I’ve been busy!

Time flies, I think quicker when you don’t have seasons to differentiate one month from another.

It’s been a busy half year or so, and so I’ve completely neglected this blog. But now, having completed my MBA (woo hoo, weekends back!), moved house (and unpacked!), not having left Singapore for a couple of weeks and being a bit bored in the office, I’ve made the decision to resurrect it.

To catch up, here are my top 5 highlights of the last few months*:

1) Visits home. I was lucky enough to go back at Christmas, and with work in March, and on both occasions I ate as many pub meals as I could squeeze in, and caught up with nearly everyone I wanted to see. It was brilliant meeting babies Aliki and Martha, and getting comfortable in my room in Marion and Grant’s new flat. Sadly, I’m not yet sure when I’ll be back next, but hopefully it will be in the first half of 2015.

2) Visitors. Even better than flying half way round the world to see people, is when people make the journey out to see you! Mum came over in February, Hannah in April and Michelle and Aliki in May. While there are few things more annoying than being stuck at work while my favourite people are by the pool or exploring the sights, it was great introducing old friends to new ones (now I have some!), having an excuse to eat chilli crab, and go out every night!

3) Holidays. Another benefit of visitors is that they usually want to go somewhere else as well as Singapore. I’ve been doing my best to eke out my rather meager allowance of 18 days a year, and have managed to fit in Ubud with Mum, the Gilli’s with Han, and Railay with Michelle. On top of that Andy and I have enjoyed wonderful weekends in Tokyo and Langkawi (possibly my two favourite places in the world) and a whole week in Thailand!

4) Feeling at home. One of the benefits of moving to a flat that is slightly larger than a shoe box with an oven, microwave, toaster and everything, is that I have started rediscovering my recipe books (I even made chocolate brownies last weekend). It’s probably also an affect of having someone to share meals with, but Singapore is really starting to feel more like home now that we’re cooking more often than eating out, and enjoying nights in watching Happy Valley and The Honourable Woman!

5) Doing more new stuff. One of the things I love most about Singapore is how easy it is to try new things, and how many new things there are to try. I’ve loved having a go at paddleboarding, attempting to play tennis, and relearning Spanish. And next weekend we’re signed up for a keelboat sailing course!

* if all this sounds a bit too smug, there have been some low points too. Mostly involving jetlag, insomnia, homesickness, saying goodbye to good friends, and having to work 50 hour+ weeks. Still on balance, life is good and I feel very fortunate!

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Things I miss

It’s funny the things you miss when away! For me, it’s mostly food. And mountains, walks along the river and being able to cycle to work. And wearing a coat and woolly hat and jeans!

It’s been 10 months since I was last back home (though where is home these days? – perhaps a subject for another post!), but only one month ’til I’ll be back again, and I’m gradually building up a list of things to squeeze into my week back in the UK.

1) Catching up with friends and family. Yes, food is important. But people are of course number one on the list of things I miss. Though they’re not entirely separable from food – I miss the annual Christmas meal with Sophie, Simon, Rachel, Fraser, Jen and Jason (and any opportunity to sample Sophie’s cakes!), I miss Carmen and Georgie’s Wednesday night dinners, I miss cooking for friends, and bbqs in the garden, I miss cake and wine at book group and pistachios and wine with the girls! So, when I’m back I will be doing my best to catch up with as many people as possible over as many meals as I can fit in.

2) Mum’s roast dinners. Having missed out last year, I’m already excited about Christmas dinner! Especially the roast potatoes (brussel sprouts, not so much). Though I did have my first ever Sunday roast here in Singapore last weekend. And it wasn’t too bad; it just didn’t feel quite right in 30 degree heat. (And it came with corn on the cob, which was a bit odd.)

3) Apple crumble. Ideally after the roast dinner (both served following a long walk to justify large portions!). The perfect dessert. Especially with custard. Singapore has some very pretty cake shops, but somehow sweet things here never taste as good as they look.

4) Pret a Manger. How I wish there was a branch near the office. (Though frankly I’d be happy with the Cowley Road baguette shop. Or at a push Tesco Metro.) I can happily eat a sandwich every day (oh, happy days), but somehow rice and Chinese veg just gets boring. And doesn’t come with the option of vegetable crisps or a chocolate brownie! (last tasted in August – thanks to Marion bringing one to Sri Lanka!)

