House For Rent

The title of today’s post might be a bit misleading if you are one of those who is following this blog and has just come from reading “Finding Home”.

Today’s post, in spite of its title, is not about rental properties.  At least not literally.

Nor is it a continuation of my list of What I Will Really Miss About Singapore.  (I will return to that list, have no fear.)

It doesn’t even have a logical link to my forthcoming book about the in’s and out’s of international living and raising our children to be global citizens.

It does, however, have to do with raising.

Or razing.

Today’s post is a poem, a poem about the razing of a house, a poem with which I wish to introduce to you  Melissa The Poet.

(And does that ever sound heady.)

I have kept that Melissa over there in the corner all the while I’ve been spreading rather personal prose across your screen. I have kept that Melissa private, sitting in the shadow on her satin pouf, quill and parchment in hand. Sipping mint juleps.  Wearing whatever you imagine a poet wears. All white, maybe? Or an ochre-colored velvet waist coat? Pantaloons? A Tibetan robe?

Or maybe a purple and orange tie-dyed muslin tunic with Mao trousers made of hemp and a large, macramé peace sign hanging around the neck?

I am, in fact, a poet who writes in all sorts of apparel, very often in my bathrobe, or in comfies on airplanes (which should be no surprise, knowing me as you now do), on the backs of napkins in cafés, at 3:47 a.m. on Post-Its kept in my bedside nightstand, in the several neat little notebooks I get as gifts from my husband and other friends. I write literally everywhere there is a flat surface and a source of ink or graphite.

Or lipstick. (Once, yes.)

I need silence to write poetry, since the delicacy of poetic language does not mix well with ambient noise. Even my own breathing gets in the way sometimes, and I realize I’ve been holding my breath for too long as I work through a phrase. (It occurs to me only now that the breath-holding might be behind the hallucinatory effects of my writing.)

When I write poetry, it is often because I have experienced what I call a poetic moment.  Something big or miniscule or multilayered is going on, symbols align, there is a sudden simple clarity, and, well. . . I know it when I am in it.  It stings me then spreads out like the swell of sweet venom, and with that swell, images or clusters of words come all at once. When they come like that, I find I have to grab something quickly to pin them down in this world. Like planting them on the page. Then they start to bloom almost on their own.

(Almost, I said. This is not magic or Chia Pets we are talking about.)

Other times, I write because I am overcome with an emotion, or undone with the beauty of things, or unhinged with outrage.  Or I have a question grating at the underside of my cerebellum, and I hope weaving together a poem will help me see the pattern inside of which an answer might glisten. Like the one white silk thread in a tan linen cloth.

I write in black or blue pen, then I always return hours or days or months later with a red pen and make changes, condense, strike thorugh completely, or encircle the word or turn of phrase that I feel is true and necessary. And start again.  Poetry —to make it vibrate — generally requires a great deal of work.

Often — alright, always — the finished poem surprises me.  It comes up with its own references and connections that I could never have thought of myself. They somehow found me.

And then I send a copy of what I have come up with to a friend or two who know and appreciate poetry, and ask them, “Is it just me, or does this make any sense to you?”

Or, “Too wordy again, right? :-)”

Or, “This I wrote for your sweet mother. It might not be so good, but I mean it from the heart.”

Or, “Does this ring to you?”

Or, “Should I try tossing this into a contest? A poetry journal? The trash can?”

Years ago, when I realized my husband was the man for whom gift-giving was tough, I decided to write him an album of poetry for Christmas.  Then on Christmas Eve, I rolled up each poem which I’d printed on white paper, tied the scroll with a red satin bow, and placed each one between the branches of the tree. I had additional copies made and printed them on thick, sensuous, handmade paper, which I then had bound in a book. I boxed the book and placed it under the tree.  He seems to have loved this personal gift with all my irreplaceable love poems to him. And what’s more, he could not return any of them for another size or color.

The first Christmas after we buried our Parker, that brittle gunmetal winter of 2007, I was burning with poetry —poetry of outrage, of evisceration, of longing, of amazement, of revelation, of gratitude, poetry of The Void — but had no energy to print it out.  Or roll it up. Or put it in a tree.

I had no energy, in fact, to have a tree at all that year. No energy for a single, thumb-sized decoration. I had no energy to face the boxes of baubles and mementos my oldest son had helped me open only twelve months earlier.  I could not for the life of me — or for the death of my son — generate enough energy to face Christmas at all.  As I considered the birth of the Savior, the heralded grandeur, the coming of the Son with glory round about and shepherds sore afraid and young innocent wide-eyed Mary cradling him, her splendid firstborn, I wanted to wail at the top of my lungs, “But you will lose him, Mary! You. Will.  Lose. Him!!

But I had no energy for wailing.

I did have energy, though, to write the following poem. It has already been published in the literary journal, Irreantum, and has been anthologized in Fire in the Pasture: 21st Century Mormon Poets, where its peculiar — and necessary — line spacing can be found.

(The exact format cannot be duplicated in a blog, unfortunately. But you can see it if you get your hands on that anthology.)

Since you have made the trek all the way here, I offer you a private reading.

HOUSE FOR RENT

To George MacDonald and C.S. Lewis

(Response to MacDonald’s “living house” allegory, as quoted by Lewis in his Mere Christianity)

 

Imagine, they suggest.

Imagine yourself as a living house

and God comes in (here comes the allegory),

God comes in to rebuild that house

and to rebuild, He destroys you.

Splits you wide open.

Knocks you down to shape you up.  Blows you away to bring you forth

as mansion, His dwelling.

 

Imagine?

Imagine: a structure well beyond any

apt literary construct;

Imagine the literal natal invasion,

factual inhabitation, indwelling, the magnifying internment;

this alive thing with its lush, essential interior,

nautilus of distended tension,

gourd-like terrarium, loamy abode,

an incubation for cumulus nimbus,

spirit under my ribs

or cosmos

in the veiled universe of my belly.

What, kindest sirs, might you imagine about a living house

but what woman need never imagine?

Tell: can you conceive of it?

I am the aquarium,

have known (four times) the thrumming oceanic drag,

fulsome tidepool slosh in pelvis;

sweetest ferocious confined Leviathan

stomping inner tympani,

boom-boom-blooming to omega.

Four times nine moons—

(a moon myself, pneumatic,)

holding that glowing orb

or the finest delicacy:  shrimp-on-wafer hors d’oeuvre in salty brine

burrowing in our shared cell.

Most intimate inmate.

I am the accommodation, the occupied real estate

(most real of all states),

a fleshly floorplan, walls torn down for the guest wing thrown up,

placental planting , deluxe plumbing, organic annexing for the increase.

I am that natural habitat for humanity,

an address for razing and raising,

strung taut with that sturdy umbilical pull until (and after)

birth.

Now, that’s some moving day:

Nude little lord, prodigious squatter, long since incorporated, moves out

trailing furnishings, clutching soul (whose? my own?)

in bloody wash,

the old self eviscerated, inverted, and that

humanangel image (past imagining)

multiplying  upon itself forever

ever

ever

ever. . .

To be such a sanctuary of conception,

to be asylum for small gods and sovereigns, who swell, crown,

Rise to rule and risk life!

At such risk.  At such risk as one can never. . .

 

Can one imagine those same living quarters drawn and quartered

when son-brother-cell mate—

(the one who moved within,

then out of you,

your heart still raw in his hold)—

when that oblation grown lustrous, thunderous, launch-ready,

Is ripped        (with               that                 riiiiipping                   sound)

away?

Hard, benevolent wounding, whose frayed fibers hang,

sodden shreds post-rupture ,

and you, true house, are rent

the cloven enclave,

rent in two, or into

two billion splinters:

tattered scraps of love’s sabotage.

Imagine yourself as this living house, haunted in its

boney scaffolds where memory whistles its blue wind

and you are apart-ment

living house split leveled:                                                                                         he there,

you here,

fetal-curled in your own basin;

or a bunker: hunkered in poetry;

or a ranch: speck on the shadowless prairie, barren and boundless;

or a lean-to:  whole halved to make a whole, now wholly halved.

And now. . .

God moves in

though there is no palace for Him here;

only rubble round the crater,

wreckage ringing the hollow.

But He, soft-handed, (the hands, gored)

comes inside (the side, gashed)

to silently,

sacramentally

recreate from laceration Lazarus

and is at home.

 

**

 

© Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com, 2012.  This work (text and images) is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. . . which means, as long you’re not selling it, you’re welcome to share, but please remember to give me a link and mention my name.

Finding Home


Samuel Clemens, (a.k.a. Mark Twain), called himself both an innocent and a tramp.  In fact, both of his famous quasi-fictional travel memoirs are called just that.  In Innocents Abroad, Twain catalogues his first extended trip roaming from home. In Tramps Abroad, he canvases central Europe, including his journey through Switzerland, mentioning Geneva specifically.

So it’s no surprise I’ve been thinking of Twain this past week while I’ve been in Switzerland (in Geneva, as you know), not roaming, but homing. Or at least looking for one.  And I’ve had Twain whispering to me, too, while in Paris, the place our family still calls home.  Paris is where we not only lived the longest of all our assignments, but where we last lived together, all six of us.  We lived just two blocks from this tower, where we used to walk our dog, Josephine:

While house-hunting last week (and for the 14th time in my married life), I couldn’t help but think about what it means to not have a fixed home address—when global roaming spans not just a chapter or two, but the entire sequel-after-sequel series of one’s life.

At the same time, I was reflecting on what it has meant to find a house, compared with what it has meant to find a sense of home.

Before I get ahead of myself, though, I want to share the good news:

We found a home.

Er, I mean a house.

It is in this village:

Why this house and why this village?

And as important, how?

