Monday, July 31, 2006

What I Really Really Want

I have decided.

There is indeed something that I really REALLY want from home. In the past, whenever visitors who are coming over offer to bring me something, anything from home, (this normally implies foodstuff which I was dying for out here down under) I would inevitably tell them not to bother as there is EVERYTHING here, the range in the supermarket is mind-boggling. There is even a wider Asian range of food and groceries than back home.

But today I am convinced that after drinking approximately 150 tea bags of Earl Grey here from the supermarkets, I am not a convert and I want, no NEED, my Earl Grey tea from Marks & Spencers. The ones here just do not have the same kick. I cannot compromise any further after 150 cups. So you guys out there reading this, can you send me a couple of boxes when someone next visits? In the meantime, I'll try to distract myself with Ginger-mint tea and other more interesting variants.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Getting My Hands Dirty

Perched on my stool in the Ceramics studio, I listened intently to the instructor, jotting little notes here and there, as he spoke, bits of design ideas started floating into my head. The first project for this class was to design and make tableware for specific food we want to present to the class. The final unveiling of the tableware creations will include the food displayed on the tableware. We went round the class, each naming their favourite food from perhaps their own culture. When it came to my turn, I don't know why, but I said rice porridge with sweet potato pieces. I mean in my 5 months here, I have cooked rice porridge and sweet potato but never together in the same dish. It was a food from my childhood I suppose, and I was imagining in my mind's eye, how that would look aesthetically, white grains with a dash of orange in a complementary blue-glazed bowl. And then it led me to think I could open up a few cans of pickled radish, fried dace with black beans and boiled groundnuts and display them on side dishes. (I don't even have to really cook!)

But there was a catch. The instructor who had trained in Japan many years ago, did not want any Japanese influence although he acknowledged that the Japs were the best in food presentation. My little bubble with Jap Zen style tableware burst. I start rearranging my thoughts. He wanted something modern, something catchy. Something for today's market.

He demonstrated making a simple bowl, using a folding technique inspired by origami. The bowl was rugged yet significant for the Japanese restaurant he designed it for, the edges were inspired by the rocky coastal landscape the area was famous for, and the instructor was observing the restaurant owner's wife folding paper napkins, origami-style and he basically translated that into folding of the clay. I was suitably impressed at how simple and yet beautiful the technique was. And even more so, when I heard that the restaurant owner filled the bowl up with crushed ice, dropped a few drops of blue food colouring into the ice so that it spread out and made it resemble the ocean, enveloped by the rocky cliffs, and then laid sashimi pieces on top of the ice. Even not having the benefit of seeing that, I could imagine that it was a great and dramatic sashimi presentation.

Although I have to leave the Japanese-style tableware behind, the origami method is something which I will explore. I already have the beginnings of the design incorporating childhood paper folding designs, and a theme relating to the simple, hearty comfort food of rice porridge and dace and have made some thumbnail sketches in the library.

I think I am going to like getting my hands dirty with the clay.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Longer Days, Shorter Nights

The days are gradually getting longer. It only struck me today when I walked through the park at 5 pm. A couple of weeks ago, it was dark at 5 pm. We used to use that as a time gauge, it was sundown just before it hit 5 pm and by 5, it was like night. 5 pm was like a mark of mild depression, of how early it was and yet how dark it was. It was quite a paradox for a tropical girl like me, who hasn't had a prolonged experience of winter before, except for 2 months in the very same city 12 years ago, but memories don't last that long, and I've put that all behind me and forgotten how cold it was.

So as I walked under the canopy of trees, I looked up and realised that there was a white plume across the blue sky. It was a pleasant surprise. 10 minutes into the walk, streaks of pink and red bled into the white clouds, the sun was beginning to set. But it was still bright, but pretty. The fountain with greek mythical figures of strong, muscled heroes fighting bulls, gushed and bubbled. It was all a very pleasant walk, a good reminder that the cold weather is on its way out.

Life certainly looks much brighter, cheerier when the day is sunnier, and when 5 pm looks like 5 pm and not twilight.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Of Sourdoughs and Creme Brulees

The day looked incredibly sunny from my huge windows. So I threw on a peasant skirt and a cardigan over my tee shirt and decided to risk it without an overcoat. It was winter, but it just looked so summery out there, a quick check of the weather online said it was 17 C. Ok, I think I can handle that in my summer clothes so I slipped on my clogs (first time toes are going to be exposed in public in 1.5 months) and clickety-clacked my way down to the famous Bourke Street Bakery, which is down the road from me. I had been fantasising about their sourdough breads for the past few days, and I had checked online to make sure they were open on Sundays.

