Back from holiday in Europe

Two weeks ago, I returned from an 18-day trip to Europe, a combination of work and relaxation. While I didn’t plan it to be this complicated, it ended up being a five country, eight city itinerary. In the coming days and weeks, I will write more details about the trip and update the pages on my website with restaurants and recommendations.

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London was a sneaky twenty-three hour layover I managed to build in unexpectedly. I didn’t have the opportunity to meet friends but did get a nice walk in along the River Thames on a blustery Autumn morning and once the sun emerged stopped by the Spitalfields Market for excellent shengjianbao.

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Barcelona was my second stop, a week to deliver training (a bit of a fudge to my previous role as technically I am not longer heading the leadership development organization at DKSH). This was my second trip to Barcelona and I had a bit more opportunity to explore than last time, when I traveled with my parents and husband. Lots of good food on this trip.

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Italy was a return some 17 years after my first visit. We went to Firenze to see my cousin and his family, Matera to see the mysterious and beautiful city of caves, and Ostuni to explore the charm of the Puglia region – the “heel” of Italy’s “boot”. This trip reminded me what the quality of life is so high in Italy: simple food, nice weather, beautiful views and friendly people.

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Vienna was a a first-time visit for me. I wasn’t sure what to expect and ended up charmed by the city. It is a bit of a set piece for some European imperial costume drama, at least as far as buildings go. This is a city and country I would like to explore further.

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Zurich was a return visit for work. In fact, I stopped into the city three times on this trip, enjoying the convenient train system to pop into the city during my layovers and then concluding with a two-night stay for work. This time I was able to explore a bit further and enjoyed some good food and friendly company.

This trip provided some neat random connections, running into people I had not expected to see and striking up conversations with strangers who happened to have connections with me in different random ways. It reminds me that this is a very small world and that traveling it helps us appreciate that which is different and that which is universal.

More coming soon.

 

My week in a Taipei love motel

I travel frequently for work. Sometimes, this leads to some exciting adventures and unexpected, delightful discoveries. Hidden treasures, if you will. This last trip to Taipei included an altogether un-delightful discovery: I had booked myself into a love motel.

For those of you not in the know, a love motel is a place where couples, married and otherwise, can book some private quality time. It seems such places are more common in Asia where multiple generations live together and you might not be able to find as much privacy.

This place, the Mulan Motel in Taipei, is located very close to my office. After some disappointing experiences at other nearby hotels, I searched on booking.com and found the Mulan. “Ah yes,” I thought, “I’ve passed by that several times. It looks quite decent.”

Sure enough, the photos and reviews on booking.com were quite positive and the price was reasonable – only about US$130 a night. So I booked it.

Being a price-sensitive traveller, always trying to save my company money, I took the train in from the airport and walked the 800 meters from the station to my hotel. My first clue that this was not your average hotel was the lack of a lobby. Instead, you descended a driveway into a subterranean car park. The only office was a larger-than-normal guard box.

I also noticed that all of the parking spaces had a curtain that could be pulled around the car. “Perhaps to keep the dust off?” I optimistically thought.

Taking the lift to my room, I noticed the interior was quite dark and gaudy. Clearly a different decorating scheme than a conventional hotel. Then I found my room and opened the door:

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The room was quite large, with high ceilings and ostentatious decorations. A large bed sat in the middle of the room, with a large television and speaker system across from it. The light did not get any brighter and mood music played automatically. The far wall was solid glass with a heavy black curtain blocking the view to the bathroom.

My first clue that this might not be a long-stay hotel was the lack of a closet in which to hang my clothes. The second clue were the condoms in a bowl by the side of the bed. “Well,” I thought, “maybe the expectations are a bit different in the Taiwanese culture?”

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The bathroom was almost as large as the bedroom with a deep bathtub and a glass shower. There were towels and the usual amenities but it all felt a little off. Everything was clean, though.

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Oddly, there were no windows. Or, rather, the windows were covered with a black plastic film that, I discovered the next morning, had exotic butterfly shapes cut out in them so the morning sun would stream through them in a not-quite-claustrophobic way.

The staff seemed to sense my confusion. They struggled to create a proper invoice for me – unlikely that any of their guests have asked for proof of payment! They were friendly, though, and directed me to the restaurant where a sorry set breakfast was available included in the price of my room.

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The only upside to this hotel was the location. It was a two-minute walk from Starbucks, a three-minute walk from the office, and a five-minute run from a beautiful park along the river, where I ran two mornings with a colleague.

