Saturday, December 20, 2008



THE FINANCIAL METRICS OF RE-GIFTING







Having decided to play the Christmas Grinch this year, I have been searching through my closets and drawers for stuff to re-gift to the poor souls who managed to make my severely-downsized gift list.

Let me just point out once and for all that, contrary to popular opinion, people who re-gift are not cheap, lazy couch potatoes who are, well, too cheap and lazy to remember their loved ones at this time of the year and schlep over to the mall to buy the necessary gifts.

Au contraire, mon ami. We re-gifters (also known as RGs) are actually doing the world a huge, huge favor! Why? Just think of all the carbon emissions we are NOT emitting, by not driving our cars and burning fuel as our engines idle for 20 minutes while queuing at the mall parking entrance and driving around looking for that ever-elusive parking spot.

And don't get me started on all that wasteful packaging that comes with purchasing gifts. Why shirts have to be wrapped in fine Japanese paper, then into plastic and then into a carton shopping bag is beyond me.

If anything, it is the fault of those people who give us weird / inappropriate / unusable gifts ("Unwanted Gifts", or UGs) in the first place, that we RGs are forced to RG!!! :-D Gaddemit!!

Anyway, to get to the point, i've thought of some metrics to evaluate the effectiveness and efficiency of one's RG efforts:


1. Average Mental Regifting Period (AMRP)

= No. of days between the time you receive an UG, and the time you think of someone who would make a good victim, errr, recipient of the regifted unwanted gift (i.e. RUG).

For ex., if you receive a faux Seiko wallet from your creepy Uncle Leo on Dec. 12th and realized on Dec. 22nd that it would be an ideal gift for your lazy golf pro Cosmo, then your AMRP is ten (10) days.

Our rule of thumb is as follows:

<> 100 days - You're a bit of a dunce, aren't you?


2. Average Unwanted Gift Turnover (AUGT)

= 360
______________________________________________

No. of days between receipt of UG and actual re-gifting of the UG


This measures how efficiently you actually RG UGs, rather than stashing them in your closet and forgetting them till next Christmas.

Say that you get a ceramic white frog from your annoying nephew George on Dec. 9th and regifted it to your big-haired secretary Elaine via the office Kris Kringle on Dec. 24th, then your AUGT is 24. Pretty good!


3. Unwanted Gift Recipient Christmas Thrill Rating (UGRCTR)

= Recipient's satisfaction with the RUG (out of 10 points) _____________________________________________

Re-gifter's expected satisfaction from Recipient (out of 10 points)



Ergo, if your overweight postman Newman goes ballistic over the coffee mug you RG'd him (i.e. 3 out of 10), yet you actually thought he would enjoy drinking his daily cappuccino using it (i.e. 9 of 10), then the UGRCTR is a paltry 0.33.

On a chirpier note, if Newman liked the dog repellant you gave him (RG'd via your demanding boss Mr. Pitt), the corresponding UGRCTR would likely be 10 / 10 = 1.

Our aim is for this ratio to be equal to 1, meaning the recipient liked your gift as much as you had expected. In the event that the UGRCTR is greater than 1 (i.e. the recipient's delight goes beyond your wildest expectations), both RG and recipient are enjoined to hold hands and sing (all together now), "Fa la la la la, La la la la . . . ."


Merry Christmas, everyone!



(Thanks to "Cartoonful" for the tree photo)


Friday, November 21, 2008



G.U.S. NITPICKS!! (v. 20)


VIEUX CHALET ANTIPOLO







Five years ago. . . .

GUS : "Hey R., have you heard of this Swiss resto somewhere in Antipolo? Named Vieux Chalet?"
R. : "Yeah, i ate there once, a long time ago. It's rather out of the way, and hard to find."
GUS : "Really? Is the food good? As in, worth the trip?"
R. : "Yeah, very good. And it's pretty popular with all these middle-aged Makati executive types."
GUS : "Huh, why so?"
R. : "Coz that's where they bring their mistresses for intimate dinners. For sure, no one will catch them!"




Present-Day

After months of planning and meshing together of schedules, we (meaning charming J., amazonic R., suave XQ, with baby Moon in tow; and i) were finally off to Vieux Chalet for a reunion-cum-foodtrip.

Vieux Chalet was started by Tony Hassig of Switzerland way back in 1984 (!). It is simply amazing for a resto to last this long, especially in an industry notorious for short lifespans and given its out-of-the-way location. At present, it is his wife, Susan Hassig, who is in overall charge of the restaurant.






Vieux Chalet is essentially a house converted into a family-run restaurant. It is surprisingly small, having only 5 tables. The place can best be described as unpretentious, like dining in a family friend's house. The ambiance is very informal, and laden with rustic charm. The air was cool, birds were chirping in the background, and it was as rural and laid-back as can be.





The antique piano works, and assorted bric-a-brac is pretty to look at. I was egging amazonic R. to play "Blue Moon", but sadly, this was beyond her skills.




Corner table at Vieux Chalet, with a nice view. You can see the Makati skyline (and the overhanging cloud of smog) from afar.

The paintings on the walls are all for sale. While we were there, a kid from another table accidentally knocked a picture frame to the wooden floor, and they paid for it. At our table, we made jokes about how the artist would probably go bonkers, if he were to find out that the reason his work was selling at a brisk pace was due to accidents like this.


We duly ordered, and took some photos while waiting for our food. So far, everything was okay. I was just wondering if the food would be as good as hyped. After all, one didn't drive all the way out here to get a bad meal, right?

And our food came out, in this order:



Raclette (PHP185.00)


No one amongst us was fond of black olives, but other than that, this dish was very well-received. The cheese was tart without being cloying, and the potato had the right consistency. The portion could have been bigger, though.



Pizza de la Casa (home-cured ham, mushroom, cheese and oregano)
(PHP495.00)



Crispy crust, delightful toppings!!



