The price of a happy child

Two years ago, we came to Phuket for Georgina’s football trials. We stayed for the weekend and had a lovely time. On the way back to the airport on Sunday night, we stopped at this beach, Nai Thon beach. We had an early dinner in a seafront cafe and watched the sunset. We were so happy.

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She is our much-loved youngest child and her passion is football. So we took the momentous decision to move countries for her. Her father gave up his well-paid job, and we moved into a simple, sunny house near the beach in Phuket.

She is such a happy, sunny child. She wakes up excited about life. Today, Friday, she has football practice after school and then she is going to a girl pal’s house for dinner after that. But chatting animatedly to us, she said she might have dinner at school first because she loves the ‘free’ food – apple pie with real cream, yum! – and the boarders order in pizza every Friday night.

“Don’t drink too much!” Her father joked. “You have football practice tomorrow morning.”

“I don’t need alcohol to be happy,” she retorted.

She is indeed a happy child, sunny all the way through. Her first years were spent in Portsmouth, less than 500 metres from her grandparents’ home. Apart from her siblings, she had cousins around her. She went to Story Time Nursery, and the principal is Mrs. Janet Josephine Storey, seen here. I don’t think they did much reading and writing, just lots of French, playing outdoors (even in winter) and being read to endlessly.

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She has a gift for maths, but we did not pursue that. In school, when she should have been in the Gifted & Talented programme, she was kicking a football around in the hot sun. She could have done much better at school, but for a girl who couldn’t read until she was eight, we were happy with where she was. She couldn’t draw and she couldn’t play musical instruments, though she occasionally strums the guitar alongside her rocker dad, but that’s OK. Those afternoons were filled with her howls of laughter, curious questions and sunny energy.

She played football in the midst of exams, she went on a little holiday with us and a little party here and there too; life went on as normal. But incredibly, she sailed through her IGCSEs with a very respectable number of A’s and A*’s. Even if she hadn’t, it wouldn’t have mattered, really. Her eternal sunshine and positivity would have seen her through the darkest days and highest mountains just fine.

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Raising my girls to be strong women

I have been asked, given my traditional views on parenting, if I raised my girls to be subservient to the boys, their protectors. Do I raise my girls to know how to cook, clean and be good parents? Yes, in the same way that I raised my boys to know to cook, clean and be good parents.

But in addition, I raised my girls to honour their evolutionary biology. Our strength as women is not gained from trying to be ‘better’ than the boys and beat them at their own game. Physiologically, women are weaker. Biologically, women have periods in their lives when they are reliant on others (during pregnancy and nursing). Emotionally, women are peacemakers and homemakers to ensure the survival of our species. Why change something that had served us so well for so many millennia?

Our great strength lies in our ability to cooperate with each other. Women need to trust and work together rather than regard other women as competitors in the fight for men and top jobs.

“I am more of a man’s woman than a woman’s woman,” an Asian woman brought up in Germany once told me proudly. What does that mean? Does that mean you are more European than Asian, this ’emancipation’?

“I have no time for women,” this person told me. “I prefer the company of men. I have more in common with them.”

Oh, I see.

We gain so much more from working together, especially with other women. Our biology supports that. In the periods when you need to rely on others, that others do not have to be a man. It can be other women who form your protective blanket. When I was gravely ill, apart from my male partner, my strongest supports were three amazing women.

You might denounce this article as amateur psychology, but just look at the success of Grameen Bank founded by Mohammed Yunus that concentrates the bank’s microcredit efforts on women. Women work so beautifully together.

And thus, I raised my daughters to be great friends with each other first and foremost, to learn this basic quality that makes us stronger than tempered steel IF we honour our difference. This is truly our real strength, the inane ability to build and grow together.

Back to my daughters. There are nine years and a son between my two daughters. Their lives together started with Kat, the older one, nurturing and caring for baby sister G. Kat was like a little mother hen and a fierce lioness all at once, protecting her young. She was so proud and defensive of her younger sister.

