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Archive for March, 2012

Words without friends


If you hear the sound of groaning coming from our bedroom, don’t be misled. It’s just Rob being thrashed again.

Yes, I am winning – at Words with Friends, the cross-word game available as an iphone app. Or in this case, Words without Friends.

For the past few weeks we have too busy recovering from illness and setting up house to venture out too far or to meet new people, so having exhausted our usual topics of conversation – how the kids are coping back in Australia and what to have for dinner – we have resorted to other forms of relaxation.

It began by me offering to help Rob in his WWF games with others, which, incidentally, doubled his success rate. (“That’s not true!” Rob says, reading over my shoulder.)

Inspired, he then suggested that we start our own game.

Big mistake. In the first game I beat him by 120 points.

Forgive me for boasting but this was balm to my self esteem, having spent the previous morning sitting on the kitchen floor weeping over the fact that I couldn’t figure out how to turn on the oven.

As usual, I waited for Rob to come home to save me, which he did by switching on the “Oven” button on the wall. (Der!)

This is why, a small victory, like getting 36 points for one word, is doing wonders for my morale.

“He, he! Want another game?” I crow, throwing down the gauntlet.

“It’s 11pm! I need to sleep,” he groans.

But being a competitive soul, and with victory so near yet so far, he accepts my challenge and we are off for another round of whooping and groaning, emerging from the bedroom the next morning, weary and baggy-eyed.

Despite the toll on our bodies, our minds are getting an unexpected workout.

“Chode!  What’s a chode?” I exclaim, looking over Rob’s shoulder one day at a WWF game he is playing with our son Johannes.

“I don’t know,” Rob replies crossly. So I look it up.

Well, dear reader, I was shocked. Do not read on if you are easily offended, but the Urban Dictionary informs me that a chode is “a penis that is wider than it is long”.

How is it possible for WWF to reject the word “ok?” but allow the word “chode”?

And so it goes on. “What’s a loid?” I ask Rob in exasperation as he totes up a frightening 23 points.

“Who knows!” he gloats.

I look it up – fearing the worst. Web definitions claims a loid is “slang to open a locked door by sliding a thin piece of celluloid between the door edge and the door frame to force open a spring lock.”

Oh yeah?

I get my revenge by playing “kor” – which may well be advertising speak for core-product in the same way that “lite” has replaced “light”. I earn 21 points on a triple word score without ever learning what “kor” means, as not even Professor Google can provide an answer.

Nor do I ever find out what “porny” means, which Rob plays for 24 points – although I can guess.

“Do you feel it tighten?” Rob gloats, playing “noose” for another 28 points.

But I still win, which is why Rob decides to offload me and pitch me against Johannes, the WWF King.

In our first game, Johannes earns 36 points by using only two letters, but managing to make three words – ax, si and xi. “Did you even know what Xi means?” I cry in exasperation.

“I didn’t before I began to play Words with Friends, but I do now. It’s Chinese for double happiness,” he replies.

Double happiness for some, triple misery for others.

It’s also the 14th letter of the Greek alphabet and the number 11 in Roman numerals, I later learn.

My education might have been further improved and family relations might have been put at further risk had I not found a real friend (apart from Rob!)

We met through another mutual friend whom we both knew (although separately) in Bangkok, and who had suggested we might get along.

Although we had met briefly during our week apartment hunting, it wasn’t until we arranged to have coffee this week that I realised how out of practice I felt at meeting someone new

As I got ready to go, I felt as if I was auditioning for the part of “friend”. (Note to self: don’t just talk about self. )

Expats are a strange lot – misfits in their home country, as their experiences can often alienate them from their friends and family at home, and misfits in their adopted countries where they can only really be invited guests.

They tend to hang out with work colleagues and other expats, as work becomes all consuming and holidays are mostly spent returning home to meet family obligations.

Those who have been expats a long time also develop a type of ennui at the idea of exchanging life stories with yet another potential friend who may soon desert them, as expats by nature are mobile. So we expats tend to be both needy and wary.

At the same time, it is not easy to make friends –  wherever you are, and whatever stage of life. It takes time and patience, and a little bit of luck.

When we lived in Bangkok, a high school counsellor explained to me that developing friendships was like trying on clothes: sometimes you just had to keep trying until you found one that fits.

So, with this in mind I met my potential friend with a mixture of excitement and trepidation.