Rosti (Swiss-style potatoes) (PHP185.00)


I tend to think of this dish as an oversized pancake-style hash brown. Whatever it may be, R. blurted out "Sarap!", and resolved to try making her own version at home. If we were living in the time of Robin Hood, we would have responded with, "Aye, aye! Thou speakest the truth, fair damsel." Hehe :-D



Fresh Fish Fillet in White Wine Sauce (PHP485.00)


The fish used for this dish was dory, and it was absolutely tender! And the sauce was light and delicate, and complemented the fish quite nicely, too.




Osso Buco (Veal Shank in fresh Basil and Tomato sauce)
(PHP585.00)


The meat was tender, although i personally thought the sauce was a tad too salty. But charming J. absolutely loved this. Really good.




[left] Parfait du Chocolat and [right] Butter nut Ice cream


The Parfait du Chocolat was fantabulous! Terrific! Unanimous that this was fantastique! I could have eaten a whole gallon of this, i swear! And an absolute steal, at something like PHP65.00 only. Meanwhile, the Butter nut ice cream was a bit too sweet and cloying for me, but R. liked it very much, even dunking each scoop into her coffee.

For drinks, we had all chosen the Lemongrass Cooler. It was very refreshing and had just the right amount of sweetness. Suave XQ recounted how he had tried several times making lemongrass tea/juice at home, which proved devilishly difficult as sometimes it could be too strong, and he had to add lots of pandan just to balance the taste.

I wished, though, that Vieux Chalet offered a "bottomless"/unlimited refills option of this. Funnily enough, the lemongrass cooler turned out not to be to J.'s taste, so she ordered a Coke instead. I was all too willing to swoop in and finish her lemongrass for her. Haha!

To sum it all up, the food was really great, going even beyond our expectations. The bill came around to something like PHP750.00/pax, not a bad deal.

Even before we had left, i was already scheming on a return trip to Vieux Chalet!

I'll leave you all with this pic:







(Vieux Chalet is located at Taktak Road, Antipolo City. Tel# +632 697-0396, and Mobile# +63 917 856-5175 . For complete details on directions getting there, menu, prices and reservations, check out www.vieuxchaletphilippines.blogspot.com)


**Many thanks to Irwin Cruz for the photo of Vieux Chalet's facade (topmost photo)


Friday, October 31, 2008



The GUS Guide to Surviving a Few Days in Mumbai
(Part Two of the Mumbai debacle)

Upon hearing that i was taking a trip to Mumbai, i was deluged with all sorts of well-intentioned (and ill-conceived) advice from friends. For example, someone actually told me to wear a face mask, while another friend reminded me sternly to get vaccination shots beforehand!

Rather overkill, don't ya think? If my memory serves me correctly, the only positive reaction came from my bodacious friend from the tennis courts, Nx, who remarked excitedly what an exotic place Mumbai seemed to be and how she wanted the chance to go there in the future.


I've decided to write a by-no-means complete travel guide for would-be first-time visitors to Mumbai, so they would have a clearer idea what to expect. Here goes:





1. Getting Around

As my friend JPL put it, "Be prepared to overpay for transportation. The motto is, if they can screw you, they will."

Upon arrival in Mumbai, avail of the prepaid taxi coupon service at the airport. DO NOT just go out to the arrival area, and accept offers by the numerous touts to take you to your hotel for a cheap price.

Why? To put it succinctly, tout offering cheap transpo + gullible, unprepared tourist = circuitous route taken by taxi driver + possible extortion.

Yep, i am not kidding. So, while the official
black & yellow airport taxis do not inspire much confidence, being 1970s-era Fiats, they are your best bet.

In general, taxis are classified either as "regular" (no Aircon) or "special" (with Aircon). Avoid taking a "regular" taxi at all costs, unless you want to sweat like a pig from the heat, or have a wizened, bent-over beggar reach her crooked arm through the open window to wheedle some rupees from you.

Upon getting inside a taxi, immediately instruct the driver to turn on the meter. Nine times out of ten, he will refuse and try to convince you that the rates are fixed, depending on distance and destination.

Insist he use the meter. If he again refuses, make (an empty) threat that you will file a complaint against him. If he still refuses, get out of his cab and find another one (and tell him to "Go to hell!" in Hindi, while at it. Haha :D).


2. Drinking water

Most common advice given to us was, "Do not drink water from the tap!" Not even when gargling while brushing your teeth! Stick to bottled water all the time.

A friend of mine even made the following distinction: Buy bottled water only from 7-11 outlets, not from local groceries; and buy only international brands such as Vittel, Evian and Perrier, not local Indian brands.

In his case, he had made the mistake of buying a local bottled water brand, and endured 2 days of diarrhea as a result.



3. Eating

Stay at a 5-Star hotel and eat your meals there. Yes, this will be quite expensive. As JPL wryly commented, "There is a high cost to staying healthy."

It is best to avoid dairy products, raw seafood, fresh salads and the like. Much better to stick to food which has been thoroughly cooked. Hence, i think we ate all sorts of kebabs during our meals, which i liked very much.

Regarding drinks, do not pour your soda or juice or whatever to a glass full of ice! A thousand times no!


4. Shopping

Due to some rioting in the streets, we were not able to go out and do as much shopping as we had time for.

Prices are always negotiable, even in those pricey hotel souvenir shops. Bargain hard!
That old trick of pretending to walk away if you're not happy with the prices does work. Once in a while, at least.

Oh, if you ever walk into a shop selling Turkish carpets and have no intention of buying one, get out before the proprietor has taken you by the arm and snapped his fingers for his underlings to roll out various carpets on the floor and extolled their respective design, craftmanship and thread count virtues. Believe me, these people WILL exert more pressure on you than a turbo broiler!


5. Customs

A sense of humor goes a long way. Accept that things do not run like clockwork, and you're half-way towards bearing all sorts of craziness with some degree of grace.

Try not to pass things or eat using your left hand, as this hand is considered unclean. Locals do not really expect foreign tourists to be aware of this, but doing so does help build some goodwill.


So that they don't try too hard to fleece you!!!!



