A nomad mother in Singapore

Sunday, 15 January 2017

Looking the cat out of the tree

We have this saying in Dutch, de kat uit de boom kijken. It means, literally translated, looking the cat out of the tree. I always imagine a bunch of people looking at a cat stranded in a tree, hoping it will get down on its own. Though that is not exactly the drift of the saying, it implies someone observing a pretty long while, before acting. We now have a cat that is looking herself out of the tree.

I have always wanted a cat, but since my mother was allergic I was never allowed. I swore I’d get one as an adult, but somehow never did. Between the rabbits, the chicken, the frogs and the hamster, I forgot about the cat.  Then, we had a rat infestation at the same time that Jasmijn was begging for a new pet for her birthday, and I suddenly found myself at a cat shelter. Imagine twenty cats looking at you through bars, some sleeping, some meowing neurotically, some just sitting there and staring. Where do you even start? Luckily, most were kittens, and we’d decided to go for a slightly older one, a female, as they were supposed to be better hunters. That narrowed it down a bit. I approached one pretty tree-coloured one, and stuck my hand through the bars. She woke up, stretched her back, and walked to the bars. She started nuzzling my hand, for a good few minutes, and when I retracted it, sat there and stared. Those big green eyes…

I was sold. As a formality, I looked at the other cats, which were nice enough. But they weren’t her. That weekend we came back with the family, she was allowed out for a minute, and after more admin and tough questions than were needed to deliver a baby, we were allowed (only just) to take her home.

We put her up in the small study room and she ran under the cabinet. From there, she started to look the cat out of the tree. Slowly, she comes out, if you sit next to her on the floor, and cuddles up, rubbing her head to your hands, legs, side, basically every part of your body she can reach, purring along. She will settle for nuzzling a doorpost or chair leg too. When we open the door to the living room, slowly, after much deliberation, she sets a few steps in the room. One slight noise or movement, brings her back into her safe room. Until she realises there are cuddles to be had, and she forces herself out.  After, she sits and stares. She watches, with those massive green eyes. She looks the cat out of the tree, and doles out cuddles. We all love our Mitzi already, even if she is the laziest, shyest, cuddliest cat I have ever seen. I can’t see her killing a fly. Our rats will be happy too. 

Sunday, 13 November 2016

The blobs

Linde was the first to point it out to me, ‘Mama, what is that?’

The yellowish blob was hanging on the edge of the pool, just above the surface, resembling a ball of construction foam – you know, the stuff you squirt from a can. I figured the builders left it there. When I pulled it off, and threw it in the garden, its soft squishiness surprised me. Maybe the chlorine water had rendered it so soft?

When we saw another one the next day, I pinched myself. Surely that had not been there before? I scraped it off carefully, and examined it more closely. On the inside of the spongy grey-yellow foam, there were little white balls. Some kind of eggs? It took a bit of effort on Google to figure out his was the egg mass of the four lined tree frog. 

In the evenings, when we were sipping our drinks by the poolside, we’d see the tree frogs come down from the surrounding trees, and host lustful pool parties. They hovered around the edges, croaking out to prospective mates loudly. Occasionally, we caught them in the act, ‘get a room, you two!’ 

The kids got used to our daily blobs, and we had to set rules, no throwing, and no putting them down your sister’s swimsuits. Once, we must have missed a blob, and the pool was full of tiny tadpoles. The children spend a morning painstakingly catching every single one with their hands, and collecting them in the pail where we were hatching some blobs already. We had tadpoles aplenty; we were now running a frog farm.  

 The tadpoles thrive on chye sim and spinach, and it did not take long before the first legs appeared. As soon as they could crawl, they would jump out of the pail, and join their friends in the trees. Worried about being inundated by tree frogs, we had to find a solution for our little swimmers. 

Since I found out that our hens loved snapping up these swimming wormlike creatures, I skim the pail regularly to avoid tadpole excesses. Extra protein is always good for our egg layers. 

We love our frogs, a friendly, albeit nocturnally noisy addition to our Adam Park Farm.

Sunday, 2 October 2016


When we just moved to Singapore, a friendly aunty in the park asked my children where they were from. They looked at each other, hesitantly, and then at me. Born in the United Kingdom, from Dutch parents, living in Singapore; the answer was not easy. More curious than the asker I shrugged, and waited for their own response. ‘England?’ my then five-year-old son offered. He looked at me. I nodded. That was right. But there are more right answers.