The first hour we surreptitiously interviewed each other, trying to find common ground.

It wasn’t until I mentioned that I might go along to a writer’s group that something clicked.

“I’ll go with you,” she said.

“You like writing?” I asked, and then we were off, like a train whose wheels had started turning slowly and which was now gathering momentum and couldn’t stop.

We talked about writing so much that we arranged to meet in two days time and talk about writing some more.

So now, I am looking forward to another sort of words with friends – or at this stage, friend – sharing our mutual interest in writing.

Not only do I have a new friend, I have found an old friend here. Like me, she has come here with her husband for his work.

In what seems like a lifetime ago now, she was my son’s girlfriend and a friend of the family. Then,  our relationship by its nature, was more parent-child.

But now I am discovering the woman she has grown into and marvelling at how she has blossomed into a strong, beautiful, articulate and passionate person.

I plan to introduce my new and old friend so we can explore Singapore together, finding out more about our adopted country – and each other.

News flash! 

Johannes,  the WWF King, has conquered me with a devastating 179 points for the word “grooving”. I now know what it feels like to be a Queensland Labor politician. My only consolation is maternal pride. My son is a genius!

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Comparing prices

When immigrating, it is natural to compare the old country to the new – at least until you untangle and cast off the threads of memory that tie you to your old life and your old self.

But some comparisons raise more questions than answers.

Take my average supermarket trip in Singapore. Not having a car, I wheel my little jeep behind me and go down the hill and across the road to my local supermarket, which is like a smaller, up-market version of Coles at home.

Except outside the expensive gourmet supermarket in Singapore, patronised mainly by expats, there are no beggars, broken beer bottles, or graffiti.

Yes, my trip to Coles in Richmond, Australia, usually involves dodging the local beggars, especially the young man who sits outside the Swan St entrance and throws his cigarette butts at you if you fail to fork out.

Don’t get me wrong: when I go to the Melbourne’s CBD, I usually take a purse full of coins to support all the local beggars and buskers – especially if they have a dog or a child with them – but I’m less inclined to do so when they are angry or abusive and I am weighed down with shopping bags.

But in the Singapore that I have seen so far there are no beggars, and the only buskers I have seen have been in the underground link near Wheelock Place.

Even then, each of the two that I saw had a neat PA system, a microphone pinned to his lapel, and his busking permit neatly displayed, and both were well dressed. “Smile though your heart is aching, smile even though it’s breaking, when there are clouds in the sky, you’ll get by,” crooned one, sounding like a candidate auditioning for Singapore Idol.

Contrast this with the busker who is often found under the clocks at Flinders St Station in Melbourne – a young man with wild hair, wearing a dress, and who leaps about while wielding a strange puppet.

I am not naïve enough to think that this means there is no poverty in Singapore.

Nor am I arrogant enough to assume that after two weeks here – one spent in a hospital room – I know enough about the country to make any comment on its political system, or that I would presume to.

It’s just an observation – a snapshot of how one ordinary activity is carried out here, compared to how it is carried out in Melbourne.

In Melbourne these days, despite Australia’s celebrated welfare system, it is impossible to go shopping without being confronted with the city’s poor and homeless.

I make no comment on whether they are the deserving poor or the undeserving, as Henry Higgins would put it. Just that, despite its reputation as an affluent country, Australia’s poor and disaffected – many of them made so through mental illness or drug abuse – seem to be increasingly with us.

The post-card image of Victoria – koalas at Healesville Sanctuary, the Twelve Apostles on the Great Ocean Rd, and penguins at Philip Island – must be sought out by tourists. It is not immediately evident by a visit to the city.

By contrast, the postcard Singapore is the one I live in at the moment.

Any moment, I expect the edges to peel back to reveal the real Singapore, the one that doesn’t feel like the Kingdom of Duloc, from Shrek, which is entered via turnstiles and is like a giant theme park.

Not that I am not enjoying this theme park.

I would rather not have to feel guilty for buying chocolate when others can’t afford milk.

I would rather not see the ugly, scrawling nonsensical graffiti over Melbourne’s walls and train seats that makes me feel as I have been weed on by a giant tom cat, and reminds me that a certain percentage of my fellow Australians are moronic vandals.

But there is a price for everything, and I suspect that I have yet to see the price for all this luxury, and more importantly, who pays.

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Exposed!

Having your photo taken is always traumatic, especially if the photo is going to be used to identify you.

