Monday – is a feast day. I work from home all day, listening to Christmas music and sipping chilled lemongrass tea while typing out one joyful email after the other, and my boyfriend surprises me by joining in the late afternoon. So there we are, in our little paradise, sitting across from each other at the work/dining table, eyes glued to our screens, fingers flying across keyboards, exchanging an occasional smile, word or kiss, as the light grows increasingly golden. Around five, I change into my black ballerina suit and run off to barre, admiring, on the eastbound way, the enormous silk flowers in all the colours of the rainbow filling up the pavements, and on the way back an hour later, the same flowers hanging in garlands above the road. Get back home, sweaty hug, quick shower, change into a loose summer dress, toss the chicken left over from the tacos along with the chives and potatoes left over from the smørrebrød into a pan and sauté it all together with lots of spices and hot sauce, chop and mix veggies for a fresh salad garnished with pomegranate seeds, open a chilled bottle of wine. Serve and enjoy at the dining/work table. Move to the sofa for some vegan chocolate ice cream with blue berries and a few episodes of Brown Nation on Netflix.
Date Night. The next evening, we turn it up a notch. Inviting my boyfriend out for dinner, I suggest The Blue Ginger Restaurant in Tanjong Pagar, based on his four criteria: Peranakan, simple, colourful, modern. Before meeting him there, I meander around Tiong Bahru for the last bit of Christmas shopping. Oh, how I love this area! The golden light enhances the symmetry in all of the white and red lined art deco. The idyllic mews! The many plants and palm trees! The pretty murals! The silk paper pineapples hanging from the walkway roofs! The Nordic Christmas atmosphere at Plain Vanilla, where I get the gifts for the friend with whom I’m spending Christmas. Presents for my boyfriend to take to India where he’s spending the holidays. For my brother to put under our tree in the flat – he’s coming staying here with a friend, from the 23rd to the 27th, before they’re off to Tokyo to celebrate New Year’s. Sending off goodies to my parents and grandparents. Home to change into denim shorts and a thin silk strap top, braid my newly washed hair, dap lavender oil on my neck and wrists, while listening to the birds chirping in the trees outside. Speed down Outram Road, past the hospital and police station, all the roadworks, past the viaduct by Duxton, down vibey Craig Road. Admire the art deco and Peranakan shophouse fronts, so spectacular when you look up, the colorful details, the lines and curves, the Chinese signs. All the lively bars and restaurants I still haven’t been to. Hip people chatting, laughing, toasting in the walkways. My boyfriend is already at the Peranakan restaurant when I get there, resting against a leather bench back, the lines of which seem to continue seamlessly up through the mirror above it, in which the lines of the roof beams are reflected as well, making the room sparkle with symmetry. He was right – it is a great place. We share some smooth mackerel and chicken prepared in tasty umami gravies. Cheers to life in a glass of wine and a beer! On to Library for a fancy cocktail by the copper bar, at which we cuddle up comfortably on a broad leather couple’s seat. Tomorrow is winter solstice, the shortest day in the Northern Hemisphere, and then it will be lighter and lighter… and so the wheel turns. We wish each other a happy new year – on New Years Eve, we’ll be in two different countries, but if your perspective is that a new year starts every day, then that’s what matters, and we’ll be initiating many years together as it gets lighter and lighter.
We Can Work from Home. Wednesday, the party continues. For a good start to the day, we blend a few scoops of creamy purple açai pulp with frozen banana and drizzle our homemade muesli on top – chai tea steaming on the side, of course. To further boost the feeling of goodness, we order ducks, fish and goats, on behalf of family members, for children in developing countries, through Oxfam and Kirkens Korshær. Then we work from home. Step outside for the first time that day around lunch time – to share a delicious chirashi don and yakitori chicken at charming little Bincho, which hides between a parking lot, a bunker-resembling speakeasy and a coffee shop. Back home for some more work, which we wrap up by listing our five professional and personal highlights of the year. Each of them so significant, and with a shared #1 on the personal list. Kissing goodbye as I run off to barre at 7pm with a rye bread peanut butter sandwich in my hand – he’s off to India later in the evening, where he’ll wake up in the morning to his mother’s tea and a gorgeous view of the lush garden surrounding his parents’ villa.
Homemade Muesli. Based on my mum’s recipe, this is our draft for creating the perfect healthy and tasty breakfast, using whole foods with no traces of refined sugar, gluten, dairy or chemistry, for which it would be lovely to use only organic/sustainably grown/locally sourced/seasonal ingredients, but we live in Singapore where some of those criteria are redundant, and we give into tempting trade-offs, such as organic oat milk produced in Sweden or so-called super fruits imported from Brazil. Maybe that will change? Anyway, it’s all open for adjustments, refinements, new ideas and increased awareness:
- Mix in a bowl: 1 bag of whole spelt/oat flakes, 2 spoons of millet flakes, raw almonds, raw pumpkin seeds, 2 spoons of coconut/olive oil, 2 spoons of Manuka honey
- Option to add flavour: vanilla sticks, cinnamon sticks, ground ginger, etc.
