The Ghosts of Friends Past

The other day a group of women gathered at a restaurant by a golf course and surprised me with a ‘you wrote a book!’ celebratory lunch. I was beyond touched and grateful and all of those other good words.

I looked at my lovely friends and felt such gratitude to know such amazing women, but it was tinged with sadness.

Sadness that so many of the amazing friends I’ve made in the past 5.5 years have already left and, in all probability, I will never see them again. Sure, we all think we will see our expat friends again, but the reality is it probably won’t happen, especially for friends who aren’t from our home country.

During lunch I felt the ghosts of friends past floating around the restaurant. Prompting such strong memories over the next few days that tears sprung regularly. I’m not usually an overly sentimental person but these past couple of days the ghosts of friends past have been my constant companions. Sitting on my shoulder and whispering in my ear.

My first expat friend was a sassy Texan, with two girls around the same age as mine. She tells me that in our first conversation I used a swear word and she knew then we were going to be good friends. We bonded over our shared leasing dramas and took a trip to Thailand together within 6 weeks of meeting. I shared two Thanksgivings with them, bewildered that mashed sweet potato with marshmallows was a savoury side dish, but pumpkin was a dessert food. We spent a Christmas in Australia together, watching our girls tear off wrapping paper while wearing pyjamas and bed hair. Within 20 months  they returned to the States.

I’m unsure why but a lot of my friends in those early years were American, but now my friends are almost exclusively Australian or Kiwis. I miss my American friends. The NJ family who lived 9/11, running to catch the ferry home to safety on the day the world changed. Her husband made the best ginger cosmopolitans in the entire world! The Southern family whose home was furnished with amazing family heirlooms, and who made me the one-and-only martini I’ve ever had. Straight spirits with an olive. Ouch! The Utah friend that I never did spend enough time with. The Texan I connected with via this blog before I even left Australia. The Texans who arrived a couple and left as a family, flying back to their home with a toddler and a newborn.

I miss them all.

 

And?

We had family visit us a couple of weeks ago, so the Missies got to have their grandparents do grandparent-y things with them. That’s one of the big things that expat kids miss out on. Those everyday interactions with family that most kids take for granted. They watched the Big Missy play touch rugby in the baking sun and the Little Missy play basketball in a stuffy school hall. Card games were shared and Monopoly was also played. This was particularly exciting for the Missies as Monopoly is, as far as I’m concerned, a game to be avoided at all costs and rarely played.

Before the Big Missies sport my dad was standing out the front of Giant supermarket and was bewildered to see a man wheel out a full trolley of groceries that he’d just purchased. Realising he’d forgotten to buy something he pushed the trolley into the corner and went back into the supermarket.

My dad relayed the story to us incredulously.

Our family of four looked at my dad puzzled. I said ‘and?’ wondering what the big deal was.

‘But isn’t he worried it’ll get stolen?’

And that highlighted the change in our attitudes since being in Singapore. We take safety for granted. The chance of the man’s groceries being stolen is minimal. Sure, it could happen but it’s unlikely.

I’d absolutely do this myself in Singapore, but there’s no way I’d do it in Australia. Somewhere during the past five years I’ve developed two different sets of behaviours.

One for Singapore and another for everywhere else.

I don’t even know when this happened as it wasn’t a conscious decision. I can’t say for certain but I suspect it’s quite a common thing for expats.

Expat Currency

Every time we return from travel we silently promise to mark the plastic bags with the name of the currency’s country.

We then forget.

Until the next trip.

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The Book

In the blogger sphere there is a fair bit of focus on stats. Stats of how many people view a blog, how they got to the blog; how long they stayed on the blog; what search terms brought them to the blog; all of these and more discussed and dissected. A good blogger should try and increase their readership and engagement. A dedicated blogger attends actual blogging conferences with actual people. An excellent blogger is able to ‘monetise’ their blog so that it earns actual money.

It seems I am not a good blogger as I don’t give two hoots about stats and whether anyone reads my posts. I’m not dedicated enough to attend a conference. And I’m certainly never going to monetise my blog because I really couldn’t be bothered. In fact, I’ve had a ‘no sponsored content’ stance since I first started this blog, despite offers of chocolate (I’d rather chips), free tickets to events, and – once – a week’s use of a luxury car. There are also a fair amount of spam emails that I somehow receive, which are deleted quick smart.

