Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Rome Day 2 (27 Dec 08): Churches, Museums and My Aching Feet

There is waaay too much to see in Rome. I tried to distill all the must sees into a list, and divided these into each of the four days we had to go sightseeing in Rome. By 11:00 a.m. on the second day, L and I already had a back log of about three sites – we just kept on getting lost and bumping into churches and buildings which just cried out to us for a peek. Take this church, for example, which we saw when we got lost on our way to the Pantheon:

It’s the Basilica di San Ignacio, on the Piazza della Ignazio. L, of course, just had to see the inside. Good thing we did go in, because we saw this when we looked up:

It also had the tomb of Aloysius Gonzaga: 

as well as that of John Berchmans and Bellarmine (the buildings of the Jesuit university I went to were named after them, so, it did give me a nerdy sort of high).

We eventually made our way to the Pantheon, of which better photographers have taken better pictures. Here’s another one anyway, for posterity:

Another Jesuit church got us sidetracked, and this time, it was the mother of all Jesuit churches. The Chiesa del Gesu, which is the oldest Jesuit church in Rome. Check out the amazing ceiling, which I couldn’t understand:

It’s 3-D, but its so well-made that I couldn’t tell which part was painted, which part was sculpted, and which part was engraved, giving the illusion of everything just hanging.

In the mid-afternoon L and I made our way to the Galleria Borghese, which was one of the most amazing museums I’ve ever seen. Photos weren’t allowed, so here’s a picture of the outside of the museum:

It’s a Bernini extravaganza! My favorite was his sculpture of Apollo and Daphne. If you're familiar with the story, seeing the sculpture from behind gives the impression that Apollo is running into a tree. However, by moving slowly to the front the tree turns out to be Daphne-turning-into-a-tree. You'd never think marble could be made so malleable.

After the museum, L and I walked to the Spanish Steps and the via Condoti, filled with hundreds of tourists like us:

Our dinner was at a wonderful trattoria nearby named La Buca di Ripetta, where we ate fried artichokes with melted tellagio cheese:

a seafood sampler plate with fried shrimp, baby octopus and raw salmon:

black pasta with octopus (we had more than this – but this was all that I was able to salvage from L’s plate):

Grilled Turbot:

 And to drink, a Sardegna:

Monday, December 29, 2008

Rome Day 1 (26 Dec 08): Planes, Trains and Lots of Walking

To save on money, L and I decided to take a circuitous route to Rome, instead of the usual straight flight from Amsterdam to Rome.  From the Hague, L and I took a train to Schipol airport in Amsterdam, got off in London, boarded another plane to Rome Fiumicino airport, and from that airport, took another train to Termini station in Rome. From the train station, we walked ten minutes to our hotel. Twelve hours of travel (instead of a two hour flight) translated into about three hundred Euros in savings, so it was all good! 

After dropping our bags at the hotel, L and I strolled into a crisp winter night and saw this after walking for about thirty minutes: 

 The Trevi Fountain is quite a spectacle – we approached from a blind corner, and out of nowhere, this gigantic (and quite glorious) sculpture filled our entire line of vision. We of course acted like tourists and took tons of pictures.

After staring at the fountain and repelling a number of migrant flower hawkers for a good amount of time, L and I wandered the side streets in search of food. It was almost 11:00 p.m., but fortunately we found a trattoria still serving dinner. I had a saltimbocca alla romana (Roman style veal escalope): 

I loved its sour/salty/creamy taste.

For dessert L and I headed for a gelateria selling, reputedly (according to several guide books and the New York Times), the world’s best gelato: 

It only sold flavors made out of seasonal and all natural ingredients. I had ginger-cinnamon gelato. Weird, but oddly addicting:

Since the Trevi Fountain was on the way back to the hotel, L and I dropped by again for a longer, less crowded, look:

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Christmas Eve Dinner

Merry Christmas everyone! 

L an I spent Christmas Eve at home this year. We continued on with the Noche Buena tradition, but we got someone else to cook! We found a traiteur nearby selling Christmas baskets from the chef's hometown of Lyon - all I needed to do was heat and plate the food.

Our le menu de noel (translation to English is mine, courtesy of my Macbook translator, so forgive me, French speakers, for any erruers):

Foie gras de canard au Sauternes avec ses brioches (Foie gras in Sauternes [a sweet wine] with brioche)

Filet de biche aux airelles et chataignes, gratin dauphinois et legumes (Stag filet with bilberries and sweet chestnuts, potato bake and legumes)

Plateau de fromages Francais (French cheese platter)

Unidentified pastry (The chef tossed this in for us as a freebie, and I don't know what it's called but its a buttery, flaky pastry that was really good)

Lingot a la creme de pistache et aux griottes confites, servi avec sa creme anglaise (Lingot [a Belgian type pastry] with cream of pistachio, crystallized morello cherries and custard)


To drink we had a Château de l’Horte AOC Corbieres Reserve Speciale 2005, which had a slightly vanilla taste and smelled like flowers.

