Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Celebrating family ties

The last couple of weeks felt like a whirlwind holiday. Together with our parents, we covered three countries - Finland, Sweden and Estonia - in 13 days. Whew!

Using Finland as our base, we took a 3-day cruise to Stockholm and a day-trip to Tallinn. Compared to holiday tours boasting 8 countries in 14 days, we travelled at a more relaxed pace. We spent more time shopping, going back to points of interest if needed and rest when we were tired.

Stockholm is a great shopping destination although we only had time for Gamla Stan and the area around T-Centralen. Shopping in Finland gets a little boring after a while because there are only a handful of brands and they are duplicated around town. In the homeland of H&M, I am re-acquainted with some favourite high-street names. I tried on a TopShop denim skirt which proclaimed my size but I couldn't pull them beyond my knees. Blame it on the good food my mother-in-law had been preparing over here.

I sailed away from Stockholm with only a book bought at a second-hand store - The Accidental by Ali Smith. Too bad we didn't have time for the Ostermalm district where there are many hip boutiques and cafes.

Tallinn Old Town from a high vantage point

Tallinn, the capital city of Estonia is about 2 hours by ship from Helsinki and is a popular destination among Finns, especially during summer time.

Tallinn's Old Town, a UNESCO heritage site, is a beautiful medieval city fortified by thick stone walls. According to this history brief, only 20 of the original 66 towers are left. Good enough because they are wonderful samples of ancient architecture that have withstood the test of time. Nearly 800 years after they have been built, the city walls and towers are still as tough as ever. Outside of the Old Town, remnants of Russian architecture stand starkly.

HG and I visited Tallinn about 8 or 9 years ago. This trip brought back many memories for us as we revisited the various locations. There's the Flower Street, McDonald's restaurant, Fat Margaret Tower, and the Artist Path where local artists display their works on old city walls. As I looked at the painted scenes of Tallinn, I'm reminded of the ones that still hang in our matrimonial home in Singapore.

One of these towers is nicknamed Fat Margaret. Guess which?

Tallinn's Old Town is very much a tourist haven. Almost every lane is lined with souvenir shops selling fridge magnets, old-styled Estonian apparel, pottery and amber accessories. It was only in our last hour in Tallinn that I stumbled upon a little shop selling hand-made clothes and jewelry. Sigrid Valgma studied industrial design and made jewelry as a hobby. Earlier this year, she turned her hobby into a business. She didn't abandon her major because she told me she built the furniture in her shop herself. You can click on her name to view her gallery of products. The work of her partner, Kadri Siirman, can be viewed here.

I bought a ring made of white jade, freshwater pearls and glass beads designed by Sigrid. I am very pleased with my purchase because I'd really wanted to buy a unique piece of local art.

Our visitors left today. I think they enjoyed their first trip to Europe very much, experiencing new environments, seeing different people and lifestyles, walking on cobblestones, trying out new foods... and of course, spending precious time with their grandchildren.

We are back to our usual routine... starting with a major clean-up tomorrow.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Change is the only constant

The children's grandparents are here to visit, so we have been busy sightseeing, including places we seldom/never visit.

Last week, I brought them for a nature walk around Villa Elfik. The folks enjoyed the fresh air, tranquility and greenery. We spotted many species of birds and even a fox. We also noticed some large piles of poo - according to the information board, a species of hairy cattle live in the area. Unfortunately, other than their trails, we didn't see any specimens that day.

Over the weekend, we went to Market Square to browse the stalls. On Sunday, we visited the Botanical Gardens near Hakaniemi. The last time the kids and I visited the Gardens was 2 years ago when we were staying in an apartment nearby. Some plants looked familiar while others were new and fascinating. It was really refreshing to come again.

Last Wednesday, we took a 3-day cruise to Stockholm. This is our second trip in 2 years. With our parents, we revisited Stockholm's Old Town Gamla Stan. They were impressed by the strong and sturdy walls, the gates and even doors. My mom thought the palace guards (especially the one watching the front gate) were very handsome. These fair-haired, blue-eyed Scandinavians are rather good-looking.

