Monday, November 30, 2015

First 90 Days

I arrived in Singapore exactly three months ago. The first week we stayed at a hotel and I took the bus to visit my dog in quarantine every day. The hotel was near Orchard, the fancy retail area of Singapore, which is a weird mix of feeling as though you are on vacation every day because you are in a beautiful hotel drinking cappuccinos with breakfast while constantly being reminded that this is not a vacation, it's your new real life. But once we signed the lease, arranged for rental furniture, and moved into our apartment things became very real. This is what I learned. 

Plan breakfast. When I have moved, whether it has been down the street during a major remodel or across the globe, there are two things I make sure are in order before we eat dinner--beds and breakfast, and this goes for the dog as well as my husband and me. At some point we stop unpacking to buy coffee, cereal, fruit, and milk for breakfast. Waking up in a strange place is much less strange with the smell of coffee brewing. A weekday breakfast in the U.S. is Nature's Path cereal, but at $8.00 per box in Singapore accompanied with $6.00 almond milk we needed to make substitutions. Our Singapore regular breakfast is muesli with bananas or pears and granola, and topped with rice or oat milk. And coffee.

Start small. Week one we had to buy everything. We couldn't just drive to Target and load up the car, we had to buy the most critical things to get us through our first few days at the mom and pop store next door to our condo. Crammed into an aisle of the mom and pop store and crouching next to toiletries where the products and currency were foreign, (some of which had no English writing on them,) we debated about what could either be shower gel or shampoo, while every five seconds someone needs to walk by. (I don't know what it is about grocery shopping in Asia, but no matter where you stand within five seconds someone else always needs to be exactly where you are.) So that's what you do. You buy shower gel, a sponge, dishwashing liquid, dish towels, and trash bags and then go home, take a nap to escape the heat, and then have a glass of wine on the balcony. Because the next day will be easier and auntie and uncle will remember you.

Lists, lists, and more lists. One of the things to get used to in a new country is grocery shopping. Not only are the stores and products different but in my case I don't have a car, so everything I purchase must fit into my trolley, which means I shop more often and buy fewer things. Also there is not one giant grocery store to do all your shopping and you will likely specialize, buying different products at different stores:
  • Mustafa: Tahini, granola, Bob's Red Mill grains and flours. 
  • Phoon Huat: Anything dairy, dried fruit, nuts, flours, oils and anything related to baking. 
  • Wet markets: Produce and fish
  • Fair Price: Toiletries, paper goods, wine.
  • Aunty and Uncle: Anything and everything, especially in a pinch.
  • Expat markets: Cold Storage and various specialty butcher and bread stores sell gourmet items for unique dishes from home. 
I nearly cried during my first trip to Mustafa because the basket I was carrying was very heavy, I couldn't find anything, and the store was very crowded. Don't go on a weekend, stay hydrated, and buy only food. The house cleaning supplies you can buy anywhere.

Find your ten. 
Most families rotate through ten meals for dinner regularly. Make a list of ten meals your family eats and keep that list in a notes app on your phone. Then make another list for the ingredients in those ten meals which will become the standard grocery list from which you shop. If you can only come up with seven or five meals that's okay. One of my ten was "Thug Chili" and I crossed that off our list because the idea of eating chili on the deck when it's 31 degrees didn't work. 

Make produce your bitch. When you move to a new country all the produce you eat like blueberries and kale is either impossible to find or outrageously expensive. Take a breathe and don't let the squash or long beans intimidate you. I haven't eaten blueberries or kale since I arrived. Instead I have found pears that taste like sorbet, potatoes that cost $1.50 per bag, and squash that tastes good in anything. And heavenly mushrooms. Buy what is familiar to you at first and rotate in a couple new pieces every time you shop. This week is going to be the week of Chinese greens for me. I will let you know how that goes. 

Learn how you will live. One thing we didn't want was the crazy looking expat apartment that people have because they need everything within reach at all times. I saw kitchens with spice racks and power strips with adapters on the counters in which electric kettles, coffee makers and grinders, blenders, toasters, and juicers were plugged. We learned that a toaster doesn't fit into our new life nor does a daily green drink or grinding our own coffee. We learned a lot living with minimal rented furniture and household items for two months and we are saying what I have heard many expats say after moving to Singapore. "You just don't need all the crap you thought you did." 

Go on a space diet. Read The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up on the plane so you can worry less about storing the stuff you don't like anymore and don't need in your new life. The biggest revelation came to me when I gave away my flare jeans that made my butt look awesome because they no longer make my smaller butt look awesome. So I thanked them for their service and dropped them at H&M. The big takeaways (after purging) from her KonMari method are her method of folding clothes, the wisdom of finding a home for everything, and putting everything away right now. Which leads me to post-it life lesson #2: "F-it. Just f-ing get rid of it." Feel free to write that down on a pink post-in and Pinterest it. 

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