Travelling with kids – it is NOT easy, but it is worth it.

kids running
My kids, running and playing together at the Hōryū-ji temple in Nara, Japan

The thing about working in startups is that sometimes, as you become the kind of person that makes up a part of the senior team, you have to put the company ahead of your own needs and your own self. As the Head of Engineering at Zipmatch I had, from the beginning, had an honest dialogue with the founders about the fact that there might come a time when they needed to ask me to step away as part of a readjustment of the company’s cost profile. That moment came just after New Year this year, and as promised I agreed to take a bow and step off the stage so that the company could go on. I was not the only person who left, to be sure, but that this decision came so early in the year did have one knock-on effect for me and my family; we could no longer afford to take in both Australia and Japan on our way back to the UK as we had planned. We talked about this and decided on Japan – Lee-Anne and I have both wanted to visit Japan for almost all of our lives – and I have to say I am very glad that we did.

Anyway to the purpose of this post…

Travelling with kids is not easy. That’s not to say that I suggest you don’t do it. Quite the contrary if you have kids and you have the money I would strongly urge you to travel with them, but don’t believe some Pinterest / Facebook / Instagram mashup of well meaning lies that it is easy.

It is not.

It is rewarding though, in all kinds of little ways, and some very big ones as well. The photograph above was one of those precious moments that simply would never have come into my life if we were not committed to travelling with our children. We were coming to the end of a very interesting and engaging visit to Horyu-ji Temple, just outside Nara, and the kids had been a little bit difficult the whole time. We had been forced to constantly remind them to not kick the stones that were so clearly raked every morning by the monks, to not climb on the temple buildings, and to not fight with one another, or scream at a temple-inappropriate level at random intervals. Even with these many micro-aggressions against our calm, it was a lovely visit, to a beautiful, serene and utterly unique place. We were walking back to the bus stop, through the temple precincts when I caught this image. The kids, the Geeklings as I have started to refer to them, are still at a place in their lives and their relationships with one another that they are “best friends”. The whole day had been one of imagined play between them, races between point a and b, pretending that this temple building or that was their special base – the kind of play that we all have almost forgotten as adults and yet when we see it in our kids we know it instantly and value it almost above anything else. They had been very lovely (when they were not being awful), and then to see them running together like this was just a piece of magic.

These moments, and the ones where they break character and are actually interested in something that we are seeing / learning about, and the ones where they try some new food or taste and a look of unalloyed joy spreads across their faces… This is why I do love travelling with my kids, and I know that Lee-Anne feels the same way, but in her own different way too.

We are two-thirds of the way home and I am typing this in a departure gate area in Abu Dhabi Airport, waiting for our connecting flight to Manchester and home. The predominant thought in my mind after seeing Britain again, and seeing Mum and Dad is, if I am honest, the excitement I have for the promise made by my parents to take the kids for three or four days so that Lee-Anne and I can get away (once we are over the jet lag) and just be by ourselves for a little while.


Pictures first, words to follow…


photograph of cup of coffee and plate of toast by a swimming pool

Our Man in Makati..?

So, finally, after two and a half weeks of being here – a BLOG POST!

We arrived in the Philippines after a remarkably easy journey… Seriously both Lee-Anne and I were experiencing a considerable amount of anxiety over how the kids would fare with two eight hour flights back to back, but they were fantastic little troopers. There was one flash-point – what shall forever more be known as “The Abu Dhabi Incident” – but to focus on that would be to completely ignore how wonderfully behaved they were compared to our least terrifying nightmares.

Stepping off the plane, we could tell it was hot, but the corridor we walked into was air conditioned. It was leaving the Baggage Reclaim when we realised that it was in fact HOT. By the time I had turned some dollars into Philippines Pesos (forever more to be known as PHP, which will amuse a tiny fraction of this blog’s readership), walked twenty feet to the man running the official airport taxis and arranged our fare and I was praying that the taxi would have air conditioning.

