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Archive for September, 2011

Look See Day 6

[Mike] Hi ho, hi ho, it’s off to work I go.  Today we have two challenges: I have to find my way to my new office, and Nancy has to try to arrange more apartment visits, including a second visit to Apartment 2, which is the one she most favors.
The office is only two subway stops from the hotel, and it’s relatively straightforward to figure out which line (red or green) and which direction to take.  It’s a little bigger problem to figure out how to add money to my subway card.  On my first try, it asked for my ATM card.  No bank account, no ATM card, no top-up.  On my second try, I discovered that the minimum cash accepted is $10, which would be fine, but I don’t have a bill that size.  Hoping that I have enough on my card to get me to the office and back, I hopped on the next train and got off two stops later.  New problem.  I know – more or less – where the office is on the map.  Unfortunately, I have no idea how the five exits of this subway station relate to the map. (more…)

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Look See Day 5

On day three of The Big Apartment Hunt, we wanted to revisit candidates from yesterday and to get some idea of what it would be like to live in those neighborhoods—on our own.

On our first three days, we ate the hotel breakfast buffet.  Today, we decided to explore the food court in the adjacent glitzy mall.  “Food court” is a substantial understatement.  A whole level of the mall is devoted to forty or more restaurants, with not a single Subway or Great Potato among them (though one features crispy-thin pizza and another, stuffed potatoes). Every variety of Asian cuisine is represented; not fine dining, but neither are they fast food.  Maybe fast-er food.  In the morning, however, most are closed.  The stuffed potato place though offered a very modest version of an English breakfast, obviously targeted at Western hotel visitors who want to economize.

Next, we headed to the subway to visit the three malls within walking of Apartment 1—a selling feature of this neighborhood.  Rush hour had passed, and so the trains were uncrowded (and clean and orderly).  We had no particular challenge in finding the mall, since the subway stop was in its lower level.  We’ve learned not to generalize in Singapore, so we can only say that this mall was definitely not like the sprawling, glitzy, invitations to spend we’re used to seeing.  Here, the stores are smaller and more jumbled together – a shoe store might be next to a restaurant next to a dentist’s office. And the stores are jumbled among four floors, which, thankfully, are connected by escalators (and the mall itself, thankfully, is seriously air-conditioned). The whole thing has a kind of early sixties feel about it.  In many neighborhoods like this, you go to the mall to visit the grocery store.

Next door – like ten feet away – is another mall.  Built at a time when a central open atrium was the style, it had even more smaller stores jumbled together & these felt more “Asian.” Another grocery store – different chain – in this mall. And yet a third mall required a short walk across several busy urban streets to get to it.  Outside this third mall was a row of “hawker stalls” (open air, local food, fast service, no atmosphere – well, that’s not quite right, but the atmosphere certainly isn’t fine dining – but cheap and often very good). The first mall was sports themed, the second had most Asian (and cheap) stores, and the third had a preponderance of kid-related stores. Here, “mall” definitely does not mean the same as in suburbia, USA. It’s definitely going to be a challenge to figure out where to go to get what.

After we had an air-conditioned mall lunch, we met our real estate agent and our transition manager to re-visit Apartment 1 from yesterday.  It looked pretty much as we’d remembered, but the owner had hung curtains (both day curtains and night/privacy curtains, which is pretty much standard).  We viewed a second apartment (same model, higher floor) that had been furnished, so it was enlightening to see how much (little) room was left in the bedrooms after a bed went in.  I’ll have a little extra challenge with the local furniture, since the “Asian” king-size bed is only six feet long.  Allowing a little head/pillow room, that means my feet hang off the end.  We also looked at a two-bedroom model without the extra “study” in the same complex and decided it would definitely be too small for comfortable living.

Apartment 2 was not available for viewing today, but we went to the Balinese
complex to walk around, get an idea of how it felt, and particularly how easy it would be to get to restaurants and transportation. The bad news is that it currently has no local subway stop; the good news is that a new station will open on October 8, a ten-minute walk away (we clocked it).  Normally, a ten-minute walk would be peanuts, but walking takes on a special flavor in this climate.  Walking fast guarantees a sweat-soaked shirt. Like in summertime Atlanta, we’ll have to practice a moderate walk in appropriate clothes.  In fact, lots of women use umbrellas for walking shade.

