Friday, December 24, 2010

"Where's the Real Puppy?"

5:45 am, Christmas Day. The kids are awake and running to see if Santa has come or not. From our bedroom, we hear amazement and joy: Santa came! Teddy bears, dolls, miniature skateboards, and silly bandz...
"But where's the real puppy?" asks Eliot.
This year both children decided to put only one thing on their list: a puppy. They knew chances were slim but they figured if there was just ONE thing on the list...the pressure on Santa would be huge.
I have noticed that most expats leaving Singapore have caved in. Their children are sad about leaving but invariably overjoyed at the promise of a canine addition to the family: "we're going to be getting a puppy when we get to Connecticut, Finland, England....(fill in the blank)." This definitely sweetens the blow. Will have to remember this when the time comes. My kids have already put two and two together: "So, basically, when we move, we're getting a puppy, right? So, when are we moving...I think I'm going to call him Buddy...."
Last night, on Christmas Eve, we went to the children's mass, it was very interesting but after the first hour slowly became the second, a bit too long for kids. That, and the fact that Eliot, asked in a very loud voice halfway through: "When is God coming?" made me feel slightly guilty. Either I'm not taking her to mass often enough or we need to go over the basics of Roman Catholicism. Soon.
On our way home, the little theologist pondered: "If God made everything, who made God?"
(Photo from a Christmas past when a feverish Eliot was as small as Dora.)

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Back From Bali...

"Where are the other kids?

As I watch my kids grow up in South East Asia, I like to think they have opportunities I never dreamed of having as a child growing up in Verona. They are exposed to different cultures and realities, they eat spicy curries and they travel to exotic places. I recall smiling proudly as my son announced at two that his sandcastle was "the great wall of China" or my daughter insisted on singing Happy Birthday in Chinese. Which is why I find it vaguely disconcerting to hear my son say in the taxi ride to the airport on our recent trip to Bali: "But I want to go to Hawaii," and my daughter answering: "Yeah, I want to see the snow." Am I doing something wrong? On the plus side, they now know Bali, unlike the rest of Indonesia, is 90% Hindu, that you can order Mee Goreng even for breakfast, and that bringing Harry Potter is a good idea at a hotel with no TV and no kid's club. On a final note, there are no children in Ubud. This is a good thing...unless, of course, you are travelling with yours.
(Photo from our small hotel overlooking the rice paddies in Ubud, Bali)

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Ten Sure Signs You Are An Expat Dad Living in Singapore

Expat Dad Michele with Alexander and Eliot
1) Your children's international school fees leave you fairly disconcerted...($30,000 for 3rd grade? What are they learning? Rocket Science?)
2) Your kids boast about staying in 5 star resorts. Your childhood holidays often involved a tent.
3) You welcome 11 pm conference calls with California...not really.
4) Business trips are fine...unless they include a Sunday or a night flight from mainland China.
5) Your wife keeps very close track of your frequent flier miles.
6) You accept that a bottle of wine costs as much as a mini-vacation.
7) Business trip to Bangalore. Yoga retreat in India. Not the same thing.
8) You know which Asian airport has the best lounge, best sushi, longest taxi line.
9) You could be playing golf or relaxing by the pool, but you're not doing much of either.
10) Your wife no longer asks you which business destination has the best looking women. But she has noticed that Tokyo is the only city that makes you whistle while you pack.

(Published in Expat Living, April 2012)

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

"I'd Rather Be Reading Naruto..."

You may have been a green beret, a navy seal, or the CEO of a large corporation but nothing will prepare you for helping your eight year old son with his homework. First of all, this is 'help' he does not want and does not appreciate. In fact, any 'help' you will give, no matter if it is in the tone of Mother Theresa handing someone a bowl of rice, it will still be misconstrued as 'judging' him. In his mind, an innocent: "you might want to check the spelling of frenly, I'm pretty sure it's spelled friendly," will warrant an extreme reaction: "I knew it. You hate me."
Lately things have gotten a lot better. He just tells me he doesn't have any...who am I to argue. After all, life is short.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

A Day in the Life...