I’ll explain. The first rule of house hunting anywhere is location, location, location. For us that meant location (school), location (work), location (church), which is where we know we spend a lot of time.  For Randall, who will travel a lot, it was also important to consider the commute to the airport and train lines. Everything, ideally, would lie within a 20-minute drive from the house. (That alone was a steep order to fill.  But we did.)

Since work, church, airport and train stations were fixed locations, it was school (the piece of this puzzle that fell into place last of all and just in the nick of time), which narrowed our search pretty much to a pinpoint on the map.

Nathalie, a local relocation expert, knew the dimensions of our geographic area, family, furniture and budget, scoured the market and then showed us around. Having Nathalie was a luxury. I have not always had a Nathalie.

You want to hear about house hunting without the likes of a Nathalie?

Upon our January arrival in Norway, without as much as a full sentence of Norwegian in my locked jaws — locked as much from fear as from cold, I’ll just say — we had no relocation help. Well, I take that back.  We had the local newspaper and its column of classifieds handed to me by tall, beaming Turid, Randall’s then assistant. She said, as she nodded gently into my bewildered eyes, “Kanskje kan du begynne her, Melissa,” (which to me sounded like “kahn shuh kahn dooo buhyinnah haehrrrrrrrrrr.” And then my name. Which all made me go arctic.)

I did begin there, as Turid told me to, with those infernal want ads.  This meant picking through each inscrutable paragraph with a norsk-engelsk ordbok (dictionary), writing up my list of Norwegian greetings and questions on a legal pad, and following up with my imagined responses to imagined questions the imagined Norwegians on the other end of the line would ask me.

Then I would begin talking myself into making the phone call.

(The last part, the self-convincing part, took longer than all the other parts combined.)

Sometimes I survived said call only to hear that the person needed to call me back.

Which meant I had to answer the phone.

Have you ever answered a phone in a language you do not speak?

Ah. Then you haven’t lived.

Or died.

The phone would ring. I would panic. Frozen in my tracks, palms clenched and heart suddenly in my throat, I’d eye the awful vibrating monster from across the room and creep up on it sideways, grabbing it after the twelfth ring, palms slippery with sweat.

It’s one thing to face a foreign language in person; you get all the benefits of eye contact, miming, props, that whole ornate context.  Worst case, you can wager a guess. But when you cannot even see your partner, it’s a whole other deal.  The rich nonverbal subtext is absent and all you’re stuck with is words, words coming at you like bullets in the dark, and no way to dodge them or take them or fake understanding until something you really do understand—a conjunction, a “ja” or a “nei” — comes along to save you.

There in those early days when I was anxious to find a home for our young family to live in, seeing time quickly running out to do so, and knowing I had to do this over the phone, I found I had to adopt a certain posture to get through it.  I would first purse my eyes firmly shut, press a hand over my free ear and crouch perfectly still in a remote corner. Sometimes I would get the gist of what my caller was saying.  But even shrugging my shoulders could break my concentration, and I’d be lost in the cute clatter of Norwegian that was hippety-hopping from the receiver into my ear.

Once lost, it was hard to get my footing in that jig again.

All that talk about all those Norwegians speaking perfect English? I knew they existed, those folks, and I eventually met them.  But only after I spoke fluent Norwegian, of course, when I didn’t need their English. When I really needed them, they weren’t dialing my number.

And might I add it’s tough to get someone to rent you their house if they’re convinced you’ve got the mental capacity and vocabulary of a two-year-old with a severe stuttering problem, and a high-pitched staccato delivery that might indicate a drug addiction.

Functioning in the adult world in a new language renders you immediately that two-year-old — the Little Person — who stands dumbfounded and gaping, tugging on the pant leg of the closest Big Person, asking for an explanation.  When, after mad mental scrambling, you finally rush in with the right word ! And then you gather enough nerve to actually spit that word out, but you’re then met with a Big Person grimace and the echoing void of total, blank incomprehension.  Either the topic you’re addressing was bled dry several page turns ago, or you missed the point entirely.

What you wanted was to meet them on— and in — their terms.  What you end up with is meeting them where your eyeballs hit belt buckle level, stripped of the great protective armor of speech, wordless wafts whipping around everything that is exposed.  Everything like your pride.

There is hope, though. I’m here to say that I did it.  I survived the language gulag and even found a wonderful house, which became our very happy home. Norway, actually, became our very happy home. Our roots go so deep there. They always will.

Which was a really long way of giving you an idea of the positives of finding a house and, more importantly, finding home. 

It was a long way to bring you back to where we are, starting all over again, and this time in Switzerland.

Nathalie showed us a few houses. Unlike Singapore, with its prodigious expatriate community, Geneva, in spite of all its foreign influx, has a real housing and schooling dearth.  For every fifth  housing or schooling option available in Singapore, there is maybe one in Geneva, if that.

But we’re so grateful the choices exist at all, and most of them are pretty good.

On this most recent 48-hour trip to Geneva, we narrowed the search to two houses.  Personal and peculiar things ended up tipping our choice in the end. For us, the factor that counted more than anything was being in the heart of a village, a setting that says authentic and community.

“Authentic” means a medieval water trough outside your front door.

So when you come visit, reader, you need never worry about having a convenient place to bathe. (And what could better evoke a sense of “community” than public bathing?)

Around the corner from the water trough are other Swiss village essentials, like la boulangerie:

. . .and la patisserie or viennoiserie:

. . .and la garderie with its deux épiceries:

. . .and la pharmacie (with its identifying croix verte or green cross):

. . .and although it ‘s not my denomination, there is l’église bilingue in the neighboring town:

. . .and two steps from our door is le restaurant avec terrasse:

. . .and the rentable vélos you can take for a five minute ride to la gare that has regular trains that link you to Geneva on the west all the way to Lausanne, Montreux, Zürich, Basel, Bern and Lugano, on the east:

. . .which vélo you can also simply ride through les jardins:

. . .around le château:

.  ..or five minutes down to le lac:

All of this lies just  past the  street side guest bath.

And good news: when you visit, if that water trough happens to already be in use, there is always the fontaine du château:

Yes.  Picturesque.

I’ll stop here to slip in something I’m noticing is making my cheeks warm with worry. I’m afraid when I post these pictures that I could make this seem too. . . well. . . picturesque.  Cute. Quaint. Guidebooky. As Twain himself wrote of tourists stampeding through 19th century Europe, they came to skim off a type of “touristy distillation”, as one writer notes, with “attention focused not on the day-to-day life and culture of their inhabitants but, more narrowly, on the picturesque difference that separates the exotically ‘foreign’ place from ‘home.’”

I have a bit to say on that topic. But for now I’ll just suggest that cultural sampling, not cultural integration, is the primary aim of touristing.  Residing, on the other hand, means focusing on the day-to-day life and culture of a place.  Residing means integrating.  And the prospect of just that, of diving into the history, community, boulangerie, épicerie, patisserie and all the other “quaint” “-ies” — even the quaintly irritating Swiss bureaucratie — and finding home there, gives me a truly colossal charge.  I do hope you’ll stick around here to see how home happens.

**

I had to catch that noon flight to Paris where I would meet Randall for the Saturday afternoon ceremony I’ve mentioned previously.

But first, the owner of the house wanted to meet me.  I believe (in fact, this was confirmed by our agent), that I needed to be vetted.

Good.  This is how integration starts.

The owner of the house, an older gentleman to whom I will refer as Monsieur B., had a sincere glint in his eyes, which I could see even from where our real estate agent and I sat on the other side of a quiet outdoor café table in the cool protection of the shade of a rim of trees.  He wore a buttoned-down cotton shirt with hardly a wrinkle, held crisp with his upright posture.

After asking general questions about professions, education and our former places of residence, Monsieur B. mentioned that he and his wife are parents of five grown sons.

“Cinq fils?! C’est la vraie richesse, Monsieur,” I told him, since five grown sons does indeed feel like the greatest wealth to me.

He agreed, and then discreetly asked about our family.

“Madame Bradford,” he asked, “vos enfants, ils parlent aussi le Français?”

“Oui, oui,” I told him. Our children also speak French. All four of them.

I watched his carefully folded hands with a pianist’s fingertips, knowing that in perhaps some other culture, he’d dive headlong into asking the particulars of each child.  But he was Swiss. Restrained.  Private.  Which helped me quickly direct him into a conversation about Gregorian chants, a point of common interest.  His enthusiasm charming, his smiling eyes widening as I talked of music and the soirées musicales we plan to hold in his home. Which we’d like to be our home.

And it seems that music, as much as French, was our shared language.

“Madame Bradford,” Monsieur B. asked as we walked away from our half-empty glasses of mineral water and into the sunlight of the parking lot so I could hurry to the airport, “Vous avez parlé de vos trois enfants—deux fils, une fille. Et l’autre enfant?”

It’s true, I’d answered his questions about three children: deux fils—the two boys — who will move with us to Switzerland and, we hope, into his home. And I’d been able to tell him of notre fille unique — our only daughter— who will leave in August for her  year and a half of volunteer service for our church in Rome, Italy.

Yes, I had told him about those three children.

Et l’autre enfant?” He repeated the question as we reached the car. “L’aîné? Un fils, non?”

I turned to him, considering his question, “And the other child? The firstborn? A son, right?”

I squinted into the sun, which caused my eyes to water, naturally.

Naturally.

I cupped my hands like  a visor over my eyes, shielding myself with a shadow.

“Ah, Monsieur.  Il a déjà quitté notre maison.” 

Which is not an outright lie. That son has, in fact, already left our house.

I did in that instant what I have learned so well over these nearly five years to do—so well, in fact, that I can do it seamlessly.  I act casual, flippant even, making a flipping gesture with my hand, oddly enough. Like swatting l’autre enfant into the past. Out of the picture. Gone. From our house. With one relaxed flick of my wrist.