Sunday, October 26, 2008



SPEEDING ON THE EXPRESSWAY IN BOMBAY
(Part One of the Mumbai debacle)




That old saying comes to mind: When in Mumbai, do as the Mumbainites (Mumbaiers? Mumbites? Bombay bombers??) do.

The sun was shining unbearably hot during the middle of the afternoon. Having finished the day's work, my friend JPL and i were looking for a way to get back to the cozy, airconditioned confines of our hotel, Grand Hyatt Mumbai.

Having been fleeced big-time by a taxi driver earlier that morning, who refused to use the meter and insisted on charging us a fixed rate, JPL and i paid no heed to the taxi drivers clamoring to take us back to our hotel. Heck, if i knew how to say "Go to hell!" in Hindi, i would have done so.








So we decided to take a chance on a tuktuk, basically a souped-up tricycle (see above pic).

Unfortunately, the drivers were quite tricky and wanted to charge us a fixed fee as well, instead of using their meters. After some half-hearted protestations and muttered curses underneath our breaths, JPL and i capitulated due to the searing heat and agreed to the sum of INR150 (around US$3.00).

"Well, what can we expect? They're all Indians!" I shrugged resignedly.

There was some confusion with regards to our destination. According to Samit, our driver, "There are two Hyatt hotel, the Grand Hyatt and the Hyatt Regency. One is near domestic airport, another near international airport. Which one you in?"

JPL replied, "Grand Hyatt."

With a rather diffident look on his face, he started again, "There are two Hyatts. . . ."

I cut Samit off, "We are at Grand Hyatt!"

After so more back and forth exchanges, the terrible truth dawned on us: Samit didn't know which Hyatt was near which airport!

He asked, "Can you call them [the hotel]?"

Quite annoyed by now, i retorted, "We don't know the number!"

He persisted, "Address? Is it near Sahar airport?"

JPL and i looked at each other quizzically. We didn't know our hotel's address, nor had we heard of Sahar airport! I hesitantly replied, "It's off the expressway. . ."

But this was no help at all. Fortunately, JPL was able to fish around in his pockets for the hotel key card; and finally, it became clear to Samit where he was supposed to take us.

Samit turned out to be a whirling dervish on the road, wheeling in and out of traffic as though his pants were on fire. With all the overtaking and swerving he did, we came within inches of colliding not only with other tuktuks, but also with motorcycles, taxis, trucks and even a bus or two.

Check out the pic below, showing the view from the backseat of the tuktuk:






Of course, our ride would not have been complete without the obligatory tourist chatter. Samit asked, "First time in Mumbai?"

After hearing our assent, he smiled and asked further, "You like it?"

"Hell, NO!! Your city stinks to high heavens, the roads are dusty and full of beggars and all you taxi and tuktuk drivers are nothing but a bunch of cheats and the traffic is horrible and the heat is even more horrible!!!" was what went through my mind and was at the tip of my tongue.

But playing the nice tourist for once, i merely said, through gritted teeth, "Yes, nice place." Hell, i felt my nose getting longer by the second. Grrrr!!

Samit asked, "You from Nepal?"

I wanted to give a sharp retort, "No, we're from Timbuktu!" But JPL, being the kind person that he was, set him straight as to our country of origin.

Upon JPL's inquiry, Samit informed us that his tuktuk used Compressed Natural Gas (CNG) and oil, not gasoline or diesel.
Efforts to have a continued conversation were hampered by the honking horns, rumbling motors and street noise.

Which was just as well. We pressed him regarding exactly what type of oil was he using, but dropped the matter, as Samit had the disconcerting habit of taking his eyes off the road and tilting his head to the right side, so he could look at us while talking.

"Look out!" i cried, as we barely missed falling into a roadside ditch by inches.

Eventually, we arrived at the Grand Hyatt Mumbai a bit shaken, not stirred, happily with all limbs intact.

Oh, as i reached for my wallet to pay Samit the agreed-upon sum of INR150, he smiled and said, "INR200 [around US$4.00] please, due to long distance."

With our comfy hotel room beckoning, i did not even bother to argue and handed over the Rupee notes. (Sigh) Fleeced again!




Friday, October 17, 2008



G.U.S. NITPICKS!! (v. 19)


NAGOMI Japanese Resto







I had always felt that there were two types of people in this world: those who eat sushi / sashimi, and those who don't. Of course, we all know that the people in the latter category are no fun at all, right? :D

So it was, that my
maldita friend KK (who absolutely adores sashimi!) and i arrived at this resto's doorsteps yesterday night. NAGOMI (meaning "Harmony" in Nihongo) has been around for many years already, but somehow i've overlooked it and this was the first time i was eating here.

Presence of a Japanese family dining at a nearby table was reassuring. The staff were uniformly friendly, even cheerful. On the downside, i detected a slight musty smell inside the resto.

NAGOMI has this thick menu with loads and loads of bright, chirpy pictures of the food. Honestly, it was actually quite hard to decide what to order, as the array of choices was simply dizzying! From sushi to teppanyaki to yoshokuya . . . it goes on and on and on! In fairness, most of the choices did look appetizing.

Check out this page of the menu, "A Variety of Attractive Sushi".




Quite vivid and attractive, isn't it?

KK and i spent no small time discussing what to order. We both felt that the pictures were very helpful, but somehow the lack of descriptions can be a hindrance, too. Like for example, what was the difference between the Dynamite Roll and the Fire Cracker Roll?

Finally, we decided on the ff: Tuna and Ika (squid) Sashimi [pictured below], miso soup, Dynamite roll, rice and Gyu Koro (beef) Teppanyaki.





The food was uniformly very good, with the sashimi firm and tasty, and the beef teppanyaki tender and juicy. Even though KK proved to have a hearty appetite (which i really, really appreciated, since i can't stand girls who are too diet-conscious), we were undone by the Dynamite roll [pictured below]. We were simply too full to finish it off.






NAGOMI, in my opinion, is not quite a fine-dining Jap resto, but i would rank it in the same tier as Sugi. A return trip (with maldita KK) is definitely in the cards.

