Thursday, May 11, 2006

Dear Ashley

Dear Ashley,

Daddy is in London to work from Monday to Friday. It has been like that for 5 weeks now. Without you and mommy around, I could hardly enjoy the city. London is a big city. It is supposed to be lively, fun, vibrant, cultural, elegant, cosmopolitan and on and on the list does not stop. But none of these are relevant because you and mommy are not around. Everyday I start early and stay rather late at work. Without you’re your lovable distractions, there is not much to do other than working harder. After work I eat as simple as possible, sometime sandwiches, or a take away fried rice, or a bowl of noodle shop. I do not need fancy food because my dear daughter and wife are sharing it with me.

I have also been busy looking for a house and more importantly school for you. For days I have to view properties, I would leave work earlier. However, it will be quite late when I get back to the hotel room.

I have been in central London once, but I did not feel I was part of it. I remembered I could only see people flashing in front of me, walk next to me, and passed behind me. They were flat, have no face and soulless. Maybe I am who is soulless, right? All these people were simply meaningless to me. And for that reason, I absolutely have no interest of them.

Ashley, daddy is not sad or down or depress. In fact, I am living a happy life in London. What I really want to tell you is how much I miss you here. I am now sitting down at Starbucks. There is a girl around your age buying a drink with her mom. She is an adorable and beautiful girl. She is curious but also very polite. She reminds me of you, and how much I miss you. I feel that it is very important for me to have both you and mommy around. When you are here, colours become colorful. They are no longer just a name.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Home searching

Home searching has been quite hectic since moving to the US and the UK starting in 2000. When we moved to the Bay Area then, the occupancy rate was 99%. Literally an accommodation was taken up the moment it was emptied. It is like the hammering game – You are holding a hammer in front of a table with many holes. Something, like a fake mouse will pop up from one of the holes and you have to react quick enough to hit its head to get a point. Home searching was similar to that at that time. I felt that I could not drive fast enough to put my deposit to any place, decent or not! It was a crazy time, but I survived.

It became better afterward when we moved to San Francisco after the Dotcom bust. It worsened again when we moved to London in 2002 at the peak of this property cycle. Everything was so expensive in London. We had to work really hard in a short period of time to find an affordable place for three of us, without knowing London very well. We did find a place in Wimbledon in the end, with a week to spare.

We moved within Wimbledon once. It was a problematic move since the housing agent has screwed up the move-out date. In the end, we had to move one week earlier, meaning that we had one less week to find something more affordable.

Moving from Wimbledon to Glasgow was relatively easy, although we had a very short fixed time. We were extremely efficient. In less than 72 hours, I had to see around 18 houses and made a decision. After seven months, we had to leave that house. That was another chaos. We started our search relatively early, but we could not find any house big enough for us. It was amazing considering the time of the year. Well actually, it was probably because of the time of the year (in July, by the end of the summer) that made it difficult to find a decent place. Most landlords would have let their house in early summer. So we had to settle with a half decent one.

Now, we are moving back to London. It is no easier than any of the previous rounds. The property market has been staying high in the past memorable years. People are talking about a slow down, but the rental market is staying hot. A small house with 3 bedrooms anywhere in the outskirt of London can normally rent around £2000 each month. It is not even within central London. So it has been a lot of hard work for me.

Having to work in the morning, and then to view properties in the evening, and to achieve these without having a car, is in fact extremely energy draining. To add to the complexity, we have to find a school for Ashley. So we have to find a location with good schools around. In London, the level of school can vary a lot, and school places are limited. It is a ridiculous system. I am sure I will talk about it some day. So everyday I was exhausted in the evening when I am back to the hotel. I could hardly enjoy any evening at all.

Finally, I have seen a few places today, relatively affordable, though at the high side. Nevertheless, there are a few options. Nothing is finalized yet. It will be soon, however. The next thing is to negotiate the rent. Hopefully the home searching will come to a conclusion in the coming few days. The next thing to struggle is finding a school for Ashley. Oh dear …

Saturday, May 06, 2006

Finally it is a Friday again. This is a short week, but still it only seems yesterday that I flew here from Glasgow. Today is a day I call it highly efficient. The work and travel schedule have been very tight. I have to attend a full day meeting about an hour west of London by train. Then I have to cut through central London to take a train (another hour) to the Stansted Airport which is at the north. Time was very tight but luckily everything works just fine. Considering the transportation in London, it is actually quite remarkable. This is my lucky day!

