And we’re live! Volume 17 Issue 1 of The Birmingham Arts Journal is now available to read in print and online, featuring my short story Ink / Mud:
And we’re live! Volume 17 Issue 1 of The Birmingham Arts Journal is now available to read in print and online, featuring my short story Ink / Mud:
The Living in Singapore magazine is back from its summer holidays and features my piece on how to enjoy Singapore theater and film in 2020:
In the few months between pitching this article and writing it, the world pulled a rather sudden and unexpected transformation. The COVID-19 crisis has been a difficult challenge for theater and film in particular. Now that we have entered Phase 2 of the end to the ‘circuit breaker’, theaters and cinemas are able to welcome their audiences back, but I expect it will be months if not years until people feel comfortable crushing into a packed performance space again.
However, as with many industries, the arts have adapted and evolved, finding new ways to bring heartfelt productions to their fans through a greatly expanded presence online. This trend will doubtless continue, at least in part, thanks to the unexpected opportunities for connection and content it has provided both the performers and the audience.
Whether you’ve been released into the wild or remain sheltered at home, here are some ideas for how to bask in Singapore’s performing arts and local film.
Read the rest HERE!
Some pleasant news amidst the craziness of the world right now: my short story Ink / Mud took second place at the 2019 Hackney Literary Awards!
Since the story is going to be published in a future issue of the Birmingham Arts Journal, I’ll just post a snippet here for now:
People liked to see twins together, names and outfits in sync – Nicole and Katherine, Nikki and Kitty – and classified us out loud to their children and friends. You get used to being looked at as something special. Whenever our parents took us out separately, on excursions recommended by psychologists to encourage us to develop as individuals, I felt uninteresting, reduced. But Nicole hated being part of a set. No matter how much she loved me and I loved her, I couldn’t change that. She constructed a firm boundary around her, one I had to knock on to enter, one where permission was not always granted. At least in high school, even if we rarely spoke on schoolgrounds, she was nearby, her orbit tugging at mine.
Freshman year at college was like re-learning to walk after the loss of a limb. Autumn settled into a belligerent winter. My incessant texts to my sister went unanswered for days. She’d mention weekend plans or new friends, and I’d pretend I was busy too. If my roommate was out, I escaped to the library or the art studio or a party. Anyone’s party. When I was by myself, I wound down, my clockwork actions growing slower and slower until I could only stare into space. But by the time the campus belly-flopped into spring, I managed to reach a wobbly equilibrium. I was beginning to see myself as my own center of gravity when, in the final heat-swollen days of the semester, Nicole appeared unannounced at the tattoo parlor where I worked part-time. Thrilled, bewildered, I was simultaneously reset and off-kilter.
Super crazy excited that my short story “Sentimental Cartography” is being featured by Ohio State’s literary magazine The Journal. I had such an amazing time working with the editors, whose feedback was invaluable AND they even nominated my story for a Pushcart Prize!
Although Madeleine de Scudéry mapped Tenderness in the 17th century, it wasn’t until the 1840s that explorers seriously attempted to map a woman’s heart.
Atlases were being updated monthly in those days. There were redrawn maps of the earth. The sea. Stars. Bones. The lungs of the nation expanded, ribs cracking, Mexico elbowed aside. Texas shed its republic and was slotted into the role of state. Florida, Iowa and Wisconsin were also christened. California glimmered in the far west, Antarctica in the south, dreamlands of gold or snow. The King of Hawai’i and the electrical telegraph both found God. But most startling was Neptune’s leap from a star to a planet.
Perhaps it was that – a light thought to be fixed in place revealed as mobile, unreliable, migrant – that spurred men to reexamine their mothers and mistresses, wives and daughters, these frequently observed yet unmapped territories. One’s garden was always the last to be considered explorable, the steps too familiar, the paths too trodden. But sudden mud could grip one’s ankles. Beloved perennials could evaporate. One’s own memory could stumble. With trains and telegraphy rushing to knit the world together, it was becoming clear that ostensibly known spheres, Womanhood in particular, could not remain unclassified.
De Scudéry’s Carte de Tendre, with its winding, amorous French routes, was denounced as an inadequate guide, primarily because it was nestled in a novel that spanned ten volumes and no one had time for that now that words flew on electricity. The official reason for the censure, however, was that de Scudéry’s extensive education would have weighed down her expeditions, and as she was female, she would have been biased in favor of the locals. Besides, she never married. Another attempt at surveying the heart came seventy-six years after de Scudéry’s death. Johann Gottlob Immanuel Breitkopf detailed a map of The Empire of Love, but as this Reich included the Land of Lust, Swamp of Profanity and Bachelor Country, it was presumed to chart only a man’s heart.
Breitkopf’s bold efficiency and musical typeface made him the personal hero of Joseph Husson, a clerk in the typography department of a Bostonian printing press profiting nicely off the constant updates of the 1840s. A snail of a man who flinched into retreat under a steady gaze, he dabbled in drawing maps, though would remain an amateur for his entire life. The smell of linseed oil clung to his nearly-fashionable clothes. When the word cartographie crossed the Atlantic, dropping the original ending, as immigrants do, Husson remodeled every conversation into an opportunity to deploy this new word. Predictably, he became a plague on social events. If he became the first to successfully map a woman’s heart, he bet they wouldn’t be so quick to snicker.
Husson prepared the necessary supplies at the office, but the only woman he is reported to have kept regular company with was his elder sister, Marcy, who had a habit of resting her cheek into her left fingertips whenever she gazed into a novel. This always gave the impression that she was reading something shocking. It was an old-fashioned gesture and didn’t suit her at all, but that was the picture that appeared in the papers. She’d made the evening post because of her spectacular separation from a recently bankrupted railroad tycoon, who was also a well-known crossdresser. The crossdressing wasn’t the reason she left him, though she had to claim it was, since the divorce wouldn’t have been granted if they uncovered her collusion. Unmoored, she commandeered a bed in her flustered brother’s apartment around the time he embarked on his quest to chart a woman’s heart. Historians have debated the extent of her influence on his expedition. A percentage of his firsthand observations may actually be hers.