5) Pizza Express. I associate Pizza Express with many a happy evening (most with Katie and Ellie) enjoying a Fiorentina and a bottle of wine. I got overly excited when I saw one in Hong Kong airport on my way through. But then I realised it was 6am in the morning, so not really the time for dough balls. But I’m headed there again next weekend, and reckon I might be able to fit in a quick dinner before my evening flight back!

6) Green and Blacks. Chocolate in Singapore is of the weird, not melting as much, Australian variety. Even Maltesers don’t taste quite right. So I am immensely grateful to Esme for her frequent dispatches of Green and Blacks. Elevates a night in watching TV from dull to quite satisfactory! I’ll also be stocking up on chocolate oranges, and maybe a Flake or two!

7) M&S Food. Ok, so strictly speaking there are M&S Foods here. But they don’t have the lovely fresh salads, or pizzas, or cheese, or croissants, or sandwiches! And I really miss good salad! But it is nice to be able to pick up some cauliflower cheese and oaty cookies when feeling homesick.)

8) Pies. And sausage and mash. And other comforting pub-style food, again best savoured after a stroll along the river or day up the mountain or by the seaside. Curry puffs are ok, but not nearly as satisfying as a cornish pasty!

9) A fry up. Singapore has a plethora of posh brunch places, but I’ve yet to find anywhere that does a really good fry up. With beans, as well as eggs and proper bacon! But I have discovered that boiled eggs go well with soy sauce!

10) Tea with milk. Yes, I can have it home. But I’ve still not really got used to my black earl grey at work. Or mid-afternoon snacks being spring rolls rather than biscuits.

But, when recently away from Singapore for 3 weeks, I realised there are a few things I missed from here too. Food-wise, it is lovely having an abundance of pineapples, melons and mangoes sold at a stand near my bus stop. I have become rather fond of being able to pick up dinner on my way home and not cook for one. And while it’s too hot to cycle to work, or jog outside, I do enjoy being able to swim outside every weekend!

It’s been a year!

It’s been a year since I arrived in Singapore! No longer am I that lost, over-heated frizzy-haired newcomer clutching a Lonely Planet and struggling to navigate the myriad of choices at the kopitiam. No, now I’ve become an (admittedly still over-heated and frizzy-haired) long-term resident, au fait with the essential Singapore iphone apps I need to get around, and well aware of the need to always carry a fan, water and wet-wipes where-ever I may be headed.

So what else have I learned over the last year? Here’s my top 5:

1)   Time flies! It may be a sign of age, overwork or accumulated jetlag, but I’m not quite sure where the last 12 months have gone. Admittedly, I’ve probably lost about a fortnight on ridiculous long-haul flights and spent at least 2 months overseas, but I feel like I’ve only just started scratching the surface of this city. Yes, I’ve now ticked off most of the tourist sights, but there’s still literally hundreds of eateries to dine at, rooftop bars to drink at, museums to gawp at and places to explore!

2)   Doing stuff on my own isn’t too awful! So, before I moved here, I was loathe to sit in Starbucks by myself, let alone go out for dinner or to the cinema. (I admit it, I had hotel pizza my first night here!) But after nearly a month of living in a hotel I got pretty used to dining alone, and even occasionally enjoyed it. And I remember very fondly the first (and yes, only) Saturday night I went out by myself and ended up staying out til 3am with a bunch of very lovely people I’ve not seen since! I’ve also been to my first festival solo (not quite as much fun), watched a flamenco show, seen several films and visited a lot of museums. And while I’ve not been away on my tod yet, I wouldn’t rule it out in the future!

3)   It is possible to make new friends in your 30s… And ok, doing stuff with other people is more fun! Life here improved significantly once I joined a book group, tracked down Darrell (and met his friend Jeanette), realized some of my expat colleagues were also at a loose end of a Saturday, and most significantly discovered Internations. Finally, 4 months in, I found people who drink wine after work on a Friday! While some of the larger events have a slight ‘fresher’s week’ feel (there’s only so many times you want to say where you’ve come from, how long you’ve been in Singapore and what you do here), it’s been brilliant meeting people from all over the world and knowing that if I’m at a loose end there’s events going on every week – ranging from free-flow wine in an Italian restaurant, to cocktails in a swanky hotel, to sunset cruises on a yacht! And you realise people have become actual friends when you start seeing them outside organized events, opening up a whole new world of mid-week girls’ nights out and weekend parties.