That’s why I took special care to pluck my whiskers and draw on my eyebrows before being photographed and fingerprinted for my Dependant Spouse Pass.

I checked my lipstick and practiced smiling while Rob and I waited tentatively at a private photography studio just outside the Ministry of Manpower.

After Rob paid the $6 fee, the cashier handed me a receipt, which then had to be presented to the person taking the photo. (I will not presume to call her a photographer, for reasons that will become obvious).

Five minutes later, the cashier waved me into a tiny booth, but before I had a chance to sit down, the woman seated at the computer leapt up and started talking angrily in Chinese, calling the cashier back in.

Apparently, she was not ready for me.

The cashier argued back and then left, while I stood lamely.

“Sit down!” the woman at the computer ordered.

I sat.

“Take off your earrings,” she ordered again.

I did so.

“Take hair off eyebrows,” she said, frowning.

Huh?

She brushed her own fringe aside to show me.

I tried, but it kept flopping back.

She indicated again.

“I can’t. It’s too long,” I said apologetically.

“Turn head to left. Now right. Now this angle,” she said, showing me.

I did so.

“Can I smile?” I asked.

She nodded grimly.

I tried, but could only manage a lop-sided snarl.

“Is okay?” she said, calling me over to the other side of the computer to look.

I peered gingerly. Without my glasses, it looked fine, but then without my glasses everything looks fine.

Five minutes later, she handed me a small plastic bag with the photos.

“Never mind,” said Rob, when I showed him. “They reduce it down to about one centimetre anyway.”

We made our way to a large room with a central desk, where very soon my name was displayed on six screens with the instruction, “You may approach any available counter”.

The girl who processed the application and finger-printed me, took one look at the giant grey-scale photo of my Freddy Krueger face, magnified in gruesome detail on her computer screen, and shot a glance at me.

“You look much better than photo,” she offered kindly.

 That’s what I plan to tell everyone for the next two years.

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The short-sighted history of Europe

Lately, I’ve been doing some research about medieval history for a play I am writing, and coincidentally I have come across a curious thing.

Despite the advances of feminism and the general acknowledgment of women’s contribution to all facets of modern life, it is still possible to write a book about the history of the world and barely mention women.

The book in question is The Shortest History of Europe by respected Australian historian John Hirst.

No doubt it would have been longer had it included more than a passing reference to the other half of the human race.

The book has no index, as it is a type of extended essay, so it is not possible to check how often women rate a mention other than to read it thoroughly and take notes – which I attempted to do.

For a start, there are 22 images in the book, 11 of which consist solely of men.

There are no images solely of women, but there are two in which women appear incidentally.

These include a painting of Eve, wife of Adam, and paintings in which the weeping but nameless sisters of dead soldiers of the Roman Empire are used to demonstrate the “weakness” of women compared to the stoicism of men.

Three other images are ambiguous. One is of peasants paying tax during the Roman Empire. They appear to be men, but it’s hard to say.  The seven figures are similarly attired and all curly headed. Another is of peasants harvesting, which appears to include one woman, but once again this isn’t clear.

The remaining images are of maps and places.

This is a sombre indication of what is to come.

The book begins with Ancient Greece, where Hirst states that “All male citizens gathered in one place to talk about public affairs, to vote on laws and to vote on public policy.”

What were the women doing while the men decided their futures? The washing? Hirst doesn’t say.

Women don’t fare much better in the reference to Roman times.  We learn that a Roman sent his son to Athens to university or hired a Greek slave to teach his children at home.

What were the daughters doing while the son went to university? The cooking?

The book then tells us of German warriors, who thought fighting was fun. What were the German women doing? Presumably breeding and raising the future German warriors?

I accept that Ancient Greece and Rome were misogynistic societies in which women were not allowed to participate in government, but I find it strange that there is no acknowledgement or discussion of this, or indeed much reference to women at all.

Hirst goes on to tell us that the German warriors turned themselves into kings and that their friends became nobles.  Over the centuries, warriors changed into knights, whose job it was to honor and protect “ladies.”

This, we are told, evolved into gentlemen respecting women by standing when a woman entered the room.

Incredibly, this is what feminism was all about according to Hirst.

“Feminists in recent times fought against this respect. They did not want to be honored on a pedestal, they wanted to be equal,” he writes.

It was this degree of respect that made it easier for feminism to be accepted in western culture, Hirst says, because Western women then had the advantage of “height” or respect.

