about activities and stops has become a whole lot easier.  “Because we say so” is our new catch phrase.
  6. This RV camping lark is much more fun than I thought.  My favourite time of day is early morning (before all three of these lazy male folk rouse themselves) with a coffee outside the RV enjoying the early morning sunshine and the quiet (even I can’t get up early enough to see the sun actually rise…)
  7. Good food is important.  At least one meal when you sit down together, with fresh, well-cooked food (and several glasses of good wine) makes a huge difference.  We have moved from pancake and bacon breakfasts with long cups of coffee in the morning to quick java’s, moving out of the campsite while throwing Fruit Loops up to the kids when they stir.  Lunches have turned from lingering roadside stops at a picnic table with prepared sandwiches, to slapped-together ham and cheese while driving.  But dinners have remained sacred.  We try to buy local meat and fresh produce, then, usually I prepare it, and Mr C cooks on the BBQ while the kids chip in to help (by some miracle, this seems to have happened) and no matter how late it is, we sit down and eat outside, sometimes by candlelight.  There has only been one time where I have had to cook grilled cheese on the stove in the RV for dinner (it was 11pm, we had just rolled in and we needed something before we slept – see the notes below on Michigan…)

Here is the journal from start to finish:  13,000 kilometres, so you might want to get a cup of something and sit down for a bit.

July 6th

Mr C takes the short flight to Comox on Vancouver Island to collect the rig, and drives it back to Vancouver.  We stay with friends and get over our jet-lag in West Vancouver overlooking the Eagle Harbour Yacht Club.  We spend time with friends as they share the excitement of our trip.  I find out that if you speak to ten people, you will get ten different ‘best routes’ to take.  Our friends and hosts get so excited they decide to come along with us for the first 2 days.  Ben gives himself a fat lip by hitting the bottom of the swimming pool and sustains nasty abrasions on his neck from the go-kart helmut.  Nothing out of the ordinary.

getting ready
Pouring over the map with advice from … um…everyone.

The RV arrives.  She’s big.

The kids mess about on the dinghy:  this was the start of the ‘lakeside living ephiphany’

July 8th

The drive from Vancouver to Kelowna, via the north route down the Fraser River, up along the Thompson River and then beside the Nicola River… not a soul for 5 hours.  When  civilisation does appear, it is just a little bit scary.  Hand-painted ‘Hal’s Gas Here’ signs don’t exactly instil confidence.  Let’s just say we don’t stop at the first petrol station we see. Ben falls out of the top bunk of RV while stationary and bruises his temple.  Mr C looks into extra insurance coverage in the US.  

A gorgeous, long and twisty drive along the Fraser, Thompson and Nicola rivers.

Western Canada at it’s finest..

Merritt pit stop.  The truck, the pyjamas, the pavement football… says it all.

July 9th

A true sign of friendship is when an old friend drives five and a half hours to meet for lunch.  With his dog.  We are determined to do some sort of wine tour in the Okanogan and with much ado about getting there, manage to get to the Burrowing Owl Winery with our friends.  This is followed by tubing and waterskiing on Lake Okanogan (the 4 youths reach their saturation point on wine-tasting and long lunches, so we pull the emergency rip-cord and call the boat rental in Summerland).  We stay in Peachland, which is just a peachy place.  We rock up to a local restaurant for dinner –  late, of course.  After kindly refusing us, the German owner chases us down the street, calls us back in and keeps the kitchen open late just to feed 9 of us at 10pm… unheard of in Canada where public eating seems to stop just before sunset.  Two rainbows and Ben does not sustain any injuries proving that miracles, in fact, can happen in three’s.

July 10th

A swim in Lake Okanogan followed by ice cream and fond farewells to our west coast friends… and we hit the road towards Calgary, via Lake Louise, Banff and Canmore.    

Beautiful (cold) Lake Okanogan.  There is something about lakeside beaches….

There is this place in Revelstoke called The Village Idiot.  Excellent name for a pub.


It is late in the day when we get to Lake Louise but it doesn’t make it any less amazing.  The drive from Golden by Kicking Horse Pass is spectacular and at 7pm when we roll into the Lake Louise parking area we are shocked by how chilly it is and that even at this time in the evening the sky is still blue.   In some stoke of bizarre planet alignment, while we were staring out over the spectacular vista where 150 other people are roaming around getting that iconic photo, I run into my oldest friend from my hometown doing the exact same thing with her family!  My hometown has a population of about 80 people so meeting her here with her family and friends is defying even the craziest odds.  We are clearly so amazed we fail to take a picture.  But we get some shots of ourselves shivering in front of the spectacular vista.  We cannot believe how cold it is.  

THAT view …

 July 11th

Canmore, Alberta.  It is wet and rainy so we get some admin finished for the RV (somehow we have lost the BBQ between Vancouver and Canmore … how do you LOSE a BBQ?!) so another pit stop at Canadian Tire.  For those of you who are not Canadian, this is The Shop That Sells Everything, not just tires as the name might suggest.  Also we have been managing without a toaster which is fairly remarkable given our consumption of Nutella with a spot of toasted bagel in the morning.  So today is spent wandering Canmore, a long lunch and good family banter.  Yes, by the way, a toaster.  We are in an 28 foot RV with a shower and a microwave, not a pup tent.  

In the evening, we send the boys out to fill up jugs of drinking water (we are introducing them to the concept of chores…I know, I know… my only excuse is we live in Hong Kong) and they return to the camper wondering why there are fireworks outside and giggling about the fact that our next door neighbours were yelling at them about taking the water.  This seems unlikely (both the fireworks on a Monday in mid July and shouty camping neighbours in Canada) so we pop our heads out to see what the fuss is about.  After a couple of conversations with the friendly neighbours discover that in fact, the Canmore electrical plant has exploded – obviously – which is what the yelling was about. But it’s ok.  We don’t need electricity.  We’re camping.

The mountains as a backdrop to life in Canmore.

Parallel parking – Canmore style.


I partner with Ben to get the fire going since he seems the most enthusiastic (this is on a relative basis, but he was flinging around wood and wanted to light something on fire).  We manage, first try, thank you very much, without any of that lighter-brick nonsense.  This is really all down to my training in the field with the Girl Guides of Canada, circa 1980.  I manage to impress the kids, especially since most of the time I was doing it one-handed (other hand preoccupied with glass of wine).  I am loving this idea of no wifi and books by the fire. 

July 12th

One of the itinerary highlights before we began this trip was the Calgary Stampede.  This is a huge televised Canadian annual event involving all things that are Country & Western:  Rodeo, Chuckwagon Racing, Cowboys, Cowgirls, Agricultural Exhibitions, and a general celebration of those people who work hard to put food on our tables, and tables around the world.  The brother of a friend of ours in London is most definitely qualified as the resident expert:  he has helped organise the Chuckwagon Races for 14 years, and he is going to be our tour guide for the day, thanks to a few emails with his sister last month.

Driving from Canmore to Calgary, the landscape all of a sudden gets very flat and we can see for about 40km in front of us.  And beside us.  And behind us.  We pull into a site outside the city which we fear might be horrible but in fact is very well set up and has a pool and laundry (these are key).  I find out in the laundry room – the place to find things out – from a fellow traveller that Glacier National Park is a great stop and I make a mental note.  The woman (petite, coiffed blond hair, mid-fifties, neatly dressed, full makeup) gives me (not petite, rat’s nest hair, in my pyjamas, no makeup, possibly not washed) this information while explaining that the only reason she is in the laundry room is that she doesn’t think the washer/dryer in her RV will take it with the 30 amps they are plugged into at the moment.  Washer/dryer? I wonder how big her RV is.  Am I developing RV envy?

The very open road to Calgary.

We make our way into the city by taxi and train.  Our friend Andrew (Captain Stampede), sorts us out with the clothes we will need to fit in, helping us gear up with proper western cowboy hats (not the tourist version, the real deal – “if my sister sees you on Facebook with the wrong hat she’ll kill me!”).  We have such a blast with a country and western theme, the enthusiasm is contagious.  We get a tour of the stables and watch the rodeo and chuck-wagon races – and I develop a new appreciation of cowboys.

July 13

We decide that trying to get to Yellowstone in Montana is going to make the journey too long, so instead we head directly south to Glacier National Park (thank you neat and tidy lady in the laundry room) which begins in lower western Alberta and crosses down into Montana.  We need to get south to warmer weather.  It’s either that or buy a new warmer wardrobe.  The drive from Calgary to Glacier National Park is stunning as we move from the prairie grasslands to the foothills of the Rockies again. 

We stop in a tiny town called Claresholm, in the middle of Alberta farm country to get supplies.  The kids want to stay in the RV and fight but I need to stretch my legs so I walk down to the IGA to get groceries.  Like many North American small towns, the main street is actually the highway and is very wide with one intersection with a light.  There is what looks like a Chinese Restaurant on the corner and down the way is the IGA, with a large Shoppers Drugmart next to it.  Behind the till at the IGA there is a woman from Devon. Yes, Devon. England.  She chats to all the customers at length as they pass through her till (there was a couple in front celebrating their 60th wedding anniversary, and he was going to take his wife out).  It was like I was in Eastenders.  But I was in Alberta. I wanted to get her entire life story – this woman from Devon, now living in Claresholm – but I was only buying bread and milk and there were people behind me so there was no time.

The small, idyllic, outdoorsy town of Waterton sits inside the National Park on the edge of a group of lakes and is the starting point for some breathtaking hikes.  National Geographic deemed The Crypt hike as one of the best in the world.  It would take an entire day, however, and we are on a bit of a schedule to get across most of the United States by next Monday.  We get a good hike in, and explore the lakes in kayaks.  The campground is also an unexpected winner.   Unlike most organised people, we are just winging it with the camping and staying at places that have last-minute availability as we roll up in the evening…    

A spectacular hike up Bear’s Hump to the top of the hill overlooking Waterton and the surrounding lakes and mountains.

Top Camping Tip #1: How to manage a 4 minute coin shower:

Some campgrounds charge for water facilities – a dollar for a shower type of thing – but some go one step further and provide handy coins which you go to the front desk to buy (awkward if you are already in your shower gear).  I perfected the four-minute shower routine in Waterton by placing my iPhone in front of me on the bench and setting the timer to count down … 30 seconds for shampoo, 30 seconds to rinse, 30 seconds to condition, 30 seconds for facewash… 60 seconds for full leg shave which possibly is not enough for a thorough job… and whatever is left to soap and rinse.  It’s dicey.  But I managed the whole thing with a fast rinse off at the end.  You know, in a campground, people probably won’t notice the bits you miss.  You are only going to sit in a kayak for God’s sake.

July 14th

Spend the day in Waterton, exploring the lakes in kayaks and taking in the spectacular scenery before we pack up and leave to make a start on our long drive southeast into the States. We call my brother (it’s his birthday) from the campground and arrange to meet him in Manitoulin Island, Ontario on Thursday 21st July for a couple of days with his family – he actually has a job and holidays and normal things like that, so we need to adapt.  

