Viewing: The Singapore Years

Singapore eats

I apologize for the blog silence these past few days. I was completely consumed by the following tasks:

A) slogging through sauna-level humidity, from one air-conditioned sanctuary to another,

B) systematically emptying our bank account (a.k.a. shopping), and

C) eating my way through Singapore.

The eating was almost a full-time job. We must have eaten a week’s worth of food in just three days!

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Goodbye Singapore

Our last two-and-a-half days in Singapore, after returning from Christmas and New Year in Manila, were absolute mayhem.

We spent them at a breakneck pace running errands: bequeathing excess alcohol to friends, cashing in a voucher at Sephora, getting a haircut and pedi, and shopping for a few last-minute essentials…

saying goodbye to old friends…

and “hello” to new ones.

Along the way we managed to have a last few bites of some cherished Singapore favorites: xiao long bao at Din Tai Fung, curry puffs on Killiney Road (my breakfast on the way to work at the old BDA office), and of course, black pepper crab at Jumbo.

The most heartbreaking task by far was saying goodbye to Rogue.

She had just normalized (read: stopped being clingy, vocal and needy) after our three-week absence, and had absolutely no clue what was in store for her on Wednesday night. In hindsight, we could have handled her relocation better by doing things like familiarizing her with the new and larger cat carrier, providing her with a warm blanket, and putting in a piece of my or Marlon’s clothing so she can smell our scents and not feel abandoned.

But there was just so much on both our minds before leaving. So it was really hard to hear her low, mournful yowls when Mitchville Kennels, who handled the relocation at the Singapore end, came to take her away. I had to remind myself that we were entrusting her to professionals and would be seeing her again in less than 24 hours.

The most maddening task, on the other hand, was squeezing all our remaining possessions into the weight limits: 2 x 23kg for checked luggage, and 60kg for unaccompanied air freight. You’d think that over 100kg would be more than enough for our clothes and stuff right?

Hah. Try being 48kg overweight. PANIC!!!

In hindsight (again), I should have left all the clothes I used in Manila/Bohol/Boracay with Mom. And not bought so many books in Manila. (But, but… Alexandra Trese!) And not so many winter clothes either—they’re damn heavy. But somehow, with a few hours of panicked reshuffling and a last-minute trip to the Salvation Army, Marlon and I managed to magically squelch everything into three large suitcases, three small wheelies, two laptop bags, a coat carrier and a handbag.

Which seems to be about the time that things took off at warp speed. The turnover of the keys to our landlord, dragging our tired asses and 48,000 pieces of luggage into a Maxicab to go the airport, more frantic reshuffling at the check-in counter…

Were we thrilled, excited, brimming with joy? Yes. Was it all-consuming? Not really. Wrestling with all the hand-carried luggage took the edge off a bit. So by the time we collapsed into our seats in the plane, wide-eyed wonder had given way to this.

The minutes started blurring together and before I knew it, the plane had taken off. Outside my window, white-hot streams of jet fuel rushed past, pushing Singapore firmly into my past, and propelling me, mile by mile and minute by minute, into the Europe that was to be my future.

Patience, my pwet

Happy new year!

I normally do a year-end recap, but right now I am so focused on, so manically juiced about 2011 that I can barely recall what happened to me in 2010 except in single-word snatches: resigning, freelancing, Beijing, Sonoma, San Francisco, and dreaming about, going for, and finally getting Europe. (Hmm, I just realized that half of these words are action verbs and half of them are places I’ve never been before. That can only be a good thing.)

Anyway, Amsterdam is just 12 days away, but it feels like the longest 12 days ever!

I don’t know how you felt about the first day of school, but when I was a kid, my excitement about the start of classes drove me bonkers every single year. Going to National Bookstore to buy all my school supplies, covering my books and notebooks with ads torn out of Vogue, Bazaar and Elle (Claudia Schiffer’s classic Guess print ads were my favorites), then with plastic, choosing and polishing my new black school shoes–all of the preparations for the start of the new school year used to just whip me into a frenzy of anticipation, like doing each of these little little things somehow brought you that much closer to the day you were so inexplicably excited for. 

That’s the closest way to describe how I feel right now.

Except sometimes, all the preparations, every little errand from picking up the visas to seeing friends for goodbye lunches and dinners, seem to be just ways of filling time until we get on that plane and get this shebang started.

Let’s go, 2011!

From happy to happier (hopefully)

A few weeks ago, Marlon and I saw a window display for a book about the world’s happiest countries. Imagine how gleefully we chortled upon seeing how our soon-to-be ex-home and our soon-to-be future home stacked up against each other on the list!

