Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Cocktails at Dawn

Today is a Big Day. Today, our first real visitor is arriving: my Mum. She will land at Changi Airport at around 8.15pm, where Niels and I will be waiting to whisk her away to our apartment where her room is ready and waiting for her.
The kids are positively fizzing with excitement, and this morning at 3.30 am Niels appeared at my bedside wanting to know if it was time to go the airport yet! Half an hour later he did the same thing, this time banging my door so loudly as he stumbled his way back to bed that he woke up Carl, who took up residence in my bed (Holger is away for a week on a training course in Holland). Carl then proceeded to keep us both awake until daybreak, at which point I gave up all attempts of trying to get back to sleep and started breakfast. At least they were ready for school with plenty of time to spare!
This is not Mum’s first trip to Singapore. Way back in 1995 when I first headed off to Europe for my Big OE (Overseas Experience for those non-Kiwis out there), Mum came with me as far as Singapore and we enjoyed an eight day holiday here before I continued on to London and she returned to New Zealand. We did pretty much all the tourist things in that time, including of course going to the famous Raffles Hotel and enjoying an iconic Singapore Sling in their beautiful garden bar. In fact it was so good, that despite the $30 price tag we had a second one. As I had spent months scrimping together enough cash for my ticket etc Mum paid, and now at last I will have the wonderful opportunity to return the favour.
Holger and I stopped in at Raffles and enjoyed a Sling back in June, and yes they taste just as good as ever! While most people have heard of this drink, I guess that few of you have actually tried it. It will be my personal mission to ensure that everybody who visits us gets to down at least one of these delicious, satisfyingly large pink cocktails during their stay. It’s a tough job, but someone’s got to do it, and I'm more than willing to make that sacrifice!
Below is the original recipe from Raffles, and the official background as published by that fabulously over-the-top establishment (you can check out this beautiful historic buliding at their official website: http://www.raffleshotel.com).

"The Singapore Sling was created at Raffles Hotel at the turn-of-the-century by Hainanese-Chinese bartender, Mr. Ngiam Tong Boon. In the Hotel's museum, visitors may view the safe in which Mr. Ngiam locked away his precious recipe books, as well as the Sling recipe hastily jotted on a bar-chit in 1936 by a visitor to the Hotel who asked the waiter for it. Originally, the Singapore Sling was meant as a woman's drink, hence the attractive pink colour. Today, it is very definately a drink enjoyed by all, without which any visit to Raffles Hotel is incomplete."

Singapore Sling
30ml Gin
15 ml Cherry Brandy
120 ml Pineapple Juice
15 ml Lime Juice
7.5 ml Cointreau
7.5 ml Dom Benedictine
10 ml Grenadine
A Dash of Angostura Bitters
Garnish with a slice of Pineapple and Cherry... and enjoy! mmmmmmmmmmm

Monday, October 30, 2006

They Are For The Kids...Honestly!

Back in June, when Holger and I visited Singapore for a week to find an apartment, visit the Hollandse School, and generally prepare for The Big Move, I picked up a copy of a magazine called something like “Fun for Kids In Singapore”. I figured (rightly as it turned out) that without our friends and family around it was going to be important to try and organise myself and the kids into events and meeting places to try to create a new social network. That is still a work in progress, but while flicking through the mag I did see an advertisement for gorgeous floor rugs for children’s rooms from a company called Tinderboxx, which is basically a woman called Elsebeth from Denmark who designs unique rugs and accessories for children’s’ rooms, based right here in Singapore. I fell in love with her work immediately and this week, finally, we have become the proud owners of two of her rugs: a vibrant swash-buckling pirate ship for Niels, and a swooshingly-cool plane for Carl. Check out the photos to get a glimpse, although they don’t do justice to the real things: multi-textured, with tons of detail imparted using different lengths of fibre, different textures, even sparkly wool for the wheels of the plane – when you see them for real you can see the many-textured and layered detail which is truly beautiful. Anyway, I just wanted to share the moment with you as the boys are as pleased as punch, with Carl enthusiastically dressing up as a pirate to get into the mood before I took his photo.
At Niels swimming lesson this afternoon a voice called out to me “so what did they think?” and there was Elsebeth, watching her young daughter in the pool. It seemed the finishing touch to be able to tell her in person that the rugs, which she designed herself out of frustration of not being able to find anything for her own kids and which generated so many comments from her friends that she has now turned them into an international enterprise, come from just around the corner and I will see her every week.
Check out her website if you are interested, http://www.tinderboxx.com

Thursday, October 26, 2006

School holidays are over...at last!

