Wednesday, March 28, 2012

I know what I did last October

I enthusiastically embraced what I think of as the Lebanese spirit. Distilled over many centuries of being at war and in the path of invaders or retaliators, it’s a simple concept: the important things are uncertain, so just have a good time wherever you are, with whatever you have. Surround yourself with glossy magazines and shiny things. Expend your energy on the colour of your walls. Get worked up about the texture of cushion covers. Worry only about the alignment of rugs. The rest will be history anyway.

So all through October, I flung myself into setting up my hard-won flat. No sleeping on a mattress for six months this time round; it was going to be visitor-ready from the start (though, come to think of it, the mattress-furnished flat had visitors plentifully and often. Perhaps it was only my head that needed furnishing, but it’s too late now).

All day, every day, last thing at night, first thing in the morning, I sent and received messages about bookshelves, wardrobes, sofas and beds with strangers from Craigslist and Gumtree. In the evenings, I visited lovely houses to look at stuff. The notes function on my phone became well-thumbed. Ikea catalogues were attacked with Post-Its. Carrefour, Best Denki, Mustafa, Courts and Mega Discount were scoured for the best-priced appliances. I made obsessive notes, took incessant measurements, updated tireless Excel sheets.

By the end of the month, I’d travelled all the Metro lines from end to end and seen parts of Singapore I doubt I’d have seen any other way. Some of it I saw from the cab of a truck. After many arguments with various men-with-vans on the subject of carrying stuff up flights of stairs, my BFF of the time was a tiny, cheery jockey who was moonlighting in his lunch break as a van driver.

I met some nice people that I will never see again, considering the only reason they were selling is because they were leaving town. I encountered startling meanness, equally amazing generosity and much weirdness. The lady who sold me her plants wanted them picked up at once. But when I got there, she made me coffee, waved me to a chair and explained leisurely (in sign language) how her husband was upset that she hadn’t learnt English after a year in Singapore. It turned out my text messages were with the husband, not her. She then lavished upon me a bird cage and extensive crockery, including the cup I was drinking from.

Another day, an Argentinian diplomat was ridiculously unbending on the phone about the price of a high-end food processor, but had, when I arrived to get it, also included a crock pot, full set of baking dishes and a cookie jar. The only extra thing I paid for was a cake plate that her little kid wanted to sell me for a dollar.

My cash flow situation was soon suffering from what my brother calls the Daiso Effect –where nothing costs more than two dollars so you fling things recklessly into your cart and end up spending some 200 anyway.

I cannot believe how small a budget I’d been working with or how much was possible with so little. It was a lot of work of course, but with every new thing I managed for myself, I walked a little taller, felt a little more capable, made this city a little more mine.

Discovering Japan – Part 2

My impressions of the world are formed almost exclusively from the books I read, the music I listen to and the words I write (even the places I actually live in). What with one thing and another, I haven’t read too many books that go to Japan, so the country has just sat in a box at the back of my mind. But things kept being put into the box – a book on traditional Japanese skincare borrowed from a Bangalore library long ago; the creative sophistication dimly perceived in Japanese comic books; sparks of interest set off by movies like Lost in Translation and The Ring; a feature or article seen in passing; anecdotes from an uncle whose entire career has been in Bridgestone; trivia from my brother and sister-in-law who both work with teams there; the occasional brand launch or research document thrown up by my own work – until suddenly the box is full and has somehow moved itself to the front of my mind (much like a simple cardboard carton might behave in a Japanese horror film).

Singapore has a sizable Japanese population and very many Japanophiles, so there’s plenty of opportunity to indulge the new curiosity. Given the war history, it’s understandable that there’s no well-preserved Japantown anywhere, but there are definitely malls that are more Japanese than others. I keep coming across them in the search for low-priced books. (Books are costlier than gold here and the local library does not supply enough variety, so I spend much time and effort hunting down stores that sell second-hand.)

Last week, I had government work which required me to walk through a strange, mall-like place that at first glance looked like a has-been, but on closer acquaintance turned out to be busy and prosperous. My antennae caught a shop selling winter clothes and ski equipment. It’s a sure sign of a Japanophile establishment, and by now I know there will always be a bookshop in one. Sometimes it’s a used-book store, sometimes a specialist boutique selling only graphic novels, anime or fantasy sagas. Whatever it is, there’ll always be something interesting to read in there (and sure enough, a thorough search on my way back did yield a bookstore – big, cut-price, half Japanese and half English).

There’ll also be CDs with horrific covers and vinyls you’ve never heard of. You’ll find Hello Kitty merchandise for all ages, whimsical accessories for grown-ups that even an eight-year-old might hesitate to put on her dolls. Gourmet stores where you do not recognise any of the food. Lifestyle stores that sell minutely useful things, such as pill boxes shaped like beetles. And, as stated in a previous post, totem pole umbrellas and keychains that acknowledge fridge-magnet cousins. Japan must be a singularly fascinating place to live in. Maybe the streets are paved with books. I should go see.

Monday, March 26, 2012

There's this blogger I used to know...

There never seems to be anything to say. Emotions are tamped down, even the fears are muffled. Daily life is unexamined, the minutae of work and office are unspoken. And I’m quiet about the past two years, even to myself. There doesn’t seem to be anything to be said there, either. Sometimes, I silently contemplate the pieces and experiment with putting them together again. Sometimes I equally silently reject the self-pity.

And when you’ve sat in silence for a long time, it’s hard to break it. You sound over-loud and awkward. The things you say acquire a depth of meaning that you probably didn’t mean. Jokes fall uneasily. Comments become pronouncements. Everything seems simultaneously too serious and too uninteresting to mention. After a lot of thought you think of something to say and suddenly you are the cynosure of all ears. And your mind shrinks from such extravagant display so you decide to go home quietly.

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