Although we were in Stockholm just 2 years ago, Gamla Stan feels kind of different. This time, I noticed more glitzy brand shops, like The Body Shop. There's also a Ben and Jerry's, but it might be already there the last time since the whiffs of freshly-made waffles smelled familiar.

I mentioned my observations of Gamla Stan to my neighbours and they seemed pretty surprised. At the same time, we weren't too taken aback either. The invasion of large shop fronts is part and parcel of global branding. Starbucks at the Forbidden City in Beijing, McDonald's in Tokyo, and endless examples in modern cities like Singapore and Shanghai.

Here in Helsinki, Wayne's Coffee shop used to be our favourite little coffee joint when we first visited 9 years ago. In those days, we used to love to pop in for their hearty soups or soft muffins and a hot cuppa. It was cool place to hang out.

Today, Wayne's Coffee is all over the place. There are now outlets at shopping complexes in the suburbs. Not so thrilled with Wayne's nowadays. Maybe it's time to throw out that blue mug we bought yonks ago.

We'll be visiting Tallin in neighbouring Estonia tomorrow. I wonder what changes await us after our last visit 8 years ago.

Look out for the next instalment of MZinLalaland.

PS Everyone please give a round of applause to welcome my new follower, ~Sal~. Also join me in congratulating her on successfully re-embarking the journey to parenthood. Need some maternity clothes from H&M?

Friday, July 17, 2009

When you wish upon a star

Estelle had just finished her shower and I was drying her up when I heard a noise.

Poot... poot... poot...

Me: (covering my nose with the towel) Estelle! What's that sound?

Estelle: (laughing) What sound, mummy?

Me: (nose still covered) Oh my goodness, what was that?

Estelle: It's just a shooting star, mummy.

The kids are really happy these couple of days because their grandparents are here to visit. HG and I were initially worried about putting them up in the living room. It turned out that the kids moved downstairs to join them. Our living room has become a camp site. A very happy one.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Strawberry fields

Strawberry fields don't last forever; strawberries are fruits of summer.

I received an sms just after 6 pm today from one of Estelle's classmate, Holly's mom.

"Hi, today seems good to pick strawberry. Would you like to around 6.30-7pm?" she asked.

I replied: "My husband is not in. I don't have GPS..."

Since we live rather close by, we arranged to meet somewhere (actually, it's the Nokia office since my knowledge of Espoo is limited), then their car led ours.

I've picked apples, pears and peaches on the outskirts of Beijing. This is my first time picking strawberries.

At farms like these, visitors are typically allowed to eat all they can on-location. Visitors can bring their own baskets or containers and are charged according to the weight of fruit collected.

The farm is just less than 10 km from our home. We are thankful for friends with local knowledge! We arrived after 7.30 pm and had only half an hour because the farm closes at 8 pm.

Nevertheless, the kids had lots of fun running around the large field. We ate as we picked and had a pretty good harvest. The strawberries were very sweet.

During the 5-minute walk from the field to the weighing station, our yield dropped 20% as the kids munched along. Good thing anyway, since we pay 80% less than what we would have.

In the next 5 minutes between the farm and our car, our stock had nearly halved. We had some more for dessert tonight...

So we now have a good reason to go down to the strawberry field again next week. Summer is short in this part of the world - we have to enjoy while it lasts.

PS Do you realise it's really bright for past 8 pm? These two pics were taken on the way out.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Goodbye, James Reynolds

James Reynolds is the BBC's Beijing correspondent. I've followed his blog on a fairly regular basis and kept up with his work in China.

Today, as I was reading BBC's coverage of the Xinjiang riots, I clicked on the link to his blog and found out that he is coming to the end of his posting in China.

James has many fans. From the comments left on his blog, his ardent followers can be categorised broadly into 1) China Chinese who are now living overseas, 2) China Chinese still living in China, 3) ethnic Chinese who are living or have lived in China, 4) non-Chinese who have spent time in China, and 5) non-Chinese who are interested in what's happening in China.

