Turning Swedish

…continued from Upp & About

view of Lake Malaren from Drottningholm Palace

With a free pass to almost every museum and attraction in the city, I managed to browse through a lot of fine art, antique curios, and royal knick-knacks over the next few nippy days. I got a sense of this Baltic state’s rich maritime past at the Vasa museum, an impressive purpose-built structure sheltering the wreck of what was then the Swedish Titanic (mortalities notwithstanding, the movie would have been more of a comedy than a tragedy however, as the warship sank after sailing less than a mile).

The risen Vasa occupies its own museum where one can marvel at its size and detailed carvings

At Millesgarden, the home-turned-museum of famed sculptor Carl Milles on the island of Lidingö, mythical figures stand and soar amidst lush gardens and fountains. While exploring the grounds of Drottningholm Palace, the private residence of the Swedish Royal family, I realized that I had flown roughly 13 hours far west for the chance to admire the Kina Slot, a Chinese-inspired royal pavilion built in 1753 when everything from the Far East was all the rage. One installation that stood out among the modern masterworks and architectural marvels at the adjoining Museums of Modern Art and Architecture, was a hot mess of ketchup bottles scattered around the floor, their sticky red contents sandwiched between 30 plates of glass.

views of Millesgarden

Waiting for the train is no dull experience at Stockholm’s art-laden subway stations. Each stop is designed around a certain theme

Edifying and interesting those worthy displays of high aesthetics may be, one eventually hankers for something edgier but still accessible. Fortunately a Swedish architect friend pointed out a must-see that was literally below my very nose – the Stockholm Metro. A number of stations are designed and decorated in very striking themes, making the subway lines some of the longest art galleries in the world. From Viking patterns at Rinkeby, a pastel-colored timeline of world history at Rissne, to a psychedelic mix of actual ancient castle ruins and pop art at Kungsträdgården (my favourite), there’s probably  a station to everyone’s tastes. But try not to get too distracted by the dramatic surroundings, especially at the more remote stops, or you may lose more than just your sense of direction.

Both Sweden and the Philippines celebrate their National Days in June, so because of these special occasions, I was able to peek into parts of Stockholm which would normally be beyond ordinary tourists. On Swedish National Day, the Royal Palace in Gamla Stan is opened to the public for free, with puppet shows and free hotdogs for all in its broad central square. Swedes swarm the streets to get a glimpse of the royal family as they parade through town. For the Philippine Independence Day reception I trooped to the city’s edge at Djursholm, a seaside private enclave for diplomats, pop stars and tycoons. Some stately residences occupied entire islands unto themselves, all the better to appreciate the beauty of the archipelago.

Malmö’s pride, Santiago Calatrava’s Turning Torso

But I ended up going even further out of my way, far beyond Stockholm, just to check out one bridge and one building. It may seem counter-intuitive to fly down to Copenhagen, Denmark to be able to go back up to Malmö, Sweden, then cross back south to Copenhagen Airport to catch a flight up north back to Stockholm. But that’s exactly what I ended up doing. All this criss-crossing was to marvel at (and photograph) Calatrava’s Turning Torso, the tallest building in Scandinavia, famed for its 90 degree twist; and also to go over (both ways!) the Öresund Bridge, the longest combined road and rail bridge in Europe and the longest border crossing bridge in the world.

Some natives of Stockholm and Copenhagen (among other places) may have none-too-flattering opinions of Malmö, but even they have to admit that the city has come a long way from its glum industrial past as a peripheral port. It stands as a lesson for Manila’s city planners (do they even try?) that an iconic structure that is part of a well-planned development can revitalize an otherwise moribund district and improve the image of a tarnished city with positive international buzz.

continued in next entry, Bye to the Baltic

The Oresund bridge between Malmo and Copenhagen

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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

Related articles

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

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

Pitting K-Stew’s Snow Warrior against Tarsem‘s Snow Lite. A Snow White & the Huntman vs. Mirror Mirror grudge match

