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Singaporeans Abroad: Overseas Mama Licia Lee’s Brittany

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Singaporean mamas are doing amazing things all over the world! Meet Singaporean Licia Lee who is rocking Rennes, Brittany with her young family

Serial backpacker Singaporean mama Licia Lee is in the spotlight in this month’s ‘Overseas Mama’ interview. She first fell in love with the road less travelled when she was in National Institute of Education doing service learning in Sikkim. Today, she lives in Brittany in northwestern France, in a city known more as a stopover destination for tourists heading to Mont-Saint-Michel or Saint-Malo than a city where foreigners choose to settle down in. Read on for how Licia keeps her kids in touch with their Singaporean roots, raises them as multilinguals plus tips on what to do in Rennes with kids in tow and gold advice on surviving a flight with young children! 

Can you tell us a little about yourself?
I am 36 years old and have been married to my French husband for six years! We have two sons, 4.5-year-old Leo and 11-month-old Clément. Before relocating to France, I usually spend my holidays solo backpacking. I would buy an air ticket one day in advance and off I go. Neither pregnancy nor travelling with a kid could stop me. I would just grab Leo and go on trips, whether by train or plane. The solo backpacking bug bites me all the time, I am actually plotting to revisit the Himalayas on my 40th birthday!

What brought you to Rennes? How long have you been living overseas?
When my husband listed a few cities in France we could live in, I chose Rennes over the bigger cities for its simplicity and its Celtic charm. In fact, the decision to move to Rennes was made and the apartment purchased when he was in Rennes on a one-week work trip and I was backpacking in Laos, one-month pregnant with Leo. Before moving to Rennes, we had lived in various cities like Paris and London. Time flies, it’s almost our fifth year in Rennes.

Favourite aspect about living in Rennes?
The fresh produce! It’s one of the main reasons why we have chosen to raise our family here. We love the farmers market on Saturdays and being near the coast – just a 45-minute car ride to the beaches of Brittany – makes fresh seafood a part of our staple diet.

And the worst part?
The rain. It drizzles a lot and the rain can come very suddenly and in varying intensity, so much so the French even have a name for it – ‘averse’. For adults, it’s not much of a hassle but for kids playing in the playground, they have to deal with sudden, heavy rainfall that would stop as abruptly as it started.

Your most recent purchase for your children?
Caps and Uriage SPF50+ sunscreen because you can’t do without sun protection in school during the summer.

Your most recent purchase for yourself?
A tote bag and a book from Singaporean creative consultancy Fable. The EAT book is about Singapore’s hawkers and hawker centres while the tote bag has the word ‘crazy’ printed all over it. They were both featured in the Singapore Biennale 2017. The book even has inserts made of the brown wax paper we use to dabao food from hawker centres. Of course I could not resist it!

How do you think parenting in Rennes differs from parenting in Singapore? What do you appreciate most about it?
My two brats are ‘Rennaise Born and Breizh’ (Breton and born in Rennes) so I have yet to experience parenting in Singapore. In Rennes, having children and attending to their needs is a big part of life. Like many moms in Rennes, I nurse my second child a lot in public. I feel that nursing in Singapore is a much more intimate affair.
Overall, parents in Rennes are calm and cool. The parents of Leo’s schoolmates would tell me about the local attractions for kids when we bump into one another in the streets and also invite Leo to play dates. As I slowly participate in more activities for kids, I am impressed that there are actually many kiasu parents here in Rennes, some of whom are more kiasu than I am!

Did you give birth to your children in Rennes? If yes, what was memorable about the experience?
Yes, both of them. I gave birth to Leo 2.5 months after moving to Rennes. I was supposed to have a midwife to deliver my baby, instead I had two male midwives! During my stay at the hospital, the staff took care to make sure that we were ready to care for the baby before discharging me. Thank you, French health care system!

Can you talk us through your career pre- and post-baby?
 I was a primary school teacher with a double degree and a diploma in General Education. Motherhood had taught me that time is really precious so I decided to do a Masters in Luxury and Brand Management when Leo was only six months old.
My husband works a lot from home, so we played TAC team during that period. My Masters internship with luxury Parisian footwear label Corthay fulfilled two dreams: becoming a translator and a copywriter. Thanks to it, I eventually started working on translation and copywriting assignments for small companies. The next three years saw me chase my teenage dreams one at a time.

Favourite kid-friendly restaurant in Rennes?
It will have to be the crêperie La Saint Georges on rue Jules Simon. It is stroller-friendly and there is a big lobby for kids to run and sketch, with colouring materials provided! Otherwise there are many kid-friendly cafes in Rennes such as Café Albertine which has a mini library and a play corner that even comes with a play kitchen.
I also love Whitefields Café, just 15 minutes away from the city centre, with a food court/ bar concept serving French, Italian and Asian food. It is spacious, has free foosball and arcade games as well as a vintage Citroen van for children to play in. Most importantly, it plays music from the 80’s and 90’s, which is perfect for parents.