We can only get wifi at the front office, so we sit in the camper outside the doors like complete weirdos just flicking through our phones.  The boys are trying to game, I am trying to update Facebook and Mr C is … I don’t know, but he is very busy.  Probably trying to sell the RV.

We drive over the US border and come to a tiny customs office where we are stopped and hand him our shiny brand new Canadian Passports. We used to travel on our UK passports but not sure we’ll need them now…

OFFICIAL:  Where are you folks from?
ME: Pause.  (I could say the kids are British, we are Canadian,  we live in Hong Kong, the vehicle has BC plates, registered in PEI… but this could trigger questions).
Vancouver. (I know, not strictly true, but that’s where we did come from…)
OFFICIAL:  Are you carrying any alcohol?
ME:  No. (This is not completely true either, there might be a half bottle in the back.  And a couple of beers, but I think he knows this.)
OFFICIAL:  Fruit and vegetables?
ME: We have apples and some vegetables in the fridge. (We probably have 2 pounds of beef, eggs, milk, cheese, berries, apples, bananas … but we are in a 28 foot RV – what does he think we have?!)
ME: What? Wood? No. (Again, not strictly true – we might have a couple of pieces left from the campfire last night, but really, do we want him routing around in the hold for wood?)
OFFICIAL: Firearms?
ME:  Um… No. (This is the truth)
OFFICIAL:  OK then. Y’all have a great trip.

Mr C is worried about my proficiency in sliding over the details.

Mr Customs Official should have warned us to watch out for all the cows lying around the highway because they seem to not fence in their livestock in Montana.  It’s a sort of free and easy arrangement and cows and horses take to roaming around on county roads.  Which takes a bit of getting used to.  We move into the great expanse of land that is Montana.  It is stunning.

Big skies in Montana

It is late afternoon and we get as far as a little place called Valier (there are a lot of French names around here).  We pull into the tiniest campground on the side of a small lake for $20 – we have developed a strategy for finding good spots which is to find a small lake where there is usually a site with a pretty area by the water.  The manager is about to leave to ‘take a shower’ (what does that mean?) but we catch him in time and he gives us a place.  It is pretty and peaceful.   The boys play ball with their dad while I prepare dinner, then we BBQ and sit by the campfire… it is becoming a wonderful routine and we laugh a lot.  We need to get up early tomorrow to stay on track for Monday arrival with our friends in Wisconsin.  

What $20 can buy you:  


July 15th

We hit the road for our big drive day, but as we roll onto the main road, a mere 20 meters from the campground gate we have the first drama of the day.  

Mr C pulls over and says there is a police car stopping us.  There are a few expletives. Getting pulled over by the police in the US is one of my all-time nightmares, along with driving the RV off the road and getting eaten by a bear.  In the time it takes the Sheriff to get out of his vehicle and walk to the driver’s door, I have gotten out of my seat, pulled the kids by their feet out of their mattresses above us and sat them at the table, with their seat belts on as I assume they are supposed to be – just in case he checks.  As I climb back into my passenger seat, it occurs to me that having two bleary eyed, drooling and dazed teenagers, sitting in their underwear staring into space possibly looks worse than having them lying around up top, but it’s too late now. I don’t even know if they have seatbelt laws here.  It’s not like it’s Canada.  I don’t even know why we are being pulled over, which sort of terrifies me, because I can’t slide over details if I don’t know what I’ve done. 

We sit and wait for Mr Police Sheriff to get to the window and try to look normal.  He informs us, with his slow western drawl, that we have rolled the stop sign.  Ha!  Rolled the stop sign.  This is OK.  I can deal with this.  It is 8am in a town of about 25 houses and no living human in sight, except for that Sheriff sitting in his car (next to the stop sign), so this really isn’t all that bad.   It’s not like he’s going to get us out of the vehicle and strip search us for narcotics.  Or find that wood I lied about.  I look up at him and put my best ‘sorry aren’t we dumb but hey we all make mistakes‘ smile on, and very quickly realise that they really don’t like you rolling stop signs in Valier, MT. 

He asks for the registration papers and Mr C has to go back into the camper to get them There is an awkward moment where the Sheriff and I look at one another and I am acutely aware of everything around me.  I look back and see that Matthew now has his forehead on the table and Ben has collapsed completely from waist up and is asleep on the seat.  I smile at the Sheriff.  He might sense my discomfort so he apologies for pulling us over but explains that we rolled the stop sign right in front of him.  He didn’t come right out and say we were morons.  As Mr C comes back with the RV registration, he hits his head on a metal edge of the top bunk which is normally flipped back, but in the rush to get the kids out of bed, it was left down.  Now he is bleeding.  He gives the papers to the Sheriff and tries to look normal, but there is blood dripping down his temple.  The Sheriff asks for a drivers license and Mr C hands him the UK one he uses.  I guess it was a calculated decision not to show him the Hong Kong drivers license (which quite frankly looks like a bookstore card) or the International one which is just a piece of paper. The Sheriff seems surprised and holds the UK Licence away from him to get a better look. ‘Hmm, I sure never have seen one of these b’fore!’.  He grins, shakes his head and goes back to his car, possibly thinking we have teleported here from the moon.

It takes forever (20 minutes) to track our Canadian vehicle, which was purchased in Vancouver with BC license plates but the address is registered in Prince Edward Island, which is not where we live.  He comes back, still chuckling, and tells us that they had to get their Controller to google PE to find out where that was.  All the way up in Canada!  And most definitely due to paperwork overload, he decides not to give us a citation.  We end with a nice conversation about driving across America and not rolling stop signs in the future.  I notice he has a small camera attached to his front vest and wonder why.

We cover about 600km in one day.  That is a lot, especially when you don’t break past the 100km/h mark.  Montana is big sky country, all rugged with cattle ranch after ranch – I spend the entire drive sort of hoping that Marlboro Man will ride out in front of me, chaps and all… but then it is a long old drive and my imagination can get the better of me… especially when I seem to be part of Clint Eastwood movie set.    The only people riding out in front of me are aged people with long grey hair riding Harley Davidsons.  There are no helmet laws in the States and we ponder how that works in terms of fly/bug impact on the road.  They must carry dental floss with them.  And special beard combs. 

We have a thing while we are driving and questions come up.  We write them down so we can google them the next time we have wifi.  Here is our list:

  1.  Helmet laws in the states – which ones have them and which don’t
  2. How many people have died taking a barrel over Niagara Falls
  3. The words to Stompin’ Tom Conner’s hit single ‘Bud The Spud’
  4. How old is Gordon Downie?
  5. The population of Green Bay, Wisconsin

Pit stop in Judith Gap, the windiest place in Montana where there is a massive wind farm, owned by Germans as it happens. 

Wind turbines are really very big…

We notice that flags are flying half-mast and realise that anything could have happened and we would not know.  Radio stations play two things – country and western – and we have been so out of touch without internet connection or phone coverage.  We are not paying for Hong Kong data roaming.  All those people on their summer holidays looking for Pokémon with their 3G data roaming in a foreign country may be shocked at the usage fees on their return.  We tune in to the radio and find out about the shootings in Baton Rouge.  The world is weird right now and we are happy to stay in our little moving home and block it all out for a few weeks.  We drive on through Montana over the state border to Sheridan, Wyoming, where we stop for the night.

July 16th

A shorter drive to Mount Rushmore which actually takes all day (see Point 3 at the top).  We stop in Sundance – not to be confused with Park City, Utah where they hold the Sundance Film Festival, of course.  Sundance seems to be the gathering place for Harley Davidson owners.  They should have a Sundance Harley Convention… maybe they do.  We have lunch at the Bighorn eatery, which is surprisingly busy for such a little place.  It is about 95 degrees in the burning hot desert sun (we are all fahrenheit and miles here, which might explain the longer-than-anticipated travel times…).  The boys want to stop at the Hardware Store where they are having a blowout sale on guns and ammunition, but I suggest we have to get going and maybe next time.  We are surprisingly high:  1300-1500 meters on these plains. 

The Sundance state bank. I’m picturing some sort of showdown gunfight with cowboys …

There is a lot of history surrounding this part of the US.  This is where Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse beat General Custer in the famous Last Stand battle.  There are monuments everywhere and of course the random attractions that come with and spot of interest… not sure what the Dinosaur Park or the ‘Guns, Gold and Rock & Roll’ Speedway has to do with Sitting Bull, but whatever. 

We pass over a river aptly named.


As we roll towards South Dakota, the landscape becomes rocky and mountainous again.


Across the next state border, and finally, the founding fathers, etched forever in stone…

It’s a busy place.  The National Park is packed with campers, but after one failed attempt, we find a great destination RV campsite that is massive.  Our site is nicely secluded amongst the pine trees.  There is a very friendly family opposite who has all the kit – bikes, kayaks, massive BBQ, those really high-end comfy folding deck chairs with drink holders. They even a little carved wooden sign (‘The Browns’) placed outside their RV to mark their space.  Mr Brown welcomes us to the neighbourhood and I wonder just how long ‘The Browns’ have been here.   

A friendly man comes along with his daughter and tries to talk to me about the size of the engine on my rig.  I don’t have a clue what he is on about:  10 cylinder, 450 CC’s blah, blah, blah… I laugh and say I can drive it.  I sense Mr C is smirking on the other side of the site as he puts his bike together.

Mr C takes his bike out for an overdue spin and returns unscathed from bears.  I am relieved as I have been looking at my watch since he left.  The kids have just finished watching The Revenant, which is a) inappropriate violence and b) involves a half hour bear attack in graphic detail which I think might not be the perfect viewing material as we camp around this part of the country.  I decide against a run.  I will venture out when there is less likelihood of being ripped apart by a black bear. 

We pour over the map while pouring lots of wine and discover that we have another huge long drive ahead of us through South Dakota and into Minnesota.  Our schedule is fairly tight if we are going to visit our friends in Wisconsin and get to my brother at the arranged date.  More wine.

July 17th

We try to get an early start on the road – we have accepted that we are no good at early starts – and then decide we need to get another glimpse of Rushmore so we take the beautiful drive through the forested park.   It is impossible not to stop.  I am more taken with the surrounding landscape than the Presidents’ faces in rock, but the kids love seeing it.  The intense smell of pine needles everywhere reminds me of Canada. 

Then we hit The Badlands.  

They call them this because in amongst the fertile farms of South Dakota, this geological formation yields nothing.  Nothing grows and it is the most inhospitable (and freaky) landscape.  We make very bad time because we keep stopping. I wonder, not for the first time, about those early pioneers who came across this vast expanse to ‘work the land’ for a living, and how on earth they coped.  No wonder the wild west was so twisted.  I find I am still thinking of all the cowboys riding out over this eerie landscape…

There is a small attraction as we leave the badlands:  a completely preserved ‘turf home’ which was a small hut built into the ground which offered protection from the elements and natural insulation, much like a hobbit house.  There is a 10 dollar entry fee and a tour with a gift shop.  The poor pioneers that built that hut more than one hundred years ago, living hand-to-mouth, scraping out some sort of existence as best they could probably didn’t see that coming.

