Nomadic Storytelling by World Citizens | 06-120616

About

Rain & Shine. On Monday I jog to and from work in steaming torrential rain. The moment I enter the office it clears up and stays perfectly sunny until the moment I call it a day and it starts pouring again. I don’t mind too much. My rucksack is waterproof. My trainers used to getting soaked. Refreshing. A bit extreme trotting through the hot showers and deep poodles. Between the crowded walkways and the glistening cars I’m pretty alone in the waterfall. Lovely arriving home to wring the water out of my hair, change into dry, comfy clothes, make myself a cup of lemongrass tea and crawl into bed while listening to the heavy drops splashing against the windows.

BLAD. I spend that evening with the newest issue of a Danish botanist periodical, BLAD, created by two plant-passionate girls I know through a friend. I’m translating it into English and editing it. ‘Blad’ has a dual meaning, i.e. leaf and magazine. Like leaves of a book, or a leaflet, only more precise. I’ll leave it to the girls to decide whether it’s more attractive to leave the name untranslated (preserving an exotic Scandi vibe?) or to try and convey the pun. They’re doing a great job collecting interesting and curious stories, essays, facts, DIY tips and illustrations concentrated on greenery and gardening. Impressively funny and personal. Superb graphic design too. Every Copenhagen-based florist and interior shop with respect for itself stocks the pretty print version. Now the girls hope to be able to launch it in London as well.

Home Alone. Both of my flatmates are out of the country this week. The atmosphere in the house is so good and relaxed that there’s not a single pang of relief, thrill or, conversely, fear or sorrow at the thought of having to hold the fort for a few days.

Pain & Posing. As I’m working late on Tuesday, I allow myself a long, slow morning. Read The Travel Almanak in bed. Yoga poses with a view of the houseplants on the balcony, from where the sunshine is spilling in and lending a lovely golden shade to my wooden floor. A long black and a freshly squeezed grapefruit/orange/ginger juice from the bakery. Exchanging smiles and nods with my neat, pretty neighbours in the coffee and croissant queues and, as I cross the street, with the orange-clad old guy eating his breakfast in the same spot in front of the Monkey God Temple every morning. My usual route past the busy Outram Park Station and through the, at this hour, less crowded Smith Street, Ann Siang Hill and Amoy Street. Past the noodle eaters in front of all of the colourful kopitiams (coffee shops). Down the spiralled staircase from the hill, so prettily framed by neon-green ferns. Past the squatting #paininthelane crossfit group training below the park. Through the next little green oasis between Amoy and Telok Ayer. The contrasting sensations of sweat pearling on my upper lip and streaming down my face, chest, arms and legs and then the cool aircon that seems to immediately dry out my skin as I enter the office lobby. Wishing everyone a good morning. Listening to the charming accents around me, of which the soft, singing Indian of the girl sitting just behind me is my favourite. Cooking porridge and decorating it with the fruity pantry treasure of the day: blueberries. Grabbing a chilled matcha tea in the fridge. Finally turning off yesterday’s Globalist podcast as I reach my desk. The exciting two-sided reality of how everything is now pleasantly familiar and yet still so foreign.

The Thai Faroese. Listening to the radio on the way home that evening, I learn that there are thousands more men than women on the Faroe Islands, obliging the males to mate elsewhere. The trend is Thailand. Over the past years, many Thai women have moved to the rough north. The reporter talks to a group of them. They find their new home cold, dark and far away and reminisce about the beautiful tropical island where they grew up, where the sun rises and sets at the exact same time year round. As much as they miss their homeland though, the importance of raising a family weighs heavier, and that, for various reasons, wasn’t possible there. So as not to feel lonely when their sailor husbands are at sea for months at a time, the women meet frequently over food from home. Most of them didn’t cook when they lived in Thailand: fried rice dishes were available on every street corner. Now necessity has taught them to chop, fry and season like their mothers. They source kaffir lime leaves and oyster sauce through friends vacationing abroad. While mainly decorated in a minimalist Scandinavian style, their houses, in which they gather to eat and compare childhood memories, are spiced up with Buddha figures and exotic knick-knack. Most of them don’t speak Faroese, but one of them can sing it. She takes out an acoustic guitar and softly cries out lyrics that describe a longing for mountain sides in the northern Atlantic, but which are sung with a longing for an island that’s half the world away.

Swan Chair. Wednesday morning I get into the office very early and enjoy a wonderful moment of watching the sun rise up over Marina Bay Sands against a clean blue sky. I sit comfortably by the corner panorama window, curled up in a Danish mid-century design classic, Arne Jacobsen’s Svanen, while eating my breakfast of yellow kiwi- and strawberry-garnished porridge and a double espresso.