Moving 77 places up the list is not too bad, ey?

Though Singapore and I have not exactly been a match made in heaven, we’ve had some great times. And for a place that ranks below Kosovo, Bosnia, and Kazakhstan on the happiness list, it’s done very well for me these last three years. For obvious reasons, there are tons of things I’m looking forward to in Amsterdam. But to be fair, there are also a lot of things I’ll miss about Singapore.

The food. Singapore is where I really fell in love with Asian food. For some reason in Manila, if you want gobsmacking, very authentic Asian food other than Chinese (say Thai or Indian), chances are you have to pay through the nose for it. Not so here. Great food is abundant, very affordable and truly diverse. Unfortunately for me, I have enough added poundage to prove it!

Black pepper crab, my all-time favorite Singapore dish

The professional growth. Coming here stretched me professionally. I probably wouldn’t have pushed myself to take on production if I had stayed home; being shoved out of my comfort zone led me to discover the little payoffs and sweet spots in what seemed, many times, like a muck of difficulty. Among other things, I learned that being “fast” and “nice” is well and good, but not enough to carry me forward; not when there are other things to be, like “reliable”, “accurate”, “professional”… and so much more.

My last shoot with BDA for the Disney Channel in Kuala Lumpur
Finding the courage to leave a job that I’d loved was a daunting risk that paid off. And both learning that I’d done well enough for other people to want to hire me, and being able to sustain a financially rewarding freelance career out of that, have done wonders for my professional confidence.

Our house. I will miss our house! It may be out in the boonies as far as Singaporeans are concerned, but  I’ve loved living in this green, quiet, low-density, sprawling complex.

Our home has been an expression of Marlon’s and my still-developing identity as a newlywed couple. We’ve had so much fun decorating it (even if I did end up getting rid of half the furniture), making my first culinary steps (and mis-steps) in it, hosting the many guests of “Hotel Plazo” (or Palazzo Plazo, as Pauline calls it), just holing up and getting cozy on leisurely weekends, and yes, even messing it up when we just get too damn lazy. I enjoyed the comforts of home especially over the last six months when I started working freelance.
 The view that tells me the workday is over
It may not be a Town & Country or even a Real Living kind of place, but it’s been our home. And I sure am going to miss having a pool…
Singapore = 1, Amsterdam = 0

Note to self: must swim more this week! Barring Boracay and Bohol in December, God only knows when I’ll get to swim next!

Multicultural colleagues and friends. The locals may complain about us “FTs” or foreign talents (some even go as far as to call us foreign trash), but Singapore sure knows how to attract people from all over the world. (Whether they actually stay and put down roots is another story.) There are just so many expats here.

Happier times at BDA
I’ve had the chance to work with people from China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Malaysia, Vietnam, Thailand, India, Japan, Australia, the US and the UK; some of the dearest friends Marlon and I have made here are from as far away as Colombia and South Africa.

Just like when I traveled to Europe with the Glee Club, meeting people of different cultures and backgrounds makes you realize there are so many different ways to live, so you don’t feel completely insane for making certain decisions. (Like going freelance and moving to Amsterdam, for example.)

The infrastructure. When locals whine about their infrastructure, sometimes I just want to slap them and say “Please travel more! And you’ll see that in this world, you’re lucky just to have a country that works!” Because public transport here is pretty awesome.

It’s why we haven’t felt the need for a car for three years (seven years for Marlon). And it’s why I don’t understand why one of the most widely circulated newspapers in the country prints letters to the editor that are about such pressing problems as puddles (yes, puddles) in MRT stations and heated pleas to the government for an in-train display that lights up to tell you what stop you’re at and on which side of the train the doors will open. (People! It’s four freaking MRT lines, not rocket science! Have you seen the metro systems in Paris, Tokyo, Seoul?)

But I guess discovering malfunctions in such a well-oiled system can be like paying through the nose for tickets to Disneyland and finding out that Space Mountain is down for repairs. Oh, and I’ll miss cabs.

Cabs are my biggest vice here by far. Never mind the cabbies and their driving. I’ll miss relatively affordable taxi rides (relative to Europe, that is), being able to book taxis via SMS, and having them arrive in minutes. Ohhhh. If I think about it too much, I might get depressed. On to the next.

The large, and growing, Pinoy community. The number of Pinoys in Singapore has boomed since I first started visiting Marlon seven years ago. And the demographic is changing; for the first time in the history of Singapore, there are more Filipino professionals than Filipino domestic helpers. Nowadays, I catch snatches of Tagalog nearly everywhere I go. It’s like living in Makati. Or sometimes, Katipunan.

