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Shopping

Sunday is generally our day to restock the pantry.  We alternate between the big store called Carrefour (here called a “hypermart” because, in addition to groceries, it has all kinds of other things – clothes, electronics, small appliances, cookware, etc., etc., etc. – vaguely like a Walmart) and a smaller grocery store in a nearby mall. Today, it was our turn to visit Carrefour.

Singapore has two Carrefours.  One is in Plaza Singapura, which is a big mall.  The other is in Suntec City, a giant mall spread across four or five or six – it’s easy to lose count – giant towers.  And today, we decided to visit the Suntec Carrefour for the first time.  By the time we got there, it was way past lunch time, so finding something to eat was our first order of business.  Food in Singapore is sometimes a bit of a contradiction.  Places to eat are literally everywhere.  But it can sometimes be tricky to find one – especially a specific kind – when you want it.

Happily for us, the Suntec hawker center was the first thing we encountered.

“Is this all Asian food? Does everything have rice or noodles?” Nancy asked. We hadn’t had the best luck ordering lunch at yesterday’s restaurant.  Hong Kong style curry, with a big mound of rice.  Plain rice isn’t her favorite (“I’m avoiding useless carbs”), and the curry was spicier than normal. At the hawker center food stalls, it is all Asian, ranging from Chinese through Indian and  Vietnamese to Singaporean and on to Malaysian, Indonesian, and Phillipino.  All including rice or noodles, with just a few exceptions: kaya toast.  Prata – a Singaporean / Indian crepe, sometimes served with a bowl of curry sauce for breakfast.  Chinese steamed dumplings.

We settled on a lunch of roast duck breast with soup, long thin noodles (for long life!), and a stem of lightly cooked yu choi.  Delicious and only S$10 apiece.  We took chopsticks but no forks.  I could only see metal, western spoons to use for the soup.  While I was standing in line at the drinks stall, Mr. Duck came out with Chinese spoons and took away the western spoons we had.  He wanted us to enjoy his cooking with the proper utensils!

Fortified with lunch, we continued our quest to find the giant Carrefour.

In the last few weeks, Nancy has come to the conclusion that we need a vacuum.  Mopping the floors with a swifter – even a wet swifter – just wasn’t doing the job.  So job one at Carrefour was to find the vacuums.  They’re different from those we’re used to seeing.  No stand-up, tilt handle, Dyson power, miles and miles of cord, vacuums here.  They’re almost all tiny canisters that roll behind you on two big wheels.  They’re rated in watts: 1600, 1800, 2000, 2100.  More watts, more powerful motor, better dirt sucking.  We looked for a good half hour, then got some attention from a very helpful clerk.  She demonstrated the way these vacuums work (and she was probably thinking, what’s wrong with these foreigners?  Haven’t they ever seen a vacuum cleaner?  And why don’t they have their maid with them anyway???)

We came home with our groceries, a couple bottles of wine, and a brand new French- made vacuum (don’t get the other model; it’s made in China – yes, that’s exactly what our Chinese clerk said).  When it’s turned on, it sounds like a small jet plane winding up for takeoff. But it’s a glorious red (not disgusting purple like on the box) – a lucky color for Chinese New Year and for all the year!

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Toilet Tax

Our SP Services bill arrived today. In Singapore, the water, electric, gas, and garbage fees are all billed through Singapore Power on one statement. That’s convenient.  It’s also moderately easy to set up an automatic payment from a bank account, so the bill comes in, the money goes out, no muss, no fuss.  Efficient Singapore.   (Sometimes “Efficient Singapore” becomes a little frustrating.  There are so many things that just work well that it is extra frustrating when you encounter something that doesn’t work so well.  Going to the bank takes a minimum of 30 minutes, and it may require 20 minutes in the first line before you get to the second, 30 minute line. I frequently have to stand in the first line to find out what second line to stand in. Getting a sim card with minutes for a cheap mobile phone is just a trip around the corner to the local Seven Eleven, but it requires your original passport, and nothing at all can be done if the national phone registration system is down.)

There is an unexpected line item on the power bill:

Sanitary Appliance Fee – 2 Fittings – $5.61

Simply put, this is the toilet tax.  $2.8037 for every john in the house.  Lots of bedrooms with their own bathrooms?  Big toilet tax.

Oh, and there’s a 7% tax (GST – goods and services tax) on the tax. Efficient, especially in the matter of taxes.

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First Utility Bill

It took my breath away—for only  three weeks in the condo—and for two of those weeks, only Mike lived here.

Total Current Charges due on 24 Nov 2011 (Thu)  –  $600.09.

My sticker shock was alleviated by some interesting details:

  • SP Services is comprehensive–electricity, gas, water, garbage rolled into one—typical of Singaporean efficiency.
  • Garbage collection here and throughout the city is DAILY—explaining why this very dense urban environment always seems so clean and strangely odor free.
  • One line item on the bill is the “Sanitary Appliance Fee” commonly known as the toilet tax— $3 per toilet per month.  Not bad for us with only 2 toilets, but our expat  leader at last Saturday’s “Cultural Training”  seminar told us she once lived in a large place with 8 toilets—that tax added up!
  • And the biggest factor in this first WOW bill was a $500 deposit.  Next month’s bill should be saner.

Even the simplest aspects of daily life can be an adventure in learning.

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An IKEA Weekend

Nancy arrived early Saturday morning. I set the alarm for an unreasonably early hour and set off to catch the first train of the day to get to the airport to meet her. Even at 5:30, I was not the only person on the train, and as we went from one stop to the next, the train gradually filled up. By the time we got to the airport – two transfers later – the cars weren’t quite rush hour full, but there was definitely a good sized crowd. As expected, at the last stop – the airport – the station was well-organized for the traveler to be able to find a departing or arriving flight and get to the correct terminal with minimal confusion.