Wake up call at 6:45am, help kids with breakfast, lay out their uniforms, figure out which shoes Eliot wants to put on, tie shoelaces, fix ponytails. Walk with the kids to the bus stop, past all the construction workers building the new MRT stop, get on a bus while Alexander panics because Eliot is sitting next to a stranger (one of the many Bangladeshi workers headed for a site) or because I might leave Eliot on the bus when we get off (he worries a lot). Then we cross over the suspended bridge and walk into the school. Alexander runs off to his class ("Don't hug me here") while Eliot has me come with her to explain to the Chinese teacher that she doesn't like IT class and that she can't do water play yet because she has a bandaid covering her stitches. "Zai chen," she yells and comes for one last big hug. Then I'm off, speed walking down Bukit Timah rd, my one and only excercise of the day. About 2o min later, I arrive home feeling as crisp as, well, a crisp, and my hair isn't the better for walking in the sweet humidity of Singapore. If it weren't tied in a bun it would probably reach the heights of Marge Simpson. Not pretty. I'm not teaching today so, after a quick shower and checking my email, I'm ready to take some girlfriends to my friend Belle's cool and funky vintage furniture store. It's quite faraway (by my parameters) so I joke: "You didn't tell me we needed our passports to get here...are we in Malaysia?" She has delicious coffee and home baked scones and we get to browse around. I pick up a small, glass painting with butterflies inside. It's for the kids. They just saw Tinkerbell 3 and the Dad was a butterfly collector. In fact, the movie inspired Alexander to strongly request field journals where he could record important stuff ("like warrior swords...").
Lunch and then it's back to the school. I pick up the kids in a taxi and we race off to Eliot's ballet lesson which happens to be open door so Alexander and I get to watch her. Then one small Japanese pancake later and we're back home. Me, convincing Alexander that unless he does his homework (memorizing a Chinese poem) he can't play downstairs in his dugout. And Eliot and her ballet friend watching Dinotopia and playing with their Build-a-Bears. Pizza for dinner and Alexander brings upstairs both his friends, that totals 5 kids. I love it, but am glad their Dad is away in Bangalore (so is he). Then impromptu game of hide and seek. Everybody home before things get ugly and it's time to show the kids their surprise butterfly glass painting. 5 minutes later and they are hunched over it sketching inside their field journals. Moment of peace. Time to go to sleep. Alexander reads Naruto and I read Eliot Grimm's Fairy Tales until she falls asleep with her bear tucked under her arm.
Finally, the house is silent. Bliss.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Letters to Juliet

For most expats, sudden and unexpected bouts of homesickness are one of the hazards of living far from home. I usually realize I'm homesick when I call my Mom who is in Verona, my hometown, and she tells me that it's foggy and cold and my response is: "Really? Foggy and cold? Awww, I miss the fog."
It is therefore, with a feeling of great anticipation, that I go to see a movie that takes place in my city. In this case: Letters to Juliet. The reason I bring this up at all is because the other night a friend of mine told me how often she cries at sad movies and how I never cry at a sad movie. I mean, there are exceptions. The Bicycle Thief comes to mind. But most movies, no tears. I just can't do it. (In fact, suppressed sobs may be one of the causes of my gastric pain, but that's another blog post). Anyway, I suddenly recalled that I HAD almost cried at a recent movie, how could I forget, and that movie was Letters to Juliet. But not because it was sad, but because it was so bad. Perhaps, my expectations had been too high. I honestly feel that any First Year Film School student could have done a better job of portraying a love story in Verona. Not that there is much of the medieval city depicted anyway. Barring the few beautiful scenes there are and the wonderful Vanessa Redgrave, the rest of the movie was almost unwatchable. When the protagonist is driving from Verona to Tuscany to help find Redgrave's character's old flame, the background music is 'tarantella' (traditional music from Sicily not Verona). Seriously? (Note to any film makers out there: it would be great to see a movie that takes place in Italy that decides to not feature 'tarantella' music.) Any more stereotypes? Oh, how could I forget the ubiquitous Italian Mamma in the kitchen of the restaurant above Juliet's balcony (is there even a restaurant there?) insisting these random strangers drop everything and eat all of her food. Sure, that happens all the time. Yes, I know this is a movie (one basically with a very weak plot, relying solely on Italian countryside) but, when at the end of the movie, the boy realizes he's in love with the attractive ex-Mamma Mia actress (what's her name?), and looks for her all over the Tuscan farmhouse, the shot shows an ivy-colored balcony and I find myself hoping against hope: "Please don't be on the balcony, please don't be on the balcony." But of course she is. That's Hollywood. So much for a movie to keep the homesick doldrums at bay.
Maybe next time I'll just go watch a pasta commercial...

