“Comer Aqui” and “Cerveza” – My Most Used Phrases in Madrid

I was under the impression that Madrid was cheaper compared to other European capitals. I was wrong for as a Spaniard explained to me “Madrid is a cosmopolitan city. Naturally, its prices should rival the other European capitals”. Another Spaniard whom I met in The Hague also said “Madrid is surrounded by land. It imports resources from other parts of Spain, so the cost of things are higher”. Yes, high enough for me to be jolted upon discovering that a plate of sliced ham cost €10. Although, I was told that if I knew where to look, I could have a cup of coffee and a pastry for less than three euros or even a good steak for ten.

You see, the reason why I flew all the way to Madrid for the New Year was because of the allure of a European winter holiday, without the snow, and the misinformed notion that it would be a cheaper European holiday.

Disayuno Americano
Disayuno Americano but the ham was definitely Spanish

I stayed near Callao, just a few steps away from Gran Via, and was within walking distance to almost everything. Obviously, I was in the expensive part of Madrid. Right across my hotel was a diner, where locals ate. I had my disayuno(breakfast) and café con leche there every morning that I was already on nodding terms with the patrons. Once, while I was going in, a woman spoke to me in Spanish. “Pardon, habla poco Espaňol” I said. “English?” she asked. “Yes”. “Do you want to fuck?”. “No, gracias”. It was truly the local scene because even prostitutes had their breakfast there(I also saw the woman there again the following day at dinner time). You can have a breakfast set for as low as five euros. Although, the service and quality of the dishes were not consistent. The place was run by Chinese immigrants who spoke very fluent Spanish. If the manager was there, the food servings were more generous, had more ingredients, and peanuts were served while waiting. If he wasn’t around, the staff would just plop the food, which had the appearance of being hastily put together, in front of you.

Paella Merisco
Paella Marisco and Copa de cerveza con limon

My first Spanish meal was Paella Marisco, which I had with a Copa de cerveza con limon. Beer with lemon! It was tasty and refreshing. I ate at Terraza Galapagos in Retiro Park – where the Philippine national hero, Jose Rizal, reportedly spent most of his time in while he was in Madrid in the late1800’s. The park was huge but it would have been very vibrant in spring and summer. I was taken aback by the €15 bill (well of course I was paying for the location) despite the somewhat meager serving of paella. I later discovered that my diner served proper paella in a pan for less than €10.

Whenever I was at a restaurant, I always said “Comer aqui(I’ll eat here)” and whenever I was asked what I wanted for beber (drink), I always replied “Cerveza”. I noticed that Madrileňos are not heavy eaters whenever they were out. Restaurants have picadillos on their menu, meaning food was sold in smaller servings. One time, I had lunch at El Paraiso del Jamon and ordered a whole plate of Jamon de Serrano for €10. As in France, a small basket of baguettes was served with the main dish. You have the option to eat it for an additional charge of a couple of euros. I always ate the bread for I needed carbs for my long walks. Of course, I had beer. I think I drank more beer than water in Madrid.

Jamon Serrano
Jamon Serrano

One time, for dinner, I went to Mercado de San Miguel, which was touted to be the place for authentic tapas and other Spanish eats. I read that the locals love it and food was cheap and of high quality. True enough, there were a number of locals there having their picadillo and quite a number of tourists. One order of tapa ranged from less than €2 to a little over €3 – it was not my definition of cheap. In Japan, a piece of sushi at Tsukiji Market(which has been closed) cost about the same.

Tapas
Tapas and Sangria Rojo

I ordered €6 worth of tapas and a glass of Sangria Rojo – total of €10. The tapas were fantastic, but since it was dinner time, I wanted something more substantial. I wandered among the food stalls and through crowds of tourists to look for other options. Some stalls offered grilled meats or fish, which smelled and looked delicious but came with a hefty price tag – obviously intended for sharing.

Suddenly, my eyes caught sight of deep-fried anchovies and calamares. A packet of Boquerones Frescos(Fresh Anchovies) cost €14 while a packet of Anillas de Calamares(Fresh Squid Rings) cost €17 euros. These were meant to be shared but at those prices! Curiousity got the better of me. Surely such common staples would not be sold at such ridiculous prices, unless there’s something special about them. I just had to find out!

Calamares
Boquerones Frescos and Anillas de Calamares

The anchovies were plump, delightful and uniform in size. The calamares were perfect. The way they were deep-fried, the temperature at which they were served, the texture, the freshness, the moisture, and the flavors were finely balanced – surely some obsessive-compulsive chef is toiling somewhere. They were the best anchovies and calamares I’ve ever had. By the looks of the food stall’s display, they do brisk business. They also had a credit card terminal.

Those were probably the most expensive seafood I’ve ever had so far(considering they were just fried squid and anchovies). And I thought the exquisite seafood feast I had with friends at Lei Yue Mun, Hong Kong or the eight pieces of sushi I had in Tsukiji, Tokyo were scandalous enough. In Manila, I could have gotten these at a euro per serving. The price of one packet was more than enough for a decent buffet with unlimited drinks in Manila or even in Budapest. But of course, one must have perspective. The place was recognized as gourmet among locals. I also remembered that a serving of five fine rings of calamares in a 5-star hotel in Manila cost €5.

I do amaze myself at the lengths of rationalizing I go to in order to justify my spending. The ROI I’ll get out of this is the lifetime right to arch my left eyebrow at someone annoying who claims to have spent so much money on a paltry dish and say “Yes… but have you paid €14 for anchovies and €17 for calamares?”

After that, I went to the grocery store and bought milk, bread, biscuits, juices, and grapes so that I would not have to spend so much on meals anymore. But, I did have afternoon tea at the Ritz Madrid – something I just had to do.

When I just had three days left in Madrid, I moved to a hostel because my first hotel could no longer extend my stay. At the hostel, I roomed with Diego, an electronic engineer from Ecuador. I discovered he had not really gone around Madrid yet, except for some museums. We decided to go sightseeing together.

The following day, we went back to my former neighborhood. We walked through Plaza del Sol, saw the Opera House, walked around outside the royal palace, and went to an old records store that sold vinyl records and VHS tapes from the 90’s. I felt really old while looking at 90’s music being marketed as vintage.

Tabla de diez quesos tapas
Tabla diez quesos tapas

I convinced Diego to go to Mercado de San Miguel. It was really convenient to have a Spanish-speaker on hand. I wanted to have cheese and he also decided to have some. He spoke to the seller and translated for me. “Do you want to have mild, medium, or strong cheese?” he asked me. “Tell the guy I want one of each”. I got ten types of cheeses. Diego also had some tapas, which he enjoyed. Of course, we also had beer.

I also took him to Plaza Mayor and let him take photos. He was into photography and was really particular about the lighting conditions. Since he was also a book nerd, we went into an antique bookshop. He called my attention to a very heavy world almanac published in the 1930’s. It was very heavy and had thick pages. He looked up the chapter on Ecuador and pointed to a photo – “So this is what Quito(the Ecuadorian capital) looked like back then” he observed. He told me later that he went back to the antique bookshop and bought a book.

ComicUpon recommendation by a pretty girl that Diego chatted with at the antique bookshop, we went to La Central Bookstore. I looked at Spanish translations of popular fantasy and science fiction books while Diego pored over books about theoretical and quantum physics. He bought two books. Afterwards, we walked along Gran Via to Retiro Park, with Diego guiding the way using an actual map. I would have just taken the metro. From the park, we passed my Madrid’s community hall and exhibition center. There were some exhibits on display and admission was for free. There, I spent a considerable time trying to translate a comic strip with birds as characters. Diego was my task master – he determined whether my understanding of the story was not too far off. For dinner, I told him we should go to my diner. “Their food is of inconsistent quality. But since it’s dinner time, the manager will be there so there’s a good chance we’ll have a good meal”. “This is quite a long way to go for a restaurant with inconsistent food” Diego said as we trudged om Gran Via.

At the diner, I had paella and sautéed mushrooms. Diego was satisfied with his pizza. My last night in Madrid went well.

Some Related Posts:

A Series of Afternoon Teas

How Film Festivals and Anime Helped Me Survive Abroad

 

 

A Series of Afternoon Teas – The Raffles Grand Hotel d’ Angkor(Siem Reap) and The Majestic Hotel(Kuala Lumpur) Edition

The Raffles Grand Hotel d’ Angkor, Siem Reap

I flew into Siem Reap in the evening of October 30, 2018. I was going to attend the conference on “Globalising Your Practice: Opportunities and Challenges”, organized by the International Bar Association, LAWASIA, The Bar Association of the Kingdom of Cambodia, and the European Lawyers’ Foundation, on November 1st. The flight I took was the only direct flight from Manila to Siem Reap that fit my schedule.