4)   …And take up new activities! I felt old when I realised it was 20 years since I’d last been rollerblading, but that didn’t stop me signing up for the Internations group. I was a little alarmed when I turned up to discover 4 rather tall and athletic looking men, all with their own skates, waiting for me, and panicked rather when I sped off downhill before realizing I didn’t know how to stop! But spending a Sunday afternoon skating 20km in East Coast park is now one of my favourite activities! As is Tango dancing – something I signed up for on a whim after seeing a poster back in May. I’m now on my fourth set of classes and love it! While neither of these are uniquely Singaporean activities, there’s something about being somewhere new that seems to make it easier to just jump in and give something a try – I’m thinking it might be diving next!

5)   Skype is amazing! While most of the time I’ve loved being here, there’s been moments (and days) when I’ve desperately missed home and friends I’ve known longer than a few months! But keeping in touch has been way easier than last time I lived abroad (back in the 90s!), thanks to the mighty Internet and the wonderful free program that is Skype (and sometimes Facetime). Sunday night is skype-night, with friends and family usually scheduled in for a couple of hours of quality chat and catch-up. While admittedly it’s not quite as good as catching up over a few glasses of wine (though I do occasionally have one on the side!), it’s been brilliant to keep up with news from home and I feel some friendships have even grown stronger (perhaps the benefit of chatting sober?!). It’s definitely improved the quality of calls with my parents – we’ve discovered talking as a three is much better than me telling my Dad something for 5 minutes, then repeating it all after being passed over to Mum!

So, while I have contemplated throwing in the towel on many an occasion (as those I talk to on skype will know!), I reckon I’ll be here for a little while longer. I’ve still got all those bars and restaurants to visit. Not to mention the ever-growing list of weekend destinations in the region! 

Durian and national identity

Durian
So, I finally tried durian last night! And surprise, surprise, I thought it was pretty revolting. What was more surprising though, was the hordes of Singaporean families and groups of all ages tucking into it outside bustling stalls at 11 O’Clock on a Saturday night. Singaporeans really love their durian: McDonalds here offers the Durian Crunch McFlurry; the Esplanade theatre complex looks like a giant durian, and apparently someone has recently invented durian wine!

Last weekend I saw a play ‘Cook a pot of curry’ which throws a spotlight on Singapore’s national identity, the perceived threat of immigration and the racism bubbling away beneath the surface. (And also reinforced my view that Singaporean theatre is a bit like Bollywood – whenever things get too serious, it’s important to break into song and dance!) Despite only being 48 years old, Singapore is worried it’s losing its identity, unable to hold back the ever-increasing flood of immigrants (mostly from mainland China and India – us caucasians seem mostly irrelevant). While Singapore celebrates its diverse past with excellent museums detailing heritage of its people, it seems to be asking new arrivals to assimiliate (rather than just integrate).
times centre
As national day approaches, Singapore is in patriotic mood. Buildings (including my office) have suddenly become festooned wih the national flag, and rehearsals of the parade, fly past and concerts are underway. I’ve disovered there’s even a special national day song each year – here’s this year’s catchy number featuring the requisite mix of races and ages all looking surprisingly un-hot and flustered as they dance around unusually large green spaces!:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f0rj7XnZFe4&feature=player_embedded
The slogan ‘Many stories, One Singapore’ to me sums up the challenge Singapore faces in reconciling the diversity of its people with the very small space we all live in.

Me, I find I feel more patriotic about Britian living abroad than I ever did at home – I feel proud of the Lions and Andy Murray’s wins, nostalgic about camping and punting and pimms & lemonade, increasingly pedantic about spelling, and defensive of British healthcare, justice and education policies! So, much as I’m enjoying living here, I won’t be applying for Singapore citizenship anytime soon.

Food

Dim sum

It’s been a couple of months since my last entry – time has flown by, and it definitely doesn’t feel like I’ve been here nearly 8 months! Most of April, was spent on another epic work trip to Jamaica, Denver and New York. And while I took full advantage of the opportunity to eat jerk chicken, ribs, pizza and the like, I actually found myself craving Singaporean food again by the time I got back.

The food is definitely one of the best things in Singapore, and Singaporeans seem obsessed with it – most seem to take a photo of nearly every meal they eat! And there’s so much choice – within an easy walk of my flat I have the choice of several hawker centres (all with multiple stalls serving a range of Chinese and Malay options), an incredibly popular Nasi Lemak place, a couple of Thais, several Italians, Indians, Japanese, Malay, Indonesian, Vietnamese and even a chippie and a burger bar.

