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Friday, January 29, 2010

The Beauty of an Airwell

This is the 2nd time I've met up with Leah together with OKC and Ting. The conversation again did not lag. There were so many interesting things to learn from the ladies. OKC is widely travelled and I learnt a thing or 2 about online shopping as well as some quirks of foreign cultures that I had never encountered. With Ting, we brainstormed possible ideas for businesses, and Leah shared with me this intriguing thing called Etzi.

You see, I am stuck at home with my work, and my garden and my baking. It does me good to go out and see the world - actually, it was Leah's house. Heh! Heh! I went over to Leah's to eat and chill out with 3 amazing ladies. Beautiful. Intelligent. Courageous. Loving. Kind.

Actually, I was also there to suss out her airwell... It seems that the building authorities now require every room in a landed house to have windows. So, there is no more excuse to build dark and dank rooms along the inside walls of a semi-detached house. I think that's wonderful because I don't like darkness of any sort, whether physical or emotional. When the house is dark, it's hard to lift one's spirits, you don't think?

The airwell was open to the sky. 2 bedrooms open onto a landing at the foot of the airwell. When you lounge on the artificial wicker sofa, sipping apple cider, you can look up and see the blue sky. I think it's a most lovely place to sip tea and curl up with a book either in the early morning or late afternoon. There is air and ambient light. It also faces the kitchen so one can supervise the roast whilst reading. Yup! La dolce vita!

One of the bedrooms opening into the airwell has a tatami mat on the floor. No really! A real tatami mat the thickness of a mattress and just like those in our ryokan in Japan. So that's another idea I need to store for future reference. Maybe I can get me a tatami matted room in my new house? Hmmmmm...

Actually an airwell is a simple thing. You don't need exquisite craftsmen or expensive material to build an airwell. But an airwell makes a big difference because light spills into the middle of the house and brings with it life and energy.

Thank you Leah!

Monday, January 25, 2010

I'm Miserable!!

I cannot sleep. There is a major issue with my garden. The plants have been magnesium-poisoned. It all started with a few fascinating exposés on high brix gardening by 2 people whom I shall call LL and K. These 2 are the GCS Forum PhDs of Fertilizer Management. I had to re-read their forum posts a few times before I even understood anything. But whatever I did understand was intriguing. I itched to try.

It didn't help that the last quarter of last year was so busy, I hardly stepped out into the garden. Besides, Petunia has never been patient enough to wait till she has understood everything before she launches herself into an escapade of the non-physically-challenging sort. Most times, I figure that things will get clearer as I go along... and besides, learning requires mistakes no?

Oh well... this time, my mistake is a big, big one indeed!! Oh... woe is me!!

See... I somehow understood that magnesium was necessary for something that a plant does (whatever that might be)... and since none of the fertilizers that I used in the past had any stated magnesium, I went and assumed that magnesium would be the missing nutrient. Now of course LL would have gone and done a soil test. But Petunia conveniently tossed that notion out the window and went ahead to augment her garden. Being rather busy with proper work, not the fun gardening sort of work, I went through my garden dispensing magnesium like I was The God of Fortune dispensing gold. I gave out A LOT, A LOT, A LOT of magnesium.

And many plants simply fell over. They look like yesterday's stir fry.

Alright, now I know that too much magnesium takes out nitrogen from the soil and interferes with the plant's ability to absorb phosphorus. How does magnesium take nitrogen from soil? Dunno. How does magnesium prevent a plant from taking in phosphorus? Dunno. Whatever it is, my plants are starved and now I worry that if I add A LOT, A LOT, A LOT of something else, then my poor plants will really have to become yesterday's stir fry.

Oh... does anyone know what to do to make those sprigs of stir fry stand up again?


Astragalus is a wonderful herb for the immune system. David Hoffman's "Medical Herbalism" reports that "the herb has been employed to treat chronic leukopenia (low white blood cell count) related to treatment [using] steroids, anticancer drugs and other therapies." (p. 532).

We started using this herb regularly more than a decade ago. The Husband and I worked long hours, and we pulled night duty with our new baby. Coming down with a flu was something neither of us could afford. There was so much to do and promotions to earn and a child to bring up. So enter a weekly brew of astragalus soup.

In those days, herbal medicine was considered a quack remedy but there was no harm experimenting right? Anyway, I was glad I did because it was very effective in preventing unnecessary flus and coughs. I cannot help but feel a sense of smugness when The Husband comes home to say that his right and left hand men are both down with flu, and The Husband sails into office and sails out again with nary a sniffle.

I imagine that when he downs his weekly bowl of astragalus soup, a force shield springs up around him that zaps every single pathogen that comes into contact with it. Heh! Heh! (Rub hands and smile evil-ly). When the children were small, they didn't get any because I wasn't sure how it would affect them... but now that they're rather grown, everyone gets a dose.