It was my second time in Cambodia so there was no pressure to go sightseeing. Instead, I slept in. About eight days earlier, I had returned from a two-week trip in Europe – a week of which was for the International Bar Association 2018 Annual Conference in Rome. After my return to Manila, I had to battle jetlag, work backlog, and deadlines before flying off to SIem Reap. My only itinerary for the day was to drop by Raffles Grand Hotel d’ Angkor, considered to be one of the best heritage hotels in the world.

I purposely woke up late and had a late breakfast, after which I took a nap. Around two in the afternoon, I left my hotel and walked about two kilometers to Raffles to work up an appetite for late lunch/afternoon tea.

Conservatory
The Conservatory

This sounds very cliché but stepping into the lobby of the hotel was like being transported back into another time. Even though the hotel was right smack in the midst of the commercial center of the city, its walls seemed to contain a different world. I asked where the Conservatory – where they served afternoon tea – and I was told it was right straight ahead.

The Conservatory had a view of the hotel’s pool. The atmosphere had a very colonial feel to it, made more palpable by the high ratio of white people whiling the afternoon away there. I took a seat near one of the windows to have a good vantage point from which to people-watch.

Raffles Tea
Raffles Local Khmer Tea

I asked for Raffles Local Khmer Tea(Street Stalls Selection:Local baguette, pork paté, pickled vegetables, coconut and spring onion rice pancakes with coconut sauce, fresh vegetable spring roll with lime and chili dressing. Sweet Selection: taro and sago coconut pudding, palm sugar and coconut dumpling, yellow bean cake. Ancient Traditions Selection: Glutinous roasted rice cake, slow cooked local banana with palm sugar caramel), instead of the traditional afternoon tea because, after all, I was in Cambodia. I paired the set with a Taste of Singapore Tea(“harmonious mix of Ceylon black tea, ginger mango and pineapple dices, passion fruit, and soursop flavoring). It was a very tropical afternoon tea.

The attention to detail was impeccable, which explained why it took some time to assemble and serve. Every morsel was placed on top a banana or palm leaf, moulded into small cups and held by pins. There were a lot of pins. Such attention demonstrates this hotel’s dedication to service.

Raffles Pool
Raffles Pool

Service was very warm and meticulous. Since I look Cambodian, the food attendants politely engaged me in conversation and in the process extracted information on where I was from and what I was doing in Cambodia. I may have also called to attention to myself as a lone diner who ordered a large meal and possibly being the youngest in that room. After discovering that I was Filipino, they also informed me that the front desk manager and the pianist, who plays during evenings, were also Filipino.

As I slowly gobbled up the pieces of food, the attendants occasionally checked on me if I needed anything. One of them asked me how the Khmer fare was compared to Philippine cuisine, and I said we use the same ingredients but use them differently. After tea, I walked on the balcony and decided to have a cocktail there.

Airavata
The Airavata

I ordered the hotel’s signature cocktail – the Airavata. Each Raffles hotel has its signature drink: Raffles Singapore has the world-famous Singaporean Sling, while Raffles Makati has the Makati Sling – which has gold flakes drizzled on it. “I’ve heard of the Makati Sling. Have you tried it?” asked the food attendant. “Yes, I have”, I replied. Maybe I should start a blog series on cocktails.

The Airavata( Rum, Malibu, Creme de Banane, Fresh Coconut Juice and Lime Juice) is described as a “refreshing cocktail x x x named after the mythical white elephant ridden by Indra, the Hindu King of Gods and Ruler of the Heavens. It’s told that once, Airavata sucked up water from the underworld and sprayed it into the clouds, which Indra then caused to rain forth as cool water for the earth”. It came in an elephant-shaped urn. For contrast, I was served fried green banana chips with pepper powder and fried sticky rice balls with paprika salt. I never knew that banana chips and pepper went so well.

The Filipino pianist, before starting his set, came by and introduced himself. We had a brief chat and discovered that we came from the same region in Mindanao and spoke the same dialect. Afterwards, I walked back to my hotel, slightly swaying and sweating heavily. Man, that was a strong cocktail.

The Majestic Hotel, Kuala Lumpur

Orchidarium
The Orchidarium

From Cambodia, I flew to Kuala Lumpur to visit a couple of friends who were a couple. On a lazy Sunday afternoon, my friend Kates, took me to The Majestic Hotel, also considered to be one of the best heritage hotels in the world. Kates tried to reserve a spot inside the hotel’s Orchidarium – a room filled with rows of orchids, a fancy greenhouse so to speak – but it was already fully booked.

“They offered me a spot in the Drawing Room instead” Kates said. “I’ve never been inside although I’ve seen it from the outside”. The Drawing Room felt very British, which makes sense because Malaysia used to be a British colony. We were seated near the window with a view of the lawn, where a small group of people were having a party while accompanied by two people playing a violin and a cello. They even had balloons.

Drawing Room
The Drawing Room

A group of Chinese ladies were already having their tea and were whispering and giggling. “I think I may be the only guy here” I observed. A little while later, a couple came in. “I think they are on a date” Kates noted.

We had the Traditional Afternoon Tea Set (Lemon Tart, Raspberry Tart, Chocolate Ganache, Eclair, Strawberries and Cream, Sandwiches- Salmon, Chicken, Turkey) which we paired with Darjeeling Tea. There was also a Box of Savouries(Seafood Bun, Chicken Roll, and Chicken Pie). I think our set perfectly matched the colonial atmosphere of the Drawing Room. The dark wood paneling and heavy curtains encouraged one to whisper, which Kates and I tried to do. But, as people from the Visayas and Mindanao, respectively, our voices were naturally louder.

Majestic Box of Savouries
Box of Savouries

“These are the largest scones I’ve seen so far” I said. I was used to perfectly cut and shaped scones. “Really? I thought these were normal” Kates replied. The food attendant, dressed in all white sailor-type long-sleeved shirt and pants ensemble, who was assigned to us, occasionally checked if our cups needed refilling and if dishes needed to be taken away. We were entitled to two refills of hot water and after that we had to order another pot. Since we were tea guzzlers, we asked for a refill. I appreciated the service given to us – unobtrusive but attentive.   The portions were quite generous and despite our considerable appetite, we could not finish everything.

We would have wanted to sit around more and ask for another refill but the sky was turning dark. After tea, we went off to look at colonialist architecture in Kuala Lumpur’s heritage area.

Majestic Tea
Traditional Afternoon Tea Set

 

 

 

 

 

Other afternoon tea experiences are here:

A Series of Afternoon Teas

 

 

 

Seven Business Class Seats on Emirates(Part 5)

On my return flight from New York to Manila in October 2016, I flew with Emirates. From New York to Dubai, I was on an Airbus A380 in Economy. It was a pleasant flight and I slept throughout most of it. I even had a pleasant chat with my seatmate who was on her first trip to Asia via Thailand. There was just a slight hitch when we were disembarking in Dubai.

The tube intended for Business Class and First Class passengers, who were all on the upper deck of the plane, was not working. So, they had to descend the grand staircase and use our tube. I was one of the first in line to get off the plane because I only had about an hour in transit time. But, our way blocked by the flight attendants so as to let the upper deck passengers disembark first. They took their sweet time.

The upper deck passengers leisurely went down the staircase and exchanged pleasantries and goodbyes with the cabin crew. One of the passengers was hugging and slapping the shoulders of the bursar. A toddler was also being coaxed to get down the stairs on his own. The flight attendants fawned over the kid. “This is very ‘Titanic’” I said loudly. My Economy cohorts who got the reference looked down and suppressed their smiles. The flight attendants gave us a commiserating glance and one of them said “Please hurry up” under her breath.

A lot of the passengers who died on the Titanic were third class. During evacuation, first class passengers were given priority and people from lower classes were not allowed to mingle with them on the lifeboats. “Don’t worry. One day, it will be your turn to fly in business class” my seatmate comforted me, while smiling slyly at my remark.

Fast forward to October 2018 and her prediction came true.

Three days before my flight from Manila to Rome, I received an email offering me a Business Class seat onboard an A380 for my Dubai to Rome leg for only 39,000 Skywards miles. At the time, I only had 36,000 miles. This was a very rare opportunity so I did not hesitate to pay USD90 for 3,000 additional miles. If your dream is within reach, it will not hurt to put in a little more effort, or expense.

