Sunday, August 24, 2008

Leaving My Gilt Cage

Over Singapore's National Day, I took some days off for my annual "grand vacation" (definition being anything longer than a week). It was an epic journey for me - Edinburgh to Côte d'Azur to London. In my 12 days outside of Singapore, I felt like a kid in a candy store - greedily grabbing at all the sights and culture I could fit into my tight travel schedule.

Having been back in Singapore for a little over three years now, I have found it to be a more comfortable, interesting and diverse place to live in than I remember as a teenager. Life in Singapore is like a cocoon - safe, secure, warm and cosy. The cosiness however can sometimes feel a little stifling, and the only way I can redress the balance is to leave the country and re-gain perspective somewhere *not* Singapore.

Admittedly, I was a little star-struck on my recent trip. The Côte d'Azur is breathtakingly beautiful, and I fantasise now and then about cleaning yachts for a living so that I can be that much closer to the waterfront lifestyle. And no, I don't mean One
Degree 15 or Keppel Bay (no offense). You just have to see the Baies des Anges to know what I mean.

Ideally situated by the Mediterranean (sun & sea) and the Alpes-Maritime (sun & hills) - the French Riviera is an inspiring, restorative vacation destination. Dotted with charming medieval villages, hilly winding streets, drinking fountains full of fresh spring water and grand promenades lined with sumptuous candy-coloured palais - the lifestyle is wonderful as well.

The pace of life is slower. Everyone's in vacation mode, taking a leisurely caf
é au lait, watching a game of pétanque. People place emphasis on fresh produce, herbs and spices. Menus are filled with catch of the day this and that. Market places are noisy with shoppers filling their baskets with juicy olives, candied fruit, saucisson, smelly cheeses and wonderful savoury pastries. All in preparation for a nice meal with vin de rosé - a speciality of the Côte - or a touch of absinthe, you choose your poison. You've got to admire the French for this. They invented the concept of slow food!

Little wonder then that many artists of the 20th century (Chagall, Matisse, Picasso, Monet, Renoir to name but a few...) flocked to the Côte to improve their health or admire the light. It's interesting to see the paintings produced by artists during their stay in the Côte d'Azur.

Two from Picasso I like are his
"Night Fishing in Antibes" and "La Joie de Vivre":

Picasso lived in Antibes towards the end of World War Two with his young 23 year old lover, enjoying life in its fullest. He painted and produced numerous artworks - many of which were then donated to the Musée National Picasso (formerly the Chateau Grimaldi where he lived and worked part of his time on the Côte) in Antibes Juan-les-Pins.

And that's just one of the many stories of great artists who have left their imprint or whose works were influenced by their time in the Côte d'Azur.The French Riviera is undoubtedly an art lover's paradise, with many modern art galleries, impressive public collections (the Maeght Foundation for example) and stunning monuments like the Matisse-designed Chapelle du Rosaire. There is now an itinerary which visitors can follow called "Painters' of the Côte d'Azur". When one only has 3 days, choices and sacrifices have to be made.

For me, I rented a Smart car and drove along the Moyenne Corniche to see some of the most stunning sights along the coast. And all too soon, it was time to fly off to London for a different cultural experience.

My visit to London was also very eventful - though in a very different way. I solicited lots of advice from friends who knew London well, and planned out a back-up itinerary in case I was too lazy to deviate from the plan. As it turns out, the London I visited was nothing like the London I remembered when I was 17! Bewildering to say the least, I packed my days with museums and galleries, classical music and historic walks. I even gave up my two loves: shopping and eating - all to immerse myself in the cultural and historic sights of London.

As incredibly disciplined as I tried to be, "The Lure of the East: British Orientalist Painting" and "Hadrian: Empire & Conflict" (at the Tate Britain & the British Museum respectively) took me a good two and a half hours each. Then there was the marvellous Tower of London - one of the few tourist attractions great for kids and adults - which I highly recommend to anyone visiting London. And the sobering, sombre St Paul's Cathedral which is well-matched by the Imperial War Museum. During the summer, London also offers a whole slew of interesting cultural activities too, like the BBC Proms at the Royal Albert Hall and Shakespeare in the park.

This is not even scratching the surface of what London has to offer. If I had had the luxury of time, I would have wandered the streets at leisure, sought historical landmarks (like Tyburn - place of the public gallows, now situated in SoHo), and visited more galleries and museums. I would have strolled through parks, sat on the grass with a book and a blanket, sunbathing, picnicking with my Pret A Manger or M&S Eats sandwich & salad. I would explored the nightlife more thoroughly. Oh so many more things to do.

I was (still am) star-struck. I also confess to wishing I was living overseas again, perhaps in my beloved Washington DC. O how I miss the Smithsonian Folklife Festival that marked the height of summer...

Having been back home in Singapore for about 3 weeks now - I have been slowly descending from Cloud Nine, though not necessarily in a bad way. Perhaps it takes deprivation to heighten one's appreciation of what one has. I was glad to be back to my zhi-char hor fun and chilli padi for sure. How typically Singaporean you might think, but well - at the end of the day, that is what I am.

But I'll be day-dreaming about that house in the Holland Park Mews, or at least plan for a much longer visit in the not-so-distant future!