It did, of course, everything is air conditioned here, even the lifts – or perhaps that should be especially the lifts? We found our AirBnB place – taxi drivers here do know their way around, but it’s not the same as “The Knowledge” in London, it’s more like a Private Hire cabbie in Basingstoke, you know? The place is small, but we expected that and had planned and packed accordingly. I can honestly say after two and a half weeks in the place that we love it; we’ve even toyed with staying in it longer, but I pointed out that as the kids get even a few months older we are going to need a little bit more space to enable us to escape, and to allow them to run about (more).

The first day I was hideously over-confident about the jet-lag. I was soon back in my place, having fallen asleep on the couch before 2100h (local), and thus began the horrific process of trying to recover from jet-lag while one’s own children are failing to recover from jet-lag. I tried to take the advice; swim (no really it helps), eat when you need to, stay up later than you think you should but not too late. I tried, I really did, but the day before my first day at work I woke up at 1400h; not “I stayed in bed until 1400h desperately trying to get some more sleep unable to get up”, I WOKE UP at 1400h.

During that re-adjustment period I did a little exploring, found the nearest thing to what I recognised as a supermarket, and as a family we went to farmers’ market on the park a block away from our condo. The rest of the time was spent sleeping, doing prep-work for my new job, playing Minecraft – I have dragged Lee-Anne over to the dark side and got her on my server, Mwahahahahaha – sleeping and watching BBC World News, oh yeah and swimming as much as possible.

Yeah, I know, “cry me a river” – there is a pool outside your patio, dude! Even so, I was very worried that my first day at work would be a season in Hell. So, I tried to go to bed at a reasonable hour – around 2300h – and I got up with plenty of time to have a swim (cold but genuinely worth the effort), and found my way to the office on the first try. Of course I was the first Westerner there, but that’s ok. I’m not suggesting that my Western colleagues are tardy, they most certainly are not, but they arrive at around 0900h and on my first day I was there by 0820h. A lot of the Filipino members of the team arrive at the office between 0630h and 0730h in order to beat the morning traffic in and to leave early to beat the afternoon traffic on their way home, whereas most of the Westerners are living so close to the office that none of us are driving here, so traffic is not an issue (more on driving in Makati and wider Metro Manila in another post).

Day one was a series of meetings and chats with various people and was over before I knew it. I wandered home, happy and tired, via the “supermarket” and then proceeded to collapse into a heap on the sofa – Lee-Anne was not best pleased. Of course, that was not the whole story, I perked up at around 2300h and then could not get back to sleep…

I am mostly back on a sane sleep / wake schedule now, and the kids are almost there too, but that first week was HARD and the pool + coffee, and the support and encouragement of my awesome wife are the only things that got me through it.

Work is, as I expected, a lot of plate-spinning, a lot of cans of worms to be opened and dealt with, decisions made etc. and I am loving it. It feels as though I am exactly where I need to be professionally, and the people I am working with are all pulling in the same direction, which is something I came to take for granted at the BBC, but am now quite sure that I would be unable to handle the absence of such shared purpose in this new environment.

The next couple of weeks are going to be very busy and very stressful – I don’t imagine that I am going to be able to blog about them because of time constraints – but in a month or so I think that I will be fully in control of the technical side of things, and I hope to be able to get us into a good groove in terms of adopting some good practices and improving on our approach to Agile working. There is a great foundation to work with, but we definitely need some fine-tuning and so that’s what I am going to be doing.

So, in the meantime, please be assured that there is more to come and I leave you with this thought;

"There is no greater stroke of genius, nor is there any greater enterprise of evil than to make it possible to have Burger King delivered to your door up until 2100h at night, that is until you realise that McDonalds deliver 24 hours a day here. Stay Classy, Makati!"

I hope that you are all surviving the extreme weather about which BBC World News has been almost gleeful in the telling, and that this despatch from the Orient finds you all in good health and good spirits. We do miss Blighty from time to time, and many of you far more and more often than the place herself, but it would be dishonest to say that we are doing anything but enjoying the new experiences and the new way of life that this adventure has brought thus far.