The length of Husson’s mission remains vague, but the result was mapped in oil and pigment and gum and salt and acid wash. Terrain was etched into soft stone and wet lithographs were birthed. The heart was affixed squirming onto thick paper, painted by hand and sold in batches…
Continue reading HERE!
Now out! The latest issue of the Living in Singapore magazine, featuring my pair of itineraries for the nation’s active East Coast.
East Coast Park is the largest park in Singapore and what most people picture when East Coast is mentioned. Unsurprisingly, the list of available outdoor activities is quite a long one. However, there’s plenty of treats inland as well should rain clouds appear, or if the sunshine gets too intense, or if you’re just not much of an outdoorsy person. For those whose base of operations is Orchard or Woodlands, East Coast might seem a bit out of the way, but it is well worth making the effort to explore.
Since the district is sprawling and encompasses everything from boutique shopping to beaches, it’s best to have a game plan. Even with two itineraries, we’re barely scratching the surface of all the cultural, creative, active, indulgent and tasty hidden gems in this part of the country. I’ve divided the indoor pursuits and the outdoor activities. Dive headlong into one itinerary or mix’n’match as you see fit!
Read the rest HERE!
Now out! The latest issue of the Living in Singapore magazine, featuring my trio of itineraries for the nation’s staycation capital.
As with much of Singapore, it’s difficult to glean the history of Sentosa from its current well-developed status. While wandering around the aquarium or the luxury casino, you’d never know that for over 500 years, it was called Pulau Blakang Mati; “the Island Behind the Dead” in Malay. Shaping the island into a holiday resort for locals and tourists began soon after Singapore gained independence in 1965, making it one of the government’s earliest projects. Obviously, Step One was to christen it with a more welcoming name. Sentosa translates to “peace and tranquility” in Malay.
Singapore’s so-called State of Fun is probably one of the easiest places in the country to while away half a day. This whole article could just be: pack a cooler with snacks and drinks, find a spot to lay your towel on the beach, then alternate between snoozing and swimming. This article could also just be a catalog of every activity you could do on Sentosa, since the list is plenty long enough. Thus, instead of a general itinerary, I’ve concocted three. One for a fun day with family, one for active adrenaline junkies and one for an indulgent day out.
Read the rest HERE!
Now out! The latest issue of the Living in Singapore magazine, featuring my piece on the city’s vibrant Arab Quarter.
If the Raffles Landing Site can be considered the birthplace of modern Singapore, then the Kampong Glam district was its cradle. Originally a village (a kampong in Malay) used by sea gypsies that was surrounded by gelam trees, the land vaulted into the history books when it was given to the last sultan of Johor in 1824 as part of the treaty that ceded Singapore to the British. By the 1920s, what had once been designated a Muslim enclave had picked up a notorious reputation as a red-light district that lasted until the 1970s, when the Bugis area was completely refurbished. Today, Kampong Glam is a blend of vibrant malls and cultural touchstones, a bastion of what defined Singapore’s multicultural capitalism two centuries ago and what defines it today.
9am – 10am
This part of town is slow to wake, with many establishments opening their doors around noon, but that doesn’t mean a delicious breakfast can’t be found. Earlybird is a cozy space with excellent coffee. Located on the corner of Victoria Street and Jalan Pinang, a stone’s throw from both the Sultan Mosque and the enormous mural Girl with Lion Cub by Ernest Zacharevic, it makes for an ideal starting point for the day.
10am – 12pm
The crown jewel of Kampong Glam, historically and physically, the Sultan Mosque cannot be missed. A pillar for the local Muslim community, the original mosque was born out of the 1824 accord, but within a few decades, it had fallen into disrepair and couldn’t fulfill the needs of the Islamic community, which had grown significantly. Construction of the new mosque began in 1924 but slowed and stalled in the years of global recession that followed. The funds to finish the building came from the generosity of local Muslims, with those who couldn’t afford to contribute money donating glass bottles instead. These bottles now make up the rings that encircle the base of each of the impressive gold ogee domes. Note that the mosque is closed to visitors on Friday mornings.
12pm – 2pm
Since the mosque is surrounded by a number of delicious Malay and Mediterranean restaurants, an indulgent lunch is in order. As expected in an area nicknamed the Arab Quarter, many establishments are halal, which means they don’t serve pork or alcohol. Eateries on North Bridge Road like Warong Nasi Pariaman, Sabar Menanti II and Pondok Jawa Timur all give you a delicious taste of regional cuisine. On the Mediterranean side of things, my personal favorites for creamy hummus and delicious kebabs are IstanBlue on Baghdad Street and Alaturka on Bussorah Street. For a treat, the cupcakes and doughnuts from Fluff Bakery on Jalan Pisang are pretty hard to beat. As is the gelato from aROMA on Arab Street.
2pm – 4pm
One of the most unique parts of visiting Kampong Glam is the opportunity to indulge in some truly old-world shopping experiences. The streets of historic shophouses are the perfect place to find Turkish mosaic glass lamps, luxurious carpets and bespoke craft pieces for the home. Sifr Aromatics is legendary and for good reason. If you’re tired of the too sugary/citrusy perfumes found on department store shelves, this should be top of your list. A stroll down Arab Street will lead you past rolls upon rolls of fabric in all colors and textures. Don’t worry if you’re like me and can’t even thread a needle. The majority of these shops have in-house seamstresses who you can tap to make you a custom piece of clothing.