The clogs on the pavement resonated along the lovely tree-lined streets, there weren't many people around on a Sunday afternoon. All the shops I passed were closed, I began to wonder if I had missed the bakery or if it was closed. I read a food review of the bakery recently and it claimed that the line outside the tiny shop (which only has 3 tables indoors) could be seen on Google Earth. Well, I have seen the line on the weekends but as most people buy their bread and pastries and go, it moves pretty quickly.

Three-quarter way down the street, I see the queue, so I haven't missed the bakery and neither was it closed. I was probably the 6th person in line and I started oogling the breads in the glass, trying to make up my mind what I wanted this time. I've had the apple & oat and the fig and something sourdough breads, very yummy. The hazelnut and raisin sourdough caught my eye, all right, decision made - that was easy. I'm like that, when I see something I like, I immediately stick with it, no wavering, no hypothetical analysis, no taking strawpolls of people standing in line, no nonsense.

I ordered my bread and saw that they had a tray load of ginger creme brulee. Now, I love creme brulees, they must be my favourite dessert. And it was also mentioned in the food review I read, except that when the reviewer went, it was completely sold out and the reviewer was devastated. So of course, I order one as well. The bread cost $4.80 and the brulee $3.50, well good food doesn't come cheap. But at least for what they charge, you do get quality over here, so you really can't complain.

I think I hear a ginger creme brulee calling me - gotta run.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Moving - Lock, Stock And Barrel

I've been helping a uni mate move house. We did 2 batches earlier, carrying a couple of bags each, on foot. It was a 15-minute walk from her old place to her new apartment. Today we moved the bulk of her stuff, another friend with a car, volunteered her wheels. The amount of stuff she had was amazing. I had loaned her 3 large bags for her to pack. She had trolley suitcases, overnighters, haversacks, supermarket shopping bags, plastic bags, cardboard cartons and odds and ends that wouldn't fit into those receptacles. In the 5 months she has been here, she has managed to accumulate so much stuff, it looked like she was moving an entire house, and not just a room (she was just renting a room in a boarding house).

I got scared. And worried. I started mentally checking off the number of bags I arrived with in February (8) and gleefully checked off the amount of stuff I had used up (skincare products, cosmetics, body lotions, soaps) and then with grave concern, added up the new clothes I had bought in the 5 months here (8 pieces - but I HAD to get those 2 new pairs of pants cos my old ones were just TOO loose and were threatening to fall off my hips. Oh ok, ok, the other 6 were shirts/tops which I wanted. No other life-threatening reasons. Right- except for the fleecy dressing gown which WAS a life-saver for the cold, wintry nights.)

The chance of my having to move at year end (to a different country no less) is still looking quite real. I might have to pack up my belongings and give up this apartment. All I am sure I would have to take with me are my winter clothes, that is one sure thing having to plunge from one winter in the southern hemisphere into another (worse) one in the northern hemisphere. Apart from that, I would have to put everything in storage, and I can't have something like 38 bags and boxes lying around a mate's apartment. Sure I have friends whose apartments could be used as temporary storage spaces, but I don't think I should test the friendships too severely. I will have to use my original 8 items as a yardstick and keep to that. Ok, maybe 9 because I bought a microwave.

I will have to be diligent and religious about spring cleaning and not hoarding stuff in the next 5 months. As it was, throwing out those magazines made me feel a little better already.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Two Winters In A Year

Now we are in the dead of winter. Today especially has been a very cold and wet day. The rain poured down almost ceaselessly, even when it fell in feathery showers, it was still heavy. The wind never stopped howling, and reinforced the sensibility of staying in the apartment the whole day, where one was relatively protected from the elements. Of course, it was still a little cold in the apartment, the tiny portable heater I had was hardly any use. So the thought of having to go through not one, but TWO winters this year, was particularly daunting. Especially when the second winter would be further up north where it would be grey and cold and not to mention, wet all the time.