More to follow.
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EOT


“How blessed am I?” or “Having awesome friends is awesome”

I first became friends with Jim and Liz by dint of being friends with their daughter Sarah.  I have written before of the delightful welcome they offered to me when I tipped up at their home in Saint John, New Brunswick, on the eve of Sarah’s wedding in August, 2008.  As a complete stranger to them, known of only via what Sarah had told them about me, they welcomed me into their home and startled my reserved, British little self with their easy going nature and generosity, though I like to think that I got into the swing of things before my brief stay with them ended.  The following year they invited me back, this time for Canadian Thanksgiving, and I spent some time at their camp on the Musquash, near to Saint John.  I have to say that, amongst other delights, I enjoyed the best nights of sleep I have known in adult life there, the most tranquil and peaceful place I have ever spent any reasonable amount of time.  Have a look for yourself (this is a photo I took in 2009)…

Lee-Anne and I saw Jim in 2011, he stayed with us for a couple of days on his way back from the Bi-Annual Balloon Festival in Chambley – need I mention that amongst his many talents and surprises he is an accomplished hot air balloon pilot – and it was really great to renew our friendship, sit and talk about his recent adventures in France, and reminisce about times shared in New Brunswick.

Last year, when I was in New York for work in October I was invited to renew my acquaintance with the Musquash, once more for Thanksgiving, but it just seemed too difficult and too expensive to get there; I was offered a 14 hour flight, via Toronto, to Fredericton New Brunswick (about an hour from the camp by road), for $850, which seemed like a lot of money to be there for 12 hours all told.  I looked into hiring a car and driving up to the camp through Connecticut and Maine, but there are strange rules about foreign nationals and taking rental cars over the border, so that idea got shelved too… (As it happened, Sarah came down to NY from Toronto and we raised a glass to all in the Musquash, so in a sense we were there).

Cut to yesterday, when after a bit of texting back and forth during the previous few days, my family and I pulled into the Citgo station in Calais, Maine and parked up our rental car next to Jims truck.  After transplanting the car seats and then the kids into the back, we loaded up and headed over the border and thence to the Musquash to spend a delightful and peaceful evening with Liz, Jim and Libby (their dog) in a magical, wonderful place where there is no electricity, no TV, no plumbing even, and all of those things seem to make the place even more perfect.  A combination of their lovely, easy-going and friendly way – and let’s face it, with our two kids running around and making noise and generally breaking the place up they must be saints to have taken so much pleasure in it all, let alone putting up with us – and the glory of the woods and the lake and the quiet and the full moon…  Once more I experienced a brief spell wherein I felt as though I had left the world behind and entered a more real one.  I cannot describe it more plainly than that.

And so my contention is that I am blessed.  Once more a fabulous, nay priceless, experience has been laid out for me all through the kindness of friends and I have no doubt that I will never forget it, nor ever be able to properly thank them for it.  Not only that, but this time they welcomed my wife and children with the same generosity and friendship that they have always shown me and the impact that it had on them was so plain for me to see that I now want to thank my friends for giving this gift to those closest to me as well.

If nothing else, this last couple of days has reminded me not only how lucky I am for this one thing, but how lucky I am to have the other friendships that I have.  It has reminded me of all the amazing things that other people have done for me out of fellowship, friendship and love that have kept me sane, alive and afforded me the chance to experience some amazing and wonderful places, things, emotions and times.

Friends are awesome, and I want anyone who knows me and knows that I call them my friend, that I not only value their presence in my life, but that I am truly thankful for it.  Let’s spend more time together when we can…

Right, must sleep – tomorrow there is more of Maine to explore!


And so a new chapter begins…

Over the last three weeks (or so) I have been living a very lovely, if utterly unrealistic, existence. I have been on paternity leave, spending every day with my wonderful wife, our delightful daughter, and our brand new baby son; it may have been hard work, but it has been a real joy as well.

Now I have to get back to reality, as the family bread-winner I have to go back to work.

I have made my peace with the fact that I am not going back to the BBC, where I have spent the vast majority of my working life in the last two years, and even though I am going to miss that place terribly I am really looking forward to the next phase in my career. I am going back into the workplace having agreed to take a permanent position, a calculated move that has been quite a long time in the planning which has been a considered choice in order to evolve my career away from pure engineering and into engineering management. I am going to be the European Head of Engineering for W3Corporate specifically on their Vivastreet brand, responsible for development on their website applications and back-office applications in PHP and Ruby, both in London and looking after an off-shore team in Eastern Europe.