Thankfully, my week at the love motel was only three nights. I ended up unharmed and unmolested and upon my return wrote a strongly worded review on booking.com that this hotel should not be listed there as it is appropriate for neither business travelers nor families.

 

Welcome to the year of the dog

The Chinese and other lunar calendars in East Asia are based on a twelve-year cycle, with each year being represented by an animal. This year, which began Feb 16, is the year of the dog. It also represents the completion of my fourth cycle, for I will turn 48 later this year.

A friend who has known me several years was surprised by that information. “You will be 48 this year? Really?” I am not sure if he expected me to be younger or older.

A couple of younger colleagues were commenting that they, too, are born in the year of the dog. I quickly realized they are completing only their second cycle.

Based on my grandparents’ longevity, there is a reasonable chance that I should make it to my eighth cycle, so I am about halfway along this journey.

The being older doesn’t bother me – this is the natural course of things. I do notice that I am increasingly aware of my age: I am conscious that I am working and interacting with people whose reference points are significantly different than mine.

The thing I am most aware of is the realization that the further you travel through life, the more you realize how little you really know. Youth comes with unearned certainty. Age brings experience and a measure of wisdom in the form of humility: What could I know about life? I am still living it.

In any case, I will celebrate this year as a milestone and endeavor to learn as much from it as possible. Happy year of the dog. May it bring you prosperity, good health and great happiness.

Sous vide chicken fried steak

While I do not get to play around in the kitchen as much as I would like, I was fortunate that my friend Nat invited me to help cook dinner on Saturday for a group of our friends. He is always up for experimenting so this gave us the chance to try an idea I have had in mind for a few weeks: sous vide chicken fried steak.

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Chicken fried steak, in its classic rendition, is a usually inexpensive cut of steak pounded to tenderize it, coated and fried like a piece of chicken and served with gravy. During season thirteen of Top Chef, chef Jeremy Ford tried the technique of cooking a nice cut of steak in the sous vide, “gluing” chicken skin to the steak using transglutaminase and then frying the end result so the chicken skin was crispy. I was interested in trying this technique.

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We followed a similar preparation, cooking a very nice grass-fed filet mignon in the sous vide until rare and then slicing it into medallions. The benefit of sous vide is that by cooking the food in a vacuum-sealed bag immersed in a water bath, the entire piece of food reaches exactly the desired temperature and then cooks no further. Instead of the outside of the steak being cooked and the inside being raw, as might happen when you fry or roast a steak, the entire cut was a consistent 131 degrees Fahrenheit and still a pretty pink.

As the meat cooked, about two-and-a-half hours, we skinned whole chickens, basically turning them inside out. This was an interesting experience, something I have never done before. The end result are these sheets of chicken skin (seen layered in plastic wrap, above) with little “fingers” of skin like a glove where the legs were.

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After the meat was finished and sliced, we sprinkled it liberally with the transglutaminase.  (From the molecularrecipes.com website, “Transglutaminase is an enzyme that stimulates a bonding process at the cellular level with the amino acids lysine and glutamine in proteins. It’s not technically glue, though that’s what it’s often referred to as. It’s a protein that’s present naturally in both plant and animal systems. The product used in kitchens is created from natural enzymes using a fermentation process.”)

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I then wrapped the chicken skin around the steak. Trying to get the chicken skin cut to the right size was a bit tricky, and some extra transglutaminase was needed where there was overlap of the skin.

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Normally, it takes about two hours of refrigeration for the “glue” to firm up. But a quick trip back in the sous vide for about ten minutes sped up the process, resulting in this tightly-wrapped packages that looked a bit like duck breasts.

When it was nearing time to serve, we dredged the pieces in a mixture of flour, salt, pepper and chili powder and fried them in about two centimeters of rice bran oil. The end result was a crispy skin and a steak that was a perfect medium rare. We served this with an onion gravy and salad.

All in all, the result was positive. We could experiment with more consistent portion control – sizes of steaks varied a bit – and maybe a liquid batter instead of a flour batter. But, overall, I would rate this a culinary success.

 

92,000 miles and 99 nights later

This evening we bid adieu to 2016 and ring in 2017. As I reflect on the year and the lessons learned, one of the most striking is how much I was on the road: 92,234 miles flown and 99 nights spent in hotels. That’s the most I’ve traveled since 2005, when I moved to Thailand.

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Some interesting statistics from my travel: I flew 59 flights covering 208 hours, resulting in an average flight of 1,563 miles with a flight time of 3:34. Not as much as many people but still a significant amount of time in the year.