Joyeux Noël!

Monday, December 22, 2008

Books this month so far

Books I've read this month, so far:

1. A Room With A View, E.M. Forster - see previous post on this.

2. The Master, Colm Toibin - fictionalized account of the life of Henry James. Loneliness and solitude caused by his supposed unresolved sexual identity. Strong, lyrical writing.

3. The Other Side of the Story, Marian Keyes. First book I've read by this prolific "chic-lit" writer. Critics raved about this being her best book. Not a bad read, and a page-turner.

4. A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers, Xiaolu Guo. Story of a Chinese girl who lives in London for a year to learn English. In learning a new language she discovers (very epistemologically) a new way of looking at the world and the/her self. Many sentences are gems.  

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Money cycle

This month's Monocle magazine describes the six stages of a financial crisis cycle:

Stage 1:  Displacement - an innovation creates new profitable opportunities.
Stage 2:  Euphoria - optimistic expectations lead to rapid rises in asset prices and the belief that "this time its different"
Stage 3:  Mania - the prospect of easy money draws in investors and prices soar
Stage 4: Distress - market sentiments shifts from greed to fear and insiders retrench
Stage 5: Panic - as asset prices fall, investors stampede to sell, accelerating the crash
Stage 6: Revulsion - public hostility to financial excess - until the next euphoria

My career as a lawyer has seen the development of this entire cycle; I started practicing law as the fury of the Asian Financial Crisis waned and as the love for the sale of securitized assets and its derivatives began to pick up. 

I saw the "Euphoria" phase, when a partner in the first law firm I worked for placed me in a team devoted to the repackaging and selling off of non-profitable assets of banks and other companies, and establishing, for this purpose, Special Asset Vehicles which offered "participations" and on the back of these, other "security type instruments" derived from such participations.

I saw the "Mania" phase, and in fact was schooled in it thoroughly - as derivative transactions grew I went to school and studied it (sort of), and law school actually became business school. I also worked in Singapore and Hong Kong when the Mania phase was still hot - as a finance lawyer I helped multinational financial institutions lend huge sums of money to multinational corporations, often in order to invest in derivative transactions, and with interest payments and principal repayment tied to the performance of the derivatives.

When the "Distress" phase started I saw it too, and all the transactions coming across my table related to refinancings or hedge funds lending at crazy rates.

I saw "Panic", and I painfully saw transactions I just finished working on unravel quickly after the companies tell the banks, "We've defaulted and we can't pay."

I left my job in Hong Kong and transferred to the Netherlands before "Revulsion" set in. But I don't need to be in an office somewhere to see how it is. 

The cycle ends when the new "Euphoria" stage commences, and then another financial crisis is in the horizon. Can we get out of the cycle, or is the cycle innate to capitalism?

I think two great sages have the answer:  Puppies!

Friday, December 19, 2008

Hugh Jackman Made Me Do It


I watched it. Every minute of the two and a half hours of it.

I watched it in the middle of the day, with a room full of girls, and some elderly men who came with their wives.

Did I like it? 

Nope.

Do I regret watching it? 

Wolverine, people. Wolverine.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Manila pieces

I came across this series of pieces on McSweeney's. The on-going series is written by an American professor spending a year on fellowship in Manila, and he's quite funny. 

I miss Manila!

Sunday, December 14, 2008

We love Antwerp

L and I love Antwerp! It's only an hour and a half train ride away from The Hague, and I can't believe it took us this long to discover it. 

First on our agenda when we got there was to do the touristy thing, of course. We visited Peter Paul Reuben's house from the seventeenth century, very ornate and imposing:

The whole town is built around the Grote Markt, in the center of which is the largest Gothic church in the Low Countries, built in between 1350 and 1520, known as the Cathedral of Our Lady:


The church is filled with masterpieces from the seventeenth century. Here's the impressive altar, with Ruben's Assumption of the Virgin (1626):

A tabernacle made by Picavet, Verbrugghen and de Potter based on the Ark of the Covenant is riveting, illuminated by a beam of light from the colorful stained glass windows:

Right outside the Cathedral is one of Europe's famous Christmas markets, where they sell food, drinks, and Christmas trinkets (just like other Christmas fairs all over the world!):

At around 3 p.m. we met up with RT and SW and we had a great time bar hopping and sampling different Belgian beers and liquers. I like the Jenever - a juniper based and strongly alcoholic traditional liquor of the Low Countries, from which gin evolved. I took three shots - apple, kiwi and hazelnut - and for this reason, I wasn't able to take any pictures from that point onwards. 

We ended the night well - we had really good dimsum (Dimsum!) in Antwerp's Chinatown. We made a mad dash for the 10:59 p.m. train back to The Hague, and were sleeping soundly back at home at 1:00 a.m.