We Talk About Movies

Snow White & the Huntsman afforded me a truly rare cinematic experience – never before had I been at the cinema where there was spontaneous communal guffawing and stifling of giggles by the audience during the film’s supposedly rousing, dramatic high point. Filipino audiences are generally forgiving, but I guess I lucked into a snarkier crowd that wasn’t mostly made up of Twilight fans. I didn’t expect much of Kristen Stewart, I never particularly disliked her nor admired her. But as she tried to summon every ounce of her movie star mystique and post-millennial warrior-princess pseudo-swagger, I wondered why nobody seemed to have thought of giving her a screen test just to check if she could pull this scene off.

I’m not altogether surprised that the movie ended up being commercially well-received, since it mashed together feminism and fantasy layered with the “dark” angsty tone that seems to connect well…

View original post 1,419 more words

Post-modern Pilgrim

…continued from Border Break

the shrine at the Sanctuary

I went to Lourdes for the water. But when I got there it was falling from the sky. Like a blessing from heaven, the rains had come to Lourdes, washing most (except for the staunch faithful) of the tourists away. With grand plans set for the 150th anniversary of the apparitions this year, I was glad to have visited in the dead of winter. The hush and haze that shrouded the town set a contemplative, pious mood. Walking in the crisp air through the quiet streets made me realize how Lourdes was really just a small, simple town, but one that had been completely transformed by a momentous event. At peak pilgrimage time in warmer weather, millions of tourists saturate the hamlet, a veritable frenzy of the faithful. Whatever form your faith may take, there is no escaping the Madonna’s presence.

the grotto at night

The Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes covers 51 hectares, this includes the grotto where the apparitions occurred, the taps and baths of Lourdes water, and 22 places of worship of differing designs and dimensions ranging from neo-gothic to 20th century modern. Catching a few minutes of the mass at the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception, again I was reminded of the ever-shrinking scale of the world). It’s like Benneton meets Bernadette. Here I was, a Philippine pilgrim, at a church in the Pyrenees, at a mass celebrated by an African priest. Both my French companions were suffering from a bad case of the sniffles though, prompting me to ask, since they lived around Lourdes with easy access to the healing water, shouldn’t they be fortified from the flu? They could only shrug and smile. I guess even with miracles, one’s mileage may vary.

foie gras plate at Le Magret

views of Lourdes town from the castle

But there’s more to Lourdes than religion. Its fortress has borne witness to a millennium of conquest and control by the Moors, the Bigorre counts, and the British, and now houses a museum dedicated to the region’s fascinating history and culture. And surrounding the town like an inescapable embrace is the spectacular beauty of the Pyrenees mountains. Pretty little villages speckle the landscape, with mountain and winter sports among the many activities attracting tourists. The warmly welcoming and obliging Lourdes tourism board had put me up at the cozy Beausejour hotel, supposedly the best hotel in Lourdes operating in the off-peak winter season. I was also treated to a superb dinner of delicious French Pyreneean cuisine complemented by a fine Bordeaux at Le Magret, one of Lourdes’ top restaurants.

skating rink at Pau, before a statue of Henri IV

Pau’s 100-year-old funicular railway climbs up to the Boulevard des Pyrenees

the Pyrenees between Spain and France

Moving westwards to the Atlantic stands Pau, a charming city that boasts of the Château de Pau, birthplace of King Henry IV of France and Navarre, and a favorite summer home of both Napoleon and Marie Antoinette. The century old Funiculaire de Pau is free to ride and links the Chateau and the famous Boulevard des Pyrenées to the Pau railway station in the valley below. Pau’s Belle Époque streets sparkle with smartly dressed students and shoppers ducking in and out of fashionable boutiques and restaurants. A relaxed evening at the chic Brasserie Des Pyrénées just by the Hôtel de Ville (City Hall) was the perfect endpoint to my jaunt through the region.

continued in Far From the Madding Crowd

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

Gad About Gaul

Tucked into my comfy seat on a Lufthansa Airbus (plying their now dearly departed Manila to Europe route), an Audrey Tautou movie on the personal video screen, Pimsleur’s French course in my MP3 player, and Michelin’s Green Guide in my carry-on bag, I was literally flying by the seat of my pants. I had no fixed plans and no clear agenda, just an entire country to explore and a whole month to do it.