Oh, one minor quibble though. Lest i be accused of being totally shallow and petty (which i am, anyway. Haha! ;-D), the dull salmon-pink-colored tablecloth really doesn't do it for me. A colossal eyesore! I hope the management replaces them ASAP!


(NAGOMI Japanese Restaurant is located at the El Pueblo Complex, Pasig City, right across the Podium)


Friday, October 03, 2008



PUCCINI'S "LA BOHEME"

(The Greatest Love Story Ever Sung)



RENT-head (or RENThead), n : someone who is obsessed with, or at least a very big fan of Jonathan Larson's rock opera RENT.


I certainly consider myself a RENT-head. It is my favorite stage musical, having watched it 4X in total, and having listened to the 2-CD original cast recording more times than i could remember ("Another Day" and "Without You" being my favorite songs).

Hence, my excitement at watching the Philippine Opera Company's first full-length opera production, La Boheme, on which RENT was loosely based on. After all, this was the original source material for RENT. . . the mother spaceship, so to speak.

For a brief synopsis of La Boheme, and comparisons between it and RENT, please check out Karla Gutierrez's (POC Artistic and Managing Director) Multiply site and this link from Our Awesome Planet. The plot is more or less the same, with the names a bit changed: Marcello is Mark, Rodolfo is Roger, Colline is Collins, Schaunard is Angel, Benoit is Benny, Musetta is Maureen, and Mimi is. . .well, Mimi.



I corralled my caustically witty friend Wd. to watch the opening night with me, although i must admit some misgivings entered in my mind. After all, who really watches opera in this country? Cultured geriatric high-society types, of course, but who else?

I guess that by staging La Boheme, the POC was trying to capture a broader and younger audience for opera. And La Boheme was the logical thing to stage, since its storyline was familiar to the numerous RENT-heads like me.

So there we were on opening night, perched on the front row of Balcony Center, looking down below and scanning to see how big the audience turnout would be.



Initial results were not encouraging. Wd. and i estimated that at the start of the opera, only 40% of the Orchestra and Balcony seats were filled. The Parterre boxes, in particular, were virtually empty.

On to the show. National Artist Bencab's presence was acknowledged; Helen Quach, the conductress of the orchestra, was introduced, and La Boheme duly began.

Unfortunately, this is where things kinda fall downhill. From our section at Balcony Center, the sound was rather weak and the actors' faces were barely recognizable. No matter, i thought, i was intimately familiar with the plot anyway, and should have no problems following along.

But try as i might, the arias sung in Italian proved to be too much.
The novelty wore off after a few minutes, and my mind started drifting off to mundane matters, like whether i prefer to eat peanut butter or strawberry jam for tomorrow's breakfast, that sort of thing.

Something does really get lost in translation, in my opinion. There is something to be said for knowing the ongoing dialogue
line by line.

We didn't know exactly what the actors were gesticulating about at any one moment. For example, in Act 2, Mimi was standing and embracing Rodolfo. What was she exactly singing about? Professing her undying love towards him? In what way? Or was she merely instructing him to order for her the pancit canton? WHAT?!!?

The bloggers who had attended the special preview/dress rehearsal night on Oct. 1st gave generally high marks, one of them even writing that “the fact that the show is conducted in Italian does not detract from its enjoyment. Music is the only true universal language and Italian, one of the most mellifluous, romantic, and beautiful languages in the world, certainly does not hurt the show, either.”


Sorry to rain on everyone's parade, but really?! I feel like a dunce who forgot the password to Alibaba's cave when i say this, but really?!?

I really wish the POC decided to make use of opera supertitles (i.e. simultaneous English translation of the libretto on a horizontal video screen somewhere above the stage) for La Boheme. It would have made it much easier to understand and appreciate what exactly was going on during each act.

(I had watched 'The Romance of Magno Rubio' a few years ago at CCP Little Theater, staged in Filipino, and they did have English supertitles) Granted, while supertitles make it easier for the audience to follow the storyline, they can distract from the performers, as excellently discussed in this article from the New York Times
here, titled "So That's What The Fat Lady Sang".


Let me put it this way: The perfect audience for La Boheme would have been people who could understand and/or speak Italian, not people like me whose command of the language is limited to "ciao", "grazie" and "pizza quatro formaggio".

But since only a tiny minority in the audience likely understood Italian, and not everyone can relate to two hours of singing in a foreign language they cannot comprehend, the POC would have been much better served by accommodating majority of its audience through the use of supertitles.

All in all, our eager anticipation at the start of Act 1 turned into restlessness by Act 2, then to tedium in Act 3; and by Act 4, Wd. and i were flat-out bored. It just seemed like the thing wasn't simply going to end, and Mimi was taking so long to die (oops, sorry for the spoiler!)

I was already having fantasies of rapelling down from the balcony ala Tom Cruise in 'Mission Impossible', and sticking an imaginary balisong into Mimi, to put an end to her suffering AND MY misery.

Wonder of wonders though, when La Boheme ended and the lights came on, roughly 80% of the seats were filled by then.


(Check out www.philippineoperacompany.com for updates on future productions)



OVERHEARD WHILE THE SHOW WAS GOING ON:

During Act 1:

Guy seated at row behind us (in Fookien dialect, and in a lecturing tone of voice), to his female companion: "You don't come to see them [actors] act, just to listen to the singing...."


During Act 2:

Same guy seated behind us (in Fookien): "There's just one good song in this opera."
- perhaps he was referring to Musetta's Waltz?


Woman seated at row beside us, to her companion (in Fookien): "I heard that the star gets paid PHP2,000 to PHP3,000 per night." - could this be true?