Friday, December 12, 2008

A Room With A View, The New York Times and Travel Guides

So I saw this article in the New York Times about using E.M. Forster's A Room With A View as a guide to exploring Florence. L and I will be visiting Florence during the holidays, and because using A Room With A View as a guide book sounds sooo cool, I got myself a copy of the Penguin Modern Classics version from the English bookstore around the corner and started to read.

My only exposure to E.M. Forster prior to reading this book was the 1980s version of A Passage to India which was immensely watchable, though sort of sentimental. Unlike other books from the early twentieth century, I found this book surprisingly light in style, and refreshingly free from a palpable attempt at self-importance. It's also a great love story, absent the "chick lit" ending. I've been trying to find an essay that E.M Forster wrote in the New York Times sometime in the 1950s to commemorate the 50th year of the book's publication, but so far I haven't been able to find it online (any leads will be much appreciated!).

My version of the book came with - yay! - footnotes, which described the places that Lucy Honeychurch wandered through. I compared the list of places mentioned in the book and my "Rough Guide to Florence", and not surprisingly, the places where Lucy Honeychurch complained about awful tourists are still listed among the Guide's "Must See's". In fact, a few days before I started reading the book, I made reservations (upon the recommendation of Wikitravel and other travel guides) to stay at a hotel near the Church of Santa Croce, which Lucy Honeychurch first visits. Guide books are thrilled about it. Rough Guide says:

"Santa Croce has long served as the national pantheon: the walls and nave floor are lined with the monuments to more than 270 illustrious Italians..."; "the two chapels on the right of the chancel are entirely covered with frescoes by Giotto."

1000 Places to See Before You Die is also ebullient:

"Built by the Franciscans between 1294 and 1442 but with a 19th century facade, cavernous Santa Croce is a chockablock with 14th century frescoes and the tombs of famous Florentines..."

But then Lucy Honeychurch/E.M. Forster had this to say about it:

"A black and white facade of surpassing ugliness"; "how like a barn"; "how very cold".

Heh.

I take comfort in the fact that, in spite of all that has been said and written, L and I, like Lucy Honeychurch, can always rely on the theory that too much information might ruin the experience, and we hope that "...the pernicious charm of Italy work(s) on (us), and, instead of acquiring information, (we will) beg(i)n to be happy." 


Monday, December 8, 2008

Hidden Church

L and I headed up to Amsterdam yesterday (Sunday) to meet up with AH and VA for dinner at their apartment. We got to Amsterdam a little early, so we dropped by a museum L read about a couple of months ago: Ons' Lieve Heer op Solder (Our Lord in the Attic)

As a backgrounder: Holland, as you may know, banned Catholic worship from 1578. In the seventeenth century, a merchant by the name of Jan Harman, a Catholic, decided to try to continue his worship by building a clandestine church at the attic of his house. This is what the house looks like from outside:


The house is huge (relative to other Dutch, seventeenth century houses) and the remarkably well-preserved church is on the top floor, hidden through a series of narrow staircases and doorways. As you can see from the picture, the church is actually quite big, and could fit probably around 50 people comfortably:

The house also has a side chapel, tucked away neatly in between the staircases, as well as a confessional, hidden behind two doors:

Interesting stuff.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Dutch Kitsch

Madurodam shows The Netherlands in miniature, and is a hop, skip and a tram ride away from our apartment. Feeling energetic last Saturday afternoon, L and I put on ten thousand tons of winter clothing and headed out to see really tiny buildings.

The models are well done, and we did realize there was still a lot of the Netherlands left to see. Here's a nice depiction of a square, somewhere in Utrecht (I think):


A square in north Holland:


And of course, no model of Amsterdam would be complete without the red light district:

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Administrative Matters

New look for my blog!

I actually cross-post onto this blog from my Multiply account, which is the reason why the lay-outs of my entries here sometimes look disjointed and artless. The reason I prefer Multiply is really because I'm lazy - posting pictures into your blog from Multiply is so much easier.

For google-fan reasons, I'm trying to determine whether Blogger has fixed itself when it comes to the ease of posting pictures.  I'm testing it by posting this picture of the grave of Vermeer (taken in Oude Kerk, Delft).

Okay, so far, Blogger has improved its upload time. Will sleep on whether to start posting onto Blogger directly.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Ode to Dieting

L and I are on the South Beach Diet 
Because we ate too much in places like the Tokyo Park Hyatt
Now we eat vegetables and fish all day long
So unlike the days we were still in Hong Kong

So far I've lost 10 pounds and L has lost 15
We're on our way to becoming healthy and lean!
Eating no carbs has been like battling a lion in an arena
But we don't care, we want to look like Brangelina!

Alas, however, the holidays are arriving
And our appetites we cannot continue depriving
In Italy and Morocco we will begin again to feast
And we gain back 10 and 15 again, at least