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But over the years, that role slowly evolved. Though still very much the respected one, Kat was relaxing her strictness towards her little sister bit by bit. They began doing things together like shopping for clothes and going to parties, though they are very different as individuals. They began having secrets with each other than no one else was privy to. And slowly, they became equals of sorts, evolving from mentor/protege to confidantes. You couldn’t find two young women who are closer friends, and that is indeed truly lovely to see.

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Six ways of managing teenage rebellion

I get absolutely no sympathy from my mother whenever I complained about her grandchildren. She would remind me with a smug grin that I was even worse. “You were a hundred times worse, Jac,” she would say cheerily.

Which leads me to think, teenage rebellion is a rite of passage. Children become teenagers before they become adults, and thus, the teenage years are a staging post where they push the boundaries and explore who they really are (rather than extensions of their parents). When teenagers rebel against your house rules, they are testing how far they can go and what they can get away with. Clamp them down too much and they fail to develop their own personalities. Give them too much liberty and they become unlikeable, obnoxious adults.

My feisty and headstrong sixteen year old G who has strong views on everything is surprisingly easy to deal with. For someone who claims to run her own life, she is surprisingly compliant with our house rules. For example, a few months ago, her whole year group was going out to the notorious party town of Patong to celebrate the end of the year-end exams. Our curfew was midnight. “But the party hardly starts then,” she protested half-heartedly. True. They were meeting up at 11pm. Her friend’s mother offered to accompany the girls and took out a hotel room in the middle of town. G asked if she could stay over. No. Of course. “Why?” She demanded. “I just want to know.”

And really, that was the end of our unpleasantness. I think a lot of it is down to establishing good communication between you and your teen. Recently, a mother issued her daughter ‘rap sheet’ which the daughter posted online and it went viral:

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You can read the story here.

These are my six tried and tested strategies of coping with teenage rebellion:

  • It starts long before then. It starts when your children were small enough to listen unquestioningly to your words. That is when you lay down the foundations of how your home is run and how your family life is lived. And what you find acceptable or not acceptable. For me, rudeness is never acceptable, so even when we are disagreeing, everyone must do so with respect for each other.

 

  • Build a good communication platform. Talk often to your teenagers. Show them that you are a good guy who sometimes have to play bad cop because that’s your job as a parent.

 

  • Don’t have too many rules. Have a few key ones that are non-negotiable. This means that you don’t exhaust yourself and use up your merits over inconsequential battles.

 

  • When rules need to be broken, come to a reasonable agreement. Because as parents, don’t be too arrogant about learning, too. It is never that simple and nor is parenting black-and-white. Be prepared to discuss and negotiate.

 

  • Don’t expect to solve everything with one conversation. Be prepared to park the matter and return to it later.

 

  • Do your best to create a happy family home (and that means you yourself being happy too). A happy teenager would be more likely to cooperate with you.

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The things you don’t say…

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My father took this photograph of me in October 2015. I remember it was a beautiful morning at home. We were staying in my parents’s house for a week or two, and had just come back from the Farmers Market in the town square. I had bought these organic curly kale.

Yet he harassed my Ma. “There’s something not right.”

I was outwardly normal but my Daddy knew that deep down, there was another picture. He and I fought viciously but he loves me very deeply, and with the depth of that love he has for me, he felt rather than heard. I was, and will always be, his little girl. My mind, body and heart were sick, and he knew. We sometimes communicate best when we say nothing at all, because we fight each time we use words.

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My normally docile Ma fought with him and ordered him to hold his tongue. My Ma with her infinite wisdom. “It shall come to pass”, she knew. Though she admitted it was difficult for her. She said she just trusted in a God that she does not believe in, but one that I believed in with all my heart.

In the mysterious way the world works, I went down to the depths of hell and arose again. I had six of the happiest months of my life. Just compare the photographs from October to April. The years and the cares fell off my as I live my best life. My partner says he could power a generator with my smile though he remembers a different me from November 2015 so very clearly.

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So my point is, be happy. Especially if you are a parent. That is the subject of my parenting book. Because if you are not happy and content, your kids will sense it (like my father sensing my true feelings). And that is nothing more damaging than that, even if you provide your child with good food and good house.

Here’s a cheesy song: When you say nothing at all

 

Insurance for your child’s future

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A few days ago whilst we were driving along the backroads of Phuket we saw these three boys in front of us. The oldest one who was riding the bike did not seem a day older than eleven, swigging Coke from a can whilst confidently navigating the roads like a seasoned rider.