After three years at the Hollandse School in Singapore, my kids became more and more Dutch, almost too much for my global taste. When my daughter was asked to list all the countries she had lived in, the Netherlands topped her list. That she never lived there, my headstrong then six-year-old would not accept. Now, at an international school with more nationalities than I can count, we are back to inconclusiveness about the big ‘where are you from?’

I share my children's confusion. I too was an expat-child. Every three years I moved to a different town, country or continent. Often we lived in a ‘camp’, a compound with only expats working for the same company. The camp had it’s own school, shop, and sports and private club facilities. The camp was a country in itself.

Life abroad changes you. You adapt to a new culture, learn new ways of doing things, and when you come back to your own country, you feel like a stranger. I still clearly remember the move to the Netherlands when I was ten.

We would go ‘home’, my parents had said, but I did not feel at home in that country, that I mostly knew from holidays and visits to grandparents. I felt different, yet everybody expected me to fit in, my parents included. I looked and sounded the same, didn’t I? I remember it as the most difficult of all the moves I have made, and trust me, there were more than a few.

I could not wait to get out of that tiny, cold, and to me, constrictive, country, so after secondary school I left for a gap year abroad. A few countries and continents down the line, I finally know where I feel at home: Everywhere and nowhere.

Being a stranger in a new country is hard for some, but to me it feels great. Comfortable. Outside of the Netherlands I don’t feel the pressure to fit in, and I can just be me. Maybe that is why Singapore, a multicultural immigrant city with a vibrant expat community, fits me like a glove. Here, everyone is different. Four years down the line, I am happy to stay just a little bit longer. I am not finished here. And I have finally learned the correct answer to that dreaded question. 

‘Me? I’m from expatland!’

Tuesday, 6 September 2016

The hens that came along

When I wrote about our latest house move, I did not fill you in yet on our feathered ladies, obviously, they came with us, and also obviously, that did not go without hiccups. 

Firstly, a general update on the ladies is in order. Yes, ladies, as we have no more gentlemen left in our run. At some point we had three. From our first batch of three chicks, I guess we saw it coming with Ronaldo, but we did not realise that Daisy's courageous, cheeky streak was also caused by testosteron. She became a pretty white rooster. An then Lily, one of our rescue chicks, suddenly got a suspiciously large comb, and when she crowed, we knew she too was, well, a he. I managed to exchange Ronaldo and Daisy for two pullets; our chicken uncle was starting to notice how lucrative the business of selling laying hens to crazy expats was, and he could use two solid guys for breeding. 

Our gorgeous Messi

Poor Lily, who we renamed Messi, with his cripple feet, was a different story. Messi and his sister had been hatched at a local primary, as part of a science program. I am not sure what the teaching objective was, but the kids must have learned that chicks are disposable things, that don't need proper care. They came to us malnourished, and in Messi's case, with several broken toes. We healed them with vitamins, worms, and a lot of TLC. Messi kept falling over initially, but eventually became a healthy big guy, albeit with a permanent limp.  The video shows baby Roos and Messi after they'd been with us a week. 


Initially, we decided he could stay. Yes, his early morning wake-ups were annoying, but he was pretty and we were fond of him. Then, Messi got bossy. He seemed to accept my seniority, but attacked Indah on several occasions, and since the chicken run is a favourite hangout for visiting kids, we could take no risks. Unfortunately there are not many options for a cripple rooster. I will spare you the details, but Roel manned up to do the difficult part, Indah did the plucking, and I cooked the coq au vin. I know many chicken holders might cringe, but as a partial vegetarian I rarely eat chicken, and if I do, I like to know where it came from, and how it was treated. I’m no hypocrite, and I would much rather eat my own rooster, lovingly reared, than one maltreated on an industrial farm. 

In front Fien, Lucy, Sushi and in the back Cherry and Roos
So who moved with us? Veteran Lucy, our now big baby Fien, Messi’s sister Roos, and the two new pullets, Cherry and Sushi. Five in total. 

The old run was broken down, and rebuilt in the new garden. It was not until the gardener pointed at the tree above, a large rain tree, that we saw the dead branch exactly above the run. Within the year, it will likely drop, and squash the run. When the gardener tried to cut it, it turned out there was a massive bees nest right beside. The branch – and the bees – are still there, waiting for our landlord to find a pest control company that is capable of climbing up that high.