July 18th

We are up ‘early’ again after making it to Jackson, Minnesota the day before – an epic 7 hour drive through endless South Dakota corn fields.  I am amazed at how good the kids are with this… Mr C and I came crawling out of the RV after taking turns driving all day and they were all ‘hey, that was an OK drive wasn’t it?’… but they were playing Monopoly all day (this no wifi is so great…)

We stop on the I-90 for a break and somehow manage to collect a flock? herd? swarm? of flies (we are not actually sure of the origin of these flies, which is slightly disturbing).  There is nothing that disgusts me and Mr C more than flies, so he organises the team to get busy with extermination while I drive (I know, not strictly legal).  Matt and Ben must be harbouring something deep within, or perhaps they are suffering from gaming withdrawal and have not virtually killed anything in a while.   That can be the only explanation for the Quentin Tarantino-esque violence that erupts in the back of the RV.  That long stretch of highway will now go down in the annals of Campbell camping history as the South Dakota Fly Massacre.  It is not pretty, but it is effective and we are now fly-free and clean, if our consciences are not.   

We drive through Minnesota and Wisconsin, again changing our minds en-route to avoid the big cities (we were going to stop in Minnesota but decide cities and 28 foot RV’s are not compatible).  We want to get north of Green Bay in time for our friend’s birthday.  They spend their summers on a small peninsula jutting out into Sturgeon Bay, part of Lake Michigan and we will rest there for a couple of days to engage in a bit of relaxation before our next leg.  Yet again, the whole thing takes longer than we expect and we are in the RV from 8:30am until 6:30pm when we arrive, with very few stops along the way.

Top Camping Tip #2: How to prepare lunch on the road:

When time is of the essence and it is taking you longer than usual to drive 650km, sometimes there is little or no time to stop for things like lunch.  In this case, preparing food in a moving vehicle is necessary, and not as difficult as it sounds.  Children do not need to be strapped down, but do not expect them to help in any way.  You can either remove all ingredients from the fridge and place on the table, preparing the sandwiches in a seated position, or you can handle it standing up against the counter, although this requires a bit more dexterity (the trick is to plant one foot firmly on floor and wedge the other knee against the cupboards).  Do not try to be precise.  As long as the slice of ham and slice of cheese is somewhere in the middle of the pieces of bread, you are doing fine.  Do not try to use plates, just wrap in paper napkins – these are easier to lob into the top bunk and can be caught mid-air.  Apples are good for dessert – easily thrown, no fuss.  For drinks, grab first fizzy drink that you find in fridge – the kids have probably already had three before 10am that you didn’t notice.  Try not to grab a beer if you are driving.  

We need to stop for wifi.  I realise that I do not have the address for our friends in and have absolutely no idea where we are going.  The kids are desperate to find Pokémon (really?!  I mean, really?!).  There is a town called Sparta which we feel might have a McDonalds judging from the size of the dot on the map, and we are not disappointed by the length of the strip malls in Sparta.  We pull in and set up at a table – we are that family not speaking to one another, glued to our phones.   No one here knows that we have been in an RV for 10 days and we are quite frankly, exhausted by all the real conversation.  

I pause momentarily and look around me.  I see Mr C staring at the table beside us, verging on some sort of hysterical fit and glance over to witness the scene.  Four old men, average age 90, deliberating on the state of the world (the roads, the size of young people these days, the election… etc) , sentences peppered with fragrant language (sons of bitches, Jesus Christ almighty, God-damned idiots, etc) while one of them swats flies with a fly swatter he presumably brought into McDonalds from home. I have to turn away and I am consumed by a fit of giggles I have not experienced since Grade 12 Calculus class in 1986.

We leave the disgusting drinks we have purchased on the table, get what we need on the internet and finish up.  Our friends are in a place called Ephraim.  We are all set to go and hit the road, still giggling about the men from Sparta.

The tiny town of Ephraim is gorgeous – all whitewashed wooden homes, home-made cherry pies, sailing and friendliness.    Drinks on the porch have never felt so good.

The view from the porch.

Sunsets in Ephraim are spectacular and drinks down on the dock are perfect.  This is the west side of Lake Michigan, one of the vast Great Lakes and it is big enough to feel like the ocean but the clear, deep fresh water makes it feel undeniably lakeshore.    We are enamoured with life on a lake.  It started in the West Coast and we are now officially obsessed. 

July 19th

I am busy with forty loads of laundry.  But in between that, we catch up with our friends, go out in the boat and linger on the docks.   I go for an overdue run and it feels good to stretch my legs.  I have not seen my kids since we got here – they are off with new friends out on the boat tubing, jumping off the dock to swim, getting obscenely oversized ice creams down the road or playing cards… it is an idyllic summer scene.  I think we are all happy to get some space, and it give the adults some time to catch up – there is ground to cover since our last reunion – and a lot of laughter.   We tell them about Sparta men.

July 20th

I finally get in touch with my brother over the phone, and am somewhat startled to hear he is in a Home Hardware buying a hose for his garden and not driving northwards to meet us in Manitoulin Island, but he assures me they will be there by Thursday which is our scheduled rendez-vous … the boys are excited to be meeting up with their cousins and we must not fail them.  We plan to leave our American friends by 2pm in order to make it close to the border by the evening, but of course, in a predictable fashion we roll out at 5pm after chatting on the front porch and stopping for ice cream.

The drive north into Michigan is pretty by the lake, but more familiar Eastern landscape keeps me less occupied and I find myself counting the mileage as we drive on.  We are aiming for a place called Manistique only because I have researched 2 possible campgrounds in the Indian Lake Forest Park.

Matthew tells us it is 9pm and we tell him not to be ridiculous, it is 8pm – although it looks dark.  We check our iPhones and they all tell us it is 9pm, but this cannot be right – our watches say 8, we left Wisconsin at 5 and have been driving for 3 hours.  Oddly, somewhere in between Wisconsin and Michigan state, going north, we have passed over a time line. This seems apt and adds to the general atmosphere of weirdness.  We have now lost an hour, it is pitch dark and we have no idea where the campground is.   We find ourselves driving down a creepy road with swampland on either side, seemingly going nowhere and decide to turn around, driving down towards the lake in hopes that we will run into the state park or any evidence of humanity.

An eerie full moon rises over Manistique

The kids are getting nervous and we try to reassure them that this is perfectly normal.  Nothing weird here.  Nope.  We come across a cul-de-sac of homes.  At the end there is a man (lurking?) outside his house … Ben finds his Batman t-shirt and matching baseball cap extremely suspicious.  He cowers in the camper while Mr C gets out to ask for directions.  Ben is certain that Batman Guy has a gun and is going to start shooting everyone and I try to reassure him that this is ridiculous, but inwardly note that if Batman starts leading Mr C into his house, I will need to make a move.  This may all sound far-fetched, but the level of general oddness that the evening has attained, mean my son’s fears are not altogether misplaced.

Mr C returns all in one piece, and more importantly, with directions to the park, and after some driving we reach the campground.  At this time of night there is obviously no one at the Reception and we drive in, find an empty spot, hook up the water and electrics and breath a quiet sigh of relief.  There is no time for a proper dinner as we normally have (there is no way I am going to start on the tacos) so I cook up quick grilled cheese and we collapse into bed.

Of course, I can’t sleep.  I go to the fridge and find a can of Perrier water, bring it back and try to open it as quietly as I can, but the ‘snap’ and ‘fizz’ is audible.  There is a pause and then Mr C’s voice resonates in the darkness.

“Are you having a beer?”

July 21st

I awake early and receive a text message from my brother informing me they have taken the early morning ferry onto Manitoulin and when will we be arriving?  I let him know we will be arriving in 500km or so, and he needs to hang tight.  I wonder if that surprises him.

The front desk is still deserted so we leave $26 at the door for the night’s accommodation and we head out, bleary eyed but determined.  The kids are still asleep and we have to wake them up when we reach the border just in case there are over zealous custom officials that need them to be seat-belted into their straight-back chairs facing forward.  After all, this is Canada.  It starts to rain, the first we have seen in weeks.

The drive to Manitoulin through northern Ontario reveals another new landscape, the Canadian Shield.  The roads are cut through the thick layers of rock with a mix of deciduous an coniferous trees, evidence of the last ice age millions of years ago.  After much texting with my brother, an informal discussion group at the counter in the village grocery store in Mindemoya, and some intel from an old friend who lives on the island, we find a lovely campsite in a place called Providence Bay, right on the shore of Lake Huron.

It is pleasant and has a lovely aspect out over the water… plus there are fewer permanent trailer residents than the spot we had investigated earlier, a sort of litmus test we use on the suitability of campgrounds.  The more fencing, flower pots and permanent sewer hookups around the RV’s and trailers, the more likely you have descended upon the summer resident crowd, and we don’t like to intrude.  We are pleased with our location, and plan dinner at the site with my brother and his family – there is much to catch up on and so many stories to tell.

Telling stories with the cousins…

July 22nd

After an unfortunate incident and my accidental foray into the men’s shower (yes, I unwittingly showered in the men’s … what kind of men’s toilets don’t have urinals? … the only hint I was in the wrong place was the baritone humming next to my stall and by then it was too late).  We head out to explore the island.

We have a sort of loose system to check the RV before pulling out of any spot – we check that we have unplugged the electricity and water, we take things that will fall off the counter and store them away (except for once … but the red wine didn’t stain anything), and we make sure the kids are in the RV.  After completing our rigorous safety check we pull out, but pause half way down the exit pathway after rounding the first corner.   We have noticed a slapping sound at the top of the RV and immediately remember the top vents which might have been hitting the low hanging trees… but I had closed them for sure.  Mr C stops the vehicle and I lean outside only to discover we have, in fact, neglected to roll in the 8-foot awning on the side of the RV… and we have been driving around the campground with the entire thing open, taking down everything in its wake.  As if that isn’t bad enough, ten minutes later we are pulled over by a young dude in a hatchback, sporting a baseball cap and goatee, informing us that ‘um… the cap is like, hanging off your um…your um… shit pipe, eh?’. Terrific.

As much as we want to believe contrary to the fact, we are complete amateurs.

We park the vehicle and swim under the Bridal Veil waterfalls which is hugely refreshing and across the road Ben experiences his first root beer float without being sick to his stomach which makes everyone happy.  We visit a very funky coffee-house with super groovy local art which we almost purchase, and then meet up with my old school friend for dinner.  We go back to hers for a nightcap (Mr C is kindly driving) and the kids are beside themselves when they see the xbox in her living room.  They have not had access for some time, but they don’t appear to be rusty – they sort of fall into it as if they have been on her sofa forever.  There is such excellent banter in the kitchen that you can only have with someone you have not seen in years, while the war rages on the TV in the living room.  We pull out much later than we should, returning back to our campsite.  For some reason, when we drive into a campsite late, I always feel like I did as a teenager coming in after curfew… but it’s impossible to tiptoe in when you are driving an RV.

