A nomad mother in Singapore

Wednesday, 28 August 2013


After the first night in our new house, the cock-a-doodle-doo of a distant cockerel woke me. Sleepily, I thought, cool, the neighbours 
have chicken. We should get some too. 

Later, I realised the neighbours had a large dog, an impressive ridgeback, that easily chased monkeys from their modest banana plantation. He would never allow poultry on his turf. I must have dreamt the cockerel. But I heard it again and again, until I realised where it was coming from: the jungle.

A quick google-search told me we were dealing with the Red Junglefowl. Gallus gallus. For the less scientific: wild chicken. Not just runaways, but the real deal. These chickens are the ancestors of our domestic chicken. My stomach growled. Finally, free range chicken! Hormone free as well. We should catch some, so we could not only sleep longer, but enjoy a decent meal in the bargain. The eggs, I mean, off course. Reading on, I saw we could not. Red Junglefowl is on the ‘endangered list’ in Singapore. We would not want to threaten an already struggling chook. 

It was not long before we got to see the fowl in all its glory. First a mother hen, with a trawling family of small, dark chicks. She was not much to look at. A dark, wild brown, white speckled on the breast. The black chicks cheeped behind our fence. They fled into the green when I approached, camera in hand, aiming to at least capture them on film. 

The next day daddy made his appearance, under the trampoline. A gorgeous, large cock, flaunting a tail of long black feathers, a red copper breast and a long neck, crowned with a firm red crest. Haughtily he strutted through the garden, picking around in the dirt. When I approached him he flew flapping over the hedge. Junglefowl are shy birds. They do seem to be getting their strength, and numbers, up. We already spotted some at the school, and at a friend’s house in a suburban neighbourhood. Like their progeny they seem well adapted to life around humans.

He got me inspired though. I started dreaming of owning chicken, and a daily supply of fresh, free-range eggs. The friends I asked about it shook their heads. Surely, that was not allowed in Singapore. Singaporeans like their chicken cleaned, chilled and wrapped in cling-film. Or, better even, on a plate with rice.

The government website told me keeping poultry is actually allowed, as long as you keep them in an enclosed run, so they cannot breed with their wild cousins. Out of fear for bird flu.

My hopes up, I googled on, hoping to find a forum of likeminded, full of tips and places to go to get a run build, get feed, and most importantly, live birds. No such luck. My search finally yielded someone who, four years back, supplied some live chicken. Fifty dollars each. No wonder he went out of business. Then I came across quail. Fifteen dollars each. The guy selling them had no idea where to get a run, but would be happy to show me how to care for them and feed them.

So now I dream, not of cockerels, but of quail. And I lay sleepless, thinking about how to get a run sorted, protecting them from monkeys, snakes, and toddlers. 

(As I could not catch our chooks on film, photo courtesy of Singapore NParks)

Wednesday, 21 August 2013


We are in the park. It is busy, and as always our blond, blue-eyed kids gather attention. A friendly, older gentleman asks Tijm and Linde where they are from. I look up, curious for the answer, more curious than the asker. I see my kids hesitate. I see them look at each other, and, without words, weigh the options between them. Uncertainly, Tijm answers. England, he mumbles. He looks at me for reassurance, and I nod. It is not wrong. It is a right answer. One of them.

They have been asked this question before, and each time they give a different answer. For them, it is a difficult question. Born in England, living in Singapore, and holding a Dutch passport. My own situation is the same, if anything more complex, as the list of countries I have lived in is longer. And, the more places you live in, the less you will become ‘from’ any one of them.

When we moved to Singapore I felt at home really quickly. Was it because it reminds me of Malaysia, one of the countries of my childhood? Maybe, that as well, but I don’t think it is the only reason. I think an important reason is that Singapore is, above all, an immigrant city. Any Singaporean can be asked how long they, or at least their ancestors, have been here. Off course there is a difference between the different groups. There are the ‘Singaporeans’, holders of official citizenship. They are from a predominantly Chinese background, followed by significant groups of Malay and Indian descent. Then there are the expatriates. The richer ‘expats’, from Europe, the US, Australia or Asian countries like Japan, China, Korea, Vietnam. There are the ‘foreign workers’, less affluent, maybe from Indonesia, India, Sri Lanka, the Philippines. Expatriates are either visitors, who stay for a brief posting, or more grounded ‘permanent residents’ that plan to stay. And then there are Eurasians, and many others of mixed descent.

