Back to School: First Day Gremlins

I have five children. Georgina (”G”) is the youngest. She is 14. And she is the one causing grey hairs to sprout abundantly from my scalp, if old wives’ tale about correlation between lack of follicular colour and stress is to be believed.

10410620_417562521717746_4763172011780216952_nToday was her first day at a new school after the long summer break. I got up early to have breakfast with her and to kiss her goodbye at the door as per the perfect family scenario.

But instead, we stood across the room from one another, the chasm as wide as our generation gap, snarling like a pair wild beasts. I was quoting the school rulebook aggressively at her, whilst she obstinately stood her ground.

For starters, her skirt was far too short. School rule says, the hem must be skimming the knees. Hers was sitting defiantly somewhere mid-thigh, showing off her long coltish legs. Yes, she had done what bold schoolgirls from previous generations had – she had rolled up a good 10 inches of the length at the waistband.

“So?” she said with a jut of her chin. ‘You can’t see my knickers, can you? And anyway, I am wearing shorts underneath.”

“You have to make your skirt longer,” I said in a voice that invited no further discussions. “Because it is part of the uniform rule.”

“And why is that so? What is the rationale behind the on-the-knee rule? You can’t see my panties at this length. It is not even a safety issue in the labs to wear shorter skirts. And anyway, some teachers wear skirts that are much shorter than this.”

And then there was the make-up. Lashings of mascara and eyeliner. And lipgloss (“Mum, it’s for moisturising my lips, you don’t want me to have chapped lips, do you” With saccharine sweetness).

And the multiple ear piercings (“OK, I will take my ear studs off when I am playing sports.” Grudgingly.).

And the colourful bracelets (“They are for religious reasons,” said this heathen child. “I got them from the monks in Cambodia, and it’s bad luck for seven years to remove them.”)

Her father, watching from a safe distance, said, “Let her teacher deal with it. After all, it’s the school that sets the rules, so let a member of staff justify those rules to her.”

Then, damningly, he added, “I actually agree with her.”

I stared at him in disbelief. “You can’t subcontract disciplining your child to teachers. It is our responsibility as her parents to raise her right.” That’s the Asian Tiger Mum in me speaking. The part of me that expects unquestioning, blind obedience, on the basis that I am the parent, therefore I must always be obeyed.

But fortuitously, recent stimulating conversations with my neighbour Richard Boyle short-circuited the part of my brain that is conditioned and sleep-walking, to jolt the slumberous thinking part that my parents had invested a lot of money (three years at Oxford) to cultivate. Richard and I had been discussing the masses’ readiness to obey governments unquestioningly, blindly (is it laziness, fear, or lack of self-empowerment?) We concurred that one does not have to be a rebel or an anarchist to question instead of obeying blindly. It is about exercising one’s brain, it is about doing audits, it is about functioning as check-and-balance, it is about being alive, instead of going along like sheep and lemmings with the decisions of the minority who rule.

For example, did you question, protest or think about fluoride in drinking water? Or did you accept the PR line that “It’s good for teeth”? What do you think?

And so, having taken some time to mull over it, I think that raising a child right entails teaching him or her when and how to question authority – politely and constructively, of course – because it is part of the learning to become a thinking adult and a responsible member of society.

This child of mine is fortunate that she has had far-sighted teachers in the past who had supported her mental growth. Most notably, Mr. Jonathan Booton.

At 10, G had marched up to him and asked, “So, Mr B., why are there new dustbins in all the classrooms on our floor?”

Jonathan Booton, without missing a beat: “To justify the exorbitant school fees that your parents are paying.”

Yes, I blame him. With great affection.

A little sweetness … tiramisu

Happy parents = happy kids. So here’s a simple-to-make sweet for grown-ups, beloved of the Italians: tiramisu. It requires no cooking or baking whatsoever, just assemble and chill.

First, you need to track down Italian sponge fingers (also known as lady fingers).  The Italian name for these fingers are savoiardi.  They are quite easy to find: in Jakarta, at Ranch Market or Hero Kemang, in Phuket, at the bakery by the supermarket in Central.  If you can’t find them, I have included the recipe at the bottom of this post. But let’s start with the tiramisu first.


