Morocco – Jewel of the North

Still thinking about where to go this autumn school holidays? How about stepping back in time and embarking on an adventure in Morocco? 
We traveled with our 2 boys, now 8 and 4 years old, to Marrakech in October last year. We thought the kids are ready for something a bit more exotic and rustic – basically, a place where finding the first-world staple of pommes frites and pasta for a meal would be a mean feat.

And what an amazing hidden jewel Marrakech proved to be.

What to see:

The Medina – which is the largest traditional market square in Morocco, was a real eye-opener for our kids who have never seen a donkey plying the same busy roads as cars and trucks. On weekends, locals would travel far and wide from their villages in the mountains or desert here to catch up with friends, treat themselves to a hearty meal, or simply soak in the thrilling energy of the big city.

Our senses were treated to the constant buzz of animal hooves click-clacking on narrow cobbled stone streets and the friendly banter between stall owners selling their wares and potential customers negotiating prices; the fragrant scent of spices, aromatic oils and soaps, the whiff of piping hot sesame buns and flatted breads sold by women with their young children in tow; the fine warm dust caressing our sandaled feet and the hypnotic pipe tunes of the snake charmers.

The main market square can be liken to the heart of the city, but the fun begins when we start meandering through the narrow veins to the many souks that sell unique artisan wares. One street is flanked by stalls selling leather goods like footwear that looked like elves’ shoes with their pointy tips; another souk sparkled and glowed with starburst streams of light coming from pendant lamps made of pewter and silver. One street sold only olives!

Adventures with kids:

You can’t leave Morocco without seeing it in all its golden glory in a hot air balloon. We woke up at 4.30am and a tour guide drove us from our hotel to the desert in a muscly four-wheel drive. We had a breakfast in a rustic tent before seeing a whole entourage of workers set up the balloon for our ride. 

Even seeing the set up was an adventure in itself. The kids were really happy that the balloon we were going up in is a bright red and yellow color. The desert soon glittered below us as the sun began to rise over the Atlas mountain range. There was nothing to do but enjoy nature’s beauty.

The minimum age for kids to be in the hot air balloon is 3 years old. After the ride, we had lunch in a small desert village and went for a camel ride as part of the tour too.

We made a day trip to the Ourika Valley in the Atlas mountain region, a 70 km drive from Marrakech. It is inhibited by the Berber people who still embrace a traditional way of life. We did a wonderful trek up the mountain to see a waterfall, climbing over slippery and sharp rock surfaces. Do bring your usual Swiss hiking attire and shoes. I hiked in a dress that wasn’t too convenient for climbing over rocks but at least I wore sensible shoes! This was apparently where they filmed the movie ‘The Mummy’ as well. 

Where to stay:

There are many family resorts and all-inclusive hotels but we chose to stay in a lovely riad run by a wonderful French couple called Riad Dar Alfarah. It is only 5 minutes walk from the Medina – the grand traditional market square. Our hosts gave us good tips on how to travel safely and arranged for a driver and tour guide to show us around. On our last night, we were treated to a lovely Moroccan meal with a merry band of musicians and a belly dancing performance.

The intoxicating combination of lamb stew, constant flow of wine and spiced teas, the heady scent of shisha smoke and the nimble belly dancer flitting from one table to another definitely left an indelible mark in my mind.

 

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Wild Inspirations

I visited the Zurich Zoo last weekend and had a wonderful time with my mum and my youngest son. There were several food stands littered throughout the zoo, interesting and challenging playgrounds and the open enclosures allow visitors to get up close and personal to the myriad animals.

I couldn’t help but marvel at how fortunate animals are in Switzerland. Compared to the smelly, world-weary camels we saw in Morocco – with their constant groupie of gnats buzzing around them, their humps, or should I say, ‘stumps’ flattened to non-existence for tourists to sit on, the camels here boasted of thick, luscious golden brown fur, have access to a wide open field to roam around that is filled with food aplenty.

We were really excited standing in front of the glass divider of the tiger enclosure. A majestic looking tiger swaggered up to his lunch with strong, sure strides. We couldn’t see what his lunch comprised of, until he sank his teeth in, and starting parading his meal – a big, furry rabbit infront of everyone. There were loud gasps amongst the children, watching avidly at the exciting and at the same time morbid scene of the tiger mauling and gnawing his meal and seeing fluffy fur flying everywhere!