“What a lovely way to grow up,” my children’s father commented. “When they are all grown up, they will have such happy memories of days like this.”

I have a different mindset. My immediate thought was about the tiny boy in front pitching forward and suffering catastrophic brain damage. I looked at my children’s father’s face. I could tell he was remembering his own childhood. He was the South East London version of these three boys. He and his mates would go off cycling deep into the Kent countryside from a very young age. They would go for miles. Once they decided to try to find Dartford Tunnel. They were gone for a long time and when darkness fell the police was called. The tired little boys were given a severe hiding by their mothers but no harm done, there was so much love. It was all part of growing up in a childhood couched with love.

Money and social status counted for nothing. There were no playdates, enrichment classes or tuition where my children’s father grew up. Sure, he could have done better at school and he could have done better socially if his parents were more educated, if they were more ambitious for their son or if they had more money to spare. But they did not and I am glad.

For he has grown up with beauty in his heart from his happy childhood days and has the simple ambition to create the same for our children. In my 48 years of having lived a rich and varied life, I have seen how important a good foundation is in building a happy and successful life. Though academic success is often hailed as the most important foundation of them all, look around you: how many people in successful careers are actually truly and deeply content with their exalted status quo compared with those with humbler lives? Do they actually live ‘better’ lives than those with less grand jobs, the teachers, the office workers, the carpenters, the shop assistants?

It is never worth sacrificing substance for form. It is my strong belief that a child has to have a strong foundation and that foundation is a happy childhood that they can always return to in their minds when the going gets tough, a safe refuge in the belief that there is a happier place always however dire the present is. I strongly believe that as parents, we should invest in building that place for our children. It is their insurance against bad days in their adult lives, far more so than a ticket to glory.

Here’s an analogy. This is one of the many stray dogs (called soi dogs in Thailand) who lives on the beach near my house. I see him almost every day. He is smart, sociable and healthy. The food vendors feed him well. There is a charity called The Soi Dog Foundation that takes care of strays. Someone put a collar on him but he belongs to no one, according to the food vendors. I thought of taking him home to keep as my pet. But I ask myself this, will this dog be happier in a ‘richer’ life than he is living free on the beach? A nice house means nothing. I once knew a person who said he couldn’t wait to leave home – and home for him was a big house in an affluent suburb.

This comes to my point: life cannot be measured in achievements or possessions but in happy moments that make up the story of our lives. To use the old adage, it is not the destination but the journey. It is how you lived the days of your life that matters.

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Towards Heart-Centred Capitalism

One of the most common regrets of parents in the developed world is the lack of time to spend with their children when the children were growing up. For these precious childhood years, when gone, are gone forever. You would have missed the most magical part of your children’s lives. And yours, too.

Yet not all parents who would like to spend the whole day baking or reading with their offspring are able to do so, because economics drives at least one parent out of the door into the world of work. If one chooses to live in an expensive city such as London, the household often requires two working parents to keep it afloat financially.

I would like to write a little piece on heart-centred capitalism. I am not trained in classical economics, though in my varied career, I once worked for an investment bank where I managed over U$800milion in equities for institutional clients. I, the scientist/medic, ended up working in an investment bank because I needed to pay the mortgage on my Knightsbridge flat. It cost me dear.

It led me to think, maybe economics in the capitalism-as-we-know-it framework does not work?

Many men – and I am being sexist here – work for big corporations. The so-called multinationals, which are often as large as a small country, proudly trumpeting their global reach as well as their ability to understand the local markets. But do these conglomerates practice what they preach when it comes to their employees, or are they proletarian in nature? In the olden days, these powerful large companies use their considerable assets to look after their employees, providing loyal staff with cradle-to-grave job security. The company was like one big, happy and close family where members look after each other.

