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

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

Finn to a Tee: Ambassador Riita Resch of Finland

Like a brisk and bracing breath of fresh Finnish air, Her Excellency Riitta Resch of Finland has a take-charge, no-nonsense mien which is just as effective at the diplomatic roundtable as it is on the driving range.

Amb. Resch 2nd from right, seated. Photo by Pat Dy.

When asked about her favourite pastimes, the inveterate golfer unabashedly admits to spending most of her time off at golf courses. “I travel with my golf bag, it is my ‘family’,” confesses the ambassador. “I play golf around Manila and that takes all day so I really don’t have to worry about my free time very much. I would love to go to movies much more than I do and attend some cultural events, but I’m a little bit lazy in that respect. Golf is really what I do. It’s my priority number two. The first one is work.”

Passion for her profession is just par for the course for Ambassador Resch. “I really like my job and it makes a tremendous difference,” she shares. “I think if you are interested in the job you have then you will be successful, and I’ve been lucky enough in my postings. I’ve always had something to do that means a lot to me, something that I feel is important. Being abroad and representing your own country particularly as an ambassador is such a highlight. This is my first ambassador’s posting so it is the best so far. We’ll see what happens next.”

Envoy Par Excellence

Ambassador Resch began her career climb in business school where she studied foreign trade and marketing. Back then, she just thought of the Foreign Service as a job opportunity that included languages and travelling. But the years in foreign service have opened up many other things too. She has now been very happy in her profession for the past 25 years. “I really haven’t thought of other options than my present profession. I know that there isn’t anything that I’d like to do more than this and that’s why I’m still here,” she declares. “Is is important to make your choices and then live accordingly. It is a waste of life to think that something else is always better. Enjoy what you have!”

Her affection for her posting is in no small part due to the warm reception she has received. “As an ambassador in this country, we feel greatly appreciated. We have access to everybody and everything,” explains the envoy. “Finland had the presidency of the European Union for 6 months last year and then, in particular, I noticed how easy it is to approach the Filipino authorities, senators, politicians, even the President. And when you invite them they usually come. Otherwise our tenure of four years is very short to have any sort of major accomplishments or tangible results. But we try our best.”

At this juncture, the ambassador has been swinging far but true. “I think that the relationship between our two countries is very good but it’s also very remote,” she ponders. “I don’t think that Finland is very well-known in the Philippines and vice versa. It is one of the basic jobs of ambassadors to make our countries better known in our postings. In the case of Finland in the Philippines everybody seems to know about Nokia cell phones and Armi Kuusela, the Ms. Universe winner who married a Filipino businessman and lived here. They have made my job relatively easier. There are only about 100 Finns living here, and there are less than 1,000 Filipinos, most of them married to Finns, living in Finland.”As a small country we are not as well-known as some of the bigger ones, so we try to do a lot of work through the European Union, which is a union of 27 countries and the European Commission. It gives us a much bigger avenue than what we could have individually.”

Ambassador Resch points out the areas in our relationship that could always improve. “More trade between our countries and more investment and more Finnish companies in the Filipino markets would always be welcome,” she shares. “There are a lot of opportunities in this country. The Filipino market is huge, you can sell almost anything and everything here. We are good at planting forests and in the paper and pulp industries. So those are good possibilities for our companies to invest in. Politically I think that President Arroyo’s visit to Finland last September was very important and really helped improve relations and increase awareness.”

Most of the envoy’s previous experience has been related to international organizations like the United Nations. “I love the atmosphere of international negotiations, where you have several countries working together and trying to have some consensus,” she shares. Her first posting consisted of one year in Paris as a trainee at the embassy and also studying French at Le Sorbonne. Then she went to Geneva where she dealt with refugees, human rights, and humanitarian assistance. “I had a really great job in Geneva. Living in Geneva, in a small and very safe town in the middle of Europe, was also very nice. It was easy and very comfortable there. But then at some point I desperately wanted a posting in New York, the cradle of the United Nations. When I got there it  was a dream come true. I still love it,” gushes the ambassador.

New Delhi was her first Asian posting, affording her perspective on this part of the world. “India was very interesting. It’s so huge and so different. It’s not a typically Asian country,” she muses. “The Philippines is even farther away from home but in very many respects it’s like a Western country. We don’t have major problems of getting used to living and adapting to normal life here.” She still has to get the hang of dealing with Manila’s crowds however. “We have a big country with a small number of people, while you have a big country with a lot of people. So what is still a little bit difficult for me is always being surrounded by people.”

