This is toddler me, sitting on the back steps of our bungalow on Cassia Drive in 1983. We're still moving in, that's why there are chairs stacked behind me. Later on, there would be a huge church pew standing there, which my parents have lugged with them all over the world until it got eaten by woodworm outside of their current Dutch home.
This is what our old place looks like now:
Times have changed. I don't know any expat actually living in a house, or a "landed property" as they are called in Singapore. Most of them live in condominiums, guarded apartment blocks with loads of facilities like swimming pools, play areas, fish to feed, tennis courts, garages, gyms, BBQ pits and function rooms for events.
Some of the expats live in HDB flats, Singapore's public housing, where 80 percent of the local population have their home. These are generally cheaper, a bit smaller and come without the plethora of amenities available at condo's (neither are there any sleeping guards at the gate). On the other hand, every HDB estate comes with bus- and MRT-stops, playgrounds, a wet market and local shops attached, as well as a hawker court where you can buy cheap meals from stalls. Usually there's also a public pool close by, which isn't quite free, but nearly.
We don't live in either a condo or an HDB flat and we are certainly not one of the lucky few to have snagged ourselves a shophouse or a black-and-white colonial villa. We live in a serviced apartment.
This generally elicits jealous looks, as a serviced apartment is basically a hotel, but in the shape of an apartment. That means that every morning housekeeping comes by, cleans our house, changes the sheets and towels (even though we hang them back and not leave them crumpled in the wash basin as instructed) and does the dishes. It also means that whenever we have a problem with the A/C or light fixture or anything, maintenance will whizz up and solve the issue. We have a pool, which we share with a nearby hotel and where towels are provided, we have a tiny gym that comes with sauna and hot tub and every morning breakfast is served. All of this is lovely.
I used to read about people living in hotels in those Jackie Collins-like trashy novels and wonder what it is like. Now I know.
And, honestly? It's not all it's cranked up to be. The apartment is small compared to condo's we've seen, the kitchen is obviously designed to make tea and not much else, we've only two bedrooms and no storage space apart from the fitted wardrobes, two of which are dedicated to suitcases and boxes. S.'s bicycles are in our bedroom, where we also hang our clothes to dry. We never have breakfast downstairs, as it's much easier and relaxing to just have a bowl of muesli at the dining table. We're almost never in the pool, as there is no shading, the seats are generally taken by the people from the hotel next door and there is no paddling pool for E., so she gets bored very quickly. The cleaning is lovely, really, as are the new sheets on the bed, but it is done to their specifications, not mine.
But what really gets to me is the constant lack of privacy. We can't put any pictures up. For a while we only got monthly key cards, which we had to renew whenever they stopped working. It is annoying when I discover I can't get into my house after I've just lugged up the weekly grocery shopping but now have to head down again, wait my turn at the reception desk, get issued a new key and return to my by then defrosted fish and melted chocolate. Internet stops working on a weekly basis, which means I have to renew our wifi-connection. It's not unusual for me to come home and find random people in the apartment "fixing things" or "checking on things", reminding me that I don't know who has access to our apartment. Because it's not actually our apartment. We just live in it.
We'd love to find our own place, but S.'s company prefers him to stay put. So we're staying put. Which is okay - it is a life of leisure and luxury, where there are a host of people at my beck and call and I never have to deal with plumbers or fumers or A/C type men or cleaners. Trust me, I'm counting my blessings.
But when I look at pictures of my own youth, we were always outside, in the garden, mucking about with water, sand, mud. E. doesn't get that, on the 23rd floor in the trendiest district in town. Whenever we are in the Netherlands, she'll cling to the back door until we let her out. There is a little wild animal inside her, trying to get back to nature, loving nothing more than getting well and truly dirty. We've caged the beast, and that makes me feel sorry for her. I had not expected our life in Singapore to be like this. I had expected to replicate more of my own free range youth, running around the backyard naked, drawing chalk pictures on the steps of our porch.
Singapore has changed. Even if we did move out, we'd most likely end up in another apartment.
So bizarrely, this is what I miss most while living and parenting in the tropics: being outside.