Sunday, December 28, 2008

Spending € in Europe

Finland is one of the most expensive places in the world. Consumption tax is a whopping 22%.

In this past Christmas weekend, I was really ill but still couldn't take a break from cooking. First the shops were closed and second, there's little culinary choice.

Today, I'm well enough to go out for a ride so we took a drive to Helsinki. Dinner was at one of our favourite restaurants called "Singapore". It's opened by a Malaysian couple who have been here for almost 20 years. According to HG, when they first came to Finland, they called their restaurant "Malaysia" but business wasn't great. Customers flow improved when the name is changed.

This is the closest we get to home food. We often meet other Singaporeans and Asians here, whether residents in Finland or people on business. Food here is generally better than what is served at Chinese restaurants. Even our Chinese friends complain about Finland's Chinese restaurants so we have yet to try one.

Dinner tonight was ginger chicken, chilli prawns and tofu/caixin. Rice is provided free of charge.

I remember the first time we came to this restaurant some 8 years ago, HG was so excited we found a Singapore restaurant, he tucked into the food straightaway. Rice was served in a large bowl (like the kind we use for soup at home) and he helped himself. To the whole bowl. It was only later we realised the portion of rice in that bowl was for sharing.

He finished all the rice in his bowl nevertheless. Either he was very hungry or he misses home food very much. Nowadays, the restaurant serves rice in a metal bowl with a handle. Maybe in case customers mistake the rice bowls.

Our humble tze-char food ensemble you see here cost us €43 tonight. That's almost S$90! 

As much as we would like to come often, we give ourselves a treat here once a month. Or twice a month at most. The Tohs get to enjoy MZ restaurant the rest of the time.

In Beijing, we could stuff ourselves with Japanese food, delivered to our door, for less than RMB200 (S$40). Or we might have Italian pasta and risotto, also hand-delivered, for around RMB100.

Home delivery in Singapore is mostly restricted to Pizza Hut and the like. But it's easy to hop to the nearest coffee shop or hawker centre. Or CJ or Hoshigaoka or etc etc etc. I really miss Xiao Ming at Farrer Road Market.

After dinner, we brought our car to the car wash. We haven't seen anyone here wash their cars themselves. Anyway, in winter, you wonder which would freeze first - the water or your hands.

We read that cars should be kept clean in winter so that liquids and gravel don't freeze between crevices. If two moving parts are frozen together, they might tear apart when the car starts moving.

A summer wash starts €10. A winter wash costs... €17.

The last time I went for an automised car wash was in my friend Desmond's car at the now-demolished Shell station along Farrer Road. You might remember it was at the junction with Holland Road but has since made way for an widened road and a new condo.

After the car is positioned corrected, the machine starts its routine with water spray, then soap solution and the brushes roll over the car (two at the sides and one at the top). Water is sprayed gently and the car is dried by gusts of air.

And that's it! The experience was pretty much the way I remembered it. But 4 times more expensive. Oh yeah, the brushes here are probably made from TPE which would not scratch the car. In Singapore, people prefer hand washing because the thin plastics bristles leave unsightly marks. 

Well, over here, there's not a human being in sight during this whole process. Except the cashier. In some petrol stations, there aren't even cashiers - they are totally self-automated.

Otherwise, the petrol station is where you can have lunch, take a shower or take a roll on the jackpot machine.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Take the poll!

While sorting through our stash of photos, we found this one taken at Killiney Road coffee shop. The data on the photo shows it was taken one morning in 2002.

Compare with the recent pic we took during our holiday in Prague this summer.

What do you think?

Run, run, as fast as you can

You can't catch me, cos I'm the Gingerbread Man.

On the second day of my illness, I mustered enough energy to let the kids do some baking.

We got these pre-prepared gingerbread dough from the supermarket. At €1.09 per pack, it comes in 2 slabs. All we had to do was roll out the dough and let the kids cut them with cookie-cutters.

The cookies go into the oven and are ready in merely 5 minutes. In another 5 minutes, we can eat them!

I used to love baking. My aunt's home has lots of baking equipment and an oven so I'm over there often to try out new recipes. I remembered baking a cake for a good friend's birthday and since I was at it, I'd thought I'd bake chocolate chocolate-chip cookies too.

That experience left me thoroughly tired out. The utensils needed to be cleaned and dried for the next batch, so that's double cleaning within 2 hours. Then the cake and cookies need to be decorated and/or wrapped.

That was the last time I did any major baking. Any thoughts about "starting my own bakery when I grow up" were banished henceforth. I enjoy baking and I think I'm pretty good at it but I won't do it as a hobby anymore.