During Act 3: (while Musetta and Marcello are kissing and groping each other)

Woman seated at row behind us (in Fookien, and in a shocked voice): "Is that [kissing and groping] real? Really? Hah..." (sharp intake of breath)


During Act 4:

Woman seated 2 rows behind us: "ZZZZZZZZZ" [snoring, in perfect Italian]



Tuesday, July 29, 2008



PARIS SANS EIFFEL

(Part Four)


THE GARGOYLES OF NOTRE DAME


After going our separate ways this morning (Newman joined the Old Marais Quarter walking tour, while i checked out Musee d' Orsay and Musee de l'Orangerie), we met up 3:00PM at the Notre Dame Cathedral, another one of the most visited tourist spots in Paris.

Except we weren't going
inside the cathedral. Instead, we were in line outside, for the tour of the cathedral tower.

The Notre-Dame tower visit is a trip through all of the upper parts of the western façade, dating from the 13th century. The main attraction is the Galerie des Chimères, where the cathedral's legendary gargoyles (chimères) can be found. These were built by Viollet-le-Duc in the 19th century and the 17th century Emmanuel Bell.


It costs EURO 7.50/pax; and alarmingly, the path to the top of the South Tower takes something like 422 steps. (No, there is no elevator, obviously!)

Only around fifteen or so people are let in at any given time, so the queue can be very long. After more than 30 minutes of waiting, Newman and i were finally climbing the narrow, round stairs to the top.

Below are some pics of the gargoyles. In the spirit of fun, i've decided to make some funny [fingers crossed] captions for each pic:


"Yum! This steriod-laden, commercial chicken is much more tasty than that free-range, organic shit!"





"Oops!! Don't tell the Pope i accidentally spit on that 300lb loud American tourist wearing red and yellow plaid shorts, okay?"

"Yes, Bossing."



"This view of the Eiffel Tower is so boring. Perhaps i should invite the missus to go on a holiday to Amsterdam this summer?!"




[Sigh] "When will the equities markets ever recover? Only my APPLE stock is in the black....."







These eerie-looking (some would say "demonic") half-man, half-beast monsters are carved out of stone, and adorn the gutters of the Cathedral. The word "gargoyle" is derived from Latin, meaning gullet or drain. So that's what these creatures are, drainpipes.

Each grotesque figure has a passageway inside that carries rainwater from the roof and out through the gargoyle's mouth. But since the 16th century, when lead drainpipes were invented, the gargoyles are now only used for decorative purposes.

Of course, not everyone is satisfied with such a prosaic explanation. Superstition has it that the gargoyles are meant to ward off evil spirits.

Which doesn't really make sense, if you think about it. A Catholic cathedral needing demons to ward off evil spirits??! I don't think so.



(Check out the official website, http://www.notredamedeparis.fr, for more info)

Yet again, thanks to Newman for the pics. Click here for his post about climbing up Notre Dame Cathedral.



Friday, July 04, 2008



PARIS SANS EIFFEL

(Part Three)


ROLAND GARROS




Finally, the main reason for taking the long flight to Paris was here!

First, a brief background for non-tennis fanatics. Roland Garros is one of professional tennis' most prestigious tournaments, which comprise the "Grand Slams", the others being the Australian Open (Melbourne), Wimbledon (London), and US Open (New York).

It is played on this red clay surface (crushed brick, actually), which has a slow bounce; therefore, matches tend to be full of long baseline rallies, as players try to pound each other into submission. For mens' singles, which are best-of-five sets, it is not uncommon for matches to last beyond 3 hours each.


The tournament itself runs for two weeks, but we were watching only the first 3 days.

The French, being the French, named their home Slam after a real person, the World War I aviator and war hero Roland Garros. Click here for a brief account of his career.


Of course, no one except tennis purists cares about this; and everyone refers to the tournament as simply the "French Open". Click here for Newman's vivid account of how he got our tix, through the French Tennis Federation's website.

It was an unexpectedly smooth and easy journey via the Metro, from our hotel going to the Roland Garros complex. As we entered the tennis facility during the first day of the tournament, Newman remarked that compared to the US Open, the grounds of Roland Garros are quite compact, making it very easy to walk from the big stadiums to the smaller, outside courts.

And the prices being charged at the food concession stands were expensive, but not quite exhorbitant; unlike the US Open, which he described as shameless [with matching shake of the head].

The merchandise store was another matter, though. Imagine, 30 EURO for a cotton T-shirt with the Roland Garros logo?!

For me, it was quite an experience being able to see all these world-class tennis players live. Watching tennis on TV can be very misleading, as the ball travels so slowly on screen. But in real life, all the pros (even the willow-thin, teenage girls) hit the ball quite hard and flat and with great consistency.

Check out below photos of the grounds crew as they prepared the courts in between practices and matches:




This beefy guy looks like he could be a bouncer at the Moulin Rouge during evenings, no?





Sweeping with Gallic flair makes all the difference.



We were a bit unlucky though, as during our 3rd and last day, there was a continuous drizzle and play was mostly washed out for the entire day. Yeah, quite a bummer, with nothing to do but wait and wait for the rains to stop. . .and eat Haagen-Daz ice cream while at it. Haha....



Again, thanks to Newman for the pics. Click here to see his post regarding the crazy tennis action at Roland Garros.




Thursday, July 03, 2008



PARIS SANS EIFFEL
(Part Two)



MONTMARTRE WALKING TOUR
(The Man Who Could Walk Through Walls)


Newman and i arrived at Paris within a few hours apart of each other, me from Manila and him from NJ, and met at our hotel. There was some delay in checking into our room, not least because the hotel's old-fashioned elevator was capable of carrying maximum 3 persons only; and could hardly contain the two of us and our luggage.

Our first order of business was to join a walking tour of Paris' Montmartre district. This area is a hill with the highest point in the city, and is rather bohemian in character; or at least, was. After all, this was where artists like Monet, Renoir, and Van Gogh spent parts of their lives, attracted by the cheap rents and artistic vibe.


In fact, the windmill depicted in Renoir's "Le Moulin de la Galette" (1876) still stands, albeit now converted into a restaurant.





At present, Montmartre has been gentrified a bit, with lots of sidewalk cafes (the Parisians are no. 1 in terms of people-watching!) and souvenir shops selling "J'aime Paris" T-shirts. Nonetheless, there are still plenty of interesting sites to see.