Holland Village is also a ten-minute walk away.  It’s a small collection of Bohemian stores and restaurants that forms the hub of the community, very much like the “villages” in San Francisco.  We were grateful to find a coffee shop where we could sit in “air-con”(Singlish) and savor a bottle of cold water.  (Here you have to specify whether you want water “warm” (room-temperature) or cold; if you don’t specify, you get warm.) No hawker stalls in Holland Village.  No mall, but it does have a small wet market.  Everything else is one or two subway or bus stops away.  An extensive air-conditioned bus system criss-crosses the city, and a bus stop is never very far away.  Take the subway or bus to your shopping destination, then take a taxi home with your purchases.  Very Singaporean. Since busses are so important, we decided to practice going home on the bus.

First problem: what bus?  The easiest solution to is to go to http://www.gothere.sg and ask how to get from somewhere to somewhere at what time.  The site says, for example, “walk 345 meters to the bus stop, take 77 bus, alight at the 14th stop, and walk 75 meters to your destination.” Same specifics for MRT (subway) routing.  If you want a taxi, it also lists any extra charges that might apply at that time of day.  Pretty straightforward if you plan ahead or carry a smartphone.

We watched a half-dozen busses pass, sometimes stopping to take on or let off passengers, and finally saw ours coming.  We signaled for it to stop, got on, tapped our EZ-Link cards on the reader at the front, and off we went.

Second bus problem: how do you know where to get off, as the various city sights flash past?  Easy solution on this bus:  the next destination was announced on a digital ceiling display, so we were able to ride in comfort, enjoy the trip, and confidently get off (or, in Sing, “alight”) at the right place.

What had we discovered?  Living close to the 3 malls might not be a big advantage, since it wasn’t clear we’d be doing very much shopping there.  While two small supermarkets gave easy access to our ten-dollar cornflakes, my plan is to get anything that is fresh at a Wet Market (open air – but covered – reminiscent of farmer’s markets, with stalls for vegetables, fruit, meat, fish, chicken, dry goods …They’re “wet” because the tile floors are hosed down each morning.)

With all that in mind, Nancy started feeling a little more interest in the East Coast, which is that part of the city / island that has good beaches (but it’s not Tahiti), lots of greenery and open space, and a constant sea-breeze. After a very short rest, it was time to meet Clement for dinner on the East Coast.

This time, he picked us up in his car and, since we “had time,” gave us a tour of some parts of the city, including Geylang, which neither the tour busses, nor the transition manager, nor the real estate agent, nor the travel guides had mentioned.  Why?  It’s the current official red-light district for Singapore.  Since we drove through in daylight, we didn’t really see any girls or other sights on the street—other than the characteristic barber pole signals of the establishments (according to Clement).  After Geylang, we drove across the river to the new stadium area to swing past a number of complexes that he thought should be interesting to us. Along the way, he spoke quite highly of Randy.

Dinner was at a seafood village restaurant, al fresco, within a (long) stone’s throw of the water.  Clement’s wife and eight-year old daughter joined us.  It was interesting to watch him teach his daughter how to interact with Americans (“Look at them when you talk to them.”  “Speak up.  Speak confidently.”) Once she warmed to us, she had no problem with either of those suggestions. Without consulting the menu, Clem and his wife conversed with the waiter – probably in Malay – so we really had no idea what was in store.  Soon large platters of food started appearing on our large circular table—family style:  rice with lobster, two huge platter-sized whole crabs—one chili and one pepper (both signature Sing dishes), a whole steamed fish, and “spinach” greens with whole mushrooms swimming in garlic butter—nothing like the US version of spinach we know.  As we ate and talked, the sky gradually darkened, and after dinner we walked along the beach a bit and then over to a small floodlight lake.  Here twenty-something “foreigners” (probably Europeans/Americans) on large boogie board-looking things were pulled along (fast) by powered ropes tethered high in the sky, jumping ramps and such.

Again Clement took us the long way home, stopping to show us various East Coast complexes he thought we should look at, so we wrote down names for our real estate agent tomorrow.  On our last full day in Sing, Mike is scheduled to go in to his new Visa office for meet & greets with various new colleagues, so Nancy only will go out with the agent to view Apartment 2 again—and hopefully more East Coast properties if we can get viewings.

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Look See Day 4

The second day of The Big Apartment Hunt.  The first day was a little overwhelming with all we were trying to take in and sort out:  Neighborhoods.  Apartment sizes.  Styles. Features.  Cost. What’s missing.  Proximity to subway (MRT) stations & bus lines.  Cost.  Density of ex-pats vs. locals.  Density of high-rises.  Cost.  At $167 a day, you get a lot to think about.

We were, however, able to sort out a few priorities.  We were willing to sacrifice space for convenience to MRT (the subway) and shopping (groceries).  We decided that we liked newer buildings (2005+) more than older ones (late ‘90s+).  We decided that a neighborhood with a higher proportion of ex-pats was preferable to a neighborhood primarily of locals (85% live in government-subsidized towers).  We want the Asian experience, but we’re not keen to get it tip-to-toe, ear-to-ear, stem-to-stern, inside-out and upside-down all at once.  Easing into it gradually is what Singapore is all about.

