Thursday, December 13, 2012

Paris for a Weekend


Keenan had a work assignment in Paris and as usual, he conveniently scheduled his meetings for Friday so I can join him for a Parisian weekend getaway. The timing couldn't be better as the last few weeks have been insanely busy at work, hence the lack of activity on the blog. To start off the weekend, just hours before my 3:00 pm Eurostar train, I learned that I had won a major bid in Poland, which I am super excited about and can expect a few trips to Warsaw next year.


This my 7th trip to Paris and 3rd trip in 2012 alone. As cliche as it sounds, I love Paris -- the lights, the sounds, the architecture, the food and wine, the pastries, the shopping -- I could never get bored of Paris. Being such a last minute trip, we didn't have a very ambitious agenda other than enjoy this amazing city. Here's our short but sweet Parisian getaway in a nutshell:

The lights: The beautiful Christmas lights along the Champ Elysees, Rue du Honare, and Place Concorde. We spent Saturday afternoon checking out Christmas markets along the Champ and in Saint Germain. As you can imagine, the Christmas markets were busy, stretching along at least 1/2 mile along Paris' most famous street overlooking the Eiffel Tower and the landmark obelisk. A lovely festive atmosphere.


The sounds: The laughters and merriment as friends and family gather together to enjoy the festive season.  Christmas shopping along Rue du Rivoli. The beautiful French language. The bustling cafes and buzzy wine bars in Le Marais and the Left Bank. 


The architecture: What's not to love -- Norte Dame, Lourve, Arc de Triomphe, Musee d'Orsay and even the modern-inspired Pompidou. Love it all thanks to Baron Haussmen, the city planner commissioned by Napoleon who was responsible for rebuilding of Paris in 1860s. 


The food: Food glorious food. Every time I go to Paris, I come back to London at least 2 kilos heavier. Who could resist buttery croissants and cuppa of espresso, or the delicious macaroons from Pierre Herme, or the delectable pastries or fresh out of the oven crusty baguette, stinky French cheeses, or silky foie gras? Ummmm....


We have been meaning to go to Frenchie for the longest time but it is impossible to get a table unless you want to queue in the freezing cold for a table at the cafe/bar next door. No thanks. For this trip we went to Fish La Bonissonnaire, a little bistrot tucked away on a quiet street  in the 6th eme. The three course meal for 32 EUR was a bargain, the atmosphere is quirky but fun and overall a great neighborhood pick. Since it's game season so for dinner on Saturday night we opted for hearty country French at Le Repaire de Cartouche, another great neighborhood restaurant between the 4th and 11th eme with an impressive wine list. 


We had our usual Sunday routine - a big tasty falafel at L'as du Falafel, afternoon lingering around a wine bar in the Le Marais and an early dinner at my favorite crepe place, Breizh for buckwheat crepes before our late train ride home to London. Yes indeed, a weekend of good eats. 


The shopping: The big sales in Paris usually happens twice a year: February and June where all stores has a big "SOLDES" sign outside. It's the best time to fatten your wardrobe with classic Parisian pieces like Repetto flats, skinny jeans, and a clean blazer. I did a bit of window shopping but decided to save all my hard-earned cash to shop in Hong Kong. That didn't stop Keenan from buying a new pair of shoes for himself and I offered to pick up a few items for my older sister at Longchamp. 


 The wine: We always carry a case of wine home from either Nicolas wine shop or from Monoprix whenever we go to France. I only had room in my suitcase for three bottles of wine: a Sancerre from the Loire Valley, a Bordeaux, and a Cote du Rhone. Our Christmas wines, I suppose.

Well, that's our trip to Paris in a nutshell. Short and sweet. I'm sure I'll be back to the City of Lights soon enough, after all my company is based out of Paris. I hope to get a year-in-review post up before we leave to Asia, but if not, have a very joyous holiday season and see you in the New Year! Thanks for reading and your support. 


Monday, December 03, 2012

Hyde Park - Winter Wonderland


Tis the season to be merry! Given that Keenan and I will be having a very unconventional Christmas this year trekking through the steamy jungles of Borneo, we thought we'd get into the Christmas spirit early this year. And what better way to join in the festivities than a trip to Winter Wonderland. Held annually in Hyde Park, this is one of the main attractions during the holiday season along with ice skating at Somerset House and endless Christmas parties, Christmas drinks, Christmas pub lunches, Christmas dinners; eating minced pies and drinking mulled wine.