Surpassing Handicaps and Hazards

Regardless of differences and challenges, it has been smooth putting for the envoy so far. “Since I don’t have a family to take with me, making decisions is easy. I’m very quick to move around,” she asserts.

The ambassador posits: “Maybe women bring a little bit more passion to our profession. I am sometimes asked how it works in our embassy because all of us are women. I really don’t understand that question because for us it really doesn’t make any difference. We are gender-blind to the extent that my staff, particularly the Finns, don’t pay any attention to whether I’m a woman or a man. My predecessors have all been men and I think that my local staff may have been a little bit surprised about a female ambassador because they were not used to that. Now they are and we are a great team my small Filipino and Finnish staff. I really owe them a lot ” “Sometimes, even in my own country where there is equality of genders, being a woman in this or almost any other profession means you have to work a little bit harder to prove yourself.  That’s probably something we’re demanding of ourselves, too.” “I would not like to think that women and men bring different things. I think that we are still all individuals and bring what we individually can into the profession.”

Finland has, however, been always in the forefront of gender equality.  Finland was the first country in the world to allow universal and equal suffrage a hundred years ago, and the envoy easily upholds that noble legacy. However, even Finland still has work to do to attain full gender equality.

“Diplomacy might not be for everybody though”, the envoy attests. “If you don’t like travelling abroad, moving from one country to another, this is not the right profession for you. I think that in some respects what you maybe have to sacrifice are long term friendships. Because if you are four years in a country you might not even make friends because you know you’ll have to leave them at some point. But again now that we’re so globalized and it’s so easy to move around and be connected, even that’s not such a problem anymore.”

Ambassador Resch only hopes that at the end of her career and at the end of her life she can say that she has had a good life and that if she has regrets it’s for something that she has done and not for something that she hasn’t done. On the envoy’s pending agenda is to be able to do more travelling to different parts of the Philippines. “I’ve been around a little bit. I have now decided to go to Boracay so I don’t have to answer to people that I haven’t been there yet,” she teases. “I just went for a couple of days to Tawi-Tawi and then I’m going to Vigan. So I’m trying to catch up with my travelling a little.”

As a parting shot, Ambassador Resch would like to thank everyone, Filipinos in particular, for making their expat life so pleasant in the Philippines. “I think it’s a great place to live. There are some obstacles and problems like pollution and overpopulation. And at some point rather sooner than later Filipinos have to do something about them too” she contends “I think that if people would do a little bit more to keep their own environment clean it would help the whole country. Environment is not about beautification but leaving the cleanest possible environment to our children.”

Salamat and Mabuhay. They’re unfortunately the only two Filipino words I know.”

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

Standing Tall for Sweden: Ambassador Annika Markovic

Her Excellency Annika Markovic’s imposing blonde presence reminds one of no less than the Valkyries of Scandinavian legend. But her warm smile and gentle manner quickly melted through any feelings of intimidation during our conversation. And it was an enchanting process indeed to see past the dignified diplomat’s statuesque form and discover the idealist’s heart and adventurer’s soul that beats and stirs within.

Amb. Markovic 3rd from left, seated. Photo by Pat Dy.

Unlike the abovementioned battle-maidens however, Ambassador Markovic is a passionate pacifist, which is appropriate considering her role as the representative of the country which gave birth to the Nobel Peace Prize. “One thing I’ve been most interested in here is to help with the peace process,” she shares. “I think there is no other singular issue that could affect the Philippines and its development more. If there will be peace in Mindanao, the whole picture will change. In Europe, the general perception of the Philippines is that it’s a dangerous place and you should go somewhere else to invest. I wish the different parties realize that they have a golden opportunity now and that they should really work hard to try to achieve something sustainable. I just hope to see some progress before I leave the Philippines.”

A Passion for Mediation

The envoy readily divulges that her heart is deeply into doing multilateral work. “I find it very rewarding to be working with different countries, facilitating negotiations to agree on something difficult, working to find a common solution that is acceptable to all so we can move ahead and establish something that is a good basis for the future.”

