Sweden: Almost Asgard

Rush hour at Kungsträdgården metro station

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

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

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

A tree-lined path at the Drottningholm Palace gardens

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

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

A Hogvakten guarding the Royal Palace in Gamla Stan

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

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

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

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

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

continued in next entry, Stockholm When It Sizzles

Sun-loving Stockholmers by the waterfront at Riddarholmen

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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

Biofuel Law to Boost Economy and Break Oil Dependence

Biofuel project in Iba, Zambales

Biofuel project in Iba, Zambales (Photo credit: treesftf)

Hailed as a positive legislative breakthrough, the passing of the Biofuels Act demonstrates the country’s pressing need for the government to actually carry on with its jobs by composing and enacting more vital pieces of legislation which will clearly benefit the country. With the support of local industry, the agricultural sector, and the international community, this development also stands out as a bright spot in the attempt to resolve the complicated and problematic balance between man’s need for energy and responsibility to our environment.

President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo formally signed into law Republic Act No. 9367, also known as the “Biofuels Act of 2006” last January 17. Together with Senate President Manuel Villar and House Speaker Jose de Venecia Jr., the President affixed her signature on the new law during the ceremonial signing held at Malacañang’s Rizal Hall.

Biofuel refers to bioethanol and biodiesel and other fuels made from biomass and primarily used for motive, thermal and power generation with quality specifications in accordance with the Philippine National Standards. Biofuel can be used both for central- and decentralized production of electricity and heat. As of 2005, bioenergy covers approximately 15% of the world’s energy consumption.

Sugar cane residue can be used as a biofuel

Sugar cane residue can be used as a biofuel (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The law promotes the use of biofuels as a measure to develop and utilize indigenous renewable and sustainably-sourced clean energy sources. This aims to reduce dependence on imported oil, thus also facilitating economic growth and expanding opportunities for livelihood by increasing rural employment and income, and giving due regard to the protection of public health, the environment and natural ecosystems by lessening toxic and greenhouse gas emissions.

The law mandates that within two years of going into effect, all liquid fuel for motors and engines sold in the Philippines shall contain locally-sourced biofuel components of at least 5 percent bio-ethanol in the annual total volume of gasoline fuel actually sold and distributed by each and every oil company in the country.

House Bill No. 4629 or the Biofuels Act of 2005 was principally authored by Bukidnon Representative Juan Miguel F. Zubiri and co-sponsored by more than 100 other congressmen. It was then unanimously approved by the House of Representatives and sent to the Senate last year. Senator Miriam Defensor-Santiago has pushed for the passage of the bill and defended it on the floor. Although the bill had been certified urgent by President Arroyo, it had been previously set aside by the Senate which had been preoccupied by other political agendas.

Rep. Zubiri explains how the program aims to replace within four years a tenth of national gasoline consumption with a VAT-free, cheap, clean fuel produced from the likes of cane and coconut through the granting of tax and financing incentives. Under the law, biofuel producers will be exempted from paying tariff and duties in the importation of all types of inputs and machinery that they will exclusively use for the program. The Board of Investments is likewise tasked to identify other suitable incentives to encourage investments in domestic production of bio-ethanol fuel. This could translate to biofuel costing as much Php 10.00 lower compared with existing premium gas prices. Rep. Zubiri’s office has also calculated how the reduction in fuel imports could lead to billions of pesos in annual foreign exchange savings. A Tariff Commission is required under the bill to create a tariff line for bioethanol fuel and gasohol but this will be harmonized with the World Trade Organization and ASEAN Free Trade Area agreements.

The Department of Energy (DOE), is now conducting a series of consultations with the National Biofuel Board (NBB) and various stakeholders and other agencies concerned with the drafting of the implementing rules and regulations which should be promulgated within three months upon effectivity of the Act. The NBB is chaired by the Secretary, and its members include the Secretaries of the Departments of Trade and Industry, Science and Technology, Agriculture, Finance, Labor and Employment, and the administrators of the Philippine Coconut Authority and Sugar Regulatory Authority. The DOE has stated that talks are expected to provide extensive inputs for the smooth implementation of the Act.