1 packet savoiardi

500g mascarpone cheese

6 eggs, separated

350ml espresso coffee, cooled

3 tablespoons sugar

4 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder

50ml cognac or brandy

Grated zest of 1 orange

1 bar good quality dark chocolate, shaved

I banana, sliced, optional

Add the sugar to the egg yolks. Beat well until the mixture is light and creamy. Add the mascarpone and half of the cognac or brandy, and beat well. Add the orange zest.
With clean utensils, beat the egg whites until stiff. Fold the beaten egg whites into the mascarpone mixture.
Pour espresso into a shallow dish along with the remaining cognac and 1 teaspoon of the cocoa powder. Stir well. Quickly dip each lady finger in the espresso mixture, working one at a time, and line the bottom of a glass dish, approximately 20cm round or square.
Once the bottom of the dish is covered in an even layer of espresso-soaked lady fingers, top with 1/2 of the mascarpone mixture. Add the sliced banana. Dust with 1/2 of the cocoa. Repeat with another lady finger layer, then finally the remaining mascarpone and a final dusting of cocoa powder. Top with shaved chocolate.
Chill in the fridge for about 4 hours, then serve!


For the savoiardi:


4 eggs
100g caster sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/8 teaspoon salt
115g plain flour

Preheat oven to around 180 C. Line three baking trays with baking parchment. Prepare a pastry bag with a plain 1.25cm piping nozzle.
Separate the eggs. Whisk the egg yolks with 1/2 of the sugar and all of the vanilla. Beat until very light coloured.
In a clean bowl beat the egg whites until they hold soft peaks. While beating, slowly add the salt and the remaining sugar until combined. Gently fold the beaten egg whites into the egg yolk mixture.

Sieve the flour over the egg mixture and gently fold it in.

Fill the pastry bag with half of the batter and pipe 9cm fingers, 4cm apart, in rows on the baking parchment. Continue with the second half of the batter in the same manner.

Bake at 180 C for about 15 minutes until firm to the touch and golden. Remove the paper and fingers from the baking tray and place on racks to cool. After cooling, remove fingers from the paper and use or store between layers of greaseproof paper in a airtight container. These freeze well.

How much greens should my child eat a day?

green smoothie

Kids (and adults too) need greens for a variety of reasons, chiefly because greens contain the nutrients essential for healing and growth.

But kids are notoriously difficult to feed greens to. Parents over the generations have developed strategies and threats to get their little darlings to eat greens. And they are not wrong in that.

My tried and tested way has always been to get my kids to chug down green smoothies.  I swear by them. Over time, they may even grow to like it.

Here’s how you make a monster green smoothie:

Use as many different varieties of greens as you can find. Organic, if possible. If not, wash them thoroughly. The dark, leafy ones are the best. Spinach and lettuce are tasteless, so they are good starters.

To make the green combos tasty, add one or more of the following:

1. Banana

2. Apple

3. Pineapple

4. Dragonfruit

5. Melon

6. Coconut water and/or coconut flesh

Blend, and drink at room temperature, within 15 minutes.

Tip: for young children and newbies, try serving the green smoothie in shot glasses, so that it looks less intimidating.

.green smoothie kid


This is my blend for the day: I added in dates, for the sweetness.

photo-79 copy










Food safety: Eggs


On of the most disquieting things I heard in recent months is a 9 year old girl developing breast cancer. Of course, the causes of cancer are multifactorial, namely genetic, environmental, lifestyle and nutritional, to name a few. There is no one culprit that we can definitively lay the blame squarely on for making the C-word mainstream. But there is no doubt about it: more and more pharmaceutical by-products are seeping into our food chain, chemicals that are not meant for human consumption.

In eggs that you buy in supermarkets, for example. Eggs are good sources of nutrition. They are versatile, delicious, and an affordable source of protein. But it is so difficult to find organic eggs that are free from growth hormones and antibiotics. These are more expensive that the normal ones, sure, but are still reasonable cost-wise compared to other sources of proteins. I bought eggs with a particular strong branding implying that the products are healthy and green, but a perusal into the company website showed that the eggs are not free from stuff that I do not want in my body (especially my growing child’s). In the tropical paradise of Phuket, ‘clean’ eggs are not easy to find.

What are clean eggs by my definition? I want eggs that are cage-free (I don’t want them laid by hens in battery-cages), antibiotics-free and hormones-free. If possible, I want eggs that are organic as well, namely the laying hens are not fed with animal byproducts or genetically modified (“GMO”) crops but are fed with feeds that have been produced on land that has been free from the use of toxic and persistent chemical pesticides and fertilizers for a minimum of three years. Apparently, the supermarket in Central is one of the few places (other than specialised organic shops) that one can find these pure eggs, though I am not sure how rigorous the organic certification in Thailand is.