I do not think that mentality exists now. The world is more dog-eat-dog, more competitive, and the job market is more fluid. Technology has changed a lot of things. Big structures have found to be unwieldy and unsteady, as the former Soviet Union proved, and as the current precarious state of the European Union shows. The economic crisis of 2008 was yet another indication that we have to rethink our current framework. I do not think global economy has fully recovered from 2008, and we are bearing the pain through a rising pension age for the workforce, privatisation of education and healthcare, and a huge burden of debt for many ordinary young people. For me, this smacks of a return to slave capitalism that predates industrial capitalism.

But if you look beneath the surface, you will find a thriving alternative economy based on collectivism and solidarity. If you are a parent, you would be familiar with carpooling. You would be familiar too, with babysitting arrangements with other parents. You might even do group-buys. Expand that into the world of work, and you get Wikipedia, which has $3billion in revenues, which put the encyclopedia business out of existence, which was built solely on collectivism. In 2006, Mohammad Yunus won the Nobel Peace Prize. He developed Grameen Bank. Grameen Bank lends to those that commercial lenders would not touch: the bank is founded on the belief that people have endless potential, and unleashing their creativity and initiative helps them end poverty. And despite never ever having any legal agreements with those whom it lends money to, there have been very few defaulters. Contrast that with the now defunct Lehman Brothers. We are still paying back Lehman’s fallout one way or another.

Isn’t it about time we rethink capitalism? Do we live to work until we are 70 years old, merely to buy the things that we do not need or a lifestyle that we do not want?

I am hoping to persuade my partner that after over a decade of serving as a loyal servant in the corporate world that he should step out of it and into this wonderful place with me where we will live on fresh air, sunshine and love. This is the time to abandon the sinking ship of slave capitalism and dissolve the punishing market forces to create a paradigm of parallel currencies, cooperatives, non-market products and shared resources of heart-centred capitalism. We will live well, and with meaning.

Legs Are For Walking

Parenting is a very personal journey, and I am sure I will be slated for this post. However, I will still post this, because I would like to see a shift in mindset towards raising healthy kids.

Each time your child whines, “Carry me” and you give in, you are not ‘spoiling’ your child emotionally. You are de-skilling your child. You are taking away his opportunity at that moment, to learn resilience. You are also not giving him the opportunity to work on his developing muscles.

Let us start from the scientific angle. Children need to develop muscle tone. It is that muscle tone that allows a flexible foetus to be curled up in the womb, to develop into a baby who could sit up, crawl and eventually walk upright. The primary muscles required for this is the group of muscles that are loosely referred to as the core muscles. The core muscles can be visualised as a broad belt encircling the human body. Weak core muscles are the cause of bad posture, which over time, can lead to chronic back pain. For a child with weak core muscles, you see slouchy sitting position (exacerbated by hours sitting down). A floppy child is also often tired, because in that suboptimal position, he is not breathing efficiently. Her internal circulation may also be compromised. She may not be as active as she should be for her age group. Having weak core muscles is certainly not a good foundation for a young body that still has many decades of living to get through.

As children do not go to the gym to strengthen their core muscles (and there is no need to), they need to walk at every opportunity. On the emotional development side, children also need to learn to be resilient and self-sufficient. By three – yes, during the Terrible Threes – they should be learning about their body and the world they live in. Walking is one of the fundamental movements in life, and it also moves a child towards being independent from the mother. It empowers them.

If a child has strong physicality, she feels empowered. She is not afraid of feeling breathless or hot or tired. She embraces the different experiences. She feels confident about exploring the world and confident of her place within it, once she is comfortable with her body and its many experiences. You are empowering your child, when you move her from whining “Carry me” to “Yes, I can, Mummy.”

Children need to move for their brain development, and being attached to a parent like a limp rag doll does not constitute moving.

It is also about learning boundaries. Children need to know that there are certain things in life that they have to do for themselves, which Mummy cannot do for them. And walking is one of them.

Teaching boundaries to children is one of the challenges of parenting, namely how to teach them with love so that they grow up joyous. For me, over the course of five children, I discovered that it is with love, laughter, firm rules, consistency, joy, forgiveness and unconditional love that we teach our children that they have to accept parental autonomy. Parenting is not about giving in all the time, but a healthy balance of meeting your child’s needs as well as teaching him the things he needs to learn.

So if you have a child who is older than three, I would like to suggest trying to do away with the pushchair/stroller and see the changes. You will thank me in a few months time … big smile.