Forgive me, but as a woman, I thought feminism was the fight against being denied citizenship, voting rights, property rights, the right to leave your husband if he beat you and to keep your children, not to mention the right to equal pay for equal work.

Some women did object to the fact that these outward customs of respect did not translate into basic human rights, but objecting to being put on a pedestal was not what motivated women to become feminists.

It’s page 22 and this is the only specific reference to women so far.

On page 28, we find the first woman mentioned by name – Eve – in painting in which Adam is blaming Eve and Eve is blaming the serpent.

And so it goes on. We read about the “men of the Renaissance”, “men of the Enlightenment” , “the men of the Romantic movement”,  “man and society ”, “men of the woods”, and for two centuries “men debating the achievements of the ancients”, to name a few. There are also numerous references to sons, but none to daughters.

At last, on page, 47, there is another reference to a woman – in a hypothetical interaction between a female student and tutor using the Socratian method of questioning. Incredibly, Hirst names the student “Amanda.”

Lucretia, a Roman wife and rape victim who later takes the blame and kills herself, is the first reference to a real woman – on page 74.

The next reference is on the following page in a painting where the “weakness of women, weeping over their loss,” is contrasted with the stoicism of Brutus, who doesn’t flinch as his sons are flogged and beheaded in front of him for taking part in a conspiracy.

But perhaps I am not reading it right.

In his introduction, Hirst admits “Many people and events that get into other history books don’t get into this one.”

I decide to Google some reviews – which are overwhelmingly positive. One reviewer, also called Jane, effuses: “It’s all here. Not names and dates and stuff: themes, the reasons why it matters, how it’s affected the way that you think and live.”

I get that it’s a broad brush and that the focus is themes, but it’s not true about the names. There are many men mentioned specifically in fact, but very few women.

Here’s a tally, including the manner to which they are referred and the order in which they appear:

Newton, the great 17th Century scientist

Jesus, the founder of Christianity

Paul, the great early missionary of the church

The Emperor Constantine, 313 AD, who became a Christian.

King Charles of the Franks (Charlemagne)

The god Hermes with the infant Dionysus by Praxiteles (artist)

Art historian Kenneth Clark

Eve, in a painting by Praxiteles – “Adam is blaming Eve; Eve is blaming the serpent”.

Michelangelo and the statue of David

Hamlet

Martin Luther, a monk and heretic

Charles Darwin,  who “advanced the view that we share a common ancestor with the apes”

Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, Greek philosophers

Hippocrates

Emperor Justinian, who ruled the Eastern Empire

Odoracer, a German chieftain

Allah

Muhammad

Charles Martel, leader of the Franks and grandfather of Charlemagne

The Norman Duke William

Pericles, the leader of Athens

Athenian author Thucydides (male)

Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address

English Scholar and radical, George Grote

Alexander the Great

Tarquin the Proud

The Roman historian Livy

Shakespeare

Tarquin’s son, Sextus Tarquinius, a rapist

Lucretia, wife of Collatinus, and rape victim, who blames herself and then commits suicide.

Brutus, nephew of the king

Julius Caesar

Jacques-Louis David, court painter to Louis XVI

Horatius and his three sons

Augustus, Caesar’s grand nephew and adopted son

The poet Ovid

Dioclectian and Constantine, Emperors

Queen Elizabeth, the Virgin Queen,  in reference to her throne passing to James VI of Scotland at her death in 1603

James I

Charles I

Charles II

James II

Henry VIII

His first wife, Catherine

Anne Boleyn

Archbishop of Canterbury

Oliver Cromwell

King of France, Louis XIV

Dutchman William of Orange

Mary, his wife and who rules with him as a joint monarch

Anne, Mary’s sister and James II daughter, who ruled after them

Sophia, the Electress of Hanover in Germany, granddaughter of James I and the monarch which Parliament chose to rule but who died before she could take over.

George, Sophia’s son.