I must admit though that I am far from consistent. I may forget for a few months and in those months, one or another of us invariably catches a flu or a sore throat. I berated myself thoroughly when The Daughter caught a flu and being too busy to rest, allowed it to develop into a lung infection. I've been a little more consistent since.

In the months when I am conscientious in brewing astragalus soup once a week, no one falls sick. But in months where I have been lazy, someone invariably does fall ill. Of course, I've a host of other "catch-'em-early" remedies to intervene at such times so that I don't have to nurse sick children and The Sick Husband whilst being myself sick. There's teatree oil swabs and goldenseal nose drips, but it's just better to have that force field in operation.

I say that, but before you know it, I would have forgotten to make that soup again because life is so full of other interesting things to do.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Good Little Boy

I have dreamy children. When The Daughter was little, I often caught her in a reverie with her mouth hanging open. These are children who lose water bottles, forget pencils, misplace textbooks, forget to do corrections, make me drive them to CCA practices that have been cancelled and they have absolutely no conception of time, often asking me whether what we're eating is lunch or dinner. They exist in a world of their own and rely on me to keep them grounded to the practical necessities of this world. I don't blame them because I vaguely remember my teachers saying "Petunia, if you don't close your mouth, a fly will go in."

But of a sudden, when they come to Primary 4 or 5, my children wake up and start to be on top of things. They remember to let me sign their forms. They don't lose their belongings quite as often. They watch the clock, bathe and put themselves to bed without being told.

Since Little Boy is in Primary 4 this year, he has suddenly woken up. He wrote in his journal last week that he had done rather poorly in school last year, and was determined to try harder this year in order to "... make my Mommy happy". And he has really got himself all sorted out this year, it seems. The Teacher was impressed enough to tell me on the phone that she has noticed a difference. He has developed focus in class, completes his work quickly and promptly.... and he makes an effort to write well and be less careless.

Something must happen to children's brains between Pri 3 and Pri 4 because The Daughter too suddenly woke up at the same age. She changed from Miss Dilly-Dally to Miss Efficient. Whatever it is, I am starting to enjoy this mothering business more and more.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Three Generations Under One Roof? Not For Me!

I am perplexed by the Chinese fascination with having 3 generations under one roof. For 2 decades, I have repeated unceasingly that it is a recipe for family discord and unnecessary hatred.

Every human needs personal space. I'm not just talking about physical space, but emotional, intellectual and action space. There are times when one wishes to be alone with one's feelings. At other times, one wishes to hold certain opinions without being judged. At yet other times, one wishes to do act without interference from another.

It is impossible to do that when you live with your mother-in-law because you are forever a guest in her home. Come on... She was there first. She bought the furniture. She placed them. She chose the curtains. It would threaten her place in the home if you were to mess with all that without her permission. In the end, you are home, but not home because if it were really your home, you shouldn't have to ask permission to change the furniture right?

One lady explained to me her predicament. "I am 35, but to keep the peace with my MIL, I must quickly rush home after work to eat at a certain time... so that the maid can wash the plates. After dinner, I must bathe quickly so that the maid can wash to bathroom. It is ridiculous that I cannot choose when I wish to eat and bathe. And since I pay the maid, the maid should fit my schedule and not the other way around! On top of that, if MIL does not get her way, she gives me the cold shoulder and won't talk to me for a whole week! I have no peace at home and I spend my weekends in malls and restaurants just to feel a sense of peace."

Is that a dignified way to live? No it isn't! Especially when one earns enough to buy a unit in a top end condominium such as The Sail, without having to borrow from the in-laws.

Now, how about the mother-in-law who stays in your home. That is hardly better because the elderly person proceeds to re-arrange your furniture and contradict you at every turn. They move in and take over, and then you begin to feel like a guest in your own home. Most women who stay with in-laws, find their personal space at work... because at home, they have none.

The thing is, the MIL doesn't do it to hurt you. At least, mine doesn't. There are no ill intentions whatsoever. They're just so used to ordering the lives of the children (i.e., your husband) that they naturally intrude on every aspect of your husband's life including you. One MIL overheard the couple quarreling, sat them down in front of them and said "Come! I will mediate."

Gee... can't a couple have a marital fight in peace?! It so happens that once in a while, a husband and wife enjoy a good fight... and like in some other marital activities that are fun for couples, a MIL has NOT her place.

Besides, it is plain impractical to live together in a nation of HDB flats. A house that was built to house one nuclear family cannot comfortably house 3 nuclear families. In China, where this custom originated, people lived in the same compound and each nuclear family had their private space. I cannot imagine raising my 2 children in that one room we had in my MIL's 5-room flat where the only private space to be had was the bathroom and even there, you had to take turns. Another lady I know had no place to pump her breast milk because all she has is 2 rooms in a smallish semi-detached house, of which one was being cleaned and the other was being used by her husband.

It's one thing if you are poor, uneducated and have no job. It's an awful life but one has no choice. But if you have a job that pays well, and you can afford a more dignified lifestyle wherein you can eat when you want and bathe when you want, then go for it! Anything else is plain stupidity.