- Option to add grains: amaranth, quinoa, etc.
- Spread out evenly in a thin layer on a tray, bake for 15-20 mins at 200°, remember to stir occasionally
- Add unsweetened goji berries and/or other dried fruits, dried coconut flakes, linseeds, flaxseeds, sesame seeds, chia seeds and/or other seeds
- Leave to cool down before transferring to airtight container
- Serving suggestions:
- Boiled with oat milk and served with fresh (seasonal) fruit
- Topping on unsweetened yoghurt (dairy, dairy free) and served with fresh (seasonal) fruit
- Topping on frozen acai/banana blend and served with fresh (seasonal) fruit
Whiskey Tasting. After barre on Wednesday, all the girls go to Bell Jar for a barre → bar whiskey tasting. The bar is great; the spirit flavours are rich; and I chat with some nice people – one Singaporean girl who’s got some tips for other yoga studios in Ubud than the Yoga Barn, such as Radiantly Alive and Intuitive Flow, a couple from Hong Kong, who’ve got various ideas for what to see and do when I go there in two weeks’ time, and the Singapore manager of my favourite skin and hair care brand, Ashley and Co, which they carry at the barre studio.
Thoughtful Note. Coming home late at night to an empty flat – and a thoughtful note scribbled on the back of a well-designed card (from one of my favourite places, The Barbican) by someone special, who knows that the coming weekend will be challenging (Christmas away from family and frost!), and who wanted to give me some tangible comfort from a place that feels like home – to remind me that home is wherever I am.
Friend from Home. On Thursday evening, a dear old flatmate from London arrives for the holidays. Last time I saw her was for our usual morning walk from Shoreditch to Blackfriars Bridge with coffee from Nude Espresso in Hanbury Street, chatting about everything and nothing, in October. She’s German, and so, besides spending the coming week with someone I love, in a place I love, I will also be practicing my German! She’s got pretty much the same rhythms, routines, nature and interests as me, so there’s every reason to expect a lovely, harmonious trip. As she arrives, I show her around Tiong Bahru and take her for a local dinner, and when I’m not working on Friday, we go for a barre class, a poke bowl lunch and a walk around the Marina Bay and through Chinatown, Duxton and Tanjong Pagar, before catching a late flight to Bali.
Ubud. Our driver for the weekend is called Amor, and he stands ready to take us to Ubud when we land at Denpasar around 1am. The town is so peaceful at night! No lights, music or scooters in the streets! When we arrive at our small villa resort about 20 minutes’ walk from the Palace, it’s too dark to see a thing – and so we go to bed in our little grey stone villa, Frangipani, full of expectations of what wonders we will view when we wake…up.
24 December. Waking up on the calendar day that meant most to me when I was a child, I do expect the tight knot of homesickness that’s holding a tight grip on my stomach as I tuck into the lovely breakfast of veggie omelet, fresh fruit and strong black coffee we’re served on the small terrace in front of our villa. I take a bite and a sip, gaze across the garden towards the jungle beyond the resort grounds, exchange satisfied smiles with my friend, flick through the Christmassy photos filling up my Instagram feed, and try to think clearly about what this day actually means to me. Memories of feeling the Christmas spirit as I’d take my dog for a walk in the snow-covered fields and forests, sing Christmas hymns in the village church, where my parents were married, my brother and I were confirmed and my mum volunteered in the council (for a season or two in high school, I practiced tai chi with the priest, who is a good friend of my parents), watch the advent calendar show on tv, enjoy my mum’s wonderful cooking and sing Christmas songs with the whole family as we rock around the always so fashionably decorated tree. Today, my thoughts and smartphone connect me with my boyfriend, brother, parents and grandparents, who all feel festive where they are. I’m in Bali, and that’s pretty great too. Love transcends conventions and holidays, and everyone I love is well and safe.
Meandering around Ubud. Four times in the run of the weekend, we walk down to the centre of town to soak in its alluringly chilled vibe. Rice paddy fields, banana and coconut trees, small shops selling attractive yoga wear, ceramics and art, festively dressed locals playing exotic instruments in streets and temples, all of the cheap and tempting spas and massage places, hanging out in front of the monkey forest, happy to watch the big, fat, bold animals climbing up the slim tree trunks and sliding down the lianas from the comfortable distance of the carpark bench, all of the well-prepared and -presented organic/vegan/raw/whole foods and drinks at Sari Organic, Freak Coffee, The Yoga Barn and Kismet, and the warung-style food at Bebek Bengil on Christmas Eve, by when the knot in my stomach has started to dissolve.
