Stockholm When It Sizzles

…continued from Sweden: Almost Asgard.

Sporty Swedes go racing and riding around the fields surrounding the Kaknas tower

First stop was Kungsträdgården (Swedish for “King’s Garden”). Filled with lightly dressed promenaders making the most of their walking and tanning time, this sprawling central park has something for every season, an ice rink in the winter, cherry blossoms in the spring, concerts and events in the summer. The outdoor cafes were all open, offering refreshing drinks and snacks, and unappreciated shade to park-goers while the going was good. With the gentle sunlight and fresh cool breezes of early June, you feel like you can walk the whole city for hours with just an occasional break for meatballs.

Sporty Swedes go racing and riding around the fields surrounding the Kaknas tower

I had yet to partake of a proper meal by then so I besought my guide to bring on the balls! We crossed the bridge to Gamla Stan, the city’s olden heart, where I was determined to make my hunger hold out until I could stuff my belly with the Swedes’ roundish meaty specialty (and I don’t mean babies this time). Unfortunately, we’d missed the lunch hour and so the kitchens of the more illustrious eateries had gone cold. But just down the main tourist drag, tucked in between shops selling postcards and horned Viking helmets, lay a charming little café that beckoned invitingly. In we went and their staff beamed with the pleasure of serving us. It was just the place for my first real meal in Sweden. The leather-bound menu was filled with Swedish-sounding dishes and the woodhewn interiors accented with Swedish-looking décor. Only one minor thing seemed slightly off. Based on their tight camaraderie and strong family resemblance, all the cooks and waiters seemed to hail from the same town, which by my best guess would be somewhere closer to Shanghai than Stockholm. As I enjoyed the yummy spheres of animal matter, I couldn’t help but wonder if they would do just as well wrapped in dumplings and dished out as dimsum. But dining there, deep in the ancient core of the Swedish capital, I was sure that when served with some gravy, lingonberry and the ever-present potatoes, these were balls that not even tennis legend Bjorn Borg would toss away. Reinvigorated by the meal, I had the energy to cross more bridges and climb a hill up to Bastugatan on Sodermalm, where I was treated to more lovely views from on high of charming Swedish architecture and sunbathing Swedes in various states of undress.

A film crew on a break from shooting a period scene at one of Skansen’s preserved traditional houses

Swedish meatballs

shrimp sandwich

With the weather getting hotter the next day, we tried to cool down by taking the ferry to Skansen. This extensive park is designed like an open-air version of “It’s a Small Sweden After All”, with transplanted historic houses and buildings from all over the country artfully arranged around typical Swedish flora, fauna and even craftspeople in traditional dress doing traditional things. I was impressed by the hugeness of the reindeer and the cuteness of the brown bear cubs, and couldn’t help but pay my respects to a majestic Siamese cat named (of course!) Bjorn Borg. But a lucky treat was stumbling onto a period film being shot right in the park. A heavy educational undercurrent runs through Skansen. Full of honest healthy fun it may be, but it’s also just not possible to walk through this outdoor museum without having learned something either scientific or historic. Most excursionists bring a picnic lunch or grab snacks from fast food stands but there’s a smartly appointed restaurant right in the middle, where you can gorge on smorgasbord or fussier cuisine, which is exactly what we ended up doing. Sipping cool sparkling water as the sun sweltered past the shade of the awnings, I made a quip about how much warmer it was than I’d wished, prompting my Swedish host to shush me in alarm. Apparently, such comments are heard as taunts by the Nordic Gods, and we would soon be in for it.

A potter at his wheel at Skansen

continued in next entry, Upp & About

text & photos by Jude Defensor, some rights reserved. first published in Expat Travel & Lifestyle magazine, 2009

Sweden: Almost Asgard

Rush hour at Kungsträdgården metro station

Bleary from a restless night in Amsterdam, I boarded the extremely early morning KLM flight to Stockholm. I encountered a plane that was less than half-full, with the majority of my few fellow passengers being stereotypically calm, tall and blonde. Is this a portent of my days to come?, I mused. Was I about to wander into a real-life version of an Ingmar Bergman film set to ABBA songs, starring Greta Garbo as Pippi Longstocking and the Skarsgards as Vikings? If I drank enough aquavit and ate enough from a smörgåsbord, then jumped into a sauna, would the potent physiochemical reaction turn my Manila Bay black eyes to Baltic Sea blue?