Thank goodness, the school holidays are over. Admittedly it was only the autumn break, which meant 11 days (which included two weekends) of home-based fun. However this was the first time I’ve…what’s the word….endured both kids at home for the holidays as usually I’ve worked three days a week and the kids kept going to daycare as usual. Now that we’ve been here for about 11 weeks we are slowly building up a circle of friends for Niels to play with, but we really miss our network of family and friends in Holland who were always willing to jump in and take one or both of the kids for an afternoon or longer if we needed a break. Now there’s just me, and Holger on Saturday afternoon and on a good weekend, for all of Sunday as well (not lately though).
Carl is too young yet to go to a friends house to play – at two and a half he is just starting to get to grips with the concept of playing with friends instead of just alongside them. He’s at the frustrating age where he clamours for every brightly coloured thing regardless of who owns it or happens to be holding it at the time – he’s like an oversized magpie with an endless appetite for other kids’ toys. Likewise, when Niels has friends over to play, Carl wants to be included in the party and claim the new-found friend as his own. Of course Niels thinks he is far too cool and grown up to play with his little brother in front of others so the scene dissolves into a screaming match between the two of them with Niels trying to physically eject Carl from the room and Carl sitting down on his bottom – I swear he can actually suction himself to the floor – refusing to budge and give up pride of place alongside the coveted visitor.
Needless to say by day 11 the atmosphere was a little fraught. Holger took Tuesday off work to spend some time with the kids as he is flying to Holland tomorrow for a week, and by lunchtime he was muttering about “never taking a day off again”. I hope that was an idle threat!
So Mummy is trying to polish her patience skills but they have been sorely tested. We're counting down the days now until my Mum arrives (next Tuesday, just 5 days to go!) which will provide some welcome relief. By that of course I mean relief for the kids from having to put up with me. They both looked extremely happy to be getting back on the scool bus this week, our trio of smiles must have made the bus driver think we had had the most relaxing holiday ever!

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Goodbye to Homesickness

Maybe I’m a little outside-of-the-ordinary when it comes to emigrating because I’ve done it more than once, but it seems that unlike many people I talk to, the more differences I discover in my newly adopted homeland the more I like it.
I am so OVER being homesick!
To be honest I can remember that when I left New Zealand back in April 1995, I did get awfully homesick for the little Kiwi things that made life unique there. Perhaps first off I should explain that by homesickness I’m not talking about missing your friends and family, because obviously that never ends. You’ll miss those who are dear to you whether you live an hours’ drive away or a days international flying, end of story.
What I’m talking about is the kind of homesickness where you crave certain foods or magazines or TV programs…but mainly foods. The first few years I lived in Holland I used to crave Marmite, Milo, hokey pokey ice cream, roast lamb, mint sauce, beef steak, Mum’s stuffed roast chicken, Weetbix, Pinky Bars…all sorts of stuff that was the everyday food of life. Over the years that diminished, although I would have been seriously disappointed if each visit by Mum or Dad didn’t include some Pineapple Lumps for me and jellies for the kids. Over the years I have had custard powder, baking powder, chicken stock and even an entire delicious beef fillet steak (no kidding, it looked like half of a dead cow in a suitcase and it was by far the best smuggled contraband yet!) brought over from New Zealand. Yet as time goes by I came to enjoy the local treats instead, like olie bollen, stroop waffels, Dutch cheese and white asparagus.
Now I’ve reached a stage in my homesickness evolution where I can’t be bothered missing any of the old things and am just loving trying out all the weird and wonderful new treats that Southeast Asia has to offer. OK, I do draw the line at some things. To the person who commented on a previous posting that cockroaches pickled in brandy are considered to be medicinal in China – yeah right. I draw the line at bugs, reptiles, and endangered species. But who couldn’t be charmed by the guy who handed me a big mug of sugar cane juice yesterday, freshly extracted from the pile of woody stalks piled up on his stall at Tangs Market? And the smiling Chinese lady with the missing teeth who sells handmade Pau (steam meat-filled dumplings) next door? Today at the supermarket I spotted Japanese Steam Bread – just put it in your bamboo steamer for ten minutes or if you’re me, in the microwave next to a bowl of boiling water for 1 minute and then enjoy this slightly sweet, ever so delicately flavoured pure white loaf.
Sweet smoky satay cooked over an open flame, the tiny local lobsters rubbed in sugar and garlic, piles of nasi rice flavoured with soy sauce and prawns, steamed chicken and barbeque pork, Hainaese chicken-rice with a steaming bowl of broth to wash it down, buttered crab so big the beast won’t even fit on your plate, the dark treacle-like fermented soy sauce called Ketjup manis which is so sweet the kids lick it off their fingers….it’s all part of the fun of living in this new country. Discovering local cooking secrets is also fun, like cooking food in banana leaves and how to flavour your rice with long grass-like panadana leaves (most of you will have tried Pandan rice at least once – now you know what it means!).
Introducing the kids to local food is part of the adventure, and we’re never sure whether they will eat something or not. Niels is less adventurous, being the oldest his tastes are more set already. But Carl will eat anything – or at least try it once – and loves prawns, siew mai (pork and shrimp dumplings), duck and any sort of noodles.
I admit I’m a foodie and for me a country’s identity is inextricably connected to its food. As a life-long lover of Asian food, it’s like I’ve died and gone to culinary heaven to be living on the island which is a rich soup of Chinese, Indian, Malay and Indonesian cuisine. So for all of those who are planning to visit - welcome to the afterlife and don’t forget your chopsticks!