Top Camping Tip #3: How To Handle Being Accidentally Trapped In The Men’s Shower

From time to time, you might find yourself in an awkward predicament, such as entering the washroom of the opposite sex due to poor signage, lack of urinals, etc, etc.    If this happens to you, do not panic. It’s particularly important not to dwell on how you managed to get yourself into the situation in the first place. You need to use all your mental capacity to concentrate on getting out.  Do carry out the task that you intended to do in the first place (e.g. shampoo and condition your hair as normal), but do not linger.  Get dressed back into your loungewear as soon as humanly possible.  Listen carefully through the flimsy wooden partitions for what is happening around you – wait for the baritone next door to vacate back to his campsite, keep an ear out for movement around the toilets, and be patient when waiting for the man at the sink to finish shaving.  When you hear that the coast is clear, unlock the door quickly, take all your girly belongings and sprint out as fast as you can.  Take the forested route around the back of the washroom area to give the illusion that you are exiting from the Ladies instead of the Mens.  If this results in some residue foliage in your hair, try to remove this discreetly as you walk across the campground.  Avoid any eye contact with fellow campers for the rest of the day.

July 23rd

We have made contact with another old friend who we are supposed to meet in Lunenberg, Nova Scotia on our way through.  He is not in fact, in Lunenberg, but is holidaying at his cottage in the Muskoka Lakes which is only 50km off our route east through Algonquin park towards Ottawa. We decide to stay with him and his wife for the night and we have a short drive and a purely Canadian cottage experience – swimming in the lake, waking to the smell of pine trees, and conducting proper garbage storage so the bears don’t bother us.

Cottage life:  it’s official, we are smitten.

We have now all decided (as a family, because no discussion is private in an RV) we would like to have a cottage by a lake to come to every summer.  Maybe somewhere the kids could actually get a – shock and horror – summer job!  Yes, work and earn money before they are out of school.  Practise some sort of life skill.  A remarkable notion to be sure.  Driving across country, meeting people from all walks of life and in different circumstances has highlighted and reminded us of the fact that life in Hong Kong is a wonderful bubble of existence, and sometimes a little bit removed from reality, perhaps?

July 24th

We have discovered a small leak coming from the engine.  Mr C, in a manly fashion, got underneath the rig and tasted the leak to make sure it was not oil.  It is definitely water but we don’t know if it is coming from the radiator (very bad) or from the window washer fluid container (relatively ok).  As proven earlier, we are complete amateurs but I have faith that Mr C knows something about motor engines and is not too worried.  We will check it when we get to my mum’s house tomorrow and until then keep an eye on the engine temperature while we are driving, and hope for the best.

Mr C has sustained an injury while tubing with the boys.  He has done something to the fourth finger on his right hand (possible torn tendon, possible nerve damage – he thinks he might have lost use of it altogether and is worried that he cannot play tennis for a 6 weeks.  Or golf.  Or throw a ball.  Or work the brake on his motorcycle).   He is vexed.  I think it is less severe that he imagines, but then I am a woman and he is a man.  We might be able to avoid amputation, but we’ll see how it goes.

Camping in Algonquin Park

July 25th

It is raining in Algonquin park, so we abandon our plans to get bikes and go for a short ride before we leave and pack up right away.  Even with the rain the forest is beautiful, and possible even more so as the dampness enhances the smell of pine.  By 9am (come on, this is early for us) campfires are roaring and those who have not already pulled out with their canoes and kayaks are cooking up their breakfast.  I am, as usual, pouring myself a third cup of coffee while hurling Fruit Loops up to the kids who are still in bed.  Mr C is looking for a shower – there was a queue of thirty last night and really, once you’ve been on the road for 18 days, what’s a few more days without a shower? I seriously cannot remember the last time I brushed my hair and it now sits in a clip at the back in some sort of rat’s nest (I have in fact washed it, but brushing seems superfluous in this environment).

The drive from Algonquin park to my hometown near Ottawa is familiar and the route we take is the quickest drive but a rather desolate run after we get past the holiday lakes closer to the park.  Miles of trees, no homes to speak of and one straight road to my village.  The boys’ excitement to see their granny is palpable with every kilometer and they almost run her down at the door when she comes out to greet us.

The RV sits outside the house and now we are receiving phone calls as everyone knows we are home.  It’s a small village.

Bringing the property values down in my hometown.

Mr C and I decide to go to the local pharmacy and get a splint for his hand – we have duct taped his fingers together and figured that would be fine, but he is worried about tendon damage – this is his tennis hand, his football throwing hand, his motorcycle break hand, his beer drinking hand – and I cannot quite explain how badly Mr C takes injury.  I am praying that this is not serious primarily because I don’t like to see him hurt, but really I also really don’t want to live through the emotional aftermath.  After 3 hours at the Emergency the prognosis is a cracked finger and 7-10 days with no activity.  This is not quite a disaster, but I am not sure how Mr C is going to handle inactivity.  He, of course, goes for a 20km road bike ride the next day.

The prognosis on the RV is also good.  The helpful people at Canadian Tire feel that it is the air conditioning condensation.  I call my mum as we have been away for the entire afternoon and evening dealing with all of this admin and have left the kids with her for some quality time.  She tells me its all good: the boys have found the Nerf guns in the basement.

July 26th

We are based here for a week, and will be busy catching up with friends, sorting out the supplies in the RV and doing laundry.  We go into the city to see Mr C’s sister and family – the kids are desperate to see their cousins and as soon as they do, the phones come out.  What is it with this new Pokémon Go thing? Apparently – so I am told – it’s a great new way to randomly meet people on the street.  Is this a good thing?

River swimming, CFL football games, granny and long runs…

Aug 1

After a fabulously busy week with family and friends, we hit the road again, aiming for a noon departure.  Collecting the entire contents of the RV from each and every room in my mother’s house takes longer than expected, so we get on our way around 4pm, much as expected.   We are heading northeast towards Montreal, up past Quebec and will try to get as far north along the St Lawrence River as we can.  Again, we have deadlines to meet – every hour in the RV is an hour lost from time spent with cousins and our rather impatient and demanding younger team members are adamant that we take it as far as humanly possible tonight.  Just for fun, I set the GPS to our final destination and 1,357km comes up.  Excellent.  This is the equivalent of driving from London to Paris four times.  Or just shy of driving from London to St. Petersburg, and unless you are Jason Borne and need to get away from the CIA in a Mini with a girl, no one in their right mind in Europe would ever contemplate this kind of mileage.

About 100km north of Quebec City we call it quits and pull up to a gated campground that we hope will take us.  We are in luck, and they open the gates for us to set up for the night.  It is a jovial and friendly atmosphere with campfires and quiet conversations all around us in the darkness.  But this time, for once, the kids are all business.  We need to eat, sleep and get up and out early the next morning for the next 800km and there is no time for lighting fires and chitchat.  With our focused task masters there is no doubt we will ever get off schedule.  Unless of course, we sleep in.

Aug 2

We are up and on the road early.  We can’t do anything unless we’ve made ourselves coffee and we had long since ditched the electric drip coffee machine and replaced it instead with the ever reliable Italian espresso stove top jobbie:  this is surely a camping essential, whether you are in a one man pup tent with a wood fire or a 35 foot A-Class entertainment unit.  Good coffee is good coffee and I can’t even contemplate 800km today unless I’ve had at least 3.

The journey is long, and the novelty of the all-day road trip has worn off.  Matt’s laptop runs out of batteries, the Monopoly has lost it’s appeal, all the books have been read (apparently), and we are running out of ideas.  They sleep a bit, drink 75 litres of root beer (each) and their voices reach that sort of high-pitched wail whenever they open their mouths to speak, which is only to complain.  They are hitting each other a lot.  I decide to distract them with music but all I manage is to get them addicted to Don McLean’s American Pie which they listen to at full volume until they know every single word (I count at least 30 plays) and then repeat while singing (another 20)… I am going to smash something if I have to listen to what was once a favourite tune of mine.  I start driving and Matt challenges Mr C to a game of chess which is at least a diversion, although Don McLean is still hollering in the background.

We finally, finally pull up in front of The Big Yellow House, where we have been spending 2 weeks of every summer for the past 14 years.  Nana comes out to greet us (crying, because that’s what she does – she is endearingly emotional) and the cousins are ecstatic that their playmates have arrived.  They busy themselves immediately with writing down a list of what they intend to do over the next 7 days:  paintball, mountain biking, water park, bridge jumps at the Basin Head beach, sailing, tubing, Escape Room, drive-in movie night, 180’s on the trampoline, building bike jumps at the old hotel, driving range, ice cream and jumping off the wharf… the list is pretty long.  Mr C and I busy ourselves with opening bottles of wine.  We have our own list:  Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc, Unoaked Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Rosé …

Aug 3-13

Remarkably, and in a monumental effort that would have put most of the Rio Olympians to shame, we accomplish most of the items on the list over the next 10 days.

The last few days are rainy and all the playmates depart so we decide to start our journey back to Toronto – the last leg of the journey.  We need to fight hard against that end of summer feeling, because we still have loads to do.  We are entering a rainy patch:  literally and emotionally. Everyone but us seems happy about the rain – Canada has been having a 2 month draught and they are all so pleased.  I was rather hoping the rain would come after we had left the country.

I will miss these east coast sunsets.

Aug 14

Today we push out, and we have, perhaps understandably, a couple of reluctant travellers on our hands.  5 weeks on the road was a lot to ask.  Mr C and I however, are still very keen.  Although we have had 2 fabulous long stops with family, it’s time to move on… we need to ramble and our feet can’t sit still for too long.. I can almost feel a tune coming on.  God help me, not Don McLean. 

We do not have a huge drive ahead:  we are heading for Halifax and have booked a campground outside the city where we have invited an old friend for dinner, which is easier than trying to navigate our 28 foot home around the city, something we have successfully avoided up until now.  We like to entertain.  In Hong Kong it’s the China Club but here, we have people around to the trailer park.  The BBQ at the mobile home is much more fun, and gets so many more laughs.  Which is, of course, what the whole thing is about. 

Aug 15

For one of the first times in camping history, we are not rushing out to get anywhere.  We have less than an hour’s drive south to Chester to stay with more old friends from London. We leisurely have breakfast, pack up and take a very short drive to their gorgeous summer home overlooking the harbour amongst gardens and a beautifully landscaped setting.  We are pampered and rest with our friends for a night, gathering in front of the TV after dinner to watch the Olympic pole vaulting, naturally.

And also making trip history – one of the first sightings of actual wildlife.  We have now driven over 10,000km and I have not seen one elk, moose, bear, or beaver: why have I not seen more wildlife?  Is this not the land of wild animals roaming the paths? I am slightly disappointed.   I have seen one fox in the past 3 weeks.  But on my morning run, I come face to face with a deer – one of 2 that gallop off the road in front of me.


Aug 16

A day trip to historic Lunenburg is met with some resistance; however, we are unmoved.  The drive is pretty, the town even prettier, and it is a nice diversion.  We have tracks to make in the afternoon:  we are heading up to New Brunswick again.  We have made a minor planning error in the fact that we failed to book the ferry across, thereby making a drive back across the most uninhabited section of eastern Canada necessary.  Sigh.