Third Time’s a Charm. The rest of the day is gloomily overcast. A highlight is a parcel arriving from home: Clean Home Fragrance. My mum first sent the air purifier to me in London last autumn, but for some reason it didn’t reach me and was returned to her. After picking it up on my next trip to Denmark, I kept it sealed for Singapore, but, alas, was thoughtless enough to put it in one of the suitcases shipped by air so it got confiscated for its flammable qualities. Now, finally, my bedroom gets to smell fresh and light of warm cotton, the scent that most reminds me of my parents’ seaside homes.

Radical Focus. Another thing for me in the post room is the book that’s currently my team’s gospel on how to achieve our most important goals. It gets to play a central part in my very simple and calm evening. I walk home, eat a salad in the evening light on the balcony (the sun comes out again in time to set) and swallow the cute (yet, distractingly, typo-filled) fable spun around personal and team objectives and measurable key results.

Luxe Sydney. The following evening, I meet my English travel blogger friend at the bright and beautifully decorated Australian restaurant in Keong Saik Street. We sit at the bar counter with a glass of refreshing Chardonnay. It’s happy hour – we’re actually alone in the room, the only ones celebrating, but it’s half price and we are pretty happy, catching up and making plans.

Nomadic Storytelling. Once we’ve emptied our glasses we go for an event next door, at The Working Capitol. The two digital nomads behind The Pilgrim CookBook present their story of getting to know each other three years ago, one of them a homeless filmmaker and the other a burnt out cook, and deciding to travel from Milan to Singapore by foot and train, making documentary films about the people they’d meet on the way, getting these characters to tell their story by serving them food. Now they’re here, two happy young guys standing in front of an audience that’s shooting technical as well as very personal questions at them, capturing our attention by showing how they’ve captured fleeting moments and stored them. Reading the world as a collection of stories. Observation, deduction, cunning, stealth, alertness. Ancient, most basic forms of human interaction. Sharing meals and stories. Food to get to the heart of people. A common language. The bait is a home-cooked meal. The catch is life stories. Cooking creatively with few means. Next step is travelling back to Milan via tuk-tuk, setting up a food stall in India for a month before cycling back to Europe.

Potato Head. Let the impressions sink in over burgers, truffle fries, Italian olives and a single glass of Australian wine at the remarkable flatiron-shaped art deco building further up the road. We sit in the cosy cocktail bar above the bustling restaurant and below the charming rooftop bar in the white building with the sharp red lines.

Wine Across Continents. On my way home in the dark heat, I buy a nice bottle of Aussie wine at PS. Petit for a midnight wine Skype date with a friend in London. She hurried home from work to make it work. The two different settings, the video backgrounds, add a fun dimension to the date that’s as easy and natural as if we’d been in the same room. In Singapore it’s thundering after a stuffy day, but it’s all right – I’ve got a bit of a light European summer night on the laptop in front of me as I enjoy my third glass of new world grape for the evening.

Friday Night In. I eat a sandwich on a bench in Boat Quay after work, then walk along the river, do some grocery shopping at the Great World and spend the rest of the evening watching Chef’s Table, very aware of the silly relief I feel at how early it gets dark here: my fomo mainly thrives on light.

Brazilian Chef & Adventurer. Alex Atala serves beans and rice in such a sophisticated context and presentation that guests at his restaurant, D.O.M., ninth best in the world, feel authorised to liking it. They are not ashamed of liking it. But then he’s also challenging people and making them feel slightly uncomfortable. Until they realise they’re in safe and capable hands: his gold-painted ants taste of lemongrass and ginger. Respecting heritage, culture, ingredients, origins, nature. The human capacity to transform things into emotion. The tension between on one hand following his heart, not caring what other people think, trusting his instincts, and then on the other hand wanting to move diners with his creations. Creating wow-effects. Relying on his wild spirit and love for the Amazon to show how an open mind pays off. Making delicious food of anything. When he was young he didn’t quite fit in. A gangly ginger punk rocker he travelled to Europe feeling that’s where he belonged, attending chef school just to get a visa. Eventually he came back to claim his heritage. Got his stamp of approval by Ferran Adrià when he served white heart of palm at a contest in Madrid – Brazilian and very prettily presented. Spends a lot of energy on visiting and speaking out for farmers, landowners and craftsmen. Not that he believes that all chefs must go deep into forests or seas to understand food, he assures us. It’s his truth, his way, to understand the whole chain. How, where and when the ingredients came about. We leave him standing in the wilderness, stripped down to his shorts and tattoos, with a big fire between himself and a lake. This big, tough guy, who is also the mastermind behind the elegant, beautiful, impressively detailed dishes that float across the screen as the program ends.