4pm – 6pm
Time to get out of the heat. Located in the former palace of the Johor Sultan, the Malay Heritage Centre is worth seeing not only for the fascinating exhibitions but also the beautiful architecture. Six permanent galleries and a rotating exhibition delve into not only the history of Singapore’s Islamic community but also into Malay art and niche perspectives on the region’s conflux of people. Note that the center is closed on Mondays.
Those looking for a vibrant introduction to the local arts scene should check out the Aliwal Arts Centre, an active multi-disciplinary performance space that frequently hosts musicians, dance troupes, poets and other stage talent. Check out their website for upcoming events and workshops. The Vintage Cameras Museum and Click Art Museum combine to make for a unique experience, featuring over 1000 cameras and several rare collections of photographs. Another enriching indoor option is the National Library Building on Victoria Street, which hosts myriad afternoon and evening events for both children and adults. Home to the country’s national archives, history and culture buffs can easily spend hours exploring the seven floors containing the Lee Kong Chian Reference Library.
6pm – 9pm
Thanks to its vibrant murals and independent boutiques, the famous and famously hipster Haji Lane has become quite the Instagram spot in recent years. Though many of the shops and salons are closed on Mondays, during the rest of the week most are open from noon or 1pm to 8pm or 9pm. The area’s vibe amps up as the sun sets, especially on weekends when the street is closed to vehicles. Restaurants spill out to fill the space with tables and music. Equally cute and often a skosh less busy is Bali Lane, which runs parallel to Haji Lane and houses gems like Pita Bakery and Sticky Rice Thai Food. Not to mention Blu Jazz Café, a pillar of Singapore’s live music scene.
There are too many cute clothing stores, vivacious bars and hidden treasures in Kampong Glam to list them all, but the best part about walking around this colorful part of town is the opportunity to stumble across them yourself.
Now out! The latest issue of the Living in Singapore magazine, featuring my piece on the cultural and historical heart of Singapore.
From architecture to food, heritage to nature, war memorials to high tea, the Civic District is the cultural and sociopolitical heart of the Singapore. If you have visitors who only have 12 hours in the country, this is where to spend it. If you have 12 months here, I highly recommend devoting a number of weekends and afternoons to exploring everything there is to see in this very walkable part of town.
Considered the birthplace of modern Singapore, the exact borders of the Civic District (sometimes called the Civic and Cultural District) vary, depending on who you ask and what search terms you put into Google. Generally, the area is considered to begin at the National Museum of Singapore and stretch southeast, ending at the waterfront.
Start your day with one of Singapore’s most iconic buildings, Raffles Hotel, which reopened this year after a lengthy refurbishment. Everyone goes for Singapore Slings at the Long Bar or for high tea, now served in the Grand Lobby instead of the Tiffin Room. While both are worthy outings, visiting Raffles Hotel early in the day allows you to see the gorgeous colonial architecture in the blush of morning light, and it’s likely to be far less crowded.
Read the rest here!
Now out! The latest issue of the Living in Singapore magazine, featuring my piece on the island’s northern coast.
Perched on Singapore’s northern coast, a day in Punggol means fresh air, seafood and plenty of physical activity. Believed to be one of the oldest settlements in the country, historical documents indicate that Kampong Punggol, situated around the jetty, existed over 200 years ago, predating the arrival of Sir Stamford Raffles in 1819.
Unsurprisingly, due to the proximity to Malaysia, the first settlers were Malay and mainly fishermen who made their living off the waters surrounding the marshland. However, from the mid-19th century onwards, the area saw a steady influx of Chinese immigrants, most Teochew, who were primarily rubber tappers and poultry and pig farmers. Catholic missionaries also developed a foothold and built several churches and schools.
Punggol is a Malay word that loosely translates to “hurling sticks at the branches of fruit trees to knock them to the ground” and is presumed to also refer to a place where produce was sold wholesale. Up until the area’s very recent redevelopment, the forested areas along Old Punggol Road were prime hunting grounds for durian enthusiasts, who would sometimes wait hours for free, delicious durians to drop.
These days, the region has quite a different reputation. Over the past decade, Punggol has received a lot of TLC and attention from the government, thanks to a revitalized planning project initiated in 1996, but delayed by the Asian financial crisis. Positioned by the Housing Development Board as Singapore’s first eco-town, Punggol manages to be both a highly modern hub as well as a peaceful nature escape.
Read the rest here!
The inaugural issue of the Living in Singapore magazine is out!
I got to spend an afternoon wandering around one of Singapore’s trendiest neighborhoods to craft a day-long itinerary that visitors and locals alike can enjoy.
With its blend of traditional shophouses and trendy cafes, Tiong Bahru is high on the must-visit lists of tourists and locals alike for its Instagrammable dishes, boutique shops and building-side murals. But the enclave is also a microcosm of Singapore history, particularly the last century. Tiong Bahru became hip and trendy just after World War II, though lost its exclusivity in the 1950s, when new housing blocks were built. Over the years, the area has been home to various of waves of residents: British civil servants, the Peranakans and Chinese, the mistresses of the wealthy and now a blend of locals, celebrities and expats. Each demographic has left its own impact, adding diverse layers that have transformed Tiong Bahru into something truly unique.
7am – 8am
Wake up with the neighborhood with an hour-long yoga class at Yoga Movement’s cozy studio. Their Basics class is a peaceful way to kick off the day, but there are also more intense classes, such as Power, Core or HIIT yoga for those looking for a real workout.
8am – 9am
After all that stretching and balancing, an indulgent breakfast is due. The famous Tiong Bahru Bakery is ideal for both sweet and savory dishes, but it can get quite crowded at peak hours. Fortunately, it’s not the only breakfast spot in town. Other eateries known for tasty baked goods and high-quality coffee include Caffe Pralet, the entirely gluten-free TIANN’S and Drips Bakery & Café.