Prowling Through Paris

Champs Elysees a-sparkle for Christmas

Upon exiting the Charles De Gaulle airport terminal, the winter wind hits you like a slap in the face, but then you step out into the open and finally get hit by the light. The same pale yellow light of Paris that inspired the Impressionists to pointillize with their paintbrushes and billions of shutterbugs to point-and-shoot with their cameras. Alive and active, dangerous and decadent like only a big bad city can be, the City of Lights may be full of museums and monuments, but it never feels like a theme-gineered showcase or a dormant relic. I’d read stories about some naive tourists having nervous breakdowns after having gone to Paris and not getting the storybook experience that they may have originally imagined. Emerging into the streets or submerging into the Metro, the city swallows you, enveloping you with Parisians of all shapes, sizes and temperaments, clustering about in a diversity of cosmopolitan configurations sure to unnerve the xenophobic. Bearing in mind that you aren’t exactly in Eurodisney (that’s 32 kilometers to the east), one just has to take the sordid with the sublime.

crossing the bridge from the Ile de la Cite to the left bank

Most relatively modern train systems (including Manila’s) seem like a straightforward cakewalk compared to the menagerie-in-a-maze configuration of the Paris Metro. It may be crowded and not all that clean in parts, but if you want to feel Paris you have to take the Metro at least once and jostle with the locals. But if you want to seeParis, you have to move aboveground, take a bus, cab or carriage, or bundle up and walk tall. Go down an unfamiliar street and try to get lost. If you’ve got even the feeblest sense of direction, it’s not easy. At worst the River Seine, a Metro station or a major landmark is usually just a few blocks’ walk away. The closest I got to losing myself was while student-watching around the Sorbonne. After blithely loitering about the many schools and libraries of the labyrinthine Latin Quarter, I ran smack into the Pantheon before I could even start to panic.

snaking up to the Sacre-Couer

Each arrondissement or district of the city has its charms, and devoted residents and fans will promote their favorites with typical French fervor. I thought it best to take their word for it, and with my Parisian posse plumbed the rabbit hole of Le Marais, a storied district on the Right Bank of the River Seine where alchemists, Knights Templar, royal mistresses and Victor Hugo himself once walked, and where the city’s Jewish and gay communities currently keep an avant-garde peace (the neighbourhood has been receiving special attention from the current mayor of Paris, who happens to be both openly gay and Jew-friendly). From the red lights and red windmills of Pigalle, we clambered up the hill of Montmartre, its steep streets filled with art and music, clowns and cats, culminating in the Basilica du Sacré-Cœur and one of the best views of the city.

The usual sightseeing suspects are still going gangbusters. The Louvre teems with gawking art appreciators, the Champs Elysees bustles with harried shoppers, the Eiffel Tower stands as the scene for many a photo-op. But the chill of winter acts as a crowd-controlling force that thins the yielding herd. Spring is for sissies. Summer is for slackers. At temperatures barely above freezing, it takes a fierce fire in one’s belly to brave the cold, get out, paint the town, and take snapshots while your fingers go numb. But all you need to do is just down a few glasses of French wine, a crepe or two, and a bowl of hot onion soup and you’re set. In my shivering wanderings I stumbled upon countless stories, most of which I’ve resolved to keep to myself (particularly the ones involving gypsies and laundromats), but then secrets always make for the best souvenirs.