Well, this poor bunny sure didn’t survive past Easter!

I got inspired to do a new painting, this one of a few cows grazing on the  alps by the Furka Pass. I remembered more than 10 years ago, I painted a few t shirts to sell to friends, many of which were animal inspired. 

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What animal-inspired crafts have you made recently?

The Art of PlaY

We dedicated last weekend to making big messy art and learning all about the concept and engineering of PLAY at the Kunsthalle.

We joined Lemady at her weekend Storycraft session which was inspired by all forms of construction vehicles in ‘Dig, Dig, Digging’, written by Margaret Moyo. The kids plunged toy tractors, steam-rollers, cranes and trucks into trays of paint and ran these vehicles with multicolored wheels over a large paper canvas. It wasn’t long before hands, tiny feet and bums in nappies joined in the fun to create a beautiful abstract piece of art.

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IMG_4218The Kunsthalle in Zurich is currently showcasing an educational and interactive exhibition called The PlaYground Project (20 Feb – 15 May 2016). Art workshops for families, guided tours and even pop-up yoga sessions are available too.

We learnt how the concept of a public play space evolved from the post WW2 years to the present, and how the changes in the design of playgrounds reflect society’s changing ideas of adventure, education and childhood, creativity and control.

It is interesting to learn how the ‘new’ playgrounds after WW2 started as an initiative to help traumatised kids, with play used as a form of rehabilitative therapy. The Scandinavian urban landscapers and architects were the pioneers of independent creative play in the 1930s. They introduced the use of natural material, water and sand around abstract play sculptures.

After them came the concept of adventure playgrounds, where parents and children become more and more involved in the creation of play spaces as community projects. The premise of an adventure playground is … ‘it is never complete, never developed. It is a sort of ‘terrain vague’ that can be many things to many children’ (Jack Lambert, pioneer of adventure playgrounds).

I can imagine it to be like being on an episode of the reality show ‘Survival’, where children get to mess around with junk, build houses with timber and any material found on the ground and developing their own brand of play. Switzerland’s brand of adventure play comes in the form of ‘Robinson Crusoe-playgrounds’; and of course, kids here can sign up for playgroups in the forest or at a farm and learn to play independently in different natural settings.

I remember growing up in Singapore with sandpit playgrounds, with traditional fixed equipment like a swing, slide and see saw. The playgrounds in the 1980s were pretty iconic with shapes of lions and dragons. In land scarce Singapore, these limited open spaces are play4.jpgstill very much the pulse of the heartlands/community. It is where children, families and retired senior citizens congregate and have a short reprieve from the hustle and bustle of city life. The last few times I’ve visited Singapore, I’ve noticed that although public housing are becoming taller (think living on the 50th storey!) and rural land have given way to new shopping malls, the government still managed to make this little island city green for its 5 million dwellers. New high rise housing and office buildings often have ‘floating gardens, swimming pools and play areas’, water play areas are built on top of shopping malls and in places of interest like the Zoo or at the Gardens by the Bay.

In this modern day, it seems like norms and boredom have crept into the play space. People are more paranoid about safety of play equipment, sturdiness of trees for climbing, water and sand not cleaned or replaced often enough etc. It is becoming more and more challenging for urban planners to find a happy balance between adhering to strict safety standards and making daring play creations that are capable of challenging our discerning and easily bored children to ‘make the first leap, the first jump and the first climb’.

Of course, the greatest threat to public PlaYgrounds is other forms of play, notably computer and video games where kids can escape to a virtual playground. Nowadays (gosh, I sound like an old fart when I use this word), kids are happy to exercise their nifty fingers and hand-eye coordination on the video screen. They find contentment in building virtual forts and cities with bricks that do not take up physical storage space, use bitcoins and tokens to learn the concept of buy and sell, and of course, figure their way out of complex mazes all from the comforts of their air-conditioned bedroom, or from their baby car seat.

(We signed up for the art workshop and created our own playground with paper, sticks, straws and napkins)

Check out Lemady’s weekly storycraft sessions: http://www.storycraft.ch/ and find out more about the PlaYground project and dates for their family art workshops: http://kunsthallezurich.ch/de

 

 

 

 

Keeping up with 2016

Are we close to the end of February already?

For some reason, the Christmas festivities and craziness seem to extend well into 2016 and I am still trying to play catch up.

