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.

moon_festival2

It’s another Chinese lunar festival here in Singapore. On Saturday I asked a taxi driver why there were lanterns strung up everywhere and he simply said ‘It’s the mid-autumn festival’. ‘And the tradition of giving mooncakes?’ I asked. ‘Because….’ he said with a little shrug. ‘It’s like the festival of the hungry ghost’. Can’t be, I thought, last I heard the ghosts had checked back in to the underworld.

Ned and Millie have both been tasting mooncakes at school and yet neither of them seemed to have touched on the stories behind it. The cakes are incredibly calorific – sweet and dense and traditionally made with lard and full of red lotus paste – that would explain it.

With Millie at home poorly she was in need of a new story and I wanted to know – why a mooncake?

I think my love of stories has come down from my father. His bedtime stories were legendary. His version of Beowulf was not for kids of a delicate disposition. It’s not a cheery tale. He always gave a spin on a story which is what made them so fantastic to me – Rumpelstiltskin was done over by the princess. They had a binding contract and she broke it. Jack used his beanstalk for greed and serial burglary on an unsuspecting ogre. By the time I was old enough to still want him to weave a tale but had grown too old for fairy stories, he would tell us about battles and rebellions over the dinner table and so I give you two versions of the Moon Festival – one for my father and one for me. If my parents weren’t 16,000 miles away they would have a mooncake too.*

chang e<

For my dad

In the 14th Century the Mongolians had invaded China and set up a ruling force – the tyrannical Yuan dynasty. The Han Chinese set about planning their revolt but were crushed from every side. But there was one man who had enough cunning and dared to mastermind the rebellion. Liu Fu Tong was the secret rebel leader who sold a story to the puppet Emperor that the people would make small, intricately designed golden cakes full of lotus paste in honour of their Mongolian rulers. These would be given out by the people on the 15th day of the 8th lunar month – the moon festival; the night that the moon is at its brightest; the autumn equinox. The Mongolians had no desire to join the people and eat these crude peasant cakes but as a token of patronising generosity they allowed the people to pass them to each other. Stamped on the bottom of each cake were the details of the rebellion and they were passed freely amongst the masses. As one, on a night where the moon shone down like daylight, the Han Chinese rose up, defeated their invaders and threw the Mongols out of China. Every year since, mooncakes are given to family and friends in gratitude to the moon and Liu Fu Tong.

For me

Once upon a time there were ten suns that spun around the earth. One fateful day they aligned over China and their heat scorched the earth and killed the crops. The Emperor summoned his best archer Hou Yi to shoot down the nine extra suns. Hou Yi obeyed and his arrows saved the people and the cooling rains came from behind the suns. The gentle Goddess of the Western Heavens went to Hou Yi from where she was hiding from the heat and gave him a gift of thanks – an elixir of eternal life. But Hou Yi had a beautiful wife whom he wanted to stay with on earth. He had no desire to live forever alone. They made a pact that they would share the potion at the end of their mortal life and go to the heavens together for eternity. Now Hou Yi’s fame spread far and wide and soon apprentice archers came to him. One of them was a man called Feng Meng. Feng Meng knew the rumour about this elixir and desired it with all his heart. On the longest night, Hou Yi took his apprentices hunting. Sneaking away from the pack Feng Meng made his way to Hou Yi’s home. His wife – Chang-e – had spied him as he came out of the shadows and into the bright light of the moon. She took the elixir from its hiding place. Confronted by Feng Meng, Chang-e drank the potion. Hou Yi didn’t trust Feng Meng and when he discovered he was missing, he rushed back to his home. As he rode into his courtyard he was in time to witness Chang-e begin to float to the heavens. She didn’t want to leave Hou Yi so she prayed to the Goddess to allow her to stay with him. The Goddess answered and allowed Chang-e to float only to the moon. There she can still be seen on the 15th day of the 8th month – on the longest night – dancing intricate patterns on the surface of the moon. The patterns she makes are put on the mooncakes in her honour.

archer

*As with all good myths and legends, there are an abundance of versions. These two are my interpretations and written here for Millie and Ned. All inaccuracies, historical fudging and mis-myth quotations are all my own.

It’s been a quiet week after the swamps last week. There is sports day, clubs starting, friends to play with and friends to be made.

I have also had my first foray into the world of asian cooking. The lovely Aly from Bangkok has been my teacher. There is nothing like learning to cook from a real-life person. One of the things I love about food is being able to conjure up events, times and people in my head as I eat. Minx makes her chilli with baked beans and bacon (it’s amazing), Dom makes the best guacamole. Every time I eat them I am with that person, even when I’m not. Aly completely understands this. She was brought up in Bangkok and when she was small her parents would often travel or entertain. Her nanny came from the ‘countryside’ in Thailand so would cook simple regional food for herself and Aly. Food is a comfort blanket the world over.