Strange Things in a Strange Land

Rusty-red iron plates and rambling patches of rough foliage spread out from under the shadow of the Eiffel Tower, marking the unconventional structure that houses Paris’ controversial new museum, the Musée Quai Branly (or MQB). A showcase of indigenous artifacts from Africa, Asia, Oceania, and the Americas, much debate has been provoked by the museum, from its conception and content, to its arrangement and architecture, made more contentious by the current heightened awareness of issues regarding race and migration. But then the French do love stimulating tete-à-tetes, which is probably why the MQB has been a smash, drawing in crowds of both jaded museophiles and virgins to the museum scene, and in a reversal of the usual situation, more French than foreign tourists.

Constance Monbrison, curator of the Insulinde collections, in La Rive (the riverbank) at the Musee Quai Branly

A meander through the MQB’s dramatically lit and sculpted halls is like drowning in a French fever dream of all they consider to be the world’s darkly unfamiliar, enigmatic beauty. I may not exactly share the sentiments of the museum’s critics that the savannah /jungle ambiance yet again stereotypes non-European art as primitive and unsophisticated, although granted that the imposed atmosphere does play up the exoticism (by conventional Western sensibilities) of the pieces, some of which take on a rather ominous appearance in the half-dark. There’s a studied savagery to the tightly controlled lighting, curving organic surfaces and twisty pathways that makes you feel as if you’re walking through an eerie twilight-scape far removed from the urban sprawl just outside. This effect encourages one to move away from the shadows and huddle close to the glow of each display, like explorers drawn to a fire in the wilderness at night. It almost forces you to pay attention to pieces that you could easily walk past in a more conventionally arranged and illuminated space.

the musee’s green wall, designed by Jean Nouvel

In a struggle between style and substance, the museum highlights the artistry inherent in relics which may not have been meant to have ever been admired as “art” (or the Western concept of art) to begin with. Museums are spooky spaces in general but the MQB can really get under your skin and play tricks with your head. I couldn’t help but ponder how ironic it was for me to have traveled to a whole other continent to see and appreciate artifacts that come from my own. I found myself marvelling at a collection of silver jewelry from the royalty of Mindanao, their history and significance explained to me by the curators, two French ladies who shared more passion for my country’s ethnographic treasures than I could muster at that moment. Coming full circle was disorienting, and succumbing to the Stendhal Syndrome seemed imminent. Fortuitously, the MQB’s roughly textured gardens, lush even in winter, are just what one needs to clear your head of thematic overload.

continued in next entry, Border Break

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

Coming Home to Center Stage: Michelle Washington

Michelle Washington (far right) and fellow theatre enthusiast expats

When I first started writing for What’s On & Expat I asked some friends if they knew any interesting expatriates who would be good for our “People You Should Know” section. Immediately, one friend told me about Michelle Washington. He described her as “a real character, a fun lady, definitely worth a piece on”. Little did I know that Ms. Washington would turn out to be all that and more. Michelle’s enthusiasm and energy is infectious, as if it bubbles out from her very core. After warmly welcoming me into her home and bonding over her cats, our encounter ended up more like a conversation with a new friend than an interview. This lady has so much to share and is not shy about it.

“When we first arrived, my husband was so concerned that I wouldn’t have anything to do here,” Michelle reveals. But considering his wife’s personality, he shouldn’t have worried a bit. “When the Asian Development Spouses’ Association (ADBSA) saw that I have a background in theater, they asked me to join their board of trustees and be their program director. It turned out to be a great way of meeting people.”

Michelle soon found her hands full. The first thing she had to deal with was a charity event for the ADBSA social welfare and scholarship committee fund. Michelle saw this as a way to exert a positive effect on her host country. “What struck me when I first got here was the number of street children out begging. Coming from the United States, I’ve seen poor people before, but nothing like this. I’m not the type of person who can just sit and let this happen. I have to feel like I’m contributing something. So I thought, what can I do to make a difference?”

That’s why she feels very glad to have joined the ADBSA and really believes in what they do. Michelle described their program wherein they provide funding for teachers to go into different neighborhoods and teach street children. “A teacher sets up the school on a side of the building. The street-children will gather there because they know the teacher will be in that place that day and they basically go, pin up their assignments and have lessons.” she explained. The ADBSA also funds scholarships for students throughout the Philippines, pay for their tuition and books, transportation, and meals.