Despite her lofty position, the ambassador remains very humble about the role she plays and the influence she wields. “You try to see what you can do to prevent war from breaking out and supporting peaceful development, to assist in alleviating poverty and to really try to help, make this a better world,” imparts the envoy. “These are big words and I know that what I can do as a human being and as part of the Swedish diplomatic corps is very limited. But at least I can feel like I can make my small contribution to achieve something better for all.”

Ambassador Markovic initially determined and developed her knack for diplomacy during her stints in the Swedish foreign ministry and when she was posted to the Swedish mission to the UN in New York. But she admits to have always been very interested in other cultures and other people. “This job gives me the opportunity to travel around the world, to learn and see things for myself,” states the ambassador. “I’m very interested in foreign policy, how countries relate to one another. What you realize very quickly is we can have so much in common even if we come from different corners in the world. The Philippines and Sweden are very far from each other, but we are very much alike because we have the same basic values. It’s easy for me to relate to what is going on because there is a common ground,” she affirms. “I think my most interesting discovery during my almost 4 years in the country is that our contacts are so broad and extensive: from the grassroots level to political parties and business. It’s been very rewarding to be part of that and to help establish a closer relationship.”

One of the challenges that the ambassador admits to facing here in the Philippines is building a better understanding of the European Union, and the 13 member countries that are here working together as a group. “The individual countries are very well known, but that we form something bigger is not,” she relates. Her embassy has been trying to help explain and promote the European Union to the Filipino people by participating in the Cine Europa Film Festival and in European trade exhibitions.

Nevertheless, the ambassador acknowledges that the challenges are what keep her career interesting and fulfilling. “I’ve been really very happy in this job, so I’ve never had any regrets or thoughts if I should have done other things,” she avows. She does confess that some issues are tougher to sort out than others, particularly those that involve her personal life. “It’s always a challenge to be an ambassador, and maybe even more to be a woman and have a family, and get all the pieces together. You have to cope with your family, to make sure that they are happy, that they also have good opportunities. At the same time you have to focus on your job and do well in it, and still save some little time for yourself so you can also rest and develop. I think that it is something that all women who are in leading positions in society have to deal with.”

Family Matters

Complications aside, the envoy reports that the Markovic family is really enjoying their stay here. The ambassador also hopes that this experience of travelling to and living in different countries affords her kids a broader perspective. “In the future when they have to decide what career path to start and what to do with their lives they would think they’re not just confined to staying in their hometown,” she explains. “They know they have opportunities everywhere. They don’t need to be afraid and think it difficult to move to the other side of the world to find a good job.”

She is proud that her children already possess an advantage in learning languages. They learn English in school but at home they speak only Swedish. “We brought a Swedish nanny to the Philippines even if some people were telling us before that there was no need to,” the ambassador relates. “My youngest was only a year old when we moved to the Philippines but he speaks both fluent Swedish and English. And you cannot tell that he has not lived in Sweden. He wouldn’t have been like that if he didn’t have a Swedish nanny. So that was an important decision we made and I think a very good one.”

Ambassador Markovic would like to think that she has stood as an example for her younger colleagues that it is indeed possible to be a woman and an ambassador and still raise a family. “I think they see that and think that: ‘yeah, if she can do that then I can do it too’,” the envoy asserts, sharing more wise counsel for her fellow female diplomats. “The earlier the better I think you have to realize that you cannot be 100 percent on top of everything. You have to lower a bit your own ambitions so that you can live a healthy life. Because if you want to be the best boss, and the best mother, and the best spouse, I think you’re going to get depressed and frustrated very fast. So you just have to realize that maybe you don’t need to be the best all the time. You can just relax and achieve what’s enough.”

Beyond her dual roles as mother and ambassador, Her Excellency proves how gender should pose no impediment to both professional and personal fulfilment. “A very determined policy of the Swedish government is to promote gender equality and give equal opportunities for men and women to develop and do whatever they want in life,” the envoy contends. “So the different competencies that we bring are really utilized and put to good use. I’m not so sure that you can pinpoint specific areas where women contribute more than men. You can’t say that the either men or women are always a certain way. But it’s always good to have a mix.”