So, our second Big Apartment Hunt day was more focused.  After a dozen more inspections, we got to be expert at getting our shoes off before we went in the front door and back on after we left.

Singapore it may be, but we’re still in Asia.  And it’s still hot and muggy.  We never know quite how hot it is because a) current temperature readings don’t appear on signs, and b) even if they did, we don’t know how to translate 32.  Going from kilograms to pounds is not too hard, and there’s a quick and dirty conversion from kilometers to miles.  I just can’t work out nine times Centigrade divided by five and then add 32.  At least not very quickly. (Anyway, 32C = 90F. Now you know.)  The good news about apartment looking is that just when things start to get really oppressive, and I want a big red bandana to mop my dripping face, it’s time to hop back into the car and fire up the A/C.

By the end of the day we were ready to fall into bed, but we had found a couple of viable choices:  Apartment 1 was brand-new, chrome and glass and sleek all over with two bedrooms and a study.  Light and bright.  Unfurnished. Tenth floor of 40 or so with 500+ units . And, it was the first unit we’d seen with hot water in the kitchen, though still no dishwasher.  Reasons for having a live-in maid are starting to multiply! It had a big, resort-style pool, work-out rooms with new machines, and malls and MRT station about five minutes away.  Apartment 2 was a few years older, but still pretty new and in a low rise (4th floor of 5) with only 98 units.  Only two bedrooms.  Instead of a study, this one had a bomb shelter.  (N.B. The bomb shelter is an interior room, walls made of steel-reinforced concrete, with a door that locks like a bank vault.  For a few years after 9/11, all new Singaporean apartments were required to have bomb shelters.) Furnished, with furniture that we could actually live with.  Looking into an interior courtyard with tropical plants & pool.  Not quite so bright, but light and airy.  Ten minutes walk to a new MRT station (which will open October 8th) and ten minutes walk to a small cluster of shops and restaurants called Holland Village.  (And yes, they do have a small windmill, but it came after the village was named.) The big attraction of this apartment is the Balinese style of the outdoor spaces and pool.  It feels like a quiet tropical resort.  Very convenient for communing with Somerset Maugham and writing memorable stories. Too bad some of us have to go to the office.

Good progress, and we started to feel confident that we would actually be able to find an apartment that we could live in for a couple of years. But tiring.  And we still had no real idea of what it would be like to live in such a neighborhood totally without a car.  We discovered that life looks very different when you have a personal driver to navigate your way through a strange city.

Nancy’s brother, Randy, has a friend and former business colleague in Sing named Clement.  Clement is Chinese-Malaysian, but a Singaporean permanent resident (as well as a US green card holder).  We’d invited him to meet us for a drink, and I was wondering how we would recognize him, but I didn’t need to worry.  He’s a salesman and can spot his prospect from 100 yards away.

His first question, ignoring my invitation, was, “Where would you like to go for dinner?” Neither Nancy and I had given any thought to it (nor would we have had much of an answer, even it we had), so we looked at each other blankly, and then at Clem pretty much the same way.  Never one to let a good opportunity escape unscathed, he asked whether we had eaten on the 59th floor above the casino.  Since we were standing at the ground floor entrance to the 85th floor magnificent view restaurant, we both assumed that he was referring to our own hotel.

“No,” we said, and he immediately steered us out to the taxi stand and gave directions to the driver in the local patois.  [Sidebar: some years ago, Singapore realized that about 40% of the world’s population lives within a six or seven hour radius.  That’s a lot of people with a lot of money who want to go gambling, so the Sings put a couple of projects on paper, did a few years worth of construction, and produced a truly unique building.  Well, maybe more a cruise ship than a building.  But a cruise ship on land.  Sixty stories high.  Looking out of our hotel window, we can see three big towers in Marina Bay, each of which is two pillars that gracefully curve together and join at the top.  Sitting across the top of all three towers is a giant cruise ship, which itself curves into a graceful port curl. Within the cruise ship is a swimming pool with an infinity edge that has to be kept level.  Some amazing electronics and engineering constantly adjust to pool to the movements of the pillars to maintain that infinity edge at all times. And in the cruise ship is, of course, the restaurant 59 floors above the casino.]

