Friday, 27 April 2012

Ah Zip lah

Lah is to a Singaporean what boff and quoi are to the French. Perhaps you've heard of Singlish? It's the combination of English, Hokkien and Malay slanged here. Apparently the government are trying to get rid of it. It's almost impossible to understand. There's far more Sing to it than Eng.

The people I teach often speak Singlish. Some of the very little ones try speaking Mandarin to me. There's a very specific expression that a 5 year old child has on it's face when asking (urgently) to be allowed to go to the toilet, lucky as in this instance he was asking in Mandarin and I had absolutely no idea what he was saying. There's something very charming in that he assumed that I would be as multi lingual as he is and as most of the people here are.

Childhood development is very fascinating to me. What people are able to do at what age.  At primary one (six and seven year olds) children can't spread out. They are still developing spatial awareness. Jostling together they will be very uncomfortably squashed up until the brighter ones call me over, look up with big, worried eyes and say 'ahh bit squeezy, lah'. Weirdly they cannot un-squeeze themselves and need me to help.

I remember touring a play into primary schools and how the lines of very little ones would trail into the hall where we had put up our set. They would follow each other and then, when told, stop and drop to sit down where ever they were. They wouldn't move so that they had enough space and if they ended up sitting facing away from the stage rather than move their whole body to face it they would just twist their heads around. For the entire performance.

Teenaged patois is a thing unto itself. A common warm up game for drama is called zip zap boing. There are many different versions, but basically you pass a zip sound around a circle by saying zip in turn and pointing your hands towards the person next to you. If you want to change directions you say boing and if you want to pass the sound across the circle you say zap. It's supposed to be fast and focused. Fast and focused is hard for most teenagers. They think I'm 'siow' (crazy) asking them to do speech exercises and play strange games anyway. Zip zap boing in their hands sounds a bit like this:

'Ahhhh, zip lah. Ahh zap lah. Ahh. Boing lor, ahh.'

A lot slower than originally intended.

Thursday, 19 April 2012

Tinned tomatoes

I've just spent half an hour walking down the road to try and find a tin of tinned tomatoes for the final stages of making Jamie Oliver's hunter's chicken stew or pollo alla cacciatora. Usually our closest corner shop is very reliable, but not today. I just popped out in my swimming costume with a dress over the top thinking I would have no problems, but must have tried about ten shops with no joy.
Had I wanted tinned sardines, green mango paste or the services of a prostitute I would have had no problems, but tinned tomatoes? Oh no. In the final shop I visited when I told the man what I wanted he laughed benignly at me(clearly I was completely mad). So I bought fresh tomatoes.

Thursday, 12 April 2012


I've just had a swim. Then I sat on the balcony writing my morning pages. It feels the best part of living in Singapore. Today is blissfully uncluttered after a very busy week. I'm teaching a lot of hours and have my training course three nights a week - Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Then gymnastics one night a week and a ukulele lesson at 9am each Saturday morning. It's all been feeling a bit much.

So perhaps last week's two day trip to Bangkok wasn't sensible? Maybe not. My days off are Friday/Saturday. Last Friday was a public holiday so we could go somewhere without the DFP having to use up his precious holiday allowance. I got overexcited and booked flights to Bangkok leaving on Thursday evening coming back on Saturday night so I was back to teach on Sunday morning at 9am.

I've never been to Bangkok. The DFP has with most of his previous girlfriends. He pointed out it was better to have brought his girlfriends to Bangkok than to have found them in Bangkok. Everything you've heard about older western men and young Thai girls is true. You see a lot of surprising couples.

The DFP has always said how nice the Thai are as a race and I experienced it in Bangkok. Much of the travelling experience is about trying to get the balance between not being cheated and not haggling over tiny amounts of money which are relatively insignificant to you but quite significant to the local you are haggling with. You don't want to be an arsehole, but you don't want to be an idiot either. So there's a slight tension in all your interactions with people. Are you being ripped off? Is the taxi meter rigged? Is your bag safe? Are you paying a crazy amount for lunch? Is the helpful person giving you directions actually about to rob you or take you to somewhere and try and persuade you to buy over-priced handicrafts? Are you an idiot or an arsehole?