Memories of Home. Next chef up is French Dominique Crenn whose love of family, personal connections and memories helped her become the first female two-Michelin star chef in America. The menu at her restaurant is presented as a poem, and each course corresponds indirectly to a line of poetry. She’s so charismatic, passionate, full of humor. Her mission is not just to create amazing meals but to use the food as a vehicle to interact with people, evoke memories, create a story. Came to San Francisco and felt at home there. The paradox – she grew up wanting to travel the world, thinking that there’s so much more to see than what’s just around you, and then she settled down in SF because it reminded her of where she grew up. She could be who she wanted to be there, she felt. I admire people who know who they want to be. As a child she’d always walk in the woods with her dad, tasting the mushrooms and berries. Sweetness, darkness, wetness, stillness. Her dream was the restaurant. Now it’s realised and she has a new dream. She built her restaurant on the memories of her childhood with her parents who were happily married for 45 years. Her dad died of cancer and she named the place after him. Every human being longs to build a family, she claims, so that’s her next mission.

Rich in Its Poverty. The next one, Enrique Olvera, combines the Brazilian guy’s energy to show the world that his native cuisine is distinguished and refined, contrary to popular belief, and the French woman’s emphasis on love. Learning to cook because he wanted to impress his high school sweetheart, Olvera started his career at a very young age. He married the girl and dedicated himself to family life and bringing out the finest aspects of Mexican food, explaining that the country is extremely rich in its poverty. When you have ‘nothing’ to eat, you have to eat anything. Take chicatana ants. If people hadn’t been desperate they probably wouldn’t have started to eat insects, but via their poverty they discovered that the little creatures were delicious – and now they’re being hailed internationally as a trendy environment-friendly source of protein. Olvera has transformed savoury street food and traditional ingredients into award-winning dishes at his Mexico City restaurant.

Best in Asia. The patriotic passion continues. Reimagining what Indian food can be, Gaggan Anand has managed to create the best restaurant in Asia. He grew up thinking that his native culinary tradition was based solely on comfort food and could not count as fine-dining. Various insights and struggles later, his aim became to show that in a country of 28 states, there are 100 ways of cooking millions of varied dishes, which reach far beyond chicken tikka masala (which is actually a British invention, like the common term curry for all spicy stews) and naan bread (actually Persian). In India people die for food, he dramatically claims. It’s tied up with religion. Muslims don’t eat pork and Hindus don’t eat beef. It’s serious business, and also such a central element in everyone’s life and story. As with everyone else on the show he was inspired by El Bulli, and his internship there was really what ignited his breakthrough. He returned to India with an ambition to change his home country with molecular gastronomy. What shaped El Bulli was a spherified olive, and since yogurt is to Indian people what olives are to the Spanish, Gaggan applied the spherification to yogurt – his symbol of progressive Indian cuisine (along with his goat brain ‘foie gras’). There’s a love story as well: his brother, who had been the one supporting him through all sorts of trials, died just as he was about to open his restaurant, and the encouraging letter he’d written to him on his deathbed gave him the necessary strength to cook every day until he broke even and could start sending money home to his poor mother. He bought her a house. She was proud of him, which in turn made him happy. In the final shot he’s walking pensively around a street food market at night time.

Paddling. The quiet Friday night means I’m very fresh on Saturday, when the English girl from last Sunday and I meet at dawn to go canoeing. It’s as simple as we need it to be: we take an uber up north to MacRitchie, get the driver to drop us off at the reservoir, rent a canoe at the Paddle Lodge ($15 for an hour), are handed oars and life vests, jump onboard and paddle out and about, trying to keep some sort of synchrony in our movements as we talk and talk and take breaks to just enjoy being on the water that’s so picturesquely framed by the lush greenery. When time’s up, we go for a 12k hike along the boardwalk surrounding the reservoir and back to the treetops where I went a few weeks ago. See tortoises in a remote corner of the water, a tiny orange snake on the ground and lots of big, fat monkeys fighting in the trees. Meet a Singaporean power walking man on the way, who uses his umbrella as a walking stick, tapping it purposefully against the rocky path, asking us interested questions about our nationalities and reasons for being here. Exchange stories and observations, laugh a lot and exhaust ourselves physically.