As for me, it took me 18 years to earn the respect of my MIL. It required us to move out and keep a certain distance... and with that distance, came respect and an acknowledgment that I am a mother and a wife whose judgment, decisions and wishes can prosper the family.

Even when not living under the same roof, if I made a cake, she would try and see if hers is better. If I thought this was good, she thought that was better. If I decided my children should be disciplined thus, she thought another way was better. If I thought one brand of soy sauce was good, she swore by another. And only because she did not live with me could I find it in myself the strength to smile graciously and agree that she was right. It has been a long journey of quietly swallowing my pride and silently doing what I thought was right. Thankfully though, my decisions have prospered the family and I have earned her respect.

However, it took 18 years. In that time, a person would have graduated from university. But I reckon that even in 18 years, I could not have done it if we had stayed under the same roof. My confidence would have taken a beating and I would have developed an everlasting hatred for her.

No... I don't think hatred is too strong a word. I have seen 60 year old women vehemently detest the 80 year old women they were forced to stay with for 40 years of their lives. When living quarters force women to intrude upon each others' personal space, sores develop into wounds, and wounds into scars that never heal.

This notion of 3 Generations Under One Roof is impractical in Singapore, and women who put up with it suffer in the same way men would suffer if they had to walk a thousand miles with a pebble in their shoe. You get used to it. You learn to cope. You develop compensating strategies. But you get hurt and wounded. And you hurt and wound the other too.

Why then, do older folks insist upon it? My MIL and I have come to a place where we learn to agree on some things but not on this. She persists in believing that we should all stay under one roof. Since she is getting rather old, and has developed a healthy respect for me, I have agreed. The new house will comprise a separate 4-room apartment with kitchenette and patio. There will be her space (1000sqft) and my space (3000sqft: because I have kids), with separate entrances. Technically, we are still under one roof, but this way, sores will not develop into wounds, nor wounds into scars.

It is important too that old people feel a sense of control over their home environment. It's part of aging gracefully and well. I have no intention to boss the old people around and bend them to my will at home. And since I am a very particular housekeeper and I like my things just so, I would end up subtracting from the dignity of their old age with my constant demands to "put things away" and "not put Super Glue with the eggs in the fridge" and "don't force Little Boy to finish a never-ending stream of Chinese assessment exercises".

In their space, and in their fridge, they can make their own decisions and live a life of dignity till the end of their days. Parents will only learn to let go if you can earn their respect. And in the long term, it is important to earn their respect so that you can better care for them. Otherwise, you have rebellious old folks who do odd things detrimental to themselves and those around them. At a certain point in time, the one who was lead becomes the leader and it is no good for the elderly and the family when the elderly refuse to be lead gently by the young.

One must have harmony in the home and forcing a wife to stay with her in-laws at a time when she is establishing herself as wife and mother, does not build harmony. It builds strife, sows hatred and breeds distrust. And when come the time where infirm old folks need peace, quiet, love, nurturing and gentle leadership, they will find none at all.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Milo Terrorises Guests

Did I promise that Milo will never be allowed in the house? Oh well... that seems like so long ago and my memory is rather poor these days.

Since Milo has been feeling rather out of bounce (necessarily so because only balls bounce... and err... and err... Milo err... well... he has no more bounce) we've kept him in the living room away from rain and shine. I must say that he has been rather well-behaved. He only chewed up the cane (yes, the odious thing that inflicts pain), one bryophyllum in the downstairs patio, a few leaves from the coral vine and the bottom of the sofa. No seriously... I am not being sarcastic. I really do think he has behaved very well. I had feared worst things.

But I doubt my visitors appreciate Milo's presence downstairs. A gate separates my visitors from what must surely look like a rabid dog to them. But really all Milo is saying is this "Play! Play! Play!" but it comes out sounding like "I am gonna EAT you!" When this is delivered by a dog rearing up on his hind legs, through gaping jaws full of teeth right into your face, it can be terrifying. Visitors usually take 2 steps back and refuse to come into the house until Milo is chained up.

I am trying to figure out a way to train him to hang back when visitors come by. Any ideas?

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Milo's Delicate Operation

Milo had a delicate operation yesterday. He has come home without some delicate parts of the body... and a cone about his neck to prevent him from licking the stitches.

I had somewhow thought that I could be present to hold his paw throughout the delicate procedure so I was rather sad to find that I had to leave him there for 1 day. I left him at 10am and picked him up at 7pm. It had been a long day for poor Milo.

He barked and yelped when he saw us walk out. We could still hear him when we left the clinic. When he saw us again at 7pm, he had already come out of general anaesthesia. He was so eager to get away from the clinic that he clawed desperately at the floor in order to pull me out of there. Once in the car, he lay down and didn't move. When we reached home. He walked really slowly through the carpark and up the stairs. And once home, he lay down and wouldn't move anymore.

