Mission: Vuitton. A Very Specific Summer Shopping Spree in Paris

I didn’t get to spend much time in Paris this time around, just half a day on my way from Madrid to Sable, a false terrorist alarm (a middle eastern looking boy had bounced his toy ball into spaces he hadn’t meant to) keeping me trapped for half an hour at Charles De Gaulle, leaving me with exactly 50 minutes to navigate the whole metro and catch the last high-speed train of the night (was in the station with barely 8 minutes to spare, and in my seat literally 3 minutes before it sped off). I’d never been so happy to catch a train in my life. By dusk I was safe in Sable, ready to de-stress. But that story’s for another post.

is that LV in the distance?

I then got to spend a whole summers’ day in the city on my way back up from Sable to Brussels. What a difference the weather makes! Although I was lugging my trolley all along the Champs and La Defense, I felt tons lighter than I did the last winter, maybe because I was wearing 60% less clothing and there seemed to be 60% less tourists on the streets. I was so glad to be back but so sad that my return visit was so fleeting.

the mothership!

Nostalgia aside, I had a mission to accomplish. My old, dear friend Kathy’s beloved Louis Vuitton handbag had been stolen in the operating room as she was performing a C section just a couple of weeks ago. My trip’s timing was fortuitous. I had now been tasked to acquire for her a replacement LV Damier Papillon straight from the source itself: the LV flagship store along the Champs Elysees.

this photo was taken in the LV store before i knew better

So briefed by my Parisian friends Marie and Anne, and my cousin Jamie (who used to work for LV) as to how to deal with the legendarily snooty LV staff, I breezed into the store’s doors with Kathy’s euros burning a hole in my pocket and dragging my not-quite-as-expensive-as-LV luggage behind me. As Marie had briefed me, the millisecond you walk in somebody (in my case, a big tall swarthy bald guy with a radio plugged into his ear) asks you whether you’re going to buy something. The magic word of course is “yes” and that makes all the difference. The 2nd question that Marie didn’t foresee was that I was also asked (probably due to all the travel gear, airline stickers and all, I was schlepping with me) and I quote: “From where did you fly in from?” A little bit flustered by this not being in the script, I quite honestly but literally replied “From Madrid.” And thanks to that faux pas, that’s when I discovered the fun in luxury shopping.

the last photo I snapped before big bald swarthy guy waved his finger in my lens “no no no photos!”

Moments later, I had been assigned my very own personal LV shopping assistant – Angelo from Madrid! Cute and curly-haired like a cherub, but probably twice as slick, Angelo seemed a teensy bit disappointed that I obviously wasn’t really from FROM Madrid, if maybe not by how I looked, then definitely through my not-very-native Spanish accent. But he seemed legitimately happy to be able to serve someone in Spanish and as we waited for them to bring down the last and only Damier Papilion in stock (lucky girl that Kathy!), a process which took some special authorization from on high before I could get my grubby hands on it (being the last unclaimed Damier Papilion in Paris and all), Angelo kept me amused and refreshed with conversation and Perrier. I’m not one to care much for  expensive handbags but I gotta admit that the way they pamper you, it really helps make you feel a lot better about forking over that much dough for one. Or maybe I just lucked out with Angelo. It was positively surreal though being in Paris and still shopping in Spanish.

ala bryanboy – the moneyshot. yes, it’s real, didn’t just fall out from the back of a truck!

After a quick stroll up to the Arc De Triomphe and as much summer sightseeing I could squeeze into 15 minutes, I headed off to La Defense, the modern side of Paris which I didn’t get to explore much before (and because of renovation work on that particular Metro line, I got a free ride that day! Yipee!). Continuing what has now become almost like a tradition for us when in Paris, I met up for lunch with Jussi and Anne, who just happened to be celebrating her birthday that day. This I couldn’t miss as part of my 2nd Parisian Mission: to deliver Jussi’s birthday present of Team Manila T-shirts (“smuggled” in my baggage) to Anne. I’d just spent the last 3 days staying with vegetarian friends in the French countryside so the skyscrapers around and the big beefy burgers we ate really made me feel more like the carnivorous city-boy that I usually am again.

Paris’s other arc

Right after lunch (which went on till 3) Jussi gamely accompanied me through the Metro (he had an extra ticket so another free train trip, yipee again!) seeing me off to the station to Belgium (from where he’d just arrived that day, ironically, hauling tons more luggage than I). Two hours later I was crossing the border, off to another adventure, other rendezvous-es, but now with a really expensive handbag making me really paranoid about losing my luggage.

