Archives for category: lifestyle

Yes, it’s the post that answers the questions that I’m most frequently asked – who have you met? Have you found it easy to make friends? Are expats dreadful?

What are they like indeed? The worst was the Dutch man who, less than 48 hours after spending a joint family day together hiking, said ‘sorry, do I know you?

Oh we have met some revolting people but also some fabulous people we will know all our lives.

Last year, the artist Grayson Perry wrote a BAFTA winning documentary about the class system in the UK. What was particularly interesting was his idea that you can break class down into ‘tribes’. And each tribe likes to stay within its perimeters. The upper middle class is based upon intellectual snobbery, unhinged financial values and a desire for social superiority against your neighbour.

A lot like the expats then.

Here are my worst and best.

The most common excuse I have heard to justify rude behaviour is from the long term expats. They seem to think that you get emotionally bruised by making friends and having them constantly leave you to go home. Apparently it makes you very wary of ‘giving’ yourself to new people.

#1 The Lifer

Lifer “How long have you been in Singapore?
Me “About 2 months or so.
Lifer (laughing) “Oh God, I just can’t handhold somebody else that is new in town.
Me “I’m 44 and really don’t need you to hold my hand.
Lifer (now talking to her equally manicured friend) “Don’t you just wish people would have a sign telling you how long they’ve been here?”.
Me “Do you go to the school coffee mornings?”
Lifer “Yes, are you going to go? It’s a great way for you to listen to us talk and find out about Singapore.
Me “No”.

#2 L’Oreal – because I’m totally worth it.

On being introduced L’Oreal (fully decked out in tennis gear and diamonds) she turned to me and said,

L’Oreal “Do you belong to the British Association and do you play tennis?”
Me “I don’t play tennis and am not sure yet about joining the other.”
L’Oreal didn’t reply, she just turned on her (very white) tennis shoe heel and walked away. To her back I called out “I think I’m pretty decided now”

#3 The Do-Gooders

Do-Gooder “I’m collecting pencils to take to an orphanage charity in India I’m going to visit”
Me” Oh ok, do the orphanage need just pencils or are you collecting other things for them?”
Do-Gooder (ignoring me) “Me and Yan are going to take Hansel and Gretel there so they can see their little faces light up when we give them the pencils?”
Me (slightly persistant) “But do they need 3000 pencils? Have you TALKED to them?”

I was dismissed at this point, probably quite rightly as I think I was getting a bit punchy. I did have to laugh into my hand though when they reappeared after the holidays and marched into the school fully resplendent in all their new indian floating silks….

Nice aren’t they? But for every person you meet that makes you want to start walking and not stop you meet the people that you hold very dear.

#1 The Holiday Romance

We met Sharon and Eric waiting for a minibus to take us to the jetty in Malaysia to visit an island for a few days. Sharon is Singaporean, educated in the UK and now lives in the middle of the US. She has the poshest English accent I have ever heard! She and Eric are full of humour, wit and fun. We propped up the beach bar while the kids played wildly with the lovely staff at Rimba and I don’t think any of us stopped laughing.

beachcombers rimba

#2 Kids!

We walked passed Adam and Dimity on our way to our hotel room in Penang last Christmas. Millie took one look at their daughter and a friendship was born that was so immediate, and so fluid it still makes me well up. For the four days we were in Penang with them, Millie and Darcy were inseparable and so we got to know Adam and Dee and had one of the best holidays. We kept in touch and saw them again this Christmas in Singapore for a fabulous 2 days. Millie and Darcy needed no introduction.

The Real Deal #3

When you are finding your way in a new country when you make a real friend it is an unbelievably good feeling. Liz and Paul were our surrogate family over Christmas and we have had (sans kids) sunk many a frozen margherita with them. Liz also told me the most important fact about living in Singapore. She told me that when you buy a chicken here they still have their heads and feet attached. They cleverly fold them in – designed to give you a heart attack every time.

Kim and Bill have lived in Singapore for a long time. Kim is as happy floating elegantly around the malls on Orchard Road as she is wandering around the supermarket with me. When we met on a sort-of-husbands-work-social we got halfway through our 2nd drink when Kim announced she was taking her heels off and putting her flip flops back on. Our last afternoon out involved going to a park by the canal and a massive monsoon drain. It was empty as not many kids seem to go the park (a different post!) and nearly every bench was taken up with construction workers sleeping. The kids had a ball with Kim, her daughter and the fat dog and we both took a picnic. Out of Kim’s basket she pulled a chilled bottle of wine – enough said!