Shared Journeys

Even among this group of women ambassadors, the envoy notes that there are so many interesting personalities. “I think we all are individuals and have our own backgrounds and we are what we are right now for different reasons,” says Ambassador Markovic, who then reveals that they all try to get together once a month or two. “It’s a great opportunity to share experiences, talk about the developments of the country, and learn from each other. Sometimes we also travel together and it’s very interesting to see the Philippines from the point of view of someone you don’t normally travel with.”

This is what inspires her message to any newcomer to the country: “Don’t miss out on travelling around the Philippines,” the ambassador emphasizes. “That has been the most rewarding thing I’ve done. You find fantastic people who are very instrumental in their own small communities in trying to be advocates for change. You also realize that this country is still quite poor, that there are many challenges to its development and the alleviation of poverty. It’s only by leaving Manila, travelling to the different corners of the country, meeting with the people, and trying to understand what’s going on with their lives, that you’ll see what this whole country is all about and the opportunities and possibilities that are here.”

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

Steadfast for Spain: Ambassador Luis Arias

The Spanish Ambassador to the Philippines has always been held in high regard and afforded a lot of attention. As the country’s official link to Spain, the ambassador has to be able to look back on our shared pasts, and also move forward by implementing programs that will benefit our countries’ futures. Modest and earnest, H.E. Luis Arias Romero brings to his position 33 years’ worth of experience in the foreign service.

“At one time I wanted to teach in the university,” admits the dedicated diplomat. “But I decided to remain in the service to represent and serve my country abroad. It was not a difficult reflection.”

He explains how as a diplomat, he is tasked to protect the interests of the Spanish people and to expand the idea of Spain. Fulfilling this function in the Philippines is both a great challenge and privilege considering the more than 400 years of common history and tradition shared between us.

“We have very good relations in the political realm and we do many projects in the cultural realm,” he says. “But there are still many things we can do to improve our economic relations. Spain can contribute so much in the areas of energy, climactic change, and tourism. My government expects many things to be accomplished.”

The ambassador notes that there are many institutions in the Philippines that are very helpful and hospitable, thus lightening his load. And yet he does confess to not having much free time. Rare is the day when he has no social event to attend. But he does try to set aside at least half an hour a day to go swimming for his health and to unwind.

It’s this demanding schedule which has made the busy envoy appreciate the value of time.
“I choose to seize every moment.,” he states. “Everyday is the most important in my life. Every time I’m working in my office, I’m doing something useful for the Philippines and Spain. Every day I feel that I will be able to do more. The possibilities are enormous and the future is optimistic.”

Despite his long years of service, an accomplishment he is most proud of, the envoy remains as enthusiastic as ever. It is his first posting in Asia and he likens it to starting a new career. Costa Rica was his first overseas assignment, and also his first time to go abroad. It was while living in another country that the ambassador professes to having discovered himself. He was then posted to the USA, Poland, Canada, and Belgium. “Each place has its own character and particularities,” he muses. “As a professional, we have to always find the interesting and positive things in any place.”

The envoy remembers encountering Filipinos almost everywhere, especially in the US, the foreign service, and in Spain where there are many who are well-established. His impression of Filipinos is of a very hospitable people, sympathetic and compassionate.

Prior to his arrival, the ambassador talked with many people who had been to the Philippines those with knowledge and experience to share about the country, whether in business or government. He diligently read up on the work of the embassy in Manila for the last 25 years, and began reading the history of the Philippines.

But studying the country in theory was still not quite the same as experiencing the real thing.
“When I arrived here there was a moment to get in touch with reality. Now that you are here you have to start work,” he told himself. I arrived on the 27th of February and on the 28th I was in my office.”

Although he knew beforehand about the country’s 88 million inhabitants, it still made quite an impression on him to actually live amongst them. “It’s very easy to connect with people here. I feel at home,” he declares. “The most obvious influence may be from the US but Spain’s influence goes deeper. It’s a part of your way of life and understanding things. I think another characteristic of Filipinos is that your sense of humor is rather different from other Asians. It’s very familiar for me, a Spaniard. We laugh at the same things. When I talk with somebody or I see the names of streets and places, there are so many things that constantly remind me of Spain or Spanish things. I always have to make an effort to remember that I’m really in Asia here. It’s like being in a Latin American country.”

