Friday, November 30, 2012

Our Trip Plans Continued... and Russian Visas

We've figured out the second half of our Christmas and New Years trip, and I cannot be more excited.  Let's just hope it works out, because, dang, the Russians are not fooling around.  I called the Russian consulate in Hong Kong before starting to book things for this trip and figured, easy peasy, I can do paperwork - this should not be a problem.

Then I printed out the visa application and realized applying for a Russian tourist visa is akin to applying for government security clearance and playing roulette.  A meticulous recounting of personal details, and not a bit of luck, seems to be required.

You have to list your itinerary, all the countries that you've visited in the past ten years and the year of visit (good grief!), your work history, your educational history,  the full names of your parents and any relatives living in Russia... not to mention, you have to confirm whether you have medical insurance and answer a questionnaire... and fill out hotel support vouchers... and obtain formal stamped and signed hotel voucher forms from your pre-paid hotels.  Apparently they also really don't like it when you go "off the grid," aka on your own itinerary without an officially recognized tour operator.

Hmm. This might take a while.

But, we have booked a lovely cabin in the middle of nowhere in the deep snowy woods of Ruka (major props to Michael's sister on this one), and if all goes according to plan, after Christmas we will fly out of Kuusamo into Helsinki, board an express train into St. Petersburg, and stay in the "Venice of the North" for two full days before boarding another train, this time the very famous Red Arrow, that will take us from St. Petersburg to Moscow.

The Red Arrow is a sleeper train that strikes me as a bit kitschy (think red, gold, pomp and circumstance and lots of it). The station even plays a song, "The Hymn to the Great City," when the train departs!  However, the train is also steeped in history and tradition.  The Red Arrow first began operation in 1931 and has not stopped service in all the years since, except for the Siege of Leningrad (that's modern day St. Petersburg) from 1941 to 1943.  The Red Arrow was the nicest train (and still is, although recently the Grand Express, a privately owned train, has started operating the same route and it looks pretty sweet too) and shuttled the highest ranking officials and the elite members of the Communist party back and forth between St. Petersburg and Moscow.  Pretty nifty, huh?

From Moscow, we fly back to Hong Kong on the first day of the new year.

I can't wait!

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Birthday Part Deux

Well, I have been really getting into the swing of this birthday thing.  Today, I arrived at work to find this:

I was stunned!  Hydrangeas (turned out it was one massive hydrangea), peach roses, white sweet peas, yellow calla lilies and orange ranunculus.  It was a beautiful bouquet, wrapped up in brown paper and ribbon, with the cutest little clothespin attaching a note.

It was from work!  I couldn't help but feel more tender toward the job.  They really know how to get me.  Fresh flowers, man.  I brought it home so I could enjoy it in the apartment.  I had to rearrange the bouquet though, because it was so massive it refused to fit in my vase.

The end result: Our current apartment could pass for a florist's.

Separately, I booked a little pick-me-up treat for myself this afternoon at a spa near work.  It was a spa treatment called "For Heaven's Sake," which was a cute little pun because the treatment consisted of a Japanese sake bath soak and a sake rice scrub, followed by an hour long massage.  I quite enjoyed it.

The soaking tub.  It was a really deep tub - very tricky to get out when you're all covered up in slippery suds!
Mystery keg next to the tub.  Maybe it was filled with sake??

Clearly, like Thanksgiving, birthdays should come around more than once a year.

Cocktail Parties and Presents

Lots of little happy tidbits for this post.  Yesterday, I went to the fourth anniversary of Mischa bags held at The Space in Sheung Wan.  I own one of these bags and now that Lane Crawford has picked up the line, I am seeing more and more of these bags on the streets of Hong Kong.  The pattern is very distinct and the designer picks vivid, contrasting colors so they are easy to spot from afar.  The party was also sponsored by Travel & Leisure and had a travel theme, so there were fun little touches in the gallery space.

This read, "Dreaming of traveling the world?"  Um, Yes!  My tag was for Penang and Langkawi.  I'm currently a little bit preoccupied/focused/obsessed with Malaysia.

Australia, Canada and South America get no love on this map.  Ouch.

I also went to a launch party for Melez at the Boom Gallery in Sheung Wan tonight, but did not have a camera so didn't take any snaps.  The space was cool, with lots of mounted pictures of Hong Kong.  They varied in range from dense city-scapes like Mongkok (apparently the most densely populated area in the world by certain measures) to Causeway Bay to old buildings and alleyways throughout Kowloon and Sheung Wan.  Looking at the pictures of dense buildings, neon lights, old tenement houses, vintage Chinese signs and the juxtaposition of old and new and shabby and flashy, I decided that Hong Kong is an urban photographer's dream.  I'm so happy we had a chance to live here.