The view of Riddarholmen from Sodermalm. The Riddarholmskyrkan, where Swedish monarchs are buried, towers over the Old Parliament Building and National Archives

I have to admit that Sweden is one of the more unlikely countries on my personal list of possible places to visit in my lifetime. It just seemed too up there and way too out there — the arctically stoic Scandinavians as exotic to us hot-blooded hispanicized Asians as we probably are to them — but that was before I knew any better. I’d had the pleasure to befriend some Swedes in Manila and they’d all been endearingly friendly, warm and welcoming, and now I had the chance to observe them in their natural environment.

A tree-lined path at the Drottningholm Palace gardens

As we descended onto Scandinavia, I wondered if my Holland haze had yet to fully dissipate since the richly emerald land masses below could, if you squint enough, pass for some parts of the Philippine archipelago. It was only as we approached the airport, which was surrounded by sprawling farmland and deciduous trees, that I began feeling pretty sure I wasn’t landing in Manila. Or was I?

As I shuffled into a relatively drab terminal that had seen better days, I wondered again if I hadn’t gone through the looking-glass right back to NAIA 1. Maybe my welcome to the capital of Scandinavia, among the first tier of the First World, land of Absolut and Volvo, may not be quite what I had envisioned. Were there cracks in the Tetra Pak?

A Hogvakten guarding the Royal Palace in Gamla Stan

Walking towards the exit, a series of larger than life-sized posters of Ingrid Bergman and Alfred Nobel lined the corridors as if to reassure us arriving passengers that yup, you’re in Sweden alright.

The airport-to-city bus helpfully displayed the temperature (a balmy 24 degrees Celsius) to confirm the sunny heat streaming through the windows, as furry brown bunnies hopped alongside us on the lush greenery spanning the highway. Where were the ice hotels and polar bears?, my tourist-from-the-tropics brain cried out. While my Swedish companion pointed out some royal estates and old cemeteries that we drove past as Stockholm-proper loomed, I was already wondering if I’d brought enough sunscreen to last the fortnight. But before I had any chance to get my bearings, we were already alighting from the bus at the central station, riding on the metro, dragging my heels and trolley wheels on a two-block walk, until I finally found a place to rest my weary suitcases again.

A nap then some strong coffee was all it took to make me feel ready to get out and explore. With the sun setting at almost 11 pm I knew I needn’t rush to catch the light. My thoughtful host had cleverly provided a week-long pass valid for use with almost all of Stockholm’s modes of transportation. As I flashed the pass at the calm, tall and blonde bus driver, Roxette’s opening line to their seminal Swedish hit Joyride (“I said hello, you fool…”) sparked through my musical memory circuits, and I smiled and thanked him with a sincerely grateful “tack!”

Sweden’s generous social benefits, including 16 months paid parental leave, help make encounters with rugrats such as these an unavoidable occurence around the country

At that odd hour, one thing caught my attention, or more accurately, I caught the attention of more than a few things — bouncing blonde blue-eyed baby things to be specific. I profess to no great fondness for human spawn, and I believe that they sense this perceived failing. Which is probably why as a group, they like to stare at me accusingly as if asking “how dare you not think I’m cute?” I’ve grown immune to this phenomenon among Filipino fetuses, but these Aryan infants were coming at me with a different tact and laser focus. And they were everywhere — strapped into backpacks, pushed in prams, bundled among the groceries. The Swedes were obviously getting it on, with competing teams of more and more attractive couples in a battle to breed the most beautiful babies. Whoever wins probably gets an exclusive Anne Geddes calendar, or maybe the cover of the next Cardigans album. Anyway, all of you fellow pedophobes have been warned.

continued in next entry, Stockholm When It Sizzles

Sun-loving Stockholmers by the waterfront at Riddarholmen

Northern Disclosure: Ilocos Norte

a spot of zen — in Pagudpud, Ilocos Norte.