According to our guide, Michael (an American transplanted from Los Angeles), Montmartre originally wasn't part of Paris. In fact, until now, there are senior citizens who talk of "going down to Paris" for the day.


Check out the Basilique Sacre-Coeur (Basilica of the Sacred Heart) below, with its distinctive white finish. This is due to a certain type of stone used, which constantly weathers out its calcite, so that it bleaches with age to a chalky whiteness. In fact, this basilica never needs exterior cleaning!





There is also a plaza with lots of cafes, and lots of local artists selling their artwork, and some of them can paint your portrait right on the spot. I liked this artist's works the most:






But for me, the highlight of our walk was this statue, and the fascinating story behind it.




From my memory, here's how the story goes:


There was a man, who worked as a clerk in an office, doing the same things day in and day out. He was completely nondescript in every way.

Then one day, he discovered he had the ability to walk through walls. He consulted his doctor, who prescribed him two pills. He took one pill, and put the other one in his medicine cabinet, completely forgetting about it.

One day, a new boss was assigned to their office. Unfortunately, he fell out of favor with this man. Thus, the new boss demoted him to a dark broom closet, right beside his own private office.

Our protagonist was hurt, and angry, and looking for revenge. One day, he stuck his head through the wall and into his boss' office, and heckled him, calling him all sorts of names. Naturally, his boss couldn't believe what he was seeing; and thought he was having hallucinations.

This went on every day, until finally his boss went crazy, and was finally brought by ambulance for confinement into an asylum.

Our hero, pleased with himself, realized that his life up to that point had been a waste; and resolved to change. So, he turned into a life of crime, and became a notorious thief (while maintaining his day job, take note).

Pretty soon, all the newspapers were full of stories about this thief who simply could not be caught. Bursting with pride, and unable to keep his secret any longer, our hero reveals to the police that he was this thief.

Disbelief and derision greeted his revelation, much to his dismay. Resolving to finally get the much-deserved recognition and fame he felt he deserved, he deliberately arranged to get caught during one of his heists.

Of course, shortly thereafter, it was a simple matter of escaping from behind bars.

He decided to settle down to a quiet life. Then, one day, as he was walking along the street, he saw this beautiful lady, and it was love at first sight! For both of them!

Unfortunately, it turned out she was already married, to a brute who locked her in her bedroom every night while he went out carousing and drinking with his friends.

No problem for him. Every night, he sneaked into her bedroom where they made wild, passionate love.

One day, he felt a terrible headache coming on, and rummaged inside his medicine cabinet for some aspirin. Feeling better, he went to the woman's house for their nocturnal rendezvous.

As he was passing through the walls in her garden, he suddenly couldn't move further and became stuck inside the thick wall. Then he realized that he must have taken the pills prescribed by his doctor by mistake, instead of aspirin.

So there he is to this day.


Check out this site for the complete (and official) version of the story, and see how (in)accurate my memory is.




(Check out www.paris-walks.com for more detailed info on Paris Walks)


Thanks to Newman for the pics. Click
here to see his post regarding our Montmartre walking tour.




Wednesday, July 02, 2008



PARIS SANS EIFFEL
(Part One)


(This is a series of rambling posts regarding my trip to Paris in May with Newman. Funnily enough, we were able to visit the tourist spots on our list, except for this certain popular monument named the Eiffel Tower. Hence, the title of this series)



MUSEE DU LOUVRE and LA GIOCONDA





Bonjour, everyone!

A must-see in Paris, even for people not inclined to visit museums, is the Louvre, the world's largest museum.

The Musée du Louvre has been open since 1793, and houses 35,000 works of art drawn from eight departments, displayed in over 60,000 square meters of exhibition space dedicated to the permanent collections, ranging from Egyptian antiquities, Islamic Art, sculptures, paintings and the like.

Yup, you could say it's a repository of really ancient stuff. How ancient? Well, the cut-off point for the Louvre's collection is 1848, so if you happen to have been born during this era, you should feel right at home.

Experts and hardcore enthusiasts would say that it would take one week to fully explore and appreciate the Louvre's collections. One week! Of course, 99.99% of tourists have no such inclinations, and prefer to go direct to the "star" attractions.


Check out the pic above of the Louvre's main entrance. The pyramid, completed in 1989, was by I.M. Pei; and stands about 66 feet tall and made of clear glass about 3/4" thick. Of course, it doesn't really blend it with the building's exterior architecture, but what the heck, no one's really complaining.

The management is smart enough to post signs with directions to the main attractions. Let's check out one of them, shall we?

Take a guess what all these people below are gawking and taking countless photos of:






Any guesses? Nope, its not the Venus de Milo.

Okay, okay, here it is:





Yup, it's the world-renown
Mona Lisa (also known as La Gioconda), a 16th century portrait painted during the Italian Renaissance by Leonardo di ser Piero da Vinci (April 15, 1452 - May 2, 1519), who was by all accounts one of the greatest men who ever lived. He was a scientist, mathematician, engineer, inventor, anatomist, painter, sculptor, architect, botanist, musician and writer. Whew! (Unfortunately, the present generation knows him mainly in relation to that crappy best-seller, Da Vinci Code)

Interestingly, over the years there has been huge debate on who the subject of the painting was. According to Wikipedia, women such as Isabella of Naples or Aragon, Cecilia Gallerani, Costanza d'Avalos —who was also called the "merry one" or La Gioconda, Isabella d'Este, Pacifica Brandano or Brandino, Isabela Gualanda, Caterina Sforza, and Leonardo's mother Caterina had all been named the sitter. It was even believed to be a self-portrait of Leonardo da Vinci himself!
(in drag, perhaps? hehe ;-D)

Thankfully, at present, the subject's identity is held with certainty to be Lisa del Giocondo, a member of the Gherardini family of Florence and Tuscany, and the wife of wealthy Florentine silk merchant Francesco del Giocondo. The painting was commissioned for their new home and to celebrate the birth of their second son, Andrea.