All to protect polite Monsieur B.  I wish to protect him from the startle that experience tells me he would get the moment I were to speak the bare truth, and he would then have no words, realizing he has tread — unwittingly, innocently — onto difficult and disturbing and sacred ground.

All to protect Parker, too.  I know I must protect him from the other possibility of having his shortened life shortened all the more into a sentence fragment,  delivered with those averted eyes and hands waving or  clutched at the chest, and that familiar verbal sprint back onto the comfortable soil of the quotidian: “So, do your other kids like music [or soccer? or  moving so much? or the weather?]”

That lunge from the blazing heat of truth’s sunlight back into the safe shade of life-as-we-all-wish-it-could-be-and-should-be.

How many times have I stood right in this moment?

So I feign lateness for my flight, put on sunglasses, and duck into the car.

And as I drive off, I put my hand to my neck, aching in my very throat to tell this kind gentleman, this father with five living sons, all about my oldest son.

**

At the other end of the flight to Paris awaited an experience far removed from house hunting and the stern irony of hiding a son who has supposedly “quitté notre maison.”  The same son who has not at all — and never will —  leave our home.

When the assistant headmaster of the American School of Paris, Aaron Hubbard, asked the parents of Parker Bradford to come to the stage while he announced the background of the Parker Bradford Spirit Award and this year’s recipient, I looked out into many faces I knew among the hundreds seated at the American School of Paris high school graduation ceremony.  I had seen some of those same faces last year at the 2011 graduation ceremony.  And others the year before. Others the year before that. And still others in 2008, the first year this honor was granted.

These faces I know are the faces of those who also know Parker.  Wherever I go, I am always drawn to those particular faces.  Because when “home” is a flexible term that reinvents itself every three or four years, it presents a special challenge of having to retell your whole story — pain and wonders and all — to total strangers. No one can blame them if they cannot fill in the blanks of the plot.

They have no idea that there are blanks at all.

But most of this year’s faculty members— Parker’s history teacher, music teacher, French and Spanish teacher, his coaches, counselors, mentors —- not only know our story but know very well the big blank that is left in place of this big missing boy. As importantly, these people  are characters in our story, have actually been writing that story with us all along, and were there in June of 2007 when Parker was their student, a senior like all the seniors sitting in this year’s ceremony, looking awkward but solemn in thier blue caps and gowns.

Positively itching to just get on with life.


Most of those faculty members would never guess this, but their eyes that look into mine and wince or search or glisten, bring me home. Their words—especially the word “Parker”— spoken with the kind of familiarity a favorite pair of jeans has when you can pull them on in one movement, those words bring me home. Their silence, too, when a memory of my son snags their heart, it brings me home.  Their laughter at shared memories of things Parker did — his booming voice down the main hall, his three-pointer at the buzzer, his impersonations of their colleagues  — also brings me home. Their willingness to ask how Parker is now, what our experiences are that continue our relationship with him into the present tense, into the here and on to the future.  This is home.

When, the morning after this year’s ASP high school graduation and the presentation of the Parker Bradford Spirit Award, I stood again and also by invitation to offer the invocation at our church meeting in the overcrowded chapel our family attended for years, I sensed home.  There, I saw in those many faces people who knew and loved our son, who have written into their lives the ongoing narrative of our family.  And I was brought to tears, brought home.

When Randall blessed the bread for the sacrament, kneeling in the same spot and saying the same beautiful French words Parker used to recite, I sensed home.

And when the widow in the row behind me, the one Parker used to visit monthly with his Dad by riding on the back of Randall’s Vespa, when she leaned forward and whispered over my shoulder, “Je me souviens. . .”, “I remember. . .how Parker always blessed the bread, too”, that felt like home.

**

“So then, uh. . . where is your home? Exactly?”

You can bet I get that question a lot. But I never know how to answer it adequately.  Maybe that is because the question itself is inadequate or altogether the wrong question to ask in the first place. Home means something more than a where.  It is not a structure, not an address, not a city, not even a country.  I am beginning to wonder if home is even a place at all.

Home, perhaps, is a disposition of the soul, an acknowledgment that I share with another soul a certain intimate narrative.  That narrative, that story, twists and curls and splutters and flows, it folds back on itself defying conventional chronology, suggesting timelessness while weaving the strands of our most consuming questions and even exploring those questions for which we have no language yet.

Home, then, might be the nexus of many individual narratives, not a fixed port, but a portal through which lives have passed and are passing, seeking definition and connectivity.  Home, for me at least, has come to mean that sense of intertwining, one of unity and comfort, a state of being where you no longer need to tug at the seams and hemline of your spirit to feel at ease.  It’s when you feel something deep and native within you expand, enlarge, illumine.

Truth itself, I feel, is a part of home.  My religious beliefs, for instance, comprise my sense of home. And, when I was a freshly returned missionary at 23 years old, I felt such an overpowering sense of home with Randall, it was uncanny and undeniable.  So I just had to marry him. It wasn’t that being with him was like being “at home.”  It was that he himself was home. Together, still, we are each other’s home.

Which helps me understand why, when he composed those books about leaving home and roaming abroad, Mark Twain wrote a trusted companion right into his narrative.  The character named “Harris”, is a figure based on Reverend Joseph Twichell, Twain’s friend of over 40 years. In the figure of Harris, Twain literally —and literarily—took “home” with him on the road.

And it was to Twichell, who had christened all four of Twain’s children, that Twain turned during those black years when he lost three of those same children;

. . .his only son Langdon at 19 months,


. . .his daughter Jean to a sudden fit of epilepsy,

. . .and his lively, lovely Susy.

Twain’s words to Twichell:

Do I want you to write to me? Indeed I do. . . . The others break my heart but you will not. You have something divine in you that is not in other men. You have the touch that heals, not lacerates. And you know the secret places of our hearts. You know our life—the outside of it—as the others do—and the inside of it—which they do not.

Finally, it was the Reverend Twichell, who had married Twain to his wife, Olivia, who received this note from the author when his adored Livy died:

I am a man without a country. Wherever Livy was, that was my country.

 


Countryless.  Homeless.  Exiled.  Expatriate.  Nomad. Pilgrim.

Human.

Divine.

Home.

I am only just beginning to understand those words.

But no matter where I might find myself, home, quietly yet quite remarkably, always seems to find me.

(Corner street sign from the village.  I will see it every single day.)

Notes From Midair (. . .and #6)

© Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com, 2012.  This work (text and images) is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. . . which means, as long you’re not selling it, you’re welcome to share, but please remember to give me a link and mention my name.

**

Leaving you without a post for a few days was not entirely by design, although it does seem that the nature of my last entry deserved at least a moment—if not a week—of silence. Thank you for your tender responses to the things I share from the heart.

Today’s post also comes from my heart,  though not from a car port filled with moving boxes.  It comes from 30,000 feet.

That’s my view.  It is made possible by Singapore Airlines, which is toward the top of my list of What I Will Really Miss About Singapore.  You’ve caught me flying from Europe back to the Asia, after having spent two whirlwind days finding a home near Geneva so our “stuff”, the stuff of the last post, has a place to land.

There’s a story there, and I’m eager to tell it.

But not without telling about the third day, which was spent dashing to and from Paris. . .

. . .doing something entirely unrelated to house-hunting. It was an annual ceremony that Randall and I have been invited to attend for five years running.

It involves Parker.

There’s a story there, too, of course, and I am more eager to tell it than to tell anything else. So please do keep coming back.

But first.

This big airplane and why I will really miss it.

When we told our world-traveler friend, Brent, that we were moving to Singapore, he threw his head back, closed his eyes, and let out a sigh of pain and rapture.

“Oooooohhhhh. You’ll fly Singapore Airlines,” he moaned.

“Is. . .that. . .is that good?” I looked at him sympathetically, stepping back sideways and extending one hand a bit in case he passed out.

“Good? It’s I-Never-Want-To-Get-Off-This-Plane good. It’s like, who needs a destination? My vacation is going to be right here,”  he patted an imaginary flip down tray table, “in the window seat, row 46. Bring me a little plate of chicken satay with spicy peanut sauce and I’ll eat it even with my eye mask on. Don’t make me move until you’ve circled the globe.”

“So. . . it’s a good thing?” Randall raised his eyebrows in hope, knowing he’d probably be doing what Brent had said: spending many a missed vacation in planes, circling the globe, eating Thanksgiving satay, probably, from a flip down tray table, eye mask on his forehead. All on Singapore Airlines.

“Never flown better,” Brent said. “I’ll come visit you guys, if only to take the flight.”

As I type these very words, I’m testing out just how right on the money Brent was.

I’m here to report: he was.

What makes Singapore Airlines better than, hummm, just about all other carriers? Let me tell you two stories. Compare for yourself.

This tale is just one of many from the countless transglobal flights I’ve done solo with children over these last 20+ years, the likes of which are material for a big sweaty chapter, “Survival Stories from 40,000 Feet”, a literal high point in my forthcoming book, The 21st Century Mother.

It is the early summer of 2001.  I am traveling on a major American carrier from France to the U.S. with my children, of whom Luc is the baby, just over a year old. We are lined up in our coach class seats, everyone with their carefully-packed backpacks filled with carefully-planned activities in a carefully-labeled plastic zippered bag each, everyone settled into a post pouch-of-salted-peanuts-and-lukewarm-Sprite reverie.

Behind me sits (I’ve noticed her—who on the plane could not notice her?) a middle-aged woman dressed more for the Christian Dior fall collection runway than for the runway-runway, if you know what I’m saying.  While most people are in their comfies for what will be a long flight, Runway Woman is in fancy leather pants, cashmere shawls and silk everything else.  Her big designer bag has high bling quotient and many fringes, as I remember.  It sits open on her lap.