The goal for next year is to manage my schedule more effectively. I may not reduce my travel quite as much but do hope to reduce the number of overall nights on the road a bit and balance the time more effectively between on the road and at home.

 

 

What are you going to do next?


Wow, what a surprise ending to last night’s episode of The West Wing! Where does Aaron Sorkin come up with these plot twists? Truth really is stranger than fiction. That said, as the dust settles after Donald Trump’s victory, I think all of us need to ask ourselves, “How can I help build a stronger, more united America?”

Many of my friends expected and wanted a Clinton victory – as did I – and now are sorely disappointed. Many are printing and posting some pretty unkind words and thoughts on social media about the people who voted for President-elect Trump. Some are saying they want to unfriend anyone who voted for Trump.

That seems less like a solution and more like another serving of the same slop that led us to the political cluster-bomb that this election season was. 

Here’s the message I take from election 2016: there are a lot of Americans who feel anxious about the future. They don’t trust the system anymore and they believe – with some accuracy, I suspect – that the system is rigged against them and in favor of the elite.

Many people who feel that way found their candidate in Donald Trump. And many more found their candidate, but that candidate lost in the primaries to Hillary Clinton.

I think it is time that all of us recognize that there are some serious inequalities and systemic problems in America, and it’s time for us to come together and find common ground and common-sense solutions. There are many issues on which people disagree. But there are many more areas we have in common. 

Ultimately, all of the people who voted are human beings and, as such, worthy of respect. All of us have loved ones and families. All of us have hopes and dreams. All of us have worries and concerns. And all of us have a legitimate right to want a better future for ourselves and our loved ones. 

It’s important to remember that we are privileged to live in a country where we have the opportunity to exercise our free will and vote for the candidate of our choice. And what’s great about our system is that if the candidates don’t deliver the goods, we have an opportunity to vote them out of office in the next election.

In the meantime I would ask all of you, whether or not you voted for the President-elect, what are you going to do to help make America a stronger, more united nation? What are you going to do to help write the future, instead of taking your toys and running home just because the game didn’t turn out the way you want?

A month without Facebook on my phone

With social media an ever-increasing intrusion in our lives, I decided to take a break and deleted Facebook from my phone. Thirty days have passed and I don’t expect to reinstall it.

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I observe that I am increasingly compelled in moments of free time to check my phone. Instead of reading a book, listening to music or podcasts or otherwise engaging myself constructively (daydreaming!) I instead compulsively scroll and click, scroll and comment, scroll and scroll… and so much of what I see there brings little value to my life.

So I announced one Saturday last month to Tawn that I was thinking of trying a month without Facrbook on my phone. Not deleting my account but instead removing the temptation to keep checking my phone.

He doubted I could do it so challenged me to a bet: he would pay me 500 baht ($12) if I made it a month and I would pay him 5,000 if I relented and reinstalled the application.

A month has passed (I haven’t seen the debt settled) and I find I don’t really miss Facebook. I check  on my laptop from time to time and it only confirms I am not missing much, especially in this election season. I do miss the updates of friends and family, their children and important events in their lives. Those seem to be a minority in my newsfeed, which is mostly filled with pithy political opinions, “what Galxay Guest character are you?” click-bait surveys, and “sponsored” posts.

Meanwhile, I find my reading and enjoyment of music and podcasts has increased. And my attention span is recovering.

A light lunch at La Cuisine de Bar

Fancy a soup and sandwich while exploring the Left Bank? For a light lunch, this narrow restaurant in the 6th arrondissement offers a simple menu built around bread from the acclaimed next-door bakery and Cuisine de Bar owner, Poilâne.

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We visited the location in the 6th arrondissement although there is another in the 3rd arrondissement as well as in Chelsea, London. The setting is cozy (read: tight) but also welcoming. The kitchen is a bar on the right, dining is along a banquet to the left and a small room in the back. The setting is bright but a bit warm from the open salamanders (broilers) in the kitchen.

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The menu is quite simple. Set menus or individual items. Sandwiches are all open-face slices of next-door bakery Poilâne’s beautiful loaves with a few simple toppings. The tomato, mozzarella and basil one was a delight.

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The smoke salmon was also nice. There were sets including the soup of the day and a glass of wine, reasonably priced.

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A view of the narrow kitchen. You can see where the heat was coming from! The staffing the day we visited was minimal: one person in the kitchen, two waiters and a person clearing and washing dishes. Based on how hectic and slow service was, I suspect they were short-handed at least one person. Who knows? Perhaps this is the way they normally run the show.