Michelle figured that she wanted to use all her education and experience to help somehow. She has masters degrees in theater management, theater history and criticism, taught for three and a half years at universities including Le Sorbonne in France and ran several theater companies. “This is a fabulous opportunity. And the proof is in the results,” she affirms. “It was the end of May when we started the show “An Evening of Stars”, the first show I ever produced here with the help of ADBSA, and we raised a little over 500,000 pesos, which is probably just a drop in the bucket. We sold over 400 tickets. We had sponsors like BMW, Jaguar, some airlines and resorts. We had over 50 artists from every single continent, including the Repertory Philippines theater company, amateurs and professionals all together. We even had Mrs. Kuroda, who is the ADB president’s wife, to be part of the show. And they all did it for free, a two hour show. It was just incredible.”

Michelle was more than just vindicated by the success of her efforts, it was as if she had experienced an epiphany. “My mother died a couple of years back and she knew me better than anyone in this world. I just felt her that night shining down on me,” she relates. “I felt this warmth because all of us had been working together. And I realized that’s what I’m meant to do here. That I was meant to use my talent, my skills, whatever I can to make a difference.”

It’s obvious that not only is Michelle making a difference, but she is a different sort of expat lady herself, and that’s in a good way. “I’m not like some people who just sit around. I don’t understand that. I have too much ambition, too much feeling inside to just say, I’m bored. I gotta get out there and do something. I’ve actually heard some people say, ‘I’m so bored, I have nothing to do but play golf.’ And I’m like, I don’t have time to play golf!” Michelle shares this insight so good-naturedly one can’t help but smile. It’s her refreshing attitude and sense of humor which makes it no surprise why all these expat groups have rallied around her projects or actively sought out her help. As a member of the American Women’s Club and the American Association of the Philippines, Michelle has also been actively involved in their fundraising activities. “We get to do a lot of good. And I feel so incredible about that, it’s like a shiver running down my spine, and it’s so much fun!” she declares.

Despite her having accomplished so much in less than a year of having lived here, Michelle admits that the Philippines still stumps her at times. “There are certain nuances that are particular to the culture I still don’t get. But I’m learning. And I rally through.”

What Michelle wasn’t counting on in her ongoing education, was finding a friendly and thriving community ready to take her into their fold. “I wouldn’t have thought that my ideas would have worked here. But last April, I started asking, who do you know who’s in theater in this city? So I found out about these theater organizations. And to get to know all these people I basically threw a theater party. It started with just two people and I told them to bring a friend along. And we had three waves of people. People who weren’t working, came at 7pm, people who were working in rehearsals came at 8pm, people who were in shows came at 11:30pm. The last person left at 3:30 am. It was beautiful. There were so many people.”

Obviously, Michelle was as big a hit with the theater community as her party. “It was so great when I met [Repertory Philippines co-founder] Baby Barredo, she told me to come to her rehearsal one night. And when I was there, she introduced me as, ‘this is Michelle, she’s a new Rep person’. And I thought, how cool! And every time I go there everyone says ‘Hi Michelle!’”

Michelle is currently helping Repertory Philippines build up their expat audience through her contacts within the community, clubs and organizations. “I just introduce myself and tell them ‘come on, let’s go get tickets to the theater tonight’. This has helped me to get to know even more people and do something for the theater community with their marketing. I’ve gotten them coverage through sending e-mails to these different organizations. I go once or twice a week to get publicity material to help get the word out.”

As far as Michelle is concerned, this is all just the first act of a brilliant performance, the first show of a blockbuster run. “I told them a few things I can do, but I still have so much to learn. And I’m hoping to do some producing and probably some directing for them in the future. For now, it’s a start.”

-text & photo by Jude Defensor, some rights reserved. first published in What’s On & Expat newspaper, 2006

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