I try not to make assumptions. But something about her coiffed presence fans the heat beneath that familiar low-grade self-consciousness I feel when roughly 150 pairs of eyeballs bore into the back of my head. I’m that mother, I read their thought bubbles, who instead of a cramped jet airplane should have taken a big, multi-storey theme park of a cruise liner. Or contraception.

Let’s just say that not every passenger I’ve encountered on my many flights with small children has been equally charmed by the sight of our entourage arriving. I’ve boarded a plane before carrying one child in a back pack, another in a chest pack, followed by the older two carrying enough gear to fill a whole side of overhead bins or outfit all the Boy Scout troops in Saskatchewan.

I do have to wonder if my less tolerant co-travelers know how tough it is to keep children happily occupied for every minute of, essentially, a full day spent confined within the dimensions of a phone booth.  My kids are doing remarkably well so far. I am peering out that window, thanking the roomy heavens out there.

But Luc is at that age. Oh, that age.  And at that age he cannot be contained so easily, be that in a phone booth or in a football stadium or anywhere. I have him on my lap, facing forward, facing sideways, facing backward, in the air, on his belly. We’re singing, clapping, chanting, doing tray table toddler yoga. I have the finger puppets out. Then the colorful bead toy.  Then the cardbooks. Then the family photos. I have given him raisins. Yogurt. Crackers. A small bottle of apple juice. Another bottle of apple juice.

My arsenal is waning.  I glance at my watch.  We have nine more hours to go.

Then he is standing on my lap, facing backward, charming (I am hoping) Runway Woman. Maybe she loves children, I try hard to convince myself, or misses her own.  But could this unruffled woman know anything about children? Or maybe she has a niece or nephew somewhere.  Maybe Luc reminds her of a child she once saw in a movie? I am trying on every single pleasant thought while bouncing his little body on my knees, patting his adorable back to burp him as he coos and murbbles over my shoulder. At Runway Woman. With her open handbag on her lap.

And this, dear reader, is the tipping point.  Because right then I feel, rising like a small hot air balloon against my own chest, something stealthy and bilious traveling up inside of Luc. I give one bounce too many.  One pat too firm.

A resonant belch from my little munchkin erupts almost simultaneously with Runway Woman’s gasp and hissed French curse.  And in an instant there is a wet sensation—spreading, oozing—over my left shoulder.

Next second, the other passengers behind me let out groans and various murmurs.

Next second, the smell.

I am up on my feet in a flash, apologizing (and sweating) the moment I see the crackery-yogurty-juicy-raisiny soup now filling Runway Woman’s designer handbag.

You’ve gotta hand it to Luc, though. For a tot, he had very good projectile aim.  There are only flecks of vomit on the rest of this woman, and luckily none on her face, which now stares at me in stony expectation.

Luc in arms, mini-geysers of after-shock baby vomit now drizzling down my own shoulder blades, I am scurrying to the back of the plane to its galley, trying to find a flight attendant to give me a hand.

(Take note.  It is here, in the galley, the airplane’s backstage, where you can best judge the caliber of an airline’s performance.)

I find her, the one who will attend to me. Because that is what she is: A flight attendant.  She sits there on one of those small fold-down seats reading a paperback and chewing her gum while bobbing her crossed leg up and down and twirling her ankle.  Two other passengers besides me stand in front of her, asking for help. This guy just wants water, this other one a toilet paper refill.  And I need, oh please, wet rags and spray disinfectant? If she has them?

Not flinching, (except the bobbing crossed leg, twirling ankle, and slow page turn), she answers through her gum-chawing:  “Know what my favorite saying is? Whoever throws up, cleans up.”

And goes right back to reading.

You are right.  We got two free domestic round trip tickets thanks to a letter of complaint we wrote to that airline’s HR department, and thanks to the fact that I had managed, while recruiting other passengers in my bucket brigade of damp paper towels and vials of hand disinfectant, to note the name of that (remarkably bookish) flight attendant.

It was an unforgettably—how shall I put this?— piquant flight. Yet Runway Woman was actually as gracious as could be.  She had children herself, turns out. And one of her three was even named Luc.

***

This next story comes from the early summer of 2012. June. Today.  I am traveling alone to Singapore from Paris where Randall and I were at yesterday’s special ceremony, about which I will return in depth in the next blog, as I’ve promised.

In order to attend not only yesterday evening’s ceremony but also this morning’s church meetings in our beloved former congregation a block from Notre Dame cathedral, I had to wear formal clothing—fancy clothing—and had it on when I had to leave my husband (on Father’s Day) in order to speed from the heart of the city to the north, to Charles de Gaulle airport.  Traffic and lines of waiting passengers tightened my already snug itinerary, and so I didn’t have a minute to dip into a public restroom, even, and change clothing.  So for this (13 hour) flight I am still wearing ceremony/church clothing.  Silk and heels and, may I repeat? Way too fancy. No comfies whatsoever. And am I ever feeling out of place.

I also have a largish handbag.

In front of me on this flight happens to be a mother traveling alone with a child, a boy, maybe one year old.  She is Asian and her child is a dumpling with black fuzzy hair that looks like it’s been vacuumed vertically, or like those funny educational toys that have metal shavings that, when you run a magnet over the top of them, stand end to end, defying gravity.

As you can imagine, this sweet child is literally all over the place. The mother has him on her lap, facing forward, facing sideways, facing backward, in the air, on his belly. She’s been singing, clapping, chanting, doing tray table toddler Tai Chi. She has an iPad (which didn’t exist in the days when I sure could have used one for these trips) from which she’s reading baby ebooks, doing finger art with Junior, and flipping through iPhoto.  He squeals with delight. She presses her cheek against his, making kissing sounds.  Why am I moved to tears?

I’m watching closely as the crew “attends”.  By law, I’m guessing, the Singapore Airline flight attendants are probably not allowed to touch the child. But I have been observing how they have done everything but.  They’ve stayed right next to this mother and her child, attending to them with little toys and favors, kneeling in the aisle, playing little finger games, laughing, doing everything that signals that they not only tolerate but they welcome this passenger and her child. They are so kind.

And refined.  I notice that when they address this woman, just as when they address me, they do so quietly, respectfully, and they bend low or kneel, to get to our eye level.  They smile, almost compulsively.  They look incredibly concentrated, and according to the attendant I just questioned who spontaneously brought me chamomile tea (“You are so busy writing, Madame, do you not need a break? Tea, maybe?”), they are indeed concentrated.

In fact, they are hyperconcentrated.  For instance, they are not allowed to congregate and chat with each other. Their focus is the passenger, whom they are to spoil.  They may not put food in their own mouth until everyone on the plane has been served, and when they finally do eat, under no circumstances should a passenger see them do so.  (I, for one, have never seen them eat.  And if you see the their outfits, the iconic creations from French designer, Pierre Balmain, you understand why.)

Their hair, which must be worn in a twist or cut short enough that it does not touch their shoulders, must be done in such a way as to not show a single hair pin or rubber band.  It must be lacquered  in place. Their makeup must be the approved colors and application.  They must have impeccable skin and manicures.  They must have fresh looking shoes, no worn down heels.  The men must be trim, too, and must also have perfectly groomed hair and hands.  They also smile and nod and attend with precise perfection.

And I have yet to see any one of them sit down.  They are not chewing gum. They are not reading books. And I’ll wager they are not getting letters of complaint.

Now an attendant is asking if the mother in front of me needs. . . more moist towlettes? A blanket? Another pillow? Does baby want these special custom-made baby toys? Can we help Ma’am unwrap her utensils when the dinner arrives so she can eat?

Does baby need more apple juice, Ma’am? Crackers? Yogurt, maybe?

My focus is on the teeny black eyes peering over the seat in front of me, that halo of gravity-defying hair. Mother is patting baby’s back.  Instinctively, I am zipping shut my handbag, sliding it safely under the seat. Then I am tucking an entire blanket into my neckline, draping it like a shield over these fancy clothes.

These fancy clothes that belong to a middle-aged woman who, the mother in front of me might assume, doesn’t know a thing about how tough it is to travel with infants. Doesn’t know a thing, maybe, about children at all.

I reach up to touch fingertips with the plump little hand pushed through the seats.

 

Stuff

© Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com, 2012.  This work (text and images) is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. . . which means, as long you’re not selling it, you’re welcome to share, but please remember to give me a link and mention my name.

**

The story of Joseph of Egypt holds special meaning for my family and me.  If you dig out your Bible and turn to Genesis, chapter 45 with me, I’d love to share some insights into why, at 4:50 a.m. this morning, I sat bolt up in bed, turned to my hotel nightstand and switched on a flashlight to flip open to this, one of my favorite moments in all the written word.

You know the story. At this juncture, Joseph, now residing in Pharoah’s court and decorated as Pharoah’s right hand man, has revealed his true identity to his brothers, who have come begging for food during Canaan’s famine. Joseph, moved by the sight of his brothers (and especially by the sight of his baby brother, Benjamin), can’t restrain himself, and tells his brothers who he in reality is, the brother they had sold into slavery and into Egypt.  He is the brother they had essentially killed.  Now he stands before them — whole, splendid — a heart-stopping surprise. Their practical savior.

Ah, it makes me weep. If you read it, you’ll see it makes just about everyone else in the scene weep, too.

Pharoah himself is moved by the reunion, and tells Joseph to hurry and pack up some beasts, his little ones and his wives, and head straight to his father, Jacob, who is still living in Canaan, still mourning the loss of his favored son.  Joseph is commanded to bring his family to safety (and salvation) in the king’s courts of Egypt.