London has been warm in the past few days. In fact, the whole Britain was hot. All of a sudden, we are in summer. Wearing a jacket suddenly becomes odd. Most people are showing as much skin as possible. It was only 4 weeks ago that we were stuck at Ben AÂ’an next to Loch Katrina and not able to get to the top because of the snow. It was the same time where the whole countryside was completely white. Last Monday when we stayed at home, I suggested to turn on the radiator because we started to feel cold. Within a short week, the temperature has been doubled. Well, I have no complaint, just amazed with the difference!

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Is Daddy coming home?

I am working out in London during the weekdays. Every time when I am away, however, it always seems to be a mystery to a 4 yr old whether daddy will be going back home or not. Ashley would ask mommy when I will be back, or lately, is he going to come back?

For adults, we have easily taken things for granted. Then we forget to cherish what we have already had. It is something to learn from the younger ones. Ashley's simple wish is to ask parents to be around her and she treasures those moments. To think deeper about it, who said that daddy must be coming back home? There are so many things that may go wrong in the modern world, right?

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Long weekend at Cairngorm

Last Saturday was a long weekend. As part of our retreating plan from Scotland, we decide to make good use of all the weekends to see as much of it as possible. And we decided to go to Cairngorm and its surrounding town called Aviemore last week. The weather was the Scottish weather at its best - blue sky, warm sunshine, breezy wind ... You name it, you get it.

We originally planned to take the Funicular up the mountain. However, by the time we settled in the Bed & Breakfast and arrived the funicular station, we have already been too late for the last ride. It has been a long day driving and it would have been disappointing if we had to go back to the hotel immediately. So we decided to walk a little bit. Looking out, Loch Morlick is far down the mountain. It is elegantly sitting between the breath-taking rolling mountains. We have been there once with Kar-Soen and Hedy. There is a stone path in water and one can literally walk on water away from the beach. I took Ashley there last time but she said she has forgotten about it.

For the spectacular sceneries in Scotland, the best is yet to come. So we walked alongside the mountain. Just turn around from a corner, we have the snow ridge right in front of us. It is majestic, grand, huge ... but surprising accessible. It is intimidating but yet welcoming. We feel we can get up there, even with a little girl. We didn't because the sun was starting to set. We had to return home. Bonnie, however, has gratefully decided that we should come back again the next day. Life is full of surprises and this is one of those :)

We went back the next day. Bonnie was leading. Yes, I can tell she is thoroughly enjoying the mountain and the weather. And it is quite a mild path for her. We did not go up to the submit for not having the right hiking gear to walk on snow. However, Ashley has remarkably walked for over 4 hours. She is a strong little girl. For the whole trip, she did not ask me to carry her at all. Wonderful girl she is! Sometimes it leaves me wondering why other parents would rather sit their children in a stroller, which is troublesome for parents and not healthy for children, than ask them to walk more often by themselves. The only economic reason for a stroller is probably for shopping. In the countryside, you do not need a stroller. It is probably why we do not use one anymore.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Learn to get on with life

It is heart-broken having to be away from home and leave an adorable 4 years old girl for a week. It becomes worse, and probably the worst of all, when she has tears all over her face. Paying £40 to change to the next flight so that I can stay a few more minutes seems to be logical and sensible. It could also be a very sound financial investment as well. In the end, I did not. I left a crying child and a half asleep wife in bed, while I dashed off to the airport.

It is difficult for a 4 years-old little girl to learn to get on with her own life and understand that everyone has their work to do. We are still learning that, aren't we? Parents mean a lot to her in her life. It is a lot for her to take, sometimes perhaps too much. Instead of asking me when I will be home, she asked me whether I will be back at all. Of course I will, Ashley. I’m only off to work during the week and it is only for a short period of time. I promise!

Saturday, April 22, 2006

Public Transportation in London: rip-off and let-down?