Michael and I also went out to celebrate my birthday tonight.  We enjoyed two kinds of hotpot soup base and various dishes, including marbled hand cut beef, fresh shrimp (they were still alive!), deep fried taro, tofu, vermicelli, and vegetables.
The shrimp were so fresh they moved their legs every so often.
Before - admittedly a silly picture.  But so much food!
After: completely stuffed.  And happy.
One notable thing about this hotpot place is that they serve Spam!  It is labeled "lunch meat" in Mandarin on the menu.  How fun.

And then, I came home to open my presents!
The cup of green liquid is fresh, cold sugar cane juice - another one of my presents!
Other than this busy social calendar of attending launch and cocktail parties (apparently par for the course in holiday-happy Hong Kong), I also came home yesterday to a lovely bouquet of flowers that made me so happy - because they were bright and cheery (how can flowers not make one happy?), but probably more so because they were for me, for just because!
Yay Michael.
My sister sent me a soft padded package from Thailand, which I opened to discover a colorful, comfortable kaftan-like dress that she bought at a co-op in Ubon.  I immediately tried it on.  It's perfect and I'm already imagining myself sunning in it by the pool in Bali.

Michael got me a cast iron teapot, a just darling little maroon/purple thing, with little flowers (like sakura) carved all over it.  I had mused in passing that for the amount of green tea we had and the amount of loose leaf tea that I drink, it's kind of funny that I don't have a proper teapot.  Well, this addresses the issue, and in a most stylish and authentic way.  It is a Nambu Tekki, handcrafted in Japan, using a technique developed over hundreds of years.  Like with cast iron pans, the iron in this teapot is supposed to be absorbed naturally and gradually into the body through the preparation and steeping of the tea.   The teapot is so cute.  I love it and it is just perfect.

Despite being busier at work this week, I have to say, all of these events have been enough to make a girl feel like she will burst with happiness!

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Spending Christmas in Finnish Lapland

Sooooo... big news!  We've been quite busy these past few weeks trying to plan out an itinerary for our Christmas and New Years vacation.  And just last night, we finally got things figured out enough that we bought a ticket!

We are heading to Finland (specifically, Finnish Lapland) to visit Michael's sister, who has been in Kuusamo, Finland since October, playing professional volleyball for Kuusamon Pallo-Karhut (PaKa).  Clearly she is a good addition to their team -- they've been undefeated since she joined!

We are renting a log cabin in the woods near Ruka, a ski resort north of Kuusamo.  I'm looking forward to husky sled rides, visiting an ice hotel, seeing an igloo, eating arctic berries, petting some reindeer, getting a traditional vihta massage and sauna, and, last but not least, viewing the Northern Lights.  Oh yeah, and we will be skiing too.  The lack of sunlight in such northern latitudes during the winter may be a challenge.  We will likely only be seeing 3 or 4 hours of sun a day.  I hope it doesn't leave us feeling too blue.

On our way into Finland, we have a nearly 20 hour layover in Moscow.  We plan to leave the airport to see the Red Square and Kremlin.  Is there a land more enchanting and intriguing than Russia?  I'm trying to learn the Cyrillic alphabet before our trip:


The letters are fun to learn and provide a nice complement to the backdrop of snow, fur hats, bottles of vodka, tins of caviar and stone-faced KGB figures that are currently flitting through my head.  I hope I ultimately learn more than just "da," "net" and "spasibo".

We are still working out ideas for the second half of the trip.  Spending some time in Helsinki, or making a side trip to St. Petersburg, are very strong contenders.  This holiday trip promises to be very interesting, exciting, and different.  And COLD.  I can't wait!

Friday, November 23, 2012

Happy Thanksgiving

Here's hoping that everyone had a Happy Thanksgiving.

Thanksgiving is one of my favorite holidays.  I like that it focuses on food and family and friends.  I like that it encourages us to pause in our busy lives and just think about the good, the important, and the positive.  Come to think of it, maybe Thanksgiving should be held once a month.

At work, we all went to the American Club for a festive Thanksgiving lunch.  It was delicious and I stuffed myself as befitted the occasion.

For dinner, it was just Michael and me this year, so we decided not to do a turkey.  I made herb crusted pork loin, brussels sprouts and mashed potatoes.  Michael made the stuffing.  I'm afraid I was so busy cooking I took very sporadic pictures.  So I only have one at the very beginning, when the pork was still marinating, and one in the middle, when the brussels sprouts were sizzling.