Pool Time. Morning and afternoon bliss by the sizable azure blue pool nested among the resort garden, a small patio with teak tree sun loungers and the lush jungle beyond. We cool down our sweaty bodies in the water; take pictures of each other wearing santa; read Spiegel articles aloud to each other, about young people using alcohol as escapism in Damascus, and, on a lighter, more hopeful and life-affirming note, just to create a balance, about the Pantone colour of 2017, Greenery, ‘A refreshing and revitalizing shade, Greenery is symbolic of new beginnings’, and of the current urban garden hype – imagine being a scout for Pantone, travelling around the world with a mission to sense the shade of tomorrow. I open, swallow and finish Jostein Gaarder’s The World According to Anna, which lectures adults and children alike about climate change, global warming, biodiversity and endangered species in an engagingly and brilliantly written way. Questioning time and space from the point of view of a curious 16-year-old girl with a super creative imagination and vigour. I’m comforted by the phrase, ‘We have every reason to feel at home in the universe’, and I’m embarrassed how little I’ve thought about the truth in how we have to think vertically as well as horizontally when being conscious of treating our surroundings as we’d wish to be treated – what can we do to preserve, nurture and build a great world for future generations. Fellow humans are not just the people around us, but also the ones coming after us. A December more than 15 years ago, my family and I read Jostein Gaarder’s Christmas Mystery advent calendar – it made us all giggle and tear up, reflect and discuss vividly, and even name our new-built yacht after the arch-angel, Umuriel, the black sheep of the story, as far as I recall. My friend reads the Man Booker Prize winner of the year, the Murakamiesque The Vegetarian, and next week we’ll swap. At dusk on Saturday, we bring a bottle of chilled white wine and our presents out to the pool, put on the Santa hats and celebrate in tropical style. From her, I get a German novel, and from my boyfriend, white and black yoga pants from Bondi Beach and a sweet, sweet card, which I’m even more excited about than the fancy pants.
Bebek Bengil. Later in the evening, we change from bikinis to colourful dresses and walk down along the rolling fields and banana tree fences, with frogs and crickets as the only company in the dark, and through the main streets of town, where concerts are sounding from the local temples, and get to the crispy duck place, where we’re seated in cosy bamboo pavilions and order Christmas duck in three ways – crispy rolls, crispy salad and crisply fried with brown rice and veggies. I’m eating the same kind of meat as I always do on this evening, but at least it’s differently prepared and presented than at home… haha.
Summer Night. Walking back home, we get two scoops of a vegan/raw/sugar free ice cream from a stall across the street – lemongrass and lime, yum! – for the road. Two close friends trotting along in summer dresses, eating ice cream, on a hot holiday evening. What bliss!
Xmas Movie. We sink down into the sofa in the lounge area of the resort for FaceTime with friends and family – and to watch the first Home Alone movie and … again… Love Actually.
Radiantly Alive. At 6pm on Sunday night, I try out my new yoga pants, which fit like a glove, or a banana ripe on an unripe fruit, for a class at one of the studios I was recommended at the whiskey tasting. It’s beautiful – hiding up an anonymous side street, a big, light and beautiful bamboo construction with panorama views of rice fields. A relaxed-paced 90-minutes’ restorative yoga session with gentle movements and a focus of developing softness and attention to the breath, allowing us to foster a deep sense of inner calm – my friend falls asleep in child’s pose halfway through.
Kismet. It’s raining lightly as we leave the studio, in a slightly dreamy state, and we hurry down to Jalan Goutuma, a very hip and happening side street, for a radiantly healthy vegetarian dinner as amazingly flavourful, crunchy and filling as was our lunch, and in as lovely surroundings as well – here, a cosy upstairs restaurant with low light and a wonderful playlist of jazzy cover versions of classic American Christmas pop tracks.