I have never been so furious. After a long week working, I was finally hoping to relax on a Friday evening and slow down a bit. Instead, it goes another furious incident.

I bought a ticket for £7.50 for a one day Travel Card between Zone 2 – 6. I used it for one trip during the peak hour for traveling to work within only Zone 2. After work, I went to Liverpool Street station hoping to catch the train to the airport. When I came out of the gate with all my luggage, the gate assistant (or was she really assisting?) did not let go because I did not have the right ticket. Then I realized that the train station is actually in Zone 1, meaning I have to pay another £3. For a total journey time of around 50 minutes for the two short rides on the day, I had to pay £10.50. It is a lot of money to pay for. It seems so easy to rip off some easy money from consumers by designing a poor and un-user friendly transport system.

Naturally you may ask a question: is there a system where people can use stored value cards to pay for only the trips that they have traveled? As a matter of fact, there is such a system in London. It is called Oyster card. But it is not as simple. It only works on some operations but not the others. It works OK on tube and bus, but not work on other train operation, such as SouthWest train, one of the largest train operators in the franchise network. The company serves hundreds of thousands of people (I don’t have the exact figure but it is likely to be many more) everyday in South East London and England. Their trains go as far as to Southampton and Bournemouth.

In the past, consumers could buy a travel card unlimited trips between zones. Instead of a very straight forward as in the past, the Oyster card has added the unnecessary complexity to the system. So instead of buying the right ticket by knowing where to go during the day, someone has to know in advance whether or not EVERY operators providing the transport means are accepting the Oyster card or not. Only then a sensible decision can be made.

Who is going to benefit from this? It is NOT you and me, or Joe Bloke the consumer. The biggest beneficiary is of course the train operators, and subsequently to the London Transport authority as well. I was not happy so I asked one of the train operators when they will join the Oyster card system. The answer was that it would not be sooner than 2009 when they re-negotiate the franchise contract with the London Transport Authority. It means that consumers have to suffer for another 4 years on top of all the confusions they have already had for the past 12 months. After the Congestion Zone surcharge, this is yet another example of poor planning by the authority. Consumers are being let down again. I left wondering when they can get things right in the first time.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

What is your opinion - London is ...?

London is a horrible horrible place. This is probably not an appropriate opening statement. If London happens to be your dream city, don't read any further. No doubt, London is a charming place to many people, especially the 20-30 single or young couple. It is a place where one can find loads of opportunities and other effluent people. It is a place for those whose priorities are not money or their long term financial stability, unless you are the few privileged ones who have unlimited funds. Well, again, that falls into the group who doesn't have to count their dimes.

For those have high disposable incomes/funds, London is probably the best place in the world. Where else in the world you can stroll along a river, the Thames in this case, and see so many recognisable architectures such as the Big Bang, the Parliament, the St Paul's Cathedral and Shakespeare’s Globe. The list will go on and on and on. Then, by turning one block away from the river, you come to probably the best theatre district in the whole wide world - the West End. Not far away, you come to Trafalgar Square, Queen's Guard House, Buckingham Palace, Piccadilly Circus, etc. The museums are not only world class but they are probably among the best of the best. The National Gallery and The National Portrait Museum are next to the Trafalgar Square. In short strolls, one will find yourself in Tate Modern, Tate Britain, The British Museum and British Library. Not far away for a bus ride you come to Victoria and Albert Museum, Science Museum and Nature History Museum, so on and so forth. So far, I think most people would have agreed that the quality of life seems to be one of a kind.

What is wrong with London then? Why do I dislike it? Am I nuts? The main problem of London is its lack of the magical human touch that gives something the warm and comfy feeling. Everything you do in London, you can do it by yourself. And in reality, you probably can only do it by yourself because no Londoners have any time for you. And that is the problem. No, I am not lonely, although you do feel lonely sometimes in this big city. This city is in fact very cold. This cold chill feeling come from everywhere, pedestrians, train passengers, hotels, restaurants, supermarkets, and everywhere where there are people!