With Singapore-based high school and college classmates (Justine was visiting)

It’s great to be able to speak Tagalog to someone (most often on the customer-facing side of things) to break the ice, get things done, or simply create instant rapport. It’s even better to run into old acquaintances and rekindle friendships. And best of all, because of the large Pinoy community, it’s easy to get a lot of things home. In the mood for longganisadaing na bangus, sukang pinakurat, even pan de sal? Lucky Plaza lang ang katapat niyan.

Proximity to home. Cheap flights were a godsend for me in the first few months here, when I was still very homesick and hadn’t found work. Later on, as I started to make a home for myself here, the Philippines became our destination of choice for short getaways.

 Happiness in Bohol

I tried going to a few other beaches (Phuket, isdatchu?), but I guess there really is no place like home. It’s just ironic that I could only really afford to travel around my own country once I got out of it. When plane fare home moves up by from three digits to four next year, I am sure going to miss being able to hop on a Philippine-bound plane at the drop of a hat!

The home stretch

Here we go, folks. I’m officially hitting the home stretch: my last seven days in Singapore. After that, it’s home for Christmas and to wait for our Dutch visas to be issued at the Dutch embassy in Makati. 
We have no idea what date we’ll be starting our new lives in Amsterdam, as Marlon’s new employers won’t book a flight until the visas are issued, which puts us in a kind of travel limbo. But I’m confident that at the end of this limbo is Europe, and you can’t imagine how that thrills, scares and excites me.

The euphoria has been derailed somewhat by a nasty fever that has knocked me out for the past two days. I’ve been mostly zonked out on paracetamol, but in between naps I got into mini fits of paranoia and panic.

The first one was about finding an flat. “The flats are tiny and expensive! Everyone will be out to stiff us! We don’t have money to burn like every other expat! We’re not on some giant expat package! Zzzzz.”

The second one was about getting things done before we leave. “I don’t know what to buy Marlon for Christmas! I need to go Christmas shopping! And buy a steamer! And the Eames chairs! And Sally Hansen wax strips! And have lunch with Maya, dinner with Sila, a barbecue with office friends, and squeeze in yoga everyday and… zzzzzzz.”

I had a whole list of things we wanted to do before leaving Singapore, which included finally trying Buddha Jumps Over The Wall (a mysteriously named and very expensive Chinese dish), dinner at Cocotte, brunch at the Botanic Gardens, and one last black pepper crab at Jumbo. (Is it obvious what I’ll miss most about this country?) But with the clock ticking, I think I’ll be content to simply pack up all our stuff, get some exercise, and say a few goodbyes. Anything else will be a luxury!

Conversations with cheapskates

Wherever there are sales, there will surely be bargain hunters. And fortunately or unfortunately for us, our recent spate of unloading brought some real Scrooges out of the woodwork. Just in time for Christmas!

Craigslist Cheapskate: (Buying a two-seater couch worth $49) How old is this couch? The cushions look worn out. The paint looks worn out. I can give you $20 for it.
Me: (In my mind) If it’s so old and worn out, then what kind of loser are you to even want it?
Me: (In reality) Sorry. The couch has been sold.

Gumtree Cheapskate: (Buying a bookshelf worth $49) Hi. I really love the shelf, but I checked transport and found out that it will cost $50, which is more than the cost of the bookshelf. I don’t want to insult you, but only way it will work out is if you can sell it to me for… $10?
Me: (In my mind) You don’t want to insult me? Honey, you just did!
Me: (In reality) *DELETES EMAIL*

The penny-pinchers weren’t just virtual; we got real live specimens at our garage sale, too. Now I’m no stranger to garage sales. We’ve moved a lot so we’ve always had them; a couple of years ago ACS did a really successful one in QC where nearly everything was wiped out.

When you see a crowd made up of maids, tricycle drivers, market vendors with five kids hanging on to their skirt at your sale, you expect to give away things for dirt cheap. What really irks me is that these cheapskates who showed up at our garage sale  drive, were dressed well, wore gold watches and branded bags. And I’m supposed to believe these people can’t afford a frigging Swarovski crystal figurine marked down to $5?

Cheapskate # 1: (Picks up a crystal figurine marked $5) This one got no tail ah.
Marlon: It’s a bear. Bears don’t have tails.
Cheapskate: No. I think should have tail.
Marlon: …
Cheapskate: I think you broke tail. I give you $1.
Marlon: One dollar! Are you kidding?
Cheapskate: Made in China what.