Click on this link for the US standards :


But I was very happy when my neighbour Richard Boyle presented me with a dozen. Now that I know where I can lay my hands on them, I will be cooking up a storm with these babies. Stay posted for yummy recipes! The eggy treat shown below is from a previous post: Spinach and eggs, German-style. Served with truffle butter on warmed toast, it is sheer decadence.

egg and spinach


Here’s another wonderful, healthy recipe with eggs: energy pancakes


And finally, don’t forget the simple omelette.  Load it with sweet Spanish onions, mushrooms and sun-dried tomatoes for a wonderful, protein-filled treat (gluten-free too).


Tip for egg safety: wash all egg shells, store eggs at 40F or below, in the interior of the refrigerator, rather than the door, which is subject to variable temperatures. Cook eggs – yolks and all – to a temperature of 160F if you are pregnant or vulnerable. I love runny yolks so I take the risk 🙂

Scrambled eggs: Cook until firm, not runny.

Fried, poached, boiled, or baked: Cook until both the white and the yolk are firm.

Egg mixtures, such as casseroles: Cook until the center of the mixture reaches 160 °F when measured with a food thermometer.


Another woman’s son

Two years ago, I wrote a parenting book, Barefoot in the City, and I dedicated the book to Antonio Castellano.

Antonio works for McKinsey & Company. He worked crazy hours in Jakarta. But in the fast-paced world of international business, Antonio never stopped being the boy from Sicily who loves football and who stays close to his boyhood friends. He holds on to the values of the old world and his connection to what that is real and meaningful. This I admire and love deeply, because it is so easy to lose our way when a fast and glamorous existence beckons. Lost, we develop a new set of values, a new reality, to justify our less-than-honourable actions and selfish choices in pursuit of temporary highs and fools’ gold.

My eldest son Nicolas plays in the same fast and glamorous world as Antonio. I have told Nicolas several times in the past, get close to Antonio, talk to him, learn from him. Never forget where you come from and the values that your parents brought you up with. Be like Antonio. After all, both men are not that dissimilar: both are the eldest of five children, both are sons of mothers who are religious and who are doctors, both have fathers who are wonderful, strong fathers.  Both are successful, despite their idyllic childhoods.

Antonio endeavours to spend several weeks a year in Sicily at Christmastime with his family, despite his hectic work schedule and ample opportunities to be somewhere else glamorous. But for Antonio, it has always family and home.

“Wine?” I tease.

“Yes,” Across the miles, I can so easily imagine his megawatt-bright smile as he walks home late at night through the streets of Sicily, talking on his phone to me. “Pasta and family too. It was a good night.”

I feel a deep longing in my heart. “Don’t forget to bring back for me vin santo. And cantucci. And that little fried pastries from the corner of your apartment block.”

He doesn’t forget. His bag spills with goodies for me, even though he travels with carry-on luggage only. I dive on the goodies, cooing gleefully like a little girl, completely ignoring the little Hermes box.

“I have been thinking about my parents,” he says. “What keeps a long marriage going.”

Me: “Love?”

He: “Complicity.”

Me: ‘Read to me.”

He: “Ambrogio’s book?”

Me: “No, your essays. The stuff you wrote. And then Ambrogio’s book later.”

Ambrogio, his boyhood friend, who wrote the beautiful story about wartime love in Monte Rosa. Antonio remains in close contact with his boyhood friends. Four hours after arriving in Milan, I faced six of those guys, and he was sitting there, happiest as I have ever seen him, as they teased him mercilessly about his (lack of) footballing skills. This is his world, this is the real world. This is what that really matters.

That deep connection and transmission of old values are maintained throughout the year whilst he was in Jakarta by the effort of his Uncle Sal. Uncle Salvatore is a schoolteacher back in Sicily. He would send recipes, along with his teachings. As we ate the food, so too we imbibed the good values from home.  Through Antonio, I started to feel proud to be quarter Italian.

So my question is, do we invest enough in teaching our children core good values? And do we do enough to keep the education going for our older children? Do we hold them close enough in adulthood so that they don’t lose their way? Have we ourselves lost our way?

“For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul?”

~ Matthew 16:26

And it was precisely for this reason that I wrote my parenting book, a book about raising kids to be happy, strong AND decent human beings. Someone that his parents can be proud of, someone who leaves a legacy of light in a darkening world. As with the book, I dedicate this blog to another woman’s son, the boy from Sicily who grew up to be the man who read to me, cooked for me, and sat with me in the Catholic church in Jakarta, the sweetest moments ever. Lei, Castellano.

My message for the day: hold your children close, hold each other close. Spend more time in your hometown, connect those old values once more. And if you have time, read the fable of Icarus.

antonio 2

When is the right time to have kids?