Top five places in Rennes you would recommend to parents traveling with kids?
– Les Champ Libres – It is a cultural centre equipped with a library, a science centre, a planetarium and a board games room. It also hosts temporary exhibitions and you can find the Museum of Brittany here too. I cannot praise this place enough!
– Parc du Thabor – This park is conveniently-located in the city centre and comes with an aviary, a rose garden, an orangery, a botanical garden, a waterfall, a bistro and a big children’s play area.
Marché de Lices  – At the farmers market every Saturday in the heart of the city, there are mini performances, food to taste and, what’s more, it is a ‘Rennes or shine’ event!
Ecomusée du pays de Rennes  – It houses a museum and a farm of domesticated animals and crops native to Brittany. Pro tip: Beverages and snacks are only sold through vending machines unless if there is an event.
Forêt de Brocéliandé – Associated with the medieval magic and legends of King Arthur, this forest is where Merlin’s tomb can be found. Literature and legends aside, there are waterfalls and streams, creepy entwining trees, a castle and an enormous rock safe enough for kids to climb on for an Insta-worthy snapshot.

Any advice for surviving a flight with young children?
 – Tempting as it is, I try not to overpack my cabin baggage. Keeping track of all the various bags and items can add unnecessary stress and it’s better to have a clear mind and my hands free.
– I always call to confirm special meals and bassinet availability even if the online flight itinerary says they have been booked.
– On the day of the flight, I keep my kids hydrated, their skin moisturized and I feed them “safe” food – not too much sugar and hopefully nothing that will lead to poop accidents.
– At the airport, I always double check the allocated seats printed on the boarding pass with the online seat allocation to ensure that the airline staff has given me the right seats.
– For security checks, I pack all electronic devices and liquid items in two big ziplock bags so I only need to take out the two ziplock bags at the luggage scanners.
– Recently I’m also trying out a new practice: Pack a big foldable bag in my cabin baggage that I will use to store everything I need during the flight and then unpack the items back into my cabin baggage just before we disembark.
– In the plane, I always make sure my kids are buckled whenever possible and let them sleep with their seat belts visible to the crew. Once the kids are asleep, I reward myself with a hot beverage, eye masks and inflight movies!

Is there something that you do to keep your children in touch with their Singaporean roots?
Other than raving about and visiting Singapore as often as we can, we go out in flip flops and shorts, weather permitting. Joking aside, we have Singaporean friends and family come visit us regularly. There’s usually a Singaporean guest at home every other month. So for the children, there is always a Singaporean presence in the household other than myself.
We have a landline subscription that allows us to call internationally at local rates and we tend to abuse that a lot. Lots of video-conferencing too as my mother is pretty adept at using FaceTime and WhatsApp video calling. Food-wise, we have our Sunday treats: chilli tapioca chips, Yeo’s drinks and Singaporean food from our local Asian grocery store.

Best souvenir one could bring back from Rennes for a child:
King Arthur costumes or caramel sweets in fancy gift tins.

Best souvenir one could bring back from Rennes for a mam friend:
Sea salt with algae and herbs from the farmers market. That 200g bag of salt will go a long way.

What do you find is the hardest part of being a mother living in a foreign country?
There is a part of me that always feels that I could not give my parents the full “grandparents experience” or take my friendship with my Singaporean girlfriends to the next level. On days when I feel lazy to cook, I can’t help but dream of going to the hawker centre to dabao fried Hokkien prawn mee.

On raising multilingual children …
Consistency is the key. I constantly remind myself to speak to them in different languages and I make a conscious effort to plan a Chinese curriculum using books and manipulatives that I make myself. We also constantly expose our children to different cultures using child-initiated learning. For example, Leo loves trains so he learns about the world through trains such as Japan’s Shinkansen.

What do you always bring back from Singapore for yourself and for your children?

Things from Daiso, chilli tapioca chips, Malay food premixes for me and Chinese books for my children.

Your top makeup tip for a busy mama?
A BB cream with SPF for the day because it needs to be aesthetically functional. If I have a bit of time, I’ll apply CLIO’s “Kill Cover” Pro Artist Liquid Concealer, highly recommended for the signature under-eye dark circles of motherhood.

Tell us about your go-to recipe for your family.
A quinoa salad with ham (or whatever I find in my fridge), seaweed strips for iron and fibre and goji berries for colour. I can easily pack it in an insulated food jar since quinoa keeps well without sticking together.

What’s the one thing you would miss about Rennes if you moved away?

Eating galettes made of artisanal buckwheat flour while sipping a bowl of cider in a crêperie amidst slightly-tilted 700-year-old timber-framed houses.

Images courtesy of Licia Lee

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