The egg stealer
Our troubles were not yet over. The rebuild of the run had been sloppy, as the friendly neighbourhood monitor lizards were quick to notice. One squeezed his three feet long but skinny body through the wire. He did not hurt the hens, but stole all the eggs. After several failed attempts to lizard-proof the run, I thought I finally cracked it. To my surprise, we still found broken, eaten, eggs. It seemed our lizard friend had thought the hens a dirty trick! Some plastic, hard eggs, have helped to overcome this nasty habit, most of the time.

Our ladies seem happy enough, and are laying well, apart from youngsters Cherry and Sushi, who will hopefully start soon. With three eggs a day we indulge again in egg-eating feasts, and hope that for now, our hens lives will be less eventful. If only that dead branch cooperates….

Sunday, 28 August 2016

On the move again

After our last move, we vowed we would never move again, at least, as long as we lived in Singapore. But we would not be real bedouin, nomads, if we had not yet again developed that itch. We lasted three years. Then, the grass turned out greener on the other side of the PIE motorway. Our new house is lovely, but the move wasn’t, still isn’t, an easy one. With these Black & White, government owned, colonial bungalows, you can’t plan. When one came up that we liked, we put in a cheeky bid, got lucky, signed the lease. The house was over a hundred years old, had been empty for 3 years, and needed some work. Well, actually, a lot.

The landlord promised to do the work, and we went on holiday in happy anticipation.

When we returned from our holiday the grass was still greener, but also an inch higher, and nothing else had chanced. Many angry phone calls later, they started the work, six days before the movers would come. We have been living there two weeks now, and still have contractors over almost daily.

The amount of workers involved in the renovation is amazing. We have plumbers, electricians, gardeners, builders, painters, aircon installers. Not always at the same time, but Asian contractors never travel alone – at least four men are needed to fix a faulty light. They are an international bunch, coming from all over Asia; the majority from Bangladesh, but also India, Malaysia, Myanmar, China, and occasionally, Singapore. On Sunday, most of them work on. When I told them the house would still be there on Monday, and that a few more days’ delay did not matter, they looked at me, that white, privileged, naive Ang Moh expat wife, and said that even if they did not work here, their boss had many urgent projects to finish.

When the initial clouds of rushed moving stress lifted slightly in my head, I started thinking more about the workers. I did not know where these men stayed, how much they got paid, and whether they were treated fairly. I chatted to them, trying to get to know them, but most gave polite answers, the ones they think you like to hear. Recently, I gave a lecture to students about corporate human rights, where I stated that as a company, you need to make sure your contractors and sub-contractors stick to the same moral values as you do.

I did not practice what I preached. I needed to try at least. So I started with one, which we hired ourselves, unlike most of the other contractors that were the landlord’s. He was a nice guy, and when asked he said it was fine for them not to come on Sunday. When I asked if he would give him the day off, he laughed, and said that they were free to do the overtime, or not. He was a good employer. Most chose the money, he said. It was not exactly what his men had told me, but lecturing a local, as a foreigner, is a tricky business, and he still had to finish the work, so I continued about how days off are good for moral, for mental well-being, and so on. He wholeheartedly agreed. But I don’t know where his workers were that Sunday.

Challenging a system, if you want to stay polite, and get things done at the same time, is, well, a challenge. I am full of words on paper, but in real life, I am not that brave. I left it after that. Well, we did buy them all pizza.

Sunday, 15 May 2016

The Hash

From my childhood in Borneo, I have fond memories of dashing through jungle vegetation, in a horde of other kids, and being baptised with Seven-up in a silver cup after having completed ten of such runs. I am talking about: the Hash. 

More specifically; the children’s hash. The adult hash, who’s full name is ‘Hash House Harriers’ was invented in Malaysia by the Brits, and involves running through the jungle to cure hangovers and, not unsurprisingly, a lot of beer.

When we moved to Singapore, my father, fan of hashes of all kind, immediately said I ought to take the kids on a hash. Now the adult me, as many of you know, likes a spot of jungle more than the next girl, but I do think it is best enjoyed at a leisurely pace. Linde and Tijm take after their very sporty dad, yet Jasmijn, at only five, is rather young, and like me, not known for endurance in physical endeavours. So after more than three years, I still had not done more than join the Facebook group of Singapore’s children hash group ‘Hash House Horrors’, and get jealous watching other people’s photos. 

