Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Monday, August 21, 2006

A moveable feast

The original plan was Paris, Turin, and Venice, but I only had a weekend so Paris it was. I made reservations at a hotel just across the street from the Gare du Nord. I suppose I could have gone cheaper, since I'll only be using it as bedspace, but I didnt want to spend my first day there getting lost. So I checked in, dumped my stuff, and headed on out. First stop, the Louvre. But first I had to get Metro tickets. I bought a two-day Paris Visite pass for Saturday and Sunday. The woman at the ticket counter spoke English and was very nice. In fact the concierge at the hotel was, too. No such thing as the rude, arrogant Frenchman you often see in the movies. Everyone I met on the weekend was nice. Not everyone spoke English, which was fine. Gave me a chance to practice my subatomic French: Bon-jour-bon-soir-pardon-merci-s'il-vous-plait-ou-est-je-voudrais-je-
ne-parle-pas-francais. Now then...

After a minute or so getting acquainted with the Metro, off I went to the Louvre. Got my ticket, and walked right in to the Denon wing where they had classical sculpture and paintings by Italian and Spanish artists. Nice. I turned a corner and went--Holy crap!--into this huge hallway full of paintings. There is just no way Im going to make it through all of this, I thought, and forget about the other wings; there was just no way. So I skimmed past a lot of the paintings, feeling a bit guilty that I didnt pay them the proper respect.

The biggest crowds were in front of the armless Venus de Milo, and that headless, armless, Winged Victory (boy these crowds really liked their amputees), and of course, Mona Lisa herself, La Giaconda. The painting was behind glass and there was a tape barrier around it so that you cant get too close. Call me a cretin, but I dont get it. There's obviously a certain mystique about the painting that deserves contemplation, but there are far more impressive paintings in the Louvre that I could get within inches of. Leonardo's John the Baptist, for example, whose face looks exactly like the Mona Lisa's, isnt under glass.

After a couple of hours or so in the Denon wing, I decided to give up. I only had a weekend so I went out into the courtyard and walked through the park toward the Arc De Triomphe (two euros for a scoop of ice cream the size of a ping pong ball? What th-? In Utrecht, 2 euros could get you a tennis ball sized scoop.). There was a crowd in the courtyard too and as I was walking along the Champs Elysees boulevard, I remember thinking, Where are all the French people?, since all I seemed to see were tourists.

Arc De Triomphe. Click, click, click. Decided against going up. I'll do that at the Eiffel Tower instead. Metro to the Eiffel Tower, chop-chop.

Monstrous queue at the Tower. So that rules out getting to the top. But you cant help but marvel at the intricacies of the metal structure. Makes you think that things were so much better then when they took the time to really make things beautiful. Took pictures instead. Then this French speaking African tourist asked me to take his picture with the tower as a backdrop, and he was probably surprised that I got as low as I could and motion him to get closer. I wanted to get the tower's top and did a pretty good job at it. When he saw the result, he beamed and asked me to take another one with him and his two daughters. Ok, let's move back a bit. Come closer. Closer, that's it. Now put your heads together. No, closer. That's it. Click. More smiles from him and from his daughters. He then asked me to take one more picture, this time of just his 2 daughters. Click. Big smile from the kids. Merci, monsieur. Youre welcome. It's so good to make other people happy that youd think people would do it more often.

I decided not to hang out at the tower since I won't be able to go to the top anyway, so I decided to go to Montmartre to look for Amelie. I got to the top, to the Sacre Coeur cathedral, where I didnt find Amelie, but saw instead 2 young men doing amazing tricks with a football to hip-hop music. Sweet Georgia Brown woudlve been better as they were juggling the ball with their feet, but hip-hop's fine, too. From the Montmartre, you could see almost the whole of Paris, and as the sun went down, I looked at the Eiffel Tower, just in time to see it explode into a dazzling light show. Drat! I missed it. Hung out til about 11 pm then got back to the hotel.