Friday, October 13, 2006

Finally, the Singapore Slinger gets it on!

YES YES YES YES YES! Finally I have some music back in my life after months of living in a tuneless vacuum. For those of you who are not ex-colleagues, you probably don’t realise that at work my pseudonym was ‘The iPod Queen’ because my gorgeous black 30GB iPod has practically been surgically attached to my head like one of those weird undeveloped Siamese twins ever since I was given it last year. I know that addiction is a serious issue, and who am I to trivialise those who really can't live without their fix – but the relationship I have with my iPod is so close that hubby once told me he has the feeling that if iPods came with a vibrating attachment, he’d be out of a job.
Let’s just say I’ve got a pretty good idea how badly a heroin junkie craves their next hit after I forgot (just the once!) to take my iPod to work. Quite why I love that cute little gizmo is as much a mystery to me as anyone else, but I get such a thrill out of downloading music and listening to all sorts of new bands and artists that I would spend hours doing so, if only I had that sort of time to spare.
As I said, I was given my little black friend last year, and although I don’t want to sound mysterious (ok that’s a lie, I do) it was a gift from a man other than my husband by way of thanks for services rendered…and I can’t say any more than that! A lot of you already know the story but out of good manners I’m not going to incriminate the guilty parties here. Thank you, R, for sparking what is bound to be a life long addiction. Hubby may be slightly less grateful, but hey, Apple aren’t making that attachment yet!
Anyway, I digress. The reason that today is such a fabulous occasion is that our budget has finally developed enough slack between furnishing the entire apartment and forking out a small fortune each time we fancy a bottle of wine (and let’s face it, the empties are mounting up) that I was able to buy speakers for my iPod. A seriously momentous day.
When I left my job in Holland my colleagues generously chipped in to buy me a cool little gadget called a Belkin TuneBase which allows you to dock and charge your iPod in the car while broadcasting your music over a dedicated FM radio frequency into the vehicle. Pretty cool, huh? However due to the difficulties in ordering it in Europe I was given the cash and decided to buy it here. Once in Singapore however, it transpired that I actually hardly ever use the car because hubby dearest takes it to work everyday. I tend to potter around in taxis which are ridiculously cheap and make use of free home deliveries when necessary. Today for instance I went to the supermarket, paid, and popped into a cafe to have a coffee. I was just getting in the taxi to come home when the home delivery guy called to say he was on our doorstep and where was I! How’s that for quick service. So I don’t really need a car. However music is another story.