But when a friend of mine told me that there were plenty of my kind, and even little ones so young that that they had to be carried in arms, there were no more excuses: We were going to hash! And it took all of five minutes for the whole family to get hooked. 

Roel darts off with Tijm and Linde, top of the pack, breaking circles and finding the way. Jasmijn and I hike behind, in the back, where we enjoy our surroundings, pick flowers, and no, we are not even close to finishing last. 

Hashes take you through every kind of scenery. Dense vegetation, drains, roads, open grassy bits, jungle, woodland, forbidden area’s, water ways, steep slopes, where you grasp branches to clamber up, declines that you can slip on, or slide down on your bum. The more mud and tree roots that need to be navigated the better, and last week, when Jasmijn got home and found her shoes were still clean, her dismay was profound. 

The run is set by the hares, that mark the way to go with flour, chalk and white loo paper. The pack, or hounds, need to follow, and to make it harder, particularly for the front runners, false leads are included. There is the ‘circle,’ that is drawn on the floor with flour, from which the route will continue in any direction, and the ones arriving there first need to spread out and find new marks in a 50 metre radius. When they have done so, they ‘break the circle,’ that means mark which way the people following must go, by erasing flour from the circle in that direction. If an adult breaks the circle, and execution will follow. Executions don’t include shotguns, but sticky orange juice that is much more annoying. 

Needless to say Jasmijn, unlike Tijm and Linde, has never had the pleasure to break a circle first, but we have gotten lost, made detours, or puzzled over a murkily broken circle to decide which way to go next. Luckily there is usually a colourful shirt to be spotted in the distance, and when we see a new scrap of loo paper, Jasmijn will call out ‘on-on’ to let everyone know we are back on track. 

Me, in yellow in the middle, at my 10th hash in 1982
With the Hash House Horrors the seven-up from my youth has been replaced with orange juice, but other traditions still stand strong. New people, or ones celebration 10th, 50th or more runs, are called in the circle to drink, and whether you drink or throw your drink at friend or foe, the cup has to end upside down on your head. You can imagine how much gets drunk… 

Here’s to Tijm, Linde and Jasmijn, they’re true blue,
They are Horrors true and true,
They are Horrors so they say,
They tried to go to heaven but they went the other way...
Drinking down down down down.....

Tuesday, 22 March 2016

Hot eggs

What do we eat for Easter? Eggs! But since we are in Singapore, why not try a local classic? These spicy eggs are great for a vegetarian dinner or lunch, served with rice and some vegetables. Or, if you are more adventurous, perhaps for Easter Brunch? Believe it or not, they are the favourite food of 6-year-old Linde. The sambal is sweet, sour and spicy at the same time, just a perfect balance. For more fussy children, you can vary the amount of chili you use. 

Sambal eggs

6 eggs 

2 large tomatoes
2 onions
4 shallots
7 large chili’s
2-3 chili padi (small, string chili) to taste
4 cloves of garlic
½ tablespoon tamarind paste (seeds removed)
2 tablespoons gula malaka (palm sugar)
2 salam leaves (Asian bay leave)
2 jeruk perut leaves (kaffir lime)
cooking oil

Boil the eggs hard, and set aside to cool. Take one large onion, and cut in in thin strips. These will add texture to your sambal. Chop the rest of the onion, shallot, garlic, tomato, and chili roughly. You can use more or less chili depending on your taste. 
The large chili’s are usually not that spicy, the chili padi are, so use less, or none, of those if you prefer a lighter version. Blend all of these ingredients together in a blender or food processor. Or, if you want to go old school, grind them in a pestle and mortar.

Peel the eggs and dry them. Heat about a cm of oil in a wok, and fry the boiled eggs on all sides until they are golden, which should take just a few minutes. You can omit this step if you prefer, but the sambal will not stick to the eggs very well. 

Set the eggs aside on some tissue. Now take the blended sambal mixture, and add the tamarind and palm sugar. Fry the sambal in the hot wok for a few minutes, until fragrant, and until some of the moisture has evaporated. We don’t want to sambal to be too wet. Then add the sliced onion and salam and jeruk perut leaves, and a pinch of salt. Fry until the onion is soft.
Finally, add the eggs, and heat everything through.

You can eat them straight away, or let them cool down first.