Marlon: Everything’s made in China these days!

Sold! To the man who failed zoology for $3!

Cheapskate # 2: (Picks up an unused H&M shoulder bag) How much is this bag? I buy it for my daughter, she just started her internship.
Me: It’s $19.
Cheapskate: Wah! $19 too expensive.
Me: It’s unused.
Cheapskate: You buy bag outside got cheaper one. I give you $10.
Me: You can’t buy a bag that looks like that for $10.
Cheapskate: Can what. You go OG, they got bag for $10.
Marlon: Okay, go OG then!

Unsold! Nek-nek mo, ni wala ngang H&M sa Singapore noh! 

Cheapskate # 3: (Picks up an unused digital photo frame, still in the box, marked $29) Wah, so small ah. Seven inch only. I want bigger one. I give you $10.
Marlon: You can’t get this small one for $10. How will you get a bigger one for $10?
Cheapskate: Got no stand ah.
Marlon: It’s in the box.
Cheapskate: This one used ah.
Marlon: It’s still in the box.
Cheapskate: My friend say pay $10 only.

Sold! To save sanity and brain cells, a bargain price of $15!

At may pahabol pa yan.

Cheapskate: (Picks up luggage lock, which is not for sale, off the kitchen counter) I buy your frame, you give me this padlock free.
Marlon: What? No!

Sigh. I didn’t want my last memory of Singaporeans as a people to be these penny-pinching vultures. I think I need to go eat some black pepper crab now so Singapore and I can part on warm and fuzzy terms!

Thoughts from a tindera

With the prospect of European flea markets and Dutch design beckoning at us from across the miles, Marlon and I agreed to take as few of our current set of belongings as possible to make space for new finds. 
This plan excites the stuffing out of me because I love design, I love vintage stuff and I’ve been longing to sink my teeth into a good flea market for years! And Marlon? He’s just been itching to tear through the house stuffing junk into a big black garbage bag. Having first moved to Singapore with just two suitcases, he’s always remarked to me with a mixture of wonder and horror how much stuff we’ve accumulated since… well, since I’ve moved in. And I have to admit he is right.
After spending a couple of hours being overwhelmed by just how much crap we had, Marlon and I decided to divide the tasks according to our strengths. I, being the internet addict, would sell our furniture on Craigslist and Gumtree; Marlon, being the brawny male, would haul all the stuff we wanted to get rid of into the living room for a good old-fashioned garage sale. 
The man has visual merchandising skills! A must-have in every husband.

Let me tell you, the last two weeks of organizing all these sales has taught me much, the hard way, about furnishing a home.

First is, take your time. Marlon and I were nest-crazed newlyweds who powered through the entire process in just a few weeks. Haste leads to waste; it also leads to Ikea. Which is cute and fun and great for a newlywed budget, but not for everything.

It’s not that our stuff is hideous (on the contrary, we’ve had a good number of compliments on our home), it’s just that it seemed ridiculous to go through all the trouble of shipping furniture made of particleboard planks *ahem*Ikea*ahem* all the way to Europe. For example, our bookshelves, as cleanly designed and useful as they were, might not even make it in one piece!

Happy to have sold this baby for a decent price. Cat not included!

Second, furniture is an investment; buy only things you’d want to keep forever or those that will command a decent resale value. I had my fair share of buyers who agreed to take my stuff, but when factoring in the cost of transport, found that they would pay almost double what they intended to spend. These people just flaked out on me altogether, and it pissed me off. In the end, I had to sell things for dirt cheap just to dispose of them.

I am amazed by my friend Ayessa, who lived in Jakarta for a nearly a year with only a bed and appliances until she and her hubby could save up for solid antique teakwood furniture. Talk about willpower! It is stories like these (plus awesome design blogs like Design*Sponge and Apartment Therapy, among others) that inspire me to put more time and care into furnishing our next home. And happily, Marlon has agreed to let me be the captain of that particular ship.

So as I bid farewell to our bargain-priced furniture, I also say goodbye to Ikea rampages and impulse buys… and hello to mood boards, flea markets and (crossing my fingers) some very thoughtful shopping!

Melt like butter

I just woke up from a five-day stupor called “my birthday celebration,” orchestrated by my previously highly secretive, wonderfully indulgent and all-around amazing husband. There are so many things to blog about, but for now let me just squeal like a girl.

CRUSH ALERT!