La Défense’s Dark Tower

-text by Jude Defensor, some rights reserved. first posted 2008

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Fine Food High. Dining Up in Baguio’s Manor

Baguio City

Baguio City (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Like a phoenix, the former American rest and recreation facility of Camp John Hay in the chilly hilltop city of Baguio in northern Luzon has risen out of the ashes of a devastating earthquake in 1990 and the withdrawal of the United States Air Force in 1991. It has now metamorphosed into a top destination for vacationers with its 5001 yard par 69 golf course designed by Jack Nicklaus, picnic grounds, eco-trails, and other leisure and tourist facilities. But the brightest jewel in the Camp’s cap is undoubtedly the Manor. The four-storey structure, designed to stand in harmony amidst its setting of towering pine trees and views of the majestic Cordillera mountain range, offers five-star service and world-class amenities. Its rich interiors of warm wood evoke the feel of Baguio at its most welcoming best. Above everything, what the Manor offers that really gets people to brave a trek up the zigzags road to get to Camp John Hay are the gastronomic delights at its premier dining outlet Le Chef. The “baby” of talented and charismatic superchef Billy King, Le Chef at the Manor has arisen as a de rigeur gourmand’s destination. The force and flair behind Manila fine dining institution Le Souffle, Chef Billy started cooking as a young boy in Ireland and proceeded to hone his craft in various top-drawer kitchens around the world. He then came to the Philippine where his heart found its home. “I think I’m more Pinoy than most Pinoys,” Billy reflects. “It’s fantastic being in the Philippines. This country has been so good to me. It has given me everything I have. And that’s happiness.” He unabashedly gushes about the friendships and opportunities he has found here and to his fellow expats he counsels: “Get to know as many Pinoys as possible. They’re fun. They love to party, sing and dance. And most importantly they love to eat. “

Chef Billy relates how his friends, Manor bigwigs Tito Avenceña and Heiner Muelbecker, approached him to take over as their head food and beverage man. He loved the idea, since it gave him the opportunity to get away from the exhausting hustle and bustle and intense competition in Manila.

The way Chef Billy operates is he relies on several key people who he trusts. He prefers to hire people who need a break, either jobless or novices. He runs his kitchen like a school. There is always 20 percent more staff than necessary, all undergoing constant training. To keep things fresh and innovative, Chef Billy believes in always mixing things up, never sticking to a regular dish or menu, or any fixed specialties. And despite his deep foundation in classical French cooking and huge respect for his profession, Mr. King still displays quite the rebellious streak. “I can’t follow rules. I break every rule in the book,” he admits.

But there’s one thing that Chef Billy never screws around with, and that’s the importance of good food. “Food is what I love. You can call it an obsession in a way,” he states passionately. “I hate to see food wasted and people that don’t care about food. When I get a complaint it breaks my heart and stays with me for days. It really hurts. I can only apologize and hope I’m given a second chance. But most have given me a second chance.”

With the orgasmically delicious dishes Mr. King seems to consistently dream up with ease, one can’t help but keep coming back to his cooking, not just twice, but multiple times. Who can resist the chance to check out his latest yummy concoction? “We’re always upgrading and changing, adapting our menu according to the seasons,” he explains. Being in Baguio allows him to be even more adventurous and ambitious. “There’s plenty of everything in the market. We create specialties from what we have here. I challenge my staff to do something different, come up with ideas and put something together. It’s good for them and for me. I can’t stand doing the same thing everyday.”

English: The replica of the Statue of Liberty ...

English: The replica of the Statue of Liberty in Camp John Hay in Baguio (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Chef Billy and Manor General Manager Heiner Muelbecker’s next venture is the soon-to-open Manor Suites, a lavishly appointed structure rising beside the current Manor. Like a boy with a new toy, Billy enthusiastically talks about their plans for their re-imagining of the legendary 19th Tee diner which all aficionados of the old pre-quake Baguio remember with fondness and profoundly miss with an intense nostalgia. The Manor team has been hard at work on a 19th Tee for the new breed of Baguio-lovers. The kitchen is being built and menu being developed according to Chef Billy’s exacting and inventive specifications. “The menu will be very versatile,” he reveals. “I’m a great believer that not only adults, but also children should be given the option to eat healthy food. I’ve been working on a way to do affordable, healthy, quality fast food for a long time.” He does reassure us though that innovations aside, the diner will still feature the good old original American-era favorites nostalgia-hounds are sure to crave, like hamburgers, chilli dogs, and ice cream. And soda fountain buffs are sure to appreciate one detail where the new Tee will definitely improve on the old, Chef Billy reveals that they’ll be churning up their very own homemade ice cream. Cool Baguio weather and homemade ice cream, what more of an excuse does one need to move up to the Manor?

-text by Jude Defensor. first published in What’s On & Expat Newspaper, 2007

Holland From a Higher Plane

…continued from Bikes and Dikes

Back in Amsterdam, I was in for one last treat. Michael, a British expat and long-time resident of the Netherlands, invited me to his loft apartment atop a 300 year-old 5-storey building right between the Royal Palace and the red-light district. Buttressed by thick wooden beams that make the space feel like a huge, cozy attic, his home has its own rooftop garden where we sipped wine through the long sunny afternoon with the city spread out before us.

Drinking it all in among the flora and foliage of this unlikely spot, I realized how horticulture is such an integral part of the country’s fabric. As sombre as their architecture can be at times, the Dutch sure know how to touch things up with a well-placed row of tulips or spray of ivy. Their charm really creeps up on you, it’s not a massive all-out assault with everything pretty all of the time. Sometimes there’s gloom, and a little bit of doom, but then the country’s beauty blooms through and true.

After one last perfect zero-degree-cold Heineken at the Schipol airport lounge, I got on the plane back to storms and semi-sobriety in Manila. As we took off and ascended, I looked down at the Netherlands’ patchwork patterns, carved precariously from the invading tides and foreign powers, and realized how I’d expanded my consciousness simply by chasing the horizon and keeping my head in the clouds. Try puffing on that!