For an entire month, Hyde Park corner is all decked out in white lights, Christmas trees, and holiday wreaths, making this an amazing festive spectacle. With friends in tow, we made a visit on a frigid Sunday late afternoon. If you live in the U.K, then you know that the sun sets around ummm...3:30ish in the winter. Depressing, I know. Why do you think we take a 2 week 'sun' holiday each winter? 


Highlights of Hyde Park's Winter Wonderland includes: an ice staking ring, a giant ferris wheel, a circus for all the wee ones, rows of Christmas markets, and my personal favorite: the Bavarian Village. This year, they also had a major ice sculpture exhibition if you are interested. We did a bit of shopping at the elegant Christmas markets for ornaments and gifts. My friends were on the search for the perfect London painting to hang on their new home when they repatriate back to the US in January. Then it was on to my favorite activity: eating Bavarian sausages and drinking mulled wine, or in the case of the boys, German-style beer steins. 


If you can make it before Christmas, I'd highly recommend it. Grab some friends, bundle up, bring cash and enjoy a day at Winter Wonderland.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Happy Thanksgiving 2012

 

Happy Thanksgiving everyone! Hope you had a nice Thanksgiving celebration with your nearest and dearest. We celebrated Thanksgiving slightly early this year as my good friend was in town for 10 day work trip. She and I have known each since I was 15 years old; we went to high school together, bonded over student government activities; and went to Berkeley together. 


This past Sunday, I invited her over for a smallish Thanksgiving meal. Miss Haile pooch greeted my friend at the door. Though Miss Haile was suppose to go home on Saturday but as her parents decided to extend their trip, we kept her for a few more days.


I couldn't find a turkey small enough to feed three people so opted to make a French-inspired roast chicken with all the trimmings -- walnut-pear-blue cheese green salad, green beans and mushroom, buttery mashed potato, roasted asparagus, and a charcuterie board of foie gras, jamon, and a selection of French cheese. We caught up on her week in London, her first Rugby game at Twickenham, British culture, and her upcoming holiday plans. It was really nice to share a Thanksgiving meal with a familiar face from home! Muchas gracias for coming over and come back to London soon!


On Thanksgiving Day, another fellow expat couple friend kindly open their lovely Holland Park flat and hosted a small group of American for Thanksgiving. This couple friend went to UC Davis with Keenan and moved to London two years ago to pursue a master degree in human rights and public policy. My friend took half day off to roast the 15 lb turkey, made gravy from scratch, and even had time to bake an amazingly delicious pumpkin pie. Hats off to the chef. Everyone else bought sides to share -- cheesey mac and cheese, potato gratin, brussle sprouts, spinach, cranberries, etc. Delicious.


We then went around the room to say what we are thankful for. Keenan and I feel incredibly blessed to have amazing family spread across the globe in CA, Hong Kong, India; for our health; our jobs that allows us to travel for work and pleasure; and good friends in SF and London. Cheers to all of you!

Happy Thanksgiving from London!

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Autumn Walks around London


Keenan and I have been on doggie duty for the past two weeks, pet-sitting for our friend's sweet, sweet dog whilst they are back in the East Coast for a visit. Miss Haile pooch is no stranger to Auntie Lily and Uncle Keenan's flat. Being the big dog lover that I am, I offer to watch Haile whenever her 'parents' go away on business or pleasure. We even keep Haile's portable doggie bed in our flat; that's how often she comes over.


Autumn is upon us; the leaves are changing colour, the temperature is dropping, and the days are getting shorter and shorter. We've been taking Miss Haile pooch on long walks around Clapham and southwest London to enjoy the fresh crisp autumn and get a bit of 'training' in for a big hike up Mt. Kinabalu, the highest peak in Southeast Asia in December. Yikes, better step up the training. 


One of my favourite walks in Southwest London is a circular walk along the River Thames starting from the south side of Putney Bridge to Hammersmith Bridge. If you live in London, then you know that Putney Bridge is the starting point of the famous Oxford-Cambridge Boat Race held annually in March. This leafy part of London feels a world away from the hustle and bustle of Central London, and makes for a leisurely 4.5 miles walk. It passes through the London Wetland Centre, a great place for kids and nature lovers, crosses Hammersmith Bridge, and back towards Bishop Park and Craven Cottage, home of the Fulham FC.  Haile probably knows this walk better than anyone as she lives just a stone's throw away from Bishops Park. I think she wanted to make her way back to her lovely Fulham flat.


