A nomad mother in Singapore

Wednesday, 8 March 2017

On elections and civilisation

The Dutch national elections are coming up next week, and it seems they are about one subject only: immigration. Like many western countries the population is torn into two battling factions, the ones that think that immigrants are the source of all evil, and the ones that feel that we can best fix our problems by working together. That there are more interesting, one could say urgent, matters that could be debated, like climate change, education, equal division of wealth, and global safety, is mostly ignored.

And when even a mainstream party, and our current prime minister, starts yelling ‘if you can’t behave normally, you should just piss off,’ you know the gloves are off.

(Well, he said it in Dutch, so in fact he said ‘pleur op,’ which is wishing someone pleurisy, a nasty lung disease, whilst suggesting they scram)

I’d like to discuss an example of something that in the Netherlands we call ‘inburgeren’, which uses the word ‘burger’, or civilian, and basically refers to becoming an ‘in-civilian’. Someone on the inside. I am not sure if I can also link it to another word: civilisation.

Right now, there is inburgering going on in my garden.

As you probably know chicken, like humans, have a strict pecking order. The top hen rules the roost, unless there is a male in the troop to trump her. The top chicken, hen or rooster, gets to eat first, and takes top spot on the sleeping perch. Some roosters take good care of their girls, protect them from danger, and give them choice morsels of food, but any flock of hens needs to wait and see what kind of cock they’ll get.

When we introduce new hens to our run, there is a week of bickering, the odd feather is shed, but things usually settle down quickly when a new pecking order is established. Once, a period where pythons and disease ruled the coop left poor Lucy all alone in the run. When we introduced our three young chicks Fien, Ronaldo and Daisy, I worried big Lucy would be nasty to the small newcomers, but the opposite occurred: the kids 
together bullied Lucy into submission. Later, when we had to say goodbye to roosters Ronaldo and Daisy, little Fien turned into a good-natured fat hen, that dominates the roost placidly. Pullets Roos and Cherry were accepted without much hassle. 

But when we introduced chicks Milo and Kika earlier this year, low ranking Lucy went mental. Feathers flew, and the babies hid under the hen house for weeks. Three months later, Lucy still does allow them to sleep on even the lowest perch.

This week, we introduced yet two newer babies, Nini and Scruffy. I put three bowls of food in the run, to make sure everyone would eat. I hid a small one under the hen house, to ensure the small babies could eat safely, away from Lucy’s pesky pecks. But Lucy was unstoppable. She wriggled her front under the too low ridge, scrambling her feet uncomfortably in the mud, and hitting her head on the ceiling, just to grab the babies’ food. All the while, two large bowls of identical food sat in the plain open just behind her. To Lucy, it was more important to sabotage the new babies, and teach them their place, than to make sure she had a good breakfast herself.

There is another creature settling into our garden: Mitzi the cat. After nervously hiding under cabinets for weeks, she is now tentatively roaming the garden. So far, she has killed a squirrel, and plenty of chichaks. Last week we found a single frog head on the living room floor, and today, she dragged a sizable lizard into the dining room, which she toyed around like a ball. We love our Mitzi, but can imagine some creatures don’t.

You are probably thinking whether there is a point to what I am telling you. After all, this is all perfectly natural (normal) behaviour for animals. Is there a moral to the story? I guess the question I want to ask you is: Aren’t we humans supposed to be better than chickens and cats? More civilised. Or at least more civil? 


While you ponder on that question, I’m going to piss off.
Oh no, I did that already, years ago. I guess being normal never was my thing.

Monday, 27 February 2017

Sunday morning

‘Don’t wake us up tomorrow morning,’ we told the kids Saturday evening. ‘Mama and papa want to sleep in.’ The good thing about the kids getting older, is that they don’t automatically come to our room the second they wake up, but manage to entertain themselves for a limited period of time. We need to leave some instructions about noise levels - no piano playing before seven on weekdays, for instance, and no fighting or hurting each other too noisily (in quiet, it’s fine) but generally they do fairly well. Although we can’t get the girls out of bed on any weekday, on weekends, they seem to be always up too soon. But of course, as all parents know, anything after eight on a Sunday counts as sleeping in.

The first time I woke up it was around five, still dark. Mitzi the cat was meowing loudly in front of our bedroom door. When I went out to try and silence her, she nudged me to her bowl through the darkish room. I felt my way around the shelves, trying not to turn on any light that would wake up the other, still sleeping, half of my brain, and filled her bowl, whilst making mental notes to give her extra food next time. I scratched her head, and stumbled back to bed. Around seven forty five I heard gentle noises coming from the living room, but managed to block them, and turned around – they would be fine for at least another hour.