The Facts of Flight

KLM flies direct from Manila to Amsterdam daily. A nifty way of passing the time on the long journey is to study a few lessons in Dutch or other languages using the in-flight entertainment system. Besides the pampering and other perks (which you really come to appreciate on a 14+ hour flight), World Business Class passengers are also given a Delft blue porcelain figure of old Dutch canal houses filled with jenever. Now collectors’ items (some styles go for US$1000 at auction), there are 90+ different houses, one for every year of KLM’s operation, with a new house style introduced every year.

Bikes and Dikes

…continued from Layover in Limburg

At the Artis Zoo, people-watching is just as enjoyable and enlightening as seeing the many impressive animal exhibits

The Dutch have their own version of the pedal-powered tricycle-for-hire, but have improved it by featuring a more restful reclining posture for the driver

It was on the train trips north up to Amsterdam, and later west to The Hague and Antwerp, where I really got a feel for the countryside – as flat and green as you could have imagined it, with the occasional windmill or cow adorning the view. And everywhere was water, carefully channelled and controlled, be it stream, pond or river. Every village or housing development, however simple or compact, boasted a water feature. The air was fresh with vapour, diffusing the sun into that distinct Dutch glow which lit the canvasses of Rembrandt, Vermeer and Van Gogh. The land was as stringently planned, parcelled out and crisscrossed with waterways and bike lanes as the exacting lines and rectangles of Mondrian and Rietveld. But like everything in the Netherlands, something radical bubbles beneath the rigid structure on the surface. The Dutch ride their bikes like madmen, secure in their status as queens of the road. Pedestrians and motorists better beware when crossing bikers’ paths. Bicycles are such a big deal that their theft is a huge national menace, with over 700,000 stolen every year. This beggars the question, if there are already 16 million bikes in the Netherlands, with more than one bike for every Dutch person, then why steal someone else’s? It’s probably just like a huge game of musical bicycles!

the blogger on a bike

While tourists take leisurely boat rides along the canals, true locals pedal fiercely on their fiets (bikes) practically everywhere. So I knew I ought to have a go at this great Dutch tradition while visiting my cousin Jamie and her family in The Hague. Most Dutch keep two bikes, an old outdated one (which they wouldn’t mind getting stolen) for short, simple trips, and a souped-up cycling machine for serious speed (carefully kept under lock and key). My cousin’s Dutch husband Ron, easily half a head taller than I, lent me his well-used “granny-style” bike to take for a spin around their neighbourhood. Once I’d figured out how to mount the imposing mass of metal, and gotten over my fear of losing control and hurtling into a canal or the path of a speeding tram, I actually started to enjoy myself and feel like I’d managed to embrace the full Dutch experience.

Croquettes, frites and pea soup are as Dutch a meal as you can put together.

Since they expend so much energy getting around, it’s no wonder the Dutch stay mostly lean (but not mean) despite their traditional cuisine being heavy on pancakes, fritters, meat, potatoes and powdered sugar, or various combinations of the above-mentioned. Going by the gastronomic landscape though, you’d think it was the Indonesians who’d colonized the Netherlands and not the other way around. You can’t go very far without running across a rijsttafel (rice table), a Dutch colonial adaptation of the Javanese dinner. Surinamese restaurants and Argentinean steakhouses jostle for attention between automats, falafel shops, and kiosks peddling pickled herring. Clearly, conquering the munchies is not a problem in this country.

The tower of Delft’s Nieuwe Kerke, where members of the Dutch Royal family are buried

The Tiles that Bind

After a quick stroll and drive around the monuments of The Hague, where the Dutch government and Queen Beatrice reside and preside, Jamie and Ron took me to Delft, the town synonymous with its iconic blue-and-white glazed tiles and pottery. With their two-year-old daughter Elise in tow, we strolled through charming streets heavy with the history of the Dutch Royal House of Orange-Nassau (William of Orange, Father of the Dutch Nation, lived, died and was buried here) and as the home port of the Dutch East India Company – the original importers of the Chinese porcelain which inspired the famous Delftware. Although they live and work in The Hague, Jamie and Ron actually prefer spending their leisure time around Delft, which they consider more family-friendly, especially with a young child, and more importantly, has better parking, always an issue in a country of such density.

A stall for used books at the University of Amsterdam, helping satiate the Dutch’s apparent addiction to reading material

Earlier in the summer, they took a break from the bustling Randstad (the conurbation of the four largest cities in Holland) and with Jamie’s parents rented a bungalow in the countryside near Maastricht in the Southern Netherlands where I’d just been. Turns out that among the Dutch, vacation time is sacred and best spent communing with nature. I guess it makes up for their high-tech hyper-efficiency while at work. As both Ron and Peter explained, one restaurant staff in the Netherlands is expected to do the same amount of work that in the Philippines you’d probably have three different people doing, which is probably why even the simplest cafes have wi-fi-equipped waiters.