Read the rest here!
Behold the second installation of my round-up of the weekly posts I’ve written for StraitsBlog, the official blog of travel company StraitsJourneys, some of which have been featured in the Ready to Travel section of the Singapore Airport Terminal Services (SATS) website and app.
Since these pieces are all fairly short (hooray for the #TLDR era), I thought I’d put them together in a periodic round-up instead of giving them all individual posts here.
Christmas has long grown beyond a simple Christian celebration of Jesus’ birth. The combination of glittering decorations, gift exchanges and the spirit of goodwill towards mankind has kept the holiday popular even amongst non-Christians. Traditions have, of course, evolved over time (Mary and Joseph did not deck the manger with strings of blinking LED lights) but they’ve also been localized in a myriad of ways…
It may seem strange to travel to a foreign country to watch people play a game on a screen, but live eSports events are no joke. The major tournaments frequently outperform both the NBA Finals and World Series in viewership, and with sponsors like HP, Samsung, T-Mobile and Toyota, money is flowing in to create dedicated spaces where fans can cheer for their favorite teams….
With its blend of traditional shophouses and trendy cafes, Tiong Bahru is high on tourists’ must-visit lists for its Instagrammable dishes and building-side murals. But it’s also a microcosm of Singapore history, particularly the last century, as well as a hub of heritage trails and hidden green spaces. StraitsJourneys expert Dr. Tai Wei Lim said it best when he described Tiong Bahru as the historical bridge between pre-war, post-war and post-independent Singapore…
Autumn is the perfect time of year to snuggle up in a tea shop with a thick book or a few friends. After the sweaty slog of summer in New York City, the crisp weather sends a crackle of energy through the streets. The cooler it gets outside, the cozier it gets inside…
Every major cosmopolitan city has its star art museum. And while the Louvre in Paris and the Met in New York have earned their international acclaim, their fame can make visiting these renowned galleries a crowded experience. Fortunately, there are a few places off the beaten track where you can view breathtaking masterpieces in relative quiet…
In his 1933 manifesto on aesthetics In Praise of Shadows, author and novelist Tanizaki Jun’ichirō notes: “It has been said of Japanese food that it is a cuisine to be looked at rather than eaten.” While he couldn’t predict how globally famous Japan’s fake food would become, I’m betting he wouldn’t have been surprised…
Just 45 miles north of San Francisco, Sonoma County has a well-earned reputation as one of California’s top wine regions. Recently, it’s appeared in the news due to a dramatic series of wildfires, but Dionysus must be watching over Sonoma because the smoke has cleared and its vineyards continue to welcome visitors with open arms…
“It’s difficult not to be enchanted by the birds-of-paradise. They’re some of the most extraordinary birds in the world,” commented Ch’ien Lee, accomplished biologist and professional photographer. The diversity in their extravagant plumage is astonishing, often including highly elongated and elaborate feathers extending from the beak, wings, tail or head in all colors of the rainbow….
What was Chiang Kai-shek doing lugging art out of China? Stealing priceless antiquities, according to some. Rescuing them from destruction, according to others….
The absurd splendor of Turkmenistan’s architecture hits you from the get-go with its airport. The main terminal in Ashgabat International is shaped like a soaring falcon and cost $2.3 billion USD to construct. This sparked some controversy as critics claimed the building was much larger than needed to handle the country’s relatively low traffic rates. When I passed through two years ago, that was very much the case….
These days, anyone can take a picture at any time, but that doesn’t mean the art of photography is as easy to master. This is especially true when it comes to photographing wildlife, an endeavor that often takes more patience than specialized equipment….
Naming a country is complicated. Sometimes it’s appropriate to draw from historical context and sometimes it’s better to create a brand new moniker. Sometimes it’s easier to just call a place after its landscape and sometimes it’s worth taking the time to craft a name that will reflect everyone involved. As previously mentioned, the origin stories behind nations’ names, tangled and strange though they are, can be separated into groups….
This was one of those pieces that wouldn’t come out when I tried, and I just had to wait until it smacked me upside the head. Honestly, writing sometimes feels more like being a conduit than a producer.
Very excited to announce my short story Terra Incognita received Honorable Mention in the 2018 William Van Dyke Short Story Prize and has been published in the Fall 2018 issue of Ruminate Magazine! The theme of this issue was “exposure” and my story is about the impact of a new map arriving in a small town in Flanders in the 15th century.
Yyyyeah, this is one of my weirder ones.
The old map had congealed to the wall, taken on its texture. There was no removing it completely, so they didn’t remove it at all, just pinned the new map on top of it, bottom corners loose and still curled from the roll it had slept in. Word ambled down the street and the neighbors came to see the new face of their country. Big-cheeked Hanna, spackled with flour. Blonde Ria with her skinny husband. The young, curly-haired brothers Isidoor and Thomas. Erik, old and bearded. The very pregnant Juytken. Pretty Jo, the town’s white flower. Philip and his two flunkies – a gang formed in boyhood and cemented by adolescence. A few others. The tavern seemed embarrassed to be so full in midday, caught in the light. Perhaps it was this unusual combination of time and place that dampened their spirits and lent the rosy new map a poisonous sheen.
The town wasn’t invested in books. With no library or school, with the sea far to the northwest, the old map had been a rare window into the country beyond their fields. For some, it had been the only window. Ivo the innkeeper had won it over a decade ago, in a card game with a sailor in Antwerpen in 1504. Ivo hadn’t felt old yet then. Hanna hadn’t been married. Ria’s youngest was still alive. Erik had yet to be widowed. The map had hung above the bar since. It softened with them. The colors lightened. The words gently bled. The tiny ships on the painted waves of the Germanicus Oceanus contracted into strange ink creatures. Over the years, the map ceased to be, or perhaps never was, a representation of their country; in the townspeople’s minds, it was their country.