Agricultural products specifically grown for use as biofuels include corn and soybeans, primarily in the United States; as well as flaxseed and rapeseed, primarily in Europe; sugar cane in Brazil and palm oil in South-East Asia. Biodegradable outputs from industry, agriculture, forestry, and households can also be used to produce bioenergy; examples include straw, timber, manure, rice husks, sewage, biodegradable waste, and food leftovers. Rep. Zubiri  has stated how the country has the means to ride on the alternative fuels boom, with 2.4 million hectares planted to corn, 3.2 million hectares to coconut, 390,000 hectares to sugarcane, and 330,000 to cassava and camote. President Arroyo has also recently promoted sweet sorghum as another alternative feedstock for biofuel production.  Projections made by the Department of Agriculture point to 300,000 new farm jobs created with the law’s passage. In addition, bioethanol plants, of which two are gearing up for operation in Negros and Bukidnon, are expected to hire at least 10,000 workers. The reduction in air pollution will also save the country billions of pesos from medical costs and lost income due to illness, and help diminish losses due to environmental damage and the deleterious effects of climate change.

In light of rising and unstable prices of petroleum-based fuel, and international treaties on climate change such as the Kyoto Protocol to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Montreal Action Plan, which have assigned mandatory targets for the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions to signatory nations, there has been a mounting global push towards the development of alternative fuels. As of December 2006, a total of 169 countries and other governmental entities, including the Philippines, have ratified the agreement. Notable exceptions include the United States and Australia, who have signed the treaty but refuse to ratify it. Other countries, like India and China, which have ratified the protocol, are not required to reduce carbon emissions under the present agreement despite their relatively large populations. In his previous State of the Union address, US President Bush had stated that the US government will also begin funding research for advanced methods in producing biofuel. In 2005 the Swedish government announced their intention to become the first country to break their dependence on oil and other ‘fossil raw materials’ by 2020, aiming to reach this goal through the further development of domestically grown biofuel. During the recently-concluded 12th ASEAN Summit in Cebu, the 16 heads of state of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and its dialogue partners ratified the Declaration on East Asian Energy Security which promotes the use of alternative fuels.

Biofuels Defined

Bioethanol – shall refer to ethanol (C2H5OH) produced from biomass;

Bioethanol Fuel – shall refer to hydrous or anhydrous bioethanol suitably denatured for use as motor fuel;

Biofuels – shall refer to a liquid fuel produced from biomass and primarily used to fuel vehicles, but can also fuel engines or fuel cells for electricity generation, and may include bioethanol and biodiesel, among others;

Biomass – shall refer to any organic matter, particularly cellulosic or ligno-cellulosic matter, which is available on a renewable or recurring basis, including trees, crops and associated residues, plant fiber, poultry litter and other animal wastes, industrial wastes, and the biodegradable component of municipal solid waste


-reportage by Jude Defensor, some rights reserved. published in What’s On & Expat newspaper and Moon Herald newspaper, 2007.

Crash Chords: Driving Beats (music to travel to)

Interstate Love Song

Interstate Love Song (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In this age where dubbing mix tapes has been largely usurped by burning mix CDs which is gradually being supplanted by composing MP3 playlists, it’s easier than ever to cook up a tailor-fit musical program to suit every activity. There’s little better than going all meta while on a road trip, plane ride or boat voyage and listening to songs about modes of transportation and travel destinations. There are old, reliable chestnuts like “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” or “Get Here” (lyrically they’re practically the same song), “Leavin’ on a Jet Plane”, “Sailing”, or “Ocean Deep”; the usual FM radio suspects such as Sheryl Crow’s “Everyday is a Winding Road” or Stone Temple Pilots’ “Interstate Love Song”; Heavy Metal spark plugs like AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell”, Meatloaf’s “Paradise by the Dashboard Lights”, and Steppenwolf’s hog-rider anthem “Born To Be Wild”; or country classics like Willie Nelson’s “On the Road Again” and Hank Williams’ “Lost Highway”.

Hardcore travelers may choose to ditch the tunes and concentrate on the native sounds of their chosen location. But there are sure to be instances where cocooning one’s self in music, ANY music, will be much more preferable to snores or vapid chatter.

As far as I’m concerned, travel music has to be non-nauseating, non-irritating, and non-repetitive. You do NOT want to suffer from Last Song Syndrome while in transit. Nor do you want to develop a headache or a hard-on. So thematically, it’s best to stick to geography and commuting to keep your mind out of the gutter and in the right groove.

Deutsch: Logo

Deutsch: Logo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

To set the scene, it’s useful to look to the continental landmarks such as “Africa”, Toto’s number one 1983 hit about their safari-slash-spirit-quest on the Dark Continent. Appropriately enough, this song was included in the soundtrack to Grand Theft Auto: Vice City. Then there’s Men At Work’s 1982 wonder “Land Down Under”, which I think lay the groundwork for our future tolerance of Crocodile Dundee, Russell Crowe, and the 2000 Sydney Olympics. Folk icons Simon and Garfunkel are both patriotic and pensive in “America” their dramatic ballad to Western wanderlust. Paul Simon was also later inspired by that enduring mecca of musical Americana with “Graceland”.

