Drawn to it

Last weekend the Affordable Air Fair came to town, setting up behind the Flyer for the third time since I’ve been living here. This was my second visit; last time I went to the bunfight of the opening night and spent the entire evening being careful not to spill my bubbles on the artwork. This time I went early one Saturday, going along for the ride with the same friend who took me before. She’s an art buff, she knows her apples, and she can recommend what to look for. She can also tell you what she likes and doesn’t like – she’ll give you a polite: ‘hmmm…’ if you show her something unsatisfactory. If she likes it she’ll propel you right up to the exhibit like a member of Miami Dade police at a house raid. While I prefer to dot in and out of the cubicles, firmly telling people I’m ‘just looking’ (as you have to here in the shops to avoid being hassled), ArtFriend is falling over herself to accept those grabbing hands. She gets drawn in by vendor after vendor, asking for cards, adding her name to lists, asking all the right questions, and – in fact – usually walking away with some other stunning bit of kit to go with the growing gallery that makes up her beautiful home. Watching her work the floors is as satisfying as the artworks themselves. Me, I just like to potter.

I did go to art school, actually – ArtFriend was surprised to learn this as we drove away from the show in a halo of good art vibes. Oh yes, I got a degree in printmaking, having spent my second year putting the painting tutor to the test by doodling a series of scrappy Tony Hancock-style feet in ‘simplistic style’ and being heralded as someone funky and innovate when, in fact, I’d just scribbled a few toes. That taught me, and in my third and final year I moved on to screenprinting, where the nuts and bolts of the technique blended with my passion for writing and I completed a series of sarcastic prints that heaved me up and over the precipice (along with a competent thesis) of a shabby Third and got me the 2:2 degree I didn’t really deserve. As a result of my cynicism I didn’t leave college with a great deal of knowledge about or love for modern art, but those years at art school at least left me with an idea of what I like on my wall. I go through phases: it was portraits for a while, and for that I had London’s National Portrait Gallery, a place I now realise I never visited enough. Now I’m in Asia Lite I find myself drawn to paintings of goldfish, for some reason, and I found several of those as I wandered around the galleries last weekend, sipping my free [brand name] espresso.

Although my happiness at blagging a precious ticket to the AAF wasn’t so much about ‘getting something’ but was more about dipping a tentative toe back into the art arena, I did love the venue and I loved the show, room after room of fun, fascinating, clever, poignant and funky pieces of original art, with friendly faces to tell you all about it and that nice free coffee thrown in. In fact I loved about 80 per cent of the pieces on show and after a while found myself seeking out local artists, looking for something different, something fun but not garish, most importantly something to put my current life in context.

I’m never going back with ArtFriend again, that’s for sure – she was far too good at the whole thing. It’s because of her that our dining room wall will, in about three weeks, look substantially more beautiful, and that whatever holiday fund we were hanging onto just went down to zero. It was definitely worth it. The ‘local’ context has ended up being a somewhat more far-off blend of Shanghai and London, but it will do. There are also no goldfish, but the fun theme is there and so is the beauty – it’s going to look amazing, and to top it all off the artist went to St Martins School of Art, where Mum went in the 50s. I think she’d have been happy with all that.

As for naughty ArtFriend, she is banned from taking me anywhere else for a while (though if there’s any more of that free coffee I might come along for the ride).

Terra firma

Just woken up after our first night in a proper bed in a hotel in Perth, and still finding it weird not to have that rattling noise and swinging sensation every time someone moves.

Saying goodbye to the van was a bit sad, actually. We didn’t even create a hilarious family name for it, it was just ‘Campervan’. I feel bad with the way that we parted – on the main road outside the hotel with Mr PC standing at the little side door throwing out our enormous suitcases and a couple of stuffed plastic bags, and then driving off to the depot to dump the truck. I didn’t get a chance to say goodbye properly, no parting hug or fond farewells, and when SM and I got into our hotel room I had a little weep to myself while he jumped around on his new white fluffy bed. We’ve discovered a magical way of travelling, us three, intimate and exciting, and just not present here in our comfy hotel room. Yeah OK, I got over it pretty quick. But we’ll be back again, Campervan, I know it.