I don’t think men are ever ready to have kids.

When I told the father of my children I was pregnant, he went off sailing for a week with zero contact (whilst my mother fretted and my father went ballistic). In that time, I thought seriously about having an abortion because I had already been accepted for medical school.  He, in the meantime, contemplated running off to Paris to start a new life.

Looking back, I don’t blame him. He was in his twenties, enjoying an exciting, selfish life to the maximum. He worked enough (rather than climb the career ladder) to feed his hobbies. Feeding kids certainly wasn’t on his agenda. He lived out of a suitcase in his friend’s back room, spending all his money on his three boats and alcohol.

I told him the news at Langstone Harbour, England. I had walked there, to make it more dramatic. He was about to set off for the Olympics Trial. He was ranked 21st in the country for the Finn class sailing, and was filled with optimism and excitement for a bright future ahead. Getting the one-night stand pregnant certainly wasn’t on his agenda.

But he came back, and came through strong for his child and I. Beneath the hellraiser was a decent, honourable Catholic boy. He came back after a week at sea. Though I freed him of all obligations, he wasn’t going to let me bring up his child on my own. He wasn’t going to allow me to have an abortion. He believed in the sanctity of life, that life is a gift whatever the circumstances.

Of course he wasn’t the perfect partner. To start off with, we are so different from each other, with nothing in common except animal passion. He wasn’t excited the way first time dads are supposed to be. He didn’t want to attend parenting classes or go shopping for baby things. He couldn’t understand how I changed from a fit, sporty person to this hormonal, weak woman. He just didn’t want to know.

But when his first son arrived, there was just the biggest smile on his face. Those startling blue eyes softened the way I have never seen them soften. His big hands cradled the new life we had unwittingly, accidentally, made. He came to his firstborn with such reverence.

My mother said she will never forget the smile on his face as he walked down the path to my house at 8am on the unforgettable April morning to tell my parents the news in person. He walked, with pride and happiness radiating from him, my blood and amniotic fluid still on his jeans. My mother said she often sees that young man walking down the path, almost three decades later.

He was the perfect father the moment he held his firstborn, and he continues to be the perfect father for all his children. He is the one who read to them every night and kissed them with gratitude every night, more so than me.

And that summer, standing on Langstone Harbour, we saw his beloved Fireball sailing out in the Solent with her new owners. The sail was billowing, and someone was on the trapeze on the boat, skimming the waves, cruising at speed.

“There she goes,” he said with emotion, blue eyes crinkling as he stared at his beloved Fireball setting off. We were leaving our much-loved Portsmouth, where I come from, to go to Manchester, where I will be starting university, to an uncertain future, far from the life that we had originally intended.

It’s August 2014. In 18 months’ time when we return to England, I will buy him a Fireball so that he may sail in these waters once more. Though the years have aged him, the blue in his eyes never changed. He will always be the man I love, the father of my children. Looking at our big brood of beautiful children, I know I couldn’t have asked for more, because what is life, if not family?

And so, with learned wisdom and experience, here’s what I think: men are never voluntarily ready to trade in their carefree life for fatherhood. It’s just too scary, and if you read Richard Dawkins’ book, The Selfish Gene, it is counter-intuitive biologically.  You just have to pick a decent one to give your womb space to, that’s all. Tip: Spanish genes and Catholic upbringing are strong bets.

Cacao and nuts enerG bars

G dislikes cooking. She thinks it is ‘boring’ and a waste of time, and tries to get out of kitchen duties at home all the time. But preparing good healthy food is one of the life-skills that I absolutely insist my children learn from a young age. No excuse. Even if you are destined to be a star, you need to be self-sufficient. You need to learn how to take care of yourself.

Here are some cacao bites that G made. They were inspired by the almond bars I had at Alchemy, the lovely raw food café in Ubud, Bali.

G cacao

It can’t get any simpler, or healthier. They are pure energy food, far better than any of the energy bars that you pay exorbitant prices for. Those shop-bought energy bars are full of sugars. These homemade ones are not.

Make them the G way, and you won’t regret it.




1. About 60g or quarter a block of Tru-Ra raw cacao butter

2. 1 to 2 cups of almonds and cashews

3. 1 handful raisins and or goji berries

4. 1 handful raw cacao nibs

5. 1-2 tablespoons wild honey

6.   1-2 tablespoons pure coconut oil

Combine all ingredients in a powerful blender. Adjust the coconut oil to a binding consistency.  Press dough into silicon moulds and chill until firm.  They are then ready to be popped out and enjoyed.

Perfect for lunchboxes!