Woke up at--wha!--it's 9:30! Showered, got dressed and checked out. Off to Notre Dame to look for Esmeralda. The plan was to get there, take pictures, and move off to the next tourist trap, but then I said to myself I better get resigned to the fact that I won't be able to cover everything and if I keep hurrying, I won't be able to enjoy what little time I had. See what happened yesterday when you missed the Eiffel light show? Yeah, self. Youre right. So I hung back and chilled. There was a mass going on but they still allowed visitors in. Everyone knew enough to keep quiet. Out of respect, I refrained from taking photos, but no such compunction prevented the other guests who took flash photos of the priest amid the awe-inspiring altar. The chick leading the singing sang like an angel. In a setting like that, you cant help but be caught in the reverence. It would be safe to say that if a Pinoy were there attending mass, he would not be sending and receiving text messages, believing it to be sacrilegeous.

Outside, the queue to the Notre Dame towers was long and slow, so I decided against trying to go up and decided to have breakfast instead. At 11:30. Un petit-dejeuner, s'il vous plait, madame. The breakfast was one big glass of fresh orange juice, a cafe au lait, a small baguette,and a croissant. The nice lady who ran the place then placed a whole block of butter and a whole jar of four-fruit jam in front of me. None of that single-serve crap. This is Paris, man. I took my sweet time. After that, I walked along the Seine. This really is a beautiful city, I thought as I walked. Sickeningly romantic. I dont know the bridge where Gene Kelly danced with Leslie Caron was but I found myself humming, "It's very clear, our love is here to stay.. la-la-la..." I totally understood why the French surrendered so quickly in World War II. They didnt have the heart to see the city destroyed.

By then it was 2 pm. My train leaves at 6:55. I had just enough time to go to the Musee d'Orsay. Rodin, Renoir, Manet, Monet, Gaugin, Millet, Van Gogh... At this point, Id like to talk about something Ive observed. I ran into some Pinoy tourists, and they were all in their 50s and 60s. The Chinese, Japanese, and a few Thais and Indonesians I ran into were quite young. If not actually in college, they probably graduated not too many years ago. Im sure it's a reflection of the state of our economy. It's sad. The only young Pinoys I ran into werent there on holiday. They worked in the service industry. One has been there 3 years and he hasnt gone to the Louvre yet. I dont know, maybe he just isnt interested, but just the same, it's sad if in case he doesnt feel the urge to look at the treasures there, since they belong to him, too. They belong to all of us. Anyway...

At 5 I headed on back to the Gare Du Nord, had 'lunch' at a brasserie of steak and beer and a coffee, and waited for the train.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

It's a beautiful world

I don't know about you but I think races were meant to be mixed. I was convinced of that even before I got here looking at pictures of Brazilian models (Adriana Lima = Yum!), but three weeks in the Netherlands convinced me even more. That's why I don't understand racial purists. The Netherlands itself is a wonderful model of racial integration, and integration here includes the carnal variety. Last weekend, I was in a local church in Utrecht and there's this whole community of Filipina women married to Dutch men, and I tell you their kids were beautiful. More beautiful than the sum of their genes. Somehow in the union of Filipina and Dutch, nature took the best features of both parents… and enhanced them, taking liberties with its own laws to produce offspring that looked only vaguely like their parents.

A colleague of mine here in the bank, a black American, has hooked up with a white girlfriend. He once said he'd have second thoughts about doing that back home because of the possible disapproval of the black community. And America is supposed to be this land of equality. Pfsh. I remember Tiger Woods marrying his caucasian girlfriend causing quite a stir. "What, black women aint good enough for ya, biatch?" The black community seems to have arrogated Tiger unto them, hence their disappointment at his choice of the woman who would share his life. But Tiger is as much Asian as he is African, hence his balking at the term African-American when the media uses it to refer to him. And being of mixed parentage himself, he probably has an innate knowledge that his choice was perfectly normal.