We all made a fuss of him. We sat and watched our DVDs on the TV screen downstairs, instead of using the projector upstairs. We all sat in a circle around him. I fixed him some boiled rice with minced pork which he ate half-heartedly. Boy... it must have been an awful day for him.

Today, he looks happier. He wolfed down the olive-oil-apple-threadfin mash that I gave him... and he has revived his habit of following me everywhere. But he's still somewhat less energetic than he normally is.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Good Service is Not Servility

There is a misconception that service people need to be always happy, mostly meek, generally obliging and very agreeable. I don't think so at all. And I think it is because we Singaporeans expect service staff to be servile that we get such bad service all the time.

Not a single human in the world blossoms in fulfilling ignominious role expectations. Being disrespected torments the soul in a way we probably don't really understand. Everyone performs best when they are respected for their work. So those who are confronted with a role set who unceasingly expects servile smiles and insincere grovelling can never whole-heartedly provide good service because there is no respect in that.

We should expect professionalism from service officers... not servility. And the best example I can give you is that of the French Waiter that I blogged about here.

So ironically enough, I actually think that service training should not only focus on how to please the customer, but it should also focus on how to please the customer service officer. Service officers should be taught genteel but effective ways to command respect and good treatment from customers. Service officers should also be taught how to genteelly put misbehaving people in the place so that other customers are well taken care of.

If service officers feel respected, it's easier for them to reach out and give good service to customers who are well-mannered and civilized.

I think.

But of course, the notion that the customer has the money propels many organisations to require servility from their employees. That is short-term thinking indeed. What you require does not come from the heart... and the service will be obviously insincere. Then you may as well not even bother! The trick is to set up a culture and an ethos where service officers feel proud to give service... and where service officers feel able to defend themselves (effectively and in a classy manner) when people hurl vulgarities at them. In this manner, you predispose people to giving service from the heart... and truly from the heart.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

House Construction

After chatting with friends, we've decided to tear down the one-storey house and build a new one. We agree that it makes greater investment sense. After all, when it comes our turn to sell the house, a new buyer would sniff at the one-storey and only offer us enough to buy the land. That would mean that the large sum (large in my eyes) poured into renovating the one-storey house would be a consumption expense (for us to enjoy) rather than an investment (that we would recover with interest at point of sale). So, we've decided to put up twice that amount in order to protect the initial amount we had decided to spend.

Baby... you gotta move with the times. No one (except deranged Petunias) like one-storey houses. So passé, you see.

So, I am back to Square One. I look upon an empty plot of land and now have to art-and-craft a new abode upon it. It feels a lot like when Art Teacher asked me to paint a bunch of lemongrass... or onion... or design a cartoon. I would do my best but Art Teacher always failed me... and once she loudly exclaimed in front of the class "Petunia, your shadows are all wrong!! Where is your light? I can't tell how the light is falling on your mushroom!!"

So loud. So embarassing. And I still failed the mushroom piece. You felt like telling her "I dunno laaaaah Mrs Tan! God made mushrooms for eating. Not for drawing. And how can you be so blind that you can't see that the light is falling from all directions and so there is NO SHADOW!?"

Anyway, I just tell myself that I will build a house that is easy to clean, a breeze to maintain, bright and airy. I don't need expensive furnishings or the latest in design excellence... and it doesn't have to be beautiful. Just a practical house with a lot of light... and easy to sell away.

And I will set Milo upon any guest who dares to yell "The shadows in your house are all wrong!"

Monday, January 11, 2010

Clos Lucé: The Home of Leonardo da Vinci

The town of Amboise was the final resting place of Leonardo da Vinci. A chapel within the grounds of Château (castle) Amboise holds his remains. The domain of Clos Lucé is a short 10 minute walk from the castle entrance.

The interior of Clos Lucé is set up to reflect the life and times of Leonardo da Vinci... but the domain of Clos Lucé has a far longer history.

In the middle ages, King Francis I felt a little peckish in the night. He scooted down to the kitchens unceremoniously in his pyjamas and poked around for a bite to eat. A bright and cheeky little 14 year old kitchen assistant by the name of Etienne le Loup (Etienne the Wolf) caught his attention. The king asked Etienne how much he earned. Etienne had never seen the king and so didn't know who this impudent question came from. Etienne responded "I earn as much as the king". Further intrigued, the king asked for an explanation, and Etienne replied "I, like my king, earn as much as I deserve".

Etienne le Loup later rose to become the Lord Overseer of the king's extensive lands in Amboise and the surrounding villages. He built Clos Lucé as a fortified castle to show that he had arrived. However, the fortifications of Clos Lucé comprised a cannon that he used to intimidate the locals. The king didn't like that at all and Etienne later fell from royal favour.

Clos Lucé then became the property of the crown, and a very well-loved Queen later made it her home. A short cut was created between the Castle Amboise and Clos Lucé in order that the royal children could easily move from their father's quarters to their mother's lodgings. This short cut no longer exists so you do have to walk 10 minutes to get from one to another. At Clos Lucé today, only the chapel is dedicated to this Queen of France (Queen Anne of Brittany) because she built the chapel and spent much time there in prayer.