"I can see your Halo..."

I haven't been writing my blog for awhile because Eliot has been quite sick. Her bronchitis morphed into stomach flu which resulted in serious dehydration (a common problem here in Singapore). I carried her to the dr (you never know how strong you are until you need to be) and he recommended admitting her to hospital. I don't think so. I followed my best instincts and carried her straight back home promising him that I would monitor her closely and make sure she sipped her rehydration fluids. Her high fever kept returning at night so I ended up giving her antibiotics. With Daddy away on a business trip in Bangalore she ended up spending all her time with me. And I had a chance to discover new things: she loves the music video 'Halo' by Beyonce', can talk for long amounts of time to her stuffed animals (slightly worrisome), and insisted on drinking water from a bowl 'like her puppy,' (even more worrisome). She's finally better and today was her first day back at school. Yeah. I was beginning to dread walking in to check on her sleeping at around 11pm and feeling a burning forehead.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Yesterday I went to my favorite place in the whole world: the third floor of the Queensway Shopping Center in Singapore. Those who know me are aware that I avoid shopping malls like the plague, in fact, I only enter ION with my husband because I'm convinced it's been especially designed for me to walk in and never walk out again. And if we go to Takashimaya, he goes shopping and I wait for him in Kinokuniya bookstore. So why the Queensway Shopping Center?
I go there about once a year to get invitations printed out and there is something surreal about those people working the printers. Most of the time they don't know what I'm asking for. Though I've been there at least 10 times they never recognize me and in the past they have even denied that I've been there. It's like stepping into the Twilight Zone. So why do I go back? First of all, I am a creature of habit and I resist change at all costs. But also for sentimental reasons. In fact, it's like a walk down memory lane. Four years ago, when I first arrived in Singapore, I was finishing my dissertation from the University of Sydney. In what were some of the hairiest hours of my academic life, the 'layout' team and printers held my 'future' in their hands as they printed out the hard copies that I would then need to submit and mail to the board back at the university. Bated breath doesn't even begin to describe my feverish state at the time. So now when I go back to print whimsical birthday cards for my kids, no matter how many glitches or how many times I can't understand their pronunciation of the word: 'layout', it's really a walk in the park!
Some friends have called me up after sighting my recent blog entry: "10 Sure Signs You Are An Expat Kid in Singapore," in this month's edition of the magazine Expat Living. It's a great magazine, you should pick up a copy. After writing about expat kids and expat moms it's only fair if my next entry is about expat dads...anything to procrastinate from what I should be doing and that is writing my book. Yes, I am trying to write a book. Easy? Not really. Fun? Not as much as I thought it would be. Will write some here and see what you all think!

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

What Kids Say...

Last night Alexander was looking for something to read (he's become a voracious reader and considering I nearly compromised my liver trying to teach him how to read in second grade this is no insignificant detail. In fact, he gets away with a lot because he's reading all the time...I'm that happy, still.) Anyway, he picked up my copy of "Catcher in the Rye." I had a moment of thinking: "Wait a minute, that's not really appropriate for a just recently turned 9 yr old. But that feeling was replaced with an intense curiousity to what he would say and what he would think about it. After a few pages he put it down saying he liked it but he wasn't going to read it right now. And then, after further consideration, he came up with: "Was this book like the 'Diary of a Wimpy Kid' of your times." On the mark, I'd say.
Eliot last night couldn't fall asleep. I started reading her "Cinderella" and she burst out in tears: "What if you die, then I'll get a stepmother. Or if you fight with Daddy and he changes his mind about loving you and then I get another stepmother. Or if you die, but then you come back and I already have a stepmother." First, I reasoned that I wasn't dying, that I would always be her mother, and I even added as a reassurance: "your Daddy would never marry somebody evil. She would be nice." But this provoked an even more frantic reaction: "but he doesn't know anybody, he doesn't have any girl friends, it might be somebody who seems nice and then is evil."
Hard to fight that sort of logic. So, I did what any rational and sensible mother would do. Put away "Cinderella" and pulled out "If You Give A Mouse a Cookie" (Thanks Arlene!)
(Photo taken on Alexander's 9th birthday. He's wearing the cap Eliot just gave him as a present.)