When I go home I am going to start Food Story Night. You take it in turns for a friend to teach you how to cook a meal their way, a recipe that means something to them. Food and a story, my two favourite things.

So we went to Aly’s favourite place to eat Thai food. If you are in Singapore, I’m talking about the Golden Mile shopping complex off the Nicoll Highway.

Aly orders a selection of dishes for us to try – roast chicken, papaya salad with prawns and another vermicelli noodle salad dish and sticky rice. Before the food comes, the lady running the place puts down a tray of raw cabbage and two small plastic bags. Okaaaay. The plastic bag contained the sticky rice – it wasn’t so much sticky as welded. You prise pieces of rice out of the bag and dunk it in the sauce. After the first mouthful I discovered what the raw cabbage is for. It takes the heat out of your mouth if the food is too spicy. That really works and I ate a fair old bit of raw cabbage with this meal. Aly said that she would order her favourite childhood meal – black spider crabs – but she could guarantee I wouldn’t like it. She’s right, it was a spicy, salty, fishy burn-your-tongue-off-why-would-you-eat-this kind of a taste.

Thai meal with Aly

Then it was time to do ingredients. I got carried away in the supermarket and bought this…

Thai food shopping

I had pandan leaves, thai basil, baby aubergines, thai curry paste, fish sauce, chilli sauce and other stuff….and I should have labelled the bottles in English as now I’m a bit unsure…

I’m still trialling recipes so will share some later but here’s my discovery so far. Chinese food has a trinity of flavours as a base note for most of the food – garlic, ginger and soy. The Thai food that Aly is teaching me to cook has a different base note – garlic, lemongrass and chilli. Fresh and sour. Chalk and cheese.

I’m learning a whole different approach to food. When examining the coriander our conversation went like this:

Aly: …The roots of the coriander are used to flavour Tom Yum Soup.

Me: You mean the stalks.

Aly: No, the roots. Why would you eat the stalks, they’re bitter.

Me: Because Jamie Oliver told me to.

Aly: No, just… No.

And so, I discovered in that moment why in Singapore you always buy your coriander looking like this..

coriander

Love it.

stepping stones

Let’s get out of the city today; out of the chaos and the noise, the chatter and the fumes.

I had to get some peace and didn’t know if you could find it in Singapore. I was given a tiny taste at the Pasir Ris park where if you can escape the play park, the bicycles, micro scooters, stables and pony rides there is a mangrove swamp. Not a big one, but a mangrove swamp all the same. This fair island was once nearly all swamp and that is very, very hard to believe at times.

And escape I did. Up to the North West of this tiny island and the Kranji Farms and the Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve. It’s impossible to describe how strange this landscape is to girl from Kent but it is how I imagine the world to be if the dinosaurs were still roaming. The swamp is tidal which probably explains this:

mangrove swamp

And it has a quiet, eerie sound with all the birds and insects that makes you feel like you’re abandoned alone.

ghostly mangrovee

But then, if you open your eyes, you see that life is bursting in these dark, dank swamps – crabs of all shapes and sizes, fish like needles and mudskipper alien frogs. Then you start to notice the flora and fauna. It’s a haunting, magical place.

flowers in the swamp

pinprick flowers

Then, it breaks to give you wide lakes with flying fish. They are surprisingly inelegant and sort of plop in the water. Plop, it’s a good word.

mangrove reflections

Then, who should wander up to see what the fuss was about but this enormous bad boy. A water monitor lizard. Totally pre-historic with a scaly giant lizard body and a snakes head. Honestly, you couldn’t make him up. And no, they don’t run off when you startle them.

monitor lizard 1

monitor lizard

Then I saw a sign warning you about the crocodiles. Ok, monitor lizards I’m ok with but crocs.. hmmm… time to go.

The next stop was Bollywood Veggies. Go, you won’t regret it, just get on a bus, get in a car and GO. Everything about this place is an antidote to life in Singapore. It’s an organic farm and the biggest producer of bananas in Singapore. But this place is no straightforward, run-of-the-mill farm. As we walked in we were greeted by Tony – a Welsh gent of a certain vintage and a host of information and chat about the place. Then, Ivy arrived. Ivy and her husband own and manage Bollywood Veggies. She is a hurricane of a woman. I don’t know much about chakras but if you were to find Ivy’s it would be fire and lava. You can feel the heat of her energy as she strides past you (talking, always talking… very loudly). She tells Tony there are a group from a hospital here to talk about planting a sustainable garden. ‘At last’ she declares ‘they see that they can have a garden to eat. Wonderful’ and off she goes like a tornado.

butterfly dreams

Planted on permaculture principles of keeping layers of plants in harmony with each other, it is beautiful. Ten acres of clever planting and brimming with birds and butterflies. Can you tell how much I loved it? I truly did. More than a garden, more than a farm, Ivy and her husband are true philanthropists. They employ staff with physical disabilities and my companion for the day has read May’s book ‘Scaling Walls’ about her life. I hope Singapore embraces the message from Bollywood Veggies and takes it to her heart.

bollywood gardens1

lilies

Read about it here http://www.bollywoodveggies.com

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.