So here’s my top five so far:
1) Chilli crab
I’ve had chilli crab three times now – twice in No Signboard Seafood on Geylang Road. Contrary to the name, it does in fact have a very large fluorescent sign (and multiple fluorescent crabs decorating it). The crabs (and clams, fish, oysters etc.) are all alive in tanks towards the back of this large outdoor restaurant, and picked out once ordered.

My first surprise was that the crab is not shelled. But it is liberally covered in sauce. Which results in a seriously messy eating experience! (We were chuffed not to be offered the aprons some other Caucasian customers were wearing, but I definitely recommend wearing black!)
The sauce is a gloriously rich, slightly sweet chilli and tomatoey mix, with a slightly fluffy texture. Have it with Chinese buns, which are distinctly unhealthy rolls with a crisp slightly sweet top – perfect for soaking up the sauce and totally addictive.

2) Laksa
Katong, where I live, is famous for its laksa – a traditional Peranakan dish consisting of noodles in a spicy coconut broth topped with clams and prawns. I’ve had it twice at 328 Katong Laksa – sitting at a plastic table on the pavement, slurping up the noodles, accompanied by a Tiger beer. As a side, they offer ‘otah-otah’ which is a spiced mackerel fishcake, cooked wrapped in a banana leaf. All for under £5!

3) Chicken rice
Chicken rice originates from Hainan province of China but has become Singapore’s national dish. As the name suggests, it’s a simple dish but absolutely delicious! The rice is cooked in the chicken broth giving it a wonderful fragrant flavour, and it is served with steamed chicken breast, ginger paste, chilli and dark soy sauce, and a bowl of chicken broth. It can be found at pretty much every hawker centre, and is the ultimate comfort food.

4) Nasi Lemak
Nasi Lemak is a traditional malay breakfast dish. Though I’ve not got the hang of rice (or noodles for that better) before midday , so tend to have it for dinner. There’s a place just by my bus stop, so I now queue up and get my coconut rice and whichever sides I fancy (the traditional option is a fried egg, chicken drumstick and ikan bilis – a surprisingly tasty mix of peanuts and dried anchovies) at least once a week!

5) Dim sum
The huge variety of dumplings and other small bites available at numerous restaurants here could justify a whole blog entry to themselves. Sunday dim sum is the perfect Singaporean way to do brunch – accompanied by an ever-flowing pot of puer tea. I love steamed pork and shrimp dumplings dipped in soy sauce , barbeque pork buns, rice noodle rolls and carrot cake (which is actually made from radishes), and lots of other things I am unable to name!

I’ve also had some less successful meals – fish head curry was a little spicy for my taste, and I didn’t fancy the eyes or cheeks, and I definitely won’t be trying frog porridge again! But I’ll give most things a try once. Even durian! Apparently they’re now in season, so I have resolved to bit the bullet and give it a go in the next few weeks. Watch this space!

CNY

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A long overdue blog-post – I can hardly believe I’ve now been in Singapore for over 5 months (or maybe closer to 4 if you take off the weeks I’ve spent halfway round the globe) – time has flown by!

While I spent most of Chinese New Year (or CNY as it’s abbreviated to here – why spell something out when you can use an acronym instead!) itself in the UK, I was in Singapore for the run-up and conclusion, and found it a fascinating (if at times confusing and surreal!)experience.

I first cottoned on to something going on, when the handyman at work spent a day going round hammering in a bright red or yellow paper pineapple above everybody’s desk, back in mid-January. Persistent questioning informed me these represented prosperity, or something along those lines but not directly translatable into English! Around the same time, I started noticing adverts for Pizza Hut’s ‘good fortune’ pizza, Macdonalds ‘prosperity’ burger, and lots of very elaborate baskets of foodstuffs in the windows of shops. And my team started taking ‘urgent leave’ in order to pick up hampers or queue for the right sort of dried pork.

Chinese New Year is really the only time Singapore itself shuts down – offices are closed for two days, and even shopping centres are apparently quiet! It’s a time to visit and eat with family, and I think it was the only weekend I wasn’t regularly receiving work e-mails!