Monday, September 13, 2010

Twelve Sure Signs You are An Expat Mom Living in Singapore

1) You decide that your morning walk to drop the kids off at school is close enough to taking an ashtanga yoga course.
2) If you hear the term: "trailing spouse" one more time...
3) You measure distance in taxi-minute terms.
4) You'd like your children to learn just don't want to be a part of it.
5) The only time you can wear your favorite jeans and sweater is at the movies (where it feels like winter in Alaska).
6) Your handbag includes mosquito repellent, sunscreen, umbrella, and your kid's bathing suit.
7) You miss your car, your best friend, your relatives. In that order.
8) You know the difference between a gekko and a lizard.
9) You become an expert at dealing with jetlag.
10) At $10 a box, you qualify cheerios as a luxury item.
11) You don't fight with your kids so much...but that could be because you can't hear them over the construction work.
12) You disregard the humidity index of 100% and think a picnic at the Botanical Gardens is a good idea.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Ten Sure Signs You Are An Expat Kid Living in Singapore

1) Your parents don't ground you. They threaten to turn off the air-conditioning.
2) When you meet a friend for the first time you ask them: "So how big is your pool?"
3) You complain that there is something about the kindergarten class you don't like but can't quite put your finger on. (It's the Mandarin.)
4) Anything below a ten hour flight on a plane leaves you disappointed. "That's all?"
5) Roti prata and seasoned seaweed are your favorite snacks.
6) You think the corner on the sidewalk outside your condo is for hailing taxis.
7) You dream about wearing gloves and sweaters or even a long sleeved shirt.
8) When they find a cobra at school, you reassure your mother: "It was just a little one."
9) When you don't see your Dad at home you wonder if he's in China or Japan?
10) You've probably travelled business class at least once. Your parents realize this was a huge mistake. You unfailingly ask them before any trip from this moment on: "Are we travelling business class?"

(Featured in Expat Living magazine, October 2010)

Very Cheeky

Grade 4 and Kindergarten 3 had an assembly together yesterday and when I went to pick up the kids Alexander reported that he had seen Eliot kissing (trying to kiss) a boy. He was not very pleased. When I asked Eliot if the boy had been happy she replied: "Of course, no. Boys don't like girls." But why did you kiss him then?
"I liked his hair."
So it DOES start this early. Great.
I recently read that Angelina Jolie's mom was called from her kindergarten because she was kissing all the boys when she was little.
So there is a moral to this story.
Girls who kiss boys in kindergarten end up with Brad Pitt? No, wait, give me a minute.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

First Day of School

Kids are back in school, I met the teachers who all seem great. I was worried that AJ had forgotten all of his Mandarin after spending the summer in Italy. But apparently I didn't have to worry because his Chinese teacher kept reassuring me that he remembered everything (with a thumbs up sign and everything). I'm not totally convinced, though, as it seemed to me he was answering her questions in Italian: "si, va bene, grazie." Hmmmm.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

A Night With Lauren Bacall...