Then, the chicken popped up into my head. If I’d leave them in the night house too long, they’d traipse all through the poo, making a nasty mess, and worse, the older ones would bully the two young pullets in that closeted space after they were awake. I sneaked out the back of the house, so the kids could not see me, and released and fed the hens. I took the cage with the chicks out of the playroom, and watered and fed those too. On the way, I popped some chye sim into the tadpole bowl, and a leaf of lettuce in sla-witje the caterpillar’s bottle. With all creatures nourished, I allowed myself a sip of water, and snuck back into bed. The kids had had birthday parties yesterday, so I hoped their secret party bag stash sugar should give us at least another hour.

After about half that time, the first one popped his head around our door. I moved as little as I could, closed my eyes pointedly, and the door closed again. The next one barged in five minutes later, less subtly, and declared she was dying from hunger. I opened one eye, muttered something about bananas, and tried to sleep on, well aware that the end had begun. Every few minutes now another child would enter, asking about mandarins, chocolate paste on sandwiches, and to complain they could not cut the bread themselves. Cursing the artisanal, crusty bread, I got up, sliced the bread, generously dosed it with chocolate spread, put it on the table, and tiptoed back to bed.

And of course, after that, it was a only matter of little time before all three started piling on top of us. Feeling the little arms, legs and bodies around him, Roel stretched out and looked up. ‘That was a good lie-in,’ he stated. It was nine o’clock. Sunday had begun.

Monday, 13 February 2017

Cock-a-doodle-doo


Most mornings we are awoken by a cheerful cock-a-doodle-doo. It is a nice way to wake up, a reminder that nature is calling, and the day has started. Admittedly, it is slightly annoying at 5am, but hey. When you see the beauty of the fellows making this noise, much is forgiven. With their striking plumage and solid strut, the roosters of the wild jungle fowl are a joy to behold. They love our garden too, and the wild roosters like to prance around our own layer hens, who look demurely from the run at these attractive males. 




It seems not everyone feels that way. Not far from us a group of wild fowl was thriving, and after several complaints from local residents, the government decided to act. All the fowl were caught, and culled. Not even turned into proper free-range chicken rice, but disposed of. Needless to say, the other half of the residents were livid. They loved their chooks. 

Now, there is a raging debate online whether the fowl in question were in fact jungle fowl, the wild ancestor of our domestic chickens, an endangered, and therefore protected species. This particular flock was featured in a BBC documentary on urban wildlife, and I struggle to believe that Sir Attenborough and friends would not know their jungle animals?

The government obviously does not want to admit a mistake, and is trying hard to prove these birds were, in fact, no such thing. That they were feral chicken, domestic ones gone wild, and that have interbred with the jungle fowl, and therefore look alike. Biologists claim that these mixed-breeds need to be culled, to protect the clean bloodlines of the jungle fowl race. Can you imagine someone suggesting to do such a thing with human race populations? It has been done, historically, and never ended well.

To calm us all down before I continue, let me show you the photos of the immensely cute mother with four chicks we saw in our garden this weekend. 






Pure-blooded or not, we love all our game, noisy as they are, but I still became curious which race 'ours' were. On the internet it is suggested that 'real' jungle fowl has grey legs and a bright white spot by the side of the head. Most of the roosters we see have the white spot, so does mother hen above. They are all good flyers, that we have seen roost high up in the top of the trees, so I am included to think they are proper wild jungle fowl.

But one of my favourite roosters, seen below, perched on the fence, has a noticeable long, single feather tail, lighter grey legs, and no white spot. So I worry for him. Let's hope none of the neighbours call the police. 



Wednesday, 8 February 2017

To meat or not to eat?

A question that has been on my mind for a while is: should we eat less meat? In this article, that I wrote for The Magazine by The Hollandse Club Singapore  I'm looking for some answers. 


Over the last century global meat consumption has steadily gone up, and with new parts of the world developing and being able to afford more meat, this is only expected to increase in the decades to come. Everyone loves meat. So why is that a problem?

Traditionally, people have become vegetarian out of principle - because they do not agree with killing other creatures, or the way in which animals in the modern meat industry are treated. Some do so for health reasons; meat consumption has been linked to a higher risk of cancer, diabetes, high blood pressure, obesity, heart disease, osteoporosis, kidney-, and gallstones. 




In the last few decades, another more pressing reason to eat less meat has emerged: the global animal industry produces more greenhouse gas emissions than all cars, planes, trains and ships combined, making up an estimate of 15 to 18% of global emissions. Burping and farting cattle emit methane, a 20 times more powerful greenhouse gas than CO2.

