Bye to the Baltic

…continued from Turning Swedish

The tail-end of my trip was partly spent appreciating the simple mundane joys of Swedish life. I went to the church, library and market, and carbo-loaded with hearty everyday fare such as pyttipanna (a plate of pan-fried diced potatoes, vegetables and meats). The stored calories were then walked off around charming parks and neighbourhoods shifting from modern to medieval. In contrast to what may be deduced from the dark and depressing films Swedish directors are renowned for, and also the false myth of Sweden’s high suicide rates (actually lower than France and Germany), the best thing about Stockholm is just how pleasant everyone and everything seems. Even at its summer peak, it doesn’t seem over-run by hordes of package tourists and other itinerants. And you rarely come across the roving gangs of rowdy delinquents that have become worryingly common around some other European cities. Globalization and multiculturalism may have mixed up the city’s cosmopolitan colors, but they have yet to dilute the strong Swedish identity enough to make it seem like Anytown, EU.

Stockholm Stadsbibliotek

Danish sports fans in Sergels Torg

Yet all isn’t sunny in Scandinavia. Stockholm’s heart of darkness may beat in Sergels Torg, a 1960s-tastic plaza carved out by demolishing entire city blocks, the fever for modernity changing the city’s face far more drastically than any war could manage. Now the concrete crater plays host to a raucous collection of troublemakers and rabble-rousers – from militant pro-lifers, Native American and Amazonian tribesmen, Danish footie fans, and campaigning politicos, not to mention the odd grifter or gypsy (terms not mutually exclusive). But their openly flaunted freedoms show that at least in Sweden, socialism and democracy can coexist. It may not be the ideal Asgard for the ages, but while the sun shines it’s a brighter place than most.

Stockholm Arlanda Airport

Getting There: KLM flies between Manila and Stockholm via Amsterdam daily. For this trip, I was able to grab a preferred seat. This means that for only an additional 70 euros, you can choose a seat with extra leg room or a seat in a row of only two seats. On a 14+ hour flight, this can really make a huge difference in comfort.

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

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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

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

Border Break

…continued from previous entry, Gad About Gaul

Bordeaux from the Pont de Pierre

Driving down the Autoroute to Bayonne one gets to see everything else that France is about beyond Paris – farmlands alternate with high-tech campuses and industrial complexes, forest plantations, vineyards and the occasional quaint town or fair city. Then the further southwest we go and the sea slowly starts to reveal herself. We make a pit stop at the picturesque and progressive city of Bordeaux, where it’s de rigueur to sip a glass of their eponymous wine while looking over the stunning waterfront.

the tramway de Bordeaux

With some of its streets enslaved to a spiffy new cable-less train system, motorists are compelled to get down from their cars and wander on foot. No big bother considering the lovely weather and architecture on view, although the byzantine street plan makes it rather easy to get disoriented here.

Donostia – San Sebastian


Past the wine country lies the land of the Basques, a fiercely proud people with a rich, ancient culture whose territory extends from the western Pyrenees mountains down to the coast of the Bay of Biscay, spanning the border between France and Spain.

Bay of La Concha

I had been invited by a Basque friend to attend the Fair of St. Thomas so we sped down to Donostia-San Sebastian, the Basque city famous for its bay, Tamborrada procession, and International Film Festival. From there it was a quick jaunt through verdant country dotted with sheep-strewn hills and duck-filled streams to the town of Azpeitia, birthplace of Saint Ignatius of Loyola. The Fair of St. Tomas, regarded as the harbinger of the Christmas season, is when the best products of the season are exhibited. According to tradition, every year on the 21st of December the farmers of Azpeitia would venture to Donostia-San Sebastian to pay the rent of their hamlets to their landlords. As a present, they would offer a pair of capons, and in exchange, the landlords would invite them to lunch.

txistorra wrapped in talo

To celebrate the fair, people from all over the region, some garbed in customary Basque attire, descend upon the town to watch traditional Basque rural sports such as aizkolaritza (wood cutting), drink sidra (cider) and eat txistorra, the Basque version of chorizo, which is served wrapped in talo, a thick pancake of maize. The txistorra was the freshest, yummiest chorizo I’ve ever eaten, made from pigs that had been slaughtered that very morning, and the puffy, hearty talo was the perfect foil to its greasy goodness

Basque kids in costume for the Fair of St. Tomas

Another remarkable note to the revelries however, was that the town plaza were adorned not just by festive decorations, but also with banners and posters espousing Basque solidarity. Amidst all the merrymaking was a conspicuous police presence and a certain tension. It’s a real conundrum how in this era of the European Union, separatist groups like ETA continue to cast a shadow over the Basque country, undeservedly tainting its reputation as a hotbed for unrest.

But then this fertile and scenic land almost seems fated to be fought over for ever, the enduring conflict further strengthening its people and spawning more legends.

stream through Azpeitia

continued in Post-modern Pilgrim

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

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.

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