(My brother has a really good story about trying to get the idiot-arsehole balance right. Arriving in Tajikistan he and his wife wanted to get a cheap taxi, like a South American collectevo: a taxi that stops and picks up lots of people and then the fare is split. They found a taxi and set off. My brother didn't want to be charged loads and kept asking the driver to stop and collect more people. The driver kept indicating they weren't to worry and gave them some cake to placate them. In the end it turned down he wasn't a taxi driver at all, just a nice man who was giving the foreigners a lift.)

On our first morning we stopped for breakfast right around the corner from the major temples. A sensible price was displayed, perhaps more than a local would pay, but a reasonable sum for breakfast. We ate, we paid. Then on the way out the DFP spotted some Thai style pork scratchings and asked to buy a couple. The woman smiled and gave them to us but waved away any question of payment. How nice. How unnecessary but how nice. Immediately I felt more relaxed and cheerful.

Later on a taxi driver got lost taking us to find an obscure music venue and offered to reduce the fare. How nice. There were lots of little experiences like that. People were very friendly. It made me feel far more at ease than I have in some places we've visited.

And there's a reason why people rave about Bangkok. Throughout my 20's it seemed to be the backpacker destination of choice. We saw Leonardo di Caprio frolicking on 'The Beach'. I was too skint to do any travelling, turned down invitations to go to Thailand and felt jealous when people came back tanned and well travelled. (My 30's are all about making up for what theatre didn't allow in my 20's).

The temples (Wats) are amazing. We took a boat down the river to the Grand Palace and wandered around it. It's all very bling but very beautiful. I felt peaceful sitting in the temples, my feet respectfully tucked under me looking at the painted walls and wondering what stories about the Buddhas they were telling.

I preferred the quieter Wat Pho with the enormous, extraordinary reclining Buddha. Lying back enormously and goldenly with a serene smile on his huge face, seemingly oblivious to all the tourists snapping away below him.

The reclining Buddha, reclining

Buddha's feet
The other truly fantastic thing about Wat Pho is that it has a massage school right in the middle. So when you're feeling a bit tired and achy from sightseeing you can pop in for a Thai massage, which we did. I think this is something that all major tourist sites would do well to mimic. I can think of a lot of large museums and churches I've visited where a nice massage half way around would just have done the trick. (Curators of the Louvre, please take note.)

And then the food. Oh yes, the food. Oh my, the food. Street food of course. There's just no point in eating in a restaurant when what you can get on the street is so good. Thai fish cakes with a sweet chilli sauce, fried chicken wings, phad thai, deep fried pork with deep fried curry leaves, chicken noodle soup, spring rolls and son tam (a salad of grated papaya with crunched peanuts and the classic sweet, sour, salty, bitter sauce). I could have done a lot more eating too.

Son Tam
So I'm tired this week, but I think it was worth it. And this is what living is in Singapore is all about isn't it? This why I came. The travelling, not just the eating.

Bangkok is a delightful mix of old and new. Sky scrappers cheek by jowl with temples.

The DFP was showing too much ankle and was provided a pair of all encompassing trousers. My dress when pulled down was just on the knee and was allowed.

To HDB or not to HDB?

At the moment I'm going out to a lot of different schools all over the island.

I came back from holiday and almost immediately got ill again. I couldn't understand why I was picking up so many bugs and then did a quick sum. At the moment I am teaching about 520 students a week. I think that's why.

It's slightly depressing to me that everywhere you go looks the same. One of the things I really miss is architectural character. Old buildings. It sounds very spoiled to say so, but when people say that Singapore is a bit sterile this is part of the reason.

This is largely because of the fantastic public housing scheme they have here. Affordable housing with uninspired architecture is available if you tick the right boxes. Married couples are preferred. Those with children. I'm sure you can imagine. The flats are called HDB's. They're like British council housing got right. Clean, well maintained, with un-vandalised, un-graffitied play areas and outside gyms. The downside is that the design doesn't seem to vary. So getting off the MRT in Woodlands, Chinese Garden, Sembawang or Ang Mo Kio it looks exactly the same. Rows and rows of identical HDBs.