This tattooed pastry chef made and personally served me two desserts, a handful of chocolate bonbons and the most precious, pearlescent chocolate egg on my birthday. Each bite was unforgettable (and I don’t exaggerate), but the hotness serving them was one of the most unexpected birthday treats ever.

This is a two year-old clip, but we mustn’t look a Google gift horse in the mouth… that there’s video of this guy at all is something to be thankful for. Watch him in action and melt like butter. Or chocolate. Or both.

Mmmm. Sarap!

… ng tsokolate.

Trains on the brain

It seems I’ve been in this train-obsessed phase as of late. It may have started with a short film that I watched in my very first screenwriting class (yes, I’m taking a class! More on which later). Strangers by Erez Tadmor and Guy Nattiv is set on a late-night train (in what looks like Paris) and I liked it a lot (so clicky the linky!).

For reasons that are apparent if you’ve seen the film, it stayed with me. So for my first screenwriting assignment, one of my three short drafts was set on a train. Following the age-old advice to “write what you know,” I wrote about a routine (commuting by train) and nestled it in a memory (the Paris metro). It went over quite well, and it’s going to metamorphose into a short screenplay over the next two weeks.

My final assignment for photography class was due the same week. I was cramming, with just one afternoon before the class to shoot a series of photos on a single theme. It was a debilitatingly hot day, I had zero ideas for themes or subjects, and all I wanted was to stay indoors. I thought I would just hop on the train, wait for ideas to come to me and get off wherever something fired up my wilting imagination.

Then it hit me. I didn’t even have to leave the train station!

Thanks to my sister, who sent me this great article on the best places to practice motion blur shots, I achieved my two-pronged aim of completing my photography assignment AND beating the heat!

A reversal: still train, moving people. By the way, all these long exposures were taken with no tripod. My teacher was amazed and said I must have an iron grip.

I stayed for a good twenty minutes without realizing it was bawal to take photos in the MRT station. Wala namang humuli sa akin

Finally I stepped off the platform and into the train… where I was lucky to sit right across from this adorable little girl. Who by the way was both eating and drinking in the train.

Then I transferred to the green line and off at Kallang station, because I remembered that I had been there once before and found it very striking.

Motion blur is fun! Wheee!

And THEN I realized I had always been curious about the old railway station at Tanjong Pagar. It’s a train that actually takes you all the way to Malaysia. Built in the 1930s, the station stands on property that’s recently been turned over to Malaysia by the Singapore government.

Diba, parang Grand Central lang? My thought bubble upon seeing the station for the first time was: Meron palang ganito sa Singapore? I was really sorry I didn’t have a wider lens to capture the whole interior. There were many, more accomplished (or at least better-invested) shutterbugs there the same afternoon with bigger lenses than mine.

I was happy to have visited while it’s still a fully operating train station—operations will be shifted to Woodlands, closer to the Malaysian border, starting July 2011.

A significant proportion of the crowd at the station seems to be old-timers who go to the station to kill time and grab a bite. 

In fact, I’ve heard more about the authentic Malay grub at the canteen from people I know than about them actually taking the trains.

The mood seemed a lot more slow and sleepy than any of the other train stations I normally pass through.

But no matter how many things change, I guess there will always be someone rushing to catch the train.

Food for thought

Back in college, Food for Thought was that little sandwich shack with two rickety benches, right beside Colayco Hall. It was one of my favorite places to go for a quick lunch or a snack, and I always ordered the same thing: a salami sandwich with a pack of Zesto.

Years later, another Food for Thought has become a favorite of mine—this time, in Singapore. This one is a nice little brunch place on Queen Street, right beside the Singapore Art Museum. It’s walking distance from VHQ, where I work on some days, and from Raffles City, where I do yoga.

The location is so perfect and the food is so good that I ended up going there five times in less than two weeks! And the airy, contemporary ambience is not bad either.

I especially love the bottle installation as lighting fixture. That’s a total of 540 bottles of Leggo pasta sauce! The owners and staff repacked the pasta sauce and gave it away to charitable organizations for Christmas. This restaurant professes to be all about “good food for a good cause” (as part of the proceeds go to charity) and the lighting is a striking, visually appealing reminder of that.

I took Talbot to brunch with us so I could complete my first photography assignment, which was to shoot a variety of photos from one vantage point. Brunch was the perfect opportunity to park my ass in one place and just click away!

Chai spice-crusted salmon with risotto and mango-ginger chutney. Yummers!

This super cute little girl wandered up to all the tables to say hi. Then she made a beeline for the desserts. 

Nobody beats my brunch date in the cuteness department though :)