Gate
Gate in the Business Class Lounge

As luck would have it, I arrived in Dubai via Building A after a 20-minute bus ride. All A380’s depart from Building A and from some gates in Building B. My Rome flight was going to be from Building A so I went straight to the Business Class lounge. Normally, if you get an upgrade through a discounted rate, you will not have lounge access. Since my Silver status had been restored after my Amsterdam to Manila flight in June 2018, I regained my lounge access. This was important because from the lounges in Building A, you have direct access to the upper decks of A380’s.

After hearing the boarding announcement, I went to the designated gate. There were two elevators, one for Business Class and First Class passengers and one for Economy Class passengers who had lounge access. I was joined by a man and a woman on the elevator. We gave each other small nods and smiles so as to acknowledge that, yes, we are in the same class. The elevator door opened on the upper tube that led directly into the upper deck of the plane. Yep, we were totally separated from the other passengers.

A380 SeatUpon entering the upper deck, the cabin crew greeted me with a hint of surprise. After a cursory glance at the other passengers, I realized I must have been the youngest in the cabin. Most of them would have been 15 to 30 years my senior. Before taking my seat, I snapped a photo of it. “Is this your first time with us?” asked the flight attendant. “My first time in business class on an A380” I replied. “Oh, this is much better” said the flight attendant with obvious pride. “After you settle in, maybe I could give you a tour later on?” “Sure, that would be great!”. She snapped a couple of photos of me.

I noted that it was on older aircraft based on the state of my screen and portable controller. I fiddled with the controls but the mouse on the screen would not budge. I began to plot to what seat I could transfer to. However, when the plane took off, the controls were functioning normally. I was also thrilled to have so much personal space and to try my own mini-bar, which had sodas, juices, and beer.

I had my usual welcome drink – champagne. After the seatbelt sign was turned off, I set my seat to fully flat. I was promptly offered a duvet, which I accepted. While I was lying on my back, a flight attendant knelt beside me and asked what I’d like to drink and what I’d like for lunch. Right away, I noticed that the service on this flight was more personalized. The lay-out of the seats must have had something to do with it. Having previously read the menu before the plane took off, I dictated my order from memory.

Bloody Mary
Bloody Mary

I asked for Bloody Mary because I read that this cocktail, as well as red wines, taste better up in the air. The altitude somehow affects our taste buds. When I took a sip, it was very tasty and not disgusting at all. I thoroughly enjoyed it that I decided to sip it very slowly while waiting for lunch to be served.

While I was in the midst of watching Deadpool 2, my appetizer was served. I had Salmon Gravadlax with Lemon Blinis and Cucumber complemented by Moghrabieh and Feta Salad. The cucumber gave a nice cool touch to the palate after the strong flavor of the salmon. The salad was too heavy for me. I was already half-full after finishing it all.

Salmon Gravadlax
Salmon Gravadlax

In keeping with my surf theme, I had Seafood Provencal (Fish, prawns, and scallops, with orange saffron broth, braised fennel, and new potatoes). I paired the dish with Chateau de Tracy Pouilly Fumé 2015. When the wine was served, the flight attendant asked if I wanted to try a little first to see if I liked it. I assured him I’ve had it before and told him to pour away. The Seafood Provencal was the best seafood dish I’ve had on Emirates. The ingredients were fresh, delicately cooked, and the flavors were balanced.

When a flight attendant came to clear away the dishes, I told her to cancel my order for dessert, which was a cheese platter. “Oh, that’s too bad” she said. “I’m so full already”. I just had green tea to cleanse my palate. After the movie, I took a nap. Since the flight was only five hours, I did not go into deep sleep because I still needed to see the famed onboard bar and lounge.

Seafood Provencal
Seafood Provencal

As I made my way towards the back of the plane, the flight attendant who greeted me when I first came on board saw me. “You want to see the bar?” she asked. “Yes, please”. “Follow me”. At the bar and lounge, some people were already having drinks and snacks. Networking had begun and business talk was the norm. Another flight attendant was mixing drinks at the bar. It was there I realized that the cabin crew were multitaskers. The one who did the mixing served me tea earlier.

“Would you like a photo inside the bar?”. “Yes!”. They brought out a polaroid camera and took a couple of shots of me. One of the passengers jokingly said “Can I have a glass of soda water please?”. Everyone chuckled. They also took photos of me with my phone. While waiting for my polaroids to develop, I was asked what I wanted to drink. “Do you have any mocktails?” “Yes, we do.” “What would you recommend?” “How about a Cucumber Spritz?” “Sure!” They handed the two photos to me in red cardboard frames(these are now on my office desk).

BarI sat on one of the mini-sofas while sipping my drink. It was very refreshing. I did not know that soda water and cucumber, with some lemon juice and mint leaves, could be so delicious. “Would you like another?” the bartender asked. “No, thank you. It was very good!”. I went to the toilet and availed of the Bulgari eau de toilette. I went back to my seat and started watching a movie. Right then, the captain announced that we were commencing descent.

Frames
Polaroids in frames

I took me an hour to get through immigration because the lines were so long. It took me some time to find my chauffeur. Yes, I had a chauffeur because Emirates gave me a free ride into Rome. The way I upgraded my ticket would not have entitled me to a chauffeur service but I was surprised that they activated this service in my Emirates app. Emirates had a tie-up with Blacklane in Rome. When I approached the Blacklane booth near the exit doors, I saw well-dressed men – wearing coats and ties – holding up signs. I said my name and the men, who were all older than me, gave me a surprised look. I must have been younger compared to their usual passengers. My driver, who later introduced himself as Giorgio, stepped forward and took my two bags. My driver was better dressed than I was.

Giogio
Giorgio and the car

It took us about ten minutes to get to the car. Giorgio asked me not to eat the sandwich, that I’d bought, inside the car because it might smell. As we drove, he asked where I was from and whether it was my first time in Rome. Our conversation started with the weather, places we’ve been to(he went to Mexico once because of a girl), and Roman history. He was genuinely pleased that I knew a lot about Roman history and some philosophy, so our conversation turned to historical revisionism. He took the route with a lot of scenery, pointed out monuments, and gave commentaries and recommendations. I began to wonder if he was once a professor – some people do quit the academe and live a carefree life – but tact kept my tongue in check. I did find out how much he loved his dog.

Inside Car
Inside the car

I was a bit nervous about my hotel’s location. I picked a decent boutique hotel but was not quite sure about the neighborhood. I did not want to arrive in a ghetto with a chauffeured car. And what would Giorgio think? Giorgio, however, said that I picked a very good and safe location. As we entered the neighborhood, I gave myself a pat on the back as I saw cafes and restaurants as well as wide and clean streets. Giorgio told me to wait in the cars he got out to look for the entrance of my hotel because the street it was on was cut off from non-resident vehicles. After he came back, he pointed out where the entrance of my hotel was. I handed him a tip and he was genuinely surprised.

I could definitely say that I arrived in Rome in style.

Seven Business Class Seats on Emirates (Part 4)

In May 2018, I found myself yet again traipsing around Europe – this time doing the Stockholm, Oslo, and Hague route. I decided to swing by Stockholm, because I’ve never been, before going to Oslo for the International Bar Association Mid-Year Meetings, and then to The Hague because I was invited to sit as a Bench Judge and Memorial Reviewer for the 2018 International Criminal Court Moot Court Competition organized by Leiden University.

I flew from Amsterdam to Dubai on Emirates Economy. I was worried if I would make it in time for my Dubai to Manila flight because my transit time was only a little over an hour. Based on experience, an hour is barely enough to get off the plane, clear through security, and make a mad dash through the humongous terminal. Since my flight was slightly delayed, I asked a flight attendant if I could still make it to my next flight. She assured me that my Dubai to Manila flight would wait for me. I was stressed once I landed in Dubai because the plane was parked far from the terminals and it took a 20-minute bus ride for us to be dropped off at Building B.

I managed to get through security quickly and looked at the information screens for my connecting flight. Good thing the boarding gate was in the same building and I knew where exactly the gate was. When I reached the gate, the economy passengers were still boarding. A female ground staff tapped my boarding bass on the scanner, which made a loud beep. She pressed a button and a business class boarding pass came out. She handed the boarding pass to me with a respectful nod. Naturally, I skipped the queue. At that time, my Silver status had expired a couple of days earlier and I was damn glad I still had the ability to skip lines.