Despite all that is familiar, there were still quite a few things Ambassador Arias had to figure out and get used to. “One thing I didn’t know about before was Filipino time, the daily timetable,” he reveals. ”Now we are perfectly adapted. I wake up at 6 in the morning then we have breakfast and I’m working by 7:30am. Then at 12:30 we are having lunch. I think it’s a very clever timetable compared to in Spain where we have lunch at 2:30, and dinner past 9pm. Here I feel I have more time to work and enjoy myself.”

The ambassador’s family has also apparently eased into their new situation with aplomb. “My wife is very happy and very positive. There are many activities to do here and she’s collecting many friends,” he shares.

“Our 26 year old son likes Asia very much and is very happy to have us here. He has been working in Beijing and speaks good Chinese. In fact he visited Philippines years before we came. Even now he e-mails me places to go. He wants me to use the jeepney. It’s a bit more complicated and difficult for me than it is for him though!”

The envoy was finally able to carry out his son’s suggestion on a trip to El Nido. “I used the jeepney once from the airport to the port where we rode the banca. I think it’s a very ingenious way of transport,” he concludes. The trip also whetted his appetite to further explore the country. “When we were flying over the islands, I could see the reality of the Philippines. I definitely have to travel more, to go to the Visayas and Mindanao where we have many projects of cooperation, and for me to be able to talk properly about the entire country.”

The envoy is obviously quite dedicated to his work and role. “When I eventually leave the Philippines I want to have quite a bit of knowledge about the country and its many different people. I’d like to be remembered as an ambassador who has done his best to extend the friendship, good relations and brotherhood between the Philippines and Spain.” And even just over the span of a few months, Ambassador Arias has already been receiving compliments for his approach to the job, high praise indeed for a first-timer.

“I feel that maybe I am changing or the country is changing me,” he reflects. “I’m very happy here and I’d like to really know the country from the north in Batanes to the south in Mindanao. That is my horizon.”

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

Envoy to the Other Side of the World: Ambassador Carlos Costa of Brazil

His Excellency Carlos Eduardo Sette Camara Da Fonseca Costa, Ambassador of Brazil, is as tall as his name is long, and has a diplomatic career that’s just as lengthy. “I’ve been in the profession for thirty-something years. It’s been a long time and I’m quite happy,” says the laid-back envoy. A career in international relations came quite naturally to the ambassador, having been born into a family of diplomats. “Since my childhood I have been thinking about being a diplomat. It’s the way of life of many of my relatives. My father wasn’t a diplomat but he was posted in many international conferences. And with my travels through the years my ideas were crystallized.” He then entered the diplomatic academy in Brazil and never looked back.
Ambassador Costa considers his role in strengthening the relationships between countries to be the most important and fulfilling aspect of being a diplomat. “I think that we are privileged that we are able to do that. When I was ambassador in Indonesia I did my best. I’m doing my best now with the Philippines.”“If I weren’t a diplomat I wouldn’t have any idea what I would be. By training I am a lawyer, but I don’t have the inclination to be one. If I wouldn’t be a lawyer, perhaps I’d be a doctor because sometimes medicine interests me. But I never really thought of having another profession,” he shares.

So far, the ambassador’s efforts have been paying off splendidly, with a breakthrough agreement already notched on his belt. “With the help of the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) we now have a memorandum of agreement (MOA) between our two countries. Before I arrived there wasn’t an MOA yet. But now we are having the first meeting in Brasilia in 2007, and then we are going to hold a workshop every year either in the Philippines or Brazil. I am very proud of what we have accomplished here. I think this is an important step.”

The ambassador admits that it’s not the simplest matter to handle relations between two countries that are so distant geographically. “It takes two days to travel one way. So to go back and forth you have four days in transit,” he sighs. But he believes the results are worth it. “The relationship between the two countries is very positive. One example of that is this MOA. We have growing trade between the two countries. It’s very balanced, around USD150M each way, while bilateral trade is around USD550M with the Philippines exporting a little bit more than Brazil. Recently in New York, at the General Assembly of the United Nations,Brazil’s Foreign Minister Celso Amorim met with DFA Secretary Alberto Romulo. This is a landmark meeting and we intend to deepen the relationship.”The Guy From Ipanema

Beyond official diplomatic efforts, Filipinos already seem to hold a deep fascination with all things Brazilian. “Our music is very popular here in the Philippines,” the ambassador notes. “Bossa Nova is very common to hear on the radio. It’s also a surprise how capoeira has become popular. I think it’s very funny.” Ambassador Costa predicts that the caipirinha, Brazil’s national cocktail, to be the next trendy drink to sweep the country.