We really had no idea where we were going until the casino got ever nearer, and then we knew.  This is a place that Nancy had read about but would never visit for about 37 good reasons, but with Clement guiding, we had no graceful way to say no.  So we enjoyed the view.  Out to sea, it was thick with ships waiting for the harbor.  As day faded from the sky, the ships’ lights came on and they looked like a small city stretching out to the horizon.  Looking toward the city, we saw wall-to-wall high rises.  The density, seen from a distance, was amazing, and a much thicker forest of 30+ story buildings than when seen from close in.

The restaurant above the casino was, of course, very chi-chi.  In the typical Singaporean restaurant, plates are delivered to the table as they come out of the kitchen.  One person may get his dish while the rest of the table gets to enjoy how good it looks.  Some time later, maybe a minute, maybe ten, another plate or two comes out.  It’s not at all unusual for some people to be completely finished with their dinner while others at the table are still waiting for theirs. The level of service at this restaurant was such that all the dishes were set before us at the same time.

Clem recommended the lobster.  Maine lobster airlifted 15,000 miles to Singapore to be grilled, laced with chili sauce, and grace our plates.  It was, of course, very, very good, even though it seemed like heresy to this New Englander to doctor good Maine lobster with Chinese chili. Very, very good, but 15,000 miles?

When we were finished and it was time to get back to the hotel, we found the taxi line, and it was about a block long.  Taxis were streaming in and out – these guys know where to find a fare at eleven o’clock on a Wednesday.  When a luxurious casino bus pulled up, and the driver announced a free trip to City Hall, we instantly decided to save the taxi fare to help offset the lobster and wine.  As we said goodbye to Clement, he invited us to his side of the city on Thursday to meet his wife and children. With no better offer in hand, we happily agreed and made out way to our room about midnight and crashed.

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Look See Day 3

House hunting is never very fun, and the first day is all the more painful.  The real estate agent shows you a variety of different apartments in a variety of different locations with the mutual goal of figuring out what is better and what is should be outright rejected.  Today, we looked at eight different places, some a little older (mid-90s), some a little newer (mid-00s).  As almost everywhere, the older places are a little larger than the newer places for the same money, but the newer places are a little sleeker.  Some of the places came with furniture – and then we had to decide whether it was anything we wanted to live with for the next two years.

When two people are looking, there are inevitably some differences – Nancy was very happy to see a couple of places on the ground floor with walk-out access to the pool.  My top choice, on the other hand, was an aerie-like place on the 28th floor with great views of the local neighborhood of apartment high-rises.  Since we won’t have a car here, one of the most important considerations is the location convenience to the various forms of grocery shopping (hypermart, super market, wet market), and to the buses and subway for getting around the city.  We’ll also have to get comfortable with the taxi culture.

“Sanitized” it might be, but Singapore is still Asian, so it is obligatory to remove shoes before entering a residence.  We were happy to discover that refrigerators are apartment size, not half size like the Brits use.  The (pint-size) washer and dryer is typcially in the kitchen, and about half the time they are a single washer / dryer combo unit (but we were told that the combo dryer doesn’t do such a great job, so clothes will probably have to be put out on a rack to dry after they come out of the dryer.  And we certainly saw a great deal of wash strung along the balcony rails.

Many of the apartments include a very small room and bathroom for the live-in maid/nanny/helper.  The story is that live-in help is very cheap and common.  The maid does the washing and ironing and cleaning and cooking and clean-up and watches the kids until Mom gets home.  And then sleeps in a windowless cubicle that is about 4’x5′ and has a bathroom that is about 3′ square.  Sink, shower, and toilet (sometimes an Asian-style squat toilet) in a single small wet-room.  And she gets one day off each week.  I don’t think that Nancy has gotten any ideas just yet.

We looked at a place that would be a five minutes walk from my office – great for coming home for lunch – and a place that is on the East Coast, close to the sea with a constant sea breeze.  We looked at a place that had only about 85 neighbors, and a place in a cluster of five high-rises that had over 1000 neighbors.  We looked at a few places where the furniture would stay, but none of the beds would have been long enough for me; in Singapore, I am close to being a giant.

We were able to reject a few places and focus on some areas.  Tomorrow, we’ll start the process again, with an emphasis on what worked today.

We were also given a great tip on how to handle visitors.  We should find a location with good access to a bus stop, give our visitors a bus card, point them to the stop, and send them out exploring.  Having spent a couple of days being driven around, one thing is very clear – we’re not going to rent a car for a driving tour of the sights and sounds.  In respect of driving, Singapore is not very Asian at all, but it is still a big city, driving is fairly aggressive, and everybody is on the wrong side of the road. Maybe we’ll all just take the hop-on/hop-off bus.

September is the month of the Singapore Night Grand Prix for formula 1 cars.  The route is through city streets, and, looking down, we can see the various dividers and barricades as they’re being set up.  It’s a shame that we have to leave at the end of the week.  This room would have a great view of the St. Andrews straightaway.  Maybe next year.

