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Nose around this lovely walk-up apartment on Holland Hill, Singapore

By: Verne Maree; photography by Ken Tan

This Olina Lodge walk-up apartment isn’t necessarily perfect for everyone – but it is for English teacher Linda De Flavis. I’m panting lightly by the time I get to the fourth and top floor. It’s worth the climb, though. This older apartment is a series of open, airy rooms running the entire width of the block, with a hemispherical balcony at each end.

Linda shares her home with her 20–year-old son Nathan, who is currently doing an IT programme. Their helper, Diya, has the third bedroom.

 

What brought you to Singapore?
I came out here with my husband in 1998, and our marriage broke up quite soon after that; it sometimes happens that way. Before moving here, we’d been living in Palo Alto, California, where I lectured on English Literature at Stanford University.

I was hugely impressed by the calibre of the students who had been through United World College South East Asia (UWCSEA); there were a number of them at Stanford. So I started tracking the school on the internet, and when my teaching programme at Stanford came to an end after two consecutive three-year contracts, I applied for a job in Singapore.

My role is a dual one: I teach English literature at the Dover campus of UWCSEA, but I’m also the college guidance counsellor, supporting our students with their university applications.

How long have you been in this apartment?
My second stint in this apartment began four years ago. But I first moved here 15 years ago, during my third year in Singapore. I had to move out in 2003, when the owner wanted the place back, so took a flat in the opposite block for about three years. When that one’s owner wanted to move back, this one had just become available again.

It’s about 30 years old. It’s still largely in the original condition, including parquet flooring in the bedrooms and these classic black-and-white floor tiles in the living area. I love them, because I always associate them with conservatories. The bathrooms are pretty unredeemable, but they do the job.

Ceiling fans keep the place really cool and we manage without air-conditioning. With the through breeze and the surrounding trees, it can sometimes get quite chilly during the monsoonal months.

These balconies are something special, aren’t they?
Yes, we have all our meals out here for the pleasure of being outside. Having grown up in the small market town of Devizes, in Wiltshire, England, I revel in the quietness here.

When I first moved in, none of these other buildings existed – it was all green hills and sky. I instantly fell in love with the place and had to take it, despite the four flights of stairs and lack of a lift. Sometimes, the postman doesn’t bother coming all the way up; instead, he’ll leave my parcels with the people who live on the second floor.

What’s it like to live in a walk-up?
It was easier before, but it’s become something of a problem since I’ve lost the cartilage in my knees through running. I’m supposed to avoid hills and stairs, but that’s hardly possible living where I do!

I’m not supposed to run anymore, either, except on a treadmill, so I do that a couple of times a week and I power-walk. It’s very difficult to get your heart rate properly up while walking, though, so I look for hills, and sometimes I’ll break into a guilty run.

How did you go about furnishing the flat? I like the way you’ve created different seating oases throughout the space.
As a teacher, I have a lot of homework; and my university counselling job also entails quite a bit of administrative work. Having a dual role keeps things interesting: there’s never a dull moment; but my home does need to be a comfortable working environment, too.

I did much of it right at the start, with the idea of creating a calm, tropical sort of atmosphere. The aqua bead curtains are from Lim’s, which has been a treasure trove for me over the years. I find the beads very restful, and I think they work well hung against white walls that rise to high ceilings. People tell me they feel as though they’re stepping into a swimming pool.

Quite a lot of the furniture is from IKEA, including the white sofa you’re sitting on, and this comfortable chair. It was re-covered for me by New Décor in Holland Road Shopping Centre, together with the matching cushions on the chair next to the TV: a fair challenge because of the design, but they did a good job.

The white wicker came with me from the US; it’s from Pier One, which is very popular there. I’ve been looking for something similar here, but without success. The mosaic-topped wrought-iron table and chairs on the balcony came from Carrefour, just before it closed down.

Diya looks after the plants; I love to be surrounded by greenery, but I’m hopeless at keeping it alive.

Do you eat out much?
More often at home. Diya does the shopping and cooks for Nathan, while I tend to be pretty spontaneous. I’m not good at planning ahead, so I’m a big eater of salads that I prepare for myself. Diya’s a great help, as she knows how to pick out the fresh raspberries and avocados that aren’t as hard as cricket balls.

When we do eat out, we’re quite partial to Nando’s – it’s nice to be greeted with “Yebo!”. Other times, we’ll take the bus or go for a jog and end up having an Indian meal at one of the food courts with an Indian stall, such as Tanglin Mall or Wisma Atria.

Between our condo and the one next door is a little walkway that takes us down to Chip Bee Gardens in Holland Village. Da Paolo in Jalan Merah Saga is our favourite, and I like the baking supplies specialty shop nearby: Phoon Huat, it’s called. I’m fond of baking, especially on the weekend; but I don’t want to be eating it all, so I do it more for my son and sometimes for my students at school. Brownies and cakes are a good incentive, I find.

Banana bread is another favourite – but we can’t leave ripe bananas out at night, otherwise fruit bats swoop in to steal them. They’re very bold – flying all the way through the living room into the kitchen!

Do you get much opportunity to travel?
The university counselling aspect of my job means I’m invited to visit various campuses in the US and the UK, up to several times a year; I’ve also been to Hong Kong. The frequency depends on the conferences and invitations that come in; budgets have been hit in recent years, but they seem to be picking up again.

Do your UWC students enjoy English literature?
Yes, they love it. Our kids who are very interested in reading, not just English literature but world literature in general. And because they tend to travel a lot, they’re already innately interested in other cultures and other perspectives on the world.

I teach mainly the older years, Grades 11 and 12. But this year I’m also taking a class of Grade 10 students, who recently arrived here or have joined us from other schools in Singapore and are preparing for their IB (International Baccalaureate) year.

What has kept you in Singapore for so long, when you could have moved on to other opportunities?
My answer is a very simple one: the calibre of the students and the culture of the school. Our students have open minds, and a worldview that is very sophisticated.

Whatever I ask of them, they rise to the challenge, which makes them extremely teachable and rewarding pupils. They’re exceptional, and I can’t imagine getting the same sort of atmosphere, enthusiasm and motivation in another high school. It would probably have to be one of the top universities, like Stanford.

There is so much about Singapore to enjoy, and I make a point of reminding myself about all the things that impressed me so deeply when I first arrived. It’s too easy to get caught up in the daily grind and forget what wonderful opportunities this place offers. In short, Singapore is a great place to call home.

 

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