The band named America on the other hand, burst onto the scene with “Ventura Highway” the lead track and first single from their aptly titled album Homecoming.  As recounted by composer Dewey Bunnell, the song is about leaving, escaping the cold Omaha winters by moving to California.

Artwork for Michigan by Sufjan Stevens

Artwork for Michigan by Sufjan Stevens (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In terms of geographical ambition though, Sufjan Stevens just can’t be topped. With plans to come up with an album for each of the 50 United States, Stevens started off with Michigan, a collection of folk songs, instrumentals, and odes to the cities and landmarks of his home state that is loaded with vivid imagery, characters, and sentiments on faith, humanity, and hope for the future. Illinois explored even weightier subjects, including such native sons as serial killer John Wayne Gacy and poet Carl Sandburg, and ended up as one of the most highly acclaimed and awarded independent albums of 2005. Up next, fans are speculating between Oregon, Rhode Island, Minnesota, and Arkansas on the Sufjan state list.

Across the pond, Scottish band Ballboy penned the glorious strings-and-spoken-word piece “A Europewide Search For Love”. Set to swooning cellos and a shuffling beat, we hear front man Gordon McIntyre speak-singing verses such as “someone once told me ‘the world is moving because you are’, and tonight there are people travelling through Europe on trains, looking for something that they’ve never had before, wondering if they’ll find it and if they’ll recognise it if they do” in a warm Scottish burr that makes you want to line up for tickets to the Trans-Siberian railroad post-haste.

A personal favorite, the criminally underappreciated The Wedding Present, produced Mini – an EP celebrating the Michelin lifestyle, sort of like a more muscular and masculine musical version of Stanley Donen’s “Two for the Road”. Mini contains songs bearing such titles as “Drive”, “Convertible”, and “Sports Car”. These naughty rock confections feature enough fun raspy engine noises to get one’s motor running and drive purring. The Weddoes’ most recent album, Take Fountain, was greatly inspired by front man David Gedge’s own transatlantic/transcontinental romance thus featuring tracks like the jangly “Ringway to Sea-Tac”, the dense epic “Interstate 5”, and the bouncy “I’m from Further North Than You” (formerly entitled Edinburgh).

On the OPM front, we can always hum “Tayo na sa Antipolo” while taking Ortigas Extension or belt Sampaguita’s “Laguna” as we cruise down SLEX. Just a parting suggestion, if ever The Amazing Race producers were to look for a new song to base the show’s theme on, may I respectfully propose the Flaming Lips’ “Race For The Prize”?

-text by Jude Defensor, some rights reserved. first published under music column Crash Chords in Manual magazine, 2006

Chic Lit: Reading for the Red Carpet

photo by Tata Tuviera

Sometimes it’s not what you know but what you have. It’s not about the books you’ve read, but the books you own. And to some people’s eyes, luxury reading means expensive books about expensive things. However, true class is a different beast from mere conspicuous consumption. A catalog of rare Star Wars memorabilia cannot compare to a registry of vintage cars. If you want to impress, it takes more than a pair of Armani reading glasses to show that you’re a connoisseur of the printed word and the hardbound book. You need to have a kick-ass library (or coffee table at least) to back up your wardrobe and wallet. Past the medicine cabinet and baby pictures, most dates and prospective mates progress to ransacking one’s bookshelves. Barring librarians and literature majors, this roster of weighty tomes ought to raise your lux-factor considerably.

Cabernet: A Photographic Journey from Vine to Wine by Charles O’Rear, Michael Creedman

Part travelogue and part oenologue (just a fancy way of saying wine-book), the authors take us on a worldwide tour of the regions where the Cabernet grape is grown. Get drunk on stimulating panoramas of vineyards, grapes, oak barrels, and photogenic locals. Wordiness-wise, there’s just enough red meat in the text, including a foreword from renowned vintner Robert Mondavi, to go well with this particular vintage. Now you can better sip and smooth talk your way through a wine list. Just say, cabernet (that rhymes).

ART of the 20th Century (Paperback) by Klaus Honnef, Schneckenburger, Fricke, Ruhrberg

Cover of "Art of the 20th Century"

Cover of Art of the 20th Century

This attention-grabbing boxed set aims to be the end-all and be-all guide to the art of the past 100 years, a tall order for any work. Full of eye-popping pictures of modern art’s usual suspects like the crisply named Klimt and Munch, who you can now match to their respective tersely titled paintings (The Kiss and The Scream). If the art won’t work you up, at least the writing won’t put you to sleep.

Annie Leibovitz: American Music by Annie Leibovitz

Cover of "Annie Leibovitz: American Music...