At the Rotterdam Summer Carnival, I caught a glimpse of how beautiful the world is. We went there on my first weekend here, July 31. We were a veritable Bennetton commercial: a colleague from England and me, and our buddies from the bank, the aforementioned black American and a guy from Curacao, who supervised our project. When we got there, the bands were already playing, and the DJ's were spinning, the parade was just about underway, but what struck me the most was the people on the steets. They were of every shade of color there is: East Asians, South Asians, Caucasians, Middle Eastern. White, brown, black, and all shades in between. We parked ourselves right in front of the stage where the DJ was spinning Latin-flavored dance music and of course there was multi-racial, multi-colored dancing. And after a couple of beers, I have to say I represented Asia quite well, thank you very much.

I remember thinking, Why can't it always be like this? Why cant we all get along? In the Middle East, the Arabs and Persians are climbing all over each others back to be the first to eliminate the Jews, who are just as ready to render unto them that which they wish to render, but it wasn't always like that. They got along fine as recently as the 1940s. In fact it was Saladin, the great hero of Islam, who invited the Jews to return to Jerusalem after their massacre and exile at the hands of the Crusaders. It's quite clear that the world today is run by idiots and it would be easy to conclude how ugly it is and the rest of the species on this planet would be better off without us.

But it isnt ugly. We're all meant to live together and marvel at our diversity. We're all meant to learn from each other, help each other, work with each other, play with each other, and if truth be told, boink each other as well. There is no master race, there is no inferior race. There's just the human race so put on your sneakers and run in it. The world is beautiful.

Monday, August 07, 2006

More things to do in Utrecht

I dont know what the band's called. The jazz trumpeteer added another level of sophistication to the reggae-infused rap. The music was still from the streets, but a rather more upscale street. Those guys rocked. After they finished their set, I went home.

Only to find out a couple of hours later that this happened. I didnt mind the sirens at first. I thought the police were just out to arrest a few drunks.

Friday, August 04, 2006

Comparing Cafs

Me and the rest of my posse of jabronis are with jobs that allow us to roam the earth. For work, more than anything else, and not for holiday, but Im not complaining. I now seek to undertake a comparison of the different cafeteria whose fare I have been fortunate enough to partake. I call to mind three: the caf at the head office in Nanjing, the one at the then Thai Farmers Bank, now Kasikorn Thai in Bangkok, and this present one at Rabo in Utrecht. All three are subsidized, meaning the management pays for, in whole or in part, the cost of the food. All three have something else in common: in one way or another, they are inexorably linked to agriculture. Both Kasikorn and Rabo have established themselves as the bank of choice for agribusiness in their respective spheres, while the home office sits in the middle of a vast agricultural land teeming with vegetables and fruit, all organically grown with biodegrading organic matter, skillfully fashioned using ancient techniques, from various organic material ranging from kitchen waste and animal feces, with, I suspect, a healthy dose of shit whose provenance is decidedly human. Needless to say, the place stank. Stank. Past tense. For even as I write this, the farm lands surrounding the office are giving way to China's wildly galloping economy. The farmers have been relocated, after being compensated by the government, elsewhere. Rumor has it that the area will be transformed into some sort of park, probably industrial. The last holdout to this transformation being the head office which stands alone amid the rubble of newly demolished houses, til they find a more suitable place to relocate, and a more optimum deal with the government as to the compensation for such an undertaking. Digression over, let's have at it, the most recent one first.

Rabobank has 2 labyrinthine buildings right in the heart of Utrecht on opposite sides of the railroad track. The cafeteria in the building where I am is clean and spacious, though it does get crowded at times around lunch. Lunch fare is an assortment of cold meats, breads, and cheeses, and hot fare: soup, meat or fish, and vegetables. They have a salad bar, fruit, and various drinks from fresh fruit juices to sodas. You pay for this with a debit card. For employees of the bank, this is like their regular ATM. For us, we have to buy non-reloadable cards from the bank at 21.50 Euros a pop. An average meal hovers around 3.50, which is probably less than half of what youd pay for a similar meal outside. Milk is free and you can drink as much of it as you want. They serve two kinds: regular milk and karnemelk, which is I think some variation of drinkable yogurt. Like Yakult.