Now I know why adults end up living in static home parks (the nice leafy tranquil ones, I mean, not the mid-US rusted wastelands that you drive into by accident). Living in a parked mobile home is an alternative to being rooted because you can be transient yet grounded all at the same time. It’s a fun way of playing house, the grown-up equivalent of setting out the tiny teacups, only the smallest of household items to take care of, a life almost void of responsibility. At the first campsite these permanent homes were wedged and slightly tattered, occupied by quiet long termers who came and went unobtrusively. At the last one there was a more established set of permanent inhabitants, and the long-term caravans were fenced in and bordered with plant pots and garden gnomes, festooned with seasonal tinsel and flashing Christmas lights. The one nearest our van was hosting a little family dinner when we rocked up. We weren’t invited but I suspect if we’d stayed longer, we might have been.

Funnily enough, Mr PC’s parents lived in a static home when I first met them – but a big, proper, box-shaped thing down by the river Thames. Mrs hated it, Mister adored it. In the end she won, and they decamped to the house. Their son tells me he secretly went to stay on his own once when his folks were away travelling. ‘It was a peaceful, private place,’ he said. We won’t be giving up our London apartment quite yet, but I can now see the point.

I’m wondering if there’s a way of locking down the camaraderie you get when you’re all getting along in a confined space – doing that organized morning dance of packing up and driving off, chucking tasks at SM and getting him to join in and actually enjoy joining in (sometimes). I’m not about to suggest building a den on the deck when we get back to Singapore, but I think there’ll be some new rules.

NEXT STOP: Sydney

Road trip: my kind of canvas

This is not how it was last time. Then it was a proper road trip.

‘Then’ was summer of ’77, when my parents bundled us into the back of our beat-up Buick, me and my sister, and steered the overheated engine from the east coast of the States to the west and then back again in a big loop. I was eight, my sister was nine and every night we charted our route on a map. I can’t remember the exact number of states we drove through (Dad…?) but I think it was about 36 in two months.

Pop, Mum’s recently bereaved father, came too, on a post-funeral visit from the UK, sitting quietly in the back with his pale shoulder turned away from us two girls, blocking off from the squabbles and chatter as the scenery unfurled by his open window.

Pop obviously had a whole tent to himself, which left two other places to sleep – in the other tent, or pegged out on the flat back of the Buick, looking up at the stars. Who slept where each night seemed to depend on the shape of the moon, or the passing of the eastern winds, or the number of crows hopping under a tree. One morning Pop said (and he never said much, especially that particular summer when the grey mood of Nonna’s demise accompanied us on the trip like an unseen pall) – anyway, one morning, Pop said: ‘Did you hear the coyotes last night?’ Prowling up in the hills, we all assumed. ‘No,’ he said, ‘around our tents.’

Another time we bust a tire on the dusty outskirts of some kind of ghetto and had to ask for help. I think my folks thought we were basically all going to die, but the first house we came to was a shrine of kindness, and we ended up sitting on a plastic-covered couch drinking iced water and looking through family albums while dad and the husband knelt in the dirt fixing the wheel.

Another time in Florida, Mum’s back locked (from grief, for sure) and when we pitched up at the evening’s campsite, Dad carried her from the car and put her down on a grassy bank while he set up tent for the night, stepping over his annoying daughters and prone wife. A wrinkled old keep-fit lady in orange pants and a sun-visor came up to Mum, knelt over her, and said: ‘It gets better as you get older’.

If we were very lucky we stopped at a KOA camp. We only stayed at these premium campsites if we were REALLY lost or really tired: there was a kind of ‘F**k it’ mentality to those wonderful KOA stop-offs, when my sister and I would go bonkers in the pools with the curly slides while Mum and Dad – no doubt exhausted – downed beers in the bar.

This trip was the two-month full-stop to our year in America, and it encompassed all the things we had taken on board. I remember unpeeling Hostess Twinkies in the back seat, juggling hot-wrapped apple pies from rare pull-ups to drive-in McDonalds, the taste of Kool Aid at wooden picnic tables under hot pines, rubbing noses under nylon sleeping bags, dodging giant night-time moths in neon-lit restrooms, chewing illict wraps of Red Mountain (probably to keep our mouths shut) – but most of all the lonely sense that I wasn’t sure how or when we would ever get home again, to Baltimore or, for that matter, to the UK, a place I had been desperate to get back to since I arrived on American soil. I think my feeling at the time was that the trip was just preventing us from getting ‘home’.

