17 February 2014

Meatballs, Omelets and the abomination that is IKEA

I am beaten, bushed, buggered, burnt and bruised.

I am battered.

I have just returned from my Sunday ritual of working in the Willing Hearts soup kitchen in the Badlands of Singapore. Yes there are Badlands in Singapore. They are hidden away. I work with a jolly band of mostly local volunteers who prepare and then deliver meals to an ever-increasing amount of homeless and impoverished on the Island. There is no welfare system per se here in Singapore as the government is firmly of the opinion that there are no under-privileged persons.

I am not an altruistic person or an angel or a goody-goody. In fact I have frequently been called a dick, a shit, a fucker and a bit of a cunt. I may well have been – or indeed continue to be – some or all of such things. Sorry Mum. I know you don’t like me swearing but these are other people’s descriptions and let’s face it – I have heard you swear many times before - on the golf course. When you slice your drives or miss those short putts. Also it is not my fault that people call me this – or perhaps it is. Irrespective - I don’t really give a fuck. Not about you Mum – just what other people may think of me.

In fact I do social service because my Mum and Dad raised me this way. When we were children my siblings and I were dragged – often kicking and screaming - to volunteer in the many communities in which we lived. We were taught that it was important to understand that there are many more people in the world less fortunate than ourselves and we have a responsibility to help out where we can.

I have instilled this belief in my own offspring and I too used to drag them kicking and screaming to community service work wherever we lived. It is an obligation and is one of the few things in life that I take very seriously.

The Willing Hearts organisation is run by an amazingly devoted and dedicated band of Singaporeans who are simply delightful people. There are a couple of Aunties and Uncles who run the show and I enjoy their company very much. Uncle and Aunty are terms used to describe the elderly here on the Island.  

It is a term of endearment.

I arrived earlier than normal at Willing hearts this morning as I woke before my alarm. Sleep eludes me nowadays as I myself am transitioning into an Uncle. I am already an uncle in the western world’s use of the term – but I am referring now to the Singaporean one. So at 5.30 am I began cracking eggs to make omelet type of things that we were serving up in the Badlands. By 6.30 am I had cracked close to a thousand. These were then beaten by hand – by me – and once whipped into a frothy soup I added generous portions of spring onion and capsicum.

I was in charge today of the egg station where we fried massive amounts of egg on a very large hotplate. I was joined by a couple of local men and women and two very blonde and blue eyed Scandinavian girls. I could tell that they were Scandinavian by their blond and blue eyed-ness and I took a punt that they were Swedish by giving them a hearty, “Hej Hur Mar du?” – which is “Hello how are you?” This elicited a stream of guttural Swedish responses and I had to then confess that this was the only Swedish that I had. Fortunately - like most Swedes – they spoke very good English.

Their names were Erika and Birget.

I was quite curious as to what the Swedes were doing in Singapore and how they had learned about the Willing Hearts. I was touched when they told me that they were travellers and that they always looked up charitable causes to help out with whenever they landed in a new country. Meeting people like this and being in the company of the very good people of the Willing Hearts organisation moves me quite a bit.

It delights me in fact.

It is easy to feel cynical in this sad bad world that we live in and I often feel surrounded on this Island by fuckers and sycophants with their cellophane smirks and saccharine smiles. So it really does restore my faith in humanity when I encounter such people as Erika and Birget and I do find a sanctuary in places like the Willing Hearts.

Conversation around the omelet station – which also doubles as a Roti Prata station - is always very pleasant. We have a good laugh as hot oil splatters us and we cook and pack food at a frenetic pace. I told Erika and Birget that I had been to Sweden – because I have – and I quite liked meatballs and the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and the laidback Swedish approach to nudity. I told them I was quite partial to a good sauna as well. They told me that they quite liked these things as well.

We clicked.

I also informed them that I wasn’t particularly fond of the Volvo car and I thought that IKEA was an abomination. To my great pleasure they also agreed.

Conversation around the hotplate turned to IKEA – as I turned it that way - and I asked the Swedish girls how it was supposed to be pronounced. The Singaporean will pronounce it Ik-e-ar whilst we Australians pronounce it Eye-key-ar. Both Swedes again made some guttural type of noise at me which I can only assume is the correct pronunciation.