Some of the best trips are borne from a minimum of preparation and a maximum of indiscretion. Planning an almost last-minute trip up to Ilocos Norte during the busiest time of the year is not the least stressful mission one can undertake, especially with foreigners in tow. It seemed rather foolhardy already, exploring longganiza land, famed for its pork sausages and dishes, while dragging along a Jewish friend. Defying the Holy Week rush, braving bumpy bus and tricycle rides, shrugging off dodgy weather, and coping with the peculiarities of Ilocano cuisine and culture, we persevered, arrived in one piece, and by Jove and Jehovah, resolved to have fun!

the foam can be deceiving — in Pagudpud, Ilocos Norte.

Laoag, the provincial capital, is a sleepy, simple city, a cozy, convenient pit stop from which one can plot out a game plan for the region. We spent a night at the comfy, friendly Palazzo De Laoag to recover from the tiring trip, get our bearings, and run some errands. For our first proper meal in Ilocos, we trooped to local culinary legend La Preciosa to try out some authentic Ilocano cooking. The funnily-named Poki-poki, a dish of eggplant sautéed with eggs, onions and tomatoes, was a hit among our quasi-kosher little party.

the ilocos sky and surf change with the winds — in Pagudpud, Ilocos Norte.

The next day in our adventure, we continued north to the crown jewel of Ilocos Norte – the beach town of Pagudpud. My previous tour of Ilocandia had only taken me as far up as Laoag, so this stretch was just as fresh to me as my foreign charges. As each town whizzed past our windows, we’d catch such show-stopping sights as waves crashing dramatically into cliffs, wide green swathes of rice and tobacco fields, the majestic lighthouse at Cape Bojeador and the windmills at Bangui. As we crossed over what seemed like a low hill, descending into a lush valley, the very air and light seemed to change. This was not the dry, dusty Ilocos Norte that textbooks teach, but a tropical coastal ecosystem all its own, an island within an island.

holy hole.

Reaching Pagudpud proper, we crammed ourselves into a tricycle and vroomed in the general direction of the beach. Whizzing down a narrow but solid road, picturesque hills, farms and flowers on either side, we had to dodge the odd water buffalo or farmer laying out rice stalks to dry, the grains forming golden sidewalks by the wayside. The resorts soon started mushrooming along our path. We caught glimpses of the coastline and the tops of palm trees, but the surf remained just a sound. So we dodged souvenir stands and scaled sand dunes, finally skidding down onto the seafront. And there she was…

Saud beach, immortalized incognito by Filipino cinema through many a melodramatic romance or cheesy musical extravaganza. But my movie memories paled in comparison to actually standing on this sunny spot, the smell of the South China Sea filling my lungs. Although never quite achieving the level of popularity and development as other Philippine beaches, there’s still something special about Saud. Even during peak season, with hordes of infant young building sandcastles and shrieking on banana boats in front of the main drag of resorts, it’s only a short stroll from its center to secluded coves and isolated stretches of beach, where you’d be lucky to stumble upon a lone fisherman or hermit crab. Wherever you choose to chill out along Saud, the windmills of Bangui spin lazily across the horizon, mesmerizing one into a quixotic daze. It was around that point, hypnotized by the whirl, when we decided to stay an extra day.

paying their respects to the religious figure

Maybe we could have just bummed on the beach indefinitely, but the rest of Pagudpud had a few more postcard-ready sights worthy of mention. So back into the trusty tricycle we go, the tight squeeze and twisty turns tempered by the bracing coastal breeze and wide blue sky overhead.

Kabigan falls

First stop on our hop was Kabigan Falls, a must-do if the tourism brochures were to be believed. There’s a mandatory paid guide for the hike up, and we got a particularly Nazi-like escort who kept up a no-nonsense pace as if she were leading us to a concentration camp. But as a young sage/popstar recently sang: “Ain’t about how fast I get there. Ain’t about what’s waiting on the other side. It’s the climb!” I guess “Fraulein Falls Guide” was no Miley fan, so dutifully trudge up we did, clear streams and cows rambling calmly beside us, cloud-capped hills looming in our faces, with enough vividly-colored vegetation in every direction to get green burned into your vision. The 1.2 kilometers of exhilarating scenery along the way made the falls themselves seem almost like an anticlimax.