Karen’s Story. Coming back from town, we curl up in the sofa in the reception to read, edit photos and write for a bit. My friend quickly starts nodding though, and decides to finish her book in bed. Just as I open my laptop, the owner of the resort, a grand lady of about 60, with a glowing, welcoming face, flowy, colourful clothing style and a very authoritative air about her, stops by on her route from the reception to her villa, and starts chatting. I could hear her coming back from a Christmas dinner a few minutes earlier, driving on a scooter, her hands clasped around a Danish guy her age, a guest also, who had invited her out for dinner, but who quickly disappeared down to his villa, sounding quite drunk when they said their goodnights and he mumbled his Danish ‘glædelig jul’ to me on his way. Now she’s standing in front of me, with her hands leaning against the back of the sofa, and lets her Christmas tale stream from her mouth… 7 months ago she fell in love with and immediately bought this, especially then, unpolished gem of a place, and made it her mission to renovate it and turn it into a great oasis. She misses her family back home in Australia, and at first her mum and her daughter thought she was crazy, moving here, at her age, alone, to an island that they associated with fellow countrymen behaving badly, and she too was surprised to find that she actually found an attachment to the community here and that Ubud is, in her opinion, way less spoiled by drunk Aussies than down south in the Kuta area. I’m throwing a discreet little glance in the direction of my phone which is vibrating with an incoming call from my boyfriend, but turns it to face down towards the sofa although I’m itching to pick it up. Karen leans in across the sofa and tells me how passionate she has been and is about training her staff to make them proud and independent – to each day think, ‘What can I do to make this place better? It’s new for them to be expected to think like that, and she can feel that they love it; that is, the ones that can handle it; she had to fire a few because they weren’t a great fit, but now she’s got such a good bunch, who all find that she was sent by the gods. Month by month she has to make decisions about which part of the resort she can afford to fix – and this month it was the roof of the small pavilion by the pool, which I saw workers remove the old ylang yang from just this afternoon. Next up is the roof on the reception area and entire main building, as the jungle is claiming back all of the bamboo and the ylang ylang (a cockroach fell down from the roof and landed on Lisa when we were watching Love Actually). I look up and tell her that I honestly wouldn’t have noticed that if she hadn’t said it; that of course, because she’s here every day, she sees all the flaws and room for improvements, which is great, but also something that guests don’t see, and that she can rest assured that she is prioritising correctly – she gets only 5* reviews on Airbnb, with people commenting on cleanliness, small details as flowers and art everywhere, the good and friendly service, the lovely breakfast and her own presence and helpfulness, her passion for the place shining through, her superb recommendations of special things to see, do and taste around here. Her big, beautiful blue eyes shine gratefully down at me, but she interrupts me and says that although she’s glad to here that, it’s important that she doesn’t just lean back and rest on her laurels. She must work; there’s always something to do; she’s been ill lately and has taken up reading (Eat, Prey, Love, currently) and guitar-playing, her kind of meditation, as she doesn’t have the capacity to really learn to meditate now, although at some point she wants to, being here in Ubud and all, and she knows that she is getting older and needs to listen to her body; BUT, what she cares most about is the community – creating bonds with the locals, laughing with them, helping them however she can. Something you don’t see in the Western world anymore, she claims, and she loves how other b&b and resort down the road ask for and need her advice; some of them haven’t had any guests for four-five years, and now they’re receiving 5* reviews just because of what she’s doing – teaching them about providing good service and lending them money to cover the basics, such as nice bedlinen, artwork and flowers; the small things that people notice. By now she gets all teary; it’s her first Christmas without her family. On this day last year, she woke up in her daughter’s guest room to her grandchildren shouting that Santa had been there and wanting her to see their presents. Today she’s been skyping with them, but she’s also been so busy – there’s always something to do around here; it’s a 24/7 job. I tell her, it’s my first Christmas without my family as well, so I can relate to how she feels – she looks as me as if I don’t really and doesn’t enquire further about my history, but it’s also not important – it’s important that I listen to her, that she feels listened to on this Christmas day eve. This old hippie. “I’ve done much more courageous and stupid things in my life… and when my daughter and grandchildren and mum are here, they can see why I do this… they love it here and they want to come back, and if I can make them proud, make them realise why I’m here, then being here alone is all worth it…” As she goes on, I think to myself that none of us are alone: my brother is with his good friend in Singapore, my parents have each other and my grandparents in Juelsminde, my boyfriend is with his family in India, I’m here with a dear friend, and Karen has her loving staff and community. More importantly, our loved ones are in our hearts, alive and well in their presents – and available on Skype/FaceTime/Whatsapp/Google Hangout/Facebook Messenger. Christmas is as good as time as any to think about that, as well as about conventions, traditions, holidays, and how much all of that, our memories, our habits, mean to us. It can be healthy to shake it all up a bit. I am grateful for this opportunity – for where I am – that a close friend travelled all the way out here to spend the holidays with me – in such a serene spot. We planned it before I even met my boyfriend, and when I was set on creating a new life and experiences in Asia, even if I missed my family and friends in Europe. I went to Bali three times before this trip – opportunities created and used to build a relationship with and love for this island – a perfect place to go for a special holiday because it offers that precious balance – on one hand, I know I thrive here and I have a handful of happy memories of being here on my own and with good friends, and on the other hand, there’s still so much to experience here. I flick through social media and see the traditional Christmas shots from Europe and America – smiling families around trees, sugary ornamented food, frosty landscapes. It’s all right there – here – real – happening in this world – and it will happen again next year. Then there is that 5-7% who post pictures from exotic summery destinations, in most cases, people who’ve travelled there with their partners and or families. I am fortunate enough to decide how I want my next Christmas to be. For the next few vacations, what I do know is that I want to spend them with my boyfriend and family.