This would be the situation if I moved from the southern hemisphere where I am now, to the northern hemisphere at year end. I would have suffered through winter now and after probably enjoying a month or two of warmer weather, have to face another colder, harsher winter. I have been actually counting down to the end of winter, telling myself I have done well for my first winter, and another 1.5 months to go till Spring, where flowers bloom, birds twitter and generally green, green grass everywhere. Now that pretty image is slowly icing over with frost...

But every cloud has a silver lining as they say. Paid work has fallen into my lap, at a location where I am hoping to undertake unpaid internship (even slavery provides food and board, so this is worse than slavery). Good work experience, a chance to work internationally, an opportunity to continue the association with the company I work for, a good friend has offered free accomodation for the duration (in return for my cooking Chinese meals). What more could I ask for? I suppose they have heaters and electric blankets over there... and I can finally get the galoshes and macintosh I have always wanted.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

In Search Of The National Dish

I have always been personally convinced that our national dish is the Hainanese chicken rice. A simple meal of steamed (cold) chicken dribbled with sesame oil and soy sauce, rice cooked in chicken stock and soup (optional). Not chilli or black pepper crabs which the tourism board would have us believe. I suppose crabs are more exotic and sophisticated than plain rice and chicken.

Every time I have been on a trip, and inevitably when the conversation turns to what would be the first local dish we would be digging in at our first meal when we get home, my answer never varies, it was always "chicken rice". Chicken rice is the (safe) choice one made when faced with a myriad of stalls in a hawker centre, dazzled by too many choices. It is the lunch you asked your colleague to buy back for you when you are too busy to leave the office. It is the take-away dinner you buy on your way home, a drip-free, fuss-free dinner which you can manage to feed yourself with your eyes glued to "Desperate Housewives".

In my 5 months here, when I started to long for chicken rice, I experimented with 2 different brands of mixes, trying to make my own, both attempts were flops in my opinion. I then proceeded to interview the locals (only Asians please, for their more discerning tastebuds) on the location of the best chicken rice they had eaten in this city. And so, through the interviews and badgering them to take me to their favourite joints, I have found the best chicken rice (so far) in terms of value and taste. The chicken is actually nothing to shout about, but the rice is fragrant without being oily, the pork-rib soup is sweet and tasty (so good that one can forgive the fact it is not chicken soup) and finally, the minced ginger in oil is fantastic (even though the drip on my jeans has caused a stain that is beginning to look indelible despite my immediate cleaning efforts using water and chinese tea, thereafter rubbing liquid detergent on it when I got home the way the man in the advertisement does it, and now finally, a belated effort of rubbing flour (as I have no powder) on the stain to absorb the oil in a last-ditched attempt).

And now that I've satisfied my craving for chicken rice, did I mention that I'm searching for the breakfast staple of chwee kueh (steamed rice cakes topped with preserved radish and dried shrimp chilli)?

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Almost A Rock Concert

Brett: "We've got drinks and dinner tonight."
Me: "I can't go. I've got other plans."
Brett: "What's more important than me??"
Me: "Um... God??"

And so, I was on a train headed for the Olympic Stadium built for the 2000 Games to attend this Christian conference, likened to a rock concert (except they sang Christian songs/hymns of course). That was the hook for me since the last time I attended one of these mass-scale evangelistic event was in the national stadium at home with Billy Graham when I was 16. The experience was enough to stop me from going to anymore of these for the next 20 years. But I was promised a rock concert, an uplifting and encouraging sermon and basically, tacitly, a good time. They also promised me I didn't have to hug any strangers/brother/sister seated next to me.

From the word go, the entire audience was on their feet, jumping up and down in time to the heavy beats of the band, the thunderous vibrations made me a little worried if the platforms could take our weight. It was a rock concert where everyone knew all the words to the songs and sang along (and if they forgot the words, they were projected on the HUGE screens). The audience didn't even need warming up, unlike some concerts where the performers had to seduce the audience and cajole them to (please, pretty please) get on their feet and into the mood. This audience waved their arms, they chanted in between beats. The bands were good, the rhythm was catchy. The pastors threw merchandise such as tee shirts, jackets, books, CDs into the crowd which held out their arms eagerly, hoping to be the lucky one to catch one of the freebies.

The songs were really fantastic, it was gospel modernised to suit today's world, today's youth, today's pace of life. If one didn't understand English, one would have thought one was in a rock concert. Truly.