Pretty Lunenburg

Mahone Bay, along the coast of Nova Scotia

We stop at a rather uninspiring RV campground outside Moncton, but perhaps it was the sideways rain that made it seem grim.  That and the 6 ‘avenues’ of trailers.  We encounter our first grumpy camping neighbour, but hey, maybe he was just sick of the rain as well.  The fact is, the rain is rather calming when you are lying inside your RV, all tucked up asleep, but it’s when you step outside the door and your flip-flop sinks into mud that it all starts to look rather dull.

We drive north-west up to Rivière du Loup where we will cross over the St Lawrence river and travel southwards, this time along the north side of the river which we have heard is a beautiful drive.  On our way eastwards a couple of weeks ago, we had moved along the south side for speed, but this time we will take the leisurely scenic route.  We camp at a lovely little roadside campsite which is friendly and quaint.  We need to get up early in order to wait in line for the ferry that leaves at 8am.  It’s first come first serve and our hunch is that the ferry is only big enough to take 1 or 2 RV’s so we need to make sure we are first in line. Last night we worked on getting our Camp Campbell family vibe back: boys did the dishes and we sat around drinking, so we are a bit jaded this morning at… um… 6am.

The ferry ride across a very wide St Lawrence river: our hunch was correct, only one place for the RV – we saw one turned away after we got on. 

Just as advertised, the drive is spectacular along the river and we make tracks down as far as Quebec City, where, through a planning stroke of genius, we decide to stay outside the city and take a taxi into town for a small city-break excursion.  I am not quite sure how I am supposed to dress.  I have been in denim cut-offs since July.

The old walled city of Quebec is fabulous and we walk around, taking in all the areas of interest:  most notably, every place that Mr C has lived and worked.  Of special interest was the alley where he sold (other people’s) paintings to fund his ski habit during University.  We visit the great Plains of Abraham, where the British beat the French during an epic battle in 1759 which historically speaking was significant, but is also home to many great and rare Pokémon – we are told by the younger members of our touring party.  We have dinner in town and head back to our campsite, which is located next to a construction site, but oddly tranquil owing to a severe dip downwards from the entrance.

The sights of Québec City.

Next stop, back to Granny’s house.  We are coming in for a quick pit-stop, picking up my mother and taking her on to Toronto for the wrap-up.  We stay with my brother north of Toronto in King City and deal with the selling of the RV, visit some old university friends and have a final farewell with family.  We clean out the RV and get oddly nostalgic.

Scenes from Toronto and King City.

We are road weary, but still – remarkably – in good spirits, still speaking, still married, still happy to know one another.  The kids are now murmuring about being excited to get back to school.  If nothing else, we have given them the desire to return to school.

I will miss our house on wheels.  Site of so many good bants.

So, when all is said and done, when we’ve traveled more than 13,000 kilometres together in a small box on wheels, when we’ve crossed an entire continent, what is the take-away? I really rather hate that expression, but the meaning is clear enough.

I know that the North American continent is vast, with as many different geographical formations as there are people.  I know that Americans are some of the most friendly and lovely people I have ever encountered.  I have a renewed appreciation for Canada, my birth country, a land so blessed with oceans, mountains, lakes, fertile farm land and stunning beauty.  We have reconnected with so many friends from our recent and more distant past and met some new remarkable people, all with stories to share.  And what about our family? We have laughed a lot, that is for sure. I’m pretty sure our kids know us better than they did before.  For better or worse, they know that a lot went on before they were born, that at one point we were poor starving students, we actually do swear a lot, we do have quite a few friends, and probably lots of stuff we don’t want to admit they know.  We have collectively had a small epiphany about how we want our summers of the future to look, which involves a cottage on a lake.  And most importantly, I now know the difference between an A-Class and C-Class Recreation Vehicle.

I believe we know a lot of things we didn’t know before.

Which is always a good way to finish.


Planning is Everything

We are almost ready.

We have, in fact, been planning for months.  After failing to rent an RV (we tried everywhere from Vancouver to Las Vegas but it seems you need to do this a year in advance to procure anything, as most of middle America seems to rent RV’s in the summer), we investigated the second hand sales market, which to our surprise is very buoyant on the internet.  Our intention is to sell it at the end of the summer, but who knows, maybe we’ll like this lark so much we will keep it another season and come back for more.  Or maybe we’ll just sell.

So the other night, Mr C returned from his little sojourn out to Comox to retrieve the vehicle that be bought on-line from Hong Kong.  Through a friend of a friend of a friend he met up with a man on Vancouver Island who, for some reason, was interested in our little story and agreed to see the vehicle before we wired over the funds making sure that a) it existed and b) was in relatively good condition.  He also met Mr C at the airport, escorted him to the site, helped him kit it out and assisted in sorting the insurance papers.  He even bought Mr C a coffee and gave us maps and books for our journey.  I have never met the man and already I am indebted to his kindness.

Weary from completing his mission, Mr C arrived to great wails of excitement from the under-15’s in our midst eager to check out their new digs and I quietly thanked whoever was responsible that it did not disappoint (apart from no satellite dish with direct access to continuous wireless).  It is altogether immense both in size and stature.  I worry about my ability to drive the thing and drive it I must… I only hope I don’t forget what side of the road I am driving on.  Mr C had stopped at the great Canadian shopping institution that is Canadian Tire – it sells anything from kitchenware to fishing tackle and anything in between – and did a more than acceptable job at kitting out the kitchen and more.  He even bought a tablecloth for picnics and for some reason I cannot fathom, I am amazed and it almost brings me to tears… I fear the anticipation of our departure might be getting to me.  Or maybe it’s the wine.

We have one more night with friends in West Vancouver recovering from Hong Kong jet lag and buying supplies, then we set off.  The family is feeling the deadline looming. Today I rushed to purchase the final items for the RV and food, while Mr C and our kind hosts entertained the youths at the go cart track.  It all ended in a futile couple of hours trying to download and update the Garmin GPS device which in turn culminated in wine-fueled rants against technology in general.  The kids, meanwhile, were madly trying to download every episode of Game of Thrones before the impending wifi moratorium.

I have discovered two things.  Firstly, after two days of frolicking around in the West Coast sunshine (and rain) it is very hard to make the move to leave.  The kids are virtually attached at the hip to their Canadian BFFs and every day ask how many more hours they have together.  But leave we must – we need to make tracks.  Secondly, I have found that everyone has an opinion on best routes to take.  Really, I have spoken to 10 different people and have 10 different routes mapped out for each one.  Last night when the crew came back from their Wednesday evening sailing race, there was much collective debate on our travels. There are now so many scrawls on our map that I can’t actually see the route.

But we are going to move out… perhaps not at the break of dawn… but sometime before 10.  Perhaps 11.  After a coffee or two.  There is a great quote that we have stuck up on our fridge in the kitchen in Hong Kong from Albert Einstein who I suppose knew a bit about something.  It is in French (?) but roughly translated “Life is like riding a bicycle, you need to keep moving or else you will fall.”

I might add that you actually have to start




The Road Trip

road trip

We are fully committed.

We have purchased (yes, purchased) the RV, which we will sell again in September (anyone interested in a 28 foot 2015 Sunseeker?) so there is no turning back.  It’s been on our minds for a while, but now we are actually going through with it and we figure before the kids are completely embarrassed to hang out with us – we might have missed that window – why not show them Canada?  And what better way to do it than on the road. Vancouver to Charlottetown via the upper mid-west US in 8 weeks.  Are we mad?

Trust me, I am under no illusion that this is going to be an 8-week party.  I think we can all rest assured that arguments will happen, mistakes will be made, and not every day will amicable family hikes (since when has a family hike been amicable in the history of family hikes?) and sunsets by the campfire.  We are not the family who will be listening to the complete unabridged Harry Potter audiobook while the kids read to themselves quietly strapped in for 5 hours on the road.  No, we are the family who will be fighting over who has control of the music while listening to whinging about whether or not the next place we stop at is going to have wifi.

But at least I know this.  And my expectations have been adjusted accordingly.  I know that we will see some breathtaking scenery and amazing sights on our road trip.  We will get to see parts of Canada and the US we have never been before and also show the kids some areas that we love or have lived.  I’m confident that we can travel together because we have done it before:  through New Zealand 7 years ago.  Granted, that was when they were five and seven and I could basically distract them with a card game,  but I have faith in our ability to live together closely for the summer.

So bring it on:  the days on the road, the dramas, the unscheduled stops, the family meals, the time with friends along the way, the wrong turns, the frustrations but most of all the laughs.  Yes, the bants and the LOLs.  We’re doing it for the LOLs.

After all, we are never going to get this time back.

So stay tuned to what really goes on during a family road trip …

My Hair And The Cultural Divide


It is true that my tresses have become a constant source of distress in this frizz-inducing humidity.  There are times, often during moments of profound discomfort on a crowded HK underground train when I see that I am the only caucasian within a 30m cube area, I wonder self-consciously if everyone is gazing at my eyes, my nose, my skin, and yes, the state of my hair.   And in these moments, I consider that perhaps we should all experience being a minority at some point, just to fully gain some perspective.  Of course it is all pure vanity because most of these people are not thinking of me at all.  They have better things to think about:   maybe the conversation they had with their mother the night before;  or the never-ending list of things to do;  or, most probably, if the train is going to get them where they need to be on time.  But in my head, they are all definitely staring at me.  And my hair.

Apart from the way we look, and the chemical bonds in the keratin proteins that make up hair, the most obvious difference is language.  The expat community in Hong Kong is a significant minority but even so, it only constitutes roughly 4% of the population.  One of the legacies of 150 years of British rule is that English is widely spoken and understood. But clearly, English is not everyone’s first language. Far from it, the expats here are comprised of diverse dialects from around the world – French, German, African, Filipino, Dutch, Spanish, Portuguese, Indian, Russian, Australian, Irish… the list goes on (I classified Irish and Australian as languages, I know).  Walking down the street one can hear all of these, sometimes all at the same time.  It is odd now when I go back to English speaking countries and actually comprehend the conversations around me, which I would rather not. I weirdly feel like a voyeur listening in on something I should never overhear.  I prefer not to understand. I still don’t actually understand half of what is spoken to me in heavily accented English – it took me years to realise that the young employees at the storefront of my favourite clothing shop were enthusiastically yelling Hello, welcome to Zara! The truth is that one can navigate the city without ever learning a word of Cantonese.  Which is the source of deep shame for not learning it as proficiently as I should (or at all as it happens); it seems rude and lazy not to try.  It’s a recurring new year’s resolution, and I know it’s not enough, but I do excuse myself by the fact that my children have taught me every Cantonese swear word that they know.

