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.

 

Cuba Calling

This is my first time visiting Latin America and I can’t imagine a better place to start with than Cuba.

It is a momentous time for this beautiful Caribbean island – the last fraying thread of the iron curtain snapping with the recent visit from President Obama.

Many people have told us before we flew out that going to Cuba is like traveling back in time to the hedonistic lifestyle of the 1950s, punctuated by decadence, fancy cars, opulent villas and sensuous song and dance all wrapped up in the heady smokes of cigars and the intoxicating burn of well-aged rum.

What we saw in reality is a more sepia version of that romantic notion of Cuba. To me, it is as if the ancient and modern, the opulence and austerity, the spontaneity of music and the curfews on social life are all merging to create a new Cuban identity that is both relevant and timeless at the same time.

We caught a glimpse of this emerging new identity with Chanel fashion house holding their very first Latin American fashion show last week in the Prado Boulevard 300 meters from our hotel. We also saw the first American cruise ship dock in the Havana port after the last one was allowed to sailed in 50 years ago. The old weapons of invasion – missles and economic embargoes have now been replaced by fashion, pop culture, social media and the tourism dollar. And the impact is a lot quicker too.

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Stargazing at the Chanel fashion show – Tilda Swinton

We love the vintage cars – the ‘Old-Timers’ with their repainted and glued on (a million times I think) chrome (more matt now) fenders, their bright colors, the cracked vinyl bench seats that you can’t help but leave sweaty thigh imprints on and the naughty vibrations in the car every time the drivers shift gears. It is not unusual to see cars being fixed on the side of a busy road or a few people trying to push start a car.

You can clearly see the influence of the Spanish colonial masters in their beautiful architecture. Many buildings have high, brightly colored walls, intricate albeit faded frescoes, imposing living spaces, and very tall windows and doors. A lot of the monuments, theatres and religious sanctuaries in Old Havana are kept in surprisingly pristine conditions. However they often stand alongside buildings in precarious state of decay and misery, some with only the front façade of a concrete wall with rusty steel beams jutting out.

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– an amazing restaurant with quality service, ambience and food. Obama and his family dined here recently

The food in Cuba is amazing, and you can find grilled lobster on the menus of most reputable restaurants. Music and singing is very much part of the eating experience with a small band playing in the background in most bars and dining places.

The Cuban people are very friendly and easy going; random people kept coming up to us to ask where we are from and whether they can show us around and give us any information. Initially we were abit suspicious, but after the first day, we realize they were genuinely curious to find out about other cultures and people of different nationalities.

Key museums to visit are the Museum of the Revolution, Museum of Fine Arts and the Museum of Rum. It is definitely interesting to read important documents pertaining to crucial historical events from the local perspective and see first-hand, the crude weapons the militants used in their fight for freedom. I love the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes. Cuba art is so vibrant in themes, styles and colors and that you feel like you are walking through the pages of a children’s storybook where history, culture and politics are reduced to their basic form that everyone, young and old can understand. The Cubans take their alcohol, notably Rum, or ‘Ron’ in spanish, very seriously. We were treated to a very informative tour of the entire rum making process at the Museum of Ron and ended the tour with a rum tasting session. image.jpeg

The highlight for me on this trip was when we chanced upon a restaurant featuring a music act called the ‘Traditionals of the 50s’. We were blown away by the quality of the band and the singers although they all look like they were at least 60 years old. 91 year old singer Juana Bacallo, famously known as the ‘Black goddess of Cuban music’ came out at the end of the show. Her voice is still strong and commanding, and like a witch doctor, if felt as if she had cast a spell on the captive audience, drawing everyone in through her very presence. The hairs on my arms stood up when she started singing. It was such a privilege and honor to see her perform in person.image.jpeg

It will be interesting to see how much the social, cultural and political fabric of Cuba will change in the next few years. I don’t know how many in the same league as Juana Bacallo will still be around to show the world Cuba’s beauty, strong spirit and resilience.