Cacao bites


PS: We used this raw cacao butter:

Screen Shot 2014-08-19 at 10.01.26 PM



Our roadmap for raising children

We are not run-of-the-mill parents.  We had tried – unsuccessfully – to persuade our older children to be beach bums like us.  Didn’t work. They all went to universities and gotten respectable jobs as soon as they could. Hmm, it must be backlash against having hippie parents.

We raised our kids differently.  We did not fret when they couldn’t read at 6. We didn’t bat an eyelid when they did not come top of the class (or anywhere near the middle).  Why fret? Life is not a race where there is a prize to be won for being the youngest to achieve something.  Indeed, G never really read until she was 9 or 10 – right till then, her father read to her every night. But she is in the top set of an academic school for every subject.  It goes to show, a bright kid can always get to the top at the appropriate time. In the meantime, he or she has more important things to learn first, that will provide a foundation for all future learnings, that become their character.

Childhood is for learning other more important things than doing worksheets or memorising facts. Children have to be out there, living life in 3D and getting to know their world firsthand. It instils confidence in them and also a sense of being comfortable in their environment. It is from this base that they climb higher to achieve bigger things in the bigger world.

Our list of Six Must-Do’s for young children:

1. Swim by 18 months

2. Ride

3. Sail (in the UK, you can buy secondhand Topper or Mirror dinghies suitable for 8 year olds for 400pounds)

4. Two European languages (because they are English)

5. Look after pets

6. Have friends of other generations, nationalities, and social strata.

I swear G’s success stems from her physical confidence.  Feeling bored hanging around the lagoon, she swam out into the open sea, out to the yacht 300 metres away, to join the boys without a second thought. Priceless!

Spinach and eggs, German-style

Food, food, food!  We sat on the beach in Phuket, eating Pad Thai. Sorry to say, I did not like it (must be my delicate tastebuds, since both Thais and foreigners alike rave over street Pad Thai at 80baht a plate). I did not like eating rice sticks with lots of flavourings and crushed peanuts.  Nutritionally, it is bankrupt.  We moved on to fried pancakes and bananas with nutella and honey.  They tasted a whole lot better, but the pancakes were nutritionally bankrupt, too. These types of food fill you up, might taste delicious even, but there is not much nutrients in them, just carbs.  And help, my 14 year old is growing at a phenomenal rate, she needs good proteins!

And so this amazing dish that I recently learned from my German-Indonesian friend, Inge, who lives in Jakarta.  I will be eternally grateful to her. It is so simple to make, and is full of goodness. And what I love about it is, it is a storecupboard dish. I always have frozen spinach in the freezer and UHT cream in the larder, so no hassle whatsoever to rustle up this goodness.


1. Spinach, frozen ones that you get in bags will do, too

2. Chopped onions (my version, not Inge’s)

3. Butter

4.Full cream (about 100ml)

5. Milk (about 100ml)

6. 1 tablespoon flour

7. Grated nutmeg

8. Free-range eggs

9. Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Saute the chopped onion in butter until translucent. Roughly chop the spinach, add to the pan.  Add the flour and grated nutmeg. Add seasoning, and then add the cream and milk. Adjust for a thick, slurry-like consistency.

Spoon into oven-proof dishes. Crack an egg or two on top of each. Bake until the egg whites are cooked and the yolks slightly runny.

Thanks, Inge!

My fifth child and I….



My fifth child and I.

Her father and I put our lives on hold for her. We possibly kissed goodbye to our careers – being out for 2 years is not a good thing career-wise. And here we are, halfway across the world from the rest of the family, in Phuket.  We have never lived in Thailand before.

But this fifth child is worth it.


She is self-directed, she is strong and she works very hard. In the previous years, she had never missed the 6am football training sessions. As captain of the Dragons, she executed her role with great strength and determination, taking her team to its highest ever ranking. As her sports coach said in a tribute to her on the Awards evening (which she won the Most Valued Player award for basketball, her second sport), this girl never gives up, she never says die. Where she lacks in natural-born talent, she compensates with sheer hard work.

She knows it’s going to be a tough start. After being trained to play football the English way, she now has to learn Brazilian style football which requires greater skill and flair, and less reliance on speed and strength, with new coaches and new teammates.

But we know she will make it.

Because she is English, born in the middle of London, and to wear our national colours with the Cross of St George is the fire that will spur her on. Am so proud of my unEnglish-looking English girl. She’s da bomb. Don’t know whether that’s nature or nurture, though. Her older brother Jack has more talent but lacks the drive, though both were brought up in the same family, with the same set of rules. Nature or Nurture, folks?