Gorgeously symbolic narrative, all of it.  But here is the verse I wanted to point out.  In telling Joseph to get to his father, Pharoah adds, “And regard not your stuff, for the good of all the land of Egypt is yours.” (Genesis 45:20)

Regard not your stuff.  Well, I’ll tell you, moving makes that one a bit hard.  It is a stuff-loaded and stuff-loading sport, where you are forced to take literal inventory, measure, weigh, catalogue, photograph oh so darned much stuff. No wonder I can’t sleep, and why my overstuffed brain splits its seams, jolting me out of my slumber with the need write. Maybe, I think,  writing it down will relieve some of the cranial pressure or something.  Unburden me of some of this stuffing.

Certain encounters in my life have shaped my feelings about stuff.  When I was living as a missionary in Styria (the southeastern corner of Austria) in a town called Graz, I met a wonderful Spanish woman named Ninette G. She was mother to two sons and wife to a man who, at the time of their courtship, had been considered too common for her politically influential Madrid-inner-circle heritage. When she insisted on marrying for love and not lineage, her family essentially disowned her, giving no wedding but allowing her to at least take with her on her voyage to her new life in America the heirlooms she had previously inherited.  Full length furs, furnishings in mahogany, diamonds and rubies and (seriously) sapphires.  A taxidermied boar, if I remember the story correctly.

They set it all — all Ninette’s mortal belongings — on a ship, which was to meet the newlywed couple at the end of their transatlantic flight.

Ninette beamed (as she always did) as she told me of that day when she and her young husband stood in the sticky heat of a dock near Houston, Texas, waiting for their boat to arrive.  They paced. And waited. And they waited. Until evening.

The ship, of course, would never come. That ship, the one with all her stuff, had sunk mid-ocean in a squall.  At that news, the newlyweds stared at each other then at the ground, then maybe up at God in heaven, as I imagine them, and then Ninette’s husband began trembling with that weird collision of rage and panic.

Ninette, though, said she felt an even weirder collision.  It was one of release and peace.  “In that moment when I was told I’d lost everything,” she spoke to me with the crystal clear eyes of a person who is really alive, “I realized I’d lost nothing. Nothing at all.”

(So. . . while she was telling me this story, I have to admit that’s not exactly what I felt.  I was 21 at the time, owner of not-so-much, and impressed by things like furs, ruby baubles and stuffed boars. When her ship sank, my heart sank with it—it plunged, even, to realms sub-oceanic.  Which tells us something about where my heart was.  As another Bible verse hints, “For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”)

While we’re talking about stuffed boars, I recall another instructive encounter:

I was sitting through five very long hours in a business dinner next to a couple I will call Horace and Mercedes Steinwitz. (Because those are such great names. And I’m aching to use them somewhere.)

Horace, in strained good humor, was trying to calm Mercedes, who was anticipating being moved with Horace’s job change from New Jersey to some European capital. Her concerns—shrill, incessant, verging on breathless — consumed the table’s conversation for the evening, offering us all, strangers to the Steinwitzes, most of us, a panoramic play-by-play of how tough this switch was going to be.

“My walk-in’s. What will I do without my walk-in’s?” Mrs. Steinwitz wrung her hands.

“We’ll buy armoires, dear.” Horace’s voice was flat.

(And I’d thought walk-in’s were shoes.)

“And my Sub-Zero?  What about that?” She looked to the rest of us across the table for back-up, her eyes wide with urgency.

“We’ll get two or three small fridges, if you need more room, babe.” Horace patted her shoulder, nodding to us. Smiling.

(And I’d thought a Sub-Zero had to do with negative numbers. Which means math. So I knew right there I couldn’t help Mrs. Steinwitz.)

“My Navigator? You thinking of replacing it with two or three subcompacts or something, huh? Huh-uh. Not on your life, buddy.” She shrugged off his patting hand.

“But they have public transportation in those European cities, Merce.  All you need’s a ticket.”

She swiveled her head so quickly to stare down her husband, I thought she’d get whiplash.

Seemed like a definitive no-go on the public idea.

“You think it’s so easy to just up and leave your cellar? Just like that?” Mercedes petitioned us up and down the table, arms stretched like Evita.

Horace and Mercedes were wine connoisseurs, I gathered in the next moment.  Otherwise, I was a bit baffled about the problem with leaving your typically musty, spider-webby cellar.

“And all our wine! I just read the forms—did you read those forms, Horace?—I just read that these moving guys. Won’t. Even. Transport. Wi-i-i-i-ine.

The last word took on a shape of its own, lifting, soaring in a long, nasal arc, and landing on a boingy surface that gave its one syllable four distinct levels. I can replicate it on the spot today, even after all these years. But it takes a lot of air.

“Look, you gotta understand one thing,” Mercedes whispered, leaning across her wi-i-ine glass, confiding in me. “Call me difficult, awright.  But hey, I need my stuff.”

What is not so funny is that for the Indonesian packing crew at my house this week, I am probably their Mercedes Steinwitz.  When I worked next to them in the kitchen this morning packing up tableware, they were babbling away in Bahasa.

“Tell me what you are saying,” I said to the man with sloping shoulders and no upper teeth. “Teach me Bahasa.”

“We saying you have so many plate.” The two other men laughed at him. Or maybe at me. Or at my many plate.

“Oh,” I apologized, “I have many plate because many friend.”

The men all looked at me like, And?

“Um, friend come, we have party,” I explained, looking at the stack of plate.

“In village, have party friend bring plate,” the smallest man with a mole on his eyelid said. “But you no need, Ma’am. You have plate for whole my village.”

More laughter, including mine. I probably do have enough plates for his whole village, every last one a wedding gift from 26 years ago. So should I tell him whole my village gave me many plate?

But the thing is, today I have more than many plate.  I also have many pot.  Many knife. Crepe griddle, raclette oven, rice cooker, juicer, blender, bread maker, roaster. Salad spinner. I have nutmeg grater, for heaven’s sake.

“In village, have one plate, one wok, one knife. Many children.” This man must be fifty, probably has many wife, too, and as a result, those many children.

These men look at me earnestly. Accusatorily? Or is that my own guilt? Good grief, I want to give them some stuff.  Or at least my Jamie Oliver pizza stone.

Am I the same gal who had so little stuff when she got married, we fit it all into Randall’s vintage 1970 VW? And did we drive that bug from my parent’s home across town to his parent’s converted basement where we lived five years? In that one bedroom space, were we not poor students but broadly happy folks with our adapted lawn furniture, press board shelves, four university degrees, first computer and firstborn, Parker?

So whence—and as importantly, why-— all this stuff?

And what is all this stuff doing filling my carport, my computer files, my mind? When I try to pray to my Father in Heaven, as I taught the teenaged girls in Sunday school yesterday, is my mind so overstuffed that I cannot get clearance?  A signal? Space?

Overstuffed with things or overthumbtacked with so many neon Post-It’s on my mental corkboard, how do I expect to pick up on the subtle needs of the humans encircling me, or on the even more subtle promptings of the spiritual, also encircling me?

There is a certain order of monks that claims that if you own more than seven things, they own you.

Thoreau wrote that our houses are such unwieldy property that we are often imprisoned rather then housed by them.

A final and most personal story of stuff:

When we moved from Paris in June of 2007, I took care of the finishing details of clearing out our apartment, sending Randall and the children off in the car to say neighborhood goodbyes and pick up baguettes still hot and crusty from our local boulangerie.  They timed it so they would show up to see off our moving crew, a spicy mix from the banlieue of Paris, headed by a great, burly fellow whose charm and salt-and-pepper eyebrows were equally luxuriant.

As that leader clamped shut the massive lock on our container parked in teeny Rue du Colonel Combes, he raised his voice and arms in a dramatic flourish, smacked the hind end of the trailer, and pronounced to the skies, “Madame, vos trésors!!”

Madame, your treasures.

In that very same instant, Randall rounded the corner in the Renault, kids hanging out windows wielding baguettes, waving, whooping, “Bonjour, Maman!!”

“Non, Monsieur,” I responded, an eye on the family van, Voici mes trésors.”

These are my treasures.

In that serendipitously choreographed moment, I truly felt what I was saying as it caught in my throat, and I thought I knew just how completely those gangling arms and hoarse voices were my true treasures. I knew that if, like Ninette, my 40 ft. padlocked trunk of treasures drowned in the blue black of some ocean, I’d survive it well because I knew what is most precious. And what’s more, I had it.  Precious and irreplaceable and necessary beyond the air I breathe as I type these very words. My treasure. My treasured family.  I had every last one of them.

But now I know that I did not — could not — know then all that much about what it means to treasure.  And I do not think most people know or can know. What I am telling you, reader, is the stabbing truth that no one can know the fluffiness of stuff and the heft of treasures — at least there is no way one can fully discern the difference between those two weights — unless one is willing to join the haunted ranks of those who have lost the heaviest things. By that I mean one cannot know unless, I suppose . . . unless . . . instead of some trunk of stuff, it is your true living treasure that drowns.

This afternoon I holed myself up in a far bathroom.  In tissue and a handmade quilt I wrapped up an oil portrait of our 18-year-old Parker. The quilt was made by Lisa, a friend who took Parker’s volleyball and basketball jerseys and spun comfort out of them.  She is from the haunted ranks I just mentioned, having lost her prized teenaged daughter to a freak ski accident.  She knows the true weight of that quilt.

The painting was done by Jennifer, a friend who never knew Parker, just like all the friends I’ve made since July 2007 and all the people I will meet until the day I die.  In this mortality we share, none of them will get to know this incredible, gigantic, human being, my beloved son. But this unusually sensitive woman grew to feel something of him by painting his profile taken from a photograph shot when he was playing drums in his senior class talent show.  She cropped out his hands from the photo which are otherwise twirling drum sticks.  Or as the French call them, baguettes.