While I took advantage of the bank holidays to see my own family in the UK, it turns out Chinese New Year actually lasts 15 days. During which time, people seem to wear as much red as possible and eat pretty continually. My friend, Peggy, invited me to a special church event she was attending, which involved chinese new year comedy sketches, songs, and readings focused on respecting and caring for the elderly in society. Followed by a huge buffet and games. It was a very warm and welcoming occasion and a great opportunity to experience a chinese community atmosphere. Turns out another CNY tradition is the exchanging of two mandarin oranges – when you visit someone you take two oranges – they then give you two oranges, and you shuffle them around a bit so you both end up with one of each! Another custom is the giving of red envelopes containing money – traditionally given by married to single people – but I think now also reciprocally given to parents and children (and work gave me one containing $2, which I think was unrelated to my marital status!).

There’s a lot of banging going on during CNY – and it’s not people catching up on their DIY. Lion dance troupes of men travel around Singapore on the back of small trucks, banging their drums. I believe it’s good luck to get them to perform at your home or business (and give them a red envelope in return). We had a troupe spend an entire morning at our offices (which was rather distracting during meetings!) – I arrived in the morning to discover most of the company stood outside in the carpark while a troupe banged their drums and the lion bowed up and down in front of the CEO and an offering of fruit and veg!

And that lunchtime we enacted another custom – tossing raw fish salad (or Yu Sheng)! The entire workforce crowded up into the canteen and stood in groups around measured out ingredients. And then as instructed we mixed the beansprouts, noodles, salmon, nuts, and shredded carrot and cucumber together, before tossing it as high as we could with chopsticks, to bring prosperity and abundance tp the company!

One of the questions I’ve been asked a lot in Singapore is which sign am I. And they mean chinese horoscope sign. I’m a sheep, which apparently makes me a deep thinker and a worrier and easily stressed. But this is the year of the snake, which apparently can bring unexpected transformations to our lives. Bring it on, I say!

Christmas in the sun

It’s the 12th day of Christmas, and as I take down my cards and decorations (thank you to everyone who sent them!) it seems appropriate to reflect on Christmas in Singapore.

Singapore always seems to be celebrating one festival or another. So as soon as the Divali lights came down, the Christmas decorations went up. In every mall. And all along Orchard Road. Most less commerical streets remained untouched. But where there were decorations they really went to town – I don’t think I’ve ever seen someone dressed up as a tree before, purely to entertain the shoppers! Or seen quite so many plastic reindeer. One of the most surreal experiences I had was wandering around Gardens by the Bay. It seemed surreal enough to have all the tropical plants outside and the more temperate ones inside specially cooled domes. But inside the dome featuring English roses and geraniums, there was also a huge Christmas tree surrounded by large floral penguins and snowmen, and even a polar bear! Clearly a ‘temperate’ climate includes everything from the med to the north pole!

Even our work Christmas card featured a snow scene – despite the fact that most people in Singapore have never encountered the stuff. Though there was a seasonal ice-rink set up inside marina bay mall (where you can also find a river complete with gondolier!).

At work, Christmas seemed to be regarded as a bit of an inconvenience, with lots of moans about the out of office e-mails received from our American and UK partners. But we did have a Christmas buffet lunch, which included some turkey meatloaf, crab claws, and of course rice!

Most Singaporeans seem to spend  Christmas as they do any other public holiday or weekend – shopping (all the malls were open), resting or spending time with family or friends. Marion, Grant and I opted for hiring bikes and cycling down East Coast Park, before having a bbq on my condo’s roof terrace, with a few other expats from my work. While sausages and corn on the cob may not be a traditional choice, some festive tunes and a couple of bottles of fizz helped create a seasonal ambience! I’m just glad I took boxing day as holiday!

New Years Day is also a public holiday here, though most Singaporeans seem to see it as a poor second to the Chinese New Year. But the central bars and restaurants take full advantage of the commerical benefits of hosting a party, and don’t skimp on the decorations. It seemed like every area had some sort of party going on. It was just a shame it rained for most of the evening! But we ventured outside in time to watch the fireworks by the bay at midnight. The streets are cordoned off, and initially it didn’t seem dissimilar to seeing new years in by the river in London. Until we realised everyone was queuing patiently, following directions, and shuffling in a polite and organised fashion towards the viewing points!

Now it’s January, shops have swiftly moved on to advertising their Chinese New Year gifts. Marion and Grant have gone home, and I’m starting to look forward to the challenges and adventures 2013 will bring. One of my resolutions is to see as much of South East Asia as possible, and I’m starting with Bali next weekend! Happy new year! C x