Clos Lucé has beautiful gardens. Many of da Vinci's inventions are showcased within the gardens. There are ponds and wild life. We saw pair after pair of wild ducks. The female in dull brown but the male with bright green necks and yellow beaks. They mate for life and paddle everywhere in pairs. Like girlfriend and boyfriend holding hands. There is lush greenery even in December.

I walked in the gardens for 2 hours but spent 30 minutes in the house. I was most intrigued by the dovecote below built for housing pigeons. In the days before refrigeration, a dovecote meant fresh meat and eggs right through winter. Pigeon poo was a sought after fertiliser and could be sold for a handsome profit. Only the very richest people owned dovecotes. Etienne Le Loup built the one below that could house a few hundred mating pairs.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

The Testosterone Deformed

Many years ago, I read a book by James Dobson containing this term. I have somewhat forgotten the exact context but it tickled me a great deal because I was then struggling with a strong-willed male toddler who got his way most of the time whilst I hyperventilated.

James Dobson explained that at a certain point in the in utero development of a boy foetus, copious amounts of testosterone flood the system and change the make-up of the foetal brain irreversibly. It is this "testosterone deformed" brain that accounts for a male's competitiveness, aggressivity and risk-taking behavior. This rather unkind but witty explanation of strange behaviours exhibited by Little Boy, and never before witnessed when The Daughter was small, made it easier for me to accept and understand my son. It was convenient you see. What I didn't understand, I attributed to "testosterone deformation", and over time, I grew to love this deformation dearly because it certainly made sure that Little Boy was everything one would want in a good son.

Nonetheless, testosterone deformation was also cause of great anxiety for me in our trip to France. After all, in our family, we have 2 testosterone deformed people - The Husband and Little Boy.

At one point in our trip, we had to cut across central France. Smack in the middle of France is a mountain range called the Massif Central. There was snow and ice on the roads and I was of the opinion that we should take a longer and more circuitious route in order to avoid all the mountain roads. The Husband (being testosterone deformed from birth) was keen to bash through the mountains. "Press on" he said. "Be brave" he said. "We can do it" he said. "Don't worry so much" he said.

When our car got stuck in 7 inches of snow on a small mountain road, I was frantic. He said "Press on. We can accomplish this mission." And my son added his 2 cents worth "Mom, if we press on and get there, we'll feel a sense of achievement".

I stared incredulously at the 2 men in my family. A sense of achievement? What has a sense of achievement gotta do with anything? Who is competing with whom? Where is the prize? WHAT MISSION? I don't like cold. I don't like ice. I don't like snow. And there are bloody bears in these forests and wild boars and wolves... and I have no food in the car... and I dunno how to build a forest fire... and I am supposed to go through all these dangers because two testosterone deformed individuals wanna gain a sense of achievement?!

The hissy fit went on for some time, and eventually "Press on" became a vulgar term, and we went the circuitious route instead.

I have concluded that the male of our species possess an invincible optimism - a sense that with enough determination and effort, anything can be conquered and triumphs may be had. This is the invincible optimism that tells them confidently:

Little Boy : "If you look down the edge of a 10m deep well, you will never drop in"
Little Boy : "If you attempt to fly down one flight of stairs, you will land like Superman."
The Husband : "If you bash through the mountains, they will part and make a way for you"
Little Boy : "If you climb the neighbour's wall, the huge dog there will welcome you"
The Husband : "The black slope can't be very difficult"

I do recognize that it is this invincible optimism that makes men capable of many feats, and I am glad that The Husband and Little Boy are both testosterone deformed. It's just that they mustn't expect me to take part in their escapades and their death-defying exploits.

I am and intend to stay resolutely un-deformed.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Château de Chenonceau

Chenonceau is often described as the most beautiful of all the luxury castles in a region where all the castles are beautiful. In this region of the Loire et Cher, castles here were built for pleasure and distraction. Here royalty hunted, wined, dined, masqueraded and balled. This is the Bali of the French kings. Here, they wanted to be surrounded by only beauty and decadence.

And Chenonceau is first among equals. There is a magic about Chenonceau. Other castles were built by men for men. There are moats and drawbridges. There are tall towers with wide ramps for horses to gallop up the different levels. There are grand and ornate sculptures bearing the emblems of Kings. They are grand, majestic, well-proportioned and well-crafted.

Chenonceau was built by a woman, and in different generations, it was always a woman (who had succeeded in man's world) that owned it, extended it or restored it. Here there are perfect proportions and simple elegance surrounded by manicured gardens filled with rare plants. It is in these gardens that the Black Queen (Catherine de Medicis) deployed her "Butterfly Squadron", a troop of young ladies especially elegant and very beautiful used by the Queen to reward friends and gather information from enemies. Whilst other castles were the backdrop for many an infamous murder, Chenonceau is the beguiling backdrop for many a scandalous seduction. And it was a haven of peace during the French Revolution because the lady who lived here had been kind to the villagers around, who protected and shielded her and her castle. In World War II, it was a military hospital where men recuperated by hanging fishing lines out the window into the river, whilst lying in their sick beds. Indeed, this is a place that recalls the best and the worst of womanhood from wanton seduction to benevolent kindness and healing.