Either way, our family road trip had one effect on one sister, and another on the other. While it put me off camping for life, it left my sister with a passion for canvas that has resulted in her spending every summer pegging out her tent at festivals around the UK.

So who ever knew I’d be here 36 years later, sitting at a pop-up table in the dark, with a beer by my side and the mossies pestering me, and there is a reason why it didn’t take a lot of persuading to get me here, and that reason is the massive, four-berth, white truck the size of a small terraced house beside which I am sitting. Because of this Goliath of a ‘home’, our nine-day road trip down the west coast of Australia and back will not be like that sepia-tinted American tarmac trail at all.

It’s cheating, really. SmallMonkey has just climbed down the little ladder from his bunk to watch The Avengers on our built-in DVD player. Mr PC is cooking roast pork chops and baby new potatoes with a crunchy green salad and has just set off the smoke alarm – I mean, there’s a smoke alarm for goodness’ sake, and a microwave, and a fridge. I showered in the campsite washrooms just like I would have done in the old days, but if I’d wanted to I could have flicked on the water heater and had a shower in our own van. We even have a can, although the unanimous agreement is to save that for ‘emergencies’ – we haven’t defined that situation just yet.

We’re definitely on the road but there’s no squishing into the back seat for SM. Today he sat up front, map-reading, waving his stick legs around the acres of space between him and the footwell, then messing about with the DVD controls. Now we’re parked up in a slightly frowsy campsite right beside a fast beach road with evening traffic whooshing by, so no, it’s not quite the same. No whispering pines, no night-time mumblings from the open back of a beat-up Buick, no distant guitar picking from someone in the next-door tent, no coyotes yapping up in the hills. Anyway, enough chatter, better switch off my computer – so handy, to have WiFi all the way out here. I’d better go and help by doing the washing up in our proper sink while Him Indoors makes up the double bed.IMG_4281

Bangkok 1-0 Singapore

Sorry Singers, it’s not that I don’t like coming back to you, it’s just that I wasn’t quite ready yet. SM’s first international soccer tournament had a load of us piling onto a plane heading north for a quick weekend trip to the Thai capital but then yanked us sharply back again like a load of spitballs out of a rubber band, allowing us zero time to explore, and that’s a shame because I think the place could well turn out to be a high scorer in the MrsPartlyCloudy Favourite City Charts, all of which seem to start with a B: Berlin, Bruges, Bilbao, and now (potentially) Bangkok.

There just wasn’t the time. We nipped next door to a supermarket to get snacks for the players. We saw a LOT of the motorway because the traffic was rubbish, and even more of it on the way back home because the coach driver got confused and set off for entirely the wrong airport (it’s OK, we spotted it and re-routed). We saw no riots (*see below). We wore a lot of yellow for the King, who was having a birthday weekend – so was Jen and so was Jack, so there was a lot of cake involved and that’s always nice.

Someone who lives there told me that Bangkok is ‘a real place, very hip and modern’, and I’d have loved to put that to the test. [Just as a sidenote here, most places in the world are real compared to the bubble that is SingSong. Don’t get me wrong, I like coming home to the vacuum, stepping onto the fragrant carpets at Changi, popping the passport into the Machine That Goes Beep and snapping the cab door closed only 5 minutes after getting off the plane, before swooshing down the fast, clean roads to home. I know nasty things happen here but most people can relax in a way that is not possible in most other major cities, and then comes the irony – that the city’s security buys you all the freedom in the world to do just the risky sorts of things that you’d never really think of doing in a place like this because they just don’t crop up, so in the end it’s all a bit of a false promise. Apart from the odd riot there’s not a lot of scope for public shouting here, and those riots are very much one-offs, much less prevalent than *the now-and-then ones in Bangkok. Not that I want to do risky things but if I DID want to, I’d have to work hard at getting a group together… Anyway, sidetracked. Forget it. Carry on.]