Kim and Liz, I couldn’t do this without you.

Well here we are in 2014. Hello to you and goodbye to 2013; it was quite a year.

For us 2013 started on a plane on our first trip to Singapore as a family. Ned was a complete monster on our maiden flight and I can remember thinking we would have to stay in Singapore because I’m not doing this again. By the time we moved out here in the early summer the kids and I had racked up 5 of those long haul flights and were all still speaking to each other.

2013 was a year of change; and change is good isn’t it?

This is not going to be a post about how wonderful it is to get out of your comfort zone.

We have had time on our hands to think about what makes us happy and what makes us tick and every conversation we have about where we want to be always takes us back to the same place; and that place is home.

What I’ve learnt in 2013 is that home for me is a much wider space than the four walls that keep the four of us safe at night. For me home is a much bigger deal, in fact it’s a HUGE deal. My dad often says we have two homes as I extend my sense of home to their house as well. We are always there. I’m also lucky that many of my oldest friends live so close to my parents giving me the very best of two worlds. My parents have a welcoming home like no other. I want more than anything to create my version for our children.

My favourite thing in the world is wandering around our garden with a cup of coffee on my own making plans – things to see, friends to invite over, jobs to do. It’s a family joke that no plant stays in the same place in the garden as over time you see how the light filters and the shadows fall, and the first place is never quite the right place. When we moved into our house in Kent it was rundown beyond belief. It was filthy and unloved. The garden was as diseased as the house and it took me the four years we lived there to coax it back to life. Once I’d managed it we spent so many happy times sitting outside with our family and friends. The home I miss is full to busting. Home here in comparison is a lonely place.

set table for dinner

garden

What we have embraced instead as ex-pats is a culture that I don’t like (or understand) very much. An ex-pat life makes people very brittle and surprisingly fragile, although this is often masked by generally quite appalling lapses in social niceties. My experiences with ex-pat women will be a separate blog post – worth waiting for! Suffice to say here that we are all different and what makes me tick does not make the ex-pat lady tick. I don’t have much spare cash so am neither groomed nor glossy. I don’t want to eat out all the time, I don’t want to shop. I would like to do yoga, go running, hang out with my friends drinking coffee but for me these things are accessories to a busy life; they are not ‘life’.

Without this wider sense of home you end up on a constant promenade. The ex-pat life is constantly moving and shifting as everyone tries to fill the void. Much like those plants in my garden at home everyone is trying to find their right spot in the world. We have just realised that we were in our right spot all along.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve made some friends for life on the Little Red Dot of Singapore and these friends make me laugh a lot but I am ready to go home now, we all are. It’s been an incredible adventure. The best gift this Christmas we have given Millie and Ned is their lack of fear of the world, and the world can seem a scary place. We have no doubts at all that Ned will travel when he’s older. He is wild; a chameleon that can fit in wherever he goes and with whoever he is with. Millie is a home body. She is adored by everyone on the condo for her chatterbox ways (never letting a language barrier deter her) but she never likes to stray like Ned. She, like me, wants to put down her roots and not be moved again. Dom has rediscovered his love of running while we have been in Singapore. He spends his quiet time looking at trail runs that he can do at home in Kent where it will be him and the odd early morning dog walker unlike in Singapore where each path is already crowded. He fuels our idea of home even further with his deep love of countryside and coast. Dom reminds us about how beautiful and blessed we are with what surrounds our home – these are the fields through the gate in our garden.

fields behind the house

And I am glad he took us on this asian road trip; he is our true adventurer. Millie summed it up in her own way ‘Singapore has been a really great long holiday, and we’re really lucky aren’t we, but I’d like to go home now and see granny and grandad’. And that’s what we are going to do.

For all my friends at home that read my blog, we will see you very soon. Much love to all of you in my virtual space and a very Happy New Year.

Xmas tree

Yes, it’s THAT season so it’s ‘happy holidays’ to you all – you see, I’m very transatlantic, even global with my greetings these days.