I knew nothing of other castles when I first saw Chenonceau. I was only 15. I didn't know that others had already described it as the most beautiful of the luxury castles here. I only knew that something of Chenonceau spoke to my heart and I have come back here to enjoy it 4 times in my life. I go to Versailles because I have to. You cannot show your friends/children Paris without showing Versailles.

I come back to Chenonceau because I want to.

It is the only castle in France that spans a river. One end of the castle starts on this side. The other end is built on the other side. The castle rises out of the river in stunning white limestone. It is said that mistresses of kings bathed in the middle of the river hidden from view by the elegant white pillars that stand in the waters. Little Boy was taken aback by this piece of information.

- “What if you accidentally see?!”
- “Ummmm… then the King will chop off your head.”
- “But… but… it’s an accident. You didn’t mean it.”
- “Too bad for you.”
- “Hey that’s no fair! She should bathe in a bathroom like everyone else!?”

Whatever the injustice caused by indiscreet mistresses with no sense of modesty, Château de Chenonceau is very well maintained by the Menier family. I was most intrigued this time by their very well equipped kitchen.

State of the Art Oven

Designer Copper Pots and
Island Work Space

Meat Larder?

Barbecue Pit

Kitchen Tap

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Leisurely Cottage Living

When the children were little, we used to rent self-service cottages in the USA. In those days, The Husband did everything that related to fire. Fire wood, fire places, barbecues, outdoor fire rings and marshmallow toasting... and also the dishes. I did everything else.

I made the beds, mopped the floor, picked up the mess, did the laundry, prepared 3 meals and fed Little Boy. It was a lot of work but it ensured that the difficult-to-feed Little Boy could eat the things he was used to eating. Plus, it saved us many tourist dollars.

This time though, I feel so spoilt. The Daughter is an almost-me. She does the laundry, makes the beds and vacuums the floor. She picks up after her brother and even folds the clothes. Little Boy takes out the garbage and carries in the fire wood. The Husband flew back to Singapore a few days earlier and in his absence, Little Boy even sets up the fire and I only need to strike the match to the solid fuel under the logs.

I really only have to cook. The children offer to do most other things.

Maybe one day, I will travel with The Daughter, Little Boy and their own little families ... and all I need to do is sit in a corner and smile at everyone with my toothless gums. It would be nice.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

One Lady's Gutsy Stick-Up for Consumer Rights

Oh! Oh! Oh! You absolutely have to read kitchentigress' post on OCBC and their cakes!

It's soooooooooooooooo funny!

Christian Lhermite: Stone Cutter

The mushroom caves are themselves an old limestone quarry recycled as mushroom farms. The tunnels within stretch for 150 km and are distributed across 7 levels both underground and into the hillside. I'm like"Wow! Whaaaaat?!"

But that isn't THE most amazing thing about the tunnels. The most amazing thing about those tunnels is a man called Christian Lhermite. Christian is a stone mason. He started learning to work stone when he was 14 years old. Christian set for himself an ambitious project 10 years ago - to sculpt a complete 1914 village underground in the limestone tunnels.

We saw stables and horses. We saw huge vines with pendulous grapes, a tree, lizards on walls, cats climbing into houses and dogs sneaking into half-opened doors. We saw a well with water in it, poor villagers' roughly hewn stone houses, rich merchants' refined houses... rickety wooden doors all in limestone. He even sculpted a rich merchant's wife peeking out from an upstairs window. A little boy poked his head out of a wooden door with a sling shot in his hand, about to let fly at a bird.

It was a sight to behold and I didn't want to leave. I wanted to stay, close my eyes and imagine the village from the year 1914 come alive with the hustle and bustle of life. Deep inside the limestone caverns, I felt like I had walked straight into Tolkien's dwarf kingdoms where stone comes alive because of skilled stone masons. Christian sculpted life into the lifeless.

None of us expected what we saw. We thought we would see mushroom farming and we saw a work of art. It was life-sized and it was all the work of one man working over weekends, public holidays and evenings for the past 10 years. We were lucky to even see Christian because he does live up to his name of Lhermite (the Hermit). He sneaks off deeper into the caves when he hears people coming. And it was further amazing that "the artist with the temperament of a bear" even agreed to be photographed. But here he is - Christian Lhermitte.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

The Aisle of Dessert

The thing I missed most about France is the selection of off-the-shelf desserts. My favorite is the "chocolat fondant" that comes in an un-sexy non-descript container but looks oh-so-elegant when presented on a plate. Then there is the Flanby which is an egg custard topped with caramel cream as follows. It comes in another cheapo looking plastic container but when presented on a plate... "C'est si bon".