English author John Locke

Maximilien Robespierre

Mirabeau, leader of the French revolution in its early stages (picture)

Edward Gibbon, author of The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire

King Pepin, the Christian Frankish King

Hitler

Napoleon

St Augustine, who lived in the last days of the Roman Empire

St Peter,

Pope Gregory VII

Henry IV

Renaissance artist Cellini

Frederick, the Elector of Saxony

The Hapsburgs, one of the great ruling dynasties

Voltaire, the guru of the Enlightenment

Josephine, Napoleon’s Empress

William Jones, an English judge resident in  India

Petrarch, the pioneer scholar of the Renaissance

Cicero

Plutarch, author of Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans

Antony and Cleopatra, a work by Shakespeare

Copernicus, who first positioned the sun at the centre of the universe

Kepler, who formulated laws of the planets’ motion

Swedish botanist Linnaeus

Joseph Banks, the botanist on Cook’s voyage

Pope Paul VI

That makes 72 direct references to men compared to nine to women. Of the references to women,  one – Eve – is arguably mythical and another –  Cleopatra –  only rates a mention in the title of a Shakespeare play, while Lucretia, as we have said, is a rape victim.

The others don’t fare much better.  Mary of Orange, and her sister, Anne, were rulers in their own right, but are only mentioned briefly.

Anne Boleyn, Catherine of Aragon and Josephine are only mentioned in passing as wives of Henry VIII and Napolean respectively.

Sophia, the Electress of Hanover, is mentioned briefly as a conduit to the rule of her son, George, and Queen Elizabeth 1 gets one line – a mention as the virgin queen whose reign passes to James VI of Scotland.

Contrast this to the first collection of biographies in Western literature devoted entirely women, the aptly named Famous Women, written in 1362 by Giovanni Boccaccio, and translated by Virginia Brown, a Senior Fellow at the Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies in Toronto.

Boccaccio’s collection also begins with Eve, and takes us up to the reign of Joanna, Queen of Jerusalem and Sicily in the 14th Century and who was the only female monarch in her time to rule in her own name. Never heard of her? I wonder why?

But it’s not just the fact that women are mentioned so rarely in Hirst’s book that bothers me. It’s the way they are mentioned: mostly as victims or chattels.

On page 56, under Invasions and Conquests Hirst writes: “The Germans brought their women and children with them and intended to settle.”

This is reiterated on page 62, where the next reference to women is contained in a broader reference to the Vikings who seized “food, horses, women”. The Norsemen also “brought their wives and children and settled permanently”.

And we are told that Henry VIII’s first wife, who is not named, “could not do what was required of her and produce a male heir”.

But some rulers apparently didn’t even need wives, as on page 106 we learn that : “It happened in France for a long time that all the kings produced able sons, so gradually inheritance became the sole means of determining who was going to be the French king.”

On the chapter on Languages, women rate a brief mention – in the negative: “Girls did not study Latin”.

Sexual terms were printed in Latin, so no one could understand them and be corrupted, Hirst says, then  gives the example of the word “pudenda”, which “refers to the sex organs, particularly women’s, and means literally ‘matters that are shameful’.”

Even in the chapter on the common people, there is only one reference to women: “Men ploughed, women and children harvested.”

And that’s it.

That’s how women are written out of history.

To fill in the gaps, you might like to check the following links:

http://womenshistory.about.com/library/bio/blbio_list_medieval.htm

http://www.womeninworldhistory.com/rulers.html

http://www.cas.umn.edu/assets/pdf/Introduction%20-%20Habsburg%20Wives.pdf

http://aha.confex.com/aha/2012/webprogram/Session6610.html

http://departments.kings.edu/womens_history/mariatheres.html

http://europeanhistory.about.com/od/referenceencyclopedia/tp/31women.htm

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Oh, Kitty! how nice it would be if we could only get through into Looking- glass House! I’m sure it’s got, oh! such beautiful things in it!

Let’s pretend there’s a way of getting through into it, somehow, Kitty. Let’s pretend the glass has got all soft like gauze, so that we can get through. Why, it’s turning into a sort of mist now, I declare! It’ll be easy enough to get through — ‘ She was up on the chimney-piece while she said this, though she hardly knew how she had got there. And certainly the glass was beginning to melt away, just like a bright silvery mist.

In another moment Alice was through the glass, and had jumped lightly down into the Looking-glass room. 

–          Alice Through the Looking Glass, by Lewis Carroll.

I have  fallen through the looking glass – just like Alice. Or at least that’s what it feels like.

Two weeks ago, I was sitting in my upstairs office in Melbourne with Greta talking to Rob in Singapore on Skype.

Now, I am sitting on the couch with Rob in Singapore talking to Greta in Melbourne on Skype.

How did I get on the other side of the screen?