I was very pleased to board a new Boeing 777-300ER. It meant brighter and sharper screens. The entertainment controls were seamless and I could watch and listen to whatever I wanted with just a tap on the screen or the portable controller. Ever since I’ve started flying in business class, I noticed that I developed a sense of entitlement – even though I never paid for these upgrades. I felt a slight irritation whenever something on my seat was slightly off or the controls had a slight glitch. I also got a little annoyed if the dish I first wanted had ran out and I had to settle for my second choice. Yes, luxury had bred a monster in me. During these moments, I slapped my inner self so that I would rouse from the throes of ungratefulness and petulance.

Continental Breakfast
Continental Breakfast

I had champagne for my welcome drinks as usual. I was later surprised to see that their menu now offered breakfast instead of lunch and I was not asked what I’d like to drink before breakfast. After an hour, I was served Continental Breakfast consisting of bread, yogurt, slices of fruit, jam, and a cup of finely brewed coffee. This must be part of Emirates’ revamp of their food service for they wish to ensure that their passengers would not get hungry throughout the flight. It is considerably a better replacement to their light snack option. Plus, passengers would have a better appetite in the latter part of the flight, which would be a good time to serve the main meal.

The breakfast was pleasant. I did not feel pressured to eat a three-course meal first thing in the morning. I sipped my coffee while watching “The Greatest Showman”. The noise-cancelling earphones were a great help during the singing parts. After finishing the movie, I decided to go to sleep. I had set my seat to fully flat mode when I was asked if I’d like a duvet. A duvet makes the flight more comfortable. Despite the strong coffee, my body gave in to exhaustion and I promptly fell asleep.

Smoked duck
Smoked Duck

I woke up because nature called. I jumped at the chance to once again generously sprinkle Bulgari eau de toilette on my wrists and neck. Apparently, I had woken up just in time because the crew had started the meal service. I was excited to try the food because I noted that the menu on this flight was totally new.

For appetizer, I had Smoked Duck served chilled with mango jelly, pickled beetroot, and asparagus. The duck was a bit tough yet tasty. The jelly, beetroot, and asparagus made a nice contrast to the smoky flavor of the duck. The salad had mozzarella balls in it. I was definitely hungry because the appetizer had accomplished its purpose, to whet my appetite.

Chicken with Moroccan Spices
Chicken with Moroccan Spices

My main course consisted of Chicken with Moroccan Spices served with tomato and lemon salsa, steamed broccoli and moghrabieh with olives. I paired them with Chateau La Nerthe Chàteauneuf-du-Pape Blanc 2016(dry and medium-bodied palate with flavors of honey, pear, peach and just a lick of spice). My only issue with the dish was that the sauce was a bit tepid. I would have liked it thicker, but then again, this was my first time to try Moroccan-inspired food. Everything was cooked well.

I looked at the dessert selection and decided to try the Passion Fruit Tart, the only item on the dessert selection that I haven’t tried. The first time I asked for it, it had run out. This time, when I ordered it, the flight attendant had to check first if it was still available, and since it was my lucky day, the tart was. The tart had a delicately balanced sweet-and-sour taste. The three dashes of cream added to the layer of taste. It went very well with the green tea. No wonder this dessert was a bit difficult to get.

Passion Fruit Tart
Passion Fruit Tart

This was the most pleasant flight on a Boeing 777-300ER I’d ever had so far. Service was excellent, as usual, and my experience was enhanced by the new entertainment and seat features. I slept well, the longest I’ve slept on a business class seat. Maybe, I was more relaxed that time because of my familiarity with the seat features. I was not pressured to try everything out. I already had a rhythm going on. Getting used to luxury is going to be the cause of my demise – very “Bonfire of the Vanities”.

I again wondered if it was going to be my last business class seat for some time. My heart once again sang to the universe, praying for a chance to fly business class on an Airbus A380. It is said to be an experience on a totally different level. The universe had granted my wish, many times, to fly business class on a Boeing, maybe it will deign to grant me this wish.

All I can say is, be careful what you wish for because you might just get it.

Seven Business Class Seats on Emirates (Part 3)

Hennesy
Hennesy XO Cognac

I decided to welcome 2018 in Madrid and spend my birthday in Lisbon. I came to this decision in October 2017 while in the midst of completing the last stages of my master’s degree and realizing that I’ve never been on a real vacation for some time. All my trips had an official or educational aspect to it. It’s been a while that I purely travelled for leisure. Since there were still a few months left in my Schengen visa, I decided to go for it.

I was supposed to fly home for Christmas but a typhoon got in the way. I spent Christmas Eve and Christmas Day at Century Park Hotel so as not to be completely miserable in my apartment. I was not inclined to listen to the reveling of my neighbors. Besides, my flight to Madrid was on December 27th so I considered it a vacation in preparation for another vacation.

Chick Pea Soup
Lemon and Chickpea Soup

While I was waiting for the boarding announcement, my name was called over the PA system. I approached the staff at the boarding gate. They asked for my Economy boarding pass and casually handed me a Business class boarding pass. Once I got back to my seat, I took to social media to brag about the upgrade and called my sister.

We boarded an old Boeing 777-300ER. As in my previous flight, the touch screen did not work well so I had to make do with the portable console. If you intentionally fly business class, you pay the same price regardless if the plane is old or new. Well, I got my seat for free, so there was no point on griping. Any business class seat is better than an economy seat.

Pinatisang Manok
Pinatisang Manok

After finishing my welcome champagne, I asked for Hennesy XO Cognac and watched Groot dance in the opening scene of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. I had selected Lemon and Chickpea Soup with Focaccia Croutons for appetizer, which was served with garlic bread and a salad. While the soup was being served, a flight attendant saw what I ordered and she smiled and said “Good choice!” and made a smacking gesture with her hand and mouth. Since I am in constant need of validation, I was flattered by the affirmation of my good taste.

Emirates had started to incorporate regional elements in their menu. I decided to try Pinatisang Manok(braised chicken in fish sauce served with steamed rice and vegetables stewed in coconut milk) and paired it with Chateau La Nerthe Chateauneuf-Du-Pape Blanc 2015. I noticed that they used Thai fish sauce on the chicken. The dish was similar to Hainanese Chicken rice – which could have been the inspiration. For dessert, I asked for a Selection of Pastries: carrot and pecan cake, chocolate brownie, and fruit choux. The carrot and pecan cake was quite rich and went well with the tea.

Selection of desserts
Selection of Pastries

After a short nap, I put on Spiderman: Homecoming. For light snack before landing, I was served Fried Prawns with Sesame Seeds served with Egg Fried Rice and Sweet Chili Sauce. It was tasty and I wanted to have more. I don’t know if it was allowed to ask for seconds though. The cabin crew were very busy during meal service and I did not want to appear greedy. Besides, I could always gorge myself with the buffet offerings in the Dubai business class lounges.

Fried Prawns with sesame seeds
Fried Prawns with Sesame Seeds

As usual, service was excellent which made up for the not so perfect entertainment system.

Negroni
Negroni

For my return flight, I flew from Lisbon to Dubai. I spent a good six hours in the business class lounge in Building A, Terminal 3 – the glitziest and least crowded among the Emirates business class lounges. An hour before the scheduled departure, I took the train to Building B and walked from one end to another to get to my gate. When I arrived, they were already admitting Economy class passengers and the queue was quite long. I heard one of the staff call out for business class passengers as well as Platinum, Gold, and Silver Skywards members. I skipped the line and went directly to the gate.

The guy inspecting the boarding passes noticed that the machine did not recognize my boarding pass. He pressed a button and a Business class boarding pass came out. “Business class” he said while staring at me, bewildered. He must have wondered who I was and I would have replied “ I am no one”.

Mezze
Traditional Arabic Mezze

After my usual champagne, I asked for a Negroni(Sipsmith London Dry Gin on the rocks with Martini Rosso and Campari). While waiting for lunch, I went to the business class toilets but they were full. I headed to the Economy section and parted the curtain between the two worlds. One of the Economy toilets was available. As I went back to the portal into Business class, I heard someone say loudly “He’s in business class, why is he using the toilet in Economy?”. I would have preferred to be in a Business class toilet so that I could douse myself with variants of Bulgari eau de toilette.

Grilled Beef
Grilled Beef Steak

For appetizer, I had Traditional Arabic Mezze(Spinach bil zeit, labneh, houmous, and stuffed vine leaves) served with salad and bread. I’ve seen this item on every business class menu on Emirates and I thought it was high time I tried it. It was delicious. I’m used to eating ground grains but I was surprised by the strong flavors. It was also my first time to eat grape leaves.