The Mona Lisa is displayed in a purpose-built, climate-controlled enclosure behind bullet-proof glass. About 6 million people view the painting at the Louvre each year.

The expression on her face has often been described as enigmatic and mysterious, and scholars have puzzled over the years about what she was smiling about or whom she was smiling at, why her smile didn't show any teeth (sore gums from too much eating, if you ask me), etc.

My good friend, R., in her visit to the Louvre some years ago, wrote on her postcard:

"I always thought she was overrated and when i saw her up close and personal, i thought, "That's it?" But then i kept looking at her and she became more beautiful every second until she became mesmerizing and my nephew had to pull me out of her gaze. Maybe it's the hype - or maybe it's what captivated millions of people before me. Dunno."


Well, yours truly was NOT one of those millions who were captivated by her, that's for sure. She's a bit. . .umm, on the plump side, don't you think? And rather mannish-looking, too. And those eyes?! Her gaze seems to follow you everywhere; it really creeps me out.


(Check out the Louvre's official website at www.louvre.fr)




Thursday, June 26, 2008



G.U.S. NITPICKS!! (v. 18)


SALA BISTRO






Talk about deja vu yet again. My good friend, fresh-as-a-daisy-looking G., and i were meeting up after not having seen each other for more than half a year (during which i conveniently "forgot" to give her Christmas and birthday presents. . .hehe :D)

We had previously dined at Sala in Malate last year. Since it had transferred to Makati (the new Sala at the PLDT building, where Lumiere used to be; and a new more reasonably-priced version, Sala Bistro, in Greenbelt 3), we decided on the latter resto.

Check out Sala Bistro's interiors below, predominantly full-length glass windows interpersed with dark brown columns, with a high rather drab grey ceiling and bits of chrome and lots of mirrors thrown in.








From what my sister tells me, this place is packed even during weekday evenings. So i guess that's the whole idea behind the glass walls - this resto is 'in', and the place to be seen dining in when you're in Greenbelt.

To me, it certainly isn't the type of place one would go to, if one wanted to have a nice, quiet, intimate dinner.

But anyway, we didn't come here to gawk at celebrities (although G. discreetly pointed out this fashionista couple who walked by), or play amateur interior designer.

Onwards to the food! The original Sala has a well-deserved reputation for excellent food and superior service, albeit at a price that severely dents your wallet.

Let's see how this present incarnation fares.





Garlicky Portabella Mushrooms on Toast with Goat's Cheese (PHP490.00)


This was the most expensive starter, but expense be damned, this was quite a fantastic dish! The mushrooms had real nice chewy texture, and the garlic cream wasn't overpowering.

We overheard the lady dining beside our table tell the waiter that she had preferred their old style of serving this dish, with the portabella mushroom in one whole piece. Either way, it was yummy throughout.




Confit of Lamb Shoulder with Roasted Pumpkin and Crushed Green Peas (PHP620.00)


Being more used to eating lamb ribs, i wasn't totally thrilled with my entree. The meat was tender and flavorful, but for some strange reason, i had to double-check that i was eating lamb, as it felt more like beef. The crushed peas were terrible, though.




Fillet of today's fish cooked in paper (PHP620.00)


The day's fish was grouper, and fresh-faced G. was happy with her choice, although she didn't like the onions. I tasted a bit of this dish, and the fish was indeed soft, yet firm and tasty.

Upon our waiter's prompting, G. had ordered mashed potato as a side dish. Here it is below:




Truffle Oil Mashed Potato (PHP200.00)


As you can see, we had eaten more than half of it already before i remembered to take a pic. Yes, it was THAT good. Not too heavy on the cream, and not too bland, either; just right in taste and texture.

Unfortunately, we both didn't realize how much it cost, until we saw the bill. Talk about sticker shock! :d Yes, this was one incredibly nice-tasting mashed potato (i'd even go as far to say it's one of the best ever i've tasted), but it was flat-out the most expensive one as well!!

For desserts, our waiter was pushing for the Valrhona chocolate tart with vanilla seed ice cream (PHP290.00), and i was sorely tempted to try the Dulche de leche rice pudding with caramel oranges (PHP280.00); but in the end, we both felt so full that we just settled for one scoop homemade Strawberry ice cream (PHP100.00).


So, let's sum up Sala Bistro. Come here, and you'll get a very good meal coupled with unobtrusive service. Just make sure to bring your credit card, since the average bill would likely be PHP1,100.00 to PHP1,500.00 per person.

I can only shudder, though, when i speculate on what type of prices they are charging at the new Sala. Yikes!



Thursday, June 19, 2008



G.U.S. NITPICKS!! (v. 17)


CHEFS' QUARTER







I had a lunch out today with my good friend Jk., who is one of the most good-natured and sweetest souls in the whole world, although i must say she has a habit of throwing a tantrum once every ten years!!

Venue was Robinson's Place Ermita, not a mall i normally go to [i abhor Robinson's Malls in general, since they tend to be crowded and haphazardly laid-out], and we chose this resto, since the reviews i've read about it in local blogs were generally positive.


Mind you, i did have doubts about Chefs' Quarter, having read that its owners / chef / etc. were the same as Duo at Serendra. Well, i ate at Duo once, and it wasn't any great shakes. Below average even, especially considering the prices they were charging.

But anyway, onwards to our lunch.

The interiors give off a classy, fairly high-end, yet relaxed ambiance. Nothing that would intimidate you. I would describe the place as comfy, or fun. . .i liked the colorful paintings on the walls.

But i think this resto is rather too big, or maybe its just because during our lunch, only one or two other tables were occupied? I don't think RP really has much of a lunch crowd, beyond the fastfood joints.






Chefs' Quarters' blurb on its menu cover mentions that it is "a total innovation in fine continental cuisine. Here, we give you an alternative to fine dining, where the food and service is always exceptional that can be enjoyed in a very relaxed atmosphere. What's even more interesting are our reasonably priced menus."

