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!

Starting a Vietnamese-themed week

Tiffin Deconstructed

Tiffin Deconstructed

Sometimes you just get a craving for certain types of food, and there’s really no need to be pregnant. In fact, I don’t think I had any sort of real cravings (apart from red wine) during those fabled 9 months of abstention. These days, I find the more people wax on about molecular gastronomy and other painful foodie blather, the more I yearn for good old soul food.

I’m down with another mild throat attack this week, not severe enough to dampen my appetite but it did steer my thoughts towards a giant bowl of hot pho.

IMG_6204

I can’t decide if I’m very lucky or unlucky, when it comes to accessing Asian food. Lucky, if I compare it to flavour-hunting in Munich or Budapest, but utterly forlorn when I think of my first taste of soupe tonkinoise at a heartwarming mom-and-pop restaurant in Paris. Lucky, in that a proper Chinatown exists in The Hague, but unlucky, in that the repertoire is somewhat limited and far more expensive than in North America.

 

IMG_6202Yesterday’s experience at Little V in The Hague Chinatown was a super success. Half the restaurant is made out to look like a Vietnamese village (almost wanted to take my shoes off to play with imaginary chickens) while the other half is trendy dining. The pho broth actually tasted like it had been roiling in a sea of bones, radishes and other zingy treasures.

More to come on my Vietnam –themed encounters…

 

 

What “Pimp My Ride” Means in The Hague

Bike

You know those sleek car ads that feature stubbly men in leather jackets gliding into minivans named otherwise (crossover, utility vehicles, tanks etc..) in the quest to fool you that notwithstanding leaking diapers and sniveling noses, you will never lose your cool?

I’ve always fancied those kinds of self-denial mantras – that if we accessorize well enough, and surround ourselves with enough cute gear, said cool will never be lost. But now, I’ve discovered an entirely new level of cool. Cool is not the overtanned, anorexic lady of the manor shrieking at her imported nanny over creases in her daughter’s fuschia tutu, while running late for her overpriced salad lunch at The Club.

Cool is the mother of three hauling a double buggy solo up the tram, rushing to multiple doctor’s appointments and playdates, feeding offspring en route, without breaking a sweat. Supercool is not ever arriving late, and having showered.

So, we adapt to our environment. Given that our gas guzzling SUV is not the fastest means of maneuvering in The Hague (tight streets, merciless one way system), I got me a new set of wheels.

In my wildest dreams, I never thought I would be torching the asphalt in a 7-speed Gazelle with bright yellow kid seat in tow to the soundtrack of Petit-Homme shouting “More! More!”, but what the heck, I still got my leather jacket… (just no stubble yet).

Our 72 Year Old Waiter

Monsieur preparing our steaks

Monsieur preparing our steaks

At Restaurant Vincent in the centre of Brussels, if you don’t know what to expect, it’s certainly nothing like what you would expect. If I had only three words in my elevator pitch, I’d probably describe it as a “historic steak house”. But I’m not sure that would capture the nostalgic tile frescoes on the wall depicting nautical crusades, the converted rowboat-tables that ensure a close-knit diner à 10, or the clanging-kitchen-meets-starched-white-linen paradox.

Not roast ducks

Not roast ducks

I wasn’t wearing my glasses when we peered through the window, so I initially thought we had landed outside a Chinese restaurant as all manners of steaks and joints were dangling on meat hooks in full sacrificial glory. By 19:45, the dining room was packed with all sorts (i.e. not just Eurocrats or tourists).

Filet with green pepper sauce

Filet with green pepper sauce

Our waiter was genteel, brisk, and refreshingly disinterested in any sort of sales pitch. He was also as old as the establishment looked. (It turns out that Vincent is actually 100 years old). I think I have finally experienced the epitome of perfect restaurant service. Monsieur was respectful, efficient, and discrete. He never once interrupted our conversation and he always caught our eye despite the bustling demands of shoulder-to-shoulder famished diners. At 72, it was his 29th year working here, which means he started at 43. Apparently he takes it easier now, but I wondered what it is like co-working with a team of waiters all at least a generation younger than him. Uniquely, the waiters are also part-chefs as steaks at Vincent are flambéed en salle – which means you get to stare at your dinner sizzling if you’re seated nearby. Kinda like a pared-down, Belgian version of teppanyaki.