Lunch fare is limited but the hot meal changes everyday. Usually it's a variation of the usual protein, carb, and green vegetable combo: chicken, green beans, and boiled potatoes and gravy, that sort of thing, in portions that are too big for my tiny stomach, but not having grown up in a horn of plenty, I feel compelled to finish nevertheless. The food is usually bland and unimaginative, although once they served curried satay chicken and noodles called bami that looked exactly like the bami we have at home except that this (I suspect it's Indonesian, a former Dutch colony) didnt have two kinds of noodles in it. I was thankful for the spice. The rest of the week, it was pretty dull.

Next we go to Bangkok and to Kasikorn Thai's cafeteria. If the caf at Rabo is huge, this one's absolutely cavernous, with a huge variety of fare: western, Thai, Chinese. Again being subsidized, youll spend about half here than you would spend outside. Although I usually stuck to Thai food, sometimes I would mosey over to Manang's (I forgot her name) who serves Thai flavored Chinese food. Her roast duck in noodles and broth is absolutely superb. You have to get there early to avoid the long cue. She serves this once a week, usually on Thursdays. The food in that caf was never boring, especially the Thai food. Once I got what looked like noodles and vegetables. It looked like pancit canton until I put a forkful in my mouth. The noodles turned out to be ginger cut into long, thin strips. They also serve food with a variety of herbs like mint and basil and coriander which the Thais ate by plucking the leaves from the stalks and popping them in their mouths. Needless to say, I did the same. The caf is open all hours til around 7. You can go down there for a cup of coffee or a snack. I usually did that when Im bored or when I need a break from staring at my monitor all day.

Finally, we come to Nanjing. The food in the company caf is 100% subsidized. You get lunch and dinner for free. But, as they say, you deserve what you pay for. The caf is crude. You wouldnt walk in a place like that for a meal if you were hungry. The meals are served in metal trays, military style, with the cook with nicotine-stained teeth unloading the usualy four dishes together in the tray and it would look like something very similar to hogslop. Then you go get as much rice as you want. Then you get your chopsticks, some of them look like someone's been chewing on them in their spare time. Then you get your soup. Then you sit down to eat. THe caf is only open at lunch and dinner and it seems that the cooks there do nothing but cook the whole day. I think they cook the meals a couple of days in advance. Before the SARS outbreak, dinner was served family-style, with the food in the middle and we all had to share it. But since SARS, dinner is served military-style as well.

To be fair, even with the unelegant way of serving them, the food sometimes is interesting. The cooks I think are from the Szechuan school since they always put in a fair amount of chili peppers in their cuisine. And once in a while youll get a surprise. Once, a colleague of mine from London and I were sitting at lunch and we were eating a vegetable dish with a vaguely identifiable slices of protein in it. The meat was not fish, not pork, and was slightly slippery. I said to him, "How do you like your snake?" He turned to me wide-eyed, "Is this snake?" "No." I said, "probably eel." A Chinese colleague corrected me matter-of-factly: "It's frog." Sure enough, we later found a head. I dont mind frogs, but por dios por santo, those babies were slimy. The cooks offer variations of the same Szechuan-type theme on vegetables, pork, chicken, duck, and various unidentifiables. I dont think they ever served beef. We never see any cats in the streets.

If I had to judge all three, Kasikorn's caf would win hands down for variety. Rabo gets props for their waste disposal system where there are separate color coded bins for organic waste and non-organic waste. And the hot Dutch chicks at lunch dont hurt either. Nanjing is of course the most affordable--duh. And I like the seaweed soup. (Grifter likes the tomato egg-drop soup. And the 'spaghetti'.)