I will not even attempt to type it phonetically.

I informed the Swedish girls that the primary reason I disliked IKEA was that their shop design is such that once you enter you are trapped inside and you are forced to follow a meandering path that goes around and around. It is one-way. I explained that it drove me mad – or perhaps madder – that one must follow what seems like an endless path to the final check-out. It can take hours.

It is cunning but brilliant.

I explained to Birget that on my second and last journey to IKEA in Singapore I tried to back track - against the flow. It was like swimming against a strong tide. It was like walking in quicksand. It was mission impossible. This is compounded by the Singaporean masses who block these paths. 

The Singaporeans love Ikea. I suspect that families may spend whole days there - perhaps weeks. They trap themselves willingly and they survive on a diet of meatballs and Swedish hotdogs.

I explained to the Swedes that the other reason I dislike IKEA is of course the assembly. The flat pack is a nightmare that is designed to drive we consumers insane. On that last journey that I made to the store I purchased a bookcase and I scoffed at the option of the assembly service. Like most of the male species I chose initially to disregard the assembly instructions.

They are for pussies.

Big mistake. Massive in fact. Several hours after returning home from the purchase I was baked in sweat and I had hurled one of the shelves from my verandah. I was frustrated and I was confounded. I was ready to kill. The accursed Ikea Allen key was scarred with my teeth marks. 

I told Erika and Birget and the Singaporeans around the omelet hotplate that at this stage I took a calming break and I drank some green tea - then I marched myself downstairs and retrieved the hurled shelf. It had fortunately landed in a Frangipani tree and was relatively unscathed. I then recovered the crumpled up assembly guide from the rubbish bin. I flicked through the 32 languages that these were written in and eventually I found the English version that I was seeking. 

Then I followed the guide step by step. 

A mere two hours later I was triumphantly stacking my books on my wobbly assembly. I ignored the small pile of unused residual screws as I know that the Swedes put in extras. It is their attempt to further confound we consumers.  

The Swedes seemed amused and possibly also bemused at my IKEA tale and they stared at me in a Scandinavian sort of way.

The Singaporeans who were cooking eggs with us didn’t seem to mind the nudity bit about our conversation but there was quite strong opposition to our opinion about IKEA. Singaporeans love IKEA.

They really do.

The egg cooking went on for a couple of hours and the Swedes and I then moved onto the vegetable peeling section. We scraped and sliced and diced potatoes and radish and some quite prickly skinned melons for a couple of hours - yacking all the time. I craftily avoided the onion table.

I cry easily.

Yacking is Australian for chatting. Coincidentally a yak is also a very large and woolly beast that lives high in the Himalaya. I will get onto that consonance in a minute.

Yes consonance. It means harmony or synchronicity to save you looking it up. The Swedes were planning on going to India in a couple of weeks for the next stage of their adventure and they asked me if I had been. I informed them that it was virtually my home away from home – because it is – as I have been working on and off there for the past couple of years.

Erika told me that they were pretty concerned about their potential safety on the sub-continent as there has been much publicity of late about the quite horrific rape cases that have occurred there in recent months. I suggested that as quite obviously Western women that were fairly easy on the eye – it might indeed not be the safest place to go – however all the Indian people I know on the sub continent are charming and kind and I personally consider it quite safe.

That’s easy for me to say.

I asked the Swedes whether Nepal was on their agenda and strangely they told me that it was not. I informed the Swedes that this was madness and they should go there instead. I told them that everyone should do the ‘Du and walk the Himalaya at least once in their lives.

Thus began a long and delightful conversation about Nepal and Kathmandu and my friends Babu and Bhim and Saraswati. This continued off and on through our chopping of vegies and our later serving of rice. Time flew as it always does at Willing Hearts.

Life rockets pass sometimes.

I sit here now battered and beaten. Despite a long shower I still smell of fried egg and radish. As usual though I feel content and happy after my session at Willing Hearts. One always gets a lot more out of community service than one gives - and I had the added bonus of making a couple of new friends today.

Hot Swedish ones at that.

The Swedes will be back next Sunday and we will likely cook Roti Prata together.

That will be nice.

It is something to look forward to.

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