The rational part of my brain knows that I came 10 days ago by plane, but it feels as if I have tumbled head-first through the monitor on my computer and landed on the other side in a parallel universe.

At home in Melbourne, we had a yellow couch with red cushions. Here, in Singapore we have a red couch with yellow cushions (and green ones, too).

At home in Melbourne, we were a short drive from Brunetti’s in Carlton. At home in Singapore we are a short walk from Brunetti’s in Tanglin Mall. As Asians are fond of saying: “Same, same – but different.”

When my Italian grandmother, Angelina Taranto, and her father Francesco, immigrated to Australia from the tiny Island of Salina in 1920, they had to endure six weeks on a ship.

Physically, today’s seven-hour plane trip from Melbourne to Singapore  is preferable, but psychologically the six-week journey by ship is healthier.

During that time, just as gestation gives women time to accept the fact that their lives are about to change dramatically, the immigrant has time to think about their new life and to grieve for the old.

But not today. Today, we arrive impatiently and then find that while our physical selves are present, our hearts, minds and souls are still elsewhere.

At the same time, there is enough familiarity to fool us into thinking that nothing has changed.

There is my computer with the familiar screen-saver of Chihuahua puppies. There are  my clothes – a reminder that my outward appearance is the same. There are the cushions that  once adorned  our couch in Boronia, before our colour-scheme changed in the move to Richmond – a reminder of our past rather than present life.

This is coupled with the new and unfamiliar. I fumble with light switches that are in strange places; with cupboards that open different ways; bathrooms that have cupboards up high instead of down low and water heaters that you have to turn on before a shower, and off immediately afterwards.

“You need a manual to run this place,” I joke.

“There is one,” Rob replies.

Sure enough, in a cupboard in the spare room is a heavy leather briefcase that contains no less than eight instruction books for the various appliances and a welcome kit, with a list of rules, including the banning of customary rites (funeral wakes) and the burning of “incense paper, joss stick and candle” in the common areas.

Even the crockery is new and unfamiliar, having been bought by Rob a month   before I arrived – although I did help choose it.

Yes, thanks to modern technology, I was able to sit at my computer in Richmond while Rob displayed and discussed our purchases via webcam.

Mostly he made good choices – except the pots. “Don’t get the ones with the metal handles,” I had warned, watching as three shop assistants in Takashimaya department store in Singapore wrapped his selections carefully.

But now I am here, standing at the sink washing new fine white crockery plates instead of the familiar and heavy blue-grey plates back in Richmond.

I open three different cupboards before I work out where they go.

Going out does not help. When I step outside the apartment into the unknown, I am myself unknown. There are no friends to bump into or meet for lunch.

There is a strange peace in this. I don’t want new friends, at least not now. I am still nostalgic for the old ones.

I sit at the round table at Beviamo in Tanglin Mall and order a coffee. The round table is not popular, despite its beautiful tropical flower arrangement, which changes every week. This is because at the round table you sit with strangers.

But I prefer it. I read my book and drink my iced coffee, with its little companion jug of syrup, and sneakily eavesdrop on a French conversation to the right of me, and Australian and  American conversation to the left.

The feeling that I have teleported from Melbourne to Singapore is further compounded later that night as I watch my daughter’s features turn into a  full colour version of Picasso’s weeping woman on Skype, like something from a horror movie. It is even more horrible when she scowls and declares that she hates Skype.

In frustration, we resort to Viber, a free text and talk service that is available on smart phones. But  even that sometimes sounds like the other person’s head is in a giant bell.

Communication is not easy, even in this modern age. Melbourne is three hours ahead, so by the time  I am up, it is midday there and when we are finishing tea and ready to chat, Greta is exhausted and ready for bed. As well, her full schedule makes it difficult to find a mutually agreeable time.

And she is grumpy, because every time she tells us that she is tired or overwhelmed with work, we feel guilty or give unwanted advice – or worse still, cry.

“Are you crying?” she asks accusingly.

“No,” I gulp, stifling a sob. I blame the antibiotics…it can’t be me. (I am strong, I am invincible, I am woman!)

In the end, she tells us what we suspected. “Look, I’d be tired and overwhelmed even if you were here. It’s nothing to do with you leaving.”

Really? You’d still be miserable and grumpy if we were there. What a relief!!

Having now been given permission to enjoy ourselves we venture out later that night to a Japanese restaurant across the road, where the crab claw that Rob orders looks like a genuine amputation from a crab, rather than the tiny ball of minced crab meat on a stick that we get at home.