So, as is customary for a 44 year old mother of two, here is my letter to Saint Nick. Saint Nick, not Old Nick… though when I’m preparing for Christmas with often murderous thoughts, a letter to Old Nick may be more appropriate.

Dear Father Christmas,

However bad I’ve been, please please don’t let me have to go again this year to:

VivoCity
ToysRus in Tampines, the basement of Takashimaya or Daiso.
Malls with scented gingerbread candles
Supermarkets (actually that one is a year round wish)

Please can you also stop the children from re-writing their Christmas lists because they aren’t getting half the stuff from the first edition, let alone the 65th version?

These lists are not helped by the fact the best fun Ned has had all year was wearing a bucket on his head while his friends shot Nerf gun bullets at it and pelted his armoured head with lego. I’m not sure how we move on from that present wise.

ned with bucket on his head

Also, if one more pink toy enters Millie’s bedroom, we will all need therapy. Her online course in ‘breaking gender codes’ will start in January.

Although I don’t blame you entirely, it does seem that the majority of presents may well tip Dom over the edge as they need:

Knife/scissors/screwdrivers to get into the box
Knife/scissors/screwdrivers to remove toy from the box
Knife/scissors/screwdrivers to then get it to work

I am delighted that you have a sense of humour too as there is also stuff that needs:

Parental interaction

This list is not exhaustive but appears to include:

Board games *shudder*
Skateboards – I understand that they will not master this until at least next Christmas
Lego. Bloody lego. This year I will be firm and vacuum up pieces left on the floor. Unlike last year when I spent an hour rescuing Anakin Skywalker’s head from the Dyson.

I realise that our Christmas tradition of consuming enough prosecco by 10am to bring down a rhino may not help any of the above.

I also need to point out to you that being British at 3pm on Christmas Day we listen to the Queen’s speech. This is a time when all good parents put a napkin over their head for a quick and deserving snooze. In Singapore, am I expected to power through?

If I am, there will need to be an extra sleigh delivering more prosecco. With thanks

Love Sarah x

ps Any chance of it not raining and being damp and unbelievably humid while I cook a roast dinner with all the trimmings? I would be very grateful.

pps I secretly love it, but don’t tell the elves.

waterpotplant

It’s rainy season. With bells on. It is marginally, fractionally, just a smidge cooler though after a blustery shower which makes wandering around a little less hot and bothersome. In fact, I actually felt a bit chilly the other day. Saying that though, today is a scorcher!

Now, Minx is saying that she isn’t getting a feel of Singapore from the photos I am sending home. I should point out that we lived out here as a family 40 years ago and the Singapore my mother loves so much is gone. Maybe that is why I spend so much time looking for ‘old’ Singapore, perhaps it is some early childhood memory I’m trying to find.

This photo perfectly sums up the change. Gentrification is everywhere. I don’t mind that, I just wish it always didn’t all look the same. I wonder if these neighbours speak. I doubt it somewhow.

old and new

Shopping malls are another part of Singapore life – the largest one I have ever been to in my life is called Vivo City at Harbourfront. It is absolutely enormous. It’s the kind of place that I go to thinking ‘Let’s go to Vivo City, all the shops are in one place, brilliant idea’. Then you get there and realise that the shop you want is 5 escalators and about 2km away from the entrance. Bleugh. The last time we went there Dom was going up an escalator in a daydream and looked at the brushes at the side of the step bit. You know the ones I mean – the bristles that stop any rubbish getting stuck in the sides. Dom thought ‘I wonder if that feels nice if you brush your foot against the bristles’. Of course the pharmacist is MILES away from where you are as your foot gets sliced and bleeds everywhere…. Millie rightly said ‘You won’t do that again, will you daddy!’

Away from the malls though, if you look down side streets you can still see old shophouses open for business. How long they will survive? Who knows. I love them. On a hot (or rainy day) you can walk under the archways keeping cool in the shade.

hardware store

greengrocers

I also want to find the painters that, when refurbishing yet another row of shophouses into posh residences, didn’t paint over this. So grateful.

lucky book store

lucky book store close up

In my quest for space, we took the kids around Macritchie Resevoir. I wonder how much of this has been recently man-made or if it has been preserved as part of Singapore heritage? The following are some pics from there. Hard to believe this is in the middle of Singapore. I am going to point out though that it took a great deal of patience (which I deeply lack) to take pictures without hordes of people in it. The walkers, families, trail runners and meanderers make this a less restful place than it looks…

view from tree top walk

monkey

macritchie resevoir

Singapore now. Singapore then.