Amsterdam’s modernist face emerges along the Oosterdok. Leftmost is the Stedelijk Museum CS, housed in a former postal building and containing many masterworks of modern art, the ship-shaped structure to the right is the Nemo (National Center for Science and Technology)

Over dinner at their home, we talked about the differences between the quality of life and raising a family in the Netherlands, the Philippines, and Hong Kong (where the couple met and first lived together). Jamie valued the importance the Dutch place on independence, competence and living harmoniously with the environment but missed the warmth of family and easy access to help with babysitting and housework. After coffee, Ron drove me to a spot with a good view of that quintessential Holland postcard scene – a row of traditional windmills, picturesque yet functional and still helping keep the sea at bay.

Bummed by missing a photo-op with Rembrandt’s grandest opus at the Rijksmuseum? This 3D reinterpretation of The Nightwatch in bronze is ripe for the snapping at Rembrandtplein

continued in Holland From a Higher Plane

-text & photos by Jude Defensor, some rights reserved. first published in Expat Travel & Lifestyle magazine, 2008

Layover in Limburg

…continued from Canals, Cannabis and Culture

The Lange Grachtje street snakes along a section of the city’s oldest walls

This converted church in the award-winning Entre Deux shopping area has been hailed as one of the world’s most beautiful bookshops

My proper introduction to the Netherlands was not through the better-known part of the country familiar to the world as Holland, but through the southern province of Limburg, a tongue of territory sandwiched between Belgium and Germany. From Brussels I was fetched by my Dutch friend Peter, a Limburg native. As we exited the Belgian capital in his hybrid car, navigating with the help of its Dutch-speaking GPS, I began taking a few snaps of buildings and scenery during the drive to the border. Peter patriotically suggested that I set aside my camera until we’d crossed into the Netherlands, teasing that it was where I should really start taking pictures.

As we toured Limburg, I saw his point. The province’s capital is Maastricht, one of the oldest settlements in the Netherlands, dating back to the Celts and Romans. A massive urban renewal effort is currently making its mark on the Maastricht cityscape, bringing the medieval town with its ancient walls into the 21st century. The trend has even extended to individual heritage buildings – I spotted an old church that was now a beautiful bookstore and another that had been transformed into a night club.

Students on break sun themselves on the lushly manicured grass of Aldenhofpark in Maastricht as ducks waddle through the water and chase

Pilgrims pray to St. Servatius in the millenium-old
basilica bearing his name and remains

Renowned for its university and graduate schools, Maastricht’s streets and spaces are full of youthful students from different countries. As we lunched at the Vritjhof, across the Basilica of St. Servatius and close to where the treaty which formally created the European Union was signed, the whole world seemed to come together at that square. But Peter handily trumped that moment by driving us the short distance to Driepuntland (Three Point Land), the spot where the borders of Belgium, Netherland and Germany converge. In these Schengen-ized times it may seem a bit cheesy and irrelevant to pose on the point and be in “three places at the same time,” but I did it anyway. Political boundaries never seemed more arbitrary to me than at that moment.

continued in Bikes and Dikes

-text & photos by Jude Defensor, some rights reserved. first published in Expat Travel & Lifestyle magazine, 2008

Canals, Cannabis and Culture

…continued from High Time in a Low Country: Exploring the Netherlands 

At the Leidseplein, artists start stripping down for a public performance, one
of the wackier ones I’ve witnessed

Budding cannabis cultivators can grow their own stashes from seed or
shoots for a steadier supply. Lots of pot in pots line some smoky streets

From red we go green, and check out that other disreputable Dutch treat. The nose knows best in this case and it won’t take long to sniff out the fumes. A veritable haze hangs over some streets, as thick as Dutch pea soup. Red-eyed recreational trippers stagger out onto the sidewalks, giggling about nothing in particular. For those who’d like to imbibe as well as inhale, Holland is the birthplace of Heineken and jenever (gin’s more flavourful ancestor), and they flow into eager mouths much like the Amstel river feeds into Amsterdam’s canals. Party boats and beer bikes brimming with giddy, tipsy pleasure-seekers circle the city, sparing no corner from the high-spirited buzz of herbs and alcohol.

Among other substances, “coffeehouse blends,” cocktails, and candies with a kick can be freely had for a fleeting hit

The cycle from day to dusk to dark reflects on the canal water, a sight enough to explain some souls’ Amsterdam addiction

When the sun starts to set, the street lamps and neon signs flicker into life and the tone of the town shifts: Performance artists take over the Leidseplein, their antics growing zanier with the darkness. The main acts at the legendary Melkweg and Paradiso begin their sets, poised to enthrall another audience. And those still searching for that one elusive thrill to remember start moving on to riskier and more potent fare. Sadly, some lost souls never stop. Good thing the trams keep running right on time, or else there’d be even more led astray by Amsterdam’s notorious night.

It seems best to reminisce and write about Amsterdam while slightly intoxicated, if only to help recapture the heady feel of hedonism that runs through the grachts and straats of this small but significant European capital. Stone sober prose just doesn’t cut it. But then it’s probably easiest (and cheaper) to get high on culture than any other substance around. Getting an “I Amsterdam card” (which affords entrance to nearly every major museum, a canal tour, and limitless use of public transport for up to 72 hours) practically forces you to see as much as you can. From walls pulsing with avant-garde graffiti to museums stuffed with Old Masters and Modern originals, saturating your eyeballs is easier done than saying Stedjelik three times fast. Galleries for every taste parade a staggeringly eclectic range of artistic wealth. The visual variety on display is a testament to how one’s view of the Netherlands can easily change with the light, the weather, or choice of intoxicant.