Patapat viaduct, scene of many a dramatic shoot — in Pagudpud, Ilocos Norte.

it may be blue but it sure ain’t calm. Maira-ira beach

Heading back down, the pressure of finding our way up gone, we hiked down at our own pace, breathing in great lungfuls of the fresh, moist air., practically smelling the oxygen. Next tricycle stop was the Patapat viaduct, yet another spot that lends itself well to cinematic purposes (a popular Korean TV series filmed its big romantic climax here). This elevated stretch of highway hovers 31 meters above Pasaleng Bay, snaking along the Cordillera Mountain Range for 1.3 kilometers. The view of tempestuous sea against towering stone, dramatic clouds brushing the peaks of forested hills, is truly Wuthering Heights-worthy. From there we motored on through a series of striking rock formations, eventually arriving at the vaunted blue lagoon at Maira-ira beach. Smaller and more secluded than Saud, Maira-ira’s attraction used to be its undeveloped isolation. But for good or ill, commercialism has crept into this once serene and secret spot. Several many-roomed resorts have sprung up just over the past couple of years and are seeing brisk business. Whereas before you could lie on the sand and hear nothing but the surf, now the lagoon resounds with laughing vacationers, howling in glee as the strong currents carry them back and forth like a carnival ride. Throughout the coast, we saw waves of all shapes and sizes, some powerful enough to challenge even top surfers.

the waves come in

But it’s body-boarding that seems to really have caught on, with bronzed mermen tirelessly throwing themselves into the water again and again, trying to catch that perfect patch of surf. As sunset falls, the restaurants and bars turn on their night lights, parents tuck in their tired kids, and the adults sit out under the stars for dinner and drinks. Nowhere near as bustling as Boracay or Puerto Galera, evenings at Pagudpud are more wholesome than fulsome. Depending on your outlook, you may either be pleasantly or disappointedly surprised at the dearth of foreign backpackers or big tour groups. We did stumble upon some raucous shows and impressive live music during our stay, but this was more the exception than the norm. For those bewitched by this northern siren, the beach, the breeze, and a beer are all that are necessary to bliss out.

– text and photos by Jude Defensor. first published in What’s On & Expat Newspaper, 2009

Who’d have thought History Channel Horror could ever work? This axe-wielding Abe movie is a chimera worth checking out.

We Talk About Movies

Fearless forecast: Timur Bekmambetov’s Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is going to be remembered as the better Lincoln film by the end of the year. Sure, Daniel Day-Lewis will probably put in another intense performance, and the Spielberg Dream Team will hit all the requisite Oscar-bait-y beats. But AL:VH will stand as the movie that took more risks and entertained more people (although some may be loath to admit the extent of their amusement). With the negative buzz and unapologetically ridiculous premise (particularly to non-Americans), I was ready to groan through what would most likely be a painful mess. But by the first chilling flash of full-on vampiric menace, I bought into this unlikely summer sleeper.

The period details and historical events really act more like window dressing here, fleshing out what would have been a run-of-the-mill slay-the-monster hero’s journey on top of a rather ponderous historical biography. AL: VH could have had…

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Thoughts on Errol Morris’ seminal pet cemetery documentary “Gates of Heaven”

We Talk About Movies

This entry is part of Spotlight 1978, a series where we talk about films released in 1978.

Gates of Heaven

All in the same year (and in the same blog series) we go from the “Days of Heaven” to the “Gates of Heaven“. And despite coming from different genres, the two films share more similarities than just their titles. They both rely on their filmmakers to wait for and trust their cameras to capture the truth, and the story to emerge from these skeins of vision and emotion.

It’s hard to appreciate Gates of Heaven for what it is without having to forget and ignore the 30+ years of audio-visual tropes and language that have developed in its wake, thanks partly to its influence. It’s a very straightforward piece, both as a documentary and a piece of visual art, which makes it very easy to miss out on the profundities…

View original post 533 more words

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

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