About a lifetime ago, I worked in television. Well, Italian public television which is really in a league of its own. I was a producer/editor on a daily variety show and one of my duties was to take care of the foreign guests. The conductor, Paolo Limiti, loved old Hollywood stars so we had guests like Cyd Charisse, Sophia Loren, ect. When I heard Lauren Bacall was coming I was just as excited as everybody else. My colleague, Roger Mazzeo, and I were told to pick her up at her hotel one night and accompany her to a secret location. Her first question: "And what are you two doing here?" was a real ice breaker and when she saw the white limo that was specially ordered for her, she gasped: "I hate Bentleys, especially white ones." As we drove, she dished out the pleasantries: "Oh God, cobblestones... Tell me again, why are you two here and why on earth are you coming to dinner with me? Who are you?" Here, I was strongly tempted to put my philosophy degree to use (finally) and offer a possible existential answer but Roger who is very sweet tried to explain: "We work on the show and..." She bluntly cut him off with a rhetorical: "No, I mean, who ARE you? And where the hell are we going?" So that was the small talk sorted, then.
     At this point, we were further and further away. Each mile into the foggy Lombard countryside, a personal affront. The chauffer whispered to me in Italian that we were going to a secluded dinner club open especially for us. I had a pretty strong feeling that this wasn't exactly the dream dinner location  a star like Bacall wanted to go to. "Why are we going so far?" she complained. Roger took the bait and innocently answered: "Because Paolo wants to give you a special treat?"
"If he wanted to give me a special treat I wouldn't be sitting in a white stretch limo with you two driving to who the f@#k knows where!" She did have a point.
Once there, she refused everything that was offered to her and asked the waiter (owner/good friend of Paolo): "A simple green salad? How hard is that to make?" Then, when Paolo told her about this delicious burrata that they sell in Milan, she replied: "Well, if it's so good, why didn't you buy one for me?"
     Since a big part of my job was to simultaneously translate, it was hard to stop especially since Paolo was happy for me to edit what he was saying, by adding little anecdotes, like: "He has the top rated variety show on television," or "He was just voted most popular Italian TV host". So we were both taken aback when she just turned towards me and ordered: "Will you PLEASE stop talking to me?"
This was right after I mentioned that my brother had gone to an apartment viewing in the Dakota (where she lived in NY) and had mentioned what a beautiful building it was. "Why on earth would YOUR brother go to the Dakota?" I decided not to bring up the fact that he actually lived just a couple of blocks down.
The restaurant's wall was covered with photos of actors like Sylvester Stallone or Sharon Stone posing with the owner so, when he came over to ask if she minded taking a picture with him, nobody was too surprised. But she was ready.  "Of course I won't take a picture with him. I know what these people are like. They'll put it on the wall so that it seems as though we are friends." (The week before Cyd Charisse had happily obliged). This was especially embarrassing since the owner was clearly a good friend of Paolo.  At this point, Paolo's assistant motioned to me to follow him to another room. "We have a small problem. Who knew Lauren Bacall would be such a iena (Italian for 'not so nice')? We are going to need you to escort her out of the restaurant and act surprised by all the journalists and photographers waiting outside."
     I was pretty sure she wouldn't believe journalists had spontaneously followed us all the way to this secluded club on the outskirts of Milan. And it was raining. Oh good, maybe she would hit me over the head with an umbrella. She seemed to particularly have it in for me. I fell in that category of unimportant people. I could always tell the real stars, those were the ones who treated the 'unimportant' people well. Even though they didn't have to. Made me wish I was the daughter of an important film director she would some day be auditioning for. I could stand next to my Dad, the film director, as she was about to read her lines and say: "Remember me?"
    The week before, I had accompanied poor Cyd Charisse, a real trooper, to the bathroom in the TV studio. When she discovered it was a squat toilet, she merely said: "Oh, interesting."
I didn't wait around to hear what Lauren Bacall said when I brought her into the same bathroom. In her defence, it was pretty grim and in true Italian bureaucratic spirit, this was a toilet that could only be opened by one special janitor we had had to look for and who arrived with an air of extreme importance as she indicated that she had the key to this 'special' toilet hanging from her neck.

P.S. The picture above is the way I like to remember Lauren Bacall. 