Photograph: 2 year old Georgina trying to keep up with her parents and siblings in foot-high snow.

We Travel To Come Home – An Indonesian Odyssey

My time in Asia is rapidly coming to a close. After almost a decade of being away, I am finally returning home to London with my partner. It is somewhat unusual that he, a German, and I, a Brit, met each other halfway across the world, only to come home to set up a family together. I think our time spent in the pressure cooker of another culture somehow forged a strong bond between us, because there we were, together in a strange land, trying to find a smidgeon of happiness, peace, ambition, laughter and love so far from home.

It wasn’t always easy. My biggest challenge was the lack of nature and open spaces in Jakarta. Being a Portsmouth girl, my happiest memory had always been skiving school and going to the beach with my younger brother in the summer months or walking the South Downs with my parents. In Jakarta, it would take us nearly two hours driving time to get to the nearest strip of sand and sea. I just could not get into the shopping mall and cinema culture. Only last weekend, my partner and I hopefully searched the Internet for a reasonable film to while our Saturday, but ended up at home instead. Fortunately, we enjoy being in each other’s company very much or the whole thing between us would have fallen apart, given that there was no escape to ‘go tell it to the sea’.

I was terribly homesick in my last years, but in the words of philosopher Martin Buber (b 1878, d 1965), “All journeys have secret destinations of which the traveler is unaware”. For me, the secret destination that I was meant to be, but was unaware of, is in the heart of the Mediana family.

Dr. Achmad Mediana was a doctor practicing in Jakarta when I first met him. In those days, I was newly arrived, the Rule Britannia mentality virulent in me, and I was idealistic and arrogant. On my first day, I demanded to know what pain relief options were available to patients.

“My face,” Achmad said with a big, beaming smile. “When patients see my face, they are happy and they forget about pain.”

In the years that I worked closely with him, I began to open up and let go. I grew softer and more yielding. In the process, I learned amazing new things that are breathtaking in simplicity yet deeply meaningful.

One of Achmad’s favourite sayings (which became a private joke between us) is ‘God’s assets’. Achmad is remarkably generous with his material possessions, including his money, which he distributes easily to his various charitable projects and sometimes, to his patients. “It’s all God’s assets, Jacqueline,” he would say with that same big, beaming smile.

One day, during one of our many long journeys in the car battling the legendary Jakarta traffic jam, Achmad turned to me and said, “Eh, Jacqueline. When my mother died, I learned one last lesson from her. I learned that however rich you are, you can only take with you the white cloth that your corpse is wrapped in. Your grave is still the same size as everyone else’s. The rest is God’s assets.”

Today, Achmad co-owns a small private hospital. I told my partner about it. My partner laughed as we discussed Achmad’s unique take on the world, including when it comes to business. He has four full-time doctors, 32 medical staff and 11 patients, but he is a happy man.

“Eleven, Achmad?” I asked incredulously. “Only eleven?”

“Don’t be greedy, Jacqueline,” he said, totally unconcerned. “I am happy when my patients are happy.”

My dear Dr. Achmad Mediana, this is your legacy. You have shown these two foreigners how to look at values and valuation in a totally different light, and this is what I travelled halfway across the world to learn. Thank you for the years, with much love always.

My partner’s blog post on Dr. Achmad Mediana:

http://agermanonthemove.blogspot.com/2015/09/11-patients-4-doctors-and-1-happy.html

Food From My Childhood: Lemon Drizzle Cake

I absolutely dislike cakes. I don’t eat cakes.

But I often find myself baking cakes.

All because I have a stay-at-home mum who baked cakes, bread, biscuits and pies in our sunny kitchen. I love the smell of baking, which is synonymous of a very happy time in my life. Childhood conditioning is indeed a strong force.

Here’s a slightly healthier version of the classic Lemon Drizzle Cake – I serve it with lemon yoghurt instead of the traditional drizzle made with icing sugar.