And if you are trying to delude yourself and others about how good a chef you are, you simply buy the crême brûlée already in a glass jar and you just warm it up some and serve. Also very good.

But there's more. I ate dessert 3 times a day (yes... there has been some weight gain) but I couldn't manage to finish sampling all the different "mousses" (au chocolat, au café etc...). To fit in such a variety of desserts, the dessert aisle is as long as my local NTUC's dairy, vegetables and the fresh meat aisles put together!! See below.

The Cottage

From outside, it isn't fine architecture. It is made of rough stones and looks very rustic. After all, it is a reconverted old barn. But it has everything to make life comfortable. To begin with, it's clean. Next, it has the nicest oven with a sexy grill on top. The kitchen is super well-equipped.The washing machine also dries clothes. There are 2 bathrooms (one even has a bidet) and if you know how to manage the water heater, you get strong jets of hot water. Unfortunately, the bathtub is missing from one bathroom. It has pipes and insulation foam that stick out artistically from the wall and a shining bidet right next to it... but no bathtub.

However, there are powerful heaters in every room and a little fireplace that fascinates Little Boy and The Husband. They've made a fire every night and Little Boy keeps bugging me to sit around the fire and talk. This is very funny because Little Boy and The Husband are both men of few words... and when we do gather around the fire, they don't really talk. All they do is stare appreciatively at the fire they made.

The lady who owns this cottage has 5 or 6 others of differing sizes. She lives in England and depends on local retirees to help maintain the properties. These people are gentle folks who are gracious and helpful but they live miles away... and so when the washing machine began to behave oddly, we were quite stressed... and when the hot water ran out, we also were somewhat anxious. Eventually though, we managed to sort out all these issues and settled in nicely.

You need to talk nicely to the house and its equipment you see. After all, it's an old stone house with character. And it seems to respond to love... And since we're a loving and affectionate family, the house seems to like us here.

BUT... I refuse to sit on the couch. It's this dark burgundy red couch that throws up a discreet cloud of dust when anyone's butt so much as goes near it... and when the children lounged on it, they both complained of itchiness afterwards. It must be crawling with dust mites. Everything else in the cottage is spanking new (oven, washer-and-dryer and woodstove) and very clean, but the couch is made of a luxurious red brocade that is a dust magnet and no matter how one vacuums it's hard to remove all the dust and dust mites so we just keep away from it.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Mushrooms Galore

A 15 minute walk from our cottage brought us to a huge gaping hole in the limestone hillside. We had made an appointment to tour the Mushroom Caves of Les Roches (Les Caves Champignonnières des Roches). A certain Mme (short for Madame) Doriane Tardif was our guide. Mme Doriane is married to a British and she speaks English very fluently with a charming accent and very enchanting body language. She speaks the way an orchestra conductor conducts.... and when she says the word "Gastronomie!" you see hints of the grand Michelin star chefs.

Les Caves Champignonnières des Roches supplies to Michelin star restaurants all over France. Their mushrooms are well-known in the region to be tasty and fragrant. We were invited to pick and eat their Button Mushrooms. At first bite there is a blandness that later explodes into a symphony of autumn smells. Smells of fallen leaves trodden underfoot and of wet autumn rains in the forest. I bought 500g and chopped them raw into my salad for lunch, pairing the autumn smells with the salty tang of "magret de canard" (cured duck breast) and a good vinaigrette made with strong and spicy French mustard.

French mustards taste nothing like their cousins in Singapore. Even the brand Maille has a watered down Singaporean version that completely lacks character. I bought 4 big bottles of French mustard to bring home. A vinaigrette has so much more flavour when it is made with good French mustard. The Husband was rapturous... and that says something because he is a man who is stingy with praise.

I also bought 500g of Pieds Bleus (or Blue Feet). This was retailing at SGD30 per kilo at the Caves Champignonnières. At gourmet groceries, they retail at SGD100 per kilo. This particular farm's Pied Bleu mushrooms bypass the supermarkets completely and are delivered directly to restaurants. I made a mushroom cheese omelette with Emmental cheese, 250g of Pieds Bleus and 6 eggs. The children ate up everything and then asked for more.

The remaining 250g of Pieds Bleus went into a mushroom sauce poured over our filets of "fletan" fish at dinner time. The children didn't quite like that. I am so going back to buy more Pieds Bleus to stuff myself before I leave to go home. This time, I think I will pair it with venison. Wild game and mushrooms go better together I think.

The French have a tradition of eating wild game. For poor villagers, hunting was sometimes the only way to get meat on the table, especially when the French king was too busy building castles, maintaining mistresses and making war to care about the common people. In Sunday markets, there is usually a stall that sells wild game - hare, wild boar, deer, pheasant and something called "perdreaux" which I have eaten but cannot translate.