There are much less obvious cultural differences than language however, the subtlety of which can only be appreciated over time.  I find that the measurement of happiness is not quite the same as I was brought up with and I must remind myself that this does not make it wrong, but simply different to my own values.  The mighty lesson we should all remember: different is not always wrong, it is merely different.  The scale of personal fulfilment here is often measured by prosperity.  Indeed a symbol for happiness is practically synonymous with wealth.  The drive to succeed is fuelled by the promise of prosperity which will bring happiness to the entire family.  The fancy car is not always a blazoned attempt to make everyone else feel inadequate (although it might), it is merely an acknowledgement that someone studied hard, achieved good grades, got a good job and then spent most of their salary on a car.  That Gucci bag is not an ostentatious purchase influenced by brand propaganda (although possibly true), it is a statement of fact which says ‘l am smart and successful and proud of my accomplishments’. I am trying to appreciate this cultural difference as I carry around my cheap knock-off handbag I bought in the market, not really knowing what exactly that says about me. 

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A Shanghai Tang bracelet with double happiness symbol representing good fortune in love – and career.

What I have yet to get my head around is the confusing rules of the Chinese Lai See packets.  These are little red envelopes you fill with (brand new, never used) money notes and give to pretty much anyone you come across the days (how many? I am never sure) before, during and after the Chinese Lunar New Year.  How much is enough?  Is it insulting to give too little?  Is there any such thing as too much?  Does the hairdresser get the same as the parking attendant?  It is a minefield of social embarrassment.  Local councils should offer some sort of course we can attend to get the rules straight, as I feel that there are many that we are breaking.  After seven years here, we are still probably offending everyone with our sketchy Lucky Lai See Gift knowledge. 

You would think that of all places someone in Hong Kong would just come out and tell me what the deal is.  After all, I find that one of the great characteristics of the people here is what I refer to as the ‘direct approach’.  Gentle hints are completely superfluous and nuances are unnecessary.  I find it is mostly sales assistants who dispense with all pleasantries and cut to the heart of the matter notwithstanding anybody’s self respect.  The sales person at the jeans emporium who helpfully suggests that I am so fat I need the boot cut variety to offset my enormous hips; the beautician that suggests the puffy, black circles under my pin-eyes would benefit greatly from the extra-strength serum for tired, wrinkly skin;  or, the skin-care expert who is horrified that I might suppose I don’t need the correction mask because she tells me she could see my enormous pores clearly from across the shop.  It’s an interesting sales technique, and my gratitude goes out to these people for pointing out my inadequacies in front of so many other shoppers, so that they might too hear of the benefits of these products.  Even some of my acquaintances have taken on local tendencies.  It was a while ago now that seated at a luncheon someone remarked how excellent the services of a professional hair straightener could be on my unruly locks.  The true sign of complete cultural immersion was that I was not at all offended by this comment, I was too busy scribbling down the name of the miracle worker who could fix my hair.

To be honest the direct approach is helpful.  It illuminates any misinterpretation of the truth and gets rid of that silly notion of privacy.  I mean what could be more helpful that a general discussion at the office amongst colleagues on what your salary is in relation to what you spent on your fiancé’s engagement ring?  Or how much money you spend relative to your peers on housing and school fees?  It’s also helpful to get the secretary and the boss involved to provide some comparison figures. Given this willingness to discuss facts in an open and frank manner, I really am surprised that no one has offered us any advice on the Lai See packets relative to our net worth.  Perhaps I should just ask.

And yet, with respect to opinion, it is very difficult to comprehend exactly what some of our local friends actually think.  Answers are often obscured by puzzling inconsistencies, or expressions do not clearly convey thoughts.  There is often a filter obscuring any insight into beliefs, a reticence to state opinion. I find when it comes to opinion, Westerners are extremely direct and we can, often awkwardly, give everything away with just one look.   If faced with something startling – say, a man on the street spitting into the pavement, or someone yelling down the phone in the middle of a restaurant or a woman with a monkey on her shoulder – a person from the West might express their surprise, or concern, or (horror of horrors) actually say something – while the person from around these parts will probably sit still, keeping their thoughts to themselves and their mouth shut.

And then sometimes, it is painfully obvious I am just being lied to.  While Devil and Polka Dot (those are actual name tags I have seen on sales assistants) in the fashion and beauty industry are busy giving me the brutal truth, trailing after me in the store never more than six inches away, Mercedes and Vitamin (again, actual names) in consumer goods seem to just nod a lot and tell me exactly what I want to hear.  Yes, we have that sofa in seven different colours (but none are available) and of course, we offer a kazillion megabits of internet connection (but not for you), sure we deliver pizza (but not to your area), and indeed we sell those soccer boots (but not in stock and never in the size you want). And yes, Missy, this way to the honey flavoured greek yogurt:  this is where we display it when we have it in stock, but the boat has not come in.  All of this bad news is delivered with a smile as if it would be ludicrous to think they couldn’t provide me with exactly what I was asking for.  I am usually too dumbfounded by the conversation to argue. 

I recently came across a book entitled East Meets West by Yang Liu (, a fabulous little package written by Chinese-born Liu who moved to Germany at the age of 13.  Liu has become somewhat of a social media darling with her insightful and simple infographics.  In this book she explains from her perspective the subtle differences between Eastern and Western cultures as she experienced growing up Chinese in Europe, highlighting some of the more amusing incongruities.

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East Meets West, by Yang Liu (Taschen, 2007)

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Yang Liu explains the differences in expressing opinion

Highly illustrated and visual quick-reads are my kind of thing so this book is clearly the perfect manual for me to achieve a better understanding, if not complete enlightenment.  What can take a lifetime to explain, Liu manages to express in several clever line drawings, revealing also that what we interpret with our eyes is sometimes less confusing that what we misinterpret with language.

Within the dichotomy of our cultures there is something here gluing all of the fragments together.  There is a loose camaraderie, an understanding of what the deal is, which I suppose is our common ground – and that is Hong Kong.  We experience the same climate, the traffic, the infrastructure, the geography and all the city has to offer.  We all want the best for our children, we all want to achieve happiness, but most importantly we all exist in this cultural melting pot that is a city-state within, and separate from, China.  That in itself is a common definition of what we are, despite the differences in language, values, social nuances and what the humidity does to our hair.

Moroccan hair oil – excellent for taming unruly tresses

New Year, New Home

DSC_0334I am experiencing upheaval.  There is a full moon on the horizon and there is movement afoot.  They say that there are a few life events that cause extreme stress:  death, illness, divorce and arguably listening to Canto Pop music.  Someone has lobbed a stone into the still waters of my personal oasis and its ripples are spreading out over everything.  I’m not referring to the latest Trump blunder, or Silverman upsetting the conservatives, or the latest comments on the relative hotness of Justin Trudeau.  I’m not even talking about the newly fashioned version of the Pirelli Calendar – all highly relevant and worthy of billions of social media posts I am sure.  I’m speaking of a much smaller and seemingly insignificant act which has no Facebook posts but has had a far greater impact on my life than any other since my children were born.  My darling husband has left his job.

Sometimes the smallest act leads to the biggest revelations;  the repercussions are felt way beyond the initial effort.   When something changes, and things stop functioning the way they always have, you need to sit down and question why and how and what for?  It is an opportunity for a bit of self-examination, to throw it all down on the ground, pick up the important bits and put them back together differently.  You may not be familiar with the Lego Movie (as an aside, I urge you to go watch this flick because there is not one line from Batman that isn’t funny), but in between the sentimental catch phrases and action sequence banter, the gist of the plot revolves around a special group of master-builders who redesign all the carefully construed, over-priced brick models to make super cool stuff of their own.   Imagine, if you will, busting up the giant Lego Death Star that took you the better part of your life to build;   but then, you get to choose the most excellent parts to fashion something new and utterly unexpected.  This is exactly what happened when all of a sudden our family dynamic changed, seemingly overnight.

The reason we came to Hong Kong was my husband’s job.  It was a work opportunity which we pursued, not something that was thrown at us, and we evaluated it carefully before we left (if careful evaluation involves several glasses of Cabernet Merlot and scribbling down a venn diagram on the kid’s drawing easel late on a Tuesday evening).  We had a plan.  Well, we had a sort of vague idea of where we wanted to be and how we wanted to live and it’s probably best not to get bogged down with too many details.  This Hong Kong opportunity has opened up so much for us that we never could have seen it coming – another life lesson I have learned is to never make assumptions about something – or somewhere – you know little or nothing about.  Our two year gamble became a seven year game changer.  And then my other half, after careful deliberation, decided to retire. 

So, if the reason for being in a place not longer exists, what happens next?  The obvious thing to do is pack your bags and go home, but for us home is more than one place.  It is a complicated jumble of emotions and memories, not necessarily a city to live in.   So we need to be much more practical in our approach and selective when choosing those pieces from the Death Star, which if you remember, is strewn all over the floor.  We take out the bits that are important and suddenly a new version comes to fruition before our eyes.  We line our priorities up like the usual suspects:  opportunity for work, education, climate, proximity to family, quality of life, school holidays… we are governed by how much time our children are not at school because long school holidays means enough time to see our families overseas.  And this is where is gets surprising.  Sometimes what looks like a situation born of necessity is actually a conscious choice made for reasons truly best known to to ourselves. 

There is never a perfect answer;  all situations will be different for everyone.  I have found over the years of living abroad that you can ask one hundred people where they think the best place on earth is to live and you will get one hundred different answers, partly to do with the latest internet tweet on Top Ten Cities To Live, but mostly due to a wonderful thing called Perspective.  We all have one.  Just like those Lego master-builders, each and every one of us has a different way to see things.  I am always drawn to books for examples in life and again I see lessons from a picture book by Anthony Browne which we often use in our Library to teach children the important value of Perspective.  Voices In The Park (Dorling Kindersley) tells 4 versions of the same walk in a park and each is so radically different you get the surreal sensation none of them are having the same experience.


Like the 4 characters in the book, we all bring our own baggage and experience to a situation, so who better to decide our own course of action than ourselves?  A friend’s Lego might be wonderful and original, but it comes from a place that is unique to them and reflects their own values and careful considerations.  Another friend might have never smashed up their original in the first place, and that’s OK too. 

And so, for us, after careful scrutiny and reflection we have made a huge decision:  to move down the road.  Yes.  Down. The. Road.  Over to a new neighbourhood, a bit greener with more access to the outdoors for our kids, a bit more removed from our current urban dwelling.  In our new space maybe we can give ourselves a bit of breathing space before jumping into any big decision.  After all, we wouldn’t want to get carried away. It takes some time to build new Lego.

Expat families are used to upheaval, and change is what keeps some people going. Even when we started our family in London, we changed address with monotonous regularity.  I opened my mother’s address book a while ago to find 2 pages of crossed out entries under my name – you would think she might have learned to write it in pencil.  I can remember each and every one one of those places fondly (except maybe the one that had the bolt lock so you could get trapped in the hallway on your way out to work, but that’s another story and we didn’t stay long for obvious reasons).  I am quite used to moving.   Apart from the messy administration, I am not so bothered by the process no matter how much I like to complain about it.  It is at the very least a chance to de-clutter, which I am told is the path to enlightenment.   And given the possibility of a monumentally disruptive transatlantic relocation, I am happy that our little domestic adjustment has lead to the decision to stay routed in this crazy transient city, at least for the time being. 

