Borders are alive and well in the UK part of Europe

Although the UK is technically part of Europe (notwithstanding its status as champion doomsayer of the European Union), the British perceive it as a different world. Travel posters all around London lure UK travellers to the continent with images of leaning towers, crumbling wrestling rings, and this simple message – “Visit Europe”. Although immigration borders are barely apparent in the continent, to the point where you can live in one country and work in another (and even get rewarded by tax savings), the British have kept their fences strong and proudly up.

Snagging a fresh baguette at Pret is a must as sarnies on the Eurostar can be pretty soggy

Snagging a fresh baguette at Pret is a must as sarnies on the Eurostar can be pretty soggy

I’m so used to moving around paperless now that I almost forgot to bring my passport for today’s trip from London to Brussels on Eurostar. I wasn’t able to dawdle at Pret-a-Manger and Joules at St Pancras, as security checkpoints and immigration before boarding are rather lengthy. Happily, the train ride makes up for lots of lost time as London-Brussels takes only 2 hours and 10 minutes. French immigration checked my passport and asked absolutely no questions.

The return trip this same evening took more time as the Brussels-Midi Eurostar check-in has two sets of border controls – one Belgian and one British. The Belgians insisted on seeing my Dutch residence card (in addition to my passport) and were uninhibited in questioning. They then ferociously told me to present said card to the British authorities 20 metres beyond. I did this – and the British border guard cackled “What’s this?” as though I had proffered him a suspicious birthday cake. He then quizzed me on what the Belgians were doing these days in terms of checking IDs. Two kiosks, 20 metres apart – quite the border bother.

Passport Control x 2 at Brussels Midi

Passport Control x 2 at Brussels Midi

Back on the train, I learnt from a grungy Guardian newspaper that the Brits are very concerned over trade negotiations with the US as it could allow American firms to bid for national health contracts. Given the dire state of public health services in the UK, wouldn’t British residents stand to benefit from a little healthy competition?

Celebrating the Year of the Sheep in London

It has been a long time since I did anything properly familial despite Chinese New Year being the most important festival in Chinese culture. My friends and family who are scattered around the globe make fervent efforts to reunite with their parents and family-at-large, to the point where flights to the Orient around this time tend to get sold out pretty early on.

My parents are not as traditional in this respect. Over the years, life’s practicalities have taken precedence. Time and distance, coupled with all of their offspring rooting and re-rooting in different countries have allowed us only narrow wedges of precious moments together in a year.

Steamed Fish

Steamed Fish

With this mindset pervading my life in a suitcase, I was somewhat pleasantly surprised to discover that my elder sister insists on blowing the embers of family and cultural traditions back into life. This year, the stars aligned for us to have Chinese New Year’s dinner together in London, where both my sisters live. mix veg

Last night, my immediate family, (with parents guest appearance via Skype) sat down to a glorious home cooked feast. Petit-Homme’s flight arrived at London City Airport just in time for him to preside at the dinner table and gobble down a giant meatball (aka lion’s head). He seems to have enjoyed his first solo flight with Papa.

Shanghainese Lionshead

Shanghainese Lionshead

On the smorgasboard: sparerib soup, boiled chicken, lions head and cabbage (a gem handed down from my Shanghainese grandmother), stir fried assorted vegetables and mushrooms, steamed fish and chillies, with ice cream and rambutans for dessert. These are dishes that we enjoyed year after year in my maternal grandmother’s home. It’s hard to believe, but my sister accomplished all this single-handedly (not the type that seeks or relishes “help” in her kitchen kingdom.) in the span of one afternoon.

There is nothing better than the vivid tastes and smells of delicious food that makes us sift out the fond memories from the rest of the bundle that sometimes prefers to stay tightly knotted up. It allows us to create our own interpretations of life that is steeped in the lineage of people who mattered to us.

A Visit to the Juliana Children’s Hospital

Petit-Homme has been coughing a lot recently. Last week, it deteriorated to disruptions in sleeping and gasping for breath. Apparently it has been a particularly bad winter (people seem to say that every winter) because the paediatrician’s clinic was booked solid for a month.

I brought Petit-Homme to the GP instead, which is typically what parents in the Netherlands do as a first step. Got an appointment easily after explaining the symptoms – the paediatrician gave me the tip that I should clearly describe breathing difficulties and lethargy, as it would be inconceivable not to get seen under these circumstances.

It was a positive experience. The GP, who was Dutch, surprised me with an extremely pleasant and caring demeanour. I have gotten so used to Dutch brusqueness that it was lovely to have empathy. Having said that, when I compare treatment of kids versus adults, I’ve noted that staff often treat kids with an abundance of care, while adults are expected to tough it out and stop asking for stronger painkillers. But in all fairness, 95% of my medical encounters here have been nothing short of exemplary.

The GP gave Petit-Homme a dose of ventolin to open up his lungs and sent us to the kid’s hospital for further diagnosis. In doing so, she had the clinic order us a cab and escort us to it. That was pretty nice.

To my own shame, I didn’t know before that a specialist children’s hospital existed in The Hague. We arrived at 4:20 at the A&E ward. All was suspiciously quiet. My past experiences at A&E have never been positive – waiting 5 to 8 hours to be seen is typical I suppose. I expected the wards to be flooded with wounded children, or kids in severe distress, but shockingly there was only one other child in the reception room – and we were seen within 3 minutes of registration.