The wily fox and 5 city girls

  Our friend celebrated her 30th birthday on Saturday and we were treated to a game called Foxtrail, the Swiss version of The Amazing Race, which gave us a good opportunity to discover Bern beyond its famous Zytglogge clock tower, beautiful cobbled streets in the old town and their beloved black bears.

We were divided into 4 groups doing 4 unique trails – 2 groups of 5 girls each, and 2 groups of 5 guys. My group comprised of 3 Singaporeans, 1 Indonesian and 1 Vietnamese, and of course, my little boy in the pram. Did I mention we are all from Zurich and do not speak or understand BERNESE Swiss german? 😉

It was a warm and sunny autumn day and our energy level was at an all time high when we were handed our trail paper with clues and instructions. It quickly dissipated when after 45mins, we were the only team still at the starting point, trying to figure out what we were suppose to do. We have 19 stops to make in 2 hours!!! We will miss the Apero! 

 It was a slow and bumpy start but we soon got our groove and took a special RKS train out of the city center in search of a church tower that led us deep into the woods. My little boy Nathan, who does a forest playgroup every Thursday, seems to know his way around the trees better than the 5 of us. We found a quaint restaurant tucked deep in the forest overlooking a beautiful river. Chickens, ducks and kids roamed around carefreely around the restaurant/farm. After finding our way out of the forest, this was civilization to us!

  We even got to ask a boatman for a clue (feels a little like crossing the River Styx except the boatman was not wearing a dark cloak and you don’t hear the cries of banished souls around us) and he rowed or should I say, held on to a long rope above him that is tied to the other end of the stream and literally ‘pulled’ us to the other side. I think it was only 200 meters away.

   
  


E The wily fox then led us through a long tunnel to… the border of Switzerland? We were all pretty amused to see the EU sign at one of our trail points. I didn’t see a tax refund booth close by though.

   

 We didn’t complete our trail but it was still an amazing experience. When we went to the end point for our apero and birthday celebration, it was exhilarating exchanging stories of our different routes. We were all pretty impressed by how organized and fun this experience was.

We will come back again and redo the same trail and hopefully, complete it so we can finally beat the wily fox!

http://www.foxtrail.ch

   

made it to the apero but the chips r all gone!
 

Mummy do-over

Happy new year to one and all!

Okay, this is not another blog post on regrets for goals unfulfilled or hopeful ramblings about new ones for the brand new year. Instead, I just want to share how blessed I am for the privilege to be a mummy for a second time.

We are really thankful to have such an easy first child -a baby who doesn’t really need much of a routine and can sleep literally anytime, anywhere. Timothy (son no.1) has always been a great travel companion, seldom fell ill and, apart from being somewhat accident-prone, hardly gave us any cause for worry or heartache. (maybe the heartache comes when he becomes a teenager)

I can’t say we’ve discovered the magic formula for child-rearing, but i suspect the stars were nicely aligned at his point of conception. har har…

And with a bountiful measure of prayers and dependence on God, we’ve somehow manage to meander through the first toddler years with little stress and much joy and laughter.

After having an easy 4 years with Timmy, it took awhile to get used to sleepless nights, the stress of breastfeeding, relentless baby wailing and smelly nappies again. Little Nathan is now 14 months old and I can still vividly remember the worry and pain we went through with his serious bout of jaundice when he was born, and his eczema that covered his little body with dry scabs. It was only when he turned 1 that I decided to get a blood test done on him and discovered he has an allergy to cow’s milk and egg white. Yikes!

But there is still so much more to be thankful for.

Having no. 2 made me realise that our hearts do grow bigger to accommodate more people for you to love. Much more than you think you were capable of loving. Both kids are such a bundle of joy and it is so beautiful to see the 2 of them expressing their affection for each other in such a natural, intuitive manner. Whenever Timmy comes home from kindergarten, he would run to Nathan first and give him a shoulder scrunching hug and say Oh Nana, I love you so much cos you are sooooo cute! And Nathan follows his older brother around like a crazy Justin bieber fan. (most of the time, he just wants to play with whatever toy Timmy is currently obsessed with)

Here are some snapshots of the boys who taught me so much about life and love, and there is still so much I am learning from them….