To say that I am excited would be an understatement, but of course I also have all the ‘first night nerves’ that most people experience before starting a new job. In my last role I filled-in for the tech lead, and did a little bit of management stuff as circumstances demanded, so I have confidence that I am ready for it all… Doesn’t stop me being anxious form time to time though.

In a week’s time I will be at Heathrow, waiting to get on a plane to New York; one of the mixed blessings of this new job is that I have to go to New York for three weeks, to sync up with the engineering team over there, learn the codebase and platform and meet with some of the commercial people. So I get to spend three weeks in New York; awesome! I have to spend three weeks away from my little, recently slightly larger, family; not so great 🙁

I intend to catch up on sleep, do a couple of geeky things, and maybe catch up with friends in the Eastern States, but overall I want to make a good impression, get some good work done and get home having, hopefully, impressed a few important people, got my head around the codebase, and come up with some workable ideas as to how to make my mark…

So, if you are in New York between the 23rd of September and the 11th of October and want to catch-up / meet-up, let me know…

Onward!


Castles in the sky…

I had a lovely weekend with my beautiful wife, this last weekend gone.

We disappeared into the heart of rural Wales, visited castles, hung out and generally unplugged from our hectic life for forty-eight hours; it was marvelous.

Here is a picture that I took, just to give you some idea of the amount of beauty that can be found if you only stop to look…

Image of the view to the North-West from Castell Carreg Cennen in Dyfed, West Wales, at dusk.

Have a lovely Wednesday 🙂


Notes from an even smaller island…

…hopefully Bill Bryson will forgive the shameless poaching / plagiarism inherent in my using that title (above!), and we can move on to other things – call that a pre-emptive diffusing of flamebait, ok?

Anyway, I arrived in The TRNC – The Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus – on Saturday evening, on time amazingly after the chaos of the journey, and since then I have been doing very littletm

There has been a lot of spending time chatting with Mum and Dad, there’s been some running, swimming and walking, and there has been some reading and sleeping as well… I really can’t recommend this delightful place enough! Oh no, hold on a moment… No I’ve thought about it and you wouldn’t like it really *wink*.

So far the only deficiency I have been able to spot with the whole arrangement has been the absence of a certain special lady (yes I am referring to Lee-Anne, in case you were raising an eyebrow), but that will all be dealt with on Saturday evening as she will be arriving here, to spend eight days with me and my folks, under the “almost North African, almost MIddle Eastern” sun – hurrah!

Right, I’m off to get an early night so that I can go running in the morning – yes you did read that right, and I’ve not been replaced by an alien…

G’night!

P.S. I’m thinking of something interesting to say about Milliband the Younger, but so far I’m just stunned by how much he wants to be “not the old guard” and yet how much he sounds like Tony “the hair” Blair when he delivers a speech! Also, what’s wrong with being “Red Ed” as leader of the LABOUR PARTY? Ah well, I guess that there’s a reason that “plus ça change…” is a saying…


So, it turns out that I am still not even managing to post on WEEKLY basis…

It’s been a busy week…

What with the car drama – my alternator died and on it’s way to Hell it cooked my battery – and getting ready to go to Belgium, not to mention the second week of “Sprint 0” at work I’ve not really felt as though my feet touched the floor…

I would write more, but I have to get some template tuning done before I leave early to pick up the car from the dealership in Reading – they love me there now based on how much money I’ve spent on the car in the last four months…  I think that early next year if all is well with finances that I might have to trade the Civic in against something a little younger, preferably something still under warranty…

TTFN


Bikes, boxes, bags and bookends…

So I’m back at work; please may I have a second weekend to get over the first one..?

It was lovely to see Mum and Dad, to see Chorley and the ‘Ole Homestead, but this weekend was by no means a relaxing diversion.

It started with a wrong turn…  I came off the train in Wigan, running a little late but filled with a willingness to live up to my stated plan and ride home, and it was all going terribly well, until I got lost in Wigan.  In the end I did about an extra 4 or five miles (I’m not sure exactly how much more I did), so that by the time I finally arrived home at around 2300h I was tired and annoyed.  Also, before I attempt to ride from Wigan to Chorley in the dark again, I need to buy some lights that are actually good at lighting my way, rather than just making my presence felt as a road-user.  The lights that I have at the moment are definitely not designed for unlit streets.

