Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Me in Melbourne

As I write this, I’m taking afternoon tea in a large, comfy wing chair angled toward the window and its view of the Melbourne skyline in the waning hours of the afternoon. The red and yellow stripes of old-fashioned Flinders Station stretch out in front of me along the river, blending gradually into Gothic church spires and the contemporary rock-like bulk of Federation Square. Beyond the riverfront, the silver skyline of the central business district gleams in the afternoon sun against a backdrop of a bright blue sky brushed lazily with cirrus clouds.

Last night, on the way in from the airport, Joey’s boss asked me, “What do you plan to do in Melbourne?” I offered some lame excuse, parroting the typical Singaporean response (“shopping”), but the truth is that I came to Melbourne for no definite reason. I like to breathe the bracing cool, dry air, such a contrast to the tropics. I like to wake up in the morning with the real possibility of a good hair day. I like to walk outdoors along the tree-lined river under a blue, sunny sky. I like to browse in department stores designed for Caucasian bodies and listen to buskers singing country music on the street corners. And any time I tire of wandering, I like being able to turn down the first laneway in my path, where there are guaranteed to be at least a dozen hole-in-the-wall coffee shops and cafes. There’s something in the feel of the place that stirs my nostalgia for heady September days in Boston and Cambridge. All that’s missing is a course guide and a couple of crew shells practicing out on the water.

All this, of course, is tempered by the twinge of guilt I feel because my beloved, the reason I’m here in the first place, is stuck all day in a nondescript, windowless office north of the city in bland, suburban Noble Park. And during the evenings, when business meetings in the hotel lobby last until 11 p.m. and the glow of the laptop and the clacking of the keys continue long after I finally fall asleep, I sense that my other half may not be taking full advantage of our river and skyline view. It’s a lovely sight; as I’m gazing out right now, pairs of gulls are swooping gracefully over the river while commuter trains slide languidly in and out of the station. But it seems to me that the view would be even better shared.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Red Light, Green Light

Living in Singapore every day, I forget sometimes that some seemingly “normal” parts of our lives would once have struck us as pretty strange.

Singapore driving, in particular, has subtly changed our way of life. Partly it’s because of Asian culture’s lack of any need for personal space, as we’ve experienced on the MRT, buses, and elevators. On the roads, we’ve had to get used to people, cars, buses, motorcycles regularly coming within a foot of the car. We often share a single, skinny lane with a motorcycle - or even two, one on each side. And since driving here isn’t all that fast, people tailgate and pass without an inch to spare.

But even with basic skills like parking, we’ve had to make some adjustments. These days, we’d have difficulty just turning into a parking space - forward, that is. Instead, it’s perfectly natural to follow the local custom of backing into the space, flashers on, rear sensors beeping as if we were maneuvering a Mack truck into place for a delivery. Then there’s the essential extra step of pushing the little button (that comes standard on almost every car in Singapore) to pull in our side mirrors. Otherwise, we’d never get the door open in such a tight space.

And of course to get to the parking spaces, we nearly always have to negotiate our way through a “car park,” or parking garage. Who’d have thought that driving to the grocery store would involve two dollars in parking fees and a cautious roll down a dark, spiraling ramp with no room for error, all for the privilege of squeezing into a parking space apparently designed for a Fiat?

On home leave in American suburbia, we were amazed by the huge open-air parking lots at the malls. We felt so exposed, out there in the open: what if it rained? And what a waste of land: surely these were excessively roomy parking spaces, and why were all these spaces spread out over just one level? On the other hand, we’d almost forgotten that “free parking” was anything but a square on the Monopoly board.

The sudden strangeness did make us uncharacteristically sympathetic to other drivers who were experiencing the culture shock of driving American-style, though. Once, during our home leave, we stopped at an intersection just as the light turned red. Across from us, the minute the light turned red, a man confidently drove his minivan (surely a rental) through the intersection to turn left. Cars going the other direction honked, swerved, gestured at the driver. But we shook our heads sympathetically. “That poor guy. He has no idea the left-turn arrow comes after the green light. He thinks it’s normally after the red light - just like in England and Singapore.”