Ah yes: Bangkers. Those who had been to the city before told us we really needed to do a proper visit; us first-timers got a very good vibe from what we saw, and agreed it needed more days. The fresh, Spanish-warm weather helped, perfectly blue skies and breezy heat allowing the children the physical ability to play six hard matches in a row on Saturday (or was it five?) and three on the Sunday, without passing out from humidity like in Sing, or searing their feet on 45°C astroturf.

And what a great tournament, so well organised and comfy. Festive, basically, with stalls and claxons and a bloke on the tannoy and lots of shiny happy people. The team put up a good fight but it was pretty ugly, as predicted. We were carved up over the course of the weekend like chopped peanuts in a wilting popiah, matched against epic teams who would have done well playing proper grown-ups. Time and again the kids picked themselves up and went back out for more. The other teams’ balletic movements were at best captivating and at worst – well, I saw SM do a little elbow-shove at one point (Naughty! Mum would have loved that). We came out OK and hobbled onto the bus home in an oddly buoyant mood (even when we realised we were heading the wrong way) and the kids’ only concern was who was digging up the most diamonds on Whinecraft.

Predictably we water-glided to a stop on the tarmac at Changi because of rain lashing down, then waded back to an apartment stinking of mould after only two days without us. The Christmas cards instantly called out to be filled in and stamped and the next batch of coursework was sulking as it hadn’t had a single glance all weekend. Not to mention both boys coming home with potential colds.

So you win this time, ‘Kockers, and thank you for having us – I think we’ll be right back.

A right spectacle

I’ve worn glasses since I was two years old, so I like to think I know what works for me and what doesn’t. What I don’t need is someone following me round the shelves making me try on pairs and pairs of random and bizarre frames straight from a nine-year-old’s dressing up box. I don’t mind my husband doing this, or my son or a good friend, but I do mind YOU, Mr Total Stranger Shopowner, giving me your utterly useless tuppence ha’penny.

This was my first experience of spec-shopping since leaving England, a place where you often get the opposite – no service at all, big chunks of your lunch hour spent quietly queuing until someone is free to get THAT pair down to try on. On the flipside I’m also familiar with having a broad range of shapes and styles from which I can make a well-balanced choice; these blasted specs are welded to my persona so I have to get it right. Sadly, due to a recent age-related change in prescription meaning that I can no longer read without actually taking my specs off (a novel thing for me), I can’t have what I want any more and I need new ones and they can’t be any old shape because they need to work in more ways than just one. When SmallMonkey updated his prescription recently, Mr PC nagged me to get a new pair, too, and so it was that we spent the best part of half an hour today having a good laugh at my expense (that’s OK, I’m used to it from those two).

An ordeal, to be frank. It’s been a long time since someone asked me to (no, insisted that I) put on a pair of bright purple frames, then some pink ones with orange sparkle, then a mad Gucci pair with fat gold logo all down the sides. Really? My friend’s family had a charity fancy dress party in the 1990s in a rented out Oxfam shop. Huge fun, I have the dusty pics somewhere. I think I tried on some crazy specs on that day – twenty years ago. For sunglasses I think a bit of show is OK, but when I mentioned to The Two Ronnies that I had to wear these things all day (like, when I’m eating my Cheerios, when I’m waiting with the other mums for the school bus, when I’m pretending to be a tour guide in front of total strangers) it fell on deaf ears. Or blind eyes. Whatever.

The biggest laugh came from a pair that made me look just like Grandpa Bryan. I loved Grandpa Bryan so very much, and in fact he looked alright, you know, quite handsome in his younger years, but that doesn’t mean I want to actually look like him. What I wear on my face, absolutely all of the day, defines me and gives people an impression of who I am straight away, no second chances. Later they can find out who I am, and might realise that the first impression was not what they thought. But it has to fit, to be innocuous, that first time. So it really pays, spec-shop-owners, to put yourselves in the customer’s shoes when forcing random frames on a punter – would YOU want to wear the bright orange ones or the Mister Magoo specials? Then why would I?

Sale lost.

28/11: Christmas bizarre

NaBloPoMo: one post every day throughout November

SmallMonkey came home from the school Christmas fete with a canvas photo of Elvis.