The main course selection was the usual Emirates business class fare. I was a bit hungry so I had Grilled Beef Steak served with green pepper sauce, steamed green beans, and potato cakes with truffle and fittingly paired it with Chateau La Marzelle 2006(“a powerful nose with scrubland aromas, savoury red berry fruit, black tea, black pepper, and cedar, The palate is medium bodied with supple tannin, persistent sweet black cherry, fruit and a distinct earthiness”). For dessert, I again had chocolate truffle cake with cherry compote.

Savouries 2
Selection of Savouries

I slept throughout most of the flight and woke up just in time for light snacks. I ordered a Selection of Savouries: Hoisin Chicken Drummettes, prawn dumplings, and lemon grass chicken parcels and orange juice. In terms of food selection, I took the safe route and had the things that I’ve tried before. The plane was an old Boeing 777-300ER but I had already gotten familiar with getting around the defective entertainment system controls.

When I got off the plane, I thought it would be the last time I’d fly Business class for some time. I did not know there would still be another.

Seven Business Class Seats on Emirates (Part 2)

CabinMy second Boeing experience was on June 10, 2017. A couple of days before my flight, Emirates offered me a business class seat from Manila to Dubai for about 19,000 points – which is more than a steal. Usually, a business class seat upgrade will cost you almost 40,000 points. A round trip business class trip will cost you about 70,000 points. I had enough points so I took it.

As a Silver Skywards member, I have access to a dedicated check-in counter and have priority boarding privileges. Yet, the experience of turning right, instead of left to the Economy section, upon entering the plane still made me giddy. I was on a newer Boeing, so my screen and portable control console worked perfectly and had an updated interface. I was offered welcome drinks and I again opted for champagne over juices and sparkling water.

I chose a window seat, although I prefer aisle seats, just to experience it. The criticism of Emirates’s business class configuration on their Boeing aircraft is that they have a 2x3x2 layout. People in window seats and in the middle seats have to step over the legs of other passengers to get to the aisle. But, window seats do have more privacy.

Rob Roy
EnRob Roy(whiskey and Martini Rosso shaken over ice, served with a maraschino cherry)ter a caption

A young flight attendant asked me what I’d like for pre-dinner drinks. “Rob Roy” I said. “Excuse me?”. “Rob Roy”. “I beg your pardon? I’m not familiar with the drinks menu”. I pulled out the menu from the seat pocket in front of me and showed it to her. “Oh, I’m so sorry” she looked embarrassed. “It’s alright” I said while waving my hand dismissively. She must have been pulled out from the economy section to temporarily assist in handling business class passengers. I’ve noticed that most of the business class crew were considerably senior than the ones in economy. While I was in the midst of of watching the live-action version of “Beauty and the Beast”, I was served my cocktail with warm macadamia nuts.

 

An hour later, dinner service began. By then I already knew from where to pull out my tray table so there was no longer a few seconds of awkward waiting. I ordered Salmon Roulade served with mango salad, for appetizer, and paired it with a glass of Chateau de Santenay, Saint Aubin “En Vesvau” 2014. Emirates has a separate menu for wines, which usually feature two white wines and two red wines. While dinner service was going on, the sommelier went around with a basket of bottles of wine. The sommelier was quite quick to spot who needed refilling.

Business Class 8
ESalmon Roulade served with mango saladnter a caption

For my main course, I asked for pan-fried parrot fish with lemon velouté, served with buttered potatoes and grilled vegetables. I was going for a fish-themed dinner so that everything would go well with the white wine. The fish was very delicate and lightly seasoned but I found the potatoes to have had too much butter on them. For dessert, I asked for a cheese platter, which I was barely able to finish. After dinner, I asked for fresh orange juice. The thing about business class orange juice is that it’s freshly squeezed while the ones in economy are poured out of a box. And it’s served in a nice glass, too. I was later given a box of Belgian chocolates.

 

Business Class 9
Pan-fried parrot fish with lemon velouté, served with buttered potatoes and grilled vegetablesEnter a caption

The large coffee that I had before the flight kept me awake despite having drunk a considerable amount of white wine. I set the seat to fully-flat setting and it was only then I noticed the stars on the cabin roof. People around me began to softly snore and I closed my eyes. The caffeine in my body and the warmth of my part of the plane kept me awake. I tossed and turned for a while before falling into a short nap.

 

When I woke up and sat up, a flight attendant asked me if I wanted breakfast. I was still full so I declined. Apparently most of the passengers preferred to sleep and only a few availed of the breakfast service. An hour later, we started our descent.

On July 3, 2017, I was once again upgraded to Business Class for my Dubai to Manila flight. I had purposely spent eight hours in Dubai airport after my flight from Budapest to relish the amenities, food, and beverages of the business class lounge. I was quite tipsy from all the Moet champagne that I drank that I was quite jolted when I was handed a business class boarding pass at the gate.

Business class 10
Rusty Nail(Drambuie and whiskey tumbled over ice with a slice of lemon)

I was on an older Boeing. The screen hardly responded to my touch so I had to use the portable console to navigate the menu. At least the seat functioned properly, and for the first time, I used the massage feature. The seat basically vibrated at different points – leg area, lower back, and head. I got to relax a little. Despite having drunk all that champagne in the business class lounge, I still asked for champagne for my welcome drink.

 

I put on “Jackie” and watched Natalie Portman do her take of Jackie Kennedy. The flight attendant in charge of me was a middle-aged Indian woman. She was very motherly and occasionally patted my shoulder to see if I’m alright. As I noted before, the crew in business class were considerably senior than those in economy. Their experience definitely showed in their flawless and efficient service. They also had this no-nonsense air, which meant a snooty business class or even first class passenger cannot easily intimidate them. Throughout the flight, the bursar was engaged in a conversation with a passenger a couple of seats in front of me. I later discovered that said passenger was a Platinum Skywards member – very rare.

Business Class 14
Grilled chicken with sun-dried tomato tapenade on mushroom salad with peppers and fennel

I asked for a Rusty Nail for my pre-lunch drink. As usual, my drink came with warm macadamia nuts. For appetizer, I again asked for grilled chicken with sun-dried tomato tapenade on mushroom salad with peppers and fennel. I paired this with Australian white wine that had a hint of mineral taste in it.

 

 

Main course was wok-fried chili prawns served with steamed jasmine rice and glazed vegetables. I opted for a light main course so I could still stuff in some dessert. The jasmine rice and vegetables were well-cooked, but the prawns, fresh and juicy, were swimming in a sauce that hardly had any flavor in it. It was not even spicy. For dessert, I had a very delightful chocolate truffle cake with cherry compote which I paired with tea.

I was drowsy after my meal so I set my seat to fully-flat position. My motherly flight attendant asked if I wanted a duvet. “Sure!”, I said and stood up so that she could lay it out on top of my seat. I never availed of a duvet before and I wanted to see if it made a difference. And it did. My seat became more comfortable and I dozed off in no time.

Business class 11
Wok-fried chili prawns served with steamed jasmine rice and glazed vegetables

Four hours later, I woke up to answer nature’s call. I never went into the business class toilets before so I figured it was the perfect time to explore them. The toilet was slightly roomier than in economy but had the same layout. Although, it had a wood-themed finish, some fresh cotton towels, disposable toothbrushes, and most importantly, two large bottles of Bulgari eau de toilette. I helped myself to some Bulgari.

 

 

Snack service began a little while later. I had a Selection of Savouries: Hoisin Chicken Drummettes, prawn dumplings, and lemon grass chicken parcels. In an attempt to be sober, I asked for orange juice. All the while, Colin Firth was stammering in “The King’s Speech”. To finish everything, I had coffee.

Service on that flight was excellent, which compensated for the fact that the facilities were dated. I finally understood what reviewers meant when they said that the Emirates experience can be inconsistent by reason of the aircraft being used. Well, I can’t really complain because I flew in business class for free.

Business class 13
Selection of Savouries: Hoisin Chicken Drummettes, prawn dumplings, and lemon grass chicken parcels

 

 

 

Seven Business Class Seats on Emirates (Part 1)

Business Class 1In my transcontinental travels, I’ve flown on three major Middle-Eastern airlines. When my travels became more frequent, I opted to be loyal to Emirates because of their entertainment system, ICE. It has always been on Emirates that I’m able to catch up on my movie-watching. I always look forward to my flights, even though I always book economy tickets, because the seats are comfortable enough, the food is very good, and the flight attendants always obliged my requests for more than one glass of wine. Since I’ve been flying a lot, I decided to rack up points: I am now on my second year as a Silver Skywards member. Sipping unlimited Moet champagne in the Emirates Business Class Lounges in Dubai has been my transit pastime for some time.