You will need:

175g unsalted butter

200g caster sugar

250g unbleached flour

2 tsp baking powder

1/2 tsp bicarbonate of soda

Pinch of sea salt

3 medium eggs at room temperature, beaten

100ml full cream milk, at room temperature

Grated zest of 2 unwaxed lemons

Preheat oven to 180C. Grease baking tin. Combine butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Sieve together the flour with the baking powder, bicarbonate of soda and salt. Add in the dry ingredients with the wet ones alternately. Mixed until smooth. Transfer to the greased baking tin and bake until firm in the middle and light gold all round.

Serve with thick set yoghurt and a squeeze of lemon juice mixed into the yoghurt.

Six ways of having a fabulous summer on a tight budget

As the summer months edge into September, I cannot help but feel a tinge of regret. I always do, because summers had always been magical for me ever since my children were born. We were financially not well-off in those days, given that I was a University student and my children’s young father did not have a highly paid job. But we had something infinitely more precious than cold hard cash, and that was time plus the mindset to enjoy that time with our children. OK, I must confess here that in the beginning, we used to fight over this: I would rather we worked during the summer months to ease our tight financial situation, but he resolutely would not work at all from July to September. Oh, how we fought over our ideals, but I am glad he won hands down in this instance, because we have had close to 30 magical summers in our lifetime together.

Here are our trialled and tested ways of having a fabulous summer on a tight budget:

  1. Home exchange

This sounds unbelievable, but we exchanged our humble council house in a rough estate in Manchester with a couple from Italy who wanted two weeks of ‘hard culture and party’. Welcome to the Barlow Hall estate, folks, where most of our unemployed neighbours stayed up late drinking cheap beer and watching football on television (you could hear the swearing though the thin walls). The couple from Italy was quite tight-lipped about what they had to offer (they posted photographs that gave very little clues), but we thought we had nothing to lose anyway because no house could be crappier than ours. Imagine our surprise when we arrived at a small palazzo in Venice. Apart from the stress of our children wrecking priceless carpets and falling into the canal, I must say it was one heck of a fabulous summer.

Websites for home exchange:

https://www.homebase-hols.com

http://www.homelink.org.uk

  1. Camping

Over the years, I have visited some really amazing places, but when it comes to sheer magic, nothing could ever beat waking up in a tent in the morning, stepping outside and seeing hundreds of wild New Forest ponies streaming past within feet of me. My children were completely blown away.

Thus, investing in a tent was the best investment we ever made. If you are a camping newbie, you could try ‘glamping’ (glamorous camping) or camp in specialised campsites where you could find help on hand, running water and loo.

Though for me, nothing beats hitting the road with the children in the backseat of our old Land Rover, pitching up our tent wherever fancy took us. We camped in a cornfield in Luxembourg one summer (which must surely be the weirdest place ever) and had such a beautiful time in the fields of gold, feasting on corn, making corn dollies and going on long walks. Sometimes we ventured into the town for showers, to buy provisions and visit the sights. We waited every morning for the farmer to evict us, but he never came. We left a bottle of wine and a heartfelt Thank You note thanking him for one of the most magical holidays we have ever had.

  1. Visit hospitable friends

My eternal gratitude always to my dear friend Ruedi Achermann who very kindly loaned us his sumptuous apartment in front of the Rhine when we couldn’t afford holiday lets. We would chug to Basel on our trusty old beast of a Land Rover and live like lords for weeks on end. Look earnestly into your address book – you will have friends like Ruedi Achermann somewhere in there.

  1. Pack up with similar friends

Exploit economies of scale. Go on holiday with like-minded friends with children of the same age group. Not only do the children entertain themselves, adults can trade babysitting duties too.

  1. Collect coupons

We painstakingly collected coupons from The Times for free ferry crossing to France in low-season February, sailed to France for Valentine’s Day and made our magical third daughter there, all on a shoestring budget.

  1. Work for your board

My daughter’s martial arts coach from the UK will be running a three-month martial arts training camp on the beautiful tropical paradise Phuket. His wife and daughter will be accompanying him for this experience of a lifetime. And you guess it, free board and lodging for the whole family, an opportunity to visit somewhere amazing and start something …. all on a shoestring (airfares covered as part of the deal).

An evocative article on autumn: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-3220331/Crackling-bonfires-new-books-school-Yes-end-summer-saddest-time-year-adore-it.html