I honestly never know what to cook these days. I love cooking but in Singapore I walk into a supermarket and go blank, really blank. I’m faced with an array of beautiful fruit and veg I’ve never seen before in my life and ingredients I can barely pronounce. I have no idea how to prepare and cook them in a way the kids would not clasp their throats and claim I was ‘poisoning’ them, again.

I am calling this phenomenon ‘menu amnesia’.

We had this phenomenon when I lived in Japan too and my friend Alice famously went grocery shopping for lunch and returned with a lettuce and a loaf of bread.

So, I am on a mission to get to grips with this. I am going to be helped by a very lovely Thai lady who lives on our condo. She doesn’t know it yet, but she is going to give me SE Asian cooking lessons. She invited me for lunch and it was the best thing I’ve ever eaten. When I asked what she had cooked the chicken in she said ‘pandan leaves’. Righty ho.

So, in the supermarket Dom and I decided to buy something completely at random and cook it. We chose these…

choyoto 1

A little bit of googling later I discovered that my vegetable is in fact a fruit (though used as a vegetable) and is known as a choyote, choko, merliton, vegetable pear and a bangalore brinjal. Excellent, I have managed to buy a fruit with an identity crisis.

Later that day I was browsing through my number 1 guilty pleasure – Expat Living Magazine. Sssh, but I love it. It couldn’t be further removed from my expat life but if I ever need some botox while the kids do yoga I know EXACTLY where to go. But then, hold the phone, look what I found…

choyoto2

Now I will forgive Expat Living for its lack of fine-tuned editing and the fact that the list of ingredients didn’t quite match the recipe because it turned out like this and do you know what? It was rather good….

choyoto3

Menu Amnesia 0; Me 1

You can substitute my confused fruit for cucumber.

Choyote Som Tam Salad

Choyote or cucumber
Handful of cherry toms halved
3 spring onions sliced on the diaganol
handful of fresh coriander
1 red chilli (remove the seeds if you know what’s good for you)
12 cooked prawns
Some iceburg lettuce and french beans (tho I used sugar snap peas).

Dressing

1 tablespoon of fish sauce (nam pla)
2 tablespoons of groundnut or plain oil
3 tablespoons of lime
2 teaspoons of light brown sugar

Slice it all finely, throw on the dressing and serve. Yum.

hungry ghosts2

As I waited at the bus stop I was approached by (another) granny. She was very keen to know if Prince George was named after his great grandfather (probably), whether we thought Princess Kate beautiful (well, I do like her hair) and whether Prince Harry could be the love child of James Hewitt (hope not, for his sake). Then a man came out of the café behind us and started to make an altar with fruit and vegetables and lit some joss sticks. He then got some fake paper money and made a home-made brazier – all on the pavement and started to burn it.
I noticed up and down the street more people were doing the same.

hungry ghosts1

My granny told me that it is Ghost Month. August is not a lucky month. In fact she said, the gates of hell are open and everyone is coming up top to see what’s going on – to see whether there are souls to steal. The altars are to ensure that your ancestors upstairs aren’t part of this ghostly party from downstairs. You offer your deceased family members food and money that can be used in their afterlife. Then on the 15th of the month there is the Festival of the Hungry Ghost – To appease those ghosts who have no families to make offerings to them, a feast is offered with empty chairs for the ghosts.

As we walked home from school there were piles of burning papers up and down the Joo Chiat Road and the smell of incense everywhere. Kids were intrigued, Millie said it was a lot like Halloween. Indeed (but without all the sweets and kiddie hysteria).

hungry ghosts3

Today’s granny is Chinese but was born in Vietnam. After the Vietnam War she was evacuated but her family were split up – most went to the US, she went to Australia. Despite being incredibly well travelled she said she is still, even now, terrified to go back to Vietnam. Her English is still patchy yet none of her kids speak Chinese. Her eldest son lives in Singapore and she visits twice a year and her other son plays the violin in the Australian Philharmonic Orchestra. She was a delight and it was a privilege to sit on the bus with her.

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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