I thought I was being so clever by going to the wet markets instead of the supermarket to buy a kabocha pumpkin for my pie.  And I felt triumphant when the pumpkin only cost HK$13 for a whole pumpkin, instead of the HK$30 that the supermarket charges for a quarter wedge.  Except, when I got home, I realized... that my kabocha pumpkin was actually a huge, deformed, acorn squash.  Due to that wee small insignificant mistake, and an inordinately frustrating inability to find cream or condensed milk, I'm going to try to make the pumpkin pie this weekend instead.  It will be like leftover pumpkin pie, except not.

To set the mood, we had lots of candles (I like that they're all mismatched) and dramatic, fragrant white lilies.  To go with the theme of the night, this picture was snapped when the table was half-set.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Wednesday Night Date

Yakitoritei is a Japanese restaurant that specializes in the grilled skewers (yakitori) of Japanese cuisine.  It's situated at 49-51 Woo Sing road in Happy Valley.  I've heard good reviews about the place and had wanted to try it out for a while.  Now that the horse races are back, it seemed a perfect Wednesday date night.  My friend and I had planned to do this last Wednesday night, but due to work, I had no choice but to postpone until this Wednesday. 

We stuffed ourselves with the following at Yakitoritei:

bacon wrapped asparagus, a favorite
chicken joint - crunchy!
beef wrapped mushrooms and miso cod - the cod was perfectly flaky and tender
green beans and fish flakes

oysters - plump, juicy and crispy - another favorite
scallops - a disappointment, because clearly frozen
sesame chicken - very juicy and flavorful - impressive from a grill
king sized prawn - a disappointment, because a bit tough, not very sweet, and expensive!

mushrooms - unassuming but savory
They sat us at the bar, where we could watch the two "grillers" flip and salt everybody's order on the very small grill.

We then strolled to the Happy Valley Racecourse, where we managed to see two races despite the pouring rain. Alas, my bet, Noble Deluxe, failed me, but my friend won on her first bet! Very exciting.

On a sidenote - evening calls are probably the biggest change in my working schedule since moving out to Asia.  Although many of our clients are global, most are still situated in New York.  It ends up that almost all of my calls are in the early morning (probably 30% of the time) or else at night (70%, especially if India or London is involved), and my day / afternoon is relatively quiet.  I've tried not to let this bother me, but sometimes it can be a real bummer.  Having calls every night at 8 or 9 pm when the day has been quiet just makes the working day seem so much longer.  The worst is when you have back to back late night (11 pm, midnight) calls, followed closely by early morning (7 am, 8 am) calls.  Yuk.

Monday, November 19, 2012


I have been in a cooking mood as of late.

The food that I prepare is not fancy by any means.  It tends to be unadorned but undiluted.  Mostly I find the process of washing, chopping, simmering and boiling quite satisfying. 

grilled okra with lemon and sea salt
jambalaya with celery, onion, sausage

based on my grandma's oxtail soup recipe
simmering pots in a productive kitchen!
pork chops with onions
Each time I finish making the meal, I marvel at the stacks of dirty dishes I manage to create.  I sure do miss the dishwasher.  That said, stay tuned for my Thanksgiving feast*.

*Note: I am mourning the absence of Thanksgiving here in Hong Kong.  It is possibly the best American holiday.  And no one here realizes/remembers that it should be a three day week this week.  Sad.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Planning Trips

How do people plan/decide where they want to go on their next trip?  I am currently sending myself into a tizzy, trying to figure out where we will go for the upcoming big vacations (Christmas/New Year, Chinese New Year and Easter).  We obviously take into consideration activities, food, flights and any particularly good prices or deals - but even with all those factors, there still are so many enticing places!

In Hong Kong, the vast majority of people prefer to book their trips through travel agencies.  A person can't walk for more than a block here without passing a travel agency.  The biggest one seems to be Travel Expert, which in the past two months have opened not one but two new locations that are directly on my route to work (and this doesn't count the one that was already en route).  I pass another one, Flight Centre, on my way home from the yoga studio, and it beckons to me with new flight and hotel packages each time I pass. 

I am loath to use a travel agent, though, because I don't think they really provide me with much of a discount.  And I think I derive as much pleasure out of planning the trip as I do out of actually going on the trip.  It is so satisfying when I stumble upon the perfect connecting flight, or when I figure out what city to add and what city to remove to make the whole itinerary flow.  I can sit for hours compulsively checking websites for airfares, packages, departure times, best routes, miles charts and recommendations from fellow travelers. 

It's so magical when it all works out -- not to mention the anticipation as the big trip approaches!

Monday, November 12, 2012

A Cure for Monday Mornings

Oh is there just about anything worse than a Monday morning?  You're rudely extracted from your warm, fuzzy, comfortable, lazy weekend of relaxation and indulgence, and the whole week stretches ahead, full of undetonated work assignments and unforeseeable disasters.