Back in our neighborhood in Clapham, we've been taking Miss Haile pooch to all our favourite pubs, The Sun, The Calf, the Bobbin, and the Draft House, all which are very dog-friendly. Only in London that I could bring a dog  in for  a quickie pint. I could never get away with that in California. She is the perfect pub dog, super mellow, friendly, and polite. It makes us want to be get a poochie ourselves but our lifestyle, work schedule, living on a 2nd floor flat without a garden, and travel makes it very difficult to be a responsible pet-owner. We may consider getting a poochie after we get our UK permanent residency next year? Maybe... For now, we're happy to pet sit sweet Miss Haile pooch until she moves back to the U.S. next fall.


Monday, November 12, 2012

Emeli Sande shines at the Royal Albert Hall

 
 
There must be another 'British Invasion' in music as lately a series of British artists have exploded on the music charts -- Adele, Mumford and Son, Florence + the Machine, Jessie J, Muse, Taio Cruz just to name a few. Yes, indeed, it must the third British Invasion.

Yesterday, Keenan and I had the pleasure to support one of my favourite new artist, the Brit Award winner and singer-songwriter Emeli Sande at a charity concert for The Prince's Trust (a great organisation) at the iconic Royal Albert Hall. I quickly became a huge fan of Emeli Sande after hearing her hit songs 'Heaven' and 'Next to Me.' Like everything else in London, I booked these tickets back in June, well ahead of the London Olympic Games where she performed in front of a global audience at both the Opening and Closing Ceremonies, singing a beautiful rendition of 'Imagine' and her very own hit 'Read All About it.'
 
 
Keenan and I were joined by my very good friend from high school who is in town for work and my 2011 BBC prom date (no not the high school prom, but the classical music festival held at the Royal Albert Hall each year). Little did we know, this concert was being recorded for a live album, set to be released in February 2013. As we watched her orchestra take their place with a row of back-up singers all clad in black, we knew we were in for a treat.
 
Beneath the gorgeous domed ceiling of this prestigious concert hall where so many big voices have performed in the past, Emeli Sande hit every note so beautifully to the sold-out crowd's delight, showcasing her incredible talents as singer and an accomplished pianist. Her breathtaking vocals and impressive range is even better live. In a concert lasting for nearly two hours, she sang every song from her best-selling debut album "Our Version of Events," dedicating each song to the nearest and dearest of friends and family including her sister, parents, her new husband, and "My Kind of Love" to the Prince's Trust for which she serves as an Ambassador. 
 

Two very special guests joined her on  stage, British rapper, Professor Green for his rap segment in "Read All About It" who got the crowd on their feet, and later Labrinth for their hit duet "Beneath Your Beautiful."


Performing at the Royal Albert Hall is her biggest solo concert yet, and no doubt Emeli Sande will have an illustrious music career ahead of her, and this is just the beginning. She will indeed write her very own version of events.
 
 
 

Thursday, October 25, 2012

The Maltese Falcon


So I admit, before moving to London, I had no idea where Malta was. Other than the 1941 film noir, The Maltese Falcon, I had never heard of this pint-sized sunny Mediterranean country. In fact the film only has  a loose connection to Malta other than the name of the film was  taken from the jewel encrusted Maltese Falcon, originally a gift to Charles V of Spain from the Knight Templars of Malta in 1539, but was stolen by pirates whilst sailing through the Mediterranean and the fate of the Maltese Falcon remains a mystery. The central plot of the story follows a San Francisco-based detective, Sam Spades, and his dealings with three private clients who are in search for the Golden Falcon. Despite the name, not a single scene took place in Malta, at least, not that I was aware of. 


Just a quick 30 minute flight from Sicily and some 150 miles from Tunis, Malta is a microcosm of Mediterranean and North African cultures. Even the Maltese language is Semitic sharing many similarities to Arabic, but written in the Latin alphabet and borrowing terms such as 'Grazie' from the Sicilian-Italian language. But as Malta was a former British colony, English is widely spoken and the ubiquitous red post box dot the streetscape in Malta. Honestly, I didn't know what to expect from Malta other than glorious sunshine and gentle sea breeze. 



We made ourselves comfortable at the Hilton in St. Julian located on Porotomaso waterfront overlooking the harbour for three nights. The hotel not only has three pools, a massive conference centre in which the annual Nestle sales conference was taking place, but also walking distance to numerous restaurants and bars, including the infamous nightclubs (read: trashy) of Paceville. If you're not a fan of Soho clubs, most likely you won't like Paceville.