Cover of Annie Leibovitz: American Music

Leaf through revealing portraits of rock stars, folk singers, and their elaborate accoutrements as shot by Vanity Fair’s top photographer. The compositions are alternately nostalgic and naughty, showing off Leibovitz’s knack for capturing icons at their most relaxed and real. Seeing these gods of cool brought down to earth will do wonders for your own cred.

Film Noir by Alain Silver, James Ursini

This ultra-stylish book even features white text on black background to go with its dramatic collection of black and white stills from classic crime movies. The elegant imagery is a stark contrast to the sordid themes, vulgar dialogue, and depraved characters of the typical noir film. Possessing this book lets you point out and congratulate yourself on how far above you live from the humble criminal lowlifes such as gangsters, hitmen, and corrupt politicians.

The Rulemakers by Sheila Coronel

Knowing about the wealthy and well-born is a step closer to being one of them (but then if you’re reading this magazine and this book then you probably already are). Although rather deceptive and academic, this is the closest one can get to a comprehensive inventory of the reigning political dynasties of the Philippines. Whether you’re wooing a militant activist (reading the PCIJ’s work earns you major radical points), or a silver-spooned scion (pointing out their family name in the power list is sure to charm), you can’t lose.

The 48 Laws of Power by Robert Greene

Cover of "The 48 Laws of Power"

Cover of The 48 Laws of Power

Power is the ultimate luxury. And Greene’s guidelines read like Machiavelli and Sun-Tzu spiced up and simplified for modern readers. With such ruthless gems of advice as “Get others to do the Work for you, but Always Take the Credit” and “Pose as a Friend, Work as a Spy”, once you take these 48 rules to heart you can give even the Rothschilds and the Medicis a run for their money. Merciless ambition always impresses, maybe as long as you aren’t dating your boss, or his daughter (if she doesn’t idolize Lady Macbeth that is).

Modern Sports Cars: Roger Bell Evaluates the World’s Top Driving Machines by Roger Bell

Full of enough acronyms and jargon to intimidate the casual car enthusiast, and brimming with glossy shots of shiny hoods, gleaming engines, and plush interiors to make the hardcore auto-eroticist blow his load a few pages in. Who cares about erectile dysfunction when your hands are fondling the gear shift of a Ferrari at 203 miles an hour? If you don’t, then this motor show is for you. Just take care to mop up the saliva (or whatever) stains.

New Complete Sailing Manual by Steve Sleight

Cover of "The New Complete Sailing Manual...

Cover of The New Complete Sailing Manual

What, you don’t own your own boat yet? Then at least own this book. It’ll be handy for bluffing your way through affairs on a yacht or at the yacht club. This comprehensive manual teaches the basics of sailing from navigation to boat care. Get a tan, blow some wind into your hair, learn which side is port or starboard, and you’re all set for the next regatta (or at least the next clothes shopping trip to Regatta).

The Horseman’s Bible by Jack Coggins

Cover of "The Horseman's Bible"

Cover of The Horseman’s Bible

The original luxury conveyance, purebred horses trump sports cars or yachts any day. There’s something primal and sensual about horse-riding. In terms of prestige and sex appeal, a man on a horse evokes such noble imagery as polo matches, fox-hunting, and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Horse racing isn’t called the sport of kings for nothing. Besides, having this book lying around provides you with a great back-up explanation for owning all those Mane & Tail products. Since horses don’t usually come with their own instruction manual, this classic guide is the best one you can get.

The Architecture of I.M. Pei by Carter Wiseman

Here’s a thorough retrospective on one of the most important architects alive. To even the most architecturally clueless people, you can always point out that he’s the guy who designed the Essensa towers at the Fort. This thoughtful and detailed look at Pei and his work is heavy on the textual content, sketches, and diagrams, but a bit skimpy on the color photos. If it’s a good enough hobby for Brad Pitt, then maybe there’s something sexy about blueprints that we guys ought to look into.

Hip Hotels series by Herbert Ypma

Herbert Ypma seduces us with a procession of the world’s chicest and quirkiest boutique resorts and hotels. These slickly designed paperbacks give readers a peek at the lush interiors of the ultra-modern getaways that are Ypma’s focus, while dozens of detail-rich thumbnail shots help capture each hotel’s interior mood. Although the vivid layout might skirt the edge of sensory overload, Ypma’s writing remains immensely readable and full of flair. Fortunately, some of the establishments he highlights are so hiply obscure, you can get away with talking as if you’ve been to them without having even set foot on the same continent.

photo by Tata Tuviera

-text by Jude Defensor, some rights reserved. first published in Manual magazine, 2005 

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