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Look See Day 2

Today, we had a different tour with a relocation specialist and personal driver.  We’ve moved up a notch from the hop on / hop off bus!  Most of the day was dedicated to looking at some of the residential districts that might be of interest.  Challenges to solve: how to manage life in a city without a car (getting to/from work is the easy part.  Getting groceries home is a little more interesting); how to sleep in an unfurnished apartment (we spent an hour with a guy from Dallas who accidentally set up what has become the largest furniture leasing operation outside of the US.  Once we have an apartment, his crew comes in, takes a look, decides what would fit and look good, and moves the furniture in.  All it takes is money.)
 
We visited a grocery store (where all the prices are two to three times as much as we’re used to), a “wet market” (so called because the tile floors are periodically hosed down – wear flip flops when visiting) that is a collection of small stalls (vegetable sellers, fish mongers, butchers, …) – I’ll be going there a lot more frequently than to the grocery store. We took a ride on the subway – very high class.  And we had lunch at a Thai restaurant.  Nancy had the green curry; I had the red curry – please remind me to bring a big bandana next time to mop my face and head; good curry but powerful hot.
 
We started to get an idea of the relative advantages and drawbacks of various residential locations.  This is a very vertical city.  Our budget – of around $5000 per month – will get us into a modest apartment in a 50 story building with about a thousand other families.  Almost all apartments are in high-rises and the high-rises tend to be somewhat clustered, so they dot the entire city but they’re not quite shoulder to shoulder like Manhattan (except, of course, in the central business district).  Some are close to a subway station.  Most are close to a bus stop.  Many are government subsidised buildings, but they might represent just a little too much of the local color for us at this early stage of our immigration.
 
The good news is that everything is clean.  Everything feels safe.  Everything seems to be efficient.  English is universal, if not always understandable.  It’s still pretty overwhelming – a little more so than moving to a new city in America, because everything has a tiny different twist.  Not so much as to be completely off-putting, but just enough that you can’t let down your guard and cross the street without looking the wrong way (the British worked out the rules of the road after all).
 
Tomorrow, we’re in for the next round of sticker shock as we discover how much our housing budget will really buy.  In San Francisco, we were used to living in fairly small quarters (though we did use two apartments – we won’t have that luxury here), and we’ll see how well that prepared us for the size of the local dwellings.  Nancy remains game – nervous, but game.  No matter how, no matter where, house hunting is always an – shall we say “enlightening” – experience.  (Yes, that rent budget is really $5,000 per month.  Unfurnished.  Utilities extra. If we wanted to buy, the price tag would be in the neighborhood of $1.5 million.  Maybe 800 square feet.  That impresses even us San Francisco refugees.)

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Look See Day 1

We headed for the Phoenix airport Friday after lunch.  We hopped to Los Angeles, admired the glitterati at LAX, and then boldly climbed aboard Singapore Air for 17 hours over the Pacific ocean at 40,000 feet. We flew through the rest of the night, through the following daylight hours, and into the following night, finally arriving at 4:30 on Sunday morning.  Somehow, we completely lost Saturday, but we’re promised that when we return, we’ll leave at 5 pm Singapore time and arrive in Los Angeles at 6pm the same day.  If that all works our, maybe we’ll just have banked Saturday for later enjoyment. 

Our hotel is the tallest in Singapore, in the colonial district, just across from the (world heritage) Raffles Hotel.  We can see the Singapore River from our window, and looking out beyond it, we can see a number of ships on the sea waiting to get to the docks.
 
After a shower and short nap, we went exploring.  First stop: find something to eat.  Our first discovery was that lunch is pretty expensive.  $50 for a salad for Nancy and sandwich for me.  Though, to be fair, the tab included iced tea for both of us. Then we found the hop on / hop off tour bus to ride through the various downtown neighborhoods.  China town, Indian town, Arab town, Orchard Road, all interesting, all somewhat crowded.  But traffic moved smoothly.  For three reasons, explained the pre-recorded bus tour.  First, there is an import duty on cars that more than doubles their price.  Second, to own a car, you first have to bid for a Certificate of Entitlement, that allows you to buy the car in the first place.  The CoE lasts for 10 years, after which you have to bid for another.  And finally, after you have the car, you still have to pay a substantial toll to drive into the center of the city.  All told, a modest car can run $100,000.  Traffic moves smoothly because nobody can afford to drive a car. 
 
Tomorrow, we have our first day of “familiarization”, starting to learn about how things work here.  So far, however (cost of lunch, cost of driving), I think I have a pretty good clue.

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