Yesterday I did my final research in stores and on the internet and finally decided on an Altec Lansing inMotion IM3C mobile speaker in sexy black from the Apple Store online. It cost Sing$299, roughly 150 euros or NZ$300. For those of you who are interested (and in my twisted reality it is inconceivable that there may be living breathing people out there who are not) this is the link to view my latest plaything: Apple Store Warning: this website may induce excessive drooling on your keyboard.

So now I had to sit back and wait, potentially for up to four days, before my sight-unseen purchase would materialise. But lo and behold, last night at 8pm I got a phone call from the Apple Store delivery man and he was …downstairs with my purchase! YES! YES! YES! and YES! all over again. Delivery within 7 hours of ordering - God I love how efficient this country is.
With a mixture of trepidation and mounting excitement I started unwrapping the incredibly small package and finally, there it was in all its glory. But surely this unit was too small to produce a quality sound? In the midst of me removing the lovingly wrapped components with shallow breath and trembling hands, hubby returned home from a work function and his chit chat was greeted with either silence or a monosyllabic grunt - the foolish man should know better than to get between a woman and her iPod. Finally the moment of truth had arrived. I docked my iPod, hit the play button on the tiny yet elegantly proportioned remote…and wow! What an incredible noise! OK I have to admit I’d neglected to adjust the volume and it was on full so I woke up both of our kids, and our upstairs neighbours who are in the midst of Ramadan must have been jerked out of their meditations in the most unholy of manners – but what a great sound. Gutsy enough to belt out HIM and Black Sabbath, balanced enough that even the famous soprano solo from my favourite opera Lucia di Lammamoor played faultlessly, and yet still fantastically small and sexy. The ultimate accessory.
As I leaned back on the sofa, fully satisfied that I’d made the right choice, I felt all the scene was missing was someone languidly smoking a cigarette.

Alright hubby, now you can talk.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Hazy Days

Phew, it’s hot today. Obviously hot is a relative thing when you live in the tropics, but it really feels extra hot and sticky today. When Holger gets up in the morning he turns on the airco in the kitchen and living room so it’s nice and cool by the time I stagger out 15 minutes later, and I don’t get an accurate idea of the outside temperature until I venture outside. According to the experts, the average temperature in Singapore is 26-27 C all year round, but during the last couple of weeks we’ve had temps of 32-34 C.
On top of that we are currently engulfed in a wave of smog – or ‘haze’ as they call it here – caused by massive forest fires in Sumatra and Kalimantan (Indonesia), our neighbours. The sad thing is that the fires are lit deliberately despite widespread international condemnation as pristine forest is sacrificed under the slash and burn tactics carried out by poor Indonesian farmers to clear more farmland for the rubber, palm oil and wood pulp industries. Because the land – which supports the millennia-old forests in perfect balance – is actually quite infertile and unsuitable for farming it becomes useless for that purpose within a short time, so more forest is burned to clear land again each year. These huge fires, which smoulder for weeks, are now an annual event and an ongoing tragedy. Over twenty National Parks are ablaze and the fires show no signs of stopping – I can’t help thinking about all the magnificent wildlife which is dying. According to Greenpeace, the forests being destroyed are home to some of the world’s most endangered animals like the Sumatran rhinoceros, tiger, Oranga Utan and the Asian elephant. Plus the forests are host to countless different types of plants, many not even documented yet. One of the most disturbing reports is that large companies have started most of the fires in recent years in their greed to expand their commercial crops.
For us the direct impact is drastically reduced visibility, grey skies, sometimes a smoky smell hanging in the air and a reddened sun shining through the haze. If the wind blows the right way it clears, but as it’s been quite still today we’ve got another grey oppressive day. The schools are monitoring the daily government postings on the air quality level and when the air pollution is too high they won’t let the kids play outside. We haven’t reached that stage yet but some kiddies with asthma are having some problems, although Carl, who was on asthma medication for a year up until about May 2006, hasn’t had any problems so far.
The local airports have had to cut back on flights due to poor visibility, and a flight landing in Kuala Lumpar last week ended up parked on the grass after the pilot overshot the runway in the thick smog. Shipping is also affected with the visibility being so poor, so the widespread economic impact is significant and growing each day.
It’s hard to believe as I sit here looking out window at towering apartment buildings and ultra-modern high-rises in one of the worlds most developed cities, that just a few kilometres away peasant farmers who live in little more than shacks exist in a world so poor that burning down rainforest to plant a few meagre crops each year is a normal way of life. Or rather existence, because existing is what these people are struggling to do against overwhelming poverty and lack of opportunity. We live in a world of stark contrasts and glaring inequalities. In Holland we would feel guilty if we threw a newspaper in the rubbish bin or didn’t drop a glass bottle into the recycling bin. In Indonesia families clear the forest with fire and their bare hands and use water buffalo to plough the ash into the dying soil in order to eke out a meagre living. It kind of puts those “just gotta have that new pair of shoes” cravings into perspective, doesn’t it?