I might bake again when any of my children develops an interest. It may be Jules, you know, because he is the one who loves eating and looking at me cook.

Celebrating Christmas

This is our first year celebrating away from home. 

It's really quiet during public holidays in Finland because all the shops will be closed and people will normally spend time with their families. 

So on 23 Dec, we raided the supermarket and stocked up enough food for the next 4 days because shops don't operate at their usual opening hours until 27 Dec.

Christmas seems odd not being in church or meeting up with friends. We miss singing Christmas carols and enjoying the festivities, and of course, the sharing of the Christmas message.

We didn't do any shopping this year. Because we didn't have any one to give presents to. The only gifts we prepared were some chocolates for our neighbours.

Many of the shops are already having sales. At H&M, some items are even on 70%. Somehow, I'm not lured. I worry about the length of the financial crisis. Given that we are on a single-income, money should be spent on necessities.

To top up the gloom, I'm ill. Much of Christmas Day was spent in bed. I dragged myself out of bed at regular hours because my family depends on me for their meals. There was no fever but I just felt so cold... brr... Couldn't eat much so drank lots of honey water, which made me go the loo often. I so wish we had the Japanese-style warmed toilet seat.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

We visited Santa Claus

We really did. In Rovaniemi in northern Finland.

Rovaniemi is part of Lapland, which is an area at the Arctic Circle that is shared by Finland, Sweden and Norway. Santa Claus "lives" in Santa Claus Village and this is where letters and parcels addressed to the Man in Red will end up.

There is the Santa Claus Post Office where mail gets a special Santa's head stamp.

There is also the Santa Claus Office where one can seek an audience with the Man himself. At the entrance, an Elf showed us a catalogue containing a list of gifts we can purchase for Santa to present to the kids. We should be careful not to let the kids see us give orders.

Hmm... we ain't gonna pay €18 for a stranger to give a stuffed reindeer to our kids.

We then went through some exhibits and finally reached the Upper Room where the Old Man sat. After some small talk, we took a photo and said bye-bye.

Photography indoors not allowed. So we gave in to an 11R snapshot complete with Santa certificate at €25. No thanks though to €36 video footage.

Our kids were quite excited to see Santa Claus but they weren't so thrilled that they went speechless. We didn't bring any drawings or letters and the kids didn't have special requests. It was more like a "been there, done that" episode.

Estelle and Jules enjoyed Rovaniemi for 2 reasons.

Top of the list is the snow. They loved the snow slides. Jules started and ended each try with "Woo-hoo". Each of them went again and again.

They made snowballs and carried one each wherever we go. HG called them 七龙珠. They swept snow off fences and benches. They observed their footprints in the snow. Estelle sat on fresh snow and laughed at her bum print. We had a snowball fight while waiting for the bus.

The next best thing that we tried was the husky sleigh ride. It was a mere 500m but the speed and turns around corners were exciting.

We stepped into the sleigh with hesitation but the kids asked for more when we were done. Unfortunately, we ran out of money (cash only and €70 per ride for all of us) and the 2km route was inaccessible because snow was melting. It was 1ºC that day - too warm for the North Pole.

The kids loved the husky ride so much they chose husky stuffed toys as their souvenirs. Not elfish hats or Santa magnets, just huskies named Mini and Husky.

The start of something new

Finally, I have a blog.

I had planned on living with minimum digital footprint. So I don't do Facebook or Friendster or MySpace, or other social networking tools.

My yahoo e-mail account has been in use since the early 1990s, which explains why the ID is my name in its original form without the need for additional suffixes. I have another yahoo e-mail account which I had started for work purposes and also a Skype ID.

Some months ago while chatting with a friend on Skype, he suggested I write a book about life as an expat.

Friend DC: u should consider writing a simple memoir of how u struggled thru moving from country to country

DC: it can be good therapy n may even be a best seller. most of all it may help u pass time.

Me: only pple like u will think this sort of thing is interesting

DC: my dear... u never know... u may be surprised by its reception

Me: for those of us who live overseas, it's fun. for others, life goes on

DC: do u know how many asian r being expats nowadays... n most handbooks in the mkt are targetted at western expat n their families... not eastern expats

Me: I have to put it across so that it's as interesting to them as it was for me

DC: do it as a hobby... dont aim for money... aim for fun... dont be the china olympian... be the western olympian

So here I am.

Some of you may know that I've been freelance writing for some time. Thanks to the bleak global economy and lack of language skills in Finland, I now have time to spare for some leisure composition.

Through this blog, I will share my life and interpretations of daily sights and sounds. For example, I may have a chance to talk more about what I think are the differences between a Chinese Olympian and a Western Olympian.

Hence, I invite you to visit often. Best of all, it's free.