But then the intermittent plugging of conference merchandise such as tee shirts and jackets, other books and CDs produced by the pastors, even a box-kit (which reminded me of the trival pursuit box set) and a 8-film series of video tapes was really overwhelming. They instructed the crowd on which booths outside the hall, to go visit to buy the stuff, they peeled off tee-shirt by tee-shirt tightly stretced on a fat guy's body, and threw them into the audience, to whip up their retail appetite. They teased the audience. The commercial aspect just superseded the whole spiritual aspect in my opinion. The fact that the pastor's opening statement after the first 3 arms-waving, audience jumping up and down songs, was to ask for everyone's generosity in donating, also smacked of this commercialism. Granted that the church needs money to operate, but surely he could have waited 30 minutes into the 3-hour event?

This just left a whole strange aftertaste. I was not able to shake it off. Even the strobe lighting, the professional-sounding bands, the one-people-one-voice-giving-praise mode couldn't overturn what I had felt about the commercialism. Maybe I had come with a closed mind, waiting to catch an inperfection such as this? I don't know, I think not. But I was just not ready to be part of this crowd.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Have You Never Been Mellow?

Why is it that the older one gets, the happier one is with doing nothing in particular in one's free time?

Is it the young who are restless, and have long lists of "to do's" which they need to achieve at the end of the day? Or are the old(er) just resigned to the fact that they can't do everything that they want to, and so should not fight the waves of life but to just go with the flow? Do we automatically become more mellow with age? And what exactly does "becoming more mellow" mean? defines "mellow" as "having the gentleness, wisdom or tolerance often characteristic of maturity". That sounds right to me. Growing older makes one more tolerant of doing nothing, not rushing around in a harried fashion trying to achieve everything you have set out to do, crossing out achievements on your list. Is that due to wisdom, or resignation to one's fate, I guess the jury's still out on that. Or perhaps it's a wise person who is able to see what one can do and what one can't do in life and to resign oneself to the things that one can't do.

Just like the Serenity Prayer that goes:
"God grant me the serenity
To accept the things I cannot change;
Courage to change the things that I can;
And wisdom to know the difference."

And to that, I say "Amen".

Saturday, July 01, 2006

Taking Stock Of The Uni Break

I am now mid-way through the six-week uni break. Taking stock of the things I had done in the last three weeks (which I wouldn't have normally done during term time):-

1. Visited 4 art galleries and enjoyed the Biennale's free exhibits. My favourite exhibit so far is the huge chandelier powered by 10 small generators. The massive, glass crystal installation twinkling from the high ceiling of the godown at the Pier was breath-taking.

2. Read 4 books - 2 travel books by Peter Moore, "5 People You Meet in Heaven" and a forgettable murder mystery. Joined the State Library in the hope of being able to borrow uptodate novels, but to my disappointment upon receiving the library membership card in the post, the State Library is a RESEARCH library. Hence no frivolous novels. Luckily, I discovered a friend's book case and have been devouring his books.

3. Painted a watercolour still life. Bought enough fruit and veggies to put together another composition for another watercolour.

4. Finally found an elusive Krispy Kreme donut outlet by chance on our long trek to the Rocks, and decided that we deserved a coffee and donut break after walking for about 40 minutes. I satisfied myself as to what the fuss was all about. The original flavour iced donut is still the best.

5. Baked an orange cake from scratch. Very moist, laden with lots of pulp and orange zest. I am going to try variations, beginning with throwing in raisins, something I really like in cakes and cookies and ice-cream and bread... oh well- literally in anything I guess.

6. Bought a fleecy dressing gown - in the nick of time too. The 2 nights following the purchase were bitterly cold, so I didn't have time to wash it before putting it to good use. I even wore it in bed! The one that auntie brought me and instructed me to discard after winter as it was old and she didn't want it back, turned out to be full of her Jack Russell's wiry fur. Try as I may, I was unable to pluck out all that white, sharp, pokey hairs and finally after leaving it on the floor for 2 months, brought it to the nearest Salvos and donated it. I felt a little bad doing it, but I suppose it was still for a good cause and as they say "Caveat Emptor".

Well, the last 3 weeks have been spent quite satisfactorily. Life is calm and devoid of stress, it certainly is a good life.