We spent most of our waking hours lounging by the pool and stocking up on 3 months worth of vitamin D. When we weren't glued to our sunloungers, Keenan and I also went to explore the stamp-sized capital city of Valletta. Exuding loads of characters, this UNESCO world heritage site is full of charm with cafes spilling out to the main drag of Triq ir-Repubblika and Triq il-Merkanti. Whilst you can take the bus to the capital city, I highly recommend taking the ferry back to St. Julian, if only for the view of the harbour. We spent some time meandering around the backstreets of Valletta before having lunch of regional specialties of rabbit ragu and Maltese sausage, all washed down with local Maltese wine. 


To celebrate our 4th wedding anniversary, Keenan and I went for dinner in the lovely medieval town of Mdina, the old capital of Malta. A beautifully preserved town is simply delightful for an evening stroll through the silent maze-like alleyways. There are some impressive architectural gems to marvel at.



That evening we enjoyed a delicious dinner at a restaurant aptly named Medina, tucked away in a little courtyard. The atmosphere and covered courtyard remained me a lot of our favorite restaurant in Aleppo, the Sissi House, which sadly has probably been destroyed from the war in Syria. The wait staff at Medina was friendly and extremely attentive; the portions were huge by European standard. We lingered around for dessert and coffee before taking a 15 minute cab ride back to St. Julians for last night in Malta. Had we had an extra day, we would have loved to do a day-trip to the its sister island of Gozo for some hiking and snorkeling, but alas, we had to get to London. 

It was a great week away from the hustle of London and a much needed break from work. Thankfully, we soaked up enough vitamin D  to last until our next sun-trip to the southeast Asian island of Borneo in December. 



Monday, October 15, 2012

"Leave the Gun; Take the Cannoli" Ciao from Taormina


Keenan and I just returned from a week long holiday in Sicily and Malta. Why Sicily? Well to start, Keenan is a huge movie buff. From time to time he would insist on some "alone with with Ingmar Bergman" watching Wild Strawberries, or he would bore me to tears with a slow-moving Akira Kurosawa film (sorry, just not a fan). However, there is one movie I would be more than glad to watch over and over again.  The Godfather I and II.   

 

The scenes of the Sicilian town of Corleone in The Godfather was actually filmed in Forza d'Agro and Savoca, Sicily, two rustic little towns just 20 minutes north of the resort town of Taormina where we based ourselves. Favourite films aside, the real reason for coming to Sicily was to celebrate our 4th wedding anniversary (and 4th Londoniversary) and for a bit of sunshine under the hot southern Mediterranean sun. Sunshine glorious sunshine!


After circling around a dodgy neighborhood near Catania airport for nearly an hour, we finally made it to Taormina. Between the narrow roads and crazy traffic, let me remind you driving in southern Italy is no easy feat! 


The beautiful town of Taormina, situated 200 metres above sea level on Monte Tauro, boast some lovely views of ocean and post-card perfect views of Mt. Etna, the tallest active volcano in Europe. Active indeed, we can see smoke spewing creating a little microclimate around the top of the volcano. The whole town and coastline reminds me a lot of the Sorrento and the Amalfi Coast with its vistas, scenic drives, rocky beaches, and crystal-clear waters. 


 
By day, the town is heaving with cruise-ship daytrippers, all making a beeline to the famous  Greek theatre. By night, Taormina is filled with locals and couples enjoying an alfresco drink on the main square overlooking the Ionian Sea. If we weren't strolling down the main shopping street Corso Umberto, eating our weight in pizza, or devouring our nth cannoli, then the rest of time was spent on the beaches of Taormina. The water was surprisingly warm even in October. I spent some time practicing my swim as we're planning on getting our PADI open water dive certification in Borneo in December.  Note the beaches are not sandy in Taormina, think rocks like the beaches of Nice, France. For sandy beaches, you'll need to head 5 miles towards Giardini Naxos, however, the town lacks the charm and beauty of Taormina. 

Besides taking in the view and sipping local Sicilian wine, we enjoyed each others company and reflected upon the last four years. I can't believe it's been four years! Then it was off to Malta, a little island nation and former British colony, 60 miles off the Italian coast. 

And one of my favorite quotes from The Godfather: "I'm gonna make him an offer he can't refuse." Ciao from Sicily.


Sunday, September 30, 2012

Stuck in Lux: A Short Stay in Luxembourg

 
I recently had the opportunity to travel to Luxembourg for a short work assignment. A few quick facts about Luxembourg.... Luxembourg maintains the highest GDP per capita in the world, and it is almost
three times the EU average. It also has the highest minimum wage in the world of nearly EUR 1,600 per month and is the home of the European Investment Bank as well as a number of other institutions
and private sector headquarters. Luxembourg also has pretty good corporate tax schemes, which is why it is known more as a place to do business rather than a place to holiday. Pretty much everybody I encountered or saw walking down the street (which was limited) appeared rich.