I like to think I’m quite adventurous about what I eat but actually, I’m not. So far I’ve had some wonderful food and I’ve avoided what is possibly still wonderful food, I just have no intention of eating it. Ever.

The first – Yes, it’s the fish head curry. I’m sure it’s delicious and it’s a local speciality. This place is always packed and I keep telling myself to go and experience it but then that little voice in my head sings…. Pop goes the eyeballs.

fish head curry

The second is another speciality restaurant that we see as we stroll to the shops. There are two tanks outside – one is full of live crabs (Chill crab, don’t mind if I do!), the other is full of frogs. The kids think these are pets and Ned is quite keen to keep one in the shower. I don’t have the heart to tell him they are the key ingredient in Frog Porridge. It almost sounds like you’d eat it in a michelin starred restaurant as a taste sensation and not in a backstreet cafe for breakfast. Either way I’m going to complete my time in Singapore without consuming a frog or keeping one as a pet.

When I was in Japan I was taken out by one of my lovely group of ladies that lunch (and study English conversation really half-heartedly) and they insisted I ate a live sea urchin as part of a posh lunch. I’ve never quite recovered. I definitely remember drinking barrels of beer to wash it down, and then singing a lot of karaoke and after that it all fades into a distant hazy fishy drunken memory.

On the flipside

One of the best things I’ve eaten here is at a chain of restaurants called Din Tai Fung. (This chain is also in New York and Australia making it less exotic as I write). It serves Taiwanese steamed buns amongst other things called xiaolongbao. I was taken here by Aly from Thailand and her gorgeous mother when she visited Singapore from Chiang Mai. There are some people in life that are real ‘ladies’, proper ladies, and Aly’s mother is one of them. When we entered the restaurant you can see the chefs preparing these tiny buns ready to steam. Our conversation went roughly like this.

Aly’s mum: I wish someone had told me how to eat these when I first came here as I totally didn’t know what to do!
Me: (Feeling very suspicious that there was going to be a sea urchin involved) What’s the deal?
Aly’s mum: Well I was hungry and popped the whole thing in my mouth and bit it. And you know they very cleverly insert soup in to it so I scalded my mouth and ran around the restaurant screaming. We’ll get Aly to show you how to eat them as I’m a bit clumsy at it.
Me: Aly, how do I eat the soupy bun without squirting it over your mum?

So it transpires that you lift it delicately out of the steamer into your spoon where you then carefully insert your chopstick into it piercing the bun. The soup then streams onto your spoon. You then sip the soup and eat the bun. Delicious! And in all the countries I’ve visited no one has ever told me how not to make a total arse of myself in public so beautifully.

dai tai fung

We’ve been away – more on that later but I’ve saved a few of my more choice moments from the last few months. Enjoy.

#1

I was in little Giant. As opposed to big Giant where the other stressful shopping trip occurred.
The kids love little Giant as it’s round the corner, we can walk there and it doesn’t involve hordes of people. It then usually involves a wander to Hoppity’s, our favourite ice cream shop.
I was on my own (a rare thing) and needed a few bits and bobs. I have one of those trolleys that you pull along behind you. What a look eh? I don’t have a car in Singapore so am embracing my practical side. My practical side hates me.

In the queue and minding my own business I lugged my basket onto the till and started to open the trolley. The very nice checkout lady busied herself and I busied myself. Another octogenarian (could have been nonagenarian) was wheeled up behind me with either her helper or granddaughter at the helm.