Big brother holding Nathan for the very first time
Big brother holding Nathan for the very first time

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Nathan’s first hike in Hassliberg

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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…

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


In search of Alexander Skarsgård

I have something to confess…

The main reason I suggested to my husband that we should do an easter trip to Sweden was because I am completely besotted with Swedish actor Alexander Skarsgård, who plays the sexy viking vampire Eric Northman in True Blood, and voted sexist man in Sweden 5 years in a row. Don’t you think the little dot in his name look sexy too?

Stockholm was everything I imagine it to be and a lot more.

1. You had me at ‘Hey!’

When you walk into a restaurant or a retail shop, this is the first thing you hear. ‘Hey’ is how the Swedes greet you. It didn’t take long before the casual ‘hey’ comes rolling off my tongue with ease. The service in most places we went to was great; you get a feeling that people are genuinely friendly and proud of what they do. All the Swedes spoke impeccable English, with an American accent to boot!

2. Smorgasbord of everything local and unique

The swedish word ‘Smörgåsbord’ became a commonly used english word to describe a myriad of choices and variety. Sweden is one of the few countries I’ve been to where shopping is still a unique and interesting experience. They have a long list of established, homegrown boutiques and fashion brands like Acne, Filippa K, Whyreds, Odd Molly and Cheap Monday. The only internationally recognised retail shop on every other street is H&M, but hey, isn’t that swedish too?

There are no Starbucks in Stockholm, instead, their local cafe chain, Wayne’s Coffee, with each store having their own unique design, will give Starbucks a run for their money any time!

3. Style Nordic

I was surprise to get a strong sense of being in New York, particularly the chic Soho area, in Stockholm. I was expecting more understated, minimalist, basic ikea style. The design of many cafes and even the hotel we stayed in is very mod, very modern but at the same time, eclectic. I past by a men’s boutique that sells vintage t-shirts and cool music gadgets like neon pink headphones. It has a row of white baby seals lamps hanging upside down from the ceiling. The fashion style seems to be influenced by the 1960s teddy boy subculture, where smart tailored suit jackets mixed with a bright colored pair of skinny jeans rolled up to show a peek of white socks seem to be the order of the day for the young and trendy here.

This is the country that gave us Roxette, The Cardigans (my favorite band!), Ace of Base and Abba. I found Abba’s signature one-piece tracksuits at a sportswear shop. Imagine going for a jog in one of these! How do you pee???

I love our hotel with its mix of moroccan tiled floors juxtaposed with clean rows of black retro high-stools at our breakfast buffet restaurant, and the mix of modern chairs with old church pews at the business area in the hotel lobby. I love getting into the elevators with acid jazz and lounge music playing on the PA system. We love being greeted by the little poster when we enter our room, with lyrics from Lou Reed’s haunting song ‘Perfect Day’.

4. Blonde beauties or mysterious brunettes?

Without a doubt, the ratio of good looking women to good looking men here is exactly 1:1. Thanks to the nice cool weather, my little boy is usually passed out for a few hours in his pram and that gave us some downtime to people watch in restaurants. I told my husband that the swedes can be easily put into 2 categories of ‘looks’. One is your classic Elin Nordegren (Tiger Woods’ ex) blue-eyed, blonde hair; and the other is the more sporty, dark haired with more angular features like the crown princess.

5. Wide open spaces

I was amazed by the open spaces within the city centre, the beautiful waterways, ports and bridges and the fact that we can see so much of the clear blue skies. The central part of the city is made up of 14 islands and you can easily crossed over from one to another via bridges and boats. It is one of the prettiest and cleanest European cities I’ve been to.

Hope everyone’s had a happy, blessed Easter!

Chip off the old block

I was looking through all our family travel photos for a new feature wall project I am working on. I can’t help but laugh at my enthusiastic efforts in dressing my husband and son up in similar styles. Well, I’m a first time mum and a shopaholic! My husband is usually game for anything (except for the pastel pink shirt I brought him 6 years ago that he still refuses to wear to work, and oh yes, a cowboy-style shirt for casual fridays too!!)