The entire capital of Luxembourg is basically comprised of fund managers from all over Europe and they tend to work extremely late and go back to their homes on the weekends, leaving the city entirely empty after dark and on weekends. This means that effectively no one really “lives” here and there is pretty much no noticeable “scene” or vibe, or at least nothing that I was able to locate during my short stay. To be fair, I was only in Luxembourg for one day and one night, but it was among the quietest and dullest European cities I have ever visited. Despite what sounds like an excruciatingly boring experience, it is an extremely picturesque city perched atop a small forested hill overlooking a valley gorge. In fact, there was nothing really unappealing or ugly about Luxembourg other than the pace and atmosphere. After a short, but pleasant stroll through the empty lanes and streets of the city, I managed through a quick and quiet dinner and then retired to the rooftop bar of my Sofitel Hotel accompanied by a couple fairly decent martinis and watched the splendor of the city from afar.

Luxembourg is small, but not a tiny city-state of the likes of Monaco, San Marino, or Lichtenstein. There is a bit of country, but unfortunately I did not have the opportunity to explore aside from driving to the other side of the Belgian border about thirty minutes away. There are some magnificent castles and palaces that are probably worth exploring, but I did not have the time. 


Disappointingly I found out later that there is an American Military Cemetery located right next to the airport where General George S. Patton is buried. That would have definitely been worth a stop had I known at the time. I realize that my description of Luxembourg sounds a bit underwhelming, if not slightly cynical, but you should take the country for what it is, a corporate tax haven for high net wealth entities and individuals which is located in the middle of Western Europe among a fairly attractive natural and historic landscape and setting. I’ve certainly been to worse places, but at the same time I am not rushing back here any time soon. If you happen to come here on business do indeed take the time to wander the streets of the old city, even if it does feel a bit abandoned at times.

K.V.


Thursday, September 13, 2012

Work and Play: Amsterdam


It has been a long while since I posted a blog. Apologies about that. I started a new job three months ago and it is keeping me fairly busy, in a good way though. Overall, I am very pleased for the new opportunity and enjoying the work with my new colleagues. Plus I get to travel around Europe and not to Moldova this time! 

Several weeks ago, I went to Amsterdam for a project meeting. I sure picked one heck of a day to go to Amsterdam. First, crew workers uncovered a 500kg World War II bomb near the runway at Schiphol Airport and had to cancel several flights  until they could detonate the bomb. Apparently, Schiphol was used as a Nazi military  during the war. Luckily, my 7am flight out of London City had no delays -- it was business as usual at Schiphol. In fact, I didn't learn about the news until Keenan frantically texted me when I arrived to Amsterdam. Later  in the day, there was a hijack scare due to a miscommunication between the pilot and the Dutch traffic controller. Two F-16 fighters were sent to intercept the plane causing more delays. 


My day trip to Amsterdam was short and sweet. I spent most of the day in meetings but I was able sneak in a fun dinner with my Amsterdam-based friend who I probably see more often than most of my friends in London. I love visiting this quirky Dutch capital, but unfortunately, I have a bad habit of visiting Amsterdam in the dead of winter. But on  this trip, I got to see Amsterdam basking in the glorious sun -- it was a beautiful day. 


My friend and I agreed to meet at Café Loetje, a well-loved institution located in the bohemian-meets-hipster neighbourhood of De Pijp where my friend lives. The restaurant had a lively neighborhood buzz and packed. We were lucky to snagged an outdoor table and enjoyed our meal alfresco. The menu is limited, serving only tenderloin steak, chicken, and schnitzel with a side order of salad and frites. Simple but overall very good.

After dinner, my friend and I took a stroll through his beloved neighborhod of De Pijp, also dubbed as Amsterdam's Latin Quarter. It has a mix of artists, students, and young professionals, as well as dozens of little bars and cafes. There's also street market at Albert Cuyp, one of the oldest and largest street markets in Amsterdam, located right in the heart of De Pijp. The whole neighborhood reminds me a bit of Spitalfields Market and Shoreditch in East London. 



A token bike ride to the tram stop and short train journey later, I was back at Schiphol airport for my 50 minute flight home to London. Shame that my stay in Amsterdam was so short but I suspect I will be back in no time.