The service was polite but rushed. Trying to flag someone down to take our order was excruciating, until I realized that the waiter understood the order in which people had arrived and was taking the orders according to that. The wait was just something we had to deal with. It would have been nice to have been asked for some patience (the woman dining next to us seemed a bit put off) but we were on holiday, so why not just relax and enjoy the atmosphere?

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There were a few desserts including this very nice strawberry tart. As the rush was slowing near the end of the the lunch service, we took the time to enjoy a slice along with the coffee drinks that accompanied the set menu.

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With a cute cookie spoon with which to stir your coffee!

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The simple exterior of the restaurant on a sunny and warm Spring afternoon. Overall, I think La Cuisine de Bar is a worthwhile stop if you are on the Left Bank and are looking for a simple lunch. The bread is nice (buy a loaf next door!) and sometimes you want a simple lunch that still feels sophisticated.

La Cuisine de Bar
8 Rue du Cherche-Midi
Paris 75006
+33 1 45 48 45 69
Open daily

A classic French lunch at Le Soufflé

There is perhaps no dish more French than the soufflé. And one of the best places to have a soufflé at a reasonable price in Paris is Le Soufflé, an elegant dining room located a short walk from the Louvre and Tuileries Garden.

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We found Le Soufflé quite by accident, intending to have lunch at a recommended Asian restaurant just a few doors away. They were full, however, and we popped in at the upscale-looking Le Soufflé based on the charming exterior and the Zagat and other stickers posted by the front door.

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The young man greeting us was friendly and when we explained we had not reserved, he looked around the room and told us that if we could return in twenty minutes, he would have a table for us. After a short stroll around the block, we returned and were rewarded with a generously-sized table in the middle of the room.

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With a clientele that seems mostly made up of local office workers and older-school establishment types, I felt a little self-conscious. (“Look, the American!”) But the friendly and diverse staff made us feel welcome. In fact, the restaurant reminds me a bit of Cafe Jacqueline in San Francisco, in that the staff can seem a bit stern from the outside but they take good care of their guests.

The menu is relatively simple with a limited selection of soups and salads, a selection of savory soufflés and a selection of sweet soufflés. We ordered a set that included a salad and two soufflés.

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The soufflés (mine with a black olive tapenade and Tawn’s with smoked salmon) arrive relatively quickly. You sense that they must be preparing the choux base in advance and then folding in freshly-whipped egg whites. The size looks large, of course, impressively puffed up – but remember that a soufflé is largely air so a person can consume one relatively easily.

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For dessert, I opted for a rhubarb soufflé. This is one of my favorite fruits and was just in season so it appeared on many menus. The tartness of the rhubarb cut through the richness of the soufflé and made for a pleasant end to the meal.

The set lunch including a glass of wine and a coffee to follow was only EUR 28, about US$ 32. For the quality and quantity of food, it was quite a bargain. Le Soufflé is on my must-visit list for a quintessential French experience.

Le Soufflé
36 Rue du Mont Thabor
75001 Paris
+33 1 4260 2719
Closed Sundays

 

Inexpensive dining in Paris: La Kantine

For a less expensive meal while in Paris, La Kantine, a cafeteria on the top floor of Le BHV department store in the Marais district, offers a wide selection at reasonable prices plus a well-lit dining area with a rooftop view of the neighborhood surrounding Hôtel de Ville in the fourth arrondissement.

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The new, modern BHV Marais department store is an update of the old Bazar de l’Hôtel de Ville created in 1856. It is a good place to shop for souvenirs – the selection of teas, confections, etc. is extensive so if you want to bring some relatively inexpensive gifts home that aren’t the tacky touristy items, this is a good place to find them.

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The restaurant is a buffet: grab a tray and help yourself to whatever food you like. There are stations on the left that prepare foods to order including pasta dishes. There are a selection of quiches, soups and meat platters. There are different cheeses and desserts, as you would expect. And prices are clearly marked.

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The seating is bright and airy, a combination of communal tables and some smaller tables. There is a good view and one that might feel a bit out of the movie “Ratatouille” – the rooftops of Paris. There is no feeling of being rushed, so you can also use this as a place to catch your breath and plan your attack for the next part of the day.

Information:

Address: 52, Rue de Rivoli
Telephone : 0977 401 400
Located near Métro station Hôtel de Ville (line 1)
Open Monday through Saturday from 9:30 am until 8:00 pm (Wednesdays until 9:00 pm)