What is more valuable than gold in the Netherlands?

One can per customer per day

One can per customer per day

Holland is suffering under the weight of its own reputation as a paradise for lactose aficionados. Baby formula shortages have been causing screaming frenzies and fights in stores for several years now. While it is true that some people have been buying formula to “export” to China, it is totally confounding as to why producers have not been able to keep up with the demand. At supermarkets nationwide, Nutrilon-brand formulae are kept in tight security, next to the packs of cigarettes at customer service (!!). Nutrilon is now a rationed product – Asians pick them up under intense scrutiny.

Stores here have taken to discriminating against people of Oriental origin, deliberately targeting them as raiders of the lost ark. There have been discrimination suits leveled at retailers and yet the war goes on. At Kruidvat, you have employees refusing to sell milk to Chinese people, while across the street at De Bijenkorf, you have sharply suited employees hired for their Mandarin-speaking abilities. In short, they shun Chinese custom at the cheap and cheerful drugstore, while they pad the red carpet for Beijing busloads vis-a-vis haute couture.

On its way to sacred status in NL

On its way to sacred status in NL

Yesterday night, there was another burglary at Petit-Homme’s crèche, targeting the formula stock. The baddies made off with a heap of baby formula and other knick knacks like iPads and cash. It is almost as though we were living in a communist regime where the shortage of basic necessities leads to anarchy.

This is quite the problem for Dutch retailers yet it is a huge opportunity for producers and everyone else on the distribution chain to capitalize on torrential demand. It is hard to understand why people in this day and age are still fighting tooth and nail over milk.


Tissues Just When You Need Them

Morning traffic

The other day I was in a hurry. Just like most other days. I decided to give Petit-Homme a glorious chocolate-topped biscuit to eat en route to crèche in his pram. Yes, I’ve embraced the Dutch habit of offering kids chocolate at breakfast, basically because I’m confused. I’m confused because the moment I walk into the foyer of his crèche, I know that the zen in the air (and the menus posted weekly) should transcend me to organic farms and low-sugar, risotto, quinoa, bulgur, granola, hippe living. On the other hand, everyone here keeps talking about chocolate sprinkles. So I decided to compromise and keep the chocolate but ditch the sprinkles.

On the first day of this surrender, Petit-Homme gnashed his two chocolate biscuits with all the salivatory gusto he could muster. The smoking guns disappeared, but numerous trails of incriminatory evidence were left dribbling from his chin onto his bright yellow spring jacket. In short, chocolate lava everywhere.

Without heart we would be mere machines

Back to the original point that I was in a hurry. No tissues, no muslin, not even a scarf. As I stood by the side of the road scraping the goo away with my bare hands, a man driving slowly past in a Giulietta stuck his arm out and I was quite surprised to see a pack of Tempo. He left me cheerfully with the entire pack of tissues as traffic was rolling on. Truly, an unexpected gesture of kindness!

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.

How Not to Pick Up a Woman on the Street

Hipster-Dude in oversized military green jacket, short pony-tail and 2 days worth of stubble approaches harried woman legging it to Zara before closing time.

“Excuse me, do you speak English?” he asks.

Quick once-over. Looks like he’s going to ask her to sign a petition or subscribe to a mobile phone plan. However, there is no propaganda material in his hands. Homeless? Lost?

Uh.. yes-no-yes”. She hurries away. Whatever he wants, it can’t be good and those high-waisted skinny jeans aren’t going to wait forever.

“Wait, do you speak English?” Tone is becoming insistent.

She stops. Better get this over with. Just the usual expat patter should do (can’t sign up because moving away tomorrow … no bank account …  etc.) “Yes”.

“Umm.. I saw you and umm.. I thought you looked quite nice so.. ummm..”

No way. Hipster-Dude is actually trying it on?!

Hipster-Dude notices the confusion. “Uh, don’t beat me OK?” This is so un-slick, it’s actually hilarious.

She chokes back a laugh. “Oh I see…Ha Ha! Thanks, but I’m married.” Thanks?

Hipster-Dude almost faints. Didn’t realize he was propositioning an old woman, apparently. Collects himself admirably and with bravado and says, “Really? Show me your ring”.

Rings are brandished.

“Oh… umm.. well.. Is it a happy marriage?”

What, now he’s a therapist?

“Yes, very happy, thank you.”

She scurries away, not sure whether to be embarrassed, embarrassed for him, or amused at his unusual pluck. NL is not like, say, Italy (where even the cops wiggle their eyebrows at you) – it is quite the opposite, if you catch my drift.

Why was that man crying?

Perhaps it is human nature to want to know the cause of visible distress in other people. It’s certainly not common behaviour for adults to weep openly in public, without any obvious reason. When we see this at airports or hospitals, we’re able to sympathize for we easily come to a conclusion about why those people were upset. But then we move on because there’s nothing more to wonder. The social acceptance in the immediate environment renders us more comfortable to express our feelings. In other public places though, we often try to conceal our emotions. Only when the most tragic of occasions befall us, do we allow ourselves to sob among strangers.

Early this morning, as I waited for my train at a station café, two men came in. While they were both quiet, one of them was visibly dejected. He was dark-skinned, possibly of Indian (or Surinamese?) descent, and wore a short winter jacket with jeans. Although he was fluent in Dutch, he was clearly not a native of this country. This man sat down at the table next to me, while the other hovered around to order coffee. As he waited, tears rained from the unhappy man’s eyes. He didn’t seem in any frame of mind to restrain them, and he was quite prepared with a fresh pack of tissues. Next to him were his three spartan travelling bags, not very big, one containing a large bottle of orange juice. Shortly, he looked around for a toilet but was unsuccessful as the nearest one was located far away on Platform 3.

The other man returned and they shared minutes of solitude, peppered with the occasional benign comment. They attempted some jocularity but the tears soon returned. The unhappy man would be travelling shortly but it seemed to be his first time catching the train as the other man had to explain to him the fact that his ticket would be checked on the train and where the platforms were located. They did not seem to be close friends, but the second man was kindly in manner.

Where was he going?

Was someone ill?

Did someone die?

Was he leaving the country? The continent?

Charging Your Electric Car


“When not tethered for 2.3 hours, I can go from 0-100 in 5.5 secs.”

electric car

I didn’t realize how many electric cars there were in The Hague until recently. Almost every morning and evening on my way out and back home, I see cars drawing energy from life support machines. These electric car charging stations are now ubiquitous. The Municipality has announced its 500th charging point in The Hague. This has sensitized my ear to the electric whirr of cars on the streets. (In general, The Hague drivers tend to trot along at a leisurely pace so there’s plenty of opportunity to capture the nuances of individual car engines.)

This is all part of an effort of the City to become a carbon neutral city by 2040. A commendable goal and one that seems to be gaining significant traction. I’m still pondering over the lifestyle fit of an electric or hybrid vehicle. My first concern, the difficulty of travelling long distances, may be alleviated by some leasing programs that allow you to rent a “normal” car for free or a nominal amount when required. Second, the anxiety of having to roam around looking for a “free charging spot” and the hours required to charge up a car, may occupy a fair bit of headspace. Happily, cities are coming up with solutions like charging point availability apps and programs to build more stations near (or in) your home.