And in the span of a short morning, the world they believed was aging with them had been replaced with a crisper, more vibrant version. Borders they had come to think of as blurred and gauzy became impenetrable again. A black line squiggled down and around the land, marking the edges, trapping them inside. Even the eternal northwest waters had a new name: Maris Germanici. Hanna and Ria joked and scoffed. As though you could change the name of the sea! More startling, their familiar country was crammed with at least twice as many cities and towns as before, nests of calligraphy punctuated by circles and corralled by weaving roads. The old yellowed map had been spotted with its share of settlements, but the names had long been demoted to decorative details, a pattern for one’s eyes to roost in while a tankard was drained.
Thomas buzzed about, investigating the musty adulthood of the tavern, new territory for the 12-year-old. He tilted his head back to take in the map.
“Have all those towns existed all this time? Or are they new?”
The innocent question was a stab in the ribs of the gathered adults. They didn’t know. As before, Ivo had dabbed a spot of red paint on their town. But the comfort of knowing precisely where they were on the Lord’s green earth had vanished. How could anybody feel found in a crowd like that?
“The old map was better,” Ria declared, blonde eyebrows pinched together. “This one has errors.”
Ivo had left his duties to his overburdened wife in order to preen amongst his neighbors. Though a regular traveler out of town, he hadn’t acquired the map for geographical guidance; for that, he preferred the compass of his own memory. The map drew him for another reason. The warm palette and dark lines, the chocolatey curls and perked ends of the letters, the mellifluousness of the incomprehensible Latin maxim that crowned the frame – the entire composition was pleasing. When his gaze sank into it, a panting horse into a cool river, he felt that his heart and his mind were connected. Closer than connected. That they were the same. Just as black dots on rich paper could also be a sea. Both the sailor’s map and this newer one climbed inside him and stayed there. Art, however, was not a well-trod topic in their town and, if asked, Ivo would have said that he couldn’t say a single word on the subject.
He rounded on Ria.
“This map does not have errors. It’s just more recent.”
“No,” Ria insisted. “There aren’t that many towns.”
“How would you know?”
“It’s common sense. Look at how crushed together all the names are. Are we really supposed to believe there is no countryside in our country? Look outside!”
“I bet the mapmaker invented some towns so he could f-feel important,” Philip asserted, juvenile ego tripped by jitters.
Ivo set his jaw and folded his great arms. Had he known the phrases artist’s interpretation and not true to scale, he would have used them. As it was, he could only sense their unarticulated truth.
“Perhaps you could put both maps up?” Hanna submitted, picking at the dough drying on her knuckles.
“No, I won’t have an out-of-date map on my wall.”
“It was fine for the last ten years and suddenly it’s out of date?” Philip asked with a huff, glancing over at his lackeys.
“We didn’t need a new map,” one said.
“We didn’t want one,” the other added.
“This is my tavern and it’s staying.”
“It’s a disgrace!” Ria snapped in a tight voice. “It’s— What proof do you have that these towns are real? You have no right to spread errors, maybe even lies, about our country.”
She had been like this in childhood too, Ivo remembered. Her temper and tears erupted if you changed the rules midgame, if you told a story differently than before, if you abandoned the plan. Her heels were forever dug into the earth. Ivo pitied her husband, a man who was clipped around the edges and crumpled in.
The argument continued, heating the pub to a stuffiness only enjoyed by the passionately angry or by drinkers on a winter evening. Hanna attempted to placate Ria, but Philip’s gang was teething, hoping for a real fight to chew on. They followed up on Ria’s flares with handfuls of fuel. Younger and slimmer than the other men, curly-haired Isidoor kept both his tongue and his little brother in check. Beautiful Jo was still entranced by the new map and paid attention to none of them. Erik stroked his greying beard and held the door for the waddling Juytken. Age serving youth. Near-death serving near-life.
Blue skies on a market day meant a busy street. Children in filthy smocks brandished sticks and screamed their games. Straw baskets filled, townspeople who had heard the gossip gravitated towards the inn. Erik helped Juytken out of their path.
“You ought to return home. Walking around in your condition is dangerous,” Erik said.
Juytken nodded. The fingers not curled under her pregnant belly were fiddling with the sleeve of her linen undershirt. She studied the knobbed hand Erik rested on his walking stick.
“What do you think of the map?” she asked.
“I’m too old for it to make any difference to me.”
“The world around us changes so quickly. Ten years and the country has been completely redrawn,” Juytken mused, eyes lowered. “How can I know what sort of place my son will grow up in?”
“Take it from me. Some things don’t change.”
Juytken gave him a smile and made her way down the street, layered skirts skimming the earth. Erik monitored her until she turned the corner. Youth cannot believe what Age tells them to be true. It won’t be real until they have aged themselves. But he was correct. Some things didn’t change. A pint of ale will always improve a meal. A new map will always cause an upset. A young wife filled to the brim with life will always be a blessing. It was the natural flow of time. Juytken’s son would be his third grandchild. She was downriver from her mother’s pregnancies and from Erik’s own wife’s, the last of which took her from this realm.