Rowing to nowhere fast

Rowing to nowhere fast

It’s a tough job. At €32 a steak in the midst of fierce competition and an international clientele priding themselves on culinary sophistication, Vincent needs to make sure they stay par excellence. With only 2 seatings per evening, a rather noisy environment, and a coziness not conducive to confidential business meetings, it can surely only cater to social diners. At 72, I would feel the pressure to perform: to anticipate needs, to move fast, to react quickly, and to perhaps even speak English. All this in a time when my eyesight and hearing are failing, my joints are aching, my feet long for orthotics or just an ottoman, arthritis gets friendlier, and my aptitude for foreign languages diminishing. I would spend my spare time babysitting the grandkids, when not shuttling back and forth doctors’ appointments. I’d like to see some more of the world but I’d still be worried about the uncertain futures and careers of my children in this increasingly competitive world. I’d have more patience having learnt that rushing gets nowhere, but I’d have less for the young impertinents. I’d know the younger staff think I’m slow sometimes (though I’m really not), but many respect me because I know all the tricks. Meanwhile, I need to sort out the steaks, the fire hazards, the fries, the sauces, the wine, and the languishing pair of foreigners oblivious to the need to vacate their table because their time is up! In the meantime, as long as the glasses are full, the food is good, and the clients are happy, another evening ends in another professional triumph.

Bravo Monsieur.

Ketchup or Icing Sugar for Breakfast?

Ducks, the best friends of every toddler

Ducks, the best friends of every toddler

One of the clearest gourmet divides between the continent and the Anglo-American world, is the need for ketchup. I can’t have ketchup without fries, the same way butter with bread just makes the union all the more holy. No one is interested in ketchup around here. Its all about mayonnaise. If you pester your servers for some, you’ll get a miniscule amount and pay at least 50 cents for a serving. I guess I’m resigned to this now and have contemplated never leaving home without ketchup sachets. Only the fear of having to mop up a gooey mess in my handbag prevents me from such folly.

Shake it, baby

Shake it, baby

We were in Center Parcs Erperheide recently. (This is a forest getaway consisting of “cottages” in the midst of lush foliage, lakes and plenty of man-made structures to amuse kids of all ages.) In March, there wasn’t much verdure to speak of but the cold nullified any longing for it as it focused our attentions on the indoor entertainment.

The highlight of any place for me is often the buffet joint. It was interesting to see every table kitted out with a vat of icing sugar (poedersuiker) but not a ketchup bottle in sight. I had to cajole the staff into bringing me some, upon which one dish was whipped out with great ceremony. (The next day I remembered to ask for two dishes.) We didn’t touch the sugar as I am particularly susceptible to scaremongering articles about child obesity, diabetes, sugar addiction, hyperactivity, dodgy teeth, etc. Our neighbours however, were shaking that bottle like there was no tomorrow. Part of why kids around here are supposed to be the happiest in the world?

No winter in Europe for me

No winter in Europe for me

Anyway, this place was a cultural jolt in more than one way. Never mind the ketchup thing as I’ve totally scaled my expectations way down and am over-the-top friendly to staff throughout the continent just to finagle this. What really shocked me was the sight of smokers throughout the park. This is a place where hordes of babies and young children roam like hens in a coop, yet cigarettes are brandished freely right outside Baluba (an amusement centre) and “smoking areas”. I mean, smoking areas!

Don't you try to fleece me

Don’t you try to fleece me

Petit-Homme enjoyed himself to the max. He was howling with delight at the baby swimming class (best €5 euros I’ve ever spent in my life) and spun himself giddy on the carousel (most short-lived €20 euros I’ve seen to date!) despite tumbling once under the treacherous hooves of his spirited stallion.

Overall, an experience which taught me yet again, that what makes you happy, is what makes your kids happy. (So don’t get them hooked on ketchup if you intend to stay in Europe for the long haul. But too late for us as Petit-Homme eats ketchup even with dim sum.)

Broken Glass With Your Dessert Anyone?

Dangerous Ice Cream at Oker, Den Haag

Dangerous Ice Cream at Oker, Den Haag

Unlike some desserts that come with pre-warnings like “Death by Chocolate”, my ice-cream bowl the other night was seemingly innocuous. Oker on Denneweg in The Hague is one of those atmospheric restaurants that lull you into a false sense of security. The fact that it was packed on a Tuesday night would have been sufficient grounds to believe that no customer had recently perished on its watch.

After two platters of oysters that were reasonably pleasing despite only one lemon wedge and about a tablespoonful of vinaigrette to go round, I had no reason to believe the subsequent dishes would prove exciting.

Well, I was wrong. My ice-cream tasted normal until about halfway through when my spoon started scraping against unexpectedly sharp walls, corroded into several petals of sunken edges. I touched the sides of my double-bottomed bowl that now had jagged carvings hanging on for dear life to dripping, molten vanilla. Without a doubt, the bowl was “broken” (but at least artistically so).

Turns out, as our waitress attested, they had placed the ice cream in a bowl that had come straight from a toasty dishwasher. Heat + cold = customer with possible stomach lacerations. Anyway, it’s happened here before, I’m told. Oh, in that case, no biggie.

I declined another brush with my maker, sweet as though the trip may have been and we got the bill. No charge for the ice-cream.

Is it too “American” of me to have thought the apology should have extended to bit more than a mere refund for something I couldn’t eat anyway, and that could have caused me grevious bodily harm?

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.