Poor James gets plenty of flak particularly from categories 1 and 2. Many accuse him of attacking China and the Chinese people. No matter what he was saying, these readers think he does not know China at all or is looking at events as a bigoted Westerner. I wonder how they will react to his departure.

Categories 3 and 4 are much more sympathetic. I belong to this group.

I got to know a friend from Beijing and whenever we discuss China, I think my friend can't help but put up a defense. "Why are you foreigners criticising China all the time?" she must be thinking. "Isn't there anything good to talk about?"

A number of Beijing taxi drivers had welcomed me back to Motherland but I had given up explaining Singapore is my home. Perhaps my Beijing friend viewed me as "Chinese" except my Mandarin is not as fluent. So she is still somewhat tolerant of my views, even though they may be quite different from hers. But if I had been of another colour, the same views and thoughts would have prevented us from becoming friends. The Chinese, in general, are wary of foreigners.

Since I myself have done some journalistic snooping around during my time in Beijing, I can empathise with the obstacles James faced.

It's almost impossible to interview someone from government agencies. I am consoled that even a BBC journalist is often rejected, let alone a freelancer like me. I didn't even have a fax machine. My e-mail requests for interviews - government and private companies alike - were often lost in cyberspace. The other party never seemed to receive my mails and I kept sending. Or the boss' schedule was so packed he was only available 30 February.

Even when I was standing right in front of the official, he couldn't answer my questions because his flight was about to take off.

I had felt really guilty towards the publication I was working for because I wasn't able to submit many stories. Although there were relevant reports in the local papers, I couldn't write my own story because none of the facts can be checked and substantiated. I didn't tell them I had actually made dozens of calls and sent loads of e-mails. Just lame excuses for incompetence, my employers might think.

My colleague N was pretty sympathetic. She's a Chinese who had spent many years in the US so she is well aware of the workings of her home country.

Aside from the frustrations of working in China, I am awfully touched my James' stories of the people he met.

Many times, we think of China as a economic powerhouse, we are wowed by the skyscrapers of Shanghai or the glitzy movie industry. The fact of the matter is that not all Chinese are benefiting from the economic progress. For every new car added to the road, there is someone out there who is still living poorly.

I am tearful when I came to the part about siblings Li Tangmo and Qingyi whose parents died during the Sichuan earthquake. What will happen to my kids when we pass on? At least they have grandparents who will love them and look after them, and they will be well-taken care of by insurance payouts.

Not the Lis. Their future is in peril, like numerous other children who have lost their families. But what can we do to help them? Or how about the families who have lost their children? How can we heal the hurt?

Nothing much, unfortunately, within our power. I hope, however, to live my own life differently knowing that we are in a much more privileged position than many others in this world.

So thank you, James Reynolds, for revealing the lives of real people in China. I wish I had a chance to meet you to draw from the depths of your experiences. All the best on your future endeavours.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

A cloudy night

We woke up to a bright and cool morning. I opened the back door to be greeted by a light 16ÂșC breeze. Nice.

The clouds built up after lunch. We had planned a picnic at Kaivopuisto this afternoon but had to settle for some drinks and snacks at Carousel Cafe because the sky was displaying dark shades of gray.

Rain drizzled down around 7 pm. In spite of the heavy clouds, there was no downpour. Maybe later tonight; I hope so because my garden desperately needs some watering.

Today's picture was taken just before 11 pm. Darkness has not yet fallen. Compared to previous summer nights, it looks as if the dimmer is on.

Even as the sight of lit street lamps remind me of the normalcy of day and night, I also remember that this level of brightness comes on as early as 3 pm during winter days.

From the equator where the sun rises at (about) 6.30 am every morning and sets at (about) 6.30 pm every evening, pole living proves that the world is different to different people.

Quite like the story of the blind men trying to describe an elephant, isn't it?