All in all, we spent 2.5 hours hanging out in a private chamber tended to by a variety of doctors and nurses, checking symptoms, administering oxygen and ventolin (much resistance and wailing from Petit-Homme who resented being stuck to a mask), and even having milk delivered to us. Turns out, he had a chest infection.

Off we went to a night pharmacy on Laan van Meerdervoort in The Hague – another remarkable discovery!

It’s been five days and Petit-Homme is definitely on the mend. What surprised me from this whole experience was the speed of care we received. It would seem that on some levels at least, the system of compulsory health insurance works pretty well here.

How Important Is Service at a Restaurant?

“Good Service” is a relative concept. Relative to how much you are willing to pay for it, and relative to your prior experiences. To me, good service is not complicated. It is: (1) Making your guests feel comfortable; (2) Getting the job done. I don’t have Burj Khalifa expectations. I don’t need all the servers to “know my name” (in fact I’d rather not, given the wake of destruction we have been leaving in restaurants lately), I don’t need to hear polysyllabic fish names rattled off in 4 languages weaved in with the latest news on molecular gastronomy, and I would much rather not be forced to pay a 20% commission on every glass of wine I order for these privileges.

On the other hand, I don’t want to shiver in fear of my bouillabaisse arriving in spittle marinade, or be treated like transparent plexiglass.

Service in the Netherlands is a social study in itself. The most interesting justification for the appalling service here is that the Dutch wish to be treated equal, and therefore do not see it fit to act in a fashion that could be deemed “lesser”. As equals, all must have the right to speak and act freely.

Mr Waiter, much happier gyrating on pianotops

Happiness comes from gyrating on pianotops

Recently, some friends and I embarked on an outing at Crazy Pianos, a live music joint on the Scheveningen Beach. Our first encounter with a staff member did not bode well for the rest of the evening as she nastily told a friend that her cardigan and coat were to be charged as two separate items. It was hardly the substance, but rather the delivery that was incredibly off-putting. Then, the ample chested waitresses (in you’ve-got-it-flaunt-it camisoles) proceeded to make a fuss about our seating, despite having our reservation, and the place still being quite empty. Later, our waiter managed to mess up 3 orders (turning sea bass into chicken satay) and even addressed us as “chickas”. When we asked this very same waiter to remove one plate that was crowding the table, he said “We don’t do that in Holland. We wait till everyone is finished”. Upon us insisting, he quickly gathered up all the dishes, even the side dishes that some were still working on. Mighty revenge.

Anyway, the bright side – the music was great and the conversation awesome. Bad service also acts a bit like bonding glue. You gel together in the face of hostility so that the group can emerge victorious. (Plus you save yourself 400 calories on unnecessary fries and mayonnaise.) On the other hand, it can be the solvent of friendships as everyone has their distinct ideas of dining and tipping etiquette. I recall being told by a friend once not to say anything about appalling incidents because it was “embarrassing”. Despite her own complaints that the forks were dirty and we had been ignored throughout, she corralled us into tipping 15%.

So how important is service? Unlike so many things in life, it is truly just the effort that matters.

Toddler Seduction Tactics

I feel I kinda have a lot on my plate at the moment. But it’s pretty lame to complain when all sorts of mothers around the world experience the same type of grind. In fact, whether working/studying/full-time mommying, I reckon kids just somehow amp up the busy-ness factor amongst parents. It’s not the same type of “busy” that gives you cold solace in the [shallow] knowledge that you are advancing your career, developing your mind, gilding the piggybank, or bragging-under-the-guise-of-venting about all those “3 a.m. teleconferences with Tokyo”. Its a universal equalizer kinda busy, a glow-in-the-heart kinda busy, one that can never be postponed.

It’s sometimes a resentful sort of busy. I’m the sort who loves to plan pretty much everything out. And of course, timing is key. A dinner party the next day sans caterers means that the tables have to be set the night before and the family must nosh out of greasy cardboard boxes prior to the event. Timing is the most important thing in any endeavour involving food. This is why it is doubly challenging when you throw a young toddler’s precarious appetite and propensity for glazing the walls with meatball mash into the equation. Meaning, you whirl around like a dervish to make it for the set dinner schedule that all experts tell you is essential, only to find him gnawing on a box of raisins, and your hard work disintegrates in a black (plastic-bag lined) hole.

Drumsticks

Honey-soy drumsticks… Less for Petit-Homme, More for Mommy

This Queen of the CrockPot recently realized that Petit-Homme intends to set the bar much higher. My one-dish “miracle stews” are too wet, unidentifiable, offensive when teething, and too hot when hungry. I thought I made some ingenious breakthroughs with Ikea meatballs and fish fingers, but apparently, that is so yesterday.

I discovered recently that the Dutch are the third largest consumers of sugar, per capita, behind only Germany and the US. However, kids here are also considered the “happiest” in the world. Never mind that this ranking says nothing about sugar. The fact that some mommies here reckon they’re all so happy because Dutch kids eat chocolate sprinkles for breakfast, is enough to make you pause and wonder.

Anyway, my latest offerings have been so dismal that I tried tonight to make a kid-friendly meal – an  offering for a deity. Honey-soy chicken drumsticks with baked sweet potatoes. My seduction attempts failed miserably. It seems raisins are more of a temptress than I am. (Looking forward to my octogenarian years then.)

Surrender to the Sugar Gods or strive on with home-made?