Compared to other countries, I have encountered not too many people in Singapore that feel that they have been here longer than others, and therefore have more rights. More often, Singaporeans will judge you not by how long you have been here, but on how long you plan to stay. Just visiting to have a few comfortable expat years? Just a foreign worker? Then keep your opinions to yourself. But if you are here to stay, and are willing and able to contribute, you will eventually become part of the melting pot that is Singapore.

For me, the wandering nomad, only time can tell how long I can and will stay. No job means no pass, unless we get the coveted permanent residency. Or in a few years I might, again, develop an itch. Singapore has a niche for people like me: a thriving expat scene. Maybe that should be my answer if the dreaded question pops up again. Me? I am an expat. A constant expat. Happy to live in a city where I am not the only one.

It is a stupid question, really. I live here. I am a snail, carrying my home on my back, happy with my nomadic live. Looking at my kids, struggling with the same questions I do, makes me realise something very clearly. It does not matter where I am from. I know exactly where my home is. Home is where my family is.

Monday, 12 August 2013

Eight weeks

Eight weeks is a long time. Eight weeks of no school, of three kids at home that need entertaining, eight weeks of no time left for anything more than the bare minimum. Especially if you decide to move house just before the summer holidays, so that on top of the kids there is another demanding entity: the new house. Luckily, there was relief in the middle. After three weeks of haze, beach, garden work and play, we boarded a flight. Destination: Europe.

The thing I most remember of those three weeks away is the smell. The smell of Europe. The smell of my parent’s garden in the early morning, just after we alighted from our plane, green, fragrant, flowery, and above all so fresh. Fresh on that first day, chilly to us, partly cloudy, and just over 20 degrees. The salty smell of the North sea, so different from the clammy waves at Sentosa, where grilled satay and fries predominate, and just as different from the smell of hot sand at Asia’s more deserted beaches. Which is again nothing like the smell of a Dutch dune baking in the sun.

The heat wave that settled steadily over Western Europe after that first cool day fooled me into believing Holland is, after all, a great place to live. Whilst poor daddy had to take off to work on the sunny terraces of London town, we played with grandparents, cousins, friends, at the beach, the dunes, in gardens. The next week, with daddy home, albeit slightly hung-over, we drove north, to Friesland, which again presented it’s own smells. The muddy, earthy smell of its lakes, the indescribable smell of wet sails flapping in the wind, and off course that of rows and rows of black and white Friesian cows, mooing in a barn.

After Friesland we travelled south again, to Portugal this time to visit the in-laws, who live in countryside surrounded by endless woods of pine and eucalyptus, a smell so strong, fresh and overwhelming I cannot imagine anyone in that area ever developing a cold. After fun in the pool and the woods it was time for the long journey home. Home began when we entered Schiphol airport, where half the children’s school was waiting to board the same plane.

I always thought I loved the tropics especially for its smells. For the heat that soothes my rheumatic pains also makes everything smell so much stronger, headier. Aren’t I, above all, a smell person? But when we entered our new house after three weeks of absence I cringed. Right now, for me, the tropics smell rotten, mouldy, like the house that has been covered with a thin layer of green, stinky nastiness.

Off course Europe in autumn and winter will not be as alluring as it has been the last few weeks. It will be cold, and wet. There is a reason that I left. I also know, and smell, that our tropical house has much improved with airing. Still. I will now say something I did not think I ever would: Sitting in my tropical garden I sometimes miss the smell of a Dutch flower garden. The freshness. The crispness. The cleanliness.

Luckily there is not much time for sentimentality. Of the eight long weeks there are still five days to go. And I need to go buy a dehumidifier, quickly.