“54 dollars and 80 cents” said the checkout lady
“How much?” said the old granny
“It’s not our shopping” said the helper
“No it’s her shopping and she’s spent too much” said the granny
“You’re speaking in English!” said the helper (also in English) slightly mortified.
“So” said the Granny giving me a look up and down.
“She’s spent too much, she should look at her basket and put stuff back” announced the granny
I give the old granny a hard stare.
“Does she have children?” said the granny
“I don’t know” said the helper – now looking like she would like to be anywhere else.
“Yes” I said thinking I may as well join in the conversation about my shopping.
“Hmph, she has too much food.”
“I’m not going to eat it all in one go y’know” wondering why on earth I’m engaging in with this.
“Hmph” Not sure how one can write a snort that sounds disbelieving.
“Are her children big, as big as…….”
“Right now, granny, outside….” I mutter, slightly murderously.

#2

Ned “Mummy, on UN day, Oliver is getting to go as Peter Pan!”
Me “You have to represent your country Ned so he can’t just dress up.”
Ned (slightly irritated by my lack of understanding) “ He IS doing his country, he comes from Neverland”.
Me “I don’t know quite how to break this to you Ned, but he comes from The Netherlands, not Neverland”.
Ned “Oh, that IS disappointing”.
Me “Yes, it is a bit.”

And lastly, #3

We live on the third floor, it’s actually the second floor because in SE Asia you don’t have a ground floor – are you following? Right.

During the week our condo is very quiet with everyone out at work or school and apart from the helpers hanging out washing or pottering to the shops it’s lovely and quiet. So, when I got into the lift and thought ‘my top is on inside out’ I then thought ‘oh I’ll just whip it off in the lift and put it on the right way, what are the chances of someone wanting the lift?’

Quite high as it happens…..

raindrops

It’s been a funny old week and I’ve hummed and ha’ed about what to write – how to say what I’m thinking without sounding like I’m sitting in judgement. I’m just watching and making sense of my tiny space on this planet. I don’t have any answers. To give you an idea of where this is going, this is a short sentence that Dom read somewhere – it says a lot about life, particularly about life here in Singapore.

People buy things they don’t need
With money they don’t have
To impress people that don’t care.

During these turbulent times and when things got tough financially, people stopped and thought about how they lived and what their priorities were. Around us in the UK, some carried on with their head in the sand refusing to contemplate any shift in lifestyle; some realised they lived under huge economic fragility but were happy to take the risk; some (us included) took a deep breath and changed some habits.

I read and Dom and I talked and we changed as a family, gently. There are some powerful sources of inspiration out there and it helped me to adjust my view of the world. I particularly enjoyed this one http://www.becomingminimalist.com.

Having experienced a shift in how we lived in the UK, it is quite an eye-opener to come to Singapore and discover just how much one small place can consume. From the billions of plastic bags to the endless ebb and flow of shopping mall after shopping mall, is it a commercial paradise or a place where the pursuit of pleasure has overtaken the search for happiness?

That instant hit of pleasure when we buy something, how long does it last? How long does it take before we desire something new?

If you have a window in your day, pour yourself a drink and watch this

What are your thoughts?

I am still looking, changing, adapting and reading and trying to find my way. The journey to finding happiness has been described as like being on a very turbulent flight through grey cloud and suddenly, just for a moment, you break through the cloud and fly in the clear blue sky above marvelling at the wonder of it. (www.getsomeheadspace.com)

Right now in my life? It’s very, very turbulent.

We’ve been living in Singapore for 3 months – and it’s not been without some turbulence. It’s been fun sharing with everyone what life is truly like and made easier by instagram, facebook, facetime, skype and emails. In fact, I think we may have short-changed people at home with the less exotic aspects of our life.

The Singapore that people expect to see is this:

night pic

night 2

And it’s here, we just don’t live in that Singapore. We live in this one.

photo

shophouse1

When we were kids living abroad my mother would make us make cassette recordings for family at home. They are still around – we’d sing carols at Christmas and read diary entries and tell stories. At family parties they are still played to peals of laughter.

Then, when I lived abroad in the mid ‘90s there was still no home technology – nothing, nada, zilch. We kept in touch with pen, paper, envelopes and stamps. Receiving a letter was a holy grail moment, it was that exciting. You believed that you were actually living on the other side of the world. The world seemed huge and daunting.

Before I left for Japan a friend gave me a plastic planet spinner – you could twist it round to your latitude and map the stars. He showed me that at times, we could see the same constellations in the UK and halfway around the world. I remember vividly thinking, in that second as he explained how it worked, that the world was smaller than I thought.