Currently, the only monogamous relationship that I have is with Emirates. Yes, I have a relationship with a multi-national corporation. And it is not one-sided because, as in any healthy relationship, there has been a give-and-take. I’ve been given seven business class seats so far, six on a Boeing 777-333R and one on an Airbus 380, plus a chauffeured car.

On March 31, 2016, I was dazed from lack of sleep on my Hamburg to Dubai flight. As I shuffled through the check-in gate of my Manila flight, a staff member took my boarding pass and casually said in a low voice “Sir, you have been upgraded to Business Class”. I made a small gasp and demurely said “Thank you” – there was no need to make such a scandal about it. The lines were long and the flight was fully booked.

The stairway down to the gate was crowded. I heard the staff call out for any remaining Business Class passengers. My “Excuse me’s” were audible enough to rise above the babble of the impatient crowd – but not too loud out of decorum. People gave way to me as I rushed to the waiting designated bus. There were 14 seats, with gold highlights, available and there were 11 of us on it. If I were in my previous class(note how I distanced myself from them) I would have been crammed in the same-sized bus with as many passengers as the bus could carry.

Business Class 7
Kir Royale(champagne and creme de cassis)

I was given champagne upon taking my seat inside the Boeing aircraft. I had the option to take juice or water, but why would you do that? As in economy, flight attendants also handed out hot wet towels for passengers to wipe their faces and hands with. While the crew were waiting for the rest of the economy class passengers to board, I settled in and took note of the features of my seat.

There was a USB port(also available in economy) and a power outlet. A noise-cancelling headset was also provided. The pillow was bigger and the blanket was wider and thicker. There was also a bottle of water in the small shelf below the screen. All this time, I tried to act nonchalant and as if nothing was out of the ordinary, lest I’d be discovered as a freeloader.

After take off, the bursar went around to introduce herself. Later on, I was asked what I’d like for pre-lunch drink since lunch will be served an hour later. Their drinks menu was quite extensive – classic cocktails, rum, cognac, gin, vodka, liqueur, wines, and aperitifs.  I had kir royale(champagne with creme de cassis), served with warm macadamia nuts. I had just taken a class in Budapest that time and one of our discussions involved the matter regarding the alcohol content of crème de cassis resolved by the European Court of Justice.  The flight attendant also noted my choices for appetizer, main course, and dessert on her iPad.

Business Class 3
Grilled chicken with sun-dried tomato tapenade on mushroom salad with peppers and fennel

Two flight attendants parked a food cart beside my seat. I had not yet unfolded my tray table, mainly because I did not know where it should be pulled out. After a couple of seconds of waiting, one of them, reached over to a slot near my right thigh and casually pulled out the tray table. The jig was up. One thing I like about Emirates crew is that when they notice you have no idea how to go about onboard, they will subtly assist you and you won’t look like a fool. They briskly laid out a table cloth, placed a laid-out tray of my appetizer, grilled chicken with sun-dried tomato tapenade on mushroom salad with peppers and fennel, and gave me a bundle of utensils – a set for appetizers and another set for the main course.

Business Class 4
Roasted Beef Tenderloin with green pepper sauce, steamed French beans, and potato cakes with truffle

While passengers were eating, a flight attendant went around carrying a basket of assorted breads. I asked for garlic bread, and I was informed it was a good choice. After I finished with my appetizer, my tray was taken away and promptly replaced with my main course of roasted beef tenderloin. I had French red wine as well, which was occasionally refilled as the meal service progressed. Instead of offering me one choice of dessert, the flight attendant suggested I should have the fruit platter and cheese plate(Cropwell Bishop Stilton, Tomme des Pyrénées, De La Huz Iberico, and Belton’s Red Leicester). When they took away the plates, utensils, and glasses, I was asked if I wanted tea or coffee. I asked for coffee, which they served with a box containing two bite-sized Belgian chocolates.

Business Class 5
Fruit Platter and Cheese Platter(Cropwell Bishop Stilton, Tomme des Pyrénées, De La Huz Iberico, and Belton’s Red Leicester)

There were a lot of buttons to push and the seat could be customized to encase the contours of my body. The seat even had a special touchscreen console in addition to the manual controls, to further fine tune my seating preferences. It was also a good thing that I was on a newer plane, which made my experience seamless.

After re-watching “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” on a very wide and hi-definition screen, I reclined my seat and promptly fell asleep. I was woken by the sound of cutlery. I pulled out my tray table once again and the flight attendant laid out the table cloth and gave me utensils.  I was offered Bresaola served with cheese-filled bell pepper, olives and focaccia as a light snack.

Business Class 6
Bresaola served with cheese-filled bell pepper, olives and focaccia

After that experience, I was no longer the same person who flew out of Dubai about 9 hours earlier. I think Jerry Seinfeld had the same epiphany after he got upgraded to business class and Elaine tried to sneak in many times from Economy. I acquired the knowledge that there is always something better at the front side of a Boeing. And the realization that I had been leading a destitute life.

 

It’s Not Just About Words

ArielThe most important take away I had from Disney’s “The Little Mermaid”, which left quite an impression on me as a little boy, was that one should never underestimate the importance of body language. More importantly, you can hit on someone hard without uttering a single word – what is idle prattle for anyway? Yes, the fact that I point to the “Little Mermaid” as a major influence in my life gives you license to judge and make assumptions, which may be valid, about me.

Yet, truth reveals itself in a myriad of ways so don’t you dare diss the “Little Mermaid”! Body language, and a lot of smiling, saved me from getting stranded in countries where English is not widely spoken or, more specifically, where locals do not know it.

I discovered my body language reading skills during my second visit to Hong Kong. I was staying somewhere on Nathan Road and I did not want to eat at McDonald’s, KFC, or 7/11. I wanted something warm and flavorful. During my first visit a few months earlier, I was wandering somewhere on Mody Road when I stumbled into a noodle shop. It was filled with locals. As in most noodle shops in Hong Kong, the proprietors do not speak English but they have an English menu. Pointing will usually suffice as long as you do not have questions.

ModiRemembering exactly where the noodle shop was, I went there for breakfast. An old lady was wiping the formica tables and plastic chairs. She shook her head and said something in Cantonese. I shook my head and shrugged my shoulders. She nodded. She pointed to the wall clock, which said it was 10 a.m., and put her index fingers together. It took me a couple of seconds to understand what she was communicating. To confirm if I understood it correctly, I pointed to the clock, held up my ten fingers while shaking my head and she also shook her head. I held up my index fingers and she nodded. She meant to say that they will start serving at 11 a.m..

Macau proved to be difficult. Good thing my hotel reservation spelled out my hotel’s address in Cantonese. My cab driver was a woman and she spoke to me in Cantonese. I shook my head. Portuguese? I shook my head. She spoke in Cantonese again and gestured at her face while looking at me. She was saying I looked Chinese. I shook my head and smiled. She dropped me off at Senado Square and said something in Cantonese while making a walking gesture with her fingers, meaning I had to look for my hotel. Based on previous research, I knew that cabs have designated drop-off and pick-up points in old Macau. She also gestured to what direction I should go.

I realized that old Macau did not have a grid lay-out but had meandering and narrow streets. I would later learn that this was how old European towns and cities are laid out. Smiling so broadly, I approached a woman who seemed nice. I had also learned that by looking totally helpless, sheepish, and adorable, older women will take pity on you and help you out.

ManvaI showed her my hotel reservation. “Manva!(the name of my hotel)” she knew where it was. “No English. Portuguese?” I shook my head. She looked down the street to our right and stretched her hand in that direction. Then she made two chopping gestures. She held up two fingers and made a swooping gesture. All throughout, she was speaking in Cantonese. I understood what she meant. To make sure, I copied all of her gestures. She nodded. We both smiled brightly at each other. What she meant was I should walk straight and at the second corner, go down the road until I saw the hotel. She was right.

English is not an issue in Salzburg but there are some people who hardly know it. At a hostel, I was eating breakfast in the dining hall when a member of the housekeeping staff approached me. Everyone else had gone away, and she caught me scooping up the last two slices of cheese. She spoke to me in German, apparently asking a question. After a few gestures, I understood that she was asking if I wanted more cheese. I said, no.