I think it has something to go with the fact that my husband’s been away a fair bit, the weather’s been dreary and we’ve got an influx of visitors from far and wide coming to stay with us almost every other weekend.

After staying in Switzerland and experiencing change in seasons for almost 8 years, I still haven’t really warmed up (pun intended) to the biting cold, flu bugs, dry flaky skin, body aches and skies turning dark at 5pm.

The ski/snowboard devil, together with his earthly minions disguised as cool, crazy friends, has abducted my husband and kids for the whole season, somewhat akin to Hades keeping Persephone in the underworld. Anyone who knows my husband knows I am not exaggerating here!

IMG_3088I’ve survived and conquered the Sports Ferien at our ski apartment in the mountains last week with 2 families and 7 young boys! My husband was travelling for the week, one of the mums was working 100% so she couldn’t join us but bizarrely it was the most relaxing week I’ve had since mid December. The boys and dads were skiing the whole day so the mayhem only came in the evening with everyone vying for showers and snacks, the womenfolk preparing dinner and winding the kids down for the night’s sleep.

The New Year really came with a blast for me personally. I am finally brave enough, or maybe it was the chaos and busyness of entering into a new year that propelled me to pursue my passion in painting. The last time I’ve painted was perhaps 6 years ago, and it was a fleeting hobby that I never really indulge in with 2 young kids taking up most of my time and draining most of my energy.

The kids are still a handful but a lot less dependent on me now. They are a source of inspiration to me and I find the peace and quiet within me through painting to survive the lack of sunshine and the mundane daily routine.

My boys love seeing me in my element when I am sitting on the cold floor with paint blotches all over my hands and I think they do feel proud that mommy is becoming an artist! Of course they still complain that my cooking sucks and I still mix up my husband and kids’ underwear every now and then…

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You can check out my complete art portfolio at amyangatelier.wordpress.com

 

Lisbon – an oxymoron of sorts…

LIsbon city
Lisbon city

This is the first time I’ve visited Portugal, and I must say, I am pleasantly surprised by how interesting the capital is, although I still can’t decide if I like it or love it.

Like the coastal towns of their Spanish neighbors, Portuguese cuisine consists of mainly seafood – but simply boiled and served cold, so you really get to enjoy the pure sweetness of our crustacean friends. It is not unusual for tables at restaurants to be covered with wet tissues, plastic hammer and board, crab crackers and lobster forks. (for an amateur seafood eater, I would highly recommend having a few pieces of first-aid plasters close by, or a useful helpful husband who can peel prawns and crack open crab and lobster shells for you).

Is this a good time to confess that when we visited the Oceanarium on our last day, my stomach was growling so much when I saw all the lovely sea creatures swimming infront of us, all I could think of is yummy delicious seafood! (especially stingray grilled with sambal chilli and fish curry)

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IMG_5428I absolutely love Portugese architecture. The pretty cracked blue and white tiles that cover the walls of several old buildings remind me of the Peranakan shophouses in some parts of Singapore and Malacca in Malaysia, where many Portugese traders came to build their colonial settlements in the 1800s. I would love to live in a  building that is painted fuschia pink or a happy egg yolk yellow.

Lisbon seems like a city of many contradictions. The historical district is a complex and compact maze of winding streets that goes up and down at every turn. It is definitely not a pram, wheelchair or high-heel-friendly city. We would have loved to take a ride on one of their iconic trams, which seem to be only about 5 metres long, but we know it’s impossible to squeeze a pram through the narrow entrance.

There are plenty of wide open spaces, especially along the marina area where you can enjoy long quiet walks, and the major tourist attractions are spread across the city. The many space-age looking museums and massive sculptures showcasing Portugal’s colorful history as a illustrious leader in sea trade are a sharp contrast to the skeletal frames of old clock towers, dilapidated warehouses and office buildings left in shambles, which must have been a bustling enclave of people coming in and out a long time ago.

For a global city which has 3 million residents (Lisbon is the 11th most populous city in the European Union),

it is also awfully quiet.

I’ve just returned from visiting Singapore and appreciate being able to walk around town without being jostled around. The streets are never packed with people or cars, even on a weekend. Our Portugese friend told us most residents hardly stay in the city on weekends, preferring to visit the many coastal towns nearby where they can lay on the sandy beaches all day long.

