Embracing the Frost in Quebec City

Rue Petit-Champlain

Rue Petit-Champlain

When I think about the cold while snoozing indoors before a blazing fire, it is hard to imagine the bitterness of numb fingers, clanking shoulders and cheeks seared by unforgiving winds. However, that’s the way of life in Quebec winters. You can always tell the tourist from the local – one  strides confidently on sheets of ice, surrounded by equally ecstatic kids – the other is bedecked from head to toe in down feathers, shuddering in terror while fumbling with his dead cameraphone on Petit-Champlain.

French Onion Soup at Le Q-De-Sac (awesome and hearty - no need for pizza)

French Onion Soup at Le Q-De-Sac (awesome and hearty – no need for pizza)

I’ve always loved the history and majesty of Old Quebec.  A few days ago, I was reminded of how this city never fails to excite. From French cafes to American family restaurants, noshing is a rewarding pastime. I didn’t have poutine (piles of fries, cheese curds and gravy – similar to the Dutch kapsalon) this time around, but plenty of beer, French onion soup and pastries found themselves in my tummy. Paillard on St-Jean is an excellent place to hang out, and the macarons are just as splendid as Ladurée. (I just can’t say “macaroon” – sounds like a cross between two types of primate. Conversely, although crêpe sounds like crap, the less vivid English pronunciation feels weird.)

Revamped Chateau Frontenac lobby

Revamped Chateau Frontenac lobby

There is so much nostalgia mixed in with hip modernity in Quebec City. The touristy shops sell all sorts of furry headgear and bearskins, but it truly is a reflection of life in the countryside. My father-in-law had a number of flappy fur hats worn down to the ground, and gifted us years ago with a black Canadian bear, who now is as close as I’ll ever get to a pet in The Hague.

The only thing missing in this brimming cultural pot – Chinatown.

An Avalanche of Quebec Goodies and Not a Gym in Sight

QuebecProducts

Quebec cheeses, St Nicolas sparkling cider, Le Castor IPA

I go through the same cycle every Christmas. I start off with a noble plan of quasi-ascetic living in the weeks that lead up to the feasts, only to realize that self-deprivation is always more successful in thought than practice. Sad to report, my pre-emptive battle plans against cheese and chocolate fondue have once again been demolished by the minefield of gourmet Quebecois delights that entrap at every turn.

In most of Europe, Quebec products have not yet gained any real traction. I usually like to keep secret pleasures secret (less man more share philosophy) but given my own geographic needs, it would be great to be able to grab a bottle of Boréale Blanche or Coaticook maple ice-cream at Albert Heijn.

I learned to appreciate beer in Munich after years of snubbing, but it was in Quebec that true love blossomed. Microbrewery here is a competitive sport and the myriad of awesome, punchy beers that line the walls of dépanneurs, grocery stores and liquor stores are the happy consequence. Students brew beer in their bathtubs (showering at the university gym is just as hygienic + free) and there is an educated attitude towards the hoppy brew, even amongst the youth.

Beyond beer, there’s cheese. While I do enjoy cheese, its not something I generally overdose on. However, in the land of cheese crazies (average 8kg per year per Quebecker), I find myself snacking on cheese squares as if they were the fleur-de-lys equivalent to my usual guilt-free wakame (just FYI, this is wilful blindness). Whilst cheese in Holland is plentiful but placid, Quebec artisans are to be lauded for their operatic range in stinky succulence.

So is it any wonder that since its -20c out, and the nearest gym being an icy 30 minutes away, my burgeoning tire just can’t wait to wobble itself back onto the tracks!

Christmas in Canada

There are several things that Canada does par excellence. One of them is Christmas. It doesn’t quite matter that there are no beautiful Christmas markets, the type that exist in bountiful supply throughout Europe

spadesneiges1

Frosty the Snowman Melted into a Waterfall at Spa des Neiges

Christmas here is a delicious blend of active church services, exciting capitalism – assuaged by charitable endeavours, massive piles of food, and even more massive piles of snow. It can be excessive, such as during the mad rush pre-and-post Christmas to desperately snap up gifts or to sweep up the rest of the stuff on shelves at 70% off.

Pondering the St Lawrence River

Pondering the St Lawrence River

For many, this time of the year is incredibly inconvenient, mainly because of the blinding white sheets of snow and ice that drape themselves over every lawn, road and house. Sure its cold, but the shovels and smiles are warm. Almost everyone is on holiday. In NL, the Dutch don’t get the day off for Sinterklaas (December 5) (I find this quite strange), and Christmas has become a feuding point over one of the country’s anchor traditions (Zwarte Piet) (even stranger).  The Dutch Christmas is pretty, practical, and politically-fraught.

Maybe one day, I will learn to seamlessly adopt the particularities of the peoples in my country of abode, but for now, home is still what the heart yearns for. And as we know, yearnings are usually romantic, but rarely practical.

Merry Christmas – or as Canadians in a multicultural country are taught to say – Have a Happy Holiday Season!