Taking a photo of the Iamsterdam sign fronting the Rijksmuseum is one of the
top touristy things to do. As expected, several random Asian tourists pounce
on me to snap their pictures as they pose

continued in Layover in Limburg

-text & photos by Jude Defensor, some rights reserved. first published in Expat Travel & Lifestyle magazine, 2008

High Time in a Low Country: Exploring the Netherlands

Working windmills near The Hague continue to help regulate water levels.
Highly sought-after as homes, people can live in the roomy structures as long
as they can maintain them

My first brush with the Netherlands was probably the same as most international travelers, passing through Schipol airport while waiting for a flight to another city. The facility seemed to embody the vaunted Dutch ideals of organization, efficiency, modernity, but with a bit of a twist to keep things interesting. I was through passport control in mere seconds and no lines greeted me at the security checkpoint. As I readied my carry-on bag for the requisite x-ray machine, the security guy good-naturedly asked if it contained a laptop computer. I nodded and proceeded to unzip my bag. While I was doing so he prodded me with a chuckle, saying “Go on, take out the bomb.”

Jo the lonely bear sits on a bench in Aldenhofpark in Maastritch. His right
paw looks creepily like the bones of a human hand

I froze, but everybody in the security crew just smiled and took his “joke” in stride. I was already past their purview by the time my thoughts about how we civilians couldn’t get away with saying things like that had time to sink in. And so with black humor at its most unnerving, I was welcomed into Holland…

Sex, Death and De Stijl

“Apocalyps” stands in the otherwise serene garden of the Bible museum, a relatively undiscovered quiet corner converted from two canal houses

Little bits of dark Dutch wit dotted the rest of my jaunt through the Netherlands: In Aldenhofpark in Maastricht there’s a statue of Jo, the last bear who lived in the park and died there, depressed and alone. This sad sculpture is actually part of an installation called ‘the half automatic consolation machine,’ where morbid figures of extinct animals mingle among the young students sunbathing. Not far from Amsterdam’s heavily-promoted Torture Museum, in the garden of the Bible Museum looms “Apocalyps,” a moss-covered monument crowned by the disembodied heads of beasts mentioned in the book of Revelation. In Dam Square, bounded by the Royal Palace, the New Church and a monument to the victims of war, I saw Darth Vader hold court with Poseidon. In Delft, a pack of bikers in black leather prowled Markt Square under the shadow of towering Nieuwe Kerke, home to the Dutch royal burial vault.

In Amsterdam’s Dam Square, performers costumed as Darth Vader and Poseidon vie for attention (Vader is the clear winner)

It’s this (almost) anything goes atmosphere that makes the Netherlands the poster child for progressive attitudes. Ever pragmatic, the Dutch were ahead of their time in doing away with silly superstitions and stifling social mores. But with this enlightenment also came a certain austerity. Most post-reformation architecture in the Netherlands, from churches to palaces, seem rather stark in comparison to their more baroque brethren. Centuries later, this artistic asceticism would eventually be elevated to its zenith with such Dutch-led modernist movements as the Amsterdam School and De Stijl.

Some buildings and other structures in the Netherlands have been completely painted in garish graffiti

But all this still didn’t manage to explain to me the Dutch predilection for having large glass windows, which they then leave clear to view by anyone walking past on the street. Differing hypotheses abound: A Dutch friend explained how before gas and electricity, people would burn fires indoors for light and warmth. This necessitated high ceilings to allow the smoke to rise above breathing level, and high-ceilinged homes needed tall windows to let the sun in. A British friend posited how glass must have been expensive even during the Dutch Golden Age, and wealthy homeowners would have grand glass windows installed just to show off. But the most psychologically interesting theory comes from a Belgian friend. A Catholic, he explains how the Dutch, who were predominantly Reformed Protestants, adopted the convention of putting in big glass windows to show to everybody that they weren’t doing anything reproachable in their homes.  Closed shutters or drawn curtains just mean that something wicked was going on within. And with all that’s legal in the Low Countries, that’s a whole lot of wicked you can get away with. The Dutch themselves take it for granted that it isn’t polite to peek inside, and those who do are either crooks, voyeurs, or tourists who don’t know any better.

Shops catering to a wide array of fetishes brazenly display their wares in the streets on the fringes of the red light district

But this unspoken rule doesn’t apply to Amsterdam’s most famous window displays – the prostitutes in the red light district. Safe (and mostly bored) behind glass, you can look at the hookers all you want. But “touching” them will cost you (around 50 euros for a few minutes) and snapping photos can get you in big trouble with the pimps. Better catch the show while you still can. After eight centuries of brisk trade, the government is planning to ease out the world’s oldest profession to make way for fashion boutiques.

continued in next entry, Canals, Cannabis and Culture

text & photos by Jude Defensor, some rights reserved. first published in Expat Travel & Lifestyle magazine, 2008

Friendly Flyer: Malaysia Airlines’ Goh Meng Kheng

Goh Meng Keng. Photo by Richie Castro

Buoyed by the impressive growth of the Asia Pacific region, Malaysia Airlines (MAS) is one of the rising stars of the airline industry among Asian carriers. It is one of only five airlines in the world to have been awarded a 5-star rating by Skytrax. Always ready with a warm smile, Area Manager for the Philippines Goh Meng Kheng truly embodies Malaysia Airlines’ buoyant and upbeat attitude.