I was hoping that everywhere I go – left, right and centre, I would bump into the likes of Ronaldo Cristiano. He’s probably in the U.S shooting another Armani underwear ad. Portugese men tend to have a lot of facial hair and are generally quite short. It’s alot more likely to spot the likes of Hugo Almeidas. In general, the locals are a warm, easygoing and helpful bunch of people.

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Bairro Alto (Old town) and tram line
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Coastal town of Cascais

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Oceanarium

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the most famous and popular cafe for egg tarts

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Flashback 2012

Belated Happy New Year everyone!

I was looking through my blog archive to see if I’ve made any resolutions for 2012; pity I’ve only found a tongue-in-cheek post about generic resolutions people tend to make.

I do however recall making a secret to-do list last year consisting of one major ‘to-do’ item – have a baby.

Well, in a blink of an eye, a wiggle of my toes, a hard shove of placenta, amniotic fluids and a 2.9kg baby out from ‘down-under’, 2012 has finally come to a close with a big fat ‘Tick’ against my very, very short list.

I feel blest that the whole family has been in good health, we’ve done our fair share of travelling, and Timmy is enjoying more experiences like a typical Swiss kid – learning how to play soccer, going for his weekly ‘moms & kids’ gymnastics (Muki-turnen is what it is called in Switzerland), where mums spend the first half hour moving heavy equipment in the school gymnasium to set up military-like obstacle courses for the children; and learning to ski. We are truly planting firmer roots here and getting a greater sense of home after living in Switzerland for 4 years.

Highlights of 2012:

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First hike of the year in Engelberg and the snow hasn’t quite melted yet
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Easter in Stockholm
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Easter Sunday brunch in Stockholm
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May: Hiking in Cinque terra, Italy
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Gourmet seafood platter in Cinque Terra
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Timmy’s first soccer camp
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Timmy in gymnastics
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June: Copenhagen amusement park – Tivoli
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2 pregnant women in Copenhagen
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May: Coastal town of Dubrovnik in Croatia
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Dubrovnik, Croatia
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Europa Park in the Black Forest region in Germany
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Enjoying summer at Schaffhausen – Rheinfalls with friends
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Timmy turns 4

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Oct: Nathan James is born
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Nov: Halloween
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Dec: Christmas Market in Munich, Germany
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Dec: Christmas Market in front of the monastery in Einseideln
Christmas in Andermatt
Christmas in Andermatt
Dec: Christmas and New Year in Andermatt
Dec: Christmas and New Year in Andermatt
Love, Joy & Peace on earth...
Love, Joy & Peace on earth…

Oh Mickey you’re so fine, you’re so fine u blow my mind, oh MICKEY!!!

Did I mention in my previous post that my little boy is having a little Mickey Mouse fetish at 20121017-213155.jpgthe moment?

Maybe it has to do with the cosmic fact that Timmy was born in the year of the ‘Rat’ according to the Chinese calendar. We manage to turn this cute rodent obsession into little creative works of art. It was also a good way for me to spend quality bonding time with my little guy before no. 2 comes out. And who says only girls can sit still for a good 1 or 2 hours holding a paintbrush without spreading colors on their faces and bodies? (Altho’ i must admit waiting for layers of paper mache and paint to dry is possibly the most challenging part of doing craftwork with a kid)

20121017-212437.jpgTimmy loves the storybook – Mickey’s Space Adventure. We’ve read the book to him every night for the last month and he knows almost every single line before it rolls off our tongues. I never knew the world above our ozone layer provided such a rich source of craft ideas for us to create or replicate. Making crafts based on the book makes the story comes alive. We’ve made our own space rocket (complete with fiery flames spluttering from its bottom), drawn an outer space treasure map and even made the Moon, Mars, Saturn and the ‘mystery Planet’ for the space rocket to fly to.

I’ve also bought plain black canvas shoes where I painted Mickey on one side and Minnie on the other. Alan also tried to contribute by building the Disney characters with lego. Our biggest achievement to date is a model of the Mickey Mouse Clubhouse, built using paper mache, clay, rubber gloves, toilet rolls and tiny lego bits!

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My bizarre pre-natal obsession

Eeeeks! Has it really been more than 5 months since I last wrote a blog entry here?

20121013-181759.jpgThe timing of my self-imposed break from social media coincides with the first time I picked up ’50 Shades of Grey’ from the local bookshop, and then Part 2 and Part 3 a day later. Many pregnant women have food cravings; I, on the other hand, acquired an insatiable reading craving that borderlined on being insanely obsessive-compulsive.