The road east shrank, became a path that bordered the farms. Escorted by his wooden cane, Erik’s steps were unhurried. Sheep bleated and moved as one away from the fencing. Clouds dragged a net of shade across the green fields. And he was an old man wandering after his thoughts, recalling how his wife’s right leg had a slight limp that made her shy. When she died, the priest assured Erik that such a good woman was unquestionably with our Lord in his Kingdom. It was a comfort to hear and it was what Erik repeated to his children, but he was embarrassed to discover that he was unable to imagine his wife in heaven. Erik was never a man for daydreams or fantasies, and he simply couldn’t place the image of her anywhere but home. Since birth, she had fit her years comfortably into their town, a small circle of which her and Erik’s house became the center. Even attending church or walking to the market spurred a frenzy of preparation. Her impatience to return to the cauldron, the cradle, the clutter of half-woven garments, often snipped conversations with neighbors short. A frequent and amicable patron of Ivo’s, Erik had found this tiresome. After her death, it troubled him. How could a woman who had burrowed, body and soul, into this patch of earth, a woman who had never followed the road east beyond the farms, traverse the long journey to heaven?
A chilly breeze slinked through the expanse of sunshine. Erik held his wool cap to his head and listened to the rustling trees. The new map spread itself out in his mind, the precise lines, the four tiny trees, and he was delighted to see a figure on the butter-colored paper, barely more than a dot, traveling through the copse, away from the red heart of their town. The roads were so neatly marked. The rivers. Finally, they both had a guide. The path towards the borders – of the country, of the sea, of the entire map – was distinct yet crossable, even with her uneven gait. After a pause on the edge, she stepped off into an ungraspable realm, a kingdom of faith hidden in the thin air. The thought lightened Erik’s bones and his feet. Sunlight swept across the grass, like satisfaction. Joy, even.
The quarrel at the tavern swelled and receded and swelled again. After failing to douse Ria’s blistering hisses, big-cheeked Hanna – whose heart pounded whenever voices were raised – retreated to the bakery. Young Thomas’s question stalked after her, clinging to the hem of her kirtle.
“Well?” Her husband asked, sweating.
She circled the loaves of bread, retied her apron, shrugged.
“Ria thinks it’s fake, that there are too many towns for it to be a true map.”
“No reason to change what works,” he said, shrugging back.
Grunting, he opened the oven grate and withdrew a pan of hot and fluffy koekjes. The aroma of butter mingled with the brusque smell of charcoal and the autumnal scent of chopped apples resting in a bath of spices. Hanna hunched over the table to pull and knead the dough for appelflappen, massaging it thin with her chubby fingers, loving strokes she had learned years ago, when she married both a man and his trade. No reason to change what works. A recipe can be played with a little – raisins added, perhaps – but the ratio of flour to sugar to fats had long been determined. Like the name of the sea.
“Hanna. Why are you crying?”
“I’m sorry. It’s frightening.”
“It’s a painted picture. That’s all.”
“I feel small, as though I was a mouse all along.”
“You’re certainly not the size of a mouse,” he chuckled, belly jiggling.
But she didn’t smile. In front of her gaze hung the circle of their village, a droplet once buffered by empty space, now swept up in a swarm. All those towns filled with strangers. All those roots unearthed and bared to the sun. Names for things that didn’t need names. The more men stuck pins into the land, speared it with titles and dimensions, the more it would bleed. A pile of cake ingredients was not appetizing, couldn’t they see that? It was only the whole, the elements combined, that made something sweet and wonderful. Beyond all question, the mystery from which true godliness springs is great. To fear a gnawing appetite for knowledge was humanity’s earliest lesson and still there was this vulgar reaching for higher and higher branches of the tree. One did not inherit the Kingdom of God by dismantling and renaming His creations. Nor by following any ink-sodden map.
If their dear country could erupt in a sudden wealth of new details, like the distant hills sharpening after a storm, then what other unknowns lay hidden, ready to pounce? Insignificance wormed into Hanna for the first time since girlhood and her hands trembled. She could be crushed by so much, all that she couldn’t see and didn’t know. It was one thing to feel small and humble next to the unfathomable glory of one’s Savior, but to be trampled underfoot by unknown armies from unknown cities, the human unknown… Her shoulders rose in a fear that set the Lord’s Prayer rumbling over her tongue.
Its familiar rhythm lulled her back into her work. Dough, apples, sugar. The formulas and measurements, the simple causes and effects, formed a landscape she knew intimately, one she could find shelter in. She would hold to the mystery of faith, the recitations of recipes. Give us this day our daily bread. Warm water and warm milk so the rolls rise properly. Add the flour a tablespoon at a time. And deliver us from evil. Amen.
Hanna wasn’t the only one ruffled by Thomas’s question. It roosted in his elder brother Isidoor’s mind, noisy, feathers and droppings coating his contemplation. Which did he prefer? That other towns had lain cloaked in mist all this time? Or that they had sprung up out of the earth like weeds in a neglected kitchen garden? Ignorance or rapid change? Hoping to avoid the notice of Philip and his drudges, he gave the map his full attention, fluttered from town to town, forwent space and time to touch on all the borders, run down the canals, and pause in places that resembled the names of people he knew. Canegem. Tempelmare. Dadisele. Trechyn. Gendt, of course. Antwerpen. He’d like to see Antwerpen. Just once. Just to peek at the crashing flow of life in an international city, the Italian sugar and Portuguese pepper, the Spanish gold and American silver, the scholars and the sailors in combat with uncertainty. Just to walk alongside men who saw the coast as a starting point instead of an end, who entered into long affairs with the unknown.
And after seeing the worn and weathered faces of these men, Isidoor would be glad to come home. He was sure of it. How little the void attracted him, the opaque waters, the days flung wide open and blinding, especially in comparison to his work, his mother, his brother, the pleasant possibilities and manageable problems he would have here. Thomas, though, would become the type of man that the bottomless sea, with its promise of sugar and silver, would seduce away. Isidoor could only hope that she wouldn’t take his brother’s life as payment for his curiosity.