Evidently, the Brazilians are as eager to welcome us Filipinos as we are enthusiastic of their culture. Despite the distance, the ambassador encourages Filipinos to try to come and visit his country, which may actually be easier than what most may think. “Filipinos do not need a visa to go to Brazil. As far as I know, we are one of the few Latin American countries that do not require one.” He believes that Filipinos will find themselves right at home in Brazil, just as easily as he has settled here in the country. “Brazilian people are very friendly,” he asserts. “We like singing and dancing. I think it’s a good match because both of our countries have friendly people who are not afraid of being happy, of enjoying life. Brazilians and Filipinos are very similar. I think that you Filipinos are the Latins of Asia. That is the common perception among my friends from Latin America here.”

The envoy’s posting was actually his first time to reach local shores. “I wasn’t able to visit before because the Philippines is not along the usual tourism routes. You must purposefully want to come here. But I think you have huge potential for tourism. You have beautiful beaches, islands and buildings. I think you have very exceptional treasures that should be more explored and promoted. For example, I have never seen in Asia such a beautiful setting as Intramuros. I didn’t know about it before I arrived here. So when I saw it I was hugely surprised by the beautiful old churches, forts and buildings.”

Unfortunately, the ambassador will be here for only one year and has just now been able to begin to travel, but he intends to go to Mindanao, Palawan, and the Visayas. He clearly displays an affinity for the region and plans to learn more about it.

“I was very happy when I found out I would be assigned here, because firstly I would still be in the neighborhood of Southeast Asia. I consider Southeast Asia to be one of the most dynamic regions in the world, not only economically but also culturally. My experience in Indonesia with the Malay people was a very good one. So I was happy to come here and be with the same kind of Malay people who I know are friendly and happy like us Brazilians. It was a very easy transition for me. When I arrived here I felt at home.”

Reading is what essentially keeps the ambassador occupied during his spare time. But time for himself is quite a rarity, as a diplomat he has to honor many invitations to official events. The embassy even has to operate on two work shifts, a normal work shift in the day, and another in the evening for receptions and cocktails. But all in all so far, it has been smooth sailing for the Brazilian envoy. “It’s extremely easy to be posted here,” he affirms. “I’ve had no difficulty with relating to people. Everybody speaks English. There are lots of nice people and good restaurants. It’s a pleasant place to be. If only it didn’t take too long to travel home to Brazil. Otherwise it would be a paradise.”

Shared Pasts, Shared Futures

Besides our country’s natural charms, the ambassador also admires, of all things, our political system. “The Philippines has a good reputation as a free country, especially in a region where not all the countries are democratic. I think that your long-held democracy is a great virtue.” This approbation is really no surprise bearing in mind the fact that Brazil is also a predominantly Catholic country that has struggled through a long period of colonization, dictatorships and corrupt governments.

Looking further ahead, Ambassador Costa hopes to be able to help promote the use of ethanol here in the Philippines, a technology that the government is currently considering to reduce dependence on foreign oil and with which Brazil has a lot of experience. “We have been using ethanol for more than 30 years,” he explains. “Almost all cars in Brazil have multi-fuel engines. All gasoline in Brazil has a mix of 25 percent ethanol. The distribution of ethanol is now completely market oriented. It’s very efficient and successful.”

For the moment, the Philippine government has not officially approached Brazil about ethanol technology. “But if they do we will be glad to help,” states Ambassador Costa. “We are ready to collaborate with the Philippines regarding that. When we began with ethanol in Brazil it was very complicated. But now it’s a technology which we have completely developed and perfected in Brazil.”

The ambassador surely has no reason to be modest about Brazil’s many achievements and bright prospects as an emerging economic giant. “We are growing well,” the envoy admits. “We are the largest economy in South America. We will probably achieve an investment grade rating next year. Economic fundamentals are good like here in the Philippines.” He hopes that through trade and cooperation, the two countries may help support each other’s development.

“The Philippines already exports very specialized products such as cellphones and semiconductors to Brazil. We send mostly Brazilian beef. For the moment it’s quite dynamic, and we can’t control these forces. I am sure we can find the right ways to improve the trade between the two countries,” Ambassador Costa optimistically states.