She later asked if I was Indian. I said “Philippine” and she was very surprised. She spoke while gesturing around her face, expressing that she was trying to figure out my nationality when she saw me. After I handed to her my plates, she asked for my “nom”. I said “Lloyd Nicholas” and she was “Vera”. She asked me “Tomorrow?”. I said “Prague”.
She picked up a plate and gestured like she was eating.”Czech. Kendall”. She was saying that I should try Czech kendall. Judging how wide her smile was, I guess kendall must be a must-try. I said goodbye and we shook hands.

MozartFrom Salzburg, I headed to Prague. European friends were concerned when I said I was going to take the train. “How about by plane? It’s just a few minutes!”. I said I wanted to try it the old-fashioned way. They politely did not push their point but there was a look of consternation on their faces.

From Salzburg, I changed trains at Linz. A couple of hours later I found myself as the last passenger. The conductor, who was already wearing his suit and carrying his suitcase, gestured at me to follow him while speaking German. When we got off the train, I saw that we were in the middle of nowhere surrounded by heaps of rusting train parts and other machinery. He called out to a woman who was waiting behind a shed and spoke a language unfamiliar to my ears – it was Czech. I was already in the Czech Republic, possibly near its border with Austria. The woman gave me a very curious look, I must have been the first brown person she had ever seen in her life. She was also polite.

I was in a one-street town and the central district was comprised of Soviet-era architecture. At a bus stop, a police officer came on board. “Passport” he said through a very thick accent. I gave my passport. He and the woman looked at my photo and the Philippine symbols. The man shook his head: they did not know where my country was. He flipped through the pages and took note of the stamps. He examined my Schengen visa and said “France”. He looked at me and gave me a respectful nod.

After the police officer got off, we spent an hour going around the town and its outskirts. We passed through woods of pine trees and other conifers. We coasted on a single-lane road through a valley dotted with tiny houses, with smoke coming out of their chimneys. There were flocks of sheep grazing on the grasslands. If it were not for the paved road, our bus, and some very old tractors scattered around the valley, I would have thought we were back in the medieval ages. I’ve only seen such scenery in indie European movies about coming-of-age stories where the young characters discover the delights of physical intimacy somewhere in the woods or beside brooks.

We made stops at houses and street corners, and every passenger would give a look of very polite curiosity. We got back to the train tracks eventually. The woman gestured at the tracks and said “Praha”. I nodded but looked very confused. Everyone was getting off and a man tapped me on the shoulder and said “Let’s go!” in a very Hollywood manner. I got off the bus and followed everyone. We got on a yellow single-car train that also looked very much from the Soviet-era. It was six in the evening and getting very cold, it was autumn, but at least the heating worked.

We travelled for an hour and I looked at the small train stations that we passed by that may have been constructed in the early part of the twentieth century. When we got to a slightly bigger station, everyone got off except me. Then three men with mops and buckets barged in and started splashing around. That was definitely my cue to get off the train. The woman, who was on the bus, was also the train conductor. She pointed to a blue single-car train on another platform and said “Praha”. I went down the stairs and under the platforms and I met the guy who said “Let’s go” to me earlier. He smiled at me and gestured down the corridor and said “Praha”.

The train to Prague made a stop at every station along the way. I realized that if I was not good at reading body language and making deductions, I could have spent the night freezing to death on a bench at a train station in the middle of nowhere.

The Fuel for My Travels

DisneyWhen people ask me why I have been travelling a lot for the past five years, I always say that I am on a quest for Looove. To paraphrase someone in the movie, Warcraft, if love is important to you, you must go to the ends of the earth to find it. But, I would say to those who’d listen, love is an elusive and deceptive thing. You think you have it, then it’s gone. Maybe you are not really looking for it or wanting it, some friends say. That may be true, but that is another topic for another time.

It was rage that caused me to travel. “Rage fuels me” is more dramatic than saying “I’m on a quest for love”. By the way, neither rage nor love(or infatuation) can fill your stomach. Both can cause hypoglycemia if you’re not careful.

Rage at friends who betrayed me. Rage at the pressures and expectations laid on me, Rage at the people went out of their way just to prove that I did not deserve what I was working so hard for. Rage at people who tried to take advantage of my weaknesses just so they could advance themselves. Rage at people who frustrated my efforts just because they think they could. Rage at people who attempted to manipulate me to suit their purposes. Rage at people who disregarded who I really was and tried to impose on me their idea of who I should be. Rage at people who measured themselves against me. Rage at people who blame me for their faults and shortcomings. Rage at assuming responsibilities and burdens because of other people’s incompetence. Rage at being obliged to give so much for things that were given virtually for free to other people. Rage at myself for putting up with all these things at great emotional and psychological cost. Rage at slowly giving up pieces of my sense of self for the sake of advancement.

For a long period of time – too long – I could only feel rage and contempt. All I could ever think about was how to survive. I was vengeful and vindictive. It felt like everything was closing in. I just had to will myself to withstand them all. I knew that it was only a matter of choice: to let the rage burn me out and become a husk of a person or hold on to who I was and survive.

During that time, I also cut off a lot of people from my life because I knew they were not good for me.

I went to Hong Kong to visit Ocean Park and Disneyland. I wanted to feel other things. I did do a lot of therapeutic screaming while being spun in the air on the adult rides at Ocean Park. Fear, excitement, and adrenaline make a great combination. At DIsneyland, I did get teary-eyed on seeing the Disney Princesses. The Disney mind-conditioning was  at work when I again got teary-eyed while watching the fireworks.

MacauI visited old Macau and spent hours just walking round and round, looking for the heritage sites. I enjoyed getting lost and finding my way back again. I hopped over the graves of Protestant Dutchmen who died over a hundred years ago. I walked up and down winding stairways, filled with graffiti.

Walking in the sun without any particular destination, looking at famous monuments and landmarks, trudging on unfamiliar streets, and listening to unfamiliar languages, made me feel better. At every step, I could feel my rage ebb just a little. The new sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and textures reminded me that the world is big and has so much to offer.

Siem ReapI found myself clambering over large stone monuments, going through dark tunnels, climbing very narrow steps, and joking and laughing with total strangers in Siem Reap. I fulfilled a childhood promise to see Angkor Wat – there was a time I wanted to be an archeologist. I experienced wonder once again. I felt great sadness while the audio guide walked me through the Killing Fields in Phnom Penh, and watched other people suddenly burst into tears for they too felt the great despair and suffering in that place. I felt rage, but it was righteous.

HueA friend and I rode bicycles in Hoi An. We checked into a five-star hotel in Hue and spent New Year’s Eve in a club with white people dancing to 80’s music while the proprietor, who was wearing a suit, gave us drinks on the house. I walked, in full costume, the halls of the Imperial Palace of the Nguyen Dynasty, while other tourists took photos of me. I ate as much as I could in the labyrinthine streets of the French Quarter in Hanoi and got addicted to Vietnamese coffee.

I spent my birthday at Genting Highlands Park – cheesy but I had fun with my friend. We spent most of our time riding buses in Malaysia and looking for places to eat nasi goreng. We did a lot of walking in Georgetown and Melaka. I was even surprised to see two young men holding hands, as they crossed a football field in Melaka – in a Muslim country at that! Simply sitting inside a hop-on-hop-off bus in Kuala Lumpur while stuck in traffic, in the middle of pouring rain, was fun for me. Hey, I was stuck in traffic in a foreign country and in one of the most important cities of the world!

MelakaIt took years of occasional travelling to get me into sorts. In the process, I did feel I’ve become a different person – more confident, less afraid, comfortable with uncertainty, and eager for surprises. Travelling will test your wits and patience, and you will discover how much you are truly capable of. And the most important experience I’ve ever had was kindness from total strangers. Again and again, I was reminded that the world is big and full of wonder. Whatever I was going through was just of the tiniest consequence in the greater scheme of things. Every step I made in a new and strange land took out a little of the rage I had in me. It took thousands of steps just to drain enough rage and make room for other things – joy, wonder, empathy, trust, friendship, hope.

I now feel anger, not rage. And it is a good thing. I keep anger alive, but contained, because anger, like fire, can be good if harnessed properly. I tap into it to give me energy to fight and to stand for what I believe in. It gives me strength to resist bullshit and to demand for what I deserve. It reminds me to never allow anyone to make me go through all that again.

The money I have spent on travel so far would have built me a big house or gotten me a luxurious condo. It was all a small price to pay for saving myself.