Despite this rather unconventional approach to blogging it seems people do actually read my blog. I get the occasional email from people considering relocating to Singapore, so folks are interested in my ramblings it seems.

At the beginning of last year I received a most curious email from a publisher. A reputable publisher. They were asking whether I’d consider writing the newest edition of their Singapore guide for expats. I had always harboured dreams of being a writer and so knew that getting a book published was a long and hard journey. Friends who are published authors slaved away for years before they had a manuscript accepted by a publishing house, and yet here was an email offering me the chance to write a book.

After staring at the email for a week or so, I had no choice but to delete it. Obviously, it was spam. Fairly legitimate looking spam, but spam nonetheless.

A while later (a month? Six weeks?) another email dropped into my inbox from the same editor as the previous email but from a private address. He wondered if I got his previous email? So, it wasn’t spam! Oops.

But I was far too busy to write a book. I’d just enrolled in a second university degree so declined his offer with many thanks.

Until a few friends verbally slapped me around the head and pointed out that publishers do not make these offers very often and I would be a fool to say no.

And then I wrote a book.

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Despite not following any of the so-called blogging “rules” somehow my writing and this blog ended up on the radar of a publishing company and I was handed an amazing opportunity.

So, thank you to every one who has ever read this blog.

And thank you to the amazing team at Marshall Cavendish International (Asia) for choosing me for this project!

(I only received my copies of the book yesterday so it isn’t available in book shops yet , but it is listed on Amazon if you want to pre-order it here.)

Bucket List #6: Joo Chiat

The school my kids attend has just started a regular photography walk for parents, which takes the participants to photographic areas of Singapore. When they posted that August’s walk was around Joo Chiat I was keen to join, as Joo Chiat has been on my Bucket List for a number of years. After 5 years you’d expect that Bucket List to be well and truly ticked off, but I’m always adding things to it. For a small country Singapore has so much to see and do!

Joo Chiat is named for Chew Joo Chiat, who owned plantations in this area which resulted in many of the areas roads being named after him. The area was mainly plantations until the early 20th century, when wealthy Peranakan  people began to move out of the crowded downtown area, and it’s the beautiful shophouses of the Peranakan’s that make Joo Chiat great to photograph. Well, at least in the daytime, by night Joo Chiat is renowned for its terrific food and other *ahem* types of nightly entertainment.DSC03048 The area is also home to lots of interesting shops. I’m not much of a shopper but I did spy lots of shops that firmly targeted the expat market such as a German bakery and a shop selling ‘chalk paint’. There were also temples, local provision shops, KTV lounges, youth hostels and the like. There’s also street art by Ernest Zacharevich. Pretty much something for everyone!

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But, it’s the shophouses that draw most of the photographic spotlight in this area, and they didn’t disappoint.

Joo Chiat Road is the backbone of this area, but most of the best shophouses are located down side roads. If you’re keen to find them download the URA Katong and Joo Chiat guide, which features lots of information plus a very handy map.

Just a note that these are homes, not museums. The homeowners seem to tolerate photographers well, but always be respectful and you’ll be just fine!

Bucket List #5: Bukit Brown Cemetery

When we first moved (which was over FIVE YEARS AGO!) Bukit Brown cemetery was very prominent in the news, as it had been announced that the peaceful Chinese cemetery was going to be bisected by a highway. Given the space constraints of Singapore many cemeteries have been ‘re-purposed’ (i.e. they’ve been dug up) over the years. There were cemeteries along Orchard Road where Ngee Ann City stands today. Fort Canning Green, where you can bring a picnic and sip wine whilst watching Shakespeare performed, housed a Christian cemetery, as did the site where KK Women’s and Children’s Hospital stands today. Further up the road from KK there was a Jewish cemetery where the Velocity shopping mall now stands.

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All of these cemeteries disappeared without protest, but Bukit Brown was different and saw the establishment of many conservation groups keen to preserve the cemetery and its history. To cut a long story short 5000 graves were exhumed and the road is being built, but the upside of the Bukit Brown story is that it reignited interest in the cemetery. Since 2011 the ‘Brownies’ have led small tour groups around the cemetery, and taking part in one of these has been on my Bucket List ever since. It only took just under 5 years but I finally made it to one of the Brownies tours.