‘Do you know who that is?’ I asked. ‘Elvis.’ ‘What made you pick it out, didn’t you fancy a cupcake or a book?’ ‘I wanted some new designs for my room.’ ‘What did your teacher say?’ ‘She said WOW!’

I told him that’s what I thought too, and said we’d browse some YouTube clips so he could hear the songs. I said: ‘You know who LOVED Elvis? Grandma Jo…’

Quite honestly, if he’s going to start channeling my mum then at least she’s giving him some wonderful choices.

26/11: Do not pass go

NaBloPoMo: one post every day throughout November

Today we taught Auntie Rosy about property auctions. She bid against me for an inexpensive street and won. Meanwhile Mr PC was unusually careless with his cash and had to mortgage everything he owned. I had the smallest amount of money and some houses, but ended up selling most of them off. SM got bored and went to play at his friend’s apartment. No one wanted Geylang at first but actually we all realised it’s a nice little earner if you build a few hotels.

#singaporemonopoly

25/11: About Time, I suppose

NaBloPoMo: one post every day throughout November

Holy Cow, Richard Curtis, you don’t do things by halves, do you? I was warned about this one but still I never expected that when the film ended I would have to clench my legs to stop them from leaping in a cab to the airport and boarding the next flight back to London – then popping on the Piccadilly line to Paddington to catch a train to Cornwall.

Instead we went for lunch and watched the hot rain falling down over the sea, sat in a Japanese restaurant in the mall we like to go to, peering out at the cable cars and palm trees waving in the breeze, trying to equate what we could see with what we had just seen – nothing like those familiar chilly London streets. At times like this I know I am very far from Kansas (Camden, Treburrick whatever).

Homesickness comes and goes. Mainly, this year, it has gone, but when it comes back it comes back with a force that only the knowledge of future repatriation can appease. These sorts of films don’t help.

First you’ve got your streets of London: wet and drizzly, with the sort of rain that you know is needle-thin and cold and gets down the back of your neck – not like the fat warm drops pelting down sideways in a milky film just outside my sushi window. Streetlights blurry, Golborne Road, brick walls and London traffic, a soundtrack just beginning to be slightly retro, and what can ONLY be Maida Vale tube: and at this point you can’t help having a little wriggle in your seat because you know those stairs down and that exit, and when it’s somewhere you used to live – just down the road from that very tube, for instance, with the nice young chap who just happens to be sitting on the other side of his aunt from you (during a daytime bunk-off thanks to a nice spot of garden leave) – anyway, when you know all that it takes you back, doesn’t it, because we were right there, just like them. I know we held hands on an up-escalator just like they did, too, probably the same one. So that doesn’t help. I KNOW THAT, you want to shout, I KNOW ALL THAT! Aww, home…

Then there’s the sea and the fields, fudge-box vistas combined in a way that only your own personal Cornish coastline can do, and in front of those creamy views is a dusty, happy family with jolly nice accents, a ramrod eccentric but kind mother and a gentle, academic father in a house full of cr@p, plus the sort of mentally dotty sister there always has to be in these films (I’ll take that role, no problem). IT’S CORNWALL, you want to poke Mr PC, but he knows it’s Cornwall, he’s already making a point of sticking his face back in the popcorn box to make sure you don’t notice that his eyes are a bit shiny. He knows.

I won’t spoil it for you. If you’ve ever seen a Richard Curtis film you’ll know the format. It’s a good one, though – it works. By the time they get to my very own [SPOILER ALERT] Cornish funeral scene I am finding it hard to breathe, and fighting off the sad thoughts by sucking tears back between my teeth and digging my nails into my palm. As we all know, though, resistance is useless during beautiful films like this and later, in the restaurant, Mr PC leans over and tells me I have a dirty spectacle lens: ‘Looks like salt water,’ he says, and gives me the kind of fluffy warm smile you only get in those awful Richard Curtis emotional (ARCE) films; the kind of smile you actually need if you’ve just seen an ARCE film.

I now have to get over it all over again, the displacement thing AND the funeral thing. So thanks Richard Curtis. Thanks a lot.