To date, I have purchased 16 new books and 63 e-books, many of which I’ve read more than once. At least I’ve been feeding my mind rather than my waistline or spending money on retail therapy, I justified to myself. Although genres like teen fantasy, science fiction, mommy porn and historical romance can’t exactly be considered intellectually stimulating… (I did note that many female writers of mommy porn have credible degrees and spectacular day jobs; some are full-time mums who no doubt, after giving a good decade of their lives to cooking and hanging laundry, have decided that there are better use for whipped cream and clothespins)

I do have to thank my husband and my little 4 year old Timmy for being so understanding, and giving me the time and space to indulge in my obsession. Every time we walk past a bookshop, little Timmy would point to the familiar black and white book cover hogging the top 10 bestsellers shelf and shout “Mummy’s book! That’s Mummy’s book!”. I’ve been lugging my books on our summer holidays in Denmark and Italy too and reading through the wee hours of the night.

Then again, I think the obsessive compulsive gene runs thick in our family. Alan is always on Youtube checking out the latest car test-drives and watching re-reruns of Top Gear and The 5th Gear. He alternates between his car interest and reading tabloid news on Daily Mail and The Sun to keep himself up to date on important events plaguing the entertainment world. Little Timmy is now obsessed with Mickey Mouse and will only wear clothes with an image of the mouse, has an infatuation with Minnie Mouse, and carries his Mickey Mouse stuff toy everywhere he goes. (He actually wanted Minnie Mouse stuff toy and pink clothes with Minnie’s image on it)

We are now counting down the last 20 days before my pregnancy ends and maybe I would have weaned off my reading obsession. Our family will have a new shared interest – indulging and loving and having lots of fun with the baby!

 

Wallflowered

I feel inspired to embark on a new ‘home improvement’ project with every change in season. This summer, I decided to add a personal touch to our feature wall in the lounge room.

Previously, we hung a replica, or rather, a cheap copy of the famous Chinese contemporary artist, Yue Mingjun’s work. I wanted something light-hearted and reflective of our asian roots then. Plus, the figure in the picture bears a slight resemblance to my husband, especially when he is in the shower. 🙂

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This project has been long in the making. It was difficult to find unique photo frames that complement one another. I didn’t want boring black and white ones. I found some nice rustic looking ones from an eco-friendly shop in the old town of zurich. The frames were made by a south-african artist using recycled materials. We found another 2 on our trip back to Australia. The next step involved finding interesting images. I finally decided on a few of our travel pictures and family portraits. I also blew up some photos into frameless portraits to make it more interesting and provide different textures to the project.

My wall project:

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Deciding on the perfect layout

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Final composition

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Close up of images

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What I REALLY REALLY want to do (albeit self-indulgent) is to blow up this kaleidescope-pattern as a wall paper for the entire feature wall. This was done using the different funny effects on photobooth on the ipad and we had such a blast pulling monkey faces.

Hansel and Gretel must live here…

or at least the blind witch with the saccharine-sweet candy house in grimm’s fairy tale.

Colmar, a little french town in the alsace region, is just a 1.5hr drive away from Zurich, Switzerland. Last Sunday was wet and cold, and on a whim, we decided to drive to France to have lunch. That’s the beauty of living right smack in the centre of Europe, you don’t need to book a flight to experience a different culture or get cheaper toiletries and groceries from across the border.

We have been to Colmar several times and it never fails to put a smile on our faces when we see the charming little townhouses with its fairytale-like quality. The rainbow colored buildings are more beautiful in winter when the streets come alive with christmas markets and the smell of gluhwein and roasted chestnuts, and at night, the soft glow of the street lights give it a surreal feel and you really feel like you are transported into the medieval ages.

P.S: Colmar is also about 15 mins drive from the closest KFC outlet. (there are NO KFC fast food restaurants in the whole of Switzerland!!!) We were tempted to drive there for take-away but my husband didn’t want his car to smell of greasy chicken.

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how much is that piglet by the window? alsastian cuisine is influenced very much by its german roots and feature many pork dishes like roasted pork knuckles and sausages served with a huge portion of sauerkraut. 20120422-193636.jpgmany memorabilia and serving dishes feature traditional alsastian way of life