I hardly dress my boys up now like Doctor Evil and Mini-Me because my little boy is beginning to have his own sense of style now – he will only wear anything that has Lightning Mcqueen or Thomas the tank engine on it.

Here is a past collection of ‘daddy and me’ fashion:

a safe swiss haven?

Everyone who has visited or lived in Switzerland can be easily lulled into a sense of ‘feeling safe’. Compared to many other European countries (especially when you read the many news reports of teenagers looting and setting cars on fire), Switzerland is indeed a beautiful and peaceful country and its people are generally quite shy and reserved. This is the place where between 12 to 2 in the afternoon on weekdays and for the whole of Sunday, no vacuuming, drilling, hammering or loud rhythmic bedroom noises are tolerated because this is the time set aside for farm animals and old people to take their naps.

That is why it always comes as a surprise and great disappointment to me when I hear about incidents of house-breaking, school-bullying or any other forms of anti-social behaviors. Then again, most of such stories were passed down from a friend of a friend of a friend of a friend. Well, you get the idea.

I had my very own encounter with anti-social behavior a few weeks ago. I was on a swing on the playground near my house with my son when I saw two teenagers skate-scooting up the pedestrian walk next to the playground. They rode past a house with a big bush covered with easter decorations and started pulling the ceramic bunnies and eggs off and throwing them really hard at the house. Never in my life have I witnessed such unprovoked meanness. They then made their happy escape, laughing proudly at their misdeeds before they realized I saw everything. The skinnier boy raised his hand up at me. I couldn’t tell if he was waving at me in blatant defiance, or making a Nazi salute at me. I reciprocated with a firm middle finger. I think he was quite taken back and was not expecting any reaction from me. Anyway, both of them rode off.

Five minutes after my ‘act of bravado’, I finally had time to think like a responsible parent. What if the 2 big kids started attacking me and timmy? There was no way I could fend them off. They were armed with two big skate scooters; I had only my iphone (30% charged battery) and an innocent, snotty-faced child busy burying his toy car in the sand with not a clue in the world about what happened. I kept turning my head to make sure the 2 boys were not hiding somewhere ready to throw their skate scooters at me.

Last weekend, we saw a lot of trash like a Macdonald’s take-away bag and other plastic bags lying on the grass infront of the lake and on our front porch. My neighbor who lives 2 blocks away from us said that weekend, there were also a lot of trash found hanging on the trees!

The weather’s warming up really quickly now and a lot more people are starting to have picnics or use of the free bbq-pits infront of the lake. I have to remember to remind my husband to find somewhere less conspicious than the bins by the lake to dispose of our son’s soiled nappies, prawn shells and chicken bones. You don’t want any gooey poo dripping on you when u relax under a tree by the lake! I don’t want him to be made a scapegoat for all the trash spawned on public grounds when all we want to do is keep our balcony nappy-poo-stench-free. (read my blog about ‘the price of being green’)

Another friend who lives about 2 streets away from us said her neighbor’s huge Dodge, which was parked out in the open, was set ablaze late one night. There is still an ugly melted-in patch of tar left on the front porch where the fire took place. Who would do that? Maybe someone who doesn’t like american-brand lorries.

Most Swiss kids we’ve encountered are polite and quiet. A few years ago, my husband took my son out til close to midnight and was trying to get down the escalator at the railway station as fast as he could with the pram to catch the last train home. A teenage girl dressed in goth black got her boyfriend to 1) put down his carton of beer, 2) hold the train doors open for my husband and 3) help him carry the pram up the steps.

I always think Swiss kids, very much like Singaporean ones, are very sheltered, protected and somewhat more guilible than their european/south-east asian counterparts. Both have a well-educated and affluent population, and both countries do not have to grapple with issues of social unrest, poverty or war.

Perhaps it is due to the absence of pressures and conflicts, that the young become restless, and take it upon themselves to create armaggadons in their own little backyard.