Everything in this looking-glass world seems more real, rather than less.

But unlike Alice’s looking-glass world, where everything must be done backwards, there is only one way to go for we new immigrants – forwards. Even if it is just one square at a time.

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Relaking at home, lah!

On Saturday, I walked home from the hospital – that’s how close it is to our new home.

Well, perhaps walking is an overstatement.

I cling to Rob’s arm and waddle slowly. While elevation of the leg is part of the treatment for cellulitis, once the inflammation has cleared, it is important to walk, as the calf muscle is the pump that makes the lymphatic system work and reduce swelling.

The walk is made even slower by the fact that I want to stop and exclaim at everything, which appears luminous with colour – especially after having lived behind a yellow curtain in a hospital room for the past week.

Outside Tanglin Post Office, I stop to admire a type of bird of paradise with a creamy lemon and ruby red flower that is growing next to the footpath.

“Come on!” says Rob, who is carrying my bags.  Having been in Singapore for two months already, the novelty of seeing tropical flowers everywhere, rather than just in a hot house at the Fitzroy Gardens Observatory, has somewhat worn off.

Naturally, when we arrive home five minutes later, I am exhausted  – and sweaty.

I lie on the couch, admiring the lattice of  light green foliage from the many pots on the patio, and then, having worked up an appetite, offer to make a sandwich for lunch.

“Can you manage that?” Rob asks in amazement.

“Can, can lah!” I reply.

Yes, it’s happening already. The week in hospital gave me a crash course in Singlish. A few days earlier, as Dr Lim is sticking yet another needle in my hand, I exclaim involuntarily: “Torture, lah!” – to the great surprise and amusement of the nurses.

Like Australia, Singapore is a nation of immigrants, and Singlish is the result: a blend of Chinese, Malay, English, Tamil and local dialects.

So next time I am faced with a medical emergency I will dial triple jilo, and ask the ambulance to chop chop.

But for now, even making a sandwich is an effort.

In fact, I am so blur all  I can do is relak on the couch and use eyepower as Rob unpacks and organises everything and makes me a cup of teh.

Correction: In case of emergency in Singapore you should dial 999 – not triple jilo, my friend Ida informs me. However, it is triple jilo in Melbourne.

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Vale Margaret Whitlam

Vale Margaret Whitlam, social worker, author, swimmer, humanitarian, mother and wife – an extraordinary woman.

It was women like this that Accent, The Age’s now-defunct “women’s” page, once championed: not just when they died, but throughout their lives. And not just as wives, but as people in their own right.

Their projects, ideas and influence were documented and their opinions sought on many important events, such as elections and government policy changes and other issues affecting women.

In fact, one of the great joys of working as a reporter for Accent during the early 1990s, was meeting such wonderful women and discussing these matters with them. (Not that I met Margaret Whitlam – I wish I had.)

But it is not just news affecting women, or women’s voices that have been lost in this new media age.

With the exception of community newspapers, these days, the extraordinary stories of ordinary people of either sex are seldom considered news unless they are victims of disasters, or prostituting themselves on some reality TV show.

The focus on celebrity and on police news has promoted our obsession with narcissism and has contributed to an alarmist culture, which makes our society appear brutal – and, as a result, makes the vulnerable more fearful.

When I taught journalism at Swinburne Institute of Technology earlier this year, fellow tutor Larry Schwartz lamented the fact that the art of storytelling seemed to have been discarded in favour of “hard news” which seemed to be all about catching people out.  I agree.

While the fourth estate has an important role in keeping the bastards honest, it seems to me that there has been a narrowing of the opportunities to tell other types of stories – the sorts of stories that we told in Accent about the lives of every kind of woman.

In this way, many people, not just women, are being written out of history, and the rest of the world is all the poorer for it.

Let’s hope the history books remember Margaret Elaine Dovey (later Whitlam), for everything she was and gave, not just for her role as Gough Whitlam’s wife.

PS: My good friend Murray Smith has since informed me of an American organisation called the National Women’s History Project,

http://www.nwhp.org/whm/index.php  and that Dr Nikki Henningham, Research Fellow, at the Australian Women’s Archive Project (University of Melbourne), is working to preserve Australian women’s history.

http://www.womenaustralia.info

Check these links and join the campaign to record the lives and achievements of women.

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