Flying to 60 destinations on all six inhabited continents plus 16 destinations within Malaysia, MAS was the first airline in Southeast Asia to fly to South Africa and the only airline in the region that serves South America via its flights to Buenos Aires, Argentina. Goh shares how the airline plans to further strengthen its presence in the Asian region, particularly in Asean, China, India and the Middle East. For the rest of the world, strategic alliances are being pursued with other airlines to complement their own efforts.

He went on to talk about the ongoing success of the airlines’ three-year Business Turnaround Plan (BTP), which was launched in February 2006. The company has recently announced their 1st quarter 2007 results, revealing a net profit of Malaysian Ringgit (RM) 133 million. “We made RM 129 million in operating profits, our 3rd successive profit and highest since the start of the BTP,” beams Goh. On March 14, 2007, MAS launched Firefly, Malaysia’s first community airline, tapping the potential customer base in the progressive Indonesia-Malaysia-Thailand Growth Triangle.

Airline General Managers on the cover of Expat Travel & Lifestyle magazine’s 2nd issue. Photo by Richie Castro.

As Goh relates, one of the major developments of Malaysia Airlines is the “hub-and-spoke’ strategy to reduce costs and at the same time improve both load factors and yields. The strategy uses code-sharing with other airlines to enable travelers to enjoy a seamless product, as a single airline supervises the passenger’s entire journey. “Such an arrangement offers significant economic and consumer benefits giving passengers price and service options,” Goh explains. Within this strategy, MAS had already entered into code-sharing with Gulf Air, South African Airways, Alitalia and Virgin Blue of Australia and are currently in discussions with other airlines to develop hub-and-spoke networks in other regions of Europe,China and USA. Another major development is with MAS’ aircraft fleet replacement plan. The airline has plans to purchase at least 100 more new aircraft.

Goh defines a good airline as one that consistently improves the level of its service to customers. And with 125 initiatives this year to improve customer experience at all touch-points from the point of purchase all the way through pre-embarkation, embarkation, in-flight to disembarkation, Malaysia Airlines definitely fits that criterion.

“On time performance, good safety records and being profitable,” are other standards the Area Manager aims to uphold. “Especially the profitability of the routes between Philippines and Malaysia,” he underlines. He considers the successful negotiation for the increase of the passenger capacity load for travel between Philippines and Malaysia as a major highlight of his career. Under Goh’s watch, Airbus services between Manila and Kuala Lumpur were increased from twice a week to seven times a week, while the twice a week service between Cebu and Kuala Lumpur were increased to four times a week.

Goh’s vision for Malaysia Airlines is to be known as one of the friendliest airlines with true customer-oriented values, becoming one of the most preferred airlines for travelers in the Philippines. Going by his motto of “listen first then work on it,” Goh describes his management style as keeping his ears open to information and feedback at all times. He likes his staff and clients to feel that they can freely share their thoughts and opinions for the betterment of the airline. In line with this, he strives to ensure that his crew here in the Philippines are working in an environment where they are happy and feel like they are part of a family. This comes naturally for the amiable family man. Beyond his work at the airline, his top priority is his family’s happiness and to see to it that his loved ones are successful in their undertakings. Goh gushes about his beautiful and understanding wife, and wonderful kids – one boy and one girl. “My goal is to ensure that my children complete their education with good results for their future career. I try to guide them to take the right paths in life, and to be caring and understanding at all times. I want them to make a difference in society,” he states with conviction.

Considering how his life has turned out, Goh himself seems to have followed the right path, with dreams fulfilled and no complaints. “Since I was young, I’ve dreamed of seeing the world,” he reveals. “I love my job because the work is challenging and very dynamic. And it is always interesting to meet new people everyday.”

However, each new day also brings with it a set of challenges, especially in the airline industry where one must keep abreast of constant and volatile changes. Goh explains that staying competitive in the Philippine market has become more challenging due to the presence of low cost carriers who fly between the Philippines and Malaysia and charge cheaper fares compared to Malaysia Airlines. But for Goh, the bottom line is that the extra value of the personalized customer service a premier airline like MAS can offer its flyers will ultimately triumph over barebones cost-cutting flights.

There’s definitely more to Goh than being an airline man. His pursuits outside the office include going to the gym, traveling, exploring new locales, trying out new establishments, and visiting places of interest. Here in the Philippines, the huge malls and churches of Metro Manila, the beaches of Boracay, and the Chocolate Hills of Bohol are among the sites that have especially caught his fancy. He cites driving on the road in Manila as another memorable experience.

The gregarious Goh fits right into the Philippines. Like a lot of Filipinos he likes to sing and get together with good friends as often as possible. “The people here are exceptionally friendly and courteous,” he states, and the same can definitely be said about the affable Area Manager.

-text by Jude Defensor, some rights reserved. first published in Expat Travel & Lifestyle magazine, 2007

A Passion for People: AIR FRANCE KLM’s Ihab Sorial

Airline General Managers on the cover of Expat Travel & Lifestyle magazine’s 2nd issue. Photo by Richie Castro.