Let's see how it lives up to these lofty words.

Jk. ordered this French Onion Soup (PHP195.00), which looks a bit terrifying, no? Like the overflowing cauldron of the wicked witch? :D But she liked it very much, finding the cheese portion substantial and something "you could really chew into". Overall, tasty and above-average.





I ordered the Crayfish Tomato soup (PHP150.00) [not pictured], which proved to be tasty, yet without being cloying, the way some tomato soups can be once you're half-way through the cup.

For the main course, i ordered this Almond-crusted Cream Dory, topped with tomato concasse and vegetable risotto (PHP495.00), with mixed results. The fish itself was tender and perfectly cooked, but the chef must have had a heavy hand that day, as it was way too salty. The risotto? Flat out the most bland i've ever tasted!





Meanwhile, Jk. ordered the Fish & Chips (PHP295.00), having fallen in love with this dish during her stint last year in London. I felt it looked kinda dry and plain and the portion seemed puny, but she loved it as well, esp. the dip.





Finally, dessert! [i think anyone who reads this blog with some regularity knows i can't wait to get to desserts every time i eat out, haha :d]

We were supposed to share one dessert, but couldn't resist and ended up sharing two! The Blueberry Cheesecake (PHP120.00) was pretty good, with firm texture albeit lacking a bit of that 'tangy' taste i like in cheesecakes.





Now, the Lemon-Ginger Creme Brulee' (PHP95.00) was a flat-out winner!!! As in!! It had a refreshing light tangy taste, balanced by the burnt sugar on top! It was only sheer politeness that prevented me from gobbling the whole thing in one go and leaving some for Jk., and from licking the bowl clean! I think i could eat 4 or 5 of this creme brulee' in one sitting, actually!


So, would i go back? Hmmm. . . .yeah, much as i hate RP, i'd go back, if only for the . . . you guessed it, creme brulee'. Chefs' Quarter also has an extensive selection of salads and steaks, which look interesting and which probably deserve a try.

Oh, damage per person was above PHP800.00, so i'm not quite sure this can be defined "reasonably priced".

But hey, that creme brulee' was reasonably priced at PHP95.00; and in my stomach's humble opinion, that's all that matters!




Sunday, April 20, 2008



CALL OF THE WALL

(Snapshots from Beijing, Part Four)





"He who has not climbed the Great Wall is not a true man." - Mao Zedong


Fighting words, indeed, from the Chairman.

Truth be told, i had always wanted to see the Great Wall, known in Mandarin as "Chang Cheng", literally "long wall".

With apologies to the charms of historical sites (and tour group staples) such as Summer Palace / Forbidden City / Temple of Heaven / Tiananmen Square (and that blasted panda bear), it was the chance to hike up the Great Wall which made me all excited about this trip.

Before we proceed, we might as well clarify a few things about the Wall.

First, contrary to popular belief, it CANNOT be seen from outer space.

Second, it is NOT a single continuous structure. I was rather taken aback upon learning this, to be honest.

Third, it was a dismal failure at its purpose of keeping out the Hun army from the north, as intended by Emperor Chin Shi Huang. Why? Because the guards were simply bribed to look the other way. [Click here for the official website detailing the Wall's history, etc.]

But let none of this detract from the fact that the Wall is an engineering marvel in its own right. Think about it, how were they able to build this thing in such remote areas, and given the available technology and equipment of that era?

We were initially supposed to visit Badaling, the most-visited restored section of the wall (read: swarming with tourists). Aside from the usual souvenir stands, it boasts of a cable car and yes, a KFC outlet.

However, due to heavy traffic caused by an accident of the highway, we ended up at the Juyong Guan (Dwelling in Harmony Pass) section.

The place was teeming with tourists, which made going up rather difficult. Partly because the steps were uneven in height, and were steeper than the normal "stair" height step we are used to. More than this, the throng of people all going in the same direction made it a start-stop, start-stop affair. One had to take one step forward, then pause for a few seconds before proceeding again. Rather hard on the knees, i can tell you.

However, the crowd pretty much thins out after you reach the first station. At this point, most of the intrepid hiker-wanna-be tourists realize this is a far more strenous undertaking than initially expected, and decide they will just stay where they are, puff on a cigarette or two (to mitigate the cold weather), take snapshots for posterity and buy a T-shirt or two at the souvenir stand. You know, just to say they've been to the Great Wall.

Check out some interesting signs posted on the Wall:




These guys from the Beijing Tourist Administration are really thoughtful, no?




It sort of boggles the mind why anyone would want to use a cellphone up here. Oh well.




Well, if you're climbing steps as steep as these, you'd be careful, too.


Check out also the graffiti on the Wall:




Terrible, isn't it? [Of course, while saying this and shaking my head in disgust, i made a mental note to bring a black Pentel pen next time, so i can write as well!]


Once you get used to the steep steps and shake off the other tourists, hiking up the Wall becomes a real joy. And the cold weather ceases to become a factor as well. In fact, i had to shed off my jacket since i was getting real sweaty.

Two stations down. . .three stations down. . .the adrenaline rush is pretty awesome!

Then at some point, i stopped, not sure if i wanted to go up further, or turn back and start the downward trek back to terra firma. After some twenty seconds' agonizing, i chose the latter course of action.

Why, you may ask?
The ache in my knees and thighs and hamstrings was getting too much? No.
Dizziness from the high altitude? No.
Fatigue and heart palpitations from the climb? No.

What then? Actually, i felt the need to pee; and obviously, there were no toilets up there. Darn.

Here's a sample of the view:





Of course, the Great Wall experience wouldn't be complete without bringing home some sort of souvenir. Check out the souvenir stand below, doing brisk business:





As the banner says, you can actually have a "I Climbed the Great Wall" certificate for RMB40.00. Rather desperate, don't you think? :D


I preferred to buy the T-shirt below:





YEAH!!! Been there, done that!!! :D

I'm sure the Chairman is turning over in his grave, though.