It is a very difficult thing to accept when I did not see anyone laughing or even smiling since coming off from work. It has been a long day for me. I was on a train for an hour. Sitting opposite to me was a young pretty woman, dressed in a white coat made of a fine fabric. For the 40 minutes ride on the train, she closed her eyes for 35 minutes of that. A newspaper was sitting on the chair next to her. A young man asked if she could pass the paper to her. She did, but both of them did not exchange any pleasant emotion. They have only raw desire (of getting the paper from the man) and a robotic action (of picking up the paper and passing it to the man from the woman). What on earth is going on there? Are they in drugs or something? The gentleman sitting next to me was reading a stack of colour printout wearing a serious face. Looking closer to his paper, I found out that he was reading something about birds. I safely assume it is his hobby, but his serious look lead me to think that he might be the only expert who could save this world by stopping bird flu from spreading.

Leaving the train and stepped onto the underground. Passengers came in and left. I did not see anyone having a fun day. Is work really that boring? Or has work sucked too much energy out from every one of them? When I came out to the gate, a station personnel was prominently standing in front. I exchanged a slight eye contact with him and immediately felt guilty. I did nothing wrong but it was a sharp scornful look that made my whole body uncomfortable. I had to look away quickly, otherwise I feared that my body would be cut straight through into two halves right there. I pulled my collars close to my face and walked past him in quick steps. I dare not look at him twice.

Finally I arrived at the hotel in which I am going to stay for three nights. I was hoping to have someone to greet me with joy. Well, I actually have lowered the par - just some smiles would do the trick. This is my first day in the new job and it has been a long one for me. “Sir, do you have the booking number?” “You don’t? OK, what is your surname?” “I will have to pull out the booking information. Wait a minute.” “OK, we are full today, but there is a new hotel just around the corner. You can stay there. You won’t be disappointed. This is the address.” He was polite, but indifferent. It is almost like his emotion (especially the pleasant ones) will diminish his credibility as a businessman sitting in the front desk of the hotel.

Next stop is the new hotel. I have no luck squeezing any smiles out from the staff. This is a new hotel I am talking about but I can hardly find it welcoming. I may be partly guilty because I thought I have paid the fee online through my credit card. So I declined to pay them until I have confirmed that the transaction did not go through. I guessed the hotel staff was not very pleased although I felt it was only a more than reasonable request. The room has no internet connection and the TV aerial cable is missing. So I went back to the reception and asked them to fix them. After some friendly (although non-smiling) conversation with two junior staff, the hotel manager came who has completely changed the dynamic. One would expect a more seasoned manager would greet his guest with a bright smile, correct? On the contrary, he came with a short and disguised voice. His only action was trying to avoid taking any action. In the end, he hesitantly agreed to change to another room. New problems had arisen, at this time the power cord for the TV is missing, but no immediately corrective solution has been taken. Until I got really impatient, I looked for this guy only to find out that the power cord will be in place the next day, promised. Yes, it is likely a broken one … again.

Someone please tell me what is wrong with all these people!!

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Ashley's end-of-term performance at Scottish Opera

I was sitting with another 30-40 proud parents. Yes, we were all proud because our younger ones were about to perform a wee musical, Pirates Of Penzance. It was the first time Ashley performs in front of a large audience. I was a proud father as usual, and I was sure the person sitting next to me, Bonnie, was a proud mother too. It is this little creature, sometimes shy, is now able to sing and dance in front of a bunch of strangers. There she was running from one end to another, scrubbing the floor, climbing a rope, then she also lined up straight and sang with other kids of similar ages as she. Aren't those things amazing? She may only be playing a small sharing role with all the other 3-5 years old kids. It is the confidence that they gain from this little show that counts. Good luck to all of you! Some of you may shine in the international stage one day.

Monday, March 27, 2006

Literacy skill for toddler?

Maybe we are too keen to transfer the literacy skill to Ashley, who is not even four. But who can blame us for trying too hard? Being literate is a critical survival skill in the modern world. When Ashley was just over two, we used to write a 'letter' to her every morning and slipped it through her room. Each letter would have a a big Chinese character in the centre. She enjoyed receiving a letter therefore was happy learning those characters. After she has learnt 20 to 30 words, we would randomly pick up some 'letters' to test her if she could recognise those characters. She usually got about 70% correct.