Flying With or Without Your Toddler – Which is Easier?

We just recovered from our second transcontinental flight with Petit-Homme. He breezed through the first one last year easily, but this time around it was an entirely different ball game. He is now almost 30 pounds and as wriggly as a worm on steroids.

flightIncluding transfers, our flights took about 15 hours to reach Quebec City. My main concern was how PH would sleep. We ended up creating a makeshift bed in the corner out of a down jacket, pillows and blankets (front seats of Comfort section face perpendicular walls). The passengers in our small cabin were surprisingly kindly. Not a huff of exasperation nor rolled eyeball (that I could detect, perhaps wilful blindness on my part) despite a few moments of fatigued shrieking (vocal by PH, mental by me). The demographic of our section was overwhelmingly male, white, middle-aged. Petit-Homme busied himself prancing back and forth handing out empty wine bottles along the aisle. I am no longer anxious that others will be perturbed – I’ve put up with your kids, now’s payback time!

While KLM Business treats you well (excessive cheese and unnecessary cutlery), KLM Economy is friendly but stingy with “adult food”. It took 30 minutes and grudging responses from our attendant to get a pastry for Petit-Homme. She said she’d bring one “if there were extra”. She was forthcoming with a few cans of Olvarit puree, so parents with little babies can rest easy knowing there will be baby food on board. After a long wait, she came back twice to ask us if we were still interested in the chicken pastry for him. (Yes, yes, and yes.)

Due to safety concerns, they made us rouse him from a hard-fought slumber every time there was slight turbulence, just so he could be held in our arms. I’m not sure what others do in this case, but weighing the pros and cons of a cranky little child, ergo cranky entire cabin, I secretly declined at times. Instead I held him down on the floor while he slept during softer episodes. (justification – staff were themselves clanking around in the galley instead of being strapped down tightly.)

Finally, our exhaustions and frustrations were put into perspective by a kindly man sitting across from us. During the flight, he had surprised me by being extremely encouraging with many smiles and teases for PH. At the end, we discovered that he was actually en route to Toronto to meet up with his family, and his baby that he had not seen for 6 months as they lived in different countries! Due to visa restrictions, they could only practically meet in Canada. So, everyone had to fly around in order to spend a few precious moments together in a country that none of them had ties to.

As hard as it was to endure this trip, I can’t begin to imagine how it would be like to suffer a long separation from your cherished little darling, and then to see him completely changed –  perhaps even unaware of who you are.

All Packed – How to do Travelling-Mommy Chic (yeah right!)

I used to be one of those super rigorous types who would never beep at the security scan, never had a drop of liquid nor need for those tacky plastic bags, cases were minimal and compact – raising my long-suffering eyebrow at hapless travellers in their belts-boots-coins clanging frenzies. I had no sympathy for that super irresponsible mother who deliberately let her rambunctious toddler zip around in a trolley until it eventually overturned and pounded the kid on the head. I had travel heels, travel lipstick, crease-free cocktails-to-cab outfit, and a shopping list at duty-free (Bvlgari sunglasses/Shiseido foundation/more lipstick).  Everything I needed was on my phone – for everything else there was AMEX – and I was ready to go, go, go.  But first, the pit stop for some whiskey tasting at Heathrow.

Tonight, my gigantic multi-compartmentalized carry-on backpack (gasp, faint!)demands to know if I can stuff more into it. For surely, apart from LU crackers, cheerios, organic Ella travel-spaghetti + spoon, milk powder, muslin, spare muslin, blueberries, string cheese, iPad with 10 kid apps, there will be more, more, more toddler travel must-haves. I’m the food mule, hubby the loo-supplies camel.

I’m trying to remember where the kiddie zone with giant plastic tulips and clogs are at Schiphol. Most importantly, I need to know who (plural) to sue if there is a delay.

The worst is figuring out what to wear. We are going to Canada, so the boots have to be ice-friendly. No space in the luggage for other fabulous footwear so it will also have to be versatile. Cue the new Sorel Joan-of-Arc ankle booties with SERIOUS tread. Jeans and a top of course – but the fabric has to be hardy enough to withstand Petit-Homme’s yanking and chomping. No light colours in the eventuality of spitting/throwing up (the former him, the latter me). Top has to be long enough for decency in all the contortions of chasing, bending, lifting, bowing, begging. Coat – well, the Canada Goose Mystique will is a no-go this year – just too much to schlep around to have to worry about a full length sleeping-bag wannabe.

So it’s going to be, high-waisted skinny jeans, the 6 year-old red tunic Lacoste sweater, and a short winter parka (with excessive fur trim as my only tribute to frivolity.)

As for beeping, the RoadRunner’s ready to rock and roll.

Sausages and Sauerkraut at the Brussels Christmas Market

Bx Xmas Market1Glorious food can pop out at the most unexpected places. The Brussels Christmas Market (BCM) is one of them as I had anticipated quick-and-cheapy hot dogs hanging out with buckets of greasy fries.