It's an especially rude awakening when you have a bad habit like mine, which is to go to bed equipped with either a laptop or a Kindle "for a light read," and then before realize it, you are skimming through the end product (20+ open tabs of articles and essays) of a maze of hyperlinks, or flipping madly (just a few more pages!) in the grip of an unraveling murder mystery that must-be-finished-this-instant.  And then it's really, really late.

Therefore when a package came for me in the mail today, I couldn't have been happier.  There is nothing like a long-awaited (shiny) item arriving in the mail from far, far away, to settle on your desk and pull you out of your Monday Morning Stupor.  Bonus points for pretty packaging.  Yay!

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Scenes On A Saturday

Some recent sights from my perambulations around Hong Kong (and lazing in the apartment):

Coils of incense
Tubes of stick incense and an honor system
So many orange peels!
Mini blue cupcakes at a recent boutique opening
Recycling some whiskey bottles
Roasted tomatoes - is there a prettier sight?
I've been doing a lot of fruit shopping lately...

Monday, November 5, 2012

The Help

I've wanted to write this post for a long time, but felt kind of awkward about it.  I wasn't sure what to say, and while Michael and I had toyed with the idea, we hadn't yet done it on a permanent basis, so I figured there wasn't much to say yet on the subject.   However, with both my and Michael's hours being pretty unpredictable as of late, and the dustballs and grease sneaking up on us to the point of being downright embarrassing, it seemed time to seriously consider the matter and do what everyone else does: hire a helper.  And so we come to this post.

This is a story about Hong Kong (and places like Singapore, Bali, the UAE, etc.) that is acknowledged but not really discussed or written.  Practically everyone I know here within a certain income (whether Asian or white) has a "helper", which is the term that Hong Kong-ers use to describe their maid/baby-sitter/housekeeper/cleaner/pet-walker and cook.  When I confessed at a work party that I didn't have a helper, not even part-time, everyone looked at me like I was daft.  One person shot me a horrified look and asked, "Do you like doing laundry?!  Don't you have better things to do with your time?" 

The helpers are the equivalent of Hong Kong's migrant laborers.  They are all women, and they are almost all Filipina.  They leave behind their husbands and their children in the Philippines and come to Hong Kong under the formal title "domestic helper".   (There is an entire floor in the Hong Kong Immigration headquarters dedicated to processing their paperwork).   They work for very low wages.  Hourly rates for part time helpers generally run about HK$50 to HK$60 an hour, which is less than US$8/hour.

There are a LOT of them, but you don't realize just how many there are until you take a walk in Hong Kong on Sunday.  Sundays generally are the helpers' day off.  The women sit on cardboard boxes lining the streets, pathways, parks, eating, chatting, watching movies, playing cards, and giving each other manicures and pedicures.

I don't know any expat families with children here that don't have a full-time helper (or two).  I don't know of anyone with a pet who does not have a helper.  I know plenty of couples without children that have helpers.   I've even been privy to conversations where parents admit they are considering having another child, or just had another child, because helpers "make it so much easier."  Some helpers are part-time, which means they come to your apartment once or twice a week, usually to clean.  Other helpers are full-time, which means they live with you.  Often, a part-time helper is someone else's full-time helper.

So I ask you, is this wrong?  I have plenty of friends in the U.S. who hire cleaning services to come in and clean their apartments / houses once a week or once every two weeks.  There are definitely families in the U.S. that hire nannies, either part time or full time.  I'm sure many of them are illegal immigrants facing a lot of the same problems in the U.S.

I'm still not sure why all of this seems so much more offensive to me here.  Maybe it's because the use of helpers is so pervasive, discussed so casually, and taken for granted.  And the job description is really whatever the employer wants -- it's not unheard of for helpers to mix their employer's face creams and masks, or to wait in line at H&M at four in the morning for the release of a hot designer collection.  It's also not unheard of to have the helper climb up to her "bed" (really some slat of wood with a thin bedroll on it) which is built on top of the washing machine and dryer.  With the typically poor working conditions and the meager pay, there is no way to avoid the fact that this is exploitation.  And the most disturbing thing is that it's not even questioned here.  Everyone here is complacent with the status quo.  Everyone is eager to have a helper.  I cannot help but recall Kathryn Stockett's novel and feel distaste for the whole thing.

While I was dealing with my conflicted feelings, my family friend's helper came to clean for us for the first time this past weekend.  She is a really lovely, energetic woman whose son is only four years younger than me (he is back in the Philippines).  She has worked all over the world as a domestic helper - in Lebanon, in the UAE, in Taiwan and in Hong Kong.  As we were chatting about her life and her impressions of the households she had previously worked, one of her simple statements really struck me: "I will never forget Taiwan because the sweat of Taiwan brought me my house."