In 2013 it’s all a bit different isn’t it?

Now the world has shrunk so much I can pick up news from home and chat with friends with a click. The irony is it makes you more homesick. Way more homesick. Because in your head and virtual world you are still local; then you turn off the computer, radio 4 podcast, BBCiplayer, put down your phone and look up and remember where you are. It takes an enormous amount of effort to disengage from our old life and embrace our new one.

On the upside my mother has my UK iphone and has learnt to send text messages. When the first one arrived I thought I was hallucinating. She uses it like an alarm clock with texts like ‘you forgot another birthday’, ‘your father didn’t buy any sherry,’ ‘Have you found a hairdresser yet?’ When she signs off a text she always signs off ‘mumx’. The spellcheck on the iphone always changes it to ‘minx’.

When I get a text from minx, it always make me smile.

gossiping rabbits
I love this photo that I took at the Singapore Art Garden. They are definitely female, and definitely at the school gates don’t you think? Ah, the school run. The school run takes no prisoners the world over it seems; groups of women with invisible cauldrons.

I’m expected to make friends at the school gate. Oh, how I hate this. I can never help myself saying something flippant or (accidentally) really inappropriate. In my head I tell myself I have wonderful friends – they just happen to be 16000 miles away. Not the best role model for the kids. Shall we say I could probably try harder?

Making friends doesn’t get easier with age, fact. At our wedding my dad made a lovely speech about how sitting at each table was a friend from each part of my life and that a gift I had inherited from my mother was making lifelong friends.

So I gave myself a virtual slap and decided to unclench.

I found myself smiling politely listening to two women having a verbal spar about who had the best life summer holiday, when I caught a look in the eye of another mother that spoke volumes. All it took was a ‘new too?’ Five minutes later we had dissected with clinical precision that:

The weather here is dodgy (we are both English, the weather is our default conversation of choice)

What we thought of the school (early days)

How we will avoid being press-ganged for the PTA (an instant bond)

Numbers exchanged, coffee arranged.

I’m a gossiping rabbit.

End Feb - March 2010 004

At last our stuff has arrived!

I have had to re-think and eat some humble pie along the way about the worth of material things. While I was packing up the house in cold, wintry England I realised that we just had too much stuff. It seemed like a good time to chop all the clutter out of our lives. Things that we never used, furniture that Ned had reduced to feathers and firewood – it was time to Get Rid. I enjoyed it, I can’t deny it.

But, when everything had been sold, recycled or dumped we were left in the shell of our home which was now barren, cold, empty and really, really uncomfortable. The house had no heart left. We were still in it; it was just our stuff that wasn’t. That was not what I was expecting.

In Singapore it was the same feeling. We didn’t feel settled in the new flat. It didn’t feel like home and no one could quite put their finger on what felt wrong so we all just put it down to emotional exhaustion from the move.

Then, our stuff arrived. We filled less than 1/2 of a 20ft container. The weekend was a flurry of unpacking, arranging, deciding it looked better in a different place, moving it again and then deciding I liked it in the first place better. Dom is an interior designer; he is a patient man.

front room 2

Everyone suddenly seemed happier. What had we missed the most and what was most cherished when it arrived?

Me: I hate being uncomfortable. I read a lot. I read mostly in bed. I missed my bedside lamp (it’s Terance Conran with an IKEA shade) and my bedside table to put my cup of tea on. Happiness has been restored for me.

our bedroom

Dom: Dom insists I threw most of his stuff away. I’m going to ignore that comment. He spent most of the weekend putting up our pictures. Despite the swearing, that has made him happy.

Millie: Millie has by far the most stuff. She is a hoarder. When asked to pick something that made her feel like she was home she chose this picture. I bought this as a scrapbook page from ebay when she was a baby. On the page it was signed by a girl called Mary Grove and dated 1851. She loves it as much as I do.

millie's pic

Ned: Need we ask? Swords of course. (He also managed to swing the bigger bedroom.)

Ned's room

I have a stronger sense of what possessions I truly value (except for a lot of the kids junk – sorry!) and no doubt we will add to this flat too during our time in Singapore. I already have my eye on a shop called Bangku Bangku on the Joo Chiat Road. This move has been an exhausting process, I’m glad it’s done.

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