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

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

One Ring to Bind Them – Singelringen, the “Single Ring”

Singelringen

Singelringen (Photo credit: Duet G.)

Sweden’s best known exports so far have been pop music groups, supermodels, moody art films, and Ericsson phones, but now with the Singelringen, Scandinavia’s largest country seeks to spread a strong statement on the thrills of singlehood.

Singelringen founder Johan Wahlbäck is the very image of a strapping Swede. The then-single bachelor was fully enjoying the un-coupled life, when over a dinner conversation with a friend about how one can identify a single in a bar or a nightclub, they realized that while married and engaged people wear rings to proclaim their shackled status, single people lacked an accessory to easily advertise their availability.“My friend was also single and she mentioned that she’d always check if a man is married or engaged. But the thing is nowadays a lot of people are already in a relationship without being married or engaged. So we basically said, we need something to signify that hey, I’m single,” explains Johan.

And thus spawned Singelringen! Meaning “single ring” (obviously) in Swedish, the unisex band features a turquoise acrylic layer over a silver base, with “made in Sweden” and a unique registration number inscribed on the inner side of each ring. Johan chose a bright and modern look for the ring so it would stand out and people wouldn’t confuse it with anything else. The half circle design that is notched out from the ring is meant to show how when two single people meet, their two rings complete a full circle.The irony is that three days after conceiving the idea of a single ring, Johan met the lovely Jeanette Borén and they’ve been blissfully living and working together as a couple ever since.

Size 3 Singelringen!

Size 3 Singelringen! (Photo credit: leah.jones)

“Most of us know from long experience how it is to be single, up till when I met her I was a happily single guy. Possibly, that’s what made me more attractive to her,” Johan conjectures. He was on an all-time high at the time after coming up with Singelringen and had never been in a serious relationship until he met Jeanette. “When you’re happy you’re more attractive. So I had help from the ring. Not visibly but mentally.”

Johan compares wearing the ring to buying a pair of nice underwear. “You feel cool and sexy even if nobody can see it. The ring is a little bit of the same thing. People may not know what it means, but if you carry the values around of being a confident single, it improves your self-esteem. That in return will make you more attractive,” he affirms.Despite having found each other, both Johan and Jeannette have yet to retire their Singelringens. Whereas some erstwhile Singelringen-ers who find themselves in committed relationships stow their rings away in a safe place or pass them along to friends or family members, Johan reports that some people still wear the rings even when married. “When you wear it when you’re with someone, it reminds you of how if they weren’t so great, you’d still be single,” says Johan. “That this person is more important than the single life.” In Japan eventually they put their rings on a necklace to wear as a good luck charm.

mi anillo de soltero

mi anillo de soltero (Photo credit: Cien de Cine)

Singelringen first started selling in Sweden in April, 2005 and its popularity quickly spread throughout Scandinavia, and onward to Europe, South America, and the United States. In Asia, Singelringen-mania is especially high in Japan and Taiwan, but Johan asserts that they’ve “never been anywhere where the response has been as positive as the Philippines.”

Registering your ring number on the Singelringen website gives you an e-mail address and a page for your profile. “The idea is to let people communicate, not necessarily to date, but just to chat with other people around the world.” The concept of an eye-catching ring for singles just seems to be a good fit wherever it’s taken. As Johan puts it, the dating cultures may be different but single people around the world have the same problems. “The situations are similar. When you’re not in a relationship, you have more time to spend on yourself, do what you want, educate yourself, focus on your career, traveling, clubbing, partying, being with friends. But you may also be searching for the love of your life. It’s everyone’s ultimate dream to meet him or her. But if you still haven’t found that person, you still can feel good about yourself. We try to encourage people to just enjoy life and not be miserable about being by themselves. Time will come when you will find the perfect love and you will have a different life. Enjoy singlehood as long as it lasts.”

But neither is wearing the ring a sign of desperation. “What’s important is the image of the ring is that of single power. It’s not a ring you put on half an hour before closing time to project that hey, I’m single and available. But it’s a ring for those who are confident, and definitely not desperate. It’s a statement that it’s cool to be single.’

-text by Jude Defensor, some rights reserved. first published in Manual magazine, 2007

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