That talent show was one week before he was waving other baguettes out a van window in Paris, calling to his Mom. And that was one month before he would lose his life trying to save another’s, caught, as we learned, in the violent churn of a hidden whirlpool. Drowned like sunken treasure.

“This you ship special,”  I say as I hand my quilted bundle to the crew leader. My eyes don’t flinch, as I dare not give away my sacred secret.

“Airplane, not water?” he asks.

“Right. Airplane. No water.”

I give him the two black albums of funeral pictures.  “And these,” I also hand him Parker’s personal journals kept up until July 18th, 2007, the day before the accident. “These are also special.”

“Special, Ma’am. Fragile?”

“Yes. Yes, fragile.”

Jacob’s grief made him fragile, but he withstood being thunderstruck by the news that his treasured son was still alive.  His  words, recorded in Genesis 45:28, ring sweetly to my heart:  “It is enough, Joseph my son is yet alive.”

It is enough.  All the trunkloads and truckloads in the world of other stuff will never be enough. And no amount of stuff could fill the hole left by his absence. You don’t know how light, how insubstantial stuff  is by losing stuff. You find out by losing the heavies.  The treasures. Then all weights are instantaneously recalibrated to take their correct place, which is lighter than the immeasurable weight of absence.

When my friend pulled up an hour ago to find me standing in the carport, barefoot, pants rolled to shins, hands on hips watching the stuff piled in boxes, she could not have known why there were tears filling my eyes. But she conjectured. I love her for her concern.

“Tough to see it all go?”

“Uh, not so much.”

“Worried it’ll get damaged?”

“Nah.”

“Sick of living out of suitcases?”

“Nope.  Not yet.”

“I know: tired. Right?”

“Oh, not really.”

“So . . . ah. . . what you thinking about?”

The leader places a box marked Air: Fragile in a far corner, nodding at me. I shake the tears back down their ducts.

“Stuff.”

#5: It’s The Little Things. . .

A few months ago, I was weaving my way through a subway station with my friend, Geri.

We were talking Asia and moving from it, since she and her husband Jack, who have lived in Asia for several years and are unabashed Asiaphiles, were returning to America only a month or so later.

“What will you miss, Geri?”

A cluster of black-haired schoolgirls in plaid parochial school uniforms shuffled past us in their white athletic shoes, chirping and giggling hands over mouths, each of their back packs many times their combined weight.

“Oh. . .just about everything.”

A hunched grandmother hobbled in front of us, grandson’s pudgy hand in her veiny clutch, her face a study in erosion, shoulder blades protruding under the stretch of her thin floral blouse, legs (thinner probably than my forearm) barely discernable under baggy pink stretch pants. Neon purple house slippers.

“So what do you mean, ‘everything’? The buildings? The access to the rest of Asia? The food courts? The concert hall? The Botanic Gardens?”

People darted toward approaching trains, heads down, shoulders bearing so many back packs, most referring to their iPod, iPhone, iPad, their i-what-have-you.  A small man, maybe 4 ft tall and 35 kilos—average size here—wearing an official-looking blue jumpsuit, swept the floors with a natural bristle bamboo-handled broom. I nodded to thank him.  He smiled back, flashing more holes in his mouth than teeth.  There was a tattoo of an impressive Chinese dragon spitting flames up the side of his neck.

“I’ll miss dark hair.  All this wonderful, dark hair.” She was fading off in thought. “And little things.  So many, many little things.”

(Geri, I should note, has very dark hair, very fair skin, and is very slight.  Everywhere we go, she passes for a near or far Easterner—Israeli? Pakistani? Vietnamese? Laotian?— until she opens her mouth and speaks. And speaking of speaking, I might mention that Geri has all her teeth.)

Not long after that subway conversation, I found out we were moving, too, and since then I’ve been alert to the little things I’ll miss.

Geri took dark hair already, so I’ll give the next things I’ll miss.

Little things.  I will miss little.

People here are little.  At least littler, for the most part, that I am.  Next to the general smallness that surrounds me, I fee like a maypole, a redwood, a Hulk.  By western standards I am average, I suppose, and didn’t surprise anyone in Oslo, Munich, New York or Paris when shopping for size 10 shoes.  But here I am always met with an aghast, “Hen da de jiao!” (“What big feet!”), which makes me wish there were still places to get these paddles of mine bound.

The smallness in others makes me restraint myself.  Already feeling overbearing just standing there breathing, I try to rein in my volume and gestures so as not to blow anyone over or away. I like wondering how an adult visibly smaller than my already skeeeny twelve-year-old son, can ever eat.  Does she? Do they? Do they get their whole bodies bound, I wonder?

I’ll miss the little shoe repair man whose open air shop in is no more than a shoe box on a curb, and is one of my regular haunts.  He crouches in a little splotch of shadow, and whacks away at people’s shoes while they catch lunch, barefoot, I guess, in a neighboring hawker center.  He does good, cheap work.  And is very, excruciatingly, physiologically impossibly little.

When I pay him, he does a little thing I will miss.  I hand him my 20 SGD bill with two hands, of course, nodding and looking him right in the eye, (handing with one hand and avoiding eye contact when paying is rude and sends bad luck), and he reaches up to take the bill either with two hands or, if he’s got a tool in one hand, he takes the bill with the free hand, the other hand bent to touch the inside of the elbow of his extended arm.  This gesture is repeated every time I exchange anything with anyone — business or credit cards, a receipt, money, a gift.  We extend with two hands, receive with two hands, (or at least with the one hand touching the inside of the extended arm’s elbow), nod slightly, and look one another in the eye.

Little. Civil. I’ll miss it.

There’s another person, a little woman, I will miss, although she has no idea I will. She wanders through this hawker center, selling individual packets of tissues for one SGD each.  When you buy your platter of baby kai lan (my absolute favorite leafy green vegetable doused in garlic and oyster sauce), you don’t automatically get napkins. You pay extra, from a roving napkin vendor.  I thought it rude to take a picture of her, so you must imagine: she has a case of scoliosis that reduces what must be a 4 ft frame to 3 ft, making her smaller than my nephew, who is five years old.  Her silent, pleated face tells stories I’m not even worthy enough to listen to.

Then there are the little ladies strolling Orchard.  I will miss them. “Orchard” means Orchard Road, the shopping boulevard slicing in half Singapore’s commercial center like a cashier’s receipt unrolled to a length of about three kilometers, three dozen interlocked anchor stores, or a year’s wages, whichever comes first. This is the mani-pedi crowd, who are, again, remarkably little but made less so by wearing platformed heels that weigh as much as they do themselves, doubling both their weight and height in one teetering step. (And who said stilettos can’t be functional?)

The skirts are little and the shorts are littler, leaving little to the imagination.  The handbags and false eyelashes, however, are not little. In fact, my boys have sometimes wondered aloud about the caloric expenditure from balancing on such shoes and carrying a hardware-encrusted handbag and holding up the weight of a patio awning on each eyelid. And in case I have misled you, these ladies are not what you might be thinking they are.  There is legalized prostitution in certain areas of Singapore—Geylang is the most reputed zone of ill repute— and there are prostitutes who solicit actively after hours along Orchard Road.  But what I am describing here are your average daytime shoppers.  I will miss their attention to little details.

I will miss, too, how the women carry parasols against the sun. And when there is no parasol, a book, a placemat, a plucked palm leaf. I’ve seen them all. Flawless pale skin is the beauty standard here, and equatorial sun is blistering, so Asian women are serious about their parasols. And I never, ever leave the house without a little collapsible umbrella. I will miss needing that.

When the parasol women laugh, they draw their hands to their faces, covering their open mouths and teeth, in a Geisha-esque gesture of modesty.  At first, the hand-over-mouth gesture puzzled me. But before long, I realized I was flapping both hands over my mouth every time I laughed. So I suppose I will not miss that, since I will take it with me.

Little signs charm me here in Singapore, like the one over the public toilet in one shopping center:

Ladies, please do not stand on seat for your performance. 

Hmmmm. Little details like that just don’t seem to occur to you in Switzerland.  But when you’ve used a public (squatter) toilet in Beijing or Xiamen as I have, you know that some habits are hard to break. And a sign is needed.

There are also the electronic driver alert signs suspended above the major motorways.  They glowingly report of an upcoming jam, of the tree pruning, of the radar-patrolled zone you are entering around the bend. But my favorite little sign is the genteel, homely warning:

Drive carefully. Think of your loved ones.

When I drive on that motorway, I often have to enter toll roads, but because of the ultra-efficient ERP System (Electronic Road Pricing), I don’t have to queue up at some toll booth, dig for coins under the passenger seat, drop the money in a funnel or give it to a bored toll booth attendant, only to lurch on my way again. Instead, there are detectors suspended above all toll roads, which read the encoded cardholder installed in the front window of my vehicle.  It looks like this:

That little contraption (and I am going to miss it!) kindly beeps with each automatic deduction and, when it s approaching empty, reminds me again to top up my card.

A little nifty, don’t you think?

And when I enter virtually any parking garage (of which there seems to be an endless abundance), the ERP system reads my card, beeps me in and out, without me ever as much as rolling down a single window to insert a single ticket.

 If I want to park in the open air and not in a covered garage, there is another option that involves punching out by hand on a card the year, month, day and hour of arrival and placing this card on my dashboard.  It is a goofy system, to be honest, but I find it so tactile and yesteryear, that I have grown attached to it.  All those itsy-bitsy punch holes. I’m going to miss them.

Say you aren’t keen on driving (it’s the left side of the road here, remember), then you can take a taxi.  Since they are subsidized by the government to keep the number of private vehicles down, taxis are relatively inexpensive.  They are also reliable, all over the place, and a fabulous way to get free Chinese lessons and culture capsules from the drivers. What I will also miss about taxis, (besides the cheap fare, and built-in Chinese and culture lectures), are the little dashboard shrines complete with statues of goddesses or Buddhas, incense and a stack of fruit intended to appease ancestors.