Monday, February 15, 2010

Lady Pink Slipper

An old friend of mine from college just reminded me of a funny story. When I was a sophomore at Vassar College in upstate New York I did an internship at the Mid-Hudson Psychiatric Clinic for the Criminally Insane. To gain credits in Philosophy for the internship, I proposed to write a paper analyzing the relationship between the patients and the psychologist using Hegel's Lord and Bondsman Theory. It was a fairly dangerous program if you consider two college students being in a locked ward with about 12 mentally insane people who had all committed some crime. In fact, I think we were the last students allowed to do the program. Mostly I would listen to their stories or play ping pong with them (picking up that fallen ball fairly quickly when I was playing with the guy who killed someone with a pencil...yes, it is possible. To kill someone with a pencil.) The patients were sweet and I did get more than one marriage proposal...(good for the ego although I had to remind myself it was from a guy who had killed both parents because a bunny had told him to do it).
I remember that the very first time I walked into the room, all the men started running, and I mean running towards me. Then the psychiatrist explained it was because of the open door behind me but I remained convinced it was my curly and unruly hair that had driven them 'wild' and wore it in a tight bun afterwards. Back at Vassar, I would tell my friends about my day. How I heard all about orchids from a patient who was referred to as 'the biter' because he had literally bitten chins off people. In fact, I had the uneasy sensation that he was staring at my chin the entire time I was there. Anyway, the last time we had to go to the Clinic, my fellow intern and I first drove to a convenience store to buy chips, drinks, and a cake so that we could throw a small goodbye party for all the patients. They were so happy. That was a day I'll never forget.
(Pictured above: the rare Pink Lady Slipper orchid)

Thursday, February 11, 2010

I'll Take the Condo

Black and White Houses are an institution in Singapore. A throwback from colonial times. But along with the prestige there are a few things you should know before moving into one: namely snakes. Oh, and did I mention: SNAKES. Can't remember the other ones. I think my mind went blank after I heard the reptile word.
Black and White Houses? I don't think so.
Give me a high rise condo any day. Air con, pools, tennis courts, playground. Our condo is so cool, it's like an airplane where nobody paid the same price for the ticket. Rents are bizarrely different. The guards keep changing every year which I believe is for security issues but still fairly disconcerting. It's a little bit like living in a fish bowl where your neighbors can see inside your window so that when I got a new canopy bed I looked up to find my neighbor from across the way giving me a thumbs up. But it's also wonderful having so many friends always ready for a potluck dinner by the pool or an impromptu barbecue. Rather than living in Singapore I sometimes feel like it would be more exact to say living in my condo. But I am on the sedentary side and have been to Sentosa (just 20 min away) maybe twice since I've been here.
On the downside, your children may appear spoiled when the first question they ask a new friend is: "So, how many pools does your condo have? Tennis courts? Gym? Jacuzzi?"
Then again my kids think the side of the road is for flagging taxis.
I'll have to explain to them some day that the price of a taxi in Singapore is the price of an espresso in Verona. They are so not ready for the real world.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Life in the Fast Lane...(not with a cast on your foot!)

This is the picture I took a couple of months ago from the Singapore Flyer. It was a fun day. Now that I'm just lying here with cast on my broken foot I realize how I underestimated the joy of getting out of bed and standing on your own two feet. The novelty of walking around on crutches has definitely worn off (not that I was ever that excited to begin with).
Whenever I hear a sudden rainstorm outside and water pouring in through the window I get a little shiver remembering the afternoon three weeks ago when I was running to close windows around the house and didn't see the puddle of water at my feet. After flying high into the air I came crashing down and did hear a nice 'crack' in my foot. I was mainly worried about being alone in the house with Eliot and when an ice bag didn't help and I started feeling nauseous I hobbled down to the taxi with help from my friend next door. Eliot did enjoy sitting on my lap as I was wheeled around through the hospital corridors. Two hours later, xrays done, and visit with specialist done, I was on my new crutches with a new fiber glass cast on my foot ready to go home. The Singapore medical service was great. Husband was in China, that was handy. Luckily loads of friends were on hand bearing all sorts of wonderful gifts: books, chocolates, and my favorites, olives. I must say I have definitely caught up on my reading and strongly recommend The White Tiger, The Glass Castle, and Unaccustomed Earth. Where's the Twilight trilogy when you need it. Alexander even kept me company reading his new obsession: Percy Jackson Series. All those years of hearing my Mother say: "Do not run in the house," paid off. Or not.