Isidoor’s eyes descended from the heights of the map to Jo’s pale and freckled face, which glowed in the half-light, framed by a wheat-colored linen hood. They had only spoken two or three times, nodded to each other at the market – her hands separating gourds and cabbages, his full of upside-down and baffled chickens – but for Isidoor she was a clearer map to his future than any. He could see, though, that Ivo’s new atlas held her fast. She seemed deaf to the clamoring newcomers, to Philip’s exaggerated posturing, to the squabble that ended with Ria yanking her husband out the door. Was Jo dreaming of travel, too? Of Gendt or Antwerpen? Of an adventure they could hold up years from now and see their reflections in? It was as though she was having a conversation with the map, a dialogue he didn’t understand and so could not interrupt. He resolved to wait for the right moment.
Philip shouldered past Isidoor, his flunkies trailing him out into the ripening midday. Sounds from the market rushed through the opened door. Isidoor ought to return to the poultry stall; Thomas would need help hauling the sacks of feed. They couldn’t linger any longer. But tomorrow would come, no matter what was drawn on any map, and Isidoor would wash his face, tamp down his curly hair, and ask Jo’s father if he could marry her. His heart quickened at his resolve, but Jo still didn’t look his way.
Before his wife reeled him back to his obligations, Ivo too observed Jo, puzzling over her fixation on the map. She had never granted the old one more than a glance. Her parents and siblings weren’t the sort to chew over these things. He left her in peace. Girls’ fancies were marshes too murky to ford.
At the altar formed by the map and the bar, Jo paled and blushed, hid her flooded eyes and sudden smiles, embraced the storm and then the calm. So. There was no definitive version of their country, of the world. There never would be. If the old map was fallible, a temporary reflection, then the reign of this newer one must be equally precarious. The truth, so fixed, so obvious, could change. It all depended on who drew the map. And really, anyone could draw a map, could sketch the world as it was true for them. A local shepherd’s survey of the land would differ from a foreign merchant’s, but neither would be false. They would simply see with different eyes, sculpted by different lives. Could the truth ever be reached then? Certain atlases might approach it, breathe down its neck. But even if the truth were somehow captured, fully contained in inked borders, one felled tree would change the face of their country into a different creature. And what of other maps, other guides, other truths? All those laws and facts, decreed by God and nature and men and mothers? What makes a lady, what makes a cake, what makes a life… Were they transient too?
“Jo, oughtn’t you get back to the market and help your mother?” Ivo’s wife called over an armful of cleaned linens.
One foot on the stairs, she cracked her neck and waited in vain for a reply. She was unsettled by the… lust, she’d have to call it, in Jo’s eyes. If her parents had any sense, they would get that girl a husband soon. Everyone knew pretty things were a danger to keep around too long. White flowers could be poisonous.
Soul still full of the map, Jo left the tavern and turned down the familiar street, its dips and curves long memorized by her feet. This road and this market, seemingly permanent fixtures in the landscape of her life, were really just one of many roads, one of many markets. In the burn of the late afternoon, the shops and stalls and houses took on the hollow echo and weightlessness of a traveling troupe’s set for a play. It was all manmade, wasn’t it? What was right. What was wrong. What was possible and impossible. The corset of certainties Jo wore – marriage was her next step, children were a woman’s greatest love, churchgoers went to heaven, cities were sinful, the sea was monstrous – loosened. She couldn’t think of what had prevented her from wriggling her fingers into the knots and undoing them before. Fear of not adhering to the world as mapped by someone else? Jo smiled. Maps could be redrawn.
At dawn, Jo’s mother would notice her absence but think little of it until a canvas bag and supplies were discovered to be missing from the pantry. Under a field of clouds yet to be ploughed by the sun, Ivo would be woken by caterwauling and bangs on the inn door. Jo’s red-faced father and inconsolable mother would thrust their distress onto Ivo’s broad chest, hoarsely damn his new map for bewitching and spiriting away their white flower, who had spent the night talking nonsense about walls not being walls and truths not being truths. They would push past Ivo, hearts like torches aimed at the map, but be brought up short at the bar, their bonfire of anger left flickering in the wind.
The new map would already be lying in a froth of paper on the floor. Ivo would feel the bright shreds as keenly as though it were his own flesh in pieces, and he would groan upon noticing a long peel of the old map, thought to be permanently wedded to the wall, uncoiling to the floor in a limp arc, a casualty in the attack on its successor.
Woo! It’s been a busy summer. (Yes, I still mentally divide the year into European/North American seasons even though I live on the equator.)
For those who don’t know, at the end of May I began writing weekly posts for StraitsBlog, the official blog of travel company StraitsJourneys. And because my boss is an awesome lady, she got us a partnership with Singapore Airport Terminal Services (SATS), who have been featuring my pieces in the Ready to Travel section of their website and app. A few have also appeared on Tourego.
Since these pieces are all fairly short (hooray for the #TLDR era), I thought I’d put them together in a periodic round-up instead of giving them all individual posts here.