Upon conversing with Ihab Sorial, one is first struck by his openness, then by a series of of pleasant surprises. Sorial professes a fondness even for aspects of the Philippines that most may find unpleasant. It would shock the most jaded Manila natives to hear that he likes driving around the metropolis, “I love the organized chaos, all the complexities and challenges of the country.”

But then Manila traffic may not be much compared to being General Manager for the South China Sea region of AIR FRANCE KLM, the biggest airline group in Europe. Their figures are staggering. Turnover this year was 23 billion euros, an increase of 7 percent compared to the year before, while net income was 1.24 billion euros, a 32 percent increase. “It’s getting from good to better to great,” states Sorial. “Results are very positive despite rising fuel surcharges and costs.”

This upbeat trend extends to the airline’s operations in the Philippines. Flying state-of-the-art Boeing 777-200s with audio/video-on-demand in every seat, KLM is the only airline that flies nonstop between the Philippines and Europe, capturing the highest market share.

Ihab Sorial. Photo by Richie Castro.

“The Philippines should really strive to get more airlines to come in and maintain the ones already here,” advises Sorial. “It’s always healthier for the industry and the country to have competition.”

During the photo-shoot for the magazine cover, the airline men all cast aside their professional rivalries and got along like good friends. “Although we are competitors, we still do like each other. It’s nothing personal. That’s really top-notch professionalism,” Sorial states admiringly.

International air travel is definitely one industry where one has to be adept at dealing with people of different cultures. Since their operations span the globe, airlines need a truly global perspective and attitude to rise above the pack. The successful merger of AIR FRANCE and KLM proves how unity in diversity is not such an implausible concept. As one group, two airlines and three businesses, each airline has retained its individual identity, trade name and brand, and respective hub.

“AIR FRANCE is French and KLM is Dutch, but it’s a nice combination,” says Sorial. “I’m Egyptian-American. So we really don’t distinguish between cultures or nationalities. To be honest, we really value everyone the same way. We do know that expats travel a lot, and they’re a market segment we value. But the best thing to do is to cater to everybody’s needs with the same passion, wherever they come from. Others may use the word ‘customer-passionate’, but we try to we transcend that, to go the extra mile, to do what matters.”

It’s this passionate approach to his work that shows why Sorial was entrusted with such an important position at the airline. During his stint in Bangkok he oversaw the first integrated region in the entire world for AIR FRANCE KLM, while Manila is one of the first countries in the world where the two airline titans merged operations.

Having lived and worked in seven countries and been in charge of more than 15 territories over the past 13 years, Sorial is the consummate pro when it comes to intercultural relations. “In business, we may not always agree on the right ways of doing things. It’s not always easy to build a consensus. But we all share some of the same values, such as the value of common sense.”

Sorial believes in respect, transparency and clear communication as the ingredients for a successful organization, especially in a merger. He stresses how success depends on a company’s people and their convictions. As a manager, his greatest motivator to do well is the team of people he oversees.

“People inspire me. And I hope it works both ways,” Sorial reveals. “Sometimes you motivate people by saying if you work hard you get a bonus, but you won’t get one if you don’t. But genuine inspiration is based on the heart. So if you truly like your people and what you’re doing, you inspire them. As a leader you have to connect with them on a personal level.”

It’s this strong team connection that keeps the AIR FRANCE KLM regional office here running like a powerhouse. It hasn’t always been smooth sailing for Sorial however. “I’m proud to be an Egyptian,” he declares. “But it also plays a role in my position. AIR FRANCE KLM always had French or Dutch general managers before. It’s not easy. It takes time until people believe in you. Sometimes they may have this perception that you’re too good to be true. It takes a lot of sincerity and heart to really prove to them that you care for them.”

He explains that the way he plays tennis, is the same way he works, and vice versa. “When I feel down I say ‘never ever give up’. For instance, if I reach a dead end or I’m really drained, I just interrupt the pattern. So before I serve, instead of bouncing the ball three times, I bounce it seven times. I really apply my work values to my game.”

Attaining Sorial’s objectives for himself and his team is far from an effortless process as he describes: “You have to be perceptive, notice everything, and try to fill the gaps. You look, listen, and ask questions, then try to be fair, decisive and understanding.  My approach is to be very genuine, straightforward, and pragmatic. One cannot work alone. You have to know when to pull and when to push, and when to share leadership. It’s a balancing act, day in and day out.”

Out of the office, Sorial also does his best to maintain a sense of equilibrium. “I always strive to be consistent in my actions. I learned that from my children,” he relates. “My eldest son once told me: ‘Dad, I wish you would treat me like you treat your staff.’ This really hit me. He said: ‘Even when you come home, you’re always working.” So I try to be as fair and balanced as possible. And I think I manage. I try to be myself everywhere. My staff is shocked when they see me in shorts, because they always see me in a suit, or when I joke. So I say, ‘this is me, I’m a human being’”

But what does elevate Sorial’s humanity, although he may be too modest to draw much attention to it, is his gracious spirit. A strong sense of spirituality imbues his words and deeds. He openly shared his love for this particular quote by Mahatma Gandhi: “My life is my message.”

“Everyone’s life can be his message,” expounds Sorial. “You can do great, even if you start small. I’ve been touched by many people and I hope that many people have also been touched by me. I just hope my message reaches across the world, through every country I’ve been.”