It is one of the most enjoyable Christmas Markets I have experienced in Europe. It is shiny, romantic and compact. Supremely accessible (minutes from the Central Station), it also comprises numerous streets so that you don’t get bored, but not too many that your head gets muddled and your feet ache. The pleasant thing about the cobblestones here is that they are pretty flat, so you can walk and walk but not scream for agony despite inconvenient female footwear.

Speaking of getting muddled, there are several opportunities for vin chaud (mulled wine). I accompanied a large cup of this with a crêpe Bruxelles (ham, cheese, potatoes etc,) – pretty tasty and filling. I did, however, have to put up with an inordinate number of “ni haos” hollered my way, which is not something I have ever experienced in a Christmas market setting.

The Grand Place is fabulously lit up with a giant Christmas tree courtesy of LaBx Xmas Market2tvia this year and a massive nativity scene. The chocolate shops are out in full force, opening late, sparkling bright. Willy Wonka flies Gulfstream in the centre of Brussels. Leonidas is always packed full with Asian tourists – so it’s now on the cliché list. (Also why I avoid Louis Vuitton and Gucci)

The best thing at BCM? The burbling cauldron of sausages-chunks of meat – and sauerkraut. It smells divine. It’s full of wine. It’s gloriously fatty. €8 per bowl, includes bread and mustard.

After all, when you eat standing up, the calories don’t count.

Rest in Peace, Grandmother

She was the last surviving grandparent I had, outliving my maternal grandmother by over 10 years. Today, the woman I always saw as the family matriarch, passed away. Her last few weeks were coloured by several physical and emotional struggles. I suppose only the very lucky few get the chance to cross over in perfect health and happiness.

My grandmother was 90 this year. She survived the Japanese Occupation in Malaysia, bore 8 children and lost two. She taught herself to read and write Chinese in days when literacy was an anomaly. She lost her husband 24 years ago but I never saw her openly grieve. Resolute, unshakeable, intelligent, confident, and a chain-smoker of Benson & Hedges cigarettes.  I never saw her cook either – there was always help on hand.

The loss of her eldest daughter to cancer was devastating and she channeled an outpouring of love to her daughter’s son, the eldest grandson. Nothing was too much. No expense was spared. I felt the favouritism very early on. I learned to understand the Chinese culture of overt preferences for male children.

I wonder at what point aging changes us from who we are to who we were. From an old photo in her bedroom, my grandmother was a remarkable beauty. My childhood memories of her though were probably the same as how grandkids view their grannies worldwide – she was granny-looking. Always stout in her 60s and 70s, she withered to a skeletal frame in her last days.

She loved music, that is perhaps one thing we had in common. However, I did not inherit her specific tastes. I spent days as a child trying to figure out how to change the banshee squeals blaring from her stereo to a more palatable pop station. Chinese operas are not something I voluntarily enter into, but when I encounter one, the music and drama washes me with indelible childhood memories of my grandmother’s life and loves.

How I wish I’d known her better.

Is it Racist to Paint Yourself Black?

Zwarte Pieten

During the Christmas season in the Netherlands, called Sinterklaas (St Nicholas), it is common to see lots of Dutch people on the street dressed up in Renaissance pageboy costumes. What struck me as really odd the first time I saw them a couple of years ago, was the fact that they had painted themselves completely black (face, hands). Their lips were thick and ruby red. To my naïve eye, the impression was that they were trying to emulate a black person. These characters are called Zwarte Pieten, Black Peters, individuals who accompany Santa doling out mandarin oranges and kruidnoten on the streets to eager young kids in late November to early December.

My first instinct was to feel shock and disbelief, which then over the next few days gave way to a more hesitant curiosity. After all, I subconsciously rationaled, if this was a widely accepted practice here, then surely it was not considered racist nor offensive behaviour. It still sat very uncomfortably in my soul as I knew this would not have been tolerated for a second in Canada. A few more days passed and I realized the extent to which this has polarized communities in NL and beyond in recent years. The black Surinamese, in particular, have been greatly offended by it. Hence the introduction of different coloured Pieten, even a rainbow coloured one.

Though there are a few different theories which explain the “blackness” of Black Peter, I’m not sure if the costumed individuals have subscribed to any one in particular. Are they trying to look like Moors? Did they fall down from the chimney and are thus covered in soot? (what about the lips then) Are they representing the former slave freed by St Nicholas?

Many say that this tradition is harmless and not intended to be racist. As I know from the gradual erosion of my own resistance in the early days of encountering the Black Peters, the mass mindset can sometimes blind you to what is or isn’t racism. I asked myself this question: Given historical and still-existing racism towards Asians in varying milieu, if there were crowds of Caucasians in a certain country dolling themselves up in yellow face-paint and exaggerated slanty eyes, with some allusion to let’s say, freedom from railroad slavery, would I feel offended?

Unequivocally, I would be furious.