It’s easy to forget that the map of the globe wasn’t always the way it is today. Borders have been redrawn too many times to count. Populations were abruptly combined into states by colonizers. The names that locals gave to their lands sometimes stuck and were sometimes overwritten by a foreign nation’s interpretation…
Organic produce and eating local might sound like modern trends but for the people of Sarawak in Borneo (Malaysia), it’s been a way of life for thousands of years thanks to the rich biodiversity of their 130 million year old rainforest. According to the World Wildlife Fund, Borneo is estimated to contain more than 15,000 plant species, over 5,000 of which are found nowhere else on the planet…
The StraitsJourneys team recently joined our Expert Lynelle Barrett and Leong Minyi, founder of Mai Textile Studio, in leading a workshop for children at the Waldorf Steiner Education Association. This was an exciting way for StraitsJourneys to give back to the community, and also a chance to teach local kids about traditional textiles…
The Republic of Singapore turns 53 this year and as usual, the National Day fireworks will take place where the Singapore River empties into the bay. Much like the country itself, the river reflecting these lights has shapeshifted throughout the past century…
Generally, when you visit a library, you know what to expect: books for borrowing. Some people may have been shocked when shelves of CDs and DVDs for rent began cropping up, but here are a few libraries with even stranger finds amongst the stacks…
Hanoi, a city that’s been standing for over 1000 years, has been going through a recent development boom. But even as skyscrapers are springing up, the scene on the ground is still flush with cultural gems and hidden corners. The new is being woven into the old, forming a thrilling tapestry of streets lined with both ancient temples and trendy cafes…
Between the endless articles on how sugar shapes our bodies and the endless advice on how to consume less of it, it’s rarely mentioned that sugar has also heavily shaped the modern world. And much like the cavities and diseases our bodies are wracked with, this deceptively harmless sweetener’s impact on the world is markedly negative…
The story of the Akihabara shopping district in Tokyo is essentially the story of every high school nerd in the 1980s. Shops here were the first to sell and celebrate home computers at a time when they were only used by specialists and hobbyists, and naturally, their indoorsy consumers were also big fans of anime…
For those looking to spend the summer immersed in beauty, Penang should be at the top of the list. Thanks to its 130 million year old rainforest and 5,000 years of human civilization, the island has a wealth of both natural and man-made art. In fact, the whole month of August is devoted to it….
There is a beautiful line in Jhumpa Lahiri’s international bestseller The Namesake that you’ve probably seen floating around the internet: “That’s the thing about books. They let you travel without moving your feet.” The exploration of unfamiliar lands can happen on the page or on a plane, and in some magical instances, both at the…
Clothing has always straddled the line between art and function. Born out of necessity, methods of creating and wearing textiles have evolved to represent cultural values as well as individuality. With evidence of its existence dating back 27,000 years, weaving is one of humanity’s oldest activities. It is also one of the most universal…
The end of Ramadan is fast approaching and there’s excitement in Singapore’s humid air. Hari Raya Puasa (also called Eid al-Fitr) is a holiday about generosity, charity and reflecting on one’s past actions. Since practicing Muslims conclude a month of dawn-to-dusk fasting, it’s no surprise that food is also a huge component…
When the phrase tea ceremony is mentioned, you likely think of Japan’s meticulous rituals or of Chinese wedding traditions. However, the lesser-known tea culture of Taiwan is no less captivating. “Tea is not merely a drink but an art form in Taiwan,” states Dave Lim, owner of Sun Ray Cafe in Singapore and…
As the largest religious monument in the world, the architecture of Angkor Wat is unquestionably impressive from a distance. The central temple stands at 213 meters tall. The entire complex spans 162.6 hectares. The city is comprised of more stone than all of Egypt’s pyramids combined. But equally impressive are the details…
I didn’t mean to turn my trip to Edinburgh into an article. It just sort of happened? Read all about it in the August issue of the Singapore American Newspaper:
“Picturesque” is the ideal word for Edinburgh.
If the Gothic architecture and striking geography of Scotland’s capital aren’t enough to convince you, the homegrown arts scene should. Edinburgh is famous for its festivals, concerts and live acts. The annual Edinburgh International Festival features invitation-only performances in music, theater, opera and dance. However, the most well-known is the Edinburgh Festival Fringe as it’s the world’s largest arts festival. Unlike the International Festival, anyone can perform almost any type of act. Last year, there were over 50,000 performances in everything from children’s shows to spoken word to cabaret, though the Fringe is best known for its robust comedy segments.
Similar to Melbourne, Edinburgh is very walkable, and anything that isn’t in walking distance can be reached via a robust network of trams and buses (almost all of which have free Wifi). The general atmosphere is laidback. The people are warm. The food scene is flush with local produce and craft alcohol. Both metropolises have been named Cities of Literature by UNESCO and this year an exchange program was launched to facilitate networking between their robust literary scenes. Even on a casual walk through Edinburgh, you’ll encounter statues and monuments to literary greats such as Sir Walter Scott and Robert Burns.
In addition to being a haven for writers, Edinburgh is wealthy with galleries and museums, many of which are free. I highly recommend the National Gallery for two reasons. One, it features spectacular work by Renaissance masters, including Da Vinci, Raphael and Michelangelo. And two, by studying paintings from hundreds of years ago, it’s possible to see just how little the cityscape has changed over the past millennium. Modern-day Princes Street, one of the main thoroughfares, is instantly recognizable in Alexander Nasmyth’s painting from 1825. This is partly due to regulations that limit the height of newer buildings and partly due to the city’s topography.
The multi-leveled nature of Edinburgh means there are several prime vantage points from which to gaze out over the sprawl. Calton Hill is worth the climb, but Edinburgh Castle, of course, takes the cake. The stone fortress watches over everything from its perch on the aptly-named Castle Rock, as it has done since the 12th century. Boasting just under 1000 years of history, it routinely tops the list of Edinburgh’s must-see sites. It has two spectacular approaches. You can stroll through the verdant Princes Street Gardens and then languidly take a path up a grassy slope that’s populated with daffodils in spring.
Or you can start at the bottom of Old Town and meander up the Royal Mile, which begins at Holyrood Palace and follows the medieval streets directly to the castle gates. Give yourself plenty of time to make stops and detours, as this route passes St. Giles’ Cathedral, the National Museum of Scotland, Scottish Parliament, the University of Edinburgh as well as a plethora of notable restaurants and pubs. There are also numerous secret passages and small, winding stone alleys to explore. Some of them you may already be familiar with, as parts of the Harry Potter movies were filmed here.
Like I said: picturesque.