Maybe age is making us reticent to change, or I don’t want to mess with pre-teens who are  well adjusted and happy.  Perhaps we are just not ready to leave.  Or maybe I just feel the need for more time to fully appreciate Canto Pop.  Whatever our reasons, it comes from our unique perspective which is sometimes just impossible to explain.  I am excited by the prospect of a change of scenery, a little space to breathe and a new view to appreciate all the things around me.  It will help me gain perspective.

Have Yourself a Busy Little Christmas

As the Christmas season looms, I find that my number one goal in December is to not lose my mind, and I certainly struggle to achieve this no matter how attentive to my To Do List I try to be.

Hong Kong, in all it’s efficiency and profit driven productivity, perpetuates the false notion that frantic activity breeds happiness, a notion that we seem to be preoccupied with in an age of competitive achievement.  At no time does the Hong Kong busy mindset become more apparent than during the lead-up to Christmas. It seems that if we are not doing something, we must therefore be doing nothing, which on the face of it is not an efficient use of our time.  Constant busy-ness has become an indication of how motivated (or dedicated, assertive, focussed) we are, but is it really a true indication of how successful we are at achieving our goals?  

You don’t have to live in Hong Kong to experience the tyranny of the To Do List. The To Do List, often exalted as the path to happiness and general wellbeing, is a common tool we use to organise our thoughts, prioritise our activities, and generally get things done.  However, when the To Do List becomes an unachievable behemoth, tormenting us with its girth and length, leaving us only with the burden of guilt about those things that we ought to have done, it ceases to be of any use whatsoever.  And here in Hong Kong, where an entire community lives far away from immediate family, Christmas is a time when delicate preparation is required in order to ensure a smooth ride over the festive season.  In such times, the To Do List is vital to survival.

Firstly, due to geography and circumstance, our Christmas comes early.  Many of us head back home – or elsewhere – for the two week Christmas break that the schools afford us, so by the 24th of December Hong Kong is a much quieter place.  This means that the Christmas Season moves forward by a good two and a half weeks so that expat families can experience festivities with friends and colleagues before repeating the celebrations once again in whatever destination they have retreated for Yuletide.  School Christmas parties, Charity dinners, Christmas Carol services, Christmas fairs, Christmas lunches, Christmas office parties all need to be diarised in the calendar, executed with military precision and rigorous attention to detail to avoid scheduling conflicts.  These all occur, if you are lucky, somewhere between the 1st and 15th of December, but experienced and aggressive planners will schedule Christmas events even before that, to ensure maximum attendance.   Bearing in mind of course that each of these activities will have a To Do List attached to them, especially for those foolish enough to put themselves forward on some sort of planning committee. At the very least, mince pies will be required, and at the very worst you could find yourself committed to standing behind a stall of homemade Christmas decorations, or turning the music pages for the pianist at the School Nativity. 

If you are not planning an annual pilgrimage home, then there is the added burden of Guilt to add to your List. Whether driven by yearning, obligation or filial duty, Christmas presents will need to be sent to family and loved ones.  An entire sub-list needs to be created to accommodate the Christmas mailing deadlines.  Which of course, brings the Christmas shopping schedule forward by about four weeks, which is perfect timing for the shops who are more than willing to throw open their doors to a captive market, windows fully decorated and Christmas muzak blasting from as early as end October. 

And let’s not get started if you have been tempted to actually host people for any kind of pre-Christmas before-we-all-go-away get together in your home.  That, my friend, will require a new break-out list of home improvements and Christmas decoration projects before the date, not to mention food and drinks.  And on it goes.   

I am reminded of a little book, So Few Of Me (Peter Reynolds, Candlewick Press ), a delightful picture book for adults, illustrating quite effectively our obsession with generating work for ourselves.  The more work to be done, another one of ‘me’ appears and generates yet more work culminating in so many ‘me’s’ frantically generating exponential amounts of work, the infinite number of tasks never getting accomplished. 


I can illustrate Mr Reynolds’ point quite effectively from my own experience. 

A task on my To Do List is ‘write poetry for Advent Calendar.’  This item originated as a solution to a conundrum from years ago:  my eldest son, on his first Christmas, received a beautiful wooden Advent Calendar with tiny wooden drawers for each day of the month, shipped from New York to London, making it impossible to replicate.  When our second son arrived, the advent calendar had to be shared, but there was no room for two of everything in each drawer.  Refusing to part with this family tradition, in my infinite wisdom I decided to write a small ditty on a piece of paper rolled up and stuffed into each drawer – a sort of scavenger hunt clue to find something hidden in the house.  This is now a work-generating obligation, and my husband often finds me, in the early hours of the morning before the children have woken up, madly scribbling at the kitchen table, audibly swearing under my breath about why I ever started this madness in the first place. But the relative pleasure that my children derive from it and my desire to instil it as a Christmas tradition each year, compels me to keep it up even though it is an entirely self-generated job.

I recently listened to a podcast (BBC Beyong Belief) on the subject of mindfulness – a hot topic these days and a vetted cure-all for the ills of modern life, extracted from the Buddhist tradition (together with meditation, a practice I have yet to attempt). An extremely simplistic explanation of mindfulness is taking time to exist in the present.  If I look for a connection, I see that the act of writing my small verses should in fact be something to enjoy in the present, not something to curse about at six in the morning, which is much more easily imagined than done. 

The BBC panel discussion on mindfulness continues to point out that often people see themselves pre- and post-events, spending an inordinate amount of time obsessing over what went down yesterday or what might be the outcome of their actions tomorrow, but never really living in the present moment.  Put into the context of the Hong Kong Christmas madness, the lead-up to the event with the busy-ness of the To Do List becomes much more consuming than the event itself.  At times we become so preoccupied with how to get to the finish line, that once we are there, we are too exhausted, too utterly spent by the worry and effort of getting there, to appreciate why we made the effort in the first place.

That being said, the turkey is never going to manifest itself onto the table, the Christmas tree won’t walk in the door and decorate itself, the presents are not going to come down the chimney of their own accord and you are not going to get to your family 8000 miles back home without some sort of planning and action.  And truthfully (let’s be honest with ourselves for just a moment) no matter how much you try to break away from the enslavement of our modern day consumerism, telling little Johnnie and Arabella that this year they are just going to get the gift of nothing for Christmas because mummy was ‘living in the present’ isn’t going to cut the mustard, is it?  But surely, there is a middle ground, somewhere between our overinflated expectations of what we can achieve and the chaos and disappointment that would issue if we just threw our hands up in the air and said ‘Enough!”.

Perhaps if we want to cull the list we could ask ourselves the question ‘why?’  Why is this particular item on the To Do List important and what is the consequence of not getting it done.  If we reflect on how vital it is to our own gratification compared to how important it might be to someone else’s happiness then we might be able to make some cuts.  Mindfulness assumes a certain amount of altruism and kindness.  When I look at my own To Do List, it is a mixed bag – a sort of crazy stream of consciousness – but there are definitely things on it which satisfy no other person around me but myself.  Is anyone else really going to notice if the cranberry sauce is homemade or not?  Is it necessary to have the lime green and fuchsia decorations this year for a satirical twist on the red and green theme? I am OK with letting those ones go.  There is one thing however that is time consuming, possibly a burden, but no matter how much time it takes I will make myself complete the task.  I can feel the early-morning muse of verse beckoning me now.


Elevator Friends


The idea of living in little boxes stacked one on top of another is to me fairly preposterous and one we might tend to associate with modern living, but in actual fact it is not such a recent concept at all.  Ancient Rome boasted living quarters with multi stories to house the thousands of inhabitants that dwelled within the city walls, but they were constrained by the limitations of 1st century engineering.  Two thousand years later, when the first passenger elevator was installed in New York City, there was no limit to the heights that humans could ascend, stacking ourselves into the heavens.   So many civilisations have gone to great lengths to reach closer to the clouds and it seems that we have now almost nailed it. As of 2015, the tallest residential apartment building stands at 426 meters (432 Park Avenue in New York City) just slightly topping out The Princess Tower in Dubai at 414 meters, although the Dubai building has more floors and you can actually get up to the 100th, which to me, seems completely ludicrous.

If you had asked me three years ago, I would have told you that living in an apartment building of any shape or size was something that you would catch me doing just before hell froze over.  Mephistopheles must be shivering, because here I am on the 31st floor of a high rise overlooking the sprawling urban landscape of Hong Kong and Kowloon beyond, mesmerised by the uniqueness of what lies beneath.  It is an astonishing example of humans’ natural tendency – or need – to expand outwards, and indeed, upwards.  On a clear day we can see right to the hills of the New Territories far beyond the sprawling towers, while the night-time spectacle of twinkling lights is like a year-round Christmas card and a poignant reminder that there are so many individual lives being lived around me and I am not the only one; I am part of something much bigger than myself.

To be honest, I should never have been so presumptuous to come to the conclusion I would hate it before I tried it.  After all, how many times have I insisted to my children that until they actually try the sweet and sour eggplant they will never know for sure they hate it?

The truth is that sweet and sour eggplant can be quite tasty, something that grows on you the more times you eat it.  Likewise, I have come to rather like apartment dwelling in the same way you might like lime green, or hot bikram yoga or Justin Bieber’s music – you’ll give it a go, and appreciate it’s appeal, but it will probably not become your all-time favourite. I have discovered there are quite a few advantages to living in a high rise building.  Firstly, there is the efficient use of space, where no corner of the apartment is left unused;  every nook and cranny is taken up with a purpose or function and this I find makes for a very neat and tidy arrangement.  As a prerequisite for this order, there is just no room for crap.  I do make space for the children’s art pieces from pre-school, and the football medals, the family memorabilia, the piano that nobody really ever plays but looks good in the living room and yes, the mangy leather chair that the cat scratched up, but this confined living forces me to seriously consider what I need and what I must consign to the thrift shop, or in extreme cases the round filing cabinet underneath the sink. 

And then of course there is the view.  It is one of the magnificent advantages of being perched up in the sky, sharing the space with the black-winged kite hawks that soar outside the windows at our eagle eye level, high above the Hong Kong harbour.  It is a marvel to me every time I look out what mankind is capable of, and a sharp reminder of how many of us need to fit onto this planet we call home.  It does a person good to remember that daily.

There is another consequence of the 31st floor, and that is the elevator (or lift, depending on your provenance).  It is truly the most unnatural of spaces.  Imagine this if you will: you walk out your front door and see your neighbour from three doors down so you walk over and stand next to them for a full minute, shoulders almost touching, keeping still and breathing within a foot of them, not moving away for a moment.  If that does not seem like the most socially awkward moment imaginable, I’m not sure what is. And yet, because of this awkwardness, elevator time gives rise to the most interesting glimpses of the human condition.  The conversations that I have (or indeed that I do not have) in the 48 seconds that it takes to ascend or descend can enlighten, entertain, and serve to pique my curiosity to the point of obsession. 