When asked where he’d want to go from here, Sorial shrugs off any ambitions for a loftier, less hands-on job. “I like being close to people, coaching them, making them happy. I don’t think there’s anything better than what I am doing.” There is little doubt though that he will continue to move on and find more people to inspire, and more places to spread his message.

-text by Jude Defensor, some rights reserved. first published in Expat Travel & Lifestyle magazine, 2007

Bergamo: A Cut Above

from Bergamo’s 2007 line. photo provided by Bergamo

A true renaissance man, Bergamo founder Mel M. Meer has re-imagined himself through several guises, finding success in every one. Meer was based in New York City for 20 years where he nurtured thriving careers as a financial consultant, CPA, interior designer, and the proprietor of his own fashion boutique. In December 1986 he came back to Manila to create what would eventually emerge as the leading brand in fine men’s apparel in the Philippines – Bergamo.

from Bergamo’s 2007 line. photo provided by Bergamo

Named after the picturesque city in Italy, Bergamo debuted on the fashion scene at Greenbelt in Ayala Center, Makati. The shop was backed by a team of highly-experienced personnel of master-cutters, sewers, and a dedicated sales force. The world-class custom-tailored suits, jackets, pants, shirts, and that staple of every Filipino gentleman’s wardrobe, the barong tagalog, crafted and displayed at the boutique, impressed men of good taste all over the country and even abroad with their unprecedented level of quality. Despite being a neophyte in an industry already dominated by well-established players, the Bergamo brand’s esteem rose through careful planning and inspired marketing. Thus, after 10 years Bergamo reached its goal of achieving leadership in the men’s fine apparel market in the Philippines.

Today, Bergamo operates a total of eight elegantly designed boutiques all over Metro Manila and two in Cebu. Its roster of loyal patrons includes high-profile executives, politicians, celebrities, and other well known figures in Philippine and even international society. These well-dressed gentlemen have all come to trust and appreciate the distinctive quality and uniqueness in style that is proudly Bergamo. Today, the name Bergamo connotes a look that is elegant and classic, with outfits that feature a clever nod to the latest fashion but never stray from the bounds of good taste. But beyond design, what ultimately keeps clients coming back is the personalized service and meticulous care that goes into every Bergamo garment, whether ready-to-wear or custom-made.

Airline men wearing Bergamo. Expat magazine’s 2nd issue cover feature. Photo by Richie Castro

Bergamo Vice President Roland Magalang shares that made to order garments account for 90 percent of their business. Wedding packages, which covers the groom and two fathers, are a popular option among customers. “Even if, for example, the fashion these days are single breasted suits or dark pinstripes, in the end it’s the classic, elegant, tapered cut of our designs that our clients appreciate,” states Roland.

Recently Bergamo has embarked on a new venture, Bergamo Casa, which offers fine furniture and home decorations as well as interior design consulting to their clients, bringing the same high levels of taste and service to the home.

Bergamo’s main store and executive offices are located at 5510 Osmeña Highay corner Valderama Street, Makati. For inquiries call 888-0072. They have branches at the Shangri-La Plaza Mall, the Peninsula Hotel, Rustan’s Makati, Alabang Town Center, and Legazpi Village. They have expanded to Cebu, opening branches at Rustan’s Cebu and at the Banilad Town Center.

Mel Meer himself. photo provided by Bergamo

Sidebar: No Meer Menswear: A Conversation with Mel Meer 

What is your design philosophy?

The key word is simplicity. Men’s clothes do not need much embellishment. Our designs are very classic but we try to update them by injecting the latest style yet still stay very wearable. I love clothes and I know what I like and Bergamo shows how I would dress myself. Normally we start with something simple. But then, “simple” is easier said than done. Then we put a little twist. It could be embroidery, or we modify the cut. That extra twist is the Bergamo flair.

What inspires you?

I’m inspired by what I see around me, by what people wear in public, even women’s clothes. That’s how most designers work. You see something, and think of how you can use it.

What sets Bergamo apart from other clothing houses?

First and foremost it’s our impeccable workmanship. We do our best to get the best craftsmen. Some of the work on our garments can only be done by hand, and only a few people know how to do it. We use the best fabrics, no cheap materials.

What also sets us apart is that we try to educate people. I tell my people that during fittings, when they see problems, to point them out to the client and remedy them. To be honest, and not just be all praises and flattery, be true to the customer. Make them feel they have been well-served.

We’re a couture house so we have people come in and ask us to make a garment to their specifications. But if they insist on using bad material or colors and it doesn’t fit the Bergamo look, then we won’t accept the job.

What do you think are the chances for Filipino designs to further break into the international fashion scene and what can be done for this to happen?

To break into the international market, the barong should be marketed not as a national costume but more as a shirt that’s made of very unique material, one that’s perfect for the summer and can be worn for both formal or casual occasions. Piña fabric is very delicate and expensive. It’s unusual so we can capitalize on that.

We have very good designers here in the Philippines. But our problem is getting good materials. The only way to compete with international brands is to tap an exclusive market. Bergamo does that by featuring our unique native materials, fine workmanship and design.

the blogger in Bergamo. Photo by Richie Castro

-text by Jude Defensor,some rights reserved. first published in Expat Travel & Lifestyle magazine, 2007

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