Saturday morning saw an early start, a quick breakfast and then the task of rationalising my belongings began.  There is no delicate way to put this; I __had__ a lot of shit in my room at Mum and Dad’s…  Old magazines (I kept a couple of “important” ones), course notes from my A-Levels and Uni courses, and a metric-fuck-tonne of VHS tapes.  We hope that the local charity shops will take the commercial / pre-recorded VHS, but all my “home-made” tapes went in the recycling at the municipal refuse / recycling centre; well all of them apart from my recordings of “Karaoke” and “Cold Lazarus”, Dennis Potter’s last works, which were produced jointly by the BBC and Channel 4 in the early 90’s, as I don’t think that I can replace them with a “bought” version.  Anyway, by the time we went out riding (bikes) with Carey, a serious start had been made and a large pile of stuff to take to the tip had developed.

The bike ride was lovely – we did 16.25 miles through the Lancashire countryside, mostly down quiet lanes, and it only felt like about 10! At the very end we stopped in Astley Park (which is very near to my parents’ home) and visited the new tea shop there, which has gone considerably more up-market than the one I remembered!

Post-ride there was more sorting, discarding and general reminiscing, until we called it a day to have dinner and spend some time just sitting about, chatting and wotnot.

Sunday morning was more of the same, though kippers fro breakfast made for a bit of an ‘event feel’ to the morning.  By the time 1500h rolled around we had got to the point where my entire bedroom was sorted and all of the stuff therein was neatly organised into areas of the room so that once the sale goes through they can box my stuff for move / storage / whatever without any confusion if I can’t make it up to Chorley.  Dad and I made a couple more trips to the refuse / recycling centre, on one occasion posting what felt like years worth of magazines into the paper recycling; once we were done there was a big chunk of work done and one more thing off Mum and Dad’s minds.

The prospect of Mum and Dad divesting themselves of the home we’ve had as a family for 25 years is a weird one…  I clearly see the logic of the choice, and the rational part of my head is completely on board with the plan, but there is no escaping that a small part of me is quite sad about the closing of this chapter of our family’s story.  Friends of mine that have visited Broughton House will know what I mean when I say that the house is a singular and unusual building, and that uniqueness is one thing that I will miss, but far more important than that are the memories of the house being full of family and friends, life and laughter.  In the end all things must end, and I am ok with that, but I would like to think that I will have a couple more chances to visit the place before we finally wave it goodbye.

We had a quick dinner and then Dad took me and my bike back to Wigan, so that I could catch my train and head back South.  Annoyingly I needed to change at Crewe which meant a lot of to-ing and fro-ing with the bike, but once I was installed on the Crewe to Euston train I had the chance to relax and catch up on my tech reading, using iBooks on my iPhone – a setup I can recommend despite my expectations to find it disappointing.  On arrival in Euston I had to ride across Central London to Paddington, and I ended up on a local stopper (slow train) that got me back to Reading just before 2300h.

After a swift ride home and a quick call with Lee-Anne I collapsed into bed, and was out like a light shortly after (I assume) – as I said at the beginning, I need another weekend to get over this one 😉


The Odyssey Continues…

So, work finished and I was back on the bike between White City and Euston…  First of all, I have realised that Notting Hill has the word “hill” in its name for a reason!  Still, the ride went well until I made a miscalculation at Marylebone High Street and had to dismount and cross Euston Road on foot.  This was the beginning of the end of footloose and fancy-free riding; the Euston underpass is not a venue for cycling or cyclists…  Anyway, after a short walk into the station and a couple of false starts with a couple of Fast Ticket(tm) machines I was on the train, bike stowed in the rear baggage compartment, and so here I am blogging away furiously in order to kill time while the queue at the buffet goes down… 😉

In two and a half short hours I will be back on the bike heading to Chorley from Wigan – I’m really looking forward to that part of the journey; after all I hate trains!

See y’all on the flipside…