My foster parents would serve up wild game on Monday nights because my foster father went hunting on Sundays. The retired gentleman who tends the garden told us that he rounds up a posse of hunters when he feels like eating wild boar. Here's a wild boar roast I made for the kids to try.

Friday, January 1, 2010

The Village of Bourré

We're here in a tiny cottage in Bourré (pronounced "Boo-Ray"). Bourré is such a teeny weeny village that it stretches only for 1.5 km from end to end. Little stone houses are built on both sides of its only main road. The little village is nestled into a small little limestone hillside. Off the main road, little streets snake upwards into the hillside with each small street bordered by even more stone houses.

The word "little" doesn't even begin to describe the streets. The width of each street is barely 2 m wide, and the stone houses are so closely spaced together that they would contravene every building code in Singapore... and we all know how closely houses are spaced in land scarce Singapore. Clearly, these streets were built for donkeys, cattle, sheep and goats to trot through... not 7-seater cars. Driving up to the cottage is an experience in itself.

I, Petunia, survived the streets of Bourré.

Many of the houses are built into the hillside... that is to say that some part of each house is a cave in the hillside. In the past, the area was a stone quarry for a type of limestone highly prized for castle building. It is a limestone that is soft when wet from within the hills, but after exposure to the sun and the wind, it dries into an elegant finish of brilliant white and durable hardness. Practically all the luxury castles of the French royalty in this region were built with this limestone. Every single stunning one from Chenonceau to Chambord.

I suppose this explains why houses in Bourré are built in such a haphazard manner. People probably found themselves an old quarried cave... made themselves a cosy home there, and then later extended their homes with stone walls and roofs of slate... and too bad when their houses invaded the streets and made them narrow.

I have seen no one in this village apart from the retired couple whose husband is paid to tend our garden, chop our firewood and spread salt on the driveway when it snows. The old gentleman invited us into his house and we learnt not to underestimate the size of what seemed to be a tiny house from outside. At the back of the old gentleman's garage, there were 3 huge caves used presently for wine, potatoes, carrots, bicycles, unwanted equipment and firewood.There were iron rings riveted into walls for holding cattle in place and even a stone trough for horses. In the roofs of the caves were roughly hewn holes, and step ladders were cut into the walls for people to climb down from the main house above... into the cave-barns.

There were even old chimneys and a huge oven cut into the limestone. The old gentleman explained that people did live in these caves before... and during the German occupation of France, people hid their young wives and daughters in these caves and covered the access holes on the house floor with carpet so that none knew of these secret places.

As we climbed higher up the hillside, we came to flat plains of neatly divided vegetable plots. I saw huge patches of broccoli and even leeks. I certainly wouldn't have guessed that vegetable patches would ever be found on the roofs of homes!! Rooftop gardens and Petunias like me seem to get along.

I keep wondering where all the people have gone because I see no one. Either they're all home and warm... or the village is little occupied because France has a problem with rural exodus where young people head to the cities to look for work. Of course, it is also X'mas and many people would celebrating X'mas with their families in warm living rooms beautifully decorated with saplings and mistletoe.

That's why I see no one.


I am happy to be home. Home is where I want to be. I suppose that at the end of the day, the objective merits of food and environment matter little. Home is an emotional judgment.

Milo (the drink) tastes better than "chocolat chaud" (i.e., hot chocolate). If I wanted to die of cholesterol poisoning, hokkien mee seems a better proposition than foie gras. At this present moment, the children are hungering for a plate of economy rice with unceremonious servings of rice, meat and vegetables. And for right now, kaya toast with soft boiled eggs and teh si sounds a whole lot more appetizing than croissants with "les oeufs à la coque" (i.e., soft boiled eggs in the shell). Oh yes... we definitely started missing home at around Day 10 of our 21 day trip.

What's even better is that the roads don't ice over when it rains and there is NO snow. I have no need to listen to weather forecasts in Singapore because it has little impact on my daily decisions. In France, knowing the exact temperature of the early morning the next day was important in order for us to predict whether it was safe to drive out somewhere or stay back and chill out at the cottage around the fire. It's a good thing that French weather forecasts are amazingly accurate and precise ... even their 5 day projections. For 5 days before we left our cottage in the Loire et Cher, we were tracking the weather reports for fear of being snowed in. It was a bit like waiting to hear your 'A' level results. STRESS!!

And am I dreaming or is it really that our roads are bigger and parking lots are wider? French village roads have such narrow lanes that when the oncoming cars pass you, you can feel a gust of wind push at your car. I am not used to that and everytime it happens my heart tries to leap out of my mouth.

Yes... it definitely is good to be home where people speak Singlish and English with a particular accent. It was good to walk into the foodcourt and feel the ambience of a place with colourful food photos, people in shorts and t-shirts, bright lights and loud talking. It's nice to be back in my own country where good manners and good living are differently defined.

I did blog regularly whilst we were away but there was no access to internet. I'll upload one blogpost a day that I wrote during the trip in the next few days.