Venice, Three Women, and Pandora Bracelets

Venice 6It was summer when I went to Venice with two purple luggage and a back pack. I took the bus from the airport and arrived at Piazzale Roma about three in the afternoon. Of course, the place was crammed with tourists, and I must have stood out among all of them because of my three bags. I looked at the steps of Ponte della Costituzione, forming a high arch over the water. I sighed and dragged my stuff over the pavement towards the steps.

Suddenly, a tanned Italian appeared beside me, acting all friendly and helpful. He offered to carry my luggage for me and kept asking where I was staying. What drew him to me might have been the Emirates business class tags on my bags – I got an upgrade on my Manila-Dubai leg. I was not daft enough to answer his questions and never let go of my bags. I politely refused his offer of assistance. “Don’t worry! We in Venice are very helpful. We like to welcome visitors!”. He never let go of my bag as we traversed the many steps over the bridge. I repeatedly told him that I was fine but he had turned deaf.

Once we got over the bridge, with him panting and me very sweaty – it was very humid – he offered to take me to my hotel. I told him again that I was alright and I knew my way. I tightened my grasp on my luggage handles because he might create a scene. If he was going to take my luggage hostage, there will be bloodshed. I can be as strong as Diana, Princess of Themyscira, if the need arises.

As we neared Stazione Santa Lucia, the man asked for a tip. “But I never asked you to help me”, I said. “But, I still helped you across the bridge! You should give me a reward”, he insisted. “I told you many times I’m fine”, I was unmoved. “People should help each other! You should pay for my service” he pressed. Two people walked past and briefly observed us with a something-is-going-down look. “I never agreed to that. We never had any contract. I told you many times to leave me alone, but you did not listen. You did that on your own”. He gave me a petulant look and acted like I was a horrible and selfish person.

Venice 2I don’t know. It must have been the strain of years of people guilting me into doing things, the long flight, or the humidity, that I could not summon even a trickle of empathy for him. I could only give him a look of indifference. Realizing that he was talking to stone, he turned abruptly and left in a huff. I walked on and clambered over a flight of steps on Ponte del Scalzi, which had a great view of the Grand Canal. Once I had crossed over into Santa Croce island, I dragged my luggage into the labyrinth of tiny streets and alleys and somehow managed to locate my hostel near the Riva de Basio vaporetto stop.

I was put in a six-bed mixed room with wide windows that had good views of the Grand Canal and the buildings on the other bank. I had a much-needed nap but was woken when three women walked in. They were speaking in Tagalog. I said hello to them and they said they thought I was Indian or from somewhere near the Middle-East.

Then the interrogation began.

Venice 5The leader asked most of the questions: No, I’m not in a tour group. I am travelling on my own. I just flew in and will go to Munich and then Budapest to attend a seminar. I’ve been to Europe a number of times. This is a personal trip. I’ll be staying for three days. I don’t have an itinerary. I’m a lawyer.

Mindful about conversation etiquette, I inquired “Did you fly into Venice? What’s your itinerary?” “Oh, we flew in from London into Rome and then took the train through Florence and Bologna. We visited a Filipino friend of mine who is taking his doctorate at the University of Bologna”, she said smugly. I realized that she had interrogated me in a way to assess my background and financial capability. She also did not even bother to ask for my name or introduce herself and her friends. She just asked me a barrage of questions.

“What was your itinerary again?” she asked. “Venice, Munich, and Hungary”. “I thought you said Budapest!” somehow she derived pleasure in pointing out my inconsistent answer. I replied politely “Yes, Hungary”.

After an awkward silence, the leader launched into a very loud discussion about the expensive glass souvenirs she bought from Murano island. I pretended to be very busy with my phone while I noted that the kitsch she bought was ready-made and probably imported from China. If it were made on Murano Island, it would cost thousands of euros a piece. The fact that the three of them stayed in a hostel meant that they did not have that kind of money. She also lamented how much money she blew on leather goods and that she had bought her mother a Louis Vuitton wallet. Mercifully, my stomach was growling and I excused myself to look for food.

When I got back, the three women were not there. I was relieved. I took out William Carney’s “Mergers and Acquisitions: Cases and Materials” and started reading the chapter on the responsibilities of directors. After an hour, they came back. To preempt any conversation with them, I said “I hope you don’t mind if I keep my lamp on. I am doing my homework and I have to email this by midnight.” I hid behind my book.

“Have you read the title of his book? He must be a big shot!” the leader said audibly to her friend. After a few minutes of silence, she piped up “Are you into finance? I thought you were a lawyer.” “This is part of the curriculum of the class I’m taking in Budapest.” “Are you taking your masters?” “Yes.” I was determined not to give out more information than what was asked.

She called someone on her phone. She loudly told her mother that she had already made an itinerary for their next European trip, which will be from Prague to Budapest through the Danube River. Someone had oriented herself on the geography of Central Europe. After her phone call, she complained about her condo unit and discussed her plans to rent it out. The three of them also discussed the possibility that they could have been British in their former lives, because the place where they felt most at ease was London.

“By the way, how much did you pay for your Pandora bracelet?” she asked the one with blonde-colored hair. “DIdn’t it cost you about P100,000.00(about USD2,000)? They’re very expensive. If you buy the charms for the bracelet, it will cost you about P20,000(USD400)! I’m thinking about adding more to mine.” Her two sidekicks made concurring noises. Apparently, all of them had Pandora bracelets. A guy suddenly walked into our room and took the bed beside mine. They all fell silent and became very meek and shy. Just as I figured, all that bragging was for my benefit.

Venice 4This is not the first time that I’ve been forcibly made a hapless audience to bragging. I thought about my friends who own decent-sized houses and luxury condos but barely mention it. I thought about people I knew who wear their P200,000(USD4,000) earrings for everyday affairs. I thought of someone who nonchalantly puts cookies in her Prada handbag or a croissant in her limited edition Coach handbag. I observed that despite their material wealth, they did not have good skin and the blonde one should get her hair colored at a good salon.

The following morning, I woke up early and snuck into the pantry for breakfast. I helped myself to some milk, cereal, yogurt, bread, Nutella, and orange juice. Some guests in other rooms joined me and we talked. Suddenly, the leader swept in, and without saying hello to everyone, sat in front of me and introduced herself. I cannot remember her name.

She asked me where I was working and what I was studying. I said I was studying international commercial practice. I was doing it for fun and to upgrade my skills. She said she’s never heard of any lawyer doing international work. I said it’s rare in the Philippine setting. She mentioned that she has lawyer friends but she earns more than them, since she was in the outsourcing industry. “You lawyers don’t have credit cards do you? And if you do, you have low credit limits” I said I did not have any problem in that department because my combined credit limit was sufficient to cover my travel expenses and education costs.

“I have an uncle who is a city prosecutor. We are very close! I’m always welcome at his office!”, she seemed to think that this was a sort of achievement. I thought about my friends who are prosecutors in different parts of the Philippines, my friends who are judges, my friends doing well in private practice, and the people I work with. “Oh, I see” I said politely. Without saying a word, she suddenly stood up and walked out of the pantry. The other guests, who had been silent while she was there, resumed our conversation.

Venice 3As I washed the utensils I used, I talked to a Canadian girl about the Realto Bridge, markets, and good places to buy souvenirs. Our conversation may have been quite audible because the two of us were moving back and forth through the pantry, living area, and the kitchen. When I entered the room, the three of them were huddled over the leader’s phone. “We now have an itinerary! We shall go to the Realto bridge and the markets!”. Why she was talking so loud while her friends were right beside her was a mystery to me. They were already ready to go but seemed to wait around for something. Could they be waiting for me to ask if I could join them? HAH! I pretended to rummage through my bag. After a few minutes of just standing around, they left. I waited fifteen minutes more before stepping out to avoid running into them within the vicinity.

Venice 1By early evening, I was at a restaurant near the hostel. I ordered Spaghetti Al Nero Di Seppia paired with white wine. While I was eating, I overheard a very loud conversation in Tagalog from a group five tables away. So loud that their voices rose over loud Italian voices. After I ate, I walked past their table, because that was the only way back to the hostel. As I walked past, they abruptly fell silent. I acted like I just noticed them and said a curt “Hello!” and walked on.

Once I was back in the room, I took out my textbook and read about corporate takeovers. They came in about an hour later. There was no bragging this time and the leader talked about her family drama. But, occasionally, she’d say “He’s weird” or “Maybe he’s gay”. By then, I was too preoccupied with answering the essay questions that I barely noticed that they had fallen asleep.

When I woke up the following morning, they were gone.