Monday, October 02, 2006

A Message For The Masses

Advertising is a funny thing, isn’t it? I’ve worked in publishing for nine years and in that time I’ve seen a lot of thought provoking, silly, and sometimes downright ridiculous advertising that should never have seen the light of day. My all-time, Number 1 Favourite, was from a Dutch agricultural company. They had paid top dollar to have a full colour, full page ad in a magazine yet, displaying the blinding stupidity and stinginess which characterises so many companies whose margins are growing faster than their business sense, they chose to translate the material from Dutch to English themselves, i.e., into Dinglish. The message they wanted to convey was that they took such good care of their customers, that no-one else could do a better job. What they actually printed was (and I’m not kidding, this is true)…. “We Couldn’t Care Less”.
Here in Singapore the government is also keen on producing it’s own particular brand of advertising, especially when it comes to getting across moral messages to the general populace. Something which strikes me after living here for a couple of months is that there is a very strong sense of communal belief and behaviour, a sort of herd mentality that drives people in the same direction and – I’m guessing – represses individual behaviour and encourages conforming to ‘the norm’. It’s kind of a strange contradiction to what I was talking about in my last post, the extreme tolerance and understanding for different cultures and religions. On the one hand you are free to express your own opinions as an individual, but on the other hand you must conform to the group norm. They strongly believe that it is only through a concerted group effort – a kind of mass consciousness that drives them in one common direction - that the country can progress, and hey, given the dramatic economic progress the country has made since declaring independence in 1965, who am I to argue? Compared to its surrounding neighbours, Indonesia and Malaysia, this is a utopia of democracy and wealth. And yet…you know those mass co-ordinated displays of unity you see on t.v. from China with everyone wearing red pyjamas and doing Tai Chi together? I could imagine that happening here, although the people would have a polite smile on their faces.
Anyway, I digress. I was talking about advertising, and specifically the local government advertising. Anyone who has been to Singapore will remember the signs “$500 fine for littering”, $1000 fine for possessing chewing gum!” (seriously), “$500 fine for not flushing public toilet”, etc. OK these aren’t strictly ads but I’m talking about general signage as well.
Then there are the little gems which I suppose fall under the umbrella of community messages. Large billboards instruct you to “help the elderly” and offer them your seat on the MRT (the Singaporean equivalent of the Underground). And my two personal favourites so far: a billboard of a car running a red light with the message “YOU MIGHT BEAT THE LIGHTS…BUT YOU CAN’T BEAT FATE”. How cool is that? Although considering that probably over half of the population believe in pre-determination** that’s kind of asking for a rebuttal, don’t you think?
And my all time winner so far, although I am willing to revise this if I find a better one: A reckless motorbike driver is pictured swerving around a car in the face of oncoming traffic, with huge red-lettered text beneath: “YOU CAN BEAT THE TRAFFIC…BUT YOU CAN’T BEAT DEATH”.

I just wish they had included a cool little black silhouette of a Grim Reaper, that would have made it perfect. Obviously I haven’t been raised in the respectful and law abiding culture that the locals have been because these signs just crack me up. Not doubt some of you reading this will be thinking “what’s so funny, that’s a serious message” and for you all, I apologise. Humour is a funny thing, and when it comes to tickling my funny bone, you can’t beat death.

**In Eastern philosophy, the predetermined nature of life is sometimes referred to as the law of karma. Whatever happens is considered to be predetermined. There is no freedom. According to the predeterminists, the fact that you may feel free is irrelevant. How you feel has nothing to do with what actually is. Your feelings and actions, like anything else in nature, are predetermined.