Satisfying. Just as it starts thundering and drizzling around 2pm, we reach a road and get an uber to take us back to civilisation. We end up at Luxe Sydney, where we have the lunch of our, during the past few hours, very well-articulated dreams. This time the cafe is super busy, and as we take a seat among the hip, sophisticated crowd, we’re quite aware of our crumpled sports outfits and frizzy hair. As no one appears to mind though, we just allow ourselves to fully enjoy the satisfying feeling of refuelling when it’s highly necessary, and in a high quality, tasty way: salad niçoise with fresh seared tuna for me, prawn linguini for her and freshly baked sourdough bread and a glass of ice-cold Chardonnay for both.

Home. I get back to a flat that’s alive again: my flatmates are back from their travels, and we catch up at the dinner table. They’ve got fresh cherries from the market. As I eat a few of them, I listen to the loveliest stories from London and Manila.

Bincho. After a nap and a shower, I meet an American friend at a secret Japanese bar in one of the multi-functional little spots that Tiong Bahru is full of. During the day, Bincho is a kopitiam with an old school yakitori counter behind the rickety wooden chairs and small marble tables, and at night, with a secret entrance in car park behind the building, the neat bar hidden in the back of the room features progressive cocktails and a wide selection of sakes. Here, the decor is all copper and concrete, with a slim leather bench along the wall in the small cylindrical room. We take a seat, select alluringly named items from the menu and start our conversation on the topic of favourite speakeasies around the world before moving on to other interests and finally landing on the classic of the similarities between the American firms for which we work.

Real Wine Made by Real People. Later I meet my Canadian friend from the rooftop party for dinner at Merchants Wine Store down on Duxton Hill Road. We sit outside at a low, wooden table in the walkway. Share a bottle and a platter in the candle light. So cosy.

Time Difference Perks. As on most nights, I call a friend from home on my walk back to Tiong Bahru. After six weeks I still find the situation very strange and wonderful – it’s past midnight for me, while she’s enjoying the afternoon sun on her balcony in Copenhagen.

Ronin Cafe. At 8am on beautifully sunny Sunday, I walk through Chinatown to meet an American friend for a coffee before he’s off on a work trip to Melbourne and Sydney for a few weeks. He lived in Nigeria, India, New York City, Atlanta and Hong Kong before moving here and often travels to different continents for weeks at a time with work. It’s fascinating how small and big the world is, how inspiring it can be to meet people with a different – or even similar – positive outlook on things, and how happy it keeps making me to encounter new hip indie coffee places with perfectly staged raw industrial looks, atmospheric light settings and fairly traded roasted beans. A hidden gem tucked away in a quiet street, with a quite dark colour palette and no entrance sign to speak of.

PS. Late breakfast with a friend in Ann Siang Hill Park, at the PS. branch I pass every morning. Stylish colonial beauty with over-dimensioned flower arrangements and white tablecloths. Classical music playing softly. She’s Taiwanese and moved here with work a while ago. Lived in London at one point too, and is actually going there next week, for a wedding, after a weekend team outing in Malaysia, following a client meeting (she’s a consultant) in Shanghai. Again, the extent to which people around me move around…

Frying & Chilling. After brunch, my friend has a spinning class and I walk alone along the river trying to make up my mind about the place. The path IS tacky and a bit tired and dusty looking in some places, especially the Boat and Clarke Quay stretches, and on a deserted Sunday morning it bears close resemblance to an abandoned theme park, but it’s not necessarily depressing. Right now I enjoy the quiet and the bubble world scenes. Probably mood dependent. Another thing to note: sometimes it’s nice to have a soundtrack on walks, colouring the things experienced on the way, or making up for a feeling that there’s nothing to see, sense or learn in the streetscape whatsoever, but today it would stress me to listen to music or podcasts. As I reach Fort Canning Park, I climb the steep flight of stairs to get to the top of it and stay there for a few hours, photographing hibiscus and ceramic butterflies and reading in the grass under the burning sun. When that gets too hot and all I can think of is water, I go back down to the riverside path, let the light breeze that always seems to be present there cool me down, buy a bottle of water from one of the sleepy tourist cafes and find a shaded spot behind the railing along the river where I can open my book again.

Toby’s Estate. By Robertson Quay I meet a Norwegian friend for another single origin long black at another hip coffee spot – cool vibe, nice decor inside and out, excellent coffee – and another lovely standard chat about sports, travels, work and home.

Broccoli Soup. Reach home late in the afternoon. Lie flat on my bed and eat strawberries, stare out at the blue skies and Skype with friends and family. My flatmate cooks a hearty broccoli soup with yummy trimmings – a parsley-miso paste, tomato-chili paste and toasted pumpkin seeds – which we eat while catching up on GoT from the past three weeks. Perfect Sunday night.

 

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