When she was three, Bonnie used to play Chinese reading cards with her. The cards are similar to our 'letters' - big Chinese characters in the middle. Ashley was able to recognise at least 30 of them. At a later stage, she was even able to put a few together to form a complete sentence. However, I feel that these activities did not create a context for her to read, i.e. the characters that she learnt did not create the flow of an idea like that in a story book. Therefore, she was only able to capture scattered concepts, not real reading.

In the last couple of weeks, she has developed an interest in words. She would point to words that she saw on a book, menu or road signs and asked us the meaning of those words. We would then spell the letters (which she has already recognised most of them), speak the word and explain the meaning to her. She seems to be genuine interested in learning to read.

Tonight, I was trying to make her start to read. So, when we had our bedtime story, I taught her a few words e.g. 'Who', 'You' and 'See', which appears on the front cover of a book, and asked her to memorize those words. Then while we were reading the book, I stopped each time when we came to the same words. Slowly, she was able to pick up those words and was able to start to read the book. I picked up another book where she could find those same words. She was very excited because she recognised those words. She is probably thinking that she can really pick up a book and start to read from now on. It is a tremendous step for her. I am thrilled.

One would probably ask, however, whether it is necessary for someone not even reach four to start to recognise words and read. To me, however, if he/she is really excited and happy, then why not? Once they have acquired the literacy skill, only the sky is the limit of their future development.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Some of Ashley's interesting laundry lists

Just some of Ashley's interesting laundry lists:
1. Her personal carers / aupairs / nannies / mentors / role models ... whatever you call them:
- Dai Ping from Shanghai, China (Oct 2003 - Jun 2004)
- Anna Spik from Wroslaw, Poland (Aug 2004 - Oct 2004)
- Someone from Brazil (Oct 2004 for two weeks)
- Cecilia Wong from Newton Mearns, Glasgow but originally from Hong Kong (Jan 2005 - Feb 2005)
- Lynn from New Zealand (Feb 2005 for two weeks)
- Irene Cuevas from Zaragoza, Spain (Feb 2005 - Sep 2005)
- Ewelyna Kolodziejczyk from Wroslaw, Poland (Sep 2005 - Mar 2006)
- Nina Rasmussen from Ribe, Denmark (Mar 2006 - )

In between that, Bonnie's parents was in San Francisco for 3 months since Ashley was born. They were in London for 6 months we moved to the UK. They have also looked after Ashley in Hong Kong for two months (Oct and Nov 2004)

2. The second list is the places that she has been to in the past 4 years.
Places that she has lived:
- San Francisco (Jun - Nov 2002)
- London (Nov 2002 - Oct 2004)
- Hong Kong (Oct 2004 - Dec 2004)
- Glasgow (Jan 2005 - Jun 2006)

She also went to:
- Toronto (Sep 2002 for 2 weeks)
- Paris - Oct 2003
- Hong Kong - Jun 2003, Oct 2004, Dec 2005
- Esslingen (near Stuggart), Germany - Sept 2003
- Milan - Dec 2003
- Venice & Rome - Aug 2005

She has also been travelling around England including Manchester, Bath, Bristol and Windsor, and also Scotland including Loch Ness (twice), Edinburgh (so many times that it has lost track), Isle of Skye, Loch Lomond, Glen Coe, Oban, Isle of Bute, Ben Nevis, Cairn Golme and so many other beautiful places.

One of the things that she has done proud of herself was to climb up to the submit of Ben Lomond (over 1000 metres high) last March when she was not even 3. It took us eight hours to complete the trip. She walked about 2.5 hours up and 1.5 hours down. It is such a tremendous achievement for her.

For a 4 years old girl, this is quite a resume.

Complaint from a proud dad

Ashley will be four in June. How fast things have happened in the past few years. She is a good communicator and a happy girl. As a parent, if ever I had to complaint, I would grumble about her waiting up too early every morning. Once she wakes up in the morning, she would come straight to our room and climb on our bed, eyes wide open with a big smile. Can't you sleep just for another hour please? I thought. But in a second, that does not matter any more. OK, if you are already awake, let's play! Then her laugh continues. It is another beautiful day.