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The road is being built between the two fences.

I’ve already forgotten much of what I heard on my tour, so will have to do another but the tour covered some of the more prominent tombs and also a little bit about Chinese tomb culture. We saw some of the beautiful Peranakan tiles as well as the very grand tomb of Ong Sam Leong. Interestingly, the tombs of people who died during the Japanese Occupation had the Japanese year in which they died (which differed to the Roamn calendar).

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Ancestor offerings.

There’s lots to love about Bukit Brown. The cemetery is very large and the vegetation grows incredibly fast so new tombs are being ‘found’ all the time. The Brownies are all volunteers and all have different aspects of Bukit Brown in which they are interested, so each tour is different. If you wish to book one of the Brownie’s tours you can find them on Peatix here. If you aren’t keen on organised tours then anyone is free to wander around the cemetery, but to be considerate avoid the Qing Ming period where people are visiting the tombs of the ancestors.

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Many tombs are adorned with beautiful tiles. Made mainly in Britain and Japan in the 1920s-30s the tiles add a colourful element to Bukit Brown.

 

The Handover

You don’t have to live in Singapore for very long before you hear about the nightmare that handing over a leased property can be. Although leases typically include a ‘fair wear and tear’ clause they also include a clause that states you will return the property in the same condition in which you took possession of it. So, if it was freshly painted or the floors were re-varnished then the landlord may expect these to still be in pristine condition when you move out.

Unlike in many countries there is no independent board or body that holds the deposit/bond that tenants pay to a landlord. Instead, the deposit/bond is paid to the landlord and what they do with it is up to them. And whether they return your deposit/bond in its entirety or deduct amounts for maintenance is up to the landlord.

In preparation for leaving our old place our agent advised us that we needed to remove all picture hooks and to patch and paint the holes, attend to any outstanding maintenance issues (tenants are responsible for the first $150 non-structural issues), replace all blown light bulbs, repair floor scratches and so on and so on and so on. We did some of these but the house had dodgy wiring with water leaking through cement walls so we refused to do anything electrical (or pay for an electrician).

Last week was a particularly stressful week, as moving week always is, and the thought of Handover at the end of it made me feel physically ill. I knew we hadn’t done nearly enough and were well aware of all the friends who had been left out-of-pocket for scratched floors, blown light bulbs and all manner of other things but neither of us had the energy to care a great deal. This was compounded by the landlord taking THREE WEEKS to confirm a time for the joint inspection.

Anyway, we forked out a bundle of cash to have the place professionally cleaned. We also arranged for the curtains to be dry-cleaned, which is also standard practice in Singapore. Let’s just say that rubber packed curtains when folded with the rubber sides together and stored in plastic bags for days after being cleaned do not look so great when they have been yanked apart.

Discovering this 2 minutes before Handover possibly made me cry.

Backtracking almost 5 years but the big sticking point in the original lease was that the Landlord wanted our liability at the end of the lease to be open-ended. Any time they found issues after we left we would have to pay to rectify them. The Other Half’s company fought this tooth-and-nail and eventually Clause 32 stated that once the form was signed at the end of the joint inspection our liability ended.

The landlord’s representative finally turned up for the joint inspection 25 minutes late (by which time I was ready to vomit in the just-cleaned toilet with nerves). He asked to see the structural issues, got the Other Half to sign the magical ‘our liability ends here’ form, and we were done.

That easy.

All of a sudden I was totally grateful for that horrible protracted leasing saga and the lackadaisical property management company.

 

A Tale of Two Leases

For those of you who were reading this blog almost 5 years ago, you may remember that the leasing process for our current abode was somewhat *ahem* protracted. From the time we said ‘yes, this is the house for us’ to the date we were handed the keys took ELEVEN WEEKS. Just shy of THREE MONTHS. The cause for the delay was, in a nutshell, the landlord (which is a charitable trust, not a single person) and the Other Half’s company (they were paying the rent) standing toe-to-toe over several of the clauses in the lease. Asian fear of losing face versus German stubbornness, with our family the meat in the stale sandwich.

It was horrible. We moved serviced apartments 5 times in 4 weeks and then shifted to an entirely different serviced apartment complex. The Big Missy was an emotional wreck, and I wasn’t far behind. Once school holidays hit the girls and I fled to Phuket for a break from the whole palaver.

