Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Why I am staying put in London for the time being

Staying in London Singaporean in London
Of all the things that I can get from the airport...

I came across an interesting read on the Straits Times awhile back during one of visits to Singapore. It was written by a Singaporean in London lamenting about the lack of childcare in London compared to Singapore and how Singaporeans are taking things for granted. In the page long article, she wrote about the high costs and inflexibility of London's childcare.

Having a young girl of my own, I understand exactly where she was coming from. But I'm amused about what was left unwritten - why was she still in London then?

With the start of 2013, I thought that it'd be apt to take stock of why we are still here. After all, it was supposed to be a six month stint when we arrived in London in summer a couple of years ago.

1. Childcare

Ironically, the lack of childcare is one of the main reasons why we're still in London. Granted that we don't have access to cheap domestic help that is available in Singapore and with our parents halfway across the world, even emergency childcare is not an option.

But that means we have become very hands on parents. I gave the little one her first bath, changed her first nappy, cut her nails for the first time. It was not delegated simply because it wasn't an option. We end up spending alot of time with her simply because we have to, which isn't a bad thing when you come to think of it.

And because of the lack of flexible yet cheap childcare options in London, we are forced (for the lack of a better word) to schedule our work around it. Employers in London (or at least ours) are by and large more understanding when it comes to working from home when your child is unwell or having to attend a school meeting or performance.

Your kids probably wouldn't fancy going out with you when they are teenagers so why waste any opportunity to spend time with them now? After all, isn't that the whole point about having a child? I'll be the first to admit that it's hard at times but it's definitely worth it.

2. Anonymity

I had an interesting chat with another Singaporean at work. She's here for over ten years and asked why, she hesitated and uttered, "anonymity".

There's this strange allure of being immersed into a huge city with totally no context nor baggage, where anything seems possible. Since we're not from around here, the divide between social classes doesn't really affect us. That's especially true in London where over 300 languages and dialects are spoken with people hailing from all over the world. Because of how cosmopolitan it is, the London's vibrancy is unbelievable (Trafalgar Square is the de facto venue for the respective national day celebrations). That shows up in its cuisines as well (now, that's another story altogether).

Coming from an island state with a cohort of a mere twenty thousand in each school year admission, that is absolutely liberating.

3. Theatres, museums and a bit of fun

The best things in life are free and that's especially the case in London. I love the fact that British Museum, National Gallery and Museum of London are just a short bus or Tube ride away. Mingling with the throngs of tourists, I sometimes get a bit ahead of myself and feel smug about not having to travel halfway round the world to view the exhibits that they are in a hurry to cover; I'd just come back the next day if I want to.

To be honest, we can't decide whether it's our girl or me who enjoy Natural History Museum or Science Museum more.

Theatre tickets from quality plays at the West End can be cheaper than going to the movies. Furthermore, London isn't short of plays for the young ones too. Ballets, operas and contemporary dances are available throughout the year. A great number of those would fit the budget of most audience quite nicely.

Of course, we decided to head to the Thames Barrier in a Rigid Inflatable Boat (RIB) one day. That was fun. I'd wait till the weather is a bit dryer before going for the O2 roof top walk.

4. The media

I love the BBC. The documentaries alone are worth the £145 we paid for TV licensing fee per year. And the there are the dramas. While I'm not exactly a fan of Eastenders, The Hour, Sherlock Holmes, Call the Midwives are just some that kept us glued to the TV every week.

Then there are the newspapers. Each offers a rather different take on the same issue depending on which ideology they subscribe to and the political party they are aligned with. I value the journalists' opinion. If I want mere facts, I can jolly well go read Bloomberg or Reuters. To me, having access to views from different perspectives allows me to form an informed and independent opinion of my own.

5. The pace of life

I met up with a friend who was visiting before she flew back to Singapore. I asked her over dinner what left the deepest impression of her trip to London. "The work-life balance," she answered without a moment of hesitation. That's coming from someone who's literally a tourist.

After the last couple of years, I sort of taken that for granted and would still do if not for her timely reminder. Long lunches and breaks are not part of the typical London work setting. It's common to have lunch on one's desk but more crucially, work is normally completed during office hours so that quality time can be spent with the family after that. Of course, that depends on one's job nature but I sure get to see Wife more often when we are in London. Heck, I even have time to start up two blogs - London Expat and London Chow.

London may not be the greenest city but there are large swaths of greens if you know where to look. Everyone has their favourite park where they can settle down to read a book or have a little kick around in their leisure. A walk along Thames or even Regents Canal that cuts through central London is always welcomed.

Coming from a land of shopping malls, I'm not too keen on the two Westfields. My all time favourites are the Columbia Flower Market, Broadway Market and Camden Market.

On the flip side...

Things in London aren't a bed of roses either. Costs of living has crept up over the years. Childcare is still expensive. Healthcare though free, it can be sorely lacking in certain areas. In time to come, we would have to consider our girl's education as well. While state schools are free, their availability and quality varied depends on where one lives. Private education is exorbitant not to mention having to arrange for after-school care. London's economy isn't the best at the moment. How it will turn out in the next few years is still up in the air.

The capital may feel right for us now but our priorities may change in the future. Regardless, we're still sticking around for the time being and enjoying every bit of what London can offer. The grass is always greener on the other side. Now that we're on the other side, it's indeed greener. At least for the time being anyway.

Well, here's wishing you a happy new year wherever you might be!

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