What I will miss about the taxi drivers themselves, are their long fingernails.  One driver, who was especially gabby, was happy to explain to me why his nails were at least four inches long, and his pinky nail even longer.  “They are good luck tokens,” he explained from his rear view mirror. “Long nail, long life.” So they soak their hands in special herbal tinctures to make the nail thick and chip resistant.  Those little taxi driver nails. I won’t forget them.

And I’m only getting started here. There are so many minute details I find I’m hooked on. Chop sticks. Rice. Eating rice grain-by-grain with chop sticks. Seeing people squatting to eat rice grain-by-grain with chop sticks.  Lots of people squatting or leaning deep over their fragrant bowls, flung into loud squawking conversations, every other word a “Lah?” or “Ah!” or “Nah!”, that verbal burst above the chatter like a burp above a bowl of rice.

Those burps, too, I will miss.

Smaller still, I will miss golf-ball sized snails on my garden wall. I’ll miss the freakishly translucent geckos on my ceiling, and even more the ones burrowed deep in my handbag at 5:00 a.m. when I am looking for my car keys in the pitch dark. And I’ll miss a certain flock of teeny birds that, in early autumn, dive and loop in a pelt of neon yellow across the china blue sky just beyond my bedroom window. They are my Fruit Loop birds, as unbelievable in color as they are in zip.

There is so much of the little I will miss from Singapore. But I can’t write more, because I’m supposed to be filling out reams of online customs forms this very minute.  Now I’m perched atop a cardboard box at the end of a hall, typing away while a crew of Indonesian movers pushes through our household. An advancing army, they have driven me to the edge of my territory, filling their assignment of padding and then boxing things in cardboard before the steamy sea voyage.

They are clucking away in Bahasa.  What a florid, trilling language, and I will miss this sound as I will miss hearing ten other languages  floating around me as a matter of course every day. They are barefoot, these men, good humored, serene, and  skinny as sticks but tough as (a taxi driver’s) nails.

When we wanted to buy them lunch for their break, we asked what they would all like to eat.

“Madame,” said the leader, a guy with the shoulder-length blackish hair of an aging rock star and eyes as golden as the moon awaiting an eclipse, “It can be anything. Only if it is halal.”

He said the last phrase with his palms pressed together as if in prayer, fingers touching the underside of his chin.  Those moon eyes dipped low.

Well, just so happens, McDonald’s  (at least  Singapore’s) does halal.

A big sheet of moving-grade cardboard spread wide in a carport serves well as both a midday prayer carpet and a picnic spot. The crew used it for both.

It’s the little things you’ll miss.  Like Big halal Macs.

**

© Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com, 2012.  This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. . . which means, as long you’re not selling it, you’re welcome to share, but please remember to give me a link and mention my name.

#4: To Your Health

The same friend who asked me two weeks ago how the move from Singapore to Switzerland was going asked me two days ago for an update. I noted she’d remembered all of that last conversation, nailing every detail.

You’ll note in a moment how I had not.

“So. . .your plants?”

“Sold.”

“Your ping pong table?”

“Sold.”

“Your dehumidifiers?”

“Given.”

“Your piano?”

Silence. Breath. Stare.

Sold, I hope?” she leaned into me. “Don’t tell me. . .given?”

“S-s-s-s-old.”

“Your stickers?”

“Stuck.”

“Your lists?”

“Written. Checked. Written again. And checked.”

“Your bank account, air conditioning, pest control, all utilities and delivery services including mail?”

“Closed out.”

“Your wardrobe? Your DVD’s, your CD’s, your Nat Geo’s?”

“Trimmed, deployed, exfoliated.”

“Your valued inventory list?”

“Filled.”

“Your neighbors who won’t like being blocked from their road for four days?”

“Notified.”

“All current school records?”

“Collected.”

“Passports and visas?”

“Updated.”

“Complete medical files from each doctor for each family member?”

Blank stare.  Wave of panic or hot flash.  Both.

Ah here, now here is one of those moments. In a micro-instant I know I need top notch medical assistance, not for the hot flash, mind you, but for a practical bail out.  Which is where my update on The Move merges seamlessly with The Things I Will Really Miss About Singapore.

When you or someone you care for is ill, it’s one thing to have highly trained medical personnel.  You are grateful.  You melt with indebtedness.  But when you are in a time-sensitive bind because you’ve dropped a ball, and your doctors help you pick up said ball, then awww, you just want to sing Michael Bublé at the top of your lungs on top of a coffee table in the middle of their waiting room.

And then if they help you pleasantly — smiling, without grinding your face with the pumice of your own incompetence —- well, you could just about lasso them with their stethoscopes and give them a big, germ-encrusted hug.

Let me preface what I will now tell you by saying that I’ve been in the medical-form-gathering business for many years. With every move I’ve needed to gather our children’s pediatrician, dermatologist, ophthalmologist, and dental records, as well as our own gynecologist, orthopedist, endocrinologist, cardiologist, and otolaryngologist records. Then I’ve had to translate all of them.  Translating them from English to Norwegian, from Norwegian to French, from French to German, then from German to English (and now from English back to French) is a task.

What has added to that task has been figuring out what immunizations and treatments transfer from country to country. For instance, when Dalton entered public preschool in Versailles after our move from Norway, the French government required he be vaccinated against tuberculosis. They call that vaccine the BCG, for the Bacillus Calmette-Guérin. The BCG was unheard of in either Norway or in the States, and I did not want my son vaccinated. Though I contested the safety or necessity of the BCG, I could not get a waiver.  I had to submit my child to it if he was to enter a public French school, which was the way we knew he would learn French and we would integrate.  School=BCG.

So, funny story:  That month after our arrival in France and with no French under my (unmistakably unfashionable) belt, I went to a pediatrician to have this BCG vaccine thingie performed on my little Dalton. Nervous to negotiate this in French, I pronounced to the receptionist as regally as possible exactly what my son needed to receive.

The woman looked at me blankly, shook her head, and told me my son did not need that.

I blushed, summoned my courage, cleared my throat and said that according to the preschool’s regulations, he in fact did.

She repeated that he did not.

I repeated that he did, malheureusement, require that BCG, that though I was philosophiquement contre it, I wanted him to be part of the school and, hélas, this is what the direction said he would need. Especially as a foreigner.

I still remember how the receptionist smiled at that point, and then instructed me, her eyelids half closed, on the difference between a BCG and what I, Madame, was saying: BCBG.

BCBG.

B.C.B.G.?

Qu. . .quoi?

To this day I cannot tell you where I’d picked up that acronym within just a month’s time in France, but there it was, nice and handy and crisp, just in time for my delightful faux pas.

BCBG means, literally, bon chic bon genre, a common colloquial term used to describe the folks with unmistakably fashionable belts. They are the upper crust, stylishly preppy crowd. The “right” neighborhood, for example, is BCBG. A “go-to-be-seen” café, BCBG.  A handbag, a way of walking, of smoking a cigarette, of tilting your big black Audrey Hepburn sunglasses, and the way you sweep your hand nonchalantly through your sun-kissed hair and let it fall over your left shoulder. All so très BCBG.

And I wanted my dimply, toe-headed three-year-old immunized with it.

Back to collecting medical forms in Singapore. . .

Within two days after realizing I was way behind schedule and might have to pay the whopping fee to have all these manila envelopes full of x-rays and confidential reports and medication records sent to Switzerland, I had phoned all our doctors and requested all our medical records.

“Well, of course, Mrs. Bradford,” the voice glimmered. “You can collect them in one week.”

Done.  Crisis avoided.

Gosh.  I’m feeling so healthy.

But oh, how I will miss my doctors here in Singapore.

Singapore boasts the world’s #6 ranked medical system according to the World Health Organization.  (That makes it the only Asian country, besides Japan, that is in the top ten.) This country has a stunningly low infant mortality rate, (2.5 for every 1000 live births) an unusually high life expectancy (79 years for males, 84 for females), both more impressive that the numbers in the United States.

To boot, there are eco-friendly hospitals that grow organic produce on their roofs.  Not that I frequent hospitals with the express intent of dining.  But it’s nice to know that when you are a patient inching your way back from a brush with death, the hospital’s menu isn’t going to kill you.

This blog is not the place to cracker-barrel about the virtues of one health care system over another, or whether that BCG could have been avoided altogether if we westerners had just converted to TCM (traditional Chinese medicine) a few centuries ago.  Still, there are some interesting things to consider when comparing what’s going on here with what’s going on, say, . . .elsewhere.  I did some light spelunking in the stats, and discovered that Singaporean citizens pay less than a third of what those in the U.S. do for health care, and have, overall, far better health.  The government here pays for 80% of your normal healthcare costs but requires that patients contribute significant co-pays. Maybe TCM has such ardent followers here not just because of a historical/cultural bias, but also because it’s cheaper than conventional care. Who knows? Maybe TCM is as effective as the BCG. But as chic? Tough to prove.

When a friend at church collapsed in the arms of his wife with a heart condition, the ambulance was there in 5 minutes.  While I watched the pros work on this dear man, I texted my father in the U.S., who has suffered from similar collapses, and he called his heart specialist who told him that the finest heart specialist in Asia was right down the street from us in Singapore.  My children’s orthodontist essentially leads the way in new procedures for all the Pacific rim.  Our dermatologist did studies in Edinburgh and at Duke, and our family doctor is not only sharp as a tack, pleasant as pistachio pudding and as attentive to details as a microsurgeon, but she also plays the cello.  (Not that the cello helps with a staph infection, but we can speak music, which I can do.  Biochem, I cannot.)