Fast forward just under 5 years and we have had a vastly different process. We put an offer in on a new apartment on a Sunday and the deal was done by Wednesday.

77 hours versus 11 weeks.

What I know now is that 5 years ago our agent should have advised us to walk away. As soon as the landlord presented  a SEVENTEEN page lease they should have known trouble would ensue. The lease we just signed (which I believe is a standard contract) was only SIX pages.

In two weeks time we will move into the sky and a few days after that we will need to ‘handover’ our current place. Leasing handovers in Singapore are notoriously tricky with vastly different interpretations of ‘fair wear and tear’. Cross your fingers for us that this end of the leasing process is easier than the beginning!

Shall I Stay or Shall I Go?

There’s a cycle to expat locations. Every six months there’s a flurry of people leaving which is followed shortly afterwards by a wave of new arrivals. This typically happens in line with the school year. A flurry of departures every June and December, with new arrivals peaking in August and January.

The calendar has just ticked over to December so it seems that many people I know are currently surrounded by packing boxes and sporting stressed faces as they battle with the logistics of relocating. My children’s school has a typical yearly turnover of both students and staff of a third. Yes, in any given year one in three students and staff will leave. The Big Missy is losing three of her four closest friends. She has had more close friends move away on 4.5 years than I’ve had during my entire 43 years, but has mastered the art of befriending the newly arrived students in the belief those friendships will last the longest.

Last month The Culture Blend website published an article titled ‘The transition that never ends: the ongoing cycle of expat Stayers, Goers and Newbies‘, which makes the point that every year is the same but entirely different. A very accurate summation of the expat cycle but the important message was that every expat needs to be selfless and reach out to people regardless of their expat label. To be completely honest this is something that I struggle with. I made a very fast friendship with a Texan friend during my first days in Singapore and when she left just over 18 months later I couldn’t really bothered giving friendships my all again. It just seemed like too much work when inevitably we’d end up on the other side of the globe within a year or two. This is something that I’ve only moved beyond in the last year or so and I completely agree with the article in that ALL expats need to be selfless and seek out people. Shielding yourself doesn’t work in the long run. It just makes you lonely.

I’ve been a newby and presume at some stage I will be a goer, but we are currently stayers. The next six months will be quite eventful – a change of housing and the publication of The Book!

You Say ‘Haze’ I Say POLLUTION

When I was at schools (very late-70s and all of the 1980s and 1990) we used to tune into to AM breakfast if it was raining to find out if outdoor school activities, like excursions/field trips and sporting events, were cancelled. When the announcements came that the athletics carnival was indeed cancelled due to the wet weather if you were like me at not at all athletic you’d let out a massive cheer! I assume if were a sporty type you’d be devastated, but I’m assuming here as wanting to attend a sporting carnival is very much outside my frame of reference.

The Little Missy, who is now 9, is scheduled to attend her very first school camp today at the Singapore Zoo. At her school this is the only camp that is actually a ‘camp’, most usually involve staying at a resort in Malaysia complete with housekeeping and proper beds. The kids sleep out in tents and see lots of behind the scenes zoo things that the public never get to see. It’s only for a night but it’s a great ‘taste’ of staying away from home.

Events are rarely cancelled in advance due to wet weather in Singapore. They might be paused for an hour or so while a thunder and lightning show plays out, but then it’s back to normal scheduling. The biggest threat to outdoor activities is the ‘haze’, which is a polite word for POLLUTION.

The pollution has been building all week, thanks to the plantations of Sumatra who are doing their annual ‘let’s burn everything’ routine.On Monday I went out in the car and to the shops for about 45 minutes. I spent the rest of the afternoon and evening coughing. (I’m not normally prone to the effects of pollution but I’m still recovering from a respiratory infection. Yes, woe is me!)

Yesterday the PSI reading hit the ‘unhealthy’ range, where all outdoor activities are cancelled.

Thanks to the wonders of the internet we haven’t had to sit by the radio waiting for the announcer to tell us what will happen to the camp but the pollution has meant that Plan B will swing into place and the Little Missy will get to sleep at school instead of the zoo.

The pollution is one of the few downsides of living in Singapore. We are fortunate that it’s not ever present like it is in parts of China but it still sucks, especially as it has a very easy solution – SUMATRA! STOP BURNING STUFF!