Almost all scientists agree: climate change is the biggest challenge the world faces this century. But acting on this knowledge is a challenge for most of us. Our expat life style with yearly intercontinental flights home, frequent weekend trips, swimming pools, and constant air-conditioning is hardly the most sustainable.

Luckily, there is one thing that Asia offers that can help us in our battle against climate change: delicious sources of vegetable protein. Silken tofu, tau pok, tau kwa, as well as tempeh, seitan, miso, and natto. But many expats struggle to prepare these products, and stick to what they know. Which is, too often, meat. Let’s try to get creative, but first, let me explain why eating less animal products is important.

The ecological footprint of meat


Let’s start with some statistics:

* The production of beef releases four times more greenhouse gases than that of a calorie-equivalent amount of pork, five times more than poultry, and fifteen to twenty-five times more than an equivalent of vegetable protein.

* To produce one calorie of protein of beef, twenty-eight calories of energy – often from fossil sources- are needed. For one calorie of soy; only two.

* The production of beef requires roughly 28 times more land, 6 times more fertilizer, and 11 times more water than the production of pork or chicken, and that of crops far less even.

* Raising animals for food is the biggest polluter of our water and topsoil, more so than any other industry.

Deforestation

Forests, the earth’s lungs, have the capacity to absorb CO2, but increasing stretches are cleared to become agricultural land, causing wild animals to lose their habitats. The majority of crops being grown worldwide are used as animal food, rather than being consumed directly by humans. It's more efficient to grow a crop and eat it, than to feed it to an animal as it builds up muscle mass, and then eat the animal. If meat consumption would be drastically reduced, all of humanity could be fed without the need for any more deforestation.

Throwing around figures like this is relatively easy, but getting the picture clear is much more complicated. Many studies contradict each other, and it can be very difficult to make the best food choices, especially if you want to take environment, animal welfare, and your own health into account.

Life cycle analysis


A good way of looking at the environmental impact of a product is a life cycle analysis, where all stages of a product are taken into account. The results can be surprising, for instance one assessment done for packaged orange juice found that over a third of the lifecycle emissions came from just the synthetic fertilizer used on the orange groves. Often people think buying local will eliminate transport emissions, but in many cases 'food miles' actually make up a relatively small percentage of the overall carbon footprint. How the food is grown and produced is much more important.

So let’s all change to organic meat?


Yes, changing to organic or free-range meat will definitely improve animal welfare, and environmental pollution, but when it comes to land use and greenhouse gas emissions, these products are actually worse. Free ranging cattle take longer to grow, spend more energy on movement, and thereby emit more methane than stabled animals. Also, the efficiency of large-scale production can limit the amounts of energy and water used.

Non-intensive rearing of livestock, such as raising animals by grazing on marginal land, or feeding them waste produce, would be a way to allow meat-eating in lower quantities with less environmental harm.

There can only be one conclusion to draw from these facts: Eat less meat. The average American eats 125 kg a year, a Brit 80, and a Thai? Only 28.

Many people these days choose to eat one vegetarian meal a week, and slowly increasing that can give a significant reduction of your ecological footprint.

If you find completely meatless meals difficult, another way is simply to decrease portion size. In a pasta sauce, increase the amount of vegetables and add less mince. Rather than go straight to veggie hamburgers, start by adding a handful of lentils to ground beef, so you can gradually get used to the flavour and texture. Food preferences are simply a matter of habit. Can you not get your children to eat tofu? Coat blocks of it in crumbled cornflakes, and fry them crispy.


Of course now the question arises: what to eat instead? Fish? Fisheries typically emit less greenhouse gases than stables, but unfortunately we are rapidly depleting the oceans, and fish farms have many issues of their own. And the production of cheese emits about the same amount of greenhouse gases as that of pork, and more than that of chicken. From all the animal proteins, eggs rank the best when it comes to battling climate change. But they are still outranked by all vegetables.

The graph above shows that vegetable protein, like grains, pulses, nuts, mushrooms, quorn, seeds and soy are our best choices when we want to reduce our carbon footprint. If you see these products in the supermarket, and don’t know how to prepare them, why not whip out your smartphone, google the ingredient and a number of suggestions should come up.
It is true; going (partially) vegan can be daunting at first, but the wealth of information available online is a great help. Buy a vegan or vegetarian cookbook and by playing around, you will find that with a little bit of effort and creativity, vegetarian food can be immensely versatile, and often surprisingly flavourful.





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

Expatland

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!’