The doors open and in walks a young woman with a very large suitcase, her structured Hermes handbag incongruent with her age.  She has papers in her hand, which I can only assume are her tickets and there are beads of sweat forming on her delicate forehead – which is so close I can see each one appear.  Where is she going?  Is it far away?  Judging from the size of her case, she might be gone for months.  Is she going to meet someone, or on a business trip or has she just scored a modelling contract? 

Or the middle aged guy who hobbles in on crutches, me flailing with the buttons to keep the door open and accidentally pressing the wrong one so they close in, dangerously close to crushing his foot.  I consider what might have happened to him, making up all sorts of stories in my mind.  Did he fall?  Is it his ACL?  Did he go to the same doctor as me? He looks sporty enough, maybe he did it playing tennis or skiing.  Or maybe he slipped in the parking lot.

Or what about the nice man who was going in for an endoscopic sinus operation and we had a lovely conversation about books he could read in the hospital?  We had a followup conversation in the lobby but I haven’t seen him for some time.  Perhaps he moved out.  That would be sad as he is one of my elevator friends and we did have some nice conversations in the lift.  I told him that I was a Librarian.  I have no idea what he did for a living, but I know he had a bad case of sinusitis and liked to read. 

It seems odd to have these flashes of lives lived before you in just a few seconds within a very confined space, as if you are witnessing a snapshot of someone’s life, standing still with them for a fleeting moment, sharing it. 

The morning bus brigade is an altogether more chatty group and we all know exactly what’s going on with each other.  We emerge each morning, bleary eyed shepherding our children to catch the various school buses that pull up on the roundabout outside the front doors.  This community is bound together by our focus on not-missing-the-bus.  The common ground we share is the silent acceptance that we have all been up for the past half hour screaming some sort of version of ‘where are your shoes, why do you not have your shoes?’ at children who have no sense of urgency whatsoever.  When my son and I enter the lift we make full use of the ride to the bottom, beginning with socks, then shoes, followed by the quick tie-knot and the shirt-tuck.  Sometimes we even have time to look through the school bag to see what homework we have forgotten, but really, we both know by then it is too late.  Neither one of us have the time or inclination to go back up 31 floors to retrieve it.   

After the morning rush with the children and the residual commuter traffic, the encounters become much more random, and therefore the likelihood of common ground diminishes.  And so, when these elevator moments get just too uncomfortable to bear, there is always the distraction of the phone.  Twiddling on the phone is an ideal diversion from having to actually make eye contact with your apartment neighbour during the excruciating journeys in forced confinement.  The problem is that there is absolutely no reception in the lift, thereby rendering it impossible to actually be doing anything on the phone other than flicking through messages already received or choosing something cool to add to your favourite playlist.  Which is perhaps what everyone is doing.   Or maybe the sad fact is that we are all fingering our phones to avoid eye contact and conversation, pretending that there is something much more important that we need to be doing other than communicating with our neighbours.  It was much simpler half a century ago when surely we’d all be lighting cigarettes in the lift – then at least we might break the silence by proffering one to our fellow apartment dweller.

Underlying all of this awkwardness I suppose is a question of community in a vast and potentially impersonal city.  In some way we are searching to connect with people who share something in common:  those few strangely intimate seconds in a small moving box become a bond, the common ground if you will.  And yet, there is something so agonising about the intimacy.  There is comfort in the anonymity of living amongst strangers and many of us prefer a life that is private from our neighbours, where we don’t have to make forced small talk with people we hardly know.   But it is this conflict that perhaps makes those silences so uncomfortable.  Our wish for privacy juxtaposed against our basic human instinct to reach out to one another, build communities, and find common ground amongst our fellow dwellers. 

What I experience in the elevator is revealing to me.  It can occur in any city, in any apartment building, or in a cul de sac in the suburbs, or a small village in the mountains:  a genuine need for human contact, to reach out to our fellow humans and the discomfort of it being thrust upon us.  When I look out from the 31st floor over the Hong Kong harbour through all the twinkling lights and beyond that sea of humanity, I get the distinct feeling that our need to open up to those around us will only become greater as the decades unfold.  Everyday, if we look, we can see evidence of humans expanding outwards and upwards, moving and migrating, and as the world’s boundaries fall in, I think it might be in our best interests to realise we all have an obligation to become interested members of our community, wherever that might be.

So, with apologies in advance to those at Number 8 Garden Terrace, the next time my hand moves to twiddle on my phone in the elevator, I might just strike up an awkward conversation instead.

spiderman elevator
That awkward elevator moment.

The Notion of Home

I have been grappling with the notion of home for some time now.  The amount of brain-space taken up with these thoughts directly correlates to how much further I travel from where I was born.  Or perhaps it’s an age thing.  The older I get, the farther away I am from where I started.  Either way, I am intrigued by the psychological feeling of home. Dorothy, as she clicked her red sparkly shoes, thought there was no place like it, but what exactly is it?

The question is particularly poignant in a city like Hong Kong.  The rate of movement here is astonishing and I’ve started to seriously consider canvassing potential friends with a Survey Monkey to see how long they are likely to stay before fully committing emotionally to the relationship.  Every June I – along with many other expat wives in this city – pack up the bags and take the kids to the airport practically the second their school shoes hit the back of the closet, leaving my husband to wallow in self pity, not to mention excruciating heat in the middle of typhoon season, until he can break free from the shackles of the office and join us for a couple of weeks.  The entire operation is made possible by the fact that I work at a school with the summers off, coupled with our desire for our children to make connections with family in Canada.  And let’s be clear, we provide them with a fantastic summer.  There is, however, a niggling feeling at the back of my mind that this eight week exodus does nothing to propagate the notion of Hong Kong as their home. 

My husband and I have made a choice to live abroad with our family in the hope it will give them a unique and global perspective.  It is also giving them a very different childhood than mine.  They were born in England and lived the first years of their lives in three different houses in London.  In Hong Kong they have spent the last six years in two different locations.  The only house we own on this planet is located rather inconveniently in a remote mountain village high in the French Alps where we will most likely never live.  And so, perhaps to compensate for the constant movement and change we have imposed on their lives I feel compelled to show my children where I am from;  to make sure they know my home and help them understand who they are. 

My mother still lives in the house where I was born.  A two hundred year old wooden frame house which was one of the first built in a very rural community in eastern Ontario, which she has kept alarmingly unchanged since about 1985.  Not only is my brother’s original vinyl collection still there, the desk where he diligently studied each evening remains largely unchanged apart from his daughter’s collectables rammed into it’s drawers during the holidays.  His hockey cards and Dungeons and Dragons game sit next to the (probably now priceless) original-still-in-tact Star Wars figure collection complete with  Darth Vader case, all lovingly hoarded.  My room has been redecorated twice (really, what does that say?):  once as an office for my father which he never used and then transformed back into a small guest bedroom that no one uses other than me.  Aside from the overwhelmingly uncomfortable feeling of sleeping next to my husband staring at the same wall I did when I was six, I love that little room with its sloping alcove ceilings.  I know every squeak of every floorboard which has not changed in thirty years, only perhaps like me, there are a few more creaks and cracks.  My kids find comfort in its quirky layout and all its nooks and crannies, they flop on the old sofa that has been in front of that TV since my brother and I sat on it watching Star Trek after church every Sunday, and they are curious about the pictures my mother places on any and every flat surface as if any empty area is a missed opportunity to proudly display family members.  The kids have even grown to accept the inadequate internet connection, although it is more than mildly infuriating that we have to walk outside and up the hill to the cemetery to get any phone connection.  Yes, it is true that all of these things make it home, but it is the memories attached to these things that resonates. 

Home, when I really think about it, is roast beef dinners, Sunday afternoon football, my mother chatting happily and my dad’s laugh.  It is the place of childhood sleepovers and teenage drama, against a backdrop of snow and freezing rain or steamy hot summer sunshine.  The house is so familiar that it’s sameness is merely a backdrop the things that happened there.  More than the objects, or the wood, bricks and mortar of the place, it is the memories of people that I associate with that house that give me comfort.  I find that even if my memories are grounded forever in one place, my sense of self can never be constrained by geographical location.  Or if you wanted to take the more cynical view, as Ernest Hemingway does in his excruciatingly honest account of expatriate life, “You can’t get away from yourself by moving from one place to another.”

Although my mother grew up in Ireland and my father hailed from Manchester, through little miracles of coincidence and love, they ended up forging a home for my brother and me in Canada; however to this day my mother connects herself to her memories of a childhood by the sea in Ireland.  In fact, she spent years of my childhood dragging us across the Atlantic during summer holidays so she could connect us with her home, something I have cherished and ultimately made part of my identity and in a self-propagating cycle have subjected my children to the same.  I recently came across a gem of a book which I think any child should have access to read, particularly those of Expats:  Home, by Carson Ellis (Candlewick Press) is a beautifully illustrated glimpse into other peoples homes and serves to illuminate our collective need to find a place to belong.  The probing question Ellis poses ‘Where is your home? Where are you?’ implies more than just a physical state.

“Home” by Carson Ellis

Humans are united in their desire to belong somewhere.   Home is merely how we describe that feeling of contentment, of knowing who we are and our place in the world.  Interestingly, since the times when our nomadic ancestors roamed around the earth, we have somehow, somewhere connected our physical space with our sense of self.  Groups of homes became villages, towns, cities, kingdoms and eventually nation-states giving humans a sense of connection (and in doing so towards the end of the 15th century planting the seeds of nationalism).

For me, it is the clear sense of home which provides me with tangible evidence of what makes me who I am. I return to the physical space of home to remind myself of where I came from.  Reconnecting with home allows me to understand myself and appreciate where I am now, and most importantly face the road ahead as I move on. 

Of course, my children consider it is beyond boring that I come from one place:  they have told me this implicitly.  They have a much different perspective, but they are young, and I wonder what they will think of home when they look back on their childhood?  Weirdly, but deliberately, I make a point of keeping our furniture the same – it’s that quaint idea that familiar objects will give them comfort – which is the reason my son still sleeps on the same bed he has had since he was four years old, the mangy leather chair that has been gnawed down by the little stray cat we had in London sits in our living room (through about 5 moves), and we still eat off the wedding-gift kitchen plates from Habitat circa 1994.  If we move on, it is certain that the house, the climate and the population density will all change, but we’ll still be eating off those same damn plates, which I’m willing to bet my kids will remember in flashbacks forty years from now.

I am comfortable with the idea of home being a feeling which exists in my consciousness rather than a place.  Since my husband and I have taken that decision to ramble, to embrace the unknown, to experience the unfamiliar, well, the notion of home sustains me through that journey.  It’s the strangeness of the new that can invigorate, give perspective and allow our minds to open up. 

And so we roll on.  Whether we remain in this amazing city, or find new pastures, we spin the wheel and bank on the fact that no matter what we do, for our two lovely boys, home will be a scratched up leather chair, their mother chatting happily, their father’s laugh and those crazy plates.