Unfortunately, the train ride took longer than I anticipated, and Nancy had begun to wonder whether she was stuck somewhere in Asia with no money and no ticket home. I found her wandering through the airport, pushing a cartload of luggage, and anxious to get to the apartment. The taxi stand has a Disneyworld-style serpentine line of ropes and posts to compress a big crowd into a small, orderly space. When she first arrived and started exploring, Nancy wondered why such a big area had been set aside for so few people. By the time I arrived and we wheeled the baggage cart into position, the line was about half full – at 6:30 in the morning! The line moved quickly, and we were soon in a cab giving the driver our address.

Our street – Cornwall Gardens – is a double challenge for taxi drivers. First, it is a street that is unfamiliar to most of them. Second, they tend not to understand my accent when I say the name. It is an interesting challenge trying to explain where we live when I really have no idea. The driver wants me to give him some help and directions. Sorry – I’m genuinely and completely clueless. And my American accent seems to work at cross-purposes to their Singaporean accent. The first time I gave a driver the address, it took us awhile to work out that he thought I said something-something “mall”. Nancy made the excellent suggestion that we carry a map to point out our street. Definitely worth a try.

After a nap and look around the apartment, it was time for another trip to IKEA. More clothes hangers, a lamp, a work desk, a shoe bench, and other odds and ends. The odds and ends were easy and all went into our big blue IKEA bag. The furniture was a little more problematic. Instead of wrestling it off the shelves and onto a cart, we “inquired of the staff” who looked it up in their computer inventory and printed out our order. We gave the order slip to the cashier who stamped it, and then we took it to the Merchandise Pickup counter. Stamped again, and this time assigned a pickup number – watch for the number on the tv monitor. So far so good, but now we had to deal with some practical realities. First, the desk, in its flat box, was too big to fit into a normal taxi for a ride home. Second, by that time, it was raining hard. Nancy, still a little sleep deprived from the trip, was starting to wonder about the wisdom of an Asian adventure.

After twenty five minutes or so, our number appeared on the monitor and our big boxes were wheeled out of the back room. There is a wall phone with a direct line to the Singapore central cab dispatching agency, and I called. Although there is no real language barrier, there is a very distinct accent barrier, which is magnified on the phone. I successfully explained where we were and that we needed a “maxi-cab” (the phrase used by the IKEA staff). “We don’t have maxi-cabs. We have London cabs and MPVs. Largest package size is 1.7 meters. Ok?” Um, let’s see. I don’t know what an MPV is, and I really have no idea whether this box is longer than 1.7 meters. “Ok – sure! I think we’re ok,” (I said, hopefully.) “What’s your handphone number?” Ummm – I have no idea, it’s in Nancy’s bag, she’s way over there, and I can’t even look.  Then I stopped talking to a person and started listening to a recorded message – nominally in English, but only some of which I could understand – that repeated every 20 seconds. After five minutes, I decided (still hopeful) that all was well and that we should wheel our cart with large boxes through the double doors (marked “Staff Entrance”) by the elevator to the (very industrial) loading dock in the back of the building to wait for the cab. The rain had stopped, the humidity was 98%, we both wanted to be someplace else, and we waited.  A couple of guys came out to have a smoke, finished, and went back to work. And we waited. A woman pointed to the direction the cab would arrive from, and we waited. The sun started to come out, and still we waited. Lots of people get big boxes from IKEA. They have to get them home somehow, yet we were the only people waiting in this very industrial area for a cab that was taking forever. It seemed wrong, we were still waiting, we were beginning to feel just a little bit desperate, and Nancy was no longer buying my story that there’s always something unusual that you have to adapt to out here.

After fifteen minutes that lasted forever, I put the cell phone in my pocket and called to order a cab again. This time, they would “call back on your handphone with the taxi number”. And back we went to the loading dock to wait for the call. Five minutes later, I was told that they had found a taxi for us. Great. “How long should I expect to wait for it?” I’m not sure exactly how I asked this question, or how it was interpreted, but it was definitely not what I intended. I was put on hold, waited for another five minutes, and was told, “Thank you, Mr. Mike.  Sorry for the wait.  I’ve found a taxi for you.  The number is”  now a different taxi number. I don’t quite understand this process, whatever it is, but I sure didn’t want to disrupt what seemed like it was succeeding.  I said,”Thank you,” and we waited. Ten minutes later, a gold SUV rolled up and the driver got out and cast an appraising look over our cart and boxes. I waited for him to say that they were too long for his car, but instead, he lowered the back of the center seat, squeezed the long box in, and off we went, homeward bound at last.

Boxes wrestled home, up the elevator, into the apartment, onto the floor, and furniture assembled with only one mis-step. Now we have a handsome shoe bench sitting outside our front door with several pairs of (very large!) shoes under it. And a handsome desk for our computers sitting in the the spare bedroom. It’s starting to look like home.

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Moving In

Saturday morning, the keys to our apartment were released. Before I got them in my hot little hands, we had to have a walkthrough to look at everything and check against the apartment inventory.  I thought the inventory would say, 1 dining table, 6 dining chairs, and so forth.  Wrong again: balcony, two lights (which both happen to be recessed).  Master bathroom: one rain shower head; one regular shower head.

Here’s a quick picture show.

The view out the balcony:

The living room:

Dining room, ready for guests (as soon as I get more plates!)

Kitchen, ready for business:

And comfy bedroom, fixed in the Singaporean style of comforter (to keep warm when you turn the A/C to freezing):

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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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