For your leisure reading, a smidgen of Singaporean statistics:

http://healthcare-economist.com/2008/01/14/singapores-health-care-system/

http://www.ncpa.org/sub/dpd/index.php?Article_ID=7923

http://www.who.int/whr/2000/media_centre/press_release/en/index.html

http://www.who.int/countries/sgp/en/

I was in fact back at my cellist doctor this week, not only to collect all our records, but to have Luc’s school medical forms filled out because, (insert soundtrack here: Crowd Cheer) he was accepted at the same school as has been our Dalton.  We are so relieved, happy and grateful.  A major hurdle hopped.  The school in question requested that both boys have full physicals and that that paperwork be faxed to Geneva within a week.  So in addition to requesting the records, I needed two physicals right away, which the receptionist was more than happy to make happen for us, given the time constraints “you certainly must be under, Mrs. Bradford.”

(Do you feel a Michael Bublé coming on?)

Speaking of whom, today the move is in full swing.  Boxes fill the foreground of my view and a great big yellow truck the background. Our boys are healthy (thanks to Singapore’s slick health care system and a gift from heaven).  We have a school in Switzerland. (Also a gift from heaven). That point alone energizes me, I find, and I’ve flipped into commandeer mode.

There’s just that little question mark on the moving company forms in the space for “Address of receipt,” but I know that’s picayune.  “Home”, to me, is not my address, but my people, and we are here, together.  So all things considered, we are in the pink of mid-relocation health.

**

© Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com, 2012.  This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. . . which means, as long you’re not selling it, you’re welcome to share, but please remember to give me a link and mention my name.

#3: Clean and green

Clean Green Machine

Make that squeaky clean and Technicolor green. Singapore is as antiseptic as it is lush, qualities which are inexplicable, actually, given that this is a highly urbanized and, as I wrote in an earlier post, craaazy-diverse city-state. You’d expect that its ca. 5 million culturally divergent inhabitants, squished as they are on this patch of island no bigger than the landmass of Chicago, would tear up and wear down this place and strip its tropical verdure to a sorry pulp.  Our planet’s got lots of examples of that.

(Chicago, by the way, has only half of Singapore’s population.  And as much as I think Chicago’s a grrrrrreat town, “clean and green” aren’t the very first descriptors that come to mind.)

Clean and green is what most people say about Singapore when they come here.  But you have to see it to believe it:

Green

And green. . .

And more green. . .

A big reason behind Singapore’s “clean and green” is a whimsy of nature:  There are storms just about every single day here in the equatorial tropics.  Things get a good wash. And they grow.  But this kind of manicured perfection and hup-two-three-four orderliness don’t just fall like rain.  They are the result of strict governmental intervention.  They are, in fact, pretty much the invention of a single man.

Lee Kwan Yew, Minister Mentor

Lee Kwan Yew, (who was Prime Minister at the time of Singapore’s declared independence from Malaysia in 1965 and who is now serving as Mentor Minister under his son, Lee Hsien Loong, Prime Minister since 2004) has helped enforce strict laws to ensure clean and green. In his 1968 “Keep Singapore Clean” campaign, for instance, he said that there is “no hallmark of success more distinctive and more meaningful” than being clean and green.  In fact, his goal was to be the cleanest and greenest city in South Asia. No one doubts that goal’s been reached. Now Singapore’s goal is to be just that, but for the whole world.

So what is “clean”? Singapore clean is more than Listerine, although Singapore is that, too. The Keep Singapore Clean campaign continues today, educating the public about the vices of littering, of not flushing public toilets, eating or drinking on public transit, dropping gum wrappers or match sticks in the street, jaywalking. To keep things spit-spot, public spitters are arrested, or levied heavy fines. Or you accidentally drop your Whopper wraper and you are sent to “litter rehabilitation” and are publicly labeled a trash felon by wearing a neon yellow vest with the letters CWO (Corrective Work Order) on the back while you sweep or scrub the subway platforms.

Clean also means “smut-and-drug-free”, (as my Singaporean girlfriend called it), and explains why, when we moved here from Munich, we were required by Singaporean law to give an itemized list of every DVD and CD we were bringing into the country.  Some official was going to scan through our Pixar, Dreamworks and Disney library, checking for “degrading and pornographic” media.  I was amused. And, I’ll admit it, positively so.

The drug laws are even more steely, although they sure don’t sound that way when the powdery Singapore Airlines flight attendants remind you of them as you are circling over the airport, preparing to land:

“Ladies and gentlemen, we will soon be landing in Singapore. As a gentle reminder, please place tray tables in an upright position, draw open your window shade, ensure your luggage is securely stowed either under your seats or in the overhead bins, and kindly note that in Singapore drug trafficking is punishable by death. Have a pleasant landing, and we hope you enjoy your stay.”

To tell the truth, I’ve never done drugs if you don’t count Ambien or choking down my fair share of second-hand smoke in crowded Parisian cafés and Norwegian jazz clubs. I also have children I’d like to spare from the whole drug culture.  So let’s just say I’m not actively picketing against these laws, notoriously harsh as they must seem.

But whoah, when I was told that chewing gum was illegal, I developed a twitch like that.  Luckily, the anti-Orbit law was lifted in 2004, so I can get my fix.  But only from my dentist. Who dispenses it under prescription. And from an unmarked car. With tinted windows. Through which the goods are passed. As it rolls down a back alley.

I know that law softened in 2004 and I can now chew my gum legally, but I still can’t help but feel I need to do so only before sunrise and after dusk.  And without moving my jaw.  Do I have to tuck it under my tongue if I’m in public? Smash it to the roof of my mouth? Suck, instead of chew it? So is it “sucking gum” now? Then what’s the point?

To understand what “green” means, listen to this Singaporean theme song:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=snks-pxdmU0

And visit these links:

http://www.singapore-window.org/sw01/011223af.htm

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=va9awWNjInE&feature=fvwrel

http://www.channelnewsasia.com/stories/singaporelocalnews/view/1162405/1/.html

http://infopedia.nl.sg/articles/SIP_395_2005-01-17.html

Half of this country is covered with green, there is a serious and expanding park system, and there are gargantuan trees that line the major expressways, originally transplanted from Africa I’ve been told, that look like massive petrified vascular systems doing a head stand.  Their sprawling, heaven-reaching limbs make a lacy canopy, underneath which hydrangeas and bougainvilleas grow, lining the highways. Lining the highways.  HydrANgeas.  BoungainVILLeas.  Did you hear that? It’s phenomenal. Green like this is downright mouth-watering.  The landscape’s so juicy, you want to scoop a big, thick spoonful of it and slurp it down.

But not so fast.  You don’t want to be guzzling your garden just yet.  To keep Singapore this green and this livable, there are stringent regulations regarding insect inspection. Every month, a pest control crew must show up at my house to check for rodents, spiders, geckos and snakes. But their prime target is the dengue-fever-carrying mosquito for which they “fog” (or fumigate) our entire premises. If you happen to get a surprise visit from the National Environment Agency and they find even any evidence of mosquito larvae on your property — and they do come, believe me, and they do find — you are (you guessed it) levied a heavy fine. Just one more reason Singapore is called “a fine city.”

Want to see what “fogging” looks like? A shot out my window, right before I escaped:

While they were fogging, I took off for the hills.  Er, hill. There is one hill, Bukit Timah Hill, which at 538 feet is the highest point in Singapore, which gets me just above the literal and figurative fog of everyday life.  It is bar none my favorite spot on the whole island.

Welcome to my sacred refuge:

Three mornings a week, I go hiking up and around and to its top and down again with my friend Jonna, who first introduced me to the place.  She’s a self-confessed hike/travel/photography maniac. (Those were all her shots in the post on food, by the way.  Thanks, Jonna!) Over 16 years ago, she was transplanted to the Pacific rim, and is positively percolating with a serious case of Asia fever. She has taught me loads.  (If you want to learn from her, too, go to http:travelwithjonna.typepad.com)

When we hike Bukit Timah hill, we’re hiking amongst monkeys and through more species of flora than is found in all of North America.  We chug our loop where we always run into clusters of other hikers now familiar to us, including that lone Malyasian whom we recognize by his silent tread, since he always hikes barefoot.  We carry pocketknives and cell phones in fanny packs not so much because we fear a human attack, but because of the off chance that we might come face to face with the reticulated pythons reported to be indigenous to these swampy slopes.

To stay away from snake nests, humans scale those slopes by sets of stairs, like this one:

and this one. . .

and then this one . . .

and then you come to this one. . .

before you hit this one. . .

and top it off with this one. . .

. . .which makes the hike a bit more than your everyday stroll through a rainforest.

On those occasions I’ve hiked it alone, I’ve flipped my switch over to Hunger Games mode and have run the loop. Including the stairs. Just about kills me.  At my age it’s more Katnap than Katniss.  Still. . .

After a major storm (which happens every month or so), the trail gets battered and uprooted trees sprawl across the mudslide, sodden limbs splayed in sudden surrender. The signs asks hikers to give it a rest.

On a particular morning, the gray-blue skies were sagging above the tree line like wet flannel pants sag on a castaway sailor. Light was barely visible through the trees. And with one clap, the skies exploded in a solid, spectacular down pour. Jonna and I ended up drenched to the bone.

And happy as Bukit Timah monkeys.  Two of us were shimmering clean. One of us was shivering green. . .with envy. Because the other one of us gets to stay here and have this hill.

But she’ll come visit Switzerland, she says.  We’ve heard there’s a bit of hiking there. In a place called. . . the Alps?

 **

